President of American Museum of Natural History

Source: WSJ Photo: Denis Finnin/American Museum of Natural History.

Melanie Grayce West, How a Museum Can Help Make Science Accessible: Ellen Futter, president of the American Museum of Natural History, on leading a cultural treasure, The Wall Street Journal, 22 February 2015

How do you foster a love of science?

It’s a question core to the mission of the American Museum of Natural History, an institution that might be best known for its dioramas and as the backdrop of a trilogy of popular children’s films. Behind the scenes, the New York museum is a mix of education, teaching and research that uses some 33 million artifacts—everything from bones to textiles—to spark discovery.

Leading this nearly 150-year-old cultural gemstone is President Ellen V. Futter, a 65-year-old trained lawyer and former president of Barnard College. Over 22 years, Ms. Futter has helped to boost the number of annual visitors to five million from three million, institute a one-of-a-kind PhD program in comparative biology and take the museum’s vast collection online. On the horizon, she has launched an effort to build a $325 million science-and-education building on the museum’s 18-acre campus.

We asked Ms Futter about roadblocks in science education, how technology has shaped the museum experience and how to stay fresh in a job. Here are edited excerpts:

Education Crisis

WSJ: Describe the crisis in science education.

Ms Futter: So many of the most important issues of the day have a scientific base to them. We think that the public understanding of science is critical to understanding the world and ability to do things like vote thoughtfully.

We have a crisis in science education that has profound implications for workforce preparedness. Many jobs have gone unfilled because people didn’t have critical skills. In the jobs of tomorrow, this might be even more so in terms of scientific understanding.

The public has a real thirst to understand the world around them. But what people don’t want to do is be intimidated or made to feel like it’s too much for them to understand. We are giving a level of understanding and a fluency in these subjects for life.

WSJ: What role does technology play in the museum and in education?

Ms Futter: It plays out in a lot of different ways, from how we help visitors move through the institution to ticketing.

More important, it informs the nature of our research. Our scientists today can sequence DNA from a specimen that has been in the collection for 100 years.

From an educational standpoint, it is transformative. In the old days, a visit to the museum by a school group was a one-off. Today, we can be engaged with the class and the teacher before they get here, and when they get here it’s like a giant exclamation point.

WSJ: What does it mean to be a museum in the 21st century?

Ms Futter: First of all, it means fulfilling our role in society. And by that I mean that our science does speak to many of the most important issues. Secondly, it means playing what has been a growing role in education. We became the first and still the only museum in the Western Hemisphere that is granting a Ph.D. degree. Ours is in comparative biology, which is our sweet spot. More recently, we have the only stand-alone master’s in teaching program to train science teachers. We also offer massive open online courses.

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