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A Tale of Two Exhibits

This post was written by John Powell, Exhibit Developer/Writer with Smithsonian Exhibits. It first appeared on the Smithsonian Exhibits blog. 

 

Last year, Smithsonian Libraries celebrated its 50th anniversary as a unified library system by opening not one, but two exhibits: Game Change: Elephants from Prey to Preservation and Magnificent Obsessions: Why We Collect. Smithsonian Exhibits (SIE) was thrilled to be asked to design, edit, and produce the exhibits. Here’s our tale . . . (It was the best of times!)

Both exhibits feature books from Smithsonian Libraries’ collections, but they deal with very different subjects.

Game Change traces the shift in public attitudes about elephants from the late 19th century, an era when big game hunting was popular, to the critical conservation concerns of today.

Game Change: Elephants from Prey to Preservation was curated by Cheryl Braunstein, Manager of Exhibit Planning and Development at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute. It’s on display on the Ground Floor of the National Museum of Natural History through February 1, 2020.

 

Magnificent Obsessions focuses on the pioneering collectors who shaped Smithsonian Libraries’ diverse collections in the areas of science, technology, history, art, and culture.

Magnificent Obsessions: Why We Collect was curated by Stephen Van Dyk, Head of the Art Division at Smithsonian Libraries and Mary Augusta Thomas, Deputy Director of Smithsonian Libraries. It’s on display on the 1st Floor, West of the National Museum of American History through July 1, 2020.

 

One of the biggest challenges in developing any exhibit is deciding what to include. This was particularly true of these exhibits. Smithsonian Libraries has a collection of more than two million volumes, including 50,000 rare books and manuscripts. Space constrains required curators to make difficult choices about what to cut. A hidden blessing for these exhibits was light. Because of paper’s sensitivity to light, pages must be turned and books must be rotated in and out of the exhibits over time, allowing additional content to be displayed. (Come back soon to see what’s new!)

The books and artifacts featured in the exhibits show the incredible diversity of the Smithsonian’s collections.

The smallest artifact displayed in Magnificent Obsessions is the “Nano Bible,” a microscopic version of the Hebrew Bible engraved on a microchip the size of a grain of sugar.
The largest artifact displayed in Game Change is a radio collar used to track elephants in the wild.
The oldest artifact displayed in Magnificent Obsessions is a handwritten forerunner of the encyclopedia (at top center) created in the 13th century, before the advent of the printing press.
The newest—and perhaps most unusual—artifact in Game Change is a dung sample (center) collected from an elephant at the National Zoo. (You never know what you’re going to find in a Smithsonian exhibit!)

 

Of course, these exhibits are about more than just objects. The exhibit development team (including yours truly) wanted to go beyond the books to highlight the human stories they tell.

Game Change uses books and artifacts to show how humans’ attitudes about elephants have changed over time.

Contrasting books and artifacts, including children’s books and playthings, demonstrate the shift in attitudes about elephants from the early 20th century (top) to today (bottom).

 

Magnificent Obsessions reveals the extraordinary passion collectors have for their subjects and explores what motivates them to collect.

Profiles of curious collectors explain what drove them to collect.

 

We also wanted to open the conversation up to visitors by asking what they collect and why.

Share your “magnificent obsession” using #ICollectBecause

 

SIE’s design team included Elena Saxton on Game Change and Elena and Madeline Wan on Magnificent Obsessions. Elena and Madeline helped bring the stories to life with engaging designs and eye-catching graphics.

The graphic design for Game Change features illustrations taken from the books displayed.

 

The designers used vibrant colors in Magnificent Obsessions to make the exhibit pop and help visitors navigate the different sections.

 

At the entrance to Magnificent Obsessions, the team created lenticular graphics, which change as you walk past them. These add movement and reveal the faces of the collectors behind the collections. Look out for a future blog post explaining how these were made.

The lenticular graphics at the entrance to Magnificent Obsessions help draw visitors into the space.

 

SIE’s graphics team, including Evan Keeling, Mike Reed, and Scott Schmidt, printed and installed the graphics for both exhibits.

Scott inspects graphics for Magnificent Obsessions.
SIE’s graphics team installs a panel in Game Change.

 

SIE’s 3D studio team members Chris Hollshwander and Danny Fielding worked with Vanessa Haight Smith, Head of Smithsonian Libraries Preservation Services, to make and install the mounts for the books and artifacts displayed in the exhibits.

Chris installs a cradle mount to support one of the many books in Magnificent Obsessions.

 

Throughout it all, Smithsonian Libraries Exhibitions Program Coordinator Kirsten van der Veen and SIE Project Manager Betsy Robinson kept the team on track and on schedule—no easy feat, since the exhibits opened within weeks of each other!

Both exhibits are on display now. Please stop by and let us know what you think. In the meantime, we look forward to the next chapter of our collaboration with Smithsonian Libraries!

2 Comments

  1. Fran Smyth

    The young man whose photo graces the Why We Collect exhibit is Larry Zim whose World’s Fair collection is housed at National Museum of American History – with the books at the library of the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum. As a young boy Larry ran away from home to go to the New York 1939 World’s Fair. The last fair he went to – before his untimely death – was 1986 in Vancouver. The collection has glorious pieces from the Crystal Palace in 1851 onward.

    • Mary Augusta

      Thank you Fran. He is a wonderful example of life long passion and a brilliant result. The collection is fueling current scholarship in so many different areas.

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