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Museum of Science and Industry’s leader vows to stir fascination in new generations

While she arrived in Chicago in the middle of the pandemic, Chevy Humphrey launched a “listening tour” to help shape her vision for the museum.

Chevy Humphrey
Chevy Humphrey, president & CEO of the Museum of Science and Industry, standing in front of the new Pioneer Zephyr exhibit on Janurary 29, 2021.
Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Growing up on Chicago’s South Side, I regularly took a trip around the world, to imagination, wonder and nature. It was just a ride away, on a CTA bus, to the Museum of Science and Industry.

The museum, at 57th Street and South Lake Shore Drive, was an educational oasis for this Black girl.

I never tired of peering into the World War II German submarine, the old coal mine, the enchanted, doll-adorned Fairy Castle. And my favorite, watching the baby chicks hatch, live. It inspired my love of science.

Decades later, a Black woman now leads the Museum of Science and Industry and vows to stir a fascination with science in new generations. Chevy Humphrey, the museum’s new president and CEO, is the first woman and Black American to take that helm. She previously ran the Arizona Science Center for 15 years.

Humphrey moved to Chicago in January. “And,” she said, “I actually arrived here without a coat.”

“It was quite shocking when I got outside,” she said when I interviewed her last week for a program of The Arts Club of Chicago. Now, “I have actually seven coats I can count on now.”

Humphrey’s leadership in science education was founded in family. Her father, a police officer and first-generation college graduate and biology major, took her to visit the forensic lab at the Houston Police Department. Her mother, a music major, ensured “that I attended every ballet, every symphony, every opera” and taught her that “music was a universal language of all.”

Humphrey, 56, has held leadership roles at the Phoenix and Houston symphonies, the University of Houston and the University of Texas at Austin. She chairs the board of the American Alliance of Museums, the world’s largest museum association.

While she arrived in Chicago in the middle of the pandemic, Humphrey launched a “listening tour” to help shape her vision for the museum. She held more than 450 meetings via Zoom, telephone and in person.

Others had their own baby chick tales. “I found that so many people love this institution,” she said, “but there’s so many opportunities for us to engage in our communities and do more outside of our building — in communities.”

The museum’s current exhibit“Marvel: Universe of Super-Heroes” is selling out every weekend. The interactive show is about more than comic books, she said.

“We talk about the creation, the ideation. We talk about the ‘super’ skills,” she said. “Can you really do this in physics? Do the laws of physics really apply to this?”

The museum’s massive edifice has 400,000 square feet of glittering exhibits. And science is “everywhere,” she noted. “The science of actually putting the movie together, the science of how cinematography works … And so, we try to pull out as much as we can to get kids excited about careers and opportunities with art and the merging of arts and sciences together.”

For example, the MSI is talking to community people in Englewood. “How can we create a ‘maker’ experience in their community?” she asks. “How do we bring 3D printers to the neighborhoods and actually have kids work on things that they would work on in the museum?”

She vows “to get people excited” about STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), especially young people of color.

The MSI should contribute to the ongoing, national conversation about race and racial equity, Humphrey said, by bringing communities together to talk and learn.

“People trust museums, and we’re that safe place to have that dialog in that conversation. And although we focus on science, it’s important because we have a responsibility to answer those questions.”

Follow Laura Washington on Twitter @mediadervish

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