At the start of the year, as initial vaccines went into arms and the world began to reopen, the team at the Museum of Discovery didn't exactly expect smooth sailing, but they certainly didn't expect the 2021 they got.
The historic snowfall Little Rock received in February caused pipes to burst in the River Market museum, resulting in millions of dollars of damage and months of ongoing repairs.
Now, after recently reopening to the public and with the signature Spark! fundraisers set for late October and early November, MoD CEO Kelley Bass weighs in on the rollercoaster of a year and hopes for the future.
When you first got the call on Feb. 18, what was going through your mind?
Total disbelief. This really can’t be happening. And then when I heard the extent of the damage, my disbelief turned to frustration and then sadness. Business had just started to pick up after a very slow restart after we reopened in June after 14 weeks of COVID-19 closure, and now this. Looking back on it, I must admit self-pity sunk in after a while. Adding to this sadness and self-pity is that a good friend of mine had died of COVID-19 two days before we discovered the flood, and living on a hill with all that snow, I couldn’t get out to see his family or get to the museum to see the damage.
Walk us through the extent of that damage.
The boiler and connecting pipes on our roof broke. They are housed in a heated enclosure, but the electricity had been off for a good while because of the snowstorm, and that allowed it to freeze. The fractures poured millions of gallons of water down through the offices on the fourth, third and second floors and into the two levels of the museum, all on the eastern half.
The damage to our part of the building was about $2 million, and the destroyed exhibits were valued at about $3.5 million. We have three permanent galleries; 70% of the exhibits in the two galleries on the eastern half of the museum were destroyed, and 30% were damaged, but can be repaired. The western half of the museum was not impacted, so that one gallery is fine. All our office furniture and most of our computers were also destroyed. I think that total is about $200,000.
What was the response from the community when you shared the news?
It was amazing. People from all over the city reached out to us to see how they could help. We had groups, and I also had personal friends, offer to come rip up wet carpet and drywall, but I told them we had a company doing that.
The Little Rock Zoo allowed us to use two buildings on its campus — one for our mobile studio so we could continue the virtual programming we do and one to house our animals. The Clinton Center offered us trucks and equipment. The Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub offered us office space, and I personally took them up on it. I worked from a conference room there for weeks. And many others offered help as well as condolences.
Tell us about the repairs and remodel. What returned and what’s new at the MoD?
The first thing that happened after the water was contained and the damaged flooring and drywall were removed was a rebuild of all of that. And even the areas that were not damaged got new flooring and a new coat of paint, part of what insurance companies call “line of sight,” so you don’t have “the new part” and “the old part.”
We are fortunate we own a collection of exhibits that we typically rent to other museums. We’ve got four of those filling the galleries that were damaged. We also have a new exhibit called “Land the Shuttle” that we had commissioned to be built before the flood happened.
Fast forward to August and you’ve reopened to the public with a few projects left to finish. What was opening day like?
It was so great to see people back in the museum who aren’t just us! We are a mission-driven organization, and to fulfill our mission we must engage with people, whether that’s within our walls or at any of the many locations where we typically do outreach programs.
With the ongoing pandemic and all these renovations, do you feel the upcoming Spark! events hold a different significance this year?
We remain very hopeful Spark! can come off without a hitch in its typical, in-person format on Nov. 2. It seems that everyone has realized the pandemic is going to be here for the foreseeable future, and between vaccinations and the “mask up and carry on” mentality, I hope people will feel good coming to the museum. Our Spark! luncheon is set for Oct. 25, and we’ll have an in-person option and also a discounted virtual option.
The money we raise through Spark! is important every year, but this year even more. Interestingly, last year’s Spark!, with a hybrid live/virtual luncheon and a fully virtual gala, was the most financially successful of the eight events. And [in September we were] running significantly ahead of last year’s pace two months before the gala.
When you walk through the MoD today, what goes through your mind?
I’m excited about the present. We’re back, we’ve got a great looking museum that is more open and has better sight lines and more natural light. But I’m even more excited about the future. The exhibit design firm we’re working with has put a plan in place for the exhibits that will be in the two galleries that flooded, but it will be two years before they’re built and installed. We have an exciting new feature coming, a three-tower climbing structure that is also in the design phase. We hope to have it installed in a year, and it will be the most popular feature we’ve ever had. So we’re good now, but we will be even better later.