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A view of a red hallway showing a graphic panel and a backlit display case
A view of the installation looking toward the Luce Center

Small Cars, Big Ideas

After being closed for six months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) reopened to visitors on September 18 with a brand new installation: The Automobile and American Art.

The installation features more than 130 model cars donated by collector Albert H. Small. The cars may be small, but the ideas the installation explores are big: the automobile’s central role in American art and culture. SAAM uses this study collection of model cars as a lens through which to explore car-related artworks in its collection.

Smithsonian Exhibits (SIE) worked with SAAM to develop, design, fabricate, and install The Automobile and American Art, which is located on the museum’s third floor, next to its Luce Foundation Center for American Art.


Model cars of various sizes and colors lined up on a table seen from the front
No, it’s not gridlock on the Beltway; SAAM’s curators parked the model cars bumper to bumper to select which ones to include in the installation.


Model cars of various sizes and colors lined up on a table seen from the side
Albert H. Small’s collection of more than 1,200 model cars features everything from a Model T Ford to a pink Cadillac.


The goal of the project was to transform a transitional “back of house” space into an engaging installation that would connect the Luce Center with SAAM’s special exhibition galleries.


A view of a white hallway with a gray carpet
A view of the hallway from the Luce Center before its transformation.


SIE designers Elena Saxton and Madeline Wan took inspiration from car culture in their designs, using bright colors and carpet tiles evoking tire treads.


A design rendering showing transparent human figures in a red hallway with graphic panels and a backlit display case. The carpet is gray with blue tread marks on it.
A design rendering of the installation


A design drawing showing transparent human figures next to a graphic panel titled "The Automobile and American Art"
The installation features images of artists and their cars.


A design drawing showing a display case with seven rows of model cars
SIE designed a large back-lit display case with room for 112 model cars. An additional case brings the total up to 133. That’s a lot of cars!


Once the design was complete, it was time to put the pedal to the metal and fabricate and install!


An empty hallway with red walls and a gray and blue carpet
A splash of color souped up the space to make it more inviting for visitors.


A man installs exhibit elements in a red hallway.
SIE installation in progress. Installing in the middle of a pandemic was a challenge, but SIE staff did it safely, wearing masks and maintaining strict social distancing.


A man wearing a mask installs yellow dimensional letters on a red wall.
SIE exhibit specialist Caleb Menzies installs three-dimensional letters for a wall quote.


Blue letters on a gray wall reading "Go Beyond the Galleries"
Wall graphics invite visitors to go beyond the galleries to explore the Luce and Lunder Centers.


Yellow letters on a red wall reading "For what you really collect is always yourself. -Jean Baudrillard, French philosopher (1929-2007)
The theme of collecting connects the installation to the adjacent Luce Center, where visitors can explore SAAM’s collection in visible storage.


SIE exhibit developer John Powell (yours truly) helped SAAM develop the content for the installation, including a touchscreen kiosk, which takes visitors on a road trip through car-themed American art.


A monitor displaying a pink Cadillac and the words "Take a road trip through SAAM's collection!"
Due to COVID-19, the touchscreen is currently disabled, but visitors can still enjoy the content.


Throughout the project, SIE project manager Rob Wilcox kept the show on the road to success, directing traffic and avoiding any collisions.


A man on a step ladder pokes his head into a hatch in the ceiling.
Rob left no stone unturned. Here he takes a look “under the hood” at the building’s wiring.


We think you’ll agree that the final result is breathtaking!


A view of a red hallway showing graphic panels and display cases
A view of the installation looking toward SAAM’s special exhibition galleries


A view of a red hallway showing a graphic panel and a backlit display case
A view of the installation looking toward the Luce Center


A close-up view of model cars in a display case showing their reflection on the glass.
A close-up view of the model cars


We hope you’ll check out the installation now that SAAM has reopened. Please see SAAM’s website for guidelines on visiting and to reserve a timed-entry pass. Stay safe everyone!