Cleveland Museum of Natural History's Visitor Hall 'the family room of Northeast Ohio'

Oct. 20—If you've been to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History in the last few days, you've seen it.

The institution on Wade Oval Drive in University Circle reopened to the general public on Oct. 15, after being closed for several weeks, with its new Visitor Hall as the big new draw.

A major component of the ongoing transformation and expansion of CMNH, it is a light-and-airy 14,650-square-foot space with 21-foot ceilings that's home to objects that are synonymous with the museum. And, unlike with much of the rest of the museum, the space requires no admission cost.

"This is a 20-year-dream that is coming together," said Sonia Winner, CMNH president and CEO, during an interview at a media event on Oct. 13.

As she suggests, the museum makeover is two decades in the making, but plans were refined a few years ago, with a $150 million budget for the entire project set. She said the effort is two years ahead of schedule, with completion now set for December 2024, and estimated to come in under budget — at about $131 million.

"We're really proud of that," she said.

'Mummies of the World' opens The Corner Gallery at Playhouse Square

Not surprisingly, given the, well, nature of the museum she leads, talks about the updates, including the Visitor Hall, are in terms of "evolution" and "moving forward."

"This is a milestone in the museum's history," Winner said.

"The first 100 years were amazing," she continued, referring to its earliest days in 1920. "The founders always talked about the diffusion of knowledge and how knowledge is to (be shared). I think that this space aligns with our mission. We're going to (have) more of a community space."

A couple of major exhibit spaces — one at each end of the Visitor Hall — remain closed for renovations, but among the experiences admission-paying visitors can enjoy presently, according to a news release, are the "reimagined" Smead Discovery Center, encouraging hands-on learning by children; live astronomy presentation in the "world-class" Nathan and Fannye Shafran Planetarium, boasting Digistar 7 software, updated seating and 3-D movies from D3D Cinema; Birdly, a full-body, immersive virtual-reality flight-simulator ($5 per ride); and the Ralph Perkins II Wildlife Center & Woods Garden, featuring rotating exhibits that "highlight the intersection of art and nature."

That this isn't your grandfather's Cleveland Museum of Natural History has been apparent for a little while now thanks to its drastically updated front on Wade Oval.

"I think that the front of the building kind of looked like a dentist's office — affectionately," Winner said.

She stressed the overall transformation has been done with input from many.

"One thing (about the pandemic) that was to our advantage: We could have 90 people on a call talking about (it), so no one is going to be able to say, 'I wasn't a part of this,'" she said. "We did a community-listening project. We did all of these things to make sure that what we were building was right for our museum."

Once inside the Visitor Hall, guests will encounter the aforementioned "iconic" artifacts and subject matters that will be familiar to longtime visitors.

You immediately notice the holotype specimen of a huge sauropod, Haplocanthosaurus delfsi, affectionately known as "Happy," remounted to reflect updated information about how the dinosaur was likely to have held its tail above the ground. Happy was discovered by a CMNH team in 1954 in Red Canyon, Colorado, according to the news release, and is incorporated into the museum's centennial logo, unveiled in 2019.

Of course, space here also is devoted to Lucy, the 3.2-million-year-old partial fossil skeleton of the species Australopithecus afarensis, discovered by Dr. Donald Johanson, a former curator at the museum, in 1974 in Ethiopia.

Balto, the famed sled dog, also gets his due.

On the floor, you can follow a timeline reflecting milestones in the history of the universe.

The museum's exhibit spaces, the Visitor Hall included, are in the hands of Gallagher & Associates, and its president, Peter Gallagher, said those choices were made after receiving audience feedback.

Overall, he said, his firm took a different approach with CMNH.

"Natural history museums are typically a chronological march through time," he said. "Clearly, time's important here, but what we really wanted to do was to get people to understand what the Earth's processes were. And earth processes — it's important for people to understand they're a part of that ... and to get them to understand their impact on the planet today. We're really getting the next generation to think more empathetically and more powerfully about their role in protecting the planet."

Meanwhile, the design of the new space itself is the work of Cleveland-based DLR Group. As with Gallagher, Paul Westlake, senior principal and global sector leader for culture and performing arts, attended the media event and said the overall design took inspiration from glaciers — so important in the course of the planet's natural history, affecting water systems, vegetation and more — and went so far as to call its color palette "icy."

Don't take that to mean it isn't welcoming, with its open, less-is-more aesthetic and expansive views out into the Thelma and Kent H. Smith Environmental Courtyard — and thus natural light flowing back into the Visitor Hall.

"We saw this as a space that can have a gala or a wedding for 250 people," Westlake said. "We thought of creating what I call 'the family room of Northeast Ohio' (and) the social heart of the museum."

Asked if Winner felt the transformation is bringing CMNH up to the standards of other renowned Cleveland institutions, such as the nearby Cleveland Museum of Art, she took the conversation in a different direction.

"We're a top-10 museum of its kind in the country, (and) many Clevelanders don't know that — we should always be proud of that," she said. "We're so proud to be here in University Circle and to have our neighbors and friends doing well. We're not competing with the institutions in the city. I'm competing with institutions in other cities."

As the museum becomes more modern, the goal remains the same: bringing science to the people, and it's something all the scientists recruited to work there understand, she said.

That mission continues at a time when, according to Winner, research suggests people both want to know more about science but also are distrustful of information from news sources and social media.

"Science is always changing — that's the challenging part," Winner said. "But we have the objects to tell the story of life."

Cleveland Museum of Natural History

Where: One Wade Oval Drive.

Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.

Admission: Adult (19 and older), $10; senior (60 and older), &7; youth (3 through 18), $7; toddler (2 and younger), free.

Info: 216-231-4600 or