October 7, 2013
The day before the government shutdown began, the American History Museum installed this stunning billboard from World War II in the west wing off the second-floor Flag Hall. The poster was conserved and reassembled in 12 separate parts and looks just as fresh and vibrant as it did at the beginning of the war, when it debuted.
This image, created by artist Carl Paulson for the U.S. Treasury Department, is believed to be the most popular poster design of World War II. It appeared in more than 30,000 locations in March and April 1942 and was revived by the Treasury in July 1942 and 1943. In the video above, curators William Bird, Jr. and Harry Rubenstein explain how the billboard came together.
The billboard will be on view to visitors as soon as the Smithsonian museums re-open. Until then, watch the video above to see how it was installed.
October 1, 2013
September 30, 2013
The story of Djenné, Mali, is typically told through its architecture—monumental mud-brick structures that seem to rise out of the earth like a desert mirage. Every building in Djenné’s historic sector, designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988, has been molded and reinforced by generations of mud masons, following an indigenous tradition as old as the city itself. When Natural History Museum curator Mary Jo Arnoldi traveled to Djenné in 2010, she wanted to meet the masons behind the city of mud, to give them a chance to “tell this story in their own words.”
The new exhibition, “Mud Masons of Mali,” now on view in the Natural History Museum’s African Voices Focus Gallery, profiles three generations of masons: master mason Konbaba, 77; masons Boubacar, 52, Lassina, 49, and Salif, 33; and apprentice Almamy, 20. They belong to the Boso ethnic group, which founded present-day Djenné (pronounced JEN-NAY) in the 13th century A.D. (An older city, Djenné-Jeno, was founded southeast of the current town but was later abandoned.)
Djenné flourished in the 15th and 16th centuries as a hub for trade and Islamic scholarship, and to this day the city’s population is predominantly Muslim. The world-renowned Great Mosque of Djenné is the city’s spiritual and geographic center, and some of Djenné’s most impressive mud buildings—two-story houses with grand entrances and buttresses—reflect the influence of Moroccan architecture and the 19th-century reign of the Islamic Tukolor Empire.
Visitors to the exhibition can explore the city of Djenné through more than 50 photographs, films and objects. On display are some of the tools of the masons’ ancient trade, including a basket for carrying mud, a rectangular frame for shaping bricks and a rod of the same local palm wood used in the long beams that jut out of the Great Mosque’s exterior. Masons use these beams as a built-in scaffolding, clambering up the sides of the structure to replaster the mud.
Djenné building mud is a calcite-rich alluvial mixture, extraordinarily durable but requiring regular reapplication. Most of the masons’ contracts are maintenance jobs on mud homes. Traditionally every family had its own mason who remudded the house year after year. “You were connected to a building,” Arnoldi says. When the mason died, his contracts would pass to an apprentice, thereby keeping clients in the family.
But as the masons explain in a series of short films in the exhibition, the old ways are disappearing. These days, Djenné residents seeking repairs often turn to younger masons rather than masters, bypassing the ancestral system. “If you have a friend with money, they may ask you to build a house,” says Lassina. “That’s how it’s done now.”
The craft itself is also changing. Boubacar is part of a new cohort of masons contracting with international groups on restoration projects, and the young apprentice Almamy goes to engineering school in Bamako, the capital of Mali, hoping to apply his technical education to time-honored masonry practices. “People aren’t against change,” says Arnoldi. “They just are against disrespect for people who hold knowledge. In Malian culture, knowledge is passed down from generation to generation.”
In recent years, the city’s architectural fabric has become a battleground in this conflict between tradition and modernity. Many Djenné residents want to expand their homes and put in modern amenities and decorative accents. Photographs in the exhibition reveal satellite dishes, tiles, turquoise frames and steel doors peeking out of the earthen cityscape—but Djenné’s UNESCO World Heritage status forbids any alteration to building exteriors in the historic sector. “There’s a problem of freezing this architecture in time,” says Arnoldi. “People live here. This is their home. You can’t make them a museum.”
Tensions came to a head in 2009 when the Aga Khan Trust for Culture began restoration of Djenné’s Great Mosque, which was built in 1907. Every year the structure is replastered with mud in a celebration that brings out all of the city’s residents. After a century of accumulation, however, these layers of mud had undermined the structure. The Aga Khan project stripped away much of the mud on the surface and suspended the annual remudding.
Many masons objected to this action, citing the spiritual and aesthetic significance of the remudding. The mosque is thinner now, with straight lines and sharper edges erasing the handmade, sculptural quality of the original. Master mason Boubacar says, “If you ask us, we would say that they did it in a European way. It’s no longer the African way.”
Judging by the jubilant crowds that still surround the mosque every year, the “African way” will endure—though it will undoubtedly change. New generations will graft their own skills and experience to the architectural legacy of their ancestors. The young apprentice Almamy, who represents the future of the craft, puts it best: “We’ll work with our own ideas and make our own mark, but we’ll leave the elders to their old ways of working. We want those to remain a reminder of what our parents have done.”
September 23, 2013
Dave Van Ronk may be best known for the company he kept, which included Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. But Van Ronk, a Greenwich Village fixture called the Mayor of MacDougal Street, was a skilled musician in his own right, as well as a mentor to others in the 1960s folk scene. A new Smithsonian Folkways compilation, Down in Washington Square, reveals his wide-ranging interests in blues, “trad” jazz, spirituals and even sea shanties. The album arrives just before Inside Llewyn Davis, the new Coen brothers film about a struggling folk singer, based in part on Van Ronk, who died in 2002 at age 65.
We spoke with Smithsonian Folkways archivist Jeff Place about the making of Down in Washington Square. Read on for his favorite tracks from the album and his thoughts on Van Ronk’s career, and preview the previously unreleased track, “St. James Infirmary,” below.
How did this compilation come about?
The Smithsonian acquired a record company called Folkways Records in 1947, with 2,200 albums. It became Smithsonian Folkways in 1988. There were two Van Ronk records on Folkways and some sea shanty stuff on a different record. In the early ’90s Dave himself put together a 1-CD set of his favorite songs from those albums, and then right after he passed away in 2002, his friends and family, his widow, brought us a live recording—one of his last concerts, which are reissued.
There’s been a groundswell of Van Ronk interest in the last year or so, mainly because he had a book called The Mayor of MacDougal Street, which is his memoirs. And the Coen brothers have a new movie coming out called Inside Llewyn Davis; it’s based on that book. The character in it is not really Dave Van Ronk, but it’s a composite character who’s a Van Ronk kind of character. As a matter of fact, there are images in it which are taken from Van Ronk record covers.
I started talking to [Van Ronk’s] widow Andrea Vuocolo [about a new compilation] and she was interested. I looked at all the stuff we had here in the archive, which was in addition to those [two] records I mentioned, and then Andrea [said she had] some things he recorded at home before he died that had never come out. His biographer Elijah Wald had a bunch of stuff that he’d gotten from Dave, from back in the late ’50s, early ’60s, that had never been out before. So between those three sources—it was just going to be a reissue, [but] now we’re adding all this additional, interesting stuff that no one’s ever heard before.
How much of this record is new material?
About a third of it—the third CD and a few other tracks. It became a 3-CD set and a bigger project than it really started out to be. We got Andrea to write an intro, memories of Dave, and then I wrote the rest of the notes.
How did Van Ronk’s music evolve over time?
He had a long career, starting in the ’50s with trad jazz, playing folk and blues versions of things; up through [Bob] Dylan and the early Greenwich Village years; up into some of the younger songwriters he mentored, like Shawn Colvin and Suzanne Vega, people who came out in the ’80s and ’90s. . . .
He fell in with the folk crowd. There were jams in Washington Square Park and the jazzy stuff morphing into the folky stuff and the banjos and things. The world of the Village was turning into that folk world and he sort of went with the flow.
The later versions of some of [Van Ronk’s folk music] also became more sophisticated musically. He got into a lot of other things. Elijah Wald talks about how he used [Italian Baroque composer Domenico] Scarlatti, how he referenced this one classical piece in a folk arrangement that he did. There’s a song called “Another Time and Place” that came out in the ’80s—it’s a love song, probably for his wife, on the last disc. I couldn’t see him recording that in ’59, ’60—a straight love song like that.
What is trad jazz?
There are these jazz purists, people who believe that jazz stopped or was not worth listening to after about the 1930s. The big band, heaven forbid, bop and Dizzy Gillespie and [John] Coltrane, all the things that came after—to them that was not jazz. Jazz was what we often talk about as Dixieland, that early stuff. To them the golden age of jazz would have been 1910 to 1935, Jelly Roll Morton and people like that.
Starting in the ’40s there was a revival of these purists in the U.S. who were playing that older style of jazz, the kind of stuff you’d hear at Preservation Hall in New Orleans. By the time Van Ronk came along it was waning. He caught the tail end of that, but he was one of those jazz purists. So this record is a lot of Bessie Smith and Jelly Roll Morton and songs like that.
Right on the tail end of [trad jazz] was a “jug band” craze, which [Van Ronk] also was involved in. It’s an upright washtub bass, a washboard, a banjo and sort of old instruments. But at the same time, there was a trad jazz thing going on in England too. People like the Rolling Stones started off in trad jazz bands. The Beatles’ first band was a “skiffle band,” which is the British version of jug bands. So they all came out of the same thing and took it off in different directions.
The tracklist for this album is like a musical history.
Yeah, it’s kind of a great sampling of other people’s music. There are some really important traditional musicians from the early part of the 20th century, blues and jazz, like Bessie Smith and Gary Davis and others. In the early days Van Ronk wasn’t writing as much original stuff. But later on he started writing a lot more of his own material.
How was Van Ronk viewed by other musicians?
He was a musician’s musician. All these people who were hip thought of him as being really the guy to go to, to talk to. He did a lot of amazing arrangements of other people’s songs. For instance, he was one of the first guys ever to record a Joni Mitchell song. He could spot people, other songwriters. Musicians knew him, and especially around New York City he was really huge. I think now all this publicity will be good, to get other people turned on to him. I hope this movie gets his name out there for people who don’t know it.
Were you in contact with the filmmakers of Inside Llewyn Davis?
They called and asked me some questions and wanted some props for the movie. They wanted it to look like a record company owner’s office in Greenwich Village in 1962. I said it has to look like mine. It has to be completely cluttered, because [anybody] like that is too busy creating and working on records to put things away. [The office] would be piled with tapes and old books and things everywhere. I offered [the filmmakers] extra copies of some old magazines we had from that era. They said that sounded great—but they never got back to me.
Why has Dave Van Ronk remained relatively obscure to the general public until now?
I guess some of his protégés were more charismatic—the [Bob] Dylans of the world—and got to be big stars and he was kind of left behind. “The House of the Rising Sun” that Dylan recorded was his [Van Ronk’s] arrangement. But he always sort of played his gigs, did records through his whole career, taught a lot of guitar and was just the guy around the Village.
Did Van Ronk have any hard feelings about not hitting it big?
I don’t know if there were hard feelings. But I noticed that YouTube video where he talks about the “House of the Rising Sun” issue, and he’s grumbling but it’s almost like fake grumbling, like at this point he doesn’t care anymore.
What are some of the highlights of this album?
I like “The House of the Rising Sun,” the version he didn’t release because Dylan recorded it. Van Ronk put it on a record later, but this is an earlier version than the one that came out. I’ve heard the first two Folkways CDs a lot over the years, so it’s the newer stuff that I’d focus on the most. . . .
Charlie Weber [Folklife media specialist] got all this [video] footage we shot of Van Ronk in 1997, which he’s going to put online. We released one of the songs from his Wolf Trap concert in ’97 on a previous album, but it was just the song. I thought his intro was just completely wild. It was so cool. It was the “Spike Driver Blues” intro [see below], so I wanted to make sure that this record had the actual intro on it. He was this great raconteur, storyteller kind of guy, so to get that kind of captures him, that gravelly voice and his personality.
Having the video really captures him because he’s sort of surprising. . . he was a huge guy. He could have been a lineman for a football team. He was probably 300 pounds and 6’6” or something. First time I met him, I was like, my gosh, I had no idea he was this giant guy.
Audio Sneak Preview: “St. James Infirmary (Gambler’s Blues)”
In this previously unreleased track from Down in Washington Square, Van Ronk delivers his take on the old Irish ballad “The Unfortunate Rake,” in which the rake is dying from the effects of syphilis
September 19, 2013
Stamp collectors like nothing better than a mistake. Take for example the notorious blunder of 1918 that flipped a Curtiss Jenny aircraft upside-down on a United States 24-cent postage stamp. The so-called “Inverted Jenny” has since become America’s most famous stamp and one of the world’s most famous errors. “This is a stamp that just makes every collector’s heart beat,” says Postal Museum curator Cheryl Ganz.
On Sunday, September 22, the original Inverted Jenny goes on permanent view for the first time in Smithsonian history. Presented in a four-stamp block with three singles, the Jennies are the crown jewels of the new William H. Gross Stamp Gallery, a 12,000-square-foot addition to the Postal Museum. The gallery will feature some 20,000 philatelic objects, a handful of which are reproduced below. Curator Daniel Piazza hopes that the Jennies will become a “stop on the tour of Washington,” canonized with other great artifacts in American history.
The Jenny was the first U.S. airmail stamp as well as the first airmail stamp to be printed in two colors. Its complex production process allowed ample room for error. One collector, William T. Robey, anticipating a potentially lucrative printing error, was waiting for the new stamps at a Washington, D.C. post office on May 14, 1918. He asked the clerk if any of the new stamps had come in. “He brought forth a full sheet,” Robey recalled in 1938, “and my heart stood still.” The image was upside down! “It was a thrill that comes once in a lifetime.”
Robey sold the sheet of 100 stamps for $15,000. That sheet, which was later broken up, has a storied history that includes resale, theft, recovery, deterioration and even some fleeting disappearances. The National Postal Museum says that the Inverted Jenny is the stamp that visitors most often ask for, but because of conservation issues, the stamps were rarely put on view; the last time was in 2009.
The Jennies will be displayed in a custom-designed case fitted with lights that automatically switch on and off as visitors move through the exhibit. Also debuting on the Stamp Gallery’s opening day is a new $2 USPS reprint of the Inverted Jenny, so visitors can take home the best loved error in philatelic history—at a fraction of the price tag.
UPDATE 9/23/2013: This post has been updated to indicate that the Jenny stamp was the first bicolored airmail stamp and not the first bicolored stamp.
Scroll down to preview other treasures from the William H. Gross Stamp Gallery: