By Michael F. Carmichael
January 7, 2010
Eekstein has only one name, but wears many hats for the Detroit Science Center. He can be a Scout leader, an educator, even a birthday party host. Perhaps his least-known activity is running a design and build Workshop in Royal Oak Township, seemingly light-years away from the Cultural Center home of the Science Center.
Corp! found the secluded Workshop and talked to Robert Seestadt, its president and CFO of the Science Center.
Asked about the name ‘Eekstein’s Workshop’ Seestadt explains, “The name comes from a character the Museum has had for many years - and that’s what we call it here. While Eekstein is a hard-working educator, whatever we need him to be, he is not well known outside of the Museum. Besides, we’ve found that no one pronounces Eekstein or spells it correctly. So it’s more formally Detroit Science Design and Exhibits.”
Asked if the formal name might make other museums who might become clients of the Workshop think of them as a competitor, Seestadt says, “I think it can go either way. I think that the relationship with the Detroit Science Center can work to our advantage. As we go into the future the Workshop name might evolve and be a little more independent sounding, but for now the formal name works to our benefit. We’ve thought long and hard on this.”
“The Workshop really evolved as a way to fill up as much space as possible [in the New DSC],” Seestadt explains. “It started with Kevin Prihod, our CEO, who’s been on board for about four years. The evolution of the Workshop has been pretty much aligned with his tenure. When we started we were in three areas on two floors of the Russell Industrial complex on Detroit’s north side. It just wasn’t functional. That was OK for some minor repair work and some small exhibit construction, but not really much beyond that. We made the decision to acquire this space a couple of years ago.”
The Workshop’s current facility is 25,000 square feet, with an additional 10,000 in the building and additional storage space across the street and nearby, and a GPS device is almost a necessity to locate it. “The additional space helps us with the ebb and flow of projects,” says Seestadt. “It’s particularly useful when we’re staging a completed exhibit prior to installation. We can set it up exactly as it will be seen in the museum or wherever a client will use it.”
As opportunities for additional business arise, the Workshop has made arrangements to acquire not only additional space but additional staff as well. “There’s a fair amout of vacant space in the area and behind the scenes we’ve been researching that. We’ll be ready to go when the opportunities present themselves.” Seestadt says.
“We’ve made it a very flexible structure and we have great core people who can be augmented by additional very talented folks,” he continues.
As could be expected, the staff has a wide variety of specialized equipment to create displays and exhibits. There’s an automotive-sized paint booth “purchased new,” says Seestadt. “But it’s a rare exception.” “There is a lot of used equipment on the floor that we acquired between here and Grand Rapids,” chimes in the chief engineer. “My tool guys on the floor can make or fix anything on that used equipment to a few thousandths of an inch tolerance.”
The Workshop currently has 37 people on staff “including skilled carpenters, machinists, sculpters, painters - graphic and CAD-CAM designers - and our project manager, who has a double Master’s degree,” Seestadt says proudly.
The most recent challenge to the creative talents of the Workshop has been the design and construction of The Accidental Mummies of Guanajuato. The exhibit features 36 one-time residents of a small Mexican town who died and were buried in the town’s crypts.
A combination of local chemical and meteorological conditions resulted in about one out of every 100 bodies in the crypts mumifying naturally. This was not discovered until the mid-1800s when the first mummy, a French doctor who had died of cholera, was discovered because his European family had failed to pay the crypt tax. When the crypt was opened to remove his skelatal remains to make way for another, tax paying, deceased resident, cemetary workers were amazed to find his mummy instead.
With the growing Hispanic population across the country the current exhibit is a natural attraction. Particularly in Mexico the idea of death is something to be celebrated and revered and not spoken of in hushed, embarassed tones as happens so often in this country. Thus, when the exhibit goes to six additional cities - as yet unannounced - they will presumably have large Hispanic populations. Because the exhibit has a significant science content as well as a cultural examination of the celebration of the dead, it is hoped that the local Hispanic student population will also be attracted to the science component.
Kelly Fulford, head of marketing for the Science Center, puts it this way: “From a marketing standpoint, it centainly helps to attract not only other museum partners, but corporate sponsors who want to reach out and tap into to the Hispanic community and support the exhibit.”
The planned six stops will average four to six months at each location, typical for a ‘traveling’ exhibit. Seestadt explains, “The Workshop has a specialist who has documented every step of our installation process to make things go more smoothly when the exhibit finally heads off to its next location. She will then supervise the packing and travel with it to oversee the unpacking and set-up at its new home. The ‘owner’s guide’ that she’s created lists detailed measurements, paint colors and how they were achieved - everything necessary for routine maintenance on the part of the host museum. Should anything require more than routine maintenance the Workshop will send out the appropriate specialists.”
While other cities will be responbsible for acquiring their own corporate sponsorship, the Science Center has been successful with its sponsor recruiting even in an economic downturn.
Siemens donated an MRI [Magnetic Resonance Imaging] machine that was used to help scientists examine the mummies in order to help learn about their lives and their preservation in death. The Oakwood Hospital system imaging department provided the medical analysis of seven of the mummies in the exhibit. AT&T has provided funding not only for the exhibit but for field trips by local school groups, particularly from Hispanic neighborhoods, to visit.
What’s ahead for Eekstein’s Workshop? “I think there is a tremendous amount of commercial opportunity out there,” says Seestadt. “We really have just started to scratch the surface on that side of things. I think there’s a fair amount of museum work. There’s also work with theme restaurants, trade shows - we have a lot of experience in that world - and there are upcoming national traveling exhibits that we have an excellent chance to secure. I think that the more people see what we’ve done in the museum or when this exhibit travels - it’s really remarkable when you see the results, the work product. That will speak volumes to the museum industry more than anything.”
Seestadt doesn’t feel that the design and build firms that once ruled the automotive show space will be any competition “they’ve all moved down South” where there are fewer restrictions regarding the workforce. The Workshop staff are artisans, he points out, while the large shops are primarily tradesmen.
For the Mummies exhibit the Workshop hired a forensic artist to illustrate what some of the mummies would have looked like in life. “We included these illustrations as part of the exhibit as well as in our book and in the DVD that we’ve produced,” Seestadt says. The book and DVD represent yet another revenue stream for the DSC and will be sold through the other museums that host the traveling show with the DSC getting a percentage of sales.
The Accidental Mummies of Guanajuato will be at the Detroit Science Center until mid-April. It provides visitors with a glimpse into an unusual part of the rich culture of Mexico. It also showcases the work of a small group of American artisans from Eekstein’s Workshop who have made it possible.
The story of the Detroit Science Center is filled with as many ups and downs as the automotive industry.
Started in 1970 with a $2.5 million donation from the Ferry Family Foundation, it has gone from a storefront filled with rented exhibits from the Ontario Museum of Science to a never-quite-filled beginning structure that had a remarkable escalator to a spectacular building that houses what is now one of the top ten science centers in the country.
It has been fortunate to have had Francois Castaing, the one-time head of Chrysler engineering, as its Board chair for more than ten years. Castaing is passionate about recruiting young Michiganders to become scientists and engineers - and, along with Doug Ross, has spearheaded the creation of the new campus of University Prep Science and Math Middle School at the Science Center. The charter school is home to more than 400 Detroit youngsters who may eventually fulfill Castaing’s dream and become the scientists and engineers of a very different Michigan.