The Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center has announced a five-year, $15 million plan to revitalize the Hutchinson institution with the goal of securing its future for the next 50 years.
The master plan, developed over the past year by a community-based Revitalization Task Force assisted by outside expert museum planners, calls for significant changes to the Cosmosphere’s mission and exhibits without expanding beyond the existing building.
In five years, Cosmosphere CEO Dick Hollowell said, visitors “will notice a complete new setting for the lobby and rotunda areas. We will have exhibits in the lobby that will be movable, when necessary, for major events.
“We will have a free zone when you enter with access to the theater, gift shop and food-service area. Hutchinson and Reno County residents will still have free access to the Hall of Space Museum.”
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Currently, only about 8 percent of the Cosmosphere’s 13,000 exhibits are on display, but Cosmosphere president and chief operating officer Jim Remar said they will be able to display more by making more efficient use of existing space, adding exhibits in the lobby and possibly displaying more in the new food-service area.
The lobby, Remar said, will have exhibits dedicated to current and future technology and space initiatives by NASA and private companies developing new vehicles for space exploration, while the Hall of Space Museum will continue to tell the story of the space race – only with more interactive exhibits. Those exhibits haven’t been designed, he said, but they will involve more than pushing a button to start a video and instead engage visitors in an impactful way.
Visitors also will encounter an overhauled rotunda area with a video wall presenting an orientation program. Nearby there will be a timeline for the exploration of space. There also will be an interactive exhibit area specifically designed for young children, something currently absent at the Cosmosphere.
A less tangible change will be a major emphasis on informal STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education initiatives, including two STEM labs in currently underused portions of the museum.
“Five years from now you will see a museum that is more engaging and interactive, not as heavy with copy (text to be read) but that still tells the story in a way visitors expect,” Remar said. “Also, you will see the museum become one of the premier centers for informal science education.”
Hollowell thinks the emphasis on STEM education also will give the Cosmosphere a chance to tap some foundations that support STEM education as their mission for some of the $15 million needed for the five-year revitalization. Local support also will be necessary, Hollowell said.
Hollowell said some areas, including the lobby and rotunda, would be closed for renovation but he hoped that none would be closed for a long time.
The revitalization effort, begun after the Cosmosphere celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2012, was spurred by declining attendance.
“The business model was not one we could carry forward, based on declining attendance by the public sector, schools and campers,” Hollowell said. “Jim and I decided we need to take a step back and examine the future.”
That in turn led to creation of the Revitalization Task Force made up of board members, community leaders, Cosmosphere staff and representatives of two consulting firms, Verner Johnson Inc., an architectural firm specializing in museums, and Leisure Business Advisors.
“The objective (of the task force) is to secure the next 50 years,” Hollowell said. “The path we were on, that didn’t seem possible.”
“The staff and board are extremely excited about the future of the Cosmosphere. Obviously, we spent money to develop a plan we could all feel comfortable about moving forward with to secure the future of the Cosmosphere. This is too great a facility to allow it to continue to decline in attendance. We want to provide opportunities for the next generation to take advantage of what we have to offer.”
Ed Berger, who is retiring at the end of the month after 23 years as president of Hutchinson Community College to form a consulting company, has been hired to serve as chairman of revitalization initiatives.
“Every so many years, an organization has to reinvent itself to stay current,” Berger said. “That’s certainly what the Cosmosphere is doing, and they’re expanding their mission into STEM and space applications of those principles.”
Berger said his job will be to advise the Cosmosphere on how to take the plan developed by the consultants and turn it into a reality. He also will have a fund-raising role.
“It’s really exciting, a major shifting of gears for me,” Berger said. “But I feel very strongly about the Cosmosphere and its role in the community but also its potential for having an international presence, and that’s the way we’d like to see it go.”