The Science Museum of Minnesota is reinventing itself. Again.
It’s been nearly two decades since the museum moved into its dramatic St. Paul riverfront building.
Now the big change is on the inside. The museum is turning away from traveling blockbusters like “Body Worlds,” and shows on Pompei and King Tut. The new focus is on homegrown exhibits, special events and the museum’s own scientists.
“It’s time to try some new things,” said Science Museum CEO Alison Brown. “How can we be out in the community, be more effective and have a broader reach? We are one of the top science centers in the nation. We want to take it to the next level.”
Those blockbuster exhibits drew hundreds of thousands of people to the St. Paul museum, but those were years ago and sent a strange message. “It makes you believe that the rest of the museum is not of value,” said Brown, who joined the museum two years ago. They also created uneven annual attendance and revenue for the institution.
“Stuff like this helps,” she said. “The hands-on stuff is really good.”
The new strategy focusing on homegrown assets and community events is already playing out.
Hundreds came to the museum around the winter solstice last December for its first-ever “Illumination: Light Up the Night” event. Lights were dimmed throughout the museum, and guests were given flashlights and glow-in-the-dark drinks and invited to explore the science of dark and light.
The museum is hosting cardboard engineering events, where guests use old boxes, tape and their own imaginations to create rockets, robots, dioramas and simple machines.
Adults-only nights and even sleepovers where the over-21 crowd can tinker with a cocktail in hand are drawing new audiences.
“We want people to think there is always something happening here,” Brown said.
This year, the museum launched the Year of the Engineer with a proclamation from Gov. Mark Dayton and plans for hands-on events throughout the year. The idea is to ignite a spark in youngsters who may consider going into engineering.
“Being an engineer is fun, and you can solve problems,” Brown said.
The deliberate events got a surprise boost recently from the purple “Thunder Lizard” museum hoodie worn by a character on the “Stranger Things” Netflix series. Surging demand for that item created some unexpected but welcome buzz around the museum and its permanent dinosaur and fossil exhibit.
Now it’s time to grow a long-term connection, said Marjorie Bequette, the museum’s director of evaluation and research in learning.
“Investing in that relationship has become more important. We do so much research on how people engage in the museum. What do they like and how do they learn?” Bequette said.
Bequette said Brown is now giving staff “the space to experiment” to draw audiences. The Illuminations event is one success story.
The museum will still feature some traveling exhibits, but the goal is to weave them into a museum visit — and most won’t cost extra like some of the blockbusters did in the past.
More attention will be paid to the museum’s collection of 1.7 million items, which includes everything from dinosaur bones to American Indian pottery, textiles and artwork.
Bringing back the science
Brown said she’s also bringing science back to the forefront. The museum is elevating the profile of its nearly two dozen in-house scientists, who have largely worked behind the scenes. A new vice president of science oversees the nonprofit’s biologists, an ornithologist, anthropologists and a paleontologist.
The museum’s science department includes the St. Croix Watershed Research Station, where scientists monitor the water quality and pollution of lakes and rivers. Their work spans the globe and has included studies in Mongolia, Alaska and the Arctic.
“Science is under fire these days. People don’t believe in science. People need to be comfortable with science and understand that they use science every day of their lives,” Brown said.
As part of this strategy, scientists will open up their labs and their collection vaults for behind-the-scenes tours four times a year. Scientists will spend more time on the exhibit floor sharing their work with visitors.
“Our research and collection are our best-kept secrets,” said Laurie Fink, a longtime museum manager and scientist who is the new science VP. “It’s my job to make sure it’s no longer our best-kept secret.”
Another hidden gem is the exhibit staff. These people have created exhibits for museums around the country, but much of their work was not shown here in Minnesota. That is changing.
One example: Exhibit staff originally designed the wildly popular “Sportsology” exhibit, about body movement and physiology, for a museum in Texas. They later decided to install a version of it here. One of the activities, “Born to Run,” allows visitors to race against athletes, animals and even a Tyrannosaurus rex.
“It’s a great opportunity for our talented staff to show off their work,” Fink said.
The museum also will highlight its work on the road, where it hosts educational programs in all 87 Minnesota counties.
The hope is the new strategy will also help level out the museum’s finances. Some years, the museum has had surpluses, and other years it’s had to tap its $38.2 million endowment to cover expenses. The museum also has had to divert $13 million to critical building repairs in recent years.
Brown has hired the outside accounting firm Salo to help find ways to pay for innovation and programs without asking for more tax dollars, donations or dramatic admission hikes. One example: New energy-efficient light bulbs save $100,000 a year in energy costs, said Amy Langer, co-founder of Salo.
A century of adaptation
The Science Museum was founded in 1907. In 1999, it moved into its current building, which includes a temporary exhibit gallery, five permanent galleries, 10 acres of outdoor exhibits, and an Imax Convertible Dome Omnitheater. The museum’s annual budget ending June 2016 was $40.7 million. Revenues came from admissions, memberships, creating exhibits for other museums, $7.7 million in government grants and $8.9 million in donations and private grants.
Bill Jonason, the new Science Museum board chairman, said the strategy shift is about making sure the museum adapts to changing times.
“The Science Museum is on strong financial footing,” Jonason said. “All institutions, museums and nonprofits are always figuring out ways to continue to be relevant.”
On a recent visit, Rebecca Clotts and her 8-year-old daughter, Sierra, ventured into the cardboard engineering space. Visitors can use boxes and tape to build things. They can also create images and messages on the wall with tape. Curious about her neighbor’s chicken coop, Sierra decided to build a cardboard coop along with a chicken, eggs and a nest.
The Minneapolis mother-daughter duo spent nearly an hour on the project, intently cutting, taping and constructing. Rebecca Clotts gave a nod to the museum’s new strategy. They never went to any of the blockbuster shows, she said, but they enjoy the creative activities.