A Tale of Two Exhibits

This year, Smithsonian Libraries celebrated its 50th anniversary as a unified library system by opening not one, but two exhibits: Game Change: Elephants from Prey to Preservation and Magnificent Obsessions: Why We Collect. Smithsonian Exhibits (SIE) was thrilled to be asked to design, edit, and produce the exhibits. Here’s our tale . . . (It was the best of times!)

Both exhibits feature books from Smithsonian Libraries’ collections, but they deal with very different subjects.

Game Change traces the shift in public attitudes about elephants from the late 19th century, an era when big game hunting was popular, to the critical conservation concerns of today.

 

A display case containing books, objects, and images of elephants stands next to a panel on the wall titled "Game Change."
Game Change: Elephants from Prey to Preservation was curated by Cheryl Braunstein, Manager of Exhibit Planning and Development at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute. It’s on display on the Ground Floor of the National Museum of Natural History through February 1, 2020.

 

Magnificent Obsessions focuses on the pioneering collectors who shaped Smithsonian Libraries’ diverse collections in the areas of science, technology, history, art, and culture.

 

Text on the wall on a red and blue background includes the words, "Smithsonian Libraries at a Glance," and "Magnificent Obsessions: Why We Collect."
Magnificent Obsessions: Why We Collect was curated by Stephen Van Dyk, Head of the Art Division at Smithsonian Libraries and Mary Augusta Thomas, Deputy Director of Smithsonian Libraries. It’s on display on the 1st Floor, West of the National Museum of American History through July 1, 2020.

 

One of the biggest challenges in developing any exhibit is deciding what to include. This was particularly true of these exhibits. Smithsonian Libraries has a collection of more than two million volumes, including 50,000 rare books and manuscripts. Space constrains required curators to make difficult choices about what to cut. A hidden blessing for these exhibits was light. Because of paper’s sensitivity to light, pages must be turned and books must be rotated in and out of the exhibits over time, allowing additional content to be displayed. (Come back soon to see what’s new!)

The books and artifacts featured in the exhibits show the incredible diversity of the Smithsonian’s collections.

 

A framed piece of paper includes Hebrew letters and the words "Nano Bible" in gold at the top of the page. Below these are a tiny magnifying glass.
The smallest artifact displayed in Magnificent Obsessions is the “Nano Bible,” a microscopic version of the Hebrew Bible engraved on a microchip the size of a grain of sugar.

 

A circular band with a gray box on it surrounds an image of an elephant's head.
The largest artifact displayed in Game Change is a radio collar used to track elephants in the wild.

 

Four books and a letter are seen inside a display case with a dark blue background.
The oldest artifact displayed in Magnificent Obsessions is a handwritten forerunner of the encyclopedia (at top center) created in the 13th century, before the advent of the printing press.

 

A small vial with dark material inside it is displayed next to a book titled "East Africa."
The newest—and perhaps most unusual—artifact in Game Change is a dung sample (center) collected from an elephant at the National Zoo. (You never know what you’re going to find in a Smithsonian exhibit!)

 

Of course, these exhibits are about more than just objects. The exhibit development team (including yours truly) wanted to go beyond the books to highlight the human stories they tell.

Game Change uses books and artifacts to show how humans’ attitudes about elephants have changed over time.

 

A composite image shows action figures, a children's book, and sheet music, including images of elephants.
Contrasting books and artifacts, including children’s books and playthings, demonstrate the shift in attitudes about elephants from the early 20th century (top) to today (bottom).

 

Magnificent Obsessions reveals the extraordinary passion collectors have for their subjects and explores what motivates them to collect.

 

A text panel titled "Why Did They Collect?" includes two black-and-white portraits of women and colorful illustrations of airplanes.
Profiles of curious collectors explain what drove them to collect.

 

We also wanted to open the conversation up to visitors by asking what they collect and why.

 

A wall of images includes the title "Why Do You Collect?" at the top.
Share your “magnificent obsession” using #ICollectBecause

 

SIE’s design team included Elena Saxton on Game Change and Elena and Madeline Wan on Magnificent Obsessions. Elena and Madeline helped bring the stories to life with engaging designs and eye-catching graphics.

 

A large display case contains more than a dozen open books. Images of elephants are seen on a yellow background on the back of the case.
The graphic design for Game Change features illustrations taken from the books displayed.

 

A red display case at the center of a gallery is surrounded by blue display cases.
The designers used vibrant colors in Magnificent Obsessions to make the exhibit pop and help visitors navigate the different sections.

 

At the entrance to Magnificent Obsessions, the team created lenticular graphics, which change as you walk past them. These add movement and reveal the faces of the collectors behind the collections. Look out for a future blog post explaining how these were made.

 

A colorful panel at the entrance to a gallery includes images of people, objects, and illustrations.
The lenticular graphics at the entrance to Magnificent Obsessions help draw visitors into the space.

 

SIE’s graphics team, including Evan Keeling, Mike Reed, and Scott Schmidt, printed and installed the graphics for both exhibits.

 

A man looks at a series of graphic panels laid out on a table next to color swatches.
Scott inspects graphics for Magnificent Obsessions.

 

Three men in black T-shirts stand in front of a large sign with the words "Game Change" on it. The two men at the front are holding the sign up against the wall.
SIE’s graphics team installs a panel in Game Change.

 

SIE’s 3D studio team members Chris Hollshwander and Danny Fielding worked with Vanessa Haight Smith, Head of Smithsonian Libraries Preservation Services, to make and install the mounts for the books and artifacts displayed in the exhibits.

 

A man wearing blue gloves stands behind a red-colored platform holding a transparent acrylic mount.
Chris installs a cradle mount to support one of the many books in Magnificent Obsessions.

 

Throughout it all, Smithsonian Libraries Exhibitions Program Coordinator Kirsten van der Veen and SIE Project Manager Betsy Robinson kept the team on track and on schedule—no easy feat, since the exhibits opened within weeks of each other!

Both exhibits are on display now. Please stop by and let us know what you think. In the meantime, we look forward to the next chapter of our collaboration with Smithsonian Libraries!