Ellen Futter

Shake Them Bones

VTR Date: June 18, 2007

James Traub discusses the Museum of Natural History.


GUEST: Dr. Ellen Futter
VTR: 06/18/07

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And I remember being totally charmed a dozen years ago by a piece James Traub wrote in The New Yorker, titled “Shake Them Bones”.

It had to do, of course, with those fossilized wonders at my lifetime favorite of all New York institutions, The American Museum of Natural History. And, as importantly, with the way Ellen Futter, my guest today was indeed shaking “them bones” and doing great new things as the Museum’s then fledging President, having just come from a brilliantly successful tenure as President of Barnard College.

Now it’s hard even for me to realize that it was 75 years ago and more that I first became enthralled by the Museum of Natural History and the deeply familiar comfort it has always offered. And I guess that’s all the more reason why the New Yorker article resonated so for me.

Particularly when Traub referred right up front to J. D. Salinger’s classic Catcher In Rye. He begins his piece, “when Holden Caulfield needed shelter from the world, he fled to the great silent spaces of the American Museum of Natural History.” Remember Salinger’s elegy to its humble virtues: “The best thing in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was”, Salinger had written. “Nobody’d move. You could go there a 100,000 times (and I must say I think I actually did) and that Eskimo would still be just finished catching those two fish. The birds would still be on their way South. The deers would still be drinking out of that water hole. The only thing that would be different would be you.”

Well, I don’t know that’s so true anymore about nothing being different, about humble virtues and shelter from the world, about the deeply familiar comfort the Museum has always offered. But I suppose I should really ask my guest, what do you think about that?

FUTTER: Well, you know sometimes two things can be true, even though they appear to be opposite. I don’t think there’s any question but that the things that J.D. Salinger and you elude to as being constants, that is a special sense of finding a comfort and of finding some things being the same is very much the case. We play exactly that role for the public today.

In fact, the exact words that you used are the ones I most frequently hear from people … “It’s my favorite institution.” And of course, nothing could make me happier. At the same time there are things that have changed. But it’s an interesting concept. Sometimes change is the thing that allows it to sustain doing what it is that you were reaching for. That is, to go back and find the comfort in an ongoing sense of understanding.

For example, when we had … built the new planetarium … the Rose Center for Earth and Space, even though we took down the old Hayden Planetarium, which we did because it couldn’t accommodate the new technology; we couldn’t provide the same excitement for a new generation that it had provided for yours and for mine for many, many years, we put it in the exact same place, in the exact same kind of way to educate and excite and awaken wonder.

And you know I think in that way we sustained the role of the museum and what it’s always brought to children and to families and to visitors from all over the world. Whereas if we’d left it with no change, it wouldn’t have been able to deliver for a new generation.

HEFFNER: But you have every sign now that it has delivered.

FUTTER: Oh, it’s, it’s more than delivered. And I think that, that’s the balance. Knowing what to change and there are some things we haven’t touched. I mean the grand old Akeley Hall with those … one of the great halls in the world … we haven’t done anything other than clean those glorious dioramas, which you know … dioramas are actually the … one of the earlier forms of virtual reality. Everybody thinks of virtual reality as only high tech.

I’d say we go from … in virtual reality … from a great diorama in the Akeley Hall, among others, to true virtual reality in the planetarium, in the great dome, which is driven by the latest high-tech technology and digital technology. Both are equally effective. And it’s … it’s really a process of getting the best of both worlds.

HEFFNER: You know, somewhere in between those early years as a boy at the Museum and the planetarium and now … when we began an educational television effort, as we called it in the fifties, before Channel 13 … we got hold of Jim Pickering at the Planetarium, and I remember the response to what we did there and in the studio was just wonderful. And I hear the same things now.

FUTTER: Well, there’s no question. And, of course, now with the new technology you can not only see the great night sky, which as New Yorker is a pretty great treat … to be able to see. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Yes, indeed.

FUTTER: But separate from that, we can travel through space. You have a sense of moving through the universe into deep space. And that’s pretty glorious. I think that one of the most exciting things about the Museum today is taking everything that we do, within our walls and sharing it all over the world beyond our walls.

For example, that planetarium is now traveling … the show … the space shows are traveling to planetaria all over the world. Indeed the QM2 has a planetarium and one of our shows is being shown in their planetarium as well. And that brings this great excitement and learning all over the world to people who will visit the museum or who may not.

HEFFNER: Well, you know … I, I was interested in … going back and saying “Well finally I’m going to meet Ellen Futter, I’m want to read about her.”

And here in the Christian Science Monitor in 1994, in this piece about your Inaugural a year before … two years before, it said, “At her Inauguration ceremony she said, ‘The time has come for the Museum to play an increasingly central role in addressing social problems, to swing the doors even more widely open to all peoples and to cast our influence beyond, as well as within, our walls and collections’.”

How’ve you done that?

FUTTER: Well, that’s really one of the most important things we’ve tried to do. And we’ve done it in a couple of ways; one by developing materials that can be traveled all over the world …


FUTTER: … in a couple of ways. You know the new technologies … distance learning capacity, the Internet … not to mention just being able to transfer material … has given us a reach that we’ve never had before. So that our exhibitions and our space shows are now traveling to 22 countries on six continents. So that’s … that door’s open a lot more widely.

Quite beyond that though, it’s really the thing that attracted me to the museum, as you alluded to. I’m an educator by background, as well as an attorney, but as an educator, I really looked at the museum and thought that this institution in a way, had some of the most powerful educational potential.

Why? We don’t have to teach a whole curriculum. We don’t have to go through a text book. And what we do is offer the power of reality. Reality based on the collections of this institution, 32 million specimens and artifacts … all on site, pretty much … and now new kinds of collecting. Reams of data and frozen tissue. And these things brought to the public are thrilling.

When they’re matched up with what our scientists do and you know, we have about 200 research scientists on staff doing original research … up in our laboratories … again on site … some of the most sophisticated scientific work extant … and you bring that in an educational lens to the public … the only thing more exciting than the make-believe, actually is the real.

And our public response to it … I think really, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a youngster visiting with a parent or friend … say, “Wait … I just gotta see that.” And that is the beginning. It’s the awaking of curiosity, the awakening of wonder. These are the gateways to learning. This is what makes children and adults … all of us … want to know more, when our interest and our excitement and our curiosity are piqued.

And now we’ve converted from just doing that … which is a platform, but we can work with a class that’s going to come to the Museum … we can work with a teacher and the class before them come … through the Internet and through providing materials. And then they can come and have a visit and that’s the most exciting and intense moment. And then when they go back to the classroom, we can continue in a sustained dialogue that really makes the power of the Museum as an educational force even more intense.

We’re training about 7,000 teachers how to teach science today. And there’s no area in the United States that is worse taught than science. Many of the people teaching it have not been empowered appropriately. They haven’t majored in science, they haven’t done graduate work in science, they don’t know the scientific method. Not because they’ve failed, but they’ve been asked to teach something they weren’t necessarily trained to teach.

Many schools don’t have laboratories or equipment. So the kinds of additional support that we provide are really very profound. And I think one of the great things that we stress is the scientific method. Or put differently … science is a detective story. Not science to just memorize facts, but to learn about the process of inquiry, to be unafraid to ask questions. To think about and be unafraid of being wrong. To test and learn that from testing comes answers rather than just a simple right or wrong. These are great lessons for life whether you’re going to be a scientist or not.

HEFFNER: Now how did a nice girl like you … get involved in this scientific pursuit. You were … went to Barnard, you trained as a lawyer, became President of Barnard … how did you make the … leap?

FUTTER: Worse yet … I was an English major.

HEFFNER: Worse yet?

FUTTER: Or better yet. Depending upon your point of view or just another thing. Ahmm, the leap was really very simple. I, I would make no pretense of being a scientist though I will confess that I’ve learned a great deal about science through the process of being at the Museum. But rather … I was a naturalist all my life, I had a life long passion for collecting shells … still do.

Long interest in butterflies … you know we have a great live butterfly show now …

HEFFNER: Yes, indeed.

FUTTER: Not entirely an accident. And beyond that, just a real … affection and love for nature. And also for human culture. And this Museum is very unusual, it covers the biological sciences, it covers anthropology. Indeed, modern anthropology was born at the Museum with Franz Boas and Margaret Mead, no less.

And then there’s earth and planetary sciences and astrophysics with the Planetarium … that’s a very broad swath. What attracted me though was really the educational potential. And so that’s, that’s how I got involved in it.

HEFFNER: Well, when you mention Margaret Mead … I was saying to you that I had gone back last night and was looking at a transcript of the program that I had done with Dr. Mead many, many, many, many years ago and we weren’t talking about anthropological matters, except in the broadest sense. And anthropology is that broad.

But I was interested in putting together what she had said … in 1957 … fifty years ago and what you’re saying now … going back to a piece that William Hornan had written in The Times in 1993. Said, “Ms. Futter said yesterday that her four goals were to make the Museum a leading public forum, both nationally and internationally for the debate of the great scientific issues of our time. Substantially enlarging the Museum’s educative role for both adults and children, dramatically increasing the Museum’s visibility and influence in New York and making the Museum’s scholarly work better known.” What about this debate of the great scientific issues?

FUTTER: Well, I, I actually think that’s one of the great roles of the American Museum of Natural History. And if you looked at all, or just had a chance to think about the approach that we’ve taken to exhibitions, what’d you see is that we’ve really focused on bringing the most important topics of our time to the public.

And … for example … topics about the environment. We’ve had a great new Hall on biodiversity. We’ve had many shows on, on the environment. We brought a show forward on infectious disease … an unlikely show. We also did one of the first major exhibitions on the genome … the genomic revolution. And we thought we were doing a public service, that this would be kind of a hard subject for people. And indeed over … roughly 500,000 people came to see it. Because they’re dying to learn more about these kinds of topics.

We did a major show on Darwin. And we’ve just opened a new Hall … the Spitzer Hall on Human Origins, looking at the origins live and even what makes us human and how we are different from other kinds of species. These are big topics.

We’re going to do a big show in the Fall on what is one of the major environmental themes and topics and challenges … water. Follow it up with another one on global climate change. These are topics the public is yearning to know more about.

And what they really want is to hear about them from somebody or someplace that they trust. And related to what you were saying earlier about it being your favorite place and when you came it would be things you could recognize and that remain central to you. One of the great defining elements of the American Museum of Natural History is that we’re a trusted guide and the public knows that about us. They know we’ll shoot straight and we’ll help them to learn about and understand these issues.

And if you take this topic of the bringing nature topics and our role as an educator which really fit together, I think one of the most important things to understand is that we are losing our edge in science … in this country …

HEFFNER: We as a country.

FUTTER: As a country. Science is critical and it’s not just critical to discovery and to innovation which are, themselves, important, but the drivers for our economy, the drivers for our national security. And in the end, to be a well functioning successful leadership democracy, we must have a public … not that is equipped to all go on and become physicists, but that wouldn’t be so bad either … but rather that is at least fluent enough to exercise the franchise and understand these scientific issues.

HEFFNER: You know when Vartan Gregorian, the head of the Carnegie Corporation was here last I had been reading his Presidential report on three cultures, after all he had been President of a university … Brown; been President of the New York Public Library and now President of a great philanthropic organization … institution. What’s the difference … you … have you found between the, the legal culture, the education culture and the museum culture. Are they three cultures?

FUTTER: Well, I’m fascinated that you put it that way. I mean as a managerial matter they’re not wildly different. I, I tend to think of these things as, in a sense, all being about process.

I tend to be oriented towards moving from here to there and the question then is, “how are we going to get there, how you bring people along, whether that’s a matter of leadership or evolution or some wonderful combination of the two.” But it really is about working with people. Listening, hearing ideas, shaping, massaging, but keeping the ball essentially moving down the field.

Your point about the cultures, though, particularly fascinates me. It wasn’t so long ago that C. P. Snow wrote about the two cultures.


FUTTER: And I actually think that we can’t live in a world successfully where the cultures are delimited in that way. In fact, I, I think increasingly we’re looking at a world that’s driven by forces that defy boundaries.

If you look today at, at medical issues and a virus that can spread across the world very, very quickly.

If you look at a computer virus, just to move from one virus (laughter) to another.

If you look at a non-state-based terrorist action; if you look at the environment … economics … or even telecommunications … the geographic boundaries that provided the architecture, the political boundaries that provided the architecture that we all really relied upon … to sort of shape and understand and guide our world, I think still remain, but they are no longer the only dominant forces.

All of these other forces are permeating and driving so much of society and when you think about that … what it yields in terms of cultures and how you look at how things work and run, I think it’s a much more interdisciplinary world.

I think at the one hand people need expertise, but they also need to know how to work with others in other fields and to move beyond their own comfort zone. It’s a more complicated world and it requires a much more complex, networked way of thinking and working.

HEFFNER: Let me ask then … do you find … aside from your own devotion to that notion and aside from your own activity along those lines, are we more and more … do you find more and more people who are geared that way, who are oriented that way? Who are successful at bringing these different elements together?

FUTTER: I think successful people are … often … have that as a great advantage, that they’re capable of working that way. And I think maybe even more interesting …I think the younger generation is much more of this ilk. I, I think they’re so fluent in so many different technologies and approaches and in moving from one to the other, given a matter of attention span, that there’s a lot of informal processing and assimilating that we’re not always aware of.

HEFFNER: So you’re not horrified by … when my grandson says to me, “Listen, I’m multitasking”. And I say “There’s no such thing”. You’re not horrified by that notion?

FUTTER: Oh, I, I think I’m both horrified and deeply admiring, at the same time. (Laughter) I mean the amount of stuff that they can manage simultaneously is phenomenal.

HEFFNER: How do you explain it?

FUTTER: I, I think it’s a … I think it has a lot to do with how they relate to the technology. I think first of all …I think for folks like us, working the technology is itself a task. I think they just … they just kind of do it, almost the way we would pick up a telephone. That’s not taxing for them, that’s not something they’re focused on.

They maybe focused on doing their homework, listening to their iPod and simultaneously instant messaging a friend, which I have difficulty understanding how they manage, but they’re not fighting with the technology at the same time.

I’m kind of thinking my way through it and I’m not unfluent in it, I’m pretty … use it a lot. But I, I’m both very admiring and, and concerned … are they really focusing?

HEFFNER: Are the exhibits at the Museum geared for their abilities?

FUTTER: Absolutely, In fact, I think you’ll enjoy this. Where there … basically we think of Museum visitors and it’s not just our museum, but museum people think of visitors basically as of three types. Studiers, who go very slowly through. Strollers who go a little more quickly and streakers …

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

FUTTER: … and you know, everybody has their own way of going and it doesn’t necessarily mean that the studier has gleaned more. We have to understand that.

The other thing that is very exciting about museum education, certainly on site, but also over the Internet is it’s very multi-layered. You don’t know, unlike a college were I knew that we would have students who were among the best and the brightest young women in the world. I knew that we’d have them pretty much for four years and I knew basically what they would study within certain boundaries.

When people come to the Museum we don’t know what age they are. We certainly knew at a college what age they were. We don’t know what language they speak. We don’t know their socio-economic or their educational preparation. We don’t even know the periodicity of their visit. Are they going to come once in a lifetime? Are they going to come once a decade? Once a year? Once a quarter? Once a week? Or once a day? And we have them all. From the neighborhood all the way around the world, and so you have to educate differently. We also don’t know how tall they are. So we have exhibitions … I mean literally how tall they are. Our exhibitions have to span all of this. It has to have different heights; it has to have different levels that you can take it in on. It’s a really fascinating way to think about education. But we also increasingly have wonderful computer technology right next to a diorama even in the Akeley Hall where you could probably go 40 hours and we could satisfy a youngster and also somebody with a graduate degree 40 hours deep. So that’s a pretty exciting way to think about education.

We’re also doing some other things. We’re putting educational laboratories right into our exhibition halls. Marrying the notion of science and education in every way that we possibly can. An opportunity to try some things out. When we did the genomic revolution people could come in and sequence their own genome. And then we would send it back to them over the Internet. It was pretty fantastic and very exciting for people.

So museum education, museum technology is really thrilling. In many of our halls we have something called the Science Bulletin. Because today we’re trying to bring people not only what history has taught us of studying different organisms and processes. But also what we’re looking at right now. What we’re learning about. What questions we’re asking. Well these science bulletins are not just in the hall, they’re in locations across the United States.

I think around 40, which is quite fantastic. Some of them much smaller than an urban city, but nonetheless reaching tons of people.

HEFFNER: Question that may not be fair, how unique is the American Museum of Natural History?

FUTTER: I think the Museum of Natural History, the American Museum of Natural History is unique. And it’s unique for a couple of reasons. First that span that I described … all the biological sciences, anthropology, human culture, earth and planetary sciences and astrophysics. There are very few places that run that, that sweep.

Second, there are not very many natural history museums that also have a planetarium that is part and parcel of it. There are not so many that have the research capacity that our scientists do. And these are the leading scientists of the world in their fields. And there are not very many that have the, the breadth of collections that we do. That 32 million specimens and artifacts and all the new forms of collecting.

In addition we have an extraordinary technological capacity. A couple of our scientists built for their work in genomics some computer capacity, a parallel processor that was one of the fastest in the world at the time that it was constructed. And that additional technological capacity gives us yet a whole other component in our arsenal. So I, I think that is all extraordinary and then when you layer on top of it our commitment to public education, to working, not just … but very much with New York City teachers, New York City school children, New York City families, New York City schools, but also increasingly nationally … that is unique.

And I’ll just give you one example of something right now that we’re working on. It’s called Urban Advantage. And the idea that is for all the disadvantages that we sometimes confront in, in education in a city like New York … we also have a great advantage. Wonderful institutions around this city that are creating content and that are scientifically rich. And so we formed a consortium with eight institutions, ourselves included across five boroughs … that’s picking up the zoos, and the botanical gardens and the science centers all through this great city of ours and together we went to New York City and we said, “We will work with you on the eighth grade exit project, without New York City students cannot progress to high school. We will work with the teachers, we will work with the students, we will work with the families.”

And lo and behold, that’s what we’ve been doing. The students who’ve been in the program are testing beautifully, better than those who, in their same class, weren’t in it. And now we’ve just received funding from the Goldman Sachs Foundation to take this program national. And I think it’s thrilling.

HEFFNER: We have one minute left and you’ve just mentioned the “special” word … duck will come down from the ceiling … funding. Is the city, is the state, is the national government … are they all doing their rightful share?

FUTTER: The city, the state and the federal government have been great partners and great friends of the American Museum of Natural History. We are immensely grateful for their support, but I should add that individual support has been enormous to the institution and so has foundation and corporate.

We are … I think we are doing good work and as a result, we are getting great support.

HEFFNER: Doing good and doing well.

FUTTER: We’re trying.

HEFFNER: Thank you, Dr. Futter, thank you for joining me today on The Open Mind.

FUTTER: My great pleasure.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. For transcripts of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.