How to Build a Museum One Well-Planned Step at a Time

“This has been a wild and wonderful adventure that I could never have dreamed up.” —Marion Gill

A medium skinned woman talks to a light skinned woman in an office.Marion Gill, Princeton University’s associate director of special projects, knows museums, and she knows how to help build them. But if not for a fateful internship, she might never have discovered her passion for working with cultural institutions or her special knack for galvanizing teams to manage complex projects, from traveling exhibitions and gallery installations to transformative construction efforts.

While finishing her undergraduate studies at Fisk University and preparing to apply (at her family’s insistence) to Georgetown University’s law school, Marion took a career-changing internship at the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum in Washington, DC, working for the chief of design and assisting with planning for the inaugural exhibition in the museum’s new building, set to open in 1987. Colleagues and mentors took notice of her keen ability to shepherd projects effectively, and when her internship ended, she was offered a one-year position at the National Museum of American History to help prepare for its landmark 1987 exhibition, A More Perfect Union: Japanese Americans and the U.S. Constitution. The museum offered Marion a permanent position ten months later, and that proved to be the start of a thirty-year career at the Smithsonian Institution. Plans for law school were put on permanent hold.

Marion counts Spencer Crew, then director of the National Museum of American History (NMAH), and his deputy, Martha Morris, as two of her most important mentors. Under their leadership, the NMAH became the first museum to establish a dedicated project management office that employed project managers trained in the technical aspects of complex planning and in handling group dynamics. They selected her to join that team.

Marion attributes her strengths in organizing complex planning efforts and running teams to her parents. Her father is an engineer and computer scientist who also did construction. As she puts it, “Engineering, computer science, and construction are where project management comes from. My upbringing was pretty much managed as a project by my parents, and everything was organized that way.”

Interior of a building with a lot of windows and a spiral staircase.After the NMAH, Marion spent nine years at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) as a management analyst before Lonnie Bunch III, then director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (now secretary of the Smithsonian), whom she had known when he worked at the NMAH, tapped her to join his team as a senior project manager. There, Marion direct exhibition programming for the 2016 opening of the museum’s David Adjaye–designed building, located on the National Mall in Washington, DC. Marion also took on café and store development and, ultimately, coordinated the completion and occupancy of the building. As Secretary Bunch once joked describing Marion’s range of skills, “Her job really is to bring order to chaos. To figure out how to motivate people to make sure that projects get done on time and under budget. She knows when to push. She knows when someone needs a kind word and when someone needs a kick in the pants.”

Although Marion is excited to work with Adjaye again on Princeton University’s new Art Museum, she also notes the extraordinary architectural team that she worked with at the Museum of African American History and Culture: “The opportunity to work with David Adjaye again is mind-boggling. But the entire architectural team on that project was amazing, including African American architects like J. Max Bond Jr., Phil Freelon, and Zena Howard.” Marion left the Smithsonian in 2017 to oversee construction coordination, facilities, security, IT, exhibitions, and retail operations for the International African American Museum (IAAM), in Charleston, South Carolina, due to open in early 2023.

These experiences have all prepared Marion for her role as associate director of special projects at Princeton, where she serves as the Office of the Provost’s delegate on major initiatives at the University, providing project management, coordination, and planning support. She also sits on a number of campus committees that focus on space programming and planning. Her primary role is to provide expertise and project support to multiyear major initiatives, and one of her first assignments is the Art Museum’s expansion and rebuilding. She works closely with Museum Director James Steward and the entire Art Museum team to manage all the details—great and small—that go into completing a construction project. Her work includes project management for the satellite store on Nassau Street; contracting, establishing, and maintaining schedules for design and construction; liaising with the University’s Office of Capital Projects on many aspects of the project, such as the procurement process for fixtures, furniture, and equipment; and supporting project management for the new Museum. As she describes it, “It is really taking direction from James. . . . Where does the Museum need support and do I have the skill set to support that?” The answer, invariably, is that she does.

Caroline Harris
Diane W. and James E. Burke Associate Director for Education