Gateway to success
New museum director has passion for science, education
Adrienne McGraw was working for a historical society in her mid-20s when she attended a museum conference of about 5,000 young professionals. They surrounded her with an enthusiasm that was contagious. That marked a turning point for McGraw, a recent graduate of environmental studies whose career path subsequently headed in another direction.
She enrolled at John F. Kennedy University, where she received her master’s in museum studies, then to California State University East Bay, where she earned a second master’s in environmental education. She soon returned to the classroom at JFK, teaching young people about museum education.
“I mean, you couldn’t get much more geeky than the museum geek, and then teaching the other museum geeks. It’s a very specialized little niche,” McGraw said from her new office at Chico State’s Gateway Science Museum. “I just found it to be a way to continue to promote the power of museums with my students and the power of the community engagement that museums can have.”
She was named Gateway’s executive director about a month ago, replacing Renee Renner, who is now teaching in the university’s computer science department.
McGraw, 48, practically grew up outside, exploring the national parks her family called home during the summers, like Kings Canyon National Park in the Sierra Nevada while her professor/ranger father offered guided tours.
“There was a lot of outside time with nature, with trees and identifying things … I just never came inside as a kid,” McGraw said, smiling. “I was filthy at the end of the day and came in and got my bath and went to bed and woke up and went right back outside again.”
McGraw said she grew up knowing science was an important part of life and the way humans understand the world and themselves. She developed a protective sense of ownership of the natural world.
“As you’re growing up, you feel kind of special, because you’re [living] in this place that’s been set aside,” she said, referring to national parks. “We value this as a society and we’re going to protect it.”
Before she landed her new gig, she was the director of the traveling nonprofit Exhibit Envoy, which actually has an exhibit, “Delta Grandeur,” at the Gateway right now.
McGraw hopes that her role will allow her to help manage exhibit development and encourage more locally curated, in-house experiences for Chicoans. She’ll also manage the museum budget and staff, and serve as liaison to the campus and community.
“I see [the museum] as a place for families to come and interact, a place to learn about some cool thing in science that [students] wouldn’t necessarily learn in class,” she said. “I think it’s a great place for faculty and students at CSU Chico to show their research, show what they’re working on, and just to be a place to come and have fun.”
Dave Hassenzahl, dean of the College of Natural Sciences, said the university was very fortunate in hiring McGraw because “she’s got everything,” including a broad background in museum management and exhibit development.
“We are relying on her and confident she’s going to do really great things at what’s already a really great museum,” he said. “We’ve got a vision of her taking the museum from being a physical museum on the edge of campus to something that is the outreach arm for the College of Natural Sciences … so we can reach even more people around the North State with it.”
McGraw has a goal of forging stronger connections with faculty and students on campus, and perhaps creating events geared toward them. Content-wise, she’s looking forward to this summer’s exhibit on climate change, which she said is an important topic to “not ignore” or “shy away from.”
“I think it’s a conversation we need to be having all the time, and being a science museum, we can help people understand what climate change is and how it’s going to impact them and how they can help to curb it.”
McGraw co-founded the Green Museums Initiative, a committee within the California Association of Museums that promotes environmental sustainability in operations and programming at museums across the state. She hopes to bring that kind of work to the Gateway as well.
She hasn’t had a chance to really explore Chico yet, but McGraw said she’s a rural, country girl at heart, so chances are, she’ll be right at home.
This week, she’s headed to a statewide conference where she’ll give a presentation about how to nurture staff and promote healthy jobs at museums, which involves fostering equity and diversity. “We have to be people first,” she said, not workers. “I really think that encouraging women and under-served populations and underserved communities in science is a really important thing. It can’t just all be white men,” she added.
“I think looking for the equity in what we do, the representation in who we are and who we serve and what are the stories that we’re telling through exhibits need to be done in a way that they’re really open to everyone, and they’re not being told from perspectives that may be alienating, that may reinforce bias, that may reinforce racism, that may reinforce sexism,” McGraw said. “We have to be mindful of that in everything we do.”