Southeast incorporates mobile museum into Family Fun Day

Friday, June 9, 2006
Robyn Mainor gave a tour inside the Southeast Explorer Regional Museum, a converted Winnebago that travels around the 26-county service area of Southeast Missouri State University. The Southeast Explorer is holding a Family Fun Day on Saturday at Memorial Hall on the SEMO campus. (Fred Lynch)

Robyn Mainor's job falls somewhere between that of an elementary school educator and a short-haul trucker.

Her classroom's bright pink, orange, green, red and every-other-color-known-to-man exterior catches the eyes of people on area roads every day.

"I even have my own fan club," Mainor said with a laugh. "When my friends see me driving down the road they always honk."

Mainor is the steward of one of Southeast Missouri State University's most acclaimed showpieces -- the Southeast Explorer Regional Museum. The 38-foot-long converted Winnebago has held several thousand visitors this year since it started touring its 26-county service area in February.

Since the mobile museum started service in 2004, it has been seen by tens of thousands of people.

But on Saturday, the explorer won't be mobile. Instead it will serve as a stationary museum where children can learn about Missouri history (and pre-history) as part of the regional museum's annual summer Family Fun Day outside Memorial Hall at Southeast Missouri State University.

The museum holds a family day every summer to continue its educational outreach even though school is out of session.

This year will be the first time the explorer will take part in the day, though, said Ellen Hahs, the museum's curator of education.

Mainor sees the event as a way to acquaint local parents with the explorer. Children across the area have seen the brightly colored RV visit their schools, but the strange vehicle is an unusual sight for parents who don't know its purpose, she said.

"I get a lot of 'I don't know what that is' from people," Mainor said.

After the summer she hopes those comments will become less frequent. This summer the explorer's profile should increase in the area. In addition to the usual trips to schools, the museum on wheels will pop up at area events like the Cape Girardeau Regional Air Festival.

This kind of outreach is not just for the children, Mainor said.

"A lot of people just don't know this information," said Mainor.

The current exhibit was designed for fourth graders, who are learning about Missouri history as part of their curriculum.

But here in the explorer, the information is presented in a way that doesn't talk down to adults but isn't over the heads of children, Mainor said.

The chief of big Winnebago gives a preview of what information is available on this current incarnation of the explorer: the geology responsible for shaping the area, the Native American who lived here before European settlement, the early explorers and the transformation of Southeast Missouri from swamp to farm.

Each stop along the way tells a different story that intertwines with the others to make a whole. Those stories often connect directly with children's life experiences.

"All the kids know about the Mississippians because they're the mound builders," Mainor explains about the "Early Peoples" display case. "They say, 'Oh, my grandpa has a mound in his field.' And of course they've all seen arrowheads."

And the kids all know about the animals that co-existed with the earliest Missourians -- the mastodons -- thanks to the movie "Ice Age."

Mainor, "Miss Robyn" to the children, says the explorer presents history in a way that has relevance to children. A powerpoint presentation, interactive computer games and the visual nature of exhibits have an appeal "for kids that aren't always interested in history," she said.

"We fill such a niche," Mainor says. "You can only learn so much in a book."

Teachers agree. Since it started rolling in 2004, the explorer has steadily gotten more and more requests from area teachers.

"The students were very attentive, they gained a lot of knowledge and they probably saw a lot of unique things they wouldn't have been able to see otherwise because they wouldn't have had the opportunity," said Harriet Martin, an elementary school teacher at Jackson's Orchard Drive Elementary.

Martin's students and several other classes were visited by the explorer on Tuesday and Wednesday.

"This allows for the students to have a field trip right outside their door," she said.

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