Paul Wellman

Jump, race, build, tinker, listen, think, but don’t just stand there — make your way down State Street to MOXI, Santa Barbara’s newest museum. Officially known as the Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation, the long-awaited MOXI opens its doors on Saturday, February 25, after more than a quarter-century of plotting. Though initially envisioned as a children’s museum, MOXI is not just for kids anymore — its offerings will resonate with “pre-K through gray” Santa Barbarans, and even millennials will love the 21 and Over Nights.

When you first walk beneath the Color and Light Mixing Machine, through the towering arched glass doors, it’s immediately clear that the newest addition to the Santa Barbara skyline is not just an interactive, hands-on, educational mecca for all ages — it’s a beautifully designed and executed feast for the eyes.

At the foot of the Funk Zone, located between the train station and Hotel Indigo, the three-story tower with the wavy turret topped by a glass and wood pavilion is easy to spot. As part of the $1-a-year lease with the City of Santa Barbara, MOXI must provide experiences for as many people as possible. To do so, the museum has removed all foreseeable physical, financial, and cultural barriers to exploring the science-rich cornucopia inside, so the graphics are bilingual and the staff is incredibly diverse and educated.

The exterior was designed by star architect Barry Berkus before his passing. AB Design Studio transformed his original drawings for a conventional children’s museum into a full-fledged, multileveled museum focused on the STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) curriculum. Located at 125 State Street, the LEED-certified museum will regularly change and update exhibits to engage on multiple developmental and intellectual levels. It scales up and down, guaranteeing wonder for all ages.

The opening marks the culmination of a $25 million capital campaign and more than 25 years of tireless work by volunteers, professionals, and an unusually proactive board of directors that represents energetic new blood in Santa Barbara’s nonprofit scene. The founders are determined to deliver a vital experience to families at every economic level from 100 miles in every direction.

“No matter your age, abilities, background, or interest in science, you will find something — hopefully many things — that you will love about MOXI,” said Steve Hinkley, the president and CEO who previously worked for seven years as vice president of programs at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas. “MOXI is a place where we promote creative thinking, collaboration, experimentation, hands-on learning, and fun.”

Let’s Take a Tour

In MOXI’s main lobby, visitors encounter an enormous, hanging, LED-covered globe that everyone gets to make their mark on. It’s the very definition of hands-on interactivity: The heat pattern registered in your hand is projected across the massive entrance sphere for everyone to see.

Further inside, more than 17,000 square feet of exhibit space awaits. The three floors are chock-full of interactive, take-your-turn, make-it-yours exhibits and experiences that have been grouped into seven broad categories called Tracks.

On the first floor are areas dedicated to Sound, Fantastic Forces, and Innovation. In the Muller Family Sound Track, you’ll find a ginormous 24-foot-long, 8-foot-tall guitar you can play or step inside to learn how instruments produce sound. Guests get a taste of Hollywood magic by stepping into the Foley Studios, professional-quality sound booths where you can create your version of sound effects for popular Fox Studios film clips such as Ice Age, Edward Scissorhands, and more.

Also on the first floor is a “you can build it, break it, and build it again” dedicated makerspace. Here kids of all ages can play and explore open-ended and guided experiences that include creating your own Vex Robot, a sensor-aided, Lego-like robotic design system that encourages teamwork and science skills and puts your dad’s erector set to shame. Kids can sit all day in a corner of the makerspace utterly entertained and never leave.

The second floor features Light, Speed, and Interactive Media, including the Muzzy Family Speed Track. Kids and kids at heart will gravitate toward Build It, Test It, Race It, a customizable race track with make-it-yourself racing cars infused by enhanced learning technology that will give you essential data on speed and impact in real time.

Wander to the back corner and you’ll find a small black-box theater that will house rotating exhibitions and shows. The first installation comes from the AlloSphere Research Group, a program of UCSB’s Media Arts and Technology department. Presented publicly for the first time, this is the highly prized, cutting-edge technology developed by Joann Kuchera-Morin, a composer and founder/director of the Center for Research in Electronic Art Technology (CREATE).

“This is an ideal way for two nonprofits to advance education reform at the intersection of arts and science in a way that gets the public involved and gives them a voice,” said Kuchera-Morin.

“It’s a wonderful example of what partnership and collaboration can be about,” Hinkley concurred. “We’ll get to show off local talent that’s changing the world and provide a greater experience for our guests and show them things they’ve never seen before.”

The third floor is home to the rooftop Levinson Family Sky Garden and features exhibits that take advantage of the natural elements and stunning views of the mountains, harbor, and Stearns Wharf. Here you’ll find the Towbes Family Lookout Tower, where guests will enjoy an entirely new way of looking at Santa Barbara through a series of five scopes: a traditional telescope, a heat-sensing thermal imaging lens, a kaleidoscope, a periscope, and a LIDAR speed- and distance-detecting device. Here’s a hint: If you’re around when the train passes by, be sure to turn your heat-sensing focus on the train tracks. On the beautiful rooftop you’ll also find exhibits featuring wind- and solar-powered musical instruments, giant bubble blowers, and the Weather Orchestra.

People and Partnership Power

There’s lots and lots of technology here, but MOXI is about people, too. The museum has a staff of more than 40 full- and part-time employees as well as nearly 100 volunteers. “For everybody who walks in the door, we have the staff with the training to accommodate their learning needs,” said Ron Skinner, the director of education.

The floor staff, known as “Sparks,” are not conventional museum explainers. They’re thought-provoking guides whose goal is to engage in the learning process. “We want MOXI Sparks to ignite learning by sparking curiosity and creativity,” said Skinner. “Sparks engage with guests through hands-on exhibits, activities, demonstrations, challenges, and games, encouraging guests to experiment, observe, explore, discover, question, make, and design.”

“No one’s going to leave because they’re bored, that’s for sure,” said Sean O’Brien, director of exhibits. “Every person is going to have a different experience every time they come here. I guarantee you’re going to be tired by the end of the day and happy.”

Enabling that continual evolution are the many partnerships that MOXI is forging with schools, businesses, and nonprofits. “Santa Barbara, pound for pound, is an innovative dynamo,” said Hinkley, who will spotlight these partners on the Innovation Wall. “There are world-changing companies right here in Santa Barbara, and MOXI gives them a chance to tell their story.”

Dos Pueblos High School’s Engineering Academy is one such partner. “I am really excited that many more young people will be introduced to innovative and creative thinking, exploration, and problem-solving at an early age through the extraordinary opportunity to visit MOXI,” said Amir Abo-Shaeer, the MacArthur “Genius” Award–winning educator who developed the groundbreaking, project-based academy.

Other partners include Sonos, InTouch, 20th Century Fox, Curvature, FLIR, Cottage, and Cox Communications. All have either provided significant funding to support an exhibit or donated materials and content.

In addition being open to the general public. MOXI will offer after-school classes, summer camps, and mobile outreach as well as quarterly after-hours events that will transform the typical museum experience into a themed night out just for adults. MOXI expects to attract more than 100,000 guests in its first year, including Santa Barbara residents, tourists, and approximately 15,000 area schoolchildren. 

Nathalie Gensac is especially excited about MOXI’s possibilities. She founded Youth Interactive nearby in the Funk Zone five years ago to help teens develop job skills and creative business ideas. “For the first time, MOXI will enable our communities’ most at-risk youth to merge art and technology with their own creative possibilities,” she said. “There is no doubt this will give these kids an incredible edge as they move onto college and seek employment in the modern workplace.”

Board of Dreams

MOXI’s impressive trajectory is almost entirely due to the extremely active and engaged board of directors. “My fellow boardmembers include individuals from diverse backgrounds, and they are not just boardmembers in name,” said benefactor Noelle Wolf. “They have rolled up their sleeves. Everyone has been passionately involved.”

Said board president Jill Levinson, “We’ve been the actual staff for a long, long time. Up until a few years ago, there was virtually no other staff.”

The results are exceeding expectations, even before opening day. “I never imagined MOXI could be this good,” said Nancy Sheldon, co-chair of the building campaign committee with Alixe Mattingly. “I don’t have an imagination so strong that I could have ever imagined it could all come out like this.”

They believe that MOXI’s impact may soon extend beyond the museum’s four walls. “I am a firm believer in branding — I’ve done it on television,” said Law and Order creator Dick Wolf, whose multi-million dollar donation was the single-largest gift to the museum’s capital campaign. “I see the potential with MOXI to be a model for other cities around the country. We can develop the brand and tailor it to other locations, as well.”

Most critical to that expansion is how much the exhibits themselves draw visitors into learning. “When you enter MOXI, you enter an environment that will compel you mentally and physically to interact,” said Hinkley. “It is much easier to get the brain to go where the heart is going.”

4∙1∙1 Starting on Saturday, February 25, MOXI (125 State St.) will be open daily, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., with 8:30 a.m. entry for members on Tuesdays and Saturdays. Tickets are $14 (ages 13 and older), $10 (3-12 years old), and free for children under 2. Memberships, which include free entry, start at $90 for individuals and $130 for families. See

Paul Wellman


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