Arts & Culture
8:33 am
Mon May 12, 2014

3 Questions For Prairiefire Museum Director Uli Sailer Das

A new museum linked to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, opens Monday in Overland Park, Kan. The Museum at Prairiefire, at 135th and Nall, will feature two traveling exhibitions a year from the New York-based museum, as well as permanent displays, a hands-on children's discovery room, classrooms and a cafe.

Boston-based Verner Johnson and Associates designed the museum to "reflect the imagery of the tallgrass prairie, including one of its most unique aspects: the prairie fire burns." Glass in hues of yellow, orange and red wrap a fiery exterior.

"On the inside, however, the panels that are red and yellow on the outside, are actually blue and purple," says executive director Uli Sailer Das. "So the atmosphere on the inside is very calm and very serene. And I think, actually, a really nice atmosphere for trying to learn."

Just before the ribbon cutting on Friday morning, Sailer Das talked about the relationship between the two museums, the origins of the Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton, and the importance of water.

I'd read that (developer) Fred Merrill called you when you were working at the American Museum of Natural History about seven years ago. Could you take us back to that moment when he first called and describe how the partnership got started?

"The way this partnership between the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) and the Museum at Prairiefire came about was really a meeting of the minds and an aligning of the stars, is what I would say.

"Fred Merrill, and Merrill Cos. here, and Candy Merrill as well, were developing a vision for this project, for a very special mixed-use project that would have an important and meaningful cultural component to it ... they were thinking maybe a library, maybe a museum ... so they were coming up with ideas and concepts for that.

"Meanwhile, I was at the AMNH at the time, in the business development department, which is touring all of the exhibitions that the museum creates...we were looking for ways to get the museum's programs, its contents, its science out and exposed to more people. So Fred and I happened to know someone in common and he made the connection, and, then we were on our first phone call.

"I think it was seven or eight years ago, literally. It's hard to believe when you're here today and you're looking at this building. It's remarkable that it's been this long. It feels really long and really short at the same time."

Paleontologist Barnum Brown, a Kansas native, discovered the first remains of a Tyrannosaurus rex in Wyoming.
Credit Laura Spencer / KCUR

As visitors walk into the museum, they'll see a cast of a 40-foot-long Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton. Tell us about the Kansas connection.

"I think that's just a wonderful story ...

The gentleman that first discovered the first known remains of T. rex in Montana in 1908 was a gentleman named Barnum Brown. He was born in Carbondale, Kan., he also went to KU. Lots of connections there and Kansas played a big role, in that sense, in discovering T. rex."

The opening exhibition from the AMNH is called "Water: H20 = Life." What are some of the highlights?

"This exhibition, I think, allows you to see something that we all know so well and kind of take for granted with entirely new eyes: Water. We wash our hands, we drink it, we water flowers. Water is such an integral part of our everyday lives that we take it for granted and never really think about it, I think.

"What this exhibition does is it really just gives you so much more insight into the role of water on earth. For instance, the simple fact of how much of the water on earth is actually fresh water. It's only 3 percent... and out of that 3 percent, a lot of water is actually trapped in ice caps and in glaciers. So very little of this blue planet that we're on is actually fresh water.

"When you look at where the water is located versus where population centers are, you quickly realize that it's a very relevant topic with some big issues attached."

Museum at Prairiefire, 5801 W. 135th Street, Overland Park, Kan. 913-647-5315.