From Pittsburgh to Raleigh: A New Chapter

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Early in 2020, I will have the enormous privilege to be taking on the role of Director of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. It’s located in Raleigh, is the oldest established museum in North Carolina and the largest museum of its kind in the Southeastern United States. It’s also Raleigh’s largest tourist attraction, serving around 1.25M people a year. Their has 4.5M specimens broadly cover most of the animal world.

Acrocanthosaurs
Acrocanthosaurus “The Terror of the South”

Even ignoring the impressive statistics, it’s a pretty wonderful place – a huge building, divided into two parts – one devoted to exploring the natural world, and the other, to researching it. The exploration sideis packed full of specimen-filled exhibits, big stories of nature, live animals like a sloth that lives in the butterfly butterfly house, the family-friendly Discovery Room, and the largest known fossil of Acrocanthosaurus, a theropod dinosaur known as the “Terror of the South”.

In the research wing, studies happen in partnership with important universities, in glass-fronted labs that face the public. This is a chance to watch while research happens and discoveries are made in real time. Work is happening  everything from tiny things like the behavior, communication, and natural history of ants and other social insects, as well as really vast things like the forms and structures that make up galaxies and their central supermassive black holes. It’s also a place to learn how to do science – for hands-on exploration of specimens, extraction of DNA from wheat germ, and be shown spectacular chemical reactions.

SECU Daily Planet
SECU Daily Planet Theater

At the nexus of these two buildings is – on the street side – a huge globe that is one of the major landmarks of the city of Raleigh. On the inside the space houses a theater (SECU Daily Planet), which is a great venue for presentations and multi-story movie experiences.

Many of the museum’s collections are online and can be accessed through a user-friendly portal. It’s pictured below and, if you want to see it, just click on the image.

NCMNS collections online
The Portal to exploring the online collections. Click on the image to take you there.

It’s been fun just opening up the records and looking at the variety of specimens there. Every entry gives a lot information, not only the characteristics of the animal when it was alive – length, weight, but where it came from and when it was collected. Its existence in the museum’s collection contributes to a long-term database that allows researchers to answer questions of species and communities across time ans space. I’ve already started checking out the cormorants and other waterbirds. But more on them another time…

Prairie Ridge EcostationFurther afield, there are outposts, like Prairie Ridge Ecostation, which offers a green living backdrop for a host of field-based activities for visitors, as well as an opportunity to get involved in citizen science projects.

I can’t wait to explore it more fully and start meeting everybody. Of course, to do that means I’ll have to say goodbye to Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, and all great people here, along with the projects that have made such an impact over the last years.

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Since joining the museum in 2015, I have had the pleasure of working with the museum’s community to craft our direction through two successful strategic planning rounds. The Strategic Plan for 2020-2022 has only just been launched. It fills me with pride to reflect on what our shared vision and direction has allowed us to accomplish. First, and arguably most important, was a strategic focus on relevance that touched every aspect of our work. Not only did it guide how we engage with others, it has caused us to think more nimbly about how we let private sector best practice inform our work. It has also helped to catalyze a focus on the Anthropocene and establish CMNH as an important voice of innovation in this field, adding to the excellent work already being done on evolution and ecosystem science.

Cenozoic Hall new
The renovated Cenozoic Hall at CMNH, featuring a wealth of early mammal fossils

I’m also proud of the program of improvements that have been made across the galleries in a partnership with teams from Science, Exhibitions and Conservation coming together to reinvent our visitor experience. Some interventions, like painting walls, have been easy fixes and others have involved complete overhauls. Together, they’ve made a lasting positive impact on visitation, which has broken all-time records for three years in a row.

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We also looked again at the CMNH brand and logo, making Dippy more central and with even more personality than before. He’s also appearing on everything from t-shirts to socks, Christmas ornaments, greeting cards and shortly some other types of media. He’s got his own Instagram and Twitter streams and has recently featured prominently on billboards around Pittsburgh. Suffice to say, he’s becoming much more famous as a personality.

CMNH giftshopThis new merchandising drive nicely complements the wonderful new gift shop, over double the previous size, which has been in place since late 2017. That in itself is an important visitor experience housing dioramas, fossils and taxidermy alongside the items for sale.

The CMNH Marketing team has achieved great things with continually growing social media reach, award-winning shorts featuring scientists explaining their work and bringing a sense of fun to what we do. Achieving “Best in the ‘Burgh” by the readers of Pittsburgh Magazine two years running (so far) is been one of many acknowledgements that acknowledge the great work being done.

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Being joined by Producer Tim Evans (left) and Co-Host Sloan MacRae (right) during a recording session of A is for Anthropocene: Living in the Age of Humanity

I’m of course immensely proud our podcast A is for Anthropocene: Living in the Age of Humanity. First of all, it’s enormous fun to do it, planning the episodes, researching getting people, like in-house research scientists, artists and community members in for an interview. It’s also an important augmentation of the museum’s brand position with respect to the cultural side of Anthropocene. Finally, the podcast exemplifies what can be achieved when people from across an institution come together in support of common goal. This is has been a marvelous outcome to a story that already has so many positives.

Calverly.jpgPowdermill Nature Reserve, the field station of CMNH, has also been a very important part of being in this role. The chance to champion the excellent work done here and help foster the deep relationships that the reserve and its staff have with the local community has been an honor. Most important for me personally has been the opportunity to stay frequently in the peaceful seclusion of Calverly Lodge, where on its porch, to the sound of a nearby creek, I wrote and thought deeply about humanity’s  relationship to nature.

Finally, I have to indulge in a little free association, just to get it out of my system: the biology of identity, animal mummies, Andy Warhol’s Endangered Species series, learning how to say Parasaurolophus properly, bird-safe glass, Albert the Alligator, Jafar, a volcano tree-topper, Sensory-Friendly Saturdays, “Play the right notes, Dave,” NATHIST 2017, Mr Yuk, and a skeletal Christmas T. rex driving a sleigh pulled by pterodactyls.

To all of you who at CMNH who have made these things happen, alongside so very many more, your support will always stay with me. Thank you for everything.


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