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VMNH names Ohio scientist to head local museum
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Dr. Joe Keiper

Friday, December 18, 2009


An Ohio scientist and museum curator is coming to Martinsville to be executive director of the Virginia Museum of Natural History.

Joe B. Keiper, currently the director of science and curator of invertebrate zoology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, was hired by the VMNH Board of Trustees in a unanimous vote Thursday.

Keiper will earn an annual salary of $105,000 for the Martinsville job, which he will start Feb. 1, said VMNH board Chairman Pam Armstrong.

That is the same salary that former VMNH executive director Tim Gette was earning when he quit in January. A job advertisement indicated that would be the most a new director would earn upon being hired because the salary was frozen due to state budget cuts.

Gette left to work at a museum in Texas, his home state. Gloria Niblett, VMNH's director of administration and services, has been interim director.

The museum board met in closed session for about 45 minutes for a final discussion about job applicants before emerging and voting to hire Keiper.

Among more than 80 applicants, Keiper "rose above the field," said board member and search committee co-chairman George Lyle.

Keiper, who Armstrong said is in his early 40s, earned a bachelor's degree from Bloomfield College, a master's degree from Slippery Rock University and a doctorate in biology from Kent State University. He did a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California-Riverside.

Armstrong said Keiper has worked at the Cleveland museum for nine years and currently supervises about a third of the staff there, documents show.

During interviews, she and other members of the search committee liked his high energy and ideas for the museum's future, she said.

"He is pro (for) everything this museum is about," including research and education, she added.

Also, he has an outgoing personality, Armstrong said. Based on comments by his references, he is friendly and likes to hear people's ideas, she said.

Armstrong said she was impressed that in offering ideas during interviews, Keiper did not have an "I can do this" attitude but rather an "if you all are with me, we can make this happen" attitude.

"He's a can-do guy," said Jim Beard, director of collections and research at VMNH, who already has met Keiper.

In a phone interview Thursday afternoon, Keiper said he thinks VMNH will be "a good match" for him. He said he is impressed with the enthusiasm that museum employees whom he has met show toward their jobs.

"Change is always difficult" under new leadership, he said. But "I hope there's a sense of trust" among VMNH staff that he can lead them well.

"That goes both ways," he added, noting he already has developed a lot of respect for VMNH employees and scientific research they have done.

Keiper said he also is impressed with the museum's "deep connections with the state it serves" in that it focuses on the uniqueness of Virginia's natural history rather than natural history in general.

He aims to find new ways to show that uniqueness and "present objects in a way that makes Virginians proud ... of their natural history heritage," he said.

Also, Keiper said he wants to make sure that when museum visitors have questions about exhibits and natural history, they can get those questions answered by VMNH workers.

Cultivating relationships between the museum and visitors will be important to fundraising efforts, he said.

To do that, staff must be able to talk with visitors and find out about their natural history interests. Then the museum must find ways of meeting their interests and stay in touch with the visitors, according to Keiper.

About 50 percent of Keiper's job will be administration, and the other 50 percent will be fundraising, Armstrong said.

Most state museums are in capitals or metropolitan cities. Because it is in Martinsville, a small city, VMNH has an impact on its community that many museums do not have, Keiper said.

He said the museum always must keep in mind that it is a state institution and strive to provide exhibits and programs of interest to all Virginians, but "first and foremost" it should maintain its high visibility in the area.

"The people of Martinsville have a wonderful opportunity to watch this museum and its programs grow," he said.

Of the more than 80 applicants for the director's job, five people were interviewed by the search committee, Armstrong said.

There was only one in-house applicant, she said.


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