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Prior to serving as Vice President of Audience and Community Engagement at the Milwaukee Public Museum, Hillary Olson worked as Director of Integrated Programming at The Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia. There she oversaw the planetarium, theater, public education programs, and the Philadelphia Science Festival, while also having a unique opportunity to nurture her passion for the environment. She worked for four years on a National Science Foundation-funded project called CUSP: Climate and Urban Systems Partnership, which focused specifically on climate change education. Hillary now brings that passion to Milwaukee.

Hillary views the principle role of the Milwaukee Public Museum (MPM) as that of the trusted public correspondent on facts of natural history. This is very important given the proliferation of information and misinformation spread both on the internet and verbally.  Among the facts of natural history are those of the climate. Climate history is catalogued in museum collections, including those of animals, insects, and plants (think: rings on a tree). Such natural history collections can tell us a lot about how the current climate differs from that of the past. Evidence-based science, not opinion, makes the MPM a trusted source of information and research on the stories the collections can tell us – including the science of the changing climate. Hillary, however, faces the challenge of making these stories compelling and meaningful to the public.

Images of polar bears on melting ice make a strong and quick impression, but it is not one which tells a local story or provides ideas for climate change advocacy. MPM tries to create meaning by emphasizing solutions in sustainability. ‘The solar wall’ on the south side of the building next to the Vivarium (butterfly room) produces enough electricity to power the room year-round. ‘The green roof,’ atop the building, absorbs about 90,000 gallons of stormwater annually, and produces oxygen for the environment with green plants (Sedum) which require very little maintenance. And this summer, the museum will be breaking ground on development of the sustainable ‘Outdoor Oasis’, demonstrating stormwater management techniques and native gardening, along the Wells Street courtyard.  


Hillary, an avid hiker and ‘National Park Junkie’ – who is taking her family to Alaska this summer ‘to do (glaciers) right’ – does not forget that for many people, the natural world means very little because they have spent so little time with it. Hillary believes that getting people to interact with their subjects helps open doors to learning, and this sentiment is part of what fuels the courtyard project. The oasis will be a native landscape garden, which will include interpretative signage of all its features. It will also implement a porous pavement rain collection process, which processes ‘thousands of gallons of water per rain event, helping to keep our lake and rivers clean’. The oasis will display information on this and the museum’s other sustainability projects as well.

The oasis will also serve as a classroom for teaching sustainability and green living. Hillary believes people are open to learning, but how you approach people matters. She wants people to understand and trust the scientific process, but understands that you must, in her words, ‘engage people where they are and not where you want them to be’. One of the obstacles to this is that science inevitably deals in statistics, probability, and even uncertainty; without absolutes, you meet skeptical reactions from people who do not want to change their behaviors or minds. Getting people to accept the validity of the process means overcoming this reaction. After graduating with her Bachelor’s degree in Earth and Space Sciences from Stony Brook in New York, Hillary served as a sixth grade outdoor educator in California, and hasn’t looked back in her life in public education. Her knowledge and experience make her an excellent candidate to help the Milwaukee community overcome the barriers to education on climate change and sustainability through green programming.

Hillary will be among the panelists at the June 11th MASA Kickoff event at Anodyne Coffee Roasting Co. in Walker’s Point, Milwaukee where a panel of experts will be discussing how climate change impacts science education, public health and sustainability. We hope to see you there!

Hillary Olson received a Master’s in Museum Leadership from Bank State College in Manhattan, and prior to working in Philadelphia at the Franklin Institute, held prominent positions in Los Angeles as School Programs Coordinator of the Griffith Observatory, in Visitor Education at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, and Director of Education at the Long Island Children’s Museum. She currently serves as Vice President of Audience and Community Engagement at the Milwaukee Public Museum, responsible for education, theater, guest services, and marketing.


Written by Casey S. Schroeder for Milwaukee Area Science Advocates

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