Behind the Orchids: Setting Up the Show
A lot of work goes into making an exhibit like this year’s orchid show, “Orchids: Interlocking Science and Beauty.” Of course there’s the joint effort of Smithsonian Gardens, U.S. Botanic Garden and National Museum of Natural History staff, but what about all the finer details? How do those beautiful orchids and other plants made it onto the show floor? Was all that Spanish moss really hung by hand? What about the angle of that delicate little orchid you didn’t notice until your second or third time visiting? Are the plants changed each week?
My name is Alan Marcus and I’m currently the spring exhibition intern with Smithsonian Gardens. I wasn’t ready for the barrage of work to address all the little details of this year’s orchid exhibit when I arrived this month, but I’ve tried my best to keep up. It was fun getting thrown into the mix of preparation and I love telling everyone about all the effort that goes into it. Honestly, the work wasn’t nearly as tedious as I make it seem. In fact, it was quite the opposite! Hopefully I’ve piqued your interest to explore and continue reading into the less glamorous side of this year’s beautiful orchid exhibition. Let’s take a look at a somewhat typical work day for exhibition set up.
Mornings. Start. Early. OK, so 6:30 am isn’t the earliest start for work, but it can be a little exhausting after a while. What really motivates the staff to arrive for work every day is that everyone loves what they do. It’s simple. I know that sounds corny, but honestly its something I think is so important for visitors to know about this exhibit. On top of arriving early at the greenhouses, every day starts with a morning meeting (where you can imagine everyone’s at their finest). The staff is a true cast of characters, but the plants and the work they do for the public are things everyone comes together on. Every orchid you see, every minute detail from the mulch in the planters to the hook the lab coat rests on, was labored over with love for the exhibit and the potential joy it can bring to all visitors. That’s what gets the staff to the greenhouses in the morning to meet and load plants onto trucks bound for the National Museum of Natural History by 7 am.
Once in the exhibit hall, staff worked on their various assignments from the morning meeting. Some spent the morning visualizing and creating a steamy jungle display, while others busily ensured plants have the proper drain plates underneath them and are covered with mulch on top. My work was really all over the place, but that was great because I had the chance to work closely with a different staff member each day. This allowed me to ask all sorts of questions about the orchids. Two orchids in particular struck me with awe. Those orchids were Psychopsis mariposa and Maxillariella elatior. They’re both strangely attractive plants and their biology reveals something unique about each orchid. The shiny bottom lip of the elatior orchid fooled me in thinking there’s some kind of nectar present, but it’s actually dry to the touch. This is one way it tricks pollinators into landing on its flower. On the other hand, the mariposa flower has a beautifully eerie shape that appears as a butterfly frozen in flight and can successively bloom for several months.
Just as my work changed, work on the show floor can be very different from person to person and from day to day. It’s nothing short of impressive watching the staff move about the room to fix up their areas. Something I was not expecting to see, but that is also worth mentioning, is that staff members did not just focus on their part of the display alone. For the sake of the exhibit’s theme, staff members were often asked to opine on specific design choices and how plantings could better fit in overall. Often, I was asked for my opinion about the color arrangements of orchids or about the positioning of certain plants to help make the display look more authentic and easier to view from the floor.
After working through the morning, lunch comes, and it was eagerly greeted by most. It’s surprisingly challenging work trying to coordinate all parts of the exhibit together, and I think it takes a full belly to complete the work efficiently. Either way, lunches were enjoyable. Work sometimes carried into the conversation, but mostly lunch was a time to relax and help get refocused for the afternoon. After lunch, work continued with renewed vigor as portions of display installments came to a close for the day. More often than not, these “finished” portions were revisited several times during the week as the overall design of the exhibit developed and grew to include more elements of the theme. For example, different orchids now line the portion of the exhibit by the laboratory scene than were first placed, and the beautiful white Phalaenopsis near the exit were a last-minute change. Clean up followed shortly after and carts and baskets were loaded back onto trucks to return to the greenhouse for the following day’s deliveries. It took the entire week to get every plant down there!
And that’s how a typical day went for the set-up of this exhibit. There’s really a lot to look at when you make your visit. There will continue to be new orchids to explore since plants need to be swapped out regularly to display the freshest blooms. I ask you to return to the exhibit again and again over the next couple months to take some time to really soak it all in. I promise there will be something new for your visit every time, whether it’s a new plant altogether, or simply a small detail that went unnoticed on your last visit. Everything is placed with a purpose, and there’s no doubt something for all to enjoy.
-Alan M., Orchid Exhibition Intern