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Can You Tell the Difference?

In 1955, businesswoman, philanthropist, and collector Marjorie Merriweather Post (1887–1973) purchased the Hillwood Estate in Northwest Washington, D.C. Post directed her architects and designers to refurbish the 1920s neo-Georgian mansion into a nobler residence that would function as a fully staffed home as well as a showcase for her sophisticated collections of late eighteenth-century French and Imperial Russian décor.

Today, visitors from around the world can experience the Hillwood Estate and explore the awe-inspiring mansion, museum, and thirteen acres of formal gardens that continue to display Marjorie Merriweather Post’s charming array of collections: a tasteful and true legacy that she left behind.


The Hillwood mansion


Hillwood’s formal gardens

When the Hillwood Estate, Museum, and Gardens approached Smithsonian Exhibits (SIE) to recreate a number of decorative elements for a newly constructed display case, we jumped at the challenge. The sign of a good replica is that you can’t tell the difference from the original. At Smithsonian Exhibits, that is exactly what the sculptors and model makers aim to achieve. Project Manager Seth Waite and Exhibits Specialists Danny Fielding, Chris Hollshwander, and Carolyn Thome worked on the project for SIE.

After doing some research, Seth discovered that the hardware company and metal foundry that made the original decorative elements—P.E. Guerin, established in New York in 1857—was still in business. Hillwood considered working with the company to recreate the elements using their traditional metal casting techniques, but ultimately decided to go with SIE’s traditional approach using more modern materials.

On any project, the first step is to determine the client’s needs and decide which methods and approaches will work best to meet them. When recreating the decorative elements for Hillwood, SIE carefully considered a variety of manufacturing methods, eventually deciding that Danny would mold and cast the pieces himself. Once this decision was made, the next step was to select the best materials to use to create the most faithful and durable replicas for Hillwood. After testing the compatibility of several materials and carefully preparing the molds, SIE’s experts then proceeded with production.


Mold preparation- Front
Mold preparation in process


Production molds for each original piece
Production molds for each original piece


Open pour resin casting
Resin is poured into one of the molds to create a cast.


Raw resin casts ready for finishing
Raw resin casts ready for finishing


Finally, Carolyn created a finish that closely matched the originals.


Smithsonian Exhibits finished replicas
SIE’s finished replicas


Smithsonian Exhibits finished replicas
SIE’s finished replicas


Smithsonian Exhibits finished replicas
SIE’s finished replicas


Can you tell the difference between the original and the replica? (The answer is at the end of the post.)
Can you tell the difference between the original and the replica? (The answer is at the end of the post.)


Original pieces adorning Hillwood’s traditional collections case
The historic display case with its original decorative elements


Original pieces adorning Hillwood’s traditional collections case
The historic display case with its original decorative elements


Finished elements created by SIE mounted on Hillwood’s new collections case
The new display cases with the replica decorative elements created by SIE


Finished elements created by SIE mounted on Hillwood’s new collections case
The new display cases with the replica decorative elements created by SIE


While this only skims the surface, hopefully it gives you a better idea of the multifaceted steps that go into replicating artifacts. The next time that you’re admiring a work of art—original or a replica—take a moment to study the craftsmanship of the piece. The artistry and attention to detail that go into the process is truly awe-inspiring.

So, were you able to tell the difference between the original and the replica in the photo above? (The replica is on the left and the original is on the right.)

Coming Attractions: Beyond Bollywood

Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation opens February 27 at the National Museum of Natural History. Organized by the Asian Pacific American Center, this exhibit hightlights the histories and contributions of Indian Americans. Beyond Bollywood is not only the largest exhibit on this subject, but it also inagurates a new gallery space at the Natural History Museum. 

OEC is responsible for design, production, and installation of Beyond Bollywood. Here is a behind-the-scenes preview of the upcoming exhibition:

Images Images2 Images3

Created with flickr slideshow.

Unwrapping the Cosmic Buddha

The intricate images that cover this monumental standing Buddha are very difficult to see. Traditionally, scholars have made rubbings with black ink on white paper to study such low-relief carvings. But digital scanning and CNC milling make another approach possible.

Curator Keith Wilson asked OEC to create a touchable model of the details on this Chinese limestone figure, known as the Cosmic Buddha. They provide a rare glimpse into early Chinese visions of the Buddhist world, a kind of symbolic map depicting a cosmos with an infinite number of realms. Traces of pigment on the surface suggest that the dense design was originally painted, which would have made the scenes easier to perceive.

The 3D Digitization Office provided hi-res images of an “unwrapped” view of the Buddha—that is, with the details laid out flat instead of “in the round.” OEC model maker Chris Hollshwander then ran the scans through specialized software to prepare them for the Haas CNC Mill. The CNC Mill can work with a wide variety of materials, so Hollshwander experimented, machining 3D models out of polyurethane board and aluminum. This technique can be used to create touchable models of any scannable object in the Smithsonian collections.

The finished model serves as a case study for how to translate 3D scans into “unwrapped” touchable models that can be used for research and education in a variety of ways: to provide hands-on learning opportunities for low-vision visitors in the galleries, or for teaching rubbing techniques to new scholars. Wilson plans to use multiple copies for experimenting with the application of pigment, to explore ideas about the figure’s original appearance.


Cosmic Buddha

Left to right: The Cosmic Buddha Buddha Vairochana (Pilushena) with the Realms
of Existence China, probably Henan province, Northern Qi dynasty, 550–77, Limestone
with traces of pigment, Freer Gallery of Art; Shoulder detail; Traditional ink
rubbing; 3D scan

Flattened or “unwrapped” digital view with scene divisions indicated; Haas CNC Mill at work milling the Buddha out of synthetic board
Cosmic Buddha relief models

Left to right: synthetic board and aluminum models of the unwrapped Buddha

Thanks to contributors Keith Wilson, Curator of Ancient Chinese Art, Freer Gallery of Art/Arthur M. Sackler Gallery; Chris Hollshwander, Model Maker, Office of Exhibits Central


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.

Time and Navigation and a Dog

When the National Air and Space
Museum needed a very special dog,
they turned to OEC’s Model Shop.

In 1839, Charles Wilkes led the
U.S. Exploring Expedition into Antarctic waters, accompanied by a large
Newfoundland named Sydney. For the exhibition “Time and Navigation: The Untold
Story of Getting from Here to There
,” NASM planned a diorama of Wilkes’s cabin.
Naturally they wanted to include Sydney.

NASM asked the Model Shop for a
sculpture, to be based on Sir Edwin Landseer’s 1831 dog painting A Distinguished Member of the Humane Society.
(Fun fact: This breed of black and white Newfoundland is now called Landseer
Newfoundland, after the painting.)

OEC modelmakers began with an
armature of wire and Styrofoam. Lora Collins (Model Shop supervisor and chief
sculptor) then piled on the clay and sculpted a lifelike, full-scale dog
portrait. When the sculpture is done, modelmaker Chris Hollshwander will make a
mold of the piece in silicone rubber. The mold will then go to a metal foundry,
and a bronze cast of Sydney will be produced, finished with a black and white
patina to match the coloring of the breed.



Stage 1: A basic dog shape in foam and wire. On the wall,
a print of Landseer’s A Distinguished Member of the Humane Society serves as a model, along with photos of less famous Newfoundlands.



Stage 2: With clay applied over the wire armature, the sculpture starts to look more realistic.


Modelmaker Carolyn Thome (right) brought in her dog for a day of live modeling. Not the same breed, but her presence helped Lora to give life to the figure. In the background, Lora Collins and Erin Mahoney.


Stage 3: Sculptor Lora Collins adds detail.



Lora Collins works on a paw. As details of fur and expression are added, Sydney’s personality emerges


Ready for the mold

Ready for his close-up! The clay model is finished and all set for mold-making.


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. 

Journey Stories

The Smithsonian’s Museum on Main Street (MoMS) program recently completed the latest in a series of exhibits developed in collaboration with the Federation of State Humanities Councils.  MoMS–a division of the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) which serves small town museums and residents of rural America–has added “Journey Stories” to its impressive list of exhibit offerings.  Curated by William Withuhn at the National Museum of American History (NMAH), “Journey Stories” examines the intersection between transportation and American society by providing individual stories which illustrate the critical roles that mobility and travel have played in our country’s history over time.  The MoMS staff worked with the Office of Exhibits Central (OEC) to design and fabricate five copies of the 600 square foot, free-standing exhibit, which began touring in May 2009.  Audio components; objects including clay jugs, courie shells, and hurricane lanterns; cut-out figures; and engaging graphics supplement the compelling text. 

The five copies of the exhibit will travel within the states of Illinois, Mississippi, North Dakota, Kansas, and Oklahoma during the first year of the tour.

A. Intro final

“Journey Stories” Title Panel


D. Pilgrims final

One Way Trip


J. Ax man final

Pushing the Boundaries


N. Wagon train final

Across the “Great Desert” to the West!



photo credit:

  OEC editor

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. 

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.

New Harmonies Ships Out

Last Tuesday, staff from the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES), Museum on Main Street (MoMS), the Federation of State Humanities Councils, and OEC gathered along with other guests to celebrate the completion and shipping of the last of 5 copies of New Harmonies: Celebrating American Roots Music for their tours in Idaho, Mississippi, Illinois, Guam, and Washington.

This has been an extensive project that has touched every aspect and staff member at OEC. Consultation on the project began in November 2004, moving to design and editing in October 2005, and production in July 2006.

The production of New Harmonies has been featured in other entries here and here.

See more photos of the reception and the preview installation of New Harmonies.

top photo: Devra Wexler and Ruth Trevarrow from SITES play with the diddley bow in the Blues kiosk.

bottom photo: Rosemary Regan, OEC editor, and Dan Meijer, SI contractor, get their zydeco groove on.