Author: Elizabeth Polvere

Conquering the Panda Challenge

Sometimes developing exhibits can feel like a maze, with many different directions to explore and challenges to overcome. Recently, Smithsonian Exhibits (SIE) was asked to build a real maze for the Panda House at Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute (NZP). The purpose of the interactive is for visitors to guide a panda through the bamboo forests of China, avoiding problem areas, such as fragmented habitat, construction, and deforestation. The maze is intended to show visitors of all ages the rapidly growing challenges that pandas face every day when traveling through bamboo forests seeking food, shelter, and looking for a mate.

 

Zoo sign and flower bed at the entrance to Smithsonian's National Zoo
Smithsonian’s National Zoo. Courtesy of Mehgan Murphy, Smithsonian’s National Zoo

 

Since SIE fabricator Enrique Dominguez had worked on a similar project in a previous job, it was decided that his experience would make for smooth development on this project. Starting with the design, Enrique created drawings on a computer platform that allowed him to make changes and flesh out details quickly. Then the team needed to figure out where the “positive” and “negative” areas of the maze would be. Enrique designed the maze so that the ball would keep rolling freely down the green pathways, but visitors would have to turn the wheel completely to release the ball when it got stuck in the problem areas. This design avoids the issue of having to reset the maze before each use.

Enrique created a cardboard cutout of the wheel with all of its graphics to show the Zoo the concept and scale. Then he created a maze pattern, which he 3D routed so that it could be held and played to resemble how the finished maze would actually look and feel.

 

Wooden structure with a wheel at the center containing a maze
The prototype for the panda maze

 

A close-up of the maze, showing details of the graphic, including bamboo leaves, tractors, cars, and construction signs
The prototype of the maze included placeholder graphics depicting hazards, such as deforestation, roads, construction, and farming, which the panda must avoid to reach the bamboo forest.

 

When selecting materials, Enrique wanted to keep handles to a minimum, so that kids playing with the maze could not hold on and hang from the exhibit. By using short, rounded handles and placing a bearing on the back of the wheel, the maze essentially has a brake to stop it from spinning on and on. Finally, after getting the client’s approval, the final prototype was built and its durability was put to the test when a number of children played with it.

Following the rapid prototyping phase, SIE and NZP met with Beth Ziebarth, Director of Access Smithsonian, who tested the interactive to make sure that it met all standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act and was accessible for all individuals.

 

A group of four people surround the Panda Maze prototype. Three are standing and one is in a wheelchair.
SIE, NZP, and Beth Ziebarth, Director of Access Smithsonian, test the interactive.

 

The next step will be to fabricate and install the interactive at the Zoo’s Panda House. The maze will be built by SIE’s fabrication experts to withstand wear and tear from interaction for years to come. Look for the final maze at the Zoo later this fall.

The Path to My Next Chapter

When people ask me what inspired me to pursue a degree in Arts Management at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and an internship at Smithsonian Exhibits, my thoughts turn to my grandfather, Benedict J. Fernandez. A dyslexic Italian-Puerto Rican man from Harlem with no degree or a stable family to lean on while growing up, my grandfather became an icon of the arts and an inspiration to individuals around the globe, all because of his persistence. As one of New York City’s leading arts educators, photographers, and photojournalists throughout the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, he transformed the ways in which photography was appreciated, practiced, and taught.

As a young girl, I was incredibly intrigued by the work that my grandfather produced throughout his career. As the years have gone on, I have grown more and more fascinated with preserving the history behind the craft that he so effortlessly perfected. To say I am grateful and inspired would be a massive understatement.

 

My grandfather, Benedict J. Fernandez's work on display for the 'King in New York' exhibit at The Museum of the City of New York.
Some of my grandfather’s photographs of Martin Luther King Jr. on display in the “King in New York” exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York, 2018

 

© Benedict J. Fernandez, all rights reserved
‘I Am a Man’ Sanitation Workers Strike. Memphis, Tennessee 1968 © Benedict J. Fernandez. All rights reserved.

 

Benedict J. Fernandez's Photo-Film Workshops 'Focus' inspired underprivileged youth photographers around the globe for 10+ years.
Benedict J. Fernandez’s Photo-Film Workshops taught photography to young people from underprivileged backgrounds around the world for more than a decade.

 

I have spent countless hours with my grandparents, looking through books, contact sheets, and boxes of prints, admiring the thousands of mainly black-and-white photographs that my grandfather created, including collections featured in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery and National Museum of African American History and Culture, among many other renowned museums. Each visit with my grandparents, I learn more and more of the stories behind every photograph. It is fascinating to hear them reminisce about the times, people, and places that encompass each photo.

 

Working with my Grandparents is awe-inspiring
Working with my grandparents is truly awe-inspiring.

 

Alongside the images and stories are thousands of personal letters and documents that chronicle my grandfather’s remarkable career. As I entered my adult years, I knew that I had to document all of the iconic history that my grandparents were passing on to me. Listening, admiring, and recording the countless stories and memories has consumed much of my time with my grandparents today. Learning from and working with my grandparents—who have encouraged and taught me more than I can put into words—has truly given me insight into the path that I hope my career will follow.

 

My grandparents and I, 2018.
Yours truly with my amazing grandparents, Benedict and Siiri Fernandez, 2018

 

My grandfather, Benedict J. Fernandez's photography dark room is a blast to the past.
My grandfather’s darkroom is a blast from the past.

 

When I was offered the opportunity to intern at Smithsonian Exhibits, I felt as if I were dreaming. Finally, this was my chance to follow in my grandparents’ footsteps and begin my own momentous career. As the largest museum, education, and research complex in the world, the Smithsonian is a wonderland for the arts, history, and science. After discussing the opportunity, my grandparents encouraged me to accept the offer and explore this next path.

 

My first visit to The National Mall inspired me to apply for Smithsonian Internships.
My first visit to the National Mall in 2017 initially inspired me to apply for an internship at the Smithsonian. Before that, the Smithsonian was somewhere I could only dream of working.

 

I am incredibly thankful to have had the chance to intern with Smithsonian Exhibits and the Smithsonian Institution as a whole. During my time with Smithsonian Exhibits, I have gained a greater understanding of the operations that go into exhibition design at museums, galleries, and other cultural spaces. I have learned about curatorial work and the thought processes that go into presenting exhibitions to the public, both in person and online. I have learned about the behind-the-scenes work that goes into creating new exhibits, both large and small. I have been able to better understand the project management processes, the design processes, the fabrication processes, and so much more. Armed with this knowledge, I will head back to Massachusetts with a whole new set of expertise that will help me to fulfill both my academic and career goals moving forward.

Thanks to Smithsonian Exhibits and my grandparents’ extraordinary motivation, as I enter the next chapter of my life, it has become clear to me that educating others, igniting imagination, and inspiring creativity is the path I must follow on my quest to keep my grandfather’s iconic work and legacy eternally alive.

Can You Tell the Difference?

In 1955, businesswoman, philanthropist, and collector Marjorie Merriweather Post (1887–1973) purchased the Hillwood Estate in Northwest Washington, D.C. Post directed her architects and designers to refurbish the 1920s neo-Georgian mansion into a nobler residence that would function as a fully staffed home as well as a showcase for her sophisticated collections of late eighteenth-century French and Imperial Russian décor.

Today, visitors from around the world can experience the Hillwood Estate and explore the awe-inspiring mansion, museum, and thirteen acres of formal gardens that continue to display Marjorie Merriweather Post’s charming array of collections: a tasteful and true legacy that she left behind.

 

The Hillwood mansion

 

Hillwood’s formal gardens

When the Hillwood Estate, Museum, and Gardens approached Smithsonian Exhibits (SIE) to recreate a number of decorative elements for a newly constructed display case, we jumped at the challenge. The sign of a good replica is that you can’t tell the difference from the original. At Smithsonian Exhibits, that is exactly what the sculptors and model makers aim to achieve. Project Manager Seth Waite and Exhibits Specialists Danny Fielding, Chris Hollshwander, and Carolyn Thome worked on the project for SIE.

After doing some research, Seth discovered that the hardware company and metal foundry that made the original decorative elements—P.E. Guerin, established in New York in 1857—was still in business. Hillwood considered working with the company to recreate the elements using their traditional metal casting techniques, but ultimately decided to go with SIE’s traditional approach using more modern materials.

On any project, the first step is to determine the client’s needs and decide which methods and approaches will work best to meet them. When recreating the decorative elements for Hillwood, SIE carefully considered a variety of manufacturing methods, eventually deciding that Danny would mold and cast the pieces himself. Once this decision was made, the next step was to select the best materials to use to create the most faithful and durable replicas for Hillwood. After testing the compatibility of several materials and carefully preparing the molds, SIE’s experts then proceeded with production.

 

Mold preparation- Front
Mold preparation in process

 

Production molds for each original piece
Production molds for each original piece

 

Open pour resin casting
Resin is poured into one of the molds to create a cast.

 

Raw resin casts ready for finishing
Raw resin casts ready for finishing

 

Finally, Carolyn created a finish that closely matched the originals.

 

Smithsonian Exhibits finished replicas
SIE’s finished replicas

 

Smithsonian Exhibits finished replicas
SIE’s finished replicas

 

Smithsonian Exhibits finished replicas
SIE’s finished replicas

 

Can you tell the difference between the original and the replica? (The answer is at the end of the post.)
Can you tell the difference between the original and the replica? (The answer is at the end of the post.)

 

Original pieces adorning Hillwood’s traditional collections case
The historic display case with its original decorative elements

 

Original pieces adorning Hillwood’s traditional collections case
The historic display case with its original decorative elements

 

Finished elements created by SIE mounted on Hillwood’s new collections case
The new display cases with the replica decorative elements created by SIE

 

Finished elements created by SIE mounted on Hillwood’s new collections case
The new display cases with the replica decorative elements created by SIE

 

While this only skims the surface, hopefully it gives you a better idea of the multifaceted steps that go into replicating artifacts. The next time that you’re admiring a work of art—original or a replica—take a moment to study the craftsmanship of the piece. The artistry and attention to detail that go into the process is truly awe-inspiring.

So, were you able to tell the difference between the original and the replica in the photo above? (The replica is on the left and the original is on the right.)