A Natural History
In early 2007, the Delaware Museum of Natural History was poised for success in terms of attendance, programming, finances, and education. A major renovation, completed in 2005, had improved the facility and made it more inviting to visitors. But the members of the Board of Trustees knew that a sensational building alone would not be sufficient to achieve their goals. They needed a new leader.
Like scientists in a rain forest, the trustees carefully searched for an exceptional specimen. They sought an experienced executive with top-notch communications skills; ideally, someone with strong ties to the community and an understanding of local culture. They hoped to find an energetic individual who possessed both environmental awareness and management savvy.
The DMNH board spotted the rara avis they were looking for right up the road. Halsey Spruance, who had been public relations director at the Brandywine Conservancy for 10 years, was ready for a new challenge. He began work as executive director of the DMNH in December 2007. Under his guidance, the museum, whose displays are anchored in prehistory, has already begun its leap into the future.
Spruance’s professional journey literally began with a single step: through the front door of the National Geographic Society headquarters in Washington, D.C. “I graduated from the University of Delaware as an English major, and took the LSATs,” the Wilmington native says, “but I soon figured out that I had no interest in going to law school. Zero spark.” Instead, he worked painting houses, visiting friends in Washington whenever he had the chance.
On one of these trips in 1988, Spruance found himself outside the National Geographic building. “My grandfather had given me a lifetime membership as a gift,” he recalls, “and I have always had an affinity for nature and wildlife.” He went in and filled out an application.
Spruance got entry level employment in the records library. “The job was basically pushing paper, but it was the best paper anyone could possibly push!” he says. “I filed correspondence from the world’s best writers and photographers.” While clerking, he took an in-house photography course. This training was the springboard for a promotion to photo editorial assistant with Traveler magazine.
After completing the Publications Specialist program at George Washington University, Spruance became photo editor for the society’s television programs. He also earned a master’s degree in communications from American University and continued to climb the career ladder at Geographic. “A position came up to do public relations for the entire society,” he says. “I went from administration to the magazine to the TV side to the whole society.” As a spokesman for National Geographic, his responsibilities included managing media and public awareness for the book division, World children’s magazine, Traveler, and the society’s natural history museum (Explorers Hall).
But when The Brandywine Conservancy offered Spruance the job of public relations director in 1997, he moved his family back home to Chadds Ford.
The conservancy oversees a unique mix of ecological issues and art through its Environmental Management Center and the Brandywine River Museum, respectively. During his tenure, Spruance succeeded on both sides. Public relations and marketing campaigns increased exposure and visitor attendance at the museum, while environmental advocacy efforts achieved stellar results, including the negotiation of important easements.
With his experience at the National Geographic Society and the Brandywine Conservancy, Spruance was the perfect choice to head the Delaware Museum of Natural History. His excitement as he shows a visitor around is refreshing. That attitude—a boyish appreciation of things that are just plain cool!—will go a long way toward maintaining the 45-year-old’s enthusiasm for the work he does on the site’s behalf.
The DMNH opened in 1972 as the only natural history museum in Delaware, based on founder John E. du Pont’s collection of shells, birds, and mammals. As part of its mission to excite and inform people about the natural world through exploration and discovery, the museum includes a dinosaur collection, African watering hole, simulated coral reef, Discovery room, and paleontology lab. It houses the second-largest collection of birds” eggs in North America and more than two million mollusks. Behind the scenes, scientists do research and share their findings with others in their various fields. The staff includes 25 full-time employees and 15 part-time and/or educational outreach personnel, plus many volunteers.
During the late 1990s, the need for a major renovation became obvious. Some deficiencies (lack of ADA-compliant restrooms, a tiny vending area stuck in a coatroom, a dark entryway, a too-large movie theater) needed correcting; a major infrastructure upgrade was required so the museum could guarantee climate control for exhibits on loan.
In conjunction with a $5 million capital campaign, DMNH hired EDiS in 2003 as construction manager and BSA+A Architects to design the redo.
Now, a new facade leads into a spacious entry hall with a vaulted ceiling and skylight. Fifteen windows replace solid walls. Energy-efficient systems maintain temperature and humidity within the exhibit areas. A snack room, glass partitions, handicapped-accessible bathrooms, an elevator, and the DuPont Auditorium were constructed. Older exhibits were refurbished.
The public response to the project, completed in 2005, has been encouraging. In 2007, visitation was 77,444—15 percent more than in 2006. Spruance plans to build on that. “There is a huge potential for how much impact we can have,” he says. “Every child in Delaware and southeastern Pennsylvania should come through these doors.
“We also provide a venue for corporate parties, weddings, special events like Scout overnights,”” he adds. “The back area is just right for a tent, and we have the staging areas for caterers.”
Spruance is a vigorous champion of the museum’s talented staff. “My job is to support them, help them define their focus, bring them together, and show them off!”
Forging partnerships is one of the strengths of this 2006 graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s Executive Administration Program, and this will be a continuing priority.
“We want to continue our outreach to schools and seniors. We’re looking into sharing programming with other sites like the Philadelphia Zoo. I hope to connect our funding sources—endowment, memberships, patrons, and grants from the state—in a meaningful way. We are building relationships with local visitors bureaus, travel writers, and chambers of commerce, and raising our visibility through our participation in the Discover Brandywine Valley Public Relations Association. In May, we hosted the opening reception for the Nature and Birding familiarization tour.”
All of this is great news for visitors, who will get to enjoy the resulting programs and events. Upcoming exhibits include Animal Secrets, through September 1; Eyes on Earth, September 20-January 4; the annual autumn Wine & Dinosaurs festival; and the ever-popular Dino Days on December 27 and 28. Summer camp, a butterfly garden, daily films, display windows that go all the way to the floor, the Larry Scott Nature Trail, and a natural-history themed gift shop enhance the family-friendly voyage of discovery the museum provides.
Spruance say his career path has “happened in a very organic way. The National Geographic is about education through stunning photography. It was an easy segue to The Brandywine Conservancy, which has amazing works of art, many based on the local landscape, and a conservation mission. Here at the DMNH, we have the entire history of man and the world. The scope is infinite.”
In his spare time, Spruance keeps busy with his sons, age 9 and 12, plays squash several times weekly, and goes fly fishing when he can find the time.
But he never minds coming to work. “A friend of mine told his 6-year-old son that I was going to be working at the museum, and the boy replied, ‘That’s not a job. That’s fun!””
During the time he was getting his master”s, Spruance reconnected with photographer Anthony Edgeworth. Earlier, when Traveler had run an article about the Brandywine Valley, Spruance had been a valuable resource for Edgeworth. “I showed Tony around, introduced him to Frolic Weymouth and several others in the area,” he says. “When the film came in, I told Tony he had the makings of a book.”
His instincts were right. As Edgeworth notes in the book’s acknowledgments, “That cover piece came out in May 1993. Halsey Spruance, a Wilmingtonian working at the Geographic, called to say how much he liked the pictures and to ask if I would consider doing an exhibit in Delaware. Later in Palm Beach, talking with old friends Bill and Renee Lickle, I mentioned my talk with Halsey, and they immediately proposed that we do a book on the Brandywine.”
From these conversations came the book Brandywine: A Legacy of Tradition in Du Pont-Wyeth Country by Lisa Zeidner, author, and Anthony Edgeworth, photographer, and an exhibit at the Brandywine River Museum. Not long afterwards, Spruance says, “The Conservancy called me up and told me they were looking for a new public relations director. I put my name in the hat.”
The Delaware Museum of Natural History is located at 4840 Kennett Pike (Delaware Route 52), between Greenville and Centreville just two miles south of the Pennsylvania state line. For more information, call 302.658.9111 or visit www.delmnh.org