The following is a conversation between Ellen Futter, President of the American Museum of Natural History, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer WNYM in New York City.
Denver: There are few institutions that generate such universal love and respect as does the American Museum of Natural History. And we can add appreciation to that as well, as this year, they are celebrating their 150th anniversary. Here to share with us their story and what they have planned for their sesquicentennial anniversary is Ellen Futter, the President of the American Museum of Natural History.
Good evening, Ellen, and welcome to The Business of Giving!
Ellen: Good evening, and thank you for having me.
Denver: It was in 1869, the incorporation papers were signed on April 6th when the American Museum of Natural History came into being. What is the founding story of that institution, Ellen?
Ellen: It’s really an interesting story because so many of New York civic leaders were admiring of institutions of natural history around the world, particularly I think, the British Museum. They thought, as the leaders of this great city in New York, that New York ought to have one of its own. So, they founded the American, in contrast to the British, Museum.
Denver: It was originally in Central Park, right?
Ellen: It was originally in the Armory in Central Park. Then, of course, they began development of the current site, where we are today and which was then known as Manhattan Square.
We’re the most visited museum in New York City for children — visiting in school groups with teachers, parents, caregivers, and also with camp groups. It’s an enormous sweep of activity and an enormous opportunity to bring science and nature and human cultures to the public.
Denver: The breadth and scope of the museum is simply remarkable. You have some 34 million objects in your collection. Provide us with an overview of the museum.
Ellen: What’s really unique about the American Museum of Natural History is precisely, as you said, its scope. There are many natural history museums that cover the biological sciences, but they don’t necessarily cover astrophysics, Earth and planetary sciences, not to mention anthropology. Our scope is all of that.
We not only have collections of over 34 million specimens and objects… which is enormous, but we also have some 200 research scientists on staff. We have the largest natural history library all in one place and under one roof, in the Western Hemisphere. We also have our own graduate school. We award a Ph.D. in comparative biology, and we also give an MAT, a master of teaching in science, which has never been more important than it is today. Plus exhibitions, which is what the public knows us best for. Forty-five permanent galleries, plus the Rose Center for Earth and Space with its planetarium and Space Show, as well as having a huge educational enterprise: we’re training some 4,000 to 5,000 teachers a year in teaching science, we have extensive public programs, and we’re the most visited museum in New York City for children—visiting in school groups with teachers, parents, and caregivers, and also with camp groups. It’s an enormous sweep of activity and an enormous opportunity to bring science and nature and human cultures to the public.
Denver: How many visitors do you have every year? Where do they tend to gravitate to once they step into the museum?
Ellen: We have about 5 million visitors onsite a year, which is a lot of visitors, and there are certain things they always love. Always among the most popular, obviously, dinosaurs, dinosaurs, and dinosaurs. But the big, blue whale in the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life is a great favorite. The Planetarium is enormously popular. After Night at the Museum, the movie, everybody wants to go to Pacific Peoples and see the wonderful statue that they remember so well. The dioramas are forever popular. The Bernard Hall of North American Mammals, the Akeley Hall of African Mammals, these are places of childhood memories, including my own. They’re really very, very special. I always say about the dioramas that they were actually the first virtual reality.
You can actually spend a night at the museum now. It’s magical. Before you get to sleep under the whale, you get a flashlight tour of the dinosaur galleries, a late-night viewing of the Space Show. It’s pretty fun.
Denver: That’s a great way to put it. You can actually spend a night in the museum, can’t you?
Ellen: You can actually spend a night at the museum now. It’s magical. Before you get to sleep under the whale, you get a flashlight tour of the dinosaur galleries, a late-night viewing of the Space Show. It’s pretty fun.
Denver: Museums help to contextualize data and information for us. Let me ask you to contextualize this: how do you see the role of the Natural History Museum in the broader society?
Ellen: It’s a very important question. On the one hand, from the scientific perspective, we want to preserve and steward the collections. They are the evidence; important records of life on this good Earth, and it’s the evidence on which much of our scientific research is done. Evidence and facts really matter. In addition, our scientists conduct some 100+ field expeditions all over the world every single year. The active science and the research that’s taking place in the Museum laboratories is very often highly interdisciplinary, high tech, and addressing major issues of our time and is a critical aspect of what we do.
Second, we want to bring and translate that scientific work and other scientific work to the public. Most of the issues that the public is so concerned with and should be so concerned with: human health, the environment, the possibility of life beyond Earth—I could go on with a long list—these are things people take to the voting booth. Think about the health issues today, vaccinations. These things really, really matter. What we try to do is bring current topics to the public, not as a textbook, but through the unique style of interpretation and presentation of an exhibition. Then we take an exhibition and a theme that we’ve developed, and we translate it for teachers, for schools, for presentation on the internet, and for learning anywhere, anytime–by children, adults and families, alone, together, however is best for them.
Denver: You’re taking these current issues, and you’re presenting them in a very current way because museums are truly in the digital age – apps, learning portals, virtual and augmented reality; these things are all being deployed to enhance the visitor’s experience. How do you approach these emerging technologies? And how do you layer it on to what the museum already was?
Ellen: It’s a really interesting question. As a scientific institution, we tend to embrace technology. We live it. We breathe it. The way that we think about it is that visitors come to us both online and onsite. Onsite and online are not in competition with one another, but rather are mutually reinforcing. Frankly, there are some things you can do better online, and some things you can do better onsite.
Denver: That’s right. Let’s talk about on-site… and getting back to the dioramas. Some of the exhibits that were created decades ago don’t fully or accurately reflect the history that is depicted in those scenes. An example of that would be the diorama with Peter Stuyvesant, Colonial Governor of New Netherland meeting with the Lenape, an indigenous tribe inhabiting New Amsterdam. What was wrong with the way that scene was depicted? And what did the museum do to help address it?
Ellen: It’s such an interesting project, and it’s a manifestation of an interesting issue for institutions that are as old as we are, 150 years, and as large as we are, that sometimes things get out of date. This was an example of a diorama that was not only out of date, but inappropriately so. And we were trying to figure out how to address it most effectively. After a great deal of introspection and dialogue, we decided that the best way to do it was explicitly and overtly, so that the public could see and engage in how things had changed in the presentation.
In other words, not take the diorama out, not simply remove the inappropriate signage, but rather to layer literally on top of the glass new signage that shared with people the fact that some of the presentations were stereotypical. Many of them were inappropriate culturally, and inaccurate. What we did was put a big label right across the glass of the diorama, and we went through issue by issue.
Denver: That is so smart and so thoughtful because if we’re going to face our history, sometimes it has to be presented, and there are so many others who would have thrown a blanket over it and pretended it never happened; and that doesn’t do anybody any good.
Ellen: But you know, it’s very interesting. So many more people are stopping to look at this diorama. They used to walk past it…which may have been a good thing when it was out of date. But now that it’s been treated, they can see that there’s something different, and they’re stopping and they’re reading. It’s been extremely well-received. We’re proud of it. But we are still learning, and we’re still working on these issues of how to best take each explicit case of this and design the right intervention and the right treatment.
It goes all the way back to those founders you asked about, because one of the great insights they had was: in addition to making us a traditional museum and a place of scientific research, they also specifically wrote into our charter that we’d be a place for what was then charmingly called “popular instruction,” which means education. So, we’ve always had a really important blended mission of science and education that’s only grown, particularly in the last period of years.
Denver: A very constructive approach. You have been deeply concerned about the state of science learning in the schools and the urgent need to improve it. In your institution, although you’re a museum, you’re doing more and more science-based learning, and you’re doing it in a very creative and innovative way. Tell us about some of those efforts.
Ellen: It goes all the way back to those founders you asked about, because one of the great insights they had was: in addition to making us a traditional museum and a place of scientific research, they also specifically wrote into our charter that we’d be a place for what was then charmingly called “popular instruction,” which means education. So, we’ve always had a really important blended mission of science and education that’s only grown, particularly in the last period of years.
And we feel that this is absolutely critical for the very reason that we were discussing before. As the issues of our time are more explicitly science-based, it is increasingly urgent that the general public have the capacity to engage those issues. In addition, I think it’s vital for young people who are going to be entering the workplace at a time when most of the jobs are going to have levels of scientific dimensionality to them, that we need to prepare them for the workforce, and beyond that, enhance our country’s own competitiveness and security going forward. We have to be at the cutting edge.
We’ve taken a very strong position that we want to be the place that is training the next generation of scientists, the next generation of science teachers, and the next generation and the current generation of a scientifically literate populace that is prepared to exercise the franchise thoughtfully.
Denver: You certainly have an expertise in knowing how to present this science in an accessible and engaging way, perhaps even more than a lot of schools do.
Ellen: I think we’re also relieved of the burden of having to present a textbook. We keep our eye on the standards, what the teachers are required to teach, because if we’re going to be in the business, and we are, of training teachers—whether it’s through our master’s program or through programs that certify teachers for teaching science—it’s critical that we meet them where they need to do their work and not expect them to go on a side adventure. We’re highly cognizant of that.
For example, we have a program called Urban Advantage that we do with a number of the other scientific nonprofit institutions around New York—botanical gardens, the zoos, the Hall of Science, etc. across all five boroughs. It’s in its 15th year. Each year we serve thousands of students and hundreds of teachers. It meets them at their required science investigation. It’s a real thing for the students and for their teachers. They do their projects in our institutions. We work with their teachers as well, and we send all the students who go through this program home with free passes for their families, and they come back with their siblings, so proud to show them “their” institution.
But I think the point of connecting our educational offering to the new standards is helping teachers and schools fulfill those requirements, and in a sense, having the classroom extend beyond the walls of the schoolhouse into the great resources of a city like New York. That’s where the name is derived from. Urban Advantage. Because for all the challenges of urban education, we have one great advantage, which is all these institutions that are here to participate.
Denver: You also, Ellen, have been a big champion for girls in STEM. Are we gaining traction? Are we making headway in those efforts?
Ellen: I’ve been involved in STEM education for girls and women since my days at Barnard College. Although, I should say very quickly, as you know, I am not a scientist though I have long loved nature and science.
…I think that having a relationship with nature is so important in every stage of our life. It’s grounding, literally. It’s deeply moving, and it makes us care about protecting the environment and the world around us.
Denver: Where did that come from? Because you were an English major; you’re a lawyer, and you were the president of Barnard for 13 years. Where did that love for science emanate from?
Ellen: It came from my childhood. I always loved nature. I was a little collector like so many children are. I collected shells, I collected rocks. I loved butterflies from a very young age. I still collect shells. It’s always been something I’ve cared about and understood, and I think that having a relationship with nature is so important in every stage of our life. It’s grounding, literally. It’s deeply moving, and it makes us care about protecting the environment and the world around us.
Denver: Let us get back to the sesquicentennial because you have an ambitious slate of projects and exhibits and events which even extend beyond this year. Let us start with the place we have to start, which is dinosaurs. Tell us about T. rex: The Ultimate Predator.
Ellen: We did have a sense that the way to kick off our sesquicentennial was obviously with T. rex. The reason that it was so appropriate, apart from T. rex just being inherently cool, is also that there’s so much new science about T. rex. It just never gets old. Our scientists are out there finding new things. Today, we know that they may have had feathers. Today, we’re trying to figure out: what color were they? Today, we can literally recreate, and we do in the exhibit, what the power of their crunch and bite was. We use new technology and virtual reality in the show to demonstrate each of these things. It is a very cool show. It looks and feels different. But it’s still about everybody’s favorite dinosaur.
Denver: It should be noted that the man who discovered T. rex was an employee at the museum.
Ellen: Barnum Brown. Part of our history. What’s so thrilling is to see how this institution began, and how it’s blossomed. Because for all the vision and ambition that our founders had, I don’t think that even they would have understood not just the role that we play in the city—which has also changed, not just a place to go, but as a driving force in New York City itself across five boroughs, in education and for tourism. But also that we’re still playing a national role, and a global role in science and discovery, in education, and we’re at the core of so many of the most important issues.
Denver: Another anniversary this year is going to be the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. What’s going on up the Hayden Planetarium?
Ellen: As you were saying, we have a lot of excitement around our 150th anniversary. Among other things, we’re going to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Moon Walk. We’re going to also celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, and a lot of other things along the way. On the 50th anniversary of the Moon Walk, which is this summer, we’re going to have a major event, and next year, we’re going to have a new Space Show.
…there’s going to be a magnificent theater which is called the Invisible Worlds Theater, and it will be a place that we take you to see the research that scientists are doing in a pioneering way that almost always is not visible to the naked eye. So, we’re going to take visitors to the depths of the ocean floor, the outer reaches of the atmosphere, inside the human body and the brain, or into a jungle and a leaf.
Denver: Perhaps the capstone of all this will be the $383 million Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education, and Innovation. What are those plans, and what will this mean to the future of the museum?
Ellen: This is a very important project. First of all, it’s the first time that we’ve ever put what we actually do on the door… in addition to our wonderful donor, Richard Gilder’s, name. It is a Center for science, education, and innovation. I do want to say one word about the architecture because our magnificent architect, Jeanne Gang, was just named to the Time 100 list. We’re a museum in a park, and we’re very environmentally-minded. We wanted somebody who had a great sensibility, not only to the built environment as you would expect an architect to have, but also to the natural environment, and Jeanne brings that to us.
She’s produced a glorious building, inside of which will be a couple of really fabulous displays. One is an insectarium. For all of the things that the Museum exhibits, we do not have a hall dedicated to insects. Yet insects are one of the most important creatures on Earth. They are a critical vector for human health, both good and bad; people tend to know the bad, not so much the good, and also for the environment. We’re going to bring all of that out, and they’re everywhere including right here in New York City. Some of the ones we don’t like, and some of the ones that we love.
In addition to the insectarium, there’s going to be a magnificent theater, which is called the Invisible Worlds Theater, and it will be a place where we take visitors to see the pioneering research that scientists are doing that often is not always visible to the naked eye. So, we’re going to take visitors to the depths of the ocean floor, the outer reaches of the atmosphere, inside the human body and the brain, or into a jungle and a leaf. And it’s going to be quite different and quite fantastic.
One of the other things that really excites us about this building–and this may just be because we watch what happens there every day–for the first time, visitors are going to be able to come in and not hit dead ends and instead will be able to circulate around all the public floors in a way that will ease their journey and how crowded it can be.
Denver: That’s so interesting. When is it going to open?
Ellen: It’s going to open in about three years.
Denver: It sounds like you do have a plan.
Ellen: We have a plan. We’re excited about it.
Denver: Ellen, running complex institutions like the American Museum of Natural History is one expensive enterprise. Are there any guiding principles you adhere to, both on the expense and the revenue side?
Ellen: I think there are a couple of things that one thinks about. Certainly when you take on a big project, you want to be sure you can afford it. We try to fund our capital work upfront. We’re quite disciplined about this. I think that’s first. On budgets, we believe in a balanced budget. Sometimes when you have new things, you have to say to yourself, “What might we not do?” That’s usually very, very difficult. It’s almost never about things that you don’t admire. It’s almost never about things that you don’t wish you could continue doing, so it’s hard, and you have to make choices.
Denver: Tell us a little bit about your organizational culture, and what makes the museum such a very special place in which to work.
Ellen: I’m so happy to have that question today because in the context of our 150th, last night we had a 150th birthday party for all of our staff, all of our volunteers, and our trustees. One of the things that we talked about was how long people tend to work at the museum. We have people who have been here, not one year, five years–of course, we have those as well–but 10 years, 20 years, 25 years, 30 years, 40 years…
Denver: You don’t find that in today’s world.
Ellen: We even had one fellow who’s been with us 50 years. I think that that tells you something about the place. First of all, I think people have a great passion about what we do and for the institution. You mentioned at the beginning people love the Museum. When I say what I do, most people will look at me and say, “It’s my favorite place.” How nice is that? But so would many of our staff, which doesn’t mean we’re perfect.
On the other hand, we are representative in every way of New York City and its great diversity and because of all that global work that we do, we’re truly a global institution. We have a global perspective. We’re interested in different perspectives. We’re about anthropology and different cultures. We’re also, like almost every other institution that I know today, working really hard to do even better on issues of diversity, equity and inclusion.
Denver: That’s one of the greatest perks of working there is telling somebody you work there, and your coolness factor goes up just like that.
Ellen: It’s really true. Certainly mine has.
Denver: Since you started back in 1993, society has changed dramatically. But I’d be curious how you have changed, and more specifically, how the way you lead this institution today is different than it was back in the early 1990s.
Ellen: We are more inclusive; I think you have to be today and, more importantly, we want to be. You have to seek out and hear more voices. I think that we live in very complex times, and that in the immediate present, we live in times that are not only complex, but they’re intense, and people bring a depth of feeling, whether it be borne of frustration or just passion for what they care about. I think that it is imperative to lead with great sensitivity today and with a strong desire to be inclusive, although realistically you can’t include everybody in every decision, and you can’t please everybody all the time. On the other hand, you can listen. You can be responsive. I think we’re trying, all of us who are running institutions today, are trying to do that better and better every day.
Denver: It just seems that people sometimes will go along with the decision as long as their voice has been heard, and they’ll go along with whatever you decide or whatever the institution decides. It’s when their voice is not heard that they really get frustrated.
Ellen: I think if people feel and, in fact, are part of a process… and they come away with a better understanding, and they do feel heard.
…as I’m wandering through the museum, I look up, and I see and hear a youngster standing in front of a diorama, and I see the parent or the caregiver saying, “Come on, come on.” And then the child looks up and says, “Wait. I just got to see this.” That’s the moment. It’s the moment when you know that they’re taking it in, because what our institution can do almost like no other is create a sense of wonder that reinforces a sense of curiosity. These are the gateways to learning. This is where it begins, an interest in science, an interest in the world around us, a desire to protect the environment.
Denver: Let me close with this, Ellen. Share with us a moment or two, perhaps a story that someone has told you in what the museum has meant to them, or maybe just capturing some kid taking this all in one day that maybe in the scheme of things isn’t that big, but it was that big to them and really warmed your heart.
Ellen: I think one of the things that happened very early on when I was in the museum, and I just always loved it. As I’m wandering through the museum, I look up, and I see and hear a youngster standing in front of a diorama, and I see the parent or the caregiver saying, “Come on, Come on.” And then the child looks up and says, “Wait. I just got to see this.” That’s the moment. It’s the moment when you know that they’re taking it in because what our institution can do almost like no other is create a sense of wonder that reinforces a sense of curiosity. These are the gateways to learning. This is where it begins, an interest in science, an interest in the world around us, a desire to protect the environment. Boy, do we need it!
Denver: Ellen Futter, the president of the American Museum of Natural History. I want to thank you so much for being here this evening. You have a website which is solely dedicated to the 150th. Tell us about that and how people can get actively engaged in this anniversary.
Ellen: This goes directly, by the way, to your earlier question about how do we lead differently. One thing we do very differently is invite the public to engage with us and to participate much more than we ever used to. As part of our 150th, everybody should feel that they’re part of it. On our website, you can share with us a story, your reactions, anything you feel like. We’re looking forward to receiving it and to hearing from all those people who love the museum.
Denver: Great idea! There are going to be a lot of them. Thanks, Ellen. It was a real pleasure to have you on the show.
Ellen: Thanks so much.
Denver: I’ll be back with more of The Business of Giving right after this.
The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at www.facebook.com/businessofgiving.