Installation Part 1: Painting in the Case

Once the designs are ready, there are a number of ways to install them into the actual exhibit space. Since we have four cases, we thought: “why not experiment with the installation process?” Here’s the story behind the first diorama about the Early Eocene, which we painted directly into the case.

The moment we decided to paint the first case, we recruited the theater department’s set design crew to help us out. The first task was to outline the design onto the case. Strike that — our very first task was to prime the case so it would be ready for future painting. Then we had to figure out how to trace the design into the case. Originally we had wanted to project the digital image onto the wall, but we ran into a snag with spatial constraints: the door to the case couldn’t be opened all the way because of the placement of pillars. This meant we had to sketch the design by hand while referring to the original. Thank goodness for erasers!

With the outlines in place, it was time to paint. This particular mural relied heavily on a few main colors, which meant we didn’t have to buy too many paints. Yet even with a base layer of primer, the painting took some time, as certain colors soaked into the wall more than others. Thankfully we had lots of hands on deck to help out: Casey Kearns, Associate Professor of Scenic Design, was indispensable, as were his theater tech students Kaiya Rodriguez, Brooke Benson, and Treenuch “Tib” Sunpituksaree.

UW students painting inside the exhibit case

Brooke and Kaiya, mastering those pesky corners.

Painting is more time-consuming than printing, and you run into the issue of matching colors. And when you’re painting inside a giant case, the corners are definitely tricky (elbows just get in the way!). We also couldn’t include some of the details from the original design like the subtle shaft of light filtering through the canopy, since it’s a light layer with a gradient. And yet, despite all these obstacles, there’s one thing that really makes painting worthwhile, in my opinion: the visitors get to watch an exhibit come to life. Not only do they get a front-row view of something that’s ordinarily a “behind the scenes” museum activity, they get to interact with the artists, and ask questions about the exhibit. You might remember from our very first post that it was while painting this Early Eocene that we got the idea for this blog. It’s our way of being able to answer visitors’ questions about the exhibit design process when we’re not in the museum.

visitors watch as painters bring the Early Eocene to life

Visitors watch as Juliana paints the Early Eocene display. The contrast between the snowsuits and the semi-tropical plants is particularly great.

Each limitation became a challenge to do something different, something better. Can’t include that shaft of light in the painting? Why not change the lighting in the case instead? We’re  in the process of ordering light gels, the kind you see on theater lights, so that we can manipulate the colors and light quality in the case. We’ll be using gels and netting in order to get that dappled light look, while still casting plenty of light onto the specimens themselves. Come by the museum to see the progress we’ve made, and keep checking in as we add more fossil plants and interpretive labels.

Digital design for the Early Eocene display

Before: the design for the Early Eocene exhibit

specimens ready to be mounted in the finished Early Eocene case

After: the Early Eocene case is painted and the specimens are ready to go!


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