Naturalist Harvey Webster Retires From Cleveland Museum Of Natural History

Students gather around Harvey Webster who has a snake gathered around his neck.
Harvey Webster introduces students to his slithery friend in a 2015 event at the Idea Center. [Dave DeOreo / ideastream]
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Cleveland's ambassador to the natural world is stepping out of the woods and into retirement. After more than four decades at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History (CMNH), the end of the year is chief wildlife officer Harvey Webster's last day on the job.

He fell in love with Cleveland’s natural history museum as a child.

“I was a museum brat,” he said. “When I was about 11 years old, they opened up the Kirtland Hall of Prehistoric Life. And then the opening weekend, I went down with my father. My mother was a volunteer in the women's committee at the museum. And I saw that grand hall for the first time with the recumbent Haplocanthosaurus Delfsi (nicknamed “Happy”) with the Johnstown mastodon, with a Colombian mammoth, with an Irish elk and all of these cool things that I had read about as a kid and populated my imagination. And here was the real deal, and I was hooked.”

The young Webster was so hooked that he turned the garage of his family's Shaker Heights home into a natural history museum and had his class from Malvern Elementary School come over for a visit. He also developed a passion for birding, nurtured by walks with his mother through Holden Arboretum. He went to Cornell University in New York and did undergraduate work in the school’s famous ornithology program. His freshman year at Cornell coincided with the first Earth Day in 1970, which added to the environmental thread that was developing in his life.

Four years later, Webster started at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History working with the live animals at the museum’s Ralph Perkins Wildlife Center, coincidently named for an old school mate of his who also had love for nature but had died a few years earlier.

That started it. And over the years, no matter what my job description, I've always been responsible for the museum’s living collection,” Webster said, though over the years he’s also helped plan major exhibits and strategic plans.

Webster life-long connection to the museum has developed into a family affair. He met his future wife, Doris, there while she was working for world-renown researcher Donald Johanson, who discovered the remains of the early human ancestor, nicknamed “Lucy.” Doris and Harvey’s daughter, Jess, works in the museum’s finance department, and their son, Tim, is a genomics specialist at the University of Utah.

“I'm incredibly proud that I've spent my professional career with one singular institution,” Webster said. “My central thesis in museums is, it's not about your collections, it's not about your curatorial expertise, it's not about the genius of your interpreters or the extraordinary people that assemble your collections. It's about how you engage your audiences, because the point of it, whether you're an art museum or history museum or science center or whatever else, it's, you know, the gold standard is engagement. How are you using these tools to be able to engage your audiences and hopefully try and, you know, effect some change in them?”

During his tenure at CMNH, Webster brought several generations of Clevelanders up-close to bald eagles and barred owls. He was also the go-to expert for local news media when they needed explanations about the cloud of midges that swamped a Yankees relief pitcher at Progressive field or the nesting peregrine falcons on Terminal Tower.

Maintaining an appropriate social distance from a bobcat at CMNH's Perkins Wildlife Center

Though it’s frustrating to see the opinions of scientists disparaged by some politicians, Webster remains an optimist who has charted a steady path throughout his career.

“You know, we're going to change the world with one nature experience at a time, with one person at a time,” he said. “It's not going to be me on WCPN saying something that's just so silver tongued that everybody is going to change their thinking. That's not going to happen. But if we can create those opportunities for people, if we can try and connect some of the dots and let folks connect the rest of the dots.”

He thinks that connecting those dots helps people enjoy and appreciate the world around them.

“But then, coming from that enjoyment, appreciation, we have a much deeper sense of our obligation to it and our... calling to be better stewards of it," he said. 

And Harvey Webster said that’s a mission he'll never retire from.

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