Backstage at the Museum

Behind the scenes, an expert unites teams and budgets, treasures and cases—reality and dreams

National Museum of Natural History
National Museum of Natural History Wikimedia Commons

Next time you're in the new Janet Annenberg Hooker Hall of Geology, Gems and Minerals, over at the National Museum of Natural History, take a careful look at the stands inside the exhibit cases.

You'll see that the various spectacular minerals, crystal clusters and rare stones are presented on pedestals of differing heights. Then be sure to check out the labels, which are printed on little pieces of plastic tilted for easy reading. The ones at the bottom are at a 30-degree angle off the horizontal, the middle ones are at 60 degrees and the ones near eye level are vertical. Simple but ingenious.

Someone planned all that.

Behind the walls of the museum exhibits, behind the series of chambers familiar to the visiting public, is another world, a world of woodshops and studios and corridors lined with complicated machinery for lifting heavy things and moving them around. People spend their careers in this world. You rarely see them, but they are the ones who make the museum what it is.

Charles Noble is virtually a born cabinetmaker.

For as long as he can remember, he has worked with wood. "My father laid the foundation for what I do today," he reflected. At 5, he would hold the tools for his father, a carpenter back in Natchez, Mississippi, and he started taking shop in the eighth grade, before he even got to high school. Then he worked for his dad in the summers until, as a teenager, he joined the Navy Seabees.

These were the famed construction battalions that built airfields out of coral in the Pacific Islands during World War II. In Noble's day, the mid-'70s, the Vietnam War was over and the services were cutting back, so after he completed his Seabee training he wound up as a roadie with the U.S. Navy Band.

"I got to do some carpentry, but it was mostly stage setups and taking care of equipment," he said. "When I got out of the Navy I decided to stay in Washington awhile."

He worked for the Smithsonian bicentennial projects in 1976, apprenticed for the union, worked for Giant stores and on construction jobs at Capital City Woodworking, then found his way to the Freer Gallery of Art. For six years he reveled in the precision cabinetwork required for the beautiful exhibit cases and other new features of the museum.

Three years ago he came to Natural History.

"The demolition for the Gem Hall was going on when I got here," he said. "I had to run to keep up with it. And then they put me into administration."

It's a familiar story: you excel at your craft, they put you in administration. Noble misses the hands-on work, the feel of wood, and he remembers fondly the fine cabinets in walnut that he made for the Freer. But he has taken to his new career with gusto. Working with eight cabinetmakers and two finishers, he created a good deal of the new hall. Now his crew can catch up on maintenance all over the museum. It does tend to fall behind when a major job is going on. Still ahead for his department is the completion of the hall's rocks gallery, and after that there is the new "African Voices" show to prepare for.

By the way, the difference between a carpenter and a cabinetmaker, he explained, is that a carpenter works to within about an 8th of an inch and a cabinetmaker to within a 32nd of an inch. A finishing carpenter, who falls somewhere between, specializes in trim work.

As exhibits supervisor, Noble coordinates the various teams working on a project, schedules outside contractors, orders materials, handles personnel and budgeting, and generally keeps everyone's eye focused on what is feasible and realistic, amid the dreams of designers.

"We have that a lot," he told me, "things put on paper that can't be done. They'll design a door with no way to open it. Or something might be unsafe. Sometimes we have a problem with live insects in cases: you have to find a way to keep them alive. We do catch a lot of stuff in the design phase, but some things you just have to go back and redesign."

He showed me several drawersful of blueprints, stacks of drawings four inches thick, just for the hall's exhibit cases. One blueprint showed a freestanding "treasure case" nine feet tall, a feature of the so-called fast track for those who want to walk quickly through the hall without having to spend too much time with every rock. There is another set of drawings for interiors, and still another set for the stands and for whatever else goes inside the case. Plus blueprints for labels and graphics.

"We have a core team for every project," Noble said. "On this one we had an outside designer but we also used our own design office. The core team includes curators of the exhibit space, people from the admin' and financial offices, and some others. We here in exhibits review the package from the production point of view and give our input. Then it goes back and forth between the various departments until it's ready."

We left Noble's office and went through the graphics lab, where six designers were making labels and signs, and on through the great backstage corridors of the museum to the hall itself and the spectacular domed room at its entrance where the Hope Diamond is enshrined.

"Almost everything in this room was contracted," Noble told me in his soft voice. "It was my recommendation not to try to do it ourselves. The fiberglass dome was made in quarters and put in place piece by piece."

I couldn't see a single seam.

"This hall was stripped to the bare walls when we started. It overlooked the dinosaur hall--there used to be a balcony here where you could look down on the dinosaurs--so we had to put a plastic bubble around the whole thing to keep the dust down while we were building it."

In this room and the next, most of the major work was done by outsiders, though Noble worked closely with them, suggesting changes to his production chief, Rena Selim. "She made the actual decisions on things like the panels, the ceiling and floor, the look of the place," he said.

The intricacy of the various arrangements staggered me. At every step, the different elements of the hall had to be measured against each other. For instance, Noble's people put together the Italian laminate wall panels while contractors did the grillwork. The museum's own lighting and audiovisual department concentrated on the interactive units.

Here was one of the treasure cases I had seen in blueprint downstairs. A contractor provided the glass; Noble's people built the cases; security put in the alarm, and finally Noble loaded the cases onto the buildups and stands that they had made.

Each buildup, or pedestal, was unique in height and width, matched to the object that would rest upon it. Noble's staff built a mock-up of a display case and pedestals, and the core team was called in to decide in detail what would go where, and how high.

This is not a simple thing. It is akin to legislating taste.

"The design process is not a short one," Noble said dryly. "That's why the core team is kept to a minimum. There are problems all the way: you can't put that label here; this specimen is so high it blocks out that one; the layout emphasizes the wrong piece, and so on."

Then there were the signs. Some had to hang in midair to attract people coming through on the fast track. But because the signs contained information on both sides, the angle they hung at was crucial.

And even tiny errors can create big headaches. "The bases of these cabinets were ordered from outside," Noble told me. "They were all different lengths, and they had to fit the space just so. I messed up there; I typed in 6 pieces instead of 36, and at the last minute we found we were going to run short. Man, there was no way we could get the other pieces in time. So we made some black base parts so you wouldn't notice until the new ones arrived."

Well, I looked at the spot, and I couldn't see any difference.

As Noble disclosed quietly, "I worry about a lot of stuff that nobody else does."

In fact, the entire hall smacked of illusion and sleight of hand. A lot of the "glass" isn't glass but plastic. And when I looked up in most galleries, I saw only darkness. But that is where the majority of the maintenance lines run, the electric cables, air vents and heating ducts, not to mention the welter of baby spotlights and diffusion lights that emphasize what needs to be emphasized without leaving anything else in the dark.

Noble, who wears his hair in dreadlocks, has just discovered his first gray hair. He is 40.

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