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The Science Museum’s Alison Rempel Brown: ‘A whole series of things had to get pushed’

As the Science Museum of Minnesota reopens, MinnPost talked with President and CEO Alison Rempel Brown.

The dinosaur exhibit at the Science Museum of Minnesota.
The dinosaur exhibit at the Science Museum of Minnesota.
Courtesy of the Science Museum of Minnesota

The Science Museum of Minnesota will reopen to the public today (Friday, Sept. 4). Later than some, like Mia and the Walker, and sooner than others, like the American Swedish Institute (Sept. 10) and the Minnesota History Center (Oct. 1). It has been closed since March 13.

On March 12, the Science Museum held a board meeting. So far, they were having a very successful year. President and CEO Alison Rempel Brown told MinnPost, “We were well ahead of the prior year in revenues. In terms of our bottom line, we were very much ahead of the prior year by a million dollars and ahead of budget. Our projections were looking good for the year. It was just quite extraordinary.

“The next day, like an avalanche or mudslide, we realized that the best way to safety for our visitors, our staff and the general public was to close the museum.”

Eleven days later, the museum furloughed 87 percent of its staff. Brown delivered the message to 450 people over Google Meet. In preparation for the Science Museum’s reopening, 180 furloughed employees were brought back and the rest were permanently laid off.

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Brown came to Minnesota in 2016 from the California Academy of Sciences, where she had spent 17 years. During her tenure, attendance doubled, membership tripled and the Academy opened a new facility in Golden Gate Park. She is the Science Museum’s 16th CEO and the first woman. Under her leadership, on March 28, 2018, the museum issued a Statement on Equity & Inclusion that was referenced in its May 25, 2020, Letter to the Community about the killing of George Floyd.

As always, this conversation has been edited and condensed.

MinnPost: Do you remember how normal everything felt just before you closed the museum?

Alison Rempel Brown: Absolutely. In fact, I had a ski trip that weekend to see my son in Colorado, and I remember saying to my board chair, “I don’t think I should go.” And he said, “No, no, no, go.” And I went, so I did all the work of closing the museum remotely with my team. We rapidly put together a 12-week plan. That sounds silly now. But we were to open back in early June or mid-June.

MP: Many places thought they would reopen in two weeks.

ARB: We were all making decisions with the best information we had at the time. Scientists have gone back and found the virus in more places. I think the earliest they found it here in the United States is in November. They have tissues in storage.

MP: Before you closed, what were you planning for 2020?

ARB: One of the things we were planning to do was to celebrate our scientists. They are world-class scientists doing important work. They’re engaging and they’re fun. And we’ve kept them behind doors that say “Staff Only.” So in mid-April, we were going to launch a bold kind of science branding, “Action for Earth,” with the Earth Day 50th Anniversary. With month-long programming to celebrate our scientists, celebrate other scientists’ programs, and just remind people about the progress we have made – and haven’t made – since Earth Day was launched.

In September, we were going to reopen our redone exhibit, “Race: Are We So Different?” We’re updating the content because it originally opened in 2007. The content is still valid; it’s just that some of the statistics have been updated. There’s lots of things we know now through big data. We know more about what I call the Injustice System.

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There’s so much we’ve learned through work being done at the University of Minnesota around redlining and the effect that has had on the wealth gap. The disparities in education. The segregation that’s still happening. All of that was going to be added into the exhibit.

Originally, the exhibit was built as a traveling exhibit, so we couldn’t have stories about a single state. This version is staying in our museum, so we can add in Minnesota stories.

Alison Rempel Brown
Courtesy of the Science Museum of Minnesota
Alison Rempel Brown
Well, we couldn’t open that because the museum was closed. And we had two other exhibits that were going to open with it, the Smithsonian exhibit “The Bias Inside Us” and another exhibit called “Skin.” It was built at the California Academy of Science, but we’re partnering with them. And then there was all this programming that was going along with it.

Wouldn’t it be fantastic to have those exhibits available right now, after the murder of George Floyd? And then Jacob Blake being shot in the back seven times? We would have those resources for our community to come in and have deep conversations about race. Those are getting pushed to January. A whole series of things had all been carefully planned out and had to get pushed.

MP: What else has been lost in the time that’s been lost?

ARB: Our scientists could do some field research, but a lot of that got stopped. They weren’t able to go out into the field. You can do some fieldwork with social distancing, but not a lot of it, because you work in teams. They couldn’t get access to the collections because the building was closed. So that process was slowed down or lost.

We had traveling exhibits at museums, and then the museums shut. So they didn’t get to display them and their communities didn’t get to enjoy them. We had to make different arrangements. This is a complicated process.

Another thing that’s been lost is kids. Their education. We’re trying to think of how we can help fill that gap. We know there’s always a summer loss. Studies have shown that over and over again. Every summer, we do a STEM/Freedom School with the Saint Paul Promise Neighborhood for low-income kids. We couldn’t do that in person, so we did a virtual one where we reached almost 100 youth. Many of them don’t have computers, so we provided computers. Some of the families don’t have internet, so we provided them with a hot spot and WiFi. And that was very successful. So we’re looking at what kind of program could we do that expands beyond that into the school year? We’re brainstorming about that. We don’t have the answer yet.

MP: Did you ever imagine anything like this COVID scenario?

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ARB: Absolutely not.

MP: Do you think your museum and others are more likely to plan for this sort of thing?

ARB: I think so, yes. First, we have the plans already. Museums are good at documenting. So we will document these plans and keep them. Second, lots of scientists talk about how this is a practice run. There will be other pandemics. The last one was 100 years ago. Some scientists framed the AIDS virus as a pandemic. We need to keep track of what we did this time and not reinvent the wheel.

MP: What have been the biggest challenges of reopening the museum to the public?

ARB: The biggest challenge, I think, was getting down to it. Doing it. We need to remember that the staff are people. They have their personal lives. They have kids, they may have older parents. And now they are managing all of this, and they want it to be perfect. But they have whatever stresses they have at home. It’s a challenge to keep them not burned out, and not stressed out. It’s an all-new way of working.

MP: What are you doing to help with that?

ARP: Some of my team members have clever ways of doing this. One of our directors did a five-minute shakeout where we all stood up, and then you shake your head, and you shake your hands, you shake your feet, you shake your butt, shake your left leg, shake your right leg. One, it’s kind of funny. Two, the science behind it shows that you release endorphins during that process. And three, it’s something we’re all doing together that’s a little bit different. And then we sat back down and continued our meeting.

Each leader has different things they do. For one, the first 15 minutes of a meeting is all talk about personal stuff that people want to share. They don’t have to, but they can. Another will text someone and say, “Do you want to check in? Do you have a few minutes later on today to just chat?”

MP: When the public comes into the Science Museum today for the first time, what will be different?

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ARB: The lobby is super-open and spacious. And you’ll be greeted by the T-Rex with a big surprise.

We took out some elements, but there’s still so much to do. And what you’ll see now is the custodial staff. They’re wearing brightly colored T-shirts with “Sanitation Team” on the back. They’ll be very obvious as they’re walking around. They’re getting a lot of shout-outs on social media.

What we don’t show, but I did tweet about it, is how we sanitize the Omnitheater. It looks like “Ghostbusters.”

The entry to the Science Museum's Omnitheater.
Courtesy of the Science Museum of Minnesota
The entry to the Science Museum's Omnitheater.
MP: And there’s a new COVID exhibit?

ARB: Yes. It’s a panel exhibit – written words on panels about COVID-19. When I was there [during the members reopening], people were devouring everything on it. With social distancing.

MP: What keeps you awake at night?

ARB: We always are focused on safety first, but there are such inequities in our society. We summarize our mission as centered around equity. What more could we be doing? What does our community want us to do? How can we partner with others to have a bigger effect? People don’t know us for the science we do. We’re going to get that known. They don’t know us for the education we do. How can we help address that?

MP: Is equity commonly part of a science museum’s mission?

ARB: Not as much. This is unique to the Science Museum of Minnesota. When I first came here four years ago, I summarized our mission as science and education. Within the first few weeks I started taking our yearlong session around equity. It’s about understanding the power dynamics that create the inequities that we have in our society. That started my journey of learning. It’s a program the Science Museum has been doing for decades.

It started in school systems, and now they do it within formal science centers, with corporate clients, justice systems and other places. And higher education: Wellesley, Oberlin, Grinnell. They just did a virtual version because we had to try it online. It was very successful. The group that does it is called the IDEAL Center, for Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Access and Leadership. It had such an impact on me.

MP: So you made equity part of your mission statement.

ARB: Yes.

MP: Is there a silver lining anywhere in this for you? The pandemic, the current situation, having to close?

ARB: I hate to frame it as a silver lining. Let’s use opportunities. There are a couple of things. One is we’d been talking about how we needed to redo our website. We needed to get more of our resources online. We did both. Another is virtual programming. We’re still kind of dipping our toes in that. If I had told the IDEAL Center a year ago that they would have to do their program virtually, they would have laughed in my face. But they delivered it virtually and it was very well received. Our Freedom School is virtual. Three hours of STEM for students.

COVID sped us up on some things because the museum was closed, we had reduced staff and we were able to focus.

Another opportunity was we’ve been looking at changing the experience on the museum floor. We don’t have a ticket office anymore. The visitor experience staff can work in any part of the museum. It can be a more full-time staff. I really wanted people to have benefits.

The T Rex being outfitted with its own mask.
Courtesy of the Science Museum of Minnesota
The T Rex being outfitted with its own mask.
MP: What will you do when you can do whatever you want? You personally.

ARB: Me personally? I will go back to San Francisco to visit my mother. She’ll be 93 in September.

MP: I think you also want to answer this question as the museum. So go ahead.

ARB: I do! I want to expand our equity programs, and really think about how we can address the inequities we have in our society. A lot of them start early on in a child’s life, and they just keep growing and growing.

I want to expand the science that we do, and really help people understand the actions we need to take around climate change. We’re never going to be a huge scientific institution, but museums are very trusted. You can use that trust to help people regain trust in science.

The third thing is around our museum floor. How do we take that asset and that building and have a bigger impact, whether it is around education, or equity, or learning, or just having a fun time together? What is the best use of that space?

MP: Those are ambitious goals. Any closing words?

ARB: I just hope people are safe and we trust science to find a solution to this pandemic. And in the interim, we take care of each other.

***

During this phase of reopening, the Science Museum of Minnesota will be open on Fridays and Saturdays from 10 a.m.-8 p.m. and Sunday from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Buy timed tickets online in advance and scan them in the lobby; there is no longer a ticket office.  Take a look at the safety guidelines and wear a mask.