People in your neighborhood: Holly Menninger

By Janet Wight

In January, Holly Menninger took the helm as executive director of the University of Minnesota’s Bell Museum after serving a brief stint as interim director of that natural history facility on Larpenteur Avenue.

In her new post, Menninger is charged with implementing the museum’s strategic plan, which includes deepening its service across the state.

“We want to make sure the Bell is accessible, and that everyone in the Twin Cities and beyond feels welcome coming through our doors,” she said.

To this end, the Bell will provide 15,000 science and nature kits to be used in social service organizations, libraries and schools throughout the state this year.

Menninger said she is especially proud of being producer for the planetarium production Secrets From a Forest.

“It is a beautiful story of a Stradivarius violin that has deep ties to nature,” she said. This well-received program will return to the Bell in mid-November.

Another new Bell Museum program is a partnership with indigenous communities to learn more about their traditional ecological and astronomical knowledge, Menninger said.

Menninger’s new role at the Bell Museum has been several years in the making.

Prior to moving to Minnesota six years ago, she was the director of public science at North Carolina State University.

Menninger, who grew up in Cincinnati, landed a position at the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History in a program designed for teens interested in science called LABRATS (Learning About Biodiversity Research and Teaching Science). This was her first real job and provided a wealth of experiences including greeting visitors, leading hands-on activities, giving presentations and even supervising birthday parties.

These roles helped Menninger gain confidence in public speaking and engaging with people despite her shy nature at the time, she said.

Fascinated by science and research, Menninger pursued a degree in biology. Initially, she had no intention of working in a museum, and instead envisioned a career as a professor at a small college.

However, Menninger’s future plans dramatically changed in 2004 due to the emergence of cicada brood X. This was the beginning of social media and the 24-hour news cycle, and there was a media frenzy surrounding the emerging insects.

As a doctoral student at the University of Maryland, Menninger was tapped to do a live interview on CNN to discuss the omnipresent cicadas, followed by many additional television appearances. During this time, she realized she relished the opportunity to connect people to science.

“That was the pivot point: to focus on public audiences in various dimensions and thinking about how we can use science and nature to help make people’s lives better,” she said.

Menninger was evaluating new career opportunities when she decided to pursue a position at a university-based museum. This appealed to her since museums have a special role to play as bridges to the wider community. Working at the Bell gave her the ideal opportunity to help connect scientists and the public, which would emerge as her professional sweet spot, she said.

Building things also interests Menninger, and she has often been the first person in specific roles. She enjoys being part of something new, and her first position at the Bell was fittingly in a newly-created job in a brand new facility.

Outside of her job, Menninger is active in the community, volunteering at Falcon Heights Elementary School in several capacities. She is the co-leader for Family Service Night, an annual event which allows students and family members to complete service projects that promote equity, increase awareness and benefit local non-profit organizations.

In her personal time, Menninger enjoys canning. Menninger’s specialties include tomato and strawberry jams along with dilly beans. She also enjoys knitting baby hats when she has some spare time. 

Janet Wight lives in the Como neighborhood and is a regular Bugle freelance writer.

Photo Credit: Holly Menninger, executive director of the Bell Museum. Photo by Sarah Karnas.

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