Child of Wonder

Cristián Samper’s lifelong love of flora and fauna inspires creative new displays of the world’s largest collection

Kicking off the Festival
Kicking off the Festival, NASA Deputy Administrator, the Honorable Shana Dale, shares lunch with the Prince of Bhutan, HRH Prince Jigyel Ugyen Wangchuck, and the acting head of the Smithsonian Institution, Cristian Samper. Wikimedia Commons

From a young age, Cristián Samper felt little uncertainty about what he wanted to be when he grew up. Director since 2003 of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) and at age 39 the youngest person to lead the museum in its 100-year history, Dr. Samper has long been interested in animals and plants. As a boy living in Bogotá, Colombia, he wanted nothing so much as to collect or care for them. His father once gave him some butterfly specimens, including one stunning Morpho butterfly, an insect native to South America, with wings such a glittering shade of blue that he still remembers it vividly. "I was fascinated with them," Dr. Samper says. "I wondered where they lived and wanted to know everything about them." At age 15, he went on his first expedition to the Amazon rain forest, as a field assistant, and loved the experience. He has continued focusing on that region's flora and fauna and has conducted other research all over the world, from Alaska to South Africa.

Samper was born in Costa Rica, lived briefly in Chile and studied biology at the Universidad de los Andes, in Colombia, before getting both a master's and doctoral degree at Harvard. He now oversees the largest collection of any museum in the world, with more than 126 million specimens, which includes, certainly, several Morpho butterflies. He's guiding the NMNH at a time of great change, leading it into an era full of exciting developments, such as the Hall of Mammals, which opened in 2003; the Ocean Hall, scheduled for completion in summer 2008; and a future hall, the Hall of Human Origins, dedicated to the scientific quest to understand human evolution.

As a museum director and biologist, Dr. Samper is fully dedicated to teaching people about the diversity of life on earth and the integral role that humans play in that evolving drama. As he explains it, "We are the product of nature and we, in turn, have an impact on that nature." This notion of the interrelatedness of all life is as central to his scientific work as it is to the direction of the NMNH. Dr. Samper has specialized in the study of evolutionary ecology in the cloud forests in the Andes, documenting the diversity of species there and their relationship to each other. For instance, in the humid, high-altitude forests of La Planada, a Colombian nature reserve he first visited as a young field assistant, delicate orchids live as epiphytes on other plants.

Dr. Samper believes the NMNH must display its vast, highly esteemed collection in new and creative ways that emphasize the relationships between pieces of the collection and the scientific concepts that connect and explain them. This next generation of exhibitions will differ markedly from the way natural history museums have historically shown their collections—static exhibits featuring panels of text and related specimens behind glass. For the Ocean Hall, by contrast, the NMNH will bring together the scientific community's most current thinking about everything from the geology beneath the ocean's surface to the relationship between humans and the sea. The Ocean Hall, like the new Hall of Mammals, will also make extensive use of interactive technology, including live video feeds from field expeditions. Other state-of-the-art displays will introduce visitors to the scientific research being done at the museum and also keep the exhibits up-to-date. Visitors to the Hall of Mammals already can touch specimens, watch educational videos and play science-themed games.

Dr. Samper is committed to making the NMNH's exhibits much more than a showcase for the amazing collection. "This is not just preaching with panels," he says, "but rather giving people ways to explore this hall—and this world—by themselves, so that they will develop a whole new understanding of nature and our relationship with it."