FAIRBANKS — Not so long ago, an almost mandatory part of a tourist’s visit to Fairbanks was a picture next to something at the University of Alaska Museum of the North.
The sprawling museum at UA’s Fairbanks campus is a spot where visitors can run their hands along a nearly three-ton copper nugget, check out an ancient mummified steppe bison or gaze at Sydney Laurence’s famed painting of Mount McKinley. The museum’s mounted brown bear, nicknamed Otto, has been photographed so much during the past 60 years that last summer the staff asked people to submit their favorite picture of the 8-foot-9-inch behemoth to create a giant mosaic.
Those attractions, however, may no longer be enough. The Museum of the North has seen its attendance spiral downward in recent years, spurring administrators to look at new approaches to reverse those slumping numbers.
Since 2008, when a global recession led to a sudden plunge in visitor numbers to Alaska, the museum has lost more than a quarter of its visitors. By 2012, admission was at about half the level it was at its peak in 1993, when 146,000 people passed through the doors.
Those declining visitor numbers are a big deal at the Museum of the North, where attendance and gift shop sales account for about 40 percent of the overall budget. The reduced revenue has led to unfilled staff positions, fewer marketing dollars and cutbacks in exhibits. Five years later, the museum still is working to recover.
“I think it’s just sort of the perfect storm of things that happened,” said Dan David, the museum’s director of visitor services.
The solution, museum administrators believe, may be just outside their doors. If fewer out-of-state visitors are coming to the museum, Alaskans are needed to fill in that gap.
Museum interim director Aldona Jonaitis launched a plan this spring to bring more locals to the museum. In April, the museum reduced admission rates for Alaskans and is about to implement a handful of other changes designed to make the facility more of a local attraction.
In October, the facility will begin hosting the Fairbanks Children’s Museum in its auditorium. That change should help with an age that hasn’t had many reasons to attend in the past, Jonaitis said.
“We’ve never really been able to make exhibits that accommodate that age,” she said. “That’s one thing that I think is going to make a big difference.”
The museum also plans to begin offering hour-long speciality tours, which will provide a behind-the-scenes look at some of the 1.4 million artifacts and specimens that aren’t on display. Jonaitis said the tours will provide a “very special, very unique experience” that will give local residents a closer view of what the museum does.
Some in-house displays, such as an examination of winter hibernation and an upcoming exhibit on climbing Denali, were made with a local audience in mind, Jonaitis said.
Jonaitis said there will be more changes, though what they’ll involve isn’t clear just yet. The museum plans to hold focus groups of local residents to see what would attract them to the museum.
“We want to meet with out constituencies to find out what they want from the museum,” she said. “One of the problems is I don’t think anyone had asked that before.”
Competitors or complements?
The decline in museum attendance — from about 101,000 to 74,000 annually during the past five years — overlaps with the opening of the new Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center in downtown Fairbanks. The center includes exhibits and space for groups that include the Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau and Tanana Chiefs Cultural Programs.
The Morris Thompson center has seen its annual attendance blossom from 64,000 to 114,000 since it opened in 2008, but officials at the museum and the visitors center don’t believe one is siphoning visitors from the other.
Jonaitis said the two facilities serve different audiences. The Morris Thompson center doesn’t charge admission and focuses on introducing tourists to the Interior. The Museum of the North includes displays with more of an emphasis on education, research or art.
“My belief about communities is that you can never have too many museums — you can never have too many things to do,” Jonaitis said. “I’ve never thought of the Morris Thompson center as competition. I’ve thought of them as complementing each other.”
Cindy Schumaker, executive director of the Morris Thompson center, said the visitors center doesn’t contract with tour bus companies, which deliver many out-of-state visitors to the Museum of the North. She said her facility is focused more on independent visitors and commonly refers travelers to Fairbanks’ various museums.
“We see ourselves as a first stop,” she said. “The exhibits are really there to whet their appetite for all the things available in Fairbanks.”
Contact staff writer Jeff Richardson at 459-7518.