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Omaha Luminarium draws first CEO from leading San Francisco science center

by | 07/12/2021

Omaha World Herald article from July 12, 2021 can be read here

The leaders behind Omaha’s riverfront science center have in many ways modeled the project after San Francisco’s Exploratorium, regarded as one of the world’s premier science museums.

Now an executive from the Exploratorium, Silva Raker, has been named the first CEO of Omaha’s Kiewit Luminarium. And both Raker and the donor group behind the $101 million center say they are ecstatic with the match.

“We’re thrilled she’s joining us in Omaha,” said Rachel Jacobson of Heritage Services, the organization of local philanthropists that has spearheaded the project. “She’ll bring such a wealth of knowledge and tremendous passion for the mission.”

As a senior development director for the Exploratorium, Raker actually for the past three years led a team from the San Francisco museum that helped plan, design and develop exhibits for the Omaha center.

The more Raker thought about it, she ultimately decided the Luminarium was something she wanted to help lead into the future.

“I’m over the moon,” the 61-year-old Raker said last week. “I fell in love with Omaha and this project.”

Construction is already underway on Kiewit Luminarium, set to open at Lewis & Clark Landing in spring 2023. The privately funded center will feature hands-on, interactive exhibits intended to unlock curiosity and make science accessible for both children and adults.

Backers behind the Luminarium hope it will not only fill a gap on the Omaha cultural landscape, but also help inspire children’s interest in science, math, engineering and technology, helping Omaha develop the diverse STEM workforce needed for the city’s future.

All money for the center is being raised by Heritage Services, the influential philanthropy organization that has been behind numerous major civic projects in Omaha over the past three decades.

When Heritage officials first started exploring building a science center in Omaha, they visited the Exploratorium, on San Francisco’s waterfront. They learned the Exploratorium had a division that works with other science museums around the world to develop exhibits.

The founding leader of that global collaborations division: Raker.

Wanting to make the Omaha center world-class, Heritage officials decided to hire the Exploratorium to assist with the Luminarium’s entire development, from feasibility to final design.

Raker began making regular trips to Omaha as the lead of the Exploratorium development team. The last trip she took before the COVID-19 pandemic, and the first coming out of it, were both to Omaha.

From the moment she started working on the Omaha project, Raker said she was impressed by the commitment in the city to create a science center that would be first-class, cutting-edge, engaging and accessible to everyone.

The Omaha planners then last fall retained the services of a national search firm, Koya Partners, to help find the museum’s first CEO.

Raker’s first interview with Koya in December was not as a job candidate, but just to advise the firm on what they should be looking for in a candidate.

But by February, Raker began to wonder whether she herself would be interested in the job. Included in her thoughts were some big-picture considerations.

Emerging from the pandemic, Raker said, cultural institutions all across the country are facing two major challenges:

How can such institutions, which historically have been mostly White and affluent, embrace the racial reckoning that followed George Floyd’s murder and find ways to be more inclusive?

And how can they find new, more sustainable funding models, including new kinds of community support and corporate engagement?

Considering all the assets in Omaha, including a committed philanthropic sector and strong corporate sector, she began to think Omaha could lead the nation in embracing those challenges.

“I can’t think of a better place to do it,” she said. “The opportunity to create something really unique and be a model for the rest of the country was huge.”

Raker threw her hat in the ring in March. The Omaha Discovery Trust Board, the nonprofit board created to run the Luminarium, voted Friday to hire Raker.

“I am thrilled to welcome Silva to Kiewit Luminarium as our inaugural CEO,” said Trent Demulling, chair of the trust board. “Her passion for the mission, keen intellect, and extraordinary experience with innovative science learning make her an ideal choice to lead this institution.”

Before joining the Exploratorium in 2010, the University of California, Berkeley zoology graduate had worked as a field biologist, spent 10 years developing products and programs for specialty retailer The Nature Company, and served as chief operating officer and strategist for an experience travel company.

Raker will start her new job in August. Her move to Omaha will mark the first time the Eureka, California, native has lived outside California.

But she said in many ways it’s appropriate that she’s now moving to Nebraska. One of the most formative experiences of her youth happened in Nebraska more than four decades ago.

At age 15, she had the chance to attend a six-week summer program at Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln sponsored by the National Science Foundation.

Not only did the first airplane trip of her life and chance to explore the ecology of the Platte River expand her horizons, the experience helped inspire her to pursue a career in science.

Now Raker said she’s looking forward to making the Luminarium the kind of place that will similarly instill in children a love of science and learning.

“To be part of creating a place that will do that is just wonderful,” she said. “The meaning of that for me is really profound.”