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December 18, 2009

New Article: Cleveland.com
Written By John Mangels

Joe Keiper, the amiable Cleveland Museum of Natural History scientist whose deep knowledge of bugs delighted museum-goers and aided police in crime investigations, is leaving to run a Virginia institution.

Keiper will be the new executive director of the Virginia Museum of Natural History in Martinsville. His appointment was announced Friday. His duties begin Feb. 1.

"I know I'm leaving the world's greatest job, but at the same time, this is an exciting challenge," said Keiper, a nine-year veteran of the Cleveland museum, where he was director of science and curator of invertebrate zoology.

"We're absolutely thrilled for Joe," said museum communications director Marie Graf. "He's done such great work for us. Obviously other people recognize that too."

Keiper, an entomologist, is familiar to museum patrons as the "bug guy" who supervised the facility's extensive insect collection and could talk authoritatively about everything from beautiful butterflies to pesky midges. He studied the types and habits of flies and beetles that devoured a black bear's carcass in a Geauga County woods in order to help with poaching investigations.

He has been in the news recently because of his consulting work with the Cuyahoga County coroner's office, using maggots collected from the remains of alleged serial killer Anthony Sowell's 11 victims in an attempt to pin down when they died.

While Keiper hopes to continue some forensic work in Virginia, his main job will be overseeing the growing museum. It is a relatively young institution, founded in 1984. It recently completed a major expansion, but remains about half the size of the 89-year-old Cleveland museum, with roughly one-third its yearly attendance.

"It's not the world's largest institution, but they have wonderful collections, wonderful labs, an outstanding education program," Keiper said. "It's going to be a real honor working with these people."

Keiper was one of 80 candidates in the Virginia museum's international search for a new director. He "grabbed our attention from his very first interview," board of trustees chairwoman Pamela Armstrong said in a statement. Keiper "has the qualification, energy, goals, and most importantly the 'can-do' vision to take the Virginia Museum of Natural History to its next level of development."

The Cleveland museum is still looking for its own new executive director after the July 2008 resignation of renowned scientist and fossil hunter Bruce Latimer, who left to return to teaching and research.

The museum was on the verge of naming a new director this summer, but the nominee's unexpected death forced the search process to start over.

Internationally known zoologist Seddon Bennington, the chief executive of the Museum of New Zealand, had accepted the Cleveland museum's offer to fill the vacant director's post, Graf said. While hiking with a friend in the New Zealand mountains in July, Bennington was caught in a sudden snow storm. An alpine rescue team found Bennington's and his companion's bodies four days after the pair disappeared. They had died of exposure.

Bennington's loss was one of several setbacks for the Cleveland museum this year. Like many other charitable institutions, its endowment was hard-hit by the recession, and in February the museum laid off 16 employees. The bad economy also delayed a capital campaign to raise money for the museum's renovation and expansion.

Attendance and donations in 2009 are ahead of last year's totals, Graf said, and the museum will finish the year with a budget surplus of about $130,000. Two or three new finalists for the director's spot will visit and meet with senior staff in January, she said. The museum also will seek a replacement for its departing science director.

Keiper said the Cleveland museum's financial difficulties weren't a factor in his decision to leave; rather, it was the opportunity to lead an institution. "Even if things were perfect, I just think it's time in terms of my career trajectory to go forward," he said.

The Cleveland museum should have no trouble attracting his successor, Keiper said.

"There's going to be people lined up to take this position. This is a good bug lab. The work that goes on here and at the universities and other institutions is really first class. The bug world isn't done in Cleveland, that's for sure."

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