They say the best things in life are worth waiting for. After nine years of waiting, what’s being called the grandest celebration of wildlife conservation on the planet has opened its doors adjacent to the Bass Pro Shop in Springfield, Mo.
Officially called the Johnny Morris Wonders of Wildlife National Museum and Aquarium, the attraction upon which Morris attached his official seal of approval the second time around (it originally opened in 2007 then closed after he became dissatisfied with its scale) is a phenomenon unlike any other in America.
And it sits not on a distant coast but within driving distance for our state and much of America’s midsection.
Morris, who launched his wildly successful Bass Pro corporation as a young man by selling fishing equipment in a corner of his father’s Brown Derby liquor store, long ago established himself nationally in the world of preserving historic artifacts and conservation.
His many contributions and impressive 35,000-square-foot Ancient Ozarks Natural History museum at Top of The Rock between Branson and Harrison is in itself spectacular.
In Springfield, about 150 news types from throughout America gathered this week for the introductory tour of Morris’ latest masterpiece dedicated solely to his recognized passion for the outdoors and conservationist causes.
And this time he’s outdone even himself. I’ll not bore readers with a long list of factoids about this remarkable state-of-mind destination. However, I will say the aquarium must contain miles of pipe and many millions of gallons of water, which requires special care for temperatures, saline content and a host of other critical measurements necessary to preserve life for 35,000 fish covering 850 species.
Believe me, this interactive world with its enormous three-story aquariums and room after room of all kinds of fish and water creatures from America, Brazil, Africa, the Antarctic and elsewhere across the planet is an incredible sight, including the transparent walk-through underwater tunnel.
The place is not only enormous but contains the most comprehensive and spectacular wildlife exhibits and aquatic life I’ve seen in my 70 years. Those include the nation’s major natural history museums and aquariums, such as the Field Museum in Chicago and the Natural History museums in D.C. and New York.
There’s so much to see and do here. For instance, after we’d strolled through the two initial exhibit halls on Native Americans as the original conservationists, a helpful guide told us we had “a mile and a half” to go before we exited.
At least nine artists have toiled for years to provide exacting details on the scores of spectacular dioramas featuring wild animals in their native habitats.
Craftsmen and artists remained at work in some areas Wednesday as this one-of-a-kind world continues taking final shape in the months to come. One of the painters, named John, said he’s been at it in the halls for four years and has at least another six to eight weeks remaining on his single display.
Oh, but who’s kidding whom here? This is Morris’ heartfelt inspiration and legacy, which means it’s not likely ever to be completed to his ultimate satisfaction. Morris has very high expectations and standards.
I was able to sit with him for a few minutes, thanks to Bass Pro Communications Director Katie Mitchell. The soft-spoken Morris was quick to point out how blessed he feels, how he enjoys having fun and that he has been told he’s best at doing those things he loves to do.
He also believes everyone in the outdoor industry has an obligation to give back to the cause of conservation. “This museum and aquarium is a way to give back, to both inspire and inform youth,” he said.
“Many people really want to do the right thing,” he continued. “They need to be encouraged to do just that.” In other words, give gold stars when they act correctly concerning the environment rather than rebukes and punishments.
For me, the fundamental significance behind this wondrous place filled with “wow moments” is as simple as the point Morris was making, and the inscription on the museum wall attributed to American Indian Chief Black Elk. It says our lives are not intended to be lived in straight lines or squares, but rather in circles.
I asked Morris if he believes society has followed the chief’s sage advice. He said he hopes what he’s offering the world through this monument to wildlife and conservation will help serve as another step in that direction.
His devotion to Black Elk’s message is evidenced as one exits the museum, where a photograph of the White River, the source of Morris’ devotions that began in youth, is on the wall with the reminder that we all live downstream.
Thanks to Morris, the museum also contains the Wolf School, a cooperative effort with Springfield Public Schools that allows 46 fifth-graders a year of study featuring specialized instruction in the outdoors and conservation.
Clad in his familiar Bass Pro polo shirt and white tennis shoes, this unassuming, congenial man most assuredly is an American who’s walked the walk of preserving our environmental heritage while serving as a true steward of our natural wonders in the conservation movement that began more than 100 years ago.
Morris worked with at least 40 leading national conservation partners, including Ducks Unlimited, the National Wild Turkey Federation, the Wild Sheep Foundation and others to help complete this unique place in his hometown. What a true gift he’s created.
Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.