Exhibit designer's work takes Heinz History Center to 'whole new level'
From overseeing a 37-ton Sherman tank to a jar of 160-year-old pickles to 200 human bodies, Michael Dubois' job responsibilities never lack for stunning variety and challenge.
That's why the award-winning director of exhibits and design at the Senator John Heinz History Center loves what he does, earning praise from colleagues and the public he educates and entertains.
In a richly varied career, his talents have been on display in almost 50 cities through the United States and Canada, Europe and Central and South America.
“If you had told me when I started that I would work on such a variety of meaningful projects, get to touch history in such a direct way, travel the world working with such talented people, I would have said you were dreaming,” Dubois says.
His friends like to say that he gets paid to color all day.
Dubois: “How amazing is that!?”
“Michael is our secret weapon. He has made a huge difference in our exhibits, taking our work to a whole new level,” says Anne Madarasz, vice president of museum exhibits and collections at the Strip District museum.
Often working in the background, everything he does shapes the public face of the History Center, she says. That includes the experience visitors have, the way they encounter content or new ideas in exhibits and the reaction they have to the stories they experience there.
Some of Madarasz's favorites are the ones where she curates the exhibits Dubois designs, such as “Stars and Stripes: An American Story” (2011), a celebration of the American flag, or “Poptastic,” the 2013 showcase of the art of Pittsburgh's Burton Morris.
“He has a great ability to create new personalities for each exhibit he designs, so each has a different feel, look and perspective,” Madarasz says, bringing to life a space that evokes emotion.
There was, for example, the intimate circular gallery he fashioned for the piece of the Star-Spangled Banner, on loan from the Smithsonian, and his entry to the “Ben Franklin: In Search of a Better World” (2011) exhibit with its suspended kites.
“Michael has designed exhibit spaces that are reverent, or playful, or incredibly moving, such as the dog-tag room in ‘We Can Do It! WWII,' ” Madarasz says. Each of the 7,000 re-created dog tags represent 200 Pennsylvanians who served in the war. Each one also represents five who died.
Dubois, 45, a resident of Oakland's historic neighborhood of Schenley Farms, says this is the exhibit that means the most to him.
“It's such an important one for a generation that has almost left us,” he says. His grandfather flew P-51 Mustangs out of northern Italy escorting bombers, making the exhibit is very personal to him. “He isn't here to see the exhibit, but I am hoping he is proud.”
Dubois arrived in 2009 from his work with “Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition” at the Luxor hotel in Las Vegas and “Bodies: The Exhibition” at multiple locations worldwide, including Sao Paulo, Brazil, where it drew 500,000 visitors in three months.
Dubois brought with him “a can-do spirit” that is just right for Pittsburgh, says Andy Masich, president and CEO of the history center.
“He is the perfect man for the job, a major talent sharing his bold and innovative design concepts with appreciative audiences here,” he says.
“Michael thinks big,” Masich says, whether it is re-creating the Sistine Chapel ceiling in 2010's “Vatican Splendors” exhibit or the largest cannon in history for the 2013 “Pennsylvania's Civil War” exhibit. “He's not afraid to take chances.”
Brad Burmeister, exhibit production coordinator, praises Dubois as easily one of the best exhibit designers in the country. “He does a tremendous job thinking outside the box to get the most out of any budget, large or small,” he says.
Masich jokes that he is convinced that Dubois dreams up wild ideas, like building a sinking steamboat with a half-submerged mule on the deck, as he did for “Pittsburgh's Lost Steamboat: Treasures of the Arabia” in 2014, just to see if he can stump Burmeister.
For “WWII,” Dubois had to determine the best way to move that Sherman tank through the city to the History Center. For “Lost Steamboat,” he had to decide how to transport a jar of 160-year-old pickles, ready to disintegrate with the slightest jostle, half-way across the country.
“He has brought cutting-edge exhibit design that appeals to audiences of all ages,” Masich says.
“I've worked with museums around the globe and have never been surrounded by this level of talent,” Dubois says of the History Center. “I believe it is one of the most respected institutions of its kind in the nation, a large regional museum with an aggressive exhibit schedule. Most other museums are astonished by the quality of what we do in the time that we do it.”
Artist Judy Henson, a former exhibit designer at Fernbank Science Center in Atlanta, considers Dubois a “wunderkind,” a “natural collaborator and teacher.” He worked as curator and exhibit designer at Fernbank from 2002 to 2006.
“He contributed beautiful designs for exhibits ranging from AIDS to honeybees, meteorites to birds,” she says.
For many, Dubois says, history exists only in books and on screens, and he believes that museum exhibitions have the ability to connect what we see and read to real objects and experiences.
“The visitor is the most important person not sitting at the table during our meetings, and I try to think about each decision from their perspective,” he says. “The amount of brain power at the history center is tremendous. The curators are our greatest asset. They want to share as much knowledge as possible. We cannot expect a visitor to absorb all of this information while standing on their feet for an hour or so. Making decisions about what translates from a written document to a dimensional experience is critical.”
He likens his design process for exhibits as similar to directing a movie.
“Each exhibit begins with a script,” Dubois says. “We discuss the emotion for each scene or gallery in the exhibit and what information we want the visitor to leave with before the next scene.”
This becomes a loose storyboard. Add theatrical lighting, music and audio, special effects and narration through the exhibit labels, and the movie analogy becomes evident.
“Exhibits are complicated with many parts, and getting everything to work together to tell a complete story in a compelling way separates good exhibits from great exhibits,” he says. “You need to be a jack of all trades. You can never get too comfortable.”
A well-designed and written exhibit will slow someone down who might typically rush or who is “not a museum person,” without them realizing it, says Dubois, who asks himself: “What have I done to make a person stop and say, ‘Ooooh, what is this?' ”
Each exhibit has its set of challenges, he says, and the ongoing “From Slavery to Freedom,” which opened in 2012, was probably the most time-consuming and formidable for him. The entrance consists of a large confined interior of a transatlantic slave ship.
“It is an intentionally emotional entrance, and finding the appropriate balance of emotions for our younger visitors while not diluting the experience for our older guests required finesse,” he says.
The exhibit he's most proud of is the North American debut in 2009 of “Dialog in the Dark” for Premier Exhibitions, in Atlanta. Blind guides lead visitors in small groups through different settings in absolute darkness. Visitors learn how to interact without sight by using their other senses, as well as experience what it is like to be blind.
“It required such a different way of thinking about an exhibit design. Design school prepares you to focus on visual appeal more than anything,” he says.
It is extremely satisfying to see the faces of the visitors and read the comments about exhibits, Dubois says.
“I've seen people laugh, cry, cringe, wonder and look surprised in exhibits. Sometimes, it is the unexpected things that are the most powerful.”
Rex Rutkoski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4664 or email@example.com.