Editorial: MOSI faces a clean slate and should give everyone a piece of chalk

Most attractions at the scaled-down Museum of Science and Industry in Tampa have been moved to one building. The IMAX Dome Theatre in the background, MOSI's signature architectural feature, is closed. [ALESSANDRA DA PRA   |   Times]
Most attractions at the scaled-down Museum of Science and Industry in Tampa have been moved to one building. The IMAX Dome Theatre in the background, MOSI's signature architectural feature, is closed. [ALESSANDRA DA PRA | Times]
Published December 14 2017
Updated December 15 2017

For three years, the only news about finances at Tampaís Museum of Science and Industry was bad news: "Struggling MOSI asks Hillsborough County for $400,000 loan," one headline read, "Audit sees MOSI finances slipping," read another, and "MOSI donor sues museum, says it used money for payroll."

Even the offer of a lifeline in early 2016 from Jeff Vinik, the Tampa Bay Lightning owner developing the sweeping Water Street Tampa project downtown, was colored by questions about whether declining attendance and an absence of vision had left anything worth saving at MOSI.

But now, there is good news: After four years of losses the north Tampa museum made a little money in the 2017 fiscal year and is projecting a small surplus for 2018.

The turnaround is largely the result of massive reductions. But all the moves made so far by president and CEO Julian Mackenzie and his staff appear to be the right ones for keeping MOSI going a few more years so stakeholders can decide whether the museum gets a new chapter, and if so, what it would look like.

Taking its lessons directly to classrooms across the region is a major component of MOSIís vision for this bridge period and likely would remain so in the long run. Successful museums learned long ago that school outreach extends their impact while serving as a marketing tool to grow attendance.

Beyond this, MOSI is a clean slate ó a daunting but exciting prospect for those who design its future.

What are the keys to success for a museum devoted to concepts as broad as science and industry? How do you even measure success?

Consultants have weighed in already, museum board members and staff will have their own ideas, and new research poses intriguing possibilities. One example: Trendswatch 2017 from the Center for the Future of Museums suggests that institutions recognize rising public interest in the subjects of empathy, civil rights, intelligent machines and migration ó and to be nimble enough to risk failure as new trends emerge.

Still, there is no one true way. Two other attractions that both call themselves the Museum of Science and Industry are as different as a massive, classical temple with more than three dozen categories of content, glaciers to rain forests (in Chicago), and a businesslike brick-faced showcase that features one regionís seminal role in the rise of western industry (in Manchester, England).

Hard decisions must be made about which direction to take in Tampa.

Among the considerations are how MOSI will fit into a downtown collection that already includes the Tampa Bay History Center and the Glazer Childrenís Museum, each of which showcases science in one way or another, as well as the Tampa Museum of Art.

Another consideration is how museumgoers have changed since MOSI was founded in 1982. One piece of advice for museums in a digital age, from an essay in Britainís The Independent, is more doing and less seeing: "In the second half of the 20th century, people defined themselves by what they had. But today people increasingly define themselves by what they do."

Whatís more, decision-makers might take inspiration from the context of a new MOSI location in Water Street Tampa. Vinik has announced a vision for this $3 billion remake of the channel district that includes an innovation hub and an accelerator for new business startups. The health sciences also figure prominently in the plans, with Water Street Tampa hosting the new University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine and Heart Institute.

But most importantly, those planning a new MOSI should cast a wide net for ideas and commit themselves to a process as transparent as possible. This has not always been the case in the past.

Only this month, in an interview with Steve Contorno of the Tampa Bay Times, did CEO Mackenzie reveal publicly that at its low point MOSI "came very close to shutting its doors for good." Challenged on losses shown in the tax forms it must file as a nonprofit, Mackenzieís predecessors insisted all was well. Board meetings closed to the public were followed by mouths closed to questions about what was happening.

Museums are typically private entities, not subject to all the same public disclosure a government agency is. But most rely on some government subsidy. In MOSIís case, that has included the very property where the museum is located, owned by Hillsborough County, as well as an occasional cash infusion to keep the doors open.

MOSI, then, owes openness to the people of Hillsborough County. But beyond that, as it tries to plot a course that will appeal to a broad segment of a unique population, itís good business to invite them in for their ideas and their scrutiny as well as for their admission fees.