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Category: Fabrication

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.

Building a Better Exhibit Case

The Office of Exhibits Central and the Museum Conservation Institute develop affordable and sustainable conservation-grade casework.

OEC collaborated with MCI to design and test exhibit cases that meet the stringent requirements of object conservators to keep Smithsonian artifacts safe from environmental damage and material degradation.

Previously, Smithsonian museums had to contract this kind of specialized work out to one of a handful of manufacturers. The cost of these cases was almost always prohibitive, especially for temporary exhibits. The new high-level conservation-grade casework can be produced at a reasonable cost in-house at OEC.

Mindful of the Smithsonian’s commitment to sustainability, the system encourages recycling. Existing exhibition cases can be retrofitted with conservation-grade object chambers. The cases also address both security concerns and fire safety.

The process and construction technique are the result of years of effort by staff members at both OEC and MCI. Conservator Jia-Sun Tsang tested a wide range of products to determine the best conservation-grade materials to construct the case. OEC provided the engineering, equipment, and fabrication expertise.


microchamber, or sealed object chamber

Illustration of object chamber, desk, and vitrine. The sealed object chamber, called a “microchamber,” isolates a museum object from harmful gases and other materials and maintains a stable humidity.


Microchamber fitted into exhiition case

Microchamber fitted into exhibition case.


Helmet in conservation grade case

This microchamber with deck was retrofitted to an ex¬isting wooden case. A set of metal coupons (back right corner)—used to monitor conditions inside the case—showed no corrosion after nine months. Photo: Don Hurlbert, NMNH.


Cyprus: Crossroads of Civilizations

Wooden display cases retrofitted with conservation-grade microchambers for the exhibition “Cyprus: Crossroads of Civilizations” at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, 2010–2011. Photo: Don Hurlbert, NMNH.

For more information about conservation-grade cases, click below to download: “Conservation Meets Sustainability: Recycling Wooden Exhibition Cases.” WAAC Newsletter, Volume 35, Number 2, May 2013

Download Conservation Meets Sustainability

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.


An Indoor Tree for Orchids of Latin America

A lifelike Banyan tree recalls the tropical rainforest
at the National Museum of Natural History.

of Latin America
(Natural History, January 26-April 21, 2013) explored
the crossroads of botany, horticulture, and culture. Exhibit planners wanted to
transport visitors to the tropical rainforest, so they requested a dramatic Banyan
tree sculpture at the exhibit entrance to evoke the orchids' lush habitat. Orchids has since closed, but the tree
remains at NMNH.

Designing, making, and installing a life-sized
tropical tree required careful planning by OEC’s Model Shop. The tree was made
in sections to allow for transport and delivery through the hallways at NMNH.

Modelmakers began by building
a welded armature trunk with removable branches. They then applied fire-rated urethane
foam and carved it into shape. Next, trunk and branches were coated with a
water-based, pliable material that would hold a texture and harden. Modelmakers
sculpted strangler fig vines on top of the trunk, and stained both with color. The
entire structure was transported to NMNH, where modelmakers attached branches,
adjusted leaves, and painted the surface to make the Banyan tree appear a
seamless whole.


Banyan tree model covered with foam

The tree’s metal armature skeleton is covered with blocks of urethane foam.
Taking a mold of tree bark

Modelmakers Erin Mahoney and Megan Dattoria make a mold of living tree bark at the Kogod Courtyard.
Painted Banyan trunk

The painted Banyan trunk with strangler fig vines.

The completed Banyan tree greets visitors at NMNH.

“The Art of Video Games” Genre Kiosks

Based upon gameplay interaction, in their current exhibit “The Art of Video Games” the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) divided content into four Genres:  Action, Target, Adventure, and Tactics.  This taxonomy pretty much summarizes our Fabrication Unit process on the project.


In July 2011 OEC contracted with SAAM to prototype, then build, twenty Genre Kiosks for the traveling exhibition “The Art of Video Games.”  These brightly colored consoles house audiovisual programs tracing the evolution of video-game art.

After prototype approval in late September 2011, production proceeded apace through the December doldrums to delivery in February 2012. The exhibit opened the following month to record crowds at the Donald W. Reynolds Center (DWRC), where it will remain until a national tour begins in October 2012. 


Collaborating with SAAM Visual Information Specialist David Gleeson, OEC refined the original drawings, distilling a construction package that lent itself to heavy use of our Onsrud CNC Panel Router. Under the tutelage of Adam Bradshaw, project lead fabricator and taskmaster (in the best sense of this term), much of the detailing was crafted by Bassem Shaaban, a gifted summer intern and recent Howard University graduate whom we eventually hired to build the prototype. The job represented our first significant in-house CNC production run of exhibit casework.



Fresh from the Onsrud CNC Panel Router, a Genre Kiosk body bottom awaits assembly. 
Photo Courtesy of SAAM.
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Harry prepares a Duratrans image frame for painting.
Photo courtesy of Carolyn Thome.



To build the Kiosks, we moved boldly into unfamiliar territory. After some experimentation with a cold metal finish on the gray Kiosk bodies, OEC opted for a pre-catalyzed waterborne lacquer system, a durable, if finicky, alternative to our traditional acrylic latex paint. Here the assistance of volunteer Bobby McCusker, who is familiar with auto body work in his other life, and Michael Arndt, our capable Department of Veterans Affairs NPWE trainee, was critical. To date we are pleased with the lacquer’s performance.       

The_Art_of_Video_Games_013 (3)

Michael fashions Duratrans image attachment clips.
Photo Courtesy of Carolyn Thome.

Adam sprays the pre-catalyzed lacquer finish.
Photo courtesy of Carolyn Thome.

We also were adventurous (for us) in our selection of assembly hardware, deciding, for example, to pair racing latches with routed HDPE locator cones in affixing top to bottom Kiosk body sections.

And the project included some audiovisual electronic assembly, unusual work for OEC.  With guidance in gear selection from an outside contractor, and benefiting from Adam’s US Holocaust Memorial Museum experience, we negotiated this challenge successfully.

IMG_7609 (2)

Bobby and David assemble Kiosks.
Photo courtesy of Carolyn Thome.


Like most SI exhibit shops, OEC is learning to work efficiently with reduced permanent staff. To compensate on this SAAM project, we depended upon rapid, relentless parts fabrication by the Onsrud CNC Router, the in-house cooperation of our Fabrication and Model Making Units, and (as already noted) beaucoup hours of clever contributions from interns/volunteers. This effort seems to have borne fruit; OEC recently contracted with SAAM to build the Archive Wall for a Nam June Paik exhibit opening at DWRC in December 2012.


The exhibit opens. Photo courtesy of SAAM.

Written by Robert Perantoni
Edited by Rosemary Regan