The covid-19 pandemic has forced us all to do some serious soul searching, to take stock of what we had, and what we now face.
My No. 1 realization is that being the chief executive officer of the Museum of Discovery had always been such an easy job. We have an amazing team of passionate people devoted to our institution and our mission. We are a beloved institution. Readers of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and the Arkansas Times consistently name our museum as the best in the state. (A little place called Crystal Bridges finished second in the most recent Times poll.)
Our reputation goes beyond the state's borders. Scientists and educators who are members of Mensa, the organization of certifiably smart people, named the Museum of Discovery the sixth best science museum in the country in 2013. Institutions we consider the gold standard in our industry finished behind us. We finished sixth in the best children's museum category in the 2020 USA Today poll.
But on March 15, two weeks after the USA Today poll was announced, we closed the Museum of Discovery. The timing couldn't have been worse. Mid-March is when our very seasonal business ramps up. School buses line up every weekday, and spring break is always the largest week for public attendance. But covid-19 forced our hand.
After 14 weeks of dark, grim silence, the museum reopened June 23. Sadly, cumulative attendance has been 34 percent of what we saw in those weeks last year. From mid-June through mid-October 2019, we hosted 42 birthday parties. This year that number was two.
These grim covid-19 realities have made us think about what the Museum of Discovery is here to do. The museum's mission is to "ignite and fuel a passion for science, technology, engineering, arts and math (STEAM) through dynamic, interactive experiences."
We are here to provide experiences that help young people understand that these subjects don't have to be intimidating or scary. We hope our museum can inspire, intrigue. and help them visualize pursuing a STEAM-focused education and going on to a successful STEAM career here in Arkansas.
And we have a big impact beyond what guests to our museum can easily see. Two examples:
Girls in STEM: This is a program founded in 2013 thanks to a grant from the Caterpillar Foundation that since has been supported by any number of corporate and personal gifts. The free program brings middle-school girls together to learn more about STEM careers, meet and interact with women STEM professionals, connect with other girls who share their passions, and hopefully get inspired to pursue a STEM-centric curriculum and go on to STEM careers.
Thanks to support from businesses in these communities, we have expanded that program to Blytheville, Stuttgart and Jonesboro and continue to present several weeks of the program each summer in Little Rock.
Science for All: Greater accessibility is the first tenet of the museum's strategic plan. To that end, in July 2018 we joined a national program that provides discounted admission to recipients of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.
For $2, SNAP recipients can come to the museum any day of the year, and that $2 admission is extended to five other people in their party. Since we joined Science for All, more than 8,500 people have benefited from that discount. That represents 5.2 percent of our total walk-up attendance, ranking the Museum of Discovery in the top 10 percent of the 250-plus museums in the U.S. that participate. Not surprisingly, since we reopened June 23, 10.1 percent of our walk-up guests have been Science for All participants.
Best we can tell, nobody thinks what we are doing at the Museum of Discovery is a bad idea. We are a nonpartisan cause. Democratic governor Mike Beebe and his wife, Ginger, loved us. They came often, and Ginger was a member of one of our important advisory councils. Ditto for Republican governor Asa Hutchison and his wife, Susan. The Hutchinsons chose the Museum of Discovery as the site for their celebratory events the night before Governor Hutchinson was inaugurated--both times. Mrs. Hutchinson, a former science teacher, also has served on that same advisory council, and advocates for our museum consistently.
I've told our staff since the day I took this job: "Everyone knows the Museum of Discovery is fun. We have to help them understand that the Museum of Discovery is an important part of the STEAM education pipeline and the STEAM workforce development pipeline and worthy of their support."
As we all wait to see when covid-19 might loosen its grip on our city, state, country and world, the Museum of Discovery has broadened our scope to provide safe, socially distanced in-museum science shows and gallery experiences.
We have also developed virtual options, both live and recorded, to stay connected with our audience. We're offering an engaging virtual birthday party option. And we are moving forward with our annual Spark fundraiser, with an onsite luncheon Nov. 2 and a virtual gala Nov. 10. Details of all these new approaches can be found at www.museumofdiscovery.org or on our Facebook page.
The Museum of Discovery is the oldest museum in Little Rock, founded in 1927 by local author Bernie Babcock. We moved from MacArthur Park to our home in the Museum Center in the heart of the River Market District in 1998. Thanks to a $9.2 million grant from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, we completely remodeled the museum, adding 90 all-new exhibits and building out our Great Hall, reopening in January 2012. Almost nine years later we are serving about four times as many people as we did when we left MacArthur Park.
Or at least we were.
The Museum of Discovery is historic. It is beloved. It is important. The years 2015-2019 were the most successful period in the museum's long history. In 2017, 2018 and 2019, we drew visitors from all 50 states and many other countries. Students from six states were among the more than 60,000 guests who came to the museum on school field trips in 2019. We got calls from schools in Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Texas, Tennessee and California (!) to book field trips, including a cumulative 606 students from the Volunteer State.
But while it's nice to look back on the accolades and the years of unprecedented attendance, it's what we might be facing in the months and years to come that requires our intense collective focus. Now is the time we need all the people who have come to the Museum of Discovery--and who have come to love the Museum of Discovery–to be there for us.
And know we will always be there for you.