• By: Keith Whittier

Leading a National Institution to Global Influence: Meg Beckel – President and CEO of The Canadian Museum of Nature

How does one succeed at leading one of Canada’s most esteemed institutions while handling budget cuts, a structural deficit equal to 7 per cent of its operating budget, a recent $216 million renovation and a need to create innovative programming to attract new audiences? It takes the infectious energy, tenacity and sheer brilliance of Meg Beckel, a woman whose career has taken her across the country and now brought her to the helm of the Canadian Museum of Nature (CMN).

Early on in her career, Beckel was the corporate fundraiser for the National Ballet of Canada, another institution very close to her heart. As a classical ballet dancer for 17 years, she was passionate about the creativity of dance, its interpretation of music and the fluidity of movement. When she dove into the finance side of things, she learned to marry her creative and logical sides — a characteristic that has helped shape her incredible success.

“While I loved everything about dance, I also loved the logic, rigour and predictability of math and physics — the courses I enjoyed most throughout high school,” explained Beckel. “With each of the jobs that I’ve had, to be successful, I always need to draw on both my logic and creativity — my calm, methodical approach as well as my innovative, ‘there’s gotta be another way’ approach to thinking.”

Fast forward to today and that approach has spearheaded new and exciting ventures at the museum, including its approach to the design, development and delivery of visitor experiences.

“It’s important we understand the ways in which our visitors want to interact with content,” she said. “We are piloting constantly, for example, new ways of labelling our dioramas in the mammal gallery as well as ways we present our research collection, like the backlit photography of x-rays of Arctic fish. We’re also not taking ourselves too seriously while doing it. For many museums historically, they have felt that because they are the authoritative voice, that they must be serious. Yes, nature is serious but it is also beautiful, fun, awesome and terrifying! We need to tell our story with different voices.”

Nature Nocturne is one such way. It has proven to be a hit among the mid-twenty-something crowd, a demographic that is often turned off to museums, with the perception they are targeted more for children and young families. Once a month, the CMN is turned into a dance club with DJs spinning on every floor. Revellers can roam through the many galleries and exhibits, sipping cocktails. It’s been a great revenue generator for the museum as well as a staple event for many young people.

“We recognized that the social aspect was the greater need with this demographic and actually put the context in front of the content, so they are more receptive to the content,” said Beckel. “It’s completely different from what’s going on and shows our respect for this new audience.”

To market itself as a visitor destination for families and curious adults, it has also created new ways to package information using bookmark-style pamphlets. Convenient, perfectly sized for a pocket or purse and able to carry loads of information in both official languages, the idea was to showcase the museum’s information in a memorable way.

Beckel’s ability to lead the CMN into this new, exciting territory is also backed by her experiences at the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre, University of Calgary, University of Victoria and University of Waterloo. Her foray into the museum world began at the Royal Ontario Museum Foundation, leading its fundraising efforts and then becoming the institution’s first COO.

Over the past few years, Beckel noted that the pace at which the museum can reach more people has changed dramatically, thanks to digital technology. The CMN is taking advantage of this great chance to engage people online, in addition to on-site experiences.

“When I came to the museum, I saw this opportunity to serve a national institution that was willing and ready to take its place as a national museum of truly international first rank, to be a national leader in nature inspiration by creating and designing new experiences, but also to stake its claim as one of the global museums of Arctic knowledge and exploration,” she said.

Under Beckel’s leadership, the museum is already on its way to becoming just that.