Geek Field Trip Report! Smithsonian Office of Exhibits Central

Geek Field Trip Report! Smithsonian Office of Exhibits Central

“Uncle Beazley,” after his refresh at OEC

Recently, I had the rare opportunity to visit the Smithsonian Institution’s Office of Exhibits Central (OEC) in Landover, MD. A friend of mine, Richard Gould, is an Exhibits Specialist there. I was thrilled to be invited. I went with well-known DC-area artist and über-geek, Alberto Gaitán.

The large warehouse building is unmarked, in an industrial complex on the outskirts of town. After going through security and getting badges, we followed Richard toward the labs. The first thing we were greeted by, in grand museum style, was a gigantic fiberglass Triceratops. On skateboards! (Actually little wheeled carts for easy transport). It was a refurbishing job from the National Zoo. The dino, nicknamed “Uncle Beazley,” is a copy of a dinosaur that premiered at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Beazley belongs to the Smithsonian, but got loaned to the National Zoo (which is actually part of the SI) many years ago, and had gotten rather funky, living on a small plot near the lemur house. So he was hefted onto a lowboy and gingerly driven to Exhibits Central for some cleaning and a little R&R (restoration and relaxation) before he goes back to his home at the Zoo.

From there, we entered the 3D Digitization Lab, where we met Adam Metallo and Vince Rossi. They showed us a number of projects they’re working on, such as crowdsourced environmental image synthesis (where 3D environments are auto-generated, using libraries of tagged images — e.g. a 3D environment of The National Mall using Flickr images that people have shared with the appropriate tags). One issue they’re trying to resolve is: How do you get people to photograph the less interesting stuff. You only tend to get images of things like the Capitol building, the Washington Monument, etc. not the trees, the park benches, the in-between spaces. Uncle Beazley made an appearance again, as Vince had made a 3D image of him using the Microsoft GeoSynth software.

They also showed us an archeological dig (which they couldn’t discuss details of) where they took dozens of photos from the air with a eye toward making a 3D full-scale rendering of the main terrain feature of the dig (a significant discovery) that can then be reproduced in three dimensions and placed in an exhibit. They were saying it’s very revolutionary because once they have the 3D files, they can then send them to any museum around the world that can then print out a copy of the exhibit. The import of this was driven home by the fact that the first thing Richard had shown us was a storage/prep room, on the way to the labs, filled with shipping cases. He talked about the amount of effort involved in packing up and shipping exhibits to far-flung locations.

Adam Metallo shows us how their Minolta Vivid 90 3D camera works

One of the more interesting projects they were working on was the 3D reconstruction of a bust of one of the original Smithsonian naturalist collectors and explorers, Robert Kennicott. The full background story on Kennicott is fascinating. For a time, he actually lived in the famous Smithsonian Castle. He died during an expedition to the Yukon in 1866. The cause of his death was only just determined in 2001 (it had long been rumored he committed suicide, but a heart attack is now thought to have been the likely cause). His bones reside at the Natural History Museum. To create an accurate bust of him, non-contact 3D scans were done of his skull, using a Minolta Vivid 90 3D camera. From there, a three-dimensional physical model was made. Tissue depth markers were added by forensics sculptor Natalie Gallelli who then sculpted a model of Kennicott’s head. This was again 3D scanned, and finally, 3D printed. The result is an extremely accurate bust of an icon of Smithsonian history. The 3D team was also excited by the fact that, now that they had his head scanned, they could easily make reproductions at any size. They showed us a smaller version of the bust they had made on their 3D printer.

From there, I toured the Model Shop. It was fun to see things being cast that we had just seen in the 3D lab, such as a full-size mold of Robert Kennicott’s head. I had also seen an old canvas miner’s hat with a carbide lamp in the 3D lab and then saw neat rows of near-perfect copies of the hat in the Model Shop.

Molds for miner’s helmets

Miner’s helmets after casting

From there it was over to the 3D printing area where I met Carolyn Thome, their 3D printing specialist. They have a Z Corp 650 printer, which can do color 3D printing (altho they’re just starting to experiment with that capability). She showed us a shell pattern she’d printed in realistic-looking colors. One of the projects she and OEC have been in involved in is the modeling of Homo floresiensis, the 3′ tall “real-world hobbit” remains discovered on the Island of Flores, in East Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia. Using non-contact 3D imaging and the 650 printer, Carolyn is able to fairly easily print out a new copies of H. Fioresiensis bones.

The Fab Shop’s impressive Panel Pro 145G CNC machine

In the CAD room of the Fabrication Shop, we spent some time talking to Adam Bradshaw about their workflow, how they get exhibit designs from the Design Studio upstairs and render them, increasingly for output on their large-bed CNC router. They just recently switched to Autodesk Inventor (switching from SolidWorks) and they seem pretty happy with it. In the adjoining shop, we saw their awesome Panel Pro 145G CNC router in action. It has a 5′ x 12′ bed. We saw it cutting out a 5′ x 12′ sheet of Komatex PVC board (similar to Sintra, but lighter) and turning it into lovely beveled print mounts. Scott Schmidt, the Exhibits Supervisor of the Fabrication Dept, said that this process, of cutting all of the mounts for an exhibit, used to take weeks and generate lots of noise and dust. Now it can all be done in a day, with much less noise and almost no dust. And it can all basically be handled by one person. They have a really handy suction lifter that can pick up big workpieces and deliver them to a wall-mounted saw. Cut-to-size, they can then be moved, via the lifter, onto the Panel Pro’s work area.

The new Epson Stylus Pro GS6000 solvent printer

In the Graphics Department, we saw a number of large-format digital printers and some additional toys, such as an Epson Stylus Pro GS6000 fabric-printable solvent printer that they’re very excited about and the possibilities that it opens up for them. Rolando Mayen, Graphics Department Supervisor, also showed us some “hacks” they do with their vinyl cutter to create what look like images silkscreened or sandblasted onto plexi.

The Graphics Dept’s vinyl cutter on which they do some pretty impressive faux screen/faux sandblast treatments

Richard, in his Plastics Shop, showing the types of display pieces he fabricates

One of the most interesting moments came when we were leaving the Fabrication area and passed by an industrial green Northfield jointer, from the 1970s. Richard joked that this was the most cutting-edge technology they had when he arrived in 2002. All these amazing tools and capabilities in just over a decade! One can only imagine what this shop will look like in another ten years.

I was thrilled by how many of the staff were familiar with Make:. I was greeted with genuine enthusiasm for what we do. It was really inspiring to see a group of extremely talented artists, scientists, and engineers so taken with the technologies that we trade in and celebrate. This visit offered me a glimpse into the impact that “maker technology” is having on an industry.

I also talked to Adam and Vince in the 3D lab about using Make:’s readership to crowdsource ideas for their lab. For instance, that issue of getting people to photograph the boring parts of an environment for 3D visualization; how to best crowdsource such participation. I’m sure our readers could come up with some clever ideas there. So, stay tuned for more on possible collaborations.

Thanks to Richard and everyone at OEC for being such gracious hosts, and to my trusty sidekick, Alberto Gaitán, for coming with me and keeping me out of trouble (“Hey, what does this button do?”). Oh, and BTW, the Ark of the Covenant is not stored at OEC. I asked. But I’m still not convinced that they don’t have it glowing ominously in some secret lab somewhere, testing it, lest the Smithsonian ever decides to stage a face-melting coup. Gee, I wonder what a country run by museum geeks would look like?

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Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. His free weekly-ish maker tips newsletter can be found at

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