|Willard Whitson, formerly the Associate Director and Senior Exhibition Developer of the Exhibition Department at the American Museum of Natural History and the Museum's developer for its newest permanent exhibit, the Hall of Biodiversity, is now Director of Exhibits and Education at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. The Hall of Biodiversity includes one of the largest dioramas in the world, the 2,400-square-foot Central African Republic rain forest.
We asked Willard how he started out on a career path that brought him to this particular rain forest.
"By accident," he replied. "I majored in painting in college, but when I got out I wasn't at all sure what I wanted to do. I put off the decision for a while by going to graduate school, which trained me to teach painting to other students who wouldn't know what they wanted to do after they graduated."
Actually getting a teaching job proved difficult, however. "I sent out about 600 letters looking for teaching posts and got back six answers, all of which were 'no.'"Willard was pretty discouraged, though he laughed when he recalled one response, from a college in southern Canada, that suggested he apply for a job somewhere up near the Arctic Circle. "I didn't pursue that idea," he said. Finally he got a job teaching art at a private alternative high school in his native Alabama and also taught some courses at local colleges. That was followed by two years as a building contractor. At the time, Willard could not have imagined that such work would play a part in his later career, but it did.
"Then I took a job as an illustrator at a tiny natural history museum in Birmingham called the Red Mountain Museum, and within a year I was the exhibit director," Willard said. Before he knew it, he had embarked on a career that brought him to AMNH 12 years ago.
"My training was definitely on the job. Everything I learned about exhibit design I learned by designing exhibits," he admitted. Still, he said, "a lot of things that I've done in the past contributed to what I do now." These include model railroading and building other kinds of models; a background in theater, including acting and set design and building; and work in video, on both sides of the camera. "All of those skills and activities are part of what I do, whether it's constructing or imagining or interpreting either as an actor, director, videographer, or set designer, even as a contractor building houses. One of the things I really like about this field is that it draws on a lot of disciplines. I don't profess to be a master at any of them, but there is no question that having more than a passing knowledge of both the theatrical and the practical side of things, as well as my art background, all help me in the work I do now."
One thing he did not mention was a background in science. "It's true. I don't have a science background, but I've always enjoyed science, and as a kid I loved science fiction." We asked him if that interfered with his being able to do his job well. "Actually, I think it helps," he answered. "Because I have a layman's knowledge of science, I am able to put myself in the place of the museum visitor. I believe that the ultimate goal of an exhibit designer is to take knowledge from someone who has it and interpret it for someone who does not."