Exploration Place plans changes for its next decade

Ten years ago, a grand new attraction opened on the banks of the Arkansas River. Exploration Place, a $62 million interactive children's museum and science center, was heralded as world class, from the dramatic curves and slopes of its architecture to its state-of-the-art theater and exhibits.

"Never," said then-mayor Bob Knight, "has the future of this city looked brighter."

A decade later, having weathered massive deficits, financial turmoil and the resignations of two presidents, the museum is preparing for a rebirth.

Officials say they're close to naming a leader to replace Alberto Meloni, who resigned last May. They hope to have someone in place by June.

They've repaired a reflecting pond that surrounds the building and plan to spruce up several exhibit areas. And they recently upgraded the technology inside the CyberDome Theater.

"We think the future is very bright," said Helen Healy, chairwoman of the Exploration Place board.

"We want to figure out how to serve the community better and give them new reasons to come and visit."

Financial challenges

Exploration Place opened April 1, 2000. Officials predicted the museum would lure thousands of visitors to Wichita, spur downtown renewal and aid in recruiting companies to the city.

They also pledged that after an initial government boost — about $26 million in city, county and state funds for its capital campaign — the museum would make it without taxpayer support.

But after a first year that drew more than 350,000 visitors — and a recession prompted by the Sept. 11 attacks — attendance and revenue declined.

By late 2004, Exploration Place had amassed a $10.5 million shortfall. In September 2005, Sedgwick County commissioners approved a $7 million bailout.

Last year the museum got $2.4 million — about 60 percent of its operating budget — from the county.

When Meloni replaced Al DeSena as the museum's president in 2006, he ushered in blockbuster traveling exhibits that ignited the museum's recovery.

The first one, "A T. Rex Named Sue," generated $100,000 in profit. After Sue came "Titanic," which featured more than 100 artifacts recovered from the shipwreck. As part of the exhibit, the museum held a re-creation of the final meal aboard Titanic, which sold out quickly and boosted interest in the museum.

"'Titanic' was definitely a highlight" of the museum's first decade, said Christina Bluml, communications manager for Exploration Place.

"That's when people started to say, 'Look, we're bringing things to Wichita that have never been here before.' "

'Into the future'

Since then, Exploration Place has hosted exhibits on race, memory, whales and the inventions of Leonardo da Vinci.

The most controversial and expensive to date, "Our Body: The Universe Within," featured corpses that illustrated the inner workings of the human body. It ran for seven months and generated about $74,000 in profit.

"People constantly say, 'Don't bring that to Wichita,' or 'Wichita will never go for that,' " Meloni said at the time. "Well, we've got to rethink that."

In coming years, the museum's main focus will likely shift from traveling exhibits to permanent ones, said Healy, the board chairwoman. Several main exhibit areas need upgrades, she said, because of general wear and tear and to appeal to new audiences.

"It's like owning a house," she said. "After you've been there a few years, you start making repairs. You want to move things around, just freshen it up."

The museum recently spent $11,880 to repair cracks in the walls around the reflecting pond, and $215,000 for new Digistar 4 technology in the CyberDome. A new permanent exhibit about the history and future of farming is set to open July 4.

Officials also plan to redesign Tots Spot and Kids Explore, popular areas among families with young children. But Healy said major decisions will wait until a new president is named.

"We want to make sure the new director is part of any long-term plan," she said.

Joe Palacioz, the museum's interim director, said economic conditions will continue to challenge Exploration Place. Families are tightening their budgets, and school districts are cutting field trips.

Palacioz, a former city manager of Hutchinson who took over operations last July, cut the museum's spending in part by merging positions and laying off eight employees. He said he feels "very good" about Exploration Place's financial health despite the current recession.

"Everyone's tightening their belts... but the goal is to still provide a quality product here at Exploration Place, and that's what we're doing," he said.

"This is a first-class destination, and I believe it will continue to be that into the future, for a long time."

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