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Even Better Than the Real Thing: Augmented and Virtual Reality

It seems like AR and VR have been hot topics for a while, and for good reason. Oldsters like me tend to point to the young whippersnappers who grew up as digital natives and assume that they want a screen in every exhibition. The thing is, with a good interpretive plan and a digital/media team (in-house or an outside partner) AR and VR can become amazing enhancements that—get this—actually helps the visitors understand the content. When AR and VR are used in conjunction with the exhibition’s design and content development, it’s a bit like an author working with an illustrator: the author tells the story, and the illustrator brings it to life in a different, complementary way.

 

In other words, while it is fun to watch (and play with) all this wonderful technology, it’s important to consider how to best utilize it. Tech for tech’s sake can be lots fun, but tech as a way to enhance a thoughtful experience can have a real impact. AR and VR can also extend the exhibition experience. Visitors inspired by the exhibition can look for additional resources after they leave the museum, and people unable to visit in person can still use online VR to gain an understanding of the subject.

 

still image from a virtual reality video of a plane
Want to know how harrowing early flight could be? You can gain a better understanding of the bumpy, rickety, and low altitude start of aviation through interactive experiences.

 

 

 

So, what exactly are reality, AR, and VR?

 

The terms get thrown around a lot, and if you were watching TV and movies in the 1990s you might remember some particularly misleading (and occasionally outright terrible) fictional versions of these technologies.

 

icon of an eye

Reality

You probably got this one right (or this has just started a HUGE philosophical debate for you and your friends), but for the sake of this post, reality means the world as it is without anything between you and it.

 

 

icon of a mobile phone

AR or Augmented Reality

Augmented Reality puts a new imaginary layer on top of real life. The Skin and Bones app used at the National Museum of Natural History is AR. It puts an overlay of “skin” on the skeletons.

 

 

icon of a person wearing goggles

VR or Virtual Reality

Virtual Reality invents its own world. The aviation interactive pictured and linked to above is VR. Most visitors aren’t going to get to fly a real 1903 plane anytime soon, and this gives visitors a chance to experience some of the thrill and/or terror the Wright brothers might have felt. Some VR technologies are fully immersive and make use of goggles or specially designed spaces to fully place the visitor within the invented experience.

 

 

Who’s Using This Technology at the Smithsonian?

There are a number of people in museums who use this technology as an interpretive tool, but don’t actually make the technology themselves. When Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors was open at the Hirshhorn, the museum had a VR version of the mirror rooms developed for visitors who had mobility issues and were unable to walk into the small mirrored rooms. In this case, the technology was driven by visitor services and a desire to make the art accessible to everyone.

 

At the Renwick Gallery, the upcoming exhibition Reforestation of the Imagination at the Renwick Gallery will use AR technology as an artistic media. This is an example of an artist integrating an AR experience into their artwork.

 

One example from Smithsonian Exhibits is the bank robbery interactive in The FBI Experience. It uses AR to allow visitors to search for evidence at a crime scene. We developed the story, which explains how the FBI investigates a bank robbery, and designed the exhibition to match the crime scene. We worked with our media partner to make sure that the AR told the same story. This interactive required coordination between exhibition development, design, and media.

 

So, in short, incorporating AR and VR isn’t necessarily an easy process, but if a project builds in the time to do it right, it can be a fantastic tool within an exhibition

 

 

 

AR screens showing the progression of finding evidence in the bank robbery scene
Visitors to The FBI Experience learn how to search a crime scene for evidence in a mock up of a bank that has been robbed. As visitors scan the bank for evidence, they can collect it on screen. The AR triggers additional screens that explain how the evidence is processed and what information can be learned from analyzing it.

 

Want to see the examples for yourself?

If you want to see the original Wright Flyer that inspired the VR experience, visit The Wright Brothers and the Invention of the Aerial Age on the second floor of the National Air and Space Museum.

 

You can use the Skin and Bones app in the Bone Hall on the second floor the National Museum of Natural History.

 

Reforestation of the Imagination at the Renwick Gallery will open June 28 and run through January 5, 2020.

 

Information on touring The FBI Experience is available on their website.

 

 

Want to learn more about the projects?

Smithsonian Exhibits designer Maddie Wan organized an Open Talk about VR/AR and her panelists agreed to let us link to their work. Check out our resources page to learn more about projects by:

  • Cody Coltharp, Digital Interactive Designer, Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access
  • Diana Marques, Visual Science Communicator
  • Sara Snyder, Chief of Media and Technology at the Smithsonian American Art Museum

 

An Exhibition Without Walls

Most of the exhibitions Smithsonian Exhibits (SIE) works on have walls, not to mention a roof. But recently, SIE collaborated with Smithsonian Gardens on an exhibition without either.

Last year, we blogged about an interpretive master plan we did with Smithsonian Gardens for their new Smithsonian-wide exhibition series. Now, the first of those exhibitions—Habitat—is open to visitors (as well as the elements!)

Habitat features 14 exhibits displayed throughout the Smithsonian campus, including exterior and interior garden spaces. Follow the map here to explore them all.

 

A map showing the locations of the 14 Habitat exhibits
A map showing the locations of the 14 Habitat exhibits. Image courtesy of Smithsonian Gardens.

 

The exhibits tell diverse stories about habitats and the plants, animals, and humans that call them home. But they all share one big idea: Protecting habitats protects life.

 

A pink, blue, and brown exhibit panel in a garden, with the title "Homes: Make Your Garden a Home"
The Homes exhibit in the Mary Livingston Ripley Garden offers tips on how you can transform your garden into a habitat for creatures great and small.

 

A pink, blue, and brown exhibit panel in a garden with an abstract red sculpture in the background
Monarchs on the Move, outside the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, provides a pit stop for migrating monarch butterflies. Image courtesy of Smithsonian Gardens.

 

SIE assisted Smithsonian Gardens with developing and editing the content, which was designed and produced out of house.

 

A large, wooden mushroom-shaped sculpture in a garden
Large-scale sculptures by artist Foon Sham draw visitors into several of the exhibits. Image courtesy of Smithsonian Gardens.

 

Two ducks swimming in a pond with an exhibit panel next to it
Ducks enjoy their habitat in the Sign of the Dragonfly exhibit in the Enid A. Haupt Garden.

 

The content team worked closely with Smithsonian curators and other experts to connect each exhibit to its neighboring museum. The result gives visitors a taste of the Smithsonian’s incredible range and diversity before they even set foot inside a museum.

 

A pink, blue, and brown exhibit panel titled "Love Oaks: A Gathering Place"
Sheltering Branches, outside the National Museum of African American History and Culture, explores the important roles live oaks play both as a habitat and as a symbol of strength and resilience. Image courtesy of Smithsonian Gardens.

 

A blue exhibit panel titled "Reef Recovery"
Several of the exhibits highlight the important work of Smithsonian scientists and conservationists and how you can help protect habitats.

 

So this summer, enjoy the great outdoors while taking in this great exhibition. Just remember to bring the sunscreen!

 

Collaborating with Colleagues, International Edition

Last week, Smithsonian Exhibits had a wonderful day hosting a delegation of Argentinian museum professionals for a lively conversation about exhibition development. We’re always happy to talk about exhibitions and learn from our colleagues, and this day was no exception.

Our guests are part of a cooperative program—Capacity Building for Argentinian Museum and Cultural Heritage Professionals—organized by the Smithsonian, the U.S. Embassy in Argentina, and Argentina’s Dirección Nacional de Museos (DNM). Their year-long program included a visit to Washington to meet with a variety of Smithsonian offices. The eleven participants represent five museums and DNM. The Smithsonian’s Office of International Relations and Global Programs organized the group’s stay in Washington and joined in on their visit to Smithsonian Exhibits.

Museum professionals having a conversation while sitting at a conference table
Our international colleagues came from across Argentina, representing various disciplines within the museum field.

 

Our conversation ran the gamut, from organizing exhibition teams to the best ways to create models. We continued our conversations as we toured our facility in Landover. We met with each of our units, allowing us to get multiple perspectives on a topic. For example, one of our conversations concerned how to best select materials that are cost effective and meet conservation needs for the objects. We were able to start the conversation with design, ask about how those decisions would affect graphic production, and then follow that up with questions about constructing the mounts and the cases.

 

The one common denominator of our conversations? Collaborate! The more the team works together and keeps communicating throughout exhibit development, design, and fabrication, the better the end results. Since there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to creating an exhibition, many conversations will be had along the way to determine the best options. This applies to how to best engage visitors,  meet conservation needs, and well, pretty much every aspect of the exhibition process. There’s a lot of technology and research out there to make all of the steps happen, but those solutions only work if you talk to your team along the way. That’s a plan that makes sense no matter where your museum calls home.

 

Of course, as our day came to a close we exchanged business cards and contact information so that we could keep the conversation going. We look forward to many fruitful discussions about best practices and innovative approaches to museum exhibitions with our international colleagues.

 

a group stands at a table filled with example museum panels made of metal, fabric, and acrylic
Designer Emily Sloat Shaw shows sample prints and discusses material selection as a part of exhibition design.

 

 

a group watches as a man shows how a maze interactive works
Chief of Exhibit Planning Todd Kinser demonstrates a prototype of an interactive SIE made for the National Zoo.

 

 

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Graphic specialist Evan Keeling explains the various printing techniques used in our graphics shop.

 

 

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Model maker Carolyn Thome talks about 3D printing while showing the group a model skull.

 

 

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Model maker Chris Hollshwander discusses computer-aided milling.

Exhibits for Monks and Nuns

When most people hear the word “Smithsonian,” they think of the museums lining the National Mall or maybe the National Zoo. But the Smithsonian is also a global institution working on projects around the world, from saving endangered species to safeguarding priceless artifacts.

For nearly a decade, one project in particular has been taking Smithsonian Exhibits’ graphics supervisor, Scott Schmidt, more than 7,000 miles away from Washington, D.C., to monasteries in India. It’s called Science for Monks and Nuns.

This unique program began in 2001 as a way of creating a dialogue between Western science and Tibetan Buddhism—something the Dalai Lama (the spiritual leader of Tibet) has long encouraged.

Every year, Science for Monks and Nuns brings Western scientists to India to engage monks and nuns (known collectively as monastics) in hands-on workshops on a variety of topics, including biology, neurology, cosmology, math, and physics. After the workshops, the monastics return to their communities to share what they have learned and continue their studies. In 2009, the group began creating exhibits as another way of sharing what they have learned with others.

 

Scott speaks with a monk as they kneel on the floor
Scott leads Monks in an exhibit design workshop in Bir, India.

 

Scott got involved in the project in 2010 through a request from the Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access. Since then, he has used his exhibit skills to provide training and assist the group with planning and developing exhibits. In addition to the Smithsonian Institution, Science for Monks and Nuns partners with the Exploratorium in San Francisco and several universities in the United States.

Over the years, Scott and his colleagues have helped create two major science exhibits that have traveled throughout India, Nepal, and Bhutan; facilitated workshops and training sessions; and consulted on the creation of permanent science centers and “tinker spaces” at monasteries. A tinker space is a space with tools to build structures and prototypes demonstrating scientific phenomena, which are used in the workshops and exhibits.

 

Scott holds a piece of equipment and gestures in front of a group of monks
Scott leads a training session in tool use and exhibit assembly at the science center in Dharamsala, India.

 

Three male students and another man work on exhibits in a workshop.
Students work on science exhibition prototypes in the tinker space Scott helped set up in Dharamsala, India. Photo by Scott Schmidt

 

The first exhibit Scott worked on, The World of Your Senses, explored parallel Western and Buddhist perspectives on the five senses.

 

Scott leans forward and speaks to a monk sitting at a table. Other monks also sit at the table.
Scott speaks to colleagues during the production of The World of Your Senses exhibit.

 

The exhibits are truly cross-cultural, combining elements of both Western and Tibetan philosophy and design. For The World of Your Senses, the monks decided that the panels should be painted like thangkas, a traditional Tibetan style of religious paintings.

 

Scott watches as a monk leans over a fabric painting for the exhibit. Two other men stand and watch.
Scott and his colleagues discuss a tailoring detail for The World of Your Senses exhibit. The master tailor to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Phuntsok Tsering, led the framing and sewing of the completed paintings.

 

An exhibit intro panel with text in Tibetan and English includes a painting of a human face showing the internal organs.
The intro panel for The World of Your Senses exhibit

 

A monk stands in front of an exhibit panel and gestures to a group of male and female students.
A monk leads a tour of The World of Your Senses exhibit.

 

A group of monks and nuns dressed in red robes visit the exhibit.
Monastics visit The World of Your Senses exhibit in Nepal.

 

The second exhibit Scott worked on, My Earth, My Responsibility, focused on climate change.

 

Scott stands with another man at a table where five monks are sitting.
Scott and his colleagues examine mock-ups of the My Earth, My Responsibility exhibit.
Photo by Tracie Spinale

 

An exhibit panel in Tibetan and English shows a colorful painting of animals with the headline, "Why is the Climate Changing?"
A panel from the My Earth, My Responsibility exhibit

 

The Dalai Lama and two other monks look at an exhibit panel with a crowd of people in the background.
The Dalai Lama attends the opening of the My Earth, My Responsibility exhibit at the Sera Jey Science Center in India. Pictured on the right is Ven. Geshe Lhakdor, Director of the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, the organization that facilitates the Science for Monks and Nuns program.

 

Scott grasps the hand of the Dalai Lama while holding a white scarf. A group of people stand and watch.
Scott (right) meets the Dalai Lama at the opening of the My Earth, My Responsibility exhibit at the Sera Jey Science Center in India.

 

The work that goes into these exhibits is intense. Scott and his colleagues spend weeks at a time in India, working with the participants to plan, develop, and fabricate the exhibits.

One of the biggest challenges is translating complex scientific and metaphysical concepts into a few paragraphs of English and Tibetan text. “It can difficult to communicate concepts and words for which there may be no Tibetan equivalents,” says Scott. However, with the help of monastics and a great team of interpreters at the Library for Tibetan Works and Archives, this challenge has not been a roadblock.

Another challenge Scott enjoys is scouring the local markets for the materials and tools needed to build the exhibits. (You can’t just pop into the local Home Depot.)

Throughout the six visits Scott has made to India so far to work with the program, he has come away inspired, renewed, and with new insights to bring back to his everyday life. “Collaborating with colleagues Tracie Spinale, Stephanie Norby, and Darren Milligan at the Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access has been wonderful,” says Scott, “and watching the program and monastic students develop since that first exhibit in 2010 has been a joy.

Scott looks forward to continuing his partnership with the program. “It’s amazing to have the opportunity to experience different cultures and traditions firsthand,” says Scott. “It reminds you that the Smithsonian is a global institution. Our mission, ‘the increase and diffusion of knowledge,’ reaches far beyond the Mall to cultures isolated by politics, religion, distance, and education. And it is certainly a two-way street. I have often returned wondering if I did not learn more than teach.”

 

All photos by Bryce Johnson unless otherwise noted.

 

To learn more:

“Seeing Science through a spiritual lens, with the Smithsonian’s help,” The Washington Post

Beyond the Robe by Bobby Sager, the primary funder of the Science for Monks and Nuns program

Humble Before the Void by Chris Impey, one of the many Science for Monks and Nuns teachers

The Universe in a Single Atom by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, great for understanding his love of science and its positive effect on Buddhism.

 

Thanks to former SIE intern Elizabeth Polvere for her help in developing this blog post.

Go Fish!

It’s hard to believe that Sant Ocean Hall at the National Museum of Natural History is ten years old. It’s somewhat shocking that it hasn’t just always been there—it’s such a prominent and memorable part of the museum—but it also has a fresh feel to it so it feels like it just opened. The secret? Updates! (As well as all that amazing content, objects, etc. that makes people want to come back.)

 

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Updating the Sant Ocean Hall with new models, like this giant Caribbean sea anemone sculpted by SIE, keeps the exhibitions feeling fresh. The completed 3D print is on the left. On the right, is a screenshot of the digital sculpture used to create it.

 

A few years ago, Carolyn Thome from our 3D Studio made a signature model for the Ocean Hall’s Life in One Cubic Foot. More recently, the 3D Studio created a number of fish models to enliven the exhibition space. Carolyn used reference photos to sculpt the digital files to be sent to our 3D printers. This time, however, Carolyn had the opportunity to mentor an intern while she created the Ocean Hall models.

Carole Baldwin, NMNH Curator of Fishes and Chair of the Department of Vertebrate Zoology, and scientists Allen Collins and Michael Vecchione, served as the 3D Studio’s subject matter experts, ensuring the accuracy of the models.

 

" "
The installation of the new fish models at the Sant Ocean Hall went—wait for it—swimmingly! This model of a scaleless dragonfish shows off its fearsome teeth and bioluminescence.

 

This project also coincided with the 3D Studio getting a new printer. Our new SLA resin printer can produce very high resolution prints in a variety of resin types. Carolyn and our intern, Willow Collins, familiarized themselves with the new equipment. Willow also learned a new 3D modeling program—by the end of the project she was pretty much an expert in all things fish model. In fact, we were so impressed, that at the end of her internship, Willow was hired on as staff.

 

 

" "
Juvenile grey snappers appear to dart in and out of the tree roots in a mangrove forest. The image on the left shows the final installation. The image on the right shows the tiny fish in better detail.

 

 

" "
Exhibit specialist and 3D model maker Willow Collins installs one of her creations, a translucent Lamarck’s Carinaria sea snail. The position of the model on the mount, which nearly disappears once the installation is complete, shows how this type of sea snail floats through the water.

 

 

A Tale of Two Exhibits

This year, Smithsonian Libraries celebrated its 50th anniversary as a unified library system by opening not one, but two exhibits: Game Change: Elephants from Prey to Preservation and Magnificent Obsessions: Why We Collect. Smithsonian Exhibits (SIE) was thrilled to be asked to design, edit, and produce the exhibits. Here’s our tale . . . (It was the best of times!)

Both exhibits feature books from Smithsonian Libraries’ collections, but they deal with very different subjects.

Game Change traces the shift in public attitudes about elephants from the late 19th century, an era when big game hunting was popular, to the critical conservation concerns of today.

 

A display case containing books, objects, and images of elephants stands next to a panel on the wall titled "Game Change."
Game Change: Elephants from Prey to Preservation was curated by Cheryl Braunstein, Manager of Exhibit Planning and Development at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute. It’s on display on the Ground Floor of the National Museum of Natural History through February 1, 2020.

 

Magnificent Obsessions focuses on the pioneering collectors who shaped Smithsonian Libraries’ diverse collections in the areas of science, technology, history, art, and culture.

 

Text on the wall on a red and blue background includes the words, "Smithsonian Libraries at a Glance," and "Magnificent Obsessions: Why We Collect."
Magnificent Obsessions: Why We Collect was curated by Stephen Van Dyk, Head of the Art Division at Smithsonian Libraries and Mary Augusta Thomas, Deputy Director of Smithsonian Libraries. It’s on display on the 1st Floor, West of the National Museum of American History through July 1, 2020.

 

One of the biggest challenges in developing any exhibit is deciding what to include. This was particularly true of these exhibits. Smithsonian Libraries has a collection of more than two million volumes, including 50,000 rare books and manuscripts. Space constrains required curators to make difficult choices about what to cut. A hidden blessing for these exhibits was light. Because of paper’s sensitivity to light, pages must be turned and books must be rotated in and out of the exhibits over time, allowing additional content to be displayed. (Come back soon to see what’s new!)

The books and artifacts featured in the exhibits show the incredible diversity of the Smithsonian’s collections.

 

A framed piece of paper includes Hebrew letters and the words "Nano Bible" in gold at the top of the page. Below these are a tiny magnifying glass.
The smallest artifact displayed in Magnificent Obsessions is the “Nano Bible,” a microscopic version of the Hebrew Bible engraved on a microchip the size of a grain of sugar.

 

A circular band with a gray box on it surrounds an image of an elephant's head.
The largest artifact displayed in Game Change is a radio collar used to track elephants in the wild.

 

Four books and a letter are seen inside a display case with a dark blue background.
The oldest artifact displayed in Magnificent Obsessions is a handwritten forerunner of the encyclopedia (at top center) created in the 13th century, before the advent of the printing press.

 

A small vial with dark material inside it is displayed next to a book titled "East Africa."
The newest—and perhaps most unusual—artifact in Game Change is a dung sample (center) collected from an elephant at the National Zoo. (You never know what you’re going to find in a Smithsonian exhibit!)

 

Of course, these exhibits are about more than just objects. The exhibit development team (including yours truly) wanted to go beyond the books to highlight the human stories they tell.

Game Change uses books and artifacts to show how humans’ attitudes about elephants have changed over time.

 

A composite image shows action figures, a children's book, and sheet music, including images of elephants.
Contrasting books and artifacts, including children’s books and playthings, demonstrate the shift in attitudes about elephants from the early 20th century (top) to today (bottom).

 

Magnificent Obsessions reveals the extraordinary passion collectors have for their subjects and explores what motivates them to collect.

 

A text panel titled "Why Did They Collect?" includes two black-and-white portraits of women and colorful illustrations of airplanes.
Profiles of curious collectors explain what drove them to collect.

 

We also wanted to open the conversation up to visitors by asking what they collect and why.

 

A wall of images includes the title "Why Do You Collect?" at the top.
Share your “magnificent obsession” using #ICollectBecause

 

SIE’s design team included Elena Saxton on Game Change and Elena and Madeline Wan on Magnificent Obsessions. Elena and Madeline helped bring the stories to life with engaging designs and eye-catching graphics.

 

A large display case contains more than a dozen open books. Images of elephants are seen on a yellow background on the back of the case.
The graphic design for Game Change features illustrations taken from the books displayed.

 

A red display case at the center of a gallery is surrounded by blue display cases.
The designers used vibrant colors in Magnificent Obsessions to make the exhibit pop and help visitors navigate the different sections.

 

At the entrance to Magnificent Obsessions, the team created lenticular graphics, which change as you walk past them. These add movement and reveal the faces of the collectors behind the collections. Look out for a future blog post explaining how these were made.

 

A colorful panel at the entrance to a gallery includes images of people, objects, and illustrations.
The lenticular graphics at the entrance to Magnificent Obsessions help draw visitors into the space.

 

SIE’s graphics team, including Evan Keeling, Mike Reed, and Scott Schmidt, printed and installed the graphics for both exhibits.

 

A man looks at a series of graphic panels laid out on a table next to color swatches.
Scott inspects graphics for Magnificent Obsessions.

 

Three men in black T-shirts stand in front of a large sign with the words "Game Change" on it. The two men at the front are holding the sign up against the wall.
SIE’s graphics team installs a panel in Game Change.

 

SIE’s 3D studio team members Chris Hollshwander and Danny Fielding worked with Vanessa Haight Smith, Head of Smithsonian Libraries Preservation Services, to make and install the mounts for the books and artifacts displayed in the exhibits.

 

A man wearing blue gloves stands behind a red-colored platform holding a transparent acrylic mount.
Chris installs a cradle mount to support one of the many books in Magnificent Obsessions.

 

Throughout it all, Smithsonian Libraries Exhibitions Program Coordinator Kirsten van der Veen and SIE Project Manager Betsy Robinson kept the team on track and on schedule—no easy feat, since the exhibits opened within weeks of each other!

Both exhibits are on display now. Please stop by and let us know what you think. In the meantime, we look forward to the next chapter of our collaboration with Smithsonian Libraries!

DECLASSIFIED!! Mission: DIA

Here’s a tricky one: How do you write exhibit text for a new museum when your content experts have top security clearances and can only share a fraction of their content with you? Mission: DIA offered many tricky and interesting questions. For example: will they tell me about REDACTED REDACTEDREDACTEDREDACTED if I ask really, really nicely? *

Working on a museum about an agency that produces, analyzes, and disseminates military intelligence information creates some interesting workflow protocols. When SIE began working with the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) on Mission: DIA, we knew that we’d have to build a museum from scratch because their atrium didn’t have an existing museum space. We knew that we’d work with their historians and other experts to create a museum script that told complicated stories. We knew that the graphics would have to convey complex information. And we knew that there was a lot we didn’t know, weren’t allowed to know, and probably won’t ever get to know.

Our unconventional workflow more or less went as follows. First topics were brainstormed, then discussion would follow. As ideas were suggested and settled on, the DIA historians would determine the exact story they wanted to use, and then go off to confirm that the details needed to tell the story well were cleared for use or could be cleared quickly. And lest you think that SIE got to go through all the super-secret stuff, everything had to be declassified before it came to our office, too.

Reading redacted documents became just another part of my day. Eventually, I started to wonder, is this where they blacked out the REDACTED about REDACTED? Despite my strong desire to find out REDACTEDREDACTEDREDACTED and read up on the REDACTEDREDACTEDREDACTEDREDACTED REDACTED REDACTEDREDACTEDREDACTEDREDACTEDREDACTEDREDACTED the historians I worked with at DIA made sure everything was properly declassed before it reached me and my low (so very, very low) security clearance. (NOTE: I know nothing. I’m not worth kidnapping. Not. At. All.)

Mission: DIA opened its first phase in the summer, and more phases are underway. After vetting, scrubbing, redacting, and whatever else might be required, the photos from the first phase’s opening were released to us. So now, unlike the exhibition’s source material, I can talk about the first phase of the project.

The Mission: DIA project posed a number of challenges, not unlike REDACTEDREDACTEDREDACTED REDACTED REDACTEDREDACTEDREDACTEDREDACTEDREDACTEDREDACTEDREDACTED. One challenge was that there was no existing museum and the exhibition was to be built inside a large open space. This meant the designer had to create a “room within a room” in order for there to even be an exhibition.

 

Overhead view of the DIA museum.
This overhead view shows off the design, SIE’s fabrication, and the cast figures made by SIE’s 3D Studio. The two people in the foreground are actual people. The “people” in the back corner behind the reader rail are cast figures.

 

The first section to open, Exposing the Truth, explores DIA’s role in bringing unseen threats to light. The exhibition delves into the escalation of Soviet weapons programs during the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, catching a spy within the agency, and the H1N1 flu pandemic.

 

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DIA’s publication, Soviet Military Power, was an unclassified document meant for the general public. It showed readers specific threats from the Soviet Union. Here, some of the weapons the publication highlighted are displayed with copies of Soviet Military Power’s ten editions.

 

Three exhibition panels detailing NCMI’s work regarding the H1N1 flu pandemic.
The mission of DIA’s National Center for Medical Intelligence (NCMI) is to predict medical threats and prevent potential infectious outbreaks from impacting the U.S. military and its global allies.

 

As excited as we are to have the first section open, we look forward to continuing our work on the rest of the museum.

The museum REDACTEDREDACTEDREDACTEDREDACTEDREDACTED REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED REDACTEDREDACTEDREDACTED REDACTED REDACTED REDACTEDREDACTED REDACTEDREDACTED is REDACTED REDACTEDREDACTED open REDACTEDREDACTED. It REDACTED REDACTED REDACTEDREDACTED REDACTED REDACTEDREDACTEDREDACTED REDACTED REDACTED went REDACTEDREDACTEDREDACTED REDACTEDREDACTED REDACTEDREDACTED REDACTED REDACTED REDACTEDREDACTEDREDACTED REDACTEDREDACTEDREDACTEDREDACTED REDACTEDREDACTEDREDACTEDREDACTED REDACTEDREDACTEDREDACTED REDACTED REDACTEDREDACTED REDACTEDREDACTEDREDACTED REDACTEDREDACTED REDACTEDREDACTEDREDACTEDREDACTED REDACTEDREDACTED REDACTEDREDACTED well  REDACTEDREDACTED REDACTED REDACTEDREDACTEDREDACTEDREDACTEDREDACTEDREDACTED REDACTED REDACTED REDACTEDREDACTED REDACTEDREDACTED REDACTEDREDACTEDREDACTED REDACTED REDACTEDREDACTED REDACTED REDACTED REDACTEDREDACTEDREDACTEDREDACTED REDACTEDREDACTED REDACTEDREDACTEDREDACTED REDACTEDREDACTEDREDACTED REDACTEDREDACTEDREDACTED REDACTEDREDACTEDREDACTED!

 

 

*No. No, they won’t.

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.)

Gone Viral

An interconnected world allows for the easy transmission of ideas, commerce, scientific discoveries, and so many other things … like communicable diseases. The National Museum of Natural History’s new exhibition, Outbreak: Epidemics in a Connected World, explores how microscopic pathogens can cause widespread disease outbreaks. When outbreaks occur, epidemiologists, veterinarians, public health workers, and others all work to identify and contain the infection. These pathogens wreak havoc in communities—not just affecting health, but also leaving huge social and emotional impacts.

 

seven 3D models of pathogens
Worst class picture ever. Back row: Malaria, e. Coli, Lyme Disease. Front row: Ebola, Zika, HIV, and influenza.

 

And therein lies the tricky part for the exhibition: the impacts are huge, but the pathogens are too small to be seen by the naked eye. Exhibitions are by definition a three-dimensional, visual experience. In order to give the pathogens more prominence, the National Museum of Natural History opted for 3D prints of the microbes at scales that, well, honestly are kind of terrifying when you consider what these pathogens do.

Our model maker Carolyn Thome and National Museum of Natural History designer Julia Louie used 3D pathogen files downloaded from the National Institute of Health’s 3D print exchange. (The downloads are free and are handy tools for educators, medical professionals, scientists, and others.) Carolyn manipulated the files to digitally cut the models in half and place them on bases she created using CAD software.

 

Color prints of e. Coli and influenza coming out the 3D printer.

 

She printed her models in color, rather than painting them. It wasn’t necessary to have a true-to-life paint job because the pathogens’ colors aren’t based on their innate colors, but rather are applied to make it easier for visitors to understand their shapes.

 

Ebola gets a resin bath.

 

The finished models needed an epoxy infiltration to give them stability and an even sheen. The heat and resin work together to create a chemical reaction that makes a sturdy finished product, but because of the viscosity and quick setting time, Carolyn only had approximately twenty minutes to finish each resin coating.

 

Ebola goes back into the vacuum chamber.

 

If a model needed a second coat of resin, Carolyn needed to place it in a vacuum chamber and then repeat the speedy process.

 

And one more coat of resin for Ebola.

 

Outbreak will be featured on the second floor of the National Museum of Natural History for roughly three years before it’s contained in 2021.