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Cleveland Museum of Natural History unveils new entrance, upgrades as part of renovations

CMNH entrance.jpg
Cleveland Museum of Natural History
The Cleveland Museum of Natural History's new entrance is part of a decade-long, $150 million reimagining of the 64-year-old facility.

The Cleveland Museum of Natural History debuts its new, glacier-inspired entrance Wednesday as well as other upgrades inside.

“We're going to look a little less like a dentist’s office,” said CEO Sonia Winner. “It [was] mid-century-not-so-modern. And now it will be a gateway to science and nature.”

Winner took the helm in 2018, not long after the opening of a parking garage and the reimagined Perkins Wildlife Center - the first major pieces of the museum’s $150 million Centennial Transformation Project. On her watch, the project has been reconfigured so the museum could stay open throughout the construction. With a new architect on board, they're now on track for completion in 2024 – two years earlier than the previous plan.

“What we are imagining is two separate wings: one focused on biological processes, one focused on planetary processes, but the visitor is at the center of the story,” she said.

Winner said that natural history museums have evolved as their mission has become less about objects and more about presenting the “story of life.”

“Why should we care that elephant populations are decreasing?” she asked. “What is that impact on me? What does it mean when I go to the grocery store and choose different food items? What impact does that have on other people? How does it affect how I vote?”

Reimagining natural history
The museum is closed Tuesday in preparation for its reopening Wednesday. The reimagined facility will be different from the one which has been in University Circle since 1958. For starters, there’s no longer separate wings devoted to taxidermy or dinosaur skeletons or climate change. Instead, some of the museum’s 5 million artifacts will be arranged to tell a story.

“We're not going to have a hall of dinosaurs anymore,” said Gavin Svenson, the museum’s chief science officer. “We're putting dinosaurs into the context of grand evolutionary stories and ecological histories that are going to be displayed in the questions that we want to address. For example, the evolution of birds. In a museum that's organized in a bird hall and a mammal hall and a dinosaur hall, it's not as easy to make that connection. But we're going to be placing the theropod dinosaur, which is an ancestor of birds, directly with taxidermy birds because this is the evidence by which we know this evolutionary story.”

The museum's evolution continues for the next two years. By then, the building will have another 50,000 square feet of space, including a new basement storage area with updated climate controls. A new gift shop opens next spring. But right now, visitors can experience dinosaurs or butterflies through virtual reality or see 3-D movies in the redesigned Murch Auditorium. There’s also an expanded Smead Discovery Center for kids along with new classrooms.

Kabir Bhatia
Ideastream Public Media
Cleveland Museum of Natural History CEO Sonia Winner (left) says the facility's decade-long construction is currently in its middle stage, or in science terms, its Mesozoic Era. Chief Strategy Officer Meenakshi Sharma is hopeful that presenting 3-D movies such as "Superpower Dogs" and "Dinosaurs Alive!" will encourage the next generation of scientists.

“Before it was cinder block, old [and] dingy,” said Tom Connors, advisor to CEO Sonia Winner. “Now, it's a beautiful space: white, very bright [with] all-new technology, all-new lighting. So, it will be a very welcoming space for learners of all ages.”

One of the people who will be teaching kids is CMNH Wildlife Educator Josh Avsec. He said they reached 46,000 kids last year through education programs, and they’re hoping to increase that number as the pandemic recedes.

“[They'll be] touching real animal furs, working with tools that Native Americans actually were using," he said. "In my favorite instance, [they'll be] receiving boxes which, when you open them, actually have real artifacts: flint and arrowheads. And children, without worksheets in front of them, are going to be making conclusions.”

Avsec also said the museum’s education team is "dissecting" all of its programs and will be refining them over the next year.

That commitment to education is what CMNH Chief Strategy Officer Meenakshi Sharma hopes will carry the museum toward its $150 million goal for the project.

“This city is one of the most generous cities in the whole world,” she said. “I truly believe that each of us is a philanthropist and can care about the community. We're doing things as an institution to really help Cleveland. And when more than 40% of the kids in Cleveland live below the poverty line, we see ourselves really as a beacon for people to come and gain knowledge and hope and information that will affect their futures. We're building future leaders here for this city.”

Kabir Bhatia
Ideastream Public Media
In October, Gavin Svenson (right), the museum’s chief science officer, and Tom Connors, an advisor to CMNH CEO Sonia Winner, visited the progress of the new entryway -- with the Shafran Planetarium in the background.

The planets align
For the past 20 years, the outer dome of the Shafran Planetarium has protruded from the museum toward the skies it depicts. It’s also reopening this week but with digital projection using new software.

“Our planetarium dome is made of perforated aluminum panels and over years of use, dust starts to settle inside those holes,” said CMNH Senior Astronomer Nick Anderson. “When the panels get dark because of that dust, the bright seams in between them really stand out. You don't want that. It makes it seem like you're stuck inside a birdcage. So, we had the dome cleaned for the first time in 20 years and then had the dome repainted.”

That’s a big visual difference inside. An even bigger visual difference – outside – is the new entryway with a welcoming patio and access to the museum’s new café.

“The building itself is a design element reminding people of the glacial history and the early geologic history of northern Ohio,” said Gavin Svenson. “We have landscaping that [depicts] a glacial Moraine, that Alvara outcrop that we have preserved on Kelley’s Island as well as a lot of the native plants that exist within those ecosystems that the museum preserves.”

All of that will be on view when the museum reopens, with free admission on Wednesday only. After that, Cleveland and East Cleveland residents can continue to visit for free on Sundays with support from a Mandel Foundation grant.

Kabir Bhatia
Ideastream Public Media
Wildlife Educator Josh Avsec says the museum is refining many of its education programs, which are presented in redesigned classroom spaces on the ground floor. He shows off a reminder of the Cleveland Health Education Museum, a human digestive tract. "As gross as that may sound," he said, "you'll spend your whole life never getting to see this kind of stuff."

Kabir Bhatia is a senior reporter for Ideastream Public Media's arts & culture team.