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Exploration Place's new leader brings new perspectives

As a student at the University of Wisconsin, Jan Luth was an anthropology major with grand career plans to be an archaeologist.

At the same time, she worked at archaeological sites and as a tour guide for the state's historical society museum in Madison.

"It didn't take me long to figure out what I really enjoyed doing was sharing with the public rather than being the researcher," Luth said. "When the public came out to the sites, I loved giving tours."

So she pulled back from her original goal and now will bring 30 years of experience sharing information at a variety of museums to Wichita. Tuesday, Luth was named president of Exploration Place.

"My passion is about getting people excited and interested in whatever the subject we're talking about," said Luth, 54.

She will assume her new duties July 1. As a Sedgwick County employee, she will be paid $105,000 annually, said Exploration Place board chairwoman Helen Healy.

Luth replaces Alberto Meloni, who resigned last May.

Luth's background includes stops in West Virginia, Indiana, Illinois, North Carolina and Florida. The Newark, N.J., native has worked at art, history, natural history and science museums for children and adults.

She has spent the past 16 years in the Tampa Bay-St. Petersburg, Fla. area and established a consulting firm two years ago. Since 2008 she has done consulting work for the Great Explorations Children's Museum in St. Petersburg.

In the previous six years, she was director of the Heritage Village Museum in Largo, Fla., where she established the first children's program.

Luth served for seven years as vice president for programs at the Museum of Science and Industry in Tampa.

In Exploration Place, she'll come to a science and discovery museum that offers an interactive environment for all ages. That fits well with Luth's experience.

"People learn by doing," she said. "It's that simple. There are all different ways we process information, but everyone absorbs by doing."

She enjoys getting people of all ages excited about learning.

"I love seeing people's eyes sparkle when they learn new things," Luth said.

She'll arrive at a time when Exploration Place is at a transition point.

Since opening in July 2000, the museum has drawn 2.1 million visitors, including 350,000 in the first full fiscal year

Kent Shank, Exploration Place's chief financial officer, projected the museum would draw 175,000 by the end of this fiscal year, June 30.

Although the down economy has affected the gate, Healy said some changes are needed. She sees Luth as a good fit to oversee them.

"We're looking for her to help us bring Exploration Place to the next level," Healy said. "We hear from county residents that they want more change, more interactive exhibits."

Luth will join forces with Lynn Corona, who brought 26 years of experience when she was hired last summer as director of education and exhibits.

Exploration Place will continue to have traveling exhibits, Healy said, but there needs to be a balance by "refreshing" the permanent exhibits.

"We wanted a person from the outside who would come in with new, innovative ideas that were tied to the science world," Healy said. "Jan's connections will be a big help."

Luth said she has no intention of rushing into anything.

"I have so much to learn," she said. "I have to learn about the community, the supporters. What does the community want? What does it need?

"I need to get my arms and head around all those things."

Luth brings a strong background in fundraising, Heath said. That's significant since the museum received $2.4 million — about 60 percent of its operating budget — from the county.

"She's great at meeting people," Healy said. "She understands that you need to go out and meet donors, talk to them and cultivate them and not just leave them hanging until you have something you really need them to do."

Luth's husband, Terry Powell, an archaeologist who runs a nature center in the Tampa Bay area, will join her. She said he'll retire and expand their small business, Tools from the Earth, which reproduces prehistoric artifacts.

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