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.
A lot of the life on our planet is very, very small. Most of our planet is made up of water. These two ideas are easily memorized, but not as easily grasped. Life in One Cubic Foot at the National Museum of Natural History looks at where these two facts intersect. Scientists placed biocubes, cubes measuring one-foot by one-foot by one-foot, in the ocean and studied all the life that swam, floated, or swished through it for one day.
And the amount of life in just that one cubic foot is staggering.
Even more mind-blowing? All of those critters play a role in maintaining the oceans, and therefore our planet. That’s right, these tiny things maintain the planet.
By studying these creatures, scientists can learn about the ocean’s biodiversity and how ecosystems work. Obviously, this is important, as is sharing this information with the public. But how can we do that? It’s easy enough to gather a few dozen people around an elephant – but how do we huddle around something not quite the size of a sea-monkey?
We make a scale model of it. The idea of a scale model often conjures up ideas of miniatures – like cars or ships. In order to make those things easier to understand, model makers scale them down. The reverse also works: model makers can scale things up. In the case of the Paraphronima gracilis, a creature so uncommon that it only has a Latin name, that meant creating a 13-inch sculpture of a creature that in reality, is smaller than a dime.
Smithsonian Exhibits model maker Carolyn Thome took on the challenge of making a realistic model of this diminutive crustacean. Working with photographs and drawings by NMNH research zoologist Karen Osborn, Carolyn created a model Paraphronima gracilis using the digital sculpting program zbrush. Carolyn met with Karen throughout the process to ensure accuracy and to fine-tune the digital sculpture before 3D printing the file.
To ensure a successful 3D print, Carolyn organized the model into three sections: the outer eye, the inner eye, and the body and legs.
Our in-house 3D printer only prints in an opaque material, and Paraphronima gracilis is translucent. Carolyn had an outside company that could print in a clear polymer print her digital sculpture. The three sections were printed separately and then Carolyn sanded them. And sanded them. And then sanded them some more. This reduced the build lines and made the model as smooth and polished as possible. She then fit the sections together and bound it with adhesive to create the final model. Once it was assembled, she sprayed a few coats of two-part automotive urethane clear coat to enhance the translucency and protect the model from UV rays.
You can visit our transparent friend in the focus gallery of the Sant Ocean Hall on the first floor of the National Museum of Natural History.
With a new name comes a new logo. That sounds simple enough, but a lot more goes into thoughtful design than changing some typefaces and colors.
Creating a logo —essentially a visual identity— is an unusual challenge. There are many considerations to keep in mind. We started brainstorming the sort of image we wanted to convey last year. After we determined our wants, several needs also had to be addressed in the design process. Our logo needs to work in color and in black and white. It has to have impact as a small icon in the corner of a sheet of paper, but it also needs to look great blown up on an entrance wall. It needs to be a pictographic signature. That’s a really big order for what is often a tiny piece of art.
Okay, so that sounds like a lot of work. And it is. But luckily for us, Smithsonian Exhibits is filled with creative people. We opened up logo design to the entire staff. Including so many people in a design exercise is a bit unorthodox, but this gave everyone a chance to participate in our rebranding. Around Memorial Day, many on staff (even some not in design) submitted logo ideas for consideration.
We reviewed the initial submissions and selected seven concepts for further development.
For the remainder of the summer, our Chief of Design, Eric Christiansen, led a team of designers in refining the potential logos.
As a design direction started to become apparent, the concept began to evolve. Design is rarely a linear path. As ideas are explored, different angles are taken, and different designers have different interpretations.
As our logo project wrapped up, we brought in outside branding consultants to help move us over the final hump. We were able to utilize their expertise to move our design to the next level.
Now we have a logo that meets all of those seemingly impossible requirements.
It looks good in black and white …
… and grayscale …
… and color with the text underneath it.
It looks just right on our forms.
And it really pops on our new entrance wall.
It even looks good on tee shirts and polos.
While the original inspiration for our logo was the letter E, it grew into a form that evokes our mission: saw blades, script pages, a sketchpad, stairs (as we elevate and innovate), rays of the Smithsonian sun, and so on. It’s a veritable Rorschach test, and we couldn’t be happier about that.
Our open house on October 29th was a rousing success! Colleagues from throughout the Smithsonian, and a few from outside institutions as well, toured our facility in Landover and joined us for lively discussions about exhibitions. This was an all-staff effort, and we had people from all of our services available to discuss what we can do.
We had a blast talking about how we can work with clients to Develop, Design, and Build their projects. If you missed our open house, or want to continue a conversation you started, you can contact us through our website or by phone at any time.