Asked to imagine a science museum in a small city in the west of the Czech Republic, you’d be forgiven for picturing something decidedly provincial and low key. However, this 10,000 m2 exhibition space, housed in an old Skoda factory, is out to confound such expectations. With not a dusty, old glass case or do-not-touch sign in sight, this cutting-edge museum fizzes with excitement, and has play and exploration at its very heart. In fact, it is hard to think of any science museum, in any major city, that does it much better.
Techmania is housed in two buildings; the larger Science Centre is in the old, main factory, whereas the 3D Planetarium is just a short walk across the gangway, in a beautiful listed building dating back from 1917, which was once the Skoda factory’s canteen. The museum has recently undergone a major renovation, costing in a region of 577 million CZK (around US$25 million) – and you can tell. Light, bright and made up of nine excellently designed exhibitions, with nearly all instructions and explanations in Czech, English and German - the Science Centre itself would be enough to keep even the most demanding of children occupied for an entire day. Add to that a state of the art Planetarium, showing both 2D and 3D shows, as well as containing some beautifully tactile installations, it really is a massive treat for all curious minds. So, shall we go for a tour?
If you are looking to make the most of your visit, and the weather is fair, arrive ten minutes earlier than planned and enjoy the large wooden interactive games outside. It is fair to say that my toddler liked this section of the museum as much as any, and probably would have spent the whole day pushing bottle tops in holes and rolling balls in giant mazes, whereas my 6-year-old son was enthralled by using his own shadow to tell the time. But as tempting as it may be, don’t delay for too long – there is an abundance of interactive fun waiting inside.
Once through the doors, start by looking at the day’s program of events and deciding which of the Planetarium shows you fancy most watching, and plan your visit around this. Helpfully, the films all have a recommended age and there is something for everyone aged four upwards. For non-Czech speakers, you will need to pay a small amount to reserve your show in advance, and this will ensure you are given headphones with an English or German translation. Once this is organized, and your wrist bands are on, you can head downstairs to the Science Centre and let the real fun begin.
And what fun there is! The hall is brimming with exhibits to climb on, touch, pull and spin, and although there is a flow between the different zones, the open layout ensures that there is no pre-determined route. This freedom is great for ensuring child-led exploration, and minimizing the number of queues at popular areas, although it did mean that my two were initially like wide-eyed kids in a sweet shop – overwhelmed by choice. So, after flitting between some of the large installations near the entrance, we finally settled on basing ourselves for a while in the Small Science section towards to back of the hall.
If you have children under the age of eight, the Small Science exhibition, is a fantastic place to let them burn off some energy and become playfully acquainted with acoustics, optics, pulley systems and forces. Loosely based around the idea of time travel, there is a castle to build, a river to row down, and climbing walls to scale. There are also musical instruments here from past and present, a large manual marble run, and the most popular gravity test of all – a giant slide! Then, happily just next to this scientific play-area, is the 300m2 Water World area: with two model canals, lots of boats and locks, as well as a large Archimedes' screw, tipping cups and mini fountains. All the splashy entertainment you could possibly hope for - with a great side helping of information on the water cycle. Our two children were in heaven.
For smaller scientists, there is yet another specifically designed area, in the form of There is the Rub! at the opposite side of the museum. With hundreds, if not thousands of wooden building blocks, and puzzles and games in all shapes and sizes, this is a place to keep both little hands and young minds busy. And pleasingly for the parents, natural light comes shining through from the large windows here, ensuring no sense of cabin fever at all.
And so, this is obviously a museum that can delight the young – but is there enough for the older kids and teenagers too? Absolutely. The 1100m2 Edutorium is home to a wonderful array of exhibits, that not only link to the high-school science curriculum, but are beautiful and interactive in equal measure. If I have any criticism, occasionally the English explanations felt a little clunky – but the hands-on experiments always hit the mark. And in addition to the more traditional experiments with light, angles and momentum, there are also X box games and sports simulators to get everyone moving, as well as lots of large scale experiments where you hoist yourself into the air with pulleys, and ride bicycles to help you understand the properties of different materials.
Another sure-fire hit with older audiences, are the Science demonstrations that run regularly throughout the day. These, of course, are all in Czech, although me and my 6-year-old decided to still go along for a peek, and although we understood virtually none of what was said, the explosions and experiments with liquid nitrogen were enough to keep us both mesmerized. Add to this the playful The Future in a Plate exhibition – which examines healthy eating and food production – and the Going Underground exhibition – which sends you through games and video installations deep into the Earth’s crust – and you have plenty to keep everyone, no matter their interests, amused for hours.
And then, of course, you still have the trip to the Planetarium. Smaller than the Science Centre, it is no less impressive. With one of the finest 3D resolutions in the world, the projections in the 90-seat auditorium mustn’t be missed. During our visit, we saw the 30-minute long film, Polaris: an animation about a polar bear and penguin’s expedition to investigate the seasons at the North and South Poles. With a good mix of science, silliness and adventure, this was perfectly suited for my 6-year-old, but there are also films for older kids and adults too.
Then, on leaving the show, head downstairs to the Exposition Universe exhibition, where the installations let you explore planet Earth before venturing right out into the far reaches of space – where you can roll balls into black holes and examine Saturn’s surface up-close. And it’s here you’ll also find a Science on a Sphere show, where you can project short films onto a 2-metre globe floating in the dark, showing natural phenomenon from raging tornadoes to erupting volcanoes. A wonderful finale to any day out.
Perhaps the only aspect which doesn’t quite come up to overall high standard is the canteen-style restaurant – which offers a limited range of bland menu options, as well as a choice of cakes, sweets, crisps, ice-lollies and drinks. On a fine day, a picnic might be a way around this, although as the Museum sits on the outskirts of Plzen, in a largely industrial area, you may need to settle for the less than ideal option of eating it on a wall near a carpark, unless you fancy stretching your legs for 15 minutes and heading into town.
However, food options aside – Techmania in Plzen can hold its head high as a world-class museum. Being just over an hour’s drive from Prague, it is well worth a day trip should you find yourself in the Czech capital with science-hungry kids, and as Plzen itself is a pretty university town, it could very easily make a great weekend getaway, with the train from Prague to Plzen also taking just over an hour. With just the right balance between play and education, and with something to entertain and fascinate toddlers through to adults, it is truly a museum full of big bangs and surprises.