Sixty Years Later, PacSci Is Still One Curious Place

The Seattle Center landmark has escaped financial ruin and honed a new model for expanding access by leaning on its principles.

By Benjamin Cassidy October 20, 2022

The three white arches at Pacific Science Center in a historical photo.

Minoru Yamasaki's arches are one of the city's most enduring architectural flourishes.

"It wasn't intended to last this long," Pacific Science Center president and CEO Will Daugherty says of the Seattle Center institution that celebrates its 60th birthday on Saturday with a big, futuristic bash.

In the shadow of the Space Needle, PacSci's "space gothic" white arches have stood with slightly less prominence than their internationally known neighbor since the World's Fair, when Garfield High School alum Minoru Yamasaki designed the temporary U.S. Science Pavilion. The project helped establish Yamasaki as a force in modern architecture—he'd get tapped to shape New York's World Trade Center shortly thereafter—and ushered in the Pacific Science Center, which opened the day after the expo's end on October 22, 1962. 

Sixty years later, the institution's unplanned permanence comes with costs. Everything from the plumbing to the roof needs upgrading after a two-year closure.

But in the wake of the pandemic shutdown and an escape from financial ruin in the years before, PacSci has managed to survive and, perhaps, discover a new model for building a more sustainable, accessible science institution in the twenty-first century.

In large part this latest iteration of PacSci draws from the culture of tech and innovation in its backyard. Daugherty, who'd worked at McKinsey, Expedia, and Amazon before joining the nonprofit, has deployed a "Day One" approach to running the center since taking over in December of 2015. "We obsess over our customers," he says.

Blockbuster traveling exhibitions had long driven traffic to the campus before Daugherty arrived. But with the center $10 million in debt, Daugherty held meetings not merely with deep-pocketed donors but with a broader range of community members, asking how the museum could serve them. Those conversations yielded some new core values in its mission—"curiosity, discovery, experimentation, and critical thinking" essentially—but also an emphasis on inviting more Seattleites to experience it and gather there.

After Daugherty sold a parking garage to pay off the organization's debt, the nonprofit expanded its Science on Wheels programs to reach more Title I schools. It rolled out free or nearly free memberships for those struggling economically. It invited local startups, like a virtual reality company, to incubate their ideas at the center. "There are a lot of entrepreneurs who are hesitant to get out in front of their potential customers," says Daugherty, who was a University of Washington CoMotion entrepreneur in residence before joining PacSci. "And they think, well, my product's not ready, my service is not ready yet. And all the literature and wisdom on entrepreneurship says that's the wrong way to think about it." Visitors, meanwhile, could glean a bit more about prototyping and innovation in practice as techies worked on whiteboards and folding tables.

Bringing concepts from the corporate sector, literally and figuratively, into a nonprofit space may well have saved PacSci. But the pandemic presented yet another challenge to its future. When the center shut its doors, a mass layoff ensued. Daugherty knew the organization would have to further lean on its principles: on curiosity, on innovation.

During the summer of 2020, PacSci still held its annual camps. About 1,500 participated on-site, and about the same amount virtually. It went much better than expected. "We had campers from the other side of the country participating virtually. We've never had that. So we realized we were onto something."

Shortly thereafter, it launched "virtual field trips" that reached nearly 30,000 Title I students in 2021. While the experience of walking among the fluttering wonders of the Tropical Butterfly House or its Laser Dome couldn't be mimicked via video conference, teachers could still supplement their curricula with 45-minute video sessions focused on the brain, or combustion, or planets. Even as PacSci's physical space has reopened, classes are still streaming material produced at its onsite studios. "Our goal is to serve every pre-K-through-five, low-income school every single year across the state of Washington."

It's a bold goal, Daugherty acknowledges. But PacSci is "a special place," he says. "I'm very conscious of the fact that I'm taking care of an institution that has a long legacy and has a long future."

A jacket from Dr. Dixy Lee Ray, the former Washington governor who became director of PacSci in 1963, hangs on his office door. Much of the furniture nearby remains from the World's Fair. Daugherty can quote the famous expo's commissioner, Dr. Athelstan F. Spilhaus, at length. "Science will always be an unfinished story," he says, citing Spilhaus, " the Science Center itself is an unfinished story."

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