face timeSummer 2008
Sam Taylor
photo: Tom Altany

By Betsy Momich

Sam Taylor

A marine biologist and self-proclaimed “Victorian naturalist,” Sam Taylor, the new director of Carnegie Museum of Natural History, says he found a more    fulfilling way to marry his love of the natural world with his passion for education when he discovered natural history museums as a career path while earning his Ph.D. in Science Education at Berkeley. With an early stint at Carnegie Museum of Natural History and management roles at New York Hall of Science, American Museum of Natural History, and California Academy of Sciences, he’s since become quite the museum guy, and ever the visitor advocate. Asked to recount a memorable museum project, he tells a surprising story about one of his first suggestions as American Museum’s director of exhibitions. In the midst of renovating the museum’s massive paleontology exhibits, a team of experts was tussling over what to do with a still-empty space situated in the middle of a huge but already jam-packed exhibit floor. Taylor recommended that they put “absolutely nothing” in the prime spot, which boasted floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Central Park. “People will be exhausted,” he told the group. “Put some couches in front of those windows and let them sit down and chill out.” Visitors have been chilling out there ever since, something that still pleases Taylor today.

What, exactly, is a “Victorian naturalist”? 
In the Victorian period, there was a remarkable back-to-nature movement. One result of the industrial revolution, mass production, and the growth of cities was the creation of a middle class that, for the first time in history, had leisure time. So they began to pursue nature-related hobbies like shell collecting, butterfly collecting, and pressing flowers. This is also when the big urban parks were being created—Hyde Park in London, Central Park in New York. There was this fascination with leisure in nature and a belief in the power of nature to restore the human spirit. 

Are you still of this mindset?
Oh, yeah, absolutely. There’s still very much  a part of me that would just love to drop it all and go live in the mountains and meditate.

Powdermill must appeal to you. 
Definitely. Our Powdermill Nature Reserve (in the Laurel Highlands) is an incredible resource for us. The building that they’ve completed is just incredible for its “green engineering,” and it will allow us to greatly expand programming. I saw about 90 school kids when I went up there recently, and they were all jumping up and down in the creek and examining the little bugs. It’s right after my own heart.

You were a marine biologist before you were a museum guy. Did you enjoy that?
The most incredible thing about that period of time in graduate school was being a part of a community of scientists and basically understanding the world through that lens. The work that I did was on deep-sea fish, so every research project required going out on a research vessel and collecting. You select the place where there’s a very deep ocean trench, you go out, put nets down, and the ship goes back and forth at two knots for a week. It is about as tedious a process as you can imagine! But there was always a very interdisciplinary group on the ship, and the whole time the nets are down, you’re sitting there waiting and just shooting the breeze with this group of people, and it was incredibly intellectually stimulating.

Why did you decide to move into museum management?
Because I always wanted to be a generalist, which is hard to do in science. I realized I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life looking at fish hemoglobin; that isn’t how I wanted to relate to the natural world. 

You’ve been involved in creating many exhibits. Do you have a favorite?
One favorite was the global warming exhibition at the American Museum, developed in collaboration with Environmental  Defense, which opened in 1991. It was a real point of controversy for us to decide to do that exhibit. We thought that we were going to be battling people, and we were so careful. For the facts of the exhibition we stuck with the report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (now in its fourth version), which is still considered the definitive statement on this topic. It’s 17 years later, and I can still think of the text of every single exhibit module; and every single thing we talked about is coming to be. It’s just so gratifying to think that, by being careful, by working with the right groups of people and not latching onto the sensationalism, we actually got it right.

What’s first on your list of things to do here at the museum?
One thing that I probably am going to be devoting a great deal of my efforts towards is getting curatorial vacancies funded. As curators have retired or left for some other place, many of those positions have not been filled. In part, that’s been one way of getting by financially over the past decade.

Why is that so important to you?
You have to ask what it is that’s special at this place. Our research enterprise is at the core of what we are as an institution. The quality and quantity of our research is what gives us scientific credibility, and what buys us the public’s trust. It gives us the authority to speak out on science-related issues, and positions us to be leaders in science education. So it’s critical for there to be a broader understanding of the fact that research goes on here.

I hope to be able to generate a kind of enthusiasm for the work we are doing, so that we can get more endowed curatorial positions that are then safeguarded for the future. Because their work has to underlie everything else we do. I would also like to have much more curatorial involvement in collaborations with other institutions, like the kinds of things we have going with Pitt medical school. And that would require more staff than we currently have.

You’ve spoken about museums playing more of an advocacy role. What big issue keeps you up at night?
The conservation of natural resources and conservation of biodiversity are issues that are literally critical to our survival. This is not a “special interest,” and it’s not a tree-hugger kind of attitude. It is literally about our survival on this planet. 

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned about the museum visitor? 
That people have the ability to understand things at a depth that we generally don’t give them credit for. We’ve promoted a weird myth about how visitors are “educated” by museum exhibits, yet we rarely observe people behaving that way. Most visitors do not see all the parts of an exhibt. And they often don’t spend any time reading labels and such. The disconnect comes from our inability to present information and experiences that enable visitors to click with what we have, not from their inability to understand scientific concepts.

I don’t care if they go away with facts; they’re probably going to forget them the next day anyway. I want people to feel like the world of science, the world of nature, has meaning for them; and that Carnegie Museum of Natural History is a place that they can go to learn more about it. The museum must generate the emotional reaction that leads people to curiosity, and inspires them to continue to be curious ... and have little kids, especially, leave feeling like “I can understand something about nature, I have that ability.” That’s what we have to have our visitors feel when they leave.
Also in this issue:

Celebrating the Mark that Makes Us Human  ·  Voices From Mars  ·  American Doggedness and the Carnegie International  ·  Clash of the “Tyrant Lizards”  ·  Hip to Be Square  ·  Special Supplement: Thanks to Our Donors  ·  Director's Note  ·  NewsWorthy  ·  Now Showing  ·  About Town: Robotic Wonder  ·  Field Trip: Red Hot Find  ·  Science & Nature: Ready, Set, Go! Sports Works 2.0  ·  Artistic License: Kinetic Energy  ·  Another Look: Section of Mollusks