A Memoir from Dr. Michael Hager

With my retirement rapidly approaching on June 30, I’ve given some thought to my first days at the San Diego Natural History Museum 25 years ago beginning in July of 1991. Being the ninth director in the previous 13 years was somewhat sobering as was the warning of Museum colleagues around the country that taking this job would be the end of my career. Little did they or I know that they would be correct—just 25 years later.

Before I arrived in San Diego, Judge Robert Coates sent me a book that had an inscription that read, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Proverbs 29-18. Upon my arrival at the Museum, it was clear to me that the Board and staff did not have a clear mission and vision in mind and that led to much of the dysfunction of the Museum at that point in its 117 year history.

I arrived in San Diego about three months before my wife Denise was able to join me, so I literally worked all day, every day, to try and understand the Museum in preparation for a year-long, in-depth strategic planning effort. I thought a good place to start was to read the minutes of previous Board meetings so I read them all from 1874 to 1991. In doing so, it became apparent to me that the strength of our research and collections was from our region. I believe the most important strategic initiative we have embraced was to focus our mission on southern California and Baja California.

Our original building in Balboa Park was built in 1933 and very little had been done to improve it by 1991. When I started, there was no heat, no air conditioning, no hot water, and no fire or burglary security. It was pretty audacious to add a new building to our 1991-92 Strategic Plan, but we did and we built it!

In my first week on the job, I was horrified to discover that our expenses the year before were much greater than our income and we had very little in financial reserves left. When I asked the staff what our next exhibit would be, I found out that nothing was planned. With that I called an emergency meeting of the Board and asked to use our reserve funds to book a three year schedule of traveling exhibitions. Those generated much needed revenue and each one brought in a whole new audience. Since 1991, we have had over 95 exhibitions and that schedule continues to the present.

Those early days were extremely difficult, so on the way home every night, I sang my heart out to a Jimmy Buffet song. The words were, “If I had to quit tonight, I’d never know if I was wrong or right. That’s just what you get, you gotta go the distance if you’re gonna fight a good fight.” Well, it’s been a great fight! Thank you for the opportunity. 

Posted by Michael W. Hager, Ph.D..

Subscribe to our blog. Receive an email once a week that recaps the latest blog posts about our research, exhibitions, cool science news, and more