Robert’s native habitat was originally Washington DC and its environs. In his search for wholeness and education, his love of cooking, and gainful employment, he has roamed from DC to California and back again, then on to Indiana, briefly to Chicago, and finally here, to the Twin Cities, where he has frequently been sighted playing basketball with locals half his age. Along the way, Robert met and married Sue Koch and they have a son, Isaac, currently a sophomore at Carleton.
Robert himself works at Science Museum of Minnesota, where he leads teams that develop and design exhibits, most recently, an exhibit for the San Diego Museum of Natural History on the native habitats of Southern California, a subject Robert did not know well at the start, but does now. As I do him. In fact, his enthusiasm for his work is infectious. Learn more.
With deference to the San Diego website, the Twin Cities are known for their diverse opportunities, including the incredibly successful Science Museum, as well as our “welcoming and vibrant” Mount Zion community. These local resources, and the availability of plentiful Asian food, have led Robert and Sue to forgo further migration and remain here for the past 23 years. During your visit below, you will explore aspects from Robert’s rich past, his successful present, and his optimistic future.
Together, these excerpts will form a permanent exhibit, telling the story of one Jewish guy from Mount Zion. We hope you enjoy.
Let’s start off with your father’s family.
We were a third generation family in DC. A lot of people think of DC as a transient place, but there are actually a lot of natives. My great grandfather came to this country at about the turn of the century. He started in New York, but then set up in DC, and was instrumental in starting Adas Israel (a large, influential conservative synagogue in DC). And after him, my grandfather was involved for a long time. In fact he was the first Man of the Year when Adas Israel started that award, in 1978 or so. I remember that. He died a few years later.
And how about your mother’s family?
My mom is from Richmond, Virginia, and she was an only child but her mom was one of eight, so there’s a big family in Richmond. She was close to all her cousins. There is still a significant Jewish population in Richmond, and we still have mishpacha there.
Those are two interesting cities to have come from. Was there ever any tension between family in DC and family in Richmond?
There was a different tone, that’s for sure. But Washington, while it was the center of the Union, in many ways it was a southern town. And it was one of the later cities to integrate. So there was no tension in terms of being Jewish, but there was racism throughout.
I grew up in an integrated neighborhood, though the cynics tend to view ‘integrated’ as the time between when the first black family moves in and the last white family moves out. But I actually lived in a neighborhood that became and stayed integrated. It was a unique place, in Silver Spring, Maryland. I went to an elementary school that was essentially half black and half white.
We went to a Conservative congregation, and I became a bar mitzvah, but I did something that was unique. I had my bar mitzvah on a Saturday evening. I’ve never heard of anyone else doing that. I was going to private school and I couldn’t get to Hebrew school, so I had private lessons with the Cantor. I didn’t read a Torah portion, or have a D’var Torah, but I led the whole Havdallah service.
What about your later years in school?
I went to prep school for junior high, at an all-boys school. It was an interesting and good experience. I learned a lot about academics there. Though it was mostly at that school that I first experienced anti-Semitism. There were kids who had basically never met a Jew, and there were a few of us there, but we were never really threatened by it. I just felt that they were fools. Then I went back to public high school, and onto the University of Maryland, nearby, though that was not my favorite time of life.
And where did you go from Maryland?
Right after college, for a year, some friends and I started a restaurant, in Truckee, California. It was called Erik’s at Hilltop Lodge. It was incredibly hard but a very empowering and rewarding year.
It was an international place–we had a Chinese dish, and an Italian dish, and a handcut steak, and a Belgian beef stew. We covered the globe – Mexican enchiladas. This was in 1980 and ’81. My friend David was actually going to be the main cook, but he hurt his knee and he couldn’t. So that is actually where I learned to cook, and I still love cooking. Erik’s closed after a year. It was doomed by undercapitalization, but it was a great experience.
You had asked if I had any nicknames. My family does not like nicknames. When they named me Robert, it’s because they wanted to call me Robert. So my name is not Bob. And when I was at the restaurant that year I would introduce myself as Robert all year long, and salespeople and customers would then turn around and address me as Bob. And I would say “my name is not Bob, its Robert.” And so one of my partners started calling me “Not-Bob”. That’s about the only nickname that’s ever stuck.
What are the stepping stones toward your career now?
After the restaurant closed, I came back to DC and spent my 20s working in arts administration and doing some media work.
My degree had been in English, you know, preparation for nothing – and everything. But I did learn how to write, so it proved to be a valuable experience. I worked for the National Endowment for the Arts, then a private company doing slide shows and videos, in the architecture and design fields.
And as I started thinking about graduate school, I was working for a congressional agency, in technology assessment, and that’s where I met Sue. She worked there as well.
So I decided to get a graduate degree, and I did a Masters at Indiana University, about ten years after getting my undergrad. It was in Educational Technology, and Sue was nice enough to follow me to Indiana. We got married while we were living Indiana, but we were actually married outside of DC. My Dad had been ill for many years, and if he was going to be at the wedding it needed to be there.
We were in Indiana for two years, and as I was finishing up, I had read about a museum internship that came across the graduate school wire, at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. And I told Sue that that was really exciting but I knew that I needed to get a job. But she said, if you really want to do that we should check that out, so I ended up doing a three month internship in Chicago, while she stayed in Indiana.
And then I got the museum bug, and started applying to museums and was fortunate enough to get the job here at the Science Museum. We moved here in November of ’92. The internship in Chicago really turned me on to museum work. I started out here by developing exhibits, and haven’t moved very far, though now I lead teams that develop exhibits, as Project Leader.
What does that entail? Do you actually go out and build the thing?
My side is conceptual, planning and research. We try to decide what would we want to convey about a given topic. And then I work with lots of talented people that can develop the kinds of experiences that we need to convey it. Museums are interesting places because you can’t compel people to stay in their seats, or follow your curriculum. You have to essentially entice them into the tent and create experiences that allow them to think about something, or learn something about themselves. It can take a deft hand to create engaging experiences, and that’s the part that I like to think about, and to work with people to design and build.
So I have three questions for you. What is your current exhibit, what has been your favorite exhibit, and what exhibit would most like to do someday?
For my current exhibit, I just finished a project working with the San Diego museum. We often partner with other museums, so we just completed a project that took a couple years, a major installation on the natural habitats of southern California.
One of the things that I love about my work is that I get to do something wildly different every couple years. I didn’t know anything about the habitats of southern California, but I started working on this with them, and now I’m proud of it. It opened in January.
The Science Museum has a great reputation in the museum field. A lot of museums used to have shops and do their own stuff, but most those have dried up, and we are one of the few that have remained. So we do our own projects, and we might partner with people on some, but sometimes we just do work that is essentially contract work. They value our expertise. So that would be the San Diego project. And I tend to work on things that travel, so most of my work is out and about, more than it is here.
And as for my favorite exhibit, that would be the Race exhibit that we’re actually bringing back to Minnesota in about six months. That was a thrilling project, a highlight. It has had a huge impact at about 50 museums and communities around the country. People have really been able to use it to think about race – what race means and how it works in their community. Many communities have found that the exhibit helps them think about race relations in ways that diversity training could never do. So I’m proud of that project. The Race exhibit was built to travel, and it was so popular that we ended up building two copies, so there have been three versions traveling around the country, for the last 7 or 8 years.
It was really was an honor to work on that project and I continue to grow from that experience. And I look for more opportunities to work on eliminating racism, it’s something I’m passionate about.
And the exhibit you would like to do?
I would like to continue to do exhibits that are about social issues, more than about scientific issues per se, though science has something to say about most of the issues of the day. For instance, one of the things I’ve thought a lot about is doing an exhibit about addiction. Which I think would be interesting, and popular in the sense that many people are touched by addiction, whether it’s their own, or other peoples. Because it’s a difficult thing to talk about, and it would be great to bring that out and talk about it in the public sphere. Like the museum does. It gives people a chance to think about it.
What would it take? The main thing would be to craft funding. A typical large exhibit would cost about three and a half million bucks to put together. They are mostly funded by grants.
But these museums, these third places, can take a lot of the shame out of topics that are otherwise more difficult for people to share in a public way. So that’s one I’d love to do.