New director has big plans for Miami museum

Steven Sullivan is new director of Hefner Natural History Museum.

Steve Sullivan then accepted a position as the new director of Miami University’s Hefner Museum of Natural History, located in Upham Hall.

The museum, named for the late Dr. Robert Hefner, is both a teaching facility as well as a fun and interesting place to visit. Sullivan started in the job in May and has spent the summer learning more about its holdings as well as thinking of ways to expand them and also to draw more people in to see what’s there.

He said he liked living and working in Chicago, but said size is really the main difference between there and Oxford.

“Chicago is a wonderful place to live. There are so many opportunities. Miami University has really lived up to its reputation as a world-class operation,” Sullivan said. Pointing to the Oxford Summer Music Festival, he added, “My family found everything to like in Chicago, which has maybe 50 of some things while smaller towns may have one. But there are good ones here. Oxford is an exceptional place to live.”

Sullivan comes to the Hefner Museum after 15 years at one of the nation’s oldest natural history institutions, the Chicago Academy of Sciences and its Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum.

He is just the fifth director of the Hefner in its more than 60-year history and the first to be a museum professional.

The move to Oxford also provides Amy Sullivan with a chance to expand research in her specialty as an ecologist and prairie ecosystem specialist with small mammals.

Sullivan’s passion for nature, natural history and museums began at an early age; he still has rocks he collected in New York as a toddler. By high school, he had transformed his parent’s basement into “Steve’s Museum.” As Senior Curator of Urban Ecology at the Chicago Academy of Sciences and its Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, Sullivan managed professional staff and volunteers and helped design and build award-winning exhibits.

His research program includes the popular citizen science program “Project Squirrel,” which will continue at the Hefner and he also plans to plans to bring his popular “Stump Steve” program to better engage museum visitors.

Project Squirrel grew into a national program in 32 states in many communities as a “citizen science project.”

“The squirrel becomes a focal organism to help citizen scientists understand how humans affect wildlife,” he said. “It’s popular because well love squirrels.”

Sullivan explains the program beginning with physical descriptions of red, grey and fox squirrels but describes the biggest difference between them in their food storage habits.

Red squirrels are “larder hoarders” with “all their eggs in one basket.” They collect and store all their food in one place leaving them vulnerable is another organism—human or wild animal—finds that storeroom. Grey and fox squirrels are “scatter hoarders” with food laid up in many locations around an area.

Red squirrels, therefore, need to be more protective of their single storage area.

“A red squirrel will take on a bear or a human in their larder,” Sullivan said. “Project Squirrel becomes a human study of what people know and how wildlife and humans, in general, interface.”

“I’m hoping Butler County, in general, can become a center for Project Squirrel. Butler County is a really cool collection of habitats—urban to dense forests,” he said.

Sullivan hopes to draw visitors to the Hefner Museum with an expanded collection and wants to inform and educate visitors with another tradition he brings here from Chicago, where he was a regular guest on media outlets.

He started “Stump the Curator” 20 years ago as a way of letting people ask questions they had long wondered about in nature. He plans to hold “Stump Steve” programs at the Hefner.

“It’s not that I’m impossible to stump me but the implied challenge is a fun way to encourage people to ask those off-the-wall, pressing questions they have about nature. Sometimes people have had these questions their whole lives,” he said. “At a museum, we can not only answer their questions with facts, we can put specimens in their hands to let them see and touch the answers. We can tie the answer into seemingly unrelated issues and help people make connections that might be life changing, or just make them look good at a trivia contest.”

Sullivan said he may not know the answer to every question he is asked but will find the answer for the questioner.

He also has plans to expand the museum’s student volunteer base because he sees operation of a museum and planning exhibits as valuable to people in any field. It applies to business, marketing, writing and many other fields and he said a diverse student volunteer group can lend expertise to the museum in those areas, as well.

The hallway leading to the museum on the north end of Upham Hall includes an underwater tableau which included a large grouper fish, which does not have a tongue. He’s hoping art and anatomy students could work on that display and find a way to create a realistic tongue for that fish.

Sullivan hopes drawing on increased student interest in the museum will help add artifacts to the collection. He said most museums have on display approximately 1 percent of their collection but the Hefner Museum does not have nearly that large a collection to create many new displays, a situation he hopes to see change.

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