Author: John Powell

An Exhibition Without Walls

Most of the exhibitions Smithsonian Exhibits (SIE) works on have walls, not to mention a roof. But recently, SIE collaborated with Smithsonian Gardens on an exhibition without either.

Last year, we blogged about an interpretive master plan we did with Smithsonian Gardens for their new Smithsonian-wide exhibition series. Now, the first of those exhibitions—Habitat—is open to visitors (as well as the elements!)

Habitat features 14 exhibits displayed throughout the Smithsonian campus, including exterior and interior garden spaces. Follow the map here to explore them all.

 

A map showing the locations of the 14 Habitat exhibits
A map showing the locations of the 14 Habitat exhibits. Image courtesy of Smithsonian Gardens.

 

The exhibits tell diverse stories about habitats and the plants, animals, and humans that call them home. But they all share one big idea: Protecting habitats protects life.

 

A pink, blue, and brown exhibit panel in a garden, with the title "Homes: Make Your Garden a Home"
The Homes exhibit in the Mary Livingston Ripley Garden offers tips on how you can transform your garden into a habitat for creatures great and small.

 

A pink, blue, and brown exhibit panel in a garden with an abstract red sculpture in the background
Monarchs on the Move, outside the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, provides a pit stop for migrating monarch butterflies. Image courtesy of Smithsonian Gardens.

 

SIE assisted Smithsonian Gardens with developing and editing the content, which was designed and produced out of house.

 

A large, wooden mushroom-shaped sculpture in a garden
Large-scale sculptures by artist Foon Sham draw visitors into several of the exhibits. Image courtesy of Smithsonian Gardens.

 

Two ducks swimming in a pond with an exhibit panel next to it
Ducks enjoy their habitat in the Sign of the Dragonfly exhibit in the Enid A. Haupt Garden.

 

The content team worked closely with Smithsonian curators and other experts to connect each exhibit to its neighboring museum. The result gives visitors a taste of the Smithsonian’s incredible range and diversity before they even set foot inside a museum.

 

A pink, blue, and brown exhibit panel titled "Love Oaks: A Gathering Place"
Sheltering Branches, outside the National Museum of African American History and Culture, explores the important roles live oaks play both as a habitat and as a symbol of strength and resilience. Image courtesy of Smithsonian Gardens.

 

A blue exhibit panel titled "Reef Recovery"
Several of the exhibits highlight the important work of Smithsonian scientists and conservationists and how you can help protect habitats.

 

So this summer, enjoy the great outdoors while taking in this great exhibition. Just remember to bring the sunscreen!

 

Exhibits for Monks and Nuns

When most people hear the word “Smithsonian,” they think of the museums lining the National Mall or maybe the National Zoo. But the Smithsonian is also a global institution working on projects around the world, from saving endangered species to safeguarding priceless artifacts.

For nearly a decade, one project in particular has been taking Smithsonian Exhibits’ graphics supervisor, Scott Schmidt, more than 7,000 miles away from Washington, D.C., to monasteries in India. It’s called Science for Monks and Nuns.

This unique program began in 2001 as a way of creating a dialogue between Western science and Tibetan Buddhism—something the Dalai Lama (the spiritual leader of Tibet) has long encouraged.

Every year, Science for Monks and Nuns brings Western scientists to India to engage monks and nuns (known collectively as monastics) in hands-on workshops on a variety of topics, including biology, neurology, cosmology, math, and physics. After the workshops, the monastics return to their communities to share what they have learned and continue their studies. In 2009, the group began creating exhibits as another way of sharing what they have learned with others.

 

Scott speaks with a monk as they kneel on the floor
Scott leads Monks in an exhibit design workshop in Bir, India.

 

Scott got involved in the project in 2010 through a request from the Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access. Since then, he has used his exhibit skills to provide training and assist the group with planning and developing exhibits. In addition to the Smithsonian Institution, Science for Monks and Nuns partners with the Exploratorium in San Francisco and several universities in the United States.

Over the years, Scott and his colleagues have helped create two major science exhibits that have traveled throughout India, Nepal, and Bhutan; facilitated workshops and training sessions; and consulted on the creation of permanent science centers and “tinker spaces” at monasteries. A tinker space is a space with tools to build structures and prototypes demonstrating scientific phenomena, which are used in the workshops and exhibits.

 

Scott holds a piece of equipment and gestures in front of a group of monks
Scott leads a training session in tool use and exhibit assembly at the science center in Dharamsala, India.

 

Three male students and another man work on exhibits in a workshop.
Students work on science exhibition prototypes in the tinker space Scott helped set up in Dharamsala, India. Photo by Scott Schmidt

 

The first exhibit Scott worked on, The World of Your Senses, explored parallel Western and Buddhist perspectives on the five senses.

 

Scott leans forward and speaks to a monk sitting at a table. Other monks also sit at the table.
Scott speaks to colleagues during the production of The World of Your Senses exhibit.

 

The exhibits are truly cross-cultural, combining elements of both Western and Tibetan philosophy and design. For The World of Your Senses, the monks decided that the panels should be painted like thangkas, a traditional Tibetan style of religious paintings.

 

Scott watches as a monk leans over a fabric painting for the exhibit. Two other men stand and watch.
Scott and his colleagues discuss a tailoring detail for The World of Your Senses exhibit. The master tailor to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Phuntsok Tsering, led the framing and sewing of the completed paintings.

 

An exhibit intro panel with text in Tibetan and English includes a painting of a human face showing the internal organs.
The intro panel for The World of Your Senses exhibit

 

A monk stands in front of an exhibit panel and gestures to a group of male and female students.
A monk leads a tour of The World of Your Senses exhibit.

 

A group of monks and nuns dressed in red robes visit the exhibit.
Monastics visit The World of Your Senses exhibit in Nepal.

 

The second exhibit Scott worked on, My Earth, My Responsibility, focused on climate change.

 

Scott stands with another man at a table where five monks are sitting.
Scott and his colleagues examine mock-ups of the My Earth, My Responsibility exhibit.
Photo by Tracie Spinale

 

An exhibit panel in Tibetan and English shows a colorful painting of animals with the headline, "Why is the Climate Changing?"
A panel from the My Earth, My Responsibility exhibit

 

The Dalai Lama and two other monks look at an exhibit panel with a crowd of people in the background.
The Dalai Lama attends the opening of the My Earth, My Responsibility exhibit at the Sera Jey Science Center in India. Pictured on the right is Ven. Geshe Lhakdor, Director of the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, the organization that facilitates the Science for Monks and Nuns program.

 

Scott grasps the hand of the Dalai Lama while holding a white scarf. A group of people stand and watch.
Scott (right) meets the Dalai Lama at the opening of the My Earth, My Responsibility exhibit at the Sera Jey Science Center in India.

 

The work that goes into these exhibits is intense. Scott and his colleagues spend weeks at a time in India, working with the participants to plan, develop, and fabricate the exhibits.

One of the biggest challenges is translating complex scientific and metaphysical concepts into a few paragraphs of English and Tibetan text. “It can difficult to communicate concepts and words for which there may be no Tibetan equivalents,” says Scott. However, with the help of monastics and a great team of interpreters at the Library for Tibetan Works and Archives, this challenge has not been a roadblock.

Another challenge Scott enjoys is scouring the local markets for the materials and tools needed to build the exhibits. (You can’t just pop into the local Home Depot.)

Throughout the six visits Scott has made to India so far to work with the program, he has come away inspired, renewed, and with new insights to bring back to his everyday life. “Collaborating with colleagues Tracie Spinale, Stephanie Norby, and Darren Milligan at the Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access has been wonderful,” says Scott, “and watching the program and monastic students develop since that first exhibit in 2010 has been a joy.

Scott looks forward to continuing his partnership with the program. “It’s amazing to have the opportunity to experience different cultures and traditions firsthand,” says Scott. “It reminds you that the Smithsonian is a global institution. Our mission, ‘the increase and diffusion of knowledge,’ reaches far beyond the Mall to cultures isolated by politics, religion, distance, and education. And it is certainly a two-way street. I have often returned wondering if I did not learn more than teach.”

 

All photos by Bryce Johnson unless otherwise noted.

 

To learn more:

“Seeing Science through a spiritual lens, with the Smithsonian’s help,” The Washington Post

Beyond the Robe by Bobby Sager, the primary funder of the Science for Monks and Nuns program

Humble Before the Void by Chris Impey, one of the many Science for Monks and Nuns teachers

The Universe in a Single Atom by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, great for understanding his love of science and its positive effect on Buddhism.

 

Thanks to former SIE intern Elizabeth Polvere for her help in developing this blog post.

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!

A Grassroots Effort

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).

 

Smithsonian Gardens oversees more than a dozen gardens.

 

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.

 

The "Big Idea" for the Habitat exhibition
One of the first steps in the process was to identify the exhibition’s “big idea” or overarching message. For Habitat, the big idea is “Protecting habitats protects life.”

 

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.

 

Habitat photo inspiration board
Images collected by Smithsonian Gardens’ staff provided inspiration for the individual exhibits.

 

Habitat exhibit concepts
Exhibit concepts include sculptural elements and other structures that mimic natural habitats.

 

Horticulturist James Gagliardi leads SIE’s team on a tour of the gardens.
Horticulturist James Gagliardi leads SIE’s team on a tour of the gardens.

 

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.

 

The logo for the Habitat exhibition
The Habitat logo will appear on all of the exhibition’s materials.

 

SIE exhibit developer/writer John Powell reviews a map of the proposed exhibits with the IMP team.
SIE exhibit developer/writer John Powell (yours truly) reviews a map of the proposed exhibits with the IMP team.

 

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.

 

Habitat exhibits map
A map showing the proposed Habitat exhibits, which will be spread across the National Mall and at the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture.

 

Smithsonian Gardens' Exhibits Share Fair table
The final IMP was launched at the Smithsonian Institution Exhibits Share Fair in February.

 

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!

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!

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.

 

Two young women admire a statue in an exhibit case while other museumgoers pass by.
Museum visitors enjoying the exhibition at “Museum Day” celebrations on May 8, 2018

                 

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.

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.