John Klausmeyer may not be well known, but without him, the Exhibit Museum of Natural History wouldn’t be much fun or very educational. He is the senior exhibit preparator behind the puma-flanked doors of the LSA museum. Klausmeyer, who also teaches an LSA museum methods course, is the chief of four who set up the dinosaur bones, determine how material will be displayed and make all the information in the museum palatable for kindergartners and college students alike. In his lab on the fourth floor, he reiterated how much he wants to draw in students. He even went as far as to suggest the museum as an unlikely but endearing place for a date.
The Michigan Daily: How did you get your start at the Museum of Natural History?
John Klausmeyer: You don’t have to have a certain degree to do museum work. You do need to show certain skills or have certain experience. I have a masters in medical and biological illustration and have a lot of background in biological science and art and design. I did that for a while after I got out of school. I actually knew the director at the museum here. I always thought it would be really neat (to work at the museum). It was a pay cut, but it wasn’t such a bad one. So I came here, and here is where I’ve been since (1984).
TMD: What is a typical day for you at the museum?
JK: Probably more often than not I tend to be working on exhibit signage. So a lot of time I’ll come in and be sitting by the computer using a design program. Or if we are involved in assembling something, I might spend days on end wearing a vapor mask doing molding and casting, using fiberglass and polyester resin. So it does vary. One of my functions on the (Mastodon) project was reassembling the bones. I was spending weeks on end just sitting sticking that bone to that bone to that bone. To me, doing that kind of hands-on work is really (one of the things) I like about the job.
TMD: As far as writing up the information in the exhibits, who does that work?
JK: It varies. Usually at some stage I’m always editing, but some of the time I’m doing the basic writing and some of the time I’m not. The curators all know way more than me about a certain subject, so we are always involving them.
Our job is to make this stuff as palatable as possible, and still have it be accurate. It is always a challenge. That was our big challenge with the HIV (exhibit) downstairs. Everyone loves dinosaurs, and everyone loves wildlife. How can we make an exhibit out of this? (HIV) is just grim – not a happy subject. We worked with some students from the Museum Studies Program, and one actually came up with a comic strip, so that you could read the exhibit without coming out with a doomed feeling. But (biological science) is something that we really need to do that is our thing: trying to show the public and students on campus this is what is going on in science – this is what we know and this is how we know it.
TMD: How long does a typical display take?
JK: It really varies. They always take longer than we think they are going to take! (The process) involves starting from scratch: meet the curator, you figure out what his story is, collect his materials from him, do the writing, assemble the graphics, assemble the stuff in the case, if there are objects they need to have mounts to hold them.
TMD: Do you interact with any of the museum patrons?
JK: Not a huge amount, there are actually a few staff people who are involved in doing public tours and interacting with the public. I feel like that is part of my job, I make the exhibits. But if somebody runs into me, I’m part of the experience now. I always try to be pleasant and give them as much information as I can. Unless I’m really swamped or horribly busy with something, I really try to take the time to show people around. It wouldn’t be viewed as the real function of my job, but something I try to take seriously is to make the public feel welcome. If a student comes by and knocks on my door, I would be happy to tell them what I’m doing.
TMD: Concerning the fourth floor, do you have plans to focus more, in anthropology, on artifacts or will you try to incorporate more modern dynamics?
JK: We will really try to focus on (professors’ parts in the) research. And that helps sidestep the issue of having some culture group be really angry that you’ve singled them out for being included with the bones and the dead (birds). (We will probably highlight the University’s) research and to go in that direction instead of trying to tell stories of culture groups, which is pretty antiquated anyway.
TMD: Where do you see the museum in five years?
JK: Hopefully we will have (a new gallery) . and more rotating things going on here. I’m hoping that as things change out more often, (it) will really help (with increased student attendance).
TMD: In terms of more interactive exhibits, where do you see the museum moving?
JK: Definitely, with the more high-tech interactive things, they don’t last as long, they get-out-of-date faster. As opposed to an exhibit case that has fossils. The fossils aren’t going to change. So I think there is going to be more stuff rotating through.
I like to have a balance. There is the expectation (of) really neat big skeletons and things with big teeth and dioramas and (stuff) that museums have been doing for hundreds of years or more. But people also like to have the chance to do the interactive, more, high-tech stuff. The more stimulation – the more varied of an experience you can give people – the more fun they are going to have. And the more you are going to hold their interest.
(The museum) is a neat mix of very modern up-to-date exhibits and some really old exhibits, and I think that gives it some character. I would rather be at a place that has some old funky areas and new areas. We are always picking away at the older areas, but in some ways because it has a smaller budget, it retains its character.
A lot of people have said, “I like your museum because it looks and feels and smells like a museum.” If you go to places that are all snazzy and fixed up, it is almost too glossy and processed and homogenized of an experience . sort of Disney-esque.