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Interpretive Master Plans (Or How We Get There From Here)

Earlier this year, Smithsonian Exhibits collaborated with the Smithsonian Latino Center (SLC) on an interpretive master plan for their new gallery. Chances are, that if you read this far, you’re wondering what exactly is an interpretive master plan.

 

The short version is that it is a tool an organization uses to reach a specific goal. If you’re familiar with strategic plans, interpretive master plans are in the same family. If a strategic plan is an interviewer asking you “where do you see yourself in five years?” the interpretive master plan is your coworker saying “how are we going to get this project done?”

 

A strategic plan is for longer term planning within an organization. It identifies a number of goals and spells out a plan for the organization for the next several years. The interpretive master plan, on the other hand, is a preliminary study that will help an organization reach one very big, very specific goal. Eric Christiansen, Smithsonian Exhibits Chief of Design, likened an interpretive master plan to the North Star: “Interpretive master plans create a fixed reference point that all things can be measured against to make sure you stay on track.”

 

For the Smithsonian Latino Center Gallery, that meant brainstorming sessions and building on the work SLC had already done identifying exhibition topics and educational programming opportunities. We met frequently, using our meetings to discuss everything from intended audiences to what critical questions the exhibitions should address. Notes were taken, circulated, reviewed. Once everyone was on the same page and happy with the direction, Smithsonian Exhibits wrote and designed a guiding document that SLC is using as it makes its new gallery a reality.

 

What sort of information is in an interpretive master plan?

Like exhibitions, no two plans are going to be exactly alike, although there are some common elements. In addition to establishing goals and objectives, the plan will identify stakeholders and audiences, develop themes and take-away messages, and identify programming opportunities.

 

For this project, we included exhibition concepts, in-gallery learning experiences, educational outreach, and digital outreach. Now SLC is using their interpretive master plan to aid in their exhibition development. They’ve also been able to share it with the project’s designers to get them up to speed. As new people come on board the project, they can review the plan and easily see “This is where we’re going. And this is how we get there.”

 

The planning process helps an organization reevaluate and reconfirm its mission as well establish the goals and objectives of the new project. The plan is a way to make sure the project fits the organization’s mission, and the project keeps moving toward those goals.
The planning process helps an organization reevaluate and reconfirm its mission as well establish the goals and objectives of the new project. The plan is a way to make sure the project fits the organization’s mission, and the project keeps moving toward those goals.

 

The Smithsonian Latino Center Gallery will include digital immersion in the galleries as well as robust online offerings.
The Smithsonian Latino Center Gallery will include digital immersion in the galleries as well as robust online offerings.

Home Run! The Babe Ruth Mural at National Portrait Gallery

It’s officially summer, and that means baseball. On June 24th, the National Portrait Gallery opened One Life: Babe Ruth. Our Graphics department created the mural seen at the entrance to the exhibit.

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Babe awaits his visitors. Photograph: Caroline Chang

If there’s one thing that these blog posts show, it’s that each project has its own challenges. For this project, we needed to match the color of the mural to the color of a print the National Portrait Gallery had done in-house. It was printed on the same material, but used a different printer and different ink.

Different machines with different inks create, as you might imagine, different shades and intensities of colors. Mike Reed, a graphics specialist, tweaked the colors for individual test prints until he got the color exactly right.

Even black and white images use other colors of ink. Photograph: Mike Reed
Even black and white images use other colors of ink. Photograph: Mike Reed

After nearly two dozen small-scale test prints, Mike successfully recreated the color composition of the original image.

Mike's test prints show the incremental changes to the colors to achieve the exact match. Photograph: Caroline Chang
Mike’s test prints show the incremental changes he made to the colors. Photograph: Caroline Chang

Once the color levels were finalized, Mike printed the mural and a team from Smithsonian Exhibits installed it.

In our line of work, saying you started with a "blank canvas" is often literal. Photograph Caroline Chang
In our line of work, saying you started with a “blank canvas” is often literal. Photograph Caroline Chang

 

Smithsonian Exhibits graphics specialists Sharon Head, Mike Reed, and Evan Keeling work as a team to ensure a smooth and seamless installation. (Again, in our line of work, that's literal.) Photograph: Caroline Chang
Smithsonian Exhibits graphics specialists Sharon Head, Mike Reed, and Evan Keeling work as a team to ensure a smooth and seamless installation. (Again, in our line of work, that’s literal.) Photograph: Caroline Chang

 

Knocked it out of the park! Photograph: Caroline Chang
Knocked it out of the park! Photograph: Caroline Chang

You can visit One Life: Babe Ruth through May 21 of next year.

A Trip to Benin City, Nigeria

by guest blogger Paula Millet, Senior Exhibit Designer, Smithsonian Exhibits

The Chief S.O. Alonge Traveling Exhibition is an exhibition, catalogue, and educational project organized and produced by the National Museum of African Art (NMAfA), Smithsonian Institution. Alonge was the official photographer to the Royal Court of Benin, Edo State, Nigeria. He also owned and operated the Ideal Photo Studio. Many of his photos are in the NMAfA archives, and this material was recently presented in a very successful exhibit.

S.O. Alonge self-portrait, seated outside his Benin City studio, c. 1942.
S.O. Alonge self-portrait, seated outside his Benin City studio, c. 1942.

The National Museum Benin City was opened in 1973. Currently, they are working to upgrade the building and redo the exhibits. As part of this effort NMAfA is planning to send Alonge exhibit components to the museum.

Entrance to the National Museum Benin City. Photo by Amy Staples
Entrance to the National Museum Benin City. Photo by Amy Staples

 

Interior shot of the museum. Photo by Amy Staples
Interior shot of the museum. Photo by Amy Staples

 

Amy Staples, Chief Archivist of NMAfA, is co-curator of the Alonge exhibit and I am the exhibit designer. Last month, Amy and I flew to Benin City to work with colleagues at the Benin Museum. We planned for the installation of NMAfA’s Alonge exhibit and also discussed possible design strategies for the other galleries.

Benin Museum: mosaic mural by Jimoh Buraimoh, with (l to r) Amy Staples, Theophilus Umogbai, and Paula Millet.
Benin Museum: mosaic mural by Jimoh Buraimoh, with (l to r) Amy Staples, Theophilus Umogbai, and Paula Millet.

 

Nigeria is an amazing place. The streets are thronged with pedestrians and street vendors selling everything from electronics to live chickens. Traffic is hair-raisingly congested and chaotic; traffic lights and designated lanes being mere concepts.

It is tropical and hot. Our hotel was nicely air-conditioned but the museum galleries really were not. You just deal with it.

Day 1: Amy led a rousing exhibition planning meeting with the museum staff. Then we toured the galleries as we talked about how they would like to re-install the spaces.

Our colleagues at the Benin Museum (l to r) : Benjamin Aiyamekhue Okpevbo, Chief Museum Education Officer Boniface Ojienon, Chief Curator, Documentation; Theophilus Umogbai, Assistant Director and Curator; and Ikhuehi Omonkhua, Assistant Chief Exhibition Officer. Photo by Paula Millet
Our colleagues at the Benin Museum (l to r) : Benjamin Aiyamekhue Okpevbo, Chief Museum Education Officer; Boniface Ojienon, Chief Curator, Documentation; Theophilus Umogbai, Assistant Director and Curator; and Ikhuehi Omonkhua, Assistant Chief Exhibition Officer. Photo by Paula Millet

 

Amy Staples and Ikhuehi Omonkhua discussing the project. Photo by Paula Millet
Amy Staples and Ikhuehi Omonkhua discussing the project. Photo by Paula Millet

 

Day 2: To prepare for the installation, I measured many things with the help of the exhibition staff. At one point while our group was working a large school group swarmed around us. The kids were interested in everything and had impressive “museum manners.”

Ikhuehi Omonkhua, Paula Millet, and Benin Museum exhibits staff at work. Photo by Amy Staples
Ikhuehi Omonkhua, Paula Millet, and Benin Museum exhibits staff at work. Photo by Amy Staples

 

A school group and their teacher in the galleries. Photo by Amy Staples
A school group and their teacher tour the galleries. Photo by Amy Staples

 

Day 3: The word was out that Amy was in town. A succession of her friends and colleagues met us informally at the hotel. These were professors, artists, bureaucrats, and chiefs. (In Nigeria “Chief” is an honorable title for individuals who provide a service to the royal court of Edo state and its hereditary ruler, the Oba.)

Between meetings we were back at the museum working with the staff. Much to my delight, we went into the storage area to photograph objects considered for display in the Alonge gallery. (I experience a “behind the scenes” thrill whenever visiting any art storage.)

Day 4: We took a trip to Igbinedion Education Center to meet the elegant and indomitable director, Lady Cherry Igbinedion. Amy is working with her on an outreach program aimed at engaging female students in photography.

We followed that up with another fantastic experience. Chief Harrison Ehanire gave us a tour of traditional bronze casters’ workshops. The Chief wore his official white robes and coral necklace as he led us along busy Igun Street. At the artisans’ foundries, we were treated to a step-by-step explanation of the process used to create Benin’s classic bronze works.

Igun Street: Chief Ehanire and an artisan explaining the lost-wax bronze casting process. Photo by Amy Staples
Igun Street: Chief Ehanire and an artisan explaining the lost-wax bronze casting process. Photo by Amy Staples

 

Modern bronze artworks are created by traditional methods. Photo by Amy Staples
Modern bronze artworks are created by traditional methods. Photo by Amy Staples

 

Day 5: We flew to Lagos, a sprawling and densely populated city. First we were given a private tour of the Lagos National Museum. After the museum, we had a nice visit at the home of Madam Stella Gbinigie. Alonge’s hand-colored photograph of her as a 16-year-old is one of the highlights of the exhibition.

Madam Stella Gbingie at age 16. Benin City, Nigeria. Hand-colored photograph by Solomon Osagie Alonge, 1950.
Madam Stella Gbingie at age 16. Benin City, Nigeria. Hand-colored photograph by Solomon Osagie Alonge, 1950.

 

I flew home from the Lagos Airport that evening, grateful to have had the opportunity to work with Nigerian museum professionals and to see such a dynamic part of the world.

Scaling Up: Making the Minuscule Accessible

A lot of the life on our planet is very, very small. Most of our planet is made up of water. These two ideas are easily memorized, but not as easily grasped. Life in One Cubic Foot at the National Museum of Natural History looks at where these two facts intersect. Scientists placed biocubes, cubes measuring one-foot by one-foot by one-foot, in the ocean and studied all the life that swam, floated, or swished through it for one day.

And the amount of life in just that one cubic foot is staggering.

Even more mind-blowing? All of those critters play a role in maintaining the oceans, and therefore our planet. That’s right, these tiny things maintain the planet.

By studying these creatures, scientists can learn about the ocean’s biodiversity and how ecosystems work. Obviously, this is important, as is sharing this information with the public. But how can we do that? It’s easy enough to gather a few dozen people around an elephant – but how do we huddle around something not quite the size of a sea-monkey?

We make a scale model of it. The idea of a scale model often conjures up ideas of miniatures – like cars or ships. In order to make those things easier to understand, model makers scale them down. The reverse also works: model makers can scale things up. In the case of the Paraphronima gracilis, a creature so uncommon that it only has a Latin name, that meant creating a 13-inch sculpture of a creature that in reality, is smaller than a dime.

1-actual-paraphronima
Paraphronima gracilis is not much bigger than an M&M. It is not a facehugger from Alien.

Smithsonian Exhibits model maker Carolyn Thome took on the challenge of making a realistic model of this diminutive crustacean. Working with photographs and drawings by NMNH research zoologist Karen Osborn, Carolyn created a model Paraphronima gracilis using the digital sculpting program zbrush. Carolyn met with Karen throughout the process to ensure accuracy and to fine-tune the digital sculpture before 3D printing the file.

The digital version of our tiny friend – this offers a preview of what will be 3D printed.
The digital version of our tiny friend – this offers a preview of what will be 3D printed.

To ensure a successful 3D print, Carolyn organized the model into three sections: the outer eye, the inner eye, and the body and legs.

Our in-house 3D printer only prints in an opaque material, and Paraphronima gracilis is translucent. Carolyn had an outside company that could print in a clear polymer print her digital sculpture. The three sections were printed separately and then Carolyn sanded them. And sanded them. And then sanded them some more. This reduced the build lines and made the model as smooth and polished as possible. She then fit the sections together and bound it with adhesive to create the final model. Once it was assembled, she sprayed a few coats of two-part automotive urethane clear coat to enhance the translucency and protect the model from UV rays.

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The final lifelike model – in real life Paraphronima gracilis is translucent, except for its 32 orange retinas.

You can visit our transparent friend in the focus gallery of the Sant Ocean Hall on the first floor of the National Museum of Natural History.

 

 

Aesthetic Problem Solving: What Does Smithsonian Exhibits Look Like?

With a new name comes a new logo. That sounds simple enough, but a lot more goes into thoughtful design than changing some typefaces and colors.

Creating a logo —essentially a visual identity— is an unusual challenge. There are many considerations to keep in mind. We started brainstorming the sort of image we wanted to convey last year. After we determined our wants, several needs also had to be addressed in the design process. Our logo needs to work in color and in black and white. It has to have impact as a small icon in the corner of a sheet of paper, but it also needs to look great blown up on an entrance wall. It needs to be a pictographic signature. That’s a really big order for what is often a tiny piece of art.

Okay, so that sounds like a lot of work. And it is. But luckily for us, Smithsonian Exhibits is filled with creative people. We opened up logo design to the entire staff. Including so many people in a design exercise is a bit unorthodox, but this gave everyone a chance to participate in our rebranding. Around Memorial Day, many on staff (even some not in design) submitted logo ideas for consideration.

Logo ideas were plentiful and varied.
Logo ideas were plentiful and varied.

 

We reviewed the initial submissions and selected seven concepts for further development.

Some logo designs had shapes that were more organic and flowing, while other submissions were more architectural.
Some logo designs had shapes that were more organic and flowing, while other submissions were more architectural.

 

For the remainder of the summer, our Chief of Design, Eric Christiansen, led a team of designers in refining the potential logos.

Designers Oona Ahn, Emily Sloat Shaw, and Kristen Orr work with potential logo designs.
Designers Oona Ahn, Emily Sloat Shaw, and Kristen Orr work with potential logo designs.

 

As a design direction started to become apparent, the concept began to evolve. Design is rarely a linear path. As ideas are explored, different angles are taken, and different designers have different interpretations.

A simplified view of our logo’s evolution.
A simplified view of our logo’s evolution.

 

As our logo project wrapped up, we brought in outside branding consultants to help move us over the final hump. We were able to utilize their expertise to move our design to the next level.

Our new logo!
Our new logo!

 

Now we have a logo that meets all of those seemingly impossible requirements.

 

It looks good in black and white …

06-SIE_Logo_Horiz_Black

 

… and grayscale …

06a-SIE_Logo_Horiz_Gray

 

… and color with the text underneath it.

New-Logo

 

It looks just right on our forms.

09-RFS-form

 

And it really pops on our new entrance wall.

08-wall

 

It even looks good on tee shirts and polos.

From the high fashion runways of Landover, Maryland - our team will be wearing our shirts on installations. Look for us around the Smithsonian!
From the high fashion runways of Landover, Maryland – our team will be wearing our new shirts on installations. Look for us around the Smithsonian!

 

While the original inspiration for our logo was the letter E, it grew into a form that evokes our mission: saw blades, script pages, a sketchpad, stairs (as we elevate and innovate), rays of the Smithsonian sun, and so on. It’s a veritable Rorschach test, and we couldn’t be happier about that.

 

Come One, Come All!

Our open house on October 29th was a rousing success! Colleagues from throughout the Smithsonian, and a few from outside institutions as well, toured our facility in Landover and joined us for lively discussions about exhibitions. This was an all-staff effort, and we had people from all of our services available to discuss what we can do.

1-Rob---Project-Management
Rob Wilcox talks to guests about project management. The skeleton had little to contribute to the conversation.

 

 

Exhibit designer Emily Sloat Shaw walks guests through the design process.
Exhibit designer Emily Sloat Shaw walks guests through the design process.

 

Senior writer/editor Rosemary Regan (center) discusses scriptwriting.
Senior writer/editor Rosemary Regan (center) discusses scriptwriting.

 

Graphics specialist Evan Keeling talks about graphic production.
Graphics specialist Evan Keeling talks about graphic production.

 

Fabricator and archival framer Jordan Tierney (third from right) and guests stand in front of portions of Wonderplace, which will be installed at the National Museum of American History in the coming weeks.
Fabricator and archival framer Jordan Tierney (third from right) and guests stand in front of portions of Wonderplace, which will be installed at the National Museum of American History in the coming weeks.

 

 

6-Erin-Talks-Skulls---3D
Erin Mahoney describes the process of creating 3D printed skulls for Exploring Human Origins.

 

7-Mary-Zach---mount-making
Project manager Mary Seng (back) and mount maker Zach Hudson (right) show some of the custom mounts and brackets made for the 2016 opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

 

We had a blast talking about how we can work with clients to Develop, Design, and Build their projects. If you missed our open house, or want to continue a conversation you started, you can contact us through our website or by phone at any time.

 

Smithsonian-Exhibits-group-photo-2015October-29,-2015
A big THANK YOU from all of us at Smithsonian Exhibits to the 250 guests who came to see us!

Greetings from…. Smithsonian Exhibits!

You read that right – OEC is now

 

New-Logo
A new logo for a new name … and it’s not an acronym!

 

Why change our name? We wanted something that quickly conveys that we are the Smithsonian’s full service exhibit planning, design, and production shop. The new name is clean and simple. It shows that we can work with you from the earliest stages of your project straight through to installation.

To celebrate our new name we’re hosting an open house on October 29. If you’ve ever wondered what goes on here at our facility in Landover, this is your chance to find out! You can talk with our staff and even check out some of our works in progress. We hope to see you then!

Creating a Creative Space for Spark!Lab

Earlier this summer we installed Spark!Lab, a new exhibit by the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation. The exhibit opened on July 1st in the National Museum of American History, and is an interactive space where children ages six through twelve can become inventors through creative experimentation and invention.

In order to spark the imaginations of these young inventors, the walls of the exhibit are stacked with almost 100 boxes, cases, and drawers full of building materials and inspirational objects from the museum’s collections. Our fabricators put their own creative talents to work as they installed these boxes throughout May and June. It was no easy feat: each individual box was first built and painted in our facility, then transported to the museum where the boxes were carefully arranged and mounted to the wall one at a time. Then our team wired up lights and attached graphic panels, while curators from the museum helped place the objects into the cases. Before we knew it, the completely blank walls had turned into this:

Spark Lab Composite (1 of 1)

Check out the photos below to see what our installation process looked like!

angle 1 together
We weren’t exaggerating when we said “completely blank walls.” But over the course of two months, Spark!Lab turned into a space teeming with creativity.

 

angle 2 final
The orange section features “Things that roll” – like wheels, rollers… and the glides on our pullout drawers.

 

angle 5 final
Over the summer the walls went from a few stacked cabinets to a space filled with graphics, objects, chalkboards, and craft paper.

 

angle 4 together
Spark!Lab has a section about “Things that make sound.” We like the sound of happy visitors working in the lab.

 

angle-3-together
The green section, “Things that help us see,” includes information on light bulbs. We included quite a few light bulbs ourselves.

 

Spark!Lab is open from 10am to 4pm every day, except Tuesdays and December 25th.

 

 

Making a Mural at National Portrait Gallery

The National Portrait Gallery opened One Life: Dolores Huerta on July 3. Huerta was a founder of the United Farm Workers and served as the organization’s lobbyist and contracts negotiator.

OEC printed and installed the large mural featured at the entrance to the exhibit, using LexJet Print-N-Stick Fabric. To accommodate the size of the graphic, OEC printed it in three pieces and installed it on-site.

 

Huerta-1
Graphic specialists Evan Keeling and Jessica Schick examine the seam between the first two panels of the mural.
Photo by Project Manager Mary Seng

 

Huerta-2
Evan lines up the third panel.
Photo by Mary Seng

 

Huerta-3
After tacking the edges together, Evan and Jessica begin to remove the backing from the print.
Photo by Mary Seng

 

Huerta-4
Evan and Jessica trim excess material from the overlapping edges.
Photo by Mary Seng

 

Huerta-5
The completed mural shows Dolores Huerta holding a sign reading Huelga, Spanish for “strike.”
Photo by Jessica Schick

One Life: Dolores Huerta is open through May 15, 2016.

Exploring Fantastic Worlds with Smithsonian Libraries

Fantastic Worlds: Science and Fiction, 1780-1910, a Smithsonian Libraries exhibit, opened in the National Museum of American History on July 1st. It is the first exhibit to open in the recently renovated Smithsonian Libraries Gallery in the museum’s west wing.

OEC designed, built, and installed the exhibit, which focuses on early works of science fiction and fantasy. At this time, new scientific discoveries and technologies inspired writers and artists to create fantastical tales about everything from traveling to other planets to resurrecting the dead. The exhibit is divided into seven sections ranging from Terra Incognita to the Rise of the Machines. Each section features books and artifacts from the Smithsonian Libraries collection, as well as objects on loan from the National Museum of American History and other collections.

To bring these fantastic worlds to life, we designed and fabricated section panels, reader rails, graphics for the backs of cases, object mounts, in-case pedestals, and custom made acrylic mounts. We also made the two acrylic frank cases in the center of the exhibit.

Section panels being prepared in OEC’s shop.
Section panels being prepared in OEC’s shop.
The pedestals, reading rails, and back wall graphics are ready for the cases.
The pedestals, reader rails, and back wall graphics are ready for the cases.

Working with historical books presents unique challenges. Because the books are very delicate and easily damaged, there are limits on how they can displayed and for how long. As a result, there will be five object rotations over the course of the exhibit. Our designers worked closely with curators and conservators to plan the five different layouts for each case. Each design needed to account for books of different sizes in a variety of display positions. In some cases, this means that a page may be turned or the position of the mount may be changed. If there is more than one available, an entire book may with swapped out for a different copy.

OEC staff and Smithsonian Libraries conservators arrange books for display.
OEC staff and Smithsonian Libraries conservators arrange books for display.

Another challenge presented by this exhibit came in the form of a 700-pound machine. In order to display the heavy 1963 model of Babbage’s Difference Engine, OEC custom made a frank acrylic case and built extra support systems into the base.

Although Babbage never completed it, his Difference Engine is considered a forerunner to the modern computer. It was intended to compute and print mathematical tables.
Although Babbage never completed it, his Difference Engine is considered a forerunner to the modern computer. It was intended to compute and print mathematical tables.

After nearly a year of planning and fabrication, Fantastic Worlds began installation in May. Conservators from Smithsonian Libraries were on hand throughout the installation to handle all of the rare, and often fragile, books.

Conservators from Smithsonian Libraries prepare a book for the exhibit.
Conservators from Smithsonian Libraries prepare a book for the exhibit.

While they handled the books, we handled the cases, mounts, reader rails, number plaques, and graphic panels.

Graphics specialist Kate Fleming installs a graphic to the back wall of a case.
Graphics specialist Kate Fleming installs a graphic to the back wall of a case.

 

fantastic photo 7
Graphic specialist Jessica Schick attaches a number tab.

 

A case waiting for its books.
A case waiting for its books.

 

fantastic photo 9
The finished case!

Soon enough, it all came together! Come take a journey to these fantastic worlds yourself the next time you visit the National Museum of American History. Fantastic Worlds: Science and Fiction, 1780-1910 is open until October 2016.