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Janet Kamien, internationally renowned consultant who brought museum exhibits to life

Janet Kamien museum design consultant.

Janet Kamien, a museum design consultant.

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Updated: July 13, 2013 6:16AM

If you’ve ever felt transported to the banks of the River Nile as you descend into the Ancient Egypt exhibit at the Field Museum, you have Janet Kamien to thank.

Ms. Kamien grew up in west suburban Franklin Park and became an internationally renowned consultant who created thought-provoking museum displays.

Even when they were sarcophagal, her exhibits were dynamic. The Field’s “Inside Ancient Egypt” features floor-to-ceiling walls of hieroglyphs, a famed mummy collection that includes a preserved cat, and a bed that visitors can rest in to experience how ancient Egyptians slept.

For her, a museum wasn’t a place for exhibits under glass. Back in 1974, decades before the disability-rights movement and educational mainstreaming, she started her career at the Boston Children’s Museum by helping to design a groundbreaking exhibit called “What if You Couldn’t?” Young visitors could learn about people with disabilities by using Braille, or by being blindfolded and journeying through a maze. They could study — or strap on — a prosthetic leg or arm. Youths with special needs were welcomed.

She seemed to have an intuitive sense about children. As a young girl, “her dad used to take her to museums,” said Michael Spock, scholar-in-residence at the Chicago History Museum, who quoted her in his book, “Boston Stories: the Children’s Museum as a Model for Non-Profit Leadership.”

“I knew that young people had questions about disabilities they’d never felt comfortable asking, and that it was mainly fear of the unknown and fear of making a mistake that got in the way of their relationships with students with disabilities,” she said in the book. “My simple idea was to create an exhibit in which the facts, the gear, and, to a certain extent, the experience of disability, were put into the hands of the visitors.”

In the 1980s, she helped create another innovative BCM exhibit, “Endings,” on the subject of death and loss. Children could look inside an empty casket, and touch a tombstone. Some complained death wasn’t an appropriate subject for children. Ms. Kamien disagreed.

“In the absence of a way to get at real and complete information about things that are potentially scary or uncomfortable, kids will make things up,” she said. And, “The things that they make up are often more unsettling or confusing than the truth.”

The museum asked young visitors for their opinions about the afterlife. Years later, Ms. Kamien recalled some endearing responses. “Two of my personal favorites were, ‘My family believes in heaven, but I’m not so sure,’ and “Our soils (sic) fly up to heaven,’ ” she said, according to the “Journal of Museum Education” and “Visitor Voices in Museum Exhibitions.”

A memorial service was held at the Field Museum June 5 for Ms. Kamien, who died in March of bone cancer at her home in Belchertown, Mass. She was 64.

In 1986, she joined the Field, where, in addition to “Inside Ancient Egypt,” she created the dinosaur-rich “Life Over Time” exhibit, said Spock, who recruited Ms. Kamien to join him when he worked at the Field. Her writing for the displays was both clean and gripping, said Spock. She had dyslexia, which may have influenced her dynamic writing style, said Spock, who also has dyslexia. She also did work for the U.S. Holocaust Museum; the National Constitution Center and the Franklin Institute, both in Philadelphia, and Denver’s History Colorado Center, said Claire Pillsbury of San Francisco’s Exploratorium. She received numerous grants for her work, and this year she was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Association for Museum Exhibition.

In 1999, Ms. Kamien became a consultant. She lectured and worked on museum projects in Bermuda, Egypt, the Netherlands and Soviet Union, Pillsbury said.

“Janet loved reading and gardening, as well as watching the ducks and birds, her favorite being the Cedar Waxwings, along [Massachusetts’] Swift River,” said Pillsbury. “She was an excellent domino player.”

She collected statues of Catholic saints and figurines from other religions, said Tamara Biggs, director of exhibitions at the Chicago History Museum, and kept her grandmother’s vintage sausage stuffer atop her refrigerator, Biggs said.

Ms. Kamien is survived by her husband, Anibal Cicardi, and her stepsons, Aldo and Dario.

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