From tornadoes to Tut: the real-life adventures of the Science Museum’s Mike Day

Mike Day: "We are on the A-list of science museums around the world, absolutely."
Photo by Bill Kelley
Mike Day: “We are on the A-list of science museums around the world, absolutely.”

Senior Vice President: The title sounds like it comes with a cushy desk job that might at times be even a little boring — until you talk to Mike Day. As senior vice president of the Science Museum of Minnesota, Day has spent 30 years doing the sorts of things the rest of us only dream about.

Among the highlights are the years he spent serving as executive producer on two IMAX films the museum has produced. The first, “Ring of Fire,” tells the story of the volcanoes that ring the Pacific Ocean and the people who live among them; and the second, “Tornado Alley,” attempts to help explain the formation of tornadoes by filming inside them.

For “Ring of Fire” Day spent seven years chasing and observing volcanoes with film director George Casey and a team of geologists and seismologists. Most recently, he spent months traveling with Casey’s son Sean, star of the Discovery Channel’s “Storm Chasers,” gathering footage of tornadoes. Day has also traveled extensively visiting archaeological sites with museum scientists and researchers and talking with experts on artifacts and antiquities from around the world.

We caught up with Day to find out more about the museum’s role in film production, the King Tut exhibit: “Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs,” and what makes the Science Museum of Minnesota one of the top science museums in the world.

On the A-List
Meleah Maynard: How did the Science Museum get to be one of the cities included on the tour of a premier exhibit like King Tut?

Mike Day: It was a multi-year process of meetings and negotiations before we got the agreement. What really made the difference is that in the 1990s the community got behind the building of a new science museum and it is the institution we are today that has allowed us to have the capacity to attract exhibits like this. We’re now in a position to conserve and protect the world’s greatest treasures like Tut’s tomb and the Dead Sea Scrolls. We are on the A-list of science museums around the world, absolutely. We have state-of-the art collection and conservation labs and top scientists like Dr. Ed Fleming, who is the head of our archaeology department. His credentials allow us to build partnerships with scientists and specialists around the world.

Meleah Maynard: Is the Science Museum of Minnesota doing anything differently from other museums that are hosting the exhibit?

Mike Day: I think we’re offering the best staging of the exhibit that you’ll find anywhere, because we are not passively presenting it. We have worked for years to enhance the exhibit itself. In particular, we formed an alliance with other science museums to do an Omnitheater film on mummies that would serve as a perfect complement to what people see on display. I would advise people to see the film before going into the exhibit because it’s such good background.

Tut’s Troubles
Meleah Maynard: Colleagues with The Line who have heard you speak about the King Tut exhibit say you have some interesting and little-known facts to share. What are some of those things?

Mike Day: I always like talking with people after they see the exhibit because everybody has their favorite artifact. Younger audiences always like the casket for the house cat. Egyptians did love their gold; they thought it was the skin of the gods, which is why Tut was buried in gold sandals and his fingers and toes each had solid gold covers on them.

And people forget that King Tut became king at age nine until they see his throne, which is small because it’s for a child. His tomb is the most intact tomb ever found; he must have died suddenly at age 19, so there was no time to prepare a normal tomb. They used a smaller tomb intended for someone else and it was easily covered up and lost. It sat in the dark undisturbed for 3,300 years.

Meleah Maynard: I didn’t realize King Tut died so young. How did he die?

Mike Day: There are a lot of theories, but it’s still a great unanswered question. People thought he might have been murdered, because a CT scan showed a small hole in his skull. Now it is believed that the hole was made in order to remove the brain as part of the mummification process. He did have a severe fracture of his left leg that is unexplained. He was not a strong young man — images show him supporting himself with a cane — and he had a cleft palate. The fact that his parents were brother and sister could have contributed to his physical problems. It wasn’t unusual for families among pharaohs to be incestuous because they believed they were preserving their bloodline that way. It’s possible, too, that he was the James Dean of pharaohs. Found in the tomb was an entanglement of six chariots, so maybe he was the hot rodder of his day.

Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs exhibit
Photo by Bill Kelley
Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs exhibit

Meleah Maynard: I assume King Tut is one of the most well-attended exhibitions the museum has had to date. What has attendance been so far?

Mike Day: You probably heard that we had 100,000 people through the exhibit in the first 38 days. Currently, we’ve had 154,048 visitors. “Body World” was also a big draw a few years ago.

Major Movies
Meleah Maynard: I wasn’t aware that the museum has been recognized as a leading producer of large-format films since 1978. I believe ten films have been produced in all, including “Jane Goodall’s Wild Chimpanzees” and “Search for the Great Sharks.” Is “Tornado Alley” the most recent film to be completed, and why is film production an important part of what the museum does?

Mike Day: Yes, it’s showing now in Chicago and we’ll be opening it on the Omnitheater screen in 2013. Our film crew stayed out after the scientists went in and did some work in Wadena, so there is a Minnesota aspect to the story. We are proud of our work in film production and, as I mentioned earlier, we’re extremely active in all aspects of museum work to ensure that high quality is being represented.  Really, few places on earth can tell a story like the Omnitheater can.

A Flexible Place
Meleah Maynard: In these times when technology can keep people entertained 24-7, how is the museum changing to keep up?

Mike Day: Again, I would have to give credit to the community for helping us create the right stage for the world we live in today. We are designed for maximum flexibility so we can change at a higher velocity, just like the world is changing around us. What I mean by that is that our museum is designed to open and close without impacting all areas of the museum. It starts in our lobby. You could be here for a meeting with your company, or taking a computer education class, or just stop in to grab a cup of a coffee in our café without entering the exhibit space. This is the community’s museum.

Meleah Maynard is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor. This article is reprinted in partnership with The Line, an online chronicle of Twin Cities creativity in entrepreneurship, culture, retail, placemaking, the arts, and other elements of the new creative economy.

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