George Sparks, SM '76
Steering a mile-high science museum
Working as president and CEO of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science seems like a job tailored for George Sparks. “It was almost like my whole life had been designed to prepare me for this,” he says.
Sparks studied aeronautical engineering at the United States Air Force Academy before earning his master’s in aeronautics and astronautics at MIT. Then he worked in management at Hewlett-Packard and its spinoff, Agilent, and served on local and regional education boards on the side.
When he arrived at the museum, in 2004, he was primed. His science background allows him to work closely with the 15 PhD curators, who are all doing scientific research. He’s also skilled at transcending the museum’s physical walls to pursue connections in classrooms and the digital world. And he is a dogged fund-raiser and a principled leader.
“[Recently] I went back in our collections with the anthropology department and looked at objects that had been nefariously taken from Africa years ago, brought to the U.S., and sold. We need to repatriate them,” Sparks says. “That’s the kind of thing you deal with every day.”
Another challenge is building meaningful relationships with a public that has many more sources of information and entertainment.
“Traditionally, we would hire a bunch of young folks, give them Tupperware containers full of scientific gizmos, and send them around to the schools,” Sparks explains. “Or we would go out to the K-T boundary, about 45 miles away, and have museum scientists field questions from students via satellite,” he says, referring to a line visible in layers of sediment at sites around the world that marks the division between the age of dinosaurs and the age of mammals. “We’d do that 12 times a year, maybe. How do we make connections 12,000 times a year?”
Sparks suspects that iPad and mobile-phone content will play an increasing role in museum outreach. “I’m a total Apple fanboy,” he confesses. “Also Nikon and Photoshop. Photography is my passion.”
In addition to his work at the museum, Sparks sits on several education and leadership boards, pursues his interest in photography, and listens to music–he’s crazy about pop icon Lady Gaga. He and Karyn, his wife of 40 years, have a daughter, two sons, and one grandchild.