In a huge warehouse in Landover, Md., essential work for the Smithsonian Institution is conducted way off the National Mall.
The designers at what is primly called the Office of Exhibits Central create the exhibits millions will see every year on the Mall. Will they capture the tourist attention and make them slow down and absorb the visual notes and the deliberate placement of the artifacts? Their audience is the 30 million people who physically walk through the Smithsonian in a good year.
However, most of the world doesn’t come to the Smithsonian, or only makes a couple of pilgrimages in their lifetime. Within the Landover complex is a special team of experts who share the task of creating exhibitions. However their results go on the road. And in their destinations of small towns the pace is slower. People read, and devour, the text on the panels. People plan parties and festivals to enhance what the Smithsonian has sent their way.
Museum on Main Street, a part of the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, is run by a part of the Smithsonian workforce that is largely behind the scenes. Close to 50 people, from accountants to fabricators to line editors can work on a show.
The latest project is “The Way We Worked,” a review of the American workplace and the changes from the farm to factory to computer station. The designers used a rich resource of photographs from the National Archives and incorporated an Archives video in an expansion of its display tools.
Museum on Main Street or MoMS in the Smithsonian shorthand, launched in 1994, has been to about 950 towns. The team has built eight different exhibits. Right now five MoMs exhibits are on the road. The destinations are small places, usually without a museum. Empty storefronts, the city hall, churches and libraries that take the traveling shows have their own purpose:building community.
“More than half of the communities are small and self-identify as rural,” said Carol Harsh, the program director. The towns compete for grants from their state humanities councils.
And the traveling shows can generate local excitement and engagement, said Harsh. “There are newspaper stories about the exhibits. The organizers sponsor teacher training and local tours. “ Granville, Tenn. does have a museum for its population of 300. When the town hosted “Journey Stories,” she said, “the show attracted 3,000 people.”
The importance to the Smithsonian’s outreach and image was underscored by Secretary Wayne Clough who talked about the program Monday at a public forum. He described how one show “Celebrating American Roots Music” arrived in Folsom, New Mexico, population at best 70 people. About 850 people showed up.
Often the host communities add their own interpretations and local interest to the shows. One location built a barn to house a traveling show, “Barn Again.” Inmates from the Colorado Department of Corrections outside Kenyon City, Colo, contributed essays and poems to tie in with another show, “Between Fences.”
Right now the shows are on view in 18 different states.
“Worked,” along with other exhibits, starts with a few key elements. Since most of the places do not have standard museum temperature controls or lighting, the exhibits are usually a series of panels. And the spaces for the traveling shows are usually 500 to 900 square feet, much smaller than most roomy galleries on the Mall.
And then there’s shipping. Everything has to be crated, limited to 300 pound crates, and everything has to fit through one normal size door.
In one huge workshop Lynn Kawarantani, the senior exhibit designer, examines a kiosk. Room has to be left for visitors to move around. “It works,” she says, relieved and satisfied. Then she tests the small openings for replicas of 5 occupational hats, an addition to break up the flatness of the panel. For this tour there are also three videos and 5 interactive components. For the first time Museum on Main Street is incorporating a cell phone tour and video panels.
Almost as important are the clues used to guide the visitor. “We use color to direct the visitor to the topics. As the design is being developed, the script is being developed,” said Kawarantani. The team has created prototypes for the flat design package. “Everything has to fit through a single door,” she said. “And keep it under 8 feet.”
No loading docks at most places.
Past the offices of editors and graphic designs is the territory of Rolando Mayen, the graphic production supervisor. He shows off an echo-printer where the photographs from the vast collections of the National Archives are reproduced and prepared for the multiple displays. “Now we are all in-house,” said Mayen.
The visual documentation from the National Archives shows just how many different occupations are needed to build a country and continue to help it grow. “We see the workers as American heroes,” said Harsh.
In a famous scene, men are building the Empire State Building. Others show groups logging, others harvesting sugar beets. There’s a fireman rescuing a child from a burning building and porters working in railroad cars. The different ways women worked in the 20th Century is heavily underscored, from seamstresses to women taking dictation in corporate offices to the lineup of telephone operators at the switchboard.
In another workshop Danny Fielding is sculpting the display hats in fiberglass. “Sturdier and they last longer than the real hat,” he says. In his shop a military hat, a cowboy hat and a baseball hat are prepared for the exhibit.
After almost two years of work, “Worked” was shipped to its first stop at the Priest River Museum in Priest River, Idaho and then onto Dyersburg, Tenn., Marlinton, West Va., Carbondale, Ill. and Ste. Genevieve, Mo.
While those visitors are recording stories about their work histories on the groups’ first mobile app, Kawarantani and her design associates are already laying out a new project: “Hometown Teams: Sports in American Communities.”