Central College News

Featured: The Scenery of Science

April 3, 2012

The science museum—your local repository for those fascinating tidbits designed to make you say “Wow.” With exhibits spanning from astronomy to zoology, you can imagine the scientific minds that must have come together to organize the experience for those who are baffled by such things. With all that science floating around, it’s the last place you would find a theatre major, right?

“It probably isn’t where I thought I’d end up working,” admits theatre grad Shawn Jensen ’08, who designs the exhibits at the Science Center of Iowa in Des Moines. After working heavily with set design and construction during college, Jensen found his current position through Central alums employed at the Science Center.

Jensen helps construct an exhibit at the Science Center.

Jensen plans and arranges the exhibits to create a positive visit for the guests. “We focus on getting continuity in the piece,” he says. The goal is make efficient use of the space, leading guests from one part of the exhibit to another while using lights to affect the way they experience the displays.

For the Science Center’s standard exhibits, changes are made only infrequently, so Jensen spends much of his time working with traveling exhibits. Displays such as “Body Worlds Vital,” an exploration of human anatomy, and “Lost Egypt: Ancient Secrets, Modern Science,” a look at the modern technology used to study the ancient culture, make stops at various museums around the world.

After the Science Center agrees to contract terms with the exhibit, design preparation begins. Jensen, with other members of the design team, travels to whatever city is hosting the exhibit at the time in order to get a sense of what they will be working with.

About two weeks before it is scheduled to open, semis arrive packed with pieces of the exhibit. It is Jensen’s responsibility to unload them and organize the Science Center’s display. “We may be inspired by the other city’s installations, but we try to make unique setups for the audience,” he says.

While travelling to another museum for design ideas, Jensen (far right) met the cast of "Mythbusters."

Each exhibit presents different challenges. There is, of course, the innate puzzle of fitting everything into the room, and doing so in a visually-pleasing way. But oftentimes the owners of the exhibit have certain requirements. Jensen will have to incorporate these in the final layout. “Having a creative mind is one of the most important things, because you have to make it work with the space you have,” he explains.

Jensen says Central classes in set design and drafting helped prepare him for this work. When he enrolled at Central, he planned to study computer science, but after getting involved in a theatre production, technical director Tom Thatcher quickly recognized his affinity for the craft. Jensen went on to design and build sets, run lights and design sound for various productions. By his sophomore year, he realized that theatre design was something he could do for the long haul.

The practical experience Jensen got through Theatre Central productions was invaluable. He especially remembers Jeffery Bruner’s play “Camp Angel,” which premiered at Central in March 2008. Jensen and other students worked with Bruner and director Ann Wilkinson to bring together the first-ever performance of the show. He says doing sound design for a brand-new show was a unique experience.

Although his days are occupied by science, Jensen still gets a taste of theatre. He works with various theatre companies around central Iowa, doing set work for one or two performances a year. To design for theatre, “you’ve got to be adaptable,” says Jensen. He works with the director to coordinate what the set will look like, and last-minute changes are the norm. “Usually the paint is still drying on opening night.”

Jensen says theatre and science share at least one trait. “My favorite thing about it is the freedom to be creative.”