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Sidney Becomes Home to New State-of-the-Art, Interactive Educational Center

Story by Mathew Klickstein | Photos from 1913 Labs

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SIDNEY - Early twentieth century Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana’s sage adage “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” has become a universal, timeless touchstone since first being espoused more than a century ago. 

   Longtime Sidney citizen, lawyer, and impassioned historian of local lore Rich Wallace has more recently devised his own motivational twist on the same: “Those who embrace the successes of the past are likely to repeat them.” 

   In partnership with the Shelby County Historical Society, housed in Sidney via various iterations since 1946, Wallace has harnessed the resonance of his statement as a visionary engine, powering the construction of an engaging new vehicle for the edification and inspiration of future generations to come. 

   Located across the street from the Shelby County Historical Society’s home base, the Wallace Family Learning & Innovation Center (115 E. North St.) has been in the works for the better part of the past five years. 

   Through the expert stewardship of two regional design firms, the immersive learning annex opened to the public last month. Admission for the permanent installment is free, sustained by the Wallace family legacy, private donations, and continued support from multiple area entities. 

   In order to bring the center to life, the Shelby County Historical Society first tapped Sidney-based Eleven Fifty Seven, which in turn brought on Dayton’s 1913 Labs, designated by co-founder and manager Joey DiFranco as an “experiential design firm.”

   “Experiential” being key, both for DiFranco who started 1913 Labs after moving back to his hometown in late 2020 and for Wallace and the Historical Society who had always intended the Learning & Innovation Center to be far more than a conventional museum with static “look-but-don’t-touch” exhibitions.

   “We saw an advantage in focusing on experiential technology, because it allowed us to create original content with a good eye on design and experience itself,” DiFranco affirms. Such developments together create an adventurously labyrinthine journey through the vibrant history of Shelby County’s many innovations and innovators. 

   This includes such technological delights as: educational computer games, self-starting life-size portraits of actors portraying Shelby County historical figures who speak directly to the viewer, spellbinding soundscapes, and an eclectic plenitude of electronic devices and tactile objects that invite touching, holding, and playing by patrons of all ages.

   Instead of “just another history museum,” DiFranco elaborated that 1913 Labs worked tirelessly to produce “a new destination for which every space within it has a connection to a STEAM [science, technology, engineering, arts, mathematics] activity that in turn can be used for student field trips, other educational experiences, or simply a fun and fascinating day out for any visitor who may wish to take part in what’s accessible at the center.”

   “1913 has been a great partner on this,” says Building Coordinator Jane Bailey. “They’ve brought up a lot of ideas we wouldn’t have thought of.”

For Bailey, working with neighboring firms such as Eleven Fifty Seven and 1913 Labs was essential to the overall concept of the facility, which proudly spotlights local inventiveness. 

   “This space is there to tell those stories of innovation to the community,” Bailey says. “Stories about what has made Sidney and Shelby County such a successful place over the years, be it the creation of the MRI, the mass production of the soda can pop top, and so much else.”

   “You press buttons, you turn dials, and you watch things happen – you absorb things, which is a big part of the overall learning experience,” observes 1913 Labs Senior Content Producer Philippe DeNeree. 

   DeNeree was so inspired by the work being done by his old SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design) film school chum DiFranco that he moved out from the New York area to become a formative member of the Learning & Innovation Center design and build team.

   “These types of learning environments are so important, especially for people who would normally not have access to something on this scale,” DeNeree – who has worked in various capacities on numerous high-profile documentary films in the past – explains about why he chose to uproot his East Coast life for a Midwestern one where he could focus on this compelling new project.

    “It’s taken a lot of sweat to get to where we’ve arrived at with the space,” DeNeree adds. “But’s it’s also been really fun, and I think that in the long term, students and other patrons will come to this place and they too will feel inspired, along with being more connected to where they live. Because they’ll be able to much better understand where they are. This will be an asset to the people of Sidney and Shelby County for a very long time.”

   “The Wallace Family Learning & Innovation Center is our dream come true,” Shelby County Historical Society Executive Director Tilda Phlipot concludes, echoing the words of Wallace by suggesting that “it is a wonderful way to use the positive historical impact to inspire the future.” 

   The Learning & Innovation Center is open Monday through Friday from 1-5 p.m. and Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon, and by appointment. Call (937) 498-1653 or visit for details.

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