When the $150 million Cleveland Museum of Natural History (CMNH) Transformation Project is completed in late 2024, “you will be able to see our dinosaurs and butterflies from the outside,” according to CMNH President and CEO Sonia Winner. That opportunity is possible because of the new, huge glass windows designed to let in as much natural light as possible.
“Data shows people don’t want to go into spaces that are dark. We will have a museum where nature comes in and where we showcase our objects,” says Winner, who assumed her title in 2018. “More than a 100 years ago, museum founders focused on the diffusion of knowledge — sharing that knowledge and not just having scientists talk to other scientists. This opportunity is community-based learning that allows us to engage with visitors and others in the region to think of our health and the health of our planet. We are transforming how people view natural history.”
That clear vision (physically and strategically) was brought back into focus after Winner and her team took over leadership of the transformation, which at the time was over budget.
“Now we are actually on time and under budget. We have actually reduced the timeline on the project by two years,” says Winner, whose background includes leadership roles involving development, philanthropic and management at Columbia University and Case Western Reserve University. “I am pretty fearless. I have been an honest and transparent broker about how hard this all is to do. But this truly is a legacy project, a gift to the community that will live beyond all our lives.”
Winner, a mother of two whose son learned to walk at the museum, is also practical. She gave her personal stamp of approval for including family-friendly features such as accessible family restrooms and mothers’ rooms. In addition, she voted for cup holders in the auditorium.
“I want people to be in a space that is enticing and comfortable,” Winner says of the museum’s building and outdoor visitor area of 375,000 total square feet with the expansion.
Winner has also helped expand the museum’s definition of “community.” She is an advocate for reduced museum admission and has joined with community partners to provide free admission for eligible groups and individuals. She praises a new visitors’ hall, which opened last month and is free to the public and contains some of the museum’s most iconic and loved objects.
Winner also has a dream to add land within the City of Cleveland to the already 12,000 acres of protected ecosystems in northern Ohio owned by CMNH’s Natural Areas Program.
“Right now, you have to drive 30 miles to see some of these pristine areas. But we have places here in the city that would be wonderful learning opportunities for families and others,” says Winner, who was born at Clark Air Force Base in Pampanga, Philippines.
Of course, someone with Winner’s ability to impact an institute or city is always in high demand, and that leads to curiosity about her future.
“I never had a five- or 10-year plan for myself. I feel it is very important to do the best job you can where you are. I am not ready to give this up yet. For me, the transformation has been most rewarding because it fits my leadership style and is a challenge,” says Winner. “I am like Mary Poppins. When things are good and settled, I may be on my way. But right now, I like the challenge of all of it.”