July 26, 2011
It’s been more than 120 years since a little dog named Owney trotted into an Albany, New York post office and took up residence there, sleeping among the mail bags. For nine years, Owney, by then a beloved pet to the mail clerks, served as the unofficial mascot of the U.S. Railway Mail Service, riding the rails from state to state. After his death, his body was preserved and spent decades on display at the Smithsonian Institution. When Owney was transferred in 1993 to the Smithsonian’s new National Postal Museum, the scruffy Postal pub would became one of that museum’s most popular attractions. This summer, Owney is finally being honored with his own postage stamp, one with interactive features sure to endear him to new generations.
“It’s been in the works for a long, long, long time,” says Nancy Pope, historian and curator at the National Postal Museum, who recalls that there has been talk of an Owney stamp since the 1980s. “People would ask, ‘Shouldn’t there be a stamp with Owney on it,’ so it’s been one of those things that people bring up on a regular basis.”
According to Pope, new postage stamps are chosen each year by a group called the Citizen Stamp Advisory Committee (CSAC). Made up mostly of of average American citizens, CSAC looks through tens of thousands of petitions and decides which new stamps will be issued. “I think Owney just got in CSAC’s mind and they finally decided it’s time [they] do something for this dog,” says Pope.
A dog who was, by all accounts, extremely popular around the world. While researching Owney’s adventures, Pope, along with museum intern Rachel Barclay, discovered frequent mentions of Owney and his travels in various newspapers of the era.
“[Owney] has traveled the length of every railroad in the United States and has seen the inside and enjoyed the hospitality of more post offices than the oldest inspector of the service,” reported a January 4, 1895 article in the Hopkinsville Kentuckian.
And now, Owney’s story is being re-told for a new generation. Next month the museum will be launching an Owney augmented reality experience on its website and via a free iPhone app that will be triggered by the Owney stamp image. “When you hold that image up to your iPhone or the camera on your computer, Owney will just kind of pop up off the stamp,” Pope says. “He’ll start trotting and there will be music. You will hear his tags jingle and then he’ll sit down and bark.”
The three-dimensional Owney stamp is only part of the re-telling of his story. There will also be a new exhibit and an e-book, which will teach children geography using Owney’s rail travels as their guide.
“We really wanted to reinterpret how we talk about the Railway Mail Service connecting the nation, using Owney as the tool,” Pope says. “[We want ] to really engage families and teachers into teaching how important the Railway Mail Service was through the eyes of a dog that people can really relate to.”
The Owney Forever stamp will be released on July 27 and celebrated with a First Day of Issue Ceremony taking place at the Postal Museum, after which curators will debut the new Owney exhibit and the “Art of the Stamp: Owney the Postal Dog” exhibit, featuring original stamp art painted by artist Bill Bond. This ceremony, starting at 11 AM, will kick off the four-day Owney Family Fest. To learn more about Owney’s amazing journey, check out the article on the storied pup in the magazine’s upcoming September issue.
Update: This post clarifies information on the Owney the Dog iPhone app.
July 22, 2011
Today, the ATM blog team has some bad news, some good news, and some better news. The bad news is that Mei Xiang, the Zoo’s giant panda, has been experiencing a pseudo, or false, pregnancy these past few months meaning we will not be having a baby panda cub this year. More bad news is that it’s scorching hot outside. And freezing cold inside. The good news is that it’s also Friday, which gives most people a reason to smile. The better news is that there are four new red panda cubs at the National Zoo and they are adorable.
Last month, on June 17, Shama, the female red panda, gave birth to two cubs in her den at the National Zoo’s Asia Trail in Washington, D.C. This was a few weeks after Lao Mei, the female red panda at the Zoo’s Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Va. gave birth to two female cubs on June 5. After the cubs were born, Zoo staff left the mothers alone to bond with and care for their cubs, confirming the births only about a week afterwards.
It’s been a little over a month and Zoo staffers are still having minimal interaction with the cubs at this critical time, performing health checks whenever possible. They report that “all four newborns are steadily gaining weight and appear healthy.”
The red panda exhibit is currently closed to visitors to ensure to safety of the well-being of the mother and her cubs, but they expect Shama will allow the cubs to venture out in early fall. As they watch the cubs grow stronger, staff will then decide when the exhibit can be reopened to the public.
More than 100 surviving red panda cubs that have been born at the National Zoo facilities since 1962.
July 20, 2011
When you think of Latin music, the sounds that have typically defined it—mambo, merengue, salsa, cha-cha-cha—naturally, come to mind. But what about music’s influence on more traditional U.S. genres like jazz, R&B, rock ‘n’ roll and hip-hop?
A newly opened exhibit, “American Sabor: Latinos in U.S. Popular Music,” invites visitors to explore the depth and breadth of Latino music, which, historically, encompasses a sound that is at once distinctive, and all-American.
“In a huge way, what this [exhibition] is about is not just Latino music in a bubble, which, as we know, never exists in a bubble,” says Ranald Woodaman, of the Smithsonian Latino Center. ”It really is a huge story about Latin music, kind of at the heart of America.”
Divided regionally into the five cities best-known to American audiences in terms of Latino music production—New York, Miami, San Antonio, Los Angeles and San Francisco—this interactive exhibition focuses on post-World War II Latino music. While there are parts of the Latino music story that date back to the Great Depression, World War II was the era when many Latino musicians fighting in the war, like Tito Puente and Ray Barretto, were exposed to jazz, says Woodaman. From that exposure, the mambo sound was developed, “a fusion of more traditional Afro-Cuban, Afro-Caribbean rhythms with a U.S. jazz approach.”
Mambo would not be the only new sound created from melding cultures and influences, as the bilingual exhibit explains. From the rebellious Pachuco of the late 1930s, a counterculture created by Mexican-Americans who felt rejected by both societies, which would lay the foundation for Chicano music, to the intersections of Mexican music with that of German and Czech immigrants in Texas and the fusion of Caribbean cultures with urban cultures in Los Angeles and New York, Latino sound can be heard across genres.
With music playing in the background, maps, original records, fliers, promotional posters, videos, films and other ephemera from the era, including: Carlos Santana’s mariachi, Eva Ybarra’s accordion, a Celia Cruz outfit, original records from both independent and commercial music labels, as well as items from Héctor Lavoe, Ruben Bladés and Gloria Estefan, among others, tell the story. Listening booths, a mixing station and a dance floor encourage visitors to be a part of it.
“Learning is important,” says Woodaman, “but this exhibit offers an opportunity to immerse yourself in the music, in the rhythms, and use that as an entry point for learning.”
“I’d like people to come to this exhibit and basically get a sense of how varied, especially by region, Latino music traditions really are,” Woodaman says. “It’s really old, it’s been in the United States for a long time and … at the end of the day, what we call Latin music is part and parcel of the American experience.”
See “American Sabor: Latinos in U.S. Popular Music” at the S. Dillon Ripley Center’s International Gallery until October 9. Learn more about Latino music and the exhibit at the American Sabor website. Created by the Experience Music Project in Seattle, Washington with curators from the University of Washington, the 5,000 square-foot exhibition was designed to be accessible to visitors of all ages. The Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) also designed a smaller version of the exhibit, intended for libraries and community centers, which is traveling the country simultaneously.
July 11, 2011
If you think you know the history of the civil rights movement in the United States, “For All The World To See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights,” a new exhibit at the National Museum of African American History and Culture gallery in the American History Museum, encourages you to take another look.
“The vast majority, if not virtually all exhibitions on the civil rights movement dealing with visual materials almost exclusively are about the way photographs documented the movement—that’s pretty much what civil rights exhibitions have been for the past 25 years,” says curator Maurice Berger. “This exhibition asks a far different question.”
And that question, Berger says, is how visual culture—television, film, magazines, newspapers, toys, pamphlets, posters—was used, both by leaders of the movement and activists, as well as by everyday black Americans, to change prevailing ideas about race in the United States.
Divided into five sections, the exhibition takes visitors from the stereotypical images of blacks into which the civil rights movement was born, to those created to foster a sense of black pride and accomplishment. The third section, “Let The World See What I’ve Seen” : Evidence and Persuasion, examines how powerful depictions of the struggle helped change public perception, buoyed by materials related to the Emmett Till case. The exhibit continues through the exploration of how entertainment television dealt with black performers and the subject of race and concludes with a showcase of visual artifacts of daily life, from family snapshots to advertising campaigns and including campaign materials from the Black Panther Party.
“It’s one of the rare instances where an exhibition is able to make the claim that a political movement took advantage in an extraordinary way of the new technologies of seeing and representing the world,” Berger says.
Some of the highlights of this multimedia exhibition include: historic footage of Jackie Robinson’s first game in the major leagues, a look at the history of black magazines, clips from groundbreaking T.V. documentaries and shows, a touch screen story of the Emmett Till case and photographs documenting the movement taken by Gordon Parks, Roy DeCarava and Carl Van Vechten, among others.
In addition to the exhibition, there is also an illustrated companion book and a comprehensive online version of the exhibition. Berger, who began his research six years ago, calls the process a “very sustained six-year period of intensive research, archive building, exhibition organizing and writing of the book,” the culmination of which debuted in May of last year with the first stop on the six-venue national tour. Co-organized by the Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, this is the exhibit’s third stop.
“There have been claims that pictures matter, that images matter, that they can make a difference,” Berger says. “‘For All The World To See’ is living proof in so many ways that pictures—even things as ordinary as a snapshot— can truly change the way people understand issues and ideas in the United States and in the world.”
See “For All The World To See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights” at the National Museum of African American History and Culture gallery in the National Museum of American History through November 2011.
June 28, 2011
On the morning of June 28, 1911, somewhere between 8:30 and 9:00 in the morning, a fireball was observed northwest of Alexandria, Egypt. Few would realize what it was. But soon after, W.F. Hume, minister of the Geological Survey of Egypt, began taking eyewitness statements, and two months later published his report, “The First Meteorite Record in Egypt.”
One of those statements, from a farmer who claimed to have seen a fragment fall on a dog, gave rise to the popular myth that Nakhla, as the meteorite would be named, was “the dog killing meteorite,” an unsubstantiated claim, but the dramatic account is irresistible: “The fearful column which appeared in the sky at Denshal was substantial. The terrific noise it emitted was an explosion which made it erupt several fragments of volcanic materials. These curious fragments, falling to earth, buried themselves into the sand to the depth of about one metre. One of them fell on a dog. . .leaving it like ashes in a moment.”
Approximately 40 stones were recovered southeast of Alexandria, near the town of Abu Hummus. Of the stones recovered, Hume immediately sent two of them to the Smithsonian Institution, weighing 117g and 52g (or 4.3 4.13 ounces and .117 1.83 ounces). They arrived in August of 1911 and have been a part of the Natural History Museum’s collections ever since. Today, we celebrate the 100th anniversary of Nakhla’s landing.
“At the time that Nakhla fell, we didn’t know that any of these were from Mars,” says Cari M. Corrigan, a geologist in the Division of Meteorites at the Natural History Museum. “All we knew was that they were different from the rest of the meteorites that we had, in general.”
Looking at the crystalline composition of the stones, it was clear that they had come from some sort of planetary body that had seen geologic processes, like volcanoes, and that the ‘parent body’ they came from had to be big enough for that kind of igneous activity to have taken place, Corrigan says.
Asteroids were ruled out, because they weren’t big or complex enough, so scientists started looking at other planets. “They didn’t say Mars, but Mars-like, or the moon, or something that size,” says Linda Welzenbach, collection manager of the National Meteorite Collection. Mars was a theory, but there was debate about whether or not you could actually get rocks, similar to what was found, off of Mars without them completely melting.
“There was very little science done on this rock until the late 1960s, early 1970s,” says Welzenbach, and identifying it was the result of a coalescence of information. A direct link was established in 1976 when the Viking spacecraft analyzed the Martian atmosphere. In 1983, scientists at NASA’s Johnson Space Center did a study where they measured some gases trapped in another Martian meteorite and compared that to the Viking landed atmospheric data. Their relationship to Nakhla was evident and in 1983, Nakhla was officially recognized as a piece of Mars.
“Part of the reason it is significant to us is because it’s from Mars and it’s one of the first meteorites from Mars that we had,” Corrigan says. The first meteorite from Mars was Chassigny, which fell in 1815, followed by Shergotty, which fell in 1865. After Nakhla, there were no other Martian rocks until 1962 when Zagami fell in Nigeria, Welzenbach says.
“Studying these rocks has helped us understand the geologic history of Mars,” says Corrigan, “the interior and the geochemistry as whole, [and] how the planet evolved.”
Of the two original stones sent to the museum in 1911, the smaller one was eventually cut and used for scientific study, while the other has remained pretty much untouched since it fell. In 1962, E.P. Henderson, curator of the museum’s Division of Mineralogy and Petrology, as it was called at the time, wrote to the Geological Survey requesting some more material. They received 480g in 1962, a big piece—almost 17 ounces—and which is on display in the museum. Two smaller pieces arrived in 1977. The museum’s total holdings of Nakhla amounts to 650g, about 23 ounces.
Visitors can touch a piece of the 1.3 billion-year-old meteorite— young in comparison to most of the meteorites from the asteroid belt which are 4.5 billion years old—at the National Museum of Natural History.