When Tifferney White accepted her first museum job — at Discovery Place in Charlotte, N.C. — she only expected to stay for a year.
After all, she was a premed student at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, studying both chemistry and psychology, and planned to become a psychiatrist. But the professor she’d been assisting with cancer research told her she needed to practice her job interview skills — and sent her to apply for an opening at the local science museum.
At the time, White was debating whether to postpone medical school for a year so she could work or do a post-baccalaureate program. But museum officials figured she could inspire “children who wouldn’t go to a museum to go into science careers, in a fun and innovative way,” White recalls. “I had been tutoring in the projects and they offered me the position.”
“I decided to work for a year,” she explains. “And that year turned into almost 25 now.”
Nearly 10 have been in Las Vegas — first at the Lied Discovery Museum, now at the expanded Discovery Children’s Museum around the corner from The Smith Center in Symphony Park, where she’s been president and chief executive officer since 2015.
We caught up with White — on her 45th birthday — at Discovery, where she looks back on her introduction to museums and ponders her favorite things about her adopted hometown.
Review-Journal: When, and why, did you first come to Las Vegas? Were you at all concerned about Las Vegas’ “Sin City” reputation?
Tifferney White: I came here in March 2007 to work for the (then) Lied Discovery Museum as director of programs and education. Part of what I did before I left (Discovery Place in Charlotte) was community outreach (including) … some home school sites. This is such a funny story. I laugh at it all the time. When I told one of my home school (families) I was moving to Las Vegas, (one) said, “Oh my gosh, we’re going to have to pray for you because you’re going to Sin City.”
R-J: What was it about your first museum job that made you say, “I’m home?”
TW: It wasn’t the museum environment. It was the work I was doing in the community, going into the projects and community centers, exposing those children to hands-on science, to get them to consider careers in science. Children who wouldn’t go to a museum, children I could tell “You may have a place in science.” I had to open myself up. What if they didn’t like chemistry? I had to do physics. I had to do birds, insects. I had to go to biology. In doing all of that, it definitely opened me up as a person, having to learn. I really worked at it. It was bigger than me. What if the only opportunity for this child to touch a boa constrictor — what if they don’t get the opportunity because I’m afraid of snakes? We had a rain forest at the museum, so I worked with my co-workers, (telling them) “I’ve got to learn to work with these snakes.”
R-J: What’s the biggest difference between Discovery’s current location and its previous home, the Lied Discovery Museum, adjacent to the Las Vegas Library?
TW: Oh my gosh, it’s like night and day — and that’s crazy, because it’s only three or four miles. It’s so different here. We’re on a block. Symphony Park is an elevated location. We have The Smith Center, the Lou Ruvo Center, the World Market. It’s a really nice environment that feels very safe for our visitors. … And a beautiful building. Where we came from was a great location, architecturally, in a building with the library. We found there, at that particular library, sometimes homeless (people would be there). It doesn’t bother me, and it does bother others. People feel a lot safer here. We have visitors we did not have at the other location. On the flip side of things, fundraising (is important) for those that don’t have access. We don’t want to leave that neighborhood behind. They need to come in here and feel welcomed.
R-J: What role do museums play in Las Vegas’ cultural landscape?
TW: It’s huge for the Las Vegas cultural landscape, because most people think of us as the Strip. But we have a community of people who want to raise children in good homes. … We have traditional places to go, but people don’t know it. The bright lights of the Strip kind of shine that out. But (with) the Nevada State Museum, the Springs Preserve, even the Mob Museum, the Neon Museum — it’s huge because that’s the point. The culture will allow Las Vegas to grow to where other cities are. … We just got a performing arts center not even five years ago. We are getting those things. We are growing up and we have cultural institutions that can anchor the city.
R-J: What’s in Discovery’s future?
TW: Ooh, this is top secret. The biggest thing for us — we just celebrated 25 years. We’ve done a lot, but nowhere near where we can be. We’ve built a world-class, state-of-the-art museum that will rival any children’s museum or science museum in the country. But we have to make this a bigger part of the fabric of the community. … Our cultural institutions have to become part of the community. We have the ability to reach every child, regardless of socioeconomic status or ethnicity. We have that ability — and because we have that ability, we have that ability to be that anchor.
R-J: What’s your favorite exhibit at Discovery? Why?
TW: My favorite exhibit is the “Summit.” That is an exhibit that’s nontraditional for children. You don’t always find a vertical gallery, with full-size exhibits and climbing and crawling — all sized for adults. It’s 12 levels of amazingness. I’ve climbed ’em all and I’ve slid down the slides and crawled through the tunnels.
R-J: What’s your favorite “Vegas-y” thing to do?
TW: I like the fact we have the Strip at our disposal. We have amazing restaurants and shows.
R-J: What’s your favorite un-“Vegas-y” thing to do?
I love Red Rock. I love it. It’s so peaceful. I love the strata in the rocks. And just to get away. It’s not far from the city. You drive a couple minutes and … OK, peace. It’s just me and nature.
R-J: What’s your favorite thing about living in Las Vegas?
TW: No rain! I am not a rain girl. I like my hair to look nice. I love the fact there is so much sunshine. I love the fact the sun is always shining, no matter if it’s cold outside.
Read more from Carol Cling at reviewjournal.com. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow @CarolSCling on Twitter.