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October 18, 2013
Seven alumni involved in makeover of exhibition about early human ancestors.
By Carolyn Jack
Apes evolve. So do artists.
Both processes can be seen in the new Human Origins Gallery at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.
Anchored by a hairy hominid nicknamed Lucy, the freshly redone exhibition area exists to show the significant developments that have occurred in our ancestral primates over millennia. But it just as clearly highlights the stunning changes taking place in display creation, in the museum as a whole, and in the professional skills of the seven Cleveland Institute of Art-educated designers who played key roles in one or both.
Like the old exhibition it replaces, the new gallery that opened Sept. 20 centers on some fossilized bones discovered by former museum curator Donald Johanson, Ph.D., in 1974. They belonged to Lucy, a female member of the 3.2-million-year-old species Australopithecus afarensis, a small, humanlike creature that walked upright on two feet.
Just as comparing Lucy to modern people illuminates both amazing similarities and differences, so the way her bones are now presented emphasizes just how much more sophisticated exhibition design and technology have become in 30 years. And the pace of change keeps speeding up: Creating such exhibits has required the seven CIA alumni on the Human Origins team to use every skill they gained in school and to develop more, besides.
Joel Alpern, the museum’s director of exhibits, started with a 1997 BFA in Printmaking from CIA. He went on to earn an MFA in studio art at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and since then, he’s learned about graphic design, advertising and management in jobs that began with his student work in CIA’s Reinberger Galleries alongside gallery director and adjunct professor Bruce Checefsky.
“I think what CIA was really great at was teaching you critical-thinking skills,” says Alpern. “You’re always looking to challenge yourself and you develop a thick skin.” Plus, preparing exhibitions “was something I always enjoyed,” he explains. “I enjoyed the pressure.”
That’s a good thing, because redoing and reopening the Human Origins Gallery required cramming a great deal of detailed work into a mere nine months. As head of the creative team, Alpern dealt with budgets and deadlines, worked with outside contractors and museum staff, oversaw the interpretive planning for the gallery’s content and wrote the copy that appears alongside the displays, all while simultaneously planning for the museum’s anticipated new building and for the changes in exhibits that new building will require.
“We really want our visitors not only to have an understanding of the subject matter, but to understand the institution, as well,” Alpern says. The Lucy exhibit “is a key piece to show where the museum is going in general.”
Thus, the writing is tricky. An immense amount of science has to be reduced to just the items of information most important to get across to visitors. Then those points have to be worded simply enough to engage and interest young people, but accurately and informatively enough to satisfy adults.
The same is true of the display’s visuals and interactive components. When imagery has to be scientifically accurate, it helps to have a degree in Biomedical Art, as Interpretive Designer Maria Burke does. The 2008 CIA grad served as art director and manager for the Lucy project. Having lived through a BFA project and rounds of critical evaluations has been useful, too. “Having the background experience has really helped me a lot,” Burke notes. Learning good problem-solving, management and teamwork skills from her BFA process has meant, “being able to come up with your own solutions. You have more confidence in your work when you have a good, hard crit.”
She and Alpern say they value a CIA-like atmosphere of collegial collaboration in their creative processes, which often involves numbers of people. For instance, Burke gave some ideas and specifications for a two-dimensional artwork depicting the habitat in which early primates lived to Josh Maxwell ’13, a freelance illustrator who also has a Biomedical Art degree. With the help of the museum’s curator of paleobotany and paleoecology Denise Su, Ph.D., and Adobe Illustrator software, Maxwell created a brightly stylized environmental landscape correct in detail down to the individual types of vegetation and animals who shared it. Then he and Burke had to experiment with color values and textures for the final printed version of the piece, which looks like paint on canvas.
With such painstaking accuracy, “it was definitely a tedious process, but I guess that comes with the territory,” Maxwell says. “It was a really big, important part to talk with Maria – there’s a lot of tweaking that goes on. The good part is that the design was kind of a test for the new museum,” helping Alpern and others figure out how elements will be fabricated and displayed in the new building.
With so many elements in the exhibition, the process of planning, creation, adjustment and installation became intensive, Alpern says. The gallery contains, among many other pieces, graphics such as maps and timelines laid out by Burke, and a computer card game she designed that, rather like Old Maid, lets players match pictures of Stone Age tools.
Fellow Biomedical Art grad Derrick Nau ’13 designed an ingenious three-dimensional primate skull puzzle and had it made on a 3-D printer at Case Western Reserve University’s think[box] invention center. And for the central Lucy recreation – a fleshed-out, three-dimensional model of what Lucy might have looked like in real life, based on the bones that were found – the museum hired a world renowned paleoartist who made the body in a pose that reveals its differences from earlier primates, such as its slimmer rib cage and anatomy of its feet.
And there’s more to designing a new gallery than creating imaginative, accurate elements for the exhibit. The museum team had to decide how best to present them and then create the “frame” in which they would be displayed, planning and choosing everything from type fonts, carpet pattern and wall-paint colors to the order and eye level – kids’ or adults’? – at which each piece will be seen. The goal? To create a kind of visual academic course in primate evolution, but to tell it vividly, absorbingly. Alpern wanted a story, not a lecture. Good thing he could call on a talent pool of CIA grads.
Brandon Miller ’10, the museum’s exhibit media technician, was charged with sourcing, installing, and integrating the audiovisual hardware systems for the three interactive media pieces in the exhibit. This included working closely with the interactive media designer to insure that the hardware systems would work seamlessly with the software applications. Miller, who started his CIA career as a T.I.M.E.-Digital Arts major but graduated with a BFA in Painting, had the right problem-solving skills for the job.
Special Exhibits Coordinator Stephen Misencik ’79, served as the lighting designer. The Industrial Design grad’s role, explained Alpern, “was to develop a lighting approach to best support the overall design vision for the project. This included creating design drawings, sourcing fixtures and equipment, coordinating the installation, and setting the final arrangement prior to opening. Steve also coordinated the production of various display fixtures by outside contractors, including case work and metal fabrication.”
The last touches to the gallery came from Seasonal Exhibit Technician Nicole Golembiewski ’98. A Sculpture alumna and self-taught stained-glass artist, she has become expert in the construction and mechanical skills required for installing display elements. Though she laughingly describes a lot of her work as “heavy lifting,” she uses serious craftsmanship in designing and building special permanent walls for dioramas. As the project’s finisher, Golembiewski also perfected the surfaces – all surfaces – of the Lucy gallery so that they seem to disappear, allowing the informational elements to stand out for visitors navigating the roomful of images and words.
It was her job to make the gallery “as crisp and clear and professional and possible,” she explains. “It just comes naturally to me. I’m extremely methodical. If there’s a ridiculous amount of painting to be done, as long as I have my materials, I’m good. Everyone has their niche.”
And though, for some members of the team, those niches may not be where they originally expected to take their art skills, the challenges of museum work have become exciting to them. Alpern, for one, says he can’t imagine doing anything else now.
“What I’m doing now is very different from what I envisioned for myself at CIA,” he says with enthusiasm. “I’ve evolved.”
For more information on the Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s Human Origins Gallery, click here.
Above, the CIA alumni behind the success of the renovation of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s Human Origins Gallery are, left to right: Sculpture grad Nicole Golembiewski ’98, seasonal exhibit technician; Industrial Design grad Stephen Misencik ’79, special exhibits coordinator; Biomedical Art grad Maria Burke ’09, interpretive designer; Printmaking grad Joel Alpern ’97, director of exhibits; Painting grad Brandon Miller ’10, exhibit media technician; Biomedical Art grad Derrick Nau ’13, freelancer who worked on 3D modeling and 3D printing; and Biomedical Art grad Josh Maxwell ’13 a freelancer who worked on illustrations.
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