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UD RiverMobile becomes stationary exhibit at Dayton’s Boonshoft Museum of Discovery

By Dave Larsen

After nearly a decade of traveling to local schools and communities to educate children about the Great Miami River watershed, the University of Dayton RiverMobile has rolled to a stop at the Boonshoft Museum of Discovery.

Components from the mobile learning studio — a 53-foot-long tractor-trailer converted to include four “classrooms” covering the watershed’s history, benefits and preservation — are now part of a stationary exhibit that opened Feb. 23 at the science center and natural history museum in north Dayton.

About 3,500 children toured the RiverMobile annually during its eight years of operation. The Boonshoft Museum has an average annual visitation of more than 200,000 people.

“We are able to reach a lot more people, and a much broader and more diverse audience,” said Leslie King, director of the University of Dayton Rivers Institute, which operated the RiverMobile from 2012 to 2020, when it was parked because of concerns about enclosed spaces during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hoping to continue its educational journey after the trailer’s retirement, King and Fitz Center for Leadership in Community Executive Director Nancy McHugh spoke with Boonshoft Museum officials about possibly housing its components.

The Boonshoft Museum has a long-term plan to showcase Dayton’s watershed and agreed to display the RiverMobile’s components for several years while developing and raising funds for its own exhibit, said Tracey Tomme, president and CEO of the Dayton Society of Natural History, the museum’s parent organization.

“We wanted to tell the watershed story of the Dayton region and this starts that introduction to the story,” Tomme said. “We exist for education. This fits right into our mission and so it will continue to have life beyond retiring the trailer.”

Boonshoft River exhibit

The RiverMobile exhibit is located on the first floor near the museum’s entrance, starting in the Water Table section and adjacent to the recently remodeled Bieser Room of Wonders. Interactive components highlighting recreational opportunities on the region’s five rivers, Dayton’s flood protection system and the importance of the aquifer are laid out to follow the same linear narrative as in the trailer.

“This is front and center, so when people visit the Boonshoft Museum they will see it,” said Jill Krieg, curator of anthropology and exhibitions for the Dayton Society of Natural History. “It fits our mission perfectly to educate about the natural history of the area, showcase the resources we have in Dayton, and highlight conservation efforts that you can do right at home to protect our rivers and our watershed.”

Krieg said the museum hosts four special learning days each year with free admission, making the exhibit accessible to the entire community. The remaining 2023 dates are April 22, Aug. 5 and Nov. 18, which coincides with the museum’s science festival.

An official ribbon-cutting for the exhibit is tentatively scheduled for April 21.

Previously, undergraduate students in the Fitz Center’s River Stewards program guided groups of schoolchildren or guests through the RiverMobile for an experience lasting nearly an hour. Instead of traveling to new sites every week, the River Stewards will now serve as volunteers at the Boonshoft Museum.

“This will be another service opportunity for all of us as River Stewards,” said Tessa O’Halloran, a junior civil engineering major from Homer Glen, Illinois. “We will have educational games, give out our children’s books, and talk about sustainability and protecting Dayton’s No. 1 natural resource.”

O’Halloran, a Fitz Center intern and member of the River Stewards 2024 cohort, helped design a “selfie station” featuring a small boat for the new exhibit.

During summer 2022, O’Halloran worked as an intern at the Miami Conservancy District through the Fitz Center’s Ethics and Leadership program. At MCD, she helped write a successful grant proposal for a storybook trail based on Into the River, a picture book for children created by the River Stewards’ 2020 cohort. The trail, to be installed this summer along the Great Miami River from Stewart Street to Carillon Boulevard, will be funded in part by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources through its Recreational Trails Program. 

“We’ve invested in both the original RiverMobile and now its installation at Boonshoft, in the children’s book and in the River Stewards because we know the impact these students have in our region has been immeasurable,” said Sarah Hippensteel Hall, manager of watershed partnerships for the Miami Conservancy District, a river management agency founded in 1915 after the Great Dayton Flood.

In addition to MCD, funding for the RiverMobile exhibit at the Boonshoft Museum was provided by the Dayton Society of Natural History and the Fitz Center.

The original RiverMobile was supported by gifts from the DP&L Foundation, the Veolia Foundation, MCD and others. Exhibit Concepts, which constructed the traveling exhibit, dismantled the components and installed them at the Boonshoft Museum. The semi-trailer was returned to original donor Dayton Freight.

“There was a lot of collaboration and cost-share fundraising for that original RiverMobile,” said MaryLynn Lodor, MCD general manager. “Now, all of that investment from many partners is going to expand even further with this long-term installation at Boonshoft. It was a sustainable model from the beginning of being on the road, capturing the minds and hearts of the youth, and now it’s going to be at one of the best places in the region to experience natural history.”

For more information, visit the Rivers Institute and Boonshoft Museum of Discovery websites.

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