Tunnel vision: getting in ‘touch’ with science

Guests await their turn to crawl through the new Touch Tunnel. (Jamie Primeau / Features Editor)

While some museums are plastered with “do not touch” signs, or have personnel who will tell you to avoid getting too close to the exhibits, a different experience exists at the Liberty Science Center.

Located in Jersey City, the Liberty Science Center is a common destination for New Jersey middle-school class trips.

On Tuesday, Feb. 15, I had the opportunity to relive my childhood when the center held a press preview for the opening of their new Touch Tunnel, a dark maze that simulates blindness, where one must navigate the tunnel by relying entirely on the ability to feel.

I had taken two previous trips to this interactive museum — once with my Girl Scout troop, where I was too fearful to even attempt entering the tunnel, and another in the fifth grade, where I finally triumphed over my trepidation.

Upon entering the museum again, I entered an environment intertwining knowledge and nostalgia.

Little did I know that I would have to actually crawl through the tunnel — I thought I was just finding out information about the interactive exhibit’s opening.

Luckily, six-year-old Samuel Merced told our group that he would protect us. He held true to that promise, as he frequently called out, “Is everybody all right?” as we crawled through the dark.

After making it through, he was too focused on filling his plate up with the complimentary cookies to tell me much besides, “It was dark.”

Nevertheless, he and his crew of children quickly got in line again to go through the tunnel a second time, indicating it was an enjoyable experience.

Merced was at the event because his father, Angel Merced, helped make the tunnel and brought along Samuel’s four siblings and five friends to try it out.

According to Angel Merced, he spent the past few weeks inside the dark maze, doing everything from installing cameras to arranging the modules.

Prior to entering the tunnel, Bryan Vallejo, hospitality associate, made sure to tell participants to keep their left hand on the left wall, and use this as their guide.

Liberty Science Center (above) recently unveiled its new exhibit, where participants rely on their sense of touch to navigate the dark maze. (Jamie Primeau / Features Editor)

According to Vallejo, the center is “expecting maximum capacity” at the Tunnel’s official unveiling on Feb. 18.

Mary Meluso, a 2005 graduate from the College, is now the associate director of communications at the center.

She explained that in 2005, the center closed for a 22 month, $109 million dollar reinvention project, where all the exhibits and experiences were replaced.

“When we reopened in 2007, from then until now, we’ve had a steady stream of guest feedback, pretty much demanding the touch tunnel’s return,” Meluso said. “There were Facebook groups about it and petitions. People just really loved this iconic experience.”

While the center brought back a crowd favorite, it is not the same old maze.

“It’s a new touch tunnel,” Meluso explained. “It’s slightly different from the old one, in that there’s many twist and turns. It’s still a pitch-black, crawl-through maze, but this time the modules are moveable so you might visit today and experience one maze, and then come back in a few months and it’ll be an entirely different course.”

When Meluso was asked if she had tried out the new tunnel herself, she said, “Alright, I’ll admit, I have not gone through just yet, but I’m building up my courage as we speak, and I suspect by the end of the day I will too have conquered the Touch Tunnel.”

“I did go through the original Touch Tunnel when I was on a field trip here to Liberty Science center in 4th grade, but I have not experienced the new one just yet,” she added.

While it may seem spooky, just outside the tunnel there is a panel of screens, connected to cameras that prevent anyone from becoming trapped inside.

The tunnel can also be disassembled in the case of panic or emergency.

For those who had experienced the passage’s predecessor, a screen was connected to a touch screen device, synced with Twitter, allowing memories and thoughts to be shared about this tunnel versus the old.

Other sensory exhibits provide ways to get in touch with smell, sound and taste. This includes one with taste testing where cocoa, sugar and salt are swabbed on the tongue to discover the organ’s different taste zones.

Not only does the exhibit cater to the various senses, but it also appeals to individuals of all ages.

“I think that Liberty Science Center has a lot to offer college students,” Meluso said. “As you entered the touch tunnel yourself, I’m sure you realized that that’s allotted for big kids as well as the little ones here. So there’s a lot that this institution has to offer for learners of all ages.”

Jamie Primeau can be reached at primeau2@tcnj.edu.