Whole Worlds to Order

We've finally done right by our downtown elephant. I mean the one that has stood for decades in the entrance hall of the National Museum of Natural History. Until last year, the elephant existed in featureless isolation. It might as well have risen out of the lobby floor. Today, thanks to the work of the Smithsonian's Office of Exhibits Central (OEC), a scene envisioned by Natural History staff has been brought to life, and the great beast walks on an elevated plateau of reconstructed African landscape, accompanied by birds, bugs, butterflies, a twisty snake and — the crowning touch of OEC's realist fabricators — elephant dung. The elephant looks right at home. And on one side of the high display, fitted into the construction like a window out to the world, a panoramic trio of monitors shows whole herds of elephants in their teeming natural habitat.

Signs in several places on the exhibit ask that visitors look but not touch. But who can resist? On a recent afternoon, child after intrigued child put a hand to the huge mass of counterfeit earth, so realistic and attractive did it seem to them — and at least one tried to reach the filmed elephants through the screens.

The display is a triumph for the staff of OEC, but triumphs are routine for these talented folk, whose quarters are in an old warehouse building near Washington's Union Station. OEC craftspeople take on more than 100 assignments annually, for nearly every museum and research program in the Institution. And their work does not just stay put in Washington, D.C. Anyone who's ever felt the cold fear brought on by the three words "some assembly required" will understand why institutions around the country appreciate the extra measure of care OEC staff put into the design of our traveling shows.

Every museum exhibit starts as an idea, which must be brought to life with objects in a context that is both intellectual and physical. Enter the staff of OEC. In partnership with curators and museum directors, they transform ideas into exhibit plans. They build the first small models of the exhibit; they make the stands and the display cases, the mannequins and the dioramas; they edit the words and make the labels that allow the exhibit to be understood; and they often rig the lighting that lets it be seen. They work their magic on wood, metal, plastic, glass, paper, clay, cloth and just about any other material that suits the purpose. For our permanent minerals exhibit in the National Museum of Natural History, OEC combined a section of the interior of a real copper mine with an artificial section, and did it so ingeniously that the one is indistinguishable from the other and the seams don't show.

OEC craftspeople can make whole worlds to order. Sometimes they re-create moments or objects that can be measured against the originals. For a current show marking the 300th birthday of the piano, they built several cutaway models to demonstrate the increasingly robust action of piano mechanisms over the centuries.

But in other instances, the OEC artisan's hand moves to the dreamer's imagination. For a show that will open next year, the task is to create a mini-diorama of the prehistoric seafloor. The model-maker (guided by the curator) turns to the evidence in British Columbia's Burgess Shale, which holds sea creatures buried by mud more than half a billion years ago. Many of the fossils have only a length and a width, and science has guessed at their original appearance, but we cannot know it for sure. So the model-maker is finally left to surmise. He pores over pictures of the rock, traces the striations, evaluates the scientific evidence, picks the brains of paleontologists and then shapes the clay models from which molds will be made for the diorama's eventual cast-resin population. He erases eons and restores to the hapless creatures their lost dimension. Which is workaday magic at OEC.

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