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Photo by Isaac Harrell
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Photo by Isaac Harrell
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Photo by Isaac Harrell
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Photo by Isaac Harrell
On a Monday afternoon, a small boy wearing big glasses runs to a visitor entering the Science Museum of Virginia on official business.
He calls, "Mister! Mister! Can we go inside?"
The visitor responds, "The museum is actually closed on Mondays."
"Oh," the crestfallen youngster says, shoving hands in pockets. "Even if we're a member?"
Moments later when this encounter is described to the museum's director, Richard Conti, he says, "Oh, no! If I'd been there, we would've let him in."
Richard Conti: The Change Agenda
When Conti came here five years ago from his previous gig as director of Norfolk's Nauticus, he lived in the parking lot — or more specifically, in the solar-powered exposition house designed by Virginia Tech students. "It was actually quite comfortable there," Conti says, adding, "[I] kind of missed it." When his wife and two sons arrived, the family took up temporary residence at the Richard Neutra-designed Rice House, an estate bequeathed to the museum that sits on Lock Island along the James River. "Having the keys to the train station designed by John Russell Pope and a house by Neutra, who're at either ends of Modernism, that's a unique part of who we are."
Conti, a former Navy fighter pilot and a lean, avid runner, is enthusiastically leading the museum into its largest capital campaign and expansion since moving into the Broad Street Station in 1976. He's the third director of the museum in 40 years and its first non-scientist. His official title: Chief Wonder Officer. Conti's first day on the job, he says, came at the start of the general worldwide economic collapse. "So I came in under a change agenda," he says, somewhat wryly. "We needed to re-invent ourselves. It's one thing to teach covalent bonding, another to show how it connects to the world." The museum can't teach physics in the two hours of a visit. But exhibits can show how it works. When Conti, 48, first arrived at the museum in early 2008, technology itself was in a different place. Slide projectors were still used in the planetarium. Soon, visitors may see the constellation Ursa Major projected on the dome from a recent image made by the Hubble telescope. Here, journeys of inspiration will be shown going to Mars or Jupiter. "We did a tremendous amount of listening, talking [and] considering the job of a science museum in the 21st century." The result is a five-phase, $60 million museum overhaul. It includes a renovation from the cellar to the dome, a major upgrade of its exhibitions and an increase to its endowment. Already, the museum is nearly $30 million closer to the goal, thanks to $23 million in state funding and almost $7 million in private donations, including support from Health Diagnostic Laboratory Inc., the MeadWestvaco Foundation, the Mary Morton Parsons Foundation, the Cabell Foundation and the estates of Anna L. and T. Fleetwood Garner. The first parts will soon be ready for the public. "Boost!" — an exhibit showcasing feats of the human body and mind, and methods for improving both, is slated to open this summer. By the fall, the digital upgrade of the IMAX theater will reintroduce astronomy to the museum in a grander way. (A smaller version is set to open at a satellite institution in Danville.) The "Speed" exhibit hall, featuring a sleek Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird military jet, should be ready toward the end of 2014, notes Conti, who flew the Gruman F-14 Tomcat as a Navy "Top Gun" pilot over Iraq. "I hope whoever comes after me likes it," he says with a slight laugh. "We want this to be our blue whale, our African elephant, the thing people remember." The aircraft was supposed to have gone inside the Virginia Aviation Museum near Richmond International Airport. Now, it'll have a proper home away from the elements. To get the 107-foot-long Blackbird inside, it must be dismantled and brought in through an opening made for it in the new section. "Speed" will examine everything from glacial and geologic movement to NASCAR racing cars and football running backs — convenient, as the Washington Redskins training center will soon be a neighbor. The final piece in the big exhibitions enhancement is "Mechatronics." It'll include hands-on engagement such as 3-D face printing, motion-capture displays and robotics. Of special interest is the 14,000-square-foot special events center designed to serve a dual purpose as an exhibit hall in the summer for traveling shows. Designed by Pfeiffer Partners with offices in New York City and Los Angeles, with Richmond's BCWH Architects, it features a dramatic swooping roof that corresponds both to the cylinder of Pope's station dome above and the angle of the railroad tracks below. Besides new exhibits, better use will be made of the train station's lofty spaces. "Museums would kill for 45-foot vaulted ceilings," Conti says, spreading his arms wide. "Some of our stuff, though, is about 10-feet high and it just looks tiny in here." Getting people around the building will make more use of the way it was back in its earlier life. After all, hundreds of people came and went every day at Union Station, or as it is most commonly known, Broad Street Station. Two more exhibit spaces are on the drawing boards: "Helios," examining the many ways the sun affects life, and "House of Havoc." Among the proposed contents are a giant slingshot, a catapult for tossing things and a giant scale on which entire school groups can weigh their collective pounds. "We want to be quirky and surprising," Conti says. "In ‘Speed,' we'll have a wind tunnel so you can feel what a Category 2 hurricane feels like, or downhill skiing. The point is to offer an experience you can't get on your iPad." Here are some people on the museum's team helping to bring these exhibits and displays to a new generation of visitors. Prabir Mehta: Music for Three-Part Inventions He's a well-known regional musician whose bands The Substitutes and Goldrush have earned name recognition. As a contractor for the Science Museum, Mehta creates videos and other media content for outreach and information. He's the voice of the Science Minute on WCVE, and he plans the planetarium shows. He and colleague Caroline Miller create videos and content for the museum's media. The 33-year-old describes with awe how the probe Voyager I is nearing or may already be in the heliopause. This is the boundary between the solar system and interstellar space. "Voyager travels a million miles a day, and at that speed, it's gone 13 billion miles since it launched 36 years ago," he says. "That tells you something about how much space there is in space." Even for all that vast distance, Voyager will drift another 40,000 years until getting within 8 trillion miles of the next closest star. The craft is powered by decaying plutonium-238 that'll allow Voyager, the farthest-traveling manmade object, to transmit for the next 12 to 15 years until it goes silent. That's mind-expanding stuff. But Mehta also has a knack for delivering information with a humorous spin, such as his tongue-in-cheek take on molecular science: "Bond. Covalent Bond." Or a lesson using a Quentin Tarantino variant: "Pulp Friction." He helped create the annual Pi Day celebration and even composed a hooky tune, a la "Schoolhouse Rock," for a museum video. Clever editing put Mehta in Entertainment Tonight territory when he appeared to interview Leonardo DiCaprio about, well, Leonardo da Vinci. The original footage came from the actor's press junket for Titanic years ago. Coincidentally, at the time, DiCaprio provided narration for an IMAX movie about the Hubble telescope. "Humor is a contagious method of getting knowledge across," Mehta says. "The sheer intricacy of how science is imbedded within everything you do in life is what we're trying to share." He was born in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, a state in western India, and his family moved to Richmond when he was 8. He graduated from Douglas Freeman High School and then, in 1991, from Virginia Commonwealth University, where he focused on urban studies and religion. Before his stint at the museum, Mehta served on the board of Gallery 5, the Jackson Ward cultural venue, and worked in the operations department of the Richmond Symphony. All his activities around town culminated more than two years ago into his role for marketing the museum, a perfect marriage of his creative yearnings and his belief in the power of nonprofits. He basically taught himself the computer skills he uses on the Science Museum job. One of its most enjoyable aspects is the monthly planetarium show that covers science news. "The Q & A has gotten more interesting. I'm seeing not just kids, but adults and even repeat visitors," he says. There's always something to address, and usually a way to find some humor. Mehta participated in kicking around ideas for future exhibits. One that's getting considered for "Boost!" is an interactive touch-screen display that lets a group of people collaborate on a musical composition. Options include world percussion instruments and a xylophone that's played with robotic arms. This'll cause a cacophony, he says. "And it'll be a wonderful cacophony! Why would you want to open a science museum for children and families and not have a little cacophony now and then? When the cacophony stops, we worry." Karen McKenzie: Gears Are Turning Meshed gears of blue, orange and green are fitted to the front of her desk. They were once on an exhibit called "Fit For Kids" that a colleague passed on to her, and she was inspired to have them attached. She forgets the gears are there until fidgety guests start messing with them. The Science Museum's manager of education and inspiration assures one such visitor that so far, her desk has caused no injuries. McKenzie, 38, talks fast, and sparks of humor fly off her delivery like that of a stand-up comedian. She was a teacher in Prince William County and once taught English in Japan. She loves the world of education, but sought a different way of going about it. In 2005, she became the museum's coordinator for outreach education. "This involved two vans and a huge semi," she lifts her arms to demonstrate the tractor-trailer's hugeness, "and we'd truck exhibits around the state. But it wasn't ecologically the best approach." By 2007, she had become the assistant director of operations for the Virginia Aviation Museum, but she wanted to get back under the Science Museum dome. She returned for guest operations and special events. Conti came in 2011 to ask her what would she like to do at the museum. She preferred the education aspects to events. Thus, she's directing the various educational programs of the museum in addition to going out on the floor. "I missed the kids," she says. The lifelong Girl Scout went to Virginia Tech with the idea of becoming a wildlife veterinarian, but she found that she didn't have the nerve to deal with the trauma suffered by animals. "As I was dilly-dallying between vet and education, though, I thought about [being a] camp counselor," she says. "And that's in a way what I'm doing. People come here to have fun and learn, who are curious, ask questions. I would never have thought about a museum — and here I am." The animals aren't that far away, though. In the museum's Animal Lab, there are snakes — venomous and poisonous should not be used interchangeably — and spiders. "Tarantulas look soft and fuzzy, but really they're like porcupines to discourage predators," she says. For "Boost!," she will oversee the kitchen demonstration stadium. Although some people are intimidated by science, everybody likes to eat. And there's science amid the utensils, chemistry, physics and nutrition. There's also the perception of taste and how it changes, especially from what a child finds acceptable to what a grownup will eat. Involving the preparation and foods of varied cultures is also part of the concept. McKenzie is figuring out themes for the kinds of cooking and the logistical issues. "If we're cooking, and it smells good and looks good, we want to give out free samples," she says. "I'm thinking of this as a cross between [the TV shows] Food Detectives and Good Eats. If we could be half as good as Good Eats, that'd be my ideal." Chrissy Caldwell: Curiosity Coordinator The alliteration of her name and title resemble that of a serial heroine, perhaps holding a torch in a cavern, but Caldwell's five-year (and counting) mission involves virtual spelunking. She's in charge of creating and shaping the Science Museum's online character. She describes her job as jack-of-all-trades, from social-media management of Facebook and Twitter to editing the flow of daily information. The title in corporate terminology is "traffic coordinator." She started out in the gift shop. Caldwell, 24, studied Spanish in college with an eye toward Latin American studies. Because science is in everything, it's intertwined in language, how it is formed and changes. She observes, "The great thing about being here is that in terms of where we go with our questions, or how we interpret what's going on in the world, the sky is not even the limit. We're promoting science in a way that's interesting, unexpected, quirky and personal." Occasions arise from national media to localize stories. Last June's transit of Venus brought a crowd to the museum's lawn where Richmond astronomers manning telescopes guided viewers. "People love looking into the skies," Caldwell says. "Comets, meteor showers and rocket launches are big deals for us." Environmental issues, such as recycling and pollution, are also big components. Her online posts sometimes reach a national or even international audience, with hits from foreign countries and translations into other languages, especially Spanish. Caldwell has handled some big shows in the past couple of years. The discussions emerging from the museum's series on race, the massive "Body Worlds" exhibit and the recent "Guitar" show generated many questions and provided Caldwell with ample opportunity to put the Science Museum's brand around answers. "The next is robots," she says. "We'll be going from The Jetsons to cell phones and Siri, and the complicated ways robots are viewed in the culture." She grins. "That's what's great: the opportunity to explore anything and everything, and people learning things without even knowing they're learning." Larry Gard: The Art of Science Architect Frank Lloyd Wright's characteristic hat, Gard learned, was one he designed for himself based on the porkpie and built by Stetson. It's a style young people today have adapted for a special look, and it shouldn't surprise anyone that Wright was ahead of his time. Gard, though, of a distinguished beard, played the clean-shaven Wright in a short one-man show in conjunction with the museum's "Raise The Roof" exhibit on buildings. Thing is, he was also playing Galileo, whose beard is almost as famous as Wright's hat. He chuckles, "Yeah, I'm going to have to trim [the beard] back a little." This is but one theatrical challenge with which Gard has contended during his 15 years at the museum. When he arrived to make theater occur, no dedicated performance space existed, but a massive remodeling was underway. "For two years, our offices were out where the Boy Scouts are on Malvern," he recalls. "We were able to come back in the beginning of 2000." He's written and performed staged shows for the Carpenter Science Theatre Company at the former Eureka! (now the Barbara Thalhimer Theatre) and taken presentations into the gallery spaces. That Gard should become a thespian in a grand hall of science now seems as sensible as an equation. He came from a family of educators and artists. A career of playing in museums began in 1983 at the Snite Museum of Art at the University of Notre Dame. "It was a way to make more money, as actors will tend to do," he recalls with humor. "[It] started as a barter deal: provide lessons for creative drama with student groups related to work in the galleries." This ultimately led to the formation of the Casaday Repertory Ensemble, which produced theater for four institutions focused on art, history and children. The group took its name from director Sydney Pollack's high school theater teacher, James Lewis Casaday. The theater tradition at the Science Museum began in 1996 with a staging of Barbara Field's Playing With Fire about the Frankenstein story, produced by Barry Hayes, directed by Randy Strawderman and designed by Bill Jenkins. It featured Richmond actors David Bridgewater and Duke Lafoon. Hayes and Anne Easterling were co-founders of CSTC. Not long thereafter, colleague Tessa Bridal urged Gard to contact Hayes, who was looking for an artistic director for "a fairly new educational theater company" at the Science Museum of Virginia. Gard followed up and started work on Sept. 1, 1998. Since then, by his recent calculation, the science museum theater program has employed some 115 actors, playwrights, directors and technicians. He credits Richmond-based playwrights Douglas Jones and Bo Wilson for adapting complicated aspects of science into human stories. The late Martha's Vineyard and Boston University playwright Jon Lipsky wrote the popular North Star Light: Pathways To Freedom . The museum's theater company is active in the larger theater community by contributing to the Acts of Faith Festival, partnering with SPARC and other organizations, and participating in the Richmond Alliance of Professional Theatres. There are a number of big science-related plays Gard could see partnering to produce, including Breaking the Code about inventor Alan Turing, who devised the earliest digital computer and broke the code Nazi Germany used to communicate with its U-Boats. Turing was also gay at a time when that was verboten in Britain. Other possibilities include Copenhagen, Wit and the Elephant Man. A few years ago, Polish-born Nobel Prize-winning chemist, playwright and poet Roald Hoffmann spoke at the museum. "He was very entertaining; his lecture was more of a poem, really, and it was about a special blue dye used by rabbis for vestments that is produced by Mediterranean snails." Hoffmann collaborated on a play with Carl Djerassi, another Nobel Prize-winning chemist whose work led to oral contraceptives, and who is also a playwright and novelist. Called Oxygen, it's about the 18th-century simultaneous coincidental discovery of the fundamental gaseous element. "It's been incredibly enjoyable," Gard says of his science museum theater life. "And what we're going to do next will be tremendously exciting."