My Not-So-Typical Job

The Academy of Natural Sciences has an incredible legacy of collecting, scientific research and inspiring young minds. As a native of Pennsauken, NJ, I grew up — as so many of us did — marveling at the T. rex in Dinosaur Hall, studying the tiniest creatures in the dioramas and wondering about all these incredible specimens. So, it’s with great excitement that, in spring 2019, I joined the Academy as the institution’s first-ever Chief Learning and Engagement Officer, tasked with leading the talented staff in exhibits, learning and visitor services toward delivering an even more incredible museum experience.

I’m often asked what a Chief Learning and Engagement Officer does, as it’s not a typical job title. Essentially, it means I work alongside the teams that make your visit to the Academy great. I work with our visitor services team to help you have a welcoming, wonderful experience. I work with our exhibits team to design and create thoughtful displays of collections, artifacts and other wondrous objects. And, I work with our learning team to guide their work in creating and delivering programs and events that are inspiring and informative. These three teams engage with you each and every time you’re here — and create the environment in which you can learn something new, discover something amazing, feel something important, and, hopefully, be inspired to take action toward a better future.

Another big part of my role is to ask critical questions about the future of learning and engagement in our institution. At its inception, the Academy was focused on collecting and research, as were most museums of that time. But nowadays, museums are more and more interested in relevance — being an important part of the communities in which they are located and having an impact on the people that live and work nearby. With that in mind, I’ve spent my first 12 months at the Academy asking some critical questions about the future of our museum.

Niki Stewart Headshot
Photo by Jennifer Buhl/Happy Hour Headshot

Here’s a sample of those questions.

What is a natural history museum’s role in the modern world? In the age of the internet, when information is available to us at every turn, what can a natural history museum offer that our smartphone screens cannot?

When the Academy’s dioramas were created, they might have been the only way you could see what a polar bear looked like (without leaving Center City). But today, we can travel more easily, explore the Internet and find myriad media outlets talking about polar bears. In the modern world, it’s no longer about being the only place that knows about polar bears … it’s about offering a new narrative and awareness of polar bears TODAY, while safely standing face-to-face with these magnificent, larger-than-life creatures.

What research are we doing at the Academy that informs the story of how our natural world is changing? How can we more readily share that with the public?

Our institution has no fewer than 60 scientists working behind the scenes on critical research, from understanding more about water quality in the Delaware River watershed to exploring evolutionary history in Antarctica. This research is paired with millions of specimens in our collection, all safely stored and accessible to researchers near and far. Most of this exciting work is done behind the doors and walls of the Academy, away from the public eye, but we’re now exploring ideas for bringing all that work into the galleries to share with you.

Perhaps the most important question we’ve been asking this year is this: how can our museum make people’s lives better?

We truly believe that the Academy has the expertise, collections and passionate staff to help build a movement of environmentally engaged communities that are working toward a healthier, more sustainable planet. We want to do this by helping you understand the natural world and inspiring you to care for it. And, we think that’s possible through informing, initiating and convening critical conversations on the issues we’re facing today, including climate change, evolution, water resources and biodiversity and extinction.

We are actively re-envisioning what our natural history museum can be in the coming years, and we’re excited to begin making some great changes. You’ll soon notice a refreshed look and feel in some of our galleries and gathering spaces, updated signage and stories in our galleries, and a bright, welcoming vibe permeating more and more spaces throughout the building. During your visit, you’ll encounter an even more vibrant, energetic place with refreshed exhibits, stories and programs, one that inspires you to visit over and over again. A place where people of all ages come together to learn, laugh and explore issues related to the natural world. And a place where we can all stand together and truly become a force for nature.

By Niki Ciccotelli Stewart, Chief Learning and Engagement Officer

This article first appeared in the Spring/Summer 2020 edition of the Academy Frontiers member magazine.

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