May 5, 2011
April showers bring May flowers. Or maybe, just mosquitoes. But the horticulture folks who bring you the Smithsonian gardens want you front and center tomorrow and Saturday (May 6 and 7). Bring your wellies and gloves to this year’s Garden Fest for tips and techniques to make your flowers and veggies grow like they were planted by an expert.
Established in 1972, the Smithsonian Gardens’ crew and staff like to think themselves as the “outdoor museum” of the Institution. The gorgeous landscaping and gardens are the equivalent of horticultural exhibitions, designed to compliment the museums that they border. For example, Natural History museum’s nearby butterfly garden tells the story of host plants and habitats like wetlands and meadows and woodland edges where the insects thrive. Garden Fest, started in 2006, is a two-day, free event that allows visitors to talk with Smithsonian horticulturists about the work they do and the places and spaces that they create.
“The Smithsonian Gardens themselves are an asset, not only to the visitors of the Smithsonian, but also to the residents of DC as a place of respite from the urban environment,” says Smithsonian horticulturist Shelley Gaskins. “Garden Fest seeks to educate the public about gardens, gardening and all things related.”
Visitors will learn about the benefits of adding certain insects into their gardens at Beneficial Insects in the Garden and how to increase biodiversity by growing heirloom vegetable plants at What is Old is New Again: Heirloom Tomato Pot-a-Plant.
Smithsonian Gardens chose “Celebrating the American Garden Experience” as the theme of this year’s Garden Fest. Many of the activities at the festival have been developed from American gardening traditions and highlight uniquely American flowers and plants.
Some of the activities include creating sunflower seed packets, coloring garden gnome plant stakes, and learning about the roles that trees have played in American history.
This year’s Garden Fest also starts on National Public Gardens Day. “Garden Fest celebrates National Public Garden Day by inviting local public gardens to join in our celebration,” said Gaskins. The information and activities available at Garden Fest help support the goals of National Public Gardens Day such as conservation, education and environmental stewardship.
Garden Fest will take place on Friday, May 6 from 11 AM to 1 PM and Saturday, May 7 from 11 AM to 3 PM in the Enip A. Haupt Garden, which is located between the Smithsonian Castle and Independence Ave. In the event of rain, all activities will move to the S. Dillon Ripley Center.
May 4, 2011
As a service to you, we’re putting this post up today so that you’ll remember to call your mother on Sunday, or to get a card in the mail, ASAP. A simple collections search of artifacts at the Smithsonian can turn up moms on the order of magnitudes, or rather, moms as subjects or as artists themselves. Mother will want to know what you’ve been up to, so here is a list of moms that you can say you’ve discovered at the museums.
- The current First Lady, Michelle Obama, is one of the most influential moms in the country today. She’s taken the old adage, “eat your vegetables” to new heights. As a mother of two young daughters, the First Lady made a commitment for her children that during her husband’s presidential campaign, she would only travel two days and one night a week. Obama’s portrait by Mikaline Thomas (check out Thomas’ interesting interview at Mom Culture) is in the National Portrait Gallery’s “Americans Now” exhibit. Obama’s inaugural ball gown is on view at the American History Museum.
- Artist Mary Cassatt is well-known for painting scenes from the lives of women and portraying the intimate bond between mother and child. Her painting The Caress is on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Though Cassatt did not have any of her own children, her paintings depict the emotional and tender love that mothers feel for their sons and daughters.
- Poet Julia Ward Howe is most famous for writing “Battle Hymn of the Republic” after she and her husband visited Abraham Lincoln at the White House. But, she is also an influential figure in the creation of Mother’s Day as an official U.S. holiday. In 1870, Howe was the first person to announce the need for a holiday to celebrate motherhood in her Mother’s Day Proclamation. Howe’s portrait is in the National Portrait Gallery in the “American Origins” exhibit.
- “Close to Home: Photographers and Their Families” is a new exhibit that recently opened at American Art. Dedicated not just to families, it also celebrates mothers and motherhood and even, grandmothers. Be sure to check out photographer Virginia Beahan’s moving family portrait entitled, Christina and Gram on Thanksgiving, New Hampshire.
- Cheetah moms! Zazi, a female cheetah at the National Zoo, is arguably one of the best moms at the Smithsonian. In 2005, after giving birth to a stillborn cub, Zazi took care of the little guy as if it were still alive. She cleaned and moved it along with the five others, which is “being a good mother beyond what is reasonable,” according to biologist and curator Craig Saffoe.
May 3, 2011
Coming of age in America means studying the Civil War, all through our school years we revisit the battles, the leaders, the soldiers, reexamining the strife that tore this nation apart for four long years beginning in 1861. We hear the stories of soldiers in battle and former slaves fighting for freedom, but seldom do we learn of the stories of women, particularly those who served, in the Civil War.
In commemoration of the Civil War’s 150 anniversary, the National Museum of American History recently opened a special display exhibition entitled, “‘So Much Need of Service’—The Diary of a Civil War Nurse.” The diary belonged to Amanda Akin (1827-1911), a nurse who worked at the Armory Square Hospital, here on the National Mall. Her diary and related materials are on loan from the National Library of Medicine.
Eager to document her experiences in the hospital, Akin wrote dozens of letters to her family and kept diaries describing her experiences throughout the 15 months she worked at Armory Square Hospital, which was built where the National Air and Space museum stands today. After moving from her home in Quaker Hill, New York, in 1863, the unmarried, 35-year-old Akin was one of millions of men and women to leave their homes and communities to contribute to the war effort.
“Many woman served as nurses during the war even though nursing was not yet a profession. Akin has no particular experience or training—just a desire to participate—to give service,” said Diane Wendt, Associate Curator in the Division of Medicine and Science at the American History museum. “The war involved millions of ordinary citizens and many left their homes and families for the first time. For women to participate in the military world and the medical world (both basically closed to women) was a tremendous change. The experience of women serving in hospitals during the (Civil War) helped pave the way for the emergence of professional nursing and nursing schools after the war.”
Nurses like Amanda Akin were responsible for administering medicines and distributing special diets to wounded and ill soldiers, as well as non-medical tasks such as entertaining and comforting patients.
As battles were fought nearby, large groups of injured soldiers were brought to Armory Square, where Akin’s eye-witness reports register the brutality of the war. On June 14, 1863, she describes the sight in a letter to her sisters.
“It seemed to me this evening, as I sat at my table adding to the list of medicines—writing down name, regiment, list of clothing, etc., of the new arrivals, calmly looking at the poor maimed sufferers carried by, some without limbs, on a ‘stretcher’—that I had forgotten how to feel, . . . it seemed as if I were entirely separated from the world I had left behind.”
“Most of us are lucky to have so little experience of war,” says Wendt, “reading Akin’s words makes me wonder how we would respond if faced with the immediacy and immensity of civil war.”
In one of her letters to her sisters, Akin describes how visiting the Smithsonian grounds next door to the hospital helped her and her coworkers escape from the turmoil of the patient ward and the suffering.
“The fact that she herself visited the Smithsonian heightens the feeling of immediacy as we read her words in a setting nearby,” said National Library of Medicine Director Donald A.B. Lindberg in a report.
In addition to visiting the Smithsonian’s grounds, Akin describes her experiences meeting important figures at the time including photographer Matthew Brady, the famed poet Walt Whitman and even President Abraham Lincoln. Akin describes one visit with the president made to the hospital.
“His homely face with such sad eyes and ungainly figure did not fill my youthful idea of a ‘President of the United States’; but it was a grand thing for him to come and cheer our soldier boys with his presence. No doubt the fearful responsibility of his office weighs heavily upon him.”
Little is known about her life after the war except that in 1879, she married Dr. Charles W. Stearns and in 1909 at the age of 81, she published her book about her Civil War nursing experiences, The Lady Nurse of Ward E.
“So Much Need of Service” –The Diary of a Civil War Nurse is on view until July 29th, 2011 in the Albert H. Small Documents Gallery on the second floor of the National Museum of American History.
April 28, 2011
April is National Poetry Month, so to honor the words and songs of famous poets, the Wednesday List is all about poetry. Scattered across the Smithsonian museums, here are a few of the most influential and famous poets you already know, as well as a few newcomers whose work you may want to get familiar with. (Posted in chronological order by their birth, not by relative awesomeness)
1. Ralph Waldo Emerson (May 25, 1803 – April 27, 1882)
Most famous for leading the Transcendentalist movement of the mid-19th century, Emerson’s more notable works include Nature, Self-Reliance and The Poet. Emerson, who spent his career lecturing and writing, published 10 collections of poems and essays and corresponded with other famed poets such as Henry David Thoreau and Nathaniel Hawthorne. The Daniel Chester French sculpture of Emerson is located in the American Origins exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery.
2. Edgar Allan Poe (January 19, 1809-October 7, 1849)
Best known for his poem “The Raven,” Poe’s poems were often about death and mourning— dark subjects and imagery— compared with the optimism of the early culture in America at that time. Although “The Raven” became a popular sensation after it was published in The Evening Mirror in 1845, Poe died a poor man. But diehard Poe fans don’t have to wait another year to visit his grave on the anniversary of his death. Instead, see a portrait of the man in the American Origins exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery.
3. Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819-March 26, 1892)
Often called the “father of freeverse,” Whitman is most famous for his book Leaves of Grass. Though many viewed his work as obscene and profane at the time, Whitman is regarded by many as “America’s poet” for his ability to write in a uniquely American character. His portrait by John White Alexander is located in the American Origins exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery.
4. Celia Thaxter (June 29, 1835 – August 25, 1894)
Born in Portsmouth, New Hampsire in 1835, Thaxter became the hostess of her father’s hotel, the Appledore House, where she entertained and welcomed famed poets such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Sarah Orne Jewett. Her first poem called “Landlocked” was published during a 10-year period where she lived away from her beloved islands and on the New Hampshire mainland. Her poems appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and she later became one of the country’s favorite authors. In the Smithsonian American Art Museum, a painting by Childe Hassam depicting Thaxter in her garden is found on the East wing of the second floor.
5. Paul Laurence Dunbar (June 27, 1872 – February 9, 1906)
Dunbar was a poet who gained national recognition in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with his poem “Ode to Ethiopia.” His parents escaped slavery in Kentucky and fled to Dayton, Ohio where Dunbar grew up the only African-American student at his high school. After publishing two books of his standard English and dialect poems, he combined them to form Lyrics of a Lowly Life and rose to international literary fame. The portrait of Dunbar by William McKnight Farrow is also located in the American Origins exhibit in the National Portrait Gallery.
6. E.E. Cummings (October 14, 1894-September 3, 1961)
E.E. Cummings became famous for his poetry during the first half of the 20th century after working as an essayist and portrait artist for Vanity Fair magazine. Though Cummings’ body of work includes about 2,900 poems and various forms of writing such as plays and novels, his drawings and paintings are seldom explored. Located in the Hirshhorn’s online collection, you can view many of these overlooked works.
7. Malangatana Ngwenya (1936-2011)
Malangatana Ngwenya is an artist best known for his brightly-colored murals and canvases. In his work, the Mozambiquen painter depicts powerful subjects like the trauma of armed conflict and revolution, as well as the small pleasures of daily life and the triumph of the human spirit. One such painting, Nude with flowers, 1962, on display at African Art, also reveals Ngwenya’s “hidden” talent as a poet. On the back of the painting, he has handwritten “Poema de Amor,” a love poem which is a little too racy to print in these parts.
8. Joane Cardinal-Schubert (1942-2009)
You may have to dig deep to find the poetry of multimedia Blackfoot (Blood) artist Joane Cardinal-Schubert, her poems encompassing but a part of her artistic repertoire, which included writing, curating, directing videos, painting and drawing. You can see some of Shubert’s work, which focuses largely on Native history, social injustice and environmental concerns at the American Indian Museum exhibition “Vantage Point.”
9. Nora Naranjo-Morse (b.1953)
While you’re at the American Indian Museum, make sure to check out the clay pottery of Santa Clara Pueblo artist Nora Naranjo-Morse, on display in the landscape area along the Maryland Avenue side of the museum. Born into a family of mostly women potters and visual artists, Morse focuses her work on the connection between pueblo people, their land and the clay they use to build on that land. Morse is also a sculptor, writer, film producer and poet, whose collection Mud Woman: Poems from the Clay combines poetry with photographs of her clay figures.
BONUS! 10. Phillis Wheatley
Born in Gambia, Senegal, Wheatley was enslaved as a child and grew up in Boston, where she learned to read and began writing poetry. In 1773, Wheatley published Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, becoming the first published black woman poet. The book also made Wheatley famous and her success led to her eventual emancipation. A bronze life-size bust of Phillis Wheatley, by celebrated artist Elizabeth Catlett, is part of the collection of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, though not currently on display. Created in 1973, the bust marked the 200th anniversary of the publication of Wheatley’s book and Catlett’s interest in the feminist movement of the 1970s.
–With additional reporting by Arcynta Ali Childs
April 26, 2011
When a British shipping magnate Frederick R. Leyland asked the expatriate American artist James McNeill Whistler to redecorate his dining room in 1876 and 1877, a dispute arose between the artist and his patron. Whistler had promised “minor alterations” but lavishly painted the room with plumed peacocks and feather patterns on the ceiling and shutters. Leyland refused to the pay the artist his fee. Charles Lang Freer, founder of the Freer Gallery, later bought the room and shipped it to his mansion in Detroit, before donating it to the Smithsonian.
The Freer Gallery has now restored the famous Peacock Room to its 1908 glory. “The Peacock Room Comes to America,” the first special exhibition in the room since 1993, opened April 9. The Freer’s Curator of American Art Lee Glazer discusses the lavish room and the artist who created it.
Whistler was inspired by images of peacocks in Japanese art, and they also appealed to him as emblems of pure beauty.
Can you see evidence in the room of Whistler’s anger?
The mural over the sideboard, pointedly titled “Art and Money, or, the story of the room,” depicts Whistler’s quarrel with Leyland over the price of the room. Whistler is the poor peacock on the left, the silver crest feather a reference to the artist’s famous white forelock; the bird on the right, with coins around his feet and embellishing his breast, represents Leyland. If you know the references, it’s pretty nasty. But the evidence is all in the anecdote. The image itself fits harmoniously enough into the overall blue and gold decoration of rest of the room.
What did Freer see in this room? It must have cost him dearly to have it shipped from London?
Freer was actually ambivalent about the Peacock Room. He favored artistic subtlety, and the Peacock Room seemed embarrassingly gorgeous. But he bought it, as he said, “out of a sense of duty” to his friend Whistler. Once he reassembled the room in Detroit and filled it with his own collections of Asian pottery, however, he made his peace with it.
Why did you decide to take out the blue and white porcelain and reinstall it with Freer’s rough-textured, iridescent stoneware and pottery?
The Peacock Room has had this incredibly dynamic, cosmopolitan history, but visitors to the museum have experienced it as a static icon. By changing the pots, we’ve made it possible for people to tap into a lesser-known chapter in the room’s history and given it a very different look and feel that will encourage a new appreciation of the room’s infinite variety—of surface, color, pattern and light.