March 14, 2007 News & Features » Cover Story


Witschey's Legacy as a Museum Director 

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A Museum Legacy

Walter Witschey has always been bursting with ideas, and one of those ideas first brought him in contact with the Science Museum of Virginia, putting him on the road to becoming its director in 1992.

The museum has held two Guinness world records because of Witschey's ideas. One of them, for largest floating granite ball, was achieved with the 29-ton Earth model in the Mary Morton Parsons Earth-Moon Sculpture, installed in front of the museum in 2003. (The German-built Earth model is also known as the Grand Kugel, "kugel" being the German word for "ball.")

But the first of the Science Museum's world records was an idea that Witschey brought in off the street to his predecessor at the Science Museum, Paul H. Knappenberger.

In 1980, Witschey read an article in Scientific American that featured a clever design for a garden sundial that would display clock time instead of sun time. Witschey saw potential in the sundial, and so he proposed laying out a colossal, one-third-acre version at the Science Museum.

Using a flagpole to project shadows onto a series of figure-eight hour markings on the ground that correct for the earth's curvature and elliptical orbit, the sundial would be able to tell not only the time of day, but also the day, month and season of the year. Witschey even crunched the numbers to correct for the hilly layout of the parking lot, where he proposed building the sundial.

His enthusiasm for the project quickly infected Knappenberger, and subsequently, Witschey, his wife, Joan, and their brood joined the museum director in laying out the world-record-setting sundial.

"Not only was he a very imaginative person with good ideas, but he was also willing to [roll] up his sleeves," says Knappenberger, now president of Chicago's Adler Planetarium.

Witschey proudly recalls that the sundial "told accurate time that matched your watch. Sundials don't normally do that. They vary plus or minus 15 minutes from clock time, depending on the time of year and the earth's orbit."

But the Science Museum's giant parking-lot sundial could tell time with an accuracy of between five and 30 seconds. (Witschey removed the sundial during museum renovations in the mid-1990s, but he hopes to have it rebuilt in the museum's planned outdoor Discovery Park.)

In the work of creating the sundial, Witschey and Knappenberger became good friends, and Witschey told Knappenberger, "You have a very interesting job. I hope when you give up this job, you'll let me know." Little did Witschey know that he had planted a seed that would come to fruition a decade later, when Knappenberger would recommend Witschey as his replacement.

"Walter is just passionate about science and teaching science to anybody that is interested in learning about it," Knappenberger says. "So whether it's writing an article for a general newspaper reader or teaching an advanced class in physics, he's always been enthusiastic and energetic in pursuing that, and I just admire him, both for his attitude that he's got in wanting to share the excitement of science, but also in his perseverance in going about making it happen.

"The fact that we all elected him as president of the international Association of Science-Technology Centers pretty much exemplifies the high esteem and high regard that's he held in by his colleagues."

As director of the Science Museum of Virginia, Witschey oversaw the final $20 million phase in the renovation of the John Russell Pope-designed museum building. Witschey also expanded its campus footprint from about 4 acres to 36 acres and initiated a cleanup of the character of the Broad Street area immediately surrounding the museum.

A $30 million capital campaign under Witschey raised $36 million. He also furthered the development of the Science Museum's Virginia Aviation Museum, oversaw the donation of land to move the Children's Museum of Richmond next door, and expanded the Science Museum's mission statewide, with the establishment of the Danville Science Center, the creation of the independent Shenandoah Valley Discovery Museum, the forthcoming SciencePort Science Center in Northern Virginia and support groups for science centers in Bristol and Harrisonburg.

A past president of the Virginia Academy of Science, he's also this year's Leader-in-Residence at the University of Richmond's Jepson School of Leadership Studies, as well as a professor of life sciences at Virginia Commonwealth University. S

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