PROVO Paul Anderson is a bookish, pleasant-looking fellow average height and build, thinning hair, almost frowzy in an intellectual way, with glasses.
But don't be fooled by his appearance. Anderson is the Clark Kent of Utah museum-exhibition designers, and during a recent interview at Brigham Young University's Museum of Art, he allowed the Deseret Morning News a peek at his cape.
"Ever since I was really young I wanted to be an architect," Anderson said. So much so that after earning a bachelor's degree (with honors) from Stanford in 1968, he went on to secure a master's degree in architecture from Princeton in 1972 and began working in an architectural firm in Pasadena, Calif. By 1976 he was a licensed architect.
"I came to Utah in 1973 on a fellowship with the LDS Church Historical Department to study Mormon architecture from a historical point of view." After completing his project, he went back to California for a year, then returned to Utah to stay. In 1976 the Church Historical Department gave Anderson a full-time position working on the restoration of historic buildings.
"Later," said Anderson, "when the new Museum of Church History and Art (of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) was announced, I moved into helping Florence Jacobsen with the planning of the building, and then designing its exhibitions."
For the next 10 years, Anderson spent most of his time designing exhibition spaces through which inquisitive people wandered as they discovered and rediscovered church history.
"When the Brigham Young University Museum of Art at BYU was under construction, its founding director, James Mason, gave me the opportunity to come here and help launch another wonderful museum." Anderson's been the head of design at the museum since 1992. His responsibilities include general direction of design, fabrication and installation of exhibitions, space planning and graphic design.
A man of many interests, Anderson is a big fan of education; he makes certain the MOA marries design and education extremely well. "You try to make a beautiful setting for art and artifacts, but you also try to make them mean something, make them understandable to people, dramatic and fun to see."
"Paul," said Christine Howard, until recently the manager of marketing and public relations at the museum, "has the unique talent to make what may seem like a very ordinary, or uninteresting object, appear to be the most incredible thing you've seen. It all comes back to his ability to incorporate the past, the history of an object or work of art, to the present day."
When first developing his skills in exhibition design, Anderson not only took a training course at the Smithsonian; he also visited many museums to study their approach to design issues.
"It's a terrific advantage when you're getting an exhibition to see the same objects someplace else before they come to you," said Anderson. "You can see what works, what other designers are doing, what great ideas you can steal, and also what doesn't work that you want to avoid."
According to Anderson, there are only a certain number of things you can do when designing an exhibit. "You can move the walls around to influence how people move through the space, controlling what they see at different moments. You can set a mood by changing the color of the walls and the character of the lighting, and you can decide how objects, labels and other educational materials will be placed. In some cases you can add architectural details that suggest a historical environment. That's about it. That's what you've got to work with. But if you can bring all of these things together, the result can be breathxtaking."
In the museum's last major exhibition, "Empire of the Sultans: Ottoman Art from the Khalili Collection," Anderson worked with Diana Turnbow, a curator at the MOA, who had really mastered the information on all the exhibit's objects. The two of them ended up rearranging the show from how it looked in other venues to get a more dramatic entrance. "Where the other venues had shown the parts of the armor separately," said Anderson, "we put them together breastplates, helmets shields, and swords like two ghostly warriors dressed in armor guarding the entrance." They also created a mosquelike room surrounded by colorful arches where some of the best religious manuscripts were displayed.
Anderson does a lot of thinking about what the long vista will be and where the exhibit's surprises will emerge. "Before we did the China exhibit ("Imperial Tombs of China, 1995-96"), I saw it on display in Memphis, where the Wonders group had a beautiful installation. But there was one particular piece that I loved a bronze horse from the 1st century. It could have been a Picasso; it was a fabulous piece. And it was kind of lost among a lot of other items."
He wanted the people who visited the show at BYU to really see this horse. "So I designed a setting where it was in a display case by itself in the middle of the room with plain light-colored textured walls you saw through the case and there was nothing distracting behind so you saw the powerful silhouette of the horse."
In June of 2004, the MOA will host another major exhibition, "Art of the Ancient Mediterranean World," and Anderson has been busily preparing sketches, designs and models.
"The Boston Museum is lending us Egyptian, Greek and Roman objects, some of which are rather small, but absolutely exquisite." Anderson realizes that the most important objects in an exhibit aren't necessarily the biggest, so he has to find a way to draw attention to them. "For example, there's a gold amulet from Egypt, beautifully crafted, about as big as your thumb. I'm thinking this needs to be in a rather dark room with narrow spotlight on it so it sparkles, so you see it like a treasure in an 'Indiana Jones' movie."
In designing a major exhibition, Anderson likes to have enough time to do it justice. "In the best of all possible worlds you'd have a couple of years. There will certainly be a few months involved in thinking through just how everything is going to be arranged color, background, position."
Part of thinking through where everything will go is developing the sight line of objects. "If it's an exhibit with three-dimensional objects not just paintings on the wall of an existing room we often mock it up in a model. Models help you see much more clearly what the vistas are and what the movement through the room is like and what the scale will be."
For the Roman section of the upcoming exhibition, Anderson has mocked up individual display cases as well as areas for larger objects in a scale model of the exhibition space. "There's a life-size Roman torso that will be terrific here (pointing to the model). You'll come around the corner and see it right there in front of you. It will be very dramatic."
It's Anderson's varied interests that keep him in top design form: He still does architecture on the side, and he sang for several years in the Utah Symphony Chorus. He's written several articles on architecture and historical sites, and is currently working on a book about Mormon architecture in the early 20th century. He is currently acting in the role of 19th-century Danish-American artist, C.C.A. Christensen in a weekly dramatic presentation at the BYU Museum of Art. (This accounts for his historical-looking, BYU-approved beard.) And Anderson has authored four hymns in the LDS hymn book.
All this, along with his great love of painting and sculpture, makes for a very talented, multifaceted designer of museum exhibitions. Why, just the other day, after receiving news of a future show, many spotted Anderson running into a phone booth.