But visitors soon will be able to see some of those items. The second phase of work on the park’s visitors center, which will have a 4,400-square-foot exhibit space, is more than 75 percent complete, according to Superintendent Pat Reed.
Reed, Public Information Officer Vickie Carson and Facilities Manager Steve Kovar gathered last week in the lobby of the first phase of the new visitors center. That portion of the center was finished in September at a cost of a little more than $7 million.
They pointed to a wall display depicting what the new section will contain. Behind the wall, several dozen people worked to complete the space. Once that happens, the exhibits can be brought in, Kovar said.
The space itself should take a couple of months to complete, then the exhibits will be installed a few months after that.
“This is really going to broaden people’s understanding of how the cave was formed and how the cave is affected by what goes on around it,” Carson said.
The exhibit space will feature faux stone cave walls, a tunnel for children or small adults to crawl through, panoramic photographs of the cave valley, a mural of the ancient sea in the cave that contained fish and other aquatic life, an auditorium and other interactive displays.
“All of the exhibits will be fully accessible,” Carson said.
That means photographs or exhibits will be audibly described for those who can’t see and there will be written materials for those who can’t hear the audio, she said. Visitors in wheelchairs will be able to navigate the space and see the exhibits.
“I think we are probably going farther with the accessibility than other national parks because not everyone can go in the cave,” Reed said.
Among the features in the exhibit space will be a live feed from a bat nursery that is on park property. Over the years, an old concrete silo building has become home to a group of bats that birth and rear their young there. Reed said there will be a two-month window soon in which engineers can enter the facility to install cameras and wiring.
Carson said the feature will be unique to the park.
“Maternity areas aren’t normally studied,” she said. “It will also be available online and we will probably have some distance-learning opportunities as a result.”
Reed said the space also will offer rotating exhibits that will primarily be used for objects that have been donated to the park or are part of its early touring history.
In addition, the space will contain staff offices and an expanded bookstore, instead of the temporary bookstore located in the first phase of the visitors center.
The completed portion of the visitors center is a dramatic upgrade over what visitors were used to seeing. No longer a long, dark space, the stone-covered building has vaulted ceilings and is bright and airy.
The building will likely obtain gold Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification, Kovar said. Solar panels will be installed on the roof to provide about 10 percent of the power required by the building. Rainwater harvested from the roof will be used to flush toilets in the facility’s restrooms, and the building has a light shaft, similar to a sun roof, that lets in natural light. As part of seeking LEED certification, 95 percent of the materials from the previous buildings were recycled rather than being sent to a landfill.
The project has been a long time coming, with the idea of a new visitors center discussed nearly 20 years ago. The construction began in 2007 using fees that were generated by the park.
“We wouldn’t have a new visitors center if it weren’t for the fee program,” Kovar said.
Phase II of the project is being paid for with federal stimulus funds – $4.3 million for the building and $1.7 million for the exhibits.
Cesar and Sheryl Regalado and their daughter, Alexa, of Indiana, were among the visitors in the center last week.
Both Cesar and Sheryl Regalado said they had been to Mammoth Cave as children. Neither had much recollection of the visitors center at that time, but Sheryl said they really appreciated what has been done with the new building.
“This is beautiful,” she said.