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Small Cars, Big Ideas

After being closed for six months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) reopened to visitors on September 18 with a brand new installation: The Automobile and American Art.

The installation features more than 130 model cars donated by collector Albert H. Small. The cars may be small, but the ideas the installation explores are big: the automobile’s central role in American art and culture. SAAM uses this study collection of model cars as a lens through which to explore car-related artworks in its collection.

Smithsonian Exhibits (SIE) worked with SAAM to develop, design, fabricate, and install The Automobile and American Art, which is located on the museum’s third floor, next to its Luce Foundation Center for American Art.

 

Model cars of various sizes and colors lined up on a table seen from the front
No, it’s not gridlock on the Beltway; SAAM’s curators parked the model cars bumper to bumper to select which ones to include in the installation.

 

Model cars of various sizes and colors lined up on a table seen from the side
Albert H. Small’s collection of more than 1,200 model cars features everything from a Model T Ford to a pink Cadillac.

 

The goal of the project was to transform a transitional “back of house” space into an engaging installation that would connect the Luce Center with SAAM’s special exhibition galleries.

 

A view of a white hallway with a gray carpet
A view of the hallway from the Luce Center before its transformation.

 

SIE designers Elena Saxton and Madeline Wan took inspiration from car culture in their designs, using bright colors and carpet tiles evoking tire treads.

 

A design rendering showing transparent human figures in a red hallway with graphic panels and a backlit display case. The carpet is gray with blue tread marks on it.
A design rendering of the installation

 

A design drawing showing transparent human figures next to a graphic panel titled "The Automobile and American Art"
The installation features images of artists and their cars.

 

A design drawing showing a display case with seven rows of model cars
SIE designed a large back-lit display case with room for 112 model cars. An additional case brings the total up to 133. That’s a lot of cars!

 

Once the design was complete, it was time to put the pedal to the metal and fabricate and install!

 

An empty hallway with red walls and a gray and blue carpet
A splash of color souped up the space to make it more inviting for visitors.

 

A man installs exhibit elements in a red hallway.
SIE installation in progress. Installing in the middle of a pandemic was a challenge, but SIE staff did it safely, wearing masks and maintaining strict social distancing.

 

A man wearing a mask installs yellow dimensional letters on a red wall.
SIE exhibit specialist Caleb Menzies installs three-dimensional letters for a wall quote.

 

Blue letters on a gray wall reading "Go Beyond the Galleries"
Wall graphics invite visitors to go beyond the galleries to explore the Luce and Lunder Centers.

 

Yellow letters on a red wall reading "For what you really collect is always yourself. -Jean Baudrillard, French philosopher (1929-2007)
The theme of collecting connects the installation to the adjacent Luce Center, where visitors can explore SAAM’s collection in visible storage.

 

SIE exhibit developer John Powell (yours truly) helped SAAM develop the content for the installation, including a touchscreen kiosk, which takes visitors on a road trip through car-themed American art.

 

A monitor displaying a pink Cadillac and the words "Take a road trip through SAAM's collection!"
Due to COVID-19, the touchscreen is currently disabled, but visitors can still enjoy the content.

 

Throughout the project, SIE project manager Rob Wilcox kept the show on the road to success, directing traffic and avoiding any collisions.

 

A man on a step ladder pokes his head into a hatch in the ceiling.
Rob left no stone unturned. Here he takes a look “under the hood” at the building’s wiring.

 

We think you’ll agree that the final result is breathtaking!

 

A view of a red hallway showing graphic panels and display cases
A view of the installation looking toward SAAM’s special exhibition galleries

 

A view of a red hallway showing a graphic panel and a backlit display case
A view of the installation looking toward the Luce Center

 

A close-up view of model cars in a display case showing their reflection on the glass.
A close-up view of the model cars

 

We hope you’ll check out the installation now that SAAM has reopened. Please see SAAM’s website for guidelines on visiting and to reserve a timed-entry pass. Stay safe everyone!

The Journey from Replica to Sacred Artifact

In September 2019, staff from Smithsonian Exhibits (SIE) and the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) traveled to Juneau, Alaska, to attend a Tlingit clan ceremony to dedicate a new clan hat—a replica made by SIE. You can watch the entire ceremony on the Sharing Our Knowledge conference website here.

The Tlingit are an indigenous people from southeastern Alaska. In Tlingit society, clans are divided into two distinct groups or moieties: Eagle/Wolf and Raven. The hat SIE worked on belongs to the Raven moiety. It is known as the sculpin hat (or Wéix’ s’áaxw in Tlingit language) for the fish it represents, which is an important crest symbol to the Kiks.ádi clan, to whom the hat belonged. In Tlingit culture, hats such as this one are sacred artifacts, known as At.óow, which are imbued with the spirits of their ancestors and used in dancing and ceremonies.

For SIE model maker Chris Hollshwander, the ceremony was more than just the end of another project. It was the culmination of a five-year journey, during which he was adopted into a Tlingit clan and immersed himself in learning about Tlingit culture.

The original sculpin hat was acquired by the Smithsonian in the 1880s and was probably even older. Unfortunately, the hat in the Smithsonian’s collection is broken and lacked important information. In 2012, a visiting Tlingit clan leader, Harold Jacobs, spotted the hat at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. He kick-started a seven-year process, which resulted in a replica of the hat being restored to the clan.

 

A man wearing white gloves holds a wooden cylinder on top of a painted wooden hat.
Eric Hollinger, Tribal Liaison for NMNH’s Repatriation Office, holds the original sculpin hat. Image courtesy of NMNH.

 

Three images from left to right showing details of a hat, including a painted eye, the inside of the hat, and a wooden cylinder.
Details of the original sculpin hat in the Smithsonian’s collection, showing the hat and the broken potlatch cylinder. Images courtesy of NMNH.

 

Staff from NMNH brought the original hat to the ceremony in September to accompany the reproduction. During the ceremony, clan members instilled a spirit into the new hat so that it could be danced again, more than 130 years after the original hat left. Chris, SIE director Susan Ades, and SIE model maker Carolyn Thome all attended the ceremony. During the celebration, Carolyn was formally recognized for her contributions and adopted into the Kiks.ádi clan. You can read an article about the ceremony here.

 

A group of people place a painted hat on the head of a seated man wearing a colorful cloak.
Kiks.ádi clan leader Ray Wilson wears the new sculpin hat made by SIE.

 

A woman wearing glasses speaks to a man wearing a baseball cap and a vest with a red design on it.
SIE Director Susan Ades speaks with Kiks.ádi clan leader Ray Wilson before the ceremony.

 

A group of people watch as two men position a display case holding a painted hat.
Chris Hollshwander (SIE) and Eric Hollinger (NMNH) place the original hat on display at the start of the ceremony.

 

A man wearing a colorful tunic speaks into a microphone as a group of people watch.
Deisheetaan clan leader Cyril Zuboff and other Raven moiety clan leaders provided remarks during the ceremony.

 

A group of people stand in a row as a man at the center speaks into a microphone.
Chris (pictured at the left) and members of the Kaagwaantaan clan (Eagle/Wolf moiety) acknowledge remarks by members of the Raven moiety during the ceremony.

 

A woman wearing a blue scarf stands before a man speaking into a microphone. Several other people stand nearby and watch.
SIE model maker Carolyn Thome (center) being adopted into the Kiks.ádi clan.

 

The ceremony was a fitting end to a long process, but how did SIE get involved in the first place?

Chris was introduced to the project in 2014, when clan leaders visiting NMNH interviewed him to get to know him better and gauge his level of interest in working on the hat. The goal was to create two replicas: one would be restored to the clan and used in ceremonies; the other would remain at NMNH, where it would be used for educational purposes. To the clan, it was important that whoever made the new hat for them should be a member of the Eagle/Wolf moiety. In order to work on the hat, Chris was adopted into the Kaagwaantaan (Wolf) clan, at a ceremony at NMNH a few days later by Kaagwaantaan clan leader Andrew Gamble.

A group of people stand behind a table holding several painted hats.
Chris (center) with Tlingit clan leaders and Smithsonian staff at a ceremony at the National Museum of Natural History in 2014. Image courtesy of NMNH.

 

You can read more about the background to this project in a blog post by Eric Hollinger, Tribal Liaison for NMNH’s Repatriation Office, who was involved in the project from the beginning and was instrumental in its success.

To prepare for the replicas to be made, NMNH took a CT scan of the original hat and partnered with the Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office (DPO) to create a digital model by 3D scanning the hat with structured light scanners. They also took a series of photos, in a process known as photogrammetry, which would be processed into a digital model. You can take a virtual tour of the 3D model here.

 

A digital 3D view of the sculpin hat
Carolyn processed the original 3D scan files for online viewing. Image of the final model courtesy of DPO.

 

Since the original hat was broken into multiple sections and had become warped over time, the first step was to repair it digitally. Using the files from DPO, Carolyn painstakingly repaired the hat through a process known as digital sculpting. She joined the cracks, bridged the gaps between the sections, and erased any non-original parts to prepare the 3D model for milling.

 

Four digital images showing the inside and outside of the hat in different colors
Carolyn made digital repairs to the 3D model of the hat to prepare it for milling.

 

Meanwhile, the wood for the replicas needed to be sourced. The original hat was made of cedar. Since the clan intended to use their restored hat for dances, they decided to use alder, a stronger wood. The replica for the museum was to be made with yellow cedar. Both types of wood were harvested and shipped from Alaska, then had to be kept in freezers to avoid drying and cracking before the production of the replicas began.

 

Three men roll a cart from a hallway into a walk-in freezer.
NMNH staff at the Smithsonian Museum Support Center in Suitland, Maryland, roll the alder logs into the freezer for storage.

 

To test the files and the machine settings, Chris milled a half-scale prototype of the hat, which he brought with him to Sitka, Alaska, in October 2017 to attend the Sharing Our Knowledge Conference.

 

A man seated at a table handles part of a two-part model of a hat as a standing man watches.
Chris shows clan leader Ray Wilson the half-scale replica of the hat. Image courtesy of NMNH.

 

The conference was a great opportunity for Chris to meet with clan members and learn more about their culture and traditions, while also demonstrating the Smithsonian’s 3D digitization and replication technology. You can read more about the conference here.

 

Two men wearing white gloves handle a painted wooden hat in front of camera lights.
Eric Hollinger (left) and Chris prepare another hat—the Coho Clan hat—for digitization at the Sharing Our Knowledge Conference. Image: Nick Partridge, Smithsonian.

 

Once the clan approved the prototype, Chris got to work making the full-size replicas. Because the work was done at SIE’s facility in Landover, Maryland (nearly 3,000 miles away from Alaska), the Smithsonian used videoconferencing to allow clan representatives to watch the progress that was being made. Another example of modern technology at work!

 

A woman works on a digital 3D model on a computer screen as a man holding a tablet films her. Two men can be seen on the tablet's screen.
While clan leaders watch from Alaska, Carolyn explains the digital sculpting process to repair the files in preparation for CNC milling.

 

One of the most challenging parts of the process was working with the wood and the number of machining set ups that were required. Because the wood was fresh, Chris needed to mill the pieces gradually over time, allowing the wood to slowly adjust in the freezer to avoid warping, cracking, and drying out too fast. The process involved roughing the hats out, then drying them slowly in a bed of their own wood chips outside of the freezer. When the wood was dried, Chris was able to do the final milling.

 

Pieces of wood sit in a large chest freezer.
The wood had to be kept in a freezer between milling steps.

 

A carved wooden hat sits in a box full of wood chips.
The hat replica drying in wood chips prior to final machining.

 

Two men wearing earplugs watch through a window as a computer-controlled machine carves a piece of wood. The man on the left holds up a tablet. Two men can be seen on the screen.
Eric and Chris videoconference with clan representatives in Juneau, Alaska, to show the work in progress.

 

A man wearing safety glasses controls a computer-operated milling machine carving a wooden hat.
Chris mills the replica using the CNC (computer numerical control) milling machine at SIE. Image courtesy of NMNH.

 

The final step was finishing the replicas under the supervision of Tlingit clan leader and artist Cyril Zuboff. Zuboff advised Chris and Eric on how to paint and attach materials to the hats, including shells, deer hide, sinew, ermine skins, and sea lion whiskers.

 

Two men hold a wooden hat and a piece of painted deer skin on a table while a third man plays a drum.
Eric and Cyril review the deer skin design and attachment while Deisheetaan clan leader Garfield George provides Tlingit songs.

 

Two men attach a piece of deer skin to a painted hat.
Cyril helps Chris attach the deer skin cape to the new hat for the Kiks.ádi clan. Image courtesy of NMNH.

 

The Smithsonian Women’s Committee (SWC) generously funded the creation of the replicas through a grant. Members of the SWC came to meet with the project team and observe the finishing process.

 

A group of men and women stand behind a table holding three painted hats.
Chris and Eric pose with the nearly completed hats along with Deisheetaan clan leaders Garfield George (left) and Cyril Zuboff (center) and members of the Smithsonian Women’s Committee.

 

You can watch a slideshow of the entire process here.

 

Two men with their arms folded stand behind a table holding three painted hats.
Chris and Eric pose with the original hat and the nearly completed replicas.
Image courtesy of NMNH.

 

After the replicas were completed, they remained at NMNH with the original hat. As preparations for the trip to the ceremony started over the summer, SIE provided a custom-fitted travel case for the alder hat. This will enable the hat to be transported to ceremonies in the future. SIE also fabricated a custom box for the original hat, to be couriered by NMNH Repatriation Office staff to Juneau.

When the hats were presented at the ceremony, clan members were thrilled with the results and were overjoyed to welcome home a part of their culture that had been away for more than 130 years. The new alder hat will eventually be brought to Sitka, Alaska, returning it to where it belongs for future generations. This project marks the first time that a traditional cultural object has been digitally restored and replicated and then dedicated as a sacred object by an indigenous community.

 

A three-part image showing different views of the replica hat.
The completed replica restored to the clan. Images courtesy of NMNH.

 

For Chris and Carolyn, adopted clan members, this has been more than just another project. It has been an experience that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.

Trailblazing

Exhibits are for everyone, and Smithsonian Exhibits (SIE) strives to make our exhibits as accessible as possible. Last year, thanks to a grant from the Smithsonian’s Accessibility Innovation Fund, we were able to experiment with strategies for making exhibits more accessible to people who are blind and have low vision.

 

A display case containing an illustrated book and labels in a low-lit gallery
A typical museum display case containing artifacts, text, and images.

 

Think about a typical exhibit and you might picture a glass display case with artifacts, text, and images inside. Now consider this from the perspective of a person who is blind or has low vision. How can you engage with the artifacts, text, and images inside if you can’t see them? It’s frustrating, right? SIE decided to take on this challenge and find solutions to make exhibit cases and graphics more accessible.

Throughout the process, SIE worked closely with Access Smithsonian, the Smithsonian’s central office devoted to visitor accessibility, which funded the project and provided guidance and expertise along the way. Access Smithsonian connected us with their network of User Experts, volunteers with disabilities who help the Smithsonian test exhibits and advise us on how to make them more accessible. This was crucial, because—as with any exhibit—understanding your audience and their needs is key to success.

At the project’s kick-off meeting, we sat down with a group of User Experts with varying levels of vision to listen to their needs and common barriers that prevent them from engaging with exhibits. Among other things, the User Experts stressed the importance of providing the exhibit’s big picture up front and incorporating a range of different tools, including tactile elements, audio components, and braille.

The next step was to select an exhibit to work with. SIE wanted to use an exhibit that was already open to the public. Consulting with curators at the National Postal Museum, we selected Trailblazing: 100 Years of Our National Parks, an exhibit SIE was already familiar with from having worked on the graphics.

 

A gallery with display cases lining the walls and at the center of the room
Trailblazing: 100 Years of Our National Parks at the National Postal Museum

 

During the research and planning phase of the project, we spoke with accessibility experts and visited other museums to learn more about existing accessibility solutions.

 

A table containing a raised-line floor plan showing the locations of exhibits at the White House Visitor Center
A tactile floor plan at the National Park Service’s White House Visitor Center

 

We decided to create two reader rails for Trailblazing: one to provide an introduction and overview of the exhibit and another to interpret a display case on mail delivery in the Grand Canyon, which included a mix of artifacts, text, and images.

 

A drawing of a freestanding reader rail structure with an angled panel at the top and a holder on the side for braille and large-print label binders
Initial design for the intro/overview reader rail structure

 

A drawing of a reader rail structure attached to the corner of a display case. The reader rail has three angled panels at the top and attaches to the base of the display case.
Initial design for the display case reader rail structure

 

One of the star artifacts of the exhibit was a mule mail riding saddle used to deliver mail to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, the only place in the U.S. where mail is still delivered by mule.

 

The interior of a display case showing a brown leather saddle
The exhibit included a saddle used to deliver mail to the bottom of the Grand Canyon by mule.

 

During the design phase, SIE solicited feedback from accessibility experts along the way, which helped us rethink some of our initial plans and refine our designs.

SIE built physical prototypes of the two reader rails. These included braille, raised characters, a raised-line floor plan of the exhibit, buttons playing audio descriptions, and 3D tactile models of a mule mail riding saddle and a mule mail train.

 

Two men use tools to attach elements to a reader rail structure.
SIE’s graphics team assembles the reader rails.

 

A white 3D model of a saddle with a black background
SIE’s 3D studio created a tactile model of the mule mail riding saddle from the display case.

 

A white 3D model showing five mules carrying packages. Buttons below the model are labeled "Listen to an Audio Description" and "Listen to a Firsthand Account."
The prototype also featured a tactile model of a mule mail train delivering mail to the Grand Canyon.

 

Then, it was time to test!

We installed the prototypes in the Trailblazing gallery and invited User Experts with varying levels of vision to come try them out.

 

A man and a woman stand side by side in front of an interpretive panel on a reader rail and use both hands to touch it.
Testing round one: User Experts test the prototypes at the National Postal Museum. Image courtesy of Access Smithsonian.

 

A woman touches a 3D model of a mule mail train on a reader rail.
Testing round one: User Experts test the prototypes at the National Postal Museum. Image courtesy of Access Smithsonian.

 

A group of 15 people sit around a table in a conference room. Several service dogs lie on the floor.
User Experts and Smithsonian staff sit down to discuss the experience.

 

Afterward, we sat down with the User Experts to listen to their feedback. People loved the tactile models. But the audio descriptions played through speakers were muffled and hard to hear. This was a problem, especially for the typical scenario of a crowded gallery. Based on the group’s feedback, we decided to replace the speakers with audio handsets as well as a separate audio jacks, to allow visitors to plug in their own headphones.

The group had several other helpful recommendations, including shortening some of the audio descriptions, adjusting the location of the tactile floor plan to make it more intuitive, and aligning the braille text with the buttons.

Based on this feedback, SIE brought the prototypes back to the shop and redesigned them. After all the modifications were made, it was time for round two!

 

A man touches an interpretive panel on a reader rail with his left hand and holds an audio handset to his ear with his right hand.
Testing round two: User Experts test the refined prototypes.

 

Two men stand next to an L-shaped reader rail. The man on the left touches the reader rail with his right hand and holds a white cane in his left hand. The man on the right touches the reader rail with his right hand and holds an audio handset to his ear with his left hand.
Testing round two: User Experts test the refined prototypes. Accessibility expert Ray Bloomer from the National Park Service (left) provided help and guidance throughout the project.

 

Round two of the testing confirmed that we were on the right track and opened up more possibilities for future exploration. The User Experts expressed an interest in being able to pause, rewind, and fast forward the audio, and recommended that audio components be placed in a consistent location on all panels to make them easier to find.

Some User Experts were concerned about “feeling in the way” when using the audio handsets and suggested adding a portable handheld device or enabling visitors to play the audio on their own devices.

SIE learned an incredible amount from the Trailblazing project, which we have already begun to implement in our latest exhibits. Working with visitors who are blind and have low vision gave us a deeper understanding of the needs of this important audience. The project reaffirmed SIE’s commitment to providing high-quality 3D tactile experiences and provided new insights into working with braille, raised characters, and audio descriptions.

This May, SIE will be sharing our findings as part of a panel on accessibility at the Smithsonian at the American Alliance of Museums’ Annual Meeting in San Francisco. In the meantime, we’re working on several other accessibility initiatives. (More on those soon!)

The National Museum of American Diplomacy

Washington has museums devoted to many subjects. But until recently, it didn’t have one devoted to diplomacy. That changed in November, when the U.S. Department of State unveiled the National Museum of American Diplomacy (NMAD) with its inaugural exhibition, Diplomacy Is Our Mission.

Smithsonian Exhibits (SIE) was thrilled to be part of the project. We provided exhibit development, design, graphic production, fabrication, 3D studio, and installation services for the exhibition as well as a separate gallery devoted to the Signature Segment of the Berlin Wall.

As NMAD prepares for its future permanent exhibitions (read more about that here), Diplomacy Is Our Mission allows the museum to highlight its amazing stories and collections. Find out how you can visit the exhibition here.

The project started with a content development phase, during which SIE worked with NMAD’s team to identify their main themes and select stories, artifacts, and images to support them. The team settled on four central themes to help tell the story of diplomacy: Security, Prosperity, Democracy, and Development.

Selecting which stories, artifacts, and images to include was no easy task. The museum spans the entire history of U.S. diplomacy from 1776 to today and covers events that occurred all over the world. NMAD’s collection features more than 9,000 items. That’s a lot of artifacts to pick from!

To help narrow the focus, the team decided to select three stories to support each theme: one historic, one contemporary, and one surprising or unusual. NMAD plans to refresh these stories periodically during the span of the exhibition to add new content and encourage visitors to come back. The team also decided to include an updatable section in the exhibition, called “Spotlight on Diplomacy,” which allows NMAD to address current events and mark anniversaries of historic milestones.

 

Images and text documents pinned to a wall
Behind the scenes of the story selection process: NMAD’s team displayed story ideas on the walls of their offices.

 

A modern building illuminated at dusk with an American flag flying from a pole in front
The exhibition is located in the National Museum of American Diplomacy’s pavilion, an addition to the State Department’s historic entrance.

 

A large pavilion with a pink marble floor and a glass ceiling. A colorful mural hangs from the back wall.
NMAD used the pavilion to host other temporary exhibitions prior to Diplomacy Is Our Mission. A replica of Roy Lichtenstein’s Greene Street Mural, hanging in the space, provided SIE’s design team with color inspiration. Through the nonprofit organization Foundation for Art Preservation in Embassies (FAPE), a larger replica of this mural will be installed in the U.S. embassy in Mexico City.

 

A segment of the Berlin Wall in a glass case at the bottom of two sets of stairs
The Signature Segment of the Berlin Wall, on the pavilion’s lower level, features the signatures of 27 leaders who played a significant role in advancing German reunification. SIE worked with NMAD to design reader rails flanking the stairs to provide interpretation for this iconic artifact.

 

NMAD wanted a design that would stand out while complementing the existing architecture of the pavilion and the historic entrance to the State Department. NMAD also wanted to create a more intimate gallery experience within the pavilion, a large open space dominated by Tennessee pink marble, metal, and glass.

 

A woman crouches on the floor holding a card showing color samples
SIE Exhibit Designer Emily Sloat Shaw shows the team the proposed color swatches for the exhibition.

 

SIE’s design team came up with a system of four self-contained circular modules, one for each theme, which would allow visitors to wander in and out of distinct gallery spaces without restricting visitor flow. Large banners would identify the theme of each module.

 

A drawing of a circular exhibition module showing the locations of the section title, section intro, section stories, and outside mural
A drawing showing the design of the exhibition modules

 

Two men stand next to a table on which rest two red pole devices the size of a rake
The exhibition featured some unusual artifacts from NMAD’s collection. Here, NMAD Collections Manager Eric Duyck (right) prepares artifacts for mount making, including a cococho, a tool used to uproot illegal coca plants.

 

A man holding a camera films a woman working at a 3D printer
NMAD also had some artifacts that were too fragile to display and needed to be replicated. Here, SIE Model Maker Carolyn Thome creates a 3D-printed model of a statuette from the State Department’s Diplomatic Reception Rooms.

 

A woman shows two white 3D-printed models the size of a hand to three other women
Carolyn shows NMAD staff two small-scale 3D models of a statuette from the State Department’s Diplomatic Reception Rooms depicting Benjamin Franklin and King Louis XVI.

 

An aerial view showing a man works on a wooden structure in a warehouse.
SIE assembles the exhibition modules at SIE’s facility in Landover, MD.

 

Three men assemble a wooden structure in a warehouse.
SIE’s fabrication team assembles an exhibition module.

 

A series of colorful exhibit graphics laid out on a table
The printed exhibition graphics ready for mounting.

 

Two men hang a blue graphic from a wooden structure.
SIE’s graphics team applies a graphic to the intro section of the exhibition.

 

Two men wheel a large wooden structure onto the sidewalk in front of a building.
SIE’s fabrication team delivers exhibition components to NMAD for installation.

 

Four men hold a large curved structure as it is unloaded from a truck onto the street
The unwieldy exhibition section headers needed careful handling.

 

Three men install a large wooden exhibit module on a pink marble floor
SIE’s fabrication team installs an exhibition module at NMAD. Precise measurements were needed to line everything up correctly.

 

A man operates a forklift to lift a curved wooden and metal structure up to the top of a wooden exhibit module where another man standing on a ladder holds it.
SIE’s fabrication team installs a section header.

 

A man on a ladder attaches colorful graphics to a wooden exhibit module.
SIE Exhibits Specialist Caleb Menzies installs the exhibition graphics.

 

A group of six men pose in front of the exhibit.
Job well done. SIE’s fabrication team poses in front of the completed exhibition.

 

A man wearing green gloves opens a display case containing a pair of glasses.
NMAD Collections Manager Eric Duyck installs artifacts in a display case.

 

A man on a scissor lift looks down at the exhibit from the ceiling. It is dark out. Lights illuminate the exhibit.
SIE’s lighting contractor puts the finishing touches on the lights. Large portraits of former Secretaries of State grace the exteriors of each module.

 

A series of wooden structures with colorful graphics and photos
The finished exhibition, ready for visitors. A colorful map in the intro section (at the right) shows the worldwide presence of the State Department.

 

A series of wooden structures with colorful graphics and photos. A yellow title banner reads "Security."
Bold banners identify each themed module.

 

A curved wooden structure containing a series of colorful graphics, a display case with a yellow hard hat inside it, and a monitor with an audio handset below it
Each module includes artifacts and a short video highlighting the theme, produced by NMAD and Smithsonian Digital Studio.

 

Two wooden structures in a corner with a display case, a touch-screen kiosk, and a video monitor. The main panel is titled "Spotlight on Diplomacy."
The Spotlight on Diplomacy section features a touch-screen interactive, produced by NMAD and Smithsonian Digital Studio, which allows visitors to explore how diplomacy benefits their state.

 

An illuminated red and orange reader rail titled "The Berlin Wall"
SIE created two backlit reader rails for the Berlin Wall exhibit, exploring the history of the Berlin Wall and diplomacy. The reader rails attach seamlessly to the existing handrail below the stairs.

 

An illuminated red and orange reader rail with a series of dates and images of the Berlin Wall
With the launch of The Berlin Wall exhibit, NMAD debuted the Museum of American Diplomacy Eye (MADI), a mobile guide developed in partnership with the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, which allows visitors to scan images and artifacts with their smartphones to access historic footage.

 

A woman in a magenta outfit gestures toward a touch-screen kiosk. Another woman and two men wearing suits look on.
NMAD Director Mary Kane (left) shows the exhibition to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (right), his wife Susan (center left), and former Secretary of State James A. Baker, III (center right). Image courtesy of the U.S. Department of State.

 

A group of people stand in the gallery as a woman speaks from a podium. It is dark outside.
NMAD hosted several public events to celebrate the opening of the exhibition.

 

The project involved all of SIE’s departments and showcased our full capabilities to develop, design, and build first-class exhibitions. SIE was delighted to be involved in the project and looks forward to future collaborations with NMAD and our other federal partners.

An Exhibition Without Walls

Most of the exhibitions Smithsonian Exhibits (SIE) works on have walls, not to mention a roof. But recently, SIE collaborated with Smithsonian Gardens on an exhibition without either.

Last year, we blogged about an interpretive master plan we did with Smithsonian Gardens for their new Smithsonian-wide exhibition series. Now, the first of those exhibitions—Habitat—is open to visitors (as well as the elements!)

Habitat features 14 exhibits displayed throughout the Smithsonian campus, including exterior and interior garden spaces. Follow the map here to explore them all.

 

A map showing the locations of the 14 Habitat exhibits
A map showing the locations of the 14 Habitat exhibits. Image courtesy of Smithsonian Gardens.

 

The exhibits tell diverse stories about habitats and the plants, animals, and humans that call them home. But they all share one big idea: Protecting habitats protects life.

 

A pink, blue, and brown exhibit panel in a garden, with the title "Homes: Make Your Garden a Home"
The Homes exhibit in the Mary Livingston Ripley Garden offers tips on how you can transform your garden into a habitat for creatures great and small.

 

A pink, blue, and brown exhibit panel in a garden with an abstract red sculpture in the background
Monarchs on the Move, outside the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, provides a pit stop for migrating monarch butterflies. Image courtesy of Smithsonian Gardens.

 

SIE assisted Smithsonian Gardens with developing and editing the content, which was designed and produced out of house.

 

A large, wooden mushroom-shaped sculpture in a garden
Large-scale sculptures by artist Foon Sham draw visitors into several of the exhibits. Image courtesy of Smithsonian Gardens.

 

Two ducks swimming in a pond with an exhibit panel next to it
Ducks enjoy their habitat in the Sign of the Dragonfly exhibit in the Enid A. Haupt Garden.

 

The content team worked closely with Smithsonian curators and other experts to connect each exhibit to its neighboring museum. The result gives visitors a taste of the Smithsonian’s incredible range and diversity before they even set foot inside a museum.

 

A pink, blue, and brown exhibit panel titled "Love Oaks: A Gathering Place"
Sheltering Branches, outside the National Museum of African American History and Culture, explores the important roles live oaks play both as a habitat and as a symbol of strength and resilience. Image courtesy of Smithsonian Gardens.

 

A blue exhibit panel titled "Reef Recovery"
Several of the exhibits highlight the important work of Smithsonian scientists and conservationists and how you can help protect habitats.

 

So this summer, enjoy the great outdoors while taking in this great exhibition. Just remember to bring the sunscreen!

 

Exhibits for Monks and Nuns

When most people hear the word “Smithsonian,” they think of the museums lining the National Mall or maybe the National Zoo. But the Smithsonian is also a global institution working on projects around the world, from saving endangered species to safeguarding priceless artifacts.

For nearly a decade, one project in particular has been taking Smithsonian Exhibits’ graphics supervisor, Scott Schmidt, more than 7,000 miles away from Washington, D.C., to monasteries in India. It’s called Science for Monks and Nuns.

This unique program began in 2001 as a way of creating a dialogue between Western science and Tibetan Buddhism—something the Dalai Lama (the spiritual leader of Tibet) has long encouraged.

Every year, Science for Monks and Nuns brings Western scientists to India to engage monks and nuns (known collectively as monastics) in hands-on workshops on a variety of topics, including biology, neurology, cosmology, math, and physics. After the workshops, the monastics return to their communities to share what they have learned and continue their studies. In 2009, the group began creating exhibits as another way of sharing what they have learned with others.

 

Scott speaks with a monk as they kneel on the floor
Scott leads Monks in an exhibit design workshop in Bir, India.

 

Scott got involved in the project in 2010 through a request from the Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access. Since then, he has used his exhibit skills to provide training and assist the group with planning and developing exhibits. In addition to the Smithsonian Institution, Science for Monks and Nuns partners with the Exploratorium in San Francisco and several universities in the United States.

Over the years, Scott and his colleagues have helped create two major science exhibits that have traveled throughout India, Nepal, and Bhutan; facilitated workshops and training sessions; and consulted on the creation of permanent science centers and “tinker spaces” at monasteries. A tinker space is a space with tools to build structures and prototypes demonstrating scientific phenomena, which are used in the workshops and exhibits.

 

Scott holds a piece of equipment and gestures in front of a group of monks
Scott leads a training session in tool use and exhibit assembly at the science center in Dharamsala, India.

 

Three male students and another man work on exhibits in a workshop.
Students work on science exhibition prototypes in the tinker space Scott helped set up in Dharamsala, India. Photo by Scott Schmidt

 

The first exhibit Scott worked on, The World of Your Senses, explored parallel Western and Buddhist perspectives on the five senses.

 

Scott leans forward and speaks to a monk sitting at a table. Other monks also sit at the table.
Scott speaks to colleagues during the production of The World of Your Senses exhibit.

 

The exhibits are truly cross-cultural, combining elements of both Western and Tibetan philosophy and design. For The World of Your Senses, the monks decided that the panels should be painted like thangkas, a traditional Tibetan style of religious paintings.

 

Scott watches as a monk leans over a fabric painting for the exhibit. Two other men stand and watch.
Scott and his colleagues discuss a tailoring detail for The World of Your Senses exhibit. The master tailor to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Phuntsok Tsering, led the framing and sewing of the completed paintings.

 

An exhibit intro panel with text in Tibetan and English includes a painting of a human face showing the internal organs.
The intro panel for The World of Your Senses exhibit

 

A monk stands in front of an exhibit panel and gestures to a group of male and female students.
A monk leads a tour of The World of Your Senses exhibit.

 

A group of monks and nuns dressed in red robes visit the exhibit.
Monastics visit The World of Your Senses exhibit in Nepal.

 

The second exhibit Scott worked on, My Earth, My Responsibility, focused on climate change.

 

Scott stands with another man at a table where five monks are sitting.
Scott and his colleagues examine mock-ups of the My Earth, My Responsibility exhibit.
Photo by Tracie Spinale

 

An exhibit panel in Tibetan and English shows a colorful painting of animals with the headline, "Why is the Climate Changing?"
A panel from the My Earth, My Responsibility exhibit

 

The Dalai Lama and two other monks look at an exhibit panel with a crowd of people in the background.
The Dalai Lama attends the opening of the My Earth, My Responsibility exhibit at the Sera Jey Science Center in India. Pictured on the right is Ven. Geshe Lhakdor, Director of the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, the organization that facilitates the Science for Monks and Nuns program.

 

Scott grasps the hand of the Dalai Lama while holding a white scarf. A group of people stand and watch.
Scott (right) meets the Dalai Lama at the opening of the My Earth, My Responsibility exhibit at the Sera Jey Science Center in India.

 

The work that goes into these exhibits is intense. Scott and his colleagues spend weeks at a time in India, working with the participants to plan, develop, and fabricate the exhibits.

One of the biggest challenges is translating complex scientific and metaphysical concepts into a few paragraphs of English and Tibetan text. “It can difficult to communicate concepts and words for which there may be no Tibetan equivalents,” says Scott. However, with the help of monastics and a great team of interpreters at the Library for Tibetan Works and Archives, this challenge has not been a roadblock.

Another challenge Scott enjoys is scouring the local markets for the materials and tools needed to build the exhibits. (You can’t just pop into the local Home Depot.)

Throughout the six visits Scott has made to India so far to work with the program, he has come away inspired, renewed, and with new insights to bring back to his everyday life. “Collaborating with colleagues Tracie Spinale, Stephanie Norby, and Darren Milligan at the Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access has been wonderful,” says Scott, “and watching the program and monastic students develop since that first exhibit in 2010 has been a joy.

Scott looks forward to continuing his partnership with the program. “It’s amazing to have the opportunity to experience different cultures and traditions firsthand,” says Scott. “It reminds you that the Smithsonian is a global institution. Our mission, ‘the increase and diffusion of knowledge,’ reaches far beyond the Mall to cultures isolated by politics, religion, distance, and education. And it is certainly a two-way street. I have often returned wondering if I did not learn more than teach.”

 

All photos by Bryce Johnson unless otherwise noted.

 

To learn more:

“Seeing Science through a spiritual lens, with the Smithsonian’s help,” The Washington Post

Beyond the Robe by Bobby Sager, the primary funder of the Science for Monks and Nuns program

Humble Before the Void by Chris Impey, one of the many Science for Monks and Nuns teachers

The Universe in a Single Atom by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, great for understanding his love of science and its positive effect on Buddhism.

 

Thanks to former SIE intern Elizabeth Polvere for her help in developing this blog post.

A Tale of Two Exhibits

This year, Smithsonian Libraries celebrated its 50th anniversary as a unified library system by opening not one, but two exhibits: Game Change: Elephants from Prey to Preservation and Magnificent Obsessions: Why We Collect. Smithsonian Exhibits (SIE) was thrilled to be asked to design, edit, and produce the exhibits. Here’s our tale . . . (It was the best of times!)

Both exhibits feature books from Smithsonian Libraries’ collections, but they deal with very different subjects.

Game Change traces the shift in public attitudes about elephants from the late 19th century, an era when big game hunting was popular, to the critical conservation concerns of today.

 

A display case containing books, objects, and images of elephants stands next to a panel on the wall titled "Game Change."
Game Change: Elephants from Prey to Preservation was curated by Cheryl Braunstein, Manager of Exhibit Planning and Development at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute. It’s on display on the Ground Floor of the National Museum of Natural History through February 1, 2020.

 

Magnificent Obsessions focuses on the pioneering collectors who shaped Smithsonian Libraries’ diverse collections in the areas of science, technology, history, art, and culture.

 

Text on the wall on a red and blue background includes the words, "Smithsonian Libraries at a Glance," and "Magnificent Obsessions: Why We Collect."
Magnificent Obsessions: Why We Collect was curated by Stephen Van Dyk, Head of the Art Division at Smithsonian Libraries and Mary Augusta Thomas, Deputy Director of Smithsonian Libraries. It’s on display on the 1st Floor, West of the National Museum of American History through July 1, 2020.

 

One of the biggest challenges in developing any exhibit is deciding what to include. This was particularly true of these exhibits. Smithsonian Libraries has a collection of more than two million volumes, including 50,000 rare books and manuscripts. Space constrains required curators to make difficult choices about what to cut. A hidden blessing for these exhibits was light. Because of paper’s sensitivity to light, pages must be turned and books must be rotated in and out of the exhibits over time, allowing additional content to be displayed. (Come back soon to see what’s new!)

The books and artifacts featured in the exhibits show the incredible diversity of the Smithsonian’s collections.

 

A framed piece of paper includes Hebrew letters and the words "Nano Bible" in gold at the top of the page. Below these are a tiny magnifying glass.
The smallest artifact displayed in Magnificent Obsessions is the “Nano Bible,” a microscopic version of the Hebrew Bible engraved on a microchip the size of a grain of sugar.

 

A circular band with a gray box on it surrounds an image of an elephant's head.
The largest artifact displayed in Game Change is a radio collar used to track elephants in the wild.

 

Four books and a letter are seen inside a display case with a dark blue background.
The oldest artifact displayed in Magnificent Obsessions is a handwritten forerunner of the encyclopedia (at top center) created in the 13th century, before the advent of the printing press.

 

A small vial with dark material inside it is displayed next to a book titled "East Africa."
The newest—and perhaps most unusual—artifact in Game Change is a dung sample (center) collected from an elephant at the National Zoo. (You never know what you’re going to find in a Smithsonian exhibit!)

 

Of course, these exhibits are about more than just objects. The exhibit development team (including yours truly) wanted to go beyond the books to highlight the human stories they tell.

Game Change uses books and artifacts to show how humans’ attitudes about elephants have changed over time.

 

A composite image shows action figures, a children's book, and sheet music, including images of elephants.
Contrasting books and artifacts, including children’s books and playthings, demonstrate the shift in attitudes about elephants from the early 20th century (top) to today (bottom).

 

Magnificent Obsessions reveals the extraordinary passion collectors have for their subjects and explores what motivates them to collect.

 

A text panel titled "Why Did They Collect?" includes two black-and-white portraits of women and colorful illustrations of airplanes.
Profiles of curious collectors explain what drove them to collect.

 

We also wanted to open the conversation up to visitors by asking what they collect and why.

 

A wall of images includes the title "Why Do You Collect?" at the top.
Share your “magnificent obsession” using #ICollectBecause

 

SIE’s design team included Elena Saxton on Game Change and Elena and Madeline Wan on Magnificent Obsessions. Elena and Madeline helped bring the stories to life with engaging designs and eye-catching graphics.

 

A large display case contains more than a dozen open books. Images of elephants are seen on a yellow background on the back of the case.
The graphic design for Game Change features illustrations taken from the books displayed.

 

A red display case at the center of a gallery is surrounded by blue display cases.
The designers used vibrant colors in Magnificent Obsessions to make the exhibit pop and help visitors navigate the different sections.

 

At the entrance to Magnificent Obsessions, the team created lenticular graphics, which change as you walk past them. These add movement and reveal the faces of the collectors behind the collections. Look out for a future blog post explaining how these were made.

 

A colorful panel at the entrance to a gallery includes images of people, objects, and illustrations.
The lenticular graphics at the entrance to Magnificent Obsessions help draw visitors into the space.

 

SIE’s graphics team, including Evan Keeling, Mike Reed, and Scott Schmidt, printed and installed the graphics for both exhibits.

 

A man looks at a series of graphic panels laid out on a table next to color swatches.
Scott inspects graphics for Magnificent Obsessions.

 

Three men in black T-shirts stand in front of a large sign with the words "Game Change" on it. The two men at the front are holding the sign up against the wall.
SIE’s graphics team installs a panel in Game Change.

 

SIE’s 3D studio team members Chris Hollshwander and Danny Fielding worked with Vanessa Haight Smith, Head of Smithsonian Libraries Preservation Services, to make and install the mounts for the books and artifacts displayed in the exhibits.

 

A man wearing blue gloves stands behind a red-colored platform holding a transparent acrylic mount.
Chris installs a cradle mount to support one of the many books in Magnificent Obsessions.

 

Throughout it all, Smithsonian Libraries Exhibitions Program Coordinator Kirsten van der Veen and SIE Project Manager Betsy Robinson kept the team on track and on schedule—no easy feat, since the exhibits opened within weeks of each other!

Both exhibits are on display now. Please stop by and let us know what you think. In the meantime, we look forward to the next chapter of our collaboration with Smithsonian Libraries!

A Grassroots Effort

After a long winter, it looks like spring is finally here. What better way to celebrate than by visiting Smithsonian Gardens?

Smithsonian Gardens creates and manages the Smithsonian’s outdoor gardens, interiorscapes, and horticulture-related collections and exhibits. It is a “museum without walls” and one of the few gardens to be accredited by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM).

 

Smithsonian Gardens oversees more than a dozen gardens.

 

Recently, Smithsonian Exhibits worked with Smithsonian Gardens to develop an interpretive master plan for their new exhibition series, which will tie together all of their gardens with a single theme. The theme for 2019–2020 is Habitat.

An interpretive master plan identifies the exhibition’s stakeholders and target audiences, outlines key goals and objectives, establishes an interpretive hierarchy, and provides a road map forward for launching a new exhibition.

 

The "Big Idea" for the Habitat exhibition
One of the first steps in the process was to identify the exhibition’s “big idea” or overarching message. For Habitat, the big idea is “Protecting habitats protects life.”

 

This was truly a grassroots effort, involving the entire Smithsonian Gardens staff, including educators, horticulturists, and landscape architects. Staff members were invited to come up with proposals for exhibits, which were included in the final interpretive master plan.

 

Habitat photo inspiration board
Images collected by Smithsonian Gardens’ staff provided inspiration for the individual exhibits.

 

Habitat exhibit concepts
Exhibit concepts include sculptural elements and other structures that mimic natural habitats.

 

Horticulturist James Gagliardi leads SIE’s team on a tour of the gardens.
Horticulturist James Gagliardi leads SIE’s team on a tour of the gardens.

 

As part of the project, SIE’s senior exhibit graphic designer Madeline Wan worked with Smithsonian Gardens to develop a logo for the Habitat exhibition that evoked the idea of habitats as homes.

 

The logo for the Habitat exhibition
The Habitat logo will appear on all of the exhibition’s materials.

 

SIE exhibit developer/writer John Powell reviews a map of the proposed exhibits with the IMP team.
SIE exhibit developer/writer John Powell (yours truly) reviews a map of the proposed exhibits with the IMP team.

 

One of the most exciting parts of Smithsonian Gardens’ exhibition series is that it connects and unifies many different parts of the Smithsonian. Being “One Smithsonian” is a key goal of the Smithsonian’s new strategic plan.

 

Habitat exhibits map
A map showing the proposed Habitat exhibits, which will be spread across the National Mall and at the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture.

 

Smithsonian Gardens' Exhibits Share Fair table
The final IMP was launched at the Smithsonian Institution Exhibits Share Fair in February.

 

You can read the final IMP on Smithsonian Gardens’ website here.

Habitat will launch in 2019 at a garden near you. In the meantime, get outside and enjoy the spring flowers!

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!

Small Artifacts, Big Story

Sometimes small artifacts can have outsized meanings. Take the dog tags in the National Museum of American History’s (NMAH) new exhibit Many Voices, One Nation, which explores how the many voices of people in America have shaped our nation. The dog tags belonged to men and women of different ethnicities and faiths who served in the armed forces in the 1940s and ’50s. The original artifacts measure only a couple of inches wide, but they speak volumes about the diverse Americans who risked their lives to serve their country.

As part of the exhibit, NMAH asked Smithsonian Exhibits (SIE) to create touchable replicas of eight dog tags, enlarged to twice their size to reveal details. Model maker Chris Hollshwander led the effort for SIE.

 

A photo of one of the original dog tags featured in the exhibit

 

The first step was to stitch together a series of high-resolution photos of the dog tags taken from different angles, using a process known as photogrammetry, to create 3D polygon models. This was a challenge because the reflective surface of the dog tags distorted some of the details, which had to be cleaned up using digital sculpting software.

 

The finished 3D polygon model after photogrammetry processing

 

Once the digital 3D models were complete, Chris programmed the computer numerical control (CNC) milling machine, to cut the replica dog tags out of aluminum.

 

Chris used CAM (computer-aided machining) software to create toolpaths for the CNC milling machine.

 

The replica dog tags are cut out of aluminum using the CNC milling machine.

 

The original dog tags are worn from combat and years of age. To recreate this appearance as closely as possible, Chris sandblasted the replicas, polished them on a buffing wheel, and used shades of black and brown paint to darken the letters and mimic the dirt, oils, and scratches on the originals. He then covered them with a coat of urethane to protect them from further wear and tear from visitors’ hands.

 

A detailed view of one of the replica dog tags shows the wear and tear added to mimic the original artifact.

 

Once the dog tags were ready, it was time to install.

 

Chris lays out the replica dog tags to determine their placement on the panel.

 

Chris uses screws to secure the replica dog tags to the panel.

 

Chris fits the panel into place in the exhibit.

 

The finished product is ready for show time.

 

Visitors get hands-on with the replicas.