Beyond 'Bodies,' can MOSI be reincarnated?

When he's not tending to janitorial duties, the museum chief is trying to capitalize on success.

Published September 2, 2006

TAMPA - It took bodies to breathe life into the Museum of Science and Industry, and museum president Wit Ostrenko is no dummy. He realizes the million-plus visitors MOSI had in the last year won't keep coming for the kids' exhibits and the hot dogs.

"Bodies, the Exhibition," the controversial display featuring preserved and posed cadavers, dissected organs and floating fetuses, is ending its yearlong stay at MOSI on Tuesday, a day later than previously announced. "I'll be able to roll a bowling ball through the lobby and not hit anybody," Ostrenko said. Like others, he wonders what's next.

He pondered an exhibit on stem cell research using real embryos, or perhaps something on intelligent design or global warming. Museum board members were intrigued by photos of an Ice Man exhibit until they found out it didn't include the actual corpse of the Ice Man.

"We've been spoiled," Ostrenko said.

The expectations don't stop at the science. A forthcoming 15-year plan for MOSI includes the possibility of a high-rise hotel, a parking garage, a bioscience research park, a tree-canopied nature walk behind the museum and even a monorail snaking through the campus. The idea is to make MOSI a destination attraction, like Busch Gardens or St. Petersburg's Dali Museum.

Some might consider that a lot of ambition for a nonprofit that needed a $2.3-million bailout from Hillsborough County to make ends meet last year. The 24-year-old MOSI, which is expected to receive $600,000 from the county this year, appears to struggle at times with important business details.

Complaints about cleanliness and broken exhibits, such as the earthquake simulator in the new "Disasterville" wing, regularly plague the museum. The campus looks dull and uninviting from Fowler Avenue, where the museum sits. Parking is often inadequate for the thousands who visit each day.

Terrace Community Middle School, a charter school that has been at MOSI since 2001, is breaking its $300,000-a-year lease and relocating. The charter school says it needs more room and its own identity. And "there have been issues over the years," said Gil Schisler, president of the school's board of directors. All that traffic from "Bodies" didn't help. "I don't want to cast aspersions because I think they're doing the best they can with what they have," Schisler said.

Late last month MOSI's board of directors met to discuss issues raised in an anonymous but widely circulated letter that described job loss, financial difficulties and customer complaints that were being ignored.

Vice chairman Robert Lang said no one echoed the letter's complaints. But Ostrenko acknowledged there are areas to improve. And, he said, seasonal workers hired specifically for "Bodies" will be laid off, as expected, now that the exhibit is ending its run.

"Are there problems? Sure," he said. "You're going to have problems in any organization."

For every pie-in-the-sky dream he has for MOSI, Ostrenko also sees a dirty bathroom stall, an unhappy customer, a broken flight simulator awaiting a part.

"Trust me," he said, "my list of complaints about this place is a lot longer than anyone else's."

* * *

When "Bodies" opened last year on Aug. 18, two days ahead of schedule, it had already created more buzz than MOSI's past exhibits combined. The state's Anatomical Board took offense to the unidentified and unclaimed bodies from China, some of which were sliced in half or posed in various activities.

People were lined up outside before MOSI opened that day, and on the first Saturday after "Bodies" opened, a record-breaking 6,500 visitors showed. Some feared the state would shut the exhibit down. But more than a year later, "Bodies" has welcomed more than 586,000 visitors and counting (an estimated 20,000 more are expected over the Labor Day weekend). That's up from 320,384 during roughly the same period before "Bodies" arrived.

Ostrenko also credited the "Bodies" buzz for helping bring 1,053,804 people - including summer camp kids, IMAX moviegoers and other special event patrons - through the doors between July 30, 2005, and July 30, 2006.

Membership has grown by about 50 percent since "Bodies" opened, bringing the total to 13,000 memberships ranging from $45 to $150 each.

While the final numbers aren't in, MOSI will gross about $3.5-million from "Bodies." Much of that will go to paying the "Bodies" exhibitor company. The museum expects to wind up with about $1-million it can put toward improvements.

To attract more blockbuster exhibits, the museum needs more space and parking. "Bodies," for example, was designed for a 20,000-square-foot space. It's crammed into half of that.

In June, Hillsborough County commissioners agreed to give MOSI 25 acres the county owns adjacent to the museum, and Ostrenko has been accepting proposals to build a $40-million to $50-million hotel on it. The hotel, he said, is critical to draw more museum visitors and could net up to $1-million per year. It could also take care of space and parking issues by stacking a garage, a convention center, an observation deck and a restaurant in the hotel.

Some commissioners want to wean MOSI off the $600,000 of government funding, but that doesn't appear to be in the plans. During the pitch for a MOSI hotel, Commissioner Brian Blair asked if the generated revenue from the hotel would mean less strain on the county's budget.

"I said, 'Absolutely not,' " MOSI vice chairman Lang said. "Unless you want us to run this thing on a shoestring budget, but that's not in the best interest of science and education. If anything, our budget will grow as we grow, just as the county's budget will grow as the county grows."

County budget director Eric Johnson doesn't foresee any cuts in MOSI funding. "I don't mean this in any negative way, but as they find ways to generate revenue, they seem to have a list of opportunities that need more funding."

That's just the way nonprofit science museums are, Ostrenko said. They will never be money-makers and they'll always need a little more than, say, Lowry Park Zoo (which will receive $500,000 this year and next).

"If a fish dies at an aquarium, you can put a new fish in the tank and nobody knows the difference," Ostrenko said. "If equipment goes down at MOSI, you have to fix it, take it down, put a new one in its place. That's expensive."

* * *

On Friday, Ostrenko was overwhelmed with the countdown rush at "Bodies," which included four busloads of schoolchildren. Keeping the place clean and running smoothly was a losing battle, and Ostrenko took on some custodial duties.

"I went into the restroom and noticed one of the urinals was leaking," he said. "We've got to fix those kind of things."

The county and MOSI are preparing a new management contract that will detail who cleans what and who takes care of landscaping, because "we never really quite spelled that out for some reason," Ostrenko said. Museum officials also spent part of this past week working out broken ties with Terrace Community Middle School, which already has a new site off Fowler Avenue. The school must find a new tenant to pick up the remaining 10 years on its contract.

Much is uncertain for MOSI as "Bodies" leaves and the 15-year plan, with about $100-million in improvements, begins.

"We're a victim of our own success," Ostrenko said, but added that can only be a good thing. "I think the goal is to keep breaking new ground."

Ostrenko hinted of a hot exhibit next summer that will be "totally different" from "Bodies," but perhaps just as big. He would only say that it was tied to a Hollywood film and that MOSI would be the site of its world premiere.

"I'm looking for some kind of controversy in it somewhere," he said.

Emily Nipps can be reached at nipps@sptimes.com or (813) 269-5313.


"Bodies, the Exhibition"

Where: Museum of Science and Industry, 4801 E Fowler Ave., Tampa

When: 9 a.m. until 9 p.m., through Tuesday

Cost: Adults $29.95 $14.95 for "Bodies After Dark" after 5 p.m.; Seniors $26.95 ($13.95); Children 2-12 $23.95 ($12.95)

For info: Call (813) 987-6100 or visit www.mosi.org


585,730 Visitors who came to see "Bodies, the Exhibition" from Aug. 18, 2005, through Thursday

320,384 Visitors to MOSI during the same time period a year earlier

$3.5-million Estimated gross revenue generated from "Bodies"

$1-million Estimated net revenue from "Bodies"