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Ordinarily after writing on a subject, I choose to wait a while before perhaps returning to it, unless I feel my first effort didn't do it justice. That's what happened with my story about last week's opening of Johnny Morris' Wonders of Wildlife National Museum and Aquarium in Springfield.

In my allotted space I couldn't possibly give the remarkable 350,000-square-foot attraction an explanation this man's gift deserves. So today, I'll run through some of the specific "wow factors" gleaned during our visit.

Although this unique space is dedicated to wildlife conservation and natural history, it's also like no other, having originated from the visions of Springfield's Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris, who's known for never creating anything less than jaw-dropping.

The exquisitely painted, sculpted and decorated animal and cultural exhibits are not only uncannily lifelike, they're presented in "4-D" backdrops of technically appropriate sights, sounds, temperatures and smells that instill the feeling of being inside each habitat. I've never toured any major natural history museum with such detail and realism.

In other words, the experience of this place, as wide corridors connect vast exhibits from one continent (and appropriate species) to another was as close to putting me in that locale as more than 2,000 craftsmen, artists, engineers and carpenters could possibly create over nine years.

The hours pass quickly in this world dedicated to conservation and the outdoors. It's not inconceivable that we could easily have spent the entire day to soak up all there is to absorb and enjoy around every corner over the mile-and-a-half walk.

Here's what I mean:

You venture through an Amazon rain forest, a Cyprus swamp, an African savanna, the Arctic, our national parks and other venues.

There's an extensive "bat" cavern that shows these animals in their natural habitat.

Exhibits reveal some of the largest taxidermied mammals, as well as reptiles and amphibians from different nations, including enormous polar, grizzly and brown bears, lions, cheetahs, moose, rhinos, hippos, sharks and whales. The precisely lifelike way each is displayed becomes as impressive as the mounts themselves.

One informative gallery is dedicated to the groundbreaking 1804-06 Lewis and Clark Expedition through the Western U.S.

And just when I thought this place couldn't get any more fascinating with "Wow!" factors, we walked into the multilevel, dimly lit "Great Oceans Hall." There's no other aquarium attraction even close to the size or scope of this immersive and interactive world.

As our eyes adjusted, allowing us to grasp the fuller effects of two-story aquariums teeming with the planet's various species of fish, the circular 300,000-gallon "open ocean" directly before us was teeming with various sea life.

The Great Barrier Reef is a towering saltwater aquarium that showcases an enormous number of colorful reef fish, including Maori wrasse and potato cod. The Shipwreck Room plunges guests' eyes from the ceiling to the depths of the ocean floor where they can explore a sunken shipwreck.

Soon (through clever engineering and the power of Plexiglas) we, with other visitors, were immersing ourselves within a river of piranhas, feeling the velvety texture of friendly platter-sized stingray flapping casually by, traversing a transparent tunnel surrounded by river creatures and getting close with thousands of colorful ocean fish, sharks, jellyfish and much more.

Among my biggest wows was staring into the 8-foot-wide "bait ball." It's a tornado of thousands of 3- to 4-inch silvery fish constantly twirling in an aquarium at least 50 feet high. It became mesmerizing to stare into their vertical swirl as several would leave, then soon rejoin the vortex.

The shy, 300-pound goliath groupers we watched seemed surreal as they slowly flapped their giant tails. They are the kind of fish that makes me want to pet one, kinda like a sofa-sized St. Bernard.

I also was impressed with the exhibit of living crabs, including two 5-foot-wide king crabs perched in a large aquarium. At least six species of jellyfish also swim in individual habitats.

During our visit, U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, a former Navy SEAL, scuba dived into the enormous shark tank with two support divers who used poles to keep circling sharks at bay as Zinke conducted a 10-minute interview by intercom with a class of excited Wolf School fifth-graders.

The aquarium features a surprise at every turn, including fishing halls of fame celebrating legendary anglers with their boats from Ernest Hemingway to Zane Grey, along with personal fishing artifacts (full-sized boats) and mementos from U.S. presidents.

Leaving this place made me realize I hadn't nearly seen it all or even digested what wonders I had enjoyed for three hours.

So while I realize I, too, haven't come close to explaining the full experience of this latest destination attraction in America's heartland, at least now I feel better about sharpening the focus for you. There's just too much "wow" here for any columnist to adequately explore.


Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist. Email him at

Editorial on 09/26/2017

Print Headline: Back at the museum

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