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"The thoughts going into this were the same questions every museum in town has: How do you get people in the doors when most people going to these museums are in their 40s and 50s, and you're trying to attract people in their 20s and 30s? So now, with the shopping center and farmers market and a big stage for live music, you're going to have a lot of things to draw people in. And if you are in your 40s or 50s, mom can go shopping while dad takes the kids to see the snake exhibit."
The AMNH, almost 140 years old and located on Manhattan's Upper West Side, includes 45 halls of exhibitions and claims to attract millions of visitors annually. In 2004, it was named the country's third-most-popular family destination by the Zagat Survey U.S. Family Travel Guide. According to Charles McLean, the AMNH's senior vice president of communications and marketing, Prairiefire's first few years of exhibits are already set. The first will be about dinosaurs, with explanations of how dinosaur research is done and the most up-to-date information on how scientists are reinterpreting dinosaurs' movements, behavior and extinction.
The Merrills will be responsible for promoting the shows, but McLean says the AMNH will give them marketing support, including printed materials and images. "We'll do whatever we can to help them make it successful," McLean says.
"You can couch this in the sense that we're trying this as an experiment," he adds. "Hopefully, it'll do as well as we think it will. It's nothing we've tried anywhere else, really. It's an opportunity for us to bring the content we normally only do with big museums in larger cities into the middle of America."
Roughly a third of Union Station's members are residents of Johnson County. The Prairiefire exhibits will focus on that same group of metro residents, who partly define Union Station's mission.
"When other people get into entertainment using history and science, then that bothers me," Udris says. The exhibitions at Prairiefire, he says, will compete directly with those at Union Station. "When I hear about that, I get nervous. In a way, it scares the hell out of me."
"We're not competing — we're enhancing," Candy Merrill counters. "This can raise the bar for everywhere and bring greater attention to all our museums."
More potential competition for the education-entertainment dollar arrived earlier this month, when city officials announced that four groups had submitted proposals for a major downtown aquarium — an effort clearly aimed at not losing out to the developers of a $307 million mixed-use project in Mission anchored by an aquarium.
Also submitting proposals were the Port Authority of Kansas City, the Cordish Company (with commercial realty firm Copaken, White & Blitt) and an unnamed fourth group.
"We had maybe two weeks to rush the proposal together, and we had to do that just so we wouldn't be out of the running," Udris says of Union Station's aquarium proposal. "If that aquarium goes anywhere other than us, it's going to hurt us. That's all there is to it. It's going to take away dollars, and we'll have to look at cutting even more staff, or something. But I don't think the city is really planning with us in mind."
On a hot mid-July afternoon in the basement of the Steamboat Arabia Museum, co-owner Greg Hawley is considering a 14-inch length of pipe laid on a folded hand towel, a dark circle of water bleeding out beneath it. The inside is rusted and black, with bits of sand along the cracked edge where the pipe burst. Upstairs, the small gift shop at the entrance to the exhibit is scattered with retirees perusing T-shirts and knickknacks. Below, Hawley waits for the next tour group to walk through the ship's deck and hull room and the gallery of 19th-century cargo salvaged from the sunken steamboat.