Peter Sterling, Director, 1982–1999

Education and professional background

Peter Sterling (1935–2016) came to The Children’s Museum after serving as the director of the USS Constitution Foundation in Boston and as the head of education and group visitation programs for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in Williamsburg, Virginia. He was an East coast resident transplanted to the Midwest—something he said he never regretted. “When the chance came along to head what I knew was one of the best museums in the country, I went for it,” he told a writer for Indianapolis Monthly magazine in March 1984.

Peter Sterling stands alongside the Reuben Wells shortly after joining the museum in 1982.

After graduating magna cum laude from Davidson College in North Carolina, Sterling went to Georgetown University, earning a master’s degree in American Studies along with a Phi Beta Kappa key. He then taught high-school social studies and college history courses for a number of years before joining the museum world. But he never lost his passion for educating young people. “The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis sees its responsibility to help children gain a deeper understanding of themselves and the world they live in,” he wrote in an article for the spring/summer 1988 issue of Museum Studies Journal.

Museum developments under Sterling

On his watch the museum developed such projects as the Think Tank and the Eli Lilly Center for Exploration (CFX) both of which were designed to encourage young people to conceive, experiment, and explore—and to learn to persevere in the face of obstacles and failures. In 1984, the museum received the gift of The Caplan Collection that became the basis for the permanent exhibit Passport to the World, which opened in 1986.

Sterling also introduced a computer lab that neighborhood children could use after school and led efforts to get students involved in planning and developing exhibits. A staunch supporter of the arts, he made the museum the host of the annual Prelude Awards program, which celebrated the artistic accomplishments of Marion County high-school students. And he initiated the museum’s traveling exhibit program, sending Hands Can to the Cleveland Children’s Museum in 1992.

1988–1990 expansion
Sterling also oversaw the expansion of the museum with the addition of a new Welcome Center in 1988, the SpaceQuest® Planetariumin 1989, CFX in 1990, and the Cinedome Theater and Festival Parkin 1996. Through all his efforts, he raised the museum’s national profile, cementing its place as a standard bearer for programming innovation and exhibit excellence. His legacy is the emphasis he placed on the museum’s duty to educate and enlighten its visitors. “If we truly believe that the young people who are with us today will be leaders in the global community,” he wrote in Museum Studies Journal, “then we must help prepare them for those responsibilities. We have the tools that make this possible.”