Benjamin W. Lawless, master designer of museum exhibits, dies at 88

Benjamin W. Lawless, who brought a galvanizing showmanship to museum exhibitions at the Smithsonian Institution and later at Elvis Presley’s Graceland, the National Civil Rights Museum and the Jurassic Park Discovery Center, died Aug. 2 at his home in Fort Washington. He was 88.

The cause was a heart ailment, said a family friend, Harold K. Skramstad Jr., president emeritus of the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Mich.

(Harry Naltchayan/The Washington Post) - Benjamin Lawless poses for a portrait inside the "World War II G.I." exhibition in Washington on June 9, 1978.

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Mr. Lawless helped conceive the National Museum of History and Technology, which opened in 1964 to display the Smithsonian’s hodgepodge of social, cultural, scientific and technological memorabilia. He served as exhibitions director at the museum, renamed the National Museum of American History in 1980, for more than 15 years.

When Mr. Lawless entered the museum profession in the 1950s, history exhibits often consisted of artifacts languishing on shelves, perhaps accompanied by descriptive plaques. “There was no sense of storytelling or a conscious sense of design,” Skramstad said.

He called Mr. Lawless a “pacesetter” in a generation of exhibition designers who emerged in the 1960s and used video, audio and even olfactory technology in novel ways to lure audiences and provide multidimensional context. Under Mr. Lawless, the Smithsonian used the wafting scent of chocolate to replicate the ambience of a 19th-century sweets shop and created the unmistakable bouquet of a barnyard in a display about farm technology.

“Traditional curators were bothered by this,” Skramstad said. “The newer generation was very excited by it. There was a yeastiness in the air.”

In time for the U.S. Bicentennial, Mr. Lawless helped design and oversee a meticulous partial re-creation of the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876, the first official world’s fair held in the United States.

The artifacts, collected from museums across the country, sprawled throughout the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building and included grandiose porcelain vases from Haviland & Co. and examples of clamorous 19th-century steam technology.

Twenty-five curators collaborated to restore to working order a precursor to the gasoline engine. “We started on it a long, long time ago, and you wouldn’t believe the numbers of people who didn’t want us to do it,” Mr. Lawless told The Washington Post in 1978. “Also the people who would die for it.”

The collective exuberance was captured in an Emmy Award-winning short film, “Celebrating a Century,” which Mr. Lawless commissioned from the Smithsonian’s film unit. Filmed at the re-created exhibition, it featured cameos from Smithsonian employees — from Secretary S. Dillon Ripley to members of the buildings and grounds office — in historical roles.

Several of the directors Mr. Lawless reported to, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Daniel J. Boorstin, encouraged such experimentation. But the bells and whistles mattered little if anyone among the millions of visitors who tramped through the museum detected any false note.

For a display on the world wars from the grunt’s perspective, Mr. Lawless assembled K-rations, canteens and khakis. For good measure, he dragged the pants from his car to make them look authentically battle-worn.

“You should see a family bunched in front of a case with some K-rations on show,” Mr. Lawless told The Post. “There’s Dad. Maybe a little bald by now, pointing out all the items, and if you’ve got one wrong, watch out.”

Benjamin Wharrie Lawless Jr. was born in Evanston, Ill., on July 4, 1925. He once said his father sent him off to Army infantry service in World War II with a sketch pad “so I wouldn’t waste my time with women and cards.”

He had aspired to an engineering career but, after his discharge, switched to art school. On the GI Bill, he graduated in 1950 from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he also received a master of fine arts degree in 1952. After a one-year stint as an art museum director in Saginaw, Mich., he joined the Smithsonian.

After leaving the National Museum of American History in 1981, Mr. Lawless worked on turning Presley’s Memphis home, a temple of excess known as Graceland, into a museum to honor the late rock star.

“Most of the smart money was that they would lose money on this,” Mr. Lawless told the Chicago Sun-Times in 1992, a decade after Graceland opened to the public and became an enduring destination for Elvis worshipers and admirers of interior overstatement.

Mr. Lawless had a guiding hand in the National Civil Rights Museum, housed in Memphis’s Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. The hotel had fallen into decrepitude by the time Mr. Lawless began raising millions of dollars from the state and local governments to see it reconstructed.

“There is a new generation today that has had no personal involvement in the struggle for civil rights,” he told the New York Times in 1986. “They don’t understand what it was like to be forced to sit in the back of the theater or the back of the bus.”

The museum opened in 1991 and guided visitors through exhibitions of important moments in civil rights history leading up to the King slaying. There was a plaster-of-Paris facsimile of Rosa Parks sitting mute on a Montgomery, Ala., bus as a voice from a mannequin driver orders her to give up her front seat to accommodate white passengers.

It also featured decidedly theatrical touches that, for some visitors, raised questions of taste. The most provocative was a laser beam that followed the trajectory of assassin James Earl Ray’s bullet and then was projected skyward from the balcony where King was cut down, symbolizing his ascent to heaven. The display was discontinued after a few years.

Jerry Eisterhold, head of an exhibition design firm in Kansas City, Mo., where Mr. Lawless became vice president, said Mr. Lawless specialized in a you-are-there style that was effective at the Rosa Parks Library and Museum in Montgomery, which features a “time-traveling” bus, and the Jurassic Park center in Orlando, where visitors can use various technologies to hear, see and sound like a dinosaur.

His marriage to Ann Rovelstad ended in divorce.

Survivors include his partner of 25 years, Marilyn Graskowiak of Alexandria; three children from his marriage, Benjamin Lawless III of Owings, Carey Lawless of Alexandria and Sue Lawless of Severna Park; and eight grandchildren.

In recent years, Mr. Lawless and Eisterhold worked with Ralph Nader on a proposed museum of tort law in Winsted, Conn., to celebrate the consumer advocate’s legal victories in cases involving faulty cars, including the Ford Pinto, whose fuel tank was known to catch fire upon impact. “He had a withering sense of what would work and not work,” Eisterhold said of Mr. Lawless. “He was bringing all of his creative skills to bear to make sure it would be something that could be interesting, like a flaming Pinto out front that would go off at scheduled times.”

 
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