Posted by: COSI | November 16, 2009

Keeping Up With Change While Respecting The Past

While I was walking my oldest daughter down the aisle at her wedding in Virginia, the team and community here in Columbus were celebrating the 10th anniversary of the opening of COSI at its new home on West Broad. I did do a phone interview in the midst of wedding preparation with a reporter writing a story about our ten years in our current location. All sounded good—I just felt bad that I couldn’t participate in the on-site festivities.

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Current COSI location

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Old COSI location


What I didn’t anticipate was some of the online responses of concern or frustration prompted by the The Columbus Dispatch article comparing the old location with the new.

There are many great memories in this community about COSI at East Broad Street—my own included from my first visit in 1987 followed by many visits afterwards including with my own children.

The new facility definitely has a different look and feel—and some of our experiments didn’t recapture some of the early COSI qualities. But as we’ve been working so hard over the last few years to enhance and expand the experience here, there are many ways in which some of the early concerns of some are being addressed.

We’ve listened over the years and responded with re-positioning and highighting some of the older, iconic elements such as the pendulum and the spectrum tree. A significant effort has been put into expanding the human presence on the floor and the activities our teens conduct with the guests—all similar elements to the experience at the old location.

In leading change I find that there are challenges to keeping the community up-to-date and engaged in the process. But we must be doing something right— our attendance grew 23 percent this last summer and our membership continues to expand to almost 19,000 member households.

I would just hope that those who formed an opinion years ago would actually come and visit again to update their experience—we even have our free Community Open House December 6 as a no cost way to come check us out! Then maybe those who’ve fixated on an old impression can see COSI of today and share some of the pride many others have expressed in hosting the #1 rated science center in our own community.

Are there ways to do this that I’ve missed?

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Responses

  1. I grew up in Columbus and have some very fond memories of the old COSI location. I’m now a 30-something and have been to the “new” COSI several times since the move in ’99.

    Myself and a lot of friends my age were some of those quick to complain about how the new COSI wasn’t as good as the old COSI. I think many of the complaints are unfair since many (like myself) are comparing the COSI experiences of an 8-year-old self and a 30-year-old self. Childhood memories will always win.

    All that being said, the one thing that I consistently notice when visiting the new COSI is the seeming emptiness of it all. The building is massive and honestly, it’s hard to fill. Because of this the whole experience feels kind of weak, even when putting old COSI memories aside.

    Yes, the old COSI was small and cramped, but I think that was part of the charm and fun. Everywhere you turned there was something to play with and experience. Being so packed was half the reason it was so much fun (even as an older kid). Everytime you’d go back you’d find some corner you hadn’t noticed before. You could get lost at the old COSI, for better or for worse. It was an adventure. It’s like you had walked into the middle of a great science experiment. That experience has been sterilized and almost lost.

    I also get this feeling that the new COSI is trying too hard. The building and exhibits are fantastic, bright, shiny, and sprawling but in the end it maybe feels too polished. Too much flash and not enough substance. There’s something to be said about being quick-and-dirty when it works…and when it doesn’t, that’s okay because the exhibits themslves were experiments – which is exactly what COSI is about.

    Did the old COSI feel hip and modern? No. It felt old but comforting to people young and old. It felt like there was a history bigger than myself, and that alone was part of the experience. It was like the grandpa that didn’t mind if his grandchild came in and played with all the stuff on the shelf. It felt safe to run around and touch and play with everything.

    Granted, the new COSI will have its own memories for families as it grows. If anything, it should nice to know that the old COSI made such an impact on so many people. It just left some big shoes to fill and 10 years cannot be expected to live up to 30 years of history.

    I think the new COSI has yet to find that balance of old charm and new wonder. If COSI was able to fill the new building with amazements (big and small) it would help. Bringing back old exhibits is great but COSI is/was about the full experience, the environment. As it stands, COSI just isn’t quite there yet. But over the next 10 years I hope that will change.

    Oh, and one word: planetarium

  2. Thanks for your comments and thoughtful suggestions. I agree that the basic nature of the facility is part of the contrast–like the feel of a crowded little corner restaurant versus the same number of people spread out over a large, new restaurant.

    We hear you and yes, will continue to find ways to “fill in” as we have the opportunities and resources. And thanks for giving us credit for what we have done since opening and recognizing the transformation process we are going through. Feedback like yours is very helpful and appreciated.

  3. It’s a difficult situation. I don’t know the right answer, but here are my thoughts on both problems and solutions (sorry it came as long as a paper).

    While I haven’t visited much in the last couple of years (for a variety of reasons, most of which have nothing to do with COSI itself (wish I’d noticed the free day earlier)), I think you guys have done most of what you can do and I have been happy with many of the changes.

    All of the painting that’s gone on has made the place feel much less bland. The pendulum moving to the front and the Spectrum look great (and I really like the outside sign as well).

    I don’t know if this will help, but here are the problems as I see them. Some of them simply can’t be solved at this point, but there may be some things that can be done for others.

    Structural issues:

    At the old COSI, there was so much so close together that helped in a lot of ways.

    Example: I’m the oldest of 5 and when I got too big, I obviously couldn’t follow my Mom and younger siblings into KIDSPACE. My mom and I hated that, but it didn’t wreck things because as big a KIDSPACE was, it was structured so that I could be in Family Space and play and actually still be able to call to them unless they were in the clear back. We wouldn’t do that at the new COSI. My youngest sibling may have spent one time in the new Little Kidspace because it means completely separating from the group. This experience is true to lesser extents other ways because of how segmented the different areas are from each other.

    With all of that said, you guys have done the best possible job that I think you could of turning the size and layout of the new COSI into a plus. I don’t think you can ever truly turn it into one, but the interaction with a variety of outside organizations and the bigger traveling exhibits/events are a good way to keep people coming in and experiencing COSI.

    Low Tech: When you get down to it, I think the biggest problem with the move was that everything went from relatively low tech, but neat, to high tech and expensive.

    A couple of examples:
    1. Ocean is a very visually appearing area. I love to go and look around in it. The water play areas don’t even begin to compare to the ones at the old COSI though. You could literally have kids playing for hours at the water tables, bubble areas, squirting, etc. Even with everything working, there’s really not as much for kids in the water play area of Ocean and the things that are there aren’t things that kids are going to spend as long with (plus they break down a lot more too).

    2. The cost of running COSI is a problem in way too many ways. I don’t want to harp on this too much, because it’s mute now (and I’m sure you know it), but the new planetarium shows (not the most recent ones) really weren’t much better than old ones (I actually preferred the old ones, but that was probably just nostalgia). Paying a fortune to run the dome through killed it and one reason to visit COSI.

    The old COSI was a relatively inexpensive way to spend a day. Even accounting for inflation, the new COSI is a lot more expensive. I went to COSI for a job fair a little awhile ago. It had been awhile since I had been there and I wanted to spend money. I looked at the cost of staying the rest of the day though and decided I couldn’t justify it. I went to the cafeteria. I looked at the prices of the food and decided I’d eat at home. This is a lot bigger deal if you are planning on bringing a family with you.

    My suggestions for reasonable things to do now:
    1. Even if it messes with the scenery, do something with the water play areas of Ocean. Look to the old water tables as examples.
    2. Keep up the good work with the painting, etc. It makes the place feel much more alive.
    3. I’m not sure at this point if increased attendance will make up for the lack of revenue, but long term, if more people are going to come to COSI, prices have be altered some. Looking at the membership rates, they aren’t that bad (I think it’s actually less for a family than what it was jacked up to after the new COSI opened), but I would offer a family option for single day that is less expensive. Also I’m a big believer that making people feel like they were ripped off eating is a big turn off long term.
    4a. Put more exhibits in the hallways. I don’t know what COSI has in storage, but between whatever is still left over from the old COSI and the new sections that closed, there should be room for more. I know fitting things in right is difficult, but you should always feel like you are in an exhibit, not walking between 2 different ones.
    4b. If it could fit and you could cheaply get the materials (not sure this is feasible), slowly construct a new Time Tunnel as a hall exhibit (maybe add a scene every couple of months). This might also work with something like the presidents.
    5. On point 4, put special attention to whatever is outside kidspace. Put some things that other group members can spend some time doing while others are in kidspace (especially for those just too big to bring in).
    6. Bring back the History of COSI section that once was in City View. I know almost no one even knew the section existed (it should have been labeled differently on the map), but it was very well done and showed care for COSI’s history.

    Conclusion: Ultimately, I think the initial plans were flawed badly. People expected a lot after the move and most were disappointed. This led to negative reactions which would take a long time to overcome even if they could all be corrected. I do think though, in recent years, the center has done a lot of what it needs to. It will never win if it tries to be the old COSI, but embracing a little more of its past and continuing to innovate are both key.

  4. Just to add a little more, Brian is definitely right about the memories part. I don’t think COSI will often be as enjoyable to a 20, 30, 40 year old as his/her memories from when they were 8, 10, 12. All else being equal, most who remember both, are going to be predisposed to the old for simple nostalgia. Add in the initial disappointment at the results (prices, almost nothing coming over, an entirely different experience (it didn’t even feel like it was about science and industry when it opened) etc), and it takes time to recover.

    Also: Bring back face painting. It’ cheap (kids do it themselves or with parents) and I guarantee you many will still associate it with COSI immediately.

  5. I think a lot of my feelings have been address here by Brian and Eric, but I want to add at least one more thing, comning from someone who used to actually go there in high school.

    A definitely agree that part of the appeal of the old COSI was that EVERYWHERE you looked, there was something to do. Even before you got in the door, there was STUFF to look at. Then after you paid and got in, that hallway opened up and there was that crowded wonderful madness. Keep in mind I have a terrible fear of crowds, but there was just so much to DO there that it all fell away and I forgot my fear, just jumped in with both feet.

    Everything led into everything else, there was no blank space at all. Even the stairwells has things to read as you went up. And it wasn’t all about science present and future… there was a bit of a sense of where science has come from and how far it’s come, which helped to fill those spaces.

    I agree with the above commenters on the points about the low tech but cool stuff. I always loved kidspace, familyspace, all that stuff – there was a section for all ages right in there which was GREAT. It was loud, it was busy – and that was part of the appeal. It didn’t just get kids interested in science, it got them enthralled with it. It showed science was everywhere and everything and anything could be science. I could go there and spend a whole day and STILL hadn’t seen everything – I can’t currently do that with the new COSI so I sincerely hope it’s going to keep growing.

    That’s just it, we’re paying more, paying to get into different sections, but there’s not as much there yet. I was amazed to find out how much COSI actually got rid of in the move – I know The Works has some of it over in Newark but not all. Even if it was going to be changed it could have made nice filler until you got things going.

    I came to the new COSI as a school trip not long after it first opened, then was there again just a year and a half ago, and it still felt “empty” and didn’t feel like much had changed. Some had changed, but not as much as I expected to have changed since 2002.

    I think the overall sense that gets the nostalgic folks going is… yeah, the new COSI is trendy. But the old COSI was TIMELESS, and that’s much more important in the long run. Trends come and go, that’s what traveling exhibits are for. But your core should be timeless.

    Heck, I remember for my entire childhood my favorite traveling exhibit even was one that always came back around every few years… the dinosaurs. Kids love dinosaurs. That fact seems to hold no matter what generation you are. I mean, it was this nothing exhibit and not even intereactive, but there they were, this big animatronic dinosaurs coming to life before your very eyes complete with growls and roars and rumbles, and the little fact sheets all over the place. Even after CGI started coming out I always found that cool because it felt like you were standing in the room with something you would never otherwise be able to see. It was outdated, but it was NEAT.

    The other one I always loved was our school field trip to Mission to Mars. That was one of the coolest experiences, in part because it was immersive and it lasted for a while… we had tasks to do and everybody had a place, and there was no downtime – it was all DOING. I recaptured a bit of that with the CSI experience the year before last, but even that didn’t last as long as wasn’t quite the immersive experience I had with Mars. It was fun, don’t get me wrong… but I can’t help but feel you could be doing more with things like that. I’d love to see more immersive things like that, ones that last a little longer like the Mission to Mars – really that was one of your best. Sure lasting longer means you can’t do as many walkthroughs in an hour, and I know now people have to pay tickets for the traveling exhibits, but for the big immersion projects you can actually fit more people into each run – yeah that may mean families will have to work with strangers unless they book a big group, but you know? I think that may be good for people. We don’t always interact with each other these days, I think a place like COSI should foster that kind of teamwork now and then.

    I do apologize, I tend to ramble and I don’t know if I’ve expressed myself as well as I want to, I often don’t when I’m passionate about something. But mostly it’s me trying to agree with the above commenters and offer examples… with the addition that I’d like to see more timelessness in what’s being added as well.


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