• Cosmosphere President and COO Jim Remar talks about the SpaceWorks observation gallery. 

Space center has revamp expert: Cosmosphere enlists group as adviser on planned revitalization

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Fighting back against declining attendance numbers, the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center is getting expert advice on how to revitalize its programs and operations to give visitors a more interactive experience.

The space center, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, is spending $122,000 to contract with Boston-based Verner Johnson Inc. - renowned museum architects and planners - to help develop a new strategic vision for the museum.

"They're really providing direction on what we need to do and how we need to do it ... to secure the Cosmosphere's future," said Cosmosphere President Jim Remar.

Venue ticket sales at the Cosmosphere saw a 21 percent decline between 2007 and 2012, dropping below 200,000 last year for the first time since at least 1992 - the earliest figures officials could find Monday through the museum's ticketing software program.

The numbers represent how many venues people visited at the Cosmosphere, such as the planetarium, the theater or Dr. Goddard's science lab, and not actual visitors, which aren't counted.

The Task Force to the Cosmosphere Governing Board, comprised of board members, staff and community leaders, organized in August and recommended that the Cosmosphere proceed with Verner Johnson after screening proposals from several firms.

Verner Johnson has already conducted focus groups with educators, stakeholders, Cosmosphere members and staff, and it will present its report by March, said Cosmosphere CEO Dick Hollowell. The four-month process entails Verner Johnson analyzing the Cosmosphere's business model and operations, and recommending changes to programs and exhibits.

"This will allow us to see what the future of the Cosmosphere might look like," Remar said. "It won't be an entire design package, but there will be renderings to show us what those new changes will look like."

Space limits Remar noted that the Cosmosphere has an "unparalleled" collection of artifacts, but only 10 percent of the collection is on display. A major obstacle the Cosmosphere faces is a lack of space, as it cannot currently accommodate many of the traveling exhibits available, he said.

Also, museum officials want to modernize the museum experience by making it more interactive. The average visitor is less excited about "observation-only exhibits" and instead seeks a hands-on, immersive experience, Remar said.

"It's why we've hired Verner Johnson to take a look at everything we do with a fresh, unbiased eye," he said. "Everything is on the table for improvement."

Both Remar and Hollowell acknowledged that use of the old Hutchinson Floral building site could be part of Verner Johnson's space recommendations.

The dilapidated structure across from the Cosmosphere, 1100 N. Plum St., was recently demolished, but a lack of financial resources has deterred its reconstruction. Verner Johnson will also look at other possibilities for new museum space, including potential additions, Remar said.

"Ideally, we'd like to include existing facilities, but we realize we're limited to usable space," he said.

Bringing in Verner Johnson isn't the first action the local museum has taken. Changes implemented at the Cosmosphere over the past year have already positively impacted the museum, according to Remar and Hollowell.

After a downward trend in venue ticket sales through the first four months of this year, in May the trend started to reverse. TheCosmosphere has seen an increase of 5,821 in venue ticket sales between May and October over the same time period in 2012, Remar reported.

Ongoing effort Last year, the Cosmosphere's dome theater went digital. The Carey Digital Dome Theater is now showing new feature-length films, such as the recent hit movies "Gravity" and "Ender's Game," offering visitors a movie experience they won't find anywhere else in the region.

Other new initiatives include a motion-based simulator in the lobby, an interactive audio-visual tour and the public observation gallery at Spaceworks, where people can see F-1 engines.

Hollowell said the study by Verner Johnson will complement the efforts already pursued by the Cosmosphere.

"What we're doing is just a very complete study of what needs to be done to revitalize and re-image the Cosmosphere," Hollowell said. "We're very excited about it."

Jade Piros de Carvalho, City Council member and Cosmosphere Governing Board chair, said the study will be a fresh look at how the museum delivers educational programming. She noted that how students learn today is "totally different from the way they learned 10 years ago or even five years ago."

"We have to continually revitalize our educational programming to keep the content relevant," she said.

Verner Johnson has designed more than 200 museum projects worldwide, including the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, the St. Louis Science Center, the Museum of Science in Boston, the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago and the Hong Kong Science Museum.

In Kansas, the company has designed projects for the Flint Hills Discovery Center in Manhattan and the Museum of Prairie Fire in Overland Park. Verner Johnson boasts on its website that a recent Forbes survey placed the company's projects among the top 25 most highly visited museums in the country.

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By the numbers

The numbers below represent total venue tickets sold, rather than the number of people who enter the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center. The space museum's ticketing software tracks the number of venues purchased, so one person could purchase tickets to four venues, for example, such as the theater, planetarium, Dr. Goddard's science lab, and the museum.

2007 - 245,890

2008 - 227,235

2009 - 230,728

2010 - 213,416

2011 - 224,759

2012 - 193,525