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Q and A with John Mackay

by John Mackay

October 6,2007

Discovery Place’s signature exhibit this year is Gunther von Hagen’s Body Worlds. How would you assess the success of the exhibit?

Comments from attendees have been fabulous. Thousands upon thousands of people have written comments in our comment books, from religious-based sentiments on how they were spiritually moved by the experience to more science-based comments marveling at the human body. From a business point of view, we’re right on target with our projections. As of mid-September, we are just north of 150,000 attendees. We have sold tickets to another 25,000 people who are scheduled to attend this fall. Ticket sales are rapidly increasing with more and more group sales as we enter the final turn of the exhibit.

Body Worlds seems to have had a long, very heavily advertised run.

The major traveling exhibits that we host typically run 3 to 6 months. We opened Body Worlds on June 13th and due to popular demand, we have extended it through January 6 of next year - that’s a little more than a 6 month run. As far as advertising, you’re right. It’s been the most heavily advertised exhibit that we have ever hosted. We have benefited from resources provided by the Institute of Plastination, which produces and makes available the human specimens for the Body Worlds exhibits. The Institute has provided funding, marketing and public relations expertise that has augmented our own budget and resources.

Was the exhibit modified in any way to accommodate community sensitivities?

We had an advisory task force look at all aspects of Body Worlds before bringing the exhibit to Charlotte. We had representatives from the educational, cultural, religious and arts communities on the task force look at how the bodies were obtained and how the exhibit would be presented. Task force members saw the exhibit in St. Paul and Boston. One accommodation we made was to have a person posted at the fetal development section, which is partitioned separately, who would verbally reinforce to attendees what they would see in that section of the exhibit. We have received no push-back from the community. The reception to Body Worlds in Charlotte has been very open and positive.

How would you assess the state of science literacy in Charlotte?

I don’t think we’re significantly different than other communities in our scientific literacy. The concern is that the nation as a whole is falling behind in our ability to produce practitioners of science – especially the physical sciences – who provide utilitarian benefits such as new technologies. Discovery Place has a role to play exposing and educating the general public about the wonders and benefits of science. We can help attract people capable in the sciences which in turn would attract industry interested in that talent.

Have you had to ‘dumb down’ your exhibits?

Great question. Actually, I feel that we’ve had to “smarten up” our exhibits in response to the continuous growth and development of the region. It is very difficult to address so many disparate populations with different interests and intellectual backgrounds in one building that has limited resources and space. In order to deliver enriching and substantive experiences to different populations, we need to grow and expand.

What are your plans?

Our strategy is to move from one Discovery Place to multiple “Places of Discovery.” Each “Place of Discovery” would be a strong and fully developed node within a network of new facilities targeting different populations. For example, we plan on opening as many as 4 or 5 “Discovery Place Kids” locations that would provide exhibits and programming to children 7 years old and younger. The first Discovery Place Kids site will be an 18,000 to 20,000 square-foot facility in Huntersville. We are investigating a concept we call “Treetops on the Greenway” that would reconfigure the Nature Museum near Freedom Park. “Treetops” would be a highly innovative place where visitors could explore the forest in our city core. Our strategy would also free up a renovated Discovery Place in Uptown to still serve children but focus more deeply on science, technology and the environment for adults.

When does the renovation of Discovery Place begin?

We will begin renovation in early 2009 and we should be finished in early 2010. We are working with Cambridge Seven Associates, Little Diversified Architects, and Rogers Construction. We have a master plan and are finalizing design. Much of the work is reconfiguration and mechanical and infrastructure updating to upgrade our experience platform. We will have far more contemporary and interactive exhibits that will change more frequently, and we will also be developing our own exhibits that will go on the road. We’re excited about fulfilling our role as a leading science museum and network.

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