Exhibit designer: Imagination key for DPA adventure
Posted: Wednesday, May 12, 2010 9:03 pm
Special Features Editor
It expands. It contracts.
It rips the boundaries of the quantitative know-able. It wraps warmly the qualitative human experience.
It maximizes possibilities. It minimizes restrictions.
It pushes beyond Planet Earth. It encompasses continents like Europe, Asia, Africa and America; countries like South Africa and the Netherlands; cities like Beijing, San Francisco and New York; even counties like Obion.
And museum exhibit designer Tom Hennes’ imagination and questing spirit are thriving on “It” — the “adventure of the presentable.”
Hennes is founder and principal of Thinc Design in New York. His team has been charged with finding ways to showcase this corner of the world’s view of the world through Discovery Park of America. The 50-acre education-entertainment-tourism project is under design and will occupy a site bounded by Everett Boulevard and the proposed I-69 in Union City’s northwest quadrant, just opposite Second Baptist Church. The anticipated opening date for the multi-million dollar complex, underwritten by the Robert E. and Jenny D. Kirkland Foundation in Union City, is 2012.
“I started out thinking museums were walk-through theater and I was excited because the work I was involved in was not just designing, but it was also the underlying theories and ideas,” says Hennes, who moved from an anticipated undergraduate degree in physics to an actual degree in German and then to a hands-on job in theater scenery and lighting design and, finally, in 1992 to the founding of Thinc Design in New York as an exhibition design firm.
It is a challenge to determine whether the hunger for knowledge and the thirst for adventure pointed the way to his innovative and contemporary occupation or whether his job provided the boiling point intensity that has cooked up his constant appetite for experience that can be presented. No matter the source, Hennes says, “One of the joys of the way I make a living is learning something new every day.”
Hennes recently returned from the Orient and will be exiting this country again to make new inroads on a beloved project in South Africa before returning to Union City with Madeline Chinnici, Thinc’s senior interpretive planner, and Julie Chung, the firm’s senior designer on Discovery Park of America, later this month.
From the beginning
An interest in theater sidetracked Hennes first as he pursued a physics degree at Kalamazoo College in Michigan, where he grew up. Another detour led him to Germany, where he was required to study for a semester to complete his science major. The experience proved so enjoyable that he decided to change his focus from physics to the German language and was able to spend an entire year abroad. Post-graduate plans were fixed, in the long term, on New York University, where he intended to learn all he could about theater, or to yet another stint in Germany with a focus on photography.
During the interim, he took a job in the Big Apple’s theater district and after a year ended up in the theatrical design union. At that point, he realized he couldn’t envision taking time out for graduate school, so he immersed himself in hands-on learning and for 15 years worked in scenery and lighting for opera, ballet, musical and dramatic theater, foreign dance programs, folk dance presentations and industrial theater efforts that encompassed car shows.
It had never occurred to him, growing up near Detroit, that it would be possible to make a living by helping to tell stories through the use of light and scenery. But he found he was thriving on the effort. Along the way, he made contacts that led to offers to work on some theme-park projects that leaned toward “exhibit” status rather than theatrical presentations. Those, in turn, opened the door to work on Zenstrum, the BMW Museum in Spartanburg, S.C.; a deep-ocean exploration exhibition with famed explorer Robert D. Ballard at the Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut; and a natural history exhibit in The Netherlands.
Hennes’ epiphany occurred one day while he was in a production meeting for “Salome,” to be staged at the Santa Fe Opera.
“In the middle of the meeting, I realized I didn’t care about the sword (the prop that was the topic of discussion). My mind was on that aquarium. I knew, at that point, that I needed to move in the direction of exhibit design. I had already had some fascinating experiences in that area, particularly on the project with Bob Ballard, who discovered the Titanic, and with the geologists in Holland. I found it all fascinating. Not only was I using theater exhibition skills, but I was learning so much — about how the earth works, about the depths of the ocean and deep-water technology and about automobiles. The combination of design and intellectual pursuit excited me on every level.”
In 1992, Hennes founded Thinc as a single-person undertaking, and two years later, he had a “firm” on his hands, with a current staff of 27. His company is one of a handful of concerns with a focus on presentation. Most of his compatriots are in this country or in Europe.
Along the way, the exhibit designer has had his view of the world enlarged through the study of educator, educational theorist, writer and philosopher John Dewey. His introduction to Dewey’s concepts has had a profound effect on the way he does his work.
“A friend, Frank McBride, a retired professor at Wayne State, turned me on to Dewey and his ‘Experience and Education,’ which was published in 1938. It felt like I was meeting an old friend and I spent several years studying him. That led me to an educator named George Hein, who opened even more doors.
“Hein is fascinated by what people do in museums, about how and why they learn and why we need to do the things we do. Museums had a big flowering in the 19th century — especially natural history museums. Most of them grew out of private collections by naturalists who literally went around the world collecting things. Museums became showplaces of a world ordinary people could never hope to travel through. They were temples of knowledge, but instead of being filled with books, they were filled with real specimens of the world. There is a lot of philosophy about why museums were being built then, but essentially they were to entertain and edify the masses and let people see a version of the world they might not otherwise experience.”
Hennes notes that he began his career viewing museums as walk-through theater, and that was exciting to him because he was not just designing but was also delving into the underlying theories and ideas for each project. As he began to immerse himself in the work of educational theorists, however, he came to think of museums as learning environments. In time, that concept expanded, as well.
“I realized it was more than learning. It was self-identification,” he says. “The encountering of something becomes, in some way, a part of how you see yourself. The way the community that makes the museum and the community that experiences the museum through the medium of the exhibit is an important part of what happens. That’s how my thinking has evolved,” Hennes says.
“Today museums are less about a group of elites spreading knowledge to the ‘great unwashed’ world and more about becoming democratic, interesting places where people come to look and think and talk about the same things. Museums are places where communities — whether it’s people in Obion County or scientists from the California Academy of Sciences — tend to put things that represent what holds them together as a community.”
Hennes says his task in this part of the world will mirror what he does on the other side of the world: He and his team will be helping people in Obion County find a means of self-expression that is unique to them.
Creating the unique
“Discovery Park of America will be — in large measure — about how the people of this community see things and how they choose to present them and incorporate them. Through my career, I’ve found the success stories are the places where there is a person-to-person uniqueness with a universal appeal that opens up that passion to people who haven’t encountered it before. A museum should be an interpersonal medium and not just a temple with some stuff in it.”
Hennes says he has already seen the people of Obion County and the surrounding area coming together and thinking about topics like regional history and talking about how to put together an exhibit that expresses both an objective view and a subjective experience of history. It is a valuable exercise, in his opinion, but there is even deeper significance he has come to appreciate through his work with other “community” museum builders around the world.
“By actually making something, by the way it gets made and the people and groups brought in to do that, by the way the different communities within a community intermingle in making the museum — all that helps the community define what their history means to them. So it’s not just placing items in a museum. It’s a process of ‘making.’ It is important to the people making it and, if it is well done, that transmits to the people seeing it. People from outside will see it through a very distinctive lens that has a texture and a quality that is expressive of this part of Tennessee. So it really matters who makes the exhibits, who is involved. It’s important to have good historical expertise, but there’s also a subjective rendering of history. Every part of the community builds an expression of who people are here and where they come from,” Hennes points out.
Making an exhibit, he says, changes the perspective of the maker and, when it is well-made, the perspective of the one who sees it later.
Hennes says he has come to believe that families carry around lots of stories, both consciously and unconsciously — tales they tell over and over again within the confines of their own relationships.
“They tend to see those stories as being ‘the’ story. One of the things that happens as you engage a community in talking about themselves is that discussions open up among communities and some voices and some stories become liberated. Then people begin to see themselves through each other’s eyes. That’s one of the core objectives of museum-making — particularly for anthropological and history museums — that people encounter other perspectives they have simply failed to notice before. You go from narratives of division to different narratives of richness. The stories become interwoven and — as a member of the community eloquently stated recently — ‘become threads of a fabric, not patches of a quilt.’”
In the final analysis, he points out, the highest and best use of a museum is not the product itself but the process of making it that is a real opportunity for growth and transformation.
One of the projects closest to his heart has been an effort in South Africa, initiated by anti-apartheid activist and South African President Nelson Mandela, that has been an expression of this kind of process on a national scale.
“All of the hope and all of the division of that country have become distilled in the project. Issues arise that have brought people together and issues arise that have driven them apart. My role there has been an ‘international advisor’ to aid in guiding the project toward a successful and distinctive conclusion.
“The notion of communities working it through is useful from generation to generation to establish what people think they are about instead of just taking what has been handed down to them without thinking about it. We always view the past from the present. It is always filtered through our own experience. So archives and museum objects provide us with a basis for going back and looking at the original materials of the past, to better inform our present perspective,” he says.
The passion of it
From a purely personal perspective, Hennes is deeply enamored of his unique profession.
“One of the things that excites me is that making a museum allows you to see things as deeply interconnected. The either/or distinctions we encounter tend to dissolve and the idea that we have many identities and that many areas of knowledge are related and that there are many ways of looking at things — these things are not in competition with each other, they contribute to each other. And it is wonderful to be able to float among these knowledge systems.”
That’s life in the “adventure of the presentable.”
Published in The Messenger 5.12.10