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2 Museums Cope With a Problem--Success

Recreation: Science Center and Getty add staff and make other changes to handle crowds.

April 30, 1998|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | TIMES ART WRITER

Success can be a problem.

At the 3-month-old California Science Center, lines at the door can back up into Exposition Park, and timed tickets are required to see the most popular attraction--a 50-foot anatomically correct, transparent human model dubbed Tess.

Fifteen miles away at the Getty Center in Brentwood, senior to the Science Center by less than two months, crowds have exceeded expectations so much that architect Richard Meier already has gone back to the drawing board to reconfigure the entrance and add restrooms.

And that's just for normal weeks. Vacations bring even more people. Anticipating an overwhelming influx of visitors during the recent spring break, the Getty orchestrated a four-week anti-attendance campaign. "It's a full house," the announcements said. "So look ahead, plan ahead, call ahead . . . and visit the Getty Center a little later."

The two institutions might appear to have about as much in common as Sears and Saks Fifth Avenue. The $130-million California Science Center--formerly the Museum of Science and Industry--is a state-funded, centrally located facility that focuses on science and targets an audience of children and families. The privately funded $1-billion Getty Center, run by the J. Paul Getty Trust, sits on a lofty hilltop in a tony neighborhood and devotes its resources to fine art and related programs. Although the Getty attracts a broad spectrum of visitors, its core audience is tourists and the art world.

Yet both the California Science Center and the Getty--which are free, except for $5 parking fees--are attracting people who may have been turned off by the purity and stuffiness of old-style museums but feel at ease at the new institutions.

Attendance Has Far Surpassed Projections

And they are showing up in numbers that far surpass the most optimistic predictions. Having hosted more than 700,000 visitors since its Feb. 7 opening, the California Science Center has upped its first-year attendance projection from 2 million to 3 million. Nearly 800,000 people have gone to the Getty since it opened Dec. 16, pushing its estimated inaugural year attendance from 1.2 million to 2 million.

"We had this notion of ourselves as something like a park, knowing that a lot of non-museum-goers regularly go to parks," said John Walsh, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum. The Getty Center is "kind of a cross between a park and a city square" where "people fall into familiar patterns," he said. "Californians wander around the way they do at the Huntington. Europeans and people with village experience--anyone who is used to sharing space with neighbors--just plunk right down in the museum courtyard."

And if visitors aren't thinking "park," they are thinking "shopping mall." Just as commercial ventures such as REI, a sports equipment company, and the KCET Store of Knowledge incorporate physical activities, interactive devices and museum-like displays in their facilities, up-to-date museums often resemble theme parks and malls, with gift shops and a choice of places to eat. The California Science Center has a McDonald's and a more upscale snack bar. The Getty offers a full-service restaurant, a cafeteria, a sandwich bar and food carts.

"Boundaries have been eradicated," said Selma Holo, director of USC's art gallery and museum studies program. "Nothing is just one thing anymore." At a moment when "edutainment" and "shoppertainment" are buzzwords in retailing, nonprofit museums look more and more like commercial establishments, she said.

Much of the response to the Science Center and the Getty is the result of advertising, which reached into schools and community centers and spread the word on buses and streetside banners. But some observers say the institutions' phenomenal popularity also exemplifies a search for meaningful recreation or spiritual fulfillment.

"The focus in the last couple of decades on technological advancements and the material world has increased to such an incredibly intense degree that people are hungering for things to dance with in their heads and their spirits," said Jamesina Henderson, executive director of the California African-American Museum, which has had a 50% increase in attendance since the opening of the adjacent California Science Center. "Along with the newness, it's the non-homogenized, non-Disneyized experience that people are really hungry for."

The museums also help to fill a different kind of void, said James S. Catterall, a professor at UCLA's Graduate School of Education and Information Studies who has published a study on the importance of the arts in education.

"Both places offer something people would like their kids to have but don't get, unless the parents go out of their way to find it," he said.

At the California Science Center that "something" is real specimens and a wide variety of hands-on activities. "It's the same thing with art at the Getty. These things are thin at best in the schools," he said.

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