SIE Shuttle Schedule
In March 2023, the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened Afrofuturism: A History of Black Futures. The exhibition investigates Afrofuturist expression through art, music, activism, and more.
Smithsonian Exhibits (SIE) is proud to have fabricated and installed the 4,200-square-foot exhibition, which features innovative custom exhibition elements, including graphics, temporary walls, arches, cases, specialty lighting, and a hanging “media pyramid.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Outside the house, the Woodlawn History Trail takes visitors on a self-guided walking tour past neighboring historic sites.
SERC’s campus and the Woodlawn History Center are open to the public on certain days. Visit SERC’s website to plan your visit.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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?)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Once the parts were ready, SIE exhibit specialist Jeff Rosshirt installed the Arduino microcontroller.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.)
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!
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.
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.
SIE designers Elena Saxton and Madeline Wan took inspiration from car culture in their designs, using bright colors and carpet tiles evoking tire treads.
Once the design was complete, it was time to put the pedal to the metal and fabricate and install!
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.
Throughout the project, SIE project manager Rob Wilcox kept the show on the road to success, directing traffic and avoiding any collisions.
We think you’ll agree that the final result is breathtaking!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
You can watch a slideshow of the entire process here.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!)
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.
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.
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.
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.