Smithsonian designers exhibit their software smarts
- By Karen D. Schwartz
- Jun 29, 1998
The design software and
computer power lets exhibit designers move away from traditional typesetting.
Artists at the Smithsonian Institution use design software that helps them create
museum exhibits and compete with design companies.
The Audubon exhibit at the National Museum of American History is one of the latest
products of the Smithsonian Institutions Office of Exhibits Central, the technical
drawing and production arm of the Smithsonian.
Designers use MiniCAD to create remarkably accurate and striking displays of everything
from art by African-American women sculptors to the images of Edward S. Curtis,
photographer of the Native American Project, Smithsonian officials said.
The exhibits office has been around for many years, but designers have only recently
had access to software and hardware powerful enough to help them create the exhibits that
wow the public visiting the Smithsonians museums.
Exhibit designers once created intricate charts, maps and illustrations by hand, which
was time-consuming and labor-intensive.
When designers decided to automate, Smithsonian artists at first tried AutoCAD from
Autodesk Inc. of San Rafael, Calif., as the offices primary design tool.
But AutoCAD proved too complex for the projects, said Eve Macintyre, an exhibit
designer in the exhibits office.
"The designers were overwhelmed by it," she said.
"They got frustrated with it quickly, Macintyre said. "There was
a lot more typing and commands than we were used to. We are designers, not
Frustrated with AutoCAD and the offices aging computer system, designers revamped
their system to better design exhibits.
They evaluated a group of computer-aided design tools, including MiniCAD; Vellum from
Ashlar Inc. of San Jose, Calif.; DenebaCAD from Deneba Systems Inc. of Miami; and ArchiCAD
from GraphiSoft of Budapest, Hungary.
Analysts ultimately chose MiniCAD and a suite of software tools. Smithsonian designers
have six licenses of MiniCAD, which they run on Power Macintoshes, including 300-MHz Power
Mac 8600s with 96M of RAM.
Operating systems range from Mac OS versions 7.6 to 8.1. The other tools include
QuarkXPress from Quark Inc. of Denver and Adobe Illustrator and PhotoShop from Adobe
Systems Inc. The Macs and a few PCs are connected on a Novell NetWare LAN.
The design software and computer power has let exhibit designers move away from
Instead, they can create architectural drawings and lay out exhibits on their computer
In the case of the Audubon exhibit, designer Seth Frankel created a 3-D model of the
display area, display cases and some of the objects inside the cases. The 3-D capability
let officials of the Smithsonian Institution Libraries, which commissioned the design,
better visualize the scope and depth of the exhibit, Frankel said.
In addition to saving exhibit designers time, the move to MiniCAD also made the Office
of Exhibits Central more competitive with outside design companies, he said.
That is important, because the exhibits office sometimes must compete with outside
companies to win contracts from other Smithsonian groups, Frankel said. The tools also
saves time and money; a typical Smithsonian Institution library show costs around $10,000,
"The first time you use it in any exhibit, you spend about the same amount of time
drawing things as you would by hand, but the advantage is that you can use the elements
over and over again," Frankel said. "For example, there are standard case
designs in each gallery. With MiniCAD, I only have to draw them once and I can use them
over and over again."
"It is much easier when making changes [to use MiniCAD] than to do the drafting by
hand," Macintyre said. "Its so much easier to whip up construction
drawings and save them in a file to be used in the next show. You might have to slightly
adjust some details, but most of the work is already done."
Exhibit designers can also save floor plans drawn in MiniCAD and alter them for future
use by the Smithsonians Office of Design and Construction.
Another valuable feature is MiniCADs ability to let designers track measurements
with the cursor and lock in important variables, enabling the designers to create boxes
with exact dimensions, Frankel said.
Of course, no software is perfect, he said. The system cannot import and export graphic
design layouts, type layouts and case designs into MiniCAD from QuarkXPress easily,
"I want to be able put my drawing from QuarkXPress into MiniCAD, and I cant
do it successfully. When you import an Encapsulated PostScript file into MiniCAD, it loses
its fonts," Frankel said.
"To solve the problem, I have to export my files from both MiniCAD and QuarkXPress
and merge them into Adobe Illustrator. If I need to make a change in the drawing, I have
to go back to the original MiniCAD file, make my change, and do more importing and
exporting," he said.
Exhibit designers plan to expand their use of MiniCAD, using more of the
softwares advanced features as they become more familiar with the package.
For example, designers plan to draw panel displays using MiniCAD and send the files to
a computer-aided machining system, which will cut out parts of the panel display system as
Frankel also said the Smithsonian plans to use MiniCAD to generate computer renderings
that the Smithsonian libraries will use to raise funds to pay for the renovation of the
The computer renderings will be particularly useful in showing potential donors the
beauty their donations will make possible, Frankel said.