Vt. Museum to See $5M Expansion and Renovation

The Fairbanks Museum & Planetarium in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, will gain more exhibit space and become more accessible to visitors with mobility challenges

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Major upgrades are coming to a popular destination in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom that has been enjoyed by generations of families.

St. Johnsbury's landmark Fairbanks Museum & Planetarium offers visitors a window on the world.

"I remember coming here when I was a little girl myself," said Joanna Hastings, who brought her grandson to the museum Wednesday to see the butterfly house, the gemstones, the taxidermied polar bear, and so much more.

The museum's exhibits come from the historic collections of Franklin Fairbanks, a businessman and philanthropist who amassed what he called his "cabinet of curiosities."

Now, a nearly-$5-million project is set to significantly expand and renovate the 1890s building.

Executive director Adam Kane said the upper level will finally become accessible to visitors who use wheelchairs. Kane added that more modern museum experiences are also on their way in fresh spaces for hands-on exhibits.

"When this building was opened in 1890, museums were all 'look but don't touch,'" Kane said. "That was just the way it worked — nobody had any expectation it was any different. And now, the expectation is not that. It is you are to interact and you are to learn experientially. And this will absolutely do that."

Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vermont, through Congress' new community project funding process, requested nearly $2.5 million for the Fairbanks Museum work in the federal budget that's still in process.

"This is an investment worth making," Welch said Wednesday during a visit to the museum.

Welch described the site as a linchpin to St. Johnsbury life, critical both to driving visits downtown and to sparking interest in science education.

"The whole goal we had with COVID was to get through it safely, but to come out on the other side where our chance of having stronger communities — where we work together, where we share those common spaces like the Fairbanks Museum — was increased, not diminished," Welch said.

The expanded Fairbanks footprint will also house the Community College of Vermont's St. Johnsbury academic center.

Welch is glad to know much of the work will be done using innovative construction materials that aim to cut carbon output while creating local jobs. The structure will feature the building material known as mass timber, a growing category in the wood products sector, the nonprofit said.

The project groundbreaking is expected in April of next year, and construction should wrap up by the end of 2022, Kane told NECN.

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