August 27, 2012
This post is part of our ongoing series in which ATM invites thoughts and commentary from among the Smithsonian Institution’s scientists, curators, researchers and historians. Roger Launius, a senior curator at the National Air and Space Museum, shares his thoughts on the passing of astronaut Neil Armstrong over the weekend. This post was originally posted on the museum’s blog.
I first heard the sad news while having a late lunch with friends at a seafood restaurant on the water in Annapolis, Maryland. Neil Armstrong passed away today, August 25, 2012, from complications resulting from heart bypass surgery. He was 82 years old. We will all miss him, not just because he was the first human being in the history of the world to set foot on another body in the Solar System, but perhaps especially because of the honor and dignity with which he lived his life as that first Moon walker. He sought neither fame nor riches, and he was always more comfortable with a small group of friends rather than the limelight before millions. When he might have done anything he wished after his completion of the Apollo 11 Moon landing mission, Armstrong chose to teach aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati. Imagine having the first person to walk on the Moon as your engineering professor!
Neil Alden Armstrong was born on August 5, 1930, on his grandparents’ farm near Wapakoneta, Ohio. His parents were Stephen and Viola Armstrong. Because Stephen Armstrong was an auditor for the state of Ohio, Neil grew up in several Ohio communities, including Warren, Jefferson, Ravenna, St. Marys, and Upper Sandusky, before the family settled in Wapakoneta. He developed an interest in flying at age 2 when his father took him to the National Air Races in Cleveland, Ohio. His interest intensified when he had his first airplane ride in a Ford Tri-Motor, a “Tin Goose,” in Warren, Ohio, at age 6. At age 15 Armstrong began learning to fly at an airport near Wapakoneta, working at various jobs to earn the money for his lessons. By age 16 he had his student pilot’s license; all before he could drive a car or had a high school diploma.
He then went to Purdue University to study aeronautical engineering, but in 1949 he went on active duty with the Navy, eventually becoming an aviator. In 1950 he was sent to Korea, where he flew 78 combat missions from the aircraft carrier USS Essex.
After mustering out of the Navy in 1952, Armstrong joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). His first assignment was at NACA’s Lewis Research Center near Cleveland, Ohio. For the next 17 years he worked as an engineer, pilot, astronaut, and administrator for NACA and its successor agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
In the mid-1950s Armstrong transferred to NASA’s Flight Research Center in Edwards, California, where he became a research pilot on many pioneering high-speed aircraft—including the famous X-15, which was capable of achieving a speed of 4,000 mph. He flew over 200 different models of aircraft, including jets, rockets, helicopters, and gliders. He also pursued graduate studies and received a M.S. degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Southern California.
Armstrong transferred to astronaut status in 1962, one of nine NASA astronauts in the second class to be chosen. On March 16, 1966, Armstrong flew his first space mission as commander of Gemini VIII with David Scott. During that mission Armstrong piloted the Gemini VIII spacecraft to a successful docking with an Agena target spacecraft already in orbit. Although the docking went smoothly and the two craft orbited together, they began to pitch and roll wildly. Armstrong was able to undock the Gemini and used retro rockets to regain control of his craft, but the astronauts had to make an emergency landing in the Pacific Ocean.
On Apollo 11, Armstrong flew with Michael Collins and Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin, Armstrong completed the first Moon landing on July 20, 1969. As commander of Apollo 11, Armstrong piloted the lunar module to a safe landing on the Moon’s surface. On 20 July 1969, at 10:56 p.m. EDT, Neil Armstrong stepped down onto the Moon and made his famous statement, “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” Armstrong and Aldrin spent about two and one-half hours walking on the Moon collecting samples, doing experiments, and taking photographs. On July 24,1969, the module carrying the three astronauts splashed down in the Pacific Ocean. They were picked up by the aircraft carrier USS Hornet.
No question, the Moon landing unified a nation divided by political, social, racial, and economic tensions for a brief moment in the summer of 1969. Virtually everyone old enough recalls where they were when Apollo 11 touched down on the lunar surface and Neil Armstrong said his immortal words, “Houston, Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed.” Millions, myself included, identified with Neil Armstrong as he reached the “magnificent desolation” of the Moon. One seven-year-old boy from San Juan, Puerto Rico, said of the first Moon landing: “I kept racing between the TV and the balcony and looking at the Moon to see if I could see them on the Moon”. His experiences proved typical; as a fifteen-year-old I sat with friends on the hood of a car on the night of July 20, 1969, looking at the Moon and listening to the astronauts on it. “One small step,” hardly; Neil Armstrong nailed it with the second phrase of his famous statement, “one giant leap for mankind”.
Since that euphoric event a lot has passed, the world has changed, and the future does not seem to hold quite the same possibilities as it once did. Yet, Neil Armstrong captured that sense of hopefulness so well until his last breath. He was an American hero, no doubt, but he was more. He lived a life of quiet grace, rarely embroiling himself in the day-to-day fights we see all around us even as he exemplified a unique merger of the “Right Stuff” with the self-reflection of a poet. Landing on the Moon was singular accomplishment, but not one to be remembered as an accomplishment of Neil Armstrong, as he so often said. It was the result of the labor of hundreds of thousands and the accomplishment of generation of humanity. Armstrong always recognized the honor he received from humanity in being allowed to participate in Apollo 11.
Armstrong would have agreed with legendary journalist Walter Cronkite, about the experience of reaching the Moon. “Yes, indeed, we are the lucky generation,” Cronkite wrote. In this era we “first broke our earthly bonds and ventured into space. From our descendants’ perches on other planets or distant space cities, they will look back at our achievement with wonder at our courage and audacity and with appreciation at our accomplishments, which assured the future in which they live.” When those descendents do look back on that era when humanity first journeyed beyond Earth, I’m sure they will also remember the contributions of an unassuming engineer and pilot from Ohio in advancing the exploration of the cosmos. The most fitting tribute I can offer at this time of recollection was the same said on more than one occasion in the space program: “Godspeed, Neil Armstrong.”
Roger D. Launius is a senior curator in the museum’s Division of Space History.
August 1, 2012
As Akbar, one of the greatest Mughal emperors and patron of the arts, once said, “There are many that hate painting; but such men I dislike.”
Curator Debra Diamond would tend to agree. She is a driving force in gathering together the lavish Mughal paintings on display in the new exhibition, “Worlds Within Worlds: Imperial Paintings from India and Iran” that opened July 28 at the Sackler Gallery of Art. The exhibition features intricate paintings rich with color from the Mughal empire, dating from 1556 to 1657, and commissioned by the three greatest art patrons of the era—the emperors Akbar (1542-1605), Jahangir (1569-1627), and Shah Jahan (1592-1666). The Mughal empire extended across India and Persia, today’s Iran, and was led by Muslim rulers descended from Genghis Khan. Their rule linked Persia with India’s Hindu Rajput kingdoms.
“We wanted to show something fabulous and the interconnections between worlds,” Diamond states. The exhibition is among a number of events and shows this year to mark the Sackler Gallery’s 25th anniversary, and is the first to highlight the museum’s Persian art collection.
To showcase their power, influence and wealth, emperors from the 1500s hired painters and writers to make lavish books, known as folios. The works took years to complete and could consume every hour of the artists’ life and served to define the ruler’s legacy as world leaders. The exhibit brings together 50 such works.
Each emperor had a unique aesthetic. Diamond points to the “dynamism” of Akbar, the “refinement” of Jahangir and the “opulent formality” of Shah Jahan.
Shah Jahan, whose name in Persian signifies “King of the World,” ruled from 1628 to 1658. Famously known for commissioning the Taj Mahal, his portraits depict him as the very embodiment of wealth and power, with border imagery laced in exquisite goldleaf detail. As with his most famous building project, Jahan looked to the finest of details to convey his message. He wrote, “beautiful things. . . create esteem for the ruler in the eyes of [his subjects] and augments [their] dignity.”
Powerful and wealthy as the ruler proclaimed, in the folio entitled, Late Shah Jahan Album, a sad story emerges. There, Jahan’s son, Shah Shuja is depicted (left). Shah Shuja, a boy of just two or three years, is seen on a single page of the folio looking away from the viewer. Diamond discovered that the boy had contracted a serious disease and was gravely ill. “The family unit prayed to God to save him,” she says. “In the portrait he is a sweet and loving baby and exquisitely painted.”
Jahan’s artists used an unusual technique of tightly piecing together cut and fitted, highly polished colored stones, otherwise known as pietra dura, in a gorgeous mosaic. Radiant borders specked with gold leaf reflect Jahan’s love for jewels, gems and flowers.
Emperors prided themselves not just on their own artistic legacy, but also on their mastery of the art history of the period. Shah Jahan’s predecessor Jahangir, who ruled from 1605 to 1628 said, “No work of past or present masters can be shown to be that I do not instantly recognize who did it.” In his portraits, Jahangir was depicted “taller and more slender” than previous emperors, Diamond says, in a display of arrogance and prestige. “He sees himself as a cosmopolitan ruler,” she says, and not just a fearfully strong leader, an important distinction for someone presiding over a culturally heterogeneous territory.
In conjunction with the opening of the exhibit, the film series “Indian Visions at the Freer” begins this month and features the Alms of a Blind Horse on July 14 and the Mughal-e-Azam on August 11. For family entertainment, “Inspired by India: A Family Celebration” on Saturday, August 11, celebrates Indian subcontinent cultures. The exhibition will be on view through September 17, 2012.
July 20, 2012
Most art exhibits begin with a theme and then seek out works that fit under that unifying umbrella. At first glance, “40 Under 40,” the new Renwick Gallery exhibition, opening Friday, July 20, to commemorate the museum’s 40th anniversary, seems to defy that convention. Exhibit director Nicholas R. Bell says, “No themes were planned. Instead, themes emerged organically.”
The exhibition seeks to demonstrate the ways in which craft has changed in the past 40 years, and how young artists have interpreted those changes. “We are trying to create a visceral feel in these works,” Bell continues, “So that you can walk into Nick Dong’s Enlightenment Room, and you can touch Christy Matson’s Sonic Structure [II].”
The featured artisans were all born between 1972, when the gallery was founded, and 1984. The works experiment with new and traditional media, and many re-purpose materials with an eye to conservation and sustainability.
Brooklyn-based artists William Hilgendorf and Jason Horvath recycled the wood from the Coney Island boardwalk into their piece
“Uhuru,” “Cyclone Lounger,” a long, curvy chair that is both beautiful and practical. “We’re interested in the dying art of storytelling,” says Hilgendorf. “When objects have stories behind them, that makes them more valuable to you, because you want to tell those stories. You want to keep the objects for a long time, so they don’t just end up in a landfill.”
The artists are joined together by age, a unifier that means a great deal in the post-9/ll world of financial crises, environmental fears and global security woes. There is an air of caution and irony that tinges even the most delightful pieces (a teapot, for example, that is really a gun), just as there is an air of playfulness that reigns in the most caustic.
Artist Mia Pearlman walked into the Renwick’s gallery space last year and knew exactly what she would create for the exhibit. “Normally,” she says, “you walk into a square, white room. But here, there are tiled floors and arching windows.” Her piece features two entire walls in the museum. On one side, gray and white paper rains down from ceiling to floor. On the other, white, airy paper floats upwards from floor to ceiling. “In this age of uncertainty, we try to put order to chaos. We have wonderful things and we have tragic things and we are trying to have a conversation with both. We are caught in this larger thing that is both light and dark,” she says.
This dichotomy of light and dark, pretty yet painful, is consistent throughout the various media the exhibit highlights. Jeffrey Clancy’s Collection of Curious Spoons reminds us of the delicate, aristocratic silver spoon held by the most fortunate. But these silver spoons are large and unruly. They are clunky, and, in the words of the artist, “look like something was just dug up.” They are beautiful in their grotesqueness, and mock the dainty, traditional silver spoons that inspired them. One particularly jarring piece, Lauren Kalman’s Hard Wear, displays pearls on a thin gold wire, wrapped around each tooth of the photographed woman. The pearls are exquisite, yet the sight of wire in between a woman’s teeth is disturbing and unnatural.
Although a general sense of unease sneaks into many of the pieces featured in “40 Under 40,” many of the works also share the mere love of craft. Gabriel Craig, an artist based in Detroit, Michigan, sets up “The Pro-Bono Jeweler” in cities around the country, allowing passersby to make whatever their hearts desire out of colorful clays. “The important thing is the outreach,” he says. “I like to remind people that things can be made by hand.”
Join the curator for a discussion at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, followed by an open house in which you can speak with many of the artists, July 20 12:00-2:30 p.m.
By Jeanie Riess
July 5, 2012
In A Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare wrote one of the strangest stage directions ever given in the history of theater: “exit, pursued by bear.” This order is difficult to follow in modern-day productions of the comedy, but in the 17th century, bears and other animals we now call exotic were, for better or worse, often assimilated into daily life. Many of the images in Zoos: A Historical Perspective, a collection of pamphlets, photos, maps and guidebooks beautifully displayed by the Smithsonian Libraries, reflect a similar sentiment. Bears can be seen climbing poles, elephants in Australia carry elegantly clad school children, and tigers stare lazily at humans inches away from their cages.
The collection features pamphlets, sketches and photos from not only the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, but from zoos across 30 states and 40 countries, making it the largest project of its kind, and providing a valuable perspective on the changing relationship between animals and humans throughout history. The photographs demonstrate, for example, how zoos were once places frequented for the sake of spectacle, and the evolution of the zoo into what it is today: an educational and conservation-minded institution.
Head of Information Services Alvin Hutchinson hopes that the online collection will give visitors “an appreciation of the history of zoos and the fact that they’ve been around for more than 300 years. They were once a place for oddballs and curiosities, but they’ve evolved into much more than that.”
The current collection is just one example of a larger effort by the Institution to digitize a host of print documents. “This collection was sitting in boxes and folders,” says Hutchinson, “and we put out a call for things not easily findable, and discovered these pamphlets.”
Hutchinson hopes to digitize the entire collection one day (the current exhibit features about 80 images), based on the feedback he’s received from those already on display. “I’ve gotten many calls,” he explains. “Mostly out of curiosity, but some have been very personal. One guy called and told me that his relative in England had done the stonework photographed in one of the zoos. The feedback has been great.”
Some of the images—lions sitting behind heavy metal bars, monkeys in cages too small—may seem a bit disturbing, but they serve as a reminder of how our understanding of animals and animal intelligence has changed over the years. Whereas once we poked fun at how easily chimps could look like humans (a photograph in the collection shows a family of chimps sitting down to dinner, complete with china tea cups and a tablecloth), we now view these similarities in the context of scientific understanding.
At once contemplative and whimsical, the collection is a valuable lesson in how far we’ve come and how far we have yet to go.
View it here, along with an introduction from the curator.
By Jeanie Riess