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Sky’s the limit for new science museum chief

Chevy Humphrey arrives just in time to reopen the Museum of Science and Industry next month.

Chevy Humphrey is the new president & CEO of the Museum of Science and Industry.
Chevy Humphrey is the new president & CEO of the Museum of Science and Industry. Behind her is the Pioneer Zephyr, a train that set a speed record on a trip to Chicago from Denver in 1934. That exhibit was refurbished while the museum was closed.
Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Forgive her office, Chevy Humphrey says, gesturing to the clutter of plaques and paintings, sculptures and awards, covering tables and propped against the walls.

“It’s a mess, because I’m just moving in,” says the former head of the Arizona Science Center in Phoenix. “I worked 22 years in a basement. I didn’t have windows.”

She does now, windows big time. Or rather, one enormous mullioned semi-circular window, oh, 20 feet high, looking out of what was once the Palace of Fine Arts at the 1893 World’s Columbian Fair, and for nearly the past century has been repurposed as Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry at 57th Street and Lake Shore Drive.

Humphrey is the MSI’s new president and CEO, and the first Black woman to hold that post. She arrived on the job in mid-January, her work cut out for her, professionally and personally. To get the MSI, shuttered like most everything else worthwhile by the COVID pandemic, back open and running, visited by streams — whoops, make that properly masked and socially-distanced individual raindrops — of awestruck visitors. And, at the same time, to adapt herself to a new climate, region and city after a lifetime — she’s 56 — in the sunny Southwest.

Which leads to the first, obvious question: How could a person leave Arizona in mid-winter and come to Chicago? What were you thinking?

“You know, it’s hard to leave my family and my team, but this was the right job for me,” she replies. “I’ve worked my whole career to be at this iconic institution, and when the opportunity came, I had to jump on it. I’m leaving a beautiful grandson, and my daughter. When I first got to Phoenix, 25 years ago, just me and my daughter, I didn’t know one person. I took a pay cut because I knew I wanted to be a CEO of a non-profit organization. I wanted to give back. I couldn’t do it in Texas, so I moved to Arizona.”

Chevy Humphrey the new President & CEO of the Museum of Science and Industry, sitting inside the Pioneer Zephyr, a stainless-steel train that set a speed record in 1934.
Chevy Humphrey the new President & CEO of the Museum of Science and Industry, sitting inside the Pioneer Zephyr, a stainless-steel train that set a speed record in 1934. The museum restored and refurbished the Zephyr exhibit over the past year, with a wall of eye-catching graphics.
Brian Rich/Sun-Times

She grew up in Houston, the daughter of a police officer and a music teacher. Even in her mid-teens, she was an ambitious young woman.

“My first job was at Baskin-Robbins,” she says. “This wonderful man hired me. After my first day on the job I said, ‘How could I become a manager?’ He gave me a list of things: I had to close the shop; I had to mop; a list of things. ... I worked really hard and stayed two hours after closing, locked the place up. And he made me a manager.”

After college, she worked in university fundraising. But rising to the top would be hard if she stayed in Texas.

“One of my mentors once told me, ‘Chevy, it’s going to be difficult because you’re a woman and a woman of color,’” she recalls. “So I moved to Arizona and realized my dream. I raised my daughter, [as] a single parent, as I was becoming a CEO. I’ve been wonderfully blessed.”

The museum opens in a month with a new show, “Marvel: Universe of Super-Heroes” — the sort of blockbuster brain candy that sets the teeth of hard science types on edge. Sure, the Titanic and Star Wars and such pull in visitors. But they aren’t science and they aren’t industry.

“There is science to presenting Marvel,” she says. “The physics, how does this work, making those movies and creating the innovation, the technology behind it. There’s a lot of things to talk about in those. With blockbuster exhibits, we often get criticized that it’s not pure science. But you’ve got to have something in pop culture people relate to and then slowly talk to them about the parts of science you want to integrate in your science learning. For example, [in Phoenix] we brought in the Titanic exhibit as well. We talked about ice, talked about freezing, talking about buoyancy. We talked about all those elements. A lot of different conversations you can get out of those exhibits and can apply science learning.”

Many institutions are struggling, but the MSI got lucky in late 2019 when Ken Griffin, the richest man in Illinois, reached into his pocket, pulled out $125 million and dropped it into the museum’s cup.

There is a catch, however: now it’ll have to be called the “Kenneth C. Griffin Museum of Science and Industry.” Which will stick in the craws of Chicagoans who are nothing if not change-averse. Some still in deep mourning over Marshall Field’s becoming Macy’s. Particularly those of a historical bent, who might remember that when Sears exec Julius Rosenwald endowed the MSI with $3 million in 1926 (about $45 million today, adjusted for inflation), he made a point of not insisting his name go on it (though proud Chicago Jews still called it “The Rosenwald” for decades). Is Humphrey worried about the renaming process?

“We’re going to have to ensure people know how generous Mr. Griffin is to the museum, and that the gift really supports future generations and the longevity of this organization,” she says. “With focus groups and conversations with the community, people will embrace that.”

Chevy Humphrey, president & CEO of the Museum of Science and Industry.
Chevy Humphrey is the new president & CEO of the Museum of Science and Industry. Behind her is the Pioneer Zephyr, a train that set a speed record on a trip to Chicago from Denver in 1934. Some of the museum’s older exhibits are “iconic,” she said, “but we also need to be thinking about what industry will look like in 2044.”
Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Because it is nearly a century old, the MSI has a variety of legacy exhibits, and I had to ask about those. Will she be the one who scraps the train diorama? Is it time to close the coal mine?

“That’s iconic, though,” she replies. “People love it. With iconic exhibits, you learn from history to develop a better future. We have to know where we’ve been to know where to go. I think those iconic exhibitions are important for this institution but we also need to be thinking about what industry will look like in 2044.”

That’s not a randomly picked date. Her predecessor, David Mosena, was here for 23 years. Chevy Humphrey gives the impression she might want to match that.

If so, any hints of what to expect? Where will the MSI go under her watch?

“I’m only here three weeks,” she says. “I think there’s a lot of opportunity here. We have a whole building here not in use. I want to create experiences. I will say, I have an eye on space. The new frontier of space travel, the moon and efforts of understanding Mars. That is exciting.”

And now, if she wants to look up at the sky, she has an office with a view.

“It’s really pretty,” she says. “Coming from a basement and then working in an office with windows. It’s exciting, but it’s a bit distracting.”

That’s Chicago life in a nutshell, or was, and will be again. The Museum of Science and Industry reopens to the public March 7.