Retiring Field Museum, Adler Planetarium presidents give their final thoughts

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John McCarter and Paul Knappenberger

Retiring museum presidents, left, John McCarter, (Field Museum) and Dr. Paul Knappenberger (Adler Planetarium) at the lake front in Chicago (Antonio Perez, Chicago Tribune / September 12, 2012)

This autumn and early winter will see the biggest change in Chicago's Museum Campus since Lake Shore Drive took a hard swing to the west to create the parkland connection of cultural institutions 14 years ago.

This time, though, the alteration is not one of roadways and dirt piles, but of people.

John McCarter and Paul Knappenberger, presidents of the Field Museum of Natural History and the Adler Planetarium, respectively, are stepping down after a combined 37 years of service.

The two men, both in their early 70s, have much else in common. Each has remade his institution, building large, new additions and theaters and bringing virtually all of the gallery space up to modern standards. Each has fought to get high-profile pieces in the collections, with the Field landing Sue the T. rex at the end of the last century, and the Adler more recently getting spurned by NASA in its bid to house a retired space shuttle.

Although McCarter came to his post in 1996 from a business background and Knappenberger to his in 1991 from science and the museum world, each has ensured a commitment to science backstage, in the places the public doesn't see.

And, yes, each has overseen admission price hikes, in Knappenberger's case the first entry fee at the Adler, which, he says, has been remade on his watch from a cozy planetarium into a well-rounded space museum that pioneered the concept of having research astronomers on staff.

"I like to push the envelope," Knappenberger says. "I can see what others are doing, and I want the Adler to be out front. And because we have on our staff scientists and a Space Visualization Laboratory, we have the resources to really be the leading — and are at this point — the leading planetarium in the world. We have certainly the most technologically advanced theater. We've got now, I think, the strongest production staff of any planetarium."

McCarter, meanwhile, takes credit for, along with staff, helping reshape the Field's mission to suit the times: incorporating molecular biology into scientific research; digitizing the specimen collection; pioneering aggressive, innovative conservation work abroad and in the Midwest; and bringing in blockbuster exhibits as well as ones on such hot-button issues (in some circles) as evolution and climate change.

"The presence and impact of evolution over, you know, billions of years is irrefutable," McCarter says, and the museum's spectacular Evolving Planet permanent exhibition, opened in 2006, backs him up. "This is at the core. This is like gravity. This happened, and we are telling that story. And I've been cautioned to be very cautious. … I don't have any reluctance to grapple with evolution or with climate change."

McCarter's successor, former University of Oregon President Richard Lariviere, is at the Field, getting the Grand Tour from the man he'll replace on Oct. 1. Knappenberger will be in command until the end of the year, with no successor yet named. That announcement could come, Adler staff anticipate, later this month.

Because running two such prominent cultural institutions is, in a way, a public trust, we thought it fitting to conduct, separately, a sort of exit interview with both men, touching on their transformative tenures, the challenges facing museums in the 21st century and what they may have left undone.

What follows are edited excerpts from those conversations.

On the space shuttle that got away, and the dinosaur that didn't:

Knappenberger: We wanted it badly. The point we made was NASA is largely on the coasts, and wouldn't it be great for the kids that lived in the middle of the country to have access to one of the shuttles? And if you're going to do that, Chicago is an obvious choice. As I look at it now, one had to go to Washington, to (the National Air and Space Museum), and I think (NASA administrator) Charlie Bolden wanted one to go to the Kennedy Space Center (in Florida). That only left one other, and then the Enterprise. So he took the two largest cities, New York and LA, and that's where they went. I think there were a lot of stronger proposals than either New York or Los Angeles. Even if you set Chicago aside, Seattle had a very strong proposal, as did Dayton and Houston. So I don't know. At least we got the space shuttle flight simulator, which will be fine once that thing gets up and running here.

McCarter: I feel great about Sue. It was kind of a risk. We had great support from McDonald's and Disney (which helped finance the $8.4 million purchase). The two casts that we made have traveled the world and are still traveling. New kids come along every five, six years. It's fabulous. We've learned a lot about the science. You've seen (curator of dinosaurs) Pete Makovicky's work on the growth rings, and how Sue had this teenage growth spurt to age 18 and then by age 28 was basically the same weight and size she had been by age 20? He has done this modeling now so it looks like it was 8 tons rather than 5 tons, the live animal.

On luring people to museums in an era of competition:

McCarter: Basically, the Shedd Aquarium has done a fabulous job. If you look at attendance, it's the Shedd, and then it's the three — Field, The Art Institute and the Museum of Science and Industry — and then the smaller museums. You put 'em all together, and attendance is basically flat. We opened the dinosaur Sue in May 2000, and we had 2.4 million people come in. And it was fabulous, and then we come back into this million-two, million-three, million-five (range). And then we do King Tut, and all of a sudden we're over 2 million. So those are the two years we've been at a level that is consistent with aspirations.

Knappenberger: We are one-fifth the size of either the Field or the Shedd or (Museum of Science and Industry), and we're a niche museum. We focus on one subject area, whereas the Field is a much broader natural history museum, and the Shedd is much broader. (But) since 2005, when we decided to expand our mission to younger children, we've seen over 17 percent growth in attendance over that period of time.

On the arguably high costof admissions:

McCarter: I'm very confident that we're delivering value in comparison to what other museums are charging. And when I look at what it costs to go to Wrigley Field or a picture, my general thinking is: The basic attendance is $15 to come into the Field. That's 300,000 square feet of exhibits. We deliver from 9 to 5 every day except Christmas Day, an engagement that people cannot do all of in a single day. So I'm OK. I'm not embarrassed at pricing.

Knappenberger: It's a combination of things. You have 52 free days. How do you spread them out? Are there ways we can make the museum more accessible to people at the lower income level without embarrassing them at the door to say, "Well, I'm below the poverty line"? And yet we have to have enough of an admission fee to pay our bills. Our operating budget is about $15 million a year. We get about $2 million from the (Chicago) Park District. So now the rest, we come up with about half of that from admissions fees. Then we have memberships, gift shop sales, food service. We get grants to support research and some of our education programs.

On exhibitions, past and future:

Knappenberger: We broadened the mission that Max Adler had set forth back in 1930 to include not only the science of astronomy but all of space exploration. And we also looked at who our audience was, and we had very few offerings for young children. So we joined forces with Sesame Street and created a planetarium show just for young kids and their families, which was the Big Bird's "One World, One Sky." That show is now running in 55 countries around the world. It's probably the most watched planetarium show. It's all about looking up at the night sky, recognizing constellations, the moon, going out and visiting the moon with Big Bird. It's just a nice, exciting way to get young kids interested in space.

McCarter: We're building a new exhibit on biomechanics that we'll have here at the Field, and then we'll build three copies. This is going across the plant and animal kingdoms, everything from the way that water comes through the soils and the roots and up the trees into the leaves, to the way that the shoulder works to the whole prostheses and the development of brain-controlled artificial limbs. So there are wonderful stories. We'll in all likelihood have a new China hall and a new Egypt hall sometime in the future, and then whatever Richard (Lariviere) determines is the way to go.

On leaving office:

McCarter: It's been great. We switched offices over the weekend. (Lariviere) has been able to be out in the community, get briefings from the scientists inside, the educators inside. By the time he officially takes over on the 1st of October, he'll have had a couple of great months of familiarization.

Knappenberger: The Adler was a very good planetarium, but it was a little dated. The exhibits had been here for a while. The theater had been here for 50 years or more without updating. There was an opportunity to reach out and grow in exhibit galleries and new ways of producing shows. Those were things that appealed to me. Right now, the Adler runs pretty smoothly, so I don't have to worry about a lot of those details that I once had to work on all the time.

sajohnson@tribune.com

Twitter @StevenKJohnson

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