The Fort Worth Museum of Science and History is working to move forward its application for reaccreditation after it was put on hold earlier this year.
The American Alliance of Museums, the accrediting body, tabled the Fort Worth museum’s application for one year, but did not revoke its current status. The museum said that peer reviewers raised questions about the museum’s leadership and use of its collections.
Accreditation is not necessary to run a museum, but it helps institutions establish credibility, compete for grants and stay in good standing with foundations and other donors. Losing that status could potentially threaten the museum’s financial footing.
Newly minted museum president Regina Faden is confident that a recent update the museum sent to the accrediting body addresses those concerns. Her predecessor, interim president Orlando Carvalho, started the process, she added.
“Those were really the big questions and those are fair questions to ask,” Faden said. “But it’s been revived, rejuvenated (and) put in place.”
A new leader and ‘a smooth glide path’
The museum has been accredited since 1971, but institutions must reapply for accreditation every 10 years. Carvalho said that after COVID-19 shutdowns delayed its submission package, the museum reapplied too early coming out of lockdown.
“Frankly, it was at a time when we really were in this transition period … going from the COVID world to the post-COVID world,” he told the Report in an interview shortly before the new president was announced. “Some of the documentation that we submitted in retrospect was already a little bit outdated, a little bit overtaken by events from some of the newer things that we are now doing.”
“They came back and suggested that we table the accreditation for now, given everything that we’re doing, to give us an opportunity to kind of refresh all the documentation that we submitted to them. They suggested that we resubmit our packages for next year, and, in the meantime, we didn’t lose our accreditation.”
The museum alliance declined an interview for this story but sent the following statement: “It is our policy not to speak to the specific circumstances of any particular museums or share the details of a decision.”
Faden, who comes to the museum with an extensive background in museum leadership and experience serving as a peer reviewer for the American Alliance of Museums, counts her hiring as a major step forward to addressing concerns about accreditation. She and her team have already sent updates to the accrediting body on the museum’s progress, she said.
Faden also noted that the museum is working to hire a new vice president of interpretation, collections and programs. Whoever fills this key role will help with programming at the Omni IMAX Theater, scheduling exhibitions years in advance and act as a steward for the care of growth of the museum’s collections.
That role will also be integral in the use of its collections, which Faden identified as one of the other concerns in its reaccreditation package.
“It may not have been apparent that the history collection was used as well as our science collection,” she said.
She credits her predecessor for addressing that issue.
“He opened up the gallery that had been basically used as a storage area and said, ‘Hey, why is this being used this way?’ And then brought on, I think it’s seven exhibits in the last year, large and small,” Faden said. “That is a tremendous effort on the part of the staff.”
The American Alliance of Museums reviewed 113 institutions in 2022: 88 had their applications approved, 11 had their applications tabled, none had their applications denied. The remaining 14 did not receive a final decision that year, according to the alliance’s website.
It takes between eight to 16 months to prepare all of the required documents and reaccreditation should be done every 10 years.
Two rooms at De Zavala Elementary School
The museum that Fort Worthians know today started in 1939 when the local group of Administrative Women in Education began researching children’s museums with the hopes of starting one locally. In 1941, they submitted a charter to the state for the project and in 1945 the museum opened the doors at its very first location, which consisted of two rooms in De Zavala Elementary School. By 1947, the museum moved to a larger space, the R. E. Harding House on Summit, according to the museum’s website.
As the museum grew, so did its need for more space. In 1952 the group broke ground at 1501 Montgomery St. in the Cultural District and opened its new building to the public in 1954. By 1968, the institution decided a new name was in order and the museum became known as the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History. The idea was to encourage adults to visit the museum, even if they didn’t have children.
Construction on the museum’s current building, designed by Legorreta + Legorreta of Mexico City, was completed in the fall of 2009. Van Romans, the museum’s longtime president, championed that project.
After more than 15 years, Romans left his role in 2021. Since then the museum has had two interim leaders before Faden took over in August of 2023.
A $21.6 million investment
The museum projects that the $21.6 million Jane and John Justin Foundation Omni Theater renovation will also help the institution rebound.
When the dome first opened in 1983, Omni presentations were projected directly onto its white ceiling. But when the new theater opens its doors next fall the dome will be fully digital and consist of thousands of small, high-definition LED panels with 8k resolution.
The full-scale renovation of the facility will also include an upgrade to the lobby and its ADA accessibility and the promise of larger, more comfortable theater seats.
Until this summer’s groundbreaking, the popular Omni Theater had remained mostly dormant since closing in March 2020. The closure put stress on the museum’s finances, Carvalho said. In a short period of time, Carvalho helped the museum surpass its fundraising goal and begin renovations. In an interview with the Report over the summer, he expressed confidence that the renovated Omni Theater will not face the same struggles plaguing traditional movie theaters.
“We don’t think of the Omni as a movie theater,” he said. “We think of it as an expansion of our museum and the mission, which is to educate, right? … It’s going to be a very immersive experience.”
A mix of local government entities, private foundations and individuals contributed to the Omni theater’s renovation fund, including a $5 million pledge from the city of Fort Worth and $3 million from Tarrant County.
Council members voted unanimously to approve the funds to the museum on the condition that the museum raise all other funding first and that it provide projections of its operational sustainability.
Documents gathered through a public records request and reviewed by the Report show that between March of 2020 and April of 2023 there were no emails, texts, reports or other internal communications regarding the museum’s finances — other than the proforma, or projected budget, submitted by the museum — ahead of its November 2022 vote.
During an October 2022 work session, members of the City Council asked a handful of questions and shared their memories of the theater, recalling their own experiences seeing films there or sharing that tradition with the next generation. But at the November council meeting there was no discussion before the motion for funding passed.
Mayor Mattie Parker boiled her support down to two primary reasons. First she noted the museum’s role in educating children across the city and beyond. The second reason was that the theater is part of what makes the Cultural District so unique.
“I mean, you can go from the Kimbell and see a Michelangelo over to the Carter and see some of the most well-known Western and American art in the country and then pop over and see kids in mayhem running around, seeing all the newest attractions at the Fort Worth Science and History Museum and then maybe go next door to the Cowgirl (Museum),” she said in a phone call with the Report. “I mean, how lucky are we that we can say that all those things belong in the city of Fort Worth?”
District 3 Council member Michael Crain also described the science and history museum’s Omni Theater as an asset for the city.
“And so when presented to me (and) the council, that was something that we looked at and said this is an asset we want to make sure continues to be available for all of the residents,” he told the Report in a phone call. “The plan they put together for revitalizing the old Omni theater, where I grew up, and put this new technology in place is something that’s worthwhile.”
Other members of council did not provide comment ahead of the publication deadline, but the council reaffirmed its commitment in a vote to allow the city to disperse the money at a Sept. 12 meeting.
A similar public records request filed with Tarrant County’s Budget and Risk Management department regarding its $3 million budget allocation yielded “no records responsive to your request.”
Museum officials report that they are on track to see about 240,000 visitors this year. They anticipate that the attendance will jump to about 500,000 visitors in 2025 after renovations to the theater are finished next fall. However, they expect that number to decline and level off to about 350,000 visitors per year by 2027.
The museum wanted to appeal to a larger audience when it took Children’s Museum out of its name, but in some ways, it is still working to shed that narrow association.
Carvalho told the Report in a 2022 conversation that the museum was aware of that feedback and was working on developing programming that would appeal to a wider audience.
He pointed to exhibitions like “Cowtown Takes Flight” on aviation and a celebration of the Texas Ranger Bicentennial during the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo as examples of that outreach.
Faden later echoed this priority, along with getting the Omni Theater renovated and opened for fall of 2024.
“A lot of people do know this place. ‘Oh, I came there as a kid.’ When you’re providing something that’s of value to them, they’ll come back,” she said. “It might take a little bit of time … But we’ll get there.”
To broaden its audience, the museum has made improvements to its outdoor play area to make it more accessible to visitors of all abilities. It is also working to add more shade and seating to its “DinoDig” area.
Faden is still settling into her new role, but said her main goal is to use her leadership and her team’s strengths to make sure that the museum remains successful well into the future.
“The job is to make sure that this organization, 100 years, 200 years, however far in the future, is continuing to realize its mission,” she said. “That’s always a moving target to a certain degree: new exhibits coming on, new programs coming along, the community changing … Museums are like libraries in that people use them; they come in from the community. Who are we responding to? What are those changing needs? And that (work) is never going to stop.”
Disclosure: Marianne Auld is the chair of Fort Worth Museum of Science and History’s board and also serves as a member of the Fort Worth Report board. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.
Marcheta Fornoff covers the arts for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter.