CDC Museum: A mixture of history, health and culture

Photo by Hannah Greco | The Signal

It is no secret that the City of Atlanta is home to quite a number of historic sites and prominent establishments. Whether it is for entertainment purposes, or to provide information, the options are bountiful. Sometimes, both education and leisure can be obtained in the same environment.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is one of the state’s most distinguished government organizations, and their work has been very instrumental in protecting the health of individuals within the nation and spreading awareness across the globe, as outlined extensively on the agency’s website.

When the Ebola crisis escalated in 2014, the foundation presented hospitals with guidelines on how to reduce spreading the disease should cases arise. They provided assistance in West Africa, greatly contributing to the containment of the fever. What some may not be aware of is that in addition to their preventive work, the Atlanta center has housed the David J. Sencer CDC Museum for the past two decades, according to CDC.GOV.

In itself, the museum is as much about history as it is a secondary channel to dispel the motives of the disease l-control organization.

“The CDC Museum’s mission is to educate visitors about the value of prevention–based public health, while collecting, preserving, and presenting CDC’s rich heritage and vast accomplishments through engaging museum exhibitions and dynamic educational programming,” according to their website.

The museum’s beginning

Judy Gantt, the facility’s art director, is a key figure in executing and sustaining this crucial mission. She informed The Signal that the museum was “founded in 1996 [and] it was the brainchild of a number of people at CDC, who were interested in displaying CDC’s history, and also Dr. David Satcher, who was the director of the CDC at the time.”

Exactly 50 years after the control center was formed, the accompanying art and information space was created for public consumption.

“It was really put together to commemorate the 50th anniversary [of the CDC], and it was also 1996 when the Olympics were in Atlanta,” Gantt said.

Later, with Gantt’s encouragement, it was renamed to honor David J. Sencer, who had dedicated over ten years of his career to the center.

“When he died, I really wanted to honor him by getting CDC to name the museum after him,” Gantt said. Sencer was the longest serving director at the CDC, having held the position from 1966 until 1977.


Since its inception, the foundation has grown and evolved along with the place it calls home. Naturally, the scope of the foundation’s service and its resources expanded, which inevitably meant its building needed to as well. Plans to move into a more accommodating location began in 1999 and officially took effect in 2005, further enlarging their reach.

“We have a much bigger space and a much bigger opportunity to display more of CDC’s history, and also bring temporary exhibits, which we [change] every three or four months,” Gantt said.

Developing exhibitions of the magnitude like those featured at the museum is not a simple project. Extensive research is required, and every arrangement must uphold the goals of the museum. Gantt explains that the curation process is in no way a singular effort, rather, it involves Curator Louise Shaw and frequently, other institutions as well.

“It’s a team process,” Gant said, in regards to temporary exhibits specifically. “[Shaw] and I discuss what would be appropriate to display here. We need an exhibit, one, that we can afford; and two, that relates to CDC’s work in some way.”

As an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, exhibits are sometimes granted to the curation team. In addition, it is not uncommon for them to partner with other affiliates or science museums.

“There are Smithsonian museums that we know about and get temporary exhibits from, or we do it ourselves,” Gantt said.

In 2015, for instance, GYRE: The Plastic Ocean was shown, which was an exhibition organized by the Anchorage Museum in Alaska. This particular assemblage was an exploration of how carelessly discarded plastic waste impacts the ocean and disrupts the ecosystem. It also featured works created by Georgia State art professor Pamela Longobardi.

Longobardi currently works in the Ernest G. Welch School of Art and Design. There, she teaches drawing and painting for all levels, as well as graduate level seminar, and art and environment courses.

“I was one of the original team [members] for the GYRE expedition, which was the basis for the exhibition, actually,” Longobardi said. “[I was] the first artist contacted by Howard Ferren of the Alaska Sealife Center. He had a vision for the project, and I helped him assemble the artist team and get the Anchorage Museum onboard.”

The professor, along with more than 30 other artists, brought the exhibition to life through authentic, informative works concerning the damage plastic is imposing on the oceans.

“It was amazing that even though all the material was basically the same, the work was incredibly visually diverse and striking: from large to miniature sculpture, photography, video, painting, drawing and more. It contained a lot of scientific information as well, and this is important because the research on plastic’s effects in the world adds an element of stark reality to this not benign material,” Longobardi said.

Currently on display is A Lens on CDC: The Photographs of Jim Gathany, which will run until May 26.

“Jim Gathany has been the official CDC photographer for more than 30 years,” Gantt said. “All the pictures you see of mosquitos on websites and in publications, he has taken. He’s just an iconic photographer who is brilliant, at the behest of scientists, taking pictures to document specimens, mold or bacteria.”

Gathany’s photo exhibit goes beyond showcasing his respected work, with having his idiosyncratic processes examined as well. These methods entail allowing mosquitoes to bite him in order to photograph them, and more technical details, like the equipment he uses and details about his zooming techniques.

Along with the available visual spread are panel discussions that delve deeper into the artist’s work. Viewers can ruminate over fascinating images of ticks, lice and other insects that may carry diseases.

“We are also displaying a few of the many thousands of publications that have used his photographs,” Gantt said.

Looking ahead

Gantt and Shaw have begun to lay groundwork for an upcoming exhibition that will be introduced later this year. Its focal point is a fusion of African culture and inspection of the widely feared disease that reached epidemic status on the continent a few years back.

“We are doing an exhibit on Ebola that will be up in June. So, we are getting artifacts from Africa, we are doing a lot of oral histories with people [and] we are finding graphics from around the world to tell the story in an engaging and insightful way,” Gantt said.

What’s more, the team is in the early stages of constructing a series that hits closer to home. Though, it will be some time before the exhibition materializes.

“In a couple of years we will open an exhibit, we are not sure what it’s going to be called. It’s going to be on American Indians and Alaska Natives. It will also include a traveling exhibit that we will get from the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry called Roots of Wisdom,” Gantt said.

In the meantime, visitors can survey the live temporary exhibit, as well as the permanent one that is centered on the CDC’s history and contributions.

“We have self-guided tours, or people fill out a form and get a guided tour for 10 or more. But [visitors] can just come in anytime and walk through [themselves],” Gantt said.

While the primary basis for the foundation are topics of health and environment, it manages to stay within those parameters, but still incorporate other elements that appeal to a diverse audience like Atlanta. The museum advances a comprehensive cultural experience consisting of history, health-related information and creative undertakings.

 Museum Features

  • Open five days a week
  • Free entry and parking
  • Guided Tours
  • Family-friendly facility
  • Permanent exhibit (CDC history)
  • Temporary and traveling exhibits

Sidebar: 2017 Exhibits


  • A Lens on CDC: The Photographs of Jim Gathany – on display now
  • Working Together. Defeating Ebola – coming in June