Saturday, January 5, 2008

Sustainable Museums. What happened to COSI Toledo?

In case you hadn't heard, COSI Toledo closed down permanently on December 31, 2007, after 10 years of operation.

I think its a little sad and scary that one of the early "brand(ed) names" of the science center business, COSI, has taken such a drubbing in both its greatly expanded Columbus location, as well as in its now defunct Toledo satellite.

Unfortunately, the news of museum closings, like COSI Toledo's, begs several important questions: 1) Are the traditional business models of museum operation truly sustainable? 2) Is the public really willing to support museums directly (through admissions, contributions, etc.) and/or indirectly through taxes, millages, etc.? 3) Should the IRS that grants 501 (c) 3 non-profit status for museums insist on more realistic business plans? All tough questions, which I don't claim to have the definitive answers to, but I am interested in starting a dialogue. So, what do you think?

To get us started, here's a thoughtful article from Neal Rubin in the Detroit News discussing the importance of supporting cultural institutions.

Here's a link to some comments on the situation from some people who live in Toledo.

UPDATE: Now the folks at COSI Toledo are trying to make a go of it by offering outreach programs to local schools (See this ExhibiTricks post)


  1. Paul-

    Thanks for raising this issue and providing space to air views. 25 years ago we told each other that no science museum had ever failed in the US. Times have changed and COSI wasn't the first to go under. I think its time for museums to re-evaluate what they do and how they do it. Let me suggest:

    1. Museums haven't learned how to operate in the age of the internet. When you can learn anything you want on-line, for free, without paying for parking, why go to a content-orientated museum. And, with few exceptions, they are content orientated.

    2. Who store the science? Where in a science museum can someone do science? No where! There is tons of science education ("I know and I will tell you"), but no opportunities for visitors to ask questions and answer them by experimenting (messing around wit stuff). For all the back-patting done in ASTC about hands-on and inquiry, there is damn little evident at museums. Museums treat science as a noun - they should treat it as a verb.

    3. Museums have become (maybe always were) institutions of teaching not institutions of learning. There are exceptions, but there are too few staff people truly interested in learning science and technology. Look at the sessions at the conference - they are dominated by fund raising and administrative issues. Very few if any hands-on learning sessions.

    4. Branding is nice - allows all the creative PR people to have a say - but real branding is what you do. How many museums have a focus or vision...and carry it out? Yes, all have nice paragraph or page long statements that no staff member let alone visitor can remember. But very few have a mantra and even fewer live it.

    5. We're in a period where education is one of the fastest growing fields. Private colleges are springing up and growing and yet museums offer little for adults. Does this make sense?

    I see the latest movies are coming to a science museum IMAX screen near me. Is that science? Is that why I should donate money? I think museums have lost their way.

    For any readers who are now thoroughly convinced that I don't know how museums operate let me conclude by saying I have directed 5 museums and taught museum management.

    Please join this discussion.

  2. Sorry, my #2 meant to say:

    Who stole the science?

  3. I would be interested in knowing the background behind COSI Toledo closing. We are working on opening a new art, culture and science center. I hear from others (among them well known international consultants) that we did our homework re: the newest trends in museum strategies. We have great consultants and a fantastic team. BUT, our model is based on what seems to be going to work in the future and at the same time, we wonder how the public will react? What kind of expectations does the public have right now.
    Thank you for starting this blog.

  4. What should give you pause is that the COSI people who planned Toledo a decade ago are quite cleaver. They had one of the most successful science museums and brands in the country. And, still it failed.

    Consultants, like everyone else, project the future as an extension of today and clearly in times of rapid change that doesn't work.

    Before you go too far I'd suggest additional reflection - not long, not meant to be disruptive, but enough to ensure that you are going where you want to be.

  5. Great comments!

    The thing about consultants (being one now myself!) is how we can help every institution to build internal capacity for the long haul.

    If no "critical mass" or positive "museum culture" gets built up at your institution, it's just a slow decline.

    Remember the old saw: Give someone a fish, and they eat for one day. Teach someone to fish, and they eat forever.

  6. Ed's criticism raises questions in the context of which museum closed. COSI is not know as a stodgy, old, "don't touch" museum. According to their website, COSI had all kinds of hands-on stuff:

    "The BOYO, Hubble's Vision, an infrared thermal camera, a lariat chain, a radar magnet, a giant pin screen, a laser harp, a sand turntable, a walk-on-bridge, a walk-over-arch bridge, a spinning turntable,..."

    Being interactive is not enough. Either we are not attracting enough people versus home activities, movies, etc., for $10/head, or science centers have gotten to a point where $10/head is not enough to pay the bills.

    One solution advocated by the Coalition for Science After School is to go where the kids are - community centers, school-based after-school programs, etc. This model requires a different revenue stream, working in partnership with community orgs (not just selling them services). And, while working with after-school MAY increase museum attendance, it cannot be the core reason for supporting science in the community. After all, the building is not usually part of the core mission - just a supporting resource. In some cases, organizations are starting to compete by offering education programs that are not based at a science museum. (Links to examples: Community Science Workshops, EISCA in San Diego, Project Exploration, and Dr. Ed's programs) If these programs have sustainable business models, the question is: does the building help the business model or hinder it?