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Careers at the Museum: Installation and Exhibition Design with Brendan Harman

It takes a unique group of people to run an art museum smoothly. Many employees with myriad professional backgrounds collaborate to ensure successful exhibitions, programs, acquisitions, and art conservation. From time to time, the UMMA student blog will be interviewing some of these staff members to share with you the wide range of experiences in the museum field.

Careers at the Museum: Installation and Exhibition Design with Brendan Harman

Written by Emily Considine

Courtesy of Brendan Harman

To start off, we want to showcase the behind-the-scenes work of Brendan Harman, a Collections and Exhibitions Technician at UMMA. “I consider myself to be sort of like an installer or an art handler,” he says. “But we also do a lot of exhibition design and layout work and we do a lot of collections management stuff. Larger exhibitions that are happening really require a ton of work and planning and logistics, and we schedule those way in advance and do a lot of work, because it’s all of these moving pieces coming together at one time.”

Putting together exhibitions can be much more than a physical challenge. As Harman points out, “There’s a real tight window in which we have to install things. Things are often being shipped from all over the world from different shippers. And so, there’s a lot of coordination with that. And just to make sure that all the materials and planning is done ahead of time and we have that stuff on hand.”

Outside of his work at UMMA, Harman is also a painter and sculptor, having studied sculpture and filmmaking in graduate school. Since then, he worked in a range of commercial art-related positions, including corporate video production and art handling for museums and galleries in New York in his twenties.

“There’s this realization I had of how many different levels and different worlds there are to the art world,” Harman explains. “There’s the academic art world, like when you’re in graduate school, when you’re in school, you’re talking about art in a certain way. You have certain ideas about art. You get really excited about certain issues that are brought up and that relate to the world outside of art. Social issues or spiritual issues. And then when I started just working for artists and working for galleries and stuff, I realized, ‘oh, there’s this whole commercial side as well.’ And that is a huge aspect of the art world.”

“There’s so many different levels to that. There’s your blue chip galleries. There’s your big museums. But then there’s much smaller art worlds,” he observes. “I’d go to all these different points, collector’s houses, auction houses when I was in New York. Then when we go out to Princeton or go to Yale, or go to the different museums, it was like, ‘Oh, these people seem really chill.’ Like, what they’re doing makes a lot more sense to me.”

After about 12 years in New York, Harman moved to Ann Arbor and looked for jobs in the area. “UMMA really was the only place, kind of, where my skills were translatable,” he says. They weren’t hiring at that time, “so I just kept my eye on the job listings for years, and I did all other kinds of things. I was a yoga instructor, a meditation teacher, video editor, all while I was looking at UMMA waiting for this job to open up, basically. And then when it did, I was like, ‘yes, I want that job’... I put the application in right away.”

We also talked about the particular challenges of working on museum exhibitions during a pandemic. “UMMA is a very well oiled machine,” he remarks. “We have a ton of exhibitions, and they’re just lined up and everyone’s working all the time to coordinate and make it efficient. 

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Up until COVID, it was like, ‘how many exhibitions can we have at one time?’... And now it’s like ‘Can we have an exhibition?’

Brendan Harman

“It’s been a real challenge, you know, from our perspective, as you can imagine, because we’re actually doing a lot of physical work and now we can’t do any of that. But, thankfully, a lot of my exhibitions that are coming up are really design heavy. So I’ve been able to do a lot of work in SketchUp, laying out. One exhibition that I’m working on has to address over 200 different components, and they all have to fit together.”

“This exhibition kind of goes through the entire history of African art in the West and how it was collected and how it was talked about, how it was displayed, and maybe questioning some work, the history of it, and should it even be here?” He explains. “It’s also looking at how the museum can reflect back on itself and question itself and look at its own history, which I think is something that a lot of museums don’t do or have not done in the past.”

The exhibition, titled I Write to You About Africa, can already be previewed online and is one of the upcoming exhibitions Harman is most excited about. “It’s gonna be a really great show. It’s gonna be really thoughtful.”

For those considering careers in the art field, Harman advises thinking about long-term goals. “I would think about, do you want to work in museums? What kind of art institutions do you want to work for? You know, are you interested in sales? Are you interested in being in the gallery world? Because that’s another option too… Having a vision of where you want to end up is really important,” he says.

He emphasizes, for students, that involving yourself in what interests you early on is helpful. “Maybe you love exhibitions? Maybe you want to be a curator, you know, maybe you want to work for a while as an art handler as a technician, and then kind of transition into that, see what it’s all about,” Harman suggests. “You can start to build that online, like have a blog… be part of the conversation and people are just gonna gravitate towards you.”


“Careers at the Museum” is an ongoing series – check back on the UMMA Student Blog soon for another exploration into the professionals that make UMMA thrive.

Emily Considine is a senior BFA student in Art & Design at the University of Michigan, hoping to become an illustrator. In addition to her involvement with UMMA, she’s done various illustrations, comics, and design work for Arts at Michigan, Forbidden Stew, and ArtsEngine. You can find her most nights during the school year at The Michigan Daily, where she manages the Opinion page.

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