March 2019: Mekala Krishnan '01

Mekala Krishnan ’01 is a museum content designer whose goal is to highlight the shared human experience and spark inspiration and connections across time and space. As a public historian and interpreter working at exhibition design firm Thinc Design, she constantly asks, “How can I transport, inspire or surprise someone who came thinking she or he was going to be bored? How can I make a subject relevant and meaningful to their lives?” After gaining confidence in her voice at Laurel, Mekala pursued subjects she loved (thanks to Mme. Andre and Mr. Connell!) and followed her passions into a field she didn’t even know existed when she was a Laurel student. She encourages others to stay true to what they love and to take the path less traveled.

What extracurriculars or clubs were you involved in at Laurel?
I was in French club and played a few sports, but I am a classically-trained Indian dancer, and a lot of my free time outside of school was spent on dance.

Name something that you learned at Laurel that you draw on even now.
So many things! At a high level, Laurel taught me the importance of having confidence in my voice as a woman and in speaking up when I have something to say. My teachers at Laurel set me up so well for academic success— my English grammar and writing put me high above the curve in both college and graduate school. (Thanks, Mrs. Esselstyn and Mrs. Stephens!)

What led you to go to the University of Warwick in England and why did you major in French and history?
I loved the idea of going to college outside of the US—I took a gap year after Laurel to study dance in India, and I really wanted to continue to stay abroad. It was such an important growing and learning experience, living and studying in other countries. The program at Warwick also gave me the opportunity to live and study in France and Canada during the course of my degree.

History and French were some of my favorite subjects in Upper School (along with English and Spanish)! I had no idea where those subjects would take me career-wise, but I knew I loved them and wanted to learn more. In the UK, you apply directly to and are accepted by your department, so you have to know what you want to study when you apply and changing majors is a lot of work. Going with my gut and choosing to pursue what I loved made my college experience rewarding and enjoyable. I really credit Mme. Andre, Mr. Connell and Sra. Harrison with my passion for those subjects— in some ways, their classes are the reason I am on the path I’m on.

I think for me at least, these decisions were formative ones, and they were somewhat unusual. Not many American students choose to do their entire degree abroad, and sometimes choices about what to study have more to do with setting up for career success. I can only say that going with my gut, and choosing to pursue what I loved made my college experience so rewarding and enjoyable, and was then the approach I took to many of my other academic/career/personal decisions. So, don’t be afraid to take paths less traveled!

After college you went straight to American University (AU) to earn your MA in public history. What drew you to the field?
The downside to finishing a degree in history and French is that there is not necessarily a clear next step. I was envious of people who knew they wanted to be doctors or lawyers simply because there were clear next steps. I always loved studying (ultimate Laurel nerd), so graduate school seemed like a good idea. I applied to quite a few programs (everything from history to South Asian Studies) in order to keep my options open.

I was intrigued by AU’s public history program—I had never heard the term before. My parents often took me to museums, historic homes and sites and I always felt transported by them. (The Cleveland Museum of Art was a happy place for me, and one of my favorite field trips was to Williamsburg in Seventh Grade!) I mentioned this in my application to study history and the head of the public history program called me in for a meeting and said she thought I’d perfect for it because public history is all about engaging with the past in public spaces such as museums, memorials, monuments, historic sites (as opposed to in books and classrooms). I loved the idea of continuing to study history but to really think about real-life/daily engagement with it, which might more effectively spark inspiration or interest than a textbook.

How did your internships as a grad student prepare you for finding a job after graduation? Do you have any advice for students for how to find an internship or gain practical experience in a field?
My program really set me up for success because it was about the applied side of history—practicums and internships were built into our semesters. And it happened to be in DC, museum capital of the US! I interned with the Natural History Museum as part of my practicum: I worked in the anthropology department digitizing the correspondence of a collector who traveled to India and many other parts of the world in the early 1900s.

When I graduated, I set up a series of informational interviews. I emailed anyone who had what seemed like an interesting job and asked if they would spare a half hour to talk to me about their work. My program/advisors had a great network of people, as did alums from the program. It opened my eyes to all the amazing things one can do with a degree in history. Most professionals are willing to talk about their work with students/graduates, and while it might not lead directly to a job, it is a great way to learn about various fields, hone interview and speaking skills and clarify interests.
One of my interviews happened to be with the Curator of Indian Art at the Freer|Sackler. She and I had a great conversation, and she told me I was welcome to come in as a volunteer a few days a week. I had signed up for Smithsonian’s internship/volunteer program, a massive organization, but I wasn’t getting any calls. The interview with the Curator allowed me to find another way into the system and one that was much more suited to my interests and goals.

After completing your studies, you specialized in Indian art exhibitions, first at the Freer|Sackler Galleries of the Smithsonian Institution and then as the Carpenter Curatorial and Interpretation Fellow at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. What are some of the challenges of interpreting art from a culture that is unknown to many American museum visitors? How do you share cultural, historical and aesthetic contexts with your audience?
My volunteer work with the Freer|Sackler turned into a paid position after a few months—I was an exhibitions assistant, helping with everything from curatorial research to design, from loan letters and database management to PR. I worked on two awesome exhibits, one about Tibetan/Himalayan shrines and the other about Yoga in Indian art. When I started, I thought I might go back to graduate school to get my Ph.D. in Art History, but I began to realize that I was more interested in thinking about exhibits from the audience perspective than I was in deeply specializing in a subject area. This is known as interpretation in the museum field— thinking about ways to make curatorial research (the foundation of many exhibits) accessible and engaging for a general audience.

After three years at F|S, I was looking for my next opportunity and the position working on a reinstallation of the entire South Asian collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art came up. I loved the idea of starting from scratch and creating a whole new experience of South Asian art for an audience that was largely unfamiliar with it—and frankly sometimes intimidated by it. The galleries were pretty traditional when I arrived—arranged chronologically/geographically, without much color or context and with a lot of specialized information (about religions, styles, periods, empires, etc., that most Americans haven’t heard of). My goal in working with the curators and the designers was to infuse the space with more of the vibrant and dynamic energy of being in South Asia. These are living, breathing cultures that continue to exist today, not dusty, ancient dead ones!

The challenge is that there’s so much to share. Where does one even start with a collection that covers thousands of years and a geographical area roughly the size of North America with hundreds of ethnic groups and languages, and multiple religions? My approach was to think about artworks as windows into a culture —each can provide a snapshot of a moment in time, a group of people, a religious belief, a form of expression. My work is figuring out what that story is and telling it in the most compelling way, rather than overwhelming people with facts and information. At the end of the day, no matter how foreign a culture is, it has roots in the shared human experience, and good storytelling can create those connections.

What about a museum most resonates with you and what role do you think they play in our understanding of the human experience?
Art in any context is a form of human expression, a way to see the world through someone else’s eyes. I always to come back to that – you don’t have to know a lot about art history in order to fall in love, you just need enough to really spark curiosity and wonder. I feel that museums can do a lot to show us we have a lot more in common than we do differences and that's an important and powerful role to play.

Museums are powerful places for connection. They’re public spaces where we can discover objects, ideas, subjects, time periods and people whom we might never encounter otherwise. What’s exciting about the field is that it’s really trying to evolve: with constant access to information at our fingertips, what does the 21st-century museum do for us? What do we get out of it? I am a museum person, but in my work, I constantly try to create for those who aren’t. How can I transport or inspire or surprise someone who came thinking she or he was going to be bored? How can I make a subject relevant and meaningful to their lives?

Now you are based in New York working as an Interpretive Planner for Thinc Design, an exhibition design firm with clients around the world. How do you design exhibits for a diverse range of clients and audiences that speak across cultural borders? Is there a project you are most proud of?
I’ve been at Thinc for about eighteen months. I decided to step outside the museum world and work on content/interpretation with a private exhibition design firm whose clients include museums but also science centers, zoos, aquariums, the World Expo, etc. Now I can think about an even broader range of cultural institutions and how people experience them. When it comes to scientific institutions, I don’t have a lot of specialized knowledge. I am coming to it like a visitor—what would I want to see/hear/do? I constantly am learning new subject matter, but the approach remains the same: what are people actually getting out of these experiences and how can we improve them?

For confidentiality reasons, I am not able to talk about many of our current projects/clients, but the firm has worked on everything from the 9/11 Museum in New York to the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. Every project is different and my days are never the same. One day I might be researching relationships between various fish living in Caribbean coral reefs or looking at the racial breakdown of our incarceration system, and on another, I might be thinking about how to make abstraction as an artistic movement more than a few scribbles on a canvas!

I love working side by side with people who create the physical spaces and the visuals. The back and forth of turning content into a physical experience pushes me to think visually rather than conceptually. The principal of our firm worked in theater design and he always pushes us to think about exhibits as an artistic medium, as stories we experience in 3D. Why limit ourselves to walking/reading and linear narratives? How can we build worlds that transport and immerse people instead?

One last thing about my work: if you had asked me where I would be 18 (!) years after Laurel, I never in a million years would have told you here. I didn’t know this world existed and I had no idea what training I would need to prepare for it. I just kept returning to what I love, and I tried never to limit myself to what was familiar. I have met so many brilliant people and gotten to do so many amazing things.

On a typical weekend, where would we likely find you? Do you have any hobbies or interests you’re passionate about?
I still dance and still love it! Bharatanatyam (South Indian classical dance) is an important way for me to stay connected to my culture and to express myself. I love any form of dance though.

I’m still getting used to being in New York and trying to take advantage of everything it has to offer! It can be overwhelming, but I feel lucky that my career has brought me here. I travel as much as possible as well: in the last year, between work and personal travel, I was everywhere from Cornwall, England, to Madison, Wisconsin, from the Andaman Islands to Santa Fe, New Mexico. And of course, I always have time for a good museum! The Rubin Museum in New York is one of my favorites.

If you could write your life’s philosophy for a message in a fortune cookie, what would it be?
Take the path less traveled by— it will make all the difference!
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