CU Museum of Natural History Director Riding High on Success of New California Academy of Sciences Museum

Published: Oct. 27, 2008

Before he came to the University of Colorado at Boulder, Patrick Kociolek spent a decade working to increase slumping attendance at the California Academy of Sciences, located in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park.

By just about any measure, Kociolek and his colleagues succeeded in the endeavor, which involved tearing down the 11 buildings of the old museum and building a new structure that is both LEED Platinum certified and described as an engineering wonder. On Sept. 27, opening day at the new museum, the crowd began to gather at 5 a.m. By opening time at 10 a.m. the line was already a mile long.

"By 1 p.m., if you weren't in line, you weren't going to get in before closing at 9," says Kociolek with a smile.

Kociolek, formerly executive director of the California Academy of Sciences, was named director of the CU Museum of Natural History in May after a national search. He also is a professor in CU-Boulder's department of ecology and evolutionary biology.

During his time at the California Academy of Sciences, the fourth largest natural history museum in the United States, Kociolek played an integral role in the planning process for the Academy's rebuilding project, a landmark in environmentally responsible museum design. He led outreach initiatives to the diverse audiences of the San Francisco Bay Area and also is an internationally known expert on diatoms, a type of microscopic algae.

For most natural history museums, the idea of having to turn away customers is nothing more than a fantasy, something Kociolek attributes to the stagnant nature of these aging facilities.

"We had seen a 20-year decline in attendance," says Kociolek. "We did an analysis of other natural history museums around the country and found it was the median. I posed the question, 'What is a museum in the 21st century like?' "

The most basic answer to that question was that a modern museum is nothing like an old one. This meant the California Academy of Sciences, a San Francisco landmark, would have to go. It wasn't a decision Kociolek and his colleagues made lightly.

"We took this beloved institution and tore it down," says Kociolek. "We had to hit a home run."

The next step was to rethink the nature of science and how to most effectively exhibit it to the public.

"In the old style of natural history museums, you'd have a scientist in his office working his entire career building this huge monograph," he said. "It would be everything you ever wanted to know about a subject, then a diorama would be built, go on display and stay there for 40 years. It ends up being like a museum within a museum."

Scientists and museum directors alike now realize this style of museum no longer serves the interests of the public or the scientific community.

"Science isn't about creating dogma, it's about challenging dogma," says Kociolek. "How do you create a place that lends itself to change? Form needs to support function, not form dictating function."

Kociolek hopes to bring everything he learned in San Francisco and more to his new job at CU-Boulder and the CU Museum of Natural History, located in the Henderson Building, the Bruce Curtis Building and the Clare Small Arts and Sciences Building.

"This campus has unbelievable resources that a free-standing museum doesn't," says Kociolek. "When people think of great university-based natural history museums, we should be in that elite group. The CU Museum has the opportunity to be the front door of the university to the community -- to bring the world to Boulder, and Boulder to the world."

Kociolek hopes to help change what a natural history museum means in the university context and to build and strengthen relationships between the museum and campus departments and the student body.

"How do you relate the museum to the campus, to the different schools and departments?" says Kociolek. "We have a great opportunity to rethink that programmatically."

The CU Museum has four million objects and specimens, from dinosaur skeletons to early bone tools, pottery, sandals and art from early southwestern Pueblo settlements.

Stein Sture, vice chancellor for research and dean of the CU-Boulder Graduate School, says the university is lucky to have an administrator and researcher like Kociolek at the museum.

"Dr. Kociolek's credentials as a museum administrator, researcher and educator are outstanding, and we are very excited to have him join us," said Sture. "He is one of the best diatom taxonomists in the world, and he is a leader in bringing systematic and evolution concepts to diatom biology."

Kociolek also looks forward to the opportunity to train the next generation of diatomists. "Diatoms -- this group of organisms we can't see -- provide more oxygen than all other plants on earth," he said. "They can tell us a lot about the health of our environment. But we know very little now about how many species there are and how they're related."

Kociolek earned his doctorate in natural resources from the University of Michigan and brings 25 years of museum, teaching, and research experience to the directorship. He has edited five books and published more than 125 peer-reviewed articles on diatoms. He is a board member-at-large of the American Association of Museums.

For more information on the CU Museum of Natural History visit the Web site at For more information on the California Academy of Sciences visit