Ornamental Separator

Career Path

Childhood museum trips pointed exhibition planner in a professional direction

Summer after summer, Jan Gilliam’s family packed up the Chevy station wagon and headed to a new city for vacation.

No matter how near or far the family of six traveled from their home outside of Los Angeles — Santa Fe, New Mexico; Vancouver, British Columbia; Williamsburg, Virginia — each destination had one thing in common: a museum or historical site for the family to explore.

Gilliam relished the annual treks with her family despite her and her sister’s continual battle with their two brothers to avoid the rear-facing seat. The museums’ artwork moved her, the artifacts intrigued her and the stories behind them taught her about cultures past and present.

But Gilliam marveled at more than just the objects and stories that each museum had to offer.

“I was interested in the way museums put it all together,” said Gilliam, who is both the manager of exhibition planning and associate curator of toys for the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg. “The fact that we got to see the objects at all, it was always really cool to me.”

Gilliam has spent her entire career giving guests the opportunity to see the Foundation’s research and collections on display. She started as an intern in 1986 while attending William & Mary for her master’s degree in history with a certificate in museum studies. She has been with The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation ever since.

After completing her graduate studies, she was hired as assistant curator of exhibition buildings, furnishing the Historic Area sites. Then she became manager of exhibition planning for the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum until that museum moved into the same building as the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum in 2007, when she took on the role for both.

In the 1990s, she took on yet another responsibility as associate curator of toys, the first in the folk-art museum’s history. Gilliam has long been a collector of toys; her office is decorated with many of her favorites. To collect toys on a larger scale for Colonial Williamsburg seemed a natural step, even if an unexpected dual role for a museum’s exhibition planner.

Discover More on Display than Ever Before!

Visit the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg

Filling More Space

Starting this spring, guests will see more folk art, fine art, decorative art and mechanical art; archaeological artifacts; and architectural fragments on display than ever before. The 65,000-square-foot expansion of the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg, which houses the two museums, will open in late April.

The expansion required Gilliam and the exhibition planning team to do more — and do it faster. In a typical year, for example, the staff changes about four exhibitions, each of which take about three years to plan and implement. In anticipation of the new space that the expansion creates, they planned 18 new exhibitions between 2019 and 2021, or about six exhibitions per year.

Multiple exhibitions are in various stages of production at any given time. As the staff works to fill the new galleries, as many as seven exhibitions are concurrently in production.

At the center of all this planning is Gilliam, who coordinates with the exhibition and curatorial teams to make sure the curator’s vision becomes a three-dimensional reality in a gallery.

“Jan is, in many ways, the glue that holds the exhibition process together because she has her finger on so many different pulses,” said Ronald L. Hurst, vice president for Museums, Preservation, and Historic Resources and the Carlisle H. Humelsine Chief Curator.

Mounting an exhibition has very clear steps: a concept is chosen; an objects list is created; labels are written; graphics are designed; objects are moved; displays are made. But there are dozens of people who do the work in-house — curators, conservators, graphic designers, painters, electricians, fabricators, mount makers, exhibition designers — who brainstorm, develop and execute these steps.

Gilliam takes a hands-on approach, seeing an exhibition through from beginning to end. She not only keeps everyone on the same page but also helps write and edit labels, and even lends a hand with the installation.

“I like the variety,” Gilliam said. “I get to work with each curator and learn something about that topic and do the exhibit and then move on to the next topic. Everyone is so willing to share their knowledge and I get to handle a lot of the objects with them.”

Meant for Museums

As associate curator of toys, Gilliam is sometimes mounting her own exhibitions.

She curated the ongoing exhibition German Toys in America, which features a variety of 19th-century German wooden toys. She co-curated the Down on the Farm exhibition with Christina Westenberger, assistant manager of museum education, with whom she also wrote the book of the same name — one of three books Gilliam has co-written for the Foundation.

Gilliam carried out a childhood dream in curating Take Joy! The World of Tasha Tudor, the successful 1996-97 exhibition that brought the famed children’s book illustrator, whom Gilliam had long admired, to Colonial Williamsburg ahead of its opening.

The 2000-01 exhibition Toy Trains from the Carstens Collection put on display more than 220 train engines, cars and accessories from the private collection of Harold Carstens, a publisher of toy railroading magazines. The relationship with Carstens continued beyond the exhibition, and he ultimately donated his toy train collection to the museum in 2005.

With the museum expansion, Gilliam has the opportunity to curate a long-term exhibition of antique toys that will give guests a look into the history of play in America. It is slated to open in 2021.

“Jan loves the collection,” Westenberger said. “She understands that the reason we’re here is to find the best way to show the guests the greatness of our collection and give them a meaningful experience.”

Thinking like a museum guest is not a leap for Gilliam. To this day, she retains the love her parents instilled in her of museums and historical sites. She continues to visit them, often with one or more of her three siblings.

Two of her siblings followed in her parents’ career paths as doctors; Gilliam and her brother Kevin turned their favorite family leisure activity into careers. Kevin Gilliam is the facilities and exhibitions manager for the Muscarelle Museum of Art — not even a mile away from the institution where his little sister has spent her entire career.

“I never had to go searching for what I was meant to do,” Jan Gilliam said. “I always knew I’d be in a museum.”


Image: Jan Gilliam is the manager of exhibition planning and associate curator of toys for the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg. She started as an intern in 1986 and has been with Colonial Williamsburg Foundation ever since. (Tom Green/Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)

More From This Issue

Acting Up

Williamsburg was not resigned to the imposition of the Stamp Act

13 Minute Read

An Alternative View of 1774

Not Everyone Was Ready for Revolution

13 Minute Read

Garden Getaway

These mainstays are part of the Historic Area’s garden geometry — and it’s a beautiful lesson

4 Minute Read

Leaving an Impression

Make a signature statement with a stamp

2 Minute Read

Refurnishing the Palace

A 1770 inventory revolutionized the look of a beloved building

7 Minute Read