VOL. 128 | NO. 248 | Friday, December 20, 2013
Memphis Standout Profile
Pike Indulges ‘Museum Bug’ as Director of Pink Palace
RICHARD J. ALLEY | Special to The Daily News
Steve Pike, director of museums for the Pink Palace Family of Museums, calls himself a generalist, happy to have his hands in all things theoretical and material. It’s a label that envelopes his interests, his career choices, and going back to his liberal arts education at Marian University in Indianapolis.
Born and raised in Evansville, Ind., he majored in literature with a master’s degree in the field from Temple University in Philadelphia. His first job was teaching at the university before moving into the world of academic publishing, working in marketing and public relations for Temple University Press followed by Princeton University Press.
His shift into the realm of museums began with a job in Washington in the marketing department of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a large, multidisciplinary science association publishing books and magazines.
He got to know people in the building across the street – the National Trust for Historic Preservation – and when they looked to hire their first vice president for development and communications, Pike put his hat in the ring and got the job.
“That’s how I got into museums. It was a wonderful opportunity,” he said. “At that time, the trust had 18 historic house museums around the country.”
From the national trust, he went to work for the membership program of the Smithsonian Institution.
“I guess you could say I got the ‘museum bug’ at the national trust, and then it really became a fatal affliction when I went to the Smithsonian,” he said.
It was while in Washington that he decided he wanted to try running a museum and became director at the Virginia Museum of Natural History. It’s a research museum and quite hidden in the small town of Martinsville, making it difficult to raise money.
“I knew that the one thing I could do as a generalist was to raise the money to build a proper building for them,” he said. “Over seven or eight years, I did that.”
It was an exciting time for Pike and one in which he learned that, as a museum’s director, “you work for everybody. … I’m responsible for the welfare of this institution and everybody who cares about it.”
“There is a lot going on here for the public, of course, but also, intellectually, there is just a lot going on.”
Pink Palace Family of Museums director of museums
He took that knowledge on his next quest. After seven years in Virginia, he and wife, Orli Weisser-Pike, wanted to move their two young sons to a midsize city where they would have more opportunity. He was more aware of the Pink Palace than of Memphis itself, saying, “It’s an odd name, but once you hear it, you don’t forget it. There’s not a focus group in the world that could have come up with that name.”
He moved to Memphis in 2003, and after 10 years, he says, “I’m glad we made the change, took the plunge.”
On his initial trip, he was given a tour of the city by a board member, culminating in a visit to the museum. His first impression of the Pink Palace: “Wow, that’s beautiful.”
He also admits that, looking around the exhibits, “It was like seeing an old painting that needs to be refreshed and cleaned. A lot of them were old and out-of-date, and we’ve updated some of them, and we’re going to update all of them.”
A strategic plan was put in place, one from previous administrations that “had a lot of people’s fingerprints on it.”
There is still plenty to be done, and Pike is excited about upgrades to the Lida Gammill Sharpe Planetarium, including video capacity to replace the current projection equipment; the 3-D digital capacity being added to the CTI IMAX Theater; and opening the second floor of the main museum to the public in 2016.
As director of the family of museums, Pike is over Lichterman Nature Center, Coon Creek Science Center and the Mallory-Neely and Magevney houses in Victorian Village. It’s broad-scoped work that satisfies his interests as a generalist. From one day to the next, he may deal with replacing windows at the museum or planning for spring activities for members at Coon Creek.
“There is a lot going on here for the public, of course, but also, intellectually, there is just a lot going on,” he said. “It’s very wonderful, intellectually stimulating. … There’s never a day when I don’t learn something.”
Pike finds Memphis engrossing, and it has become home for him, his wife and their two sons, Joseph and Gabriel. He’s delved into its history and community, both in a professional and personal capacity, and says, “I keep peeling this onion and I never quite feel like I’ve gotten to the bottom of it. It’s fascinating and intriguing, but also accessible.”