Seven Questions for Tifferney White

The Discovery Children’s Museum chief on hearing the birds, admission price and sparking kids’ career interests

tifferney_white_ceo_discovery_childrens_museum_by_krystal_ramirez_WEBPhoto by Krystal Ramirez

You majored in chemistry and psychology at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, North Carolina. How did that combination lead to a career
in museums?

I wanted to go to medical school to become a psychiatrist. I did both degrees in five years; they’re completely opposite, no classes sufficed for the other; and I wanted to take a year to do something different before going to medical school. I was working in a biomedical research program on campus, and the principal investigator [encouraged me to get] interviewing experience. The science museum had open positions, and the application process would be good practice.

It got serious. It was for Science Club specialist, a grant-funded program to work with underserved, project-area students who wouldn’t typically come to museums—going out into their community, doing hands-on science to spark an interest in hopes that they would choose science careers. I chose to work for a year and do this program.

What made you decide to put medicine behind you?

I had to open myself up. To spark an interest in kids, you had to expose them to all areas of science—not just chemistry. It forced me to do more in biology and urban ecology. I was planning a class on birds, and I had to learn to teach. I woke up one day and thought, “That’s a morning dove.” I heard birds for the first time; it was like, “Oh! This is the experience the kids are having.” Growing up in a city, there’s not a lot of nature, so you have to tune in to it.

At the museum we had boa constrictors. I was deathly afraid of snakes, but I wanted to expose these students to reptiles. What if their only opportunity to interact with a snake is through me? I asked a coworker to work with me and got comfortable. [During my presentation] many students who were in the corner were touching the snake with two fingers by the end. Oh, my gosh, [I thought] this is what I’m supposed to be doing. At that point I was able to let the medical school go and not feel bad about it.

At the Discovery Children’s Museum since 2007 and president/CEO since 2015, what gives you that sense of satisfaction you initially felt?

Walking out onto the floor and seeing parents [and children] have a real experience as a family that’s substantial, valuable and educational. In today’s world, that’s difficult to do. And it doesn’t involve their phones, an iPad or a laptop! Success for us is getting people through the door—when we have 3,300 people for a themed day [such as Star Wars in January, to be repeated on June 11], and everyone comes to visit. You have this energy and electricity in the building.

It’s been three years since the museum doubled in size and moved to Symphony Park. How’s it worked out?

It has made us more attractive to all types of people. We had some struggles when we were at the other location because some families did not want to go into that area of town, even though it’s only three miles from here. We would get calls, and people would say, “I’m sitting in the parking lot and I’m never coming in. There’s homeless people outside.” We have a whole clientele of visitors who would come here that wouldn’t go there. We’re not reaching as many people as we would like—we’d love to be at capacity every day of the week.

One holdup for some may be the $14.50 admission for everybody older than 1 year old. Why is there no locals discount or discount for youngsters?

It’s actually not enough to operate. About 65-70 percent of what the museum needs to operate we earn through [the admission fee]. The other comes from the support of individuals, donors and corporations. We have to charge at least enough so that we can keep the place open and financially stable. When we derived the price, it was really thoughtful and intentional. How much does a movie cost? You’re in the movie for what, an hour and a half or two hours? You’re in the museum for a whole day. We have membership options that allow you unlimited entry throughout the year.

We serve about 80 percent local. We’re getting tourists without really trying. That’s why we never looked at locals versus tourists pricing. If we look at pricing at the former location, children with a different price than adults, logistically it just was a nightmare. … On top of that, at this location, it’s not just about the child—it’s about the family. We spent a lot of money and paid attention to industry research to make this a family experience. Everything is sized for adults, so if you get on the Summit and want to slide down, it’s big enough for adults. That’s our justification for having one price.

What new content are you focusing on?

One area in which we have a good footing and we’re trying to expand is nanotechnology, an area of science that focuses on very small things. When things are that small, they behave differently, and there’s a lot of research being done and a lot of products coming out. Consumers are purchasing these products (such as sunscreen), but don’t know what they are or the societal and health implications. We are the liaison between the scientists and the laypeople.

What does the museum mean to the community?

Las Vegas is still young; we’re building that cultural aspect. We got a performing arts center just four years ago and now we have a world-class children’s museum, and we want the community to embrace that. The children’s museum is relative to every single entity that’s out there. We are giving children experiences and exposure that allows them to be successful. With that exposure, the sky’s the limit.