June 27, 2011
On this day, 182 years ago, James Smithson passed away in Genoa, Italy after a long illness at the age of 64. His will, which contained a puzzling provision, set in motion a series of circuitous events that would eventually lead to the creation of the Smithsonian Institution.
Smithson’s considerable wealth was left to his nephew Henry James Hungerford. But the will indicated that if Hungerford should die leaving no heirs—legitimate or illegitimate— the money was to go to the people of the United States of America to create something he called the Smithsonian Institution for the “increase and diffusion of knowledge” among men. The will was so extraordinary that it was published by the Times of London. While Smithson’s reasons and exact intentions are still unknown, the journey “from Smithson to Smithsonian” is intriguing.
“Nobody thought it would ever some to pass because his nephew was young and healthy and by all accounts quite good at spending money,” says Pamela Henson, director of the Smithsonian’s Institutional History Division. “It was very unlikely that this money would ever come to the United States.”
Born in France in 1765, James Lewis Macie was the illegitimate son of Hugh Smithson, who would later become the first Duke of Northumberland, and Elizabeth Keate Hungerford Macie. Upon the death of his mother, a widow of royal blood, Smithson inherited a considerable amount of money and adopted his father’s surname. A wealthy man, Smithson studied at Oxford and devoted his life to science, increasing his wealth through wise investments.
But in 1835, Smithson’s nephew died while living in Pisa, Italy without heirs. The executor of the estate contacted the American Chargé d’Affaires in London to set in motion the transfer of funds and eventually President Andrew Jackson was notified of the bequest. Unsure of whether or not he had the authority to accept the gift, President Jackson sent the issue over to Congress where a spirited debate ensued.
“This is pre-Civil War, 1830s, and states rights versus federalism is a hugely hot issue,” Henson says. “Southerners vehemently oppose this because they believe it’s a violation of states’ rights to create such a nation entity but John Quincy Adams, [the former president, now back in the House of Representatives] really takes this on as his case and pushes it through and he eventually triumphs.” Congress authorized the U.S. to accept the bequest on July 1, 1836.
If agreeing to accept the money was complicated, deciding what to do with it was almost impossible. Smithson, who had never set foot in the United States while living, apparently never discussed the provision in his will or his plans for the Institution with anyone. So, for ten years, Congress debated what “increase and diffusion of knowledge” meant and what such an establishment would look like. Several ideas were suggested, including: a scientific institute, a teacher’s training institute, a school of natural history, a university for the classics, a national observatory, a national library and a national museum. Eventually, a political compromise was reached, which provided for many of the different ideas suggested, and the Smithsonian Institution was founded, signed into law by President James K. Polk on August 10, 1846, and funded.
Not much is known about the life of James Smithson, whose papers, diaries and correspondence were lost in a massive 1865 fire in the Castle building. But a recent biography by Heather Ewing, who traveled throughout Europe looking in various archives for Smithson’s correspondence with others, does shed some additional light onto his life and scientific thinking. The mystery of why he decided to gift the equivalent of $508,318.46 to the United States and what his true intentions were may never be solved. “But it’s sort of fascinating what, by chance, that sentence at the end of his will turned out to be,” Henson says.
James Smithson’s remains, brought to the U.S. by Smithsonian Regent Alexander Graham Bell 75 years after his death, are interred in a tomb in the Castle Building. Learn more about his life and the founding of the Institution online.
June 23, 2011
In the early 1960s, actress and singer Nichelle Nichols was selected to play the part of Lt. Uhura, the chief communications officer aboard the Starship Enterprise, in the new science fiction television program “Star Trek.” Directed by Gene Roddenberry, the show, featuring an interracial cast, would “change the face of television” and the trajectory of Nichols’ career. Roddenberry “wanted, demanded and got a totally interracial cast of equals—men and women,” Nichols said last week by telephone from her home in California. “It was a breakthrough for television, because it just did not exist.”
However, after a successful first season, Nichols tendered her resignation in order to pursue other opportunities. “I grew up in musical theater and my dream was not to be a TV or movie star” she said. “My dream was to be in the ultimate musical theater of Broadway.” A chance meeting that weekend with “her biggest fan” changed Nichols’ mind.
Invited as a celebrity guest on the dais for an NAACP fundraiser in Beverly Hills, Nichols was approached by one of the event’s promoters.
“He said, Ms. Nichols, there’s someone who wants to meet you and he says he’s your biggest fan, so I’m thinking of a young kid. I turn around and standing across the room, walking towards me was Dr. Martin Luther King with this big smile on his face.”
“By the time he reached me, he was laughing and he said, ‘Yes, Ms. Nichols, I am your greatest fan.’”
Upon hearing that Nichols planned to leave the show, Dr. King offered her some advice. “He said, ‘You cannot leave,’ Nichols recalls. “‘Don’t you see what this man [Roddenberry] has brought? He has changed the face of television forever, unless you leave.’”
According to Nichols, King spoke of television being a powerful tool for change. “‘TV is the most powerful education and this man has changed everyone’s attitudes towards women and people of color, you cannot leave,’” she recalls Dr. King telling her. “‘this is a God-given opportunity to change the face of television, change the way we think. We are no longer second class, third class citizens. He had to do it in the 23rd century, but it’s the 20th century that’s watching.’” The following Monday, Nichols rescinded her resignation and agreed to stay with the show. It was a decision, she said, she does not regret.
In town last month for the opening of the exhibition, “NASA/ART: 50 Years of Exploration,” at the Air and Space Museum and a number of NASA-sponsored events, Nichols shared how her turn as a fictional character aboard a futuristic spaceship helped create real-time opportunities for women and minorities in space.
You attended the opening of the museum’s exhibition as a special guest of the curator Bert Ulrich. What were your impressions of the exhibit?
Some of the most wonderful art that I have ever seen. [Done] with such expression and such an intuitive feeling of the majesty of space. Some [were] done [as] very serious, beautiful art and some with a playfulness about it. One that was charming had a little Starship Enterprise on it. It touched your soul, it made you laugh and it made you proud.
How did you become affiliated with NASA and in what capacity?
Ten years after “Star Trek” was cancelled, almost to the day, I was invited to join the board of directors of the newly formed National Space Society. They flew me to Washington and I gave a speech called “New Opportunities for the Humanization of Space” or “Space, What’s in it for me?” In [the speech], I’m going where no man or woman dares go. I took NASA on for not including women and I gave some history of the powerful women who had applied and, after five times applying, felt disenfranchised and backed off. [At that time] NASA was having their fifth or sixth recruitment and women and ethnic people [were] staying away in droves.
I was asked to come to headquarters the next day and they wanted me to assist them in persuading women and people of ethnic backgrounds that NASA was serious [about recruiting them]. And I said you’ve got to be joking; I didn’t take them seriously. . . . John Yardley, who I knew from working on a previous project, was in the room and said ’Nichelle, we are serious.’
I said OK. I will do this and I will bring you the most qualified people on the planet, as qualified as anyone you’ve ever had and I will bring them in droves. And if you do not pick a person of color, if you do not pick a woman, if it’s the same old, same old, all-white male astronaut corps, that you’ve done for the last five years, and I’m just another dupe, I will be your worst nightmare.
And what happened?
They picked five women, they picked three African-American men, they picked an Asian and the space program has represented all of us ever since. That is my contribution and that is one of the things I am most proud of.
Are you still involved with NASA?
Yes. I’ve never not been at their request, anytime they call. I’m very, very much involved now because one of my recruits is the administrator of NASA, General Charlie Bolden. I will be his guest, one of the special guests, at the final launch of the last space shuttle next month.
What legacy do you hope to leave? Or hope you’ve left?
I decided, and I’m giving it much thought, I’m not racing into it. But I’ve decided to form the Nichelle Nichols Youth Foundation for Space Sciences—technology, engineering, math and attending performing arts. I want to further careers and interest in young people and bring back the majesty that the United States once held in education. So, for me, that is what I want to give. That is what I want to be known for. That is what I hope is my legacy.
June 3, 2011
It’s summertime and bears are up and active. But how much do you really know about bears? Do you know what to do if you have a bear in your backyard? Or how to camp safely without attracting them? What kind of bears live in your area? Well, our friends at the National Zoo would like to help educate you. This weekend, the Zoo is hosting “Bear Awareness Days,” from 10 AM to 2 PM. “The purpose is to raise awareness about bears in general,” says animal keeper Mindy Babitz, “and to learn about conservation issues that affect all of the bear species.” Babitz, who has worked at the Zoo for almost 13 years and currently works with sloth bears, gave us a preview of what visitors can expect to learn.
1. Bear Facts—”Some people think that all bears are these fierce killing machines,” Babitz says, “that’s a big misconception.” In fact, only the polar bear is a true carnivore, most other bears are omnivores. Another misconception is that bears are always looking to attack. The truth is most bears are pretty shy and want to avoid you as much as you want to avoid them. “If you do come across a bear in the woods, chances are they’re just going to take off because they don’t want to be around you,” Babitz says. Bears do sometimes attack and can certainly hurt you, but the number of bear attacks—often sensationalized—make up a small proportion of the encounters bears have with people every year.
2. Do Not Feed the Bears— Bears are wild animals and you should not feed them, even if you see them in your own backyard. There is a saying, “a fed bear is a dead bear,” for good reason. Bears in the wild need to look for natural food. But if a bear is in an area with a high human population, they’re going to go for the easy food sources—bowls of pet food, bird feeders, trash—over the natural food sources. And once they start eating these foods, they will keep coming back. “If a bear gets used to having that food source and then you take it away, they’re going to be angry and looking for food because they expect it at that point,” Babitz says. “Then you end up with a nuisance bear and normally a nuisance bear is going to end up being shot.” To stop that from happening, Babitz encourages people who live in bear country to get rid of the food sources that are going to attract a bear and put their trash cans out right before pickup.
3. Camping Safety—How would you set up a campsite to be bear safe? Check out the hands-on activities that will help visitors think through their decisions.
4. Conservation— Asian bears face habitat loss because of exploding human populations in China and India. They are also in danger of being poached and farmed for their body parts, which are used in some traditional Asian medicine. “It’s an absolutely horrific practice,” Babitz says. And sloth bears are still being subjected to the dancing bear trade in some countries. Learn how the dancing bears are made to dance and get information on what you can do to help.
5. Bear Care—At the Zoo, animal keepers are responsible for the mental and physical well-being of the bears in their care. While they never actually go into the enclosure with the bears for safety reasons, they are able to interact with them. Find out how they keep the bears active, mentally stimulated and engaged in enrichment activities to make sure the bears develop species-specific behaviors, like foraging for food.
Bears are very intelligent animals. “Those of use who work with the bears often see them as a cross between a dog and a great ape,” Babitz says. “They have a lot of the behaviors and characteristics of a dog, but the intelligence is almost like an ape.” Visitors can get up close and personal with the bears through the viewing glass and, surprisingly enough, the bears like to people watch just as much as people like to watch them.
“Bear Awareness Days” will be held Saturday, June 4 and Sunday, June 5, 10AM-2PM at the National Zoo’s Asia Trail.
June 1, 2011
This week, we have a lot of really smart kids in town here to compete in the 2011 Scripps National Spelling Bee. The preliminaries began this morning at 8 AM EST and while we’re sure we couldn’t beat the 275 spellers in competition this year, the ATM blog team has come up with a list of words from around the Smithsonian, likely to stump even the savviest speller.
1. The P-Horse. It’s so hard to spell and pronounce that even the Zoo resorts to this nickname for the Przewalski’s Horse. Pronounced sheh-val-skee, the horse is named after 19th-century Polish naturalist Colonel Nikolai Przewalski, who found a skull of the horse and studied it in St. Petersburg. The brown-coated equine is native to eastern Europe and the Great Steppe crossing into Asia.
2. Artists—While math is the subject most commonly cited as a favorite among the spelling bee competitors this year, it doesn’t really require a lot of complicated spelling. Art or artists, rather, frequently do. The ATM staff has to be extra careful when writing about Georgia O’Keeffe (two e’s, two f’s), James McNeill Whistler (two l’s, no a) or Charles Willson (two l’s) Peale. The worst one is Eadweard Muybridge, who has way too many vowels in his first name. Check out their work at the American Art Museum and see if their art is any easier to understand than their names are to spell.
3. Volcanoes—Last year, a volcano erupted in Iceland, shutting down air traffic across Europe for days and affecting millions of passengers. Its name, the impossible to decipher Eyjafjallajökull. Considering that the bee contestants hail from around the United States, its territories and Department of Defense schools around the world, some might perchance live near one of the tough volcano names studied by the scientists at the Global Volcanism Program.
4. History—To help prepare for a spelling bee, many competitors study the origins of words. Learning about the origins of man, dinosaurs, civilizations and ancient life forms might be just as daunting. Walk around the halls of the Natural History Museum and learn more about ornithology, ichthyology, Ardipithecus ramidus, Australopithecus afarensis and Paranthropus boisei, including how to spell them. Over at American History, there’s Evel Knievel’s motorcycle and the Stephen Colbert portrait. Why is it pronounced like he’s French? Is he hiding something from us?
5. Airplanes—Some of this year’s competitors traveled long distances to arrive at the bee, including 94 who are on their very first visit to the nation’s capital. But none probably rode on airplanes with names as complicated as: De Havilland, Mikoyan-Gurevich or Messerschmitt. See what other aeronautical tongue twisters you can find at the Air and Space Museum.
May 31, 2011
When you think about the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), art may not be the first, or even the second, thing that comes to mind. A new traveling exhibition, “NASA|ART: 50 Years of Space Exploration,” on display at the Air and Space Museum from May 28 to October 9, just may change that.
The NASA|ART project was established in 1962 by NASA administrator James E. Webb. Its mission was simple—commission artwork that captured the essence of what the agency and the space program were all about, in ways that photographs simply could not, says Tom Crouch, senior curator of aeronautics and art at the museum.
Mercury Astronaut Gordon Cooper’s 1963 Faith 7 spacecraft launch, depicted in Mitchell Jamieson’s First Steps, marked the first time that an artist was sent to a space event. The program, initially launched by James Dean, still continues today, under the leadership of Burt Ulrich, the program’s curator at NASA Headquarters.
Dean helped select more than 70 works of art, including drawings, photographs, sculpture and other artistic renderings “that would both represent the NASA|ART collection as it was and is and celebrate the 50 year history of the agency,” Crouch says.
The collection, arranged chronologically, takes viewers through an exploration of space—from Mercury to Apollo to Gemini, to the space shuttle, aeronautics and beyond—as told from the perspective of artists including Annie Leibovitz, Alexander Calder, Norman Rockwell and Andy Warhol, among others.
“Artists are given this sort of back door view of what NASA’s all about and what’s nice is that they can share that experience through their own imagination to the public,” Ulrich says. “It really took a lot of foresight, I think, for James Webb who started the program. I think he had this idea that through the great ages of history, art is often the residue of that [...] and it’s such a wonderful way of looking back at history.” In addition to depicting the people, places and great events that viewers already know, the artists also introduce viewers to other astronauts and aspects of space exploration they may not.
Native American artist Jaune Quick-to-See Smith uses various aspects of Native American symbolism in her painting Indian Science, which honors the first Native American astronaut John Bennett Herrington. Annie Leibovitz’s photograph entitled Eileen Collins captures the first female pilot (Discovery, 1995) and the first female commander of a space shuttle (Columbia, 1999) during training at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Artist and fashion designer Stephen Sprouse (1953-2004) used imagery from the Sojourner Rover to create a work of art that was essentially a dress and a pair of slippers. The piece called NASA Rover Mars Pink, carried an additional twist. With a pair of 3-D glasses, the dress took on a whole new dimension. The designer debuted it in a line of clothing he showed at NYC fashion week in 2000.
Towards the end of the exhibition, artists commemorate the astronauts from the Columbia and Challenger missions in “Remembering Lost Crews.” Artist Chakaia Booker uses pieces of a space shuttle tire donated to her by NASA to create a sculpture, Columbia Tribute, which resembles a black star, hanging on the wall above the gallery.
The final piece, though, is an unexpected musical composition written by Terry Riley with a multimedia component designed by Willie Williams, and called “Sun Rings.” Performed by the Kronos Quartet, the piece incorporates actual sounds of space—radio waves from the far reaches of the universe converted into sound waves.
“The whole exhibit is the arrogance of man’s imagination,” says Nichelle Nichols, the actress who played Lt. Uhura on “Star Trek” and who later worked for NASA in the 1970s and 80s recruiting women and minorities to the space program. “I realize what a powerful word that is, [and] it’s not negative,” she continues. “This is what all the art is—to imagine what it is that takes us from ground zero to as far as the imagination can take you and then beyond; an incredible collection.”
“NASA|ART: 50 Years of Space Exploration is on display at the Air & Space Museum from May 28 to October 9. The museum is open daily (except December 25) from 10AM to 7:30 PM for extended summer hours. See the website for more details.