Conway’s childhood dream came true when he became an exhibit specialist for the National Museum of African Art (NMAfA) in Washington, D.C., one of the Smithsonian Institution’s 16 museums. He works as a mount maker, constructing devices to hold, display and protect the different artifacts. The devices range from acrylic mounts that hold manuscripts and books to metal brackets and resin replacement pieces for figures and statues that are missing a section.
Conway’s job often requires him to create new devices. For the museum’s show of African Kente cloths, for instance, he created mounts that extend out from the wall, allowing the textiles to be staggered so they’re more inter-esting to look at, and so more can be hung on the wall. The mounts were so good, in fact, the Textile Museum later borrowed them.
He also created mounts for the Beautiful Bodies exhibit, which features large African pottery, as well as sculpting S-shaped mounts for the Tower of Biodiversity, a collaborative project between several Smithsonian museums. The tower, which is located in the Institution’s castle, is a 50-foot tall rectangle mounted with more than 160 animal and aquatic specimens. Conway mounted 37 of the specimens, including tree snakes, an armadillo, starfish, crabs and turtles. “I had to give the metal mounts a living shape for the animals to follow each other around the tower, curving upwards.”
The Smithsonian isn’t the only institution to benefit from Conway’s ingenuity, however. During his freshman year at Xavier, the 1978 graduate created the rugby club. “We had a rag-tag team,” he says, “and when the school dropped football, a lot of the football players joined our team. The next thing I knew, we were wearing the football jerseys and playing in the stadium in front of a crowd. We played a substitute homecoming game. It was unbelievable.”
Conway continues to see things beyond belief as part of his job. For instance, he recently crossed paths with a vertebrae of an African warrior with an arrowhead still imbedded in it; a rare Yoruba ring that was used for mounting heads; and a 13-foot African mask that someone really wore. “He would have to have practiced for several years to get his neck muscles strong enough to wear it without snapping his neck.”
An artisan himself, Conway appreciates all the work that goes into the artifacts he sees. “The creators of these objects were much more connected to the planet,” he says. “The shapes that came out of their minds and hands came out of the living planet. They were great craftsmen. The best thing about my job is I have the ability to create things that help show people what was going on in the world.”