A Career of Making Models at the Smithsonian

By Lora Collins, 3D Studio Supervisor at Smithsonian Exhibits

When I was just ten years old, my mother and I were admiring the beautiful dioramas at the National Museum of Natural History when she told me that I could make dioramas one day. I forgot about that until I was well out of art school and looking for work that I could enjoy doing for the rest of my life. I was very, very lucky to get a job at the Smithsonian in 1981 doing exactly what I wanted: making models and dioramas!

I have spent the last 36 years at Smithsonian Exhibits making mannequins and models of horses, dogs, food, plants, enlarged butterflies, and whatever else came our way. The work is messy, laborious, and time-consuming, but it’s been a blast! Along the way, I’ve learned new techniques and approaches from my talented coworkers. I’ve also collaborated with and learned from fascinating curators and scientists. No two jobs have been alike. Here are some highlights from my career.

 

At the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) 

My first portrait figure was of Sally Ride, the first American woman in space. Since she was not going to come to DC for a face mask, I volunteered to sculpt her face using photos. That worked well, except that all the photos were of her in outer space, so the mannequin shows what she looked like without gravity. Oh well! Guy Bluford, the first African American in space, did come to DC for me to take a face mold from him directly. What a thrill!

 

Sculpting the entry to the Star Wars diorama for a SITES traveling exhibit using papier-mâché.

 

I sculpted this World War I flying ace from photos.

 

Here I am dressing a mannequin that is signaling to the pilot on an aircraft carrier. Because he had to look like he was in a high wind, I had to use a combination of glue and padding to get the windy effect.

 

Here I am making a half-scale touchable model of astronaut Neil Armstrong on the Moon for a traveling exhibit.

 

Working with coworker Megan Dattoria to finish sculpting Sidney, the Newfoundland dog on display in the Time and Navigation exhibit at NASM.

 

Sidney is my one and only bronze model!

 

At the National Museum of American History (NMAH) 

My coworker Carol Reuter and I worked with former NMAH curator Spencer Crew and designer Jim Sims on the positioning of six figures for the exhibit Field to Factory. Spencer’s own family members were used as reference material. It was the first time I used glass eyes.

 

 

Three staffers from my office, Ben Snouffer, Rosemary Regan, and Harold Campbell, pose in front of their mannequins for the exhibit Engines of Change. When appropriate, we took castings from actual people—faces, hands, and feet—so quite a few Smithsonian employees appear in the exhibits.

 

I cast my own face for this nineteenth-century lady for the exhibit Parlor to Politics. My coworker Carol Reuter sewed the muslin garment and I styled the hair.

 

I created these two women for the Military History Hall. The lady in white has the same face as the World War I fighter pilot I had recently made for the National Air and Space Museum.

 

At the National Zoo

More recently, I worked with the Zoo team to make two sea lions, a mamma and her pup. No glass eyes were used here; instead, I carved into the clay to create shadows to give the effect of dimensionality in the eyes. An intern worked with me to sculpt the pup, and coworker Carolyn Thome painted the sea lions.

Learn more about the process I used to create the sea lions here.

 

At the National Postal Museum

This is the project I am most proud of: making two of the four full-sized running horses pulling the stagecoach. Coworker Danny Fielding and I used a different approach on every horse, learning as we went along! They were installed for the inaugural opening of the museum, along with several mannequins and other models from our shop, including the full-sized railcar.

 

A desktop-sized version of Owney, the mascot for the U.S. Postal Service, which I sculpted first in clay and cast in metal.

 

A life-sized touchable model of Owney. I sculpted everything except the badges and hardware.

 

I molded, cast, and painted everything, including the mailbag he is sitting on.

 

At the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH)

I created this head of Ötzi the Iceman working from a National Geographic photo of John Gurche’s forensic sculpture of him. The rest of the figure and diorama were made by others. Just a few years I ago, I took a course to learn forensic reconstruction, a fascinating combination of biology and art and definitely something I want to pursue further.

 

This is the huge elephant diorama project we did in 1999. I love working as part of a team. Photo by Chip Clark, Smithsonian.
My “John Hancock” at the base of the elephant diorama, which was recently redone, making me feel old!

 

Putting the finishing touches on a head for a diorama for the exhibit Vikings.

 

I enjoyed making larger-than-life butterflies for the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. I learned so much about what makes different butterfly species unique.

 

Pygmy baby for the traveling exhibit Tropical Rainforests.

 

Wood carving for the exhibit Going to Sea with coworker John Siske, a true collaboration.

 

My final project at Smithsonian Exhibits is almost finished. I’ve been sculpting the portrait of John T. Hughes for a diorama on the Cuban Missile Crisis that will be on display at the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) in the summer. Mr. Hughes played a crucial part in delivering intelligence to the President and his team during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

I am looking forward to doing much more of my own art as a retiree, including oil painting, figurative sculpting, portraiture, and maybe even forensic reconstruction. We shall see!