RALEIGH — In his first remarks after being introduced as the new director of the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, Emlyn Koster quoted the words of North Carolina poet Fred Chappell: “You are a child. You are suitable to be awed.”
These words are inscribed in granite on the nearby state Department of Education building, as Koster duly noted.
But they also speak to the new director’s vision for one of North Carolina’s busiest and most prominent state museums.
“Great museums are places where ‘Eureka!’ ‘Aha!’ and ‘Wow!’ moments happen every day,” Koster said Monday, shortly after his introduction. “I’m greatly honored to be entrusted to take the helm of this phenomenal museum.”
Mike Murphy, president of Friends of the Museum and chairman of the search committee, said about 200 people applied for the job, which will pay Koster $230,000 a year, $50,000 of which is being raised privately through the Friends group.
“Emlyn brings to this role the precise mix of leadership qualities we need,” Murphy said, touting Koster’s skills in advocacy, management and collaboration.
Koster, a geologist who was educated in England and Canada, is well known in the museum field for having turned around the struggling Liberty Science Center in New Jersey during his 15 years there. Before he left in 2011, the center had completed a $109 million expansion.
The New Jersey museum strengthened its public support and built excitement through innovative partnerships, programming and exhibits, including a Cardiac Classroom, where visitors can watch live heart surgery beamed in from a nearby hospital operating room. The North Carolina museum has already been in discussion with Rex Hospital about a similar project, which former Director Betsy Bennett said could be up and running by summer.
In a 2010 article, New York Times cultural writer Edward Rothstein cited Koster’s drive for “relevancy” at the New Jersey museum and an interest in developing “social and environmental responsibility.”
Koster said he sees the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences not just as a display space for scientific learning, but also as a forum.
“It can be a place where people can come to understand and talk about some of the issues we face, to help illuminate what we are seeing,” Koster said.
Last spring, the museum opened a new wing, the Nature Research Center, home to the Daily Planet multimedia theater, where Koster was introduced Monday. Interactive science programming takes place in the three-story, high-definition arena, allowing visitors to experience science at work in all parts of the world.
It’s one of the features that most excites Koster about his new job.
“We can go live to where great science is happening,” he said. “Students who have those experiences will never forget.”
Bennett, who retired at the end of December, led the museum for 22 years, transforming it from a drab annex in an agricultural department building to a nationally recognized science center and the state’s most visited museum. Bennett noted that the museum welcomed 1.2 million visitors during 2012, up from about 700,000 annually before the $56 million expansion that opened in April.
She called Koster “the perfect person” to lead the museum forward.
“Emlyn commands respect from the brightest minds,” Bennett said. “And he is someone who is committed to the issue of bringing science to the people.”
Bennett announced her retirement last summer, saying the timing was right because the museum is stable, and has a great staff and solid community support.
Koster was born in Egypt, where his father, a Royal Air Force squadron leader, was based in the Suez Canal Zone, and he was raised in England. He earned a bachelor’s degree in geology from the University of Sheffield in England, and a Ph.D. in geology from the University of Ottawa.
After teaching and research at universities in Canada, Koster held leadership posts at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology in Alberta and the Ontario Science Centre, Canada’s largest science museum, in Toronto. After leaving the New Jersey museum in 2011, Koster led the Maryland-based Institute of Learning Innovation, a nonprofit organization that advocates self-initiated learning and advises museums, libraries and other institutions.
Koster said he and his wife are searching for a home in the Raleigh area. He is scheduled to begin work at the museum Jan. 28.