On June 20 the community lost a valued colleague and friend. Joe Hennessy, exhibits design chief at the Illinois State Museum in Springfield, shared his creativity and artistic talents with more than 4.2 million visitors since his arrival at the museum in 1989. His rich contributions to the arts extended beyond exhibition design to painting and drawing, creative writing and music. He was very active in the regional arts community. His experiences and academic training contributed to his creative endeavors.
Raised in Oak Park, he attended Loyola University and the Goodman School of Drama of the Art Institute of Chicago. He earned his BFA in scene design from the Goodman School of the Art Institute and pursued graduate courses in fine arts at Villa Schifanoia in Florence, Italy, and the University of Illinois Springfield. Before coming to Springfield, he designed, built and painted scenery for stage, television and movies, restored a National Register building for the Fred W. Woodward Riverboat Museum, served as a designer and project manager for Chicago Scenic Studios, Inc., and was director of design for Heritage Group in St. Louis.
Joe frequently told his friends that he wanted to continue his design work as long as he could and that is exactly what he did. In May 2010, Joe completed the design of the Play Museum, the new children’s exhibition at the Illinois State Museum in Springfield. Joe’s playful design will engage children and their families in what it’s like to work in a museum, from excavating fossils to creating their own exhibits. It will be his magnum opus and will open to the public on March 26, 2011.
Joe’s design for Changes, the museum’s natural history hall (opened in 2004), transformed the museum. It invites visitors to explore 500 million years of environmental change in Illinois. The artistic design elements immerse visitors in ancient and modern landscapes, and the hands-on elements engage them in discovering the forces of change. The Illinois Association of Museums presented the museum with a “Superior Award” for this innovative exhibition in 2004. The creative artistry of this and his other exhibitions contributed to his receiving the “Individual Artist Award” during the 2005 Mayor’s Awards for the Arts.
Joe’s design work for At Home in the Heartland at the Illinois State Museum-Springfield integrates numerous original objects in period rooms and vignettes and includes interactive components. This exhibition (opened in 1992) has provided new insights into the role of choice in domestic life from the 17th century to the present. Joe’s design for the Dickson Legacy exhibition at the Illinois State Museum’s Dickson Mounds Museum (opened in 1994) is a creative mix of artifacts, documents, photographs and graphic art that dramatically conveys the history of archaeological excavations in the area.
Joe’s stunning designs for special exhibitions leave a lasting memory. His experience with set design helped him create an exciting context for Dinomania, which thrilled visitors to White Oaks Mall in Springfield (opened in 1994). Only Joe could transform a store into a junglelike setting appropriate for the robotic dinosaurs. His exquisite design for Journey to Other Worlds (opened in 1997 at the ISM Springfield) figuratively transported visitors to Siberia to explore the lives and beliefs of reindeer hunters and herders.
He also developed a unique program of permanent and special exhibits, wayside exhibits, trail signage and audiovisual programs for Illinois state parks. His creations enlivened the interpretation for state parks at Goose Lake Prairie, Pere Marquette, Beall Woods, Giant City and Illinois Beach.
Joe’s legacy lives on in the rich exhibitions that he designed, his insightful and sometimes humorous writings, his wonderful drawings, sketches and other works of art, and memories of his music. He often expressed pride in his family, including his two daughters, Kirsty Hennessy and Faon Skeeters, both of whom reside in Springfield with their families. More than 60 friends, colleagues and family members came together to celebrate his life at the Illinois State Museum on Nov. 18, where they shared stories of his unrivaled passion for exhibitions, writing, sketches and paintings, and music, as well as exploring nature and kayaking. He is well remembered for his keen intellect, acute sense of humor, and his frank honesty. His wonderful exhibitions and other art provide a lasting legacy.