From Ouija boards to Marilyn Monroe’s jewelry, Nicole Mullen has compiled some of the Bay Area’s most compelling art exhibitions…in one of the unlikeliest of places.

Day at the office: SFO’s museum program curator Nicole Mullen, in the International Terminal of the airport. (Photo by Charles Russo)

Nicole Mullen has been working in museums almost her whole life.

As a child she spent countless hours at Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts, accompanying her mother — head of colonial interpretation for the living history museum on the weekends.

Now, 20 years later, Mullen has been a curator for SFO’s museum program for more than a decade. In that time she has conceptualized and overseen more than 55 different exhibitions with focuses ranging from Chinese jades to Mexican folk art to the history of lace (one of Mullen’s favorite to date, actually) and even an exhibit on Ouija boards from over the years. These exhibitions are strung across terminals all throughout the airport, aimed at an eclectic audience which constantly teeters between a state of mad rush or just killing time.

“…We get to work on different things. If you can dream it up and find (the art for it), you can do it. It doesn’t get better than that”; a section of The Mysterious Talking Board: Ouija and Beyond exhibit at SFO. (Images courtesy of SFO Museum)

When the airport’s museum program began in 1980, it was an effort to “humanize” the airport environment, Mullen says. Since then, it’s become the only airport museum accredited by the American Alliance of Museums, which Mullen adds is especially “unique for a museum in a public environment.”

California actually has two other airport museums — the Aviation Museum of Santa Paula in the Santa Paula Airport and the Flight Path Museum & Learning Center at LAX — though they’re confined to one space within their respective airports, and don’t boast the kind of artistic variety that SFO’s Museum’s past exhibitions have.

SFO Museum’s staff has grown since Mullen arrived — they’ve since hired another curator, Daniel Calderon, and have two curators for aviation shows, plus a photography curator for the ‘2-D’ shows. Though she’s worked in a wide variety of museums, Mullen has been at SFO Museum the longest and has no plans to leave — “It’s just a wonderful job,” she says.

We spoke with Mullen more about airport art, SFO Museum’s acclaim, and the time Marylin Monroe’s earrings were on display in the international terminal.

Views of a current exhibition by SFO MuseumDown Home Music: The Story of Arhoolie Records, which chronicles the legacy of the longtime Bay Area music label run by Chris Strachwitz (lower left with Mullen). Arhoolie recorded blues, folk, cajun and other American roots music, with the likes of Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mississippi Fred McDowell and Michael Doucet. (Images courtesy of SFO Museum)

Can you tell me a little about the history of the museum?

I’ve been here about ten years, but the program started in 1980, and basically it was a way to the humanize the airport environment. It’s a very innovative program — we do exhibitions throughout the terminals. We’re also AAM accredited, which is unique for a museum in a public environment like we are.

How did you become the curator at SFO?

I’ve been working in museums virtually my whole life, since I was a kid and my mother took me to work with her on the weekends. I got a degree in cultural anthropology in undergrad, and worked at U.C. Berkeley’s anthropology museum for five years before getting my grad degree in historic preservation. I did graduate research assistant work at the Atlanta History Center and worked briefly at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in D.C. before coming here. I’ve worked for a lot of museums, but I’ve stayed at this one the longest. I have a pretty diverse background, which is very helpful here, because we do exhibitions on such a large variety of art — anything from decorative art to history and anthropology.

Some of the many exhibit pieces for The Mysterious Talking Board:Ouija and Beyond, a SFO Museum exhibition showcasing the history and many incarnations of the popular spirit board game, dating back to the 19th century. (Images courtesy of SFO Museum)

How many exhibits do you think you’ve seen in your time as curator?

I’ve done so many now that the only way I can keep track is every time I finish one, I put it on my resume, that way I know exactly. I can’t recall the exact number — we do so many a year, I do at least 3 or 4. That’s partly because I now have another curator here, and he’s doing exhibitions too. We also have a photography curator who does all the 2-D shows, and we have two separate aviation curators who do the aviation shows.

What has kept you at SFO’s museum for so long?

It’s just such a wonderful job. I get to work on such a diverse range of topics because we are generalized in our exhibitions. A lot of museums, you’d have to have a Ph.D. in a specific field, and you would just work in that part of the museum’s collection. But here, because we don’t have a permanent collection that is non-aviation related, we get to work on different things. If you can dream it up and find [the art for it], you can do it. It doesn’t get better than that.

Exhibit pieces from one of Mullen’s favorite shows—Lace: A Sumptuous History. (Images courtesy of SFO Museum)

Of the exhibits you’ve put on, which has been your favorite?

Oh, there have been lots. But I will say I did an exhibition on the history of lace, and I worked with Jules Kliot — he runs the Lacis Museum of Lace and Textiles in Berkeley, and he has an amazing collection from the 17th century on up. When people think of lace they think of doilies, and people said to me , ‘Lace? What, are you going to have doilies, in a show?’ But it ended up being one of the best shows I’ve done, and even the people who were skeptical at first really loved it. It’s always fun when you can bring subject matter like that to life, and make it appeal to people who weren’t interested at first.

Another thing that’s coming up that’s really fun — there’s this salon and museum called the Beauty Bubble Salon and Museum, down in Joshua Tree. The collector’s name is Jeff [Hafler], and he has this amazing collection of historical hair-related items. It includes historical things for hairdressing, but also popular culture items, like those Barbie heads where you do their hair — you name it. We’re going down there to see his collection at the end of April, for an upcoming show. It’ll be a lot of pop culture and historical
objects, and that’s something really fun, and something we do that we don’t see many other museums do besides the Smithsonian History Museum, which features a lot of popular culture. But we’re able to do that here, and we’re able to do it well.

Have there been any exhibits you’ve ultimately disliked?

No. Even sometimes when I’ve been assigned certain exhibitions, you delve into the research and the subject matter. You want it to be the best show no matter the topic, so you become passionate, whatever the subject is. Because I’m excited enough about my job that even things that I started out initially not so sure about… I made them my own, and I think you’re excited once you get attached and get to researching and writing about it. You always find some interesting things that keep you excited. So there hasn’t been one that I disliked.

Exhibit pieces from American Folk Art: An Enduring Legacy. (Images courtesy of SFO Museum)

What’s the most famous piece or collection you’ve had on display?

I don’t know about famous, but in terms of precious things, we did Chinese Jades with the Asian Art Museum, and a Tiffany Exhibition with Michaan’s Auctions. We also did a great exhibition about a jeweler to the stars, Joseff of Hollywood, so it was all the costume jewelry for Rita Hayworth, Greta Garbo and Marilyn Monroe (of course, earrings that [Marilyn] wore). So that was probably the most recognizable material.

Do you think the art being on display in an airport modifies or enhances the experience for viewers?

We do such broad topics in order to reach as many of the millions of diverse travelers that are our captive audience — we are not in a traditional museum setting where people are paying an admission fee to see our exhibitions, so we keep that in mind. Some of the biggest challenges and feedback we get is for audio. It’s tricky, because we have this great record exhibition of folk music from the Arhoolie label in Berkeley that was acquired by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings — we had album covers and a movie, so you could see clips of documentaries about music and the man that founded the record label — but we can’t play sound, there would be airport announcements we can’t interfere with. The other thing that is a challenge for us is light levels. If you go to a traditional museum, the overall gallery is pretty dark, so things look a lot brighter if they’re lit. Here, we have to have exterior lighting since obviously we’re not in closed gallery spaces, and that can be challenging.

Scenes from the SFO Museum exhibit—Classic Monsters: The Kirk Hammett Collection, showcasing the classic horror film art and paraphernalia of the longtime Metallica guitarist and Bay Area resident (top left with Mullen). (Images courtesy of SFO Museum)

How do you choose the art? Is there any local connection?

Certainly we work with private collectors. You’d be surprised how many people collect things very passionately… and a lot of things. I have a lot of local contacts that I use, and museums, as well. We work with UCLA’s Fowler Museum, California Academy of Sciences and Mingei Museum in San Diego. A lot of times, we have an idea that we search out, and we try and find things. People contact us, too. They’ve traveled through SFO and they’re aware of us, and they say, ‘I collect this,’ or ‘I have this idea for this show,’ and ask to partner with us. We’re always wanting to work with private collectors as well as museums, and it seems like between people contacting us and us searching and scouting, we manage to do pretty well. For the hair accessories show, I just happened to open up an Allure Magazine — which I never read — and inside was an article on the Beauty Bubble Salon and Museum. As soon as I saw it, I knew I had to work with him. I thought, ‘that sounds perfect for us.’

Who is your typical audience? Do you ever get individuals who are not traveling in the museum?

There was a man that just called me last week from Virginia, and he said, ‘I fly all the time to see my kids in the area, and I love seeing your shows, can you give me more info?’ so I emailed him more about online exhibitions because he just wanted more information.

We do get people who are not traveling. We get a lot of requests. People have heard about an exhibition past security, and they want to see if they can see the show without flying. Some shows more than others will garner attention, but we certainly do have a lot of tours with non-travelers that are just interested in seeing the shows. We have people who come regularly to the international terminal because they live locally, and the exhibits are pre-
security. And that’s really nice that we get local interest.

It’s a really extraordinary program that I’m very grateful to be a part of. It’s very unique that the City of San Francisco and SFO really promotes and encourages this program, and I think it really adds to the culture of the Bay Area.

To learn more about the SFO Museum, and get info on current exhibits, click here.

Travelers at SFO take a moment to look through Classic Monsters: The Kirk Hammett Collection. (Images courtesy of SFO Museum)

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Sarah Klearman

East coast transplant working her way through all things Peninsula. On Twitter @SarahKlearman

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