Breeding new places

Discovery Place developing series of museums.

By Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. [06.30.04] — Discovery Place is set to reinvent itself.

Moving beyond the public perception it is only an uptown science and technology museum for children, the nonprofit is working to develop a series of museums within 100 miles of Charlotte, some focusing on science, technology and the environment, and others targeted to young children.

“What we’re about to undertake is maximum perceived change,” says John Mackay, president and CEO.

While the recently launched public-private effort to raise $190 million for cultural facilities in the region has earmarked $44 million for Discovery Place, he says, the total cost of the museum’s long-term transformation could eclipse the price-tag for the regional effort.

Aiming to brand itself as “Places of Discovery,” the organization plans to renovate and redesign its uptown facility into a museum about science and technology targeted to families, build a major facility known as “The Greatest Places” in five to eight years that would focus on the environment, and create a series of regional “Discovery Place Kids” facilities for young children.

The tab for “The Greatest Places” initiative alone could total $150 million to $200 million, Mackay says.

While the nonprofit will solicit local donors, he says, it plans to seek contributions from throughout the United States and abroad.

Discovery Place’s ambitious plans are based on an effort it launched a year ago to take stock of itself.

Founded in 1947 as the Children’s Nature Museum, the nonprofit opened Discovery Place in 1981 as a science and technology museum.

But it discovered through its self-assessment that people had come to think of it a museum only for children, and that children tended to lose interest in the museum when then became teenagers.

“Science and technology should be fascinating to people of all ages,” says Mackay.

And instead of thinking of itself as an uptown museum, he says, the organization intends to spawn local facilities throughout the region, focusing both on science, technology and the environment, and on younger children.

That strategy would make the museum’s “product” more accessible to its customers, he says, and also create a “feeder” system that would prepare youngsters through visiting the children’s facilities to move to the science, tech and environment facilities as they get older.

“We won’t abandon children,” Mackay says. “We just want to make sure all our exhibits and our programs will appeal to all people.”

The portion of the regional cultural-facilities fund drive earmarked for Discovery Place includes $34 million to renovate the uptown museum, and another $10 million to be split between an endowment fund and an “enterprise” account for research, development and design of exhibits.

The museum would launch new exhibits every year, rent to other museums the exhibits being replaced, and put rental fees back into the endowment fund for development of new exhibits.

“We’re a science museum, and we’re also a cultural institution with a strong, strong educational mission,” he says. “We are reorganizing, reinventing the whole nature of our organization to be bigger, broader, a bigger scaffolding and framework.”

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