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Michelle Larson, Richard Lariviere and Douglas Druick navigate new challenges at Chicago museums

The Adler Planetarium’s new president Michelle Larscan personalize fact from every exhibit (theater’s unusually accurate horizline reminds her her Alaskyouth)

The Adler Planetarium’s new president Michelle Larson can personalize a fact from every exhibit (the theater’s unusually accurate horizon line reminds her of her Alaska youth) and seems to know each floor staffer’s name, even those who can’t remember hers

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Updated: February 21, 2013 2:38PM

Michelle Larson stands in the Adler Planetarium’s glass entryway, her blue eyes blazing in the January sun.

“I love this 1930 art display,” she says, pointing to a wall of round reliefs, one for each of the solar system’s planets. “Right after it was installed, Pluto became a planet,” she notes, the wall of eight circles becoming an instant anachronism. “Now Pluto’s been demoted, so it’s correct again. The reason I tell that story is that is the way science is — it changes, it’s full of questions.”

On the job for a month, Larson — the Adler Planetarium’s new president — is giving me a tour of her new stomping grounds. She can personalize a fact from every exhibit (the theater’s unusually accurate horizon line reminds her of her Alaska youth) and seems to know each floor staffer’s name, even those who can’t remember hers. This should come as no surprise. Larson is smart, an accomplished astrophysicist and the former vice provost at Utah State University where she received rave reviews from colleagues upon her departure. She’s only 41 years old. She’s also a she, which is a first for a president on Chicago’s museum campus.

Larson’s appointment comes as Chicago museums face a sea of change. In the past two years, several institutions have appointed new leaders. Notable hires include Field Museum president Richard Lariviere, the ousted University of Oregon president who started last August, and Art Institute of Chicago president and director Douglas Druick, a former curator promoted in August 2011.

The baton passing comes at a difficult time: The recession has caused shrinking endowments, less tax-payer money and fewer philanthropic funds. In January, both the Art Institute and the Museum of Science and Industry raised their prices a whopping $1 to $5 a head, citing new costs, like water, which tax-payer money covered in the past. Lariviere says the Field Museum might follow suit with admission increases.

Only a few weeks on the job, Larson claims she isn’t imparting huge changes just yet. “The kind of leader I am — I didn’t come here to put my thoughts on people. I’m going to start a conversation and build direction,” Larson muses. The first thing on the agenda: “What makes the Adler the Adler? How do we meld that together so it doesn’t come across in splashes?”

Those splashes might refer to the planetarium’s divergent interests. About half of the Adler scientists work with universities on citizen science initiatives. Space-lovers from the world over access those projects online, but nothing connects viewers to the physical planetarium in Chicago. Inside the museum, permanent exhibits — like the high-tech Grainger Sky Theater or the kid-friendly “Planet Explorers” — have sprung up thanks to a 2005 capital campaign.

About 470,000 visitors explored these Adler exhibits in 2012. A small number compared to, say, Field Museum attendance, which hits 2 million during a good year. As we roam the halls, Larson throws out some ideas to increase the planetarium’s reach: Have an astronomer set up shop on the street corner and utilize the sun and the moon (since light pollution blocks most stars). Continue the Adler experience online, seamlessly. Build new exhibits, sure, but that’s not priority yet.

Ubiquitously, the three new museum presidents favor fewer large projects, such as new wings or traveling blockbuster exhibits. In fact, supporting them can come at a high price. Under James Cuno, the Art Institute initiated rolling blackouts, closing galleries at a moment’s notice to save on costs. (Druick maintains he immediately put a stop to the closures. “I thought that wasn’t the best way to make [budget cuts].”)

Druick says during his tenure he’s focused on technology integration: adding photographs to flesh out an internet-accessible collection, creating downloadable audio tours and installing snappy iPad displays — which draw clusters of onlookers, and, as he points out, allay the need for space-consuming wall texts.

“The way we learn has been altered by technology,” Druick says. “We have to be aware of that so we can leverage that technology, so we can make the experience in front of the authentic work of art that much more powerful.”

At the Field Museum, Lariviere wants to see fewer outside exhibitions. “We’re going to try to make more of our rotating exhibits based on the remarkable stuff we’ve got in our collections. We’ve got some of the world’s greatest specimens and artifacts, we need to get them out of storage and into the public’s perception.” He cites the recent “Opening the Vaults: Mummies” exhibit as more financially successful than a concurring Genghis Khan exhibition, created by an outside company.

“Our own exhibit was far higher quality, higher impact, of greater interest, and much more financially advantageous for us,” Lariviere said.

For Larson, running the museum is about helping visitors become inquisitive about science. Her populism is enduring. She hates calling meetings, preferring conversations, and she mentions a longstanding family feud about which is cooler, neutron stars (her area of expertise) or black holes (her husband’s). She’s excited that during a survey of Adler staffers, many claimed they wanted to work here “because the public’s right upstairs.” Her main goal is to get visitors to ask questions.

“Then how’s a museum different from Google?” I ask — an inadvertent curve ball. After a pause, Larson replies, “It’s about a connection — not about information. The Adler immerses you and it’s about how you connect.”

Madeline Nusser is a local free-lance writer.

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