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Adventures in the life of Buffalo Museum of Science curator Kathy Leacock

Looking back, Kathy Leacock seemed destined to become director of collections at the Buffalo Museum of Science.

“My mom makes fun of me because a lot of my toys are still in their box from when I was a little girl,” Leacock said. “My Care Bears are still in the package. All of my books were catalogued. My mom used to have to sign a book out to read it to me at nighttime.”

Leacock was born and raised in Bradford, England – she left her British accent overseas – and moved to Lockport after high school when her father, an engineer, landed a job at Harrison Radiator.

Her big career break came in 1998, while she was an anthropology student at SUNY Buffalo State. She landed an internship to curate the private collection of Charles Rand Penney, a Lockport attorney and world traveler. He had amassed more than 150 collections of memorabilia, including foundational works for the Burchfield Penney Art Center on the college campus. The science museum brought her aboard in 2003, though she continued to work part time for Penney until he died in 2010.

Leacock – who also holds master’s degrees in anthropology/archeology, as well as library science, from the University at Buffalo – oversees a collection of more than 750,000 objects at the historic Humboldt Park headquarters of the Buffalo Society of Natural Sciences. She, Director of Learning and Interpretation Karen Wallace and Director of Exhibits David Cinquino dream up and plan exhibits.

Traces of Leacock’s work can be found in the latest exhibit, YUM!, which opens Saturday. For more info, visit sciencebuff.org.

Leacock and her partner, optometrist David Wilkes, live in Williamsville with their children, Elias, 5, and Evelyn, 3.

Q. Talk about your first meeting with Charles Rand Penney.

I told him I lived in Lockport. He said, “Kathy, you can stay for 50 years!” Whenever I wanted a vacation, he would say, “Now it’s only 49 years, 48 years.” There was this love of Lockport we had between us. ... When I started working with him, he had more than 150 different collections, depending on how you want to categorize it. He said, “What do you want to start with?” Right behind him was this funky Mr. Peanut mask and it had this wire coming out of its ear. If you pulled on it, its eyes moved. It was the freakiest thing. So I said, “Mr. Peanut.” I catalogued his whole Mr. Peanut collection. When he passed, he left it to me. I had to sell the piece with the eyes. It was too big to fit in my house.

Q. You say there are pieces that Chauncey Hamlin, director of the Buffalo Society of Natural Sciences from 1920 to 1948, collected that intrigue you.

I do have favorite pieces in the “Artifacts” exhibit. It’s called Artifacts, but it could easily be called “Kathy’s Favorite Pieces.” It opened in March 2014 and focuses on our anthropology collection. A lot of the material in there was acquired or collected by Chauncey Hamlin ... I’m a huge fan.

Q. Talk about brainstorming for YUM!

It’s a little different because we wanted to work with Wegmans. We had opened our first science studio in 2012 – “Explore YOU,” brought to you by Independent Health – and that focuses on the body, on health and wellness. We wanted to expand that into what choices you can make to impact your health and wellness. We came up with this idea about the science of healthy choices. We can all say an apple is better than a Snickers bar, but why?

Q. How does the collections director figure in with an exhibit that has few items from the museum?

Of all the science studios, this is the one with the least amount of collections. It doesn’t have any accessioned collection elements. My title is director of collections, but I also handle some of the content. I do some of the writing and the research and the backgrounding. ... A good exhibit has multiple layers. It’s not just for one particular age group. It’s not just for one particular learning style. We try to have some interactive elements, but you don’t just want a bunch of computer screens. You could do that at home. We like to have a little bit of technological interactivity, but then we like to have interactivity that has gross motor skills. With YUM!, there’s a shopping activity. It’s not computer-based. We have another activity involving a balanced diet being an important part of daily life. When you’re making music, it’s a balance – a little bit of vocals, a little bit of drums, a little bit of guitar – so there’s an activity where the plan is to make beautiful music with a balanced diet. We have another great one for social learners. It’s called food pong. Essentially, it’s a projected screen, and the food falls down, and your whole body has to try and keep the food in the air, and if it doesn’t, (the food) goes splat on the ground. The message there is, “Get your body moving.”

Q. How do you recommend a family tackle the museum?

I always tell people to start at the top – go to the elevator, hit 4 – and go all the way down. Then, you don’t miss anything.

email: refresh@buffnews.com

On the Web: Read more about Kathy Leacock and Charles Rand Penney at refresh@buffnews.com