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On the Water: Stories from Maritime America

Throughout our history, America's waterways have served as important corridors, connecting sites within the United States, as well as linking us to other countries and continents.  "On the Water: Stories from Maritime America" is a permanent exhibit at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History (NMAH), Washington, D.C., which examines marine commerce and transportation by exploring the lives of the people who took part in the maritime trades, and the structures they employed for water travel.  From stories of whaling crews, fishermen, shipbuilders, merchant mariners, and passengers, to 18th-century sailing ships, 19th-century steamboats, and 21st-century super containerships, the exhibit provides a comprehensive view of America's marine-based development.

As part of the exhibit, NMAH requested that the model makers at the Office of Exhibits Central (OEC) design and build a model of an early 18th-century slave ship for inclusion in one of the exhibit cases.  Chris Hollshwander and Natalie Gallelli readily accepted the opportunity to fabricate the model, and figures of slaves and crew, respectively (photo 1).  Because detailed drawings of slave ships are rare, Hollshwander and Gallelli worked closely with NMAH curator Paul Johnston to produce a representational schematic model which would illustrate the harsh and dirty conditions on board such a ship.

Slave ship model 2

Photo 1.  Slave ship model fabricated by OEC model maker, Chris Hollshwander, with figures by Natalie Gallelli.

Hollshwander based his model on an 18th-century merchant shipwreck, discovered and excavated on Manhattan Island, New York.  He worked from drawings supplied by the curatorial team at NMAH, which included general size descriptions and notes on the structure.  This provided the foundation for the creation of 3-D computer modeling which depicted what the final scale model would look like (photos 2-3).  Reviewing detailed information on the slave trade in the form of graphic images and period color renderings of slave trade vessels, as well as working closely with the curator, enabled him to refine the details before beginning to construct the actual model.  This part of the process, Hollshwander noted, was critical since there seemed to be a lack of specific scaled drawings of slave ships.

 Slave Ship Screenshot 1 final

Photo 2.  NMAH plans to put Hollshwander's 3-D computer drawings into its Ship Plans List, one of NMAH's three catalogs of ship plans available to the public.

Slave Ship Screenshot 2 final

Photo 3.  Slave ship 3-D computer drawing. 


Mahogany was selected for the body of the model, while the mast is made of pine with rope rigging (photo 4).  Hollshwander began construction by shaping the hull's 18 interior ribs on a band saw, and using a router with templates to work out how to form the "rib cage" or keel and frame.  He then built the beam work for the upper and lower decks.  Next, he covered the ribs and constructed the decks, using approximately 250 individually cut and stained mahogany planks.  The planks were also "weathered" (sanded and roughed up with a chisel) to make them look worn.

Slave ship model 1

Photo 4.  View of slave ship model.


According to Hollshwander, "This was an especially interesting project for me to work on.  Thanks to my past experience with scale modeling, I had a good idea of the scale that I thought would work well to illustrate the details that the curators desired to have shown.  It also gave me a chance to get back to my roots in traditional model making."

The ship's figures–which represent the male and female slaves who would have been transported on the vessel, as well as some of the crew members–are an equally compelling part of the project.  The women are huddled together on the model's upper deck (photo 5); the male slaves are positioned on the lower deck either sitting or lying down (photo 6); the crew are placed close to where they would have been working.

1. female slaves final

 Photo 5.  Female slaves.


To determine the poses, Gallelli used reference images provided by the curator, as well as additional drawings that she was able to locate which were completed during the time period, primarily by abolitionists.

2. male slaves final

Photo 6.  Male slaves and crew member.


To begin the complex casting process, Gallelli first sculpted, by hand, a standing and a seated male figure, as well as a standing and a seated female figure, from a mixture of clay and wax, at the appropriate scale.  She then made a separate silicone mold from each sculpture (totaling four molds) by placing each figure in a small square aluminum container, and gently pouring liquid silicone on top of it.  Once the silicone had hardened, Gallelli took the silicone cube out of the container, carefully cut it in half, and removed the clay and wax figure (photo 7).

3. seated figure in mold final

Photo 7.  Silicone mold with seated clay and wax figure.


Using the resulting mold, Gallelli cast five silicone copies of each sculpture by repeatedly pouring silicone into the cavity left by the clay and wax figure.  Next, she used the five copies of each sculpture to produce new five-figure silicone "gang" molds so that she could make multiple copies of each figure more quickly.  Gallelli subsequently cast approximately 50 copies of the figures in clay and wax using the four gang molds (photo 8).

4. clay figures in gang mold final

Photo 8.  Silicone gang mold with clay and wax figures.


Gallelli then heated each clay and wax figure separately in order to bend it into an individualized position.  Next, she made a new silicone mold for each individualized figure.  Once that was completed, Gallelli cast the final figures by pouring urethane into the cavity of each individualized mold (photos 9-10).

5. individualized figure in gang final

Photo 9.  Urethane figure next to its individualized silicone mold.


6. individualized figure in single mold final

Photo 10.  Urethane figure in its silicone mold.


After the urethane figures had cured, Gallelli removed them from their molds, and painted each one, by hand (photo 11).

7. figures in drawer final

Photo 11.  View of finished figures.


In addition to the figures, Gallelli also cast several rats in urethane, fabricated water buckets and elephant tusks out of wood, and created cloth sacks out of epoxy putty, for placement in the ship's cargo hold (photos 12-13).

8. crew members final

Photo 12.  Crew members with rats and water buckets.

9. cargo final

Photo 13.  Cloth sacks and elephant tusks.


Gallelli, too, considered herself to be fortunate to be able to participate in such a significant project.  "As a figural sculptor," she said, "I was very interested in making each figure individual.  I wanted to convey, through the distorted and uncomfortable positions of the figures, the horrific conditions under which the slaves traveled."

The successful collaboration among Hollshwander, Gallelli, and the NMAH curators resulted in a model and figures which are compatible in scale and character.  Additionally, both Hollshwander and Gallelli agreed that they had learned a great deal about the difficult life experienced by so many on board an early 18th-century slave ship.  The model is displayed in its exhibit case alongside a pair of shackles which the slaves would have worn while in transit, as well as a manilla from Nigeria.  These copper or bronze bracelets were carried aboard European merchant vessels as trade goods.


photo credits:

   photo 1: Courtesy National Museum of American

            History; Harold Dorwin, photographer

   photos 2-3: Chris Hollshwander

   photo 4: Courtesy National Museum of American

            History; Harold Dorwin, photographer

   photos 5-10: Natalie Gallelli

   photo 11: Kathleen Varnell

   photos 12-13: Natalie Gallelli