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This Old House

Nestled in 2,650 acres of protected land on the Chesapeake Bay in Edgewater, Maryland, sits the oldest building in the Smithsonian’s collection that’s still in its original location.

A red brick house surrounded by a green lawn, trees, and shrubs
Woodlawn House at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center

Woodlawn House was built in 1735 for tobacco planter William Sellman and his family. The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) purchased the house in 2008 and rehabilitated it in 2020. Over the past few years, Smithsonian Exhibits (SIE) has worked with SERC to transform the house and the surrounding landscape into the Woodlawn History Center exhibition and the Woodlawn History Trail.

The exhibition and the accompanying trail tell the story of the diverse people who lived in and around Woodlawn House and shaped the surrounding landscape. This includes Indigenous people, enslaved people, indentured servants, sharecroppers, tenant farmers, and others.

Graphic panels with portraits and a family tree hang above a display case.
The exhibition tells the story of the many people who lived in and around Woodlawn House, including the Sellman and Kirkpatrick-Howat families.

Working in a historic house proved an interesting challenge for SIE’s team. Unlike working in a typical museum gallery, SIE had to be careful to preserve the historic structure and all of its architectural details.

Before and after images showing a room with dirty white walls and dull floorboards and the same room with blue walls, polished floorboards, and exhibition elements.
Before and after images of Woodlawn House’s front parlor showing the house before its rehabilitation and after SIE installed the exhibition.

The exhibition features artifacts uncovered by SERC’s team of citizen scientist archaeologists. These include everything from ancient Native American projectile points to glass milk bottles from the nearby dairy farm.

Stone projectile points hang from a graphic panel featuring a historic map labeled "You are here."
Native American projectile points discovered in the area


A large glass display case featuring historic artifacts, including tools, clay pipes, coins, and pottery sherds.
SIE made mounts for more than 200 artifacts, including coins, clay pipes, and pottery sherds.


Before and after photos show a reader rail with three flip panels that open to reveal replica artifacts.
An archaeology dig interactive allows visitors to uncover replicas of artifacts archaeologists discovered nearby.


Before and after photos show a reader rail with four flip panels that open to reveal text about archaeological finds.
Flip panels allow visitors to make their own discoveries.


A 3D model of Woodlawn House includes a three-story red section on the left, a two-story yellow section at the center, and a two-story blue section on the right.
A tactile model of Woodlawn house, featuring braille, allows visitors to see and feel the different sections of the house, which were built at different times: 1735 (yellow), 1841 (red), and 1979/2020 (blue).


A reader rail with a QR code on the bottom left corner
QR codes throughout the exhibition connect visitors to screen reader–accessible verbal descriptions on SERC’s website.


A timeline titled "Historic Milestones from First People to the Arrival of SERC" includes text and images.
A timeline places local events into the context of national and international history.


The front hallway of the house features a display case and a bench. The walls are lined with graphic panels.
The final section of the exhibition brings the story up to the present day and introduces visitors to SERC’s conservation work.

Outside the house, the Woodlawn History Trail takes visitors on a self-guided walking tour past neighboring historic sites.

An interpretive sign featuring text and images stands in the grass in front of Woodlawn House.
The Woodlawn History Trail


An interpretive sign featuring text and images stands in the grass, surrounded by flowers and shrubs. A paved pathway leads to the sign.
The trail interprets the surrounding landscape and how it has changed over the centuries.


An interpretive panel featuring text and images stands in the grass in front of trees and shrubs. A gravel pathway runs alongside it to the left.
The trail takes visitors past nearby historic sites, including the site of Shaw’s Folly, a house built in the 1650s for Quaker settler John Shaw and his family.


An interpretive panel featuring text and images stands in the grass overlooking a gravel path and a field.
The trail highlights the role of enslaved people, sharecroppers, and tenant farmers, who worked the surrounding land.


A small interpretive sign titled "Horse Chestnut" stands in the grass in front of a tree trunk.
Yvone Kirkpatrick-Howat and his wife, Lauraine, were the last people to live in Woodlawn House. They were strong advocates of environmental conservation and planted many trees around the house.

SERC’s campus and the Woodlawn History Center are open to the public on certain days. Visit SERC’s website to plan your visit.

A young man wearing a face mask pushes down on a hole punch on top of a sign that reads "Temporarily Closed."

Catching Up with Our Interns

Since we last caught up with SIE interns Bre Patterson and Vic Garrett, they’ve been busy! They have worked their way through SIE’s 3D studio, fabrication, and graphics departments; helped produce and install exhibitions; and even met Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch! We checked in with them to see what they’ve been up to.

Bre spent the first three months of her internship in SIE’s 3D studio and fabrication department, where she learned about 3D printing—a completely new skill for her.


A young woman wearing a hat, glasses, and headphones sits at a desk, looking at the camera.
A self portrait of Bre at work


One of Bre’s first projects was testing the durability of 3D prints to see how they hold up to frequent cleaning with disinfectant solutions. This is critical to determining how Smithsonian museums can provide safe and hygienic access to tactile exhibition components.


3D model of a rainbow with clouds labeled "B2"

3D model of a rainbow with clouds labeled "B2"
Bre took these before and after photos of 3D prints to show the effects of 19 days of cleaning with bleach.


Bre showed her creativity by making a video demonstrating her process. Beat courtesy of iCAN intern Thomas Tate/THEARC Theater


Bre also helped fabricate exhibition components for Baseball: America’s Home Run, an upcoming exhibition at the National Postal Museum. She learned how to pack and crate exhibition components for transport, and assisted with installation. “I liked how everyone takes part in showing me their roles and their steps through them,” she said. “Every week I gained new knowledge.”

Since January, Bre has been working in SIE’s graphics department, where she has been learning to use SIE’s large format printers and Adobe software. During her time in graphics, she has helped frame and install photos and produce graphics for the Smithsonian’s staff photo show, Capturing the Moment.


A young woman wearing a hoodie and a face mask leans over a blue graphic.
Bre weeds vinyl graphics for the Smithsonian’s staff photo show.


A young woman wearing a skull cap and a face mask stands on a ladder and applies vinyl letters to a yellow wall.
Bre installs vinyl lettering for the Smithsonian’s staff photo show.


Vic spent his first three months in SIE’s graphics department, where he learned new skills while helping produce COVID-19 safety graphics for Smithsonian museums.


A young man wearing a face mask pushes down on a hole punch on top of a sign that reads "Temporarily Closed."
Vic punches holes in COVID-19 sign for a museum.


A young man wearing a face mask hangs a framed photo of a man on a wall.
Vic hangs a photo of Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch in the Smithsonian’s staff photo show.


Since January, Vic has been working in SIE’s 3D studio and fabrication department, where he has been helping assemble and install exhibition components. Vic enjoys visiting museums for installations. “It makes you feel really special to be there without anyone else around and before the lights are on,” he said.


A young man wearing a face mask, a face shield, and gloves installs a sign that reads "Enter."
Vic installs a pylon outside the Jim Crow-era railway car at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.


A young man wearing a face mask assembles a wooden case.
Vic assembles a pedestal case for the upcoming exhibition Preston Singletary: Raven and the Box of Daylight at the National Museum of the American Indian.


A model of a Pacific walrus lying on a snow-covered rock
Vic helped SIE’s 3D studio staff create a realistic model of a Pacific walrus for the National Museum of Natural History.


Vic also honed his video editing skills by creating and starring in a series of “how to” videos demonstrating how to assemble Frank display cases.


One of the highlights of the internship so far for Bre and Vic was meeting Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch virtually. They spoke with him about their work at SIE and what they hope to do in their careers. Secretary Bunch sent them signed copies of his book A Fool’s Errand, and they made plans to speak with him again before the end of their internship.

We will also be checking in with Bre and Vic before the end of their internship to hear more about their great work, so stay tuned!

Red, blue, yellow, and black engine model

A Souped-Up Prototype

What has eight cylinders, flashing lights, and vibrates when you touch it? The tactile engine prototype Smithsonian Exhibits recently designed and built for the National Air and Space Museum.

An animated image showing the Ford Flathead V-8 engine prototype from a variety of angles
The Ford Flathead V-8 Engine prototype


This is a prototype of a hands-on interactive planned for NASM’s Nation of Speed exhibition, opening soon. NASM staff and volunteers will use the interactive in facilitated experiences to help visitors understand how engines generate speed and how they can be modified to go faster.


A design rendering showing a large gallery containing airplanes, spacecraft, and a race car
A rendering of the Nation of Speed exhibition, which will explore how the pursuit of speed has shaped American culture and our national identity. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.


The interactive is based on the iconic Ford Flathead V-8 engine, produced between 1932 and 1953, which powered hot rods and other modified cars.


A red and gray metal engine with a black fan at one end
A Ford Flathead V-8 engine. “1949–53 Ford Flathead V8” by Michael Barera is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.


This project was funded by the Smithsonian Accessibility Innovations Fund (SAIF). Our goal was to ensure that the resulting interactive is accessible to all visitors, including visitors who are blind or have low vision and visitors who are deaf or hard of hearing.

SIE, NASM, and Access Smithsonian met in November 2019 to kick off the project. To get us started, SIE exhibit specialist Enrique Dominguez tracked down a foam model of a Ford Flathead V-8 engine. (Who knew these things existed?)


A black and gray foam model of an engine on a red metal stand in front of a green metal cabinet.
A foam model of the Ford Flathead V-8 engine. Mechanics use replicas like these to test-fit parts.


The foam model provided an excellent starting point. But the team wanted to add more parts for visitors to handle, including cylinder heads, spark plugs, intake manifolds, carburetors, and exhaust manifolds. To help visitors understand what the different engine parts do, we decided to color code them according to their functions: blue for intake, red for combustion, and yellow for exhaust.

We also wanted to demonstrate how to modify an engine to make it faster. To achieve this, we decided to include interchangeable stock and performance parts. To help distinguish the parts from each other, we decided to color the stock parts a lighter shade and the performance parts a darker shade.

Once we had a plan in place, SIE designer Elena Saxton worked with SIE exhibit specialists Enrique Dominguez and Jeff Rosshirt to design the prototype.


A design drawing showing a model engine with text boxes pointing at blue, red, and yellow parts
A design drawing showing the different engine parts to be created.


We had originally intended the interactive as a purely tactile experience. But after some discussion, the team decided to incorporate additional multisensory features to make the experience accessible to a wider audience. These included audio clips of stock and performance engines running, touch-activated vibrations to simulate the feel of a running engine, flashing LEDs to demonstrate the firing order of the cylinders, and a digital display showing the engine’s RPMs (revolutions per minute). SIE exhibit specialist Jeff Rosshirt took the lead in developing these components using Arduino, an open-source electronic prototyping platform.


Two men and two women stand around a table in a workshop. The man on the left stands in front of an electronic device with wires and circuit boards.
SIE exhibit specialist Jeff Rosshirt (left) demonstrates the Arduino microcontroller’s capabilities to SIE’s team.


While Jeff was programming the Arduino, SIE model and mount maker Danny Fielding got to work making replicas of the engine parts. These needed to be light enough to attach to the engine block with magnets but durable enough to withstand frequent handling.

Danny used actual engine parts to make the molds. He encased the original parts in liquid rubber (silicone) and left them overnight to cure.


A cream-colored liquid covers a gray, red, and blue rectangular object in a wooden frame.
Molding in progress


See-through mold containing a three-pronged metal pipe
Some parts were molded using translucent rubber to make it easier to see the parts inside.


After removing the original parts from the molds, Danny cleaned and prepared the molds for casting. He tinted the liquid resin the desired colors and poured it into the molds, which he quickly capped off to stop the foam from expanding. Once cured, the foam engine parts were removed from the molds and filed and sanded to remove any surface imperfections.


Two yellow rectangular molds pictured at top with two gray rectangular models below.
Silicone molds (above) and resin casts (below) of the performance cylinder heads


Yellow and blue foam engine parts
Examples of the finished replicas


Four clear plastic lights with red and black wires leading into them
SIE embedded red and white LEDs into the clear cast spark plugs.


SIE exhibit specialist Enrique Dominguez added fiberglass to many of the parts for durability and installed magnets and pin locators to make them quick and easy to install and deinstall.


Technical sketches drawn in pen
SIE fabrication process sketches by Enrique showing a detail view of the piston construction and cylinder head wiring layout.


Once the parts were ready, SIE exhibit specialist Jeff Rosshirt installed the Arduino microcontroller.


A man connects multicolored wires from a white circuit board to a black foam engine model.
Jeff connects the Arduino microcontroller to the prototype.


Multicolored wires connect a series of white perforated circuit boards.
The wiring for the Arduino microcontroller is connected to solderless “bread boards,” which allow the flexibility needed for prototyping the electronics.


A man holds the bottom of the engine model, revealing wires and electronics inside.
The Arduino components are enclosed in the oil pan at the bottom of the engine block.


Once the Arduino components were programmed and installed, Enrique and Jeff assembled and mounted the engine block on a custom welded stand with locking wheels. The stand can be tilted up to 45 degrees in either direction to facilitate access to visitors in wheelchairs and small children. They also installed a tray underneath to store the engine parts when not in use.


Split-screen image showing two versions of the engine prototype. The version on the left includes light blue, red, and yellow parts. The version on the right includes dark blue, red, and yellow parts.
The fully assembled prototype with stock parts (left) and performance parts (right). Sticklers for details, SIE’s fabricators even added a dipstick to the oil pan!


The finished prototype can be operated in three modes: manual mode, which allows visitors to see the firing order of the cylinders in slow motion; stock mode, which demonstrates how the engine would run with stock parts; and performance mode, which demonstrates how the engine would run with performance parts. NASM’s facilitators can even simulate an engine breakdown and control the engine’s RPMs using an optional foot pedal. In fact, just about the only thing this prototype doesn’t do is drive!


A black foot pedal on the floor attached by a cord to the engine model
An optional accelerator pedal allows the facilitator or visitors to rev the engine.


Watch a video of the finished prototype in action below.


Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic prevented us from testing the prototype with visitors as we had originally planned. But stay tuned—NASM hopes to roll out the prototype at the Udvar-Hazy Center once it is safe to do so.

This project allowed SIE to explore the possibilities of incorporating multisensory components into hands-on interactives to make them accessible to a wider audience. We learned a lot and look forward to future opportunities to continue this important work!

A woman wearing a face mask sits at a desk and clicks on a mouse.

Meet Our New Interns!

Smithsonian Exhibits is thrilled to welcome two new additions to our team: Bre’Launna Patterson and Victor Garrett who joined us in October for a year-long internship funded by the Smithsonian Institution.

Bre and Vic will be working in SIE’s fabrication, graphics, and 3D studio departments. They will spend two months in each department, learning the ropes. After six months, they will each select one department to spend the rest of their internship in, and will complete a solo project.

Before joining SIE, Bre was a contractor for THEARC Theater, a performing arts venue in Washington, DC, where she worked as a stagehand and master carpenter among other duties. Her goal is to gain skills that she can use to push others and herself as a female entrepreneur in tech, dance, MCing, and other fields. “When I first heard about the Smithsonian Exhibits production shop, I knew it was what I have been preparing for,” said Bre. “I am excited to learn more, especially in the fabrication and 3D print shop.”

Bre is spending her first two months in SIE’s fabrication department and 3D studio. Her first project has been testing the durability of 3D prints made with SIE’s new Mimaki printer to see how they hold up to frequent cleaning with disinfectant solutions. This is critical to determining how Smithsonian museums can provide safe access to tactile exhibition components during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.


A woman wearing a face mask sits at a desk and clicks on a mouse.
Bre crops images of the 3D prints.


A gloved hand brushes a 3D print of a rainbow with clouds.
Bre cleans a 3D print.

Vic heard about the internship at Joe’s Movement Emporium in Mount Rainier, Maryland, where he was working as a theater tech. “It wasn’t until I found theatrical production that I discovered my talent for building, fabrication, and all things ‘hands-on,’” he said.

Vic has fond memories of visiting the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum as a kid. “Never in a million years would I have expected to have the opportunity to work and learn from the same institution that captivated me years ago,” said Vic. “I hope to gain advanced, unique, and marketable skills that allow me to pursue my goal of using my building skills to serve my community.”

Vic is spending his first two months in SIE’s graphics department, where he is helping produce COVID-19 safety graphics for Smithsonian museums that are reopening. This is important work that helps keep visitors safe. Vic has already learned several new skills, including laminating, cutting and weeding vinyl, and profiling materials (scanning materials to ensure that the colors are calibrated correctly for printing.)


A man wearing a face mask sits next to a machine which is cutting a large print into smaller graphics.
Vic cuts vinyl graphics.


A man wearing a face mask stands at a table and pulls the white borders off a series of printed graphics.
Vic removes excess material from graphics in a process known as “weeding.”


A man wearing a face mask drags a small handheld scanner across a series of colored thumbnails.
Vic scans materials to test their color accuracy in a process called “profiling.”


We will be checking in with Bre and Vic throughout their internships. Please join us in welcoming them to the Smithsonian. We’re glad they’re here!

A view of a red hallway showing a graphic panel and a backlit display case

Small Cars, Big Ideas

After being closed for six months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) reopened to visitors on September 18 with a brand new installation: The Automobile and American Art.

The installation features more than 130 model cars donated by collector Albert H. Small. The cars may be small, but the ideas the installation explores are big: the automobile’s central role in American art and culture. SAAM uses this study collection of model cars as a lens through which to explore car-related artworks in its collection.

Smithsonian Exhibits (SIE) worked with SAAM to develop, design, fabricate, and install The Automobile and American Art, which is located on the museum’s third floor, next to its Luce Foundation Center for American Art.


Model cars of various sizes and colors lined up on a table seen from the front
No, it’s not gridlock on the Beltway; SAAM’s curators parked the model cars bumper to bumper to select which ones to include in the installation.


Model cars of various sizes and colors lined up on a table seen from the side
Albert H. Small’s collection of more than 1,200 model cars features everything from a Model T Ford to a pink Cadillac.


The goal of the project was to transform a transitional “back of house” space into an engaging installation that would connect the Luce Center with SAAM’s special exhibition galleries.


A view of a white hallway with a gray carpet
A view of the hallway from the Luce Center before its transformation.


SIE designers Elena Saxton and Madeline Wan took inspiration from car culture in their designs, using bright colors and carpet tiles evoking tire treads.


A design rendering showing transparent human figures in a red hallway with graphic panels and a backlit display case. The carpet is gray with blue tread marks on it.
A design rendering of the installation


A design drawing showing transparent human figures next to a graphic panel titled "The Automobile and American Art"
The installation features images of artists and their cars.


A design drawing showing a display case with seven rows of model cars
SIE designed a large back-lit display case with room for 112 model cars. An additional case brings the total up to 133. That’s a lot of cars!


Once the design was complete, it was time to put the pedal to the metal and fabricate and install!


An empty hallway with red walls and a gray and blue carpet
A splash of color souped up the space to make it more inviting for visitors.


A man installs exhibit elements in a red hallway.
SIE installation in progress. Installing in the middle of a pandemic was a challenge, but SIE staff did it safely, wearing masks and maintaining strict social distancing.


A man wearing a mask installs yellow dimensional letters on a red wall.
SIE exhibit specialist Caleb Menzies installs three-dimensional letters for a wall quote.


Blue letters on a gray wall reading "Go Beyond the Galleries"
Wall graphics invite visitors to go beyond the galleries to explore the Luce and Lunder Centers.


Yellow letters on a red wall reading "For what you really collect is always yourself. -Jean Baudrillard, French philosopher (1929-2007)
The theme of collecting connects the installation to the adjacent Luce Center, where visitors can explore SAAM’s collection in visible storage.


SIE exhibit developer John Powell (yours truly) helped SAAM develop the content for the installation, including a touchscreen kiosk, which takes visitors on a road trip through car-themed American art.


A monitor displaying a pink Cadillac and the words "Take a road trip through SAAM's collection!"
Due to COVID-19, the touchscreen is currently disabled, but visitors can still enjoy the content.


Throughout the project, SIE project manager Rob Wilcox kept the show on the road to success, directing traffic and avoiding any collisions.


A man on a step ladder pokes his head into a hatch in the ceiling.
Rob left no stone unturned. Here he takes a look “under the hood” at the building’s wiring.


We think you’ll agree that the final result is breathtaking!


A view of a red hallway showing graphic panels and display cases
A view of the installation looking toward SAAM’s special exhibition galleries


A view of a red hallway showing a graphic panel and a backlit display case
A view of the installation looking toward the Luce Center


A close-up view of model cars in a display case showing their reflection on the glass.
A close-up view of the model cars


We hope you’ll check out the installation now that SAAM has reopened. Please see SAAM’s website for guidelines on visiting and to reserve a timed-entry pass. Stay safe everyone!

A three-part image showing different views of the replica hat.

The Journey from Replica to Sacred Artifact

In September 2019, staff from Smithsonian Exhibits (SIE) and the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) traveled to Juneau, Alaska, to attend a Tlingit clan ceremony to dedicate a new clan hat—a replica made by SIE. You can watch the entire ceremony on the Sharing Our Knowledge conference website here.

The Tlingit are an indigenous people from southeastern Alaska. In Tlingit society, clans are divided into two distinct groups or moieties: Eagle/Wolf and Raven. The hat SIE worked on belongs to the Raven moiety. It is known as the sculpin hat (or Wéix’ s’áaxw in Tlingit language) for the fish it represents, which is an important crest symbol to the Kiks.ádi clan, to whom the hat belonged. In Tlingit culture, hats such as this one are sacred artifacts, known as At.óow, which are imbued with the spirits of their ancestors and used in dancing and ceremonies.

For SIE model maker Chris Hollshwander, the ceremony was more than just the end of another project. It was the culmination of a five-year journey, during which he was adopted into a Tlingit clan and immersed himself in learning about Tlingit culture.

The original sculpin hat was acquired by the Smithsonian in the 1880s and was probably even older. Unfortunately, the hat in the Smithsonian’s collection is broken and lacked important information. In 2012, a visiting Tlingit clan leader, Harold Jacobs, spotted the hat at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. He kick-started a seven-year process, which resulted in a replica of the hat being restored to the clan.


A man wearing white gloves holds a wooden cylinder on top of a painted wooden hat.
Eric Hollinger, Tribal Liaison for NMNH’s Repatriation Office, holds the original sculpin hat. Image courtesy of NMNH.


Three images from left to right showing details of a hat, including a painted eye, the inside of the hat, and a wooden cylinder.
Details of the original sculpin hat in the Smithsonian’s collection, showing the hat and the broken potlatch cylinder. Images courtesy of NMNH.


Staff from NMNH brought the original hat to the ceremony in September to accompany the reproduction. During the ceremony, clan members instilled a spirit into the new hat so that it could be danced again, more than 130 years after the original hat left. Chris, SIE director Susan Ades, and SIE model maker Carolyn Thome all attended the ceremony. During the celebration, Carolyn was formally recognized for her contributions and adopted into the Kiks.ádi clan. You can read an article about the ceremony here.


A group of people place a painted hat on the head of a seated man wearing a colorful cloak.
Kiks.ádi clan leader Ray Wilson wears the new sculpin hat made by SIE.


A woman wearing glasses speaks to a man wearing a baseball cap and a vest with a red design on it.
SIE Director Susan Ades speaks with Kiks.ádi clan leader Ray Wilson before the ceremony.


A group of people watch as two men position a display case holding a painted hat.
Chris Hollshwander (SIE) and Eric Hollinger (NMNH) place the original hat on display at the start of the ceremony.


A man wearing a colorful tunic speaks into a microphone as a group of people watch.
Deisheetaan clan leader Cyril Zuboff and other Raven moiety clan leaders provided remarks during the ceremony.


A group of people stand in a row as a man at the center speaks into a microphone.
Chris (pictured at the left) and members of the Kaagwaantaan clan (Eagle/Wolf moiety) acknowledge remarks by members of the Raven moiety during the ceremony.


A woman wearing a blue scarf stands before a man speaking into a microphone. Several other people stand nearby and watch.
SIE model maker Carolyn Thome (center) being adopted into the Kiks.ádi clan.


The ceremony was a fitting end to a long process, but how did SIE get involved in the first place?

Chris was introduced to the project in 2014, when clan leaders visiting NMNH interviewed him to get to know him better and gauge his level of interest in working on the hat. The goal was to create two replicas: one would be restored to the clan and used in ceremonies; the other would remain at NMNH, where it would be used for educational purposes. To the clan, it was important that whoever made the new hat for them should be a member of the Eagle/Wolf moiety. In order to work on the hat, Chris was adopted into the Kaagwaantaan (Wolf) clan, at a ceremony at NMNH a few days later by Kaagwaantaan clan leader Andrew Gamble.

A group of people stand behind a table holding several painted hats.
Chris (center) with Tlingit clan leaders and Smithsonian staff at a ceremony at the National Museum of Natural History in 2014. Image courtesy of NMNH.


You can read more about the background to this project in a blog post by Eric Hollinger, Tribal Liaison for NMNH’s Repatriation Office, who was involved in the project from the beginning and was instrumental in its success.

To prepare for the replicas to be made, NMNH took a CT scan of the original hat and partnered with the Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office (DPO) to create a digital model by 3D scanning the hat with structured light scanners. They also took a series of photos, in a process known as photogrammetry, which would be processed into a digital model. You can take a virtual tour of the 3D model here.


A digital 3D view of the sculpin hat
Carolyn processed the original 3D scan files for online viewing. Image of the final model courtesy of DPO.


Since the original hat was broken into multiple sections and had become warped over time, the first step was to repair it digitally. Using the files from DPO, Carolyn painstakingly repaired the hat through a process known as digital sculpting. She joined the cracks, bridged the gaps between the sections, and erased any non-original parts to prepare the 3D model for milling.


Four digital images showing the inside and outside of the hat in different colors
Carolyn made digital repairs to the 3D model of the hat to prepare it for milling.


Meanwhile, the wood for the replicas needed to be sourced. The original hat was made of cedar. Since the clan intended to use their restored hat for dances, they decided to use alder, a stronger wood. The replica for the museum was to be made with yellow cedar. Both types of wood were harvested and shipped from Alaska, then had to be kept in freezers to avoid drying and cracking before the production of the replicas began.


Three men roll a cart from a hallway into a walk-in freezer.
NMNH staff at the Smithsonian Museum Support Center in Suitland, Maryland, roll the alder logs into the freezer for storage.


To test the files and the machine settings, Chris milled a half-scale prototype of the hat, which he brought with him to Sitka, Alaska, in October 2017 to attend the Sharing Our Knowledge Conference.


A man seated at a table handles part of a two-part model of a hat as a standing man watches.
Chris shows clan leader Ray Wilson the half-scale replica of the hat. Image courtesy of NMNH.


The conference was a great opportunity for Chris to meet with clan members and learn more about their culture and traditions, while also demonstrating the Smithsonian’s 3D digitization and replication technology. You can read more about the conference here.


Two men wearing white gloves handle a painted wooden hat in front of camera lights.
Eric Hollinger (left) and Chris prepare another hat—the Coho Clan hat—for digitization at the Sharing Our Knowledge Conference. Image: Nick Partridge, Smithsonian.


Once the clan approved the prototype, Chris got to work making the full-size replicas. Because the work was done at SIE’s facility in Landover, Maryland (nearly 3,000 miles away from Alaska), the Smithsonian used videoconferencing to allow clan representatives to watch the progress that was being made. Another example of modern technology at work!


A woman works on a digital 3D model on a computer screen as a man holding a tablet films her. Two men can be seen on the tablet's screen.
While clan leaders watch from Alaska, Carolyn explains the digital sculpting process to repair the files in preparation for CNC milling.


One of the most challenging parts of the process was working with the wood and the number of machining set ups that were required. Because the wood was fresh, Chris needed to mill the pieces gradually over time, allowing the wood to slowly adjust in the freezer to avoid warping, cracking, and drying out too fast. The process involved roughing the hats out, then drying them slowly in a bed of their own wood chips outside of the freezer. When the wood was dried, Chris was able to do the final milling.


Pieces of wood sit in a large chest freezer.
The wood had to be kept in a freezer between milling steps.


A carved wooden hat sits in a box full of wood chips.
The hat replica drying in wood chips prior to final machining.


Two men wearing earplugs watch through a window as a computer-controlled machine carves a piece of wood. The man on the left holds up a tablet. Two men can be seen on the screen.
Eric and Chris videoconference with clan representatives in Juneau, Alaska, to show the work in progress.


A man wearing safety glasses controls a computer-operated milling machine carving a wooden hat.
Chris mills the replica using the CNC (computer numerical control) milling machine at SIE. Image courtesy of NMNH.


The final step was finishing the replicas under the supervision of Tlingit clan leader and artist Cyril Zuboff. Zuboff advised Chris and Eric on how to paint and attach materials to the hats, including shells, deer hide, sinew, ermine skins, and sea lion whiskers.


Two men hold a wooden hat and a piece of painted deer skin on a table while a third man plays a drum.
Eric and Cyril review the deer skin design and attachment while Deisheetaan clan leader Garfield George provides Tlingit songs.


Two men attach a piece of deer skin to a painted hat.
Cyril helps Chris attach the deer skin cape to the new hat for the Kiks.ádi clan. Image courtesy of NMNH.


The Smithsonian Women’s Committee (SWC) generously funded the creation of the replicas through a grant. Members of the SWC came to meet with the project team and observe the finishing process.


A group of men and women stand behind a table holding three painted hats.
Chris and Eric pose with the nearly completed hats along with Deisheetaan clan leaders Garfield George (left) and Cyril Zuboff (center) and members of the Smithsonian Women’s Committee.


You can watch a slideshow of the entire process here.


Two men with their arms folded stand behind a table holding three painted hats.
Chris and Eric pose with the original hat and the nearly completed replicas.
Image courtesy of NMNH.


After the replicas were completed, they remained at NMNH with the original hat. As preparations for the trip to the ceremony started over the summer, SIE provided a custom-fitted travel case for the alder hat. This will enable the hat to be transported to ceremonies in the future. SIE also fabricated a custom box for the original hat, to be couriered by NMNH Repatriation Office staff to Juneau.

When the hats were presented at the ceremony, clan members were thrilled with the results and were overjoyed to welcome home a part of their culture that had been away for more than 130 years. The new alder hat will eventually be brought to Sitka, Alaska, returning it to where it belongs for future generations. This project marks the first time that a traditional cultural object has been digitally restored and replicated and then dedicated as a sacred object by an indigenous community.


A three-part image showing different views of the replica hat.
The completed replica restored to the clan. Images courtesy of NMNH.


For Chris and Carolyn, adopted clan members, this has been more than just another project. It has been an experience that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.


Exhibits are for everyone, and Smithsonian Exhibits (SIE) strives to make our exhibits as accessible as possible. Last year, thanks to a grant from the Smithsonian’s Accessibility Innovation Fund, we were able to experiment with strategies for making exhibits more accessible to people who are blind and have low vision.


A display case containing an illustrated book and labels in a low-lit gallery
A typical museum display case containing artifacts, text, and images.


Think about a typical exhibit and you might picture a glass display case with artifacts, text, and images inside. Now consider this from the perspective of a person who is blind or has low vision. How can you engage with the artifacts, text, and images inside if you can’t see them? It’s frustrating, right? SIE decided to take on this challenge and find solutions to make exhibit cases and graphics more accessible.

Throughout the process, SIE worked closely with Access Smithsonian, the Smithsonian’s central office devoted to visitor accessibility, which funded the project and provided guidance and expertise along the way. Access Smithsonian connected us with their network of User Experts, volunteers with disabilities who help the Smithsonian test exhibits and advise us on how to make them more accessible. This was crucial, because—as with any exhibit—understanding your audience and their needs is key to success.

At the project’s kick-off meeting, we sat down with a group of User Experts with varying levels of vision to listen to their needs and common barriers that prevent them from engaging with exhibits. Among other things, the User Experts stressed the importance of providing the exhibit’s big picture up front and incorporating a range of different tools, including tactile elements, audio components, and braille.

The next step was to select an exhibit to work with. SIE wanted to use an exhibit that was already open to the public. Consulting with curators at the National Postal Museum, we selected Trailblazing: 100 Years of Our National Parks, an exhibit SIE was already familiar with from having worked on the graphics.


A gallery with display cases lining the walls and at the center of the room
Trailblazing: 100 Years of Our National Parks at the National Postal Museum


During the research and planning phase of the project, we spoke with accessibility experts and visited other museums to learn more about existing accessibility solutions.


A table containing a raised-line floor plan showing the locations of exhibits at the White House Visitor Center
A tactile floor plan at the National Park Service’s White House Visitor Center


We decided to create two reader rails for Trailblazing: one to provide an introduction and overview of the exhibit and another to interpret a display case on mail delivery in the Grand Canyon, which included a mix of artifacts, text, and images.


A drawing of a freestanding reader rail structure with an angled panel at the top and a holder on the side for braille and large-print label binders
Initial design for the intro/overview reader rail structure


A drawing of a reader rail structure attached to the corner of a display case. The reader rail has three angled panels at the top and attaches to the base of the display case.
Initial design for the display case reader rail structure


One of the star artifacts of the exhibit was a mule mail riding saddle used to deliver mail to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, the only place in the U.S. where mail is still delivered by mule.


The interior of a display case showing a brown leather saddle
The exhibit included a saddle used to deliver mail to the bottom of the Grand Canyon by mule.


During the design phase, SIE solicited feedback from accessibility experts along the way, which helped us rethink some of our initial plans and refine our designs.

SIE built physical prototypes of the two reader rails. These included braille, raised characters, a raised-line floor plan of the exhibit, buttons playing audio descriptions, and 3D tactile models of a mule mail riding saddle and a mule mail train.


Two men use tools to attach elements to a reader rail structure.
SIE’s graphics team assembles the reader rails.


A white 3D model of a saddle with a black background
SIE’s 3D studio created a tactile model of the mule mail riding saddle from the display case.


A white 3D model showing five mules carrying packages. Buttons below the model are labeled "Listen to an Audio Description" and "Listen to a Firsthand Account."
The prototype also featured a tactile model of a mule mail train delivering mail to the Grand Canyon.


Then, it was time to test!

We installed the prototypes in the Trailblazing gallery and invited User Experts with varying levels of vision to come try them out.


A man and a woman stand side by side in front of an interpretive panel on a reader rail and use both hands to touch it.
Testing round one: User Experts test the prototypes at the National Postal Museum. Image courtesy of Access Smithsonian.


A woman touches a 3D model of a mule mail train on a reader rail.
Testing round one: User Experts test the prototypes at the National Postal Museum. Image courtesy of Access Smithsonian.


A group of 15 people sit around a table in a conference room. Several service dogs lie on the floor.
User Experts and Smithsonian staff sit down to discuss the experience.


Afterward, we sat down with the User Experts to listen to their feedback. People loved the tactile models. But the audio descriptions played through speakers were muffled and hard to hear. This was a problem, especially for the typical scenario of a crowded gallery. Based on the group’s feedback, we decided to replace the speakers with audio handsets as well as a separate audio jacks, to allow visitors to plug in their own headphones.

The group had several other helpful recommendations, including shortening some of the audio descriptions, adjusting the location of the tactile floor plan to make it more intuitive, and aligning the braille text with the buttons.

Based on this feedback, SIE brought the prototypes back to the shop and redesigned them. After all the modifications were made, it was time for round two!


A man touches an interpretive panel on a reader rail with his left hand and holds an audio handset to his ear with his right hand.
Testing round two: User Experts test the refined prototypes.


Two men stand next to an L-shaped reader rail. The man on the left touches the reader rail with his right hand and holds a white cane in his left hand. The man on the right touches the reader rail with his right hand and holds an audio handset to his ear with his left hand.
Testing round two: User Experts test the refined prototypes. Accessibility expert Ray Bloomer from the National Park Service (left) provided help and guidance throughout the project.


Round two of the testing confirmed that we were on the right track and opened up more possibilities for future exploration. The User Experts expressed an interest in being able to pause, rewind, and fast forward the audio, and recommended that audio components be placed in a consistent location on all panels to make them easier to find.

Some User Experts were concerned about “feeling in the way” when using the audio handsets and suggested adding a portable handheld device or enabling visitors to play the audio on their own devices.

SIE learned an incredible amount from the Trailblazing project, which we have already begun to implement in our latest exhibits. Working with visitors who are blind and have low vision gave us a deeper understanding of the needs of this important audience. The project reaffirmed SIE’s commitment to providing high-quality 3D tactile experiences and provided new insights into working with braille, raised characters, and audio descriptions.

This May, SIE will be sharing our findings as part of a panel on accessibility at the Smithsonian at the American Alliance of Museums’ Annual Meeting in San Francisco. In the meantime, we’re working on several other accessibility initiatives. (More on those soon!)

The National Museum of American Diplomacy

Washington has museums devoted to many subjects. But until recently, it didn’t have one devoted to diplomacy. That changed in November, when the U.S. Department of State unveiled the National Museum of American Diplomacy (NMAD) with its inaugural exhibition, Diplomacy Is Our Mission.

Smithsonian Exhibits (SIE) was thrilled to be part of the project. We provided exhibit development, design, graphic production, fabrication, 3D studio, and installation services for the exhibition as well as a separate gallery devoted to the Signature Segment of the Berlin Wall.

As NMAD prepares for its future permanent exhibitions (read more about that here), Diplomacy Is Our Mission allows the museum to highlight its amazing stories and collections. Find out how you can visit the exhibition here.

The project started with a content development phase, during which SIE worked with NMAD’s team to identify their main themes and select stories, artifacts, and images to support them. The team settled on four central themes to help tell the story of diplomacy: Security, Prosperity, Democracy, and Development.

Selecting which stories, artifacts, and images to include was no easy task. The museum spans the entire history of U.S. diplomacy from 1776 to today and covers events that occurred all over the world. NMAD’s collection features more than 9,000 items. That’s a lot of artifacts to pick from!

To help narrow the focus, the team decided to select three stories to support each theme: one historic, one contemporary, and one surprising or unusual. NMAD plans to refresh these stories periodically during the span of the exhibition to add new content and encourage visitors to come back. The team also decided to include an updatable section in the exhibition, called “Spotlight on Diplomacy,” which allows NMAD to address current events and mark anniversaries of historic milestones.


Images and text documents pinned to a wall
Behind the scenes of the story selection process: NMAD’s team displayed story ideas on the walls of their offices.


A modern building illuminated at dusk with an American flag flying from a pole in front
The exhibition is located in the National Museum of American Diplomacy’s pavilion, an addition to the State Department’s historic entrance.


A large pavilion with a pink marble floor and a glass ceiling. A colorful mural hangs from the back wall.
NMAD used the pavilion to host other temporary exhibitions prior to Diplomacy Is Our Mission. A replica of Roy Lichtenstein’s Greene Street Mural, hanging in the space, provided SIE’s design team with color inspiration. Through the nonprofit organization Foundation for Art Preservation in Embassies (FAPE), a larger replica of this mural will be installed in the U.S. embassy in Mexico City.


A segment of the Berlin Wall in a glass case at the bottom of two sets of stairs
The Signature Segment of the Berlin Wall, on the pavilion’s lower level, features the signatures of 27 leaders who played a significant role in advancing German reunification. SIE worked with NMAD to design reader rails flanking the stairs to provide interpretation for this iconic artifact.


NMAD wanted a design that would stand out while complementing the existing architecture of the pavilion and the historic entrance to the State Department. NMAD also wanted to create a more intimate gallery experience within the pavilion, a large open space dominated by Tennessee pink marble, metal, and glass.


A woman crouches on the floor holding a card showing color samples
SIE Exhibit Designer Emily Sloat Shaw shows the team the proposed color swatches for the exhibition.


SIE’s design team came up with a system of four self-contained circular modules, one for each theme, which would allow visitors to wander in and out of distinct gallery spaces without restricting visitor flow. Large banners would identify the theme of each module.


A drawing of a circular exhibition module showing the locations of the section title, section intro, section stories, and outside mural
A drawing showing the design of the exhibition modules


Two men stand next to a table on which rest two red pole devices the size of a rake
The exhibition featured some unusual artifacts from NMAD’s collection. Here, NMAD Collections Manager Eric Duyck (right) prepares artifacts for mount making, including a cococho, a tool used to uproot illegal coca plants.


A man holding a camera films a woman working at a 3D printer
NMAD also had some artifacts that were too fragile to display and needed to be replicated. Here, SIE Model Maker Carolyn Thome creates a 3D-printed model of a statuette from the State Department’s Diplomatic Reception Rooms.


A woman shows two white 3D-printed models the size of a hand to three other women
Carolyn shows NMAD staff two small-scale 3D models of a statuette from the State Department’s Diplomatic Reception Rooms depicting Benjamin Franklin and King Louis XVI.


An aerial view showing a man works on a wooden structure in a warehouse.
SIE assembles the exhibition modules at SIE’s facility in Landover, MD.


Three men assemble a wooden structure in a warehouse.
SIE’s fabrication team assembles an exhibition module.


A series of colorful exhibit graphics laid out on a table
The printed exhibition graphics ready for mounting.


Two men hang a blue graphic from a wooden structure.
SIE’s graphics team applies a graphic to the intro section of the exhibition.


Two men wheel a large wooden structure onto the sidewalk in front of a building.
SIE’s fabrication team delivers exhibition components to NMAD for installation.


Four men hold a large curved structure as it is unloaded from a truck onto the street
The unwieldy exhibition section headers needed careful handling.


Three men install a large wooden exhibit module on a pink marble floor
SIE’s fabrication team installs an exhibition module at NMAD. Precise measurements were needed to line everything up correctly.


A man operates a forklift to lift a curved wooden and metal structure up to the top of a wooden exhibit module where another man standing on a ladder holds it.
SIE’s fabrication team installs a section header.


A man on a ladder attaches colorful graphics to a wooden exhibit module.
SIE Exhibits Specialist Caleb Menzies installs the exhibition graphics.


A group of six men pose in front of the exhibit.
Job well done. SIE’s fabrication team poses in front of the completed exhibition.


A man wearing green gloves opens a display case containing a pair of glasses.
NMAD Collections Manager Eric Duyck installs artifacts in a display case.


A man on a scissor lift looks down at the exhibit from the ceiling. It is dark out. Lights illuminate the exhibit.
SIE’s lighting contractor puts the finishing touches on the lights. Large portraits of former Secretaries of State grace the exteriors of each module.


A series of wooden structures with colorful graphics and photos
The finished exhibition, ready for visitors. A colorful map in the intro section (at the right) shows the worldwide presence of the State Department.


A series of wooden structures with colorful graphics and photos. A yellow title banner reads "Security."
Bold banners identify each themed module.


A curved wooden structure containing a series of colorful graphics, a display case with a yellow hard hat inside it, and a monitor with an audio handset below it
Each module includes artifacts and a short video highlighting the theme, produced by NMAD and Smithsonian Digital Studio.


Two wooden structures in a corner with a display case, a touch-screen kiosk, and a video monitor. The main panel is titled "Spotlight on Diplomacy."
The Spotlight on Diplomacy section features a touch-screen interactive, produced by NMAD and Smithsonian Digital Studio, which allows visitors to explore how diplomacy benefits their state.


An illuminated red and orange reader rail titled "The Berlin Wall"
SIE created two backlit reader rails for the Berlin Wall exhibit, exploring the history of the Berlin Wall and diplomacy. The reader rails attach seamlessly to the existing handrail below the stairs.


An illuminated red and orange reader rail with a series of dates and images of the Berlin Wall
With the launch of The Berlin Wall exhibit, NMAD debuted the Museum of American Diplomacy Eye (MADI), a mobile guide developed in partnership with the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, which allows visitors to scan images and artifacts with their smartphones to access historic footage.


A woman in a magenta outfit gestures toward a touch-screen kiosk. Another woman and two men wearing suits look on.
NMAD Director Mary Kane (left) shows the exhibition to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (right), his wife Susan (center left), and former Secretary of State James A. Baker, III (center right). Image courtesy of the U.S. Department of State.


A group of people stand in the gallery as a woman speaks from a podium. It is dark outside.
NMAD hosted several public events to celebrate the opening of the exhibition.


The project involved all of SIE’s departments and showcased our full capabilities to develop, design, and build first-class exhibitions. SIE was delighted to be involved in the project and looks forward to future collaborations with NMAD and our other federal partners.

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.