The new leader of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University is a museum administrator with a background in construction, architectural conservation and helping the public connect with research and collections.
Scott Cooper, 48, currently vice president of collections, knowledge, and engagement at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria, Canada, will take over as president and CEO of Philadelphia’s natural history institution in mid-December.
“Museums have to communicate issues – not just the history of the natural world, but its future as well,” said Cooper, whose appointment was announced Wednesday. The task ahead, he said, is to “refresh, update, and make relevant” the academy’s research to non-researchers.
How will that manifest itself in terms of changes to the visitor experience or renovations to the academy’s building on the Ben Franklin Parkway?
“I don’t think anybody would disagree that there are many things the academy does fantastically well, and there are areas that need to be developed in the front of the house, and collections and storage has to be high on the agenda,” he said. “What we do about it is a conversation piece. How do we deal with that over five, 10, and 50 years? What is the most cost-appropriate way? Until my feet are firmly under the table and I have a sense of needs and opportunities, it’s impossible to say. But it is fair to say that that has to be extremely high on my agenda from day one.
“The whole fabric and structure of the building will be getting early attention, and so does the visitor experience need it.”
Born in north England, the son of a bricklayer, Cooper was “raised I suppose on construction sites since I could lift a brick,” and had a passion for environmental science from an early age. He has a B.S. in construction management from the University of Manchester, a Ph.D. in architecture from Edinburgh College of Art, and additional diplomas in architectural conservation.
Before working at the Royal British Columbia Museum, which covers both natural and human history, he was director of museums at the Qatar Foundation in Doha, Qatar, overseeing a $65 million capital project and creating what has been called the first museum dedicated to the subject of slavery in the Islamic world.
Prior to that, as CEO of the Fulham Palace Trust in London, he developed plans for the restoration of Fulham Palace, the house and garden of the Bishop of London since 704.
Cooper said he was still learning about the relationship between the Academy of Natural Sciences and Drexel University; the two groups announced a merger in 2011. Asked about the balance between the academy’s life as a research institute and its role in catering to the public as a museum — the academy says it has 18 million plant and animal specimens in its collection — he said he saw no change in the ratio of one to the other.
Rather, he sees the need for more of both.
“The truth is we need to do more research, because the research we do is required by the world now more than ever. And we have to do more around public engagement in all its forms.”
He will be developing a new strategic plan to continue the work of his predecessor, George W. Gephart, Jr., who retired this past summer.
“It’s a competitive world that museums inhabit, and people make choices every single day. We need to ensure that when they come to the academy they are getting a reward for their investment of time.”