Who's Driving the Engine? Finding Your Model for the Sustainable Future
Revisiting the Science Center Model
By Thomas Krakauer
In my almost 30 years as a science museum CEO and now museum consultant, I have seen a lot of trends come and goeach proclaiming its critical importance in ensuring a sustainable future for our field and our individual institutions.
Early on, we were still doing battle over "handson." That discussion eventually crystallized as the concept of "firstgeneration" to "fourthgeneration" institutionswith first generation being the collectionsoriented science museum, and fourth generation moving from mere interactivity toward becoming a true center of constructivist learning.
The field has seen, and continues to see, the creation of hundreds of new science centers, many reaching gigantic proportions. It has responded to calls for more "edutainment"sometimes seeking to become more Disneylike than Disney itself. But we are still asking questions about paying the bills, still worrying about that sustainable future. The packed house at the ASTC 2003 session "Does Our Science Center Model Need an Overhaul?" attests to the level of interest in "new models" and the hope to be in on the creation of the magic bullet that will solve our economic problems.
I would like to recommend that we focus internally to find the new model that works best for each of us and our community. Many institutions have been coached by Roy Shafer to uncover their "Core Ideologies." Core Ideology is a concept far stronger than Mission Statement, which describes future goals and stakeholder aspirations rather than the base from which we desire to grow. Core Ideology reflects what we actually are, and how we need to invest to meet our longterm aspirations.
In his bestselling book Good to Great, business analyst Jim Collins created the "Hedgehog Concept." In the wild, the little hedgehog survives predation, he says, because it does one thing very well and does not get sidetracked by competing strategies. Applying the idea to business, Collins singles out companies that have identified their "hedgehog" business strategy and invested to improve it.
The Hedgehog Concept can be summarized in three key questions: What is our organization passionate about? What we can be best in the world at? What drives our economic engine? A company becomes successful, Collins says, not when its people find the right external solution, but when they work hard to understand who they are and what they do best.
As nonprofit institutions, science centers and museums have more complex concerns and goals than commercial enterprises do (or we should have). Unlike corporations, we are held accountable for balancing margin with societal mission. But we can still usefully apply the Hedgehog Concept.
By taking time to identify where our passions lie and what our centers of excellence are, we are better positioned to make appropriate choiceswhether those be to add more contemporary science, build stronger networks and collaborations, or enhance our connections to schools and afterschool efforts.
It is in the area of economic engine that we most differ from the corporate world. The majority of science centers charge admission, which meets part of the budget, but we also depend on governmental support, donations, and other unearned income to fund the rest. Our institutions thus have two economic engines, and the variables that impact each are quite different.
Earned income is largely a function of attendance, which in turn has been shown to be closely linked to facility size. (That is why expansion is so appealing.) Unearned income is more a function of building relationships that allow us to take advantage of assets like community size, wealth, and traditions of governmental support. It is a slower process, and harder to document.
In recent years, the field has focused on driving attendance and building the earned income side of our ledgers. But as our budgets have increasedwhether through growth, or merely the passage of timehave we devoted the same kind of energy to our cultivation of unearned income? Any future dialogue about new models should give equal weight to this second "engine."
In economics, as in other areas, it comes back to the need for intensive selfexamination. Of course, it is important to keep up with the science center field, but our motivation in examining other models should be to better understand how to do those things that are consistent with our Core Ideology, not to imitate someone else's "best practices." If there is a magic bullet, I believe it lies in that.
Thomas Krakauer is president emeritus of the Museum of Life
and Science, Durham, North Carolina, and a consultant in the science