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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.

 

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.

Anything But A Normal Internship

by Guest Blogger/Intern Rachael Shurberg

 

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.

 

Me and my mannequin friend at work.

 

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.

 

Shivani pours a mold in the 3D Studio. She recently graduated from North Carolina State University with a degree in Industrial Design.

 

Keegan, an Industrial Design major at Appalachian State University, pours a mold.

 

Elisa, from Ohio State University, put her Mechanical Engineering major to work building a camera mount for SIE.

 

Chad, a Graphic Design major at Mansfield University, installs graphics for Within These Walls at the National Museum of American History.

 

 

Marcella uses Vectorworks to design an exhibit. She recently graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Art with a BFA in Biomedical Art.

 

Please Touch!

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

The replica eagle is cut out of a brass plate.

 

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

 

The final replica is prepared for installation.

 

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

Consulting in Armenia

SIE’s Chief of Design, Eric Christiansen, recently traveled to Armenia as part of the My Armenia program.

 

My Armenia

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.

 

 

Armenia is a former Soviet Republic located at the southern end of the Caucasus mountains straddling Europe and Asia, and shares borders with Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Iran.

 

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.

Local Smithsonian and USAID staff meet with representatives from the Yeghegnadzor Archaeological Museum in their collections storage area.

 

The International Council of Museums (ICOM) Armenia was also present for this discussion about a historically significant hatchkar, or carved stone cross, at the Yeghegnadzor museum.

 

The director of the Hovhannes Tumanyan House Museum in Dsegh guides our tour through this historic site.

 

The Mikoyan Brothers Museum in Alaverdi was our last stop and featured in part the designer and builder of the MIG jet aircraft. Shown here is the MIG 21, the last model developed under the guidance of Artem Mikoyan.

 

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.

Heavy snows surround the Hovhannes Tumanyan House Museum. The house once belonged to Hovhannes Tumanyan, the national poet of Armenia, and is located very close to the large gorge that inspired much of his early writing.

 

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 press conference for the workshop was well attended and included speakers from the Armenia Ministry of Culture, USAID, ICOM Armenia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art New York, and the Smithsonian Institution.

 

Twenty-five delegates from museums in both the capital city and the outlying regions participated in the four-day workshop. It was conducted in the Old and Medieval Armenian Art Gallery in the National Gallery of Armenia.

 

Eric leads a discussion about what constitutes successful exhibition design and the challenges of evaluating and critiquing this type of work.

 

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.

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.