The Rockford Area Arts Council and the Junior League of Rockford founded Discovery Center Museum in October, 1981. Their goal was to provide a participatory learning environment for children and families – a place to experiment, to explore, to experience. Each founding organization contributed funds and support for this three-year pilot program.
In the first year, the museum hosted 6,000 school children on field trips and housed 20 interactive exhibits. Public hours began in the second year of the project, as did the series of family programs. These programs encouraged visitors to return often, and our audience increased to 11,750 by the third year.
In 1983, a planning grant from the Illinois Arts Council enabled Discovery Center to hire a museum consultant to assist with the next phase of the museum. The Junior League voted to renew its project for an additional three years and the Rockford Area Arts Council turned over the museum’s operation to a newly formed Board of Directors. Discovery Center Museum incorporated in 1984 and officially became a non-profit organization, and is still managed by the original director.
Attendance in Discovery Center’s first five years grew from 6,000 visitors a year to 21,000 by 1986. Operating revenues increased from $12,000 to $89,000. In 1987, the search for a permanent home for Discovery Center was well underway. A $300,000 grant from the Build Illinois program was received, and a major design grant from the Illinois Arts Council funded the planning process.
In January of 1988, the Museum’s Board of Directors voted to join the Rockford Art Museum in proposing to the Rockford Park District that the former Sears store in the downtown district become the home of the two museums and a part of the park district’s family of museums. Four other cultural organizations joined us in forming an arts consortium in conjunction with the Rockford Park District. A major capital campaign generated over $6 million for renovating the building and creating Riverfront Museum Park, which opened in 1991. In Spring 1991, Discovery Center, in partnership with the Junior League of Rockford and the Rockford Park District, along with thousands of volunteers, built the nation’s first community-built outdoor science park…the Rock River Discovery Park.
The need to expand the physical space of Discovery Center was identified as a result of the Museum’s 2000-2005 Strategic Plan. In 2004, Discovery Center embarked on a joint capital campaign with Burpee Museum of Natural History to expand both museums and create a shared traveling exhibition space. In Fall 2008, the construction campaign goal was completed with $9.5 million pledged and $3.5 million of that earmarked for Discovery Center construction and another $87,198 raised for the endowment. In June 2009, construction of the expansion began; and in June of 2010 the Discovery Center expansion opened to the public.
Although we doubled the size of Tot Spot in 2010, its popularity grew and we once again needed more space. In 2014, we expanded the Tot Spot again, adding both space and exhibits.
Today, Discovery Center has over 300 exhibits and an operating budget of $2,200,000. In 2019 we served nearly 275,000 people through onsite visits to our museum and through our outreach programs. In addition to permanent exhibits, Discovery Center offers afterschool and Headstart programs, national traveling exhibits, outreach and family programs, home school classes, educator and scout workshops.
Discovery Center was founded by volunteers, and volunteers remain vital to the museum. We sponsor a student volunteer program that each year involves over fifty adolescents in the museum and its programs. Senior citizens, interns and other volunteers assist with marketing, exhibit maintenance, museum programming, gift shop, general office duties, birthday parties and visitor services.