Campus & Community

The Big Picture

3 min read

Janis Sacco, Road warrior

Janis Sacco Photo by Rose Lincoln

Janis Sacco, head of exhibition planning and interpretation at the Harvard Museum of Natural History (HMNH), loves her job.

She also loves her home, a modest house on 26 wooded acres in rural Lebanon, Maine.

So spending five hours each day connecting the two doesn’t feel burdensome to her.

In fact, to hear her tell it, it almost makes sense: living where the cost of housing is low, she can support a family of four doing a job she adores. Her husband, a horticulturist, manages the home front, greeting their son and daughter when they return from school, doing home renovations, and planting native plants and plotting his future water garden business. “I love what I do, and he loves the role that he’s taken on,” Sacco says.

The cost is the commute. “I take all major forms of transportation other than airplane,” she laughs. Sacco rises four mornings each week (she telecommutes one day) at 4:15 a.m. and leaves the house by 5 for a 35-minute drive to Portsmouth, N.H. There, she meets a vanpool she shares with 13 others she describes as “crazy, like me.” When the van pulls into a parking lot at Haymarket, Sacco takes the T’s green line to the red line to Harvard Square, arriving at her desk by 7:30.

Between 7:30 a.m. and 3:45 p.m., when she reverses the procedure, Sacco conceptualizes content for the museum’s exhibitions. Working with curators and faculty members, she interprets exhibits to the public, writing labels and coordinating graphic elements such as posters and banners, conducting research and evaluation on museum-goers to ensure that exhibits are hitting their mark.

With a Ph.D. in biological anthropology, Sacco worked at natural history museums in Pittsburgh and Oklahoma before a job at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s science and technology museum brought her back to her New England roots. When Harvard’s Museum of Natural History courted her in spring of 2001, she leapt. “I just love natural history. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to be at a natural history museum again,” she says, giving credit to museum director Josh Basseches for being flexible with her schedule.

Although she sacrifices some personal time to live her urban/rural lifestyle, Sacco fiercely guards time with her family, making sure she’s home by 6:30 every night for dinner and the pre-bedtime “Lord of the Rings” reading ritual. Rural life, with its slow, quiet pace and room to roam, suits Sacco, her two school-age children, and her husband. “He makes it doable. If he wasn’t my partner and my soulmate, we couldn’t do it,” she says.

Vans, trains, and automobiles notwithstanding, “We’re beginning to live our dream of what we wanted for our family,” Sacco says. “We can go for a walk in the woods: we own the woods. It’s much more of what we’re looking for.”

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