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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.