The Exploratorium opened in 1969 with the bold idea of allowing visitors to follow their curiosity and explore scientific phenomena at their own pace. This experiential museum was established in San Francisco's well-known Palace of Fine Arts. As the Exploratorium's popularity and offerings grew, the size, configuration, and location of the Palace posed challenges. Initial plans to renovate and expand this historic facility proved cost prohibitive, especially given seismic requirements that would accompany the project.
In the early 2000s, the Exploratorium decided to change location and renovate a nearly 70-year-old building on San Francisco's waterfront in an area well served by public transit. The capital project had a threefold mission: to grow and diversify the Exploratorium audience, enable expanded exhibits, and support a stronger, healthier organization.
The project had inherent physical as well as legal complexities, and a sizeable fundraising goal. The board of directors led a $300 million campaign to cover construction and related project costs. An extensive engagement process involved employees as well as community members. A capital project director aggregated and communicated stakeholder input to the project team, which included local firms experienced in development, architecture, and construction management. Outside perspectives were gathered from museums around the world. Collectively, these inputs informed the project design, and an effective internal team structure led to the relocated Exploratorium opening under budget in 2013.
In an accessible location with twice the amount of exhibit space, the Exploratorium attracted thousands of new donors and significantly grew its attendance, helping spark redevelopment along the waterfront. The number of visitors rose from about 550,000 per year before the move to approximately 1.1 million in the first year of relocated operations, and included a more diverse audience. However, the museum had planned to draw approximately 2.1 million visitors on an annualized basis in the opening two and a half months, and then 1.4 million in the full year that followed. This projection, which was informed by attendance at the new California Academy of Sciences (a neighboring museum), did not materialize.
Increased income from ticket sales and donors was essential, as the Exploratorium was expanding its staff from approximately 300 to 450 people to cover the anticipated rise in visitors and operations. The shortfall in ticket sales was exacerbated when the National Science Foundation, a major revenue source for the Exploratorium, reduced its annual funding for science programs. Elevated staff size and programs, plus higher operating and maintenance costs in the new facility, resulted in expenses that outpaced the museum's changing revenues. Within a year of relocating, this financial reality led to layoffs that caused internal turmoil and generated negative media coverage. At the time of this research, Exploratorium leaders were working with a lowered annual projection for ticket sales and adjusting their economic model.
This case study is based on research conducted by MASS Design Group in July 2015. Funded by the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, it illustrates how capital projects can help museums attract new audiences and donors, as well as spur local economic development. It also demonstrates the importance of preparing for internal changes to work culture and operations, and the need to be conservative when projecting new revenues following a move.