By LAURI GROSS
Most Clevelanders couldn’t imagine the region without some of the area’s most beloved and impactful institutions. The Greater Cleveland Aquarium, the Western Reserve Historical Society, The Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage and the Great Lakes Science Center are surely on that list, among many others. Here, the CEOs/GMs of each of these places shares their insights about the regional impact of the organizations they lead, and the future they envision.
On one hand, the impact of these institutions is a numbers game. For starters, Kirsten M. Ellenbogen, PhD, president & CEO of theGreat Lakes Science Center (GLSC), says her organization employs more than 100 people, and attracts more than 300,000 annual visitors.
Last year, the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage welcomed 25,000 visitors. Approximately 14,000 of those were students and educators. Five thousand were children and young families, and approximately 35
percent of the museum’s visitors were from outside the Greater Cleveland area.
The Aquarium opened its doors in 2012 and immediately impacted downtown Cleveland and the Flats West Bank, where the Aquarium is located. Stephanie White, general manager says, “An estimated 1.1 million visitors visit Nautica Waterfront District annually for a special event, a dining cruise, a concert, a comedy show, to access the Cuyahoga River and to visit Greater Cleveland Aquarium. In early 2022, we welcomed our two-millionth guest, and we would have reached the two-million mark way earlier without the challenges of COVID. Nearly half a million additional guests have come through our doors since then and we have seen people from many different countries and all 50 states.”
Kelly Falcone-Hall, president and CEO of the Western Reserve Historical Society says that pre-pandemic, WRHS engaged with nearly 100,000 visitors annually. She adds, “We continue working to return to those attendance numbers with increases year-over-year since 2020.”
Beyond the impressive numbers, there is a much bigger story of how each of these institutions is woven into the fabric of NEO. For instance, the very broad and diverse WRHS has two primary sites for visitation: Hale Farm & Village in Bath, and the Cleveland History Center (CHC) in University Circle. Kelly explains, “The CHC admission includes access to the Crawford Auto-Aviation Museum, Euclid Beach Park Grand Carousel, two historic mansions, and permanent exhibits Cleveland Starts Here, Carl & Louis Stokes Making History; and Women and Politics – Empowered to Vote, Empowered to Lead. These and rotating temporary exhibits offer a variety of experiences for diverse learning styles, varied interests and audiences of all ages. It is the diversity of experience rooted in Northeast Ohio history that help guests make a personal connection and that is the overall response from our guests. Many say ‘I had no idea there is so much to see and do.’”
Besides impacting local residents as an employer, Kelly points out that the Historical Society works with “vendors and contractors for capital improvements as well as exhibition fabrication and installation.” She adds, “We also instill pride of place for residents of all ages and tourists alike. We answer the question ‘Why Cleveland?’ which can help recruit, attract and retain top talent interested in living, working and playing in the region.”
Managing director of the Maltz Museum, David Schafer says he is, “energized to help in furthering the Museum’s mission to build bridges of tolerance and understanding by sharing Jewish heritage through the lens of the American experience. Through the Maltz Museum’s commitment to education and learning, we bring history to life and people together.”
At the Great Lakes Science Center, Kirsten says they often hear from visiting families that they have fun but they also learn about each other as they visit and explore the exbibits. She says, “Many families get to see their children learning and interacting with something that may be completely novel and unusual or something that is common but it is in an exbibit that has posed a challenge that is very different than what they encounter on a day-to-day basis.”
Kirsten also explains the role of the GLSC as regional workforce partner. “We work with everything from advanced manufacturing organizations to aerospace design to the NASA Glenn Research Center, and the list goes on,” she says. “Our workforce development programs include after-school programs like our robotics program and we provide internships for students to apply those skills and big days like Manufacturing Day where students get to interact with STEM professionals one-on-one and in a group and reshape their understanding of what future careers can look like in NEO” she adds, referring to careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.
At the Science Center, there is even a Cleveland Metropolitan School District school on site called the MC2 STEM High School. Ninth graders attend school at the GLSC while the other grades attend at Tri-C or Cleveland State. Additional Science Center programs reach every sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade classroom in the Cleveland School district.
An annual Stop the Hate Youth Speak Out essay contest and Youth Sing Out song-writing contest are some of the popular initiatives of the Maltz Museum. Each year, about 3,000 students enter the contests that celebrate their commitment to creating a more accepting, inclusive society by standing up and speaking out against bias and bigotry as they compete for the chance to win a prestigious award. Teachers and students regularly share very positive feedback about the contest, pointing out that the process provides students a successful path of critical thinking, participating in writing process, and acting as agents of change. Participating students also learn the power of their voice and of sharing their stories.
The Aquarium’s mission is to energize curiosity about aquatic life and the environment to inspire positive action and Stephanie says she is glad to play a role in achieving that mission. “I enjoy working somewhere that connects people to nature, both by the experiences they share with us and by our location,” she says. “You can walk out our doors and along the Cuyahoga River and up to Wendy Park with views of Lake Erie. We’ve started to add Urban Bird Walks and other programming that takes our message out into nature.”
Because the Aquarium was retrofit inside a historic brick powerhouse,“there was a certain amount of creativity that went into designing habitats,” Stephanie explains. The result is that visitors love the up-close views. “As you walk through the immersive, themed fresh and saltwater galleries, you get a lot of 180-degree, 360-degree and floor-to-ceiling views. You can even walk right underneath sandtiger sharks in our 175-foot shark seatube.”
In 2024 and beyond, each of these institutions is poised for even greater impact.
The next large free event at the Maltz Museum is the Friends of the Maltz Museum’s Presidents’ Day Celebration on February 19. There are also docent-guided tours of the Museum and an Interactive Biography Series. For these biographies, the Maltz Museum partnered with the USC Shoah Foundation to preserve Holocaust and other memories through artificial intelligence (A.I.) technology, enabling audiences to speak with the A.I. version of Holocaust survivors and civil rights leaders. Attendees can ask questions and hear answers, mimicking a real conversation with someone who lived through history.
The GLSC is gearing up for a new Cleveland Creates gallery presented by Sherwin- Williams that opens February 23. Kirsten says this large new public gallery “will help the public dive into emerging technologies, advanced manufacturing and terrific innovations around NEO.” And, for the solar eclipse that will pass over Cleveland in the spring, the Science Center is coming together with NASA Glenn for the Total Eclipse Fest April 6-7-8.
“We are gathering the whole community and region for three days of a huge public festival on the shores of Lake Erie,” Kirsten explains. The Cleveland Orchestra will perform a free concert for the public. NASA TV will be broadcasting the event. “It will be an unprecedented gathering for Cleveland,” Kirsten says, “We have tens of thousands of pairs of eclipse glasses to give out on a first-come, first- served basis. Scientists, engineering and STEM professionals from around NEO will be throughout the festival. There will also be music dance, art performances and programming throughout the three days.”
The Aquarium was recently sensory certified by KultureCity, “so we continue to add special times to visit and programming for guests with sensory-processing differences,” Stephanie says. The Aquarium is currently in the midst of their “Difference-Makers Days,” which includes highlighting barrier-breakers in marine science and also raises funds and awareness for the United Black Fund of Greater Cleveland. Stephanie adds, “Admission through January 21 is discounted and $1 from every ticket sold will benefit UBF.”
WRHS has about $3 million in capital improvements planned for the new few years, including updates to the Hay-McKinney and Bingham-Hanna Mansion gardens, the Cranz Farm Inn, and the Crawford Auto-Aviation Museum. Having been recently accepted into the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) Museum Accreditation Program, over the next two years, WRHS will seek accreditation from AAM, which Kelly says is the highest mark of distinction for museums in the United States.
Also, as a member of the America 250-Ohio Commission, Kelly says she is “honored to represent WRHS and our work to help commemorate the 250th anniversary of the United States in 2026. The community support makes these experiences and improvements possible!”
Throughout the year, there are signature WRHS festivals, tours, celebrations and other events and exhibits. For instance, at the Crawford Auto-Aviation Museum, the new exhibition Ferrari: The Essence of Italian Design continues through March 31, and at the Cleveland History Center as part of the History on Tap (HOT) series, there will be a Celebration of Black Culture in February and other events throughout the year.
“There is constantly something important to talk about in STEM in NEO that makes our job not easy but constantly exciting.” Says Kirsten. “We are constantly looking at how to make sure the public is not only aware of science but also sees themselves as someone who can do science, whether it’s choosing what kind of sunscreen to buy to helping you make decisions in the voting booth to perhaps growing up and going into a career in STEM that we can’t even imagine today.”