The two people who created Exploris are civic heroes. Gordon Smith and Anne Bryan shared a vision and for 15 years they fought to make it real: The museum about the world that opened in downtown Raleigh, to enormous hoopla, in the fall of 1999.
Just two-plus years later, though, the heroes are under attack--and Exploris with them. One influential critic, Todd Cohen, former business editor of The News & Observer who now edits the online Philanthropy Journal, says the museum is a failure and its founders' refusal to "come clean" about it a shame and a scandal. Another, N&O columnist Ruth Sheehan, says Exploris "just isn't worth visiting." In a devastating column last week, Sheehan cited with approval Cohen's PJ column about the museum's "congenital lameness." Three days later, The N&O reprinted the full Cohen column, giving him a bigger stage for his charge that Exploris is a "philanthropic sinkhole."
Cohen, Sheehan and the lead story in the June 7 issue of Triangle Business Journal all draw on the same evidence: the Form 990 that Exploris, as a tax-exempt nonprofit, is required to file with the IRS. The latest filing is for the 2000-01 tax year, which ended 12 months ago. It shows that Exploris lost $3.3 million on a total budget of $6.5 million. It ended the year $5 million in debt to a consortium of banks. Worse, its attendance was just 100,000, down from the 135,000 it drew in the nine months it was open in 1999-2000. This in a facility that's cost over $50 million so far--all but about $14 million of which is public money.
"Children and their families are voting with their feet and avoiding the museum," Cohen said. His solution: It should be shut down, "brutally" studied and used as an object lesson to all nonprofits about what not to do.
Shut it down? As it happens, the IMAX Theater at Exploris is showing Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure, a documentary depiction of explorer Ernest Shackleton's failed attempt to cross Antarctica on foot in 1915. In the context of the charges Exploris faces, the film is almost allegorical: Trapped in the ice for months, his ship destroyed, Shackleton refuses to give up, saving his crew in a series of death-defying acts that include sailing a lifeboat 800 miles--through a hurricane. But the real key to their survival: His crew never doubted him, and he never doubted himself. "He's one of the greatest optimists ever," one of his men says.
Like Shackleton, Smith and Bryan exhibit not the slightest doubt that they will succeed. In fact, while they are quick to acknowledge that Exploris is not yet what it needs to be, they insist that it is, by any reasonable measure, a success already.
"I feel very good about where we are," Smith says. "We feel fabulous," Bryan agrees. They point out that for the latest tax year, which ended last Sunday, Exploris will show, not a loss, but a slight surplus. Buoyed by IMAX, which opened in November 2001, attendance at Exploris will more than double, to 205,000. Admission is $7.95 for adults and $0-5 for kids.
As for the critics, Smith expresses no little frustration at their refusal to see that Exploris is, in its own way, a venture into uncharted territory. As he talks about them, he says almost to himself: "We have a dilemma. Who are we for?"
Who is Exploris for? In their first imaginings, its founders called it a "Children's Museum About the World," but by the time it opened, it was no longer a children's museum at all. It was for people "6 to 96," albeit with a target audience of middle-schoolers and young adults. And being "about the world" is kind of a big task too. A museum can't be about everything for everybody, can it?
No, it can't. And Exploris isn't. But the mission it has set for itself is hugely ambitious and virtually unprecedented. Like lots of popular science museums, it aims to be a hand-on center; but instead of the hard sciences, its subjects are squishy, complicated ideas like diversity and globalization. It wants to "provide opportunities for people of all ages to learn to respect differences, appreciate similarities and make connections with people of the world." It wants to "prepare visitors and students to be successful in the constantly changing, increasingly interconnected world of the 21st century and global economy."
Wow. No wonder the critics are right that, in less than three years, Exploris is nowhere near meeting its goals. But of course the founders are right, too, that they should never have been expected to meet them fresh out of the gate. The right question, then, isn't whether Exploris is successful already. It's whether Exploris is in the process of becoming successful. About that, the evidence is--well, there just isn't much evidence.
"I think Exploris has done a tremendous job," says Dr. Graham Pike, one of the founders of the field of global education and now dean of education at the University of Prince Edward Island, Canada. "It's a challenging place for a visitor, but we need to be challenged, and the museum opens up a whole range of possibilities for kids who might not have any other contact with these ideas at all."
But Pike, who helped Exploris plan its exhibits, concedes that he is hardly unbiased; moreover, he says, there's no good standard for measuring Exploris's progress. "The problem is, it really is innovative, it really is ground-breaking," he says. "I don't know what you would compare it to."
The germ of the Exploris idea can be found in a Mark Twain quote posted in one of the museum's exhibit halls: "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow mindedness."
It's Twain, but it's also Smith: An inveterate traveler and a stockbroker with a bent for international investments, Smith believes that if people around the world can get to know each other, they'll be less likely to kill each other and more likely to share the planet's limited resources. This notion first came to him a quarter century ago, he says, when he visited a Nazi concentration camp and saw how the German people had killed so easily: They'd learned to fear the Jews because, first, they'd been taught to shun them.
Smith was carrying the idea for a world museum in his mind when he met Bryan, a state education official, in the mid-1980s. Together, they hatched the plan that became, more than a decade later, the Exploris Middle School and then, next door, Exploris itself. The site they picked, on the north side of Moore Square a block to the east of Fayetteville Mall in downtown Raleigh, suited their pioneer fancy. It was at the time a neglected patch of urban real estate occupied by a thrift store, a state warehouse and a once thriving church that had lost almost all of its congregation.
Today, Exploris Middle School, a charter school with 168 students in grades 6-8, occupies part of the church building, which Smith owns. (The rest is being renovated for offices.) Using a curriculum focused on world cultures and an approach that emphasizes doing and thinking over book learning and memorization, the school's test scores are among the best in the state.
Next to the school, the thrift store is gone and so is the warehouse. In their place is the 76,000 square foot main museum building, a brick structure that is modest on the outside--like the City Market that faces it across Moore Square--and impressive inside. Behind the school is the 25,000 square foot addition that houses the IMAX Theater, an exhibit hall and a cafeteria.
The IMAX, with its seven-story screen and 12,000 watts of surround sound, draws the crowds, but the point is to get them into the museum. Once there, they find a mix of exhibits and related programs, operating on a budget of about $5 million a year. Living in Balance, for example, is one of four "permanent" exhibits, the one that picks up the ecology theme. Its various displays are all about water--how scarce it is, how vital it is and how easy it is to pollute. Tradeworks is about global commerce, People and Places is about how geography impacts culture, and Many Voices shows participatory citizenship in various forms. The latter, it's worth noting, includes an extended display on Anne Frank, whose famous diary tells the story of Jews hidden by friends from the Nazis.
There's also a space for traveling exhibits. Currently, it's filled by Tibetan Portrait, which consists of Seattle photographer Phil Borges' startling closeups of the people of Tibet, plus some Tibetan artifacts gathered by the Exploris staff. It's an exhibit that appeals to adults, but it would take some nifty talking to interest most teenagers in it--and Exploris has no one stationed there to attempt it.
During the school year, Exploris offers visiting middle-school classes "facilitated programs"--for a fee--on Anne Frank, world trade, cultural differences (Culture! Kultur! !Cultura!) and The Changing Face of North Carolina. The last introduces students to the 180 languages spoken in the state, and some people who speak them. In the world trade program, students become import/export dealers for their "countries," buying and selling the various ingredients of a good banana split. (A version of this course, and a couple of others, is available for students in grades 2-5.)
Aside from the classes, however, even Bryan admits Exploris is "understaffed" and folks who visit are likely to find themselves on their own when they hit the exhibit halls. Will they be turned off, as Cohen and Sheehan say? A recent visit there shows: To each his own. Some of the exhibits are better than others, and some of the elements of each are pretty lame. What's interesting is that different visitors like--and dislike--different things.
My least-favorite things, for example, are the stock-market setups in Tradeworks. They're dull, all right. But no sooner do I think that than I meet a family from Merritt Island, Fla. The Kirkpatricks are vacationing their way up the East Coast, stopping in Raleigh in between Savannah and King's Dominion. They'd never heard of Exploris, says Rebecca, the mom. They picked it purely off the Web site (www.exploris.org).
So, do they like it?
Yes, they do, Kirkpatrick says, rounding up her three daughters, ages 16, 13 and 10 for confirmation. The two older ones spent the most time playing, yes, the stock-market games. "You can tell it's just the beginning," Kirkpatrick says of Exploris overall, "but what they have here so far we found to be very attractive for the children."
Other visitors' reactions are mixed. One, Dana Dixon of Raleigh, thinks Exploris "isn't warm, and it just doesn't draw you in."
A couple, Jim and Denyse Walter of Cary, bought a membership ($40 per person, $75 per family) to get discounts on the IMAX movies, only to discover that Exploris keeps its movies around for as much as six or seven months at a time. So far, since the IMAX opened last November, only four films have been shown, including the two currently up: Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure and Adventures in Wild California, featuring skydivers, giant sequoias and Walt Disney. The Walters aren't saving any money on IMAX, therefore, and on their swing through the museum, Jim says mildly, "it seemed like there wasn't too much there."
However, 9-year-old Brooke Wolfson of Cary says the museum is "excellent." She especially likes the bicycle you peddle to generate power for a refrigerator. (A lot of kids like that.)
What does her grandfather, Stan Messing, think? Exploris should put him in a promotional spot: "It's not typical of children's museums," he begins slowly. He's been to a lot of children's museums--Memphis, Nashville and Charlotte--and they're all the same, he continues, "the same plastic artifacts, just with a different name on them." Exploris is different. It's serious about teaching. He likes the exhibits on water resources, on trade. He likes Anne Frank best of all. "I think those are very valuable lessons to teach," he says, warming to the subject now. "And the exhibits show me that somebody has put a lot of thought into how to show things that would teach those lessons."
All in all, I talk to more than a dozen people about Exploris and a couple of employees as well. There's general agreement that the exhibits are skimpy--they just don't fill up the space. A related problem is that the first hall you come to features an open floor in the middle (designed as a gathering place for special events or visiting school groups) and to the right, classrooms that are hidden behind closed doors and a high brick wall. To the left, there's a viewing room for film that introduces you to People and Places, but the rest of that exhibit is well to the rear, as is Living in Balance. The others are upstairs.
Thus, a common first impression of Exploris is that it's empty--and dull. One employee tells us there's a pattern to how people react to the exhibits: Older children almost always find something to like; most younger children just don't get it unless they're with a parent; and adults, unless they go along with their children, often have no patience for what's there, racing through too fast to really engage the material.
Getting people to slow down and pay attention is the museum's central challenge, says Linda Dallas, who directs the team that designs the exhibits. Exploris has a lot of maps and books, interactive computer terminals and video stations. Hit the buttons, and you can listen to a teenager describe her life in Finland. Open a drawer, and it might contain Mopani worms, a delicacy in South Africa, apparently. "Don't turn up your nose," the label says: "We eat crawfish." But remember, it's supposed to be interactive: The message isn't just handed to you, you're supposed to do a little digging on your own.
When it first opened, Exploris was too abstract, Dallas says, asking too much of its visitors and giving them too few directions and "takeaways"--clear messages about what they've just seen or experienced. After a year, they called in an expert to help them gauge audience responses, and her advice was simple: "Deliver a clear message, and repeat it and repeat it and repeat it."
"We've been on a tremendous learning curve since the day we opened," Dallas says. Until that day, Exploris was racing the clock to get open without really knowing how an exhibit would play in a given space. "It's like moving into a new house, and a few years later you finally move the desk over here, and it works, and you wonder why you didn't do that before."
The consultant, Marilyn Rothenberg, principal in the New York consulting firm People, Places & Design, concluded that Exploris scored "generally high marks" with its visitors, according to Dallas and others on the staff, some of whom were frankly surprised by the praise.
Exploris declined to make Rothenberg's raw data available for this article, and she did not return our phone call. Bryan did, after several requests, give us a summary of Rothenberg's study that was given to the museum's board of directors. "Some people express a desire for more to do," it says, "and some parents of pre-school children feel the content is too advanced. Most visitors find the Exploris experience enlightening and fun and attribute this to the exhibits and the interactive learning and cultural opportunities."
If that's right, then Cohen and Sheehan are wrong--but since we don't know how Rothenberg reached her conclusions, we can't be sure. Still, since we taxpayers put up most of the money for Exploris, it's time we find out.
The price tag for Exploris--counting the museum and IMAX but not the school--is now more than $50 million. Of that, private donors have put in $15 million (including $2 million from Smith and his family). The state paid $7.2 million. The other $29.5 million came from the fund generated by Wake County's hotel and meals taxes--the same fund that underwrote the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Raleigh and SAS Stadium, the soccer facility in Cary.
Use of the county revenues requires the approval of the Wake County Commissioners and the Raleigh City Council. The commissioners were enthusiastic backers of Exploris from the start, and the county has continued to back the project with annual operating subsidies: $1.5 million last year, $1.45 million for the 2002-03 fiscal year.
Don Carrington, a vice president at the conservative John Locke Foundation in Raleigh who qualifies as the Exploris critic of longest standing, thinks the fact that Exploris can't support itself without county subsidies is proof that it isn't worth what we paid for it--the public isn't buying enough tickets, he says, and private donors are holding back their money.
Cohen, for his part, points to Exploris' projected per visitor cost of $22.50 for the upcoming year as evidence that, even with IMAX as a draw, the museum isn't making it. He contrasts that figure with the national average for children's museums of $9.96, as reported by the Association of Children's Museums. It's time to pull the plug, he says. Losing $50 million that could have gone to better causes "is simply a huge disappointment," Cohen says. "The scandal is that Exploris and its backers refused to acknowledge the failure and instead through millions more down the drain."
I called Cohen to ask why he's so convinced that the museum can't improve in the future. Won't per-visitor costs drop in future years as start-up expenses recede? He declined to say more than he'd written. In his column, he says the only chance that Exploris can be salvaged, "if at all," is by dumping Smith and Bryan, finding "entrepreneurial partners" and slashing costs.
On the other side of the fence, Smith and Bryan argue that Exploris is, in its third year, just a "toddler" that needs time to grow up and get stronger. "We are about every single day making changes in our exhibits--changing and growing." But because they opened up in "a big skin"--two buildings totaling over 100,000 square feet--people's expectations for what ought to be inside already are unrealistically high. "I know now," Bryan says, "why so few museums--other than maybe the Getty--emerge full-blown from the start. It's because doing it that way, it'll kill ya." (The Getty Museum, in California, was financed by the estate of billionaire J. Paul Getty.)
The falloff in attendance in year 2 was inevitable, Bryan and Smith say, given the enormous publicity that surrounded Exploris when it opened. Their plan was always to bounce back when the IMAX opened, which they did: Total attendance in the year just ended was 205,000, they report (Exploris doesn't distinguish between museum and IMAX customers, and many buy a joint ticket to both). And that's in a recession economy, with Sept. 11 cutting into tourism and IMAX open only part of the year, Smith adds.
Exploris actually made a little money in 2002-03, they maintain. Through June 25, expenses were some $85,000 below revenues, with the county's subsidy, and $933,000 in private contributions included. It frosts Smith that people say the subsidy shows they're a failure. He ticks off the other major museums in the state that get public help--the Museum of Life and Science in Durham, Discovery Place in Charlotte, and of course the state museums of art, history and natural science in Raleigh--and notes that every one is on the dole 30 years or more after they opened.
So, is the glass half-full, half-empty or--as Exploris critics would have it--leaking like a sieve?
The only way to find out is to contract for a thorough study by an independent third-party organization with credibility in the museum field. Wake County Manager David Cooke, when I called him, agreed with that idea--but said Exploris should initiate the study, not the county. Trouble is, no organization hired by Exploris, if its conclusion favors the museum, is likely to silence the museum's critics--or satisfy the public. Besides, Wake County actually owns the museum building (the land is leased from the state) and contracts with Exploris to run it.
The Wake County school system, too, has an active interest in whether Exploris succeeds or fails. Superintendent Bill McNeill says the answer will come next year when teachers either schedule return trips with their students, or don't. So far, he says, feedback from the teachers is good. "Am I pleased with Exploris so far?" McNeill says. "Yes, I am."