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!



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