I’ve received the following letter from Science Museum of Western Virginia director Jim Rollings in response to reader Chris VanCantfort’s letter questioning the museum’s new prices, and I’m sharing it here.
The Science Museum of Western Virginia at Center in the Square is poised to be among the most outstanding attractions in the region. The complete renovation of Center has been augmented by an investment of more than $3 million by area donors to the Science Museum to provide new exhibits that not only are spectacular but also designed for all ages. That’s an added dimension for the community.
We will continue to install these one-of-a-kind exhibits over the next several weeks, with most of them fully completed by the end of June.
Now, our attention is focused on operations and sustainability for the future. Along those lines, we gave a long, hard look at new admission rates for the Museum and for the Butterfly Garden. (“Butterflies and Killer Prices,” May 21)
As a baseline, Science Museum admission, back when we moved out of Center in the Square in 2011, was $8 for adults and $6 for children 3-12 years old. Planetarium shows and MegaDome movies were an additional $3 to $5 depending on the program. That meant that a non-member family of four paid $28 for general admission. If they added a MegaDome movie, that total was $48.
MegaDome, incidentally, is out of business. So we no longer have their 40-minute big-screen documentaries to show.
Today, that same family of four – adding a Butterfly Garden visit – sees a total fee of $52, a $4 increase. And by the way, because we extended our “child” admission age from 12 years up to 17 years, it could literally be that same family who, two years later, still pay the lower child rate!
By comparison, if you want to see a big “3D” movie this weekend, tickets are $11.95 each. Popcorn and snacks for four will easily total $20 – $25 (more for most). That’s a family total of around $68 – $73. Is a Science Museum visit worth at least as much? We believe so!
But even if the “ticket-math” makes sense, what about sustainability? That word poses the biggest challenge of all for nonprofits. For a science museum in particular, it is an extraordinary task. Here are some reasons why:
- Since nearly all the exhibits are hands-on, science museums always take a beating from enthusiastic visitors. Although costly double-engineering for toughness helps, thousands of hands WILL wear exhibits out – usually sooner rather than later. Over time, the museum not only grows tired from sameness, but its multi-million dollar investment gets worn out and ready for the trash bin. Lastly, even if they’re no-touch, all science exhibits turn quickly into “history” exhibits amid today’s rapidly advancing technology. A sustainability nightmare for museums.
- Visitors naturally expect “new and different” if they’re to come back again, so we set aside space especially for traveling and changing exhibits. Rental always has been a cost concern for these, but the recent rises in transport costs have left them almost out-of-reach for all but the biggest institutions. How do we refresh our offerings affordably?
- Many believe that the government financially supports museums – and until the last decade or so that was partly true, but this is no longer so. (Some local school districts and municipalities do subsidize their student’s visits, which keeps their admission rates much lower than even our group-discount rates . Rightly so – that’s part of our mission.)
Our sustainability depends on our finding diverse sources of income and keeping costs down by watching every penny. While tickets sales are our biggest single source, they are not our only one. We rely on business sponsorships, special fundraising events, rental fees, foundation grants, our Annual Fund (for individual support), retail sales in our wonderful new museum store, and of course memberships – which reduce admission costs and provide other discounts for families who enjoy coming back (that family of four more than pays for membership in two visits).
Will it work? Look again at the movie analogy: if moviegoers like the film, they tell others, and that movie will be in theaters for a long time. If they don’t like what they saw, that news gets around too. Such movies disappear from theaters right away!
We at the Science Museum of Western Virginia strongly believe in the vision that has produced this next-generation educational attraction for Roanoke and Southwest Virginia. And while we’re not quite finished installing everything, that’s temporary. We are confident that the finished work will be like the movie that stays a long time: people will say great things about it. Our community – which funded these new exhibits – will be proud to help sustain what’s now here.
Jim Rollings, Executive Director, Science Museum of Western Virginia