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Ask an Exhibitionist #1: What’s the fake water?

August 17, 2012

by Helen Chappell

Our first “ask an exhibitionist” question comes from the North Carolina Environmental Education Program on Twitter.

NC Environmental Education asks, "A lot of aquatic exhibits have fake water.  What is it made of and how is placed in exhibits?"

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.

Photo of waterfall in the Mountains to Sea exhibit

Because real water is cool and all, but we only have space for one waterfall inside the building.

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.

Photo of spill stain on exhibit floor

Nothing but lights, fish, and this accidental floor stain that makes it look like water is leaking out of the edge of the tunnel.

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.

Two photos of plexiglass with resin and plant details added

In a close-up view, the edge of the plexiglass is easy to see. But from further away, the light shining through the textured resin looks just like light shining through real, though fairly still, water.

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.

Photo of diving pelican in exhibit

You can see a pillar hiding behind our diving pelican.

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!

Photo of resin puddle with dried spit

Spit pictured at upper right. Not cool, y’all.

If you have a question you’d like to Ask an Exhibitionist, email us or tweet it with the hashtag #AskAnExhibitionist!

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Rob permalink
    August 17, 2012 3:45 pm

    Do you know what an exhibitionist is to most people?

    • exhibitionisthelen permalink
      August 17, 2012 3:52 pm

      Yes, we were aware of the “normal” definition, but decided it would be a fun tagline for a Q&A series. It’s not without precedent — the National Association for Museum Exhibition titles their twice-annual journal “The Exhibitionist” — and if you think about it, the second definition isn’t too far off from what we do.

      exhibitionist (n) – someone who deliberately behaves in such a way as to attract attention. Yep! We deliberately design things — like displays and even silly blog titles — in such a way as to attract your attention.

      Thanks for chiming in!


  1. Ask an Exhibitionist Bonus: Literal Water Lentils « NC Museum of Natural Sciences Exhibits Blog

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