Wild Center Executive Director talks about museum’s nomination for national medal

The Wild Center in Tupper Lake is a natural history museum on 115 acres in the middle of the Adirondacks. It includes indoor exhibits and program space plus outdoor experiences like the Wild Walk, a trail above the treetops. The Center was recently named one of 30 finalists for this year’s National Medal for Museum and Library Service, which recognizes excellence to community service and is considered the highest award presented to museums and libraries. The Wild Center is one of the two nominees in New York state. Executive Director Stephanie Ratcliffe spoke with WAMC North County Bureau Chief Pat Bradley about the nomination and the Wild Center’s programs.

To be honored at a national level like this is just thrilling. What IMLS is really looking for, and you know they’re a major funder of the World Center, and they’re the experts in the museum world. And they’re looking at a strong connection to your community. They’re looking at the innovation level of your work. They’re looking at are you listening to the community and offering something that they are asking for. It’s very much about the relationship with the community. And so to be recognized as a museum that has achieved that at this national level just feels wonderful.

Did the Institute of Museum and Library Services actually say which specific programs at the Wild Center met those qualifiers at all?

No, it wasn’t really that specific in that way. You talk about all your community based programs. For us sometimes it’s our connection with youth and the Youth Climate Program which is very unique and innovative. You know our community maple program that touches this year 45 and it has been up to 90 families. That’s a small intimate relationship with a community. So it’s really not about how many people you touch, but are you touching your community and working with your community and listening to your community in a really deep and meaningful way. And the other project, too that I’m super proud of is our many year relationship with the Mohawk community. And we’ve worked with the Akwasasne Cultural Center and the Six Nations Museum and they have really helped us think differently about the way in which we talk about the original stewards of this land. And so that was a very much a relationship where we were learning from each other and learning together,

Is it difficult for museums and natural science centers like the Wild Center to be innovative?

What we do best is connect people to nature and often that is the human interface. You know our staff welcome you, you know, right in front of you with a live bird or out walking a trail or at the treetops. And we are trying to find the connection for you. And we do that in multiple ways. So innovation isn’t always about tech. We have the high tech side of ourselves too. We have this incredible Science on a Sphere that shows you the latest data sets from space. But it’s that staff person that connects with the visitor and really kind of looks eye-to-eye with the visitor and answers their questions, you know, the questions that they have. So innovation is really, to me, it’s not always about technology. It’s really about innovative ways you’re connecting with people. It’s like our forest music. That was an installation that yes it used technology. But that was about music and sound and sculpture in a place that’s in the woods that just brings you into the moment and you feel deeper connected to nature. That is what we want to do. And we do that in high tech ways. We do it in low tech ways.

I noticed that many of the other museums that are finalists on the IMLS National Medal list are in urban areas. Places like Memphis, Oakland, California, Philadelphia, Seattle. Places like that. But the Wild Center is in a very rural location. What does it say about the vision and potential for the Wild Center? And also what does it say about the need for facilities like yours in rural settings?

That’s a very interesting observation. And we are in a very rural area. And, you know, for a lot of young people in all the surrounding towns this is their museum. This is how they get to know what a museum is and can be. So to me I think there should be Wild Centers in every community especially in rural areas. Before the Wild Center was here if you were going to go to a natural history museum you might have to go three, four or five hours in order to sort of have that content covered in a museum. So to me and especially what makes the Wild Center very unique is that we really start with what is happening right outside the door. Because what’s happening outside our door is what’s happening outside their doors. What we do is really look at the natural world of the Adirondacks. We have you understand the beauty, you know, the science and what’s underlying all the beauty that you see around you.

What does being a finalist and perhaps receiving the national medal mean for the Wild Center over the short and the long term?

The Wild Center, like every museum, you have a lot of things you try once and you try them twice and you make them better. So what we are today is really the result of all the work of many years of improving programs, trying something new. You just keep trying ’til you find things that work and that are different and new and that really connect with people. So I’m just super proud. This is a culmination of many, many, many years of work to have this moment and this milestone acknowledged in this way.

The other museum in New York nominated for the award is the Children’s Museum of Manhattan.

Finalists in New England are the Perkins Braille & Talking Book Library in Watertown, Massachusetts, the Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury, Connecticut and Rhode Island’s West Warwick Public Library.

National winners will be announced during the first week in June.

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