A familiar face will be joining the Putnam Museum and Science Center as just its second vice president of museum experiences.

Kelly Lao, executive director of Davenport’s German American Heritage Center and Museum, will start that new job full-time on Oct. 24. The commute won’t be much farther — the Putnam is just 1.6 miles away, up the hill, and she’s already splitting her time between the two jobs.

Kelly Lao has been executive director of the German American Heritage Center since February 2016.

The Putnam job description (the starting salary is $72,000-$75,000 a year) sought a “programming professional to lead efforts to connect with audiences through gallery experiences, exhibit design, and education offerings, and virtual and print materials. The successful candidate brings ten-plus years’ experience in an equivalent position, with background in exhibit content, education, and special events as well as being skilled in project management, multitasking, detail orientation, and complex problem-solving.”

The first person in the job, Ben Johnson, became the new president/CEO of the U.S. Marshals Museum in Fort Smith. Ark., effective Aug. 22, 2022. Johnson was in the newly-created Putnam position since July 2021. There is a lot to it, including —

  • Manage Science Center and Education Annex, including active learning focus, parent engagement, special events, and rich community partnerships.
  • Infuse learning standards for all ages into visitor experience, including leveled interpretive materials such as exhibit graphics, print resources, electronic media, and more.
  • Lead the Putnam’s renowned education offerings including in-house and outreach programs, IMMERSE residency, summer camps, STEM activities, school visits and group tours, and more in support of the Putnam’s Strategic Plan.
  • Connect historic collection with Putnam members and general community through ongoing special events and public education offerings, including lecture series, theater selections, and local collections.

“Every visitor is a learner; we want them to connect with our programmatic offerings,” Putnam president/CEO Rachael Mullins said Wednesday.

The entire Putnam former Grand Lobby and theater annex has shifted to an education annex, with a new classroom where the former gift shop was.

“Extraordinary depth”

All candidates interviewed for the VP of museum experiences were from the Quad Cities, and Kelly Lao is the perfect choice, Mullins said.

Rachael Mullins is the Putnam’s president/CEO (photo by Jonathan Turner).

“Kelly has such an extraordinary depth of background and knowledge, both at the programming and exhibit levels, in her experience with German American Heritage Center,” she said. “This is a position of leadership level, to think more broadly across the entire organization.”

“Kelly also has an extraordinary background with the Putnam itself, as a student, intern, volunteer,” Mullins added. “Kelly is very knowledgeable about our collection, facility and curatorial team, and has past partnerships with that team. It’s so exciting.”

In particular with the collections, the Putnam has loaned some of its artifacts to GAHC at 2nd and Gaines streets, Davenport.

The German American Heritage Center is at 2nd and Gaines streets, Davenport.

“We have a long history of loaned artifacts,” Mullins said, noting the two institutions also are proud partners in this fall’s programming for the community-wide “Out of Darkness: Holocaust Messages For Today” series.

Connecting the Putnam dots

The 2021 creation of the new Putnam VP job was to “acknowledge this connection between exhibits and our historic collection, the visitor experience, and programmatic offerings,” Mullins said.

“The position was developed to create that synchronicity and alignment among offerings,” she said, noting the Putnam departments needed to better work toward the same goals, which is a priority in the accreditation process, “that we have alignment between those offerings,” Mullins said.

Rachael Mullins in the Putnam’s World Culture Gallery (photo by Jonathan Turner).

The Museum Experiences job was modeled after the Putnam partner The Science Museum of Minnesota, in the Twin Cities, she added.

“You often see that overarching position, designed at looking at that connection with visitor experiences,” Mullins said.

Lao has been in charge of the GAHC since February 2016, and has worked there for 11 years (including assistant director). After two years at Iowa State, she earned her bachelor’s degree in 2008 from the University of Iowa in anthropology and a master’s in museum studies in 2010 from Western Illinois University.

Full circle for Lao

It’s fitting Lao (an Orion High School alum) is back at the Putnam, since she interned with the museum while she attended University of Iowa, and during her WIU-QC master’s program.

“it’s very exciting, and there’s so much going on at the Putnam that it’s gonna be really exciting to be a part of,” she said Wednesday. “It’s just such a bigger scale. They serve so many more people and every single part of that is just a bigger scale.”

The GAHC has a much smaller collection (4,000 artifacts compared to the Putnam’s 250,000), and as an institution has only been around a fraction of the time that the Putnam has — it opened to the public in 2000 at the restored 1862 former immigrant hotel, compared to the Putnam’s founding in 1867 as the Davenport Academy of Natural Sciences.

“I’ve worked with them a long time throughout my career. I really enjoy working with them and they have such expertise and knowledge,” Lao said of the Putnam. “It’s gonna be just really wonderful to work with them. And to take on some of the exhibitions that they’re redoing and re-envisioning with the community. That whole process is so exciting to be a part of.

Lao and her husband Sam.

“As a person, one of my favorite things about museums is exhibition work. So to be able to do that as a major component of my position is like a dream,” she said.

Lao said when she was growing up, she wanted to be a fashion designer. She first went to Iowa State University because they had a strong fashion program.

“I was very interested in textiles, so I started my honors practicum with a retired anthropologist who collected African textiles in her work,” she said, noting she became more interested in anthropology because of that and transferred to University of Iowa for her last two undergrad years.

Lao and her husband Sam have three children — an 18-year-old son, 16-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son.

GAHC successor planned in December

The GAHC has an assistant director, Clare Tobin, and the board has launched a search for a new executive director. Lao said Wednesday that applications will be due in mid-November.

The Germania statue outside the German American center in Davenport, as seen from its fourth floor (photo by Jonathan Turner).

“The timing will work out pretty well, because after October, it really shifts into holiday season for the German American Heritage Center,” she said. “That’s something they’re very familiar with and can do easily with the people they have in place. Then if they can get someone involved in like December or January, then they’ll really start out the year strong with a really robust endowment, a great budget and they have a very healthy baby to be handed.

“So I’m glad to be able to pass that along, in a successful and healthy organization,” Lao said. “I am very excited to work with the community, to work with the team at the Putnam that Rachael has created such a wonderful group of people that are just so excited to share this history and science and knowledge and curiosity with the community. It’s just a very exciting time to be able to take on this new position.”

For more information on the Putnam, click HERE. For more on GAHC, click HERE.