From visitor to leader: Sonia Winner charts the future at CMNH

The Cleveland Museum of Natural History (CMNH) was deeply ingrained in Sonia Winner’s life long before it became her career.

Winner’s son learned to walk under the shadow of towering dinosaur skeletons. Years later, the future museum CEO’s daughter used the beloved University Circle landmark to feed her fascination for birds.

“It’s been part of our family for so long,” says Winner, named CMNH president and CEO in July 2018. “If the art museum is the community’s living room, then we are its family room. It’s all about life-long learning and turning kids onto science and nature.”

Transitioning from a museum visitor to leader includes overseeing 120 staff members and $282 million in assets. CMNH also ranks among the nation’s top natural history museums in terms of endowment, attendance, and collection size.

Then there is the not-so-small matter of the $150 million expansion and renovation project now halfway through completion. This transformational effort will increase the museum’s building and outdoor visitor areas to more than 375,000 square feet—a project that, despite its scope, has not shuttered CMNH for any appreciable length of time.

Staying open throughout construction is a civic responsibility—a nod to fellow “museum parents” as well as underserved populations that officials are focused on reaching, says Winner. Admission is free on Sundays for Cleveland and East Cleveland residents, courtesy of a $3 million grant from the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Foundation.

“We’re not trying to create more scientists but want to encourage that passion [in people] so they think about how we’re tied to other living creatures,” Winner says. “Like Bill Nye says, my favorite planet is Earth, and the planet is changing. It’s an important mission to help people understand that.”

Smead Discovery CenterSmead Discovery CenterSomething for everyone

Every day on the job brings something new, particularly as the museum makes progress toward completing its makeover in 2024. The ambitious undertaking includes a complete reinstallation of exhibitions along with development of fresh public spaces, Winner says.

A new 50,000-square-foot visitors hall, for example, will highlight signature specimens including everyone’s favorite three-million-year-old Australopithecus, Lucy. From this community area, visitors will enter an expanded education wing featuring a lab, classrooms, and an enhanced multipurpose space. CMNH has already reopened Smead Discovery Center and the Nathan and Fannye Shafran Planetarium.

Most of Winner’s days are spent scrutinizing not only high-end museum modifications, but the little things as well—clearing ice on the sidewalk or determining how a light fixture illuminates an exhibit are critical facets of this routine, she says.

A complete reimagining of the museum’s campus and exhibit spaces will emphasize the world’s interconnectedness—a wholesale reinvention that Winner believes can serve as a global model. Research and academics are wonderful, but spicing those subjects through 3D movies and virtual reality is even better, she says.

“What I love the most is to see the kids light up, to see those faces when they’re having fun and learning,” says Winner. “That’s what motivates me during this [expansion] project. And I want to make sure all kids have the opportunity to come to the museum, no matter what their parents do.”

More than ‘a cabinet of curiosities

Prior to her appointment as CMNH head honcho, Winner led campaign and philanthropic efforts at Columbia University as vice president of development, after she served in associate dean roles at Case Western Reserve University.

The self-described “Army brat” was born at Clark Air Force base in the Philippines, moving 14 times before high school.

New classroom in the expanded education wing at CMNHNew classroom in the expanded education wing at CMNHLove brought Winner to Cleveland—specifically her marriage to Cleveland State University professor and First Amendment scholar Kevin O’Neill. The CMNH opportunity came via an open chief philanthropy officer position. A promotion to acting CEO in January 2018 transitioned into a full-time leadership gig six months later.

“I’ve always wanted to work at a museum,” says Winner. “It’s a place where informal education takes place every day. For those of us who love ideas, museums present this unique opportunity to go somewhere and be transformed.”

Leading a large-scale institutional refurbishment has certainly taught Winner a thing or two, she adds.

“It’s hard to build a museum—I feel like I’ll be an expert by the end of this,” Winner says. “I know more about HVAC systems, how elevators work, and other things I’d never have learned if not for this experience.”

Winner also realizes the influence—economically, socially and more—CMNH has in Cuyahoga County. A 2021 study conducted by the museum revealed an annual $40 million economic impact through regional operations and labor.

Looking ahead, Winner looks anticipates walking the remodeled grounds, giving her “chief of operations”—a poodle named Brigitte Bardot—more room to run during visits.

Ultimately, museums are about togetherness, says Winner, whose off time consists of visiting cultural landmarks like Lake View Cemetery.

She says growing the CMNH community means keeping the doors open for everyone.

“People can see artifacts like a polar bear, but let’s talk about the life of that bear and what he’s facing,” says Winner. “Let’s have an understanding of all living creatures, and not just display a cabinet of curiosities.”

Douglas J. Guth
Douglas J. Guth

About the Author: Douglas J. Guth

DDouglas J. Guth is a Cleveland Heights-based freelance writer and journalist. In addition to being senior contributing editor at FreshWater, his work has been published by Midwest Energy News, Kaleidoscope Magazine, and Think, the alumni publication of Case Western Reserve University. A die-hard Cleveland sports fan, he also writes for the cynically named (yet humorously written) blog Cleveland Sports Torture. At FreshWater, he contributes regularly to the news and features departments, as well as works on regular sponsored series features.