“Success breeds success, and when people start seeing you can deliver great exhibitions, it inspires other donors,” Samper, 46, said. “A good idea that is presented in the right way at the right time to the right person can mobilize resources.”
Samper, who left Tuesday to head the Wildlife Conservation Society headquartered at New York’s Bronx Zoo, had a long list of accomplishments: renovations to two-thirds of the museum’s exhibits, increased fellowships and research money for scientists, and helped launch and lead the global Encyclopedia of Life project to document all life on Earth.
But in the week before leaving the museum he’d headed since 2003, he talked about some of the intangibles of his term — boosting morale, nurturing creativity, and vision. Samper has a long view of what it takes to steady an institution and move it to a higher place; it shakes out as a meditation on leadership.
Samper, an international expert on conservation biology and environmental policy, studied biology at the Universidad de Los Andes in Bogota and received his master’s and doctorate in biology at Harvard. In 1995, he founded the Alexander von Humboldt Institute for national biodiversity research in Colombia and later became deputy director at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. He was acting secretary of the Smithsonian from March 2007 until July 2008.
“He was so transparent people felt they were getting the straight story,” said Roger Sant, a Smithsonian regent who is also vice chair of the museum’s advisory board. “He was open to admitting mistakes and celebrating success.”
“He fostered an atmosphere where people were coming to him” with ideas, “and he ran with them. He made them real,” Sant said. “His ability to get things to happen is remarkable.”
Reached at an excavation in Nairobi, Rick Potts, director of the Smithsonian’s Human Origins Program, said Samper integrated the science, exhibition and public education missions of the museum. “In many of those areas we, frankly, were a bit in the doldrums.” Samper “put our science under a magnifying glass for the entire world to see. He increased greatly the number of postdoctoral fellows, and fresh air coming through. It’s the intellectual wind that keeps even the older scientist on their toes.”
Samper is also a board member of the American Association of Museums. There are more than 17,000 museums in the United States, most local, “and some are clearly in trouble,” he said. The model of some public funding combined with gifts from wealthy donors has made a number of institutions vulnerable to the vagaries of recession. In some cases, business people have been brought in to help turn around the fortunes of these institutions, and Samper said while that can work, “all in all, I do favor having someone who has experience in the subject matter,” because it often means an interest and a passion that translates into an ability to identify priorities.