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The next 10

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A decade after its opening, Maine Discovery Museum looks to sustain its future

BANGOR A little more than a decade after opening its doors, the Maine Discovery Museum has been a staple of downtown Bangor's landscape. Its familiar marquee of a toad sitting atop a clock with a paint brush, globe and violin tucked underneath has greeted visitors to the Main Street corridor where, if you stick around long enough, you'll hear its ubiquitous 'ribbit' chime on the hour.

For families living in the greater Bangor area, the museum has become one of the major activity centers for children since it began operating in February 2001. For the city itself, the museum has become one of Bangor's major tourist destinations that attracts thousands of visitors a year.

Built in the lower three floors of the former Freese's Department Store at an original cost of $4.5 million, the museum has treated nearly three quarters of a million visitors in both children and adults alike over the years who have walked through its doors to a variety of exhibits dedicated to learning, discovery and enjoyment. According to Niles Parker, MDM's executive director, the last decade has been a successful one but the next represents a unique set of challenges that has led to the launch of a major campaign to raise funds to reset the museum's operations, and achieve long-term sustainability.

Parker became the museum's chief executive in November 2010 after serving as executive director of the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport for nearly five years. The 44-year-old Hampden resident is a graduate of Colby College, where he majored in American Studies, and he earned a graduate degree in museum studies from the State University of New York (SUNY) in Oneonta while working at the Fenimore Art Museum at the New York State Historical Association in Cooperstown. After that, he became chief curator of the Nantucket Historical Association before returning to the state where he met his wife, who is a Maine native, while both attended Colby.

'We knew before we left here that we were coming back to Maine,' he said of his return in 2006.

When he took over the reins of Bangor's landmark in 2010, it followed a year when the difficult economy had taken its toll on the museum's admissions after schools cut visits due to a lack of funding, and families made painful cuts of their own. It was also a time when the facility was showing its age and many of the museum's exhibits were becoming increasingly costly to maintain and operate. But it was also when Bangor saw growth in its downtown area as new restaurants and stores opened. Streets became busier when Waterfront Concerts joined the musical tandem of the American Folk Festival and KahBang. And after decades in the making, Bangor was only a city council vote away from beginning its journey to a new civic center and auditorium.

'I thought what was going on in Bangor was tremendously exciting,' Parker said of his attraction to the Queen City. 'It's such a walkable downtown city and while it still has a lot of challenges, it's poised to do some really cool things in the near future.'

The creative economy

That future potential is what Parker wants to tap into, and the challenge for the Maine Discovery Museum is how to do it in the next decade of its relatively short life. As far as museums go, MDM is a rather young one in an industry that has a heritage of hundreds of years the oldest in the country, the Charleston Museum, was established in 1773. However, the children's museum concept is a much younger sector of the industry, and the success of children's museums across the country led to the volunteer effort to establish what today has become the largest children's museum north of Boston.

According to Mark Woodward, a former media executive and current chair of the museum's board of directors, the concept was well received by area residents when it was pitched in the late 1990s.

'I was at the Bangor Daily News when the idea for the Discovery Museum came along, and I remember the excitement when they announced it to the crowd of 300 people who came to hear about it,' he said. 'Before it was built, one of the early ideas for the museum was to provide children with a window to the world and give them a global perspective where their minds can freely explore the world.'

Woodward, who was part of the founding committee and inaugural board, believes the museum came about due to the need to bring families downtown, and a tremendous volunteer effort of individuals and companies helped realize that vision.

'You look what the museum's done and it's become a signature of the creative economy it's assumed a leadership role in setting an identity corridor in the downtown area,' he said. 'It's given the downtown a new destination and it gives people a reason to come to Bangor. Penobscot Theatre, of course, was there before the museum was built, but there was nothing downtown for families to do.'

Since then, the museum's success has also been causing its major problem. Through heavy use, the infrastructure that was built 10 years ago has aged without the financial backing to replenish it. And when he began his duties, Parker saw that the exhibits and the systems supporting them needed serious updating.

'I walked in knowing it's a remarkable organization. But what I saw in coming in was how tight it really was,' Parker recalled. 'It's hard to start a museum and have it do well for 10 years 10 years is a long time for a children's museum to sustain the same exhibits.'

Parker spent the first year of his tenure learning costs, procedures and policies, and understanding the organization's cash flow. As a nonprofit organized under IRS Sec. 501 (c)(3), the museum operates on a budget of roughly $700,000 per year. About 27 percent of the museum's revenue comes from grants, appeals and donations that depend heavily on marketing and outreach to secure. Nearly a quarter of their revenue comes from individual, family or corporate memberships over 60 percent of families with memberships live within a 25-mile radius of Bangor. Another 15 percent is earned through rental of the facility and the various camps the museum runs throughout the year.

However, the majority of its revenue about a third in total stems directly from admissions, which is heavily weather-dependent and represents a larger portion of the revenue budget than most other museums.

'It's a larger share than what it should be if we had an endowment,' Parker said.

A call to action

The $4.5 million initial cost of the museum was largely spent on the building's acquisition and restoration. The original build-out included an entire HVAC system, interior reconstruction and many of the original exhibits, some of which are still in use today. Most of the startup funds were received during the first five years of the museum's operation and spent during that time for systems and technology that are now outdated.

'We had a five or six story building that needed a complete renovation and rehabilitation and it demanded all of those resources,' Woodward said. 'Along the way we've done some significant work to address systems that were either inadequate or broken down. During my first time as chair on the board, we were consuming hundreds of gallons of oil over the course of the summer. Honeywell came through and we found out that because of the controls that were in there at that time, the heating and cooling systems were chasing each other.'

Such ongoing issues and the resulting expenses certainly used any residual funds the museum may have had from its startup, and since then many other costs have been incurred as exhibits either broke or became inoperable and needed repair. In any case, both Woodward and Parker agree the museum needs to look longer term, including the retirement of debt and finally the establishment of an endowment.

'There was no endowment started at [the beginning], so there was not a lot of provision in looking ahead to the future,' Parker said. 'Fast forward 10 years and we still have the same technology from back then we still had the same server as 10 years ago, which I had to replace when I first got here.'

The newest exhibit, the Tradewinds, was installed about four years ago, but Parker said more needs to be done throughout the whole facility.

'Here you have a heavily-used, fun organization for kids that has been roughly used,' he said. 'We need to freshen it up and bring in new experiences and exhibits and pay off the debt.'

With a mortgage of $485,000, the debt load has been the museum's primary obstacle in both moving ahead with renovations and establishing an endowment. Parker said a reasonable target for such an endowment in the industry is about $2 million, which with a decent rate of return would drop the reliance on other revenue sources, including admissions.

'It would drop our admission percentage by about $100,000 a year,' he said.

Still, those admission statistics are impressive the museum has seen 750,000 people come through its doors during its 11-year run, which puts it on par with children's museums in more urban areas like Chicago. And despite the visitation drop in 2009, the museum has maintained a relatively stable audience over the years.

'The first couple of years it was a flood, but it's settled to about 60,000 people a year,' Parker said.

By offering admission to not only the Maine Discovery Museum but also other science and children's museums across the country through its reciprocal affiliation with the Association of Science-Technology Centers (ASTC) and the Association of Children's Museums (ACM), MDM has been able to hold memberships rather steady over the years. However, affiliation with those organizations is costly, and the museum doesn't see admission revenue when visitors from out of state come and use the facility free of charge through those affiliations.

'Association membership is fairly expensive, but it's helped us maintain about 800 memberships over the years,' he said. 'Memberships have stayed pretty much even keel.'

And with a targeted demographic of ages 4-12, the museum does quite well with those aged 5-10. Separated into eight major areas featuring smaller interactive zones, the museum's exhibits try to relate to Maine with components built in for age-specific learning styles. But Parker admits more needs to be done to capture a wider age group and use STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) as a larger part of its overall programming.

'Where we fall short and have an opportunity to do more is on the shoulder of that [age range],' he said. 'Given the focus of early childhood learning, I think we're at the front end of that but can do more on the back end with STEM-related topics.'

One such example of that focus is a two-day nanoscience exhibit held in April that Parker said is slated to return as a full exhibit in early summer. As the only site in Maine that has hosted the two-day series the last two years, the exhibit is sponsored by Public Broadcasting's NOVA television series produced by WGBH in Boston.

Another exhibit that has catered to the larger age range has been TradeWinds, which focuses on Maine's global connections through various modes of transportation and features facts about the customs, geography and cultures of Brazil, Japan and Italy.

'It's the newest, most successful installation of the recent changes we've made,' Parker said.

Another recent installation, Dino Digs, has been successful as well in capturing children's interest through an interactive environment where they dig for dinosaur bones and then compare what they find with a wall-mounted chart. Yet the science behind determining what can be a successful exhibit is something Parker has to rely on industry experts for.

'That's a whole industry itself,' he said. 'There are people who study museum exhibits and what makes them successful there's a lot more that goes into it than people realize.'

And then there's the space limitation. With 30,000 square feet spread over three floors, there's only so much you can do with a space that is still bound by four walls.

Moving forward

While the recent changes have been well-received, Parker feels more needs to be done to stay competitive, update technology and bring in more rotating exhibits, which better-funded museums do more frequently. The current campaign, called '10 Years and Growing Stronger,' hopes to raise $1.75 million and bring membership to over 1,000.

Begun quietly in 2010, the campaign has so far raised over $300,000 toward retiring the debt and beginning the process of updating the museum.

'We're trying to inject momentum into the campaign after a good, quiet start to it,' Parker said. 'We're taking pledges out five years, and I like to think that in the next year or two we could be pretty close [to our goals].'

Aside from retiring the museum's debt, those goals include refreshing and replacing exhibits, improving technology, marketing and fund development, and position the museum for the future with the endowment that will provide a rate of return.'That first million is critical debt retirement,' Woodward said of the campaign's goal. 'Unburdening us of that responsibility of paying that mortgage would really liberate us to do things that are really innovative.'

Woodward added that now is the time for the board and staff to also look at the museum as a whole and identify those areas where improvements could be made to programming and exhibits, and to ask the public for help.

'It's the first time in 10 years that we've gone out to the public and say, 'Hey, we really need to make a major investment in this downtown asset,'' he said. 'The museum's been a spectacular success. But on that note it's time to sit back and look at the museum and identify those areas where it seemed like a good idea at the time but now it's just not satisfying the public.'

Parker agrees, adding that raising the funds would position the Maine Discovery Museum for not only the next decade, but much longer.

'I would love for us to succeed in raising this money and be able to put the museum on better footing,' he said. 'The support for this organization from the Bangor area is tremendous and the potential here is unbelievable. When you start to think about technology and science, if we can begin to forge ahead in those directions I think the future is excellent.'

Editor's note: To help the Maine Discovery Museum with their campaign to raise $1.75 million, contact Niles Parker at nparker @, by phone at 207-262-7200 or visit their website and follow the link for Support.

Last modified on Wednesday, 23 May 2012 11:32


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