Category: Uncategorized

The Path to My Next Chapter

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

Can You Tell the Difference?

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

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

 

The Hillwood mansion

 

Hillwood’s formal gardens

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

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

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

 

Mold preparation- Front
Mold preparation in process

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Smithsonian Exhibits finished replicas
SIE’s finished replicas

 

Smithsonian Exhibits finished replicas
SIE’s finished replicas

 

Smithsonian Exhibits finished replicas
SIE’s finished replicas

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

Gone Viral

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.

 

seven 3D models of pathogens
Worst class picture ever. Back row: Malaria, e. Coli, Lyme Disease. Front row: Ebola, Zika, HIV, and influenza.

 

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.

 

Color prints of e. Coli and influenza coming out the 3D printer.

 

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.

 

Ebola gets a resin bath.

 

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.

 

Ebola goes back into the vacuum chamber.

 

If a model needed a second coat of resin, Carolyn needed to place it in a vacuum chamber and then repeat the speedy process.

 

And one more coat of resin for Ebola.

 

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.

Field Trip!

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.

The Comic Library. One of Evan’s comics is on the left, his future competitor’s is on the right.

 

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.

 

A selection of comics I plan on checking out of Ms. Deaton’s classroom if she lets me get a comic library card, too.

 

 


* 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.)

 

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!

The FBI Tour, Revisited (or, “… that’s not the Smithsonian.”)

“So, what are you working on?”

It’s a pretty common question when you work at Smithsonian Exhibits. Usually, the answer is something like “A great show at the Hirshhorn!” or “We just kicked off a new project with the Zoo!” When I told my friends that I was working on a new section about multi-agency partnerships for The FBI Experience, they reacted with:

“… that’s not the Smithsonian.”

And of course, they’re right: the FBI is not the Smithsonian, but they are a federal agency, which means we are able to work on their exhibitions under certain circumstances.

Smithsonian Exhibits’ primary focus is, obviously, the Smithsonian. Our priority is to help our museums, galleries, offices, cultural centers, libraries, and … well, you get the picture: we have a lot of moving parts, and we love to help those parts get their exhibitions up and running. We are, however, also able to partner with federal agencies if their end product is an exhibition on view to the public.

This is particularly handy for agencies that want to set up exhibitions for the first time, but haven’t yet hired museum staff, or perhaps don’t plan on staffing an exhibition once it is open. Provided the work aligns with our missions and goals and we have the capacity to take on the project and a variety of financial requirements are met—I won’t bore you with those details—we can take on the project. In other words, it isn’t a common occurrence, but we do have the occasional outside exhibition. (These outside projects are managed through the Smithsonian’s Office of Sponsored Projects (OSP) through an Inter-Agency Agreement contracting protocol.) When the FBI came to us to discuss opening an exhibition to the public, we were happy to realize that their project met all of the above requirements.

For years, the FBI’s iconic tour had been one of the most popular tours in Washington, D.C. After the 9/11 attacks, the FBI had to shutter the tour due to security concerns. After a lengthy hiatus from welcoming the public into Headquarters, the FBI decided to create an exhibition to explain how the FBI works today. Smithsonian Exhibits was able to partner with the Bureau to create a brand-new exhibition. The FBI Experience opened in June 2017 on two floors of the Headquarters building.

Infographics explain how investigations progress.

 

Specialized equipment is on display in an area dedicated to the Hostage Rescue Team, part of the Critical Incidents Response Group.

 

The FBI restructured after the 9/11 attacks. The newly reorganized Bureau found even greater strength through cooperation with other federal agencies and local police departments.

Recently, the FBI acquired objects for use within a new section on multi-agency partnerships. This section explores some of the ways the Bureau works with other agencies and law enforcement departments. By building on each other’s strengths, the FBI, local police, and other agencies can solve crimes and take down criminal organizations more effectively. Each group brings their own expertise to the situation, and that makes a better team.

Really, that’s what we’re doing with the FBI, too (albeit in a much, much less crime fight-y way). Inter-agency partnership allows for each group to bring their best parts to the process. The FBI brings their practices and history; Smithsonian Exhibits provides exhibit development and design, scriptwriting, project management, custom artwork, and mount making. By working together throughout the phases of this project, we can achieve the best possible outcome.

 

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!

Building on Past Successes

Experimentation and curiosity come with the territory when it comes to design. Past work tends to influence current projects. Luckily for us, our Smithsonian Exhibits colleagues come from a wide variety of backgrounds with an incredible range of professional experiences.

These experiences add up: as we move through our careers each project adds a little something to our bag of tricks. Maybe you found an unconventional solution to an unforeseen problem. Maybe a former colleague had an unexpected take on a project that resulted in an interesting point of view. And maybe, just maybe, everything went right … and who doesn’t want to see that unicorn again?

Senior graphic designer Maddie Wan sat down with me to discuss some of her past work in the commercial sector, where her creativity and attention to detail added up to some amazing projects. (And, as someone who has worked with Maddie at Smithsonian Exhibits, I can tell you her bag of tricks is being put to good use.) A sampling of Maddie’s favorite pre-Smithsonian projects is below.

 

Shanghai Natural History Museum: Details and Documentation

The Shanghai Natural History Museum was the biggest museum project of Maddie’s career to date. She was a lead graphic designer on the team that opened this huge—over 450,000 square feet—museum in 2015. Not only were the exhibitions brand new, the building itself was new. As Maddie said, “It was pretty cool to be on site when it was just a hole in the ground and see how it evolved into a real space.”

All projects benefit good communication and solid documentation. This project required it at a higher level. The design team was not involved in fabrication or installation, which meant the 100% design package had to include every last bit of information because the designers were removed from the building process.

 

 

Pages from Maddie’s graphic design packages are shown with final installations.

 

 

Art Exhibition, Singapore Art Museum, A Century of Story in the Art of the Philippines: Exhibition as Art Installation

In stark contrast to the massive museum in Shanghai, A Century of Story in the Art of the Philippines was a small interpretive art installation displayed at the Singapore Art Museum. “It required a different state of mind to design–it was more intimate, and the graphics were bold but very much designed to blend with the walls, text, and artwork.”

 

 

 

 

EXPO 2010, Shanghai, UAE Pavilion: Reaching an International Audience

For the UAE Pavilion at the Shanghai Expo, Maddie had to assume an international audience and create visuals that branded the UAE pavilion wordlessly while also working with three different languages (Arabic, Chinese, and English).

“Why was this influential? Because it is totally a different kind of experience, very fast-paced, and a totally cool architectural structure. This shape became a direct inspiration for the logo.” 

 

 

 

 

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, design proposal: Design Exploration

Sometimes, even after a ton of work on a proposal, you don’t get the job. But those could’ve-been projects can lead to new ways of looking at design materials. The proposal process often involves a lot of work and a crash course in the subject matter to get the proposal out on time. Maddie’s previous firm didn’t get this gig, but the research and design layout explorations were worthwhile in their own right. “The design process is a great way to learn new things.”

 

 

 

Witte Museum, Texas: The Unicorn! It worked and it was fun.

Sometimes you do find that unicorn and the project goes as you planned. For this project, Maddie did the graphic design and collaborated with the exhibit designer. They worked closely together and the end result was a seamless merging of their work. But as important? It was “pretty fun hanging out with dinosaurs and all the Texas flora and fauna … The dioramas were especially fun … designing actual scale bison, birds, and other animals on raised open platforms.” This writer can get on board with that sentiment. Isn’t work just a little less work-like when you enjoy what you do?

Okay, so there weren’t any actual unicorns, but there were dinosaurs, and that’s awesome enough.

 

 

The graphic packages (left) and the finished products (right) show how the design elements went from concept to successful exhibition.

 

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.

 

Two young women admire a statue in an exhibit case while other museumgoers pass by.
Museum visitors enjoying the exhibition at “Museum Day” celebrations on May 8, 2018

                 

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.