20 years after it opened, Exploration Place is setting records, planning new exhibits

On an unusually cold day earlier this month, the parking lot at Exploration Place was jammed.

“The place is buzzing,” said Christina Bluml, director of marketing and communications for the museum.

There has been a lot of buzz for the science museum on the banks of the Arkansas River downtown lately. Exploration Place is setting all kinds of welcome records on the eve of its 20th birthday.

During the fiscal year that closed at the end of June, Exploration Place set new marks for households with memberships and number of people involved in outreach programs.

The 345,000 in total reach and 279,000 people who came to the museum were both the second-best in the attraction’s history.

“This year was fabulous, but last year’s numbers were also fabulous,” said Jan Luth, president of the museum.

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Data shows a steady climb in the numbers for the past five years, museum officials say, including recent annual increases of 25 percent.

“It’s been a continual climb,” Luth said. “That is the most exciting dimension to this.”

A ‘diversified portfolio’

The museum has built what Luth calls a five-legged stool to maintain support:

Permanent exhibits

Traveling exhibits

Education programs

Theater films

Special events

“It takes all of that,” Luth said. “You have to have a diversified portfolio. You can’t put all your eggs in one basket and expect to be successful.”

The metrics of public response the past few years are “a reflection of the fact that these products are really good and our audiences are interested in them,” she said. “They’re coming back for more.”

Substantial support from Sedgwick County is a fundamental part of Exploration Place’s success, Luth said. The museum gets $2.2 million from the county, which pays for about one-third of the attraction’s annual expenditures.

“There isn’t enough to say about the extraordinary partnership we have with Sedgwick County and how much of an impact that has on what we’re doing,” Luth said.

Sedgwick County Commissioner David Dennis said he’s proud of Exploration Place and its role in science, technology, engineering and math education.

“The commissioners before my time had the vision to build Exploration Place to be a mecca for STEM education, to be able to excite our youth to what the possibilities are,” Dennis said.

Exploration Place “is one of the most iconic buildings you can have,” he said. “To put it on the river, right next to the Keeper of the Plains…that was kind of the catalyst” for additional development along the banks of the Arkansas River, including the Advanced Learning Library, River Vista Apartments and the new ballpark now under construction.

“The leaders of Sedgwick County had a vision, and today we are the proud recipients of that vision,” Dennis said.

New president

Luth is retiring after nine years at the helm. A new president will be announced this week.

“She’s leaving us in a wonderful position,” Bluml said.

The new president will offer “spectacular, wonderful ideas to help the place keep growing and soaring,” Luth said.

It’s unrealistic to expect recent growth rates to continue, Bluml and Luth said.

“Most museums are not seeing that kind of growth,” Bluml said. “At some point you think it will stabilize.”

Simply maintaining the current numbers “would be spectacular,” Luth said.

The center just launched its latest traveling exhibit, “Wild Weather,” last month.

“People love it,” Bluml said.

Discussions are already under way on how to maintain and even build on this recent success, with a birthday party scheduled for next April, a formal celebration of the museum’s 20 years next October and traveling exhibits already scheduled for the 2020 calendar year.

The recent success is all the sweeter given the struggles more than a decade ago. Attendance fell as the novelty of the new museum wore off, and officials realized they would have to change how they do things in order for Exploration Place to survive, let alone thrive.

Those changes included bringing in traveling exhibits and finding more ways to connect with the community.

‘More to come’

One of the best examples of connecting with the community, County Commissioner Lacey Cruse said, is the Design, Build, Fly exhibit that was added in 2017. The 5,100-square-foot aviation exhibit features dozens of hands-on activities reflecting what happens in Wichita’s aircraft plants.

Design, Build, Fly is “second to none” in the country, Cruse said. “It’s tied into our community so well.”

Dennis concurred, saying, “This is the Air Capital of the World. We should be doing things that tie into that.”

The tactile aspect of the exhibit ties into a consistent theme for Exploration Place, Bluml said.

“You’re learning as you do things,” she said. “It’s not like reading a book. And people have responded to it.”

The museum’s newest permanent exhibit, focusing on health, will open next fall. Discussions on additional permanent exhibits will begin before the end of 2020, Luth said, as well as a review of how the attraction can best use its 20-acre footprint “to help support our mission and its continued growth.”

“There’s so many opportunities out there waiting for us to go after,” Luth said. “Some of them are in the works.

“This isn’t the end of the story. There’s lots more to come.”