Ex-science center chief dies on hike in New Zealand
July 16, 2009 4:00 AM
Seddon Bennington in 2001
By Timothy McNulty Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
A longtime director of the Carnegie Science Center who helped revive the museum after its rocky opening 18 years ago froze to death this week during a mountain hike near his home in New Zealand.
Seddon L. Bennington, who was at the helm of the North Side center for nine years, left with a companion Saturday for a weekend trek through a mountain range 40 miles outside New Zealand's capital city of Wellington, where he was the director of Te Papa, the national museum.
The New Zealand Herald reported that rescue workers began searching for Mr. Bennington, 61, and family friend Marcella Jackson, 54, early in the week after they did not return. Workers battling through heavy winds and snow found their bodies yesterday about a half-mile from a mountain hut where they had been heading for shelter. Police said they died of exposure.
Mr. Bennington -- an experienced outdoorsman who was friends with legendary adventurer Sir Edmund Hillary -- liked hiking so much (or "tramping" as New Zealanders say) that he regularly kept a stocked backpack at home for last-second trips. He was also well versed in the mountainous conditions of the Tararua Range in the Northern Island of New Zealand -- he asked the science center's Dennis Bateman and his wife to join him on the same trek when they lived there three years ago.
Though the city of Wellington is on a Pacific Ocean harbor with gentle temperatures, the high-desert weather of the mountain range fluctuates wildly.
"It is notorious in the morning for being bright and sunny and by the afternoon being waist-deep in snow," Mr. Bateman said yesterday.
Te Papa is a beloved institution in New Zealand, roughly similar to the Smithsonian, and Mr. Bennington's death was major news in the island nation southeast of Australia, sparking public condolences from government leaders.
"He brought wide international experience and leadership to the role. He was well respected and will be sorely missed," said New Zealand Arts Culture and Heritage Minister Christopher Finlayson.
The death shocked Pittsburgh's cultural community, on which Mr. Bennington had a sizable impact before his departure from the science center in late 2002. Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Frank Lucchino, a former science center board chair, said he was "flabbergasted" by the news.
Mr. Bennington had "extensive talents and he truly took the science center, after the construction of the new building, to a much higher level of service, community and quality."
The Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh issued a statement saying Mr. Bennington was "a valued friend, enthusiastic leader and dedicated champion of the important mission of museums . ... Our thoughts go out to his friends and family, and to his colleagues at the Te Papa museum."
Having just opened its new North Side building in 1991, the Carnegie Science Center was having problems with its budget and mission by Mr. Bennington's arrival in 1994.
"We weren't sure where this place was headed. There was nobody at the rudder to some extent," said Ron Baillie, the center's current co-director, who joined the Buhl Planetarium's staff in 1983.
Mr. Bennington -- previously the head of the Scitech Discovery Centre in Perth, Australia, and the Division of Professional Services at the Western Australian Museum -- established a new vision for the center, emphasizing relationships with other cultural organizations and business groups, and an entrepreneurial spirit embracing traveling exhibits and the former UPMC SportsWorks.
The moves would prove popular with visitors, and the center remains the biggest draw of the four museums in the Carnegie system.
Though temperamentally low-key like so many New Zealanders, Mr. Bennington cut a dashing figure around town, and with wife Frances jumped headlong into the city's arts and cultural scene. The pair rehabilitated a dilapidated building on Liberty Avenue and ran the flower shop there called "Fragile Paradise," while Mr. Bennington volunteered for several arts and theater groups.
He is survived by his wife and two sons, Emile and Marcel, both of whom live in Australia.
Though he left Pittsburgh to take a dream job running his country's most prestigious cultural center, Mr. Bennington often told friends he missed the city.