You May Also LikeQ+A: Aaron Levi Garvey Q+A: Doug DeHaven Q+A: Daniel Horenstein
The line between art and science is blurry for Gretchen Baker. “Art was always a way that I explored nature, and it helped me understand biodiversity,” says Baker, the Daniel G. and Carole L. Kamin Director of Carnegie Museum of Natural History. The Illinois native began her career at Chicago’s Field Museum, where she entered as a scientist and eventually became deputy director of exhibitions. Before joining the Museum of Natural History in April 2021, she had also served as vice president of exhibitions and living collections for the Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County and managing director of museum experience at the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art. Baker’s appreciation for the relationship between art and science has only grown since she began working in Oakland. She loves how visitors can “get lost” in the building that the Museum of Natural History shares with the Museum of Art. Part of the imprint she hopes to have is exploring how the two museums can work together even more closely.
Q: You have a background that bridges both art and science. Where do you see these two worlds intersecting?
A: When it comes to doing exhibition design and development in natural history museums, we’re always using art in the service of science. Through the artistic process of scientific reconstruction, we can understand what an extinct animal really looked like when it was alive. And there’s the more immersive part of using murals, media projections, or reconstructing environments with lighting and sound. Art is a critical tool to understanding and appreciating science.
Now, being in Oakland, we get to take that a step further. Museums rarely include scientific and art collections under the same roof; I’m really excited about that.
Q: There have been a lot of discussions about museums confronting the difficult legacy of the artifacts in their care. What kinds of discussions are you having with staff?
A: The initial step is uncovering the life history, or provenance, of the objects and specimens in our care. Sometimes this is well documented, other times it requires more research into archives, field notebooks, etc. Then, there’s how and where to share these histories with the public. We know from visitor research that people are interested and concerned about where collections come from.
In addition to what we want to add to exhibitions or other modes of public engagement, there is also the question of removing items from public view. We are talking a lot about the ethics of display and interpretation, and particularly, how to ensure that descendent communities and ethical stakeholders are part of that decision-making process and storytelling.
Q: How do you help visitors understand why you may have to make changes to some of the exhibitions?
A: We’re trying to use these moments as an opportunity to help our visitors understand more about the kinds of questions that museums have to ask. But to remove anything abruptly from display would be the wrong approach.
You think about the art museum and they’re constantly changing the galleries. I think visitors accept the dynamic quality of art galleries. For some reason, there’s more nostalgia around some of the displays in the natural history museum. But knowledge and understanding change, and as a scientific institution, I believe we have a responsibility to showcase current and accurate information, and this may mean that long-beloved displays need to change.
Q: You’ve worn hearing aids since the age of 4. What are some things you’d like to do at the Museum of Natural History to make it more accessible?
A: I had a powerful experience in the museum recently. The director of a science museum in Japan visited and asked to tour the museum. She had lost her vision in the last decade so she held my arm as we walked and I verbally described what was around us. In the Grand Staircase, as I described it to her, she said, “Oh, I can tell” because of the way it sounds in here. It struck me because I can’t rely on sound to make sense of the world; I rely much more on the visual. I wish she and I could spend weeks together walking around the museum and describing it to each other. What a rich experience that would be.
As a museum, we have a long way to go to be accessible for all disabilities and needs. Working to accomplish that—through an array of strategies—will ultimately make the museum a more meaningful and memorable experience for everyone.
Q: What has been your greatest challenge in the past year and a half?
A: I’ve had to get to know my entire staff basically via Zoom. The thing that I always enjoy the most in my museum jobs are my colleagues. Onboarding and getting acquainted has been very different in this mostly virtual setting and I’ve had to be patient in building rapport, trust, and familiarity, and we’ve all had to evolve ways of communication and collaborating. It’s been such a relief to have more opportunities to be together in person these last few months!
Receive more stories in your emailSign up