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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
Once the dog tags were ready, it was time to install.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
This summer, SIE hosted six interns throughout our departments. We had Shivani, Elisa, and Keegan in the 3D Studio; Chad in Graphics; Marcella in Design; and me, Rachael, working in Marketing. I’m currently a rising junior at Ithaca College where I am double majoring in Integrated Marketing Communications and Anthropology.
An internship at Smithsonian Exhibits is anything but a normal internship. You won’t be making copies or doing coffee runs. I photographed finished exhibits and exhibit installs. Shivani, Elisa, and Keegan created a camera mount from scrap in the shop. Chad helped on a major graphics install at the National Museum of American History. Marcella is designing a mock-up of an exhibit on Cyprian culture and influence. I think we all got to do much more than we ever expected to as interns.
That isn’t to say it came naturally or immediately. On my first day, I took a tour of the massive facility. I was introduced to the all people who work here, and promptly forgot each of their names. I spent the next week studying up on the “Our Team” page of the SIE website in free moments. Eventually I’d learned everyone’s name, stopped getting lost in the fabrication shop, and stopped being startled by mannequins I thought were real people. Ok, so maybe that last one is a lie, as the mannequins created here are pretty life-like, but I did find my stride here at Smithsonian Exhibits, and I can’t believe my time here is already coming to an end.
To say we’ve learned a lot would be an understatement. Speaking for myself at least, I didn’t even know what a mount was before I arrived. Now, I wouldn’t say I’ve become a mount making expert and I definitely wouldn’t be able to create anything resembling a mount if I were asked to, but I have a greater appreciation for all the work that goes into exhibit creation, especially the work that may go a bit more unnoticed by the general public. As someone hoping to enter the museum field after graduation, I’ve found it to be so important to see the work that goes on at SIE. I always find that I do better work when I understand all aspects of the work and my internship at SIE has given me a piece of that understanding.
To end, I’ll leave you with a quote from Keegan that I’m sure all six of us would agree with: “It’s also worth mentioning the people I had the pleasure of meeting and learning from. The Smithsonian is chock full of deeply knowledgeable, experienced, and cool individuals.” He’s right. Coming here this summer I of course expected to learn a lot. However, I did not expect the outpouring of support from my colleagues. This summer at SIE has been great, and I’m sad it’s coming to a close. Soon, I’ll leave the heat of D.C. for the cooler climate of Upstate New York with fond memories and a renewed love of museums and all the work that goes into their success.
Have you ever visited a museum and seen a sign that says, “Do not touch”? Sometimes museums have a reputation for being hands-off places, but we seek to change that. Smithsonian Exhibits (SIE) specializes in creating 3D tactile versions of artifacts. These durable replicas allow visitors to get up close and personal with priceless objects, something you could never do otherwise. They can enlarge and reveal key details of artifacts that are not clearly visible and make exhibits more accessible to visitors with visual impairments.
Recently, SIE worked with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History to develop a replica of an ivory and gold cane head that belonged to former president John Quincy Adams for the exhibit American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith. The exhibit traces America’s unfolding experiment with democracy, from the American Revolution to today.
The cane tells an important story. It was presented to Adams, who had returned to Congress after his presidency, in recognition of his leadership against the “gag rule.” The gag rule, adopted in 1836, forbid the House of Representatives from considering anti-slavery petitions. Adams fought hard against the rule, which he felt restricted free speech. On December 3, 1844, it was finally repealed, dealing a major blow to the supporters of slavery. An inscription on the gold-inlaid eagle on the cane’s head commemorates the date, with the words “Right of Petition Triumphant.”
As with most of SIE’s projects, this was a team effort. SIE model maker Chris Hollshwander used a series of detailed photos to create a three-dimensional computer model of the cane head. SIE model maker Carolyn Thome then used the digital sculpting process to recreate the intricate details on the gold-inlaid eagle.
Chris used computer-aided machining (CAM) software to create tool paths to drive a computer numerical control (CNC) milling machine. He used these tools to cut a master pattern of the cane head in polyurethane and a prototype of the eagle in polyurethane board.
Once the pattern was created, a silicone mold was made to cast a replica in resin. One of the most challenging parts of this project was matching the tint of the resin to the original ivory. Chris had to experiment several times to get the color right.
Once the prototype was approved, the replica eagle was cut out of brass and fitted into place for the final detailing. We think you’ll agree that the result is spectacular!
SIE’s Chief of Design, Eric Christiansen, recently traveled to Armenia as part of the My Armenia program.
The My Armenia program is a four-year joint project between the United States Aid for International Development (USAID), the Smithsonian Institution (SI), and the government of Armenia. It is designed to elevate the quality of the cultural products and experiences in the regions outside of Armenia’s capital city, Yerevan, with the end goal of bolstering tourism to outlying regions.
Phase 1, Assessment
The Smithsonian’s Office of International Relations (OIR) invited SIE’s Chief of Design, Eric Christiansen, to participate in this program and share his knowledge about museums and exhibition design. The initial trip to Armenia was an assessment phase to gain a better understanding of the conditions and opportunities at a mix of museum types at nine different rural sites in Armenia. Eric and Trisha Edwards, the Head of Education at the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, completed the site visits at the beginning of February under the guidance of Liz Tunic-Cedar, the OIR Manager of Global Cultural Sustainability.
Unusually heavy snow and single digit temperatures could not keep the dedicated team from completing their task to meet with museums representatives from four separate regions of the country. The reports were compiled and written by the OIR and included the assessments and both short-term and long-term recommendations.
Phase Two, Workshops
In April, Eric helped kick-off the second phase of the project, co-leading training opportunities for staff from the regional museums. The four-day workshop was developed and facilitated by the Armenia branch of the International Committee of Museums (ICOM). Eric co-presented with Dr. Helen Evens, Curator for Byzantine Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Amanda Mayne, International Engagement Manager at the British Museum. The well-received workshop took place in the National Art Gallery’s Old and Medieval Armenian Art galleries.
The next steps for the My Armenia project are now being calculated and Eric very much hopes to work closely again with his esteemed colleagues and many new friends in Armenia.
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.
SIE constructed the infinity room Phalli’s Field for the exhibition.
Additionally, SIE assisted in the installation of the infinity rooms.
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.
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.