One day Bryan Sieling was simply walking past the Southern Ohio Museum and he stopped in. Now he is the exhibit designer for the new National Museum of African American History and Culture for the Smithsonian on The Mall in Washington D.C.
Sieling, son of Robert and Evelyn Sieling, grew up on 28th Street in Portsmouth, attended Roosevelt Elementary, McKinley Middle School, Portsmouth High School, The Ohio State University for his undergraduate degree in Environmental Science and Environmental Education and George Washington University in Washington for his masters degree in Museum Studies.
Not unlike many young Americans, Sieling graduated from OSU in 1981 with no job lined up. So he moved back home with his parents in Portsmouth where he began to send out resumes trying to find a job in his field.
“I wasn’t having any luck and literally I was walking down the street one day in downtown Portsmouth. I was walking in front of where the Southern Ohio Museum is located now,” Sieling said. “I walked by the place, stopped in my tracks and said ‘wow, what is this?’ I walked in and I was hooked. Stumbling onto the Southern Ohio Museum in the early months of 1982 was a life-changing moment for me. “
Sieling began as a volunteer as a docent at the museum while receiving income from a job he had obtained at the then-Scioto Memorial Hospital.
“I was just mesmerized by the place (museum),” Sieling said. “After volunteering there two years they hired me as their curator of education. That’s the point at which Sara Johnson became the director of the museum and I took her place and curator of education.”
Sieling worked at the museum for the next four years and decided to study museum work in graduate school. That’s when he headed off to George Washington. One of the requirements for that program was to do an internship in a local museum.
“So I did my internship at the Smithsonian Museum of American History,” Sieling said. “Internship there turned into a one-year contract to do some work there. Then I met the proprietor of a local design firm, Stapleton and Charles, on Capitol Hill and I worked for them for a couple of years and the project that I was assigned while working for them was to design an exhibit of Japanese art for the Museum of Natural History.”
Times fell lean for the design firm and Sieling was let go, but he had met quite a number of people at the Smithsonian as the result of designing the show, and so he was hired and worked as an exhibition designer at the Museum of Natural History for the next nine years.
In 2000 he left the Smithsonian to become chief of design for the Newseum, the museum of journalism, where he worked for the next nine years. In 2008, shortly after the Newseum opened, the Smithsonian was in the beginning stages of designing the new National Museum of African American History and Culture.
‘They were looking for a head of design and for me it was perfect timing because the Newseum had just opened and so I applied for that job and got it and that’s where I am here today,” Sieling said. “The foundation for my ability to do now was formulated over many years and many experiences in different places and that goes all the way back to the Southern Ohio Museum in Portsmouth.”
The National Museum of African American History and Culture is set to open in September of this year on the National Mall between the National Museum of American History and the Washington Monument, a prime location to say the least.
“We are in the home-stretch now of building this museum from the ground up,” Sieling said. “The exhibitions are being installed as we speak and the artifacts are going to start going in the next couple of weeks and that will be a real push to get nearly 3,000 artifacts put into their display cases between now and when we open.”
It has been somewhat of an odyssey that began in Portsmouth and has evolved to the nation’s capitol.
“I never dreamed in a million years that I would be head of design for the Smithsonian Institution,” Sieling said. “That’s not something that I necessarily set my sights on. And I know it’s different for everybody, but for me it was a genuine enthusiasm in what I was doing. When I got that job at the Southern Ohio Museum, I looked forward to going to work every day. It was the most thrilling job for me at the time, and I think it was my sheer joy of doing what I was doing, and the joy of working with the people I was working with and discovering something new every day, it was a period in my life when it all came together.”
Sieling said one layer is a consortium of four architectural firms is working on the new museum, along with three general contractors, and his job is essentially the architect of the exhibits that go into the building.
“We’re not called architects, we’re called exhibit designers,” Sieling said. “My job is to oversee the design of 11 different permanent galleries that are going in this building that total 85,000 square feet of public exhibition space.”
Sieling said young people living in the Portsmouth area should know they can get there from here when it comes to successes in their careers.
“I think it can happen for anybody from any town, including Portsmouth, where if you just really give it 110 percent and take it and grab it by the horns, you can do anything,” Sieling said.
Reach Frank Lewis at 740-353-3101, ext. 1928, or on Twitter @franklewis.