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Challenges in Exhibit Development

The Office of Exhibits Central is collaborating with the National Museum of Natural History‘s Department of Exhibits to produce a temporary show tentatively called Going to Sea. This exhibition will open next fall in conjunction with NMNH’s new Ocean Hall, and will be on display for approximately 18 months. Like all exhibitions, this one presents some interesting challenges for the exhibit team to overcome.

Challenge #1: OEC’s design staff is down one member, as one of our designers is on family leave for about 6 months. Luckily, Mary Bird, OEC design supervisor, was able to negotiate with National Museum of American History to have one of their designers, Stevan Fisher, work on the project with OEC while NMAH is closed for renovations.

Challenge #2: The budget for this temporary gallery is tight. This has impacted the parameters of the design as we look for ways to cut costs without sacrificing quality. The original design took into account the budget from the beginning. For example, rather than custom build intricate cases, we are buying standardized cases from an outside company.

Challenge #3: Some of the objects are very fragile. For a section about Micronesian cultures and navigation, most of the objects available in the Smithsonian’s collection are made of organic materials, which have stringent conservation requirements.

The gallery for this exhibit has three large exterior windows in the main exhibit area and two small windows, one of which is inside the alcove where the Micronesian objects are to be displayed. These small windows cannot be blocked due to constraints from the National Capital Planning Commission and the U.S. Fine Arts Commission. The natural light is beautiful, but much too strong for the Micronesian objects. Over time, light fades the natural paints and materials in the objects and begins to break down the materials, which become brittle and more breakable. The light in this gallery, on a cloudy day, measures about 73 footcandles. The objects the exhibit team wants to display cannot be in an environment with more light than 10 footcandles.

Quite a difference!

The exhibit team is now looking at options for cutting down the light that reaches these objects while on display. Some solutions floated have been UV and light-blocking film on the windows and the glass on the cases, making the cases deeper, having three solid sides on the cases rather than glass all the way around, and hanging graphic banners in such a way as to block extra light.

In reality, a combination of these options will be utilized to bring us to the requirements for safely exhibiting these objects for our visitors, while preserving them for the future.

Challenge #4: Each of these fragile objects needs to be supported and held in place by a custom-made bracket. OEC’s Model Shop will consult closely with the designer and the conservators to create brackets that both protect and support the object, while being virtually invisible to the visitors.

Check back often to see what solutions we employ and how our progress continues.


Top photo: Stevan Fisher, exhibit designer from the National Museum of American History, has been detailed to Office of Exhibits Central to work on this exhibit.

Bottom photo: (left to right): Greta Hansen (NMNH Anthropology conservator), Stevan Fisher (NMAH exhibit designer), Sally Love (NMNH exhibit developer), Natalie Firnhaber (NMNH Anthropology conservator), and Sarah Grusin (NMNH exhibit writer) discuss choices for objects.

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