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Keeper of Memories

The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks still resonate for nearly every American and remain deeply personal tragedies for the families and friends of the 2,977 who were killed as a result of the attacks at New York City’s World Trade Center, at the Pentagon and in the crash of hijacked Flight 93.

The task of designing a fitting commemoration of those sensitive events for the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York was given to David Layman, a museum exhibit designer from the Chicago area and Angelo State alumnus.

David Layman supervises an installation at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum.David Layman supervises an installation at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum.Layman, in turn, credits his choice more than 30 years ago to transfer to ASU with preparing him for that key role at the 9/11 Memorial & Museum, which opened this past May on the site of the attack.

“Thank you to ASU and the fine professors I had there because they really helped shape my life,” Layman said.

An Air Force dependent, Layman had traveled widely but returned to Colorado, where he had lived as a child, to start his higher education, eventually enrolling at the University of Colorado.

“I was focusing in on theater and the University of Colorado had a good theater department,” Layman said. “But its emphasis really was more on acting and directing, and I was more interested in design. My dad was stationed at Goodfellow Air Force Base and my parents were telling me, ‘You’ve got to check out ASU, it has the best theater department.’”

“ASU had three great theater venues,” he continued. “For someone interested in theater design, what a great opportunity that was. Dr. Raymond Carver was very motivated, very dedicated to the theater program. He was primarily focused on playwriting, which was wonderful because then much of the design work would be on original productions.”

“I got to experience how much the designer contributes to the development of the story,” he added. “That really impacted my work on design for museums.”

Carver, who retired as director of ASU University Theatre in 1994, recalled Layman as a talented designer.

“Every time I’d ask him to do a show in the Modular Theatre, he would take the three dimensions and create something new,” Carver said. “A designer who is as gifted as he is would pick up the heart of the play.”

Layman’s theater design talent landed him his first shot at museum exhibit design, at the Permian Basin Petroleum Museum in Midland.

“They wanted to rework the intro area there and had liked a theater piece that I designed at ASU,” Layman said. “They thought it might be interesting to have a theater designer, so that’s how I got called.”

“Through that interaction, I really had my appetite whetted for museum work,” he continued. “It lasts, which is not true for theater work. All that design work goes into the dumpster as soon as the show is over. Also, growing up I was exposed to so many museums all over the world. I loved the idea of being able to design for a museum.”

After graduating from ASU in 1980 with his bachelor’s degree with multiple majors and minors in theater, history, philosophy and art, Layman attended the Yale School of Drama, Carver’s alma mater. Despite his budding interest in museum work, he stayed busy in theater, completing 120 design projects over the next decade.

“My life has been an absolute whirlwind since high school,” Layman said. “Obviously, theater is so demanding on time. You’re in school, then working at the theater into the night, easily 90-hour weeks.”

Married with a young family, he was freelancing for theaters on both the East and West Coasts, so he decided to relocate to Glenview, in the Chicago area, central to his work. That was also where his interest in museum work came to the forefront.

“As soon as I got here, I took the kids to the Field Museum of Natural History, which was in the midst of some major exhibit redesign,” Layman said. “I was there as a tourist and I commented to someone on how great a particular exhibit was, and that person said they could use someone. I sent in an application, and the next week I was working.”

His design work at the Field Museum marked an end to Layman’s theater career and led to the launch of his museum exhibit business, Layman Designs.

“We really don’t do any advertising at all,” he said. “The phone just rings and the work comes in. We’ve done five or six projects with the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington. The exhibit staff there is one of the top-notch in the country. They deal with weighty issues with sensitivity and intelligence. That has been a really wonderful relationship over the years.”

Layman has also designed exhibits for the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie, the Museum of Science and Industry and the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, several nature centers and the New York Historical Society, among others.

“I think my education was so vital to this,” Layman said. “I had such an interest in natural history, history and art. You bring that kind of education to the job and you understand some of the issues and impact for the visitors. It was really a huge asset.”

“Dave has created a niche,” Carver said. “He’s created his own site-specific career. It hasn’t been a straight road for him, but he’s certainly done things of great value. I have the greatest affection for him.”

When the 9/11 Memorial & Museum called, the ASU grad was ready for the challenge.

“The historical exhibition is the heart of the museum,” Layman said. “It tells the story of the day, what happened, and the origins and the genesis of the attack. It then follows through with what happened, how it really changed the trajectory of human history.”

Museum Director Alice Greenwald praised Layman’s “rare combination of skills and sensitivities.”

“From the very start of his work with us,” she said, “he recognized that this exhibition carried a unique burden: It needed to do more than convey factual information. The exhibition design had to help visitors negotiate the emotionally intense content and imagery. Dave’s sense of pacing and modulation; his ability to help focus visitor attention through layered installations that cue direction and subtly convey hierarchies for selective degrees of engagement; and his creative use of light and shadow to reinforce the narrative arc combined to create an exhibition experience of unusual power with the potential for a deeply personal encounter with history.”

Layman’s design will also have a permanent place in U.S. history.

“I think it will have resonance for generations to come,” he said, “and, obviously, it was huge honor to be asked to participate in it.”

  • Laurel Scott

    Laurel Scott

    Laurel Scott is a news and information specialist at Angelo State University. 
    E-mail Laurel at laurel.scott@angelo.edu.