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