Kidzeum hires first executive director
Meet Leah Wilson
The Kidzeum of Health and Science in Springfield took a step closer to opening with the hiring of its first staff member. Leah Wilson started Jan. 2 as executive director. Wilson says the words in the museum’s name touch issues about which she cares deeply. She developed a love of science at an early age, influenced by her father who was a high school biology teacher. Her grandparents had a strong impact on her love of the outdoors and commitment to a healthy lifestyle and strong work ethic. She loves to learn and says these formative experiences were an immersive way of learning about the world. Wilson sees the Kidzeum as a place where young people can bring fresh eyes and an open mind to create their own learning experiences. She wants to provide immersive and fun learning opportunities that “ignite the spark of curiosity that lives in the mind of every child.”
The original Springfield Children’s Museum opened in 1992 and operated for eight years, but could not be sustained. Since 2005, a group of community volunteers have worked tirelessly to create a children’s museum in Springfield. Rachael Thomson has been the driving force behind the Kidzeum for 12 years. When she first became board president in January 2006, there was $250 in the checkbook. Since then the Kidzeum has raised $7.25 million. The museum is scheduled to open this summer, located downtown at 412 E. Adams St.
The Kidzeum conducted a national search and received 35 applications. Seven were interviewed. Thomson says Wilson was the obvious choice due to her passion for the mission of Kidzeum, significant experience in virtually all aspects of museum administration and operations, and focus on serving kids. When asked what a perfect day at the Kidzeum would look like, Wilson responded, “smiling, engaged children who are learning something and having fun.” Thomson says, “Leah has all the skills needed and realizes it’s all about the kids.”
Wilson has ties to central Illinois, having spent much of her youth in Jacksonville. She comes to the Kidzeum from the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where she was involved in virtually all aspects of the museum, which has 34 staff and a $2.8 million budget. She held many positions during her 7½-year tenure, including vice president, chief operating officer, director of national development, major gift officer, director of marketing and communications, and director of programs and marketing.
She helped lead a reimagining of the museum’s mission and vision following the flood of 2008 which inundated the museum with eight feet of water. The museum was relocated and rebuilt, creating an opportunity to position the institution as a cornerstone of cultural life in the community. Wilson played a leadership role in increasing attendance and revenue, expanding audiences beyond the Czech and Slovak communities, increasing the museum’s focus on families, and creating educational programs with local, national and international partners. The museum is now in the strongest position it has ever been. She also worked at Cornell College in Iowa where she was involved with donor relations and major gifts.
Wilson earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in geography. While in graduate school, she led a project to enhance the sustainability of the University of Iowa food system and was a founding member and first coordinator for a local nonprofit food alliance. She welcomes the opportunity to tie in programming with the downtown farmers market held right at the Kidzeum’s doorstep.
Wilson says, “I can’t think of anything more important than the Kidzeum’s mission to nurture children’s inquisitiveness about the world around them and to begin to shape positive behaviors that encourage them to become healthy, vibrant adults who build stronger communities and a healthier planet.” She says the Kidzeum’s plan is “bold and exciting” and is impressed by the talent and passion of the Kidzeum’s board of directors. Thomson says, “The board members have the passion and vision. Now with Leah, we have all the needed skills to make the Kidzeum operational into the future.”
Alan Lowe, director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum (ALPLM), served on the interview committee. “I am very pleased to welcome Leah to Springfield,” Lowe says. “She brings great talent and experience to this important position, and I know she will be a terrific leader. The ALPLM very much looks forward to working with Leah and her colleagues at the Kidzeum.”
No one could be more excited about the Kidzeum opening this summer than Rachael Thomson. Thomson says the Kidzeum will be a safe and nurturing environment where kids can learn through play. Kidzeum will also be a valuable resource for parents, since in today’s world parents are not as able to let their children roam the neighborhoods. There are many places in the community that offer programs for kids, but most require signing up in advance for classes or events. In contrast, the Kidzeum will offer opportunity for spontaneity. Wilson looks forward to helping turn Rachael’s dream into reality and making the Kidzeum a vital part of the Springfield community.
Karen Ackerman Witter retired from the State of Illinois and served 14 years as associate director of the Illinois State Museum. Along with Alan Lowe, she was invited to serve on the interview committee for executive director of the Kidzeum.