6 Questions for New Arizona Museum of Natural History Director
Bringing nearly three decades of museum experience across three continents, Simon Tipene Adlam is the new director of the Arizona Museum of Natural History.
Originally from New Zealand, Tipene Adlam comes to Mesa by way of Los Angeles, where he served at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County in various roles, including creative director and director of exhibitions. Of Māori descent, he also recently led Haimona, an indigenous think tank that brought social programming to cultural institutions.
Seeking out and engaging people will be an important first step to creating a museum experience that leads to great community outcomes. “We really have to think about how we engage all communities and what that means,” he says.
What attracted you to this position—and to Arizona?
I love natural history museums, the mission and the focus of what they achieve for our community. It’s a passion for me. I’ve worked in many different types of museums, but I think the best work for our communities happens in natural history museums. Natural history museums are fantastic because they normally combine a scientific and a cultural conversation. It’s normally based on research by active scientists from a paleontological point of view and also from a cultural, anthropological point of view. They tell us the way we have lived in the past, how we’ve behaved in our environments, how we’ve worked together as groups of communities and how we’ve responded to our environment over hundreds of thousands of years. That unlocks great conversations about our future and where we’re going as a community. So, there’s a lot of great work in these museums that’s applicable to our daily lives.
And, with Arizona, I’ve spent a lot of time in Arizona over the past 30 years— a lot of the time on vacation, sometimes for work—and I have this natural affinity for the region. When this opportunity came up, it was a win-win for me.
You’re of Māori descent and ran Haimona, a New Zealand-based indigenous think tank that brought social impact programming to cultural institutions. How will you apply those experiences to engage indigenous people here?
I think that is actually the question of our time for museums. It builds on the inclusion, diversity and equity conversation. I just got back from New Zealand, and we’re having the same conversations with other Māori leaders within the cultural sector. How do we create change, and how do we create new dialogues within ourselves?
With Haimona, I tried to create a new lens to see cultural leadership within the arts and cultural sector—meaning trying to come up with ways to equip younger museum and arts sector professionals with the skills to rethink their practice.
We really have to think about how we engage all communities and what that means. We have to rethink the invitation, and we have to ask really important questions, such as, ‘who is the quietest person in the room? How do we get them to engage?’ Or even better, we ask them how they would like to engage with us. We have to search out the quietest people within our communities and ask them what we mean to them and what we can do for them. That’s a very different approach to museums and the way that we normally approach things. So, I’ll be looking to really foster this idea of the invitation, spending a lot of time in our community searching out all of the groups that are underrepresented within our city and the greater metropolitan area of Phoenix, and asking them to engage with us and asking them what this museum means to them.
That’s very much a Māori approach. You have to create the space, which is that invitation, and then you have to invite people in.
What’s your vision for the future of the museum?
I was lucky enough to come to the museum before the opportunity arose. I walked into the museum going, ‘This is a fantastic museum.’ It’s got so many great stories and experiences. Then, I talked to two of the most important groups at the museum: the docents and the families. They absolutely love this museum; that’s what won me over.
This museum is clearly at a point of transformation. It has the commitment of the city as a cultural asset, in the big sense of it, seeing it as a major player in the cultural network and a driver to the city of Mesa and the region itself, which is really important for any museum to have that basis of support behind it.
Moving forward, I would like to see this museum as a key cultural player within the region itself, so from Denver to L.A., it is another major natural history museum doing great research, great programming, but, even more importantly, great outcomes for all of our communities. I want to see measurable metrics whereby we have better experiences, people learn more, they’re engaged more, we create pathways for success for all levels of our audience.
The question is how do we get to this point where suddenly people say, ‘I took my grandson to the museum and now he wants to be an astronaut,’ or ‘I took my daughter to the museum and now she wants to be a genetic engineer.’ How do we get to the point of changing people’s lives like that?
To get there, we have to start with deep listening, then we’ll get to this strategic planning place, and then we’ll get to a place of physical transformation.
You’ve now worked across three continents, which brings incredible perspective. What’s done well at museums here in America—and what are some things we could learn?
I think we create the best museums in the world, hands down. When it comes to the museum sector, a lot of the world looks to us. Something I love about Mesa is we’re the first Autism Certified City in the United States. There are all these great labels helping parents of people who are on the spectrum to navigate this environment. That meant a lot to me because my nephew is on the spectrum. That’s a first; I haven’t seen it anywhere else in the world. In the U.S., we’re always pushing the limit and pushing it forward. This stuff here in Mesa is really important because it’s about equity; it’s about creating environments that allow everybody to engage.
When I worked in a Muslim society and business environment, I learned to just listen. You really had to rethink your cultural perspective about the mission you’re delivering and putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. That was a really key part of it. So, thinking outside the box and rethinking engagement is a thing I bring back to Arizona. That’s the part that I look forward to doing.
How would you describe the arts and culture scene here in Arizona?
I’ve always been a tourist in the state of Arizona. As I’ve gotten more engaged in the cultural sector, the more I’ve found out, the more I’ve been like, ‘Wow.’ There are so many cultural assets within the region that I’m really looking forward to engaging and being part of that community. I can remember as a kid when I went out to Taliesin West. That was phenomenal; I was a huge architecture junkie. That was my first experience connecting with Arizona.
I love this programming that’s happening within the city of Mesa. When you look at the city, their commitment to the cultural sector is outstanding. They’re really committing to all parts of the community being involved in this dialogue. If that’s just one city, I cannot wait to see the rest.
Who’s an Arizona-based arts and cultural leader that you admire?
Mesa Arts Center is this world-class, phenomenal performance center with these amazing studios completely driven by the community for the community. Its executive director, Cindy Ornstein, is phenomenal. When I was interviewing, the more I found out about her civic and cultural leadership with the arts center, the programming and the outreach and who it connects with, it was really compelling—especially when describing the kind of outreach programs the city does to try to engage those people who would never engage in performing and creative arts.
As a museum professional, I know that’s really difficult to do. In order to create positive outcomes and change, you have to be authentic in who you are and what you’re doing. Cindy is one of these people who is passionate about delivering the mission to as many people as possible, and specific to those who normally wouldn’t access it at all, and putting those connections together to build a stronger community for all of us.
I look forward to unearthing and discovering all of that great leadership and all of that great thinking within the region.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and space.