Haverford — Winter 2012
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Engaging Exhibitions

Wander around Chicago’s sprawling Shedd Aquarium for a while and you’ll see Kris Nesbitt’s touch all over the place.

Nesbitt helped create the aquarium’s Amazon Rising exhibit, which has been educating visitors about the great river’s flood cycles for more than a decade. She was part of the team that helped revamp the institution’s oceanarium and con-ceived its Polar Play Zone, aimed at young children and their families.Nesbitt also helped develop the aquarium’s blockbuster show Jellies, which has been drawing record crowds since it opened in April 2011. As Shedd’s director of exhibits, she’s even involved in conceptualizing the garden displays outside the lakefront building, which were greatly expanded in August with the installation of a wetlands area meant to teach visitors about the importance of native habitat and sustainable gardening practices.

But Nesbitt doesn’t have a background in marine biology or horticulture. She doesn’t have a degree in graphic design or early childhood education. As an exhibit developer, instead she’s the ultimate generalist.

“In a job like this, you are a writer, an educator, a designer, a concept person,” she says. “It’s about creativity and ideas and strategy: Here is this collection we have, and we want to share it in this way. Here is the story we want to tell.

How are we going to do that?”

Nesbitt first learned about collections and exhibits and telling stories at the Chester County Historical Society in West Chester, Pa., where she worked during a gap year after high school. The West Chester native found museum work so captivating she maintained the connection through her years at Haverford, where she majored in English. “Every Wednesday and Saturday I would leave campus and go and work my shift,” says Nesbitt, who did everything from taking tickets and guiding tours, to working on a project to get historic toys reproduced. “That’s the great thing about small museums. You get to wear a lot of hats,” she says. Another great thing: “You are always closing that feedback loop when you get to see people interacting with artifacts, and displays you’ve created. Seeing kids get excited was really motivating to me.”

Not long after she graduated in 1995, Nesbitt was planning a move to Chicago and chasing down leads on museum jobs when someone passed on a contact at Shedd. “I wasn’t going to call,” she says. “I thought, I don’t know anything about fish. I’m not a marine biologist. What would I do in an aquarium?”

When she did finally make the call, she found out they were hiring for an entry-level position in exhibit development. She sent her résumé, snagged an interview and quickly got the job. It turns out that the woman doing the hiring, says Nesbitt, was “lamenting that they had posted the position and all they were getting were marine biologists. They wanted someone who could think conceptually. They were excited about my liberal arts background and the work I’d done throughout college.”

Nesbitt was soon immersed in helping develop, from initial concept to final form, a new exhibit that would tell the story of the flood cycles of the Amazon region. The development process, which spanned nearly three years, required two research trips to Peru. “I totally fell in love with the Amazon,” says Nesbitt, who spent one of those trips observing And photographing a family that lived in one of the traditional stilt houses built to accommodate the flood cycles. Some of her photos made their way into the exhibit and the research became the basis forMy Amazon River Day, a children’s book Nesbitt wrote to accompany the exhibit.

The opening of Amazon Rising in 2000 brought Nesbitt’s job to an end (a common occurrence for exhibit developers hired on a project basis), and she went on to pursue a master’s degree in folklore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “My work on Amazon Rising was really like a big ethnographic project, and I think that’s what inspired me to go to grad school,” she says. “I wanted to learn more about engaging communities and telling stories in a meaningful, resonant way.”

While in North Carolina, Nesbitt worked on an exhibit for the Greensboro Historical Museum about the history of the Cambodian refugee community there. That project lead to her co-authoring her second children’s book, Sokita Celebrates the New Year: A Cambodian American Holiday. (A few years later, in a special project with the Chicago History Museum, Nesbitt would write four more narratives for children. The project, called Great Chicago Stories, tapped writers to create stories—available as pdfs and sound files—to be used in history Lessons for elementary school classrooms.)

After graduate school came a year’s interlude in Turkey, teaching English on a Fulbright. Back in the U.S., Nesbitt returned to her Pennsylvania hometown and began freelancing as an exhibit developer, working with museums and organizations around the country “I always thought I would settle back in West Chester,” she says. “Then I got back there and realized, This isn’t fitting with the person I am now. I would visit friends in Chicago and felt a pull. Then one day some people here called and said we’re setting up some big projects— are you interested in coming back?” Within weeks she had a job at Shedd and an apartment in the same building she’d lived in before. “My teenage cousin called it my ‘do-over,’ ” Nesbitt says with amusement.

On the lower level of

Shedd’s Abbott Oceanarium, beluga whales and Pacific white-sided dolphins rocket around giant tanks in the underwater viewing area, and penguins waddle about in their glass-enclosed habitat. Here, in the Polar Play Zone, kids in a child-size yellow submarine play at being deep-sea explorers, while others don penguin costumes in a special area where they can take care of pretend eggs and slide on their bellies just as penguins do on the ice.

“The idea here is that young kids really learn best through play,” says Nesbitt, as she gives a visitor a tour of the Polar Play Zone, which she helped develop on her return to the aquarium. Figuring out the details of such a space took Nesbitt into some new territory as an exhibit developer.

“We worked with Universal Design consultants to create wheelchair transfer points, so that a kid who can’t walk or climb up into the penguin play area can use it,” she says. For the yellow submarine, the company that constructed it searched eBay for vintage dials and gauges that would give the look of a real submersible. And to enhance the educational aspect of the Exhibit, Nesbitt worked with the exhibit designer and a graphic designer to come up with something she calls “play labels.” The briefly worded signs teach children about nature using simple concepts such as opposites. For example: cold and warm, rough and smooth.

For “in and out,” Nesbitt composed this:

In the water, penguins swim by

flapping their wings as if they are flying.

Out of the water, penguins slowly waddle and hop. They can’t fly, even though they have wings.

Streamlined and economical like a haiku, that bit of prose garnered an award from the American Association Of Museums, which runs an annual Excellence in Exhibit Label Writing Competition.

In general, says Nesbitt, “the more big words, the more intense the content, the more people zone out. The shorter a label is, the more people will read it. And you want people reading as much as possible to augment the exhibit.” That’s a particular challenge, she says, at a place like Shedd. With more than two million visitors a year, the aquarium, where long lines form outside on peak summer days, is the most visited cultural institution in Chicago. “When you are pushing a stroller through a crowd, that’s not so conducive to reading a really long Exhibit label,” Nesbitt observes.

As an exhibit developer, Nesbitt is always striving to see through the eyes of the aquarium’s visitors. She’s looking for ways to make complex information accessible and to find the compelling story in the intricate workings of nature and its denizens. It’s a relatively new approach in the museum world, she says. “Exhibit development as a field emerged out of the curatorial model of exhibits, where you had extreme content experts—someone with a Ph.D. in the subject at hand—approving objects and writing content,” she says. “Then, when the field of visitor studies began to evolve in the 1980s and early 1990s, it started to become apparent that a lot of resources were being given to exhibits and the audiences coming through were not getting as much out of it as they could.” With An added push from museum education departments, and with Chicago institutions—in particular the Field Museum—leading the way, a movement toward audience-driven exhibits arose.

At Shedd, which promoted her to director of exhibits in October, Nesbitt coordinates large exhibit planning teams that include designers and builders, the aquarium’s education and public relations departments, as well as the conservation department and aquarists. (Also part of the process are exhibit evaluators who look at every aspect of an exhibit, through visitor surveys and other means, to gauge its success in connecting with audiences.)

Animal husbandry experts on the team are the ones who must determine how the sea creatures in an exhibit can best, and most safely, be displayed.

Jellies, for example, are short-lived and very seasonal. That led to a rethinking of the labeling for the exhibit.

“With other animals, you might know your species list well ahead of Time,” says Nesbitt. “But it’s the nature of jellies that this is going to be a constantly shifting and changing collection. We didn’t want to have to get new signs made every time a jelly was changed. So instead, we put iPads into the wall. With a content management program, someone in an office can plug in and switch all the Ids.”

For the ethereal special exhibit Jellies, Nesbitt faced an accelerated timeline for development—just ten months from kickoff to opening day. During that period, she also happened to be pregnant with her first child, daughter Cora, now a year old, who was born exactly a month before the exhibit opened. “I remember we were in the stage of label writing and it was, ‘Work at home if you need to, but please don’t go into labor before you finish these labels!’ ” says Nesbitt, whose husband, Jim Heniff, is an adjunct professor of history at the College of DuPage.

Creating the labels for Jellieswas no easy process. Nesbitt found herself politely battling it out with marine biologists who specialize in the science of these fascinating creatures, about which so much is still unknown. “Exhibit developers operate in a realm that is much more about: What are the broader issues? What are the hooks that are going to engage and intrigue people?” she says. “And if you are really passionate about marine biology, it is much harder to step back and think, What are the things that will resonate with two million people coming through the doors with a diversity of knowledge and understanding?”

“I was getting a lot of push-back,” she says. “They were saying, ‘There’s not enough information, there’s not enough information.’

” But Nesbitt prevailed and later, after the exhibit opened, a scientist who had argued strongly against her streamlined texts approached her. Recalls Nesbitt, “He said, ‘I totally get it now. I see people walking out quoting stuff on the wall. I see people reading. I see them interacting. I am totally on board. There has to be less for people to get more out of it.’ ”

“That was a big step,” says Nesbitt. “But in some areas of the museum world, the pendulum has swung backward and some institutions are doing expert-centric exhibits again. That is a lost opportunity. We know so much more now about what is going to make things meaningful to people. We know how to provide a platform for dialogue and engagement.”


Rainey Tisdale’s major in Growth & Structure of Cities got her on track to becoming an expert, if not the expert, on city museums. After earning a master’s in museum studies from George Washington University, she headed north to the Bostonian Society, where she spent a decade working in collections management and curatorship. In 2010 she won a Fulbright to conduct research in Helsinki, Finland, and on her way home spent a month traveling in Europe and visiting city museums. Now she spends most of her time studying and consulting to city museums.

Tisdale says American city museums, many of which seem stuck in a traditional rut, have a lot to learn from their foreign counterparts. “In Rotterdam,” she says, “they went around the city knocking on every 10th door and documenting that household.” That way, in a hundred years, the museum’s collection will represent more than just what one curator might think is important.

“Audience engagement is big, and so you want to meet people where they are. You don’t necessarily want to just lay out a standard historical chronology,” Tisdale says. “Museums need to include more ethnic groups, different stories.”

“I also think the hyper-local approach is really important,” she says. “With all this new technology, we need to push ourselves into the streets, into the neighborhoods. We want to understand a city down to each block.”

During the fall semester, as a fellow at Brown University’s Center for Public Humanities, Tisdale put her philosophy into practice developing the exhibition You Are Here: Archiving Providence in the Present, which ran from Dec. 8 through Feb. 17.

One display in the show documented “Providence longing” with text culled from Facebook and Craigslist, obituary notices, and want ads. The notes were printed on old-school catalog cards, and visitors were invited to add their own.

“The concept is that there are different ways of knowing a city,” says Tisdale, “and who’s to say these lived experiences aren’t just as valuable to collect and interpret?”

Also part of the show were a display of handdrawn mental maps of the city, a map of photographs of urban details that could only be noticed by pedestrians and a collection of “sound marks” —the aural equivalent of landmarks. To create those, Tisdale’s team worked with Providence high school students to identify and record some of the sounds that define where they live, like a school bell or a highway’s rumble.

“There’s a shift toward the audience that I think is really cool,” she says. “It’s about shared authority—it’s Museum 2.0.” —Mara Miller ’10

Read about Tisdale’s work on her blog, www.raineytisdale.wordpress. com, and learn more about the Providence exhibition at http://youarehere2011.wordpress.com.


When she arrived at Haverford as a freshman, Leslie Kesler already had a hunch she’d one day like to work in a history museum. After graduation, she earned a master’s in American history at the College of William and Mary before joining the education department at the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh. She moved to a curatorial role there before finding her way back to her hometown of Charlotte to join a smaller museum staff and tuck into a more focused slice of geography.

“It was a good change for me in terms of the different scale and the impact I could have on projects,” she says. “It lets me be a little more nimble as a curator.”

Kesler says the most engrossing part of her job happens behind the scenes, “when I’m sitting around a table with my team and we’re bouncing ideas off each other trying to decide, OK, how do we illustrate the concept of religion? What can we use to get people thinking? Those are the peak moments for me,” she says.

In Raleigh, Kesler worked on an exhibition about a 19th-century traveling show called the Panorama, which included giant painted posters that had been rolled up in an attic for decades. “As a team, we had so many problems to solve,” she says. “We had to figure out how to unroll it without ruining the color, how to get a photographer above it to take a picture,” she says. “The process is so satisfying.”

More recently, Kesler has been on the lookout for new objects to feature in a rotating exhibition called Charlotte Stories, which features seldom-seen items from the museum’s collection of more than 13,000 artifacts as well as borrowed treasures. “Sometimes the stories are about how the objects were made or used,” she says, “but sometimes they’re about what we do behind the scenes—the clues we followed to discover more about where something came from, or the special way we store something to take care of it.”

Kesler says the joy of curating comes from being part of whatever a given museum means to its community. “It’s about making that match,” she says, whether you’re in a tiny historical cabin or a pillared marble showcase.

She is a proud generalist, and incessantly curious: “I love being able to do a little bit of everything,” she says. “And I can’t think of a more fun thing to do than to have a whole career made up of learning about things and telling people about them.” —M. M.


Edward L. Bleiberg’s career has taken him around the globe, from Haverford to Yale University and Jerusalem to Toronto. A history major and religion minor at the College, he began graduate work in Near Eastern studies and eventually earned a doctorate in Egyptology. After living in Tennessee for a dozen years while teaching at and later directing the University of Memphis’s Institute of Egyptian Art and Archaeology, Bleiberg moved to Brooklyn and worked his way up the curatorial ladder to the position he holds today.

Bleiberg was recently involved in creating the traveling exhibition To Live Forever: Egyptian Treasures From the Brooklyn Museum. The show, in the last stop of an 11-city tour, will be on view through June 3 at the Joslyn Art Museum, in Omaha, Neb.

The storyline of the exhibition “is that Egyptian tombs reflect the social position of the person who’s buried there,” Bleiberg says. “Most people today think of burials of kings, but most people in ancient Egypt couldn’t have burials like that. But they did what they could to copy.”

Bleiberg says the exhibition was crafted to highlight comparisons between the real deal and creative imitation by less wealthy Egyptians. “We’re very visitor-centered,” he says, “and so we’re thinking of a person who’s interested in Egypt but doesn’t have much background. Then, we get to tell them a story using all these ancient objects.” Items in the show illustrating the budget-conscious “creative imitation” by the less wealthy include mummy masks and sarcophagus lids made from yellow-painted clay (to mimic gold), and ancestral busts fashioned from clay instead of stone.

The trick—and the tricky part—of organizing such a show, says Bleiberg, is telling the visitor a compelling story about each object in less than 100 words. Not everyone was a Haverford history major, and not everyone is going to read all the labels for the artifacts in the show.

Bleiberg says this exhibition reflects a trend among museums toward representing a broad cross-section of a society, rather than just its elite. “Archaeological materials do lend themselves to that,” he says. “And this change in mindset really was rooted in the kind of undergraduate education I received. … Changes in scholarship that started then are showing up in museums now.”

Bleiberg’s success boils down to a love for the stuff itself. “The best part,” he says, “is just interacting with this collection, and working with all the artifacts we have right here.” —M. M.