The Model Shop – Smithsonian Institution 1983

OEC model shop long view578

The Model Shop was located on the same floor of the giant warehouse as the Traveling Exhibitions unit. It was a big space full of all kinds of heavy equipment, work tables, and art and industrial materials.

After interning at the Traveling Exhibitions unit of the Smithsonian Institution, at 1111 North Capital Street, I moved across the floor of the warehouse to work for a few more weeks in the Model Shop.

There were more people working in the Model Shop than in Traveling Exhibitions and many more different projects going on at the same time.

Most of the time, people worked alone on their assignments until they needed the help of others, and then everyone was willing to step in.

OEC model shop teamwork

Sometimes people worked together on complicated projects – here they are working on a model of Tatlin’s Tower.

Though each person had a specialization – they were all artistic and multitalented. They could create just about anything that a curator asked for.

The main workroom was a big open, industrial space with workstations along the windows of two walls. The total area was really too small for all the work that was going on. Right next to me a giant Megalodon jaw was being sculpted, and next to it was a life size diorama of the African grasslands, and then next to that a huge architectural model – all around the Shop there were interesting things being made…

OEC model shop shelves

This shot is looking through my workspace shelving to the next workspace and beyond – every inch of the Model Shop had stuff on it.

The result was floor to ceiling supplies, chock a block projects and staff having to literally work side by side. The Shop looked chaotic but everything had a place and everyone respected each others’ stuff.

OEC model shop laura view

Laura was a sculptress and did the most beautiful work. You can see in this picture how densely packed every work space was with stuff.

One woman there specialized in sculpting and made the most beautiful figurines of animals and people for displays. She had a little mouse she kept on the window sill that she’d made, and it was incredibly lifelike.

OEC model shop Susan

Susan could take on just about any project (like everyone there) but when it came to textiles she was the primary person to work on them.

Another woman there specialized in textiles and sewing. She had several things going at once, but the most memorable project she had while I was there, was preparing a life size dress form for a pale gray suit that had belonged to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (I can’t find anything regarding that suit online today – but I recall it was worn by Dr. King during one of his landmark speeches). The day that the clothes arrived wrapped in acid free tissue inside a large acid free storage box, everyone from both units stood in silence and watched as the suit was unpacked. It was a moment of reverence and a very powerful reminder of Dr. King’s presence.

OEC model shop Bruce

Bruce worked primarily on the Pueblo Indians diorama model.

OEC model shop Pueblo Indians diorama model

Model for a diorama of the Ancient Pueblo Indians.

One man worked exclusively on a to-scale model for a diorama of the Ancient Pueblo Indians. He was trying to create the sensation of space with his carving of the cave overhang and the gradation of color. He was also working out the way in which the figures were placed. Everything that was to go in the final diorama was made as scale models – all the artifacts, the logs of the fire, the food, and so on.

The other diorama (that I mentioned above) was being worked on by another intern named Ben, who was spending a year there from Kenya learning how to build exhibits. His was a life size habitat diorama with a taxidermied lion. When you couldn’t find Ben, he was often found behind rustling grasses inside his diorama. He worked on it the entire time I was there.

The supervisor of the Model Shop (Walter) managed all the projects and was the contact for all the museums to go through for their projects. Walter knew how to make everything and knew how to use all the various materials and tools there too. He didn’t just do budgeting and time management; he helped everyone problem solve and finish the complicated projects that could take months or even years to complete.

OEC Betty casting leaves

Here Walter is teaching me to make casts of maple leaves… after the plaster casts dried I took them to a special machine and vacuum wrapped them with thick plastic sheets to create extremely detailed leaf forms which I then cut out. Then I attached a fake stem to each leaf form and air brushed both sides of the plastic leaf with naturalistic color… Voila! a fake but life-like maple leaf!



Eccentrics, Artists and Traveling Exhibitions

Betty and Roman Ruins 1962

That’s me being inculcated with art and culture at the age of 2. I think it was inevitable that I’d end up working at a museum. Betty with Roman Ruins, Rome 1962

Interning at the Smithsonian Institution

Working inside the Smithsonian Institution was a dream come true for me.

From the time I was a little kid my parents took me to museums and on cultural trips, so I grew up loving material culture, scientific collections and fine art.

I especially remember one time that my mother took me to the Natural History Museum in New York City – I was maybe 10 years old and it would have been my special birthday treat to choose a museum to go to with only my mother (and a bonus day out of school).

We were in the magnificent Hall of Ocean Life standing in front of a big, complicated, and beautiful diorama of a coral reef when I turned to her and told her that “I want to make exhibits just like that”.

blue whale AMNH

The Hall of Ocean Life at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City had recently reopened in 1969, when I was a kid. The life size whale is magnificent and thrilling, and the dioramas are breathtaking – no wonder it inspired me. Just below the blue whale is the coral reef diorama (lower level, left center) where I decided that I wanted to work in museums and make exhibits.

My mother confided to me that she too had always wanted to work on exhibits at the Natural History Museum, but had instead taken another path (marrying my father I guess).

To hold the real things in my hot little hands (like Ancient Egyptian jewellery for example) Royal Ontario Museum egyptian collaror to see the real things with my hungry eyes (like storage rooms full of ornithology specimens for example) –  was for me the joy of museum work. And so when I interned at the Traveling Exhibits and Model Shop Units of the Office of Exhibits Central at the Smithsonian in Washington, I was in heaven.

Ornithology collection storage I got to handle and mount incredible masterpieces of 19th century photography; I got to make casts of real, giant Megalodon teeth; I learned to make artificial tree leaves for dioramas; cast a model of the historic Tatlin’s Tower; see Dr. Martin Luther King’s clothes set on a life sized form; see how dioramas are planned and built; handle jewel-like objects – and on and on. The Units that I interned with serviced all the museums, galleries and departments of the enormous Smithsonian Institution –  so a broad range of projects passed through my eager hands during my time there. It was never boring.

The people who worked in The Traveling Exhibitions and Model Shop Units were an eccentric and eclectic group of artists, designers, craftsmen and model makers. All of them were great people who were happy to teach me, and generous with their time. Through them, I had access to the many different projects that were underway there.

OEC Traveling Exhibits

The area where all the traveling shows’ graphic panels were created. Big Jimmy is in the foreground and Lenny in the back.

For the first few weeks of my internship I worked exclusively in the Traveling Exhibitions area of the unit. During those weeks, I primarily trained in graphic design and the production of exhibit panels. This included silk screening, and the matting and framing of new exhibits, as well as the packing and refurbishing of existing traveling shows.

The unit was responsible for producing the crated shows that the Smithsonian rented and sent out to museums, libraries and exhibition halls across the country (The Smithsonian still has a traveling shows program, visit to learn more). Every year a new batch of exhibits were created from the collections of the many different museums of the Smithsonian Institution.

I became friends with two women there who were around my age – Dana and Katherine.

OEC Dana

Dana mixing inks to silk screen panels for a traveling show.

Dana was a trained artist, and very precise in her work. She was endlessly patient with me and like everyone else there, she was good humored and great to be around. She told me she was married to a Secret Service agent and he was one of President Reagan’s body guards.  I didn’t believe her at first – I thought she was pulling my leg. But she produced a photo of her and her sweetie and proved it was so. In the picture he was huge and tall and broad, and dressed in a dark suit with black sunglasses on.

I was agog. How could she stand knowing her husband had to take a bullet and put his life on the line every hour of every day? Remember this was 1983. There had been an assassination attempt on President Reagan just two years earlier in 1981, when the President and three people, including a Secret Service agent, were hit by gun fire. The danger of it didn’t seem to bother her a bit – at least she didn’t show it. She was instead, immensely proud of him.

OEC Katherine cleaning screens

Katherine cleaning screens for silk screening – a dirty, unpleasant job.

Katherine was originally from California and was a talented artist who’d trained in Edinburgh. I’m not sure how she ended up at the Traveling Exhibits unit in Washington, but she eventually went back to California. She rented an apartment up on “the Hill” with a couple of other friends. It was quite beautiful on the Hill, with a lot of historic buildings – but it was considered not too safe a place to be walking around alone at night in the 1980s. My aunt wasn’t too pleased about me visiting my friend there after work.

Then there was Big Jimmy who worked in the silk screening area – a Vietnam Vet, who ignored all the safety regulations of the shop and mixed vats of epoxy resin with his bare arms and hands, and used toxic solvents like toluene without safety gloves or masks on. Despite not following the safety regs, Jimmy was a professional and did exceptional work.

The exposure to the toxic chemicals and the Vietnam War had deeply affected him – his arms shook all the time and his conversation was unpredictable.

OEC Jimmy preparing a screen

Big Jimmy preparing to silk screen a panel.

One day when I was working with him, he secretly confided in me that he was regularly visited and abducted by aliens. He’d see the light come down into his back yard, and then they’d take him – so I  told him my story about when I’d seen a UFO two nights in a row when I was 14 and living out in a remote farmhouse in Eastern Canada (which was true by the way – a topic for a future post perhaps)…

No one ever made fun of Big Jimmy. He was a good man.

The supervisor for the studio insisted that Big Jimmy walk me to Union Station after work everyday. In fact there was a group of 5 or 6 people that gathered everyday at 5pm at the elevator to walk with Jimmy from the warehouse to the station.

OEC Lenny

Lenny working on a photo panel for a traveling show.

Lenny was a silk screener par excellence. He did a lot of the really difficult screening and cutting – which included all the graphic applications, like adding maps or photographs onto the panels.

Lenny was very thin and wirey and chain smoked continually. He told me he’d been a drummer and I always suspected he’d been someone great who’d hit some hard times. His favorite band was Rush, which he told me often.

It was a tradition that Lenny always took the new kid out to lunch at a nearby Irish Pub so I was dragged along one day. It was an intense atmosphere at the pub, not the usual laughter and jollity that you expect. Lenny whispered to me that it was involved in raising money for the IRA (which was very active at the time back in the UK). I was glad to get back to the warehouse afterwards.

Mathew Brady Ulysses Grant National Portrait Gallery

General Ulysses S Grant photographed by Mathew Brady, June 1864. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian

The highlight of working in that area of the unit was being able to matte and frame a show of Mathew Brady’s photographs of the American Civil War. We first cut and made the frames, then cut the mattes to fit each image, and then had to hinge mount the original photographs using conservation techniques with acid free adhesives and tapes, and seal the backs of the frames cleanly. We produced the entire show including the accompanying labels and information panels. When the show was hung at the National Portrait Gallery later that summer, it was a thrill to see.

One day the supervisor of the graphics unit thought he’d give me an assignment to do:  do critical reviews of a few permanent exhibits in the Natural History Museum and the Museum of American History. I suppose he was told by the head of the Smithsonian’s internship program to give me a proper assignment, but what he did was send me unbeknownst to see three exhibits that he’d personally designed.

I went off glad to spend time in the museums on the Mall (I spent many many happy hours that summer visiting all the museums in Washington DC that I could get to – repeatedly) but I only liked one of the permanent exhibits that he asked me to review and then I only liked one aspect of it – the overall design of the three shows was too hokey in my opinion.

OEC Dinosaurs

I had to visit the Dinosaur exhibit at the Natural History Museum and give my supervisor a critique. I liked that it was an original approach – using humor and peach and pink colors for Dinosaurs was definitely different from other museums, but I also felt that the approach undermined the science of the exhibit and made it too information light. A very political answer from me…

When I got into the office the next day I suddenly realized he’d designed them himself, and I had to find good things to say about them. Truthfully, he was open to talking about the design elements and explained to me how the time period in which they were designed had influenced the final appearance of the exhibits. It was a good lesson, both in exhibit design and in tact.


Interning at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC -1983

The Mall Washington534

Looking up the Mall in Washington DC. On the right is the original 19th century  Smithsonian Institution building, and center left is the United States Capital building. I spent most afternoons after work visiting all the Smithsonian museums and galleries – it was an incredible opportunity.

Chevy Chase

Just to clarify – I stayed in Chevy Chase Maryland, not with the actor Chevy Chase.

One of the best parts of doing my Masters degree in Museum Studies was getting to intern at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC during the summer of 1983. My Aunt Rhoda (my father’s younger sister) graciously let me stay with her at her home in Chevy Chase, Maryland (a suburb of DC) for the summer. She was working at the Library of Congress at that time.

During my internship I spent several weeks with the staff of the Smithsonian’s Traveling Exhibitions and Model Shop. It was located in an old warehouse on North Capital Street just a few blocks from the US Capital Building.

That part of North Capital Street was at that time, pretty run down (30 years later it now appears to be full of high-end condos) and my fellow workers and supervisors considered it unsafe for me to walk the few blocks from work to Union Station in the evening, where I caught the metro train back to Chevy Chase. In fact on the first day of my internship my aunt drove me to work and when she was just a few minutes delayed from picking me up in the evening, my boss wouldn’t let me wait on the street or in the building alone, so he stayed with me until he saw me get into the car and drive off.

Traveling Exhibitions and Model Shop, Office of Exhibits Central

The Smithsonian’s Traveling Exhibitions Shop and Model Shop were located on the same floor of an old warehouse. The crates in the foreground contain traveling shows that have come in for refurbishing, or new shows that are ready to go out. You’re looking towards the area where we did silk screening, framing, packing and general traveling show production.To the right was where all the woodworking and carpentry was done. The Model shop was just behind where I was standing.

I’d grown up visiting New York City as a kid and so I had been exposed to some raw urban stuff, but I was unprepared for the sights of Washington, DC. As my aunt drove me on that first day, we went through areas that had been destroyed during the 1968 riots and that were still looking like some post apocalyptic disaster scene. At one point we were stuck in an awful traffic jam in one of those areas and we sat in the car next to a fenced, weedy lot with giant metal rings in the ground. I asked my aunt what they were and she replied casually that they were nuclear silos armed with warheads. It was the Nation’s capital after all.

After that first drive in, I started to take the Metro to and from work…

Metro station - Washington, DC

In 1983 Washington’s Metro Rail system was one of the most modern systems around – it was very clean, fast and quiet. It was the first system I’d been on that had gently flashing lights in the platform to announce the incoming trains, and one of the first to have gentle voices announcing stops. It was much nicer than Toronto’s, New York’s, London’s or Athen’s subways at that time for sure.

Me and the Model Shop crew OEC

Yep that’s me in the Hawaiian shirt – the only one I ever owned. We must have been celebrating someone’s birthday or something in the Model Shop. It was a much bigger group of artists and craftsmen than show here. I was so happy in the Model Shop – just one of the gang.

It shocked me that the neighborhood around my work address was full of homeless, mentally ill people who desperately needed shelter and care – they’d been recently released from a nearby hospital that had been closed due to lack of funding, and they were left to fend for themselves on the streets. In addition to the homeless, there was just a general atmosphere of anger and violence on the street that was unnerving. That’s why I walked from the station to work every morning as quickly as I could, with my eyes down, not making contact with any one along the route (just like my parents taught me when I was a kid in New York).

One day as I was walking along North Capital Street from Union Station – just about to cross a side street – I heard a terrible sound – a giant, heavy dump truck had just completely driven over a car and crushed it under its front wheels – it happened just seconds before I had to cross that street. In the swampy blistering heat of the early morning I was just stunned and shocked, and ran the rest of the way to work.

It was hot in Washington during the summer. I never saw so many cars on fire as I did there through July and August – with the traffic jams and the heat and high humidity, cars could easily overheat and often caught on fire. It was surreal.

What was more surreal was that just a couple of blocks away from the tough urban streets, you would find yourself in a pristine marble city with beautiful green lawns and gardens – that was Washington in 1983 – a study in contrasts.

US Capital Building

The magnificent United States Capital Building in Washington, DC was just blocks from the run down area I worked in. This is the image most people have of Washington – pristine, clean, marble facades and lush lawns.