New History Museum Director Wants To Create 'Welcoming And Relevant' Experiences

Feb 5, 2016

After quadrupling visitation during his previous position as head of a New Zealand museum, Eric Dorfman hopes he can use his techniques and experience to improve profits as new director of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Dorfman comes to the Steel City after five years with the Whanganui Regional Museum and Ward Observatory. He shared his vision for the museum’s future with Essential Pittsburgh’s Paul Guggenheimer.

Dorfman’s interest in natural science began young, when he visited a science center in his home state of Los Angeles. There he saw baby chickens hatching from their eggs, an experience which profoundly impacted his life. 

“Somehow, that image has stayed with me all the time,” Dorfman said.

As a child, Dorfman raised many animals at his home, including a pony, goat, rabbits, and even mice. As he got older, however, Dorfman found he had to choose between pursuing his interest in natural science or a career as an opera singer.

“It came down to one fateful chemistry exam that I knew I could either stay home and study or I could go to a dress rehearsal for a production,” Dorfman said. “In the end, I had to make the tough decision to pass chemistry and that really turned on the light…”

From there, he went on to earn a master’s degree studying porpoises, and a PhD on water birds in Australia.

While New Zealand and Pittsburgh are worlds away, Dorfman believes his experience directing the Whanganui Regional Museum can be applied to the Carnegie.

“Visitation isn’t where you start,” he said. “It’s, for me, about making it welcoming and making it relevant and those two things, I think, set the ground work for visitation to flow on.”

Dorfman plans to use surveys and focus groups to see what the public would like to experience and improve exhibits. He also wishes to cater to different age groups visiting the museum, with more hands-on areas for children, and 21+ events for young adults.

For anybody wishing to know more on Dorfman and his vision for both the Carnegie and museums in general, he has written a book titled “The Future of Natural History Museums,” which will come out in 2017.

More Essential Pittsburgh segments can be heard here.