Ask an Exhibitionist #1: What’s the fake water?
Our first “ask an exhibitionist” question comes from the North Carolina Environmental Education Program on Twitter.
Excellent question! I turned to our production guru Jane Eckenrode for a tour of the Museum’s aquatic dioramas. She gave me the inside scoop on how we create the effect of water in places where it’s not practical to have real water.
There are two main things museum artists consider for making fake water: lighting and texture.
Lighting is crucial, since real water is transparent and reflective, but it also bends and distorts light that passes through it. Sometimes, we’re able to mimic those effects with nothing more than clever lighting. Our “underwater tunnel” in the Prehistoric North Carolina gallery is a great example. There’s nothing to suggest we’re underwater except colored lighting and strategically hung fish.
But most of the time, we need to create a textured surface to properly reflect and bend the light in aquatic displays. The most common way to do this is to shape transparent plastic. For shallow puddles, artists can simply pour a plastic resin into the hole where we want a puddle, and it’ll cure with a slightly rippled surface. To give the effect of deeper water, artists pour resin onto a sheet of smooth plexiglass. Sometimes, we can add plants or other features to the resin layer, and shape the resin with blasts of air to create specific patterns while it’s still soft.
For more dramatic textures, things get a bit more complicated. The “sound” diorama in our Coastal North Carolina gallery is a great example. To create its wavy water texture, artists first sculpted a wavy surface out of foam, then created a rubber mold from the foam sculpture, and finally, cast a sheet of resin with fiberglass (added for structural support) using the mold. Because the sculpted resin tends to sag under its own weight even with fiberglass mixed in, there are a few transparent pillars tucked into this diorama for support.
To add super cool effects like the pelican diving into the water’s surface, artists hang models and taxidermied animals, along with plastic beads for bubbles, using nearly-invisible wire. The splash on the top side of the water is crafted from small pieces of plexiglass that were heated up and bent into curves.
Another way to create textured surfaces works best for small displays, like some of the sea birds in our Treasures of North Carolina gallery. The water in these displays is carved out of a solid block of clear plastic then polished to make it glossy like real water. The color comes from painting the bottom of the block.
All this clear, shiny plastic can be a real pain to keep clean, though. Dust accumulates constantly, and there are even a few places where visitors spit into the “water” for good luck (it’s an old superstition). How many folks can say they’ve scrubbed spit off the surface of a puddle? Only in the museum world!
If you have a question you’d like to Ask an Exhibitionist, email us or tweet it with the hashtag #AskAnExhibitionist!