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Category: Exhibit Design

Journeying with Journey Stories

The process of creating Journey Stories has been a journey in itself. The traveling exhibit, in development since October 2006, will hit the road in 2009 in Illinois, Kansas, Mississippi, North Dakota, and Oklahoma. OEC is producing this exhibition for Museum on Main Street (MoMS), a collaboration between the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) and the Federation of State Humanities Councils.

Journey Stories focuses on the mobile elements of American society. Regardless of their cultural backgrounds, all Americans have a story to tell of their own personal journeys or of their ancestors. The exhibition tells the story of migrations (both voluntary and forced) into and throughout the United States, the tenacity and creativity of transportation workers, and of development of the methods of transportation that our desire to explore demanded. The exhibit highlights people’s stories about picking up and moving somewhere else and of fun and frolic on the open road. Methods of transportation may have changed from the wagon to the train to the car, but Americans keep on moving.

OEC editor Angela Roberts and OEC designer Tina Lynch have been involved with the exhibit from the very beginning of the project. William Withuhn, curator of Transportation History at the National Museum of American History (NMAH) and curator for this exhibit, is writing the script, while the team from OEC and MoMS works to customize this content-rich exhibit for the needs of cultural organizations in rural communities. Our “journey stories” are told through audio and text quotes, compelling historic photographs and artwork, and reproduction objects and maps.  MoMS staff have been researching and gathering the components, as well as obtaining rights and permissions to use photographs from collections around the country.

Designer Lynch has converted several of the black and white photographs into colored duotones. This change from the original image gives visitors a new way to look at something familiar. Several of the photos used in the design, Lynch obtained using connections through friends of friends, which was a pleasant surprise in the design process. OEC graphics specialist Theresa Keefe works with Lynch to prepare the final high resolution images for printing.  Using Photoshop, she cleans up the images and makes corrections in the final color output.

OEC mountmaker Howard Clemenko is hard at work bracketing objects, and our crating specialist, Harry Adams, has made the necessary calculations to safely ship the entire show within strict shipping parameters.  Other modelmakers are experimenting with methods for encapsulating or replicating different materials, such as barbed wire and tobacco twists.

OEC has a long history with MoMS.  We’ve designed and produced all of their exhibits since 1994, starting with Produce for Victory and its award-winning design. 

The Art of African Exploration

Starting in December 2008 visitors to the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) get the chance to view rare illustrated books highlighting European explorations of Africa in the 1800s. The Smithsonian Institution Libraries (SIL), through a donation from the Folger Foundation, is building and installing two exhibition cases in NMNH’s lobby that will showcase the Libraries’ vast collections of books.

Damage from light is an important consideration when deciding how to exhibit rare books. Light damage is both permanent and cumulative, so the exhibition will display volumes on a rotating basis. The exhibit will also include works on paper and manuscripts that relate to African exploration. Members of the OEC Design/Editing unit met with the Libraries in March to view the books in person and start planning the exhibit.


Lynn Kawaratani, Bart McGarry, and Alicia Jager are the OEC designers working on this exhibition. Jager is designing the graphics while Kawaratani and McGarry design the three-dimensional layout with small-scale paper models of the cases and books. Kawaratani stressed the advantages of using the paper models to design this exhibit instead of a computer, such as the ability to verify the book rotations and easily present the vision to the client.

photo: McGarry and Kawaratani arrange books in the scale model.

Developing a Greek Currency Exhibit

Classically Greek: Coins and Bank Notes from Antiquity to Today, the newest exhibit in the Smithsonian Castle, gives insight into the development of the history of Greece through the images on its currency.

The objects used in this exhibit come from the National Bank of Greece and the Welfare Foundation for Social and Cultural Affairs (KIKPE), also in Greece.  Before the artifacts arrived from Greece, OEC designer Alicia Jager used images of the objects to design a layout and panels for the display. She used gold and silver hues to maintain a classic tone throughout the fourteen panels used in the exhibit.

OEC writer/editor Rosemary Regan rewrote the script for the show sent from Athens from a larger exhibit, which presented several challenges. The original exhibit was more specific about modern Greek history, so Regan reworked the script to present a broader view of Greek history to be more accessible to a non-Greek audience. Regan also had to add some information about figures from Ancient Greece and Greek mythology that the average visitor in America might not know about, but which did not need explanation in Greece.

The team at OEC worked with the numismatic collection staff at the National Museum of American History and the organizations in Greece to confirm details about the exhibition.  Ellen Dorn, OEC director of Special Exhibitions, has collaborated with teams from other countries in the past. Dorn described that two of the biggest issues with working internationally are time differences and shipping issues, but then explained:

All in all though, there’s not a huge difference in dealing with museums here or outside of the US…[e]ven though there are some differences when dealing with lenders in other countries, the safety of the objects always take priority, no matter if they're coming from a lender within or from outside of the US.

This exhibit can be seen in the Schermer Hall of the Castle and will be on display until June 10, 2008.

top photo: Jager puts the finishing touches on a label.

bottom photo: Graphics panels and display cases containing Greek coins and bank notes

More photos

Challenges in Exhibit Development

The Office of Exhibits Central is collaborating with the National Museum of Natural History‘s Department of Exhibits to produce a temporary show tentatively called Going to Sea. This exhibition will open next fall in conjunction with NMNH’s new Ocean Hall, and will be on display for approximately 18 months. Like all exhibitions, this one presents some interesting challenges for the exhibit team to overcome.

Challenge #1: OEC’s design staff is down one member, as one of our designers is on family leave for about 6 months. Luckily, Mary Bird, OEC design supervisor, was able to negotiate with National Museum of American History to have one of their designers, Stevan Fisher, work on the project with OEC while NMAH is closed for renovations.

Challenge #2: The budget for this temporary gallery is tight. This has impacted the parameters of the design as we look for ways to cut costs without sacrificing quality. The original design took into account the budget from the beginning. For example, rather than custom build intricate cases, we are buying standardized cases from an outside company.

Challenge #3: Some of the objects are very fragile. For a section about Micronesian cultures and navigation, most of the objects available in the Smithsonian’s collection are made of organic materials, which have stringent conservation requirements.

The gallery for this exhibit has three large exterior windows in the main exhibit area and two small windows, one of which is inside the alcove where the Micronesian objects are to be displayed. These small windows cannot be blocked due to constraints from the National Capital Planning Commission and the U.S. Fine Arts Commission. The natural light is beautiful, but much too strong for the Micronesian objects. Over time, light fades the natural paints and materials in the objects and begins to break down the materials, which become brittle and more breakable. The light in this gallery, on a cloudy day, measures about 73 footcandles. The objects the exhibit team wants to display cannot be in an environment with more light than 10 footcandles.

Quite a difference!

The exhibit team is now looking at options for cutting down the light that reaches these objects while on display. Some solutions floated have been UV and light-blocking film on the windows and the glass on the cases, making the cases deeper, having three solid sides on the cases rather than glass all the way around, and hanging graphic banners in such a way as to block extra light.

In reality, a combination of these options will be utilized to bring us to the requirements for safely exhibiting these objects for our visitors, while preserving them for the future.

Challenge #4: Each of these fragile objects needs to be supported and held in place by a custom-made bracket. OEC’s Model Shop will consult closely with the designer and the conservators to create brackets that both protect and support the object, while being virtually invisible to the visitors.

Check back often to see what solutions we employ and how our progress continues.


Top photo: Stevan Fisher, exhibit designer from the National Museum of American History, has been detailed to Office of Exhibits Central to work on this exhibit.

Bottom photo: (left to right): Greta Hansen (NMNH Anthropology conservator), Stevan Fisher (NMAH exhibit designer), Sally Love (NMNH exhibit developer), Natalie Firnhaber (NMNH Anthropology conservator), and Sarah Grusin (NMNH exhibit writer) discuss choices for objects.

OEC Goes to Sea

The Office of Exhibits Central is partnering with the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) on a temporary gallery to open in conjunction with the new Ocean permanent gallery set to open in late 2008.

Currently we are in the consultation and early design phase of the project. OEC designer Lynn Kawaratani has created an initial model and drawings for consideration. NMNH’s Sally Love (exhibit developer) and Sarah Grusin (exhibit writer) are writing the script and determining objects to be in the temporary gallery, which is tentatively titled Going to Sea. This exhibit will focus on human interaction with the sea through nautical navigation tools, specimens collected from oceanic surveys, folk art, and seafaring cultural objects from Micronesia.


top photo: Lynn Kawaratani consults with OEC exhibit specialist Bart McGarry to choose textured laminates and colors to present to the project team from NMNH.