When the new museum is completed, it will open its doors to a wide variety of visitors—students from kindergarten to high school, senior citizens, professionals, families, and many others, from across America and around the world. The new museum plans to meet the expectations and needs of such a diverse group with hands-on, interactive exhibitions and programs that go beyond the depiction of Edison as a historical figure to explore the science and technology that underlie his inventions, show the relevance of his work to present-day technology, and above all to engage visitors in the process of invention. In this way, the new museum combines the best attributes of a science center and a historically focused Edison museum, offering visitors the unique opportunity to exercise their own creativity, problem-solving abilities, and teamwork skills in invention activities.
The design of the new museum building and its relation to the Thomas Edison Memorial Tower and surrounding precinct will situate visitors in a highly dramatic space that not only preserves and remembers the history of Edison’s Menlo Park period but also opens up new understandings of science and technology, and new ways of thinking about the relation of past, present, and future.
The first thing visitors will see when they enter the building is the newly restored Tower framed by the large glass wall of an atrium lobby. The iconic Tower, standing on a stage-like rise of land, testifies to the importance of the history of the site, yet the framing device of the high-tech atrium never lets viewers forget that they are looking at the 19th and early 20th centuries from the perspective of the 21st. While the differences between the present and past are underscored by the staging of the Art Deco Tower through the lens of the modern atrium, the glazing and architectural details of the atrium echo those of the Tower, hinting at imminent connections and continuities. Both the staging effect and the sense of connection are enhanced by the wings of two long landscaped porches that open up from the atrium to the Tower and its precinct. The wings physically connect the two spaces and metaphorically link the history of Menlo Park to the present.
The link between past and present may not be immediately apparent to visitors as exhibitions in the atrium will present Menlo Park’s history, and in the Tower precinct they will be able to take an archeological tour of the site of Edison’s original “invention factory.” The sense of continuity will emerge, however, on further exploration of the galleries in the new museum, which will be equipped to house state-of-the-art interactive exhibits pointing out the relevance of Edison’s inventions to those of the present day and offering visitors themselves an opportunity to participate in a collaborative process of invention.
When visitors enter the new museum, they will quite literally look back to the past as they take in the spectacular view of the Tower and its precinct, framed by one of the large glass walls of the atrium lobby. Accordingly, many of the exhibits in the atrium will introduce the history of the site. At the glass wall, an interpretive graphic will illustrate the history of the Tower and its restoration. In the center of the atrium, a showcase will display key objects, such the phonograph, and a timeline reading rail will run along its base.
Visitors will slide flat screen monitors along the rail and stop at different points of interest. When the monitor is stopped, it becomes a "magic window" that tells a story, animates a process, or plays a sound recording. More information about Edison and the history of the site will be available in the multimedia orientation theater, which may feature original productions on topics such as early telegraphy, the evolution of Edison’s invention process, and inventions that shaped the modern world.
In the galleries that branch off from the atrium, visitors will explore the continuing relevance of Edison’s inventions, their underlying science, and participate in the process of invention themselves. Exhibits may include How Things Work, which uses Edison’s inventions as a basis for exploring basic scientific concepts and contemporary technologies. For instance, Edison’s telephone transmitter could be used as a starting point for examining electrical conduction and electromagnetism as well as today’s cell phone technology.
Visitors can use these exhibits as a source for basic technological information when trying to solve the problems posed by other exhibits, such as "Experiment Like Edison," which allows visitors to develop a product through the process of trial and error, much like Edison’s workers. Projects might include applying principles of solar and battery power to build and power a car. One of the hallmarks of Edison’s invention process was teamwork, so the "Ask Like Edison" exhibit will challenge visitors to come up with group solutions to problems related to product improvement.
Exhibits continue outside the building. The wings opening out from the new museum to the Tower are sectioned off in series of open-air galleries, providing a fun, relaxing space where visitors can learn about the physics of sound and light. Exhibits will include whisper dishes and echo tubes and explorations of sun and wind power related to the new museum’s sustainable design.
The Thomas Edison Center at Menlo Park conceives of education in the broadest possible terms and thinks of all its visitors as learners. While the new museum will strive to provide all visitors with a unique educational experience (see Exhibits and Programs), teachers and their students will receive particular attention. Under educational guidelines for the state of New Jersey, public school classes cannot go on a field trip unless it supports the New Jersey Core Curriculum Content Standards (NJCCCS) and provides an experience for the student that is not available in the classroom. Partnering with local educators, the new museum plans to create programs, especially grade-specific workshops that will meet the New Jersey curriculum requirements as well as those of the National Educational Technology Standards for technology. The new museum will also offer certified professional development seminars to teachers about how to incorporate the new museum's programs in their teaching.
For schools in the immediate vicinity of Menlo Park, the new museum will become an extension of the classroom, providing intensive, ongoing programs during and after the school day. And teachers will be encouraged to make repeated visits to the new museum. The educational reach of the new museum will also be extended into the schools via digital communications technology, outreach programs, and loaned items.
The new museum also plans to partner with institutions of higher education to provide intellectual support and loan materials for exhibitions, public programs, and other educational experiences. Prospective partners include the prestigious Rutgers University Thomas A. Edison Papers and the Math and Science Learning Center.
As the new museum’s educational programs are finalized, this page will become a resource for materials such as pre- and post-visit activities, registration and collateral information, and professional development.
Like the new museum’s exhibits, the programs currently in development will appeal to diverse groups of visitors by emphasizing hands-on, inquiry-based activities. Some programs currently under consideration include the following:
- Workshops for schools and other groups
- Live demonstrations and activity areas
- Special events for target groups and the general public
- Lectures and special events for adults
- Seasonal holiday camps and sleepovers for younger children
- Science competitions, clubs, docent opportunities for tweens and teens
- Tours customized for the needs and interests of particular groups, such as seniors
- Costumed interpreters answering questions and guiding tours
More formal educational activities for students will be created through partnerships with local educators to create programs, especially grade-specific workshops and lab projects that will meet the New Jersey curriculum requirements as well as those of the National Educational Technology Standards for technology teaching. Teachers will also benefit from certified professional development seminars about how to incorporate the new museum's programs in their teaching. For more information, see Education.
The proposed building will meet Edison's own standards of technical innovation and economic practicality. Its design will incorporate materials and building systems that reflect contemporary thinking about sustainability and efficiency, and the projected three-phase build-out will allow construction to proceed in increments as funding becomes available. When fully built out, the 20,000 foot new museum will include three exhibition galleries, a theater, a learning laboratory, classrooms, a community room, a café, and a shop. Most spaces will be designed with multiple purposes in mind. Classrooms will be used for club and affinity group meetings, and demonstration theaters will double as venues for art movies, musical performances, and corporate meetings. The atrium, cafe, and exhibition galleries may be used for private receptions, birthday parties, weddings, and similar events. The multi-use functionality will allow the new museum to generate income, boost attendance, and serve as a community center.