Last week, Smithsonian Exhibits had a wonderful day hosting a delegation of Argentinian museum professionals for a lively conversation about exhibition development. We’re always happy to talk about exhibitions and learn from our colleagues, and this day was no exception.
Our guests are part of a cooperative program—Capacity Building for Argentinian Museum and Cultural Heritage Professionals—organized by the Smithsonian, the U.S. Embassy in Argentina, and Argentina’s Dirección Nacional de Museos (DNM). Their year-long program included a visit to Washington to meet with a variety of Smithsonian offices. The eleven participants represent five museums and DNM. The Smithsonian’s Office of International Relations and Global Programs organized the group’s stay in Washington and joined in on their visit to Smithsonian Exhibits.
Our conversation ran the gamut, from organizing exhibition teams to the best ways to create models. We continued our conversations as we toured our facility in Landover. We met with each of our units, allowing us to get multiple perspectives on a topic. For example, one of our conversations concerned how to best select materials that are cost effective and meet conservation needs for the objects. We were able to start the conversation with design, ask about how those decisions would affect graphic production, and then follow that up with questions about constructing the mounts and the cases.
The one common denominator of our conversations? Collaborate! The more the team works together and keeps communicating throughout exhibit development, design, and fabrication, the better the end results. Since there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to creating an exhibition, many conversations will be had along the way to determine the best options. This applies to how to best engage visitors, meet conservation needs, and well, pretty much every aspect of the exhibition process. There’s a lot of technology and research out there to make all of the steps happen, but those solutions only work if you talk to your team along the way. That’s a plan that makes sense no matter where your museum calls home.
Of course, as our day came to a close we exchanged business cards and contact information so that we could keep the conversation going. We look forward to many fruitful discussions about best practices and innovative approaches to museum exhibitions with our international colleagues.
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 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.
The first exhibit Scott worked on, The World of Your Senses, explored parallel Western and Buddhist perspectives on the five senses.
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.
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.
It’s hard to believe that Sant Ocean Hall at the National Museum of Natural History is ten years old. It’s somewhat shocking that it hasn’t just always been there—it’s such a prominent and memorable part of the museum—but it also has a fresh feel to it so it feels like it just opened. The secret? Updates! (As well as all that amazing content, objects, etc. that makes people want to come back.)
A few years ago, Carolyn Thome from our 3D Studio made a signature model for the Ocean Hall’s Life in One Cubic Foot. More recently, the 3D Studio created a number of fish models to enliven the exhibition space. Carolyn used reference photos to sculpt the digital files to be sent to our 3D printers. This time, however, Carolyn had the opportunity to mentor an intern while she created the Ocean Hall models.
Carole Baldwin, NMNH Curator of Fishes and Chair of the Department of Vertebrate Zoology, and scientists Allen Collins and Michael Vecchione, served as the 3D Studio’s subject matter experts, ensuring the accuracy of the models.
This project also coincided with the 3D Studio getting a new printer. Our new SLA resin printer can produce very high resolution prints in a variety of resin types. Carolyn and our intern, Willow Collins, familiarized themselves with the new equipment. Willow also learned a new 3D modeling program—by the end of the project she was pretty much an expert in all things fish model. In fact, we were so impressed, that at the end of her internship, Willow was hired on as staff.
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.
Magnificent Obsessions focuses on the pioneering collectors who shaped Smithsonian Libraries’ diverse collections in the areas of science, technology, history, art, and culture.
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.
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.
Magnificent Obsessions reveals the extraordinary passion collectors have for their subjects and explores what motivates them to collect.
We also wanted to open the conversation up to visitors by asking what they collect and why.
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.
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.
SIE’s graphics team, including Evan Keeling, Mike Reed, and Scott Schmidt, printed and installed the graphics for both exhibits.
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.
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!
Here’s a tricky one: How do you write exhibit text for a new museum when your content experts have top security clearances and can only share a fraction of their content with you? Mission: DIA offered many tricky and interesting questions. For example: will they tell me about REDACTEDREDACTEDREDACTEDREDACTED if I ask really, really nicely? *
Working on a museum about an agency that produces, analyzes, and disseminates military intelligence information creates some interesting workflow protocols. When SIE began working with the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) on Mission: DIA, we knew that we’d have to build a museum from scratch because their atrium didn’t have an existing museum space. We knew that we’d work with their historians and other experts to create a museum script that told complicated stories. We knew that the graphics would have to convey complex information. And we knew that there was a lot we didn’t know, weren’t allowed to know, and probably won’t ever get to know.
Our unconventional workflow more or less went as follows. First topics were brainstormed, then discussion would follow. As ideas were suggested and settled on, the DIA historians would determine the exact story they wanted to use, and then go off to confirm that the details needed to tell the story well were cleared for use or could be cleared quickly. And lest you think that SIE got to go through all the super-secret stuff, everything had to be declassified before it came to our office, too.
Reading redacted documents became just another part of my day. Eventually, I started to wonder, is this where they blacked out the REDACTED about REDACTED? Despite my strong desire to find out REDACTEDREDACTEDREDACTED and read up on the REDACTEDREDACTEDREDACTEDREDACTEDREDACTEDREDACTEDREDACTEDREDACTEDREDACTEDREDACTEDREDACTED the historians I worked with at DIA made sure everything was properly declassed before it reached me and my low (so very, very low) security clearance. (NOTE: I know nothing. I’m not worth kidnapping. Not. At. All.)
Mission: DIA opened its first phase in the summer, and more phases are underway. After vetting, scrubbing, redacting, and whatever else might be required, the photos from the first phase’s opening were released to us. So now, unlike the exhibition’s source material, I can talk about the first phase of the project.
The Mission: DIA project posed a number of challenges, not unlike REDACTEDREDACTEDREDACTEDREDACTEDREDACTEDREDACTEDREDACTEDREDACTEDREDACTEDREDACTEDREDACTED. One challenge was that there was no existing museum and the exhibition was to be built inside a large open space. This meant the designer had to create a “room within a room” in order for there to even be an exhibition.
The first section to open, Exposing the Truth, explores DIA’s role in bringing unseen threats to light. The exhibition delves into the escalation of Soviet weapons programs during the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, catching a spy within the agency, and the H1N1 flu pandemic.
As excited as we are to have the first section open, we look forward to continuing our work on the rest of the museum.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Finally, Carolyn created a finish that closely matched the originals.
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.)
An interconnected world allows for the easy transmission of ideas, commerce, scientific discoveries, and so many other things … like communicable diseases. The National Museum of Natural History’s new exhibition, Outbreak: Epidemics in a Connected World, explores how microscopic pathogens can cause widespread disease outbreaks. When outbreaks occur, epidemiologists, veterinarians, public health workers, and others all work to identify and contain the infection. These pathogens wreak havoc in communities—not just affecting health, but also leaving huge social and emotional impacts.
And therein lies the tricky part for the exhibition: the impacts are huge, but the pathogens are too small to be seen by the naked eye. Exhibitions are by definition a three-dimensional, visual experience. In order to give the pathogens more prominence, the National Museum of Natural History opted for 3D prints of the microbes at scales that, well, honestly are kind of terrifying when you consider what these pathogens do.
Our model maker Carolyn Thome and National Museum of Natural History designer Julia Louie used 3D pathogen files downloaded from the National Institute of Health’s 3D print exchange. (The downloads are free and are handy tools for educators, medical professionals, scientists, and others.) Carolyn manipulated the files to digitally cut the models in half and place them on bases she created using CAD software.
She printed her models in color, rather than painting them. It wasn’t necessary to have a true-to-life paint job because the pathogens’ colors aren’t based on their innate colors, but rather are applied to make it easier for visitors to understand their shapes.
The finished models needed an epoxy infiltration to give them stability and an even sheen. The heat and resin work together to create a chemical reaction that makes a sturdy finished product, but because of the viscosity and quick setting time, Carolyn only had approximately twenty minutes to finish each resin coating.
If a model needed a second coat of resin, Carolyn needed to place it in a vacuum chamber and then repeat the speedy process.
Outbreak will be featured on the second floor of the National Museum of Natural History for roughly three years before it’s contained in 2021.
It’s almost summer vacation! The time when students and teachers get to reminisce about all the fun things that happened throughout the year. Well, we’re doing the same thing. This year, Smithsonian Exhibits had the pleasure of hosting a fifth-grade field trip. Ms. Deaton’s class, from Stratford Landing Elementary in nearby Fairfax County, Virginia, had a class project to create an exhibition. What better place to learn about the exhibit process than a place that can take a project from development through design and all the way into fabrication and installation? Students had a chance to talk with staff and learn more about exhibit development. They also got a tour of our 3D studio, fabrication shop, and graphics production. Later on, Ms. Deaton let us know that we helped them with their project … and also inspired them to take on another project.
Juggling more than one project at a time? They’d fit right in here! Maybe we should just ask them to work here over summer break.*
So, what was this fun new project these multi-tasking kids took on?
Comic books. Evan Keeling, one of our graphic specialists, showed the students how to make mini-comics like the ones he’s created for the National Museum of American History, the National Portrait Gallery, the National Museum of the American Indian, and other Smithsonian groups.
Ms. Deaton’s students ran with the mini-comic idea. Soon, the students opened a comic library at their school. Students can make their own eight-page booklet, add it to the library, and other students can check them out.
* Funny story: We already put them to work once. The classes were originally split into two back-to-back days, but a weather-related school cancelation postponed one of the trips. The rescheduled field trip came with an extra perk: interactive prototype testing! The interactive, which will be installed at the panda house at the National Zoo later this year, shows how pandas have difficulty traversing their habitat now that construction, logging, and roadways crisscross the mountains on which they live. (But more on that after it’s installed.)
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!