November 9, 2012
Richard Pickering and Kathleen Wall have been telling the same story for the past 25 years. Some might say, they are living in the past. But then again, as pilgrim interpreters from the Plimoth Plantation, playing the part of the original Mayflower settlers is their job.
This Sunday, November 11, Pickering and Wall will tell the story once more at the National Museum of American History, wearing the buckles and ruffles and dispelling the Thanksgiving myths and traditions as though they were the real deal, the 17th-century pilgrims Richard and Elizabeth Warren.
Warren was among those to arrive on the Mayflower and touch soil at Cape Cod, Massachusetts on November 11, 1620—exactly 392 years ago, next Sunday. His wife Elizabeth arrived three years later with their five children, and so the performance takes place in the year 1627, when the couple is living in the new colony.
Pickering, who is the deputy director of the plantation and a specialist in the food and culinary of the first colony, emphasizes the respect he has for those who survived the first settlement. Half of the community died within three months. Governor Bradford noted that during the first February in the new world, two or three people were dying daily. With these facts in mind, Pickering tells the tale of the first Thanksgiving with the grim accuracy of the colony’s hardships and travails.
“When you really think about these factors, there’s that sense of here you are—the edge of the civilized world. When you’re recreating someone else’s life, honoring that life by representing it in 360-degrees, you never accept a generalization—you are a living biography,” Pickering says. “Generalizations are difficult to swallow when you begin to look at individual.”
At the start of the program, which is presented as part of the American History Museum’s Historic Theater program, Pickering will give background information as his modern self, before slipping into his historic persona. Pickering will answer from both perspectives throughout the discussion. He says the best way to tell the difference between modern Richard and past Richard is in the 17th century English dialect. In early Plymouth there were 17 different dialects. Working for Plimoth Plantation, interpreters like Pickering must master the regional dialect for each character he or she plays. Interestingly, the performers have had to change up their roles. With graying hair and wrinkles, they step into a new new character.
“I let people know which Richard is talking by dialect and with my hat,” Pickering says. “As soon as the hat goes on, that’s an indication the character is present.”
His favorite part of interpreting is opening modern eyes to how different life was for people in the past, he says.
“They’re not just us in funny clothing,” Pickering says. “It helps us to understand the spiritual and educational framework of people in the past. We often make judgements and ask ‘Why did they do that?’ and we dismiss them. Role playing helps us to understand different ways to perceive the world—past and present.”
Pickering and Wall enjoy answering questions after the performance. One of the funniest experiences from last year, Pickering says, took place during the last role play of the day. A little girl wanted to know how old Richard Warren was.
“I said to her [as Warren] ‘I guess I’m about 49 or 50.’ and she exclaimed ‘You don’t know?’ I tried explaining to her that people didn’t know the day they were born at that time—you knew the season, but it was unlikely you knew the date. She immediately said ‘NO BIRTHDAY CAKE?’ She was totally shocked that I didn’t know my birthday and that I wasn’t going to get a cake.”
Pickering says the story he tells year after year is not just a fun exercise in make believe.
“For me, this place is the story of every American,” he says. “This is your story too.”
Richard Pickering will be performing in the Price of Freedom Theater, Third Floor, East Wing at the National Museum of American History, November 11, 10:30, 11:30, 2:30 and 4:30. Pilgrim Food with Kathleen Wall is at 12:30, 1:30 and 3:30.
August 15, 2012
The kitchen is the heart of the home—especially when filled with the sounds of cooking: The knife on the cutting board, the clinking of pots and pans, the laughter of good friends and family around the table. Inside Julia Child’s kitchen, add to the mix the delightful sounds of her chuckle and that famous vibrato and you’ve got a recipe for happiness.
Phila Cousins, Child’s niece and trustee of the Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts, can attest to this.
“When you came for dinner, you didn’t come into the living room or the dining room, you came into the kitchen,” she says. “I had so many moments with Julia in this room. It’s somewhat surreal now to look at this place where I spent so many hours, in a museum. I can’t go in and sit down—Julia’s not there.”
Child would have been 100 years old today, and even though she can’t be present to celebrate, the National Museum of American History will host a soirée pour son in her honor by unveiling the limited re-installation of Julia’s Cambridge, Massachusetts Kitchen through September 3. (The kitchen had been dismantled and taken off view last January as part of the museum’s on-going renovation.)
Nothing about the 20-by 14-foot room has changed—down to the jar of Skippy peanut butter to the right of the same six-burner “big Garland” stove she cooked on in her home on 103 Irving Street in Cambridge, Massachussets. The pots and pans hang on the blue peg board built by her husband Paul. There are the maple counter tops which were constructed a few inches higher than the standard to accommodate Julia’s 6’3.” And her vast collection of kitchen gadgets are still in the drawers.
Curator Rayna Green, who in 2001 worked with Child during the donation process, says that since the kitchen was first installed at the American History Museum 10 years ago, it has only grown in popularity with visitors and the curators.
“This exhibit is personal for us [the curators]. It’s not just keeping fingerprints off the walls and the usual museum maintenance that we do, this is something we really do take personally. Things in the kitchen conjure up stories that we’ve heard from Julia and that we’ve heard from other people. With every new visitor a new story appears.”
Today’s celebration includes screenings from three episodes from WGBH’s The French Chef and appearances from authors like Bob Spitz who will sign copies of his new book, Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child. Visitors will also enjoy Child-inspired meals. Free. 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. with a birthday surprise at 1 p.m. in the Flag Hall. Julia’s kitchen will soon be joined by at least 300 objects in the new exhibition: “FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000” which opens November 20.
August 9, 2012
Friday August 10 An Autumn’s Tale
Got a hot date Friday night? Embrace the “dinner and a movie” itinerary at the Freer Gallery’s Meyer Auditorium and catch a screening of An Autumn’s Tale. Cherie Chung stars as a student who moves to New York to pursue her studies. When her boyfriend abruptly leaves, her downstairs neighbor and distant cousin (Chow Yun-Fat) resolves to cheer her up. One thing leads to another and—you guessed it—they develop feelings for one another. Departing from his usual action hero persona, Chow owns his role as a working-class immigrant, and Cheung’s subtle direction makes this tale of heartbreak and desire a classic date movie. (Dir.: Mabel Cheung, 1987, 98 min.) Part of the 17th Annual Made in Hong Kong Film Festival In Cantonese with English subtitles. Free. 7 p.m., repeats Sunday at 2 p.m. Meyer Auditorium, Freer Gallery.
Saturday August 11 Super Science Saturday: Helicopters
This Saturday, take the whole family to the Udvar-Hazy Center for an entire day of out-of-this-world fun. Participate in hands-on activities and dive into a universe of science, technology, engineering and mathematics topics related to aviation and space exploration. This monthly program is the perfect way to entertain family members of all ages. Free, but $15 parking fee per vehicle. Air and Space Museum Udvar-Hazy Center.
Sunday August 12 The Story of Earth
How has the Earth evolved? Is it a singular entity in our Solar System? Author Robert Hazen, a research scientist at the Carnegie Institution of Washington’s Geophysical Laboratory, will be signing copies of his book The Story of Earth: the First 4.5 Billion Years, from Stardust to Living Planet, which seeks to answer these burning questions. In it, he explains how the co-evolution of rocks and living matter has shaped our planet. Books available at the Museum store. Noon to 2:00 p.m. Natural History Museum.
For a complete listing of Smithsonian events and exhibitions visit the goSmithsonian Visitors Guide. And download our new Visitors Guide & Tours App for both iPhone and Android. Additional reporting by Michelle Strange.
August 2, 2012
Events August 3-5: Children’s Workshop, Mail Time With Owney, East of the River Boys & Girls Steelband
Friday August 3 Children’s Workshop: Mission Preservation
Remembering certain events and periods in history can be difficult to stomach sometimes. Segregation in the 1950s, for example, is not an easy thing to teach younger generations. This Friday, however, children ages 8 to 11 can meet at the West End Library to better understand segregation through the discussion of an age-appropriate book. After, the group will explore authentic artifacts from the 1950s, record observations and determine a preservation plan for each object. At the end of the day, participants may take home white cotton gloves and an activity book to help preserve the history. Free. For ages 8-11. Most Wednesdays and selected Fridays at 1:30 p.m. through August 22. The activity is sponsored by the National Museum of African American History and takes place at the West End Library, 1101 24th St NW.
Saturday August 4 Mail Time With Owney the Dog
Hop on board for a rail-riding good time with the National Postal Museum’s favorite mascot, Owney the dog! Owney made it in our round up of insider tips earlier this summer—and for good reason. The terrior-mix traveled for nine years, riding the rails until his death in 1897. He later became the unofficial mascot for the U.S. Railway Mail Service. To honor the intrepid mail-carrier, Saturday’s events include activities such as designing an Owney tag, sorting mail in the Railway Post Office, starting a stamp collection and more. Free. Noon to 3:30 p.m. National Postal Museum.
Sunday August 5 East of the River Boys & Girls Steelband
This Sunday, come enjoy the festive music of the East of the River Boys & Girls Steelband, a program that seeks to enhance the lives of at-risk children and teens who have unique creative abilities and who live east of the Anacostia River. Founded by Gladys Bray and directed by Roger Greenidge, the group has appeared at the 1996 Olympic Soccer Games, Wolf Trap Park for the Performing Arts and Apollo Theater. Free. 2 p.m. Anacostia Community Museum.
Tickets are now on sale for Smithsonian Magazine’s, Museum Day Live!, which will be held Saturday September 29. Admission is free at participating venues with presentation of ticket. Visit the Find a Museum page to locate a participating museum in your area. For a complete listing of Smithsonian events and exhibitions visit the goSmithsonian Visitors Guide. Additional reporting by Michelle Strange.
August 1, 2012
Prolific author, playwright and personality, Gore Vidal, died yesterday at age 86 due to complications from pneumonia. Among a group of literary writers like Normal Mailer and Truman Capote, Vidal was a “special breed” of writer, known for his controversial works of historical fiction—novels like Burr, Lincoln, and The City and the Pillar. But perhaps his upbringing in the Washington D.C. area influenced his lesser-known—and rather strange—1998 novel, The Smithsonian Institution.
The fictional tale, set in 1939, tells the story of “T.,” a super genius, “decisive, tall lad of thirteen,” who is mysteriously beckoned to the basement of the Smithsonian to help develop the atomic bomb. To be clear, The Smithsonian Institution is a work of historical fiction—the Manhattan Project did not come to fruition within the secret passageways of the museums and there are no time machines on the premises. Vidal’s use of humor and allusion in constructing the work of fiction, however, is calculated and often downright absurd.
Historical figures including Albert Einstein, Robert Oppenheimer and Abraham Lincoln make cameos, while wax museum exhibits, including a tribe of aboriginal Iroquois Indians, come to life in the first chapter alone.
“T. tried the door handle; it turned; he pushed the door open just wide enough for him to poke his head into–another world!
A sign identified this world as the Early Indian Exhibit room, a favorite exhibit of T.’s childhood. A couple of dozen Indian braves and their squaws and papooses—papeese?—were going about their business in and out of wigwams on a sunny day, while a realistic painted backdrop, called a diorama, showed their native environment: trees, a distant plain with buffalo roaming, blue mountains.
But something had radically changed since his earlier visits. The Indians were no longer artfully molded and tastefully painted figures of plaster; instead, they were now real men and women and children in colorful native garb, while the mock fire–over which a cauldron of stew had been placed–was very much a real fire, with eye-stinging black smoke, and the pot had a section of what looked to be a real moose floating in it. The background was no longer painted but real: tall aboriginal trees, endless grassy plains where buffalo ambled in the middle distance and a hawk suddenly soared across the intense blue sky of yesteryear.”
In a 1998 New York Times review, Christopher Benfey notes the absurdity of Vidal’s imagined Institution and the novel’s “mumbo jumbo about the space-time continuum.” But Benfey also suggests that the work is very much like the technology applied in the novel itself: “A stable two-way linkup between past and future”:
He who comprehends the Smithsonian Castle comprehends the universe.’ The old Washington proverb, playing the riches of the museum collection off the maze of the floor plan, takes on new meaning in Vidal’s fantasy, when T. stumbles on a coven of nuclear physicists huddled in the Smithsonian basement. They’re eager to capitalize on T.’s amazing ability to ‘visualize’ the implications of certain formulas, which make possible all sorts of earthshaking maneuvers: time travel, newfangled weaponry (the neutron bomb, ‘the Realtors’ Dream Bomb,’ because ‘the people die but the buildings are left intact’), the manipulation of the ‘crossroad in time’ in order to alter not just the future—any politician can do that—but the past.
The Smithsonian Institution is no Night at the Museum—Vidal’s work is sophisticated and offers a cerebral twist with the combined forces of historical and science fiction genres. The hilarity of characters like Mrs. Benjamin Harrison, one of many presidential wives name-dropped in the novel’s first few pages, brings the historical figures and the Smithsonian’s secret’s to life:
Probed, Mrs. Harrison nodded. “Naturally, you can leave whenever you like. But if you mean to penetrate the mystery of the Smithsonian, which is the mystery of life itself…” Mrs. Harrison was now redoing her hair in the cloudy mirror of the Empire armoire; she was also, T. could tell, speaking tonelessly, as if she had no idea what she was saying. “Rest assured that here, somewhere in the bowels of this ancient structure, past all the monsters both living and dead, past blockades and safe places, doublets, penalties …”
“Monsters?” T. perked up considerably. He liked monsters and whenever he could get time off from his busy classroom schedule, he would play hooky from school and go up to the Capitol and look at the Senate.
“Oh, yes. Monsters. Or so they say. We first ladies are sheltered from the worst of the horrors in the basement…”
The novel revisits some of the key events of the 20th century, captures the imagination behind the Institution’s creaky walls, while still finding room for awkward teenage lovemaking scenes. As Benfey says, “the jokes, good and bad, keep coming, and the Presidents really are brought to life. Vidal’s eye for the freaks and foibles of Washington has retained its sharpness.”