Author: John Powell

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.

Have Mounts, Will Travel

Every year, Smithsonian Exhibits (SIE) develops, designs, and builds many exhibits on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. But sometimes our work takes us farther afield. Recently, SIE exhibits specialist Zach Hudson traveled more than 5,000 miles to Benin City, Nigeria, for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art (NMAfA), to assist with training staff and installing an exhibit at the National Museum of Benin. Zach captured the photos shown here using a GoPro camera.

 

The National Museum of Benin, Benin City, Nigeria

 

The National Museum of Benin was recently renovated and its exhibits are in the process of being rebuilt. Zach helped install a traveling version of the exhibit Chief S.O. Alonge: Photographer to the Royal Court of Benin, Nigeria. The exhibit was originally organized and produced by NMAfA, where it was on display from 2014 to 2016. It showcases the photography of S.O. Alonge, who served as the official photographer to the Royal Court of Benin for fifty years and also owned and operated his own photo studio.

 

A panel from the original exhibit at NMAfA. Photograph by Franko Khoury, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution.

 

Self-portrait of photographer S.O. Alonge, ca. 1942. Chief S.O. Alonge Collection, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution.

 

A portrait of Stella Osarhiere Gbinigie at age 15 by S.O. Alonge, ca. 1950. Chief S.O. Alonge Collection, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution.

 

Many of Alonge’s photos are in the NMAfA’s archives and NMAfA’s chief archivist Amy Staples helped organize the exhibit and accompanied Zach to Nigeria. SIE senior exhibit designer Paula Millet traveled to the museum last year to help plan the exhibit. You can read about her trip on our blog here.

 

NMAfA chief archivist Amy Staples (seated at left) and SIE exhibits specialist Zach Hudson (seated at right) pose with the staff of the National Museum of Benin, including assistant director and curator Theophilus Umogbai (seated at center).

 

In addition to photographs, the exhibit features three-dimensional artifacts, including several Benin bronzes — traditional bronze sculptures from the kingdom of Benin, one of Africa’s oldest and most highly developed states. Before leaving for Nigeria, Zach designed and made mounts for the artifacts. He used photos and design drawings for reference, since the objects were already in Nigeria. All the tools and materials Zach brought with him had to break down and fit into a single checked bag. This required meticulous packing skills.

Zach spent two days training the museum’s staff in how to use tools for installation and fit mounts to artifacts. The staff practiced these skills as they installed the exhibit.

 

Zach trains museum staff members in tool usage.

 

Museum staff members practice their skills while working on the exhibit.

 

Zach discusses mount making with museum staff members.

 

Zach watches as museum staff members install exhibit panels featuring Alonge’s photos.

 

While in Nigeria, Amy and Zach visited members of the local community, Benin Royal Court, and the Edo State Government. Zach had researched the kingdom of Benin, its culture, and traditions to prepare for his trip. Local residents were thrilled to have the exhibit in Nigeria and to be able to display Alonge’s images in the place they were made.

The exhibit is scheduled to open at the National Museum of Benin on September 29.

Please Touch!

Have you ever visited a museum and seen a sign that says, “Do not touch”? Sometimes museums have a reputation for being hands-off places, but we seek to change that. Smithsonian Exhibits (SIE) specializes in creating 3D tactile versions of artifacts. These durable replicas allow visitors to get up close and personal with priceless objects, something you could never do otherwise. They can enlarge and reveal key details of artifacts that are not clearly visible and make exhibits more accessible to visitors with visual impairments.

Recently, SIE worked with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History to develop a replica of an ivory and gold cane head that belonged to former president John Quincy Adams for the exhibit American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith. The exhibit traces America’s unfolding experiment with democracy, from the American Revolution to today.

 

John Quincy Adams’s cane is featured in the exhibit American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith. Photograph courtesy of Division of Political History, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

 

The cane tells an important story. It was presented to Adams, who had returned to Congress after his presidency, in recognition of his leadership against the “gag rule.” The gag rule, adopted in 1836, forbid the House of Representatives from considering anti-slavery petitions. Adams fought hard against the rule, which he felt restricted free speech. On December 3, 1844, it was finally repealed, dealing a major blow to the supporters of slavery. An inscription on the gold-inlaid eagle on the cane’s head commemorates the date, with the words “Right of Petition Triumphant.”

 

SIE staff used detailed photos of John Quincy Adams’s cane, such as this one, to create the replica.

 

As with most of SIE’s projects, this was a team effort. SIE model maker Chris Hollshwander used a series of detailed photos to create a three-dimensional computer model of the cane head. SIE model maker Carolyn Thome then used the digital sculpting process to recreate the intricate details on the gold-inlaid eagle.

Chris used computer-aided machining (CAM) software to create tool paths to drive a computer numerical control (CNC) milling machine. He used these tools to cut a master pattern of the cane head in polyurethane and a prototype of the eagle in polyurethane board.

 

The polyurethane pattern, on the right, was used to create a mold for the final replica.

 

Once the pattern was created, a silicone mold was made to cast a replica in resin. One of the most challenging parts of this project was matching the tint of the resin to the original ivory. Chris had to experiment several times to get the color right.

 

The replica eagle is cut out of a brass plate.

 

Once the prototype was approved, the replica eagle was cut out of brass and fitted into place for the final detailing. We think you’ll agree that the result is spectacular!

 

The final replica is prepared for installation.

 

The replica is mounted on a plinth and ready to be touched.