With a father who worked at NASA and a historian for a mother, the passion Karen Stevenson has for science and history is essentially in her blood. “As a kid, I watched, in real time, how science impacted history and how that combination affected me personally. Both fascinated me — and still do,” said the new president and CEO of the Corpus Christi Museum of Science & History (CCMSH). Both her educational and professional careers have allowed that passion for science and history to intertwine and further promote Stevenson’s curious worldview. Be it with her colleagues at the museum or the guests wandering the exhibitions, she hopes that same curiosity is contagious.
KC: You moved into the role of president and CEO of CCMSH at the start of 2023. How have the first few months been?
KS: These first few months have been busy. The Friends of the CCMSH Board of Directors, staff and volunteers inspire me daily. The City of Corpus Christi is a great partner and has been supportive of my joining this great community. Leadership changes can be challenging, but the organization is steadfast in its collective intellect, passion and commitment to connecting people to history and heritage and the science that shapes our everyday lives.
KC: What inspired you to go out for and take the position in the first place?
KS: Several things conspired: We missed living a coastal life; we found a lovely little house here; and while I was honored beyond words to serve as the director of the National Museum of the Pacific War, the opportunity to open the aperture and settle deeply into a broader exploration of science and community-focused history was simply irresistible.
KC: What lessons did you learn from your prior position at the NMPW in Fredericksburg that you feel will aid in your work with the CCMSH?
KS: First, the power and potential of solid partnerships. The Texas Historical Commission owns the NMPW, and the Admiral Nimitz Foundation operates it. It’s a highly effective public-private partnership shaped by communication and collaboration. The CCMSH operates similarly: The City of Corpus Christi owns the facility and assets, and the Friends of the Corpus Christi Museum of Science and History assures the daily operations of the facility and its amenities.
Secondly, every gallery in the NMPW held lessons on humanity and humility. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, pride and patriotism stirred Americans’ hearts. Those who served tell stories of glory, courage, faith, fear, fury, heartbreak, horror and so much more. Their families on the home front experienced the same. These are things we can all relate to today. We have all been scared or felt brave and cared about something outside of ourselves.
When I think about the CCMSH, I think about the stories told through objects. What can we learn from an old wagon wheel, a swatch of fabric or an 80-year-old photo of a family picnic on the beach? What can we imagine when we see the night sky in the middle of the day, or learn about the complex physiological adaptations that shape migration patterns?
KC: What do you want people who haven’t visited in a while to know about the museum?
KS: That we’re in the business of sparking active imaginations. Our exhibits and in-person programs are fantastic. In Nueces Town, costumed Museum Live professionals immerse guests in a 19th-century storefront. Across the way, guests can sit in a turn-of-the-century train station; imagine cooking in a pioneer kitchen or being shipwrecked; or stand in wonder under an intricate Spanish dome. The H-E-B Science Center’s interactive periodic table encourages guests to imagine life as a chemist mixing elements, or being an astronomer or biologist. Our science educators invite kids of all ages to guess what happens next in each experience they present. Often our museum teams will bring something out of collections to share with guests — whether it’s a “thing in a jar” from our natural history collection or an heirloom wedding dress.
KC: In terms of expanding, enriching or changing any of the exhibits, what would be your goals?
KS: The museum’s potential is incredible. We’re assessing the artifacts in our collections and inventing new ways of telling Corpus Christi’s stories. We’re evaluating our short-term options (essentially, “What we can do with the talents of our exhibits team and paint?”) and long-term ambitions for more meaningful experiences — generally, museums freshen exhibits every 7 to 10 years. We’re developing new programs through which our neighbors and friends might give time, talent or treasure. As a 501c3, we aim to strengthen relationships with community partners, foundations and generous donors.
KC: In your own words, what is the importance of a museum as such for a community?
KS: Museums like ours help us understand the contexts and consequences of our past, our connection to the present and how the present shapes our future. We aim to reflect our community’s geography, street scenes, people living their lives, going to work and raising families. Thoughtfully developed exhibits help guests imagine that life, and even envision themselves in that life. In doing so, we aim to inspire a more deliberate, thoughtful path forward.
Last year, we welcomed almost 9,000 school-aged children. Our education staff developed TEKs-aligned curricula and, together with local schools, we bring history and science to life daily for hundreds of 2nd and 4th graders. We give history and science a new voice, motion, energy and wonder.
Asa community-centric organization, we are committed to strengthening our collaborations with well-aligned non-profits and educational entities, organizations with complementary regional missions and the professional museum community outside the Coastal Bend. We manage the museum today and work together to plan for what’s next.
KC: What would a successful first year in this position look like for you?
KS: My first-year goals are to cultivate varied fundraising initiatives and establish a strong and stable foundation, strengthen strategic partnerships within the community (including other non-profit and educational groups, volunteers and the City of Corpus Christi), and empower our leadership team. We aim to institutionalize new protocols that align with the nation’s top museums’ “best practices.” We want to exceed our visitors’ expectations. Our goals are to make Corpus Christi proud, be a good civic partner and deliver on the promises made to our visitors and supporters.
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