In Memoriam: Benjamin Lawless, Martin Sullivan and Magda Schremp

Benjamin W. Lawless

Benjamin Lawless in 1970

Benjamin Lawless in 1970

Benjamin W. Lawless, an internationally recognized exhibition planner and designer, filmmaker, and writer, died at home of heart failure on August 2, 2013. He was 88.

He was born in Evanston, Illinois, on July 4, 1925. He served in the United States Army during World War II and participated in the Normandy invasion as well as the Battle of the Bulge. Following the war, Mr. Lawless earned a master’s of fine arts degree from the University of Illinois. He began designing museum exhibitions at the Saginaw Art Museum in Saginaw, Mich., and joined the Smithsonian in 1953, where he developed a new generation of exhibitions that would inaugurate what would become the Smithsonian’s new Museum of History & Technology (now the National Museum of American History).

In 1965 he was appointed Director of Exhibitions at the Museum and continued in that role until his retirement in the early 1980s. Mr. Lawless pioneered a number of innovations that now have become commonplace in museum exhibitions. He was one of the first exhibition planners to develop exhibitions that focused on content-rich stories rather than just the display of artifacts with descriptive labels; he introduced films as an integral component of exhibitions and he was one of the first designers to use elements of whimsy and humor to more actively involve visitors in the exhibition experience.

Mr. Lawless was the creative force behind such major productions as the Smithsonian’s bicentennial exhibitions, A Nation of Nations and 1876. The film that accompanied the 1876 exhibition, which he wrote and directed, won three Emmy awards.

In addition to his skills as an exhibition designer, filmmaker and writer, Mr. Lawless was a skilled visual artist. He was one of the artists selected to creatively document the NASA space program and attended four rocket launches. His artistic production from this project is in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.

Mr. Lawless is survived by his life partner of 25 years, Marilyn Graskowiak; son, Benjamin Lawless III; daughters Carey Lawless and Sue Lawless; and eight grandchildren, as well as his former wife, Ann Rovelstad Lawless.

Martin E. Sullivan

Martin Sullivan, the former director of the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, died at his home in Piney Point, Md., Feb. 25 of renal failure after a series of illnesses.  He was 70.

Martin Sullivan

Martin Sullivan

Dr. Sullivan joined the National Portrait Gallery in 2008 and left in May 2012, citing health problems.  At the Portrait Gallery, Dr. Sullivan oversaw the reinvigoration of the museum’s mission to focus on American portraiture as a medium of visual biography. Under his leadership the museum expanded its works created by commissions, from exclusively commissioning portraits of presidents and first ladies to also including portraits of notable Americans such as Eunice Kennedy Shriver and Alice Waters. He also oversaw the installation of exhibitions that expanded the American story, such as the long-term installation “The Struggle for Justice” and temporary exhibitions, including the award-winning exhibition “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” “Gertrude Stein: Five Stories,” “The Black List: Photographs by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders” and “Portraiture Now: Asian American Portraits of Encounter.”

Most recently, Dr. Sullivan had been selected as the recipient of the American Alliance of Museums 2014 Award for Distinguished Service to Museums. The award will be presented to his family later this year.

Before joining the National Portrait Gallery in 2008, Dr. Sullivan had served as CEO of the Historic St. Mary’s City Commission in Maryland since 1999. Earlier, he was director of the Heard Museum in Phoenix and director of the New York State Museum in Albany, N.Y.

Martin Sullivan is survived by his wife, Katherine Sullivan, their two children and one grandchild: Abigail Maslin, her husband, Thomas, and their son Jack, and Bethany Sullivan.

(We have limited information about the passing of these longtime Smithsonian colleagues and invite you to add your memories and recollections.)

Magda Schremp

Magda Schremp is credited with almost single-handedly creating the volunteer docent program for the Smithsonian Institution in the 1960s. She retired some years ago as docent coordinator at the National Museum of Natural History and died October 12, 2013. If you would like to share your memories of Ms. Schremp, please leave a comment below.

Magda Schremp in 1991

Magda Schremp in 1991

Posted: 14 March 2014
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