The Future of Natural History

More than 200 urban boosters—from shaggy creatives to well-tailored power-brokers to the mayor herself—gathered at the Historic Fifth Street School on Oct. 12 to discuss why 2012 will be “The Year of Downtown.” The event was all about hope and promise, but there was one nagging question: When the Lied Discovery Children’s Museum moves to its swanky new home in The Smith Center, what becomes of its old neighborhood?

For 21 years, the Lied has been a steady attraction, with 2 million visitors and a strong fundraising presence. So there’s legitimate concern that its departure will irreparably damage the fragile synergy of downtown’s Cultural Corridor on the north end of Las Vegas Boulevard. The area is still home to the Old Mormon Fort, the Las Vegas Library, the Neon Museum and Cashman Center. And the Las Vegas Shakespeare Company is moving into the Reed Whipple Cultural Center. But none of these—at least not right now—is the kind of anchor the children’s museum has been.

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The future of the corridor may lie with the modest institution just across the new pedestrian footbridge from the Lied. The Las Vegas Natural History Museum occupies a former Elks Lodge, where a 35-foot-long animatronic T-Rex has just a few inches of headroom beneath an 11-foot acoustic ceiling. A small staff of 18 part-time employees keeps the lights on and the exhibits in order. The building is 40,000 square feet, but it’s awkwardly subdivided and feels much smaller. The city leases it to the museum for $1 a year.

“We are an overlooked asset,” says the museum’s director, Marilyn Gillespie. She hopes to change that by expanding into the Lied’s soon-to-be-vacant home. This would give the museum a presence on both sides of the bridge and the space to evolve into a destination similar to L.A. County Natural History Museum in Los Angeles or the Field Museum in Chicago.

“We want to broaden the scope to more nature and science, not just natural history,” says Gillespie, who is trying to pull together a committee of local supporters to help fundraise and lobby for the expansion. “We never want to be stagnant, always growing.”

The museum has had some impressive donations in recent years: A permanent exhibit, The Treasures of Egypt, opened last year thanks to re-created artifacts donated by Luxor and a $500,000 donation from the Engelstad Family Foundation. This came on the heels of the Engelstads’ $1 million donation to bring in traveling exhibits. But that’s pocket change compared to the largesse that made the Lied’s move possible: $25 million for the new digs, plus $18 million for exhibits—all of it from Smith Center funds provided by the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation. The Natural History Museum’s expansion won’t cost that kind of money—Gillespie estimates $5-$10 million—but it will still be a tough sell.

“It would be great for the city to have the Natural History Museum expand, but it’s a big ask for donors,” says Aurore Giguet, the program director at UNLV’s Marjorie Barrick Museum. “The donor pool in Southern Nevada is very small.” Giguet says a growing museum needs a full-time staff to raise funds. The Lied has that luxury; the Natural History Museum doesn’t.

Nevertheless, Gillespie’s plan has two things going for it: First, the Natural History Museum has first right of refusal on the Lied space. Second, the expansion makes sense for the city and for the life of the Cultural Corridor. “It would be a good, compatible fit,” says Jeanne Goodrich, the executive director of the Las Vegas-Clark County Library District, which controls the Lied building.

Ah, but there’s one more challenge. “One dollar a year,” says Goodrich, “is probably much less than we would charge.”