Getting to Know Sheila Knox

By Mary Alice Hartsock

Sheila Knox sees everything. Not in the “teacher-with-eyes-in-the-back-of-her head” kind of way, although the museum literally comes to life right in front of her every day.

For 15 years, Knox has been occupying the coveted chair in the Academy’s Visitor Services Department, sharing her office with the Elasmosaurus as she keeps watch over the museum’s front door. As a visitor services associate at the Parkway admissions desk, she greets visitors, members, museum educators, scientists, administrators, and the occasional celebrity, her soft-spoken and friendly manner immediately making everyone feel at home.

On their way to lunches and meetings, Academy employees stop by the admissions desk to catch up. Whispered conversations waft through the corridors and down the marble steps. Worn-out children throw tantrums, and school kids gawk at the T. rex just 35 feet from her desk.

Yes, Knox really does see and hear everything, but it’s a good thing, because the cues she takes from her environment enable her to form lasting relationships with staff and guests. She is perfectly poised to make the Academy experience meaningful from the moment visitors enter the lobby.

When Knox joined the Academy 15 years ago, that same entryway was covered in ugly carpet, Dinosaur Hall recently had been remodeled, and a Giganotosaurus loomed over the front desk. Leaving her job in department store bridal consulting for one that involved being surrounded by overexcited kids was a relief. Knox says she has always been able to go with the flow, and having dead birds and specimens dumped onto her desk by museum visitors hoping for an identification is just another part of her day.

“You never know what each day is going to bring,” she says. “If you find a lost child, you calm them down and find their parents. If a visitor comes in with a science question, you call down a scientist to answer it.”

In her job Knox gets to know all kinds of people. Years ago she enjoyed regular lunches in the Academy Café with the legendary Dr. Ruth Patrick, who told stories about her early years at the museum over her daily hot dog, soup, and coffee. Knox calls some of the Academy’s long-time adult visitors her dear friends. She has watched many members—including her own daughter—grow from toddlers to teens to young volunteers.

If months go by without certain members stopping in for a visit, Knox will ask them where they’ve been. From time to time she has been recognized around the neighborhood as “the museum lady”—a local celebrity to children who ask if she remembers them.

Knox’s job usually keeps her glued to her chair. But each September, Members’ Night gives her the chance not only to catch up with members but also to look around behind the scenes—the one place that she doesn’t see on a daily basis. Even for an employee who has worked at the Academy for 15 years, it never gets old. “I’m always in awe, seeing things I’ve never seen before,” she says. “Hopefully I can stay here a lot longer.”

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of Academy Frontiers.

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