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Paper Engineering: Fold, Pull, Pop, and Turn exhibit installation


The fascinating art of paper engineering is the focus of a new exhibit that is on display in the Smithsonian Institution Libraries' (SIL) gallery at the National Museum of American History (NMAH).  "Paper Engineering: Fold, Pull, Pop, and Turn" includes 44 books that range in date from the mid-16th to the early 21st centuries, creating an intriguing retrospective of volumes, which were designed and constructed with parts that move.  Selected by Stephen Van Dyk, the exhibit curator at the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York, the books are divided into four primary categories according to each one's paper construction type, as well as the mechanisms employed.  The groups include Movables; Pop-Ups; Folding Mechanisms; and Fantastic Forms.  The Office of Exhibits Central (OEC) collaborated with the Libraries on the organization and production of the exhibit.

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"Movables" include books with movable parts such as flaps; wheels or volvelles; and pull tabs


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"Pop-Ups" are comprised of books that pop up from the surface of the page
 such as stage sets or pull-out layers; v-folds; box and cylinder
constructions; and floating layers


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"Folding Mechanisms" consist of books that fold up such as carousels;
 tunnels or peep-shows; and leporellos


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"Fantastic Forms" embrace those books which contain a combination of
construction types


Drawn mainly from the collections of the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, and the Smithsonian's Dibner Library in Washington, D.C., the books demonstrate the changes that have taken place over time in paper engineering, as well as the continuing use and popularity of many of the oldest types of paper construction techniques.  According to Van Dyk, "Authors, designers, and paper engineers have employed diverse construction methods and mechanisms to create pop-up and movable books that have educated and entertained readers for more than 800 years.  In many cases, movable parts and pop-ups have been the most effective way to teach concepts such as alphabets and numbers to children, or to illustrate the human body by revealing the locations and positions of internal organs."


An example of the latter is included in the exhibit, and falls into the category of volumes known as "Movables."  De homine [On man] was printed by Petrus Leffen and Franciscus Mayardus in the Netherlands in 1662, based on the work of Rene Descartes (1596-1650), the French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist.  "Movables" which have parts that are superimposed or layered on the page, include three basic construction types: flaps; wheels or volvelles; and pull tabs.  De homine contains flaps–which were hinged on the surface of the page, and opened like a window, revealing an image below–that were used to illustrate the physiology of the heart.

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"Movables" book: De homine [On man]


Another work in the "Movables" category is the Astronomicum Caesareum [The emperor's astronomy], the earliest book in the exhibit.  It was printed in Ingolstadt, Germany, in 1540, based on the work of Peter Apian (1495-1552), a German scholar who was famous for his writings on astronomy, mathematics, and cartography.  In the book, hand-decorated wheels or volvelles are used–paper disks which, when rotated, brought images and information into alignment–allowing the reader to chart the positions of the planets.

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"Movables" book: Astronomicum Caesareum [The emperor's astronomy]
Book loan: Courtesy Mr. and Mrs. Robert Gordon and the Adler Planetarium, Chicago, Illinois


The second category of books in the exhibit, "Pop-Ups," have parts that are attached to the surface of the page which pop up when the page is opened.  "Pop-Ups" include four basic construction types: stage sets or pull-out layers;   v-folds; box and cylinder constructions; and floating layers.  The Elements of Geometrie of the Most Auncient Philosopher Euclide of Megara… is an excellent example of the category.  Printed in 1570 by J. Daye in London, based on the work of the ancient Greek mathematician Euclid, the book contains box and cylinder mechanisms, which were used to create pyramids and other geometric forms.

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"Pop-Ups" book: The Elements of Geometrie of the Most Auncient Philosopher
Euclide of Megara…


One of the most recent works in the exhibit, In the Beginning: The Art of Genesis, A Pop-Up Book, also falls into the "Pop-Ups" category.  Written and designed by Chuck Fischer with paper engineering by Bruce Foster, and printed by Little, Brown, New York, in 2008, floating layers were used to enhance the story line.

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"Pop-Ups" book: In the Beginning: The Art of Genesis, A Pop-Up Book


The third category of books included in the exhibit, known as "Folding Mechanisms," fold and unfold in an accordion-like manner, and include three basic construction types: carousels; tunnels or peep shows; and leporellos.  The Sleeping Beauty, for example, is an exquisite carousel book, printed by L. van Leer in Amsterdam, ca. 1950, with illustrations by Roland Pym.  The hidden complexities of its carousel shape, when opened to a 360 degree circle, can be seen from above.

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"Folding Mechanisms" book: The Sleeping Beauty



Aerial view of The Sleeping Beauty


In contrast, Van Dyk noted, "The tunnel book or peep-show, consisting of a series of illustrated cards edged with figures or scenery placed at a distance, one behind the other, creates the illusion of depth and perspective.  A notable example is a beautifully hand-colored peep show called Garden Scene, created by German engraver Martin Engelbrecht (1684-1756), who popularized these curious tunnel books in the 18th century."  Printed in Augsburg, Germany, ca. 1750, the book depicts an elegant dance scene set in a classical garden.

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"Folding Mechanisms" book: Garden Scene


The fourth category of books included in the exhibit, "Fantastic Forms," incorporates multiple construction types, which range from traditional mechanisms to ever-changing new innovations.  Mega-Beasts by Robert Sabuda and Matthew Reinhart, printed by Candlewick Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 2007, is one of many examples included in the exhibit.

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"Fantastic Forms" book: Mega-Beasts


While the books are important as works of art, the design and engineering behind their construction is equally significant.  Ensuring that all of the parts that move can survive thousands of manipulations, and that all parts can be contained within the covers of the volume once it is closed, often involves complex planning and testing.  Additionally, the movable parts must successfully satisfy the design concepts that the author is hoping to convey.


Moreover, designing and constructing brackets to support the books while they are on exhibit is a considerable challenge.  OEC's plexi specialist, Richard Gould, worked closely with SIL's conservator, Vanessa Haight Smith, to design and fabricate mounts that would protect the books' fragile elements, while at the same time, allow the public to view the volumes as the authors intended them to be seen.  Bee: A Read-about, Fold-out, and Pop-up, by David Hawcock and Lee Montgomery, printed by Random House, New York, in 1994, for example, has folding layers which allow a full three-dimensional reconstruction of a honeybee's body and wings, when the book's covers are brought together back to back.  The book is supported by a plexi bracket that is attached to the rear wall of the exhibit case, which creates the appearance of the bee in flight.

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"Folding Mechanisms" book: Bee: A Read-about, Fold-out, and Pop-up


A particularly interesting mounting solution was devised for the "Folding Mechanisms" tunnel book, Garden Scene, a detailed description of which is posted on SIL's website.  Following an extensive conservation treatment by Haight Smith to stabilize the book's condition, a slotted rectangular box was fabricated out of plexi, into which the individual leaves of the tunnel structure were inserted.  When looking at the book from the front, the full scene can be viewed, along with its magnificent perspective.  As one walks around the side of the case, however, the scene dissolves into its individual layers, and the author's engineering skills become apparent.

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Front view of "Folding Mechanisms" book, Garden Scene

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Three-quarter view of Garden Scene

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Side view of Garden Scene


As well as collaborating on the design and fabrication plans for the exhibit, OEC also worked with SIL on its installation.  While OEC staff placed decks, graphics, label bars, and brackets, Haight Smith carefully installed the books in their individual cases.

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Vanessa Haight Smith installs the "Pop-Ups" book, Ricky the Rabbit, with
 illustrations by Vojtech Kubasta, printed by Bancroft in London, ca. 1961


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Richard Gould attaches a plexi book mount to the back wall of an exhibit case


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Gould and Stoy Popovich place a plexi vitrine on top of the "Fantastic Forms"
 case base using rubber suction cups


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The completed "Fantastic Forms" case


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Popovich installs a header above the gallery entrance


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Kathleen Varnell and Rolando Mayen install entryway graphics


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Varnell ensures that the graphic panel is straight by holding a level up to a line of type


In addition to the remarkable books that are on view, an equally compelling element of the exhibit is a video component developed by the Libraries.  One of the two films on continuous display in the gallery contains an enlightening interview with book author and designer, Chuck Fischer, and paper engineer, Bruce Foster, who describe the movable book design and construction process.  The second video is a collection of stop-action shots which, when strung together, demonstrate the way in which a number of the books included in the exhibit open and close, revealing the parts that move.  "Working with photographers Don Hurlbert and Jim DiLoreto in the National Museum of Natural History's (NMNH) Photo Services Department, on the stop-action videos was a great pleasure," said Susan Frampton, SIL's program coordinator.  "Setting up each shot took a great deal of time and care, but the result is spectacular.  The books truly look as if they are alive."


From their varied subject matter–scientific, theatrical, religious, historical–to their wide-ranging forms of construction–Movables, Pop-Ups, Folding Mechanisms, Fantastic Forms–the books included in "Paper Engineering: Fold, Pull, Pop, and Turn" are multi-dimensional works of art.  The exhibit captures the excitement and wonder, as well as the complexity and sometimes seemingly gravity-defying actions, of these captivating books.

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"Fantastic Forms" book, titled One Red Dot: a Pop-Up Book for
Children of All Ages
, by David A. Carter, was printed in 2004, 
by Little Simon, New York



Background information on the books and collections is from Stephen Van Dyk, Library Director, at the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, New York.



Faux Finishing in the Smithsonian’s Great Hall

The Great Hall is one of the most impressive spaces in the Smithsonian's Castle, which was constructed between 1847 and 1855, using architectural elements that are reminiscent of the late Romanesque style.  The Great Hall's expansive width and dramatic height serve to make it a striking room, and its massive arcades–comprised of columns painted to resemble stone, which support imposing round-headed arches–run the length of the 125'-long hall.

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The Great Hall in the Smithsonian Castle


When the bases of the arcades' columns recently needed to be refurbished, Richard Stamm, Keeper of the Castle Collection, requested that Walter Skinner, the Office of Exhibits Central's (OEC) painter, undertake the project.  The columns, which are structural elements made of brick, are covered with ornamental finishes that are divided into three segments: a base–the bottom section; a shaft–the center section; and a capital–the top element.  The base, itself, is made up of two parts: the lower portion is black granite, while the rounded moldings above it are made of molded plaster, painted to resemble granite.  The shaft is also comprised of plaster: the flat part of the column is plaster on board; the rounded sections are molded plaster.  The capitals, as well, are made of molded plaster.  While the capitals were found to be in good condition, Skinner was asked to repair and repaint the columns' bases, and to touch up their shafts, where necessary.

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View of one of the columns in the Great Hall


Skinner's first step was to examine the bases to define the extent of the work, and to determine the best way to proceed.  The rounded moldings on all of the bases needed to be refinished, and a number of black granite corners which had gotten broken off over time, needed to be reconstructed.  Additionally, the shafts, which are currently painted to resemble multi-colored layers of marble, needed to be repaired and refinished, wherever damage had occurred.

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The lower section of the column's base is black granite; the rounded moldings
 above it are plaster that has been faux finished to resemble granite; the
shaft of the column is plaster that has been faux finished to resemble
various shades of marble


Using color sample books, Skinner carefully matched all of the columns' base and shaft colors on-site, and then took the information back to his shop to begin planning the project.  After extensive color matching, testing, and prototyping, Skinner achieved the results that he wanted.  He then took his painting materials to the Castle to perform a test on one of the columns for review by Rick Stamm.

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Skinner prepares a prototype of one of the shades of marble found on the
Great Hall columns



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Skinner's prototypes for the Great Hall's bases and columns


Because the Castle is an historic structure, all work completed at the building must be commensurate with the structure's style.  Additionally, the work methods that are employed must conform to health, safety, and environmental regulations.  Latex paints, for example, which are water-based and have a lower petroleum content, as well as lower VOC (volatile organic compound) ratings, have generally replaced oil-based paints.  VOCs are natural or synthetic compounds that vaporize into the air, some of which have a negative impact on air quality.  Using "Low-" or "No-VOC" latex paints can diminish the amount of harmful VOCs discharged into the atmosphere, and can also reduce the need for toxic solvents for paint cleanup, since latex paints are water soluble.

Also, because the building is open to the public, all of the work had to take place at night, after the museum had been closed and locked for the day, and it had to be completed before the building reopened the following morning, so that the Castle's daily operations would not be disrupted.  Skinner began at 6:00 p.m., and worked for approximately ten hours each night, for three weeks.

The rounded moldings above the lower granite bases required the most work, and so Skinner decided to begin there.  He used a 3-M masking machine to cut masking paper in 12" strips, which he adhered to the lower base and column shaft with blue, low-adhesive tape to protect the areas surrounding the painting site.  He also carefully covered the Castle's carpeting with canvas cloths.  Next, because the light levels in the Great Hall are rather low and Skinner was working at night, he set up four portable halogen light stands, which he moved from column to column as he progressed.

As Skinner noted, "The most important consideration when undertaking a painting project is the preparation, which is 80% of the process.  Covering floors and furniture; taping off areas that are not to be painted; assembling the correct materials; testing and prototyping; and creating sufficient lighting, ventilation, and temperature conditions are critical, and determine how successful the painting results will be."  Skinner's mastery of painting comes from his three years of training at the District Council 51 Allied Trade Union Apprenticeship Program, and his subsequent 20 years of work there.  His training incorporated all applications related to designing and decorating a wall, including painting, faux finishing, wood graining, plastering, staining, wallpaper hanging, dry wall finishing, and stucco work.

Once Skinner had prepared the painting site, he began refinishing the rounded plaster moldings by repairing any holes that existed, using "Easy Sand 5" Quick Set, which is a solvent-free joint compound, or hardening agent, that dries in five minutes.  He used a sanding sponge with fine- and medium-coarse grit sandpaper to sand the moldings to make sure they were smooth, and then applied a coat of latex primer.  Reconstructing missing granite corners on the lower bases required two coats of Quick Set which he wet-sanded to form into the correct shape.

The next step was to paint the rounded moldings and repaired corners with a base coat to establish the background color of the granite.  While the base coat was still tacky, Skinner integrated additional colors to achieve the appearance of natural-looking granite.  He used three different trays containing three different paint colors–light gray, dark gray, and beige–as well as small amounts of white and black.  Each paint color was mixed with a latex clear glaze, which made the paint more translucent; the mixture equalled 50% paint and 50% glaze.

Skinner then used an artist's eye to hand-paint the bases to create the appearance of granite by applying the different colors in varying gradations across the surface of the moldings.  Following that, he did "color spotting" which consisted of adding highlights in whatever color was predominate on that particular base to achieve a more natural-looking surface.  Because the glaze thins the paint, it dries fairly quickly.  After one hour, Skinner was ready for the final step, which was to apply a coat of "Stays Clear" gloss–a durable, hard, clear, fast-drying finish that provided a protective layer and created a polished granite effect.  Once completed, each base was allowed to dry overnight.  Skinner finished three to four bases per night before putting his equipment and brushes away in preparation for the reopening of the museum each morning.

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View of a column base


Skinner maintains a large collection of brushes which he has assembled over many years.  Ranging from 1/4" artist's brushes, which can be used for painting veins in marble, to 4" brushes, which can be used for staining decks, the choice is driven by the parameters of the job.  When using oil-based paints in the past, for example, he preferred to use a Chinese natural bristle brush, which was harder and more pliable; it did not absorb as much paint.  When using water-based paints, however, it is better to use a nylon acrylic brush, which is much more absorbant.  Because oil paint could travel further, it was unnecessary for the brush to absorb a great deal of paint; one gallon could cover 700 to 800 square feet.  With latex paint, on the other hand, the brush must be able to hold more paint in order to achieve the same coverage; one gallon of latex paint covers approximately 400 square feet.  Skinner also prefers to use a square-cut brush, rather than one with bristles cut on an angle, although it generally takes more wrist control to master, especially when painting corners.

According to Skinner, taking care of the brushes is crucial, with cleaning them properly being the most essential step in the painting process.  The brush must be washed thoroughly after each use with warm water.  The next step is to spin the brush by rapidly rolling the handle between both hands a few times–with the bristles pointed down–to dislodge most of the water.  While it is wet, a wire comb should be used to straighten the bristles and smooth them back into place.  The brush should then be stored in the manufacturer's cardboard wrapper in which it came; it can be put into the wrapper while it is still damp.

After Skinner had completed the bases of the Great Hall columns, the next phase of the Castle project was to repair and touch up the shafts, which are painted to resemble various shades of marble.  Skinner followed the same process: taping off, and preparing the painting site; repairing damaged areas; and carefully–but randomly–blending a number of colors to simulate the natural appearance of stone.  While the Great Hall has undergone many transformations over time, the current color range for the marbles consists predominantly of beige, gray, and black.  In some cases, it was necessary to apply latex paint on top of older oil-based paint, which made the project more complex since the consistency of the two paints is very different.  It is sometimes difficult for a water-based paint to adhere well to an oil-based one, for instance.

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Detail of one of the faux-finished marble columns


Once the work in the Great Hall was completed, Skinner was also asked to do touch-up painting in the Schermer Hall, also known as the "West Range."  Constructed in the mid-19th century, during a period of great popularity for "revival" styles, the Castle's design incorporated references to medieval architectural elements.  The "Lower Main Hall" or "Great Hall" as it is known today, for example, located in the central block of the Castle, was patterned after the communal room that was often found in castles in England and France during the 11th through 13th centuries; the eastern and westernmost sections of the building, on either side of the central block, were laid out as wings that were attached to the central block by "connectors" or "ranges."  The Castle's West Range is currently used for exhibits and to highlight the Castle collections.  Similar to the Great Hall, it contains impressive arcades, along with dramatic ceiling heights.

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The Schermer Hall or "West Range" of the Smithsonian Castle with a view
 of the "West Wing" through the open doorways


Followng the same process that he used for the Great Hall, Skinner first conducted extensive color matching on the columns, as well as the perimeter walls.  After preparing the painting site, he repaired damaged areas, sanded, and repainted, ensuring that his technique and methods were appropriate for the historic structure.  Because the perimeter walls are so tall, it was not feasible to repaint them from floor to ceiling.  Instead, Skinner repaired damaged sections, and then "faded" or "feathered" the paint that he applied to those areas so that it would blend in with the existing paint and be unnoticeable.

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View of a tri-colored column in the Schermer Hall


"One of the most interesting aspects of this field of work," Skinner said, "is that every job is different from the last.  I am inspired by great buildings, and get a lot of satisfaction from experimenting with various processes to determine which one is best for each particular situation.  Being able to work on-site in a wide variety of locations also keeps the job exciting, and I like having the opportunity to produce something that people can enjoy."



Background information on the Castle is from The Castle: an Illustrated History of the Smithsonian Building by Cynthia R. Field, Richard E. Stamm, and Heather P. Ewing (Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993). 

photo credit:  editor


A significant percentage of the objects that are selected for inclusion in museum exhibitions require brackets to hold them in place while they are on view.  One of the most indispensible steps in the exhibit development process is designing and constructing these often one-of-a-kind support structures, which vary widely in size and complexity.

The Office of Exhibits Central's (OEC) primary mount-maker, Howard Clemenko, follows a carefully thought-out process when developing a mount.  His first step is to gather as much information as possible from the curator and conservator relating to the object's history and fragility, as well as input from the exhibit designer regarding the anticipated design intent for the display of the object inside its exhibit case.  Next, he studies the object, itself, in order to discern its strengths and weaknesses, composition, and most advantageous angles.  He then determines the safest method for supporting the object, and best materials to use to fabricate the mount.  It is imperative that the bracket not alter the object in any way, and that the materials be inert, so that they do not chemically react with the object.  Additionally, Clemenko strives to make the brackets unobtrusive, so that visitors can focus on the important characteristics of the object.

Clemenko, who has been a mount-maker for twenty years, has designed and constructed thousands of brackets during his career.  The diverse list of projects on which he has worked while at OEC is a long one, including artifacts used in everyday life during the Roman era for display at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History; objects for exhibits organized by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service on the U.S. First Ladies, as well as on Jim Hensen's muppets; bird specimens and mollusk shells for the Smithsonian Institution Libraries, to accompany displays of their rare books; and objects from the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History's Numismatic Collection presenting a comparative study of American coinage over time.

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Study mounts for coinage for the "Stories on Money" exhibit from the
 Smithsonian's Numismatic Collection


For the Numismatic Collection's coinage exhibit, entitled "Stories on Money," Clemenko prototyped three different types of mounts which are pictured above.  The first–utilized for the large coins at the top and bottom–consisted of three prongs, each of which was constructed of flattened brass, bent at a right angle.  The second type–used for the two medium-sized middle coins–was made up of three different parts: a lower section composed of an inverted brass "V" which had a tyne on each end on which the coin sat; an upper section comprised of a small flat brass pin with a hook at the top which held the coin in place from above; and a stainless steel "Z"-shaped spring which connected the upper and lower sections together, and allowed the pin and hook to move, while providing enough tension to firmly hold the coin in place once it was mounted.  To install the coin, Clemenko grasped the small flat pin and hook with one hand, rested the coin on the tynes of the inverted V with the other hand, pulled the pin and hook up–by stretching the spring–until it reached the top of the coin, and then gently slipped the hook over the coin's upper rim.  The third type of mount–utilized for the smallest coin pictured above–was constructed of three strands of spring-tempered stainless steel, whose front ends were formed and flattened to fit the shape of the coin, and whose back ends were soldered together and inserted into the back board.  The tensile flexibility of the spring-tempered stainless steel allowed the bracket to firmly support the coin.

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Side view of study mounts for coinage


Clemenko used silver solder with a high percentage of silver content, and an acetylene air torch to heat, bend, and connect the metal materials.  He then covered the metal with a heated powder coating or with B-72, which served to seal the metal with a conservationally-approved inert buffer that prevented the bracket from directly rubbing against the surface of the coin.  The coins were displayed at varying distances from the back board to which they were mounted to enhance the exhibit case's visual interest.  Variations in depth can also be used to highlight a particularly important object within a case. 

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View of some of the coins included in "Stories on Money" at the
 National Museum of American History


A similar project on which Clemenko worked was the fabrication of a series of mounts for a collection of Greek coins and bank notes, on loan from the National Bank of Greece and the Welfare Foundation for Social and Cultural Affairs, which traced the history of Greece through the images that appeared on its currency.  "Classically Greek: Coins and Bank Notes from Antiquity to Today" was displayed in the Schermer Hall gallery of the Smithsonian's Castle Building in 2008.

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View of the installation of "Classically Greek" in the Schermer Hall of the
 Smithsonian's Castle Building


Mounts for an exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History, entitled "Going to Sea," were also constructed by Clemenko.  The show examined man's interaction with the sea by surveying the use of, and navigation of, the oceans; it illustrated the history of sea exploration from early navigational voyages, through contemporary discoveries many of which were made using highly-advanced technologies.

Clemenko first studied a drawing of the layout of the exhibit, which was provided by the exhibit designer, to determine where each object would be mounted, and what type of mount each artifact would require.

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Exhibit drawing for "Going to Sea"


Next, Clemenko carefully removed the object on which he intended to work from the storage vault, and took it to his workshop.

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Exhibit objects for "Going to Sea"


Clemenko then examined each object, paying particular attention to its condition and fragility.  An especially delicate sea shell, for example (pictured below), required a soft mount, which Clemenko fabricated using small plastic tubing made of polyolefin.  He heated and formed the shrink tube, creating an encircling loop which was the exact size of the sea shell, so that the shell would fit snugly within it.

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View of the back of the sea shell and its shrink tube loop


Next, he heated the tubing and attached a brass support rod to it, which would elevate the sea shell so that it would be more visible within its exhibit case.  Clemenko then placed the sea shell inside its shrink tube circle.  The shell's fragile appendages were reinforced from behind by the tubing, which was not visible from the front.

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View of the sea shell on its brass support rod


Clemenko has also constructed mounts for non-accessioned objects, which are sometimes included in exhibits.  "Journey Stories," which was organized by the Smithsonian's Traveling Exhibition Service, examined the intersection between transportation and American society by providing individual stories which illustrated the critical roles that mobility and travel have played in our country's history.  The limited security exhibit, which traveled to small and rural communities, included purchased objects which required less stringent conservation controls.

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The non-accessioned objects mounted inside this "Journey Stories" exhibit case included a clay tobacco pipe, dice, and a deck of cards–modern-day examples of items that would have been used by some of the early colonists on board a ship


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The non-accessioned objects displayed inside this "Journey Stories" exhibit case included cowry shells which were used for bartering, a ceramic jug, plates, and a pressed brick of tea with embossed surface designs


Another interesting project on which Clemenko worked, was the fabrication of a complex mount for an important artifact that was included in an exhibit at the University of Pennsylvania while he was working there.  According to Clemenko, "An archaeological dig in the Great Death Pit of the Royal Cemetery at Ur, conducted jointly by the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in 1928 and 1929, yielded a wealth of objects that were traced to Sumerians from the middle of the 3rd millennium B.C., in Mesopotamia.  During the dig, C. Leonard Woolley discovered two lyres of special interest, one of which was a beautifully-carved 'Boat-Shaped' Lyre with a figure of a standing stag on the front."

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Silver "Boat-Shaped" Lyre from the middle of the 3rd millennium B.C.


In 1997, the lyre was selected for inclusion in the "Treasures from the Royal Tombs of Ur" exhibit, which was organized by the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.  It was researched and documented by Maude de Schauensee–one of the exhibit curators at the University of Pennsylvania, and author of the book Two Lyres from Ur–who requested that Clemenko fabricate a mount for the stringed instrument, which required an especially high degree of planning.  The complexity of the mount resulted from a number of factors including the object's fragility; the fact that the lyre was divided into thirteen separate fragments; and the requirement that each fragment needed to be supported independently, so that the pieces could be removed and studied as distinct entities by scholars.

Additionally, each fragment needed to be mounted so that once it was removed for study, the mount would allow it to remain stable and level when placed on a flat surface.  Moreover, because of their fragility, the fragments could not be secured to their mounts in any way; the mounts needed to have vertical adjustability in order for the fragments to align properly for display; and each fragment had to overlap where necessary, but not touch the others.  Clemenko was also responsible for reconstructing the sections of the lyre that were missing, including the strings, and the branches of the copper tree on which the stag's front hoofs were braced.  The new pieces were to be fabricated out of present-day materials with the stipulation that they had to be clearly distinguishable as new, and they could not touch the original artifact.  Lastly, the lyre and its mount needed to be installed on an inclined surface in its exhibit case.

After careful consideration, Clemenko decided to fabricate a custom-formed cradle for each fragment upon which the artifact would rest.  He began by rolling Pliacre–a non-exothermic epoxy putty–between two sheets of plastic wrap moistened with water.  The moisture allowed the Pliacre to move within the plastic sheets so that it could be stretched quite thin.  When necessary, the plastic wrap was rewetted to allow the rolling and stretching process to continue.  When the Pliacre was thin enough, Clemenko placed the lyre fragments face down in a bed of sand.  He covered the backs of the objects with another sheet of plastic wrap to protect them, and then placed the Pliacre on top, gently pressing it to help it conform to the shape of the fragments.

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Side view of the Pliacre cradles and brass support rods; the stag's head
and antlers are visible on the left side of the image


After lifting the Pliacre "shells" or "cradles" off the objects, Clemenko let them dry for 24 hours.  He then applied a coat of B-72, and let them dry for another 24 hours.  A second coat of B-72 was applied, and allowed to dry for an additional 24 hours.  Following that, Clemenko immersed soft Tyvek–a high-density polyethylene fiber material–in B-72, let it rest overnight, and applied it to each Pliacre shell the following day to create a protective surface that would lie between the Pliacre and the lyre fragments.

The next step was for Clemenko to add more Pliacre epoxy putty beneath the shells to build up a mass to which he could attach the solid brass support rods which would run from the Pliacre cradles to the deck of the case.  After determining how thick the built-up areas needed to be in order to safely support the fragments, as well as the precise height and angle of each cradle, and the length that each brass support rod needed to be, Clemenko fit together the entire mount to make certain that the pieces were exactly as he wanted them to be, ensuring that the sides of the cradles were high enough to keep the objects securely in place on the inclined deck surface.  He then laid the lyre fragments on their individualized cradles to check their relationship to one another.  After removing the fragments, he completed the assembly by drilling holes in the built-up areas of the Pliacre cradles, and permanently attached the brass support rods.  Lastly, Clemenko drilled holes in the deck of the case to accommodate the brass rods.

Howard L.pdf - Adobe Acrobat Professional

Drawing showing the built-up area beneath the cradle,
as well as the brass support rod


As noted above, some of the project's complexity was derived from the fact that the fragments had to be removable for study.  When fully installed, however, many of the lyre fragments needed to overlap in order to show how the artifact would have originally appeared.  Additionally, the mounts were designed so that they would hold the fragments in a precise alignment when installed.  In order to avoid future handling problems, Clemenko supplied installation instructions for the  mount, which provided a specific order in which the fragments needed to be removed and re-installed following study.  As a consequence, the fragments were less likely to be incorrectly handled.

Howard M.pdf - Adobe Acrobat Professional 

View of the overlapping–but not touching–lyre fragments


"One of the greatest benefits of being a mount-maker," Clemenko noted, "is the opportunity to be able to study artifacts in such an intimate manner.  I also enjoy being able to participate in installations, and watch exhibitions come together in the gallery.  Additionally, as a sculptor, I appreciate fine work, and have a strong interest in form and dimensionality, which allow me to display the objects to their best advantage."

The ever-changing nature of designing and constructing supports for an unending list of objects, serves to keep Clemenko fascinated with the art of mount-making.  And combining traditional methods and materials with new ones, as they evolve, ensures that the field remains a fertile environment for the exchange of knowledge and information.

Howard N

Clemenko adjusts a mount for one of the muppets included in
"Jim Hensen's Fantastic World," organized by the Smithsonian
Institution Traveling Exhibition Service


photo credits

  photos 1-3:        Editor

  photos 4-8:        Jessica Hostetler

  photos 9-10:       Editor

  photos 11-12:    Two Lyres from Ur by Maude de Schauensee

  photo 13:           Elevation drawing of Pliacre mount by Howard Clemenko

  photo 14:           Two Lyres from Ur by Maude de Schauensee

  photo 15:           (c) The Muppets Studio, LLC.  All rights reserved

Background information on the Boat-Shaped Lyre from the article, "The 'Boat-Shaped' Lyre: Restudy of a Unique Musical Instrument from Ur" by Maude de Schauensee (Expedition, Volume 40, No. 2 [1998]).

3-D Scanning and Printing Initiative

The Office of Exhibits Central (OEC) recently launched an exciting new initiative utilizing 3-D scanning and printing technology.  One of the projects for which it is being used is an upcoming exhibit on which OEC is collaborating with the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH).  For the past several months, OEC model maker, Carolyn Thome, has been working with NMNH model maker, Paul Rhymer, to create plaster casts of bones and prehistoric tools that replicate the original artifacts.  The casts will be on long-term display in the exhibit which will be on permanent view at the museum.

In most cases, the plaster casts are being made from artifacts, or from existing casts which the model makers use to create silicone molds from which they subsequently produce new plaster casts.  In other cases, objects are on loan from outside lenders who have made their molds available to the model makers for use in making new casts.  In some cases, however, neither molds nor casts exist.  Additionally, in many instances, the objects are too fragile or too complex, or the artifacts are not accessible long enough for the model makers to be able to produce molds of them.  An effective alternative has been to use a 3-D “printer” or “fabricator” to create a cast from a computer data file.  The result is a three-dimensional object with an exceptionally high degree of detail.

In order to produce casts for the exhibit using the 3-D printer, the first step in the process was for NMNH researchers Mat Tocheri and Christyna Solhan to scan the artifacts at NMNH using a CT scanner.  The OEC team also transported its portable laser scanner to NMNH to help scan objects.  Once that was completed, the scan data were uploaded to OEC’s ftp site; each artifact had a separate data file.  Thome then created a “print build” for each artifact by importing the scan data into the software program and arranging it in the “build envelope” to achieve the most efficient print.  The build envelope–outlined on the computer screen–represents the actual size of the cavity in the 3-D printer in which the cast will be created; it measures 15″(l) x 10″(w) x 8″(h).  Once Thome achieved the arrangement that she wanted, she forwarded the “build data” to the 3-D printer.

3-D printer screen

“Print build” showing the scan data for several bones of a Homo floresiensis skeleton

To create the cast, fine powder, similar to plaster dust, is loaded into the cartridge, and an elevator-like mechanical metal plate is positioned at the top of the 15″(l) x 10″(w) x 8″(h) build envelope cavity inside the 3-D printer.  To begin production of the desired object, a “fast axis” arm moves back and forth across the metal plate, and spreads a thin layer of powder with every pass; each layer measures .004 mm.  Inside the arm, printer heads release a binding agent only where the computer data instruct them to, which binds the powder particles together at those points, creating a solid mass.  Each layer has individual print instructions, and successive layers are built up by the slow descending of the metal plate into the cavity, as the fast axis arm deposits layer upon layer of powder and binder.  The loose powder that is not glued together by the binding agent, serves to hold the object in place within the cavity.  After the object has been removed, the loose powder is collected, and reused for the next project.

Thome finishes the cast by sanding it, and painting it so that it resembles the original artifact, according to the curator’s specifications.  She then “infiltrates” it with a medium such as epoxy to help stabilize it, and increase its strength.  Brackets to position the object while it is on display are then constructed, if necessary.  As Thome observed, “Casts, themselves, often become accessioned artifacts, and it is tremendously exciting to be creating these pieces which may become part of the Smithsonian’s collections.”

An example of the use of this technology for the exhibit is a series of casts, made by Thome, of several bones of a Homo floresiensis skeleton from NMNH’s collections, which were scanned by the museum’s researchers.  The data file for the bones totaled 100 megabytes, and consisted of 39 separate files–one for each bone.  Thome processed the data file, and sent the print instructions to the printer.  The data file took 11 1/2 hours to print, and had 1,557 layers; the finished three-dimensional cast, standing approximately 6 1/4″ high, was then painted and sealed by Thome.

Another interesting example of the use of the technology for the exhibit is a set of casts on which Thome has been collaborating with a museum in South Africa.  Because the artifacts were only available for one week, it was not possible for the model makers to prepare traditional plaster casts of them; the use of the 3-D printer, however, allowed the project team to take advantage of the brief window of opportunity during which the objects were accessible.  The artifacts were hand-couriered from South Africa to Washington, D.C., where CT scans were made at NMNH.  Thome then used the printer to fabricate casts using the resultant data files; the casts included three endocasts–casts made of the inside of a skull; a jaw bone; and prehistoric tools.  Thome plans to provide copies of the casts to the museum in South Africa in exchange for allowing their artifacts to be scanned.


3-D “print” of an endocast


3-D “print” of a jaw bone

This invaluable initiative was made possible by a generous grant from the Smithsonian Institution Women’s Committee (SWC) which provided funding for the 3-D printer.  Their significant gift provided the support necessary for OEC to acquire the equipment, and begin utilizing the technology on current projects.  In addition to exhibit work, many other uses for the technology may be developed.  As mentioned above, collaborations among museums to exchange casts can increase each museum’s respective collection, as well as provide study casts for researchers, thereby creating a significant opportunity for a world-wide exchange of information.  Additionally, scan data files can be posted to web sites, greatly facilitating research and analysis.

OEC model makers, Vincent Rossi and Adam Metallo, who brought the 3-D printer to the attention of the Women’s Committee, expressed their gratitude to the committee for the SWC’s generosity.  Due to the Women’s Committee’s dedication to furthering the interests of the Smithsonian, as well as their understanding of the great benefits that can be derived from this equipment, Rossi and Metallo noted, OEC now has the ability to be able to share this technology with others on an ever-widening range of projects.

tools 1

3-D “print” of prehistoric tools

photo credit:

       Carolyn Thome

Rock seating

The Office of Exhibits Central (OEC) has been collaborating with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) on the creation of a bronze sculpture for inclusion in one of the museum’s upcoming exhibits.  When completed, the sculpture will resemble boulder-size rocks on which visitors can sit, allowing them to interact with the surrounding sculptural tableau.  Achieving a final result that closely resembled nature was a critical component of the work, which OEC model maker, Adam Metallo, accomplished with great success.

Rock seating model 1

From the onset, the project was discussed extensively among the curator and project manager at NMNH; OEC’s model making team which included Adam Metallo, Natalie Gallelli, and Vincent Rossi; and the artist who will be undertaking the other sections of the tableau.  Before the initial meeting, Metallo–an accomplished sculptor–conducted research on rocks in order to study a variety of textures, shapes, and sizes so that he could produce a generic model that was not geographically specific.  His research was used to help Gallelli produce a small maquette, which Metallo and Gallelli took with them to the introductory meeting with NMNH staff.  Once the maquette had been approved, Metallo was able to begin finalizing the sculpture’s details.

Rock seating aerial view

First, the outlines of the entire tableau were drawn on the floor.  Then, the model making team used a variety of props to establish the proper height, width, and depth for the rock seating which needed to comfortably accommodate two adults, and be in proportion to the rest of the sculptural grouping.  Once the dimensions and orientation of the seating had been determined, the next step in the process was to make a 3-D rendering of it in CAD software, which was subsequently printed out at full size to ensure that the sculpture was exactly as Metallo wanted it to be.

Metallo then glued 4″ thick strips of foam together to make a large block.  He used electric hot knives and wire cutters to sculpt the basic shape of the rock; the fine detail was completed with butcher knives, hot knives, and sandpaper.  Once the sculpting was finished, Metallo smoothed the surface of the foam with a heat gun which slightly melted the exterior, in order to remove the knife marks.  Lastly, the foam was sprayed with plaster using a cup gun to give it a stone-like appearance.

Rock seating 2

A bronze casting of the model will be produced at a nearby foundry, and the touchable rock seating will be installed at the museum.  As Metallo observed, “It is quite exciting and gratifying to be able to create something that will be on display at NMNH for many years to come.  I am also pleased by the fact that visitors will be able to interact with it, enjoy it as a sculpture, as rock seating, and as part of an important exhibit.”

Written by Antonia Harbin.


photo credits:

      photo 1: Adam Metallo–The rock seating model.

      photo 2: Adam Metallo–Vincent Rossi, Carolyn Thome, and intern Matthew
               Davis determine the appropriate height, width, depth, and
               orientation of the rock seating.

      photo 3: Antonia Harbin–The rock seating model.

Working Together on Dig It!

OEC’s Model Shop is working on two components for the National Museum of Natural History’s new exhibition, Dig It!: The Secrets of Soil — a topographic model showing the layers of soil under the surface and how they affect the land on which we live, and a cast of a tree trunk for the entrance portal of the exhibition.

As an editor, my work is pretty solitary and quiet. I am always amazed and a bit envious when I go back into the shops and see how the people in Fabrication and Model Shop have to work so closely together and how much daily collaboration and communication is needed to just get the job done — and done well.

The time-lapse video below is an extreme example as almost everyone in the shop lent a hand in putting together the fiberglass and rubber mold for the tree trunk cast.

Dig It!: The Secrets of Soil opens July 19.

More photos of the production of the topographical map and tree cast.

Everybody Loves the Muppets

The Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) and OEC have been working on a traveling exhibition about Jim Henson’s life work. We began design consultation in February 2006 and script editing in June 2006. Now that the script and design are finalized, we turn to production of the graphic and text panels, labels, cases, and mounts for the puppets that will be traveling with the show.

In March 2007, Bonnie Erickson (above right with Bert and Ernie), vice president of The Jim Henson Legacy and creator of many well-known Muppets, including Animal and Miss Piggy, flew down from New York to OEC’s collection storage facility to “style” or determine the position of each puppet. OEC designer Tina Lynch, mountmakers Howard Clemenko and Daniel Fielding, modelmaker Tim Smith (above left), and SITES registrar Josie Cole and project director Deborah Macanic worked with Ms. Erickson to convey the “personality” of each puppet within the constraints of the dimensions of the cases, conservation requirements, and safety for the objects during shipping.

Here OEC mountmaker Howard Clemenko (above) sets a small mount that will hold up Rowlf’s ear. During Ms. Erickson’s visit, OEC staff photographed each puppet’s position for reference during the fabrication of the mounts and installation of the puppets in the cases. Each mount is made to support the object without causing any damage to it, while also being virtually invisible to the visitor.

In the Design and Editing offices, we have hung rough color proofs of the graphics and text panels for the show to facilitate final proofreading and approval of colors and layouts before sending the digital files to our Graphics shop for final printing, laminating, and mounting.

Needless to say, having the Muppets and other works by Jim Henson at OEC has been a lot of fun! More photos.

Jim Henson’s Fantastic World begins touring this September at the Arkansas Arts Center in Little Rock, Arkansas.

The following organizations have graciously allowed OEC to show you these behind-the-scenes images of Jim Henson’s work:

For Bert and Ernie:
TM & (c) 2007 Sesame Workshop. All Rights Reserved.

For Rowlf and Kermit:
(c) The Muppets Studio, LLC.

For Cantus:
(c) 2007 The Jim Henson Company, All Rights Reserved.

Busy, Busy, Busy

There are so many things happening in the shops right now that it is difficult to write about just one project! Instead, I have posted some new pictures in the photo album for your enjoyment.

A team from the Fabrication and Model Shops have been installing the tri-motor airplane vignette for the new America by Air exhibit, opening at the National Air and Space Museum later this year.

Modelmaker Natalie Gallelli has been hard at work finishing the mannequins for that exhibit as well. Here she is posing with an airline attendant modeled from herself. In addition to sculpting and molding body parts for the mannequins, Natalie made all the clothing they wear.

And here is Jon Zastrow, one of OEC’s resident CNC router experts! The CNC (computer-numeric controlled) router makes producing multiple copies of intricately designed pieces much easier and more efficient.

Giant Crab Invades OEC!

Earlier this month, a Giant Japanese spider crab (Macrochera kaempferi) was donated to OEC by Izu Chuo Aqua Trading Co.,Ltd. OEC modelmaker Vince Rossi was searching for a large, intact specimen to use as a model for making a reproduction to hang in the National Museum of Natural History’s new Ocean Hall, which opens next year. Initially, Rossi thought he would have to use photographs for reference and sculpt the crab model by hand. “Sculpting takes more time and is more expensive,” said Rossi, “so I began searching for a specimen I could use as a mold. I didn’t think we would be this lucky.”

As luck would have it, he found the perfect specimen half way around the world. The giant Japanese spider crab can grow up to 3.5 to 4 meters long with their front legs and claws outstretched. But crabs of this size are rare and live about 2,000 feet under sea level. The specimen that Rossi found was 2.5 meters long, which is still a considerable size.

NMNH scientists are also excited about the donation. Smithsonian only has one specimen of this species in its collection, and its condition was never as good as this one. Dr. Rafael Lamaitre, chair of NMNH’s Invertebrate Zoology department, along with Cheryl Bright, collection manager for the same department, took samples of the crab’s flesh to freeze for future molecular DNA studies. They also documented the specimen for inclusion in NMNH’s collection.

After OEC has finished using the specimen to make the reproduction for the Ocean exhibit, it will go to the National Zoological Park, where flesh-eating beetles will clean all the soft tissue from the specimen, leaving only the hard exoskeleton. The specimen will then be moved to NMNH’s collections facility in Suitland, Maryland.

OEC modelmakers will be making other reproductions for the Ocean Hall, including an oarfish and a sunfish.

top photo: Vince Rossi positions the giant crab to tag each part before molding.
bottom photo: Dr. Rafael Lamaitre takes a sample from the giant crab.

See more photos of the giant crab and other OEC projects.