This is an extended version of an article that appeared in the March/April 2015 issue of Dimensions magazine.
In times of crisis, leaders and their institutions often emerge stronger and with new insights about their values, priorities, community relationships, and human and other resources. We asked our science center and museum colleagues from around the world to tell us about how they handled a variety of crises that tested their leadership—from natural or human-made disasters to economic difficulties to accidents to public relations controversies—and the lessons they learned.
Imagination Station celebrated its fifth anniversary and 1 millionth visitor in October 2014. Over the past five years, the science center has added three new permanent exhibitions, hosted 11 temporary exhibitions and exhibits, and designed successful educational programming. That is in addition to the themed weeks we organize throughout the year, the range of educational curricula we provide, and our daily offerings of interactive science education.
Our current success and stability is a proud accomplishment in contrast to the challenges that the science center (then named COSI Toledo) faced in 2007 when it was forced to close its doors due to fiscal insolvency. At that time, the science center was part of the 10% of U.S. science centers that operate without public funding. After losing two levy campaigns for public funds, we could no longer continue to operate. The building was closed and the exhibits were being prepared to be distributed throughout Ohio.
A leadership committee from the board of directors and a few science center team members remained active during the closing. When the center closed its doors, there was an outpouring of support from the public, business leaders, and political figures. Lori Hauser, CEO, and David Waterman, board chairman, who have been with the science center through its closing and reopening, recalled that one of the most important things that they did from a leadership perspective was to embrace the swell of community support and to work with the community to shape the science center into an integral part of Northwest Ohio and Southeast Michigan.
With support from political and community leaders, commitments from local corporations, and the promise of nearly $1 million in previously awarded money from the state of Ohio, the leadership team developed a plan that addressed the operational difficulties that led to the closing as well as the public’s misgivings that contributed to the failed levy campaigns. The new plan emphasized fiscal sustainability while balancing the need to continually add new visitor experiences through permanent and temporary exhibitions. With this plan in place and the support of community leaders and organizations, the leadership team again asked Lucas County for public funds in 2008, and this time the campaign was successful for a five-year levy of slightly more than $1 million a year.
The leadership team immediately began implementing their proposed plan: creating and working within a conservative budget, hiring and training new team members, updating the building, creating the science center’s curriculum, and working with the community. Less than a year after the successful levy campaign, the science center opened as Imagination Station on October 10, 2009. We have been able to maintain our momentum by keeping careful adherence to the budget, putting the visitor first, and emphasizing new experiences.
Over the next two years, Imagination Station will add a $1 million exhibition on tinkering and innovation, grant-funded programs that cover new educational topics and reach new audiences, new educational programming to better serve preschool-aged learners, and nearly $1 million in capital improvements. Imagination Station is thriving and is well positioned to continue to do so into the future.
Paul Morin, public relations and communications coordinator, Imagination Station, Toledo, Ohio
In September 2014, the Terry Lee Wells Nevada Discovery Museum experienced our first real emergency when a demonstration that resulted in an unexpected flash fire injured several visitors and one employee. After extensive investigations by the Reno Fire Department, the state Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), our insurance carrier, and the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, the findings all came back the same. While our procedures were well documented and the staff well trained, this incident was the result of human error.
The silver lining to this incident is that the staff was tested beyond their day-to-day activities and we learned just how well trained and prepared we were for an accident. Two of our staff reacted so quickly and efficiently that the Reno Fire chief presented them with commendations and public recognition. Our cooperation following the incident with all of the agencies listed above was complete, professional, and transparent. Our handling of the media was superb, and although this pushed some of our staff and leaders way outside their comfort zones, they remained absolutely professional and learned more about their abilities than expected. The staff rallied around each other and our visitors to ensure a continuity of experience following the incident. In all, this young and relatively untested staff performed like a seasoned group of professionals.
It was an unfortunate incident for sure, but I believe we have come out a stronger organization. Our staff quickly learned what I have said to them time and again: that leadership exists at all levels. Everyone found a way to help out not only at the time of the accident, but in our subsequent recovery. Leadership is something we often talk about in the abstract or academic sense, but it is only when our organizations are truly tested through crisis, opportunity, or circumstances that we get to see just how strong we are.
Mat Sinclair, executive director, Terry Lee Wells Nevada Discovery Museum, Reno
With the Philippines being the second most disaster-prone country in the world with about 26 typhoons a year (2014 Climate Change Performance Index), the reality is rather clear—national disasters are the “new normal” in our country. While the Philippines is a developing country that contributes less than 1% of the gas emissions causing global warming, ironically, it suffers the brunt of climate change’s catastrophes.
As executive director of Philippine Science Centrum (PSC), which has survived several major disasters like typhoons and earthquakes, I feel honored to respond to these unique circumstances where leadership is tested. These disasters have provided the opportunity to move through different stages of difficulty, transformation, recovery, and new beginnings.
Drawing from these experiences, I have some lessons to share:
- Never waste a good crisis as it provides a platform to get things done creatively and rise above the challenges. There is no place for “on-the-job training.” Don’t be caught off guard; always be prepared.
- Empower your team. Encourage people to develop their confidence and ask them to participate actively.
- Trust the board. Our open and candid communication with our board and stakeholders helps us review and evaluate our organization’s capabilities in the areas of disaster assessment, crisis planning, and organizational recovery.
As a leader, I play a big role in increasing public understanding and most importantly public engagement on climate change, complementing the government’s efforts in finalizing policies addressing the risks. PSC finds ways to demystify these complex topics for the public, aligning with the learning competencies or curriculum of the Department of Education and making sure that our angles of interpretation fit into the mindsets of the people so that the message sinks in right away and people act immediately.
In the 2012 book Climate Change Adaptation: Best Practices in the Philippines, the PSC’s best practices were highlighted. These included exhibits instrumental in helping the public realize that every person has a part in the challenging global environment, and lab kits that apply green chemistry, carbon footprint, the greenhouse effect, wind power, solar cars, and earthquake, typhoon, and tsunami simulators.
No typhoon or any kind of disaster could topple our goal of serving our Filipino school children. As the saying goes, “The Filipino spirit is waterproof and unshakable.”
May M. Pagsinohin, executive director, Philippine Foundation for Science and Technology, Philippine Science Centrum, Marikina City, Metro Manila
Four years ago, a devastating earthquake destroyed Science Alive! The New Zealand Science Centre. In the wake of such a disaster, suddenly you have nothing and need to start from scratch, and as CEO, your leadership is what will guide the organization through some very difficult and testing times.
Directly after a major disaster, leading people in a new direction is a balancing act. A number of our staff lost close friends, some lost their homes, and our city had been destroyed, so major changes to their lives had already occurred. With this in mind, our organization placed a growing focus on encouraging staff members’ ideas and motivating them to think outside the box about new outreach programs that might not be tried under normal circumstances but that could help us make a difference and remain relevant to our community. Science Alive! staff members have done an amazing job of embracing these challenges, and their great work has been recognized with awards both locally and internationally.
ASTC, the Asia Pacific Network of Science & Technology Centres (ASPAC), and the Noyce Foundation have featured significantly in influencing our new direction. As a leader, I found that experiences and knowledge built up over time contribute to the expertise required to rebuild. The science center field is unlike any other. Being able to openly share ideas, seek advice, and listen to experts in conference sessions has made my job so much easier. Through the help and guidance of many friends and associates, Science Alive! is planning an exciting new science center that will incorporate some of the old and some new ideas mixed in with a lot of the learning and experiences from the past four years. The Christchurch earthquakes have created huge opportunities, and we believe the new science center will be an asset to our community, our city, and New Zealand.
Neville Petrie, CEO, Science Alive! The New Zealand Science Centre, Christchurch
On the night of March 4, 2013, criminal hands set fire to the science center of Città della Scienza in Naples, Italy. After the pain and astonishment, we had to make a choice: to restart or to accept defeat.
We chose to go ahead for many reasons: first, because of our moral obligation to keep our staff safe; second, because we wanted to respond to the wave of solidarity coming from Neapolitans and from the international scientific community; and finally, to make it clear that criminals cannot destroy a large scientific institution through arson because museums, books, and cultural institutions are the heart and soul of the people.
We immediately resumed public programs to convince ourselves and our stakeholders that it was possible. After 20 days of hard work, we opened 10,764 square feet (1,000 square meters) of indoor exhibits and 53,820 square feet (5,000 square meters) of outdoor exhibits. We held a large opening festival attended by thousands of citizens.
Later the focus moved to management as Città della Scienza is a nonprofit organization, but still a sustainable business. We used some welfare measures available in our country, such as unemployment insurance, to reduce operating costs and avoid the need to dismiss workers. We requested a moratorium on payments from our suppliers, asked our customers for donations, and updated our business plan by diversifying our programs and business opportunities.
After 12 months, we reopened an exhibition area of more than 32,292 square feet (3,000 square meters), brought back many visitors, put our finances into order, and boosted our activities at the local, national, and international levels.
Last but not least, we quickly strengthened all efforts toward the reconstruction of the science center. Thanks to a crowdfunding initiative and the contributions of many institutions, we have raised more than 60 million euros (USD 64,224,000) to support the reconstruction of a smart, environmentally friendly science center, slated to open in 2018.
The lessons we learned from this disaster are to rely on ourselves, to change continuously, and to be more open to different professional worlds and to the local community. In these hard months, we have benefited from a great intangible resource: the credibility gained through our daily work and our work with international projects. We have also counted on the solidarity of the great family of science centers and museums around the world.
Vincenzo Lipardi, CEO, Città della Scienza, Naples, Italy
Today, CuriOdyssey (formerly Coyote Point Museum) is a thriving science and wildlife center for children in San Mateo County, California, about to publicly launch a capital campaign. This is the result of an incredible turnaround and was accomplished with a clear vision of what success could look like, strategic investments, and a strong partnership between CuriOdyssey’s leadership, the board of trustees, and major donors.
In 2006, after 50 years of serving as a local environmental center and wildlife zoo—and struggling financially for 10 years—Coyote Point Museum’s board voted to gift the organization’s assets to another nonprofit. Members of the community learned of this and submitted an alternate proposal—that they be given a month to raise $300,000 to take possession of the organization. In that month, $1 million was raised and the proposal was accepted.
An executive search committee asked me to apply for the position of executive director. I was a bit leery as the organization had seen eight executive directors in 10 years. However, I recognized that the organization had four key ingredients: 1) its location on the San Francisco Bay, 2) the demonstration of deep community support, 3) a board of directors (consisting of original and new board members) committed to change, and 4) the clear need for environmental education. I was offered the position and I accepted.
It was clear to me that we couldn’t solve our problems with a marketing campaign. We instead needed a “content” solution. Through an inclusive strategic planning process we identified that 1) our core audience was to be children, 2) we would ground environmental education in the sciences, and 3) we would launch an extensive renovation within three years.
I was able to guide the organization through tremendous change with incredible support from the board, with extensive training and recruitment of staff, and by being very transparent. We completely revamped our science education programs, developed interactive science exhibits that demonstrate natural phenomena, and renovated our native animal habitats. Our attendance and membership numbers soared.
Once we were able to demonstrate success, we deinstalled a 30-year-old exhibition. We renamed the organization to better reflect our approach to science and wildlife education. We developed conceptual designs to renovate the facility.
This has all been accomplished in under eight years and has been done methodically, strategically, and by measuring our successes along the way. Having been in the field for nearly 40 years, I think CuriOdyssey stands as an exemplary model of what can be accomplished by providing high quality content and a strong partnership between board, volunteers, staff, and donors.
Rachel Meyer, executive director, CuriOdyssey, San Mateo, California
Establishing a strong leadership position in your community serves you well when the arrows start coming your way. Carnegie Science Center learned this lesson in October 2014, shortly after we’d distributed our quarterly programming mailer. On one page was a brief list of our upcoming Girl Scout and Boy Scout programs. One “enterprising” recipient took a photo of that specific 1/8 of the page and posted it online, complaining that we offered many more Boy Scout programs than those for Girl Scouts—and also that we named a girls’ program “Science with a Sparkle.” That was proof, apparently, that we didn’t take science for girls as seriously as we did science for boys.
What the post left out was the remaining 7/8 of the page, which was totally devoted to programs for girls.
Social media blew up with a vengeance. Facebook and Twitter erupted with posts from people more interested in jumping on the outrage bandwagon than learning the facts. How could we? they wondered. Why in the world were we shortchanging girls and relegating them to “sparkle” science? We were struck by the injustice of the remarks by those who clearly didn’t know us at all. We have long prided ourselves on our array of girl-specific programming and our commitment to getting girls interested in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers. We had even won a Roy L. Shafer Leading Edge Award from ASTC in 2009 for our girl-focused website BrainCake (now CanTEENgirl.org).
Our marketing team monitors our social media and noticed the posts the evening they began. The marketing team posted an honest, calm, carefully crafted response on Facebook the next morning, addressing the complaints and countering the misleading photo with an image of the full magazine page. One staff member was assigned to answer all phone calls with a standard response. The senior staff member who oversees our Carnegie STEM Girls program was identified as our spokesperson, and marketing staff armed her with talking points. Our Facebook response slowed the comments a bit; some people even apologized. But it didn’t stop the furor altogether (especially after coverage from websites Jezebel and Wonkette), and we soon issued a longer response.
Our established leadership and reputation kicked in; friends at local organizations and many museum visitors came to our defense. Still, that did not quell the internet anger from across the globe. Coverage—some positive, some negative—from USA Today and the New York Times, along with blogs and local news outlets, stirred the debate.
We were preparing an op-ed piece to send to our local newspaper, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, when they published their own editorial calling the criticism “unfair” and lauding our Carnegie STEM Girls program. From years of covering our programs, the newspaper could offer credible testimony in our favor. The editorial was a dramatic turning point in cooling the criticism.
Our experience demonstrates that in handling a social media controversy, a quick, reasonable response is crucial. Silence will only fan the flames; responding shows that the museum values public comment and dialogue. Our honest, clear explanation of the situation even turned some critics into supporters. Sticking to this message consistently in social media, telephone responses, and interviews was vital. Sadly, even a prompt, lucid response doesn’t completely turn off the spigot of online fury.
Situations like this will arise from time to time for any organization that is striving to be relevant to its community— which in some ways shows how much the community cares about what the organization says and does. If an organization is irrelevant, no one would bother to comment. In the end, our strongest defense was our solid, established reputation for leadership and passionate commitment to fostering girls’ interest in science.
Ann Metzger and Ron Baillie, co-directors, and Susan Zimecki, director of marketing and community affairs, Carnegie Science Center, Pittsburgh