Q&A: Children’s Museum CEO Jennifer Pace Robinson

Children's Museum CEO Jennifer Pace Robinson in from of the t. rex at the dinosphere
Children's Museum CEO Jennifer Pace Robinson at the dinosphere
The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis president Jennifer Pace Robinson

What was the first thing you wanted to focus on when you took over last May?

Making sure we honored all of our commitments that were already in process—including, of course, revamping the Dinosphere. I was its original project manager when it opened in 2004, so that’s one of the things I was very focused on. I wanted to make sure we were on track to open the new space in 2022.

How is it changing?

We knew the Cretaceous creatures we displayed were very popular, but we also wanted to feature the Jurassic. So we did it the hard way. We actually leased land out west so we could be part of the process of uncovering the animals and getting them out of the ground. When you enter the new Dinosphere, you’re going to come face to face with the giants of the Jurassic. We’re adding two huge, long-neck specimens.

What species are the new additions?

We’re still doing some diagnostic work, working with a group of international paleontologists. One of them is a diplodocus. As for the other, we’re still studying it, trying to determine exactly what it is.

From the outside, the museum doesn’t appear to have gotten any bigger. Where will you put them?

The beauty of the existing space is that we have very high ceilings and a very large entry ramp. We’re maximizing that space by hanging things and bringing a whole new steel platform that looks like Jurassic rock and mud. We were able to reengineer the area and use what we already had without creating a new, larger footprint.

Are you hanging the actual bones of the new long-neck dinosaurs or just fiberglass castings?

We’re mounting the actual bones. We have strong steel armatures that are custom built and anchored to the floor. In paleontology, there are always some bones you just can’t find, so those have been replaced using either a cast piece from another specimen or a 3-D–printed piece made of plastic. But these skeletons are still very, very heavy, because they’re mostly built from fossilized bones, which are made of stone.

What was it like running a children’s museum in the midst of a pandemic? Kids are kind of germy under the best of circumstances, after all.

Our staff jumped into action, researching what other museums and even theme parks were doing. We ultimately closed for a period of time, but we spent that time working on ways to safely reopen and still offer the interactivity everybody loves. We came up with a strong cleaning regimen and made exhibits out of materials that could be easily wiped down. It also helped museums come together as a field. We’re normally pretty competitive, but we learned to share tips during the pandemic.

You’ve worked at the museum for three decades. How has it changed during that time?

I think we’ve gone a long way toward creating more immersive and themed environments. Dinosphere was kind of a turning point, and then we did our Power of Children exhibit where we wanted you to walk in the footsteps of kids such as Anne Frank and Ryan White. We started out collecting lots of different things, but we’ve become much more purposeful. Now we collect objects that help support a narrative. For instance, we have a traveling Barbie exhibit, and we’ve expanded our Barbie collection
to support that.

Do you think you’ll create more traveling shows, like Barbie?

We’ve actually done touring exhibits for 30 years. However, the scale has changed, as well as the number we have on the road. We’ve worked with partners like Mattel to do the Barbie exhibit, and Warner Brothers to do our DC Comics exhibit. This summer, we’re doing another Warner Brothers property, Scooby-Doo. These give us a national and international presence, because we tour them across Canada, Mexico, and the U.S. But they also support what we do here at home. We’re building recognition as a premier provider of family learning.

What’s the coolest off-exhibit item you have sitting in the children’s museum’s extensive storage area right now?

I’m a huge Indiana Jones fan, and he was my inspiration to study archaeology and work in this museum. We’re very fortunate to have some items on loan from Lucasfilm, including a replica of the Holy Grail from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. I’m kind of in awe when I see that.

Do you see the museum growing physically larger in the coming years?

We’re still assessing those sorts of plans. Right now, we’re focused on maximizing the building we already have, and being good neighbors to our surrounding community.

When was the last time you rode the carousel?

Before the pandemic. I rode one of the jumpers—the horses that actually go up and down.