Douglass McDonald is hanging precipitously over the edge of the roof at Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal, pointing out an array of crumbling bricks, rusting steel girders and moisture-damaged panels.

“Twenty percent of the brick will need to be replaced,” McDonald is saying to an assembled entourage as he identifies the decrepit masonry and disintegrating walls. “We’re not talking patching it, but addressing serious construction issues in a very holistic and responsible way.”

It’s not the sexiest thing a museum director can do, worrying about infrastructure, but McDonald — the president and CEO for the past decade — is keenly aware that his own legacy and the structure’s legacy are critically intertwined. “This building is a community asset, and, ironically, the best [repair] solution in the long term is also the most cost effective.”

“Maintaining the masterpiece” is the theme here, as McDonald beats the drum for November’s Hamilton County levy — the smallest levy countywide, he’s quick to underscore — to raise $38 million for the art deco wonder, including $21 million for renovations and retrofits. McDonald certainly understands both people and politics — he eased his way into the world of museum management after two careers, one as a minister and one as a 16-year small-town city councilman, that led to him sitting on the board of directors for various cultural institutions.

McDonald frames the current situation this way: “I like to tell people that Union Terminal is the single most important art object in Cincinnati.” As he takes a group on a walking tour through the disheveled bowels of the building, including a ruined historic dining room on an upper floor that has never been seen by today’s general public, he points to peeling veneer and faded murals by French artist Pierre Bourdelle. “This is artwork that will disappear if we don’t do something.” You could label it a “terminal illness,” and that’s what it eventually will be if critical repairs to the super-structure aren’t made eventually.

When Union Terminal first opened in 1933 as the city’s railway station, the lavish art deco transit hub guided up to 34,000 passengers a day on their travels. Over the years, the 10-story structure — famed for its colorful mosaics inside the dramatic rotunda, housed under the tallest half-dome in the world — saw up to 216 trains arrive and depart daily. One fact gives you a sense of the immense scale: More electricity and water was consumed at Union Terminal in a single day than by the entire city of Covington in the same 24-hour timeframe.

As railroad stations made way for airports, however, hard times hit; the terminal finally shuttered in 1972. Decades of neglect followed; the windows were actually left open, exposing the building to the elements.

Union Terminal finally found new life in 1990, reopening as a tourist destination after a taxpayer-funded $47-million facelift. At the start, the complex housed the city’s Museum of Natural History & Science, the Cincinnati History Museum and Historical Society, the Scripps Newsreel Theatre, the re-created Public Landing, the Rookwood UDF Ice Cream Parlor, and one of only 14 OMNIMAX theaters in the country. (The Children’s Museum, the restored Tower A track control room, the Ice Age Cavern, the Cincinnati in Motion miniature train landscape — a massive model of the city, circa 1900 to 1940 — and the return of passenger train service by Amtrak would come later.)

Some charter exhibits in the early years included Dinamation (the largest display of robotic dinosaurs ever at the time), U.S.S.R.: Individual, Family, Society, The Disposable Society: American Life in the 1990s, Cincinnati Goes to War, Treasures of the Tar Pits, Earth Stories and The Bat Cave. OMNIMAX theater manager David Duszynski (who still works at the museum center today, as “vice president of featured experiences”) booked Grand Canyon as the premiere film; ever the showman, Duszynski installed a 37-foot river raft at the entrance and handed out orange lifejackets to movie-goers.

Even the dramatic Winold Reiss mosaics in the giant rotunda were restored to pristine condition, depicting the progress of America on the left side of the building, and pioneer and steamboat history in Cincinnati on the right.

“A Kings Island of the mind, where learning and entertainment go hand in hand” is how the original executive director, Scott Johnson, described museum center at the time.

McDonald — who was named CEO in 1999 — and his team certainly inherited big shoes to fill after all the hoopla surrounding the museum center’s first decade.

They’ve done so in a major way. Take the opening of this month’s exhibit, Lost Egypt: Ancient Secrets, Modern Science, a compelling journey into the land of pyramids (see below for details). There’s an accompanying OMNIMAX film, Mummies: Secrets of the Pharaohs, showing on the five-story domed screen, and a concurrent exhibition that features local ties to Egypt, including a display of a mummy that has been collecting dust in the attic of the Cincinnati Art Museum.

“Forbes put us at the 17th highest-attended museum in the country,” McDonald notes. “Once you remove the Smithsonians and the major institutions in Los Angeles and New York, there are really only four places left on the list: San Francisco, Houston, Boston and us. We’re the most highly attended museum in the country outside the Top 10 population markets. That’s because we have worked hard at the quality, and maintaining the quality, of the experience.”

How much does McDonald influence the choices of arts and cultural programming at the massive museum complex?

“My staff probably wishes I was more hands off,” McDonald grins. “I do not actually do the programming; my staff does that. But my mind never stops, literally.”

“Doug has insatiable curiosity. You can quote me on that,” agrees Elizabeth Pierce, the center’s vice president for marketing.

“You can’t keep doing the same thing,” McDonald continues, “so what I try to add to the mix is to step back and look at any situation, to look and see if this is still the right way to approach it, or are we missing an opportunity.”

The case of the Lost Egypt exhibition comes to mind. McDonald calls it a beautiful example of matching a need with a solution. The need: Lost Egypt organizers were having trouble finding available spaces flexible and large enough to accommodate the show (they had to bow out of Tampa, Fla., the first city on the tour, citing just this challenge). The solution: Museum Center has nothing if not space, and galleries to spare.

Lost Egypt is just one of many blockbuster shows that the Museum Center has attracted over the recent years. Leading the Top 5 list: Bodies: The Exhibition (2008, 312,000 visitors), Saint Peter and the Vatican: Legacy of the Popes, (2004, 185,300 visitors), Dinosaurs Unearthed (2009, 166,000 visitors), and Titanic (2001, 162,000 visitors/2007, 132,800 visitors). Other audience-pleasers include Nicholas & Alexandra, an intimate portrait of the doomed Romanov monarchs, Jurassic Park, and Grossology.

“This is not normal ‘museum think,’” McDonald observes. “If we weren’t kind of entrepreneurial and jumping at an
opportunity, many kind of projects wouldn’t happen. Our fast pace is not indicative of the museum industry overall.”

And Lost Egypt has the potential to outdo all the other blockbusters. “What’s so fascinating about Egypt is it’s different from any other culture,” McDonald says. “It’s a fascination we all seem to have with that history, that culture and its artifacts. This exhibit will immerse you in all that, making it truly experiential.”

If the example of the Cincinnati Art Museum is any benchmark, success is almost a sure thing. The Art Museum’s three ticket records were set by Women in Ancient Egypt, Egypt in the Age of the Pyramids and Petra: Lost City of Stone. Proving that exhibits about the ancient world should never be taken for granite.

“If it seems this fall is extremely engaging, next fall will be even more so,” McDonald predicts. “That’s what vibrant institutions do, they add more ways to serve the community.”

While no one likes taxes, McDonald is here to convert you to his cause. The museum levy will cost the average Hamilton County homeowner who owns a $100,000 house just $4.93 annually, he notes. “The Museum Center is a great value.”

There’s more. A recent performance review by an outside auditor couldn’t find more ways to increase efficiency or cut costs further than the museum center has already done on its own, McDonald points out. “The report also concluded we earn more with less public support than most institutions in the country. Personally, that’s fine by me. That reflects Cincinnati values, that frugal nature.”

Nonetheless, the Museum Center could become an economic juggernaut for the local economy, given the resources; it already imports $18 million a year from museum visitors who come to town and spend at hotels and restaurants.

“People who normally don’t like to support taxes, such as Bill Cunningham on WLW, support this tax” for building renovations, McDonald concludes. “Commissioner Portune asked me if we’d do better in some other building. The answer is a resounding ‘NO.’ The building’s architecture, the grandeur, leverages the cultural experience.

“Personally, I think this is the great synergy of the Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal — the iconic architecture mixed with impactful exhibitions.”

The McDonald File

Born: On a livestock farm in rural Iowa

Education: A human relations and psychology degree from William Penn University in Oskaloosa, Iowa, followed by theology studies at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis

First Job: Pastoral minister in the Society of Friends Church

Career Highlights: CFO of Conner Prairie Museum, the open-air living history museum located north of Indianapolis. President of the Genesee Country Village & Museum (the nation’s third-largest living history museum) in Mumford, N.Y.

Political Career: Spent 16 years on city council in Noblesville, Ind.

Board Member: Greater Cincinnati Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, Center for Holocaust and Humanity Education at Hebrew Union College, WCET 48 Community Service Council, Twin Towers Retirement Homes, Jason Project in Cincinnati, the Society of Friends Church, and Boy Scouts of America

Lost Egypt Is No Mere Pyramid Scheme

When Lost Egypt: Ancient Secrets, Modern Science opens to the public on Oct. 3, visitors will be treated to three months of adventures along the Nile River, circa 2500 B.C.

Exhibition highlights include real human and animal mummies, a replica field site, video interviews with archeologists and more. The exhibit is intended to immerse visitors at the Cincinnati Museum Center into the intricacies of Egyptian civilization while revealing how modern science and technology have opened new windows to uncover the secrets behind this amazing society.

At the Orientation Entrance, you can view a busy street in modern Egypt and introduce yourself to the archaeological sites featured in the exhibition. Move on to the Lost City of the Pyramid Builders site on the Giza Plateau, then check out how entire pyramids can become “lost” in the shifting sands of the Sahara Desert and how they’re now being found with cutting-edge satellite imaging.

It’s a virtual CSI in the mummification room, as forensic experts reveal how the latest techniques are helping scientists unravel and identify the secrets of the mummies. For the first time ever, museum-goers will be able to observe a life-size prototype of a mummy in a stage of “unwrapping,” and can also explore a re-creation of an Egyptian tomb, filled with authentic art and artifacts from the daily life and funerary culture of ancient Egypt.

If all this isn't enough, visitors will be the first to “see inside” one particular mummy and learn what amulets and other treasures are wrapped within, thanks to the latest in CT imagery scanning. You could say it’s a tomb with a view.

There’s also a replica Rosetta Stone, various artifacts, and the OMNIMAX film Mummies: Secrets of the Pharaohs, which relates how doctors turn to mummies such as Ramses the Great for clues to cure today’s diseases.

Admission to the daily exhibit and film is $15.50 for adults, $10.50 for children. The exhibit closes Jan. 3. Call (513) 287-7000 or visit for more details.