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Photo: Harry Giglio





Jo Haas, Energized.

Photo: Harry Giglio

Joanna (Jo) Haas became the Henry Buhl, Jr., director of Carnegie Science Center in October 2003, and in less than a year the Science Center has already begun to show the results of her administrative philosophy. A dynamic leader with a down-to-earth style, Jo Haas at the age of 37 has already logged a decade of experience at Ohio’s Center of Science & Industry and the Henry Ford Museum in Detroit, and along the way demonstrated that she is a rising star
in the field of science center management. As the first woman to head a Carnegie Museum, she faces the challenges of directing a 13-year-old successful science center that is a key player in Pittsburgh’s educational, scientific, and cultural community.

In June, she spoke with CARNEGIE magazine about new directions for the Science Center and her impressions of Pittsburgh.

CM: You’re obviously passionate about what you do. What is it about the business of science centers that excites you?
JH: My professional roots are in the science center arena, and there’s definitely something magnetic and magic about this business. Science centers are by nature very vibrant, active places, and that’s inspiring to me. I’m drawn to those ideals and thrive in those realities.

There’s always something new at a science center, too. People learn by doing things—although some of us as adults are less comfortable with that concept. I can’t get enough of the active learning that weaves its way through the front- and back-of-house activities here.

Exploring and learning is what we are all about. That’s a very noble and energizing work environment, don’t you think?! We are committed to creating life-long learners, explorers, inventors…people who aren’t afraid to test and try things. To be part of a place with a mission built on invention, constant motion, and life-long learning is a very natural place for me, professionally and personally.

CM: Before starting your career, was science something that interested you?
Well, my formal degree is actually in psychology and I have a concentration in studio art. I entered college with the intention of emerging as an art teacher or an art therapist. Almost before I knew it, the principles I learned and grew to appreciate through these courses of study—plus my love of exploring the world around me and being encouraged by my family, from the time I was very young, to be inquisitive and expressive— crystallized in my mind the importance of life-long learning and life-long creating. That appreciation equipped me well for my first position planning and running education programs at Ohio’s Center of Science & Industry in Columbus (COSI). And it’s what immediately attracted me to Carnegie Science Center—the fact that this institution is absolutely committed to being creative, thoughtful, and resourceful in the way it engages people of all ages in the process of learning.

CM: After a year in your new post, what are some of the things you feel the Science Center does well? What are some of the areas that you think more could be done with?
One thing I was struck by very early on is the connectedness of this institution with the Pittsburgh community. In fact, I had the privilege of riding on the Science Center’s coat tails to receive the 2003 National Award for Museum Excellence, bestowed on Carnegie Science Center by the Institute for Museum and Library Services at the White House. The award recognized Carnegie Science Center for its exceptional service to the community. We are clearly a national bellwether for community outreach and have helped to set the national standard and others recognize that.

This institution addresses individuals and organizations in a very personalized way. Many science centers become incredibly institutionalized. It is important to be institutional in some respects because you gain a little bit of polish and efficiency, but at the same time you don’t want to lose the ability to relate to people in a very personal, passionate way. That is one of the real differentiators of this institution.

It is the work of every team member and every board member affiliated with Carnegie Science Center, and it was clearly the work of my predecessor Seddon Bennington, whose real strength was in casting seeds, establishing partnerships and engaging the community in a very powerful way. We have a tremendous network well established. And it has been my experience that every member of this team feels a sense of responsibility to the community. I’d like to see us capitalize on that and watch our community connections flourish in new and strategic ways.

Our biggest challenge is to gain—at the same time—a sense of discipline, business savvy, and muscle, and an attractions-oriented mindset so we are poised to expand also beyond this community. Seventy three percent of the people we see and serve here on the North Shore (not including those we see through our outreach programs) are from Allegheny County and the four closest counties.

That’s very powerful, but it also begs the question: What about the people who are within an hour drive, or a few hours drive of us? It’s not out of the question to spend the day here. But what is it that is drawing them? What is it about the Science Center’s personality or the visitor experience that is compelling enough for them to consider us a destination?

Pittsburgh has amazing assets. The Science Center alone is an amazing asset. And if you begin adding other experiences, you’ve created a whole weekend of stimulating, intellectual, fun things to do. You start your visit at the Children’s Museum, then go to a baseball game.

Spend all day at the Science Center. Wake up with a visit to the dinosaurs at the Museum of Natural History, enjoy a matinee in the Cultural District, and you’re on your merry way home by late Sunday afternoon. By then you have fed the economic coffers and sustained the cultural organizations. There’s a lot this institution can be doing for economic development as a regional destination attraction.

That’s one of our big opportunities. Attract and engage. And I’m not just talking about flash-in-the-pan stuff. I’m talking about what we can do to change people’s minds about science (which is coming back to our mission), to establish inquisitive, thoughtful, curious, competent people of all ages…I don’t want to just touch the kids. Science matters. Every day science, math, and technology drive both simple and complex things in the world around us. The Science Center can play a significant role in demystifying and revealing the science in our everyday lives.

CM: The Rangos Omnimax Theater seems to be going through some changes. Not all of its feature films are science-related or related to an exhibit. What is behind that program policy?
An IMAX® or OMNIMAX® theater inside an institution like Carnegie Science Center is a terrific way to build, expand, and change the programmatic opportunities for visitors. Some institutions with large-format theaters integrate those theaters totally with their exhibits and
programs. But that’s a difficult economic model because it reduces your opportunities to run your theater at off times, when it may not make sense to have the whole building open.

Recently, more cultural organizations with large-format theaters have been building them so they can run easily in that stand-alone mode—with separate entrances to allow late-night shows, early-morning shows, and off-day shows. Here at the Science Center, we are using the OMNIMAX® to attract new audiences, some of whom may or may not be interested in a particular exhibit. And we are becoming very successful at that.

We have had some of the best runs in the business on films like Lewis & Clark, Everest, and Coral Reef. We have also just recently made a name for ourselves in the Hollywood blockbuster release business. We were number-one nationwide and world-wide in pre-sales for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
The challenge is to strike a balance. If you look at our schedule for the year, we had been running Jane Goodall and Lewis & Clark. We also had Young Black Stallion from Disney over the holidays. We brought in NASCAR, which is a terrific science show, and we have been bringing in a new audience with that product. We had Harry Potter this summer, and we are premiering Forces of Nature (a National Geographic film) in early fall.

There is clearly great potential for synergistic programs once or twice a year. Maybe there ends up being an exhibition and an OMNI film on the same theme. Maybe there is an exhibition and a set of education programs that make sense together. For example, this fall we have the Titanic Science exhibit, and we’re excited about that, and plan to marry our OMNI film—Ghosts of the Abyss—with this exhibit as a thematic set of offerings.

CM: Do you see the Science Center expanding in the future?
We’re trying now to answer these questions: Is the best expansion of the Science Center a major physical expansion? Is it an intellectual expansion or a programmatic expansion? Is it an architectural expansion? Or is it some unique combination of all those things?

We presently run satellite outreach operations, including an amazing facility in the Hill District called Mission Discovery. Should we launch a whole network of such community-based satellite operations? What things should we continue, expand, add? Those are the questions our team, board, and the broader community will be thinking through in the next few months.
We as a board and a team embraced a strategic planning process in January. It laid out a three-phase process that will culminate with a completed strategic plan and then launch us into expansion planning. We are in the “exploration phase” right now and, hopefully, we will soon begin to determine what the expansion will look like.

CM: What, if any, are the physical challenges of the current Science Center building?
Well, the building is 13 years old and it does have significant challenges for today’s high attendance levels. Literally half of the main building is circulation space, and we have too little exhibit space. If you look at service spaces, the entry, ticketing, and food services are all problematic. There are many challenging aspects of this building today, and our expanding attendance exacerbates those issues. We want to be able to capitalize on the great learning and fun that happens in places like SportsWorks, the fourth floor Exploration Station and SciQuest for example. We need more spaces ideally suited to allow visitors to imagine, laugh, explore, and learn!

CM: Do you plan to collaborate much with the other Carnegie Museums?
I see tremendous opportunities for collaboration and I am a collaborator by nature. One of the things that was very appealing to me was the opportunity to step into a complex of institutions and be part of the leadership team that helps figure out how to bring those partnerships to life.

One of the things on our future radar screen is a visitor experience centered around insects. We’ve been in preliminary discussion with the Natural History Museum about this. There’s a great OMNI film, called Bugs, and they have a terrific collection of insects at the Natural History Museum. So we are beginning to talk with them about how to bring those things together, but we don’t have the answers yet. Collaborations of all kinds are certainly in the cards.

CM: What are your impressions of Pittsburgh?
I love Pittsburgh. It is the most comfortable place I’ve ever lived. I grew up in Northern Kentucky and went to school in Cincinnati. Then I graduated from Denison University, and moved immediately to Columbus, Ohio. I lived there for almost 10 years. Then I went to Michigan, where I lived for five years in three different communities.

But there’s something about Pittsburgh, and the fabric of Pittsburgh. I have never seen so many individuals so passionate about the concept of community. These are people, and I am now one of them, who care about where they live, care about one another, invest enormous amounts of time, energy, money, into those things they believe in. There is an incredible, palpable sense of community.

CM: Perhaps that comes from an inferiority complex of sorts, from being an old industrial city that has worked to transform and improve itself?
There should be no inferiority complex here. No one who lives here, and certainly no one who has lived here for a long time, should feel inferior about this city, this place, or the people who are part of it.

With all the cultural resources here, I’m like a kid in a candy store. I could keep myself busy for a month of Sundays just tooling around museums. I’ve been to the opera, the symphony, the Broadway productions, the lecture series. There’s just a ton going on. I don’t think any other community can hold a candle to how accessible it all is.

Intellectually, this community is extraordinary. I’m not sure whether this is because I am looking through a new lens as the leader of the Science Center, or whether I am truly in a place of much more magnitude than ever before. The university research and business communities are transforming the world’s intellectual landscape every day.

I have felt incredibly welcomed. I have had enormous numbers of people reach out to me. I don’t take that lightly, and it’s not something I feel entitled to. That’s something I genuinely appreciate, and feel indebted by.



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