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Custom Storage Boxes for Interactive Exhibit


The collections team was asked to design standardized storage boxes for custom 25” X 26.25” cabinets in a publicly accessible collections storage space within our science education center that opened in 2012. The education center, Q?rius, is highly trafficked by visitors year round, requiring boxes to be sturdy enough to withstand heavy usage. As natural history collections are not always safe to handle without gloves, we needed to find a way to secure some of the specimens within their boxes.


Kelsey Falquero
Smithsonian Institution
National Museum of Natural History
10th St & Constitution Ave NW
Washington, DC 20560

Photo Credits:
Katherine R. Roberts (Figures 1 and 2)
Kelsey Falquero (Figures 3-12)

Publication: 2018



We designed six standard box sizes, each approximately half the size of the one larger than it (Figure 1). The result was a set of boxes that may be arranged in various configurations to maximize storage space (Figure 2).

Figure 1. The six standard box sizes.

Figure 2. Interns Norma Oldfield and Michelle Moskal look at a configuration of boxes in the Q?rius drawers.

The public may interact with specimens in one of three ways: lightly supervised handling, volunteer or staff assisted handling, and indirect handling. To allow increased visual accessibility for the latter category, each box size is available in two styles: tan barrier board bases with clear Vivak lids and clear Vivak bases with clear Vivak lids (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Examples of a 60-point barrier board base and 60-point Vivak lid (left) and a 60-point Vivak base and lid (right).

To encourage visitors to follow our interaction guidelines, housing is modified with color-coded tags and box securements. Specimens requiring assistance for handling have hook and loop fastening dots added to sides of the boxes. Specimens that only may be handled indirectly have their lids attached to bases with a beaded security tie.

Materials, Tools & Supplies

  • 60 point barrier board bottom (we ordered pre-fabricated, with metal edges for added durability)
  • 60 point Vivak or similar transparent co-polyester lid and/or base (we ordered pre-fabricated, with metal edges for added durability)
  • Hook and loop fastening dots
  • Beaded security ties
  • Hand drill
  • Tyvek or similar tear-proof tags (green, yellow, red)
  • Closed cell foam (such as Volara)
  • Floss
  • Twill tape
  • Polytetrafluoroethylene tape (such as Teflon tape)
  • Hot melt glue


  1. Determine the standard sizes of boxes needed to maximize your space. We chose to divide our drawer approximately into half, and continue to divide by half to get smaller sized boxes from there. Our largest box is roughly half the size of our drawer, and the size below that is half the size of our largest box, and so on (Figure 4).

    Figure 4. Cardboard templates illustrating how the standard sizing will fill up the drawer.

  2. Specimen tags are color-coded to indicate to visitors the level of handling allowed. Colors are green (for light supervision), yellow (for assisted handling), and red (for indirect handling).
  3. Specimens that may be handled with limited supervision (green), require no additional housing beyond standard (Figure 5).

    Figure 5. Example of a specimen box that may be handled under light supervision.

  4. Specimens that may be handled only with volunteer or staff assistance (yellow) require the addition of hook and loop fastening dots to two or three sides of the box, which securely holds the lid to the base (Figure 6). The use of these fasteners helps secure the box lid against moderate pulling, and works in conjunction with the yellow tag to indicate to the visitor that assistance is needed before handling the collection item.

    Figure 6. Hook and loop fastening dots on the lid and base of a specimen box.

  5. Specimens that may only be handled indirectly (red) require the addition of a beaded security tie through holes drilled in the lid and base of the box (Figures 7 and 8). When possible, boxes made of Vivak base with Vivak lid are used, to maximize the accessible viewing planes of the specimen (Figure 9).

    Figure 7. Beaded security tie looped through the lid and base of a specimen box.

    Figure 8. Close up of a beaded security tie looped through the lid and base of a specimen box.

    Figure 9. A specimen box made of clear Vivak lid and base, which is tied shut with a beaded security tie.


  • Line boxes with close cell foam, to provide a barrier and cushion between the base and specimen. This foam also gives you something to tie your specimen to, if necessary.
  • We recommend tying down objects that will not be handled directly, are fragile, or roll/move too freely within their boxes.
  • When tying an object down, consider the amount of handling it may receive. If handling is restricted (visitor may not remove from box), it is best to put the knot underneath your object (under the closed cell foam). This removes temptation and prevents the strings from obscuring the visitors’ view of the object. If visitors may handle the specimen, make sure to leave enough extra slack/string so that when they re-tie the specimen they do not have to apply undue pressure (Figure 10).

    Figure 10. Turtle bones tied with twill tape. The twill tape has enough slack to be re-tied multiple times without applying undue pressure on the specimens.

  • Floss is especially good for very lightweight or small objects that would otherwise by obstructed by the twill (Figure 11). It is the preferred choice for objects that will remain tied down, as it obstructs the view of visitors the least.

    Figure 11. A palm-sized sand dollar, secured to the foam with floss. Floss obscures less of the object.

  • For floss tie downs, it may be helpful to add a dot of glue to the knot. This will prevent the slippery strands from coming untied.
  • For larger boxes, hook and loop fastening dots may be needed for three or all four sides to keep the lids securely attached to their bases.
  • When drilling holes for your beaded security tie, drill through the box lid and base at the same time. This will ensure your holes match up.
  • When you feed the beaded security tie through the holes you have drilled in your box, it may be helpful to bend the tip of the zip tie into an L-shape, in order to feed it through both holes.
  • The final box sizes ordered were (all boxes are 3” high):
    •  2.75” X 2.75”
    •  2.75” X 6”
    •  5.75” X 6”
    •  11.5” X 6”
    •  11.5” X 12.5”
    •  11.5” X 24”
    • It should be noted – if ordering/making your own boxes, make sure these are the dimensions of your LIDS and not the BASES. Lids will add enough additional space that you may end up with boxes that do not maximize space as well as you had hoped.
  • If you are ordering custom boxes, a prototype first run is a great idea – we realized that the standard lid that reaches the bottom of the box would not work for our needs (Figure 12). Due to the thickness of the board, the lids were almost impossible to remove, as we were unable to grip the bottom of the box.

    Figure 12. Three prototype boxes. The two boxes on the outsides show the original run, with lids reaching to the bottom of the base. The middle box shows the second run, with the lid slightly shorter to allow gripping space.


Specimen boxes
Natural history collections
Public accessibility
Public safety
Object safety

Special Purposes

Health & Safety
Special Considerations

Collection Type

Natural Science

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