Where science and imagination meet: CMNH on target with its museum transformation

Last June, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History (CMNH) began a three-year, $150 million project to transform the 100-year-old University Circle institution into a reimagined place where visitors can experience and live science as it relates to our own evolution.

Museum officials broke ground on the project, which includes expansion for the current facility, a complete reinstallation of its exhibitions, and development of new public spaces. CMNH president and CEO Sonia Winner says the project is moving along and is still on schedule to be completed in December 2024.

“It's on time and slightly under budget, which no one ever gets to say,” she quips. “And I'm the first woman to sign the beam at a topping off ceremony.”  

<span class="content-image-text">Rendering of the renovated Cleveland Museum of Natural History</span>Rendering of the renovated Cleveland Museum of Natural History

More importantly, says Gavin Svenson, the museum’s Chief Science Office, the massive project will make CMNH a more immersive experience that allows visitors to relate to events and phenomena that happened millions of years ago.

“The transformation is really a reinvention of what a natural history museum is to a community,” explains Svenson. “In the past museums have focused on being cabinets of curiosities—looking at showing people really neat and interesting things. But in the future, we need to be a community asset for the communities around us, our entire audience, and our broader regional community.”

Additionally, earlier this month CMNH announced it received a $300,000 grant from the Jones Day Foundation that will support the transformation project and educational programming. The investment will not only help the museum preserve its collections for future generations, it will also aid in increasing its capacity to craft and deliver programming for a wide range of audiences, particularly underserved communities in Northeast Ohio.

The grant will help the Museum completely reinstall its gallery exhibits, refurbish classroom and learning spaces, build two new studios for its award-winning Virtual Field Trips & Learning Experiences program, and develop innovative educational programming tailored to its new facilities.  

With the transformation, Svenson says the new CMNH will focus more on hands-on learning. “It's really hard to place yourself in the context of 500 million years, but there are clever ways of doing it because we are utilizing resources from millions and millions of years ago and there is a clear human connection to that,” he says. We're really trying to demonstrate that that people are part of nature, and we need to demonstrate that through the collections that we have to display. There are relevant pieces of information that everyone should care about.”

A new approach
A survey last year showed that 77% of Americans trust natural history museums and scientists to provide accurate science information, say Svenson and Winner. Of that group, 85% expressed that they want to learn more about science. But nearly half of those people said that they're falling behind.

“Historically being a traditional natural history museum with a very traditional approach, we're really reinventing what we are to the community and trying to connect people with science,” Svenson says. “We're not really moving along on a timeline as we have in the past, but we're presenting [natural history] in the context of larger relevant questions of what people typically ask in the natural world.

"We're using objects in a different way to really show and demonstrate the stories of the natural world and building the human connection—both in the impact and the role that humans have within the natural world and how we're connected across these different bits of information.”

In planning the transformation, museum officials worked with Gallagher & Associates and architectural designers DLR Groupto reformat and expand the museum space and, instead of using traditional compartmentalization, take a hands-on learning approach in an environment that encourages guest to ask questions of science and exhibit experts.

With almost five million objects and specimens in the museum’s collection, Winner says CMNH ranks among the top 10 natural history museums in the country, “and we want to be able to showcase that."

“It's not just about displaying objects—it's providing an opportunity for our visitors to ask questions about them and ask about our relevance in all of this,” says Winner. “What is the human impact? How are the decisions that I make when I go to the grocery store, when I vote, or when I take care of my own health not only impacting my health, but the health of the planet?”

Encouraging curiosity
In the museum’s Current Science Area, curatorial staff is on hand to answer questions. Winner says they have found that 80% of the visitors—especially the children—ask questions of the staff.

“We're very excited that we'll have that forum for people, if they bring something in that they find in their backyard, we'll be able to help them discover those objects and what they mean for the natural world,” she says.

Svenson adds that a Curiosity Center will also encourage guest to bring in found objects and ask questions. “The science staff here responds to hundreds of public inquiries from people finding stuff in their backyard, or they might have been hiking and observe something really unique and interesting,” he says. “They always have questions, and there's ways that we can support that and encourage people to get comfortable with asking those questions. We're the place where asking random questions about the environment is certainly normal and fun.”

<span class="content-image-text">Rendering of the renovated Cleveland Museum of Natural History</span>Rendering of the renovated Cleveland Museum of Natural History

A 50,000-square-foot addition on a former parking lot will serve as a welcome and orientation area and serve as a gateway to the rest of the museum.

The Wade Oval entrance and the education wing is on schedule to open in November. The museum also plans to open a restaurant on the oval. “You can see the building coming alive,” says Winner. It's really very exciting to see the front of the building and people will be able to enjoy it and come read the newspaper or book on a Sunday afternoon.”

The new 14,650-square-foot Visitor’s Hall will feature many of CMNH’s most popular signature specimens—from 3.2 million-year-old Australopithecus Lucy, to Alaskan hero dog Balto, to a moon rock on loan from NASA, and other interesting natural history samples—and admission to this area will always be free.

“So, if you're a family and you have a little one who doesn't have the attention span to go through the entire museum, you'll still be able to have a taste of the museum and enjoy it,” says Winner.

<span class="content-image-text">Rendering of the renovated Cleveland Museum of Natural History</span>Rendering of the renovated Cleveland Museum of Natural HistoryAdditionally, through a grant from the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Foundation, admission to the museum on Sundays is free for anyone living in Cleveland and East Cleveland. “We have the grant from the Mandel Foundation for three years to experiment and see how the community engages and is interested,” says Winner.

It’s all about building relationships and promoting interest in natural history, says Svenson.

“One of our main goals is to build a lifelong learning relationship with the community, rather than talking about it as an education programming or curriculum,” he says. “So, when people say ‘oh I want to go down to University Circle,’ or '[I want to] go to the museum,' it's more than just kind of going to see a site—It's about going there to ask and answer questions and experience conversations with scientists. And to go to something that goes far beyond a normal kind of venue, but really have this authentic experience with science.”

Winner adds, “Our goal isn't necessarily to create more scientists, our goal is to create more people who believe in science and also love nature—because nature really is the portal to science.”

Karin Connelly Rice
Karin Connelly Rice

About the Author: Karin Connelly Rice

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.