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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.

The Path to My Next Chapter

When people ask me what inspired me to pursue a degree in Arts Management at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and an internship at Smithsonian Exhibits, my thoughts turn to my grandfather, Benedict J. Fernandez. A dyslexic Italian-Puerto Rican man from Harlem with no degree or a stable family to lean on while growing up, my grandfather became an icon of the arts and an inspiration to individuals around the globe, all because of his persistence. As one of New York City’s leading arts educators, photographers, and photojournalists throughout the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, he transformed the ways in which photography was appreciated, practiced, and taught.

As a young girl, I was incredibly intrigued by the work that my grandfather produced throughout his career. As the years have gone on, I have grown more and more fascinated with preserving the history behind the craft that he so effortlessly perfected. To say I am grateful and inspired would be a massive understatement.


My grandfather, Benedict J. Fernandez's work on display for the 'King in New York' exhibit at The Museum of the City of New York.
Some of my grandfather’s photographs of Martin Luther King Jr. on display in the “King in New York” exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York, 2018


© Benedict J. Fernandez, all rights reserved
‘I Am a Man’ Sanitation Workers Strike. Memphis, Tennessee 1968 © Benedict J. Fernandez. All rights reserved.


Benedict J. Fernandez's Photo-Film Workshops 'Focus' inspired underprivileged youth photographers around the globe for 10+ years.
Benedict J. Fernandez’s Photo-Film Workshops taught photography to young people from underprivileged backgrounds around the world for more than a decade.


I have spent countless hours with my grandparents, looking through books, contact sheets, and boxes of prints, admiring the thousands of mainly black-and-white photographs that my grandfather created, including collections featured in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery and National Museum of African American History and Culture, among many other renowned museums. Each visit with my grandparents, I learn more and more of the stories behind every photograph. It is fascinating to hear them reminisce about the times, people, and places that encompass each photo.


Working with my Grandparents is awe-inspiring
Working with my grandparents is truly awe-inspiring.


Alongside the images and stories are thousands of personal letters and documents that chronicle my grandfather’s remarkable career. As I entered my adult years, I knew that I had to document all of the iconic history that my grandparents were passing on to me. Listening, admiring, and recording the countless stories and memories has consumed much of my time with my grandparents today. Learning from and working with my grandparents—who have encouraged and taught me more than I can put into words—has truly given me insight into the path that I hope my career will follow.


My grandparents and I, 2018.
Yours truly with my amazing grandparents, Benedict and Siiri Fernandez, 2018


My grandfather, Benedict J. Fernandez's photography dark room is a blast to the past.
My grandfather’s darkroom is a blast from the past.


When I was offered the opportunity to intern at Smithsonian Exhibits, I felt as if I were dreaming. Finally, this was my chance to follow in my grandparents’ footsteps and begin my own momentous career. As the largest museum, education, and research complex in the world, the Smithsonian is a wonderland for the arts, history, and science. After discussing the opportunity, my grandparents encouraged me to accept the offer and explore this next path.


My first visit to The National Mall inspired me to apply for Smithsonian Internships.
My first visit to the National Mall in 2017 initially inspired me to apply for an internship at the Smithsonian. Before that, the Smithsonian was somewhere I could only dream of working.


I am incredibly thankful to have had the chance to intern with Smithsonian Exhibits and the Smithsonian Institution as a whole. During my time with Smithsonian Exhibits, I have gained a greater understanding of the operations that go into exhibition design at museums, galleries, and other cultural spaces. I have learned about curatorial work and the thought processes that go into presenting exhibitions to the public, both in person and online. I have learned about the behind-the-scenes work that goes into creating new exhibits, both large and small. I have been able to better understand the project management processes, the design processes, the fabrication processes, and so much more. Armed with this knowledge, I will head back to Massachusetts with a whole new set of expertise that will help me to fulfill both my academic and career goals moving forward.

Thanks to Smithsonian Exhibits and my grandparents’ extraordinary motivation, as I enter the next chapter of my life, it has become clear to me that educating others, igniting imagination, and inspiring creativity is the path I must follow on my quest to keep my grandfather’s iconic work and legacy eternally alive.

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.)

Intern Summer at OEC, 2013

By Ariel Rolfe, Design Intern

The Office of Exhibits Central
takes on interns throughout the year to assist in a variety of projects.
Interns gain valuable professional experience while learning about what the
Smithsonian does behind the scenes. Internships are ten weeks long, and (as of
now, mid-July) the eager interns are already halfway through their experience! This summer OEC has five interns with a
variety of backgrounds and many different skill sets:

Aliana Bailey, Safety Program Intern

Aliana is a passionate artist, in
both personal and professional realms, working in painting and graphic design.
Her paintings comment on African American culture and feminist studies, though
she is also interested in the color, movement, and texture of
non-representational paintings. (You can check out Aliana’s work here.) Aliana finds great inspiration
in learning about America’s visionaries and activists at the National Portrait
Gallery. She also lists the Hirshhorn as a favorite museum, describing it as
equally informative to her personal artwork. Her pursuit of social innovation
through visual arts led her to double-major in Social Work and Visual Arts,
specializing in Graphic Design and Painting, at North Carolina Agricultural and
Technical State University. 

At OEC, she has been working to
establish a stronger graphic identity for the safety program, “addressing human
behavior in the form of effective design solutions,” she notes. Through her
experience here and at school, she aims to use the power of art and design to
heal, educate, influence, communicate, and enhance the well-being of individuals
and communities. 


A sample of Aliana’s graphic design for the Safety Program.
Aliana working on the graphic identity of
the Safety Program.

Ariel Rolfe, Design Intern

Ariel has been enjoying the change
in pace from her hometown of Juneau, Alaska. She graduated with a degree in Art
and a minor in Construction Technology from the University of Alaska Southeast.
(You can see some of her work here.)
After school, Ariel took a two-year “break” working as a bookkeeper until
finally accepting her fate in an arts-and-humanities-minded career path. She is
currently pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in Museum Exhibition Planning &
Design at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Ariel is fascinated with
the relationships between nature and humans, particularly how design can
enhance that relationship in a sustainable way. One of her favorite museums is
the Wagner Free Institute in
Philadelphia, which embodies mankind’s strange obsession to manage and control
nature while simultaneously deeming it fascinating and beautiful in its

Relatively new to graphic design, Ariel has been
getting lots of valuable experience at OEC creating and finalizing graphic
designs for the Hometown Teams and Beyond Bollywood exhibitions. She has
also been working on concept design for an exhibition about the history of the
Institution, called The Smithsonian: A
Story of Discovery and Wonder


Ariel next to her first SI-approved design, a schedule
for the SI Staff Picnic.

Cullen Whitmore, Graphics Intern

Cullen studies Graphic Design at
the University of Michigan School of Art & Design. Cullen is originally
from this area and will be returning to Michigan in September for his sophomore
year. While at OEC, Cullen has been assisting with printing and mounting large
exhibition panels using the press machine as well as laminating panels. Cullen
has been producing graphics for Beyond
, Hometown Teams, and
the Postal Museum. His favorite museum is the Smithsonian’s National Museum of
Natural History, which he finds interesting because of its layout and the
assortment of animals. He especially loves walking into the museum to be
welcomed by Henry, the elephant. 

Outside of his internship, Cullen
works a second job at a movie theater in addition to freelancing as a graphic
designer and illustrator. He works for bands and small organizations, creating
promotional materials such as business cards, posters, and logos. (You can see
some of his work here.)


Cullen Whitmore securing a sheet on the OEC’s new
direct-to-surface printer.

Christina Fontenelle, Model Shop Intern

Christina boasts a long list of
titles under her email signature, which include Peer Academic Advisor Leader,
Founding President for Active Minds, and President of the Association of Latin
American Students. She doesn’t let anything hold her back, including being
half-deaf. She knows not only English and American Sign Language but also
Spanish. Christina is working on three Bachelor’s degrees at Illinois State
University—Painting, Psychology, and Art History—and aims to become an art
therapist. Last year she received a scholarship through her school allowing her
to intern at the Smithsonian Institution for the summer.

In the OEC model shop, Christina
has been working hands-on, fabricating components for Hometown Teams. Watch the short video to see how Christina has set
up a jig so that she can accurately and smoothly drill holes in an interactive
section of the exhibition.

Outside of OEC, Christina helps
with other SI events and at museums on the Mall. Her favorite exhibition is of Nam
June Paik’s work at the American Art Museum
. She loves how the artist
“broke down barriers” using television screens to fill up entire walls of the


Christina Fontenelle set up this jig to secure the
“speech bubble” panels for Hometown Teams, allowing
for consistently accurate drilling to attach the
mounting hardware.


Watch this video to see how Christina uses the jig to drill
holes for some of the exhibition interactive panels.


Matthew Callahan, Model and Fabrication Shop Intern

If Matthew weren’t interning at OEC, you’d probably have to search out the
nearest circus to find him. He’s a juggler and rides a unicycle when not
working at OEC. He also does freelance design work and is scheming about what
to do after the summer. Matthew recently graduated from the Washington
University in St. Louis with a degree in Sculpture. At OEC he’s been working in
the model and fabrication shop, assisting
with the installation of Q?rius, a
new interactive and experimental environment set to open this fall at the
National Museum of Natural History (NMNH). At NMNH he has been fabricating
brass mounts for the show.

A loyal Smithsonian fan, Matthew
likes a lot of the Smithsonian museums, especially NMNH, Air & Space, and
the Hirshhorn. Matthew enjoys the incredible collections and impressive
exhibitions that all three museums host.

6_ Matthew_Beetle

Matthew takes a break to play with this specimen before mounting it in the exhibition.
7_Matthew mount

Here Matthew positions a lobster in the mounts he had
just fabricated.