Heilbronn – a city on the Neckar River in southwest Germany better known for its wine making industry – might not be the first place that springs to mind when you think of elite learning centres for STEM subjects.
But the city is in fact home to the country’s largest science centre, which has recently undergone a major transformation, with four new permanent exhibition galleries set across 3,200sq m adding new facilities to the 25,000sq m site.
Years in the making
The idea to open a science centre in the city was first concieved in 2005. To make the vision a reality, the city turned to a man already familiar with it, Wolfgang Hansch.
Originally director of the Natural History Museum of Heilbronn from 1994 up until his appointment as managing director of Experimenta in 2005, Hansch was given the task of establishing a brand new science centre in the city, developing a former storehouse into the first iteration of Experimenta.
The attraction became a reality in November 2009 when it opened with the creed of “Discover Experience and Understand Science”.
“By 2012 our visitor numbers were exceeding expectations by far,” says Hansch. “That’s when we started talking about an expansion of the site, eventually deciding on an entirely new development to better serve the public.”
Backed by the Dieter Schwarz Foundation, a non-profit investment arm of supermarket giant Lidl, the centre broke ground on its expansion by Berlin-based architects Sauerbruch Hutton in 2016. In July 2017, the site closed completely so it could undergo a full transformation, with new exhibits, reimagined spaces and a new building. It reopened on 31 March, complete with a dome theatre, an observatory and workshop spaces.
While the science centre was closed for redevelopment, Hansch and his team came up with a novel way of continuing to serve the population – converting an oil tanker into a floating science centre.
Called the MS Experimenta, the vessel is 105m long and offers more than 500sq m of interactive attractions. Opened in January 2018, a number of primary and secondary school courses are offered onboard the vessel, with schools accommodated inside two labs and an open workshop area. The floating attraction also offers a series of interactive exhibits for visitors, while there are areas for open workshops.
Its first year was a huge success, with 30,492 visitors in 2018. This success led to MS Experimenta taking a trip to Stuttgart, ahead of a nationwide tour.
Between 17 April and 16 October 2019, the ship will be anchored in Heilbronn to coincide with the Federal Garden Show with content tailored towards the event.
“When we first decided to launch the ship, it was set to be a permanent offer for Experimenta,” says Hansch. “It was such a great success however that we’ve decided to anchor it in large cities all over Germany going forward starting in 2020.”
A world class offering
Following the three-and-a-half year redevelopment, which included the new galleries, renovation of the old storehouse and refurbishment of the MS Experimenta, Hansch believes the science centre now offers one of the premium experiences in Europe, if not the world.
“We have three main offers on site,” he says. “First, there are our galleries, where you can use different exhibits from biology, chemistry, physics and so on. Second, we have our Discovery World with its well-equipped labs. Finally, we have the Science Dome. These are our primary offerings. We also have an observatory on the roof and a small theatre for teenagers aged 5- to 10-years-old. This variety is extraordinary. For science centres in Germany, I think it’s a new step in their development.
“This is the largest science centre in Germany. The most important point, however, is our extraordinary lineup of exhibitions. It’s not just that we’re the biggest, but also that we have the best content anywhere on the Continent.”
The centre is targetting 250,000 visitors a year, an ambitious goal for a city with a population of 125,000 people. But what’s even more ambitious is Hansch’s ultimate goal, inspiring one of Experimenta’s visitors to take science’s most coveted prize.
“We want to become a science centre where the visitors have fun and where they can learn about science and technology,” he says. “My dream is that, in 20 or 30 years, we have a Nobel prize winner, whose first step in science was making a visit to Experimenta.”