News Column

'Years of constant improvement'

June 8, 2014

By Peter Dobrin, The Philadelphia Inquirer

June 08--Dennis M. Wint has led the Franklin Institute for 19 years, and says, in a nearly Franklinian turn of phrase, that he is a man with more ideas than time. Very little time, in fact: Wint steps down as president and CEO July 1 to teach museum leadership at Drexel University. "In some ways I wish I were starting again," he said recently.

Yet no one would look at Wint's nearly two decades and pronounce them uneventful. He arrived just a few years after the opening of the $72 million Futures Center, the science museum's addition that included an IMAX theater and bequeathed to him the burden of an unfinished capital campaign.

He oversaw the debt's refinancing as a $21.5 million bond issue, and fund-raising moved on -- mightily. Since 2000, through post-9/11 gloom and a protracted recession, the institute has raised $130 million in two campaigns.

Not only was the drive to build the Nicholas and Athena Karabots Pavilion able to reach (and exceed) its goal, but the science center has also managed to refurbish every permanent exhibition in the building.

Now, 95 percent of exhibitions are operational, up from 75 percent when he arrived, Wint says. The grand Benjamin Franklin National Memorial was brightened, renovated and given a light show honoring its namesake. The theaters were made modern.

At the same time, the Franklin Institute has helped to open science high schools in Philadelphia and Egypt, and aims to do more globally. Wint leaves as the longest-serving president in the institute's 190-year history.

"Each success was built on prior successes," said Marsha R. Perelman of Wint's time, which overlapped with her eight years as board chairman ending this past December. "This is a man who never stopped striving for improvement, and because of that -- because of his refusal to ever rest on his laurels for a moment -- we saw 20 years of constant improvement in the building and the programs, in the scope of what the Franklin Institute is all about, and provided the city and region with a continually growing reputation that is international at this point."

One controversial element of the Wint era has been the introduction of big traveling exhibitions. Touring shows have long come in and out of the institute. But, partly to bring in revenue to pay the Futures Center debt, it started bringing in larger shows, some with only the most tangential connection to science. These have become integral to the institute's business model, and now have been enshrined in the building as well. The Karabots Pavilion doubles the amount of space for traveling shows, and provides a climate-controlled space for artifacts requiring it.

Cleopatra, mummies, and Leonardo da Vinci have made appearances -- as have, in one modest kerfuffle that attracted a handful of protests, real cadavers. These shows, which started with one on the Titanic in 2004, have been good for attendance. "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs" attracted nearly 1.3 million visitors, prompting the Art Newspaper to rank it in 2007 the world's most-attended temporary exhibition. But if archaeology intersected with science, other shows were more of a stretch -- a Narnia exhibition, for instance.

"It brought a whole new way of thinking about the institute in bringing contemporary issues to the public," says Wint, 71, who came to Philadelphia after serving as president of the St. Louis Science Center and director of the Cranbrook Institute of Science in Michigan.

The extent to which the traveling shows are of a residual benefit to the rest of the museum depends on the show. Exit interviews (with between 150 and 250 visitors) revealed that 90 percent of visitors to a dinosaurs show also migrated into the rest of the museum. But for the Leonardo show, only half did. And prices for the special shows can be steep, deterring some.

Others were repelled. " 'Body Worlds' was risky for us," said Wint of the show that brought "plastinated" bodies to the institute. "We were the second museum in the U.S. to sign a contract on that show. You had full body parts exposed in a community that is religious and conservative." The Franklin Institute assembled an advisory committee: "We said, 'Tell us whether this is something ethically we could do.' " Do it they did. Visitors were fascinated.

Just as compelling, if geared to a different audience, was a 2009 Galileo show. "It was the only time in 400 years that Galileo's telescope traveled outside of Italy," said Wint.

Still, somehow, Wint feels there are goals that have eluded him.

"One of the things I have not been able to accomplish is conveying the importance of science and technology in this community," he said. "This is a town of eds and meds" -- educational and pharmaceutical/medical institutions. "We've got business relationships to science and technology. And it's been hard to get recognition from the community at large about the importance of science and technology. We need to tell our story more outwardly. Entrepreneurs, often they have made their fortunes in science and technology, and then they make their donations to art museums. There is a disconnect."

Wint thinks of events like the Philadelphia Science Festival, which the institute organizes, as a step in the right, populist direction. This spring, the nine-day fair convened dozens of area organizations for experiments in labs, urban naturalist explorations, teacher workshops, and a carnival on the Parkway. It attracted more than 90,000 visitors, sometimes using lures as unlikely as talks on the science of skateboards and hangover cures as a way to more serious pursuits.

"Science is for everyone," says Wint. "We believe everyone can do science, but you have to start out with a positive experience."



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