Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Rethinking the Carnegie Museum of Natural History New Director Wants to Spark Imagination and Foster Interest in History

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Rethinking the Carnegie Museum of Natural History New Director Wants to Spark Imagination and Foster Interest in History

Article excerpt

Strolling through the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, its new director Eric Dorfman displays contagious excitement as he shows off his list of "Big Wow" museum moments.

The tour includes stop at "Dippy," the "absolutely amazing" fossil of the Diplodocus carnegiei dinosaur that could fill a fire hall, and the mineral and gem collection in the Wertz Gallery, where the sparkles are multiplied by background mirrors.

But some of his favorite "Big Wows" might surprise, including a jungle display of an alligator-like amphibian and Fedexia, a much smaller spotted ancient lizard tucked away on the lowest shelf of a glass case. Its skull fossil was found years ago on FedEx property in Allegheny County. It forces a confession that he likes lizards.

In time, he also reveals his fascination with water birds that led to a Ph.D. in ecology in the study of cormorants - birds that dive to catch and eat fish.

And soon enough he's standing in front of what seemed his destination from the start - the darkly lit, marine-blue wall exhibit of the fossilized bones of a prehistoric bird that's swooping in the direction of a flightless bird swimming underwater, figuratively speaking. Sidled up to it, he talks about the bird as one might a "Star Wars" character.

"Stunning," he says. "Even if you have no interest in this in general, it's such a beautiful exhibit it can't help but capture your imagination."

OK, others might politely disagree with his choices. But he says it shows how people of different interests and backgrounds can experience "Big Wow" moments of their own at sites throughout the museum. As Mr. Dorfman has said, museums provide "entertainment with knowledge" prompting a rethink of the entire museum with a goal of more wow moments that spark the imagination, foster interest in history and prompt return visits.

And the sooner the better, he said. He's imposed a summer deadline on himself to implement a comprehensive strategy to boost visitation and museum revenues, with "a buzz" underway that reflects upcoming changes.

"There is so much to be done that we can't afford six months of naval gazing," he said.

Success down under

Mr. Dorfman, 52, began his role as museum director on Aug. 31, based largely on notable successes he had during a 4-year stint as director of the Whanganui Regional Museum and Ward Observatory on New Zealand's North Island.

That dual-culture museum with half its board members from the indigenous Maori population persuaded him to interact with the community to understand how the museum best could reflect local culture and community interests. That connection helped him craft a visitor-friendly thrust of exhibitions and programs weaving indigenous perspectives with natural and cultural history. In one example, he had Maori artists do modern artwork with gourds while encouraging children communitywide to grow them.

And such ideas worked with annual visitation quadrupling in four years from 19,000 to 74,000 people and the museum's funding base expanding by 35 percent.

"It is a stunning place that's similar to Pittsburgh in strange ways," Mr. Dorfman said, noting that both cities have cultural infrastructures typical of much larger cities. "It's very connected to the Whanganui River, and in terms of population and size Whanganui is to New Zealand what Pittsburgh is to the United States.

"New Zealand was a fantastic experience, and I had a lovely life there," he said. "But the reputation of the Carnegie Museum and the opportunity it provided with 22 million objects in its collections and the reputation of its staff, I couldn't say no."

But the Carnegie has been operating with a $1 million annual deficit, which museum officials began whittling away at even before Mr. Dorfman took the position left vacant when Samuel Taylor departed three years earlier.

"He's demonstrated leadership skills and is well-versed in natural history museums and the challenges facing them," said Lee B. …

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