Name: Hana Kim, 36
Position: Exhibition designer, National Museum of American History

What she does
Every one of the 3 million objects at the National Museum of American History tells a story, and it’s exhibition designer Hana Kim’s job to give them a voice. Right now, Kim is working on reinstalling the Greensboro lunch counter in a newly renovated part of the museum, and she came up with the idea of adding a “magic mirror” behind the counter. At first, the mirror will act like a regular mirror, and allow visitors to see themselves next to the artifact. Then, it will transform into a semi-reflective movie screen, where you’ll see yourself alongside the civil rights protesters who refused to move from their seats at a segregated Woolworth lunch counter.

How the screen will operate hasn’t yet been decided — it will probably involve two-way mirrors and a large LCD screen — but Kim is determined to make it work. Her goal? To help people see themselves as a part of the United States’ ongoing history.
“I’ve always gravitated to the storytelling aspect of exhibit design, and making these immersive environments where you actually learn something as you are going through them,” she says.

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How she got the job
In 2008, in the middle of the global financial crisis, Kim graduated with a master’s degree in architecture. “No one was building anything, so there weren’t very many architecture jobs,” she recalls. That drove her to freelance, taking on a variety of gigs, including landscape architecture, urban planning and designing small museum exhibits. “In some ways, the recession had a silver lining because it opened up avenues for me that maybe I wouldn’t have explored otherwise,” she says.

Kim discovered that exhibit design allowed her to combine her interests in fine arts and history, so she got a full-time exhibit design job at D.C.’s Howard + Revis Design in 2011, where her clients included the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tenn. In November 2015, Kim landed her current job, designing groundbreaking exhibits for the National Museum of American History, one of the most visited museums in the world.

Who would want this job
If you’re artistic and practical at the same time, this is a good job for you. Exhibition designers see projects through from beginning to end, working with large, multidisciplinary teams to figure out the best way to tell complicated and nuanced stories.

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You have to be willing to rethink your vision in the face of obstacles, such as fragile objects that can’t have too much light hit them. “You have to be loose and willing to go with the different directions a project may sometimes take you in,” she says. “If you want to have complete creative control, this job isn’t going to work for you.”

How you can get the job
A broad liberal arts education is a good start, because working at a museum requires knowledge of a range of topics, including history, anthropology, science and the arts, Kim says. You’ll want to major — or at least to take classes — in architecture, industrial design or graphic design, and become adept at using the Adobe Creative Cloud and AutoCAD software, which allows you to design 3-D objects. It also helps to be able to freehand sketch, she says.

A master’s degree in architecture or museum exhibit design isn’t strictly necessary, but it can be helpful in today’s tough job market, Kim says. The most important thing is your portfolio showing your past work, so try to land a good internship. At the NMAH, for example, interns see their own exhibit designs to completion by working with teams of about a dozen curators, designers and other staff.

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You also may want to join a professional association like the American Alliance of Museums or their sub-network, the National Association for Museum Exhibition.

People come to museum exhibition design in a lot of different ways, Kim says, but one thing they all have in common are creative minds and the hard skills needed to make your team’s vision a reality.

“You have to know how to synthesize information very quickly. It’s not enough to know how to build a 3-D space. You have to understand the content and tell a story through it,” she says.

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