Butt-Kicking Science 

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One factor tipped the scales in favor of Richard C. Conti deciding to take the job as executive director of the Science Museum of Virginia: The museum passed the kid test -- specifically the rigorous inspection of his two sons, Spencer, 6, and Bryce, 8.

"Normally, you can tell when my sons get tired of a museum," Conti says — "they ask to go to the gift shop." But after a couple of hours running around the exhibits, the Conti boys weren't ready to go souvenir hunting. "They had a great time," their dad says.

Conti, 43, the executive director of Nauticus, Norfolk's maritime science center, takes over Jan. 3 as the third executive director in the Science Museum of Virginia's 37-year history. He'll replace longtime executive director Dr. Walter R.T. Witschey, who retired to director emeritus status and is now an anthropology professor at Longwood University.

As executive director, Conti will oversee a statewide museum system with facilities that include the historic John Rusell Pope-designed flagship building on West Broad Street, the Virginia Aviation Museum, the Danville Science Center and the upcoming SciencePort, a Northern Virginia science center scheduled to open in 2010.

Conti is the first executive director of the Science Museum of Virginia without a science background. (Witschey has a background in computer science and archaeology, and founding director Paul H. Knappenberger Jr. is an astronomer.)

Before his 10-year tenure at Nauticus, Conti was an assistant to the Norfolk city manager. He holds a master's degree in public administration from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

Conti doesn't view his background as a liability; he'll have plenty of folks with science-heavy degrees working for him, he says, and his work at Nauticus speaks for itself. During his tenure, Nauticus went from a struggling inner-city museum to a successful facility with a $6 million annual budget that lures 325,000 visitors a year, and added a $36 million cruise terminal and meeting center. The Science Museum of Virginia gets about 375,000 visitors a year and has a $10 million annual budget.

"I definitely believe in the power of these kinds of museums," says Conti, who's known for his fundraising ability at Nauticus. "To be an experience-based museum that's very contemporary and forward-looking and based in science — frankly, it's a heck of a lot of fun."

Conti is already thinking about improvements and says he looks forward to reviewing and updating the Science Museum's strategic plan. He says the Broad Street museum needs "more of a singular story. … a bit more cohesion. … Some exhibits are 15 years old, and some are five years old, and some are brand-new and they have a feeling of not being connected."

He also sees room for forging new partnerships like the ones he formed at Nauticus with groups including the Navy, Norfolk Public Schools, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Virginia Maritime Association.

An avid fitness and exercise devotee, Conti will also be focusing in coming months on moving his family to Richmond from Hampton Roads. His wife, Sharon, is president of the Newport News-based Virginia Educators Credit Union.

One thing about Conti's Science Museum tenure can be predicted with certainty — as the third former fighter jock working there, he officially makes it the most butt-kicking learning institute in Virginia. Virginia Aviation Museum Executive Director Mike Boehme and Science Museum of Virginia Deputy Director Jack Parry are both former fighter pilots, and Conti, a Persian Gulf War vet, flew missions as a radar intercept officer (yes, the same position held by Anthony Edwards, aka "Goose," in "Top Gun") in an F-14 Tomcat during 1991's Operation Provide Comfort, which defended a no-fly zone for Kurds fleeing northern Iraq after the Persian Gulf War.

"I guess if one of the other museums gives us a hard time," Conti says, "we're ready for action." S

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