John Jacobsen

John JacobsenIn a more recent loss, John Jacobsen, a Renaissance man with a gentlemanly demeanor who helped shape the direction and development of museums in the U.S. and around the world, died at his home in Marblehead, Massachusetts, on January 12 of this year, with his wife, Jeanie Stahl, by his side.

He described his career as a “drunkard’s walk” following his varied interests, which led him from theater scenic design to show and film production and finally, for thirty years, to his beloved museum field. In 1988 he founded White Oak Associates, which led strategic planning initiatives for more than 100 museums.

His museum career began in 1985 as Associate Director of the Boston Museum of Science, where he executive produced the Museum’s $24 million Hall Wing and Mugar Omni heater and oversaw the making of the popular IMAX short film, “New England Time Capsule,” with music by John Williams.

As a boy, Jake was fascinated by chemistry and physics and had a fully stocked chemistry lab in the basement where he dabbled in magic experiments, explosives, and breeding hybrid fruit flies. But when he got to Yale he found his biochemistry classes boring and abstract, so he ricocheted from chemistry to English, to art history, and then theater.

After graduating with a BA in Art History from Yale and an MFA in Theater Scenic Design from the Yale Drama School, he taught scenic design in the Emerson College Theater Department in Boston and later joined the faculty at Wheaton College. During these years he directed scenery and lighting design for more than 60 theater productions, including” Of Mice and Men “at the Loeb Drama Center, all the while dreaming of becoming a great fine art painter, laboring at night on large canvases in his carriage house apartment near Coolidge Corner in Brookline, Massachusetts.

In the early 1970s, the advent of multimedia theater led him to take on his first museum project – The Salem Witch Museum’s innovative in-the-round presentation of the 1692 witch trials using life-sized stage sets and dramatic lighting and sound. Fifty years later, it remains the most attended attraction in Salem, Massachusetts.
Through mutual friends, John met the love of his life, singer-songwriter Jeanie Stahl. They were married in 1982 and settled in Marblehead’s historic district, north of Boston, and became, as he often said, “partners in everything.” Over the next 30 years, with a team of experts and staff, they led strategic planning initiatives and development for museums.

Throughout their marriage, Jake continuously refined his woodworking and cooking skills. He maintained an impeccable workshop, designed and built a classic cherrywood bookcase for his library/study in their home, designed and hand-drew their annual Christmas card, and indulged his passion for cooking, delighting their circle of friends with his exceptional multi-course meals.

He and Jeanie later co-executive produced the IMAX film, “The Living Sea,” with narration by Meryl Streep and music by Sting. It was nominated for an Academy Award in 1995.

“I knew Jake through the Yale Dramat, where he designed a number of sets for our shows,” says Steve Campbell. “He attended our 50th reunion, and a dozen of us Dramat alums and spouses had a nostalgic tour of the University Theater courtesy of a current Dramat member, followed by lunch at Mory’s. It was a highlight of the reunion.”

“I first met him when I was producing plays in Silliman in freshman and sophomore years,” adds Gerry Thompson. “He invited me to help him and a drama school student do the electricals on the play ‘the death of Dr Faust.’ After having burnt up part of the stage in one performance (with the New Haven fire department in attendance), the Christmas season approached and John and I headed to New York City for an afternoon. He had heard of a dodgy Corot painting for sale in the art department of the Altman’s department store on 34th St. We went there, saw it and we both agreed it was a poor copy or a fake. We told the head of the art department and then headed up 5th Avenue by foot. On 57th St and 5th Avenue we saw an old Parisian omnibus parked outside an art gallery. Out of curiosity we went up to the open rear of the bus, looked in, and out pops Salvador Dali! After a brief discussion with him and his friends about art at Yale, we departed and headed back to Grand Central Station, destination New Haven.”

Tim Curnen adds, “John had a lively curiosity about everything, which he shared eagerly with his friends, loving to explore ideas and possibilities just to see where they’d lead,” adds. “He knew how to work and he knew how to play, and he knew that both were essential to a fulfilled life. John made good things happen – for himself and his wonderful wife Jeanie, and for those of us lucky enough to have known him.”