Children's Museum Director Looks Ahead to New Opportunities

Normal's Cultural Arts Director Beth Whisman demonstrates a favorite pose among visitors to the new entryway at the Children's Discovery Museum.

Normal's Cultural Arts Director Beth Whisman demonstrates a favorite pose among visitors to the new entryway at the Children's Discovery Museum.

Over the last thirteen years the Children’s Discovery Museum (CDM) has helped make Uptown Normal a destination for residents and visitors alike.

Last month the Town of Normal hired Beth Whisman to run its Cultural Arts department, which was created in 2016 to highlight the Town’s cultural assets, specifically the CDM and the historic Normal Theater.

Among other responsibilities, Whisman is charged with making sure the museum stays relevant for the next generation. Just two weeks into her new role, Whisman helped the museum unveil a new logo and updated entryway. The change is a first step toward keeping the museum top-of-mind for families.

Today around 1,700 member households support the museum, which has seen approximately 1.7 million total visitors since it opened. That number is expected to hit two million in the next few of years.

While Whisman looks forward to celebrating the milestone, she’s also thinking about the museum’s capital needs. Whisman said she is looking forward to working with the CDM Foundation that helps fundraise for larger installations. Some current exhibits are in need of an update; others could give way to entirely new exhibits.

The idea needs more exploring; for now Whisman is busy learning the ins and outs of the Town’s administration. Leading a municipal department is different from her previous position as Executive Director of the McLean County Museum of History--but she says that’s what she was looking for in the move.

Whisman saw it as an opportunity to play a greater role in shaping the community she’s called home for nearly 20 years. She first got to know Bloomington-Normal when she worked as a journalist with WJBC radio. After 14 years in the news industry, Whisman needed a change.

“I left a lot of hot meals on tables in restaurants during severe weather coverage or breaking news. It was a lifestyle and I decided that wasn’t what I wanted to do anymore.”

In 2013, former McLean County Museum of History Director Greg Koos offered her a position as the museum’s director of development. After helping the museum mount a successful capital campaign, Whisman took over as Executive Director.

Whisman said she’d hoped to be with the history museum longer than her five-year career. “But then this position opened up and those things don’t happen often.”

Moving from an independent, nonprofit-owned museum to a Town-owned museum and theater means Whisman can take a more direct leadership approach.  

“Instead of being one of many voices, I get to be at the leadership table making some of those decisions.”

As for what those decisions might look like, Whisman isn’t exactly sure. She does know that, much like her previous role, strengthening partnerships in and outside the community will be vital moving forward.

Whisman pointed to the Town’s efforts working with business owners to market Uptown as an entertainment destination for residents and visitors.

"I hear people say, ‘Let’s just go to Uptown.’ They’ll park their car and once they’re here they’ll figure out what they want to do.”

For many families that means spending time at the children's museum, grabbing frozen treats at Emack and Bolio’s and playing in the roundabout green space.

“It’s an experience beyond any one stopping point,” Whisman said.

Events like the Town’s Make Music Normal festival bring Uptown partners together to attract new entertainment from outside Bloomington-Normal.

Whisman also sees the larger Twin Cities community as a landscape ripe with opportunities for collaboration. “[Bloomington and Normal] both have unique cultural, retail, food and entertainment experiences, and they should play off each other very successfully...We should be bragging about each other.”

Whisman said what she first saw as a career change turned out to be pretty familiar territory. “In the end it’s connecting people with resources, staying connected and just being part of the community.”