A Happy Birthday

At 1, Marian Koshland Science Museum Finding Its Niche

Posted April 20, 2005 at 3:42pm

Just one year into its existence, the Marian Koshland Science Museum of the National Academy of Sciences is finding that size doesn’t matter.

The museum has had a fair amount of foot traffic in its first year of operation, as museum director Patrice Legro said visitor numbers should reach 30,000 by the end of the month. This might seem small when compared to as many as 6 million visitors that annually visit the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History on the National Mall, but the museum’s size could never handle that many visitors.

“We’re only 5,000 square feet,” Legro said. “We never intended to compete with the Smithsonian.”

In fact, Legro considers the museum’s location — about three blocks away from the Mall at Sixth and E streets Northwest — to be beneficial.

“Washington has many repeat visitors,” Legro said. “Once they’ve had the experience on the Mall, they want something else. We provide an alternative.”

To celebrate its birthday, a day of free events is planned for Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and will include sidewalk science demonstrations, a raffle, free popcorn and free admission to the museum.

“It’s really a celebration — we want to thank the community for its support,” said Legro. She added that she would love to see as many as 1,000 people take part in Saturday’s festivities, which is how many visitors the museum had on its opening day last year.

One factor helping the museum thrive is that its primary focus is adults. In fact, a survey done last summer revealed that 45 percent of the museum’s visitors are 22 to 45 years old, Legro said.

“They know we’re more for adult audiences and they’re happy about that,” Legro said about museum visitors. The museum “is different from science centers — we do not target the very young, kindergarten to sixth grade.”

For example, the core user at the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh ranges in age from 6 to 13, said the center’s marketing communications manager, Kim Bonenberger. But she added that the science center, which welcomes about 600,000 visitors per year, has “a variety of exhibits here that appeal to a different audience and age group.”

Unlike the Smithsonian and some other D.C. museums, the Koshland museum charges admission, which helps pay for its public programs and school visits, which are free for local schools. Legro said the admission price hasn’t presented a problem.

“We’re just looking for enough [money] to help underwrite our educational programs,” Legro said. “We haven’t found [charging admission] to be an impediment.”

A bench-marking exercise was done prior to the museum’s opening, which looked at all private museums in the area to see what they charged for admission. The range was from just $1 to $17.95, for adult admission to the National Aquarium in Baltimore. As a result, the museum charges $5 for adults and $3 for children, seniors, active military and students with ID.

The museum is open every day except Tuesdays and offers discounted group tours and school field trips. While the museum is closed to the public on Tuesdays, it is open that day for tours.

We “encourage folks on the Hill to come on [Tuesdays],” Legro said. “We bring in high-level staff to talk to them.”

The school field trips, which can be scheduled on any day but Friday, bring in groups of about 30 to 35 students at a time. A retired science teacher guides students through exercises in which they gather evidence and come up with solutions to scientific problems.

“It’s a very structured experience,” Legro said. “They get to do the play thing but also get a quality experience. We’ve been booked for almost every time slot.”

The museum, aside from group tours, is self-guided. Visitors receive an audio set before entering the museum, which allows them to learn about different parts of the exhibits in whatever order they choose. Legro said visitors “experience at random,” because everyone absorbs the information in different ways.

“It’s complicated stuff,” Legro said about the information available to visitors through the exhibits.

Exhibitions on display now include “Wonders of Science,” “Global Warming Facts and Our Future” and “Putting DNA to Work.” The California-based Bowman Design Group has designed the current exhibits and also is working on the infectious disease exhibit, expected to open in 2007.

The most popular exhibit with families is the DNA exhibit, “because it’s about them and their health,” Legro said. The exhibit lets visitors see how strings of DNA are used in criminal justice cases and also shows what percent of their genes match those in other humans, mice, fruit flies, chimpanzees, yeast and weeds.

“We use a lot of technology that requires sophistication,” Legro said of the exhibits. Observed data that previously was in the form of only charts and graphs was taken by the museum and visualized. For example, the global warming exhibit, which features sliding plasma screens among other interactive stations, uses information from 75 studies done in the past decade by the National Academy.

Legro said one thing the Koshland museum is looking forward to in the coming months is the collaboration with other museums that are interested in targeting more adult audiences. The DNA exhibit currently on display will be the first exhibit to travel, and Legro said natural history museums have expressed the most interest. The exhibit on infectious disease currently in the works will replace it.

Legro considers the smaller size of the Koshland museum to be a perfect fit for her goal of emphasizing the quality of the contact time with visitors.

The average visitor spends an hour and a half touring the museum, and Legro said exit surveys reveal that visitors think the museum is “just the right size, they don’t get overwhelmed.”

When entering the museum, a staff member will ask for your ZIP code. This has shown that there is a 50/50 split between tourists and local residents visiting the museum. It also allows the museum to target its marketing.

As the exhibits “engage visitors with current topics,” they “get pretty much the straight scoop,” as Legro said the museum simply tries to present the evidence.

Visitors often are “skeptical and jaded when it comes to things, but they’ve been pleased with how nonpartisan and objective we are,” Legro said.

The museum is an independent, nonprofit and nonpartisan museum that is part of the National Academy of Sciences. Named for Marian Koshland, a well-known figure in the field of science who “was very dedicated to the public understanding of science,” Legro said the museum is able to operate thanks to Koshland’s husband, Daniel Koshland, who made a gift in her honor.

“Dan Koshland said he wanted to ‘create an appetizer,’” Legro said of the museum. “That’s kind of how he sees it — it’s a small experience that’s high quality that entices people to want to know more.”

For more information, call (202) 334-1201 or visit https://www.koshland-science-museum.org.