Whitson comes to Kidsenses

Feb. 16, 2014 @ 07:07 AM

Willard Whitson is the new executive director of Kidsenses Children's Interactive Museum in Rutherfordton. He is replacing former director Jessica Moss who left in August to become the director of development with the American Heart Association. 

Whitson is originally from Birmingham, Ala. where he got his undergraduate degree in fine arts and began his career at the Red Mountain Museum where he worked as an illustrator. 

"I call it my accidental career. My intention was to be an art teacher and an artist, which I was for a number of years. I attempted to support myself as an artist by selling some paintings and that turned out to be an unwise career choice," Whitson said. "So I took a job as an illustrator in a small, natural history museum in Birmingham, the focus of which was primarily geology and paleontology, and I loved it. A year later I was running the exhibits program there and the rest is history." 

From Birmingham, he moved to New York and worked at the American Museum of Natural History for 12 years. 

"That was a wonderful experience. I got to work with all kinds of great scientists and wonderful artifacts," Whitson said. "I did exhibits on dinosaurs, Leonardo da Vinci and halls of human evolution. It was really just a life-changing experience." 

He then moved to Philadelphia to head the exhibits program at the Academy of Natural Sciences Museum for eight years until he was introduced to the world of children's museums by accepting a job as the vice president of the Please Touch Museum, also in Philadelphia. 

His most recent job was as president and CEO of the National Children's Museum in Washington D.C. While working there, he saw an ad for the job opening at Kidsenses. 

"We had recently opened the National Children's Museum and that project was underway and I'm originally from the south so the idea of heading back, given the warmer climates, seemed appealing. Getting back to my roots seemed like a good idea," Whitson said. "I like the idea of a real community-based organization that has filled a real community need. My wife and I were looking for a place to settle so it seemed wonderful." 

Whitson said he enjoys working at children's museums because he likes inspiring young learners. He said that children are crippled if they aren't given a chance to learn through play at an early age. 

"Kids are naturally creative and they're also naturally inquisitive. But we live in such an incredibly structured environment and certainly a very structured educational environment that the opportunity to learn through play is not always available," Whitson said. "All of us in the children's museum field think learning through play is critical to the healthy development of every individual. Play is the work of childhood and there's a lot of learning that goes on in open-ended child-directed play, which is really what we promote here." 

As the executive director Whitson's main duty is to be the chief fundraiser and make sure the museum continues to receive income from earned and contributed areas. The earned revenue comes from admission and programs and the contributed revenue comes from grants, corporations and individuals. 

"The main thing I have to do is ensure the museum's mission is being served. Even though we are a not-for-profit business, we are still a business. the critical thing that has to be done is we have to sustain ourselves," Whitson said. "Contributed income is really where I come in and work in concert with the board of directors and staff members. It's really ensuring that we have a healthy roster of grants and contributed income. I'm the principal spokesperson for the museum and I want to get the word out that we're a wonderful resource." 

Whitson said he is looking forward to finding ways to help the museum grow and hopefully adding more programming. 

"What that means I'm not entirely sure yet. We do such rich programming here, I would like us long range to develop additional program space. We are a little cramped here," Whitson said. "Whether it's an additional building or reconfiguring this space, I'm not sure yet." 

Whitson said he is also looking forward to working with Joseph Knight, education director at the museum, to continue to inspire young learners through a focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education. 

"Willard brings a wealth of experience to Kidsenses and I think he's going to do a great job leading our museum into the next decade," Knight said. "Willard understands the philosophy behind the children's museum and it was vital in our search for an executive director to find someone who understands our mission and values. I feel like having someone at the helm of that much experience and so much passion for the museum will really help us take Kidsenses to the next level." 

The museum will be holding a special reception for the public to meet Whitson on Thursday, Feb. 20 from 5:30-7 p.m. Everyone is invited.