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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Sharon learned how to make paper flowers to complement the (faux, for museum conservation reasons) marigold bouquet.
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.
In 2014 the National Museum of African American History and Culture acquired Kenya Robinson’s sculpture Commemorative Headdress of Her Journey Beyond Heaven. To most people this probably seems like a pretty straightforward endeavor: Artist makes something, museum acquires it, museum displays it, and then visitors reap the rewards.
There’s one step in there that got glossed over. How do you hang it up?
The answer is much more complicated than a trip to the hardware store.
Mounts are incredibly specialized pieces of equipment. They need to support the object, add no additional stresses to it, and be made of conservation-friendly materials (which vary depending on the object). In addition, they must be crafted by hand. There is no mount superstore. You can’t just go pick up a gross of mounts.
Smithsonian Exhibits made more than 2,500 mounts for the National Museum of African American History and Culture. And every last one was custom-made.
The real kicker? After all that work, a mount must fade into the background. The best mounts are the ones visitors don’t notice.
In a way that’s a shame. These mounts are artworks unto themselves.
The conservator determines how the artwork can be handled, where it can and cannot bear weight, and what materials can be used in the mount. The mount materials are chosen for both durability and conservation, making sure that nothing will react with the object and damage it. Then Zach makes a plan for the object mount. If possible, he’ll use existing connection points to attach the bracketing, which reduces stress on the object.
To create his plan, Zach has to measure the object.
Documenting the object means taking a lot of photographs.
Then, working with the data—the measurements, the selection of bolts to support the brackets, and the materials that can be used for the mount—Zach creates his plan for the mount.
After all of this, fabrication can begin. This mount will be made from brass, which means that Zach’s first step is annealing, or heating the brass to a glow and then letting it cool slowly. This changes the hardness and flexibility of the brass, making it easier to bend and shape the metal.
Next is brazing, in which two pieces of metal are joined together. Brazing uses a chemical coating called flux that allows liquid silver to flow freely over a metal surface. When the brass is heated, it creates “capillary action,” a reaction in which the capillaries in both pieces of metal expand, and the liquid silver is sucked in to both pieces. When the brazed pieces cool, the liquid silver solidifies, bonding the two pieces together.
Once the mount is formed, it needs a test fit.
After Zach is satisfied with the fit, it’s time to paint the mount.
The object gets one more fitting (and some photo documentation for future reference) in our 3D Studio before getting packed up and returned to the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
In the final step, the headdress is installed in its case at the museum.
We’re not sure if any of the major card companies make Constitution Day cards, but Smithsonian Exhibits graphic specialist—and comic book artist—Evan Keeling created two eight-page mini-comic books for the holiday. The comics will be handed out this upcoming Friday and Saturday as part of the National Portrait Gallery’s Constitution Day Weekend. Constitution Day, appropriately enough, commemorates the signing of the Constitution on September 17, 1787.
The National Portrait Gallery’s celebration will “focus on American identity and the constitution that binds us together, from our Founding Fathers to Americans today.”
In keeping with this theme, the two comics will feature one current Supreme Court Justice …
…. and one founding father.
In addition to handing out Evan’s mini-comics, the National Portrait Gallery will also run a family program where participants can make their own mini-comics.
If you want to know more about making comic books, you can read about the process Evan used to create the Captain Capture comic book for the Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office here.