Hello, stars, this is Columbia: State Museum shines skyward with new planetarium, observatory, 4D theater

08/09/2014 9:43 PM

08/14/2014 2:57 PM

The Windows to New Worlds, the expansive transformation that hits the State Museum this week, started as a vague dream more than a decade before the museum opened, blossomed into a concept in the early 1990s and developed into a plan in 1998.

Museum leaders then hit multiple roadblocks and detours over the next decade.

But South Carolina is ready to wind up with an observatory that gives teachers groundbreaking access to the stars from their classrooms, a planetarium that takes advantage of the latest in computer capabilities and a 4D theater that’s more museum-friendly and adaptable than the originally planned IMAX theater.

Those involved in the process think the journey not only made reaching the destination more satisfying, but it also made the final product better.

“The bottom line: We took a $33 million project that had three key elements,” said Willie Calloway, the museum’s executive director, “and we’re going to do a project that’s going to cost, from a construction standpoint, $21 million, and we’re going to still maintain the three main elements.”

Calloway took over as museum director in 2002 and deserves a lot of credit for revamping the plans and keeping the project alive through the Great Recession.

However, so many others played a role that the “thank yous” at the grand opening on Saturday could last all day.

The genesis of an idea

The Legislature established a State Museum by law in 1973, providing enough money for a small staff but no building.

One of the early plans, according to Dave Sennema, who joined the museum staff in 1976, was for a large cultural complex at Senate and Bull streets in downtown Columbia. Around the existing Columbia Museum of Art was to be arrayed the first State Museum, a new ETV headquarters, a major USC performance auditorium and a parking garage.

“As it turned out, the only part of the cultural complex to be built was the parking garage,” Sennema noted wryly.

The Columbia Museum for years had operated the Gibbes Planetarium, which was attached to the museum building. Under the merger plan, the State Museum would take over operation of the planetarium. Thus began, and quickly stalled for lack of funds, the journey.

When the State Museum finally found a home in the former Columbia Mill building on Gervais Street in 1988, a planetarium wasn’t part of the package. But six years later, the Columbia Museum of Art began planning its move to Main Street, and it didn’t plan to bring along the Gibbes Planetarium.

“What kind of got the whole thing going was when we got a call around 1994 from the Columbia Museum,” said Tony Ganong, then director of the State Museum. “We were approached to ask if we would be interested in taking on the mission of the planetarium.”

Ganong didn’t have an easy way to set up the planetarium in the old mill building, and he didn’t want to take on the full planetarium staff. “Ultimately we agreed to hire one staffer and say whatever planetarium we built was a successor to the Gibbes Planetarium,” Ganong said. “Nobody at the time realized it would take as long as it has to happen.”

The equipment donation led to two years of massaging a plan for a planetarium. As more people with more ideas got involved, the plan expanded to include an IMAX theater and an observatory. Local telescope expert Robert Ariail helped the museum acquire an historic 1926 Alvan Clark telescope for the observatory from Columbia University in 1997.

The big public reveal of the OPT – for observatory, planetarium, theater – project came in 1998, and fund-raising immediately proved to be a challenge. The goal was $31 million.

When Calloway took over from the retiring Ganong as director four years after that announcement, the museum had raised $4 million in state funds and a $2 million grant from NASA.

Two steps forward, one step back

Calloway came to Columbia from Michigan, where he had built the Kellogg’s Cereal City Museum from scratch. He also had 25 years’ experience with the Six Flags chain of amusement parks, where they refresh with new attractions every year.

Some questioned the selection of someone with no experience in a traditional cultural history museum, but Calloway had loads of experience opening new projects, said Gray Culbreath, chair of the museum commission.

“He was not a traditional museum guy,” Culbreath said, “but we knew we had a great staff that could help him with that.”

Unfortunately for Calloway, he arrived just as the state hit major budget problems. Within six months, he had to lay off 15 museum employees. “We were working on the renovation at the same time we were in crisis mode in just the operation of the museum,” Calloway said.

Calloway kept touting the project, saying at a 2002 publicity event that it would open in 2005. Charles Townes, the Greenville native who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1964 as co-inventor of the laser, came to Columbia for that 2002 event to provide support.

“The educational potential of these facilities is, if I may use the term, astronomical,” Townes said.

But at the same time, Calloway recognized fund-raising wasn’t going well, and he pushed the museum board for a reconsideration of the plan. “My gut sense was there wasn’t a complete confidence buy-in on the project’s scope,” Calloway said. “It just seemed too big.”

He also had problems with the design of the project. The IMAX was to be in a new structure built in the current parking lot. The planetarium and observatory were going to be tacked onto the east end of the building. Calloway thought as much as possible of the project should be inside the historic mill’s brick walls.

Calloway also had concerns about the future of the IMAX brand, which began as large format films for museums but was morphing into an outlet for Hollywood blockbusters. A market study also indicated Columbia wouldn’t support an IMAX theater.

Calloway, Ganong and several museum officials took a tour of top planetariums and observatories in the country and used the knowledge gathered to tweak Columbia’s plan. The IMAX proposal was swapped in favor of a 4D theater that could utilize the museum’s existing auditorium, saving millions in construction costs.

The inside-the-walls goal was more difficult to solve because the museum shared the building with the S.C. Department of Revenue. Calloway met with DOR leaders to ask them to give up key space, especially on the first floor at the entrance to the building.

“When you walk into the front door, I want it to say, this is the South Carolina State Museum,” Calloway said in his spiel to DOR. “I want this big ‘wow’ impact. I want that story to be visually told as soon as you walk in the door. I can’t do that unless I get some of this front space from you guys.”

DOR offered to give up space on the first floor but wanted to stay in the building. More recently, the agency left the building completely and consolidated its local staff in a refurbished outlet mall on Bush River Road. While the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control moved some workers into the mill building, the museum still ended up with 25,000 additional square feet that has been turned into a new entrance, more revenue-generating meeting space on the first floor and a portion of the fourth-floor observatory.

Fitting a 50-foot-tall planetarium inside the historic building would have required knocking out big chunks of floors and walls, so the museum stuck with the idea of tacking a new 25,000-square foot addition onto the east end of the building.

“It all started coming together 2005 or 2006, between design and what was feasible from a funding standpoint,” Calloway said.

Funding finally comes through

Even with a more modest $23 million budget, fundraisers had trouble convincing private donors during the economic downturn, when state legislators also were pinching pennies.

“We were kind of stuck in the this cat-chasing-tail thing, where the private funders would say, ‘Has the state stepped up? What are they going to do?’” Calloway said. “Then the state would say, ‘Where’s the private support? We’ll play once the private support is there.’ So we were sort of balancing the two.”

Calloway thinks one of the turning points was when the museum’s fund-raising foundation hired Adrienne Bellinger, a former State House lobbyist who not only helped win over legislators but had a knack for making connections with corporations. The state came through with another $5 million about the same time BlueCross BlueShield made a major donation.

Then the local governments came through with pledges – $1.5 million from Columbia, $1 million from Richland County, $500,000 from Lexington County, $150,000 from Forest Acres. They believed in the economic development potential of the project, and they appreciated the scaled-down scope, Calloway said.

“If you believe in the project, you really just have to talk about the project and not ask for the money,” said Calloway, who did his share of the fundraising chores. “We had something that was very solid. So it really was a matter of telling the story of what we’re doing.”

Boeing celebrated its arrival in South Carolina with a $1 million donation, covering half of the $2 million in operations expenses built into the project budget. Individual donations began to roll in, capped by $1 million from Powerball winner Rev. Solomon Jackson Jr. of Columbia.

The final breakdown of the 16-year fundraising effort: 50 percent from state government, 14 percent from local government, 14 percent from private individuals, 9 percent from NASA, 8 percent from corporate donations and 5 percent from foundations.

Long wait not ideal but might have helped

NASA administrator and Columbia native Charles Bolden Jr. spoke at the project’s ground-breaking in October 2012.

The museum will be “the only one in the country with the right mix” of an observatory where children can peer into space, a planetarium that allows them to take journeys into that vast realm and a 4D theater with entertainment that drives home the lessons, he said.

Bolden credited the project’s many local backers for their persistence. “There are some hard-charging folks here who never say never,” Bolden said.

The delays worked out for the best. “Thanks be to God that we didn’t have the money to do it (earlier), because the IMAX has become a dinosaur” for museums, said Rodger Stroup, the museum’s first chief curator. “It’s a blessing that somebody didn’t drop $10 million on (the museum) in 1996.”

Calloway agrees, but he also wishes the museum hadn’t been forced to wait 26 years after its opening for its first major additions.

“The first time I walked through (the museum) I said, it’s a great facility and it’s got a great potential, but it’s already dated,” Calloway recalled. “And that was in 2002, and it had only been open 14 years. Things were changing so drastically – this whole convergence of technology and visual stimulation.”

Just a few miles away, Riverbanks Zoo and Garden served as an example of the ideal way to stay fresh. Every seven to 10 years, Riverbanks has managed to convince Richland and Lexington counties to approve tax-funded bonds to help pay for upgrades. Each new project – the Aquarium-Reptile Complex, the Botanical Garden, the gorilla-elephant exhibits – has boosted attendance over the long term.

“Periodic infusions of capital money have been the centerpiece of the zoo’s success over the past 40 years,” Riverbanks CEO Satch Krantz said. He expects the same to happen at the State Museum. “I look for great things for them,” he said.

Expanding museums is more difficult and expensive, Krantz said, so many of them focus on bringing in new temporary exhibits. The State Museum has done that, but it’s just not the same as a new addition. Attendance has dropped from more than 200,000 annually in the early years to around 150,000 – slightly higher when blockbuster exhibits hit the right nerve.

With Windows to New Worlds, Calloway expects attendance to jump by 75,000 in the first year, increasing revenue by $1.5 million to $3 million. His aim is not to drop back below 200,000, and he thinks the draw of the planetarium and 4D theater shows is the key.

“That’s one reason I picked theaters,” Calloway said. “You can change content to stay current without spending a lot of money.

“And knowing that it has taken 26 years or however long to get money, I thought it was more prudent for us to build (a) theater, where we can change content, rather than building a hard exhibit that might have a shelf life of eight years or 10 years.”

Those who have followed the effort for decades are impressed.

“It certainly moves the museum into a new realm,” Ganong said. “The additions make it a major science museum. It already was a major cultural history museum with a science component.

“And by creating something new, it will make the museum seem fresh again. ... It fulfills the original vision we had, and it creates a cultural icon in the state.”

Even as Windows to New Worlds opens this week, Calloway can’t help but think ahead to updating the other 150,000 square feet of exhibits.

“We still have a lot of the museum that we haven’t touched,” Calloway said. “The next thing on the horizon will be, ‘Can we go into the existing galleries and renovate and update and do what we need to do?’

“We can retain our past – we want to embrace natural history and cultural history – but we do want to do this (expansion) as well. It’s not an either-or, it’s a both-and.”

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