North America’s only Museum devoted to the art and science of surgery, located in the historic lakeside Eleanor Robinson Countiss Mansion in Chicago.
From 2015-2017, I was Director of Exhibitions at the International Museum of Surgical Science in Chicago. In this role, I managed the development and implementation of over 40 exhibitions and related public programs, led efforts to stabilize and re-catalogue the Museum’s world class collection of 7,000+ artifacts, rare books, archival materials, and artworks; and was responsible for all aspects of program-restricted fundraising. My time at the Museum saw an overall substantial elevation of the Museum’s public profile, demonstrated by the formation of significant new funder relationships, a surge in regional and national press, increased positive visitor feedback, and a 20% attendance increase over two years. Some highlights of my tenure are detailed below.
Developed timely and popular science and history exhibitions
- Translated broad directives from the Museum’s Board of Trustees into specific exhibition themes, and led committees of subject matter experts and scientific advisers to develop specialized content that formed the basis of exhibitions.
- Developed robust interpretive plans that guided the creation of exhibitions from ideation in committee towards a final public presentation, drove a visitor-centered approach to exhibition design, and tied exhibition themes to the larger interpretive framework and design scheme of the Museum.
- Introduced exhibitions and public programs on the topic of HIV/AIDS, unprecedented at the Museum.
Branding and visitor experience overhaul
- Repurposed dated special exhibitions with evergreen general interest showcases of the Museum’s permanent collection.
- Created a comprehensive interpretive plan that stressed the importance of visitors making connections between the Museum’s permanent exhibitions, special exhibitions, and foundational themes in medical history.
- Worked closely with the Museum’s Director of Education, and the museum technology consultancy Encurate to develop the Museum’s first ever mobile app, which used in-gallery “beacons” to push rich, supplementary content to visitors unique to the gallery in which they were located. Content included both additional information relevant to a specific exhibition, as well as history and anecdotes related to the Museum’s historic property.
- Developed new, evergreen interpretive products, operational and way-finding signage, and floor-plans, that were visually continuous with the Museum’s historic property; including redesigned text and graphics for permanent mural and sculpture galleries in the Museum’s great hall; outfitted the Museum’s galleries with appropriate furnishings.
- Transitioned the Museum’s web presence from a static, un-engaging web-page to a visually arresting, dynamic, and easily updated website. Features included a robust digital listing of past, current, and upcoming exhibitions and public programs; and an active Museum blog featuring special interest articles authored by Museum staff and interns, including “Notes from the Collection,” and “Notes from the Library,” blog posts that highlighted rare artifacts, manuscripts, or a thematically organized special collection, as well as original research into the Museum’s landmark property
Retooled contemporary art programs
- Originally established in 1998 as the Museum’s “Anatomy in the Gallery” program, contemporary art exhibitions at the Museum before 2015 mostly presented figurative painting and drawing, and medical illustration. I restructured the program to feature exhibitions organized around themes of embodiment, pathology, and healthcare in broad, intersecting terms; as well as the Museum’s architecturally significant and historically landmarked property, which was both of topic of public intrigue and artistic interest.
- In 2013, the Museum piloted an artist-in-residence program, which I formalized as an application based, bi-annual residency. The program was designed to provide artists with extended and in-depth access to artifacts from the Museum collection, working space within the Museum, and support to present “capstone” exhibition or equivalent project that introduced additional perspectives to the institutional depiction of medical history, and showcase their “findings” for the public. As artistic practice occupies an increasingly pluralistic field, this program was developed with the belief that artists are uniquely equipped to interpret Museum collections in innovative ways.
- Curated 10 exhibitions of contemporary art, including residency capstone exhibitions, featuring 18 popular Chicago artists, with a concentration of LGBTQ and women artists; and supervised a total of 4 artist residencies.
- Created an annual film, video, and new media screening series that presented artists responses to HIV/AIDS going back to the early 1990s. Featured works included: (In)Visible Women (Ellen Spiro, 1991); Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien [No Regrets] (Marlon Riggs, 1992); How to Survive a Plague (David France, 2012); Blue (Derek Jarman, 1993); Radiant Presence (Various, 2015 – organized by Visual AIDS for the annual Day Without Art); and Convulsive Practice (Various, 2016, organized by Visual AIDS for the annual Day Without Art).
Rallying staff, board, and the public around conservation efforts
- Worked with the Museum’s board to earmark funding for collection management, and hosted public workshops in the Museum’s library to bring attention to conservation topics and open up select conservation processes to curious visitors.
- Ensured the continued relevance and protection of the Museum’s historic property through active engagement with the At Home in Chicago historic house consortium, participation in the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s Open House events, and the creation of the Eleanor Robinson Countiss House Centennial Initiative, which spurred a year of original research and special public programs such as tailored historic home tours, special exhibitions, and house-history related interpretive materials interspersed throughout the Museum.
- Conceived of and appointed the Museum’s first internships in the area of collection management; working one-on-one with interns to establish intellectual and physical control in collections where earlier systems had broken down or never been established, including archives, a rare manuscripts library, and onsite artifact storage. Interns also worked to stabilize collections in neglected storage areas. By the end of my tenure, a comprehensive catalogue of all artifacts and artworks in the Museum’s collection had been created along with corresponding condition reports; at the time of my departure, such a catalogue was in process for the library and archive. Interns reported on their progress and items of special interest via the Museum’s blog.