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Smithsonian Exhibits 2023 Open House

Thank you to everyone for coming out to the Smithsonian Exhibits Open House 2023! It was a fantastic event with informative sessions and great conversations. A tremendous thank you to the SIE staff for being great ambassadors for the advancement of exhibitry.

A special thank you to our guest collaborators:

Joy Mana, Product Manager, Gaylord Archival

Laura Mina, Conservator of Costumes and Textiles, National Museum of African American History and Culture

Dr. Larry Wilen, Senior Research Scientist & Lecturer, Yale CEID


Links to the presentations can be found here


Head of Graphics Scott Schmidt (center), Graphics Shop Lead Mike Reed (right), and Exhibit Specialist Victor Garret (left) give tours of the Oce printing capability
Exhibit Specialist Chris Heiler (right) answers questions about the Frank vitrine system
Graphic Specialist Evan Keeling (left) shows SIE’s comic book capabilities
Exhibit Developers Brigid Laurie and John Powell (l-r) presenting on Exhibit Development
Exhibit Specialist Caleb Menzies (right) discussing SIE’s laser cuter capabilities
SIE Cost Estimator Dan Widerski (left) reviewing materials
SIE Financial Manager Nina Butler
Exhibit Specialist Chris Heiler (center) demonstrating the Frank vitrine system


Exhibit Specialist Jeff Rosshirt (center) demonstrates automation for interactives
Scott Schmidt (right) and Joy Mana (left) discuss healthy material choices

Guests attend the Design presentation
Guests explore SIE’s material library
Model Maker Chris Hollshwander discusses milling techniques
Exhibit Specialists Willow Collins (left), Zach Hudson (center) and NMAACH Textile Conservator Laura Mina (right) present on the design and fabrication of conservation mounts
Laura Mina and Zach Hudson discuss dressing the Black Panther costume mannequin
Fabrication Shop Lead Enrique Dominguez (left) and Head of Fabrication Ian Lilligren (right) present on mechanical interactives
The SIE team!

This Old House

Nestled in 2,650 acres of protected land on the Chesapeake Bay in Edgewater, Maryland, sits the oldest building in the Smithsonian’s collection that’s still in its original location.

A red brick house surrounded by a green lawn, trees, and shrubs
Woodlawn House at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center

Woodlawn House was built in 1735 for tobacco planter William Sellman and his family. The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) purchased the house in 2008 and rehabilitated it in 2020. Over the past few years, Smithsonian Exhibits (SIE) has worked with SERC to transform the house and the surrounding landscape into the Woodlawn History Center exhibition and the Woodlawn History Trail.

The exhibition and the accompanying trail tell the story of the diverse people who lived in and around Woodlawn House and shaped the surrounding landscape. This includes Indigenous people, enslaved people, indentured servants, sharecroppers, tenant farmers, and others.

Graphic panels with portraits and a family tree hang above a display case.
The exhibition tells the story of the many people who lived in and around Woodlawn House, including the Sellman and Kirkpatrick-Howat families.

Working in a historic house proved an interesting challenge for SIE’s team. Unlike working in a typical museum gallery, SIE had to be careful to preserve the historic structure and all of its architectural details.

Before and after images showing a room with dirty white walls and dull floorboards and the same room with blue walls, polished floorboards, and exhibition elements.
Before and after images of Woodlawn House’s front parlor showing the house before its rehabilitation and after SIE installed the exhibition.

The exhibition features artifacts uncovered by SERC’s team of citizen scientist archaeologists. These include everything from ancient Native American projectile points to glass milk bottles from the nearby dairy farm.

Stone projectile points hang from a graphic panel featuring a historic map labeled "You are here."
Native American projectile points discovered in the area


A large glass display case featuring historic artifacts, including tools, clay pipes, coins, and pottery sherds.
SIE made mounts for more than 200 artifacts, including coins, clay pipes, and pottery sherds.


Before and after photos show a reader rail with three flip panels that open to reveal replica artifacts.
An archaeology dig interactive allows visitors to uncover replicas of artifacts archaeologists discovered nearby.


Before and after photos show a reader rail with four flip panels that open to reveal text about archaeological finds.
Flip panels allow visitors to make their own discoveries.


A 3D model of Woodlawn House includes a three-story red section on the left, a two-story yellow section at the center, and a two-story blue section on the right.
A tactile model of Woodlawn house, featuring braille, allows visitors to see and feel the different sections of the house, which were built at different times: 1735 (yellow), 1841 (red), and 1979/2020 (blue).


A reader rail with a QR code on the bottom left corner
QR codes throughout the exhibition connect visitors to screen reader–accessible verbal descriptions on SERC’s website.


A timeline titled "Historic Milestones from First People to the Arrival of SERC" includes text and images.
A timeline places local events into the context of national and international history.


The front hallway of the house features a display case and a bench. The walls are lined with graphic panels.
The final section of the exhibition brings the story up to the present day and introduces visitors to SERC’s conservation work.

Outside the house, the Woodlawn History Trail takes visitors on a self-guided walking tour past neighboring historic sites.

An interpretive sign featuring text and images stands in the grass in front of Woodlawn House.
The Woodlawn History Trail


An interpretive sign featuring text and images stands in the grass, surrounded by flowers and shrubs. A paved pathway leads to the sign.
The trail interprets the surrounding landscape and how it has changed over the centuries.


An interpretive panel featuring text and images stands in the grass in front of trees and shrubs. A gravel pathway runs alongside it to the left.
The trail takes visitors past nearby historic sites, including the site of Shaw’s Folly, a house built in the 1650s for Quaker settler John Shaw and his family.


An interpretive panel featuring text and images stands in the grass overlooking a gravel path and a field.
The trail highlights the role of enslaved people, sharecroppers, and tenant farmers, who worked the surrounding land.


A small interpretive sign titled "Horse Chestnut" stands in the grass in front of a tree trunk.
Yvone Kirkpatrick-Howat and his wife, Lauraine, were the last people to live in Woodlawn House. They were strong advocates of environmental conservation and planted many trees around the house.

SERC’s campus and the Woodlawn History Center are open to the public on certain days. Visit SERC’s website to plan your visit.

A young man wearing a face mask pushes down on a hole punch on top of a sign that reads "Temporarily Closed."

Catching Up with Our Interns

Since we last caught up with SIE interns Bre Patterson and Vic Garrett, they’ve been busy! They have worked their way through SIE’s 3D studio, fabrication, and graphics departments; helped produce and install exhibitions; and even met Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch! We checked in with them to see what they’ve been up to.

Bre spent the first three months of her internship in SIE’s 3D studio and fabrication department, where she learned about 3D printing—a completely new skill for her.


A young woman wearing a hat, glasses, and headphones sits at a desk, looking at the camera.
A self portrait of Bre at work


One of Bre’s first projects was testing the durability of 3D prints to see how they hold up to frequent cleaning with disinfectant solutions. This is critical to determining how Smithsonian museums can provide safe and hygienic access to tactile exhibition components.


3D model of a rainbow with clouds labeled "B2"

3D model of a rainbow with clouds labeled "B2"
Bre took these before and after photos of 3D prints to show the effects of 19 days of cleaning with bleach.


Bre showed her creativity by making a video demonstrating her process. Beat courtesy of iCAN intern Thomas Tate/THEARC Theater


Bre also helped fabricate exhibition components for Baseball: America’s Home Run, an upcoming exhibition at the National Postal Museum. She learned how to pack and crate exhibition components for transport, and assisted with installation. “I liked how everyone takes part in showing me their roles and their steps through them,” she said. “Every week I gained new knowledge.”

Since January, Bre has been working in SIE’s graphics department, where she has been learning to use SIE’s large format printers and Adobe software. During her time in graphics, she has helped frame and install photos and produce graphics for the Smithsonian’s staff photo show, Capturing the Moment.


A young woman wearing a hoodie and a face mask leans over a blue graphic.
Bre weeds vinyl graphics for the Smithsonian’s staff photo show.


A young woman wearing a skull cap and a face mask stands on a ladder and applies vinyl letters to a yellow wall.
Bre installs vinyl lettering for the Smithsonian’s staff photo show.


Vic spent his first three months in SIE’s graphics department, where he learned new skills while helping produce COVID-19 safety graphics for Smithsonian museums.


A young man wearing a face mask pushes down on a hole punch on top of a sign that reads "Temporarily Closed."
Vic punches holes in COVID-19 sign for a museum.


A young man wearing a face mask hangs a framed photo of a man on a wall.
Vic hangs a photo of Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch in the Smithsonian’s staff photo show.


Since January, Vic has been working in SIE’s 3D studio and fabrication department, where he has been helping assemble and install exhibition components. Vic enjoys visiting museums for installations. “It makes you feel really special to be there without anyone else around and before the lights are on,” he said.


A young man wearing a face mask, a face shield, and gloves installs a sign that reads "Enter."
Vic installs a pylon outside the Jim Crow-era railway car at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.


A young man wearing a face mask assembles a wooden case.
Vic assembles a pedestal case for the upcoming exhibition Preston Singletary: Raven and the Box of Daylight at the National Museum of the American Indian.


A model of a Pacific walrus lying on a snow-covered rock
Vic helped SIE’s 3D studio staff create a realistic model of a Pacific walrus for the National Museum of Natural History.


Vic also honed his video editing skills by creating and starring in a series of “how to” videos demonstrating how to assemble Frank display cases.


One of the highlights of the internship so far for Bre and Vic was meeting Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch virtually. They spoke with him about their work at SIE and what they hope to do in their careers. Secretary Bunch sent them signed copies of his book A Fool’s Errand, and they made plans to speak with him again before the end of their internship.

We will also be checking in with Bre and Vic before the end of their internship to hear more about their great work, so stay tuned!

Comic panels about collecting African American History for the National Museum of African American History and Culture

Birthday Comic

Happy Birthday to Us!

Okay, so a little early—our actual birthday is August 10—but it’s been a weird year and if we want our cake and comics a little early, so be it.

This year, the Smithsonian turns the big 1-7-5! Which according to my notes … is well past human lifespans so I get to make up the traditional gift. I’m going with cake and comics, which works for two reasons:

  1. Cake is a timeless birthday tradition in the U.S. (Also, I really want to work on an exhibit about cake, so if anyone out there is in the position to make that happen, please email me. Thanks!)
  2. SIE’s very own Evan Keeling was asked to create a birthday comic for the Smithsonian. It appeared in Impact magazine but you can see it here.  (Also, please note that the version in the link is accessible to those using screen readers.)

Title line of the comic

Impact is written by a team at the Smithsonian’s Office of Advancement. The magazine is for a range of donors and volunteers across Smithsonian’s museums, research centers and the National Zoo. It gives readers a sneak peek into stories they might not have otherwise known. An audience that is just learning about us for the first time would likely have the usual questions:

Okay, I don’t think anyone is asking that last one all that often, but it’s a great bit of trivia you can use to impress your friends.

An audience that’s already visiting and supporting the Smithsonian regularly probably had a chance to get those answers before. The Impact group wanted something that would, well, have a little more impact for their readers.

Highlighting Moments Instead of Dates

Elise Walter, one of the writers in Advancement, saw Evan give a presentation about how to effectively use comics as a storytelling device at our Open House in 2019. She already knew that Advancement wanted something a little different for the 175th anniversary. Using a comic would let them highlight individual moments of Smithsonian history and let each story take on its own point of view.

Elise enlisted Pam Henson at the Smithsonian Archives to help select stories that could be developed into comic panels. As they chased down the best stories for the comic, they knew they wanted to find some of the more obscure bits of Smithsonian history.

Visual Storytelling

The selected stories were interesting—real hidden gems of the Smithsonian. But were they visually compelling? They consulted with Evan throughout the process, who helped them determine what stories would work in a visual way, and what characters could pull a reader in. Different stories required different points of view. Some comics needed multiple panels; some stories benefitted from one larger panel to represent the outcome. Comics can be used to achieve numerous types of storytelling in the same publication, as the examples below show.

Playing with Perspective

A comic panel about the scientific impact of Florence August Merriam and Vernon Bailey.

The comic about Florence August Merriam and Vernon Bailey shows how the 19th century science power couple completely changed the study of birds. The literal bird-eye views show the birds up close and the observers far below them. This emphasizes their approach to studying birds—one that radically changed the field and invented modern birdwatching.

Highlighting the Result

TA comic panel showing three inauguration gowns worn by First Ladies.he story of how the First Ladies’ gowns were collected for the National Museum of American history is an interesting story—but the strongest way to show it visually is by their success. Showing a bunch of people in conversation over and over isn’t nearly as fun as looking at three of the gowns.









Introducing Complicated Topics

comic panel about the National Museum of the American Indian Cultural Resources Center

Comics can take a complex topic and make it easier to understand. Illustrating the story of the NMAI Cultural Resources Center makes the it easier for readers to learn how this unique facility works.

First-Person Storytelling

Comic panels about collecting African American History for the National Museum of African American History and Culture

The speech and thought bubbles used in comics let a specific narrator explain (or think through) tough problems. The reader gets to see how a main character approaches a situation.


Be sure to check out the entire comic (here’s that link again) to see more moments of innovation!


Red, blue, yellow, and black engine model

A Souped-Up Prototype

What has eight cylinders, flashing lights, and vibrates when you touch it? The tactile engine prototype Smithsonian Exhibits recently designed and built for the National Air and Space Museum.

An animated image showing the Ford Flathead V-8 engine prototype from a variety of angles
The Ford Flathead V-8 Engine prototype


This is a prototype of a hands-on interactive planned for NASM’s Nation of Speed exhibition, opening soon. NASM staff and volunteers will use the interactive in facilitated experiences to help visitors understand how engines generate speed and how they can be modified to go faster.


A design rendering showing a large gallery containing airplanes, spacecraft, and a race car
A rendering of the Nation of Speed exhibition, which will explore how the pursuit of speed has shaped American culture and our national identity. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.


The interactive is based on the iconic Ford Flathead V-8 engine, produced between 1932 and 1953, which powered hot rods and other modified cars.


A red and gray metal engine with a black fan at one end
A Ford Flathead V-8 engine. “1949–53 Ford Flathead V8” by Michael Barera is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.


This project was funded by the Smithsonian Accessibility Innovations Fund (SAIF). Our goal was to ensure that the resulting interactive is accessible to all visitors, including visitors who are blind or have low vision and visitors who are deaf or hard of hearing.

SIE, NASM, and Access Smithsonian met in November 2019 to kick off the project. To get us started, SIE exhibit specialist Enrique Dominguez tracked down a foam model of a Ford Flathead V-8 engine. (Who knew these things existed?)


A black and gray foam model of an engine on a red metal stand in front of a green metal cabinet.
A foam model of the Ford Flathead V-8 engine. Mechanics use replicas like these to test-fit parts.


The foam model provided an excellent starting point. But the team wanted to add more parts for visitors to handle, including cylinder heads, spark plugs, intake manifolds, carburetors, and exhaust manifolds. To help visitors understand what the different engine parts do, we decided to color code them according to their functions: blue for intake, red for combustion, and yellow for exhaust.

We also wanted to demonstrate how to modify an engine to make it faster. To achieve this, we decided to include interchangeable stock and performance parts. To help distinguish the parts from each other, we decided to color the stock parts a lighter shade and the performance parts a darker shade.

Once we had a plan in place, SIE designer Elena Saxton worked with SIE exhibit specialists Enrique Dominguez and Jeff Rosshirt to design the prototype.


A design drawing showing a model engine with text boxes pointing at blue, red, and yellow parts
A design drawing showing the different engine parts to be created.


We had originally intended the interactive as a purely tactile experience. But after some discussion, the team decided to incorporate additional multisensory features to make the experience accessible to a wider audience. These included audio clips of stock and performance engines running, touch-activated vibrations to simulate the feel of a running engine, flashing LEDs to demonstrate the firing order of the cylinders, and a digital display showing the engine’s RPMs (revolutions per minute). SIE exhibit specialist Jeff Rosshirt took the lead in developing these components using Arduino, an open-source electronic prototyping platform.


Two men and two women stand around a table in a workshop. The man on the left stands in front of an electronic device with wires and circuit boards.
SIE exhibit specialist Jeff Rosshirt (left) demonstrates the Arduino microcontroller’s capabilities to SIE’s team.


While Jeff was programming the Arduino, SIE model and mount maker Danny Fielding got to work making replicas of the engine parts. These needed to be light enough to attach to the engine block with magnets but durable enough to withstand frequent handling.

Danny used actual engine parts to make the molds. He encased the original parts in liquid rubber (silicone) and left them overnight to cure.


A cream-colored liquid covers a gray, red, and blue rectangular object in a wooden frame.
Molding in progress


See-through mold containing a three-pronged metal pipe
Some parts were molded using translucent rubber to make it easier to see the parts inside.


After removing the original parts from the molds, Danny cleaned and prepared the molds for casting. He tinted the liquid resin the desired colors and poured it into the molds, which he quickly capped off to stop the foam from expanding. Once cured, the foam engine parts were removed from the molds and filed and sanded to remove any surface imperfections.


Two yellow rectangular molds pictured at top with two gray rectangular models below.
Silicone molds (above) and resin casts (below) of the performance cylinder heads


Yellow and blue foam engine parts
Examples of the finished replicas


Four clear plastic lights with red and black wires leading into them
SIE embedded red and white LEDs into the clear cast spark plugs.


SIE exhibit specialist Enrique Dominguez added fiberglass to many of the parts for durability and installed magnets and pin locators to make them quick and easy to install and deinstall.


Technical sketches drawn in pen
SIE fabrication process sketches by Enrique showing a detail view of the piston construction and cylinder head wiring layout.


Once the parts were ready, SIE exhibit specialist Jeff Rosshirt installed the Arduino microcontroller.


A man connects multicolored wires from a white circuit board to a black foam engine model.
Jeff connects the Arduino microcontroller to the prototype.


Multicolored wires connect a series of white perforated circuit boards.
The wiring for the Arduino microcontroller is connected to solderless “bread boards,” which allow the flexibility needed for prototyping the electronics.


A man holds the bottom of the engine model, revealing wires and electronics inside.
The Arduino components are enclosed in the oil pan at the bottom of the engine block.


Once the Arduino components were programmed and installed, Enrique and Jeff assembled and mounted the engine block on a custom welded stand with locking wheels. The stand can be tilted up to 45 degrees in either direction to facilitate access to visitors in wheelchairs and small children. They also installed a tray underneath to store the engine parts when not in use.


Split-screen image showing two versions of the engine prototype. The version on the left includes light blue, red, and yellow parts. The version on the right includes dark blue, red, and yellow parts.
The fully assembled prototype with stock parts (left) and performance parts (right). Sticklers for details, SIE’s fabricators even added a dipstick to the oil pan!


The finished prototype can be operated in three modes: manual mode, which allows visitors to see the firing order of the cylinders in slow motion; stock mode, which demonstrates how the engine would run with stock parts; and performance mode, which demonstrates how the engine would run with performance parts. NASM’s facilitators can even simulate an engine breakdown and control the engine’s RPMs using an optional foot pedal. In fact, just about the only thing this prototype doesn’t do is drive!


A black foot pedal on the floor attached by a cord to the engine model
An optional accelerator pedal allows the facilitator or visitors to rev the engine.


Watch a video of the finished prototype in action below.


Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic prevented us from testing the prototype with visitors as we had originally planned. But stay tuned—NASM hopes to roll out the prototype at the Udvar-Hazy Center once it is safe to do so.

This project allowed SIE to explore the possibilities of incorporating multisensory components into hands-on interactives to make them accessible to a wider audience. We learned a lot and look forward to future opportunities to continue this important work!

A woman wearing a face mask sits at a desk and clicks on a mouse.

Meet Our New Interns!

Smithsonian Exhibits is thrilled to welcome two new additions to our team: Bre’Launna Patterson and Victor Garrett who joined us in October for a year-long internship funded by the Smithsonian Institution.

Bre and Vic will be working in SIE’s fabrication, graphics, and 3D studio departments. They will spend two months in each department, learning the ropes. After six months, they will each select one department to spend the rest of their internship in, and will complete a solo project.

Before joining SIE, Bre was a contractor for THEARC Theater, a performing arts venue in Washington, DC, where she worked as a stagehand and master carpenter among other duties. Her goal is to gain skills that she can use to push others and herself as a female entrepreneur in tech, dance, MCing, and other fields. “When I first heard about the Smithsonian Exhibits production shop, I knew it was what I have been preparing for,” said Bre. “I am excited to learn more, especially in the fabrication and 3D print shop.”

Bre is spending her first two months in SIE’s fabrication department and 3D studio. Her first project has been testing the durability of 3D prints made with SIE’s new Mimaki printer to see how they hold up to frequent cleaning with disinfectant solutions. This is critical to determining how Smithsonian museums can provide safe access to tactile exhibition components during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.


A woman wearing a face mask sits at a desk and clicks on a mouse.
Bre crops images of the 3D prints.


A gloved hand brushes a 3D print of a rainbow with clouds.
Bre cleans a 3D print.

Vic heard about the internship at Joe’s Movement Emporium in Mount Rainier, Maryland, where he was working as a theater tech. “It wasn’t until I found theatrical production that I discovered my talent for building, fabrication, and all things ‘hands-on,’” he said.

Vic has fond memories of visiting the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum as a kid. “Never in a million years would I have expected to have the opportunity to work and learn from the same institution that captivated me years ago,” said Vic. “I hope to gain advanced, unique, and marketable skills that allow me to pursue my goal of using my building skills to serve my community.”

Vic is spending his first two months in SIE’s graphics department, where he is helping produce COVID-19 safety graphics for Smithsonian museums that are reopening. This is important work that helps keep visitors safe. Vic has already learned several new skills, including laminating, cutting and weeding vinyl, and profiling materials (scanning materials to ensure that the colors are calibrated correctly for printing.)


A man wearing a face mask sits next to a machine which is cutting a large print into smaller graphics.
Vic cuts vinyl graphics.


A man wearing a face mask stands at a table and pulls the white borders off a series of printed graphics.
Vic removes excess material from graphics in a process known as “weeding.”


A man wearing a face mask drags a small handheld scanner across a series of colored thumbnails.
Vic scans materials to test their color accuracy in a process called “profiling.”


We will be checking in with Bre and Vic throughout their internships. Please join us in welcoming them to the Smithsonian. We’re glad they’re here!

A view of a red hallway showing a graphic panel and a backlit display case

Small Cars, Big Ideas

After being closed for six months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) reopened to visitors on September 18 with a brand new installation: The Automobile and American Art.

The installation features more than 130 model cars donated by collector Albert H. Small. The cars may be small, but the ideas the installation explores are big: the automobile’s central role in American art and culture. SAAM uses this study collection of model cars as a lens through which to explore car-related artworks in its collection.

Smithsonian Exhibits (SIE) worked with SAAM to develop, design, fabricate, and install The Automobile and American Art, which is located on the museum’s third floor, next to its Luce Foundation Center for American Art.


Model cars of various sizes and colors lined up on a table seen from the front
No, it’s not gridlock on the Beltway; SAAM’s curators parked the model cars bumper to bumper to select which ones to include in the installation.


Model cars of various sizes and colors lined up on a table seen from the side
Albert H. Small’s collection of more than 1,200 model cars features everything from a Model T Ford to a pink Cadillac.


The goal of the project was to transform a transitional “back of house” space into an engaging installation that would connect the Luce Center with SAAM’s special exhibition galleries.


A view of a white hallway with a gray carpet
A view of the hallway from the Luce Center before its transformation.


SIE designers Elena Saxton and Madeline Wan took inspiration from car culture in their designs, using bright colors and carpet tiles evoking tire treads.


A design rendering showing transparent human figures in a red hallway with graphic panels and a backlit display case. The carpet is gray with blue tread marks on it.
A design rendering of the installation


A design drawing showing transparent human figures next to a graphic panel titled "The Automobile and American Art"
The installation features images of artists and their cars.


A design drawing showing a display case with seven rows of model cars
SIE designed a large back-lit display case with room for 112 model cars. An additional case brings the total up to 133. That’s a lot of cars!


Once the design was complete, it was time to put the pedal to the metal and fabricate and install!


An empty hallway with red walls and a gray and blue carpet
A splash of color souped up the space to make it more inviting for visitors.


A man installs exhibit elements in a red hallway.
SIE installation in progress. Installing in the middle of a pandemic was a challenge, but SIE staff did it safely, wearing masks and maintaining strict social distancing.


A man wearing a mask installs yellow dimensional letters on a red wall.
SIE exhibit specialist Caleb Menzies installs three-dimensional letters for a wall quote.


Blue letters on a gray wall reading "Go Beyond the Galleries"
Wall graphics invite visitors to go beyond the galleries to explore the Luce and Lunder Centers.


Yellow letters on a red wall reading "For what you really collect is always yourself. -Jean Baudrillard, French philosopher (1929-2007)
The theme of collecting connects the installation to the adjacent Luce Center, where visitors can explore SAAM’s collection in visible storage.


SIE exhibit developer John Powell (yours truly) helped SAAM develop the content for the installation, including a touchscreen kiosk, which takes visitors on a road trip through car-themed American art.


A monitor displaying a pink Cadillac and the words "Take a road trip through SAAM's collection!"
Due to COVID-19, the touchscreen is currently disabled, but visitors can still enjoy the content.


Throughout the project, SIE project manager Rob Wilcox kept the show on the road to success, directing traffic and avoiding any collisions.


A man on a step ladder pokes his head into a hatch in the ceiling.
Rob left no stone unturned. Here he takes a look “under the hood” at the building’s wiring.


We think you’ll agree that the final result is breathtaking!


A view of a red hallway showing graphic panels and display cases
A view of the installation looking toward SAAM’s special exhibition galleries


A view of a red hallway showing a graphic panel and a backlit display case
A view of the installation looking toward the Luce Center


A close-up view of model cars in a display case showing their reflection on the glass.
A close-up view of the model cars


We hope you’ll check out the installation now that SAAM has reopened. Please see SAAM’s website for guidelines on visiting and to reserve a timed-entry pass. Stay safe everyone!

A blue graphic with white lettering and yellow icons welcomes visitors to the National Zoo. It lists the requirements for staying six feet apart, wearing a face covering, and washing hands/using hand sanitizer; the graphic is in a black metal frame; the graphic can swing in the breeze to prevent the wind from knocking it over

Looking for Signs

In these uncertain times (I had to start with that for my professional writer pandemic bingo card), we are all looking for signs. Signs that things are getting better. Signs that we will actually love the new normal. Signs that we can start doing some of those things we took for granted before.

For SIE, some of our signs are actual signs.

A blue graphic with white lettering and yellow icons welcomes visitors to the National Zoo. It lists the requirements for staying six feet apart, wearing a face covering, presenting a timed entry pass, and to prepare for a bag check. The graphic is in a black metal frame; the graphic can swing in the breeze to prevent the wind from knocking it over
A welcome graphic greets visitors to Smithsonian Exhibits’ building in Landover. SIE designed and fabricated the graphics and the metal sign holders.


The New Normal

The Smithsonian recently reopened the National Zoo and the Udvar-Hazy annex of the National Air and Space Museum. (For those of you not in D.C., Udvar-Hazy is the museum building near Dulles airport.) In order to reopen as safely as possible, the Smithsonian has made some changes to how people can visit these museums. It’s still free to visit, but visitors need timed passes. Visitors over age six need to wear a face covering. Everyone needs to maintain at least six feet of distance.

A blue circle with the words "Please maintain a safe social distance of 6 feet / Favor de mantener una distancia social segura de 6 pies" A womans toes are visible below the graphic.
Signs on the pathways at the National Zoo serve as a good reminder to keep socially distant.



a series of exit graphics stating "Thank you for visiting. Please continue your Smithsonian journey by visiting us online at si.edu. Stay Safe! / Gracias por vistarnos. Puedes continuar tu recorrido por el Smithsonian en linea, vistando si.edu. Cuidate!
Signs at Udvar-Hazy thank visitors for coming, and create a divide that allows for one-way entry and one-way exit. Signs reminding visitors to maintain six feet of distance dot the side of the path leading into the museum.


Reopening Efforts

This is where Smithsonian Exhibits comes in. We are, first and foremost, here to serve the Smithsonian. Our expertise normally goes into making one of a kind exhibitions, but for this effort we refocused and became the Smithsonian’s one-stop shop for reopening graphics.

Madeline Wan, an SIE graphic designer, developed icons and graphic standards for the reopening effort. Our fabrication team designed and manufactured metal sign holders. The holders suspend the graphic in a frame. (This prevents strong winds from knocking over signs.)

Madeline also created signage catalogs for the Smithsonian museums and stores to use when ordering their signs from us. It’s a win/win/win: It’s easier for the museums to get their signs in place; the Smithsonian as a whole will have consistent signage across all the museums; and that means it will be easier for visitors to navigate the reopened spaces even if some of the pathways through those spaces have changed.

Our project managers have been meeting with the museums as they assess their reopening signage needs. While each museum is responsible for determining their reopening plan, we are glad that we are able to provide this service and make that effort a little easier.


Safety First

And don’t worry, we practice what we preach: SIE has set up our fabrication and graphics shops to maintain distance between colleagues. Everyone is wearing face coverings. In some cases, this isn’t really a change: some of the work requires face covers and respirator masks already.

Those who can work remotely are continuing to do so—because fewer people in the building makes it safer for those who are on-site.

In short, the Smithsonian is taking precautions, and at SIE we are helping each other out however we can both in our spaces and throughout the Institution.


Want to visit?

When you’re ready to spend some time with animals or a space shuttle, we’ll be here. Just remember to wash your hands.


a restroom at the Smithsonian has every other sink blocked off by tape; signs on the mirrors state that the sinks are unavailable in both English and Spanish
Blocking off every other sink helps maintain social distance. And remember, washing your hands is generally a good idea, even in non-pandemic times.


If you’re ready to visit, check out https://www.si.edu/visit for the most up-to-date visitor information and to reserve free timed passes.

If you’re more comfortable waiting a bit longer before venturing to the Smithsonian, https://www.si.edu/ has a variety of online offerings.

infographic showing subject matter experts and the exhibit developer roles in content development

Exhibit Developer: one of those jobs your guidance counselor never mentioned

If you’ve ever wondered why SIE sometimes has longer breaks between blog posts, there’s a very simple and logical reason for that: we aren’t professional bloggers. We have other jobs at SIE, and those responsibilities come first. So, while we love to keep people up-to-date on the blog, working on the exhibits is more important than writing about working on the exhibits.

The blog posts are, for the most part, written by SIE’s exhibit developer/writers.

This is where I realize there’s a pretty good chance that a lot of people reading this are thinking:

What is an exhibit developer?

Well, like a lot of jobs, it really depends on where you work. At SIE the exhibit developers are also writers. In some places, the exhibit developers are also project managers. I’m sure there’s countless combinations out there that museums developed as they figured out what works best for their process. And as always, if you work somewhere small, the position descriptions get to be somewhat all encompassing. One of my earlier jobs included (among many other things) exhibit research, script writing, bookkeeping, and on Thursday it was my day to take out the trash. My point is, there’s no one-size-fits-all exhibit developer job description.

Because the SIE exhibit developers are also writer/editors, we have a variety of projects that come our way. Everything from copyediting completed scripts to developing and writing an entire exhibit from the ground up. But most people have a sense of what a writer does … for example … this thing you’re reading now? I wrote it.

Exhibit developers, however, are one of those jobs that probably didn’t come up with your high school guidance counselor. I ended up in this field and I didn’t know it was a job until I was in an internship in college.

There are a few key roles, though, that I think define exhibit developers at SIE.


Content Wrangler

infographic showing subject matter experts and the exhibit developer roles in content development
Content Wrangling: We ask to the “dumb” questions so you don’t have to. (Graphic by Madeline Wan)


Exhibit developers are content wranglers. We work with the subject area experts to figure out the best way to tell their story. This way the subject matter expert (for example: historian, chemist, anthropologist, special agent, civil engineer, horticulturalist, etc.) can provide all the information (and review the exhibit script for accuracy), and let the exhibit developers figure out how to turn that into a holistic experience for the museum visitors. Sometimes that means we do some of the research, other times, someone hands over source material. Most of the time it falls somewhere in between. There’s always a lot of back and forth with the content experts as we figure out ways to explain what they know to an audience unfamiliar with the topic.


Script Editor / Writer

infographic showing script editing
Scripts: We help get the text into an easy to understand format … or write the whole thing if the subject matter experts don’t want to. (Graphic by Madeline Wan)


At SIE, we might help edit the script, or in some projects, like The FBI Experience or Mission: DIA, we write it ourselves. We also have to keep in mind that visitors might not know much about the topic. Museum writing is different than writing an article or a book. We need to write in a way that is understandable in more than one order. The main thing to consider when writing for an exhibition is that museums are a spatially driven experience. Visitors move through an exhibition. Museums aren’t textbooks (for a lot of reasons) but let’s concentrate on the order of information for now. In a textbook, it’s fair to assume that the reader will read the chapters in order. By chapter 4, the author can expect that the reader at least glanced at chapters 1 through 3. Exhibitions work more like an anthology: the ideas are all connected, but if you skip around, it should still make sense.

We still make sections clear so visitors can see when they are moving into a new topic. But, while a building’s design might dictate how a visitor gets from one gallery to another, there is no way to guarantee that a visitor will go through the space in any particular order (and even if they do, they might not have a chance to read everything along the way).


Visitor Advocate

an exhibit developer worries about the many wants and needs of visitors
We  you, visitors. You’re always on our minds. (Graphic by Madeline Wan)


We think about visitors. A lot. We heart you, visitors. We try figure out how a visitor would navigate an exhibit. Would they likely follow it in an order? Is there a place where they might have to wait (for example, at an interactive element)? What if that went through it and only looked at the objects? Could they still get a positive experience? What if they only looked at the pictures and read the titles and captions?

Ideally, we like to think that visitors will read everything, and do every interactive, and watch every video clip. But we also live in the real world and understand that sometimes the kids are just done and you have to leave. Or you were lucky enough to have an extra 30 minutes one day and popped into a Smithsonian and just wanted to see something you hadn’t seen before. We want you to engage with the exhibit however works best for you on that visit. Walking into a gallery, sitting on a bench, and enjoying one piece of art is a fantastic way to experience a museum. So is reading every panel if that’s what you want to do. Museums are for everyone, and exhibit developers want you to have an experience that works for you.

Also, we want to make sure you know where the bathroom is and where you can get a coffee. We’re people, too, and we also need those things.

Those are the highlights of the job, but as with any job those “duties as assigned” always come into play. Sometimes it’s a little extra help editing a press release, or maybe we’ll help select images since we’re the ones immersed in the story. But no matter what, exhibit developers want you to enjoy your time in our museums, learn a cool fact or two, and—if we’ve really nailed it—look at an object, story, topic, or (dare I hope) the world in a different way.