In her new office, the first thing Discovery Place Director Catherine Wilson Horne unpacked was a red horseshoe magnet, a device emblematic of the Charlotte science center’s mission and her goal as its president.
“We want to draw people to us, and we want to be drawn to people in the community,” said Horne, who took over Jan. 27 as only the third leader in the institution’s 32-year history.
In a broader sense, the magnet represents the two poles Discovery Place finds itself between today. It weathered the recession as well as or better than any cultural destination in Charlotte, with a strong balance sheet and without dipping into reserves.
But Discovery Place is entering a fragile era in which it must carefully navigate the troubling economic reality besetting other nonprofits – decreased philanthropic donations from traditional sources and a need to keep the turnstiles whirling.
State support for the museum’s educational math and science initiatives to students in the region has fallen by about half to $261,000 and operating and programming grants from the Arts & Science Council have fallen a third to about $1 million.
Horne will need to lead the center to new sources of money, guide the likely expansion of its popular satellite children’s centers to new cities and attract more blockbuster exhibits such as “Body Worlds,” “Dead Sea Scrolls” and “Pompeii,” which have raised the museum’s profile nationally and brought surges in attendance.
“We’re focused on finding new ways for earned revenue and giving,” says Chris Perri, chairman of Discovery Place’s board. “Catherine brings lots of skills of both.”
Eddie the giant child
Horne comes to Charlotte after serving as executive director of EdVenture, a children’s science center in Columbia, since 1996 when the museum was being planned. It opened in 2002 in downtown Columbia beside the State Museum on Gervais Street and attracts 230,000 visitors annually.
It is South Carolina’s version of Discovery Place, with a centerpiece named Eddie, the world’s biggest kid.
At 40 feet tall, the molded plastic 10-year-old is an attraction you move through. Neurons pop in his head and his intestines grumble. A sliding board snakes through Eddie’s digestive tract, and it attracts everyone from children to presidential candidates. Brides of the Midlands are routinely photographed popping out of Eddie.
If that seems silly, Horne is all for it. Children learn through play, she says, and the science centers of the future must engage their imaginations. “They need experiences that transport you from your here-and-now into a realm of wonder.”
Horne was involved in planning EdVenture and raising the $20 million needed to get it started.
One of the ways that EdVenture involved the community was by building the world’s largest rubber band ball. People would bring in rubber bands they got at work or from around their newspaper. It was a way, Horne says, to stretch people’s imaginations about what a children’s museum could be.
With a budget of $4.2 million, EdVenture has a healthy balance sheet, with $1.4 million raised annually through community gifts and pledges. Government grants and support totaled more than $1 million in the most recent fiscal year.
Discovery Place’s budget is $10.6 million, and the museum, along with its Charlotte Nature Museum and Discovery Place Kids centers in Huntersville and Rockingham, runs an annual surplus. With a staff of 180 full- and part-time employees, it drew 668,000 visitors last year to its uptown center and satellites. It is considered North Carolina’s third-largest attraction after Biltmore House and Gardens in Asheville and Fort Macon State Park in Atlantic Beach.
Horne radiates confident elegance and her accent is authentic small-town South Carolina. Ask her to describe herself and she’ll tell you she’s a curious learner who likes to keep moving.
“I walk fast. I talk fast. I’m a hugger. I ask a lot of questions. I’m thirsty. I want it as fast as we can do it. I like to think around the edges. I’m a generative thinker. Strategic and collaborative. People say I’m a warm-heart, good-head person.”
Horne, 56, was born in Charlotte at Presbyterian Hospital and grew up in Chesterfield, S.C., about 20 miles south of Rockingham. Her childhood prepared her for a life at the intersection of technology and education. Her mother was a third-grade teacher and her father was a hardware merchant.
She started as a clerk in her father’s Chesterfield store before she was old enough to drive.
She says the job taught her how to relate to people, how to sell and – naturally – how to tell the grades of nuts and bolts. Her mother collected antiques, and they visited museums together.
Horne started as a chemistry major at Salem College in Winston-Salem, then switched to art. In 1980, she went to work in a management-training role at Ivey’s in Charlotte. Then she got a graduate degree in art history and museum studies from the University of South Carolina. She went on to be an exhibit developer, curator and consultant in the industry before being recruited to EdVenture. In 2011, EdVenture was honored with the National Medal for Museum Service, the highest national award given to museums.
Successful museums serve
Horne says she developed a love of museums from her mentor, George Terry, dean of libraries at the University of South Carolina until his death in 2001. He taught her that small museums can have as big an impact as the signature museums of great cities. Vision and service to the community were the keys to success that he believed in, she says.
Horne remembers coming to Charlotte early in her career for professional meetings and being in awe of Freda Nicholson, Discovery Place’s original president. Women in leadership positions in the museum trade were rare then.
“It was me and one other woman in Ohio,” Nicholson says. “We were the only ones. It was a different time and place.”
Nicholson says that Horne’s high profile in professional organizations – she has served on the boards of the South Carolina Federation of Museums, Southeastern Museums Conference and the Association of Children’s Museums – will serve Discovery Place well.
“She’s got contacts. That’s how you get the large traveling exhibits and other things,” Nicholson says.
STEM center experience
One initiative at EdVenture that is being copied in Charlotte is its 8-year-old institute for teachers, focusing on how to bring science inquiry into the classroom. It helps educators develop skills in teaching science, technology, engineering and math, the so-called STEM fields.
Discovery Place’s STEM center behind the museum uptown – being developed in partnership with Bank of America, Duke Energy and UTC Aerospace Systems – is expected to open this summer and serve teachers in both Carolinas.
“North Carolina and South Carolina are alike in terms of families with limited socio-economic means,” Horne says. “We need to prepare these children for the high-paying technical jobs to advance our economies.”
Discovery Place’s STEM center will reach beyond passive seminars and aim to collaborate with educators to develop the habits that have been shown to inspire students. Teachers will work with Discovery Place’s education team – a staff of 65 full- and part-time workers – who already write scientific curriculums, present programs and work with visitors. Teachers will have access to the museum’s programs and labs.
“It gives us that magnet that will draw teachers,” Horne says. “Teachers hold the future of our economy in their hands.”
Challenges lying ahead
Horne had depth in education, managing a large staff and in connecting to the kinds of people important to the museum: thought leaders, large donors and community leaders, says Mark McGoldrick, who led the search committee for a replacement for retiring John Mackay.
Her leadership will be needed in several key areas, from attracting donors to picking successful exhibitions, McGoldrick says. And she will need to steer Discovery Place into the new, difficult economic climate.
“We’ve got to grow our contributed income in a different way,” McGoldrick says. “For workplace giving, the trend line is not good. We do a good job of growing earned income, but we’ve got to keep doing that while still doing (important) things like the STEM center that has an impact on changing the community.”