Free space: Mandel Foundation Community Days make Cleveland Museum of Natural History accessible

Children benefit from museum visits in many ways

 The best part of taking youngsters to a natural history museum is seeing the smiles and looks of wonderment on their faces when they look up at a dinosaur skull towering over them.

It’s seeing how they begin to understand that many years ago people lived where they live now—hunting for food and making almost everything they used. Or witnessing the moment when kids realize stars have names and the sun is so much bigger than the Earth (about 109 times the diameter).

Those moments are the priceless, but intangible benefits of a Sunday walk through a museum. Studies have shown museum visits also have numerous lifelong advantages for children, including:

Educational benefits

Children can become lifelong learners through early museum exposure. Students develop stronger critical thinking skills by comparing and analyzing what they see at museums. Active learning opportunities help children learn more deeply and retain information longer.

Museums provide a boost to a child’s vocabulary. It’s not just the addition of specific artistic or scientific words, but also the improved skill of using common words more precisely and effectively. Children who visit museums have higher achievements in reading, math, and science.

Imagination stimulation

Museums that offer interactive or engaging activities provide practice in problem-solving skills. New information presented to a child encourages curiosity. A child’s lifelong interest in arts or sciences can be sparked by museum exposure.

Social and family advantages

Families can share ideas and beliefs when viewing museum displays or participating in museum activities together. Children learn to respect and be courteous to museum guides and other visitors while in a museum. Visiting museums can create important memories of family and friends.

(Sources: National Endowment for the Arts; American Alliance of Museums; Institute of Museum and Library Services; Kinderpedia)

For many youngsters in northeast Ohio, visiting the Cleveland Museum of Natural History (CMNH) is almost a rite of passage.

School-age children on field trips line up in single file or hold hands with a buddy as they follow their teacher and a museum guide past dinosaur skeletons and amazing mineral specimens or watch the “sky” as constellations appear magically overhead in the Nathan and Fannye Shafran Planetarium

But what if that one school trip were the only time a child could visit the Natural History Museum, which was established in 1920 and which can trace its roots to 1836?

One visit is a good introduction, but it’s hardly enough time to hear all the stories of Balto the famous sled dog, Lucy, a 3.2-million-year-old fossilized Australopithecus afarensis, discovered in Ethiopia in 1974 by former CMNH curator Donald Johanson, or see the museum’s moon rock.

“Education and learning is really the foundation of everything and how we all become better human beings,” says Sonia Winner, CMNH president and CEO. “We feel a civic responsibility for sharing evidence-based learning with the community.”

Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s Ralph Perkins II Wildlife CenterCleveland Museum of Natural History’s Ralph Perkins II Wildlife CenterAs children grow, their interests expand. The Ralph Perkins II Wildlife Center and Woods Garden presented by KeyBank—an onsite, outdoor sanctuary with live animals and plants found in Ohio—is still important to older children. But so are displays about the local environment and what they can do to help the earth.

You need a lifetime of visits to learn and appreciate all the museum has to offer. But what if your family just couldn’t afford the admission fee for multiple visits?

Since January 2022, Sundays are deemed Mandel Community Days, when admission to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History is free for residents of Cleveland and East Cleveland.

Thanks to a $3 million, three-year grant from the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Foundation, the $10 admission ($7 for kids and seniors) fee is now waived on Sundays—making the museum more accessible.

About 7,000 people have taken advantage of the gift, according to Winner.

“The Mandel Foundation Community Days is all about reducing the barriers of cost for families," she says. “One of the exciting things about Mandel Community Days is exposing as many kids as possible to the wonders of nature and science and letting them know that cost is not a barrier.”

Mandel Foundation board chair Stephen Hoffman, who is a passionate museum supporter, agrees with Winner in the mission to make the museum accessible to everyone.

The Cleveland Museum of Natural History Smead Discovery CenterThe Cleveland Museum of Natural History Smead Discovery Center“We think the museum is an interesting and valuable destination for families on weekends,” he says. “We thought the normal admission fee could be a barrier to some and we wanted to make it possible for all people to go as a family.”

The grant also will fund the creation of the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Community Space, a center for community-oriented programming and a vital part of the museum’s current $150-million Centennial Transformation. The space will become part of the museum’s Education Wing.

When completed in 2024, the “reimagined” museum will include a 50,000-square-foot expansion, updated exhibits, and new public space. The grant is the largest gift the museum has received from the Mandel Foundation.

“We are also pleased with how the space is developing,” says Hoffman of the Community Space. “And we are happy to be joining with a lot of other people in Cleveland in making this museum’s transformation possible. It will become one of the real jewels in the University Circle campus.”

The CMNH Visitors Hall will open this fall and will be free to all visitors every day. The space will include “eight of the museum’s most iconic specimens, including what many museum visitors come to see first,” according to Winner.

Hoffman says his own grandchildren love to visit CMNH, and especially like the “the wild animal walk” and the interactive displays throughout the museum. He says he understands the importance of exposing children at an early age to nature, science, and to museums in general.  

Winner credits CMNH (and good-naturedly “blames” the museum) for her own children’s interests in the outdoors and its many opportunities for learning and for their choice of recreational activities. Museum visits and programming experienced when they were growing up inspired her children, believes Winner.

Her son is now an avid, experienced hiker and her daughter can identify a wide variety of birds by their appearance and vocalizations.

Winner also points to the museum’s ownership and stewardship of 12,000 acres in northern Ohio, much of which is pristine natural land, for helping to develop an interest in the natural world. The general public can register for special museum field trips to these properties through the Natural Areas Program.

Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s Ralph Perkins II Wildlife CenterCleveland Museum of Natural History’s Ralph Perkins II Wildlife Center“People can see rare species in these natural areas. They also begin to understand things like why it is important to be concerned about the shrinking insect population,” says Winner, discussing the wide range of ecosystems from wetlands to deep woodlands that comprise the museum’s properties.

It’s impossible to know, of course, how many of the world’s naturalists, botanists, zoologists, chemists, geologists, astronomers, anthropologists and other types of scientists have been inspired by early visits to the CMNH.

And that’s not even taking into account the number of backyard birders, vacation shell collectors, rock hounds, or local stargazers who became amateur scientists or nature lovers because of natural history museum exposure.

One huge example includes biophysical chemist and college administrator Sean M. Decatur, who was named president of the prestigious American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City in 2022 and began his service this past April. He is the first African American to serve as the president of the AMNH.

Decatur is a Cleveland native and attended Cleveland Metropolitan School District (where his mother was a math and science teacher) and Hawken School.

When the news was announced, Winner recalls reading national media stories where Decatur attributed his inspiration to pursue a science career to his visits to CMNH and participation in its summer camp programs.

Birdly virtual-reality flight simulators at the Cleveland Museum of Natural HistoryBirdly virtual-reality flight simulators at the Cleveland Museum of Natural HistoryWinner contacted Decatur and invited him to tour CMNH’s transformation. She says she now considers Decatur a friend and is looking forward to possible shared ventures between CMNH and AMNH.

Post-visit surveys about Mandel Community Days reveal that the opportunity is a success in many ways.

One visitor commented, “We were able to bring several refugee families to the museum and had a wonderful time.” Another person wrote, “Super nostalgic to visit—estimating 20 years since last visit. Very proud of our museum.” 

Peter Pesch of Cleveland has been a museum volunteer since 2007, taking on Herculean tasks such as databasing scientific specimens and organizing boxes of archives.

The retired astronomer at Case Western Reserve University is also known for his help in the museum’s live animal programs.

And, of course, Pesch interacts with families who visit during Mandel Community Days. He says all museum visitors are important to him—whether it is someone’s first visit or their 100th, whether they will become a renowned entomologist or a joyful outdoor enthusiast who wants to promote clean water tactics.

Pesch considers Mandel Community Days to be a great way to increase attendance and to hook kids—and adults—on science and the natural world.

“We are always looking for more volunteers, especially with the live animals like the otters and bobcats that the children really like,” says Pesch, whose wife, Donna, shares his volunteerism passion.

“There are a lot of things volunteers can do—from interacting with the public to cutting up food for the animals and cleaning cages,” Pesch continues. “It’s just a great place. Maybe someone who comes during Mandel Foundation Community Days will become a volunteer.”

Mandel Foundation Community Days at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, 1 Wade Oval, are held every Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Proof of Cleveland or East Cleveland address is required for free admission upon arrival. For more information, call (216) 231-4600.