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Kansas Cosmosphere hires consultant to revitalize operations

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, Dec. 29, 2013, at 7:58 p.m.
  • Updated Monday, Dec. 30, 2013, at 6:32 a.m.

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To learn more about the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center, go to http://www.cosmo.org/.

One of Kansas’ top tourism draws may be getting a new look and feel.

The board at the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center has hired one of the nation’s premier museum-consulting firms to help revitalize programs and operations at the Hutchinson museum.

“We are combating what has been a gradual decrease in attendance, an apparent lack of interest in current space exploration,” said Comosphere president Jim Remar.

“We are undergoing a process that will allow us to look at programming, business modifications and what we present to the public. We are looking at a new vision and direction …(to) allow the Cosmosphere to continue to be a relevant and exciting place.”

The Cosmosphere is one of the world’s premier space museums, with more than 15,000 artifacts displayed over 105,000 square feet of museum space. Only the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., has a larger collection of U.S. space artifacts.

But, in recent years, the number of people visiting the museum, which also boasts an IMAX theater, has decreased. The Cosmosphere according to its website, draws about 150,000 visitors a year.

The Cosmosphere, which is an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, is going through what many other museums throughout the world are experiencing. Many were founded when museums were seen as civic institutions, and wealthy patrons helped fund them.

“The expectations of today’s society is completely different than five or 10 years ago,” Remar said. “The fact that we no longer have a robust manned space program has hurt, to some extent. I also feel that our exhibits haven’t changed in the last 10 years. There hasn’t been a lot of new attractions or exhibits that would bring repeat visitors.

“And, the economy has definitely played a part. Ten years ago, there wasn’t the competition we have now for disposable income. The IMAX theater in Wichita has hurt us.”

The Cosmosphere has hired Verner Johnson Inc., a Boston-based consulting firm that has helped design projects at 200 museums throughout the world, including the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, the St. Louis Science Center, the Museum of Science in Boston and the Flint Hills Discovery Center in Manhattan.

The firm is known for designing museums that immerse visitors into the experience. For instance, at the Flint Hills Discovery Center, an educational film about the prairie is accompanied by smoke rising from the floor and snow falling from the ceiling. An exhibit that shows the root structure of prairie grass allows visitors to walk underneath the roots.

Dream from the past

The Cosmosphere began as a dream of a wealthy patron in 1962.

That year, the planetarium in Oklahoma City was planning to remodel and upgrade its equipment. Officials there, friends of Hutchinson resident Patty Carey – a member of Hutchinson’s prominent Carey Salt family – wanted to know whether she would like to buy their old star projector.

It was a Friday. She had until Monday to raise $7,200 – or the projector would be sold to someone else.

Carey not only came up with the money but opened the Hutchinson Planetarium on Dec. 2, 1962, in the poultry building on the Kansas State Fairgrounds. The building, which had no heat, was quickly named “the chicken coop.”

The planetarium soon moved to the new arts and sciences building at Hutchinson Community College.

For the next four decades, the museum collected artifacts for a space museum – including the Apollo 13 command module Odyssey – and formed friendships and partnerships with NASA, the Smithsonian and various corporate partners such as Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon.com.

Dream for the future

“Right now, we don’t know what the consultant will recommend,” Remar said.

“I will tell you, there are no sacred cows. We will be discussing everything, looking at every aspect of the operations and, at the end of the day, we are hoping that we will have an organization that allows visitors to participate and immerse themselves into new technologies.”

A report from Verner Johnson is expected by the end of March. After the report, the board may launch a capital campaign to help fund any changes.

“We celebrated our 50th anniversary in 2012,” Remar said. “While there have been a lot of success during the first 50 years, we are excited about what lies ahead.

“This re-imaging process has us all very excited. It is an opportunity and has the potential to set the future of the Comosphere and insure our relevancy for generations to come.”

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @beccytanner.

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