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One On 1: Museum Of Natural History President Ellen Futter

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NY1's Budd Mishkin continues his new series, "One On 1," with a profile of a woman who has led two New York institutions in different fields; American Museum of Natural History President Ellen Futter.

You can learn a lot walking through the American Museum of Natural History with its president, Ellen Futter, from the latest cutting-edge scientific developments to tidbits that are not quite as scientific.

"[The] whale has had a little work done,” Futter says. “The whale has had a tummy tuck. Its eyes got a little done, and she's had a little work - and you know it is a Îshe.’"

The whale had a tummy tuck? Only in New York. It’s good news for the whale, and for millions of visitors to the museum, too.

Ellen Futter once was the president of Barnard College, overseeing the education of some 2,300 students. But now she heads a New York institution that opens new worlds to thousands of kids every year.

"I’ll wander out of my office during the day and bump into a crowd of schoolchildren, and it's just a shot in the arm about what good work and what important work we do," she says. “It's an awakening of wonder and curiosity. These are the gateways to learning, and it really underscores the role of this institution in conjunction with schools. This kind of institution brings science and nature to people in a way that makes them want to learn."

Futter took over the museum in 1993, after years as a corporate lawyer and then college president. She was a lover of nature, a collector of shells and rocks and butterflies, and though she'd loved coming to the museum, this was new territory.

“When I got here in '93, I was still getting lost,” she says. “I didn't have a clue [how long it would take before it would be the place that I wanted it to be], and I also didn't have a pre-set notion of any of the projects that we would come to take on. I think anybody who's honest with you, and not just at the beginning, even when you really feel you're kind of on top of it, there are always moments when you say, 'Gee, this is hard sometimes.’”

One of Futter's early dilemmas lay in moving the museum into the future without denigrating its past.

"There's always a tension with great institutions,” she says. “When I first got here, people said, everyone said to me, ÎIt's my favorite institution.' And I'd say, 'What do you like best?' and they'd say, 'I love that nothing ever changes,' and you'd say, ÎWhat do you like least?' and they'd say, 'Nothing ever changes!’”

That wouldn't be the case for long. The museum is involved in teacher training, developing curriculum, and computer technology helps to update the dioramas so that they reflect modern environmental realities.

But perhaps the best example of the museum's movement under Futter is the Rose Center for Earth and Space, which opened in 2002.

"It required every kind of discipline to pull it off, not just the scientific and the exhibition, but the construction of it, the engineering of it, the design,” she says. “So certainly there were moments in pulling all of that together when I and everybody else involved said, 'Holy smokes - this is really gigantic.’ But you know you're going to get it done at the same time."

You can learn at the museum that many things grow on trees - money is not one of them. A part of Futter's job is understandably raising funds, and many corporations contribute to the museum. Do they ever have a say in an exhibit's contents?

“The museum has complete editorial control, and that's not unique to corporations,” Futter says. “In any context, the museum has absolutely editorial authority."

Futter sits on the board of trustees for several corporations and organizations, some of which contribute to the museum. A conflict of interest? Futter says no, that the contributions are a continuation of a pre-existing relationship between the museum and the corporations.

“It is inevitable that the kinds of corporations that I'm involved in in New York City and important members of the New York City community and supporters of major institutions have been supporters for a long time and will continue to be,” she says.

Ellen Futter's resume reads like few others, with a list of firsts: First woman to head up a major museum in New York; first woman to chair the board of directors of the New York Federal Reserve Bank; the youngest woman to be president of a major university. Are those firsts important to Futter?

“You know, I don't think about them,” she says. “I just go do whatever it is that I'm doing, and I think that's true for a lot of people.”

Futter was 32 when she was named acting president of her alma mater, Barnard, in 1980. It didn't exactly come from out of the blue, because Futter had served on the college's board of trustees first as a student and then an alum.

"It was a time when Barnard and Columbia were deep in negotiation over the future relationship between the two,” she says. “As a young lawyer I was seen as having both a skill set that could be useful for those issues, bearing in mind that it was considered to be for a year as an acting president, and I had a devotion to the college, and I knew it very, very well both by being a recent graduate and by being on the board for that decade."

A year later, the board dropped the "acting" from her title.

“The moment where the board made the decision to ask me to be president, I was probably in a stunned condition, saying, ÎWhat have I done?’” she says. “Certainly there was great curiosity about a young person doing the job, and I think there was a tremendous burden, and an inevitable one. On the other hand, I just began to do the job. You do the work and show up every day, and it takes care of itself."

Futter says she's passionate about education, so when she took on the museum job in 1993, she saw it as another chance to educate. But rather than teaching college students, the museum's visitors can range from pre-schoolers to post doctoral graduates.

“We have to have a very layered approach,” she says. “Every hall you go through is meant to be able to reach people, not only at different levels of education, but literally different heights."

So often with success, there are inevitable sacrifices. But Futter points to the opportunities her career choices have given her and her family.

“They have fit beautifully in my life,” she says. “When I was at Barnard, my kids spent a tremendous amount of time on the campus. Both of these positions have fit: They've enriched my life and my children's lives, and been a wonderful, expanding part of our whole existence."

- Budd Mishkin

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