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.



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