Creative Discovery Museum History

This Tower Was No Fairy Tale

Once upon a time, in a land known as the Scenic City, there were beautiful palaces and colorful masterpieces of arts and culture. There were hills of higher learning where scientists hypothesized and tested their hunches. Downtown Chattanooga and its riverfront were tired and unwelcoming to families. In 1995, a tall tower appeared on the horizon as Creative Discovery Museum opened its doors and the minds of children.

Today Creative Discovery Museum is one of the “crown jewels” in the Riverfront and has established itself as one of Chattanooga’s most dynamic and innovative cultural institutions. It has attracted four million visitors since its opening 20 years ago.

Working toward a vision to make our community the best place to grow up, this non-profit institution offers families a new way of looking at the arts and sciences “sparking” the passions of a new generation of Chattanooga’s children.

The idea of a museum just for children was born in 1989 by the Board of the Hunter Museum of American Art, after they evaluated the viability of developing a children’s wing for the art museum. They recommended that a separate children’s museum be created as part of the revitalization of downtown Chattanooga. The design plans and initial concepts were developed by a team of educators, local and national content specialists, and focus groups of children and teachers.

Children of Chattanooga were part of the planning from the beginning. “The whole idea of the project came out of children as they would tell us how they best learn.” said Andree Caldwell, the first Executive Director and key planner of the project.

Over 450 names for the Museum were submitted by area children with the Creative Discovery Museum being chosen as the best fit. “The Museum is a place where children play, learn and discover on their own. It’s about creativity,” noted Caldwell.

A successful $16.5 million campaign, led by chairman of the Board, Joe Davenport, III and board member, Ben Probasco, made the Museum not just a fairy tale but a reality. Major gifts from noted philanthropists Mr. and Mrs. John T. Lupton, Rodolph B. and Elizabeth L. Davenport, Lyndhurst Foundation, Benwood Foundation, Inc, and Tonya Foundation were keys to building the creative kingdom. The Lee H. Skolnick Architecture and Design Partnership designed the 42,000 sq. ft. building and exhibits, with construction beginning in 1994.

The Museum quickly evolved into a multi-disciplinary educational institution for children, utilizing interactive programs and exhibits to explore art, music, science and technology.

“We want children to learn that often there isn’t one right answer and they need to look at a problem from many different aspects” Lu Lewis, then Education Director and longtime Museum staff member told the Tennessee Teachers Education Association in 1995. “Creativity is not a happening, it’s very difficult work. It can only occur if you have a variety of experiences and knowledge to draw from – then you can create new ways of playing music, solving a problem, or inventing a machine. We need creative thinkers who are capable of devising new solutions in order to make the world function.”

The need for critical and creative thinking is still a need and goal today. Throughout the years, Creative Discovery Museum has become recognized as a vital educational resource by establishing collaborative programs with organizations throughout the community and by offering a variety of educational programs, including a growing school outreach program.

The Museum assumed ownership and operation of the NewsChannel 9 Science Theatre located in Northgate Mall in 2004 which became a key component of its science education efforts. The Science Theatre moved to the main campus of the Museum in 2010.

The Museum completed a major renovation of the facility as part of the 21st Century Waterfront Plan which began with the opening of RiverPlay in 2003 and concluded with the addition of the outdoor Rooftop Fun Factory in 2005.

Innovative programs for children with disabilities were also established, including the Friends Discovery Camp for children with autism, Club Discovery, an after-school program for children with special needs and typically developing peers, and the disabilities awareness exhibit “Kids Like You, Kids Like Me.” The Museum has also received a national award for its programs for children with disabilities from the Association of Children’s Museums.

At the grand opening event on May 26, 1995, Mayor Gene Roberts said as he entered the doors. “This is a wonderful, magical place” He was joined by dignitaries far and wide. Popular NBC weatherman, Willard Scott, introduced the Museum to the entire nation on the Today Show and kicked off the celebration. Sesame Street host, Bob McGrath helped officially open the doors.

Chairwoman of the Chattanooga City Council, Mai Bell Hurley, called the museum “absolutely spectacular” and noted “it links the early childhood and later development of children to creativity, which is really one of the keys to creating a whole person.”