Transcript – Episode 17

Narrator: This podcast is a project of the Massachusetts Cultural Council, a state agency committed to building creative communities and inspiring creative minds.

William Spitzer: Where in our society today do you have the opportunity to kind of build that social capital, build those social connections? And, you know, for a lot of people, it’s not so much at home in their town, it’s not so much in the workplace– it’s in these third places. Well, this is a third place.

Anita Walker: Hi, I’m Anita Walker at the Massachusetts Cultural Council. Welcome to Creative Minds Out Loud. Today, I’m talking with Bill Spitzer, vice president of planning, programs and exhibits at the New England Aquarium. How are you?

William Spitzer: I’m doing great. Thanks for having me here.

Anita Walker: You know, you and I had an opportunity to have a conversation at a site visit not that long ago and I was amazed and kind of blown away when you were talking about your ticket buyers and your visitors and your audience members in way I’ve never really heard about before. You think of them as not just as earned income, but as an opportunity to build citizenship.

William Spitzer: Yeah, that really started as we were getting deep into how to communicate and educate people about climate change, which is this really important environmental issue, in a way which kinda trumps all other issues, at least now, and realizing that it wasn’t enough to talk to people as consumers, because the impact we can have as consumers is actually quite limited. But to realize that this is a really important civic issue and we need civic engagement and we need to begin thinking of our visitors and our audiences as citizens and how do we help them see themselves as citizens. Now this is a challenge in an organization where the first thing you do when you walk in is you buy a ticket and then probably the last thing you do is, you know, you buy something in the gift shop. But, really, it’s influenced how we interpret environmental issues and to really– instead of telling people, “Here’s what you need to go home and buy.” You know, “Don’t buy this, buy that.” It’s more about thinking about what you in the context of your community or your workplace or your school– what you can do collectively to really influence what we do on a really important public policy issue. And that’s been a really big, big shift for us. And I would love to see a way for institutions like ours to be seen as more civic institutions, as well as just a place to consume an experience. And I think we need to be creative over time as to how we position ourselves and how we operate in order to support that.

Anita Walker: So this is essentially an ethos for the organization. This really had to involve a lot of re-thinking and even educating of your staff from top to bottom.

William Spitzer: Yeah, it’s interesting. It’s almost a little bit of a– I was gonna use the word subversive strategy–


William Spitzer: –in the sense that it’s really grown from this imperative about how to communicate and educate, which is fundamentally about what we do. And we’ve been doing a lot of strategic planning lately. We have a new CEO, a new board chair and some new leadership, and we were realizing that the aquarium has done research since it’s opened. It has done public engagement and education since it’s opened– you know, for over forty years, that this whole kinda civic engagement piece is actually quite new and that we’re still figuring out how to get good at it and that it’s starting to permeate the organization. But we have not actually done it as kind of top-to-bottom change. In a way, it really has sort of grown up from how we need to engage and now we’re starting to reckon with what are the implications of it. And it is beginning to affect how we think about other programs and I think ultimately it will affect how we think about the whole organization. But we’re not quite there yet.

Anita Walker: Is the idea of being an entertainment venue– a place where people could go to be enlightened, inspired, educated and entertained– in conflict with this idea of building citizenship or be mutually supportive?

William Spitzer: Yeah, that’s a great question. I think we talk a lot more about engagement and about successful engagement being something that really grabs people so there is a really strong enjoyment and fun and an emotional factor associated with it. And it’s also something that’s meaningful. And that’s really kind of the educational and learning piece. And that when we’re doing engagement really well and we ask people about their experience, they tell us it was really entertaining and it was really educational. And those two things really go hand-in-hand when we’re doing a good job. And I don’t think there’s a– education and entertainment are not at opposite ends of the spectrum. They’re not on a spectrum. They’re really orthogonal axis and you want to be doing well in both.

Anita Walker: Part of engagement really has to translate into new behaviors and you talked about people not just leaving the aquarium through the gift shop and buying a little stuffed whale or something like that, but leaving and really doing something meaningful. Give me some examples of what you might imagine people doing now when they leave the aquarium.

William Spitzer: Well, we’ve really been working on making this transition from focusing on individual consumer behaviors to more of collective and civic behaviors. So it’s not that we don’t want people to be more educated consumers, but we want people to think about, for example, instead of “Oh, maybe I’ll ride my bicycle more,” “why is it that we don’t have so many bike lanes? Could we have more bike lanes in our community? Why is it that we don’t have enough public transportation and why is it that, you know, when we buy our electricity we don’t seem to have as many choices as we really should?” So it’s to really help people think about not just the choices they make, but in what context are they making those choices and can they change the context? And that’s the civic piece.

Anita Walker: It’s empowering. You’re saying to your visitors, “You can make a difference. You can help change the world right with us.”

William Spitzer: Yes, we’re really trying to change the conversation, particularly about something like climate change from doom and gloom and despair to hope innovation and change. That’s really where it’s at and, actually, that gets back to the emotional piece because people aren’t motivated when they don’t see any positive outcomes in the future, when they don’t see their own sense of self-efficacy, when they don’t see how they’re connected to others. And that’s really what we’re focusing on inspiring as we interact with people and really the human interaction with the interpreters at the aquarium where we feel like we can deliver that. It’s not really in the signage. It’s not really via technology. It’s not really just to be the live animal exhibits. It’s the human component. That’s where we can really make that connection.

Anita Walker: So now I’m gonna ask you something that I know you’re probably asked frequently and you’ve given a lot of thought to: Your mission is really about the environment and protecting the environment. And some people see a disconnect between that mission and having animals in captivity. Zoos, aquariums– you’re all facing those kinds of questions today.

William Spitzer: Yeah. And it’s something that is becoming more and more a topic of discussion in the industry, whereas maybe even five- ten years ago a lot of people in the zoo and aquarium industry talked about people focusing on animal rights and animal welfare as kinda being on the fringe. Now people are realizing that a substantial portion of our constituents, our visitors, actually do have concerns about some animals in captivity. And it’s something that we do think about a lot and, ultimately, we see our mission as to help connect people to nature. And, in an urban setting, we’re one– for a lot of people we’re one of the few places people can actually see a lot of the animals we exhibit. But we really want to get people out in the field. We want to really get people face-to-face with nature. And, you know, it may be in a few decades there’s less of a need to have animals in captivity and we’re definitely always thinking about why do we have the animals we have? Can we take care of them in captivity? Are these the right animals to have and why? And I think it’s something that– the way I describe it, I say, we have animals in the public trust just like an art museum has art in the public trust and we need to be really responsible and ethical about that and really think about why? Why do we have these critters?

Anita Walker: You have accomplished something that, I have to say, is the envy of many, many of your colleagues across the Commonwealth. I don’t know how many organizations say to me, “I can’t find volunteers these days. People are so busy. People who are healthy and retired, they want to travel and do other things with their time. And younger people are so busy.” This is not a problem that you face. You interview 800 to 850 candidates to become a volunteer every single year and bring on board ten to fifteen percent of those. What are you doing that’s working?


William Spitzer: Well, that’s a great question. I mean, I think that’s in our favor is we have a very long-standing program. So it’s been around for a while. It’s really solid. One of the things we do really well is volunteers are very, very integrated into the operations of the institution. In fact, one could argue maybe even too much in terms of how much we depend on them for day-to-day operations. So as a volunteer or an intern, you are involved in direct contact with the public, direct education, direct animal care, and so on. And so it’s a very meaningful experience. A second thing that we do really well is we really have been working hard to try to build community among the volunteers and really help them see that they’re not just, you know, the Wednesday dive volunteer, but they’re actually part of a larger community, you know, really kind of an army of people who are resonating with the aquarium’s mission and that actually gets back to that point about civic engagement. In fact, it was our volunteer manager who– at one of the volunteer celebration events, she was talking about the meaning of service, not just the meeting of a volunteer service to the organization, but the impact on the volunteer and the impact on the community in terms of building social capital and building civic engagement. And when you think about it, where in our society today do you have the opportunity to kinda build that social capital, to build those social connections? And for a lot of people it’s not so much at home in their town, it’s not so much in the workplace– it’s in these third places. Well, this is a third place. And it’s something that we’re trying to become more intentional about and also really helping people to see that they can help the aquarium fulfill its mission, its larger environmental mission. And that kinda gets back to why we’re there and that really resonates for people.

Anita Walker: Well, part of the mission impetus with your volunteers is you’ll see them not just at the aquarium. You’re actually sending them out to work with other organizations.

William Spitzer: Yeah, this was an– you know, when we were realizing the last few years that our volunteer applications have keep going up, we simply can’t fit anymore people on site. We have all these people who are this audience who wants to work with the aquarium, who’s somehow resonating with what we’re trying to do in terms of our environmental mission. How can we engage them? And so we’ve been starting to partner with other organizations, environmental organizations in the local area, that have a similar kind of mission and maybe aren’t successful in finding enough volunteers on their own, and so what we’re doing is we’re training a core of– from our own volunteers, training a group of service leaders and they are then taking teams of– you know, one shot or occasional volunteers out to do this kind of environmental field work. So we’re working a lot with the Boston Harbor Islands National Park. We’re working a lot with local watershed associations and so on. And it really is a great program, ‘cause it works for everybody. We are able to get our volunteers and new volunteers directly engaged in helping the environment. Those organizations are getting more hands out in the field. We’re getting to take some of our existing volunteers and give them leadership training and leadership positions and it’s really a scalable program and we’re hoping to see it really, really grow over time.

Anita Walker: And you’re also seeing your volunteers as something of a barometer of how effective this citizenship-building initiative is going. You talked to their family and friends to see what they’re hearing?

William Spitzer: Yeah, what’s really great is as we’ve been able to engage people in these kind of mission-oriented programs they talk about it with friends and family and colleagues. And so there’s this social radiation effect, which really magnifies the impact of what we’re doing. And so we’re really trying to learn from that and really cultivate that as a tool to really help us expand our impact over time.

Anita Walker: Bill Spitzer from the New England Aquarium, one of our Creative Minds Out Loud.

Narrator: To learn more about this episode and to subscribe, visit