Home » Exhibit Planning

Category: Exhibit Planning

Conquering the Panda Challenge

Sometimes developing exhibits can feel like a maze, with many different directions to explore and challenges to overcome. Recently, Smithsonian Exhibits (SIE) was asked to build a real maze for the Panda House at Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute (NZP). The purpose of the interactive is for visitors to guide a panda through the bamboo forests of China, avoiding problem areas, such as fragmented habitat, construction, and deforestation. The maze is intended to show visitors of all ages the rapidly growing challenges that pandas face every day when traveling through bamboo forests seeking food, shelter, and looking for a mate.


Zoo sign and flower bed at the entrance to Smithsonian's National Zoo
Smithsonian’s National Zoo. Courtesy of Mehgan Murphy, Smithsonian’s National Zoo


Since SIE fabricator Enrique Dominguez had worked on a similar project in a previous job, it was decided that his experience would make for smooth development on this project. Starting with the design, Enrique created drawings on a computer platform that allowed him to make changes and flesh out details quickly. Then the team needed to figure out where the “positive” and “negative” areas of the maze would be. Enrique designed the maze so that the ball would keep rolling freely down the green pathways, but visitors would have to turn the wheel completely to release the ball when it got stuck in the problem areas. This design avoids the issue of having to reset the maze before each use.

Enrique created a cardboard cutout of the wheel with all of its graphics to show the Zoo the concept and scale. Then he created a maze pattern, which he 3D routed so that it could be held and played to resemble how the finished maze would actually look and feel.


Wooden structure with a wheel at the center containing a maze
The prototype for the panda maze


A close-up of the maze, showing details of the graphic, including bamboo leaves, tractors, cars, and construction signs
The prototype of the maze included placeholder graphics depicting hazards, such as deforestation, roads, construction, and farming, which the panda must avoid to reach the bamboo forest.


When selecting materials, Enrique wanted to keep handles to a minimum, so that kids playing with the maze could not hold on and hang from the exhibit. By using short, rounded handles and placing a bearing on the back of the wheel, the maze essentially has a brake to stop it from spinning on and on. Finally, after getting the client’s approval, the final prototype was built and its durability was put to the test when a number of children played with it.

Following the rapid prototyping phase, SIE and NZP met with Beth Ziebarth, Director of Access Smithsonian, who tested the interactive to make sure that it met all standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act and was accessible for all individuals.


A group of four people surround the Panda Maze prototype. Three are standing and one is in a wheelchair.
SIE, NZP, and Beth Ziebarth, Director of Access Smithsonian, test the interactive.


The next step will be to fabricate and install the interactive at the Zoo’s Panda House. The maze will be built by SIE’s fabrication experts to withstand wear and tear from interaction for years to come. Look for the final maze at the Zoo later this fall.

OEC at the Staff Picnic in Rain and Shine

Undeterred by intermittent showers, OEC staff shared their work with the greater Smithsonian
community. It was a chance to connect with other exhibit and museum
professionals. Even the Secretary stopped by to say hi.


SI picnic Image 1

The OEC Model Shop showcased the ability of its 3D scanning and printing technology with a range of
3D-printed models.


SI picnic Image 2

OEC brought an assortment of low-tech interactive exhibits to talk about exhibition design and fabrication. The mailbox in the foreground allowed visitors to read historic postcards for the exhibit Mail Call.



SI picnic Image 3

The OEC Graphics Shop featured the capabilities of its direct-to-surface printer, which can print on a wide variety of substrates, including acrylic, metal, corrugated plastic, MDF panel, and seat cushion (all pictured).


SI picnic Image 4

Jia-Sun Tsang, of the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute, discusses the green conservation-grade exhibit cases that were developed in partnership with OEC.


“As We Grow: Toys, Games, Traditions” at NMAI

by Rosemary Regan, OEC exhibits editor


Editing usually involves working on someone else’s writing, but with this project I had the fun of writing an exhibit from scratch.

NMAI had decided to put a new exhibit in its “Windows on Collections” cases. The nine cases had previously held beadwork, but since they were located near the children’s activity center, it was decided that a display of toys, games, and beautifully sewn children’s clothing would be more appropriate. Curator Mary Jane Lenz would select the pieces and provide the themes. I was asked to write the words.

The objects come from Native communities all over North and South America, and they range from dolls to lacrosse sticks and “snowsnakes” (a type of javelin-throwing game) to a baby’s embroidered parka. One area was set aside for more grown-up games — games of skill and traditional games of chance, like the “hand game” that Native peoples have played for centuries across North America.

I drafted a few short, simple, kid-friendly texts on the show’s main themes (Clothed in Tradition, Learning by Playing, Games Bring Us Together). Then I got to see the selected objects at NMAI’s Cultural Resource Center. Whenever I was baffled by an object — every kid has played with toy dishes, but how do you play with a toy manioc squeezer from Suriname? — Mary Jane would fill me in, or point me to another expert, and from that I would draft a short label. I also did a little book- and Web-based research on such arcane subjects as elk teeth (used for decoration), the history of Apache playing cards, and the refinements of throwing a snowsnake.

This project has been play for me.


Secretary Clough Comes to OEC

Secretary Wayne Clough paid a visit to OEC last week to view the production process of the latest Museum on Main Street exhibit: The Way We Worked.  The exhibit was developed by MoMS and is based on a collection of photographs from the National Archives. The Way We Worked takes a close look at the important role work plays in American lives and how our workforce has changed over time.  Five copies of the exhibit were produced at OEC and began shipping out to small towns across America at the end of August.

Being from a small town himself, the Secretary spoke about how important cultural programing like traveling exhibitions are for rural Americans. He also mentioned how impressed he was with OEC’s handiwork. It was a pleasure to share our work with the Secretary and an exciting way to wrap up the production of another terrific MoMS exhibit. 


Robbie Davis of MoMS assembles TWWW in preparation for the Secretary's visit. 

Secretary Clough viewing TWWW.


Secretary Clough poses for a photo at the entrance of TWWW.


Secretary Clough talking with modelmakers Jon Zastrow and Danny Feilding about the fabrication process of TWWW. 

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.