An Interview with Exhibit Developer Meredith Whitfield
The Field Museum’s T. Rex SUE is a fossil and Twitter personality who has captured the hearts and imaginations of millions of museumgoers. In December, the Field opened a new exhibit for SUE, which received rave reviews. To get the inside scoop on this incredible exhibit and to learn what it takes to be an exhibit developer at the Field Museum, I sat down with Meredith Whitfield.
Whitfield is a powerhouse emerging museum professional, having worked at the Field as an Exhibit Developer for just under a year. Like most museum people, she describes her career as “a winding path.” As a history major at the University of Tennessee Knoxville, Whitfield had her heart set on becoming a lawyer. After college, she worked as a paralegal at the Department of Justice and, at the same time, volunteered as a docent at the Folger Shakespeare Library. “At Folger I realized, ‘this museum stuff is what I want to do with my life,’ and I went to graduate school,” she said. After gaining first class honors with distinction at the University of Manchester’s Museum Studies program, Whitfield joined the Field and soon began work on the SUE exhibit.
According to Whitfield, one of the reasons the Field decided to move SUE was to place the fossil in its ecological, historical, and paleontological context. “SUE spent so much time watching over the museum in Stanley Field Hall and visitors had so many questions about them, like, ‘when did SUE live? How did SUE die? Could SUE really chomp through a car door?’ We wanted to give visitors a better understanding of the fossil,” Whitfield stated.
SUE’s new exhibit is custom tailored to engage, inform, and emotionally connect with visitors. The exhibit team conducted extensive audience research and prototyping to ensure the exhibit met visitors’ needs. “People have an emotional connection to SUE. So many people – Chicagoans and visitors – grew up coming to see SUE, and understanding that emotional connection is really valuable,” Whitfield stated. “The audience research data allowed us to satisfy curiosities and deepen that connection as we developed, designed, and produced this new exhibit.”
Whitfield’s background as a docent made her specially equipped to help visitors emotionally connect with exhibits. “In being a docent on the floor, you witness people having to divide their attention,” Whitfield emphasized. “You see the exhibit competing with people’s phones and family members. You need to quickly show them why they should spend time paying attention to an exhibit element.”
The SUE exhibit does an excellent job of quickly convincing visitors that they should pay attention to the fossil. The most engaging elements of the new exhibit are the multimedia show and animations in the back of the gallery. Visitors stand in the room with the fossil and the lights dim. Visitors hear a T. rex growl. Then, a voice booms out, “SUE was the biggest T. Rex ever found and was as terrifying as you might imagine.” The presentation continues, emphasizing three aspects of SUE: 1) their hunting prowess, 2) the many injuries they sustained over the course of their life, and 3) the incredible research that scientists have conducted using the fossil. When discussing SUE’s injuries, a green light is focused on specific bones, highlighting the injuries. There are also three animations in the back of the gallery that run on a loop with the multimedia show. The animations depict SUE hunting, scavenging, and drinking. I thought that the animation of SUE drinking was particularly creative because it dips underwater with SUE’s mouth and shows the creatures living in the lake.
Whitfield believes that the multimedia presentation and animations captivate visitors because they marry education and entertainment. “The point of this big T. rex is that the evidence is all there in the bones. Scientists have learned incredible things by looking closely at this object,” Whitfield said excitedly. Therefore, the Field’s curators and digital projects team worked to get the animations and multimedia presentation as accurate as possible based on the fossil records. “Even the sound design came down to ‘what can we do that’s most grounded in fact?’ Our curators were able to cite evidence that SUE might have sounded crocodilian, and we incorporated that sound into the media pieces,” Whitfield said. However, the show also leans into the fun and imagination of SUE. “It’s really easy to look at SUE and have your imagination run. We tried to embrace that.”
Imagination was key to the entire exhibit development process. Whitfield feels the exhibit is so relatable and accessible because the development process incorporated the imaginations of so many people. “This project has such a long history and touches so many parts of the museum,” Whitfield said. “I truly think every department at the Field touched SUE in some way. Because all of us contributed together, we were able to create this wonderful exhibit.”
As Whitfield transitions from the SUE exhibit, she has found that embracing different points of view is a cornerstone of her museum career. “Embrace every opportunity to put yourself in a new context and spend time with people who work in other departments or other disciplines, or even people who don’t work in a museum context at all,” she advised me. “Always have your eyes and ears open, because you never know what might inspire you.”