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:
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!)
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.)
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.
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
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
The 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
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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?)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Once the parts were ready, SIE exhibit specialist Jeff Rosshirt installed the Arduino microcontroller.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.)
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!
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.
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.
SIE designers Elena Saxton and Madeline Wan took inspiration from car culture in their designs, using bright colors and carpet tiles evoking tire treads.
Once the design was complete, it was time to put the pedal to the metal and fabricate and install!
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.
Throughout the project, SIE project manager Rob Wilcox kept the show on the road to success, directing traffic and avoiding any collisions.
We think you’ll agree that the final result is breathtaking!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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).
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.
Remember that time SIE got to work on all that top-secret stuff (only without getting to learn any of the actual secret parts)? I mentioned that our work on the Defense Intelligence Agency Museum was going to be done in a number of phases. Previously, I wrote about Phases 1 and 2. Now, we’re able to talk about Phase 3. And I promise to continue with the utmost honesty about this project that may or may not REDACTEDREDACTEDs—similar to my previous REDACTEDREDACTED post.
Phase 3 was a big one, roughly four times the size of phase 2. The four sections—Supporting Operations, Bringing Them Home, Enabling Diplomacy, and Staying Ahead— explore critical aspects of the DIA’s mission. Each section uses specific examples to explain how complicated missions came together, although REDACTEDREDACTEDfrom those REDACTEDREDACTEDREDACTED. By highlighting specific stories,REDACTEDREDACTED we could show the breadth of the agency’s work without overwhelming visitors with a play-by-play of everything they’ve done since the 1960s.
Supporting Operations explores DIA’s role as the provider of military intelligence necessary for operations to occur. Specifically, the exhibit dives into operations during the 1991 Gulf War, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and efforts in Afghanistan. REDACTEDREDACTEDREDACTED.
Bringing Them Home
Bringing Them Home delves into DIA’s efforts to bring home prisoners of war, those missing in action, and those killed in action. The risk with stories like these is that they are almost too compelling—stories that are this emotional can run risk of being overly sensationalized.
Here, we needed to balance out the drama of the rescues with the often unseen work done by DIA. The intelligence and coordination needed to conduct a rescue mission is what makes those dramatic “made for the movies” moments possible. REDACTEDREDACTEDREDACTED. Before someone can rescue an injured soldier, intelligence officers need to figure out where they are, how they can get in and out of the building, how they can assess options in real time, and many other things I’m probably not allowed to know about.
On a lighter note, you should know that we felt the need, the need for speed. Yes, DIA was responsible for Top Gun. You’re welcome, America.
Staying Ahead focuses on the ways DIA uses technology and innovation. For example, the real-life Top Gun program was developed using intelligence DIA gathered by exploiting Soviet aircraft. One of the digital interactives in this section (created by IMG, a partner in this project who handled the audio-visual materials and digital interactives) allows visitors to explore a Soviet MiG aircraft … and another interactive lets visitors take a quiz that asks “what was in Top Gun and what was in real life?” Fun Fact: the DIA exploited MiGs at area 51, where REDACTEDREDACTEDREDACTEDREDACTED. By learning about the strengths and weaknesses of Soviet aircraft, a new flight training program was set up for the U.S. Air Force (known as Red Flag) and the famed program for U.S. Navy (cue Highway to the Danger Zone).
The section Enabling Diplomacy tells an often overlooked part of military history—using diplomacy to prevent conflict. Truly, what better way to protect the war fighter than to keep them out of harm’s way in the first place. I was really hoping for some REDACTEDREDACTED.REDACTEDREDACTEDREDACTED or REDACTED. In this section, we looked at treaties, negotiations, and international—REDACTEDREDACTEDcooperation.
But wait! There’s more! Well… admittedly, that wait is going to take a bit. Phase 4 of Mission: DIA is built and ready to go, but not yet installed. Our install date is classified. (Okay, like everything else, the install date was moved because of the Covid-19 situation, but it sounds so much cooler REDACTEDREDACTEDREDACTED to say it’s classified.)
Have you ever walked past an exhibit graphic that seemed to move? Or maybe the image suddenly shifted? Your eyes weren’t playing tricks on you … the graphic was playing a trick on your eyes.
These types of graphics are known as lenticular prints.
What Are Lenticular Prints?
Today’s lenticulars aren’t the moving image stickers you used to get at the doctor’s office as a kid (or adult—no judgment here). You know the ones: if you swiveled it a bit it looked like She-Ra was raising her sword, or a transformer was … transforming. Well now that same concept makes things that do this:
2D Print, 3D Effect
One of the advantages of lenticulars is that visitors can get a nice pop of 3D or animation without needing any additional equipment. As cool as everyone looks wearing those 3D glasses, it’s a bit of waste to supply those for one panel. Lenticular prints simulate motion and/or dimension using specially fabricated two-dimensional prints.
How do the 2D prints make it look 3D?
It’s called stereoscopy. It’s a visual effect created by providing slightly offset views to both of your eyes at the same time. When your brain mushes (technical term) the two visuals together, you see the combined image with additional depth and volume. In other words, your brain takes Image 1 and Image 2 and turns into a much more awesome optical illusion. To do that, the designer has to interlace the images.
But why doesn’t the interlaced image look, well, terrible? And what’s up with that term “lenticular?”
Lenticular comes from “lens,” meaning something curved that refracts lights. The lens that goes on top of the interlaced graphic is called a lenticular lens. It’s made of a series of curved strips called lenticules. Those curved strips refract the light so that you can only see images from certain angles. So the short answers: it’s called lenticular because it has lenses, and those lenses decode the interlaced image into the “changing” graphic.
Why use them?
Other than they’re really fun? Lenticular prints add impact to displays of static photographs and other images. They can also create a depth of content. By layering images on top of each other, a lenticular can show a before and after, or a variety of images on a theme in a way that shows shifts. Recently, Smithsonian Libraries worked with SIE to create lenticular prints for their exhibition Magnificent Obsessions: Why We Collect. Visitors could see the image of a prized possession, and then it would shift, showing the collector. Visitors can see a visual connection between the two images, and figure out that the stories behind those two images are intertwined.
Creating a Lenticular Print
The process for creating a lenticular print can be broken down into three phases: design, printing, and mounting.
Phase 1: design
First, decide on the type of lenticular print you would like.
There are three main options to choose from:
Flip lenticulars create a smooth transition from one image to another using up to 15 frames (think of a flipbook). This type of lenticular can also be used to display 15 distinct images that change depending on viewing angle.
3D lenticulars are created using specialized 3D photography to simulate dimensionality and depth.
“4D” lenticulars include a combination of flip and 3D imagery.
Then establish the viewing distance.
This is critical. Knowing how far away a visitor will be standing determines how the software translates the images when generating the final print. This also determines the appropriate lens material.
Finally, prepare the file.
Depending on the lenticular type, the designer compiles a series of images in a layered Photoshop document, building the lenticular from the bottom up. This means the first layer is the background, and all of the other images are layered on top of the background. The images closest to the background look the farthest away.
The screen shots below show how designer Madeline Wan layered the images to create the Magnificent Obsessions lenticular.
Then, using specialized graphics software, the designer interlaces the the images.
Phase 2: Printing
The interlaced prints are produced on traditional wide format printers. For the Magnificent Obsessions graphic we used a specialty printing company, Parallax Lenticular Printing, to interlace and produce the final print.
Because the graphic is interlaced, it looks odd at this stage. If, for example, the finished product will be an animation composed of 15 images, the print will resemble 15 separate images that have been run through a paper shredder and then reassembled in the wrong order.
Phase 3: Mounting
The finished print is mounted to a clear plastic sheet with a pattern of lenses designed to pull specific images from the composite image.
Each image strip and lenticule must be aligned perfectly. Their proper alignment is what makes parts of the graphic recede back into the graphic, appear to float off the surface, or shift from one image to another.
Alternate Method: Combining printing and mounting
In some instances, the graphic can be printed directly to the reverse side of the lenticular film. This skips the often tedious (and sometimes problematic) step of laminating and mounting the interlaced image onto the lens. Going this route eliminates the risk of things like hair and air bubbles messing up the application of the lens. However, this method typically requires a much more complex printing setup, such as a screenprinter or UV Inkjet.
In September 2019, staff from Smithsonian Exhibits (SIE) and the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) traveled to Juneau, Alaska, to attend a Tlingit clan ceremony to dedicate a new clan hat—a replica made by SIE. You can watch the entire ceremony on the Sharing Our Knowledge conference website here.
The Tlingit are an indigenous people from southeastern Alaska. In Tlingit society, clans are divided into two distinct groups or moieties: Eagle/Wolf and Raven. The hat SIE worked on belongs to the Raven moiety. It is known as the sculpin hat (or Wéix’ s’áaxw in Tlingit language) for the fish it represents, which is an important crest symbol to the Kiks.ádi clan, to whom the hat belonged. In Tlingit culture, hats such as this one are sacred artifacts, known as At.óow, which are imbued with the spirits of their ancestors and used in dancing and ceremonies.
For SIE model maker Chris Hollshwander, the ceremony was more than just the end of another project. It was the culmination of a five-year journey, during which he was adopted into a Tlingit clan and immersed himself in learning about Tlingit culture.
The original sculpin hat was acquired by the Smithsonian in the 1880s and was probably even older. Unfortunately, the hat in the Smithsonian’s collection is broken and lacked important information. In 2012, a visiting Tlingit clan leader, Harold Jacobs, spotted the hat at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. He kick-started a seven-year process, which resulted in a replica of the hat being restored to the clan.
Staff from NMNH brought the original hat to the ceremony in September to accompany the reproduction. During the ceremony, clan members instilled a spirit into the new hat so that it could be danced again, more than 130 years after the original hat left. Chris, SIE director Susan Ades, and SIE model maker Carolyn Thome all attended the ceremony. During the celebration, Carolyn was formally recognized for her contributions and adopted into the Kiks.ádi clan. You can read an article about the ceremony here.
The ceremony was a fitting end to a long process, but how did SIE get involved in the first place?
Chris was introduced to the project in 2014, when clan leaders visiting NMNH interviewed him to get to know him better and gauge his level of interest in working on the hat. The goal was to create two replicas: one would be restored to the clan and used in ceremonies; the other would remain at NMNH, where it would be used for educational purposes. To the clan, it was important that whoever made the new hat for them should be a member of the Eagle/Wolf moiety. In order to work on the hat, Chris was adopted into the Kaagwaantaan (Wolf) clan, at a ceremony at NMNH a few days later by Kaagwaantaan clan leader Andrew Gamble.
You can read more about the background to this project in a blog post by Eric Hollinger, Tribal Liaison for NMNH’s Repatriation Office, who was involved in the project from the beginning and was instrumental in its success.
To prepare for the replicas to be made, NMNH took a CT scan of the original hat and partnered with the Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office (DPO) to create a digital model by 3D scanning the hat with structured light scanners. They also took a series of photos, in a process known as photogrammetry, which would be processed into a digital model. You can take a virtual tour of the 3D model here.
Since the original hat was broken into multiple sections and had become warped over time, the first step was to repair it digitally. Using the files from DPO, Carolyn painstakingly repaired the hat through a process known as digital sculpting. She joined the cracks, bridged the gaps between the sections, and erased any non-original parts to prepare the 3D model for milling.
Meanwhile, the wood for the replicas needed to be sourced. The original hat was made of cedar. Since the clan intended to use their restored hat for dances, they decided to use alder, a stronger wood. The replica for the museum was to be made with yellow cedar. Both types of wood were harvested and shipped from Alaska, then had to be kept in freezers to avoid drying and cracking before the production of the replicas began.
To test the files and the machine settings, Chris milled a half-scale prototype of the hat, which he brought with him to Sitka, Alaska, in October 2017 to attend the Sharing Our Knowledge Conference.
The conference was a great opportunity for Chris to meet with clan members and learn more about their culture and traditions, while also demonstrating the Smithsonian’s 3D digitization and replication technology. You can read more about the conference here.
Once the clan approved the prototype, Chris got to work making the full-size replicas. Because the work was done at SIE’s facility in Landover, Maryland (nearly 3,000 miles away from Alaska), the Smithsonian used videoconferencing to allow clan representatives to watch the progress that was being made. Another example of modern technology at work!
One of the most challenging parts of the process was working with the wood and the number of machining set ups that were required. Because the wood was fresh, Chris needed to mill the pieces gradually over time, allowing the wood to slowly adjust in the freezer to avoid warping, cracking, and drying out too fast. The process involved roughing the hats out, then drying them slowly in a bed of their own wood chips outside of the freezer. When the wood was dried, Chris was able to do the final milling.
The final step was finishing the replicas under the supervision of Tlingit clan leader and artist Cyril Zuboff. Zuboff advised Chris and Eric on how to paint and attach materials to the hats, including shells, deer hide, sinew, ermine skins, and sea lion whiskers.
The Smithsonian Women’s Committee (SWC) generously funded the creation of the replicas through a grant. Members of the SWC came to meet with the project team and observe the finishing process.
You can watch a slideshow of the entire process here.
After the replicas were completed, they remained at NMNH with the original hat. As preparations for the trip to the ceremony started over the summer, SIE provided a custom-fitted travel case for the alder hat. This will enable the hat to be transported to ceremonies in the future. SIE also fabricated a custom box for the original hat, to be couriered by NMNH Repatriation Office staff to Juneau.
When the hats were presented at the ceremony, clan members were thrilled with the results and were overjoyed to welcome home a part of their culture that had been away for more than 130 years. The new alder hat will eventually be brought to Sitka, Alaska, returning it to where it belongs for future generations. This project marks the first time that a traditional cultural object has been digitally restored and replicated and then dedicated as a sacred object by an indigenous community.
For Chris and Carolyn, adopted clan members, this has been more than just another project. It has been an experience that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.
Exhibits are for everyone, and Smithsonian Exhibits (SIE) strives to make our exhibits as accessible as possible. Last year, thanks to a grant from the Smithsonian’s Accessibility Innovation Fund, we were able to experiment with strategies for making exhibits more accessible to people who are blind and have low vision.
Think about a typical exhibit and you might picture a glass display case with artifacts, text, and images inside. Now consider this from the perspective of a person who is blind or has low vision. How can you engage with the artifacts, text, and images inside if you can’t see them? It’s frustrating, right? SIE decided to take on this challenge and find solutions to make exhibit cases and graphics more accessible.
Throughout the process, SIE worked closely with Access Smithsonian, the Smithsonian’s central office devoted to visitor accessibility, which funded the project and provided guidance and expertise along the way. Access Smithsonian connected us with their network of User Experts, volunteers with disabilities who help the Smithsonian test exhibits and advise us on how to make them more accessible. This was crucial, because—as with any exhibit—understanding your audience and their needs is key to success.
At the project’s kick-off meeting, we sat down with a group of User Experts with varying levels of vision to listen to their needs and common barriers that prevent them from engaging with exhibits. Among other things, the User Experts stressed the importance of providing the exhibit’s big picture up front and incorporating a range of different tools, including tactile elements, audio components, and braille.
The next step was to select an exhibit to work with. SIE wanted to use an exhibit that was already open to the public. Consulting with curators at the National Postal Museum, we selected Trailblazing: 100 Years of Our National Parks, an exhibit SIE was already familiar with from having worked on the graphics.
During the research and planning phase of the project, we spoke with accessibility experts and visited other museums to learn more about existing accessibility solutions.
We decided to create two reader rails for Trailblazing: one to provide an introduction and overview of the exhibit and another to interpret a display case on mail delivery in the Grand Canyon, which included a mix of artifacts, text, and images.
One of the star artifacts of the exhibit was a mule mail riding saddle used to deliver mail to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, the only place in the U.S. where mail is still delivered by mule.
During the design phase, SIE solicited feedback from accessibility experts along the way, which helped us rethink some of our initial plans and refine our designs.
SIE built physical prototypes of the two reader rails. These included braille, raised characters, a raised-line floor plan of the exhibit, buttons playing audio descriptions, and 3D tactile models of a mule mail riding saddle and a mule mail train.
Then, it was time to test!
We installed the prototypes in the Trailblazing gallery and invited User Experts with varying levels of vision to come try them out.
Afterward, we sat down with the User Experts to listen to their feedback. People loved the tactile models. But the audio descriptions played through speakers were muffled and hard to hear. This was a problem, especially for the typical scenario of a crowded gallery. Based on the group’s feedback, we decided to replace the speakers with audio handsets as well as a separate audio jacks, to allow visitors to plug in their own headphones.
The group had several other helpful recommendations, including shortening some of the audio descriptions, adjusting the location of the tactile floor plan to make it more intuitive, and aligning the braille text with the buttons.
Based on this feedback, SIE brought the prototypes back to the shop and redesigned them. After all the modifications were made, it was time for round two!
Round two of the testing confirmed that we were on the right track and opened up more possibilities for future exploration. The User Experts expressed an interest in being able to pause, rewind, and fast forward the audio, and recommended that audio components be placed in a consistent location on all panels to make them easier to find.
Some User Experts were concerned about “feeling in the way” when using the audio handsets and suggested adding a portable handheld device or enabling visitors to play the audio on their own devices.
SIE learned an incredible amount from the Trailblazing project, which we have already begun to implement in our latest exhibits. Working with visitors who are blind and have low vision gave us a deeper understanding of the needs of this important audience. The project reaffirmed SIE’s commitment to providing high-quality 3D tactile experiences and provided new insights into working with braille, raised characters, and audio descriptions.
This May, SIE will be sharing our findings as part of a panel on accessibility at the Smithsonian at the American Alliance of Museums’ Annual Meeting in San Francisco. In the meantime, we’re working on several other accessibility initiatives. (More on those soon!)