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Cincinnati Museum Fills Curiosity Gap

In the early days of the pandemic, Whitney Owens led three-museum center’s pivot to providing virtual programming for audiences of all ages.

Cincinnati Museum Hero

By Sean Hargadon
Fall 2020

Whitney Owens will never forget walking through Cincinnati Museum Center in the city’s landmark Union Terminal on the last night it was open to the public, before the coronavirus shutdown in mid-March.

“We had just celebrated the opening of a new featured exhibit on the Maya, one that no one would get to see for a while, as it turns out,” says Owens ’99, the center’s chief learning officer. “I walked through the darkened galleries and felt so sad — sad that we wouldn’t get to share amazing experiences full of curiosity, depth and discovery with our audiences, that families and schools would miss their favorite educators, and that this beautiful landmark would sit empty for a time. 

Photo: Malinda Hartong

“As it turns out, we quickly figured out ways to share some of that magic with the public virtually, but that night, it was hard not to shake a feeling of loss and hard to turn out those lights for what would be months.”

But in the days after Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine issued a stay-at-home order, Owens and her staff quickly pivoted the center’s three museums — the Duke Energy Children's Museum, Cincinnati History Museum and Museum of Natural History & Science — to virtual programming. Owens took the lead, producing the first virtual “Story Tree Time” by recording herself reading one of her daughter’s books.

“If there’s a need, I'm going to fill it,” Owens says. “It was also a lovely break from crisis planning.”

Soon the museum was offering three or four learning opportunities each day — from preschool-themed dance parties and at-home science videos using household materials to conversations with women working in the STEM professions and Museum-on-Tap happy hours that combined cocktails with a bit of salacious Cincinnati history.

One of the most popular offerings is the history museum’s “Vintage Beauties” program hosted by an expert in style and fashion. “She's been sharing details about clothing through the decades and doing how-to’s on how to get a 1940s hairstyle or how to get a 1930s makeup look,” Owens says. “We're very interdisciplinary and try and provide resources for our audience, whether you're 2 or 92.”

Owens, who has a 10-year-old daughter, June, and a 12-year-old son, Nate, leads all three museums and the experiences within them, including exhibit content development.

“One thing I use again and again from my time at Northwestern is the strength of storytelling,” Owens says. “Whether it was creating fiction with other writing majors in Reg Gibbons' and Mary Kinzie's classes, editing the Helicon literary art magazine or co-chairing a full season of performances for Arts Alliance, I learned the power of creating wonder and delight through story. We strive to share that with others every day, whether we're introducing a teen to a Torvosaurus, bringing 1850s Cincinnati to life or learning through play in a pint-sized art studio.”

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