“It’s continuously evolving. If you don’t change, you’ll become extinct like a dinosaur.”  

By Becky Dawidziak

You unlock this door with the key of imagination, as one of the classic openings to The Twilight Zone assures us. Beyond it is another dimension – a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind. Your next stop, The Twilight Zone?

Well, those memorable words penned by Rod Serling are also a perfect description of what awaits a visitor behind the doors of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. And this wondrous Northeast Ohio institution on University Circle has been the key to imagination and scientific curiosity for many generations of children and adults.

Funded by both grants and individual donors, the museum’s extensive and ambitious $150 million renovation and expansion is expected to be completed by the end of 2024. One of the central goals is to greatly increase this Cleveland jewel’s already considerable power to stir and excite scientific curiosity in many innovative and creative ways.

Although the museum was officially founded in 1920, its history goes back to the 1850s. A group of science enthusiasts started an organization called the Ark, dedicated to collecting specimens and sharing information. “It’s been with Cleveland for a good portion of the city’s history,” says John Grabowski, professor of history at Case Western Reserve University.

The Cleveland Museum of Natural History is one of the major destination spots among other impressive University Circle institutions, which also include the Cleveland Botanical Garden, the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Western Reserve Historical Society’s Cleveland History Center.

The museum also holds a special place in my memory and my heart. I was one of those many children to visit the museum and be fascinated by the intriguing array of awesome exhibits.

My earliest memory of the museum goes back to early childhood, about four years old. I remember standing by the Balto exhibit in the first of several rooms where it would be located. I could see the former duck pond through a large window, the reflection of the water shimmering on the ceiling. I could hear the growls of animatronic dinosaurs in the next room, the former hall of prehistoric life.

I remember pretending about characters from the animated movie Balto, which is loosely based on the true story of the hero sled dog key to the effort of getting antitoxin to Nome, Alaska, during the deadly 1925 diphtheria outbreak. Balto and six of his canine companions were given a comfortable home at the Brookside Zoo, now the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. When he died in 1933, Balto’s taxidermized remains became part of the permanent display at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.

The new Biological Processes wing at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History will let
visitors get up close with wild animals while learning about the ways species develop and interact.
Courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.

Seeing the real Balto certainly sparked my imagination and, from that day forward, spotting him at the museum was like visiting an old friend. Indeed, that’s how I came to view the entire museum – like an old friend.

But Balto was hardly the only thing to capture my imagination at the museum. Like so many children, I was crazy about dinosaurs. I was ever drawn to the hall of prehistoric life, seeing both dinosaurs and Ice Age animals. I have always been fascinated by saber-toothed cats, and the saber-tooth cat mount, off exhibit for many years, happily will be returning soon.

More than ice age animals, though, I prized those dinosaurs. My favorite of these fossils was a T-Rex skull that hung from the ceiling, staring down at visitors. There was nothing terrifying or unsettling about this experience, however. This, too, was like visiting an old friend. And, like the saber tooth-cat, he will be welcomed back in that spirit.

In fact, it was always a thrill when the projection of a talking T-Rex would show up on the planetarium ceiling screen after a show. Whoever was hosting the planetarium show was sure to do a goofy voice for the T-Rex. And I am happy to say I saw good old planetarium T-Rex on my recent visit to the museum this year. It still makes me happy.

When people think of museums, they may have visions of taxidermy displays. However, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History has a vast outdoor area attached to the museum where rescued animals can recover and live their best lives. Some of these animals were injured or sick, while others were orphaned. All of these local animals, from otters and coyotes to owls and eagles, were given a second chance by caring museum staff.

One such ambassador, a gray rat snake named Linguini, was unbelievably tiny the first time I saw him. Yet he was so cute and friendly (although, full disclosure, I am one of those people who thinks snakes are cute and charming). The next time I saw Linguini, he was still friendly and affectionate, but he had grown considerably. Under the museum’s care, this little rescue snake has grown up strong and healthy.

Programs aren’t all that’s new for the museum, though. The museum has been undergoing major renovations for the last three years, making this an exciting time for longtime museum fans and new visitors alike. “My biggest goal is to bring as many people to science and natural history as I can,” says Gavin Svenson, Director of Research and Collections at the museum. “I have a once in a lifetime opportunity to work with my colleagues to inspire and reach more people than ever.”

The new design of the museum is extremely different from the old way the museum was set up. Rather than just larger galleries, the new wings will be set up and themed in engagingly fresh ways. The only areas that will remain the same are the outdoor live animal area and the auditorium.

The Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s Smead Discovery Center allows children to
have hands-on experiences, like digging for fossils. Photo by Becky Dawidziak.

The museum exhibits will no longer be displayed in a linear manner, according to Svenson. Instead, exhibits will be organized by similar theme and scientific story. What do I mean by “scientific story”? These are the stories of organisms, habitats, evolution and the way things intertwine.

For instance, Svenson says that the dinosaurs will be displayed near the taxidermy birds. This is because it is now believed birds evolved from dinosaurs. The new way the exhibits are positioned and explained will show this kind of connection, telling scientific stories like the transformation of dinosaurs into birds. While the number of exhibits will not change by much, the items on display and the way they are displayed will be greatly increased.

An important focus of the new exhibits is to put the guest at the center of the story. The processes that affected life millions of years ago still affect life today, Svenson says. Therefore, they carry relevance for people today. “Everywhere we are putting you at the center of the experience,” says Meenakshi Sharma, Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer. “How nature is impacting you.”

Human beings should realize they are not separate from nature, but a part of it, Svenson says. The goal is for the new museum design to emphasize this. To that end, there will be a greater focus on human health, helping people understand themselves and the way the environment affects their health, according to Sharma. The museum actually has a curator of health.

The new way the museum is designed is intended to encourage people to ask their own questions. Even if answers to those questions have yet to be discovered, Svenson says, what matters most is the asking and investigating.

Another goal of this project is to make science accessible to as many people as possible. One way this will be done is by creating a “greatest hits” gallery at the front of the museum. This visitor hall will house some of the museum’s most famous specimens, like Balto and the moon rock, and will be free for members of the surrounding community.

“We’re going to have a visitor hall, which is a free section if you want to see some of our superstars like Happy, the sauropod,” says Layna Ragland, Visitor Experience Associate. “You can check out information. You could walk in every day and learn.” The museum has remained open throughout the renovations. In order to keep guests engaged and excited with so many things off exhibit, the museum staff has worked diligently to bring new experiences and ensure guests are satisfied. Ragland and her team make sure to provide clear communication to the public, while Svenson and his team provide exciting content.

It is vital to keep the museum open during construction, according to Ragland. She and other museum staff believe it is important to let visitors see the progress and feel that they are a part of it, rather than feeling that the project is just something going on at a distance. “The biggest thing is always reminding our community and our visitors that something better’s coming,” Ragland says.

Prehistoric stars like T-Rex will still be prominently featured in the new design at the
Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.

Staff members at the museum also take part in experiences offered to guests, not just because it’s enjoyable, but so that they can better tell guests what experiences could be ideal for them. “We’re telling you what we love personally,” Ragland says.

Ragland says if a family has a small child, she might not recommend the planetarium show geared toward adults, but instead suggest the planetarium show featuring characters from the long-running PBS show Sesame Street. For the first time in the museum’s history, visitors can enjoy augmented reality games as well as 3D movies. Having sampled both, I can say these are fun and immersive ways of experiencing the natural world. The 3D movies are informative but also look amazing. Even if you have been to 3D movies before, these will be thrilling experiences. It’s like a stroll through Jurassic Park, the dinosaurs appearing as if they are mere inches from your face.

Although the augmented reality dinosaur game is more exciting, the butterfly augmented reality game also is a stirring experience, soaring through landscapes that make you see our world in new ways. Besides the technology-based experiences, live programming has been increased. Experts from the museum will choose an exhibit, take it out to show guests and share their knowledge directly. Guests can ask these experts questions and learn in a more personal way.

“I compare it to a living encyclopedia,” Ragland says.  “I can ask so many questions and find out so many things. Just talk with different departments. Our curators are always so eager to share. It’s amazing.”

Live animal demonstrations have also been increased. During a recent visit to the museum, the excitement was palpable in the downstairs special exhibit area across from the Smead Discovery Center, an area specially designed for children. A packed room of wide-eyed children excitedly watched as the animal expert gently pulled a box turtle from an animal carrier. He shared interesting facts about box turtle, then after putting the turtle back, took an opossum named Edgar Allan Opoe from a larger carrier.

There were delighted murmurs and excited chattering from the children as the cute little opossum munched on snacks and delighted his young visitors. These programs are not only fun, they help educate children and adults alike on the importance of local animals, especially misunderstood ones like the opossum, which eat disease-carrying ticks and don’t carry rabies. A key component to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s philosophy is that having fun is an important part of learning. “Science learning can happen any way, but learning cannot happen if you don’t have a good experience,” Sharma says. “Then you’ll come back. That’s what I focus on.”

Dunkleosteus watches over the Cleveland Museum of Natural History cafeteria where
diners can view University Circle as they enjoy a meal. Photo by Becky Dawidziak.

The Smead Discovery Center is an area that specifically aims to educate children and get them excited about science. The center includes activities like designing constellations and digging for fossils. Each area of the Smead Discovery Center is based on an area of the museum, inspiring children to explore and ask questions in the larger museum. One especially fun new experience will be a hands-on area like the Smead Discovery Center, except aimed at adults. “It’s not just education, it’s fun too,” Ragland says of experiences at the museum. “It’s a great time.”

One prominent example of someone who was influenced by the museum is Sean Decatur, the new president of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Growing up in Cleveland, he often would visit the Museum of Natural History. He even attended summer camp at the museum. Now, as the leader of one of the most famous museums in the world, Decatur has the opportunity to share his love of science and inspire another generation of scientists.

Still, not everyone influenced by the museum has pursued a career in science. It’s not purely about raising the next generation of scientists, Svenson says, though this, of course, is important. It’s also about people in non-scientific careers who gain a love and understanding of nature and science.

The museum also has worldwide significance. “It’s located locally, but there are millions of items for research,” Grabowski says. “It’s particularly meaningful now because it’s not just past history but present ecology.”

One specific specimen with worldwide influence is Dunkleosteus. This prehistoric fish fossil was discovered in Cleveland, but casts of it are displayed in Germany, Paris and museums around the world.

So, what will this new design be like? Although many of the details remain a mystery, one announced addition is the biodiversity hall. It will display the ways different kinds of life are connected. Not only will there be some ancient creatures in this hall, but there will be modern ones, too, making the far distant past seem a little less distant. Some taxidermy mammals will have projected habitats in their exhibits that actually move, Svenson says. This will make the exhibits more realistic and dynamic. Specimens will also be displayed in more accurate ways based on new information found since they were last displayed. “If you have new science information, it’s best to use it,” Svenson says.

The exhibits will also be displayed in a way that people can see them from many angles instead of just one. Some aspects of the museum will highlight Northeast Ohio’s natural heritage. One gallery will have displays about the 12,000 acres of natural areas the museum runs and protects. Most museums don’t do this, but the Cleveland Museum of Natural History maintains several local nature preserves. These preserves include rare plants and animals. The museum’s goal is to protect these areas for the survival of species and for future generations to study and enjoy.

Children can design their own constellations in the Cleveland Museum of Natural
History’s Smead Discovery Center. Photo by Becky Dawidziak.

Also, more of the museum’s Devonian collection will be displayed. The Devonian era was a time in ancient history when Cleveland was covered by an inland sea and populated by giant fish. Many Devonian era fossils have been found in Cleveland and the surrounding area. “My goal is to make things real for people,” Svenson says. “I want people to still want to come and see things that are real, that exist, that matter, that inform us about the world around us.”

Another key element to the museum’s renovations is the effort to keep the museum relevant. “It’s continuously evolving,” Sharma says. “If you don’t change, you’ll become extinct like a dinosaur.”

Not only are the renovations helping keep the museum relevant, but having more diverse programming is also important. “We do want to do more in person events,” Sharma says. “Everybody has a different learning style.”

Live programming as well as a new design for the museum are intended to improve the way people learn and understand science. “We don’t just want to be a museum where we’re showing off specimens,” Sharma says. “We want it to be a community asset where people can come and have a good discussion about what’s happening in our environment.”

Even the museum staff members intimately involved with the day-to-day progress of the renovations know there is no way to anticipate their feelings at the finish line. “A lot of us who have been involved in exhibit design are going to be overwhelmed with emotion when we see these final products,” Svenson says. “To be able to see it and see other people interact with it is going to be a very powerful experience for all of us.”

It would be an understatement to say that the renovations have not been without challenges. And the biggest challenge by far was that the planning took place during the pandemic. All of the planning had to be done by Zoom, according to Svenson. Even with this major obstacle, the museum staff has kept things going smoothly and the project is still on schedule and budget. It’s a testament to the efforts of the museum staff, Sharma says.

That’s the very goal of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History—to bring history to life. “It does come alive because everything has a story,” Ragland says. “Everything has some kind of significance. You really do feel the life.”

Becky Dawidziak is a freelance writer, photographer and life-long resident of Ohio. A communication graduate of Kent State University, her work has appeared in books published by such national publishers as St. Martin’s Press and Rowman & Littlefield. She specializes in essays and journalistic pieces about animals, nature, history and culture in Northeast Ohio.