SIE’s Chief of Design, Eric Christiansen, recently traveled to Armenia as part of the My Armenia program.
The My Armenia program is a four-year joint project between the United States Aid for International Development (USAID), the Smithsonian Institution (SI), and the government of Armenia. It is designed to elevate the quality of the cultural products and experiences in the regions outside of Armenia’s capital city, Yerevan, with the end goal of bolstering tourism to outlying regions.
Phase 1, Assessment
The Smithsonian’s Office of International Relations (OIR) invited SIE’s Chief of Design, Eric Christiansen, to participate in this program and share his knowledge about museums and exhibition design. The initial trip to Armenia was an assessment phase to gain a better understanding of the conditions and opportunities at a mix of museum types at nine different rural sites in Armenia. Eric and Trisha Edwards, the Head of Education at the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, completed the site visits at the beginning of February under the guidance of Liz Tunic-Cedar, the OIR Manager of Global Cultural Sustainability.
Unusually heavy snow and single digit temperatures could not keep the dedicated team from completing their task to meet with museums representatives from four separate regions of the country. The reports were compiled and written by the OIR and included the assessments and both short-term and long-term recommendations.
Phase Two, Workshops
In April, Eric helped kick-off the second phase of the project, co-leading training opportunities for staff from the regional museums. The four-day workshop was developed and facilitated by the Armenia branch of the International Committee of Museums (ICOM). Eric co-presented with Dr. Helen Evens, Curator for Byzantine Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Amanda Mayne, International Engagement Manager at the British Museum. The well-received workshop took place in the National Art Gallery’s Old and Medieval Armenian Art galleries.
The next steps for the My Armenia project are now being calculated and Eric very much hopes to work closely again with his esteemed colleagues and many new friends in Armenia.
Without a doubt the Hirshhorn’s Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors exhibit is a bona fide hit. Lines are wrapping around their cylindrical building and people are snatching up the free passes as soon as they are released. Smithsonian Exhibits is proud to have played a part in creating this blockbuster.
SIE constructed the infinity room Phalli’s Field for the exhibition.
Additionally, SIE assisted in the installation of the infinity rooms.
Part of the mirrored room sensory experience is walking into a contained space, and finding a whole new world inside of it. The mirrored enclosures create the illusion of standing on a platform floating within a private universe.
Visitors can lose themselves inside the paradox: infinity is inside a tiny room.
Tickets are still available, but hurry! The show closes at the Hirshhorn on May 14. After that, Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors will travel to Seattle, Los Angeles, Toronto, Cleveland, and Atlanta.
Have you ever wondered who writes the words that appear in labels and exhibit text?
Here at Smithsonian Exhibits, we have writers that specialize in exhibits. Our in-house exhibit developers and writers (including yours truly) also get to create other exhibit-related texts, such as Interpretive Master Plans, exhibition development documents, or content outlines. Additionally, there’s editing. Maybe an exhibit needs proofreading, or an exhibit script needs copyedits to get the text to within established word counts. (FYI, word counts are a big thing around here.)
One of my favorite projects is the biannual Smithsonian Community Committee Staff Art exhibition. These juried exhibitions showcase artistic works by Smithsonian staff, interns, and volunteers. It’s no surprise that the world’s largest museum complex would have a lot of artists working behind the scenes. Some of the artists have art-related jobs, like illustrators or photographers, but there are always a number of people working in security, IT, human resources, and other positions who are creating stunning art as well.
My job on these shows is a specific one: help the artists fine-tune their artist statements and finalize their labels. It’s a rare treat to get to work with someone so closely on a statement about their art. If I’m helping edit a script for an art show, I’ll have a chance to work with the Smithsonian curatorial staff, but I won’t have direct access to the artist. For this show, I do.
Some artists prefer to not have statements and to let the art do all the talking. Others provide a statement that needs only the slightest changes—maybe a comma, or a clarifying word or two. Some artists, however, do ask for assistance with their statement. Those collaborations are flat out fun. I get to learn a bit more about the piece, and I get to help figure out the best way to convey the artist’s intent or inspiration in a short (roughly 125 words or less) statement.
Because the final product is a written panel, I like to handle most communication through email. That way the artist gets to see the words as they’ll appear, albeit before the graphic designer has a chance to choose the typeface or lay out the panel. Often this means that I make a suggestion or two, maybe I’ll ask a question about their statement to make sure I’m getting the essence of it, and then we go back and forth to figure out the best way to get their statement to enhance their artwork.
Since these are statements by the artists about their work, it’s important that even after the label is edited that the artist’s statement is just that: it should retain the artist’s voice. The labels should help visitors understand and appreciate the art, and also give them a glimpse into an artist’s perspective. My contribution is invisible, but I know I’ve been successful if a statement expresses the artist’s vision.
Artists at Work will be on display through February 2018.
It’s easy to get wrapped up in the amazing technology we have available at Smithsonian Exhibits, but one of the places we truly shine is in our ability to marry the old and the new.
The Smithsonian Latino Center’s pop-up Day of the Dead exhibition at the National Museum of the American Indian gave us a chance to do just that. This exhibition blended leading-edge technology and traditional practices.
Our striking graphics and bilingual text welcomed audiences into this temporary space, while the ofrenda, or altar, we created gave visitors a chance to interact with a key part of the celebration.
An ofrenda, is a central part of the associated rituals. Traditionally, the altar is covered with offerings for the dead, such as paper flowers and sugar skulls.
Instead of only explaining the importance of the ofrenda, the Smithsonian Latino Center opted to include one in the exhibition at the National Museum of the American Indian.
Even though this was a teaching tool and not a true ofrenda, it was assembled in a similar way. Present-day Dia de los Muertos celebrations use a combination of purchased items and handcrafted ones. We did the same thing.
Graphic specialist Sharon Head gathered all of the items and assembled the ofrenda. Auditorium seats propped up “tombstones” with attached QR codes. The codes allowed visitors to link to more information on the famous figures on each tombstone.
Sharon learned how to make paper flowers to complement the (faux, for museum conservation reasons) marigold bouquet.
Sharon also hand painted the six reproduction calaveras, or sugar skulls. (There were a total of eight skulls – the two additional skulls were made of paper mache.)
This is where the new and the old merge in ways similar to the Dia de los Muertos celebrations themselves. Carolyn Thome from the 3D Studio printed 3D skulls out of gypsum (for obvious pest-control reasons, we couldn’t leave real sugar out to attract insects in a museum) and Sharon painted them with traditional and contemporary designs used in current celebrations of this Mexican holiday.
In 2014 the National Museum of African American History and Culture acquired Kenya Robinson’s sculpture Commemorative Headdress of Her Journey Beyond Heaven. To most people this probably seems like a pretty straightforward endeavor: Artist makes something, museum acquires it, museum displays it, and then visitors reap the rewards.
There’s one step in there that got glossed over. How do you hang it up?
The answer is much more complicated than a trip to the hardware store.
Mounts are incredibly specialized pieces of equipment. They need to support the object, add no additional stresses to it, and be made of conservation-friendly materials (which vary depending on the object). In addition, they must be crafted by hand. There is no mount superstore. You can’t just go pick up a gross of mounts.
Smithsonian Exhibits made more than 2,500 mounts for the National Museum of African American History and Culture. And every last one was custom-made.
The real kicker? After all that work, a mount must fade into the background. The best mounts are the ones visitors don’t notice.
In a way that’s a shame. These mounts are artworks unto themselves.
The conservator determines how the artwork can be handled, where it can and cannot bear weight, and what materials can be used in the mount. The mount materials are chosen for both durability and conservation, making sure that nothing will react with the object and damage it. Then Zach makes a plan for the object mount. If possible, he’ll use existing connection points to attach the bracketing, which reduces stress on the object.
To create his plan, Zach has to measure the object.
Documenting the object means taking a lot of photographs.
Then, working with the data—the measurements, the selection of bolts to support the brackets, and the materials that can be used for the mount—Zach creates his plan for the mount.
After all of this, fabrication can begin. This mount will be made from brass, which means that Zach’s first step is annealing, or heating the brass to a glow and then letting it cool slowly. This changes the hardness and flexibility of the brass, making it easier to bend and shape the metal.
Next is brazing, in which two pieces of metal are joined together. Brazing uses a chemical coating called flux that allows liquid silver to flow freely over a metal surface. When the brass is heated, it creates “capillary action,” a reaction in which the capillaries in both pieces of metal expand, and the liquid silver is sucked in to both pieces. When the brazed pieces cool, the liquid silver solidifies, bonding the two pieces together.
Once the mount is formed, it needs a test fit.
After Zach is satisfied with the fit, it’s time to paint the mount.
The object gets one more fitting (and some photo documentation for future reference) in our 3D Studio before getting packed up and returned to the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
In the final step, the headdress is installed in its case at the museum.
We’re not sure if any of the major card companies make Constitution Day cards, but Smithsonian Exhibits graphic specialist—and comic book artist—Evan Keeling created two eight-page mini-comic books for the holiday. The comics will be handed out this upcoming Friday and Saturday as part of the National Portrait Gallery’s Constitution Day Weekend. Constitution Day, appropriately enough, commemorates the signing of the Constitution on September 17, 1787.
The National Portrait Gallery’s celebration will “focus on American identity and the constitution that binds us together, from our Founding Fathers to Americans today.”
In keeping with this theme, the two comics will feature one current Supreme Court Justice …
…. and one founding father.
In addition to handing out Evan’s mini-comics, the National Portrait Gallery will also run a family program where participants can make their own mini-comics.
If you want to know more about making comic books, you can read about the process Evan used to create the Captain Capture comic book for the Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office here.
Smithsonian Exhibits often has interns throughout the year for ten-week periods. Like many college students, my internship ran from June through August. Since it is now August, my internship has ended and I’m preparing to return to school. I am a rising junior at Kenyon College where I am double majoring in Studio Art and Art History with a minor in Italian.
At Smithsonian Exhibits, I primarily shadowed Ms. Mary Bird, Assistant Director, Programs with project management and design. As an intern, I was exposed to project management, design, and graphic production. I helped draft estimates, created and updated spreadsheets, took inventories of mounts and filed their corresponding object tickets, and put vinyl on banners.
With Mary, I sat in on meetings related to different ongoing projects across the Institution. For the National Museum of African American History and Culture, I worked on a banners project. Smithsonian Exhibits has been developing ideas for signage commemorating the museum’s grand opening. Other signage in that project includes small banners at lampposts surrounding the Smithsonian Castle, end panels around the National Mall, and advertisements on the Circulator buses. Some of the signs around the museum will feature signature artifacts, including a trumpet owned by Louis Armstrong. As part of our research, we were able to go into the storage facilities, where we viewed the gelatin silver print of Frederick Douglass, which will also be featured on a sign.
One of my favorite parts about this internship was going with the Graphics department to watch them install a mural at NPG. I have never seen an install before and watching them transform the space was really interesting.
It was a very productive summer full of learning and opportunities. I’m not sure exactly what my future career will entail, but I am sure that the experience from this internship will be very beneficial.
Editor’s Note: If you’re interested in interning or volunteering at Smithsonian Exhibits, you can check out our opportunities here.
Earlier this year, Smithsonian Exhibits collaborated with the Smithsonian Latino Center (SLC) on an interpretive master plan for their new gallery. Chances are, that if you read this far, you’re wondering what exactly is an interpretive master plan.
The short version is that it is a tool an organization uses to reach a specific goal. If you’re familiar with strategic plans, interpretive master plans are in the same family. If a strategic plan is an interviewer asking you “where do you see yourself in five years?” the interpretive master plan is your coworker saying “how are we going to get this project done?”
A strategic plan is for longer term planning within an organization. It identifies a number of goals and spells out a plan for the organization for the next several years. The interpretive master plan, on the other hand, is a preliminary study that will help an organization reach one very big, very specific goal. Eric Christiansen, Smithsonian Exhibits Chief of Design, likened an interpretive master plan to the North Star: “Interpretive master plans create a fixed reference point that all things can be measured against to make sure you stay on track.”
For the Smithsonian Latino Center Gallery, that meant brainstorming sessions and building on the work SLC had already done identifying exhibition topics and educational programming opportunities. We met frequently, using our meetings to discuss everything from intended audiences to what critical questions the exhibitions should address. Notes were taken, circulated, reviewed. Once everyone was on the same page and happy with the direction, Smithsonian Exhibits wrote and designed a guiding document that SLC is using as it makes its new gallery a reality.
What sort of information is in an interpretive master plan?
Like exhibitions, no two plans are going to be exactly alike, although there are some common elements. In addition to establishing goals and objectives, the plan will identify stakeholders and audiences, develop themes and take-away messages, and identify programming opportunities.
For this project, we included exhibition concepts, in-gallery learning experiences, educational outreach, and digital outreach. Now SLC is using their interpretive master plan to aid in their exhibition development. They’ve also been able to share it with the project’s designers to get them up to speed. As new people come on board the project, they can review the plan and easily see “This is where we’re going. And this is how we get there.”
It’s officially summer, and that means baseball. On June 24th, the National Portrait Gallery opened One Life: Babe Ruth. Our Graphics department created the mural seen at the entrance to the exhibit.
If there’s one thing that these blog posts show, it’s that each project has its own challenges. For this project, we needed to match the color of the mural to the color of a print the National Portrait Gallery had done in-house. It was printed on the same material, but used a different printer and different ink.
Different machines with different inks create, as you might imagine, different shades and intensities of colors. Mike Reed, a graphics specialist, tweaked the colors for individual test prints until he got the color exactly right.
After nearly two dozen small-scale test prints, Mike successfully recreated the color composition of the original image.
Once the color levels were finalized, Mike printed the mural and a team from Smithsonian Exhibits installed it.
You can visit One Life: Babe Ruth through May 21 of next year.
by guest bloggerPaula Millet, Senior Exhibit Designer, Smithsonian Exhibits
The Chief S.O. Alonge Traveling Exhibition is an exhibition, catalogue, and educational project organized and produced by the National Museum of African Art (NMAfA), Smithsonian Institution. Alonge was the official photographer to the Royal Court of Benin, Edo State, Nigeria. He also owned and operated the Ideal Photo Studio. Many of his photos are in the NMAfA archives, and this material was recently presented in a very successful exhibit.
The National Museum Benin City was opened in 1973. Currently, they are working to upgrade the building and redo the exhibits. As part of this effort NMAfA is planning to send Alonge exhibit components to the museum.
Amy Staples, Chief Archivist of NMAfA, is co-curator of the Alonge exhibit and I am the exhibit designer. Last month, Amy and I flew to Benin City to work with colleagues at the Benin Museum. We planned for the installation of NMAfA’s Alonge exhibit and also discussed possible design strategies for the other galleries.
Nigeria is an amazing place. The streets are thronged with pedestrians and street vendors selling everything from electronics to live chickens. Traffic is hair-raisingly congested and chaotic; traffic lights and designated lanes being mere concepts.
It is tropical and hot. Our hotel was nicely air-conditioned but the museum galleries really were not. You just deal with it.
Day 1: Amy led a rousing exhibition planning meeting with the museum staff. Then we toured the galleries as we talked about how they would like to re-install the spaces.
Day 2: To prepare for the installation, I measured many things with the help of the exhibition staff. At one point while our group was working a large school group swarmed around us. The kids were interested in everything and had impressive “museum manners.”
Day 3: The word was out that Amy was in town. A succession of her friends and colleagues met us informally at the hotel. These were professors, artists, bureaucrats, and chiefs. (In Nigeria “Chief” is an honorable title for individuals who provide a service to the royal court of Edo state and its hereditary ruler, the Oba.)
Between meetings we were back at the museum working with the staff. Much to my delight, we went into the storage area to photograph objects considered for display in the Alonge gallery. (I experience a “behind the scenes” thrill whenever visiting any art storage.)
Day 4: We took a trip to Igbinedion Education Center to meet the elegant and indomitable director, Lady Cherry Igbinedion. Amy is working with her on an outreach program aimed at engaging female students in photography.
We followed that up with another fantastic experience. Chief Harrison Ehanire gave us a tour of traditional bronze casters’ workshops. The Chief wore his official white robes and coral necklace as he led us along busy Igun Street. At the artisans’ foundries, we were treated to a step-by-step explanation of the process used to create Benin’s classic bronze works.
Day 5: We flew to Lagos, a sprawling and densely populated city. First we were given a private tour of the Lagos National Museum. After the museum, we had a nice visit at the home of Madam Stella Gbinigie. Alonge’s hand-colored photograph of her as a 16-year-old is one of the highlights of the exhibition.
I flew home from the Lagos Airport that evening, grateful to have had the opportunity to work with Nigerian museum professionals and to see such a dynamic part of the world.