Science suits former Vancouver mayor

Community still key for Bryce Seidl, who now leads center in Seattle

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter



Did you know?

A Pacific Science Center display that opens on May 24 will be the last showing of King Tut artifacts in the United States, as Egypt prepares to open a museum in Cairo. (The Golden King won’t be making the trip to Seattle; Tutankhamun’s remains have never left Egypt).

Eight institutions in Washington are affiliated with the Association of Science-Technology Centers: one each in Spokane, Pullman, Mukilteo and Bellevue; two in Richland and two in Seattle.

Bryce Seidl was a neighborhood association pioneer who wound up on the city council, then was twice elected mayor of Vancouver.

Through it all, he showed a sense of community involvement, an understanding of the wider world and a respect for history.

Some things have changed since 1987, but it’s just a matter of scale. The community Seidl leads these days is a worldwide association of science centers.

And as far as history goes, Seidl’s day at work might include the Dead Sea scrolls or artifacts from the tomb of King Tut.

Twenty-five years after his tenure as Vancouver’s mayor ended, Seidl is president and CEO of Pacific Science Center in Seattle.

Seidl is in his eighth year in the position, after a business career that included a series of corporate transfers and roles in several nonprofit and community-based organizations.

“It was a tortuous path, but lots of fun,” Seidl said in a recent telephone interview from Seattle.

In his current post, “I work with really smart people who are really interested in the future of the community and the nation,” Seidl said.

The basic mission of Pacific Science Center, he said, is to present complex science to general audiences.

Seidl also has a more whimsical description of the job: “Our role is to amuse, to beguile, to stimulate, to inform.”

The center is a place where science helps people — especially kids — understand the natural world, as well as the man-built world.

“One of our standout skills is linking current research in labs with general public audiences,” he said.

“A particularly interesting example was an exhibition around the Dead Sea scrolls,” he said. In addition to the scrolls, the exhibit showed the technologies scientists used to understand the 2,000-year-old Hebrew texts.

“Multispectral imaging, DNA analysis: You can take a snippet and you can tell from the DNA what kind of animal it came from,” he said. DNA matching also was used to reassemble pieces of fragmented scrolls.

In May, the Science Center will open an exhibit of Egyptian artifacts —

“Tutankhamun: The Golden King and The Great Pharaohs” — for a seven-month stay.

Working with giants

Seidl’s résumé got another bump recently when he was elected president of the Association of Science-Technology Centers, which represents more than 600 institutions in 44 countries.

Seidl said he got involved in the organization five years ago.

“I’m quite new, compared to many people” in the field, he said. “And here I am working side by side with giants from around the globe.”

But he’s done that sort of thing before, he said.

“I’ve gone into different positions, and as a newcomer, you have a huge obligation to learn as much as you can about how it all works,” he said.

That describes his days as an involved Arnada-area resident, after his job with Simpson Timber brought Seidl to Vancouver.

“I got involved in a neighborhood association and the downtown development plan. That led me to public life.”

The Arnada Neighborhood Association became Vancouver’s first neighborhood association in 1977. Seidl joined the city council in 1978, and then was elected to two-year terms as mayor, in 1983 and 1985.

In looking back on his time in Vancouver, Seidl didn’t point to any particular civic advances.

But Bruce Hagensen, who succeeded Seidl as mayor, noted that “he had two wonderful things on his watch.”

They included Seidl’s role in bringing a Japanese art exhibition to Vancouver in 1986.

“The Nihonga Exhibit was shown in London, Paris, Stockholm, Barcelona, Boston and Vancouver,” Hagensen said. “We outdrew all of them but Boston.”

But the tour’s lasting legacy in Vancouver is the exhibition site — the Marshall House. Seidl helped lead a $400,000 fundraising effort to restore the Officers Row structure into the landmark it is today, Hagensen said.

That was just part of the transformation of Vancouver’s historic core, Hagensen said. After the federal government decided to sell the buildings on Officers Row one by one, “Bryce and I flew back and convinced the General Services Administration to turn Officers Row over to us for $1.”

Useful connections

Seidl’s political career ended when his employer transferred him to another Simpson operation. In the span of seven years, Bryce and his wife, Chris, moved their two kids from Vancouver to California, then to Michigan, then back to California before settling in Seattle. His career took another turn in 1998 when Seidl was named chief operating officer of Seattle-based Fisher Mills Inc.

During all those moves, he said, “I had in my blood a sense of community responsibility, the things I valued when I was in Vancouver. We got involved in volunteer work.”

That included positions on the board of directors of a hospital, two colleges and the famed Pilchuk Glass School in Seattle.

During all those his business transitions, Seidl said, “I had lots of opportunities, experiences and connections that are useful when running a nonprofit.”

As board president of the Pilchuk Glass School, Seidl spent a year as interim director. That’s when his path took another turn.

”One day the phone rang, and it was a board member from the Pacific Science Center. They thought of me while doing a president search, and I sent in a résumé. I didn’t know much about it, but I thought it couldn’t hurt. I’ll be darned: They decided to hire me.”

In his new job, Seidl became part of a trailblazing institution that began as the United States Science Pavilion during the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair.

“It had 6.9 million visitors in six months of the world’s fair. That was stunning,” Seidl said. “It gave birth to a remarkable institution that was pacesetter for what’s become a global field.”

The day after the world’s fair closed, the pavilion got new life as the first U.S. museum founded as a science and technology center.

“A science center can take more risks than other community institutions,” Seidl said. “It can have discussions in the community that other places can’t do because they could be controversial — things like population increase, pollution, the environment.”

A science center also is quite a place to work.

“We are able to have science giants from all around the country: astronauts, undersea explorers. That, personally, is fun,” Seidl said.

Those adventurers — as well as any researcher or scientist who can put a human face on discovery — serve as inspirations to people of all ages.

“There never will be an exhibit more powerful,” he said, “than someone who is articulate and excited about their work.”