July 6, 2009
What’s going on in this picture? Isn’t it obvious? The two 7-year-old boys lay in bed, feeling gloomy. Maybe they’re brothers, scolded for misbehaving. Sent to bed without supper.
The young lady sitting by their side—an older sister, or is it cousin….—wants to cheer them up with a story. A fairy tale of course. Every child loves fairy tales.
As the boys listen to her read, they think about tomorrow. The game of ball that they will play. The bugs they will chase. Soon the words about bears and porridge being too hot melt into silence. The brothers drift off to sleep.
Who is the storyteller when it comes to a work of art—the artist or the viewer?
A little of both, suggests Catherine Walsh, a doctoral candidate at the University of Delaware. Through a fellowship, she will be spending the next year at the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum, digging through 150-year-old works, diaries and letters looking for examples of storytelling in art, specifically between 1830 and 1870. A period, she says, when a flood of storytelling images appeared in popular works.
“A lot of artists thought of themselves as storytellers,” Walsh says. “They aimed to create a narrative in their painting.”
Walsh also believes that museum visitors create narratives when they view a painting. As a family stares at a work, you can hear them engaging with the art. “He’s laughing at her,” a mother will tell her son or “She just told him a secret,” a teenager tells his date.
“Scholars don’t generally take this seriously,” Walsh says. She believes we need to give the general public a little more credit and find value in the narratives a museum visitor constructs on the part of the artist.
Because the conversations Walsh wants to study are in the 19th-century, she will need to rely on written records to form her arguments. She will be focusing on the way viewers see and discuss images, specifically scholars with an interest in visual culture.
Walsh believes that narrative haven’t been properly applied when thinking about American subjects. She wants to explore the elements that artists include in their work that let viewers construct stories about what they see. “I want to take this world of academics, that is so distant from the everyday person, and try to make it more relevant,” she says.
July 1, 2009
Bryna Freyer’s biggest problem with Disney’s 1994 film, The Lion King, was the lack of people. Sure, the animals could talk, but to Freyer, the film seemed to perpetuate the stereotype that Africa is a giant animal-filled savanah.
“Artful Animals,” a family-friendly exhibition opening today at the National Museum of African Art, examines how African artists create cultural objects inspired by domestic and untamed animals.
Freyer, who curated the exhibit, selected 130 works from the museum’s collections that would appeal to younger audiences—including a toy turtle made from a gourd, a mask in the shape of a hippo, and teddy bears made of mohair. To see ten of the artifacts on display in the show, check out this photo gallery.
Freyer wants visitors to realize that both Africans and Americans assign human-like characteristics to animals. Each culture’s values are exhibited in the way it represents animals. “How did we come up with dirty dogs, greedy pigs and sly foxes?” she says. In Africa, emblems for royal tribes rarely contain lions, a Western symbol of nobility and leadership. In the course of assembling the exhibit, Freyer even pondered the representations of animal mascots for sports teams, political parties as well as cartoon brands like Sonic the Hedgehog and Arthur the Aardvark. “He doesn’t even look like an aardvark! And hedgehogs don’t really move very fast…,” she notes.
And the portrayal of the snake as vicious or threatening is a Western ideal, Freyer says. Africans emphasize the snake’s patience as it waits on a path for a bird or small rodent to come along. Not to mention that a snake, like the gaboon viper of South-Saharan Africa, shows good judgment, in that it won’t bother people unless provoked. “They think these are qualities that a person, especially a ruler, should posses,” Freyer says.
Through a Smithsonian-wide partnership with the National Zoo, the National Postal Museum, the Natural History Museum and the Discovery Theater, “Artful Animals” will present African animals not only as works of art, but also the show will explore animals and their motifs through the lens of anthropology, history, science and the performing arts.
The National Zoo, for example, has produced an array of signs that identify zoo animals represented in the African Art museum’s show, like the gaboon viper. In addition, The National Postal Museum will highlight stamps from its international collection designed with African animals. The National Museum of Natural History, home to the largest African elephant on display, has developed activity carts on communication and elephants. Discovery Theater adds performances, dance and storytelling to the mix.
The celebration of “Artful Animals” will continue through February 21, 2010.
June 29, 2009
Postal workers, like emergency room nurses, have one of those jobs where they see everything.
Americans are adamant about their right to send weird things through the mail: Wrapped bricks, coconuts, bags of sand and dead fish cross state lines every day.
But even employees at the Mohnton post office in Pennsylvania were surprised in May 2008 when they heard scratching coming from a box marked “toys, gifts, and jellies.”
Upon opening the package, the postal workers found 26 live, giant beetles, each big enough to sit in the palm of your hand. The species, native to Asia, included Hercules, elephant and giant stag beetles.
The recipient, 36-year-old Marc T. Diullo, pleaded guilty to purchasing and importing the beetles without a permit. According to news reports, he told the judge that he has collected insects since sixth grade. ”I’m just a very inquisitive type of person—very curious,” he is reported to have said.
Diullo’s curiosity will now be shared with the entire nation. Last week, the rare and exotic beetles, long dead, were donated to the Smithsonian for its educational programming. According to David Furth, a Smithsonian entomologist at the National Museum of Natural History, the specimens will demonstrate animal diversity to the public.
Furth also emphasizes that importing foreign beetles, even as a hobby, carries environmental risks. “Illegal import of live organisms poses potential threats to agriculture through opportunities for them, their parasites or diseases to invade crops and to spread to other potential hosts in the United States,” he says.
The beetles will be kept in the Natural History Museum’s entomology collection.
June 26, 2009
The Smithsonian is having a blockbuster summer, thanks to two sequels.
In May, “Night at the Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian,” premiered. The first feature film to use the interior of the museums has grossed more than $100 million domestically, and continues to draw audiences.
Today, “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” hits box offices, and visitors to The National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, will be pleased to see heartthrob Shia Labeouf and a scantily-clad Megan Fox admiring the Enola Gray Gay and other historical fight pieces as they search for a transformer hidden in the museum.
Not to give too much away, but at this point in the film, the stars’ characters are looking for someone who might be able to read an ancient robot language. They find their robot hiding as an out-of-commission Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird. (Learn more about the plane in this month’s Object at Hand.) Known as Jetfire, he turns out to be a bearded, cranky old-timer, who creaks when he transforms. “It’s sort of like arthritis,” director Michael Bay told Empire Magazine. Despite Jetfire’s bad attitude, and his previous identity as a decepticon (the villains of the Transformers universe), he is partially responsible for the movie’s climactic ending.
The SR-71 featured in the movie–filming was done on location at the museum–was a reconnaissance aircraft used by the military and NASA. In 1990, it took its final flight from Palmdale, California, to Chantilly, Virginia. Upon arrival, the Blackbird became a permanent addition of the National Air and Space Museum’s collection, going on display in 1993.
So, if you’re a fan of the Smithsonian, don’t miss this cinematic opportunity to watch a 50-foot tall robot blast a hole through the Udvar-Hazy Center’s side door.
June 25, 2009
One of the first Smithsonian efforts dedicated to gay and lesbian Americans is tucked away on the first floor of the National Museum of American History. The small show, located outside of the Archives Center, denotes the beginning of the modern gay civil rights movement. The display was assembled in recognition of the 40th anniversary of the riots in Greenwich Village, New York. It will be on view through August 2.
On June 28, 1969, police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar on the lower east side. Raids were a fact of life for the gay men and women who sought community in the nightlife, but years of oppression and aggressive police actions, sparked a flame among the bar’s patrons. For the first time, gay men and women fought back, resulting in five days of protest.
No artifacts from that night are on display, but what visitors can see are samples of some of the victories won and lost since the riots. Artifacts include advertising for the Showtime television show Queer as Folk, a Gay Games program, and HIV/AIDS paraphernalia. For this exhibit, the Smithsonian’s Franklin Robinson chose items from the Archives Center, which specializes in collecting primary sources for research, documenting a few aspects of gay history and culture in the United States.
“We hope the exhibit will spur useful and conductive conversations for the people who view it,” says Robinson. And in fact it has already, just two days after the cases went on view, a D.C. charter high school teacher contacted the American History museum to say that his ninth-grade students were studying gay rights and other movements and that he would be bringing his class to see the display.
As the nation struggles with the question of gay marriage and gays in the military, the museum’s collection as it represents gay history, is a story waiting to be told. The collection, Robinson says, is shaped entirely by donations. Two years ago, Frank Kameny, a pioneer of the gay rights movement, gave the Smithsonian his protest signs and papers. John-Manuel Andriote, author of “Victory Deferred: How AIDS Changed Gay Life in America,” has also donated his extensive research and interviews.
Because there is no staff member at the Smithsonian, yet, who actively collects objects or materials related to gay history, perhaps figures from historical and current civil rights battles need to reach out to the museum. This first exhibit is a historical moment itself, but should not be the beginning and end of the conversation about gay Americans.