Engaging Art: Rachel Mastromarino ’10 designs traveling exhibits for Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh

Although Rachel Mastromarino ’10 considered a career in teaching, her interest in English and art led her to the museums of London where she found her future profession.

A drawing course with Professor of Art Patrick Schmidt her freshman year led to a second art course, after which Schmidt encouraged her to pursue the major. While she had already declared majors in English and studio art before an intersession trip to London, the experience allowed her
to make the connection between art and education in museum work and provided her with the nexus to combine these interests into a career.

Back at W&J, Schmidt continued to guide Mastromarino by enrolling her in a 300 level art history course, typically taken by seniors, when she was only a sophomore. The class solidified her interest in museum work and led her to a semester abroad in Florence studying art. After graduation, she earned a master’s degree in museum studies from Johns Hopkins University.

“Sharing knowledge and getting people passionate about art is what I found myself gravitating towards,” Mastromarino said. “I don’t consider myself a fantastic artist, but I think I have a good eye for design that I use that a lot in my job now.”

Her current job as the traveling exhibits manager at the Children’s Museum in downtown Pittsburgh allows her to combine the aesthetics of exhibit design with a focus on educating the public. Her job duties include assisting in the creation of new exhibits, marketing existing assets, brand management, working with partners such as The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art and Fred Rogers Productions, and ensuring exhibit quality from site to site.

Mastromarino started at the museum as an unpaid intern in 2011 and rose through the ranks from a part-time museum associate to a full-time manager. Prior to Mastromarino’s arrival, the museum lacked a strong focus on traveling exhibits, and only traveled one exhibit from 2007 to 2014.

“XOXO: An Exhibit About Love & Forgiveness” premiered in Pittsburgh in 2014 and now tours the country. The exhibit centers on teaching visitors about love and forgiveness through interactive experiences that focus on communication. The foreground of the photo showcases “Tone Phones,” which allow visitors to visualize their voices on the projected surface showing them that it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. XOXO has traveled to a variety of museums including the Muhammad Ali Center and the Canadian Museum of Human Rights.

After grant funding allowed the museum to create a new traveling exhibit, “XOXO: An Exhibit About Love & Forgiveness,” it decided to expand the traveling exhibit program. As a result of this decision, the museum launched its Business Development Initiative in 2014 with Mastromarino in the role of the business development coordinator. As the initiative grew, she took on the role of traveling exhibits manager in 2016. The museum has seen success with its traveling exhibits, and produced five new exhibits, one per year, between 2014 and 2018.

The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh is one of less than 10 producers of children’s traveling exhibits nationwide. Organizations across the country pay to house these exhibits in their spaces for certain periods of time, with the revenue generated coming back to the museum. The museum also leverages its expertise to offer consulting services on exhibit design and marketing to like institutions.

“Giving is very unpredictable,” Mastromarino said. “We have to be entrepreneurial and figure out what we’re good at and how we can earn some of our own money while still fulfilling our mission and reaching more children across the country.”

Each exhibit has a 10-year lifespan and is displayed at two or three locations per year, meaning approximately three million people will interact with an exhibit produced by Mastromarino and the 10-person exhibits team over its lifetime.

A wide assortment of considerations goes into determining the factors of an exhibit.

“Most children’s museums create spaces with only their youngest visitors in mind, but children don’t come to children’s museums alone. We create exhibits that we believe are interactive and engaging for the entire family, from zero to 99, regardless of what knowledge they are bringing with them,” Mastromarino said. “We believe in the value of good design, that if you respect children and design well for them that they appreciate art the same as adults.”

In addition, the components of the exhibit must travel well, as it will be loaded and unloaded onto trucks and set up in a variety of different spaces over its lifespan.

“I have to deal a lot with 53-foot tractor trailers, which I never thought I would be doing,” she said.

Exhibit prototypes go through a testing period with staff evaluators and researchers to determine what is needed to provide the best visitor experience.

Finalized exhibits debut at the museum in Pittsburgh for six months before hitting the road. This gives museum staff additional time to create the materials needed to promote the exhibit, as well as identifying any problems that may arise once it is open to the public.

Once the exhibits begin to travel, Mastromarino manages them from afar, following along with the reaction they receive in the press and on social media. The Very Eric Carle exhibit, most recently on display in Bettendorf, Iowa, received a mention in USA Today’s travel section as one of the top ten museum exhibits in the country to see this summer.

While her exhibits travel from coast to coast, Mastromarino and her husband Alex Patterson ’11, chose to stay close to the friends and connections they made during their time at W&J and have settled in Pittsburgh.

Mastromarino came to Washington from Reading, Pa., to be a part of the field hockey team and have a small college experience. She met Patterson, a football player from Cincinnati, through athletics at Cameron Stadium.

“We always joke that living here is a short term plan, but it’s been almost eight years now,” Mastromarino said. “Pittsburgh is such a vibrant city right now, it’s been a really exciting time to see how much things have progressed and changed.”

The team-oriented environment that drew Mastromarino to W&J allowed her to make close connections and find her passion, leading her to a career that capitalizes on the thriving arts scene of nearby Pittsburgh.

“I really believe in what we do and our mission,” she said. “Our exhibits are not just giant playgrounds; learning is happening.”

Find out if the Children’s Museum exhibits are traveling to a city near you: pittsburghkidsdesign.org/traveling-exhibits.