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Author: Brigid Laurie

Scaling Up: Making the Minuscule Accessible

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.

Paraphronima gracilis is not much bigger than an M&M. It is not a facehugger from Alien.

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.

The digital version of our tiny friend – this offers a preview of what will be 3D printed.
The digital version of our tiny friend – this offers a preview of what will be 3D printed.

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.

The final lifelike model – in real life Paraphronima gracilis is translucent, except for its 32 orange retinas.

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.



Aesthetic Problem Solving: What Does Smithsonian Exhibits Look Like?

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.

Logo ideas were plentiful and varied.
Logo ideas were plentiful and varied.


We reviewed the initial submissions and selected seven concepts for further development.

Some logo designs had shapes that were more organic and flowing, while other submissions were more architectural.
Some logo designs had shapes that were more organic and flowing, while other submissions were more architectural.


For the remainder of the summer, our Chief of Design, Eric Christiansen, led a team of designers in refining the potential logos.

Designers Oona Ahn, Emily Sloat Shaw, and Kristen Orr work with potential logo designs.
Designers Oona Ahn, Emily Sloat Shaw, and Kristen Orr work with potential logo designs.


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.

A simplified view of our logo’s evolution.
A simplified view of our logo’s evolution.


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.

Our new logo!
Our new logo!


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.

From the high fashion runways of Landover, Maryland - our team will be wearing our shirts on installations. Look for us around the Smithsonian!
From the high fashion runways of Landover, Maryland – our team will be wearing our new shirts on installations. Look for us around the Smithsonian!


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.


Come One, Come All!

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.

Rob Wilcox talks to guests about project management. The skeleton had little to contribute to the conversation.



Exhibit designer Emily Sloat Shaw walks guests through the design process.
Exhibit designer Emily Sloat Shaw walks guests through the design process.


Senior writer/editor Rosemary Regan (center) discusses scriptwriting.
Senior writer/editor Rosemary Regan (center) discusses scriptwriting.


Graphics specialist Evan Keeling talks about graphic production.
Graphics specialist Evan Keeling talks about graphic production.


Fabricator and archival framer Jordan Tierney (third from right) and guests stand in front of portions of Wonderplace, which will be installed at the National Museum of American History in the coming weeks.
Fabricator and archival framer Jordan Tierney (third from right) and guests stand in front of portions of Wonderplace, which will be installed at the National Museum of American History in the coming weeks.



Erin Mahoney describes the process of creating 3D printed skulls for Exploring Human Origins.


Project manager Mary Seng (back) and mount maker Zach Hudson (right) show some of the custom mounts and brackets made for the 2016 opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.


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.


A big THANK YOU from all of us at Smithsonian Exhibits to the 250 guests who came to see us!

Greetings from…. Smithsonian Exhibits!

You read that right – OEC is now


A new logo for a new name … and it’s not an acronym!


Why change our name? We wanted something that quickly conveys that we are the Smithsonian’s full service exhibit planning, design, and production shop. The new name is clean and simple. It shows that we can work with you from the earliest stages of your project straight through to installation.

To celebrate our new name we’re hosting an open house on October 29. If you’ve ever wondered what goes on here at our facility in Landover, this is your chance to find out! You can talk with our staff and even check out some of our works in progress. We hope to see you then!

Making a Mural at National Portrait Gallery

The National Portrait Gallery opened One Life: Dolores Huerta on July 3. Huerta was a founder of the United Farm Workers and served as the organization’s lobbyist and contracts negotiator.

OEC printed and installed the large mural featured at the entrance to the exhibit, using LexJet Print-N-Stick Fabric. To accommodate the size of the graphic, OEC printed it in three pieces and installed it on-site.


Graphic specialists Evan Keeling and Jessica Schick examine the seam between the first two panels of the mural.
Photo by Project Manager Mary Seng


Evan lines up the third panel.
Photo by Mary Seng


After tacking the edges together, Evan and Jessica begin to remove the backing from the print.
Photo by Mary Seng


Evan and Jessica trim excess material from the overlapping edges.
Photo by Mary Seng


The completed mural shows Dolores Huerta holding a sign reading Huelga, Spanish for “strike.”
Photo by Jessica Schick

One Life: Dolores Huerta is open through May 15, 2016.

Delivering National Postal Museum Graphics

OEC produced the graphics for Freedom Just Around the Corner, a graphic show in the prestigious Postmaster’s Suite at the National Postal Museum. The 57 graphics included small object labels, reader rails, in-case graphics, and large-scale signage. Freedom Just Around the Corner is the National Postal Museum’s first exhibit “devoted entirely to African American history.”

For OEC, one notable aspect of the graphic production was the use of large sign blank. The sheer size of the graphics required tiling the files and piecing them together. After determining the best way to tile the graphics, the images were printed directly to the sign blank and then assembled into the final image at the National Postal Museum.

This large-scale graphic was tiled together.

This exhibit also offered OEC a chance to work with new equipment. This was the first show that required the use of our new automated mat cutter. Mat cutting previously involved placing the object, marking its corners with pinholes, and then cutting the mat to size using the pinholes as a “connect the dots” frame. With the automated mat cutter, the mat cuts were programmed into an Illustrator file. The file is then uploaded to the mat cutter, which makes precision cuts from the layout provided.

Graphics specialist Evan Keeling used our new mat cutter to create the frames for the stamps.

One of the signature images in the exhibition had unique challenges. This graphic, consisting of a reproduced Civil War era photograph and quote, is placed directly on an arch-topped mirror. The first challenge was simply a matter of materials. In general, working on a reflective surface can be an exacting task. Further complicating things, the mirror is a permanent fixture within the Postmaster’s Suite. This meant that the graphic had to be applied on-site, not at OEC. Evan worked around these obstacles by creating a template of the mirror out of Sintra. He used the template to examine the proportions and color of the graphic, and determine how to best apply it to the mirror. After experimenting on the template at OEC, Evan finalized the graphic. This ensured that the application of the graphic would go – literally – smoothly.

The reproduction black-and-white photograph applied to the mirror makes a poignant visual.

Installation did go smoothly, and Freedom Just Around the Corner will remain on display through February 16, 2016.

Sea Lion Sculptures at the National Zoo: Original Art by OEC

Empty rocks, or rather, a blank canvas.

OEC’s 3D studio isn’t just for model making. We can create original sculptures, too. Sculptor Lora Collins, who is also the 3D Studio supervisor, designed and sculpted the sea lion statues that were recently installed at the National Zoo.

Lora created the sea lion mom and pup using a combination of traditional art techniques and high tech innovations.

First, Lora met with animal keepers Rebecca Sturniolo and Chelsea Grubb at the National Zoo to discuss the project, scout out the location for the statues, and meet her model.

02 Calli 5
Our model Calli strikes a regal pose. Don’t hate her because she’s beautiful.


Next, Lora sculpted 3-inch-high maquettes to present to the Zoo. The mini-sea lions were placed on scale model replicas of their future rock bases. To accomplish this, Megan Dattoria and Carolyn Thome scanned the rocks at the Zoo, and Chris Hollshwander cut the scale models using the CNC router. By digitally capturing the surface of the rocks and importing that information into the CNC router, OEC ensured that the statues and the bases would fit together like puzzle pieces. The maquettes gave the Zoo a chance to see what the statues would look like, and also how they would be placed on the rocks.

2a maquettes
Maquettes are preliminary sketches or miniatures that artists use to provide a preview of their work.


To give an even better idea of how the completed statues would look, the maquettes were scanned and the images were placed into a digital model of the Zoo.

Creating a computerized rendering of the final placement gives OEC and the Zoo a chance to see how this will look before the full-sized statues are even started.


After the Zoo approved the maquettes, Lora created the full-size sculptures. Carolyn used the scans from the digital model to create a file for the CNC router. This time, Chris used the router to cut out sections of foam to build the internal structure, called armature, of the statues.

Stacked pieces of foam create a larger version of the maquette, shown in front.


After assembling the armature, Lora and exhibit designer Kristen Orr covered the foam in roughly half an inch of oil-based clay. While it might seem like this would get the sculpture most of the way to complete, that is not the case. In fact, they aren’t even at the halfway point. Now that the sculptures are larger, there is more room for lifelike detail. And details take a lot of time.

Kristen and Lora apply clay to the foam armature.


What exactly does “lifelike detail” mean? In this case, it means that Lora worked with animal keepers Rebecca and Chelsea to ensure accurate representations of all the things that make sea lions so adorable: chubby cheeks, fat rolls, whiskers, and – in an interesting twist – no eyes.


No eyes?

06 sea lion no eyes!
Shadows create the illusion of eyes.

Lora left an open socket instead of inserting an eye, because the shadows created by the socket would look like a sea lion’s inky eye.



And then of course, they had to add the toenails.

Sea lions have toenails?

Lora inserted wooden dowels directly into the clay to create toenails that look just like Calli’s, shown on the right.


Sculpting a sea lion’s coat is very time-consuming. Our sea lions are sitting on rocks as if they have just leapt out of the water. Sea lions, while furry, have a sleek, smooth appearance when they emerge from the water. Achieving this level of smoothness takes weeks – yes, weeks – to remove the bumps and imperfections on the surface. So our sea lions got a blowout. Well, not exactly, but Lora and Kristen did use a hair dryer to warm the clay to make it more malleable. They also applied denatured alcohol to smooth it.

After the Zoo approved the life-sized clay models, they were cast in fiberglass. To do this, both clay sea lions had to be split into three sections with brass sheets, or shims.

Brass shims divide the clay sculptures into three sections.


Once the shims were in place, Lora sprayed the clay sculpture with silicone rubber. Then, working in sections, Lora applied several layers of fiberglass and polyester resin on top of the rubber to create a hard shell. She repeated this step for each section of the sculptures. Each section required a full day of work, meaning it took six days to make the molds.

The section on the left has been covered in fiberglass. The other sections are still only covered in purple rubber.


When this step is completed, the negative space inside the rubber mold serves as the form for the final fiberglass sculpture.

Appearances can be deceiving. The outside of the rubber coating might not look as good as the clay model, but the interior of the rubber mold picks up all of the details – from the whiskers down to the toenails. Just like your mom told you, it’s what is on the inside that counts.


After creating the mold, Lora trimmed away the edges, called flange by sculptors. Then she drilled holes into the mold so that she could bolt the molds shut.

After the mold was completed, the three sections were pulled apart and cleaned for casting. Lora, with help from Megan, Daniel Fielding, and Brad Ruprecht cast the sea lion in vinyl ester resin. Then additional resin and fiberglass were layered into the mold to add thickness and strength. Finally, they bolted together the mold and sealed its seams with fiberglass.

Then they repeated the casting process for the other mold. Each casting took one day.

The first layer applied, called a gel coat, is the outermost layer. This layer can be tinted, as it was here.


The next day Lora opened the molds and removed the sculptures. After grinding off excess fiberglass and resin, filling in thinner spots, and adding reinforcing layers along the edges and flippers, Lora fiberglassed three stainless steel brackets, custom-made by Chris, into the castings. The brackets allowed for a secure yet non-permanent attachment to the rock.

13 fresh from the mold
When first removed from the mold, the statues have visible seams that need to be sanded down. Part of an open mold can be seen in the background.


At this point, Lora applied polyester resin fillers as needed, sanded the sculptures smooth, and primed them for painting. Erin Mahoney and Carolyn Thome painted the sea lions with automotive paint and sprayed the finished sculptures with a protective clear coat.


14 Filling in thin spots
A sea lion gets a few final touch ups of resin filler.
15 primed for paint
The primed statues are ready for their paint jobs.








Carolyn paints the pup.


17 painted mom and pup
Painted and ready to go to the Zoo!


Finally, after all of those steps, the sea lions – and a team from OEC – arrived at the Zoo for installation on April 15.

Fernando Dominguez, shown here, installed the sea lion sculptures with Lora, Carolyn, and Megan.


Inspiration and Art: On the left, Chelsea poses with the real Calli. At right, Rebecca shows off one of the American Trail’s new statues.
Lora sits with one of her wonderful statues.
Mom and pup gaze at each other in their new home.


You can see the new sea lion statues along the American Trail at the National Zoo.



One Hundred Skulls: OEC and Exploring Human Origins

We love our exhibitions and we want people to come and see them in person. Unfortunately, a trip to Washington just isn’t in the cards for everyone. Luckily, sometimes the Smithsonian is able to come to you. Today, a traveling version of the National Museum of Natural History’s Hall of Human Origins begins a journey to libraries across the United States. (If you can’t visit Exploring Human Origins in person, you can still view the digitized Human Origins 3D collection online.)

At OEC we’re particularly excited about the traveling Exploring Human Origins exhibition. To get this show on the road, our model shop had the remarkable task of making 95 skulls. Additionally, the model shop oversaw the creation of five nylon skulls that were printed off-site from OEC files, and then painted at OEC.

Interactive skulls
Five nylon skulls are used in interactives in the Exploring Human Origins exhibit. The nylon skulls were painted with automotive paint to withstand the stresses of being handled by visitors.


In addition to the five skulls used in the exhibition, each of the nineteen hosting libraries will receive copies of the five skulls. OEC is printing those skulls in-house.

The obvious question is: how do you go about making a few dozen skulls?

OEC’s Carolyn Thome, Megan Dattoria, and Erin Mahoney were willing to explain.


It all starts with a scan – and then more scans. Scanning is how the model makers gather their data – the density, cracks, seams, ridges – any and all details that need to be copied.

1 scanning
A scanner records the details of a cast of the Fish Hoek skull. All of the skulls scanned are from the Human Origins Program research collection.


Once the data is collected, it’s processed to create a file. That file is used to 3D print the skull.

2 processing
Carolyn Thome uses the Artec scanner software to process the file for 3D printing. The Fish Hoek skull keeps her company.


The skull is printed out of gypsum powder. Depending on the final size of the 3D replica, it could be printed in several pieces and assembled later.

3 print
Two of the skulls, fresh off the printer, await their next step towards being exhibit-ready.


Gypsum powder is messy, and the completed prints need to be cleaned. Model makers use a vacuum to remove the residue from the skull.


Freshly printed skulls (or 3D printed anything for that matter) are very fragile. Infiltrating them with an epoxy makes them more durable. After infiltration, the skull needs 24 hours to dry.

5 infiltrate
The epoxy soaks into the gypsum powder, creating a much more durable object.


Each printed skull needs to be sanded by hand to remove build lines. Build lines are the thin layers that accumulate as the gypsum powder forms the replica.

6 sanding
Erin Mahoney sands the underside of a printed skull.


The skulls come out of the printer the color of the gypsum powder. While that’s still amazing – these are 3D printed skulls after all – it’s a bit like looking at a black and white copy of a color photo. The skulls have to be hand-painted to truly look like the original.

7 paint
After sanding off the build lines, Erin paints the skull. She uses multiple images of the originals as a guide as she creates the mottled appearance of old bones.


The final product then gets a clear coat of automotive sealer to protect the paint.

8 finish
After applying the clear coat, the skull needs 12 hours to dry.



9 completed skulls
A complete set of five skulls awaits shipping to a host library.


Putting Ourselves On Display

It should be no surprise that OEC is filled with creative and talented people. Our work has helped show off many great works of art. For Artists At Work, not only did we design, edit, and produce the graphics for the exhibition, but we also had a chance to celebrate three of our own artists and the artwork they make on their own time.

Model maker Megan Dattoria, graphics specialist Kate Fleming, and sculptor and model shop supervisor Lora Moran-Collins were among the 56 artists featured in the Smithsonian Community Committee’s fourth juried staff art show.


2015 Staff Art Show opening
Megan Dattoria stands next to her mixed media necklace, Of Disease. She also made the mount to display her piece.



2015 Staff Art Show opening
Kate Fleming served double duty on this exhibition. As a graphic specialist, she made the labels for all of the artwork on display… including the label for her own print, Andrew Studying.


2015 Staff Art Show opening
Lora Moran-Collins, who makes models and sculptures at OEC, is also a gifted painter. Her painting, After, is oil on canvas.



1 OEC staff
The OEC Artists At Work team attended the opening reception in February. From left to right: editor Brigid Laurie, exhibit designer Emily Sloat Shaw, Lora Moran-Collins, Kate Fleming, Megan Dattoria, and project manager Betsy Robinson.


Artists At Work is open through May 1, 2015 at the S. Dillon Ripley Center.



Putting the Puzzle Together: Traditional + Computerized Fabrication Techniques

Smithsonian Gardens recently opened The 20th annual orchid exhibition, Interlocking Science and Beauty, at the National Museum of Natural History. The exhibit explores “where botany, horticulture, and technology connect.”  OEC’s approach to the exhibit components mirrored this interlocking theme.

Puzzle Piece Install
Staff from Smithsonian Gardens installing a tree behind OEC’s puzzle piece graphic panels.

OEC created detail drawings from Natural History’s design and produced all of the built elements in the exhibition. The team produced the structural components using traditional fabrication methods, but the interlocking puzzle piece panels were machined using the Computerized Numerical Control (CNC) panel router.

Fabrication shared their CNC files with Graphics, so they were able to create graphics that matched the profile of the panels. After the panels were sent to the paint department for finishing, Graphics direct printed the images and text onto the panels using a flatbed printer.

Interlocked Pieces
The interlocking pieces feature graphics that were designed to fit the puzzle piece shapes.

Orchids: Interlocking Science and Beauty will be on display through April 26, 2015 at the National Museum of Natural History.