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Cleveland Museum of Natural History celebrates its '100 Years of Discovery'

The roots of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History connect back to a wooden cabin on Public Square.

In the 1800s, men gathered at a small Cleveland club called the Ark, planting just a seed of what’s now the city’s natural history museum.

“The Ark was really about a gathering place for a bunch of people that were interested in natural history, very early in the history of the area,” said Gavin Svenson, director of research and collections at CMNH.

Those interests made way for the creation of the museum in 1920.  

Cleveland Museum of Natural History
The Ark in Cleveland's Public Square was a gathering place in the 1800s.

More than a century later, the museum celebrates its own history, highlighting ambitious explorations and up-close nature studies in the new “100 Years of Discovery” exhibition.

“This exhibit is really about the efforts and individuals that built a natural history museum for the Cleveland community through the collection of all the specimens that we have and the sharing of that science with the people that come here,” Svenson said.

Museum visitors, for instance, can see some of the specimens Dr. Sonja Teraguchi found studying moth diversity. The exhibit features a recreation of her desk where she worked from the 1970s to 1990s.

“She was working with tens of thousands of specimens of moths that were collected during her sampling season across northeast Ohio,” Svenson said. “She would need to identify all those moths. She would need to pin them and make them museum quality and label them and database them.”

Carrie Wise
Ideastream Public Media
Moth specimens as seen on a recreation of the desk of Dr. Sonja Teraguchi.

Historic photos and videos help tell the stories behind what’s on display. This includes the tale of a sled dog named Balto, who led a heroic mission in the 1920s when a diphtheria outbreak hit Nome, Alaska.

“The nutshell is that they had to get the serum to treat the diphtheria to Nome, and it had to go across large expanse of frozen wilderness to get there. And they used dog sleds at the time,” said CMNH Museum Archivist Joe Tait.

Balto was one of the dogs who helped deliver the serum. A couple of years after that mission, Balto ended up in need.

Cleveland Museum of Natural History
Balto posing for a statue.

“He wound up kind of in a sideshow in California, where a Cleveland businessman saw him and the survivors of his team and they were really in bad shape and badly treated,” Tait said.

Northeast Ohioans chipped in fundraising to rescue Balto and the other dogs.

“Balto and his comrades spent the last years of their lives at the Brookside Zoo in Cleveland,” Tait said.

This celebration of the past comes as the museum is in the midst of a $150-million expansion. Looking to the future, Svenson said the museum is changing the way it presents science to the community.

“We've moved away from a timeline, and we've really talked more about case studies and processes and the questions that people really ask about science,” Svenson said.

Visitors should notice those changes in 2024 when the museum opens all new galleries.

“100 Years of Discovery” runs through July 24, 2022.
Copyright 2021 WCPN. To see more, visit WCPN.

Carrie Wise is the deputy editor of arts and culture at Ideastream Public Media.