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May 28, 2018
Biz Money

Science museum's pricing in line with competitors, but expenses led to closure

Photo / Mainebiz archives
Photo / Mainebiz archives
A gymnast flips across a balance beam in the Body Worlds exhibit at the Portland Science Center, which opened in September 2015 on Maine Wharf. The science center recently closed its doors after ending its Planet Shark exhibit.

Stories about the demise of the Portland Science Center made a point of talking about admission prices.

It was pointed out by several publications, including this one, that ticket buyers expressed their unhappiness with the ticket prices, venting on Facebook and other social media outlets. The museum closed after three years.

But Joseph Gold, president of The Gold Group, which owned and operated the museum, said it made its best effort to keep prices in line.

"I take exception to the comments on Facebook and Yelp. Portland, Maine, is expensive. It's not cheap to dine out. A movie is $11.50 to $12.50. Those are Boston prices," he said. "We were not charging Boston prices."

Indeed the cost of going to a museum anywhere, including Portland, can be a sobering experience.

The Portland Science Center's mission was to provide world-class exhibits, including Dr. Gunther von Hagens' "Body Worlds," which continues to open in museums around the world; National Geographic's "Real Pirates" and, most recently, "Planet Shark," which was produced by Grande Exhibitions.

Even with the word "science" in the title, museums today are caught in the intersection between tourism and entertainment. In many markets, a showing of "Body Worlds" would be accompanied by a substantial marketing budget administered through a region's tourism-marketing organization. In the case of the Portland Science Center, it wasn't getting any outside marketing help and it struggled with the cost of the exhibits themselves.

"The exhibits are costly [to produce]. They're costly to lease. There's the cost of installation. There's the cost of extra staffing," Gold said. "It was too expensive to run."

"People would complain about the price but we offered world-class exhibits that were not coming to Maine otherwise. We kept [admission] under $20."

By Gold's recollection, the museum charged $19.50 for adult tickets to "Body Worlds." The recent "Planet Shark" exhibit was $18.50 for adults and $14.50 for kids 3 to 12 years old. This is where the family of five or more gets into a trip that's $100 or more, especially when you factor in parking, food, merchandise from the gift shop, etc.

If you look at other museums around the country the Portland Science Center's ticket prices are less.

At the California Science Center in Los Angeles, the "Body Worlds" exhibit was $19.95 (and $16.95 for kids in the 3-11 range). General admission to the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia is $23 for adults ($19 for kids), though for a special exhibit like "Body Worlds" you'd pay an additional charge. General admission to Museum of Science + Industry in Chicago is $21.95 ($10.95 for kids), while the New England Aquarium in Boston is $27.95 ($18.95) and National Aquarium in Baltimore is $39.95 ($24.95). The Smithsonian is free, but we pay for it through our tax dollars.

It should be pointed out that while the Portland Science Center offered world-class exhibits, it did not offer the depth of exhibits that others offer for the higher admission prices. It should also be pointed out that it was a for-profit institution, which created another set of financial challenges.

Gold told Mainebiz he was inspired to open the Portland Science Center after a weekend trip he and his wife took to Portland. (The Gold Group is based in Salem, Mass., an hour and 40 minutes away.) They tried to go to the Portland Museum of Art, but it was closed. They dined out. Having promoted exhibits in other markets, he was keenly aware that exhibits like "Body Worlds," which has reportedly been seen by 42 million people worldwide, do not make their way to Maine. He saw an opportunity.

But the center failed to build the audience it needed and expenses outweighed the revenue generated.

"It's interesting, we've gotten more press coverage about the closing that we did when we were open," Gold said.

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