The Real Deal Miami

The Closing: Gillian Thomas

The serial science museum CEO on the regenerative capacities of science museums

September 23, 2013 02:00PM
By Emily Schmall

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Gillian Thomas

Gillian Thomas

Gillian Thomas, the British-born chief executive of the Miami Science Museum, was headhunted to oversee the development of a new science museum in 2003. A decade later, construction of the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum is finally underway and set to be completed by 2015. It will form part of a cultural trifecta in downtown Miami that includes the Pérez Art Museum Miami and One Thousand Museum, Pritzker prize-winning architect Zaha Hadid’s first U.S. skyscraper. The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Where and when were you born?

I was born in Bury (Lancashire) England, March 14, 1944.

How is it that you came to Miami?

I have worked on quite a lot of major projects in different places. I started working many years ago at the City for Science and Industry, which was a major redevelopment project in northeast Paris. That was my first experience seeing how a science center could transform a run-down area. I found it fascinating how a government investment could help private investment take off.

Aside from running the current Miami Science Museum and developing its future incarnation as the $265 million Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science, what exactly is your job?

My background is in science education. I really think it’s important to everybody’s future, so seeing how you can bring it to more people in an enjoyable fashion is really what I try to do.

I also worked in the north of England in a place called Halifax, a 15-acre rundown site with a derelict mill on it. Then I was the CEO of a project called @Bristol. We had 12 acres that was part of a 55-acre redevelopment site. It was a place that people raced and crashed stolen cars, so it was a very ambitious plan that wouldn’t have worked without an infusion of public funding to provide the core of the money.

How do science museums regenerate areas?

After @Bristol, I worked as a consultant for two years, mainly for the Reynolds Foundation out of Las Vegas, who were investing in a strategic plan for Nevada, Arkansas and Oklahoma. At the same time I was working on projects in Qatar and Trinidad. I would be traveling around these very different cultural areas, where everyone is really united by the need for the next generation to have better science education because it offers a better life for people. I was interested in places that have a very mixed community and how to go about creating enjoyable learning experiences in these different environments.

Did you have any reservations about delving into the Miami project?

I had never done a general obligation bond, I’ll be frank about it, so that while I was used to securing public funding in Europe, I never had in the U.S. It was the sort of challenge I thought would be a worthwhile thing to do. I thought the site was absolutely fabulous and could not imagine how it had managed to be left for so long, left sitting there, inhabited by the homeless. It was a sort of tragedy that needed rectifying.

Did you expect the process to take more than a decade to complete?

I figured five years – four years for the project and one year for what I thought was the Miami factor but obviously, I didn’t get the Miami factor right (laughs). It’s made me realize just how much this museum is really loved in the community – it’s widespread, it’s not just sort of the Coral Gables people. It’s the most diverse museum I’ve ever worked on, which is reflective of the community. I just thought this was a really great challenge to try and do something that would work here, because this is like the way the rest of the U.S. will be in 20 years time.

Where do you see the new science museum fitting within private and public plans for South Florida?

Miami is like Chicago was after the great fire. People are coalescing about wanting to make Miami a great city for the future. I see the science museum as pivotal to the regeneration of downtown because it will bring in a lot of visitors. The aquarium will draw a really broad demographic and it focuses on the habits of South Florida, taking you from the inland hammocks going out to the Gulf stream, and it culminates in this 500,000-gallon tank, the biggest single piece of acrylic in an aquarium in the U.S., with sharks and rays and turtles and tuna. Science museums on the whole do best if they have something that ties them to their local environment. Our top floor takes a selection of five different habitats of South Florida – we call it our ikebana version of South Florida because we’ve put each one in a container so that you can see it beautifully arranged so you’ll see more of the Florida Everglades there than you ever would going out to the Everglades.

Several scientists foresee drastic environmental consequences to South Florida with climate change. Is climate change education a component of the museum?

We think the broad concept of trying to set up a sustainable city is really important. You have to develop a really fun, hands-on, engaging experience, and then try to shift people into something more in-depth. We do a lot of experimental research work generally funded by federal grants to really target how we can best communicate more difficult concepts, and then we look at what the implications are for the exhibits that we want to develop.

What do you like most or least about living in South Florida?

I love the light and the vegetation. I love the tropical sense of burgeoning life—it grows so fast that every day you see something different. I like the diversity of people. It’s a very easy place to move to for a non-American because people don’t have preconceptions of what you should be. Every other place I’ve worked, there’s always a group of sober, serious people who insist it has to be serious science. In Miami, everyone’s united around the fact that it has to be exciting and event-rich — science with a wow is what we’re after. Everybody wants to have their socks knocked off and I don’t think it’s frivolous. There’s a much higher attention to design quality and aesthetics, and I think that’s very encouraging because in a public space, every detail does communicate a message.

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