Narratives in Museums – Respect for Authenticity in Realistic Human Recreations

Before continuing, I would like to acknowledge the setting for which I am making my portrait bust of Edith Kramer.

In their collection of essays ‘Museum Materialities’ Sandra Dudley collates different definitions of the object within a museum setting, which all collectively acknowledge the materiality of the museum object. While materiality is, essentially, us and everything around us, within a museum setting this comes down to the physicality of the object, which triggers the viewers sensory experiences, and emotional and cognitive associations (Dudley, 2010, pg. 7).

One of the broad definitions of object materiality presented through Dudley’s collection of essays (2010, pg. 7). An object’s meaning, or ‘materiality’, is constructed both through the object’s sensibilities and the viewer’s interaction with it. Thus, its materiality sits in this in-between state of subjective perception.

This definition of object materiality also insinuates an ‘interaction between [the] inanimate, physical thing and [the] conscious person’ (2010, pg. 5) known as an ‘object-subject interaction’. Through this understanding, I would like to propose the development of a relationship between an object and the viewer, which in a museum setting happens due to the visitor bringing their own frame of reference towards the object. Each viewer will bring their own individualistic frame of reference construed from their own knowledge and life experiences. Thus, an object’s materiality is important to respect as an open-ended question left to be explored by the visitor of the museum.

‘We are material bodies in a material world, and our engagement in the flow of things can only be through our sensory perceptions.’

Susan M. Pearce cited in Dudley, 2010, pg. xix

I wanted to raise the significance of object materiality within a museum setting, as I believe that this unique and intimate relationship creates a narrative that is to be experienced by the museum visitor. As such, they can undergo an emotional and cognitive reaction, leading to educational value, which I can utilise to present the significance of Edith Kramer. This is something that the Madame Tussaud’s museums utilise – they encourage their visitors to physically engage with the exhibits –but which goes beyond just interaction.

It is not only through touch that viewers experience objects – our sight and imagination are just as important tools for engagement. Thus, along with the primary function of being a museum model, I have chosen for this portrait bust of Edith Kramer to be a realistically finished object. In ‘Realisms in Contemporary Culture’ Birke, Butter, and Auer (2013) describe how there is a ‘hunger for ‘the authentic’ in an age saturated by virtual reality, artifice and commodification.’ (pg. 6). The visitor, a likely participator of this ‘contemporary desire for authenticity’ (Birke et al., 2013, pg. 8), will make this a part of their interaction with the object. Consequently, I would like to respect their frame of reference by providing a realistic depiction of the individual I am introducing them to, leading to an authentic narrative.

If realism is the goal though, why am I not using the processes of facial reconstruction? Simply put, I am not interested in presenting an object of identification of Kramer’s features. If the visitor wanted an exact recreation of her image, a video screen could be used by the museum to meet this function. Instead, I am emphasising the narrative of authenticity, by creating a representational object for the viewer to experience. As such, the viewer is introduced to Kramer through the perceptions of the maker (me!), which relates to the work of Kramer within the art therapy field – the focus is as much on the end-product of an artistic creativity, as the process the maker took to get there. Lastly, the material from which it is made (wax) expands on the aspect of authenticity through its natural rawness and history of human usage.

In this way, the viewer is introduced to Edith Kramer through an authentic object-subject interaction, creating a representational function in an open-ended narrative. As she herself was an avid participator of the social realism art movement which aimed to symbolise the importance of others through art, it deepens the narrative through which the viewer learns of Kramer.

My representation of Edith Kramer in oil paints. A study exploring the forms of her face and emotional realism. I found it important to explore her in paint form before moving onto three-dimensional form as it represents Kramer’s ideals of using creativity as a tool for understanding and growth.
Edith Kramer in the foreground, with a portrait of herself in the background.


Ammonite – Making of!

Approaching the making process, I split it into six main stages:

  1. Sculpting
  2. Moulding
  3. Casting
  4. Chambers
  5. Puzzles
  6. Painting

While some of these stages had to be completed before I could move on to the next – for instance, I had to have a cast of the shell to create the walls for the chambers – they didn’t follow a strictly linear pattern. I planned so that I could be completing other stages while moulds were curing etc.

Following are images of each stage, with short descriptions of problems encountered and how they were resolved.


To start off with, I had to make the ammonite shell that would be the main body of the model. I used buff clay as it is very quick to sculpt with due to its softness.

For reference, I used an image from The Etches Collection of an ammonite in their collection.

I explored making a stand for the sculpt at the beginning in order to allow me to sculpt both sides of the ammonite. However, I quickly realised that this would not be needed as only one side would be visible. Therefore, I could rest it flat on the desk.

Sculpting the ammonite was a relatively straightforward process that was quick to complete.

Along with the ammonite shell, however, I also needed to sculpt the head and tentacles of the animal. I did not want to use buff clay for this sculpt, as it was on a smaller scale to the shell and would need more details. The tentacles would also pose a problem – due to the softness of the clay, they might be prone to moving while I sculpted, even with an armature inside. Consequently, I decided to use Monster Clay – a harder material.

I could not use Monster Clay alongside the buff clay due to the difference in softness, but I still wanted to make sure the head fit snugly into the opening of the shell. To achieve this, I held off sculpting the head until I had a cast of the ammonite shell I could sculpt into.

For reference, I used images of cuttlefish and nautilus.


After sculpting the ammonite shell, I created a mould of it using silicon. As the back would not need any detail, I could make it an open back mould.

During this process, some silicon seeped underneath the shell as it was not flush flat against the surface. I cut out the unnecessary silicon.

The head and tentacles of the ammonite had to be moulded in plaster, as I wanted to cast it in silicon later. Due to the complexity of the tentacles, the mould had to be made out of two parts.

I encountered one particular issue while moulding the second part of the plaster mould. While I made sure to plug any gaps between the styrene walls and plaster, there must have been a gap I overlooked! Some of the plaster seeped underneath, which caused the risers on that side to be covered up.

To resolve this, my first idea was to attempt to dig the risers out of the plaster once it had hardened. I quickly realised this would not be an effective way of solving the issue, therefore I decided to amend my casting process for the head and tentacles instead.


I used the silicon mould to cast copies of the ammonite shell out of fast cast resin. There were a few problems I encountered during this process.

The main issue that arose was the weight of the cast. For the mechanism to function effectively, the shell could not be too heavy, as it would impact the type of spring strength I would use. The heavier the shell, the higher strength of spring I would need in order to prevent the shell sinking straight to the bottom once placed on the spring. At that point, the puzzle pieces would not make an impact on the vertical position of the model as it would already be sitting on the bottom of the spring!

Unfortunately, I realised this was an issue after I did my first clean-out cast and felt the weight of the shell.

To resolve this, I used aluminium trihydroxide powder. The theory behind this was that the powder would replace the resin in the mixture, which would result in a lighter cast. I tested this out using my second cast – it did not make it lighter. In fact, it had the opposite effect, and made the cast even heavier!

A positive of alumiunium trihydroxide powder is that it results in a far more durable cast, so I decided to use the shell from my second attempt despite its weight. I could lighten it afterwards by taking away material from the back.

Another issue I encountered during this stage, was in relation to the magnets I planned to place in the chambers of the ammonite that would help to keep the puzzles in place. Initially, I planned to place the magnets in equal distances from each other on top of the silicon. In practice, however, this did not work – the magnets were too close together and attracted to each other immediately. To counter this effect, I poured the resin in layers and placed a magnet in each layer. This meant that the magnets were held in place as the resin cured.

While casting the silicon head and tentacles of the ammonite, I also run into some obstacles. As mentioned previously, half of my risers were accidentally covered during the moulding process. To avoid bubbles forming inside the tentacles, I did not pour the silicon into the closed mould at first. Instead, I left the two halves open and filled the tentacles. Afterwards, I closed the mould and used the vac chamber to get rid of any potential air bubbles. Lastly, I injected the rest of the silicon. This solved the issue and no bubbles formed inside the tentacles.


Firstly, I used paper to make some quick prototypes of the shape of the walls. I used these shapes as reference when I heat bent chemiwood for the walls. I used a jig – a secondary piece of chemiwood which I sanded down to the desired circular shape – to ensure the walls had the correct shape.

Using filler to create a plug for the chemiwood to stick inside the ammonite chambers was a bit tricky, primarily due to the sanding afterwards. Some of the areas were a bit tight and it was difficult reaching them. I tried using a rotary tool to get to these areas but the tool was too big. I resolved this issue by just spending more time sanding.


This was perhaps the most experimental stage of the entire making process. I encountered numerous problems as I explored how much weight I could add to resin.

I originally thought about using metal powder to weigh down the puzzle pieces, however, after researching some of these powders, I decided it would not be a cost-effective option. At this point, I considered the casting of the shell that I did earlier and remembered how the use of aluminium trihydroxide powder increased the weight of the cast.

Unfortunately, due to the size of the puzzle pieces, the powder on its own would not have made enough of a difference in terms of weight. Therefore, I considered other options and explored placing different objects inside the cast to weigh it down. I settled on using steel nuts, which combined with the aluminium trihydroxide powder, considerably increased the weight of the cast.

At this point, the steel nuts became an issue for me – they were extending out of the cast and very visible. To resolve this, I did a layer of resin around the mould, let this cure, and then placed the nuts inside. This ensured the steel nuts were not visible.

Frustratingly, casting a layer of resin around the mould first to hide the steel nuts, manifested another problem. The aluminium trihydroxide powder I was using, caused the resin to cure much slower. As I had to continually turn the mould to coat all the walls in an equal amount of resin, the increased curing time meant I was turning the mould for an unnecessarily long time. Consequently, I chose to use purely fast cast for the outside shell layer, which cured much faster. I still used the powder to bulk out the inside layer of the cast.

A final issue I encountered was when I was dying the resin. The multiple layers of resin meant I had to ensure that they all had the exact same shade of blue. I was forced to spend extra time while mixing the resin each time to match the shades. Unfortunately, this meant that the resin would start to cure by the time I would get the shade right. To resolve this, I made note of how much of each pigment I was using per 12ml of resin (the average amount per layer) which helped to mix the right colours much faster.

Magnets were also added to each cast to correspond with the magnets placed in the shell.

Lastly, some interesting notes from this stage:

  • The alumiunium trihydroxide powder made the resin more gooey for longer (due to the slower curing time). This meant that bubbles were more likely to form in my puzzle pieces as the steel nuts trapped some air inside. The effect of this can be seen in two of the photos below, where a large air bubble formed at the top of the mould.
  • The difference in curing time was particularly obvious in one of the below casts. I took it out of the mould too early, which meant the inside layer containing the powder was still fairly gooey. This cast highlights the two different layers of resin – the shell and the bulk inside.


In preparation for this stage, I kept my first cast of the ammonite shell to use as a tester. I used it throughout to experiment with different colours and airbrushing techniques.

For paint to adhere to the surface of the shell, a primer base was necessary. I tested my primer on the tester shell and realised that it would result in a cold underlayer. It also affected the paint that would go on top – it added a green tint to the yellow base coat. I used a white primer on the shell instead.

I used acrylic paints and an airbrush to paint the model. I painted the eyes and highlights with a small brush.

One of the biggest issues I encountered during this process was right at the beginning – while spraying on the first coat of my base colour, I realised the paints I was using had hardly any pigment in them. This meant that I would need far too many layers to even get a faint colour on the base. I used different paints and this issue was solved. (Pro tip – always test the pigmentation of paints!)

To build up enough pigment, many layers of airbrushing were needed. I had limited time left to apply this finish, which meant I could not get the amount of detail I initially planned to paint.

Finally, while painting the eyes of the ammonite, I found it particularly tricky to use the airbrush. Despite changing to a 0.2mm nozzle and needle, and decreasing the air pressure, I continually ended up with a ‘spidering’ spray pattern. I hand-painted these areas instead.

Overall, the making of this model was very exciting, with its fair share of frustrating moments! I enjoyed each stage in its own way, and wish I could spend a little bit more time exploring each one in more detail.

Broad Thinking Stage – Summary of Initial Design Process

Sticky notes – Starting out designing the fun way.

Doing the research into immersive museums before starting the design process helped me to acknowledge all the different features I would need to consider for the model. Additionally, deciding what were the key benchmarks of the model, really helped structure my design thinking.

I started the design process by thinking broadly about the project. I thought about the different ways I could demonstrate the concept of ammonite buoyancy through an immersive design that would engage the audience in the narrative of the creatures, while increasing information retention.

Some of the first ideas I thought about focused predominantly on portraying the rise and fall of the ammonite as a consequence of their buoyancy system.

In the design to the left, the ammonite is positioned on a rod that would allow it to move up and down, controlled by levers. These are shaped like the helm of a ship to link the design into the narrative of the ammonite being in the sea. The model would have also been housed in a suitcase for easy transportation.

This second idea placed the ammonite behind a curved glass, similar to the ones that can be found in aquariums. This would insinuate the narrative of the creature being a sea animal, while also adding a playful narrative for the visitors who have visited aquariums beforehand. It would give context to the ammonite.

There would be a lever to the side of the model – turning it would move the ammonite up and down.

London SeaLife aquarium display featuring curved glass.

This design is based on one of the first models I made during the course – a simple wooden mechanism with a lever and two interacting elements. As you turn the lever, the two components interact and vertical movement is created.

I could use this design in my model to move the ammonite up and down.

I found that the lever was too constricting and would not have been engaging enough for the audience, so I began thinking about other ways that I could instigate movement in my model. It is at this point that I thought about putting the ammonite on a spring, which has a natural up and down movement.

I really liked the idea of the spring but started wondering how I would use the spring to create the vertical movement, such as by putting in extra weight to make the ammonite sink, and taking the weight away to make it rise. This is very similar to how ammonites controlled their buoyancy – they had natural chambers inside their shells which they filled with water.

I could simulate this extra weight through puzzle pieces that would slot into these chambers. If the ammonite was also on a spring, adding the additional weight would naturally bring the ammonite down, while taking the puzzle piece out would let it rise.

I was really intrigued by the idea of the puzzle pieces and the spring, which I decided to explore in more detail. I did this by creating a physical maquette of the idea out of grey board. This helped me to see the idea from a new perspective, and I realised it was very static. The puzzle pieces were to represent water, but the way the ammonite filled in their chambers was more fluid than the motion of slotting in puzzle pieces.

Greyboard maquette demonstrating how the shell would be split up into chambers. These would then have corresponding puzzle pieces that could be slotted into the chambers

With this in mind, I created a second physical maquette to explore how I could demonstrate how ammonite chambers filled up with more fluidity. I thought about having a mechanism that pushed material into the shell. In the image below, water is represented by the yellow paper balls, and I am pushing these further into the shell. I liked how this idea was more accurate to how the bouyancy system actually functions inside the ammonite shells. Please see below for three movement progress shots. For the full video demonstrating this please click here.

Image 1 – Material loose in the shell

Image 2 – Starting to push more material in
Image 3 – Material pushed in the furthest.

At this point I realised I became too engrossed with the puzzle piece idea and that I didn’t think broadly enough at the beginning. I wanted to avoid narrow design thinking which could potentially ignore crucial elements of the model that could make it more engaging and effective for the audience. Therefore, I went back and began thinking about other ways I could portray the buoyancy concept for The Etches Collection. Please see below for a collection of the sketches from this design stage.

During this broad design stage, I considered some very different ways I could explore the interactive elements of the model. For instance, I thought about creating a wearable model, such as a hat where the model would hang on a spring. I also considered creating a massive chair shaped like an ammonite, which would be situated on a movable platform. As more people sat on the ammonite chair, the platform and the chair would go down and vice versa.

I played around with some more abstract ideas involving scales and very simplified shapes. With these I wanted to focus purely on the buoyancy concept and tried to portray in the simplest ways possible. I was inspired by the experiment developed by Earthlearningidea. They used a water bottle and a testing tube to demonstrate how ammonites used to control their density and how this affected their buoyancy. These designs ensured that the concept was simpler to understand, however it got rid of a lot of the narrative that was part of the engagement of the model.

Moreover, I also looked into a game concept. I wanted to focus more on the narrative of the ammonite, specifically as to why they had to evolve a buoyancy system. To survive, the ammonites would have had to do two things – get food and escape from predators. Therefore, they needed a system that would let them move in the water, and as they did not have flippers, they developed this buoyancy system. To capitalise on that, I thought about framing my model around the idea of a game visitors could play. The ammonite would be attached to a fixed path, and the visitors would control how fast and how far the creature moves along this path. They would do this in order to help the ammonite get to food, or escape from predators.

In summary, this initial design process has emphasised the importance of engagement and narrative for me. It has helped me realise that there are many ways that this model could portray the concept of ammonite buoyancy, and it depends on the context of the exhibition which would be best. Overall, it has helped me to understand what elements I would like to focus on – I am aiming to highlight the physical vertical movement of the ammonite by engaging the audience. At the core of the brief is the movement concept, and if the audience is creating this movement, they are directly interacting with the concept, fulfilling the purpose of the model.