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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.


A display case containing an illustrated book and labels in a low-lit gallery
A typical museum display case containing artifacts, text, and images.


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.


A gallery with display cases lining the walls and at the center of the room
Trailblazing: 100 Years of Our National Parks at the National Postal Museum


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.


A table containing a raised-line floor plan showing the locations of exhibits at the White House Visitor Center
A tactile floor plan at the National Park Service’s White House Visitor Center


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.


A drawing of a freestanding reader rail structure with an angled panel at the top and a holder on the side for braille and large-print label binders
Initial design for the intro/overview reader rail structure


A drawing of a reader rail structure attached to the corner of a display case. The reader rail has three angled panels at the top and attaches to the base of the display case.
Initial design for the display case reader rail structure


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.


The interior of a display case showing a brown leather saddle
The exhibit included a saddle used to deliver mail to the bottom of the Grand Canyon 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.


Two men use tools to attach elements to a reader rail structure.
SIE’s graphics team assembles the reader rails.


A white 3D model of a saddle with a black background
SIE’s 3D studio created a tactile model of the mule mail riding saddle from the display case.


A white 3D model showing five mules carrying packages. Buttons below the model are labeled "Listen to an Audio Description" and "Listen to a Firsthand Account."
The prototype also featured a tactile model of a mule mail train delivering mail to the Grand Canyon.


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.


A man and a woman stand side by side in front of an interpretive panel on a reader rail and use both hands to touch it.
Testing round one: User Experts test the prototypes at the National Postal Museum. Image courtesy of Access Smithsonian.


A woman touches a 3D model of a mule mail train on a reader rail.
Testing round one: User Experts test the prototypes at the National Postal Museum. Image courtesy of Access Smithsonian.


A group of 15 people sit around a table in a conference room. Several service dogs lie on the floor.
User Experts and Smithsonian staff sit down to discuss the experience.


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!


A man touches an interpretive panel on a reader rail with his left hand and holds an audio handset to his ear with his right hand.
Testing round two: User Experts test the refined prototypes.


Two men stand next to an L-shaped reader rail. The man on the left touches the reader rail with his right hand and holds a white cane in his left hand. The man on the right touches the reader rail with his right hand and holds an audio handset to his ear with his left hand.
Testing round two: User Experts test the refined prototypes. Accessibility expert Ray Bloomer from the National Park Service (left) provided help and guidance throughout the project.


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!)

The National Museum of American Diplomacy

Washington has museums devoted to many subjects. But until recently, it didn’t have one devoted to diplomacy. That changed in November, when the U.S. Department of State unveiled the National Museum of American Diplomacy (NMAD) with its inaugural exhibition, Diplomacy Is Our Mission.

Smithsonian Exhibits (SIE) was thrilled to be part of the project. We provided exhibit development, design, graphic production, fabrication, 3D studio, and installation services for the exhibition as well as a separate gallery devoted to the Signature Segment of the Berlin Wall.

As NMAD prepares for its future permanent exhibitions (read more about that here), Diplomacy Is Our Mission allows the museum to highlight its amazing stories and collections. Find out how you can visit the exhibition here.

The project started with a content development phase, during which SIE worked with NMAD’s team to identify their main themes and select stories, artifacts, and images to support them. The team settled on four central themes to help tell the story of diplomacy: Security, Prosperity, Democracy, and Development.

Selecting which stories, artifacts, and images to include was no easy task. The museum spans the entire history of U.S. diplomacy from 1776 to today and covers events that occurred all over the world. NMAD’s collection features more than 9,000 items. That’s a lot of artifacts to pick from!

To help narrow the focus, the team decided to select three stories to support each theme: one historic, one contemporary, and one surprising or unusual. NMAD plans to refresh these stories periodically during the span of the exhibition to add new content and encourage visitors to come back. The team also decided to include an updatable section in the exhibition, called “Spotlight on Diplomacy,” which allows NMAD to address current events and mark anniversaries of historic milestones.


Images and text documents pinned to a wall
Behind the scenes of the story selection process: NMAD’s team displayed story ideas on the walls of their offices.


A modern building illuminated at dusk with an American flag flying from a pole in front
The exhibition is located in the National Museum of American Diplomacy’s pavilion, an addition to the State Department’s historic entrance.


A large pavilion with a pink marble floor and a glass ceiling. A colorful mural hangs from the back wall.
NMAD used the pavilion to host other temporary exhibitions prior to Diplomacy Is Our Mission. A replica of Roy Lichtenstein’s Greene Street Mural, hanging in the space, provided SIE’s design team with color inspiration. Through the nonprofit organization Foundation for Art Preservation in Embassies (FAPE), a larger replica of this mural will be installed in the U.S. embassy in Mexico City.


A segment of the Berlin Wall in a glass case at the bottom of two sets of stairs
The Signature Segment of the Berlin Wall, on the pavilion’s lower level, features the signatures of 27 leaders who played a significant role in advancing German reunification. SIE worked with NMAD to design reader rails flanking the stairs to provide interpretation for this iconic artifact.


NMAD wanted a design that would stand out while complementing the existing architecture of the pavilion and the historic entrance to the State Department. NMAD also wanted to create a more intimate gallery experience within the pavilion, a large open space dominated by Tennessee pink marble, metal, and glass.


A woman crouches on the floor holding a card showing color samples
SIE Exhibit Designer Emily Sloat Shaw shows the team the proposed color swatches for the exhibition.


SIE’s design team came up with a system of four self-contained circular modules, one for each theme, which would allow visitors to wander in and out of distinct gallery spaces without restricting visitor flow. Large banners would identify the theme of each module.


A drawing of a circular exhibition module showing the locations of the section title, section intro, section stories, and outside mural
A drawing showing the design of the exhibition modules


Two men stand next to a table on which rest two red pole devices the size of a rake
The exhibition featured some unusual artifacts from NMAD’s collection. Here, NMAD Collections Manager Eric Duyck (right) prepares artifacts for mount making, including a cococho, a tool used to uproot illegal coca plants.


A man holding a camera films a woman working at a 3D printer
NMAD also had some artifacts that were too fragile to display and needed to be replicated. Here, SIE Model Maker Carolyn Thome creates a 3D-printed model of a statuette from the State Department’s Diplomatic Reception Rooms.


A woman shows two white 3D-printed models the size of a hand to three other women
Carolyn shows NMAD staff two small-scale 3D models of a statuette from the State Department’s Diplomatic Reception Rooms depicting Benjamin Franklin and King Louis XVI.


An aerial view showing a man works on a wooden structure in a warehouse.
SIE assembles the exhibition modules at SIE’s facility in Landover, MD.


Three men assemble a wooden structure in a warehouse.
SIE’s fabrication team assembles an exhibition module.


A series of colorful exhibit graphics laid out on a table
The printed exhibition graphics ready for mounting.


Two men hang a blue graphic from a wooden structure.
SIE’s graphics team applies a graphic to the intro section of the exhibition.


Two men wheel a large wooden structure onto the sidewalk in front of a building.
SIE’s fabrication team delivers exhibition components to NMAD for installation.


Four men hold a large curved structure as it is unloaded from a truck onto the street
The unwieldy exhibition section headers needed careful handling.


Three men install a large wooden exhibit module on a pink marble floor
SIE’s fabrication team installs an exhibition module at NMAD. Precise measurements were needed to line everything up correctly.


A man operates a forklift to lift a curved wooden and metal structure up to the top of a wooden exhibit module where another man standing on a ladder holds it.
SIE’s fabrication team installs a section header.


A man on a ladder attaches colorful graphics to a wooden exhibit module.
SIE Exhibits Specialist Caleb Menzies installs the exhibition graphics.


A group of six men pose in front of the exhibit.
Job well done. SIE’s fabrication team poses in front of the completed exhibition.


A man wearing green gloves opens a display case containing a pair of glasses.
NMAD Collections Manager Eric Duyck installs artifacts in a display case.


A man on a scissor lift looks down at the exhibit from the ceiling. It is dark out. Lights illuminate the exhibit.
SIE’s lighting contractor puts the finishing touches on the lights. Large portraits of former Secretaries of State grace the exteriors of each module.


A series of wooden structures with colorful graphics and photos
The finished exhibition, ready for visitors. A colorful map in the intro section (at the right) shows the worldwide presence of the State Department.


A series of wooden structures with colorful graphics and photos. A yellow title banner reads "Security."
Bold banners identify each themed module.


A curved wooden structure containing a series of colorful graphics, a display case with a yellow hard hat inside it, and a monitor with an audio handset below it
Each module includes artifacts and a short video highlighting the theme, produced by NMAD and Smithsonian Digital Studio.


Two wooden structures in a corner with a display case, a touch-screen kiosk, and a video monitor. The main panel is titled "Spotlight on Diplomacy."
The Spotlight on Diplomacy section features a touch-screen interactive, produced by NMAD and Smithsonian Digital Studio, which allows visitors to explore how diplomacy benefits their state.


An illuminated red and orange reader rail titled "The Berlin Wall"
SIE created two backlit reader rails for the Berlin Wall exhibit, exploring the history of the Berlin Wall and diplomacy. The reader rails attach seamlessly to the existing handrail below the stairs.


An illuminated red and orange reader rail with a series of dates and images of the Berlin Wall
With the launch of The Berlin Wall exhibit, NMAD debuted the Museum of American Diplomacy Eye (MADI), a mobile guide developed in partnership with the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, which allows visitors to scan images and artifacts with their smartphones to access historic footage.


A woman in a magenta outfit gestures toward a touch-screen kiosk. Another woman and two men wearing suits look on.
NMAD Director Mary Kane (left) shows the exhibition to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (right), his wife Susan (center left), and former Secretary of State James A. Baker, III (center right). Image courtesy of the U.S. Department of State.


A group of people stand in the gallery as a woman speaks from a podium. It is dark outside.
NMAD hosted several public events to celebrate the opening of the exhibition.


The project involved all of SIE’s departments and showcased our full capabilities to develop, design, and build first-class exhibitions. SIE was delighted to be involved in the project and looks forward to future collaborations with NMAD and our other federal partners.

Taking Our Show on the Road: An Exhibit Development Workshop in Argentina

In September, SIE’s exhibit developers Brigid Laurie and John Powell flew to Argentina for a weeklong exhibit development workshop, leaving everyone in the office to fend off rogue commas, dangling participles, and incomplete narratives all by themselves. The horror!


Why did we get to do this?

Back in May, Smithsonian Exhibits (SIE) had the pleasure of hosting a group of Argentinian museum professionals. Our guests were participating in a yearlong cooperative program, Capacity Building for Argentinian Museum and Cultural Heritage Professionals. The program was organized by the Smithsonian, the U.S. Embassy in Argentina, and Argentina’s Dirección Nacional de Museos (DNM). We had a wonderful conversation, exchanged information, and said, “let’s keep this discussion going!”


And the conversation did continue! A few weeks after that first meeting, the Smithsonian’s Office of International Relations and Global Programs (OIR) contacted SIE about offering an exhibit development workshop in Buenos Aires. We (Brigid and John) jumped at the opportunity.


Workshop participants pose on the stairs of the U.S. Ambassador’s residence in Buenos Aires.


With a Little Help from Our Friends

Working with OIR, we came up with a full schedule of presentations and activities. In Argentina, we were joined by Magdalena Mieri from the National Museum of American History and Sara De La Torre Berón from OIR, who have been part of the program since it started. Magdalena, one of the program’s mentors, led a session on strategic planning. Sara coordinated the workshop on behalf of OIR and made everything go incredibly smoothly.


Who attended?

Twenty participants attended the workshop from five different museums across Argentina. As you would expect, the museums were all at different points in their projects. Some are opening in the near future; others had just started up when this program began. Additional museum professionals from Buenos Aires also attended when their schedules allowed.


What did we talk about?

The program focused on audience-centered exhibit and program development. With that in mind, we organized each day of the workshop around a larger topic. Each day built on the previous day’s topics.

Day one focused on understanding visitor needs and strategic planning.


two men and two women work at a table in the foreground; other groups are working throughout the room
Participants worked in small groups, discussing long-term goals for their museums and possible ways to implement them.


woman in a white blouse stands in front of a projection of the Spanish words Planificacion Estrategia
Magdalena Mieri leads a session on strategic planning.


We also had an opportunity to visit the nearby Museo Cabildo, where they showed us the prototyping they are doing for an upcoming exhibit.


A bearded man points at a label in an exhibit
Gustavo Alvarez, director of the Museo Cabildo, explains their prototyping process for a new exhibition.


On day two, we met at the residence of the U.S. Ambassador to Argentina, a historic mansion, where we discussed interpretive hierarchies beneath exquisite chandeliers.


A man and woman give a presentation
Why are people wearing headphones? The U.S. embassy provided simultaneous Spanish-English interpretation via headsets. This let everyone participate in the language with which they were most comfortable.


a large piece of paper with colored marker notes in Spanish. arms and legs of the people working on it are visible
Workshop participants chart their big idea and key messages for a new exhibition. Sometimes, even in the fanciest of spaces, the best thing to do is to sprawl out on the floor.


By day three, we were ready to dive into the specifics, and talked about ways to organize exhibit content and how to select different tools and techniques to tell a story. We started day three with a random object exercise to consider all the stories you can tell with one seemingly insignificant object, like a coaster.


A woman draws a chart on a large piece of paper; a man is in the background
Content mapping is a visual way to organize topics. (NOTE: While awkward posture and bad handwriting aren’t a requirement for exhibit developing, they do add a certain flair to presentations.)


Dina Fisman from the DNM led a session on exhibit writing, focusing on how to write for an Argentinian audience. We got to listen to her session (thanks, interpreters!)—it was wonderful and insightful.


a woman points to a screen with the Spanish word "concreto" and tips for writing Spanish museum texts
Dina Fisman leads a session on exhibit writing.


Day four was the last formal day of the workshop. We covered how to take exhibits from concept to completion. We shared some sample documents from our work at SIE and met with participants to discuss a variety of exhibit-related topics.


people sitting on the floor with planning charts in front of them
A group discusses ways to combine two topics within an exhibit.


We capped the day with a public presentation at the Museo Roca. It felt like a fitting end to the workshop and it was great to be able to share our experiences with the larger museum community in Buenos Aires.


a man and a woman sit at a desk in front of a screen with the Spanish title Intercambio Profesional Para Museo e Instituciones Culturales Argentina
Thanks to our simultaneous interpreters we were able to field questions at the end of our presentation.


We spent our last day visiting two different museums in Buenos Aires and learning about their efforts to create visible storage for collections and make museums more accessible.


a Braille and textured orientation map for Museo Casa Yrurtia
The orientation map at Museo Casa Yrurtia incorporates braille and a variety of different textures. The map is intended to be used by all visitors.


We look forward to keeping in touch with our colleagues in Argentina and hearing about their exhibits. It was a wonderful learning experience for us and we can’t wait for our next opportunity to take our show on the road!


Interested in learning more about exhibit development and writing? Check out our guide to exhibit development and our guidelines for label writing.

Even Better Than the Real Thing: Augmented and Virtual Reality

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


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


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




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


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


icon of an eye


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



icon of a mobile phone

AR or Augmented Reality

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



icon of a person wearing goggles

VR or Virtual Reality

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



Who’s Using This Technology at the Smithsonian?

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


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


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


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




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


Want to see the examples for yourself?

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


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


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


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



Want to learn more about the projects?

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

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


An Exhibition Without Walls

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

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Collaborating with Colleagues, International Edition

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

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

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


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


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


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


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



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



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



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



Model maker Chris Hollshwander discusses computer-aided milling.

Exhibits for Monks and Nuns

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

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

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

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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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


All photos by Bryce Johnson unless otherwise noted.


To learn more:

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

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

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

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


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

Go Fish!

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


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


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

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


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


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



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



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



A Tale of Two Exhibits

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

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

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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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


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




*No. No, they won’t.