Time of reckoning for New England Aquarium, Museum of Science

The New England Aquarium and the Museum of Science are back on their heels right now, but the leaders of the two institutions say they hope to reopen in July with different business models and agendas.

Both institutions shut down in mid-March in response to the coronavirus. The aquarium relies on ticket sales and events for 80 percent of its revenue, and all of that income disappeared. At the Museum of Science, the number is 55 percent. The aquarium, which still has 20,000 animals to take care of, laid off or furloughed half its staff while the Museum of Science furloughed or laid off two-thirds of its staff.

Tim Ritchie, who took over as president of the Museum of Science in February, said on the Codcast that the closing was a huge shock to the institution. But he said it was also a wakeup call, bringing issues to the fore that had not been addressed adequately before.

Ritchie said he took the job at the Museum of Science knowing the institution was too reliant on earned revenue, but COVID-19 has driven home that overdependence and the need to make a case for greater philanthropic support. Ritchie said COVID-19 has also provided the storyline for making the case for philanthropic support.

“Strangely, this is a public science moment like we haven’t had in my entire lifetime,” Ritchie said. “So as bad as it is, it’s still our moment to step into it and to say science has become public and participatory like never before. Everyone who wears a mask is a citizen scientist. Everyone who maintains social distancing is a citizen scientist. Where but these cultural institutions can we have a conversation with the values that can build a science-literate society?”

Vikki Spruill, the president and CEO of the New England Aquarium, said the need for science literacy goes beyond the coronavirus. “We face enormous threats on our planet and certainly in the city of Boston, where sea level is expected to rise 3 feet in the next 50 years,” she said. “We are a major urban waterfront city and we need to be coming together in some new and different ways, looking at science, listening to science, stop fighting about how we got here and help educate folks to some of these new realities.”

Spruill, Ritchie, and the leaders of other major cultural institutions urged Congress to approve $6 billion to support nonprofit museums and cultural institutions, but Spruill said only $5 million was appropriated. She doesn’t see additional revenue coming from the federal government and state support is far from certain.

Ritchie said government may play a bigger role in supporting cultural institutions some day, but he thinks the institutions need to focus now on seeking greater philanthropic support. He said there is plenty of money out there, even though virtually every nonprofit is chasing after philanthropic dollars.

“I don’t think it’s a zero sum game here,” he said. “I really think there’s enough money. We just have to persuade people that what we’re doing is worth it and it’s in line with their values.”

So much of the customer experience at the Museum of Science and the aquarium is about hands-on activities, but Spruill and Ritchie said both institutions are spending a lot of time rethinking their approach. The two cultural leaders say they have had success making digital connections with patrons during the pandemic and will attempt to build on that success as they reopen.

“It is possible still in our institution to be interactive without being hands-on. Technology will enable us to do that,” Ritchie said. “So when we open, for instance, you’ll be able to interact with a hologram and ask questions. You won’t touch it, obviously, but there are interactive things that we can do. Does that mean the visitor experience will be different? Yes, it will be different.”

Ritchie is optimistic. “Humans are social animals. We will come back. We are the social infrastructure that brings our community together,” he said.

Spruill said the visitor experience at the New England Aquarium will still revolve around the multistory giant tank that allows visitors to view ocean creatures from feet away. But she says many aspects of the aquarium experience will change.

“It’s going to be different,” she said. “I’m one of those who thinks we’re never going back to what we had before, but there is so much opportunity I am very optimistic about our future.”



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