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Sarah George, Ph.D.: Executive Director, Natural History Museum of Utah
By: By Heather Beers
May 8, 2014
Often, the good things in life take time. No one knows this better than Sarah George, executive director of the Natural History Museum of Utah. As the overseer of a museum dedicated to educating visitors on the region’s geophysical processes and anthropological legacies that span centuries, even millions of years, she is no stranger to the measured pace of progress.
For more than 20 years, she has led the museum, patiently nurturing it along from its original location on President’s Circle to its new home at the Rio Tinto Center, where she has collaborated with national and local experts to bring fresh, thought-provoking exhibits to life. Her talent and passion is evident in the museum’s state-of-the-art displays and the resources she’s helped develop to take the lessons of the past to the children of tomorrow.
What drew you to science and museums?
I have loved museums since I was really little. In fact, my grandfather and I would visit museums separate from the rest of the family, because no one else liked to read the labels like we did. In high school I did really well in math and science, and my biology teacher told me I should major in biology. He was an incredible mentor—I’ve had incredible mentors throughout my life.
I was really lucky to find a great school that had a science program and a museum, the University of Puget Sound. I started working there when I was 19, and worked in museums all through my graduate degrees. My very first job out of grad school was as a research scientist at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. From there, I came to Utah as the museum’s director, 21 years ago.
What has been your greatest challenge as executive director?
We had the idea of establishing a new building a long time ago. But we were very small. We had to grow the organization before we were credible enough to build the building—an effort that took about 12 years.
We partnered with a lot of other institutions, museums and other cultural organizations, grew our science and education programs, and gathered support for what has become a wonderful public/private partnership.
Which of the museum’s achievements make you most proud?
I have an incredible team of people, and we’re really excited about how our STEM education programs have grown. We are reaching more than half of all fourth-graders in the state of Utah every year. We have about 50,000 students coming to the museum annually, in addition to the outreach.
In our new home, we’re attracting three to four times more visitors than before—from the entire Intermountain region. The museum has won 26 regional and national awards, and the incredible variety of awards speaks to how hard we worked to make sure that what we were building reflected the needs and aspirations of the community.
What’s ahead for the museum?
It’s important to us to not just sit and rest on our laurels. We’re constantly updating things. We’re in the early phases of producing new video games for the Utah Futures gallery. We also have inaugurated a special traveling exhibit program. We’re bringing in big national exhibits on topics that are pertinent to Utah and working with local experts to make them even more relevant. We’re always working to meet our mission, because we believe that understanding the past gives us a foundation for making decisions for the future.