Just over a week ago, Cristian Samper, former director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, accepted his final million-dollar gift.
Earmarked for the the museum’s education center, the donation was part of a six-month spate of donations that included $35 million in May to redo the dinosaur hall. When a reporter confused that offering with a $10 million gift in June to endow the museum director’s post, Samper smiled. No, that was another donation, he corrected. It was late in his tenure, and the millions — $301 million he’s helped raise in nine years — ran together.
“Success breeds success, and when people start seeing you can deliver great exhibitions, it inspires other donors,” Samper, 46, said. “A good idea that is presented in the right way at the right time to the right person can mobilize resources.”
Samper, who left Tuesday to head the Wildlife Conservation Society headquartered at New York’s Bronx Zoo, had a long list of accomplishments: renovations to two-thirds of the museum’s exhibits, increased fellowships and research money for scientists, and helped launch and lead the global Encyclopedia of Life project to document all life on Earth.
But in the week before leaving the museum he’d headed since 2003, he talked about some of the intangibles of his term — boosting morale, nurturing creativity, and vision. Samper has a long view of what it takes to steady an institution and move it to a higher place; it shakes out as a meditation on leadership.
Samper, an international expert on conservation biology and environmental policy, studied biology at the Universidad de Los Andes in Bogota and received his master’s and doctorate in biology at Harvard. In 1995, he founded the Alexander von Humboldt Institute for national biodiversity research in Colombia and later became deputy director at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. He was acting secretary of the Smithsonian from March 2007 until July 2008.
“He was so transparent people felt they were getting the straight story,” said Roger Sant, a Smithsonian regent who is also vice chair of the museum’s advisory board. “He was open to admitting mistakes and celebrating success.”
“He fostered an atmosphere where people were coming to him” with ideas, “and he ran with them. He made them real,” Sant said. “His ability to get things to happen is remarkable.”
Reached at an excavation in Nairobi, Rick Potts, director of the Smithsonian’s Human Origins Program, said Samper integrated the science, exhibition and public education missions of the museum. “In many of those areas we, frankly, were a bit in the doldrums.” Samper “put our science under a magnifying glass for the entire world to see. He increased greatly the number of postdoctoral fellows, and fresh air coming through. It’s the intellectual wind that keeps even the older scientist on their toes.”
Samper is also a board member of the American Association of Museums. There are more than 17,000 museums in the United States, most local, “and some are clearly in trouble,” he said. The model of some public funding combined with gifts from wealthy donors has made a number of institutions vulnerable to the vagaries of recession. In some cases, business people have been brought in to help turn around the fortunes of these institutions, and Samper said while that can work, “all in all, I do favor having someone who has experience in the subject matter,” because it often means an interest and a passion that translates into an ability to identify priorities.
While declining to comment specifically on the state of institutions such as the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, the Detroit Institute of Arts, or, locally, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, which are in various states of financial tumult or public meltdown, Samper said, “It’s very easy, especially for smaller institutions, to become very inward-looking.” Art galleries are much more subjective than science museums, he pointed out, but institutions have to continually develop their next generation of thinkers, interact with visitors and learn from them.
He sees a shift in the science and natural history museums toward a more hands-on and interactive model. “One of the big questions for us is what impact are we having on society? That goes well beyond how many people are walking through your door. Well beyond revenue and attendance. I still see a lot of museums still focusing on museums as destinations, and that’s important, but it’s not enough.”
In the waning days of his tenure, Samper talked about how much he’d miss the people he worked with, and seeing families walk through. He remembered visiting the Natural History Museum as a kid and seeing the elephant in the rotunda. He retained that sense of wonder. Kirk Johnson, chief curator and vice president of research and collections at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, will take over as director in late October. His first major project will be a complete reconceiving of the dinosaur hall, and he’s promised to make outreach and interactivity a hallmark of his tenure.
Samper said, “When I came here, I said I was going to take this job for about 10 years. Long enough to achieve the key things, but, at some point, you reach a point of diminishing returns both for you and for the institution.” He recalled that a few weeks ago, a flash mob of employees gathered in the rotunda, wished him luck in English and Spanish, and a group of kindergartners from the Smithsonian’s Early Enrichment Center sang, “You’ve Got a Friend in Me.” He pointed to a picture his 6-year-old daughter, Carolina, drew of where her daddy works. “The guy in the window with the phone to his ear, that’s me,” Samper said.