Category: Uncategorized

Building Infinity

Without a doubt the Hirshhorn’s Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors exhibit is a bona fide hit. Lines are wrapping around their cylindrical building and people are snatching up the free passes as soon as they are released. Smithsonian Exhibits is proud to have played a part in creating this blockbuster.

 

An image of the artist in 1965 installation of her work, Phalli’s Field welcomes visitors to the exhibition.

 

SIE constructed the infinity room Phalli’s Field for the exhibition.

Yayoi Kusama’s Phalli’s Field, constructed and installed by Smithsonian Exhibits

 

Additionally, SIE assisted in the installation of the infinity rooms.

Inside this tiny room infinity awaits.

 

Part of the mirrored room sensory experience is walking into a contained space, and finding a whole new world inside of it. The mirrored enclosures create the illusion of standing on a platform floating within a private universe.

 

Visitors can lose themselves inside the paradox: infinity is inside a tiny room.

SIE’s Elena Saxton in the Infinity Mirrored Room—The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away.

 

Inside the sublimely titled Infinity Mirrored Room—All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins

 

 

Other installations allow visitors to peek into windows to view an infinite light show.

 

 

Tickets are still available, but hurry! The show closes at the Hirshhorn on May 14. After that, Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors will travel to Seattle, Los Angeles, Toronto, Cleveland, and Atlanta.

 

Helping Artists Find Their Own Words

Have you ever wondered who writes the words that appear in labels and exhibit text?

Here at Smithsonian Exhibits, we have writers that specialize in exhibits. Our in-house exhibit developers and writers (including yours truly) also get to create other exhibit-related texts, such as Interpretive Master Plans, exhibition development documents, or content outlines. Additionally, there’s editing.  Maybe an exhibit needs proofreading, or an exhibit script needs copyedits to get the text to within established word counts. (FYI, word counts are a big thing around here.)

Intro Panel
Artists at Work is on display in the S. Dillon Ripley Center. 
Designer: Tina Lynch, Editor: Brigid Laurie, Project Manager: Betsy Robinson

 

One of my favorite projects is the biannual Smithsonian Community Committee Staff Art exhibition. These juried exhibitions showcase  artistic works by Smithsonian staff, interns, and volunteers. It’s no surprise that the world’s largest museum complex would have a lot of artists working behind the scenes. Some of the artists have art-related jobs, like illustrators or photographers, but there are always a number of people working in security, IT, human resources, and other positions who are creating stunning art as well.

 

Over 70 works are on display, including kinetic sculpture, paintings, photographs, textile art, jewelry, and more.

 

My job on these shows is a specific one: help the artists fine-tune their artist statements and finalize their labels. It’s a rare treat to get to work with someone so closely on a statement about their art. If I’m helping edit a script for an art show, I’ll have a chance to work with the Smithsonian curatorial staff, but I won’t have direct access to the artist. For this show, I do.

Chrysalis, by my Smithsonian Exhibits colleague Enrique Dominguez

Some artists prefer to not have statements and to let the art do all the talking. Others provide a statement that needs only the slightest changes—maybe a comma, or a clarifying word or two. Some artists, however, do ask for assistance with their statement. Those collaborations are flat out fun. I get to learn a bit more about the piece, and I get to help figure out the best way to convey the artist’s intent or inspiration in a short (roughly 125 words or less) statement.

The Empress and the Emperor, by my Smithsonian Exhibits colleague Paula Millet

 

Because the final product is a written panel, I like to handle most communication through email. That way the artist gets to see the words as they’ll appear, albeit before the graphic designer has a chance to choose the typeface or lay out the panel. Often this means that I make a suggestion or two, maybe I’ll ask a question about their statement to make sure I’m getting the essence of it, and then we go back and forth to figure out the best way to get their statement to enhance their artwork.

Artists create for a variety of reasons, and their statements can help visitors understand their process.

Since these are statements by the artists about their work, it’s important that even after the label is edited that the artist’s statement is just that: it should retain the artist’s voice. The labels should help visitors understand and appreciate the art, and also give them a glimpse into an artist’s perspective. My contribution is invisible, but I know I’ve been successful if a statement expresses the artist’s vision.

 

 

Artists at Work will be on display through February 2018.

 

Mixing Old and New

It’s easy to get wrapped up in the amazing technology we have available at Smithsonian Exhibits, but one of the places we truly shine is in our ability to marry the old and the new.

The Smithsonian Latino Center’s pop-up Day of the Dead exhibition at the National Museum of the American Indian gave us a chance to do just that. This exhibition blended leading-edge technology and traditional practices.

Our striking graphics and bilingual text welcomed audiences into this temporary space, while the ofrenda, or altar, we created gave visitors a chance to interact with a key part of the celebration.

 

The graphics department made freestanding panels to display text and imagery within the auditorium.

 

 

An ofrenda, is a central part of the associated rituals. Traditionally, the altar is covered with offerings for the dead, such as paper flowers and sugar skulls.

Instead of only explaining the importance of the ofrenda, the Smithsonian Latino Center opted to include one in the exhibition at the National Museum of the American Indian.

The approximately 12 foot wide altar was placed in front of a stage where visitors could explore a virtual cemetery decked out in Day of the Dead finery. Photograph courtesy of the Smithsonian Latino Center.

 

Even though this was a teaching tool and not a true ofrenda, it was assembled in a similar way. Present-day Dia de los Muertos celebrations use a combination of purchased items and handcrafted ones. We did the same thing.

Detail of the altar: personal affects, store bought items, and handcrafted pieces mingle together to create a meaningful ofrenda. Photograph courtesy of the Smithsonian Latino Center.

 

Sharon transforms the cavernous auditorium with her ofrenda.

Graphic specialist Sharon Head gathered all of the items and assembled the ofrenda. Auditorium seats propped up “tombstones” with attached QR codes. The codes allowed visitors to link to more information on the famous figures on each tombstone.

Marigolds were flowers for the dead in Aztec culture.

Sharon learned how to make paper flowers to complement the (faux, for museum conservation reasons) marigold bouquet.

The skeleton musicians were purchased from a local shop.
Sugar skulls and paper flowers are usually considered essential elements of an ofrenda.

Sharon also hand painted the six reproduction calaveras, or sugar skulls. (There were a total of eight skulls – the two additional skulls were made of paper mache.)

This is where the new and the old merge in ways similar to the Dia de los Muertos celebrations themselves. Carolyn Thome from the 3D Studio printed 3D skulls out of gypsum (for obvious pest-control reasons, we couldn’t leave real sugar out to attract insects in a museum) and Sharon painted them with traditional and contemporary designs used in current celebrations of this Mexican holiday.

 

 

 

Invisible Artwork: The Mount Making Dilemma

In 2014 the National Museum of African American History and Culture acquired Kenya Robinson’s sculpture Commemorative Headdress of Her Journey Beyond Heaven. To most people this probably seems like a pretty straightforward endeavor: Artist makes something, museum acquires it, museum displays it, and then visitors reap the rewards.

There’s one step in there that got glossed over. How do you hang it up?

The answer is much more complicated than a trip to the hardware store.

Mounts are incredibly specialized pieces of equipment. They need to support the object, add no additional stresses to it, and be made of conservation-friendly materials (which vary depending on the object). In addition, they must be crafted by hand. There is no mount superstore. You can’t just go pick up a gross of mounts.

Smithsonian Exhibits made more than 2,500 mounts for the National Museum of African American History and Culture. And every last one was custom-made.

The real kicker? After all that work, a mount must fade into the background. The best mounts are the ones visitors don’t notice.

In a way that’s a shame. These mounts are artworks unto themselves.

Zach Hudson, a mount maker in our 3D Studio, was kind enough to walk me through the process of making the mount for Commemorative Headdress of Her Journey Beyond Heaven. All photographs below were taken by Carolyn Thome for Smithsonian Exhibits. The artwork is courtesy of the Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, © Kenya.

 

Conservator Antje Neumann from the National Museum of African American American History and Culture unpacks the shipping crate with Smithsonian Exhibits mount maker Zach Hudson.
Conservator Antje Neumann from the National Museum of African American American History and Culture unpacks the shipping crate with Smithsonian Exhibits mount maker Zach Hudson.

 

Antje and Zach examine the unpacked artwork. Photograph by Carolyn Thome
Antje and Zach examine the unpacked artwork.

 

The conservator determines how the artwork can be handled, where it can and cannot bear weight, and what materials can be used in the mount. The mount materials are chosen for both durability and conservation, making sure that nothing will react with the object and damage it. Then Zach makes a plan for the object mount. If possible, he’ll use existing connection points to attach the bracketing, which reduces stress on the object.

 

Zach's patterning kit has a welder's pencil (it can mark brass and is heat resistant), a flashlight for seeing internal angles and looking in the crevices of larger objects, fabric measuring tape, and digital calipers.
Zach’s patterning kit includes a welder’s pencil (it can mark brass and is heat resistant), a flashlight for seeing internal angles and looking in the crevices of larger objects, fabric measuring tape, and digital calipers.

 

To create his plan, Zach has to measure the object.

4-measuring-object

 

Documenting the object means taking a lot of photographs.

Zach takes photos of the exact bolts on the object that will support the mount.
Zach takes photos of the exact bolts on the object that will support the mount.

 

Then, working with the data—the measurements, the selection of bolts to support the brackets, and the materials that can be used for the mount—Zach creates his plan for the mount.

 

Zach makes a detail drawing to follow as he makes the mount.
Zach makes a detail drawing to follow as he makes the mount.

 

 

After all of this, fabrication can begin. This mount will be made from brass, which means that Zach’s first step is annealing, or heating the brass to a glow and then letting it cool slowly. This changes the hardness and flexibility of the brass, making it easier to bend and shape the metal.

 

After annealing, Zach can form the brass rod into the shapes needed for the mount.
After annealing, Zach can form the brass rod into the shapes needed for the mount.

 

Next is brazing, in which two pieces of metal are joined together. Brazing uses a chemical coating called flux that allows liquid silver to flow freely over a metal surface. When the brass is heated, it creates “capillary action,” a reaction in which the capillaries in both pieces of metal expand, and the liquid silver is sucked in to both pieces. When the brazed pieces cool, the liquid silver solidifies, bonding the two pieces together.

Zach heats the metal using a combination of acetylene gas and atmospheric air.
Zach heats the metal using a combination of acetylene gas and atmospheric air.

 

Once the mount is formed, it needs a test fit.

During the test fit, it's possible to make slight adjustments and tweak the angles.
During the test fit, it’s possible to make slight adjustments and tweak the angles.

 

After Zach is satisfied with the fit, it’s time to paint the mount.

First the mount is primed.
First the mount is primed.

 

Then it's painted black to blend in with the object.
Then it’s painted black to blend in with the object.

 

Finally, it gets a clear coat of a conservation-approved acrylic. This barrier layer prevents off-gassing and any damage that might cause.
Finally, it gets a clear coat of a conservation-approved acrylic. This barrier layer prevents off-gassing and any damage that might cause.

 

The object gets one more fitting (and some photo documentation for future reference) in our 3D Studio before getting packed up and returned to the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

 

The mount blends into the object, allowing visitors to appreciate it without distraction.
The mount blends into the object, allowing visitors to appreciate it without distraction.

 

In the final step, the headdress is installed in its case at the museum.

The headdress is installed in its case at the museum. It’s a perfect fit!
It’s a perfect fit!

You can visit this—and many, many other incredible objects—at the new National Museum of African American History and Culture. You’ll also visit our 2,500+ mounts, but despite all this work, we hope you don’t notice them.

Happy Constitution Day!

We’re not sure if any of the major card companies make Constitution Day cards, but Smithsonian Exhibits graphic specialist—and comic book artist—Evan Keeling created two eight-page mini-comic books for the holiday. The comics will be handed out this upcoming Friday and Saturday as part of the National Portrait Gallery’s Constitution Day Weekend. Constitution Day, appropriately enough, commemorates the signing of the Constitution on September 17, 1787.

The National Portrait Gallery’s celebration will “focus on American identity and the constitution that binds us together, from our Founding Fathers to Americans today.”

In keeping with this theme, the two comics will feature one current Supreme Court Justice …

 

Sneak peek! If you like these early versions of the artwork, you should check out the full-color comics that will be handed out at the National Portrait Gallery this weekend.
These previews are from early in the comic making process. The final versions will be in full-color.

 

…. and one founding father.

 

Spoiler Alert! He succeeded in getting that bill of rights.
Spoiler Alert! He succeeded in getting that bill of rights.

 

In addition to handing out Evan’s mini-comics, the National Portrait Gallery will also run a family program where participants can make their own mini-comics.

If you want to know more about making comic books, you can read about the process Evan used to create the Captain Capture comic book for the Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office here.

A Little Bit of Everything: Interning at Smithsonian Exhibits

Guest post by Caroline Chang

Smithsonian Exhibits often has interns throughout the year for ten-week periods. Like many college students, my internship ran from June through August. Since it is now August, my internship has ended and I’m preparing to return to school. I am a rising junior at Kenyon College where I am double majoring in Studio Art and Art History with a minor in Italian.

At Smithsonian Exhibits, I primarily shadowed Ms. Mary Bird, Assistant Director, Programs with project management and design. As an intern, I was exposed to project management, design, and graphic production. I helped draft estimates, created and updated spreadsheets, took inventories of mounts and filed their corresponding object tickets, and put vinyl on banners.

With Mary, I sat in on meetings related to different ongoing projects across the Institution. For the National Museum of African American History and Culture, I worked on a banners project. Smithsonian Exhibits has been developing ideas for signage commemorating the museum’s grand opening. Other signage in that project includes small banners at lampposts surrounding the Smithsonian Castle, end panels around the National Mall, and advertisements on the Circulator buses. Some of the signs around the museum will feature signature artifacts, including a trumpet owned by Louis Armstrong. As part of our research, we were able to go into the storage facilities, where we viewed the gelatin silver print of Frederick Douglass, which will also be featured on a sign.

One of my favorite parts about this internship was going with the Graphics department to watch them install a mural at NPG. I have never seen an install before and watching them transform the space was really interesting.

It was a very productive summer full of learning and opportunities. I’m not sure exactly what my future career will entail, but I am sure that the experience from this internship will be very beneficial.

Graphic specialist Evan Keeling and intern Caroline Chang apply vinyl to a banner.
Graphic specialist Evan Keeling and intern Caroline Chang apply vinyl to a banner.

 

Editor’s Note: If you’re interested in interning or volunteering at Smithsonian Exhibits, you can check out our opportunities here.

 

Interpretive Master Plans (Or How We Get There From Here)

Earlier this year, Smithsonian Exhibits collaborated with the Smithsonian Latino Center (SLC) on an interpretive master plan for their new gallery. Chances are, that if you read this far, you’re wondering what exactly is an interpretive master plan.

 

The short version is that it is a tool an organization uses to reach a specific goal. If you’re familiar with strategic plans, interpretive master plans are in the same family. If a strategic plan is an interviewer asking you “where do you see yourself in five years?” the interpretive master plan is your coworker saying “how are we going to get this project done?”

 

A strategic plan is for longer term planning within an organization. It identifies a number of goals and spells out a plan for the organization for the next several years. The interpretive master plan, on the other hand, is a preliminary study that will help an organization reach one very big, very specific goal. Eric Christiansen, Smithsonian Exhibits Chief of Design, likened an interpretive master plan to the North Star: “Interpretive master plans create a fixed reference point that all things can be measured against to make sure you stay on track.”

 

For the Smithsonian Latino Center Gallery, that meant brainstorming sessions and building on the work SLC had already done identifying exhibition topics and educational programming opportunities. We met frequently, using our meetings to discuss everything from intended audiences to what critical questions the exhibitions should address. Notes were taken, circulated, reviewed. Once everyone was on the same page and happy with the direction, Smithsonian Exhibits wrote and designed a guiding document that SLC is using as it makes its new gallery a reality.

 

What sort of information is in an interpretive master plan?

Like exhibitions, no two plans are going to be exactly alike, although there are some common elements. In addition to establishing goals and objectives, the plan will identify stakeholders and audiences, develop themes and take-away messages, and identify programming opportunities.

 

For this project, we included exhibition concepts, in-gallery learning experiences, educational outreach, and digital outreach. Now SLC is using their interpretive master plan to aid in their exhibition development. They’ve also been able to share it with the project’s designers to get them up to speed. As new people come on board the project, they can review the plan and easily see “This is where we’re going. And this is how we get there.”

 

The planning process helps an organization reevaluate and reconfirm its mission as well establish the goals and objectives of the new project. The plan is a way to make sure the project fits the organization’s mission, and the project keeps moving toward those goals.
The planning process helps an organization reevaluate and reconfirm its mission as well establish the goals and objectives of the new project. The plan is a way to make sure the project fits the organization’s mission, and the project keeps moving toward those goals.

 

The Smithsonian Latino Center Gallery will include digital immersion in the galleries as well as robust online offerings.
The Smithsonian Latino Center Gallery will include digital immersion in the galleries as well as robust online offerings.

Home Run! The Babe Ruth Mural at National Portrait Gallery

It’s officially summer, and that means baseball. On June 24th, the National Portrait Gallery opened One Life: Babe Ruth. Our Graphics department created the mural seen at the entrance to the exhibit.

1-finished-mural
Babe awaits his visitors. Photograph: Caroline Chang

If there’s one thing that these blog posts show, it’s that each project has its own challenges. For this project, we needed to match the color of the mural to the color of a print the National Portrait Gallery had done in-house. It was printed on the same material, but used a different printer and different ink.

Different machines with different inks create, as you might imagine, different shades and intensities of colors. Mike Reed, a graphics specialist, tweaked the colors for individual test prints until he got the color exactly right.

Even black and white images use other colors of ink. Photograph: Mike Reed
Even black and white images use other colors of ink. Photograph: Mike Reed

After nearly two dozen small-scale test prints, Mike successfully recreated the color composition of the original image.

Mike's test prints show the incremental changes to the colors to achieve the exact match. Photograph: Caroline Chang
Mike’s test prints show the incremental changes he made to the colors. Photograph: Caroline Chang

Once the color levels were finalized, Mike printed the mural and a team from Smithsonian Exhibits installed it.

In our line of work, saying you started with a "blank canvas" is often literal. Photograph Caroline Chang
In our line of work, saying you started with a “blank canvas” is often literal. Photograph Caroline Chang

 

Smithsonian Exhibits graphics specialists Sharon Head, Mike Reed, and Evan Keeling work as a team to ensure a smooth and seamless installation. (Again, in our line of work, that's literal.) Photograph: Caroline Chang
Smithsonian Exhibits graphics specialists Sharon Head, Mike Reed, and Evan Keeling work as a team to ensure a smooth and seamless installation. (Again, in our line of work, that’s literal.) Photograph: Caroline Chang

 

Knocked it out of the park! Photograph: Caroline Chang
Knocked it out of the park! Photograph: Caroline Chang

You can visit One Life: Babe Ruth through May 21 of next year.

A Trip to Benin City, Nigeria

by guest blogger Paula Millet, Senior Exhibit Designer, Smithsonian Exhibits

The Chief S.O. Alonge Traveling Exhibition is an exhibition, catalogue, and educational project organized and produced by the National Museum of African Art (NMAfA), Smithsonian Institution. Alonge was the official photographer to the Royal Court of Benin, Edo State, Nigeria. He also owned and operated the Ideal Photo Studio. Many of his photos are in the NMAfA archives, and this material was recently presented in a very successful exhibit.

S.O. Alonge self-portrait, seated outside his Benin City studio, c. 1942.
S.O. Alonge self-portrait, seated outside his Benin City studio, c. 1942.

The National Museum Benin City was opened in 1973. Currently, they are working to upgrade the building and redo the exhibits. As part of this effort NMAfA is planning to send Alonge exhibit components to the museum.

Entrance to the National Museum Benin City. Photo by Amy Staples
Entrance to the National Museum Benin City. Photo by Amy Staples

 

Interior shot of the museum. Photo by Amy Staples
Interior shot of the museum. Photo by Amy Staples

 

Amy Staples, Chief Archivist of NMAfA, is co-curator of the Alonge exhibit and I am the exhibit designer. Last month, Amy and I flew to Benin City to work with colleagues at the Benin Museum. We planned for the installation of NMAfA’s Alonge exhibit and also discussed possible design strategies for the other galleries.

Benin Museum: mosaic mural by Jimoh Buraimoh, with (l to r) Amy Staples, Theophilus Umogbai, and Paula Millet.
Benin Museum: mosaic mural by Jimoh Buraimoh, with (l to r) Amy Staples, Theophilus Umogbai, and Paula Millet.

 

Nigeria is an amazing place. The streets are thronged with pedestrians and street vendors selling everything from electronics to live chickens. Traffic is hair-raisingly congested and chaotic; traffic lights and designated lanes being mere concepts.

It is tropical and hot. Our hotel was nicely air-conditioned but the museum galleries really were not. You just deal with it.

Day 1: Amy led a rousing exhibition planning meeting with the museum staff. Then we toured the galleries as we talked about how they would like to re-install the spaces.

Our colleagues at the Benin Museum (l to r) : Benjamin Aiyamekhue Okpevbo, Chief Museum Education Officer Boniface Ojienon, Chief Curator, Documentation; Theophilus Umogbai, Assistant Director and Curator; and Ikhuehi Omonkhua, Assistant Chief Exhibition Officer. Photo by Paula Millet
Our colleagues at the Benin Museum (l to r) : Benjamin Aiyamekhue Okpevbo, Chief Museum Education Officer; Boniface Ojienon, Chief Curator, Documentation; Theophilus Umogbai, Assistant Director and Curator; and Ikhuehi Omonkhua, Assistant Chief Exhibition Officer. Photo by Paula Millet

 

Amy Staples and Ikhuehi Omonkhua discussing the project. Photo by Paula Millet
Amy Staples and Ikhuehi Omonkhua discussing the project. Photo by Paula Millet

 

Day 2: To prepare for the installation, I measured many things with the help of the exhibition staff. At one point while our group was working a large school group swarmed around us. The kids were interested in everything and had impressive “museum manners.”

Ikhuehi Omonkhua, Paula Millet, and Benin Museum exhibits staff at work. Photo by Amy Staples
Ikhuehi Omonkhua, Paula Millet, and Benin Museum exhibits staff at work. Photo by Amy Staples

 

A school group and their teacher in the galleries. Photo by Amy Staples
A school group and their teacher tour the galleries. Photo by Amy Staples

 

Day 3: The word was out that Amy was in town. A succession of her friends and colleagues met us informally at the hotel. These were professors, artists, bureaucrats, and chiefs. (In Nigeria “Chief” is an honorable title for individuals who provide a service to the royal court of Edo state and its hereditary ruler, the Oba.)

Between meetings we were back at the museum working with the staff. Much to my delight, we went into the storage area to photograph objects considered for display in the Alonge gallery. (I experience a “behind the scenes” thrill whenever visiting any art storage.)

Day 4: We took a trip to Igbinedion Education Center to meet the elegant and indomitable director, Lady Cherry Igbinedion. Amy is working with her on an outreach program aimed at engaging female students in photography.

We followed that up with another fantastic experience. Chief Harrison Ehanire gave us a tour of traditional bronze casters’ workshops. The Chief wore his official white robes and coral necklace as he led us along busy Igun Street. At the artisans’ foundries, we were treated to a step-by-step explanation of the process used to create Benin’s classic bronze works.

Igun Street: Chief Ehanire and an artisan explaining the lost-wax bronze casting process. Photo by Amy Staples
Igun Street: Chief Ehanire and an artisan explaining the lost-wax bronze casting process. Photo by Amy Staples

 

Modern bronze artworks are created by traditional methods. Photo by Amy Staples
Modern bronze artworks are created by traditional methods. Photo by Amy Staples

 

Day 5: We flew to Lagos, a sprawling and densely populated city. First we were given a private tour of the Lagos National Museum. After the museum, we had a nice visit at the home of Madam Stella Gbinigie. Alonge’s hand-colored photograph of her as a 16-year-old is one of the highlights of the exhibition.

Madam Stella Gbingie at age 16. Benin City, Nigeria. Hand-colored photograph by Solomon Osagie Alonge, 1950.
Madam Stella Gbingie at age 16. Benin City, Nigeria. Hand-colored photograph by Solomon Osagie Alonge, 1950.

 

I flew home from the Lagos Airport that evening, grateful to have had the opportunity to work with Nigerian museum professionals and to see such a dynamic part of the world.

Scaling Up: Making the Minuscule Accessible

A lot of the life on our planet is very, very small. Most of our planet is made up of water. These two ideas are easily memorized, but not as easily grasped. Life in One Cubic Foot at the National Museum of Natural History looks at where these two facts intersect. Scientists placed biocubes, cubes measuring one-foot by one-foot by one-foot, in the ocean and studied all the life that swam, floated, or swished through it for one day.

And the amount of life in just that one cubic foot is staggering.

Even more mind-blowing? All of those critters play a role in maintaining the oceans, and therefore our planet. That’s right, these tiny things maintain the planet.

By studying these creatures, scientists can learn about the ocean’s biodiversity and how ecosystems work. Obviously, this is important, as is sharing this information with the public. But how can we do that? It’s easy enough to gather a few dozen people around an elephant – but how do we huddle around something not quite the size of a sea-monkey?

We make a scale model of it. The idea of a scale model often conjures up ideas of miniatures – like cars or ships. In order to make those things easier to understand, model makers scale them down. The reverse also works: model makers can scale things up. In the case of the Paraphronima gracilis, a creature so uncommon that it only has a Latin name, that meant creating a 13-inch sculpture of a creature that in reality, is smaller than a dime.

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

Smithsonian Exhibits model maker Carolyn Thome took on the challenge of making a realistic model of this diminutive crustacean. Working with photographs and drawings by NMNH research zoologist Karen Osborn, Carolyn created a model Paraphronima gracilis using the digital sculpting program zbrush. Carolyn met with Karen throughout the process to ensure accuracy and to fine-tune the digital sculpture before 3D printing the file.

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

To ensure a successful 3D print, Carolyn organized the model into three sections: the outer eye, the inner eye, and the body and legs.

Our in-house 3D printer only prints in an opaque material, and Paraphronima gracilis is translucent. Carolyn had an outside company that could print in a clear polymer print her digital sculpture. The three sections were printed separately and then Carolyn sanded them. And sanded them. And then sanded them some more. This reduced the build lines and made the model as smooth and polished as possible. She then fit the sections together and bound it with adhesive to create the final model. Once it was assembled, she sprayed a few coats of two-part automotive urethane clear coat to enhance the translucency and protect the model from UV rays.

3-final-Paraphronima-3
The final lifelike model – in real life Paraphronima gracilis is translucent, except for its 32 orange retinas.

You can visit our transparent friend in the focus gallery of the Sant Ocean Hall on the first floor of the National Museum of Natural History.