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Columbia Business Monthly

William Calloway reflects on his illustrious career, from his days at Six Flags to his 18 years at the S.C. State Museum

Jan 06, 2020 02:54PM ● By Leigh Savage

After nearly two decades at the helm of the South Carolina State Museum, William Calloway is stepping down. And when he retires from his post as the executive director of the museum this year, he’ll leave behind a long list of achievements, the most noteworthy being the museum’s $23.5 million Windows to New Worlds project. 

“It’s emotional, certainly, after investing so much time and energy for the past 18 years at the state museum,” Calloway says. “It’s been fulfilling and rewarding, but it’s time to pass it on to the next person.” He expects to pass the torch to his replacement in March. 

Calloway took the reins of the State Museum in April of 2002, directing operations and content and setting the museum’s long-term strategic direction. Windows to New Worlds was a key part of that long-term vision.

Completed in 2014, Windows to New Worlds expanded the museum to include one of the largest planetariums in the Southeast, a state-of-the-art observatory and the only permanent 4D theater in South Carolina. The project won 17 awards, including the S.C. Governor’s Cup for Travel and Tourism and the Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation’s Stewardship Award.

The project involved raising $11 million from private donors, in addition to financial support at the state, city and county levels. “The project touched all aspects of the community, and our funding sources were very broad-based as well,” he says. “It was a really multifaceted fundraising campaign.”

Under Calloway’s leadership, attendance at the State Museum increased 35-40 percent , with earned revenue rising to $2.1 million, up from $1.3 million when he took the job. 

While the financial aspects have been fulfilling, as Calloway wraps up his time at the museum, he is most fulfilled by the educational value his team has brought to the area and the stories they have been able to tell. 

More than 70,000 school children attend the museum each year, all free of charge. 

“A lot of kids and families, they get razzle-dazzle on the internet, or with video games, but there is something very solid and concrete about a museum, and the authentic stories we tell represented by the objects in our collection and our exhibits and displays.”

Roller coasters & breakfast cereal

Calloway’s eventual success within the museum world was something of a surprise, even to him. He was born in Charleston and raised in Atlanta, and graduated with a degree in engineering from Georgia Tech. He had worked for Six Flags theme parks throughout college, and after graduation, he took a job with Six Flags in Houston, quickly moving up to vice president of retail operations and overseeing 1,000 employees. “We did a lot of renovations and construction every year, and I guess I became known for my creativity in building things,” he says. 

He was then recruited to head up the new Kellogg’s Cereal City in Battle Creek, Mich., in 1995. He oversaw the creation of the nonprofit facility, a $22 million project, and its opening in 1998, and ran it for four years, but he jumped at the chance to come back South when the state museum job became available. 

“A big trigger for me was that they were contemplating this big capital project,” he says. “I love building things, and was really attracted to the possibility of the expansions, which would end up being Windows to the World.”

People told him it couldn’t be done, that the money couldn’t be raised, but he was gratified that he and his team “fulfilled our mission—educating school kids and bringing families together in these wonderful environments.”

Today, the museum employs 45 full-time workers and 75 part-time, in addition to 150 volunteers, and has an estimated $22 million annual economic impact. 

The museum’s location inside a nationally registered 18990s cotton mill along the Columbia Canal—the first electrically powered mill in the country—gives additional resources for telling the story of the city. The facility takes up about 225,000 square feet of the 250,000-square-foot building, which also houses a military museum and the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.

One of Calloway’s continuing goals, which he hopes carries forward with his replacement, is finding a way to brand the entire campus to create a cultural district that will drive traffic from both visitors and locals. 

“We invested in that and are trying to get some traction,” says Calloway, who had a consulting firm weigh in with some ideas last year. He says it’s a challenge because there are many different property-owners and stakeholders within the building and the vacant acreage that surrounds the museum. “We just want to tie it all together,” he says. 

He feels good about stepping away at age 67, though “I’ll be around,” he says, volunteering for boards and non-profits and doing what he can to support the museum and stay engaged in the community. 

“It’s the perfect time to hand it off to the next person,” he says. “And I’d love to see the vision we created last year with the building and the property developed into a cultural district. I would love to see that happen.”

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