By Dave Sorter
A common theme emerges when Nicole Small talks about the new Perot Museum of Nature and Science, of which she is executive director.
“We want to inspire the next generation of Nobel laureates,” said Small, CEO of the $185 million, 180,000-square-foot Victory Park museum that opened Dec. 1. “I was part of a team, and our goal is to ‘inspire minds through nature and science.’”
The opening of the four-story Perot Museum at the northwest corner of Field Street and Woodall Rodgers Expressway was a definite milestone for Small, 39, the daughter of Dr. Charles Ginsburg, senior associate dean at UT-Southwestern Medical Center and a pediatrician. That marked an 11½-year journey that saw three museums combine into one in a new building that had The New York Times’ museum critic’s jaw drop and The Dallas Morning News list Small as one of its Texan of the Year finalists.
Small was named president of the Dallas Museum of Natural History in 2001, two years after receiving a Master of Business Administration from Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and after spending one year in San Francisco. She and her new husband, Justin, moved back to Dallas, and the museum job felt like the thing to do.
“I grew up in a house where my father was a pediatrician and my (late) mom was a full-time volunteer,” she said, adding that her family attended Temple Emanu-El, where her two daughters, ages 4 and 7, went through preschool. “I was exposed at a very young age to volunteerism, I met Nobel Prize winners when I was very young,” so she knew the importance of both science and community service.
The kicker came when her husband — who is connected with Congregation Shearith Israel — told her, “Well, you keep complaining how Dallas needs great institutions like they have in Chicago and New York.”
Small had previous ties to the Museum of Natural History. While serving as a consultant for McKinsey and Company in 1996-97, the 1991 Hockaday School and 1995 University of Pennsylvania graduate helped her boss, a museum board member, do a pro bono project for it.
She was in for a wild ride. She helped preside over the 2006 merger of the Museum of Natural History, The Science Place and the Dallas Children’s Museum into the Museum of Science & Nature at Fair Park. That was almost a given after the new Perot Museum’s 4.7-acre site was purchased in 2005.
From there, it was a matter of raising the $185 million needed, the largest chunk of which came in the form of a $50 million donation from the children of Ross and Margot Perot in their parents’ honor.
“I had so many connections to schools, corporations,” Small said. “It’s all been fun. I’ve learned and grown with the project.”
One thing she’s especially proud of: “It was paid off a year in advance with no public money.”
Small’s pace hasn’t slowed a bit as the fundraising/construction phase morphed into operations mode.
“It’s moved from dream to reality, and I’m pleased to see it in place,” Small said. “Now, instead of walking around talking with construction workers, I’m riding on the elevator and talking with visitors about the museum. We’ve moved quickly from building a building to operations.”
And with that, she dreams of the future Nobel Prize winner who refers to the Perot Museum as an early inspiration. She hopes children will have the fond memories of “The Perot” as children from New York have of the American Museum of Natural History and those from Chicago do of the Museum of Science and Industry.
“I hope many Nobel laureates will remember The Perot as where they got started,” she said.
And Small — a breast-cancer survivor who managed to oversee the opening of the museum just months after undergoing a double mastectomy — says that as a mother, as well as a museum director.
“A focus on careers is important to us,” she said. “We feel it’s really important to make the connection between science and careers, so we have career kiosks set up at almost every exhibit.
“There’s a whole world of excitement,” Small said, with the same look of awe a child might have when seeing giant dinosaurs or experiencing the feeling of an earthquake at the museum.