Retiring EMS museum director Graham ‘loved it’ for 42 years

David Kubarek
May 21, 2019

When people think of museums, they think of the artwork, the collections and the interactive displays. But little is known about the behind-the-scenes work that led to these exhibits.

The same can be said for the careers of museum directors.

Take Russell Graham, who oversaw the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences’ EMS Museum and Art Gallery for the past 15 years, a career that closes when he officially retires May 31. He’s being succeeded by Jane Cook, former chief scientist at The Corning Museum of Glass.

Anyone who’s perused one of the museum’s many rotating exhibits — ‘The Lure of the Mine’ and ‘The Bearded Lady Project’ come to mind — know of Graham’s impact. It’s the same for any eager middle-schooler who’s ever created tornadoes with their fingertips or stomped their feet near a gyroscope to force mini earthquakes. Or the adults who rolled up their sleeves — diving wrist deep into the Augmented Reality Sandbox — to create snow-topped peaks and water-filled valleys in the topography exhibit.

Fewer know about Graham’s decades of experience gathering, preparing and maintaining exhibits for the Smithsonian Institution, the Illinois State Museum and Denver Museum of Nature & Science, before coming to Penn State to oversee the transformation to a modern, professional museum.

Or of his most acclaimed discovery, finding stone tools used by the Clovis culture — a prehistoric Paleo-American culture and one of the first people to live in North America — during a dig in Missouri, which to date is the only evidence that the group hunted forest-dwelling mastodons. The site of the excavation has since been transformed into the Mastodon State Historic Site and State Park.

These are just a few of the many aspects of being a museum director that are out of view of the public, Graham said.

“I’ve been working for 42 years, and it’s the diversity and fun that keeps me going,” Graham said. “I’ve had the opportunity to do scientific research and I love discovering new things. You get to interact with the public so you’re not just sitting in your office or laboratory. You’re telling people about the work you do and trying to get them turned on to research and science. From your research, you create exhibits, which brings out your creative side.”

Russell Graham takes notes in a cave

Russell Graham, who spent decades doing field work to build exhibits for The Smithsonian Institution, the Illinois State Museum and Denver Museum of Nature & Science, before coming to Penn State, takes notes while working in a cave.

IMAGE: Penn State

Discovery of science

Graham grew up in rural Iowa where the concept of a career spanning science and museums wasn’t front and center. Instead he was exposed to nature, which sparked a passion for ecology, biology and wildlife.

It took a high school teacher who trusted students with his extensive collection of science texts to begin convincing Graham of his career path. In college, he had equal love for biology and chemistry before a minor hiccup helped his decision.

“I nearly killed myself in the chemistry lab, so I became a biologist,” he said.

His interests soon shifted to geosciences, where in graduate school he began using fossilized evidence within the Earth to lend insight to his interests in animals. He earned his doctorate degree in geology at the University of Texas, studying how climate change affected small mammals and invertebrates. A post-doctorate position with the Smithsonian Institution steered his career path to museums.

Modernizing the museum

Through grants and elbow grease, Graham oversaw the inventory, safe storage and restorations of much of the college’s vast collection. Like many museums, the exhibits represent just a sliver of its offerings. The museum is home to more than 18,000 geological specimens, thousands of mining safety and other extraction industry artifacts, and numerous paintings that began with artwork from former EMS Dean Edward Steidle’s personal collection.

Graham said it was reviewing these paintings in preparation for the book, “The Wonders of Work and Labor,” published with help from Julianne Snider, the museum’s assistant director of exhibitions and collections, that made him realize how unique and special the collection was. So did creating a digital inventory of the collection, where  his staff examined each specimen piece by piece.

Parts of the museum’s collections are on display across the world, and Graham said a completed digital archive will only expand those opportunities.

Graham said restorations to the Steidle Art Collection — made possible through gifts from the Steidle family — unearthed new details in the works. The inventory process also exposed him to some of the more peculiar items in the collection. For example, the museum houses specimens of a material called trinitite, which was created during above-ground nuclear bomb testing in the U.S. just after World War II. It also owns one of the first furnaces used to conduct experiments for understanding volcanism. In it, rocks were heated to magma and cooled; then the new formations were analyzed.   

The collections, once housed piecemeal throughout the campus, are now safely stored in a climate-controlled building near the University Park Airport. All these efforts help the museum in its quest to become accredited by the American Alliance of Museums, which Graham laments he won’t be here to see, although he suspects it will happen soon. In a highly selective process, the museum in 2016 was chosen to participate in the American Alliance of Museums’ pilot season of its new Small Museums Accreditation Academy.  

Life after museums

Graham said there’s much he’ll miss about museums. He’ll miss developing eye-catching and accessible exhibits.

“I’ve always enjoyed that aspect of the museum,” Graham said. “I like to tell people about things so it’s just a natural extension of me. You need to boil it down so that people can understand it. You need to explain pretty complex processes in a way that they can say ‘oh, I understand what you’re talking about.’ ”

But retirement will free up more time to continue research and writing. He hopes to have an adjunct position at the Colorado School of Mines that will put him closer to family in the area. He also plans to continue museum work through volunteering.

“I’ll be staying involved at a much more leisurely pace while working on the backburner projects that I’ve always wanted to do.” Graham said. “I’ve really enjoyed my job and engaging with students and the public. It’s been fantastic. I wouldn’t have stayed in it as long if I didn’t love it.”

  • Russell Graham enters Parker's Pit cave in Southern Indiana.

    Russell Graham enters Parker's Pit cave in Southern Indiana. Many Penn State students participated in the excavations and wrote academic papers using animal remains from the cave during Graham's tenure.

    IMAGE: Penn State

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated May 21, 2019