If you are an American of a certain age you are incredibly likely to have seen the building we are about to visit before, on your Saturday morning TV. Yes, the iconic Hall of Justice, home of the Superfriends, or the less cringe inducing Justice League, was modeled for the classic 1970’s cartoon by Hannah-Barbera background supervisor Al Gmuer after the Union Terminal in my hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio. Now a National Historic Landmark, amazingly this Art Deco masterpiece was once in danger of demolition. Opened in 1933, Union Terminal had a brief heyday as a passenger rail hub, but by the 1950’s was already considered a white elephant by local taxpayers as passenger rail service declined across the US, although freight operations continue to this day. After a brief life as a shopping mall and aborted attempts to move the Southwest Regional Transit hub or the School for Creative and Performing Arts into the building, the Terminal entered the mid 80’s a historic landmark, but an empty one.
In May of 1986 a levy was passed to save the Terminal from destruction and reopen it as the Cincinnati Museum Center (I was a junior at St. Xavier High School at the time and remember it well, we debated the case in our social studies class). Former Cincinnati Mayor and purveyor of daytime talk show craziness Jerry Springer was one of the key proponents of the project. The Museum Center opened in 1990 and has provided fun and education for all ages ever since.
Upsides: The Cincinnati Museum Center actually hosts three full fledged museums as well as a few organizations.
- The Museum of Natural History and Science: This wing houses many of the exhibits I grew up visiting when the Natural History Museum was located on Gilbert Avenue,which was the classic Dinosaur fossils and diorama set-up that served well in the ’70s, including a really cool walk through model of a cave that was moved almost seamlessly to the new location. Here the museum hosts a Nature Trading Post, a trip through an Ice Age Glacier, a look behind the scenes of how a museum does its science and of course a Hall of Dinosaurs, as well as a tribute to native Ohioan Neil Armstrong. A recent and excellent addition to the lineup of exhibits has been the LITE Lab, a space devoted to easy and informative hands on science experimentation.
- The Cincinnati History Museum: Detailing the history of the city Longfellow named “Queen of the West” (at least least that’s what local songwriter and amatuer historian Jake Speed tells me,) the first floor of this wing is dominated by the largest full motion urban model in the nation, showing the downtown, riverfront and surrounding hills as they looked from the 1900’s to the 1950’s. You can take a virtual streetcar ride through the model here (do click on that link, it’s awesome!). Other exhibits wind through the twists and turns of the old train station, including Cincinnati Goes to War, a look at the impact of WWII on the city and it’s denizens; From Settlement to 1860, which shows what the place looked like before European settlement and culminates in a mock up of a mid 19’th century downtown street and replica steamboat; and Forming a New World, about the city’s history as a the nations foremost machine tool center from 1850 to 1900, including a full scale machine shop.
- The Robert D. Lindner Family Omnimax Theatre: Like an Imax but even more ginormous.
- The Duke Energy Children’s Museum: If you have little ones, from crawlers to about 10 years old, then you can spend an inordinate amount of time in this museum. Located in the basement of the building (and blessedly all on one floor). The Energy Zone, imagine a ball pit turned into one giant physics experiment, was where the Schmoo had her first religious experience at the age of three (BALLSBALLSBALLSBALLS!!!!). The Woods is designed for running and climbing and sliding and a great way to burn off energy pre-naptime. For the wee little kids under five years old there is Little Sprouts Farm, where they can play with plenty of age appropriate toys and Mom or Dad can blessedly sit down for a bit. Since the Natural History Museum covers a lot of the sciency stuff pretty well, it’s neat to see a large part of the Children’s Museum devoted to Kid’s Town, a kid sized area where they can pretend to shop for groceries, build a city, take their pets to the vet, or pretend to serve customers at the local diner. It’s a complete pretend city and perfect for preschoolers.
- The Center also houses The Cincinnati History Library and Archives, The Geier Collections and Research Center (the working science part of the museum), and the Cincinnati Railroad Club, in Tower A.
- You can still catch the train there if you are so inclined.
- Travelling exhibits: The basement of the Terminal also hosts travelling exhibits, the most recent being Diana, a Celebration, which is about Princess Di, not Wonder Woman unfortunately.
- Food: The Museum Center does have a concessions area, but it is fairly small, and built as it is into the side of the rotunda it has really long lines at lunchtime. Meh pizza and burgers, fries and sandwiches are fairly uninspiring . There also isn’t much else nearby save for fast food or Frisch’s Big Boy. One bonus is the old fashioned art deco ice cream parlor that is straight out of the Jazz Age.
- Though easy to access by car, the Museum Center is a long walk from downtown. If you are visiting it is probably too far to walk from the downtown hotels.
- Age: The Museum Center is coming up on it’s 25th anniversary at the Union Terminal, and some of the exhibits could use a little TLC. Worn signage, poorly functioning displays and just some overall wear and tear on the facility could use some attention. I was heartened upon my last visit with the Grommet to see some new materials in the Childrens Museum, which had gotten a little boring for myself after nine years of visits.
- All the Walking: The Cincinnati Museum Center is admirably handicapped accessible, with almost everything in the building accessible by gentle ramps or elevator. On the other hand, adapting to the architecture of the old train terminal has led to some design compromises. All of the displays in the Natural History and Cincinnati History Museums involve LONG walks to see everything and the layout means that there are very few shortcuts unless you really know your way around.
- The Sprawl: It can be maddeningly easy to lose track of each amidst the twists and turns of the various halls. Keep an eye on little ones and perhaps discuss your “what to do if you get lost” contingency plans before setting out.
Final Verdict: As a fourth generation Cincinnati native who loves his town, I confess I’m hardly neutral. I love the Union Terminal, if nothing else it’s a treasure trove of photographic opportunities. As a combined package the Cincinnati Museum Center matches up quite well with other offerings in the American Midwest, a few of which will be reviewed in upcoming editions of Field Tripping. The individual museums are overshadowed a bit by the likes of COSI, or the Childrens Museum of Indianapolis, but the combination of variety and the historic setting make up that a little. I’m giving it a 4.0 out of 5 for now. Please come and visit, I’m sure you’ll enjoy the trip.
For more pictures from the Cincinnati Museum Center check out my Flickr page.
Featured Image Credit: Blotz Photo Arts.
Old Natural History Museum Image Credit: queencitytour.blogspot.com
Hall of Justice Image Credit: The Cartoon Network