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Back in December, before social distancing was a thing, Eric Dorfman, then-director of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, was named the new director of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. Dorfman was an influential head of the Carnegie Museum, with the museum breaking annual visitation records, installing an education scholarship program to provide access to underserved communities and raising over $24 million to support its mission under his leadership. Now, Dorfman, who was supposed to assume his new role in March, is teleworking from his home in Pittsburgh. We spoke with Dorfman about the changes he’s already making at one of the state’s most popular museums.
How were you selected to be the new director at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences?
A recruiter contacted me, although it was a recruiter I knew, so they already had a sense of who I was, what my interests were and felt that what I enjoy doing and what I am good at was aligned with what the museum was looking for. [What probably resonated] with them is that it’s important for me to come to a place and listen to the community and figure out how I can contribute to what their needs, interests and drivers are. Also, they were looking for somebody who could bring this amazing museum to the next phase in its development.
What do you hope to accomplish as director at the state’s most visited museum?
I really want to make us more relevant, not only to people who engage with the museum traditionally, but also to underserved communities that may or may not see us as relevant. I’m thinking about how we can activate the museum’s amazing research facility within the building and ways in which we can offer it on a national stage. Operationally, to become more relevant, I’m interested in having a stronger bilingual presence. You’ll increasingly see signs in Spanish and English in order for us to recognize the greatest diversity possible of the people who come and engage with us.
What’s it been like taking on an influential new role in a new city during an international health pandemic?
It is hard. [One thing that] put me in good stead was having four weeks of boots on the ground out there with everyone. I spent hours talking to staff members about their needs, their aspirations, their concerns. That gave me an opportunity to understand the institution better than I would have otherwise. I commend everybody who works at the museum. Everybody is pulling together and conquering the frustration of being stuck at home. It feels like a fantastic team that’s getting a lot done despite this.
What kinds of programming have you installed to encourage people to continue interacting with the museum during stay at home orders?
Trying to find the positives is essential. One positive, for us, is doing more online and reaching a greater audience. We’ve started doing free virtual cafes every Thursday night. A scientist will call in and the host will give a presentation and ask questions. We’re reaching hundreds of people, not just in Raleigh but further afield. We’re also improving the content on the web so we have lots of things for people to do at home, as many museums do. For us, and the whole museum sector, it’s giving us a new way to talk to people and an understanding of the kinds of things that people want to see. I’m planning on starting a podcast soon, too. Right now would be the perfect time because people are at home and they’re listening to podcasts.
What do you think of the City of Oaks? Aside from leading the museum what else are you excited about doing around town?
One thing I love about being there is it’s so green. There’s trees everywhere, parks everywhere. I love to walk so Umstead Park is really going to be exciting. And of course, try new restaurants. I really like Gringo A Go Go, Sitti and The Pit. I’m looking forward to getting out to see some of the cultural stuff, too. When the pandemic stops, it’s going to be really important for everybody to start supporting local businesses, local culture, theatre. Raleigh seems to be a city that’s burgeoning. I want to make sure the museum keeps pace with the amazing growth, not just fiscal growth but intellectual growth. That renaissance of this area is one thing that makes being the head of this museum so exciting.
Q and A edited for space.
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