September 9, 2012
Sadly, Bill Moggridge, director of the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York City, died yesterday, at the age of 69 years old. According to the museum, he died after battling cancer. His visionary leadership will be sorely missed by the Smithsonian community and surely the design world at large.
“All of us at the Smithsonian mourn the loss of a great friend, leader and design mind,” said Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough. “In his two short years as director of Cooper-Hewitt, Bill transformed the museum into the Smithsonian’s design lens on the world, and we are forever grateful for his extraordinary leadership and contributions.”
In recent years, Moggridge described his career as having three phases. Early in his professional life, he was a designer. In 1982, he developed the first laptop computer, known as the GRiD Compass. Later, Moggridge was leading design teams, having co-founded IDEO, a design and innovation consulting firm with David Kelley and Mike Nuttall in 1991. In the last decade, he considered himself first and foremost a communicator, sharing his ideas about the role of design in everyday life in his books (Designing Interactions, published in 2006, and Designing Media, in 2010) and lectures.
The Cooper-Hewitt honored Moggridge in 2009 with its National Design Award for Lifetime Achievement. A year later, he joined the museum as its fourth-ever director. In his two years of direction, Moggridge encouraged lively conversation about all realms of design, engaging the field’s best and brightest—YouTube co-founder Chad Hurley, Google CreativeLab’s Robert Wong and architect Michael Graves, among others—in an interview series called Bill’s Design Talks. He was also overseeing the ongoing $54 million renovation of the Cooper-Hewitt, which is due to reopen in 2014.
“During his tenure, Bill led the museum to the highest exhibition attendance numbers on record, pioneered bringing design into the K-12 classroom and dramatically increased digital access to the collection through vehicles like the Google Art Project,” said Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian’s Under Secretary for History, Art and Culture. “His innovative vision for the future of the museum will be realized upon reopening, and his foresight will impact museum visitors and design thinkers of tomorrow. He will be greatly missed.”
I had the great opportunity to interview Moggridge in early 2011 for Smithsonian magazine, after he had received the 2010 Prince Philip Designers Prize—Britain’s most prestigious design award—for his contributions to the field. Design, he said in the interview—”It’s all about solving problems.” What I remember most though was Moggridge’s adoration for the simplest of designs, and his eloquence when it came to describing them.
“I love something as uncomplicated as a paper clip, because it is such a neat way of solving a problem with very little material,” he said. “If I think about something more sensuous, I’ve always been interested in the perfect spoon. It is delectable in a multisensory way: the appearance, the balance and feeling as you pick it up off the table, then the sensation as it touches your lips and you taste the contents.”
June 15, 2012
Two hundred years ago, on June 18, 1812, President James Madison—fed up with Great Britain’s interference with American trade and impressment of sailors, and wanting to expand into British, Spanish and Indian territories—signed an official declaration of war against Britain. The act plunged the United States into the War of 1812. To recognize the bicentennial, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery debuts “1812: A Nation Emerges,” an exhibition about the often overlooked and yet, hugely significant, episode in our nation’s history.
“When I first brought it up, I got a lot of blank stares and questioning looks. What war?” says Sid Hart, senior historian at the National Portrait Gallery and curator of the exhibition. “If you gauge it by the soldiers fighting and casualties, it is small. But the consequences are huge for America. If we had not gone to war, or if we had lost the war, the timeline of American history becomes completely different and perhaps we are not the continental power that we came to be.”
The expansive exhibition, comprising 100 artifacts, aims to introduce museum visitors to the key players in the War of 1812: President Madison, Dolley Madison, Gen. Andrew Jackson, the Indian leader Tecumseh, the Canadian war hero Isaac Brock and British admirals and generals George Cockburn and Robert Ross, among other familiar and not-so-familiar faces.
Of course, many of the personalities are conveyed through portraits. Hart and his assistant guest curator Rachael Penman selected portraits based on two criteria. First, they wanted the portraits to be by the best artists of the time. And, secondly, the curators gave a preference to portraits done of the exhibition’s protagonists in the years in and around the conflict. Hart says that if there were a “Night at the Museum,” where all the portraits came to life, he would want all the subjects to recognize each other. Then, scattered throughout this gallery of important players are artifacts, each telling an interesting piece of the story.
“You have to start with something, and whether it is a dazzling portrait or an object, if you can make that initial impact, a sensory impact, you may grab somebody,” says Hart. “You may get ahold of a visitor and spark his or her interest.”
While the portraiture is spectacular, a real who’s who in the war, including 12 paintings by the famed American artist Gilbert Stuart (“Stuart’s great genius was in capturing personality,” says Hart), it was some of the other artifacts that really captivated me at a preview earlier this week. In a section of the exhibition devoted to the Navy, there is a model of the ship Constitution (also known as “Old Ironsides”) aptly positioned between a portrait of its captain Isaac Hull and the painting Escape of the U.S. Frigate Constitution depicting one of the ship’s most deft maneuvers. Constructed at the request of Franklin Roosevelt in the 1920s, the model seems to carry a curse with it. It was in the Oval Office when President Kennedy was shot. It was also in James Brady’s office when he was wounded during John Hinckley, Jr.’s attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan. So it is often called the “assassination model.”
A part of the exhibit covering the 1814 burning of Washington and the war’s resolution features a red velvet dress of Dolley Madison’s and the actual Treaty of Ghent, on loan from the National Archives. Legend has it that the dress may be made from red velvet draperies the First Lady salvaged from the White House before the British raided it. Nearby, on the Treaty of Ghent, one can see the signatures of the three British and five American officers who agreed to its 11 articles on December 24, 1814, outlining status quo ante bellum, or a return to all laws, boundaries and agreements that applied before the war.
Then, as a writer, one of my personal favorites is an 1828 first edition of An American Dictionary of the English Language, Noah Webster’s first stab at what we now refer to as Webster’s dictionary. “Webster believed that language was a tool for the development of a national identity and that the standardization of spellings and definitions would help eliminate regionalism,” writes Penman, in the exhibition catalog. He felt that language could be used to unite Americans after the War of 1812. “It was Webster who made the key transitions in spelling from the standard English to the Americanized versions we know today, such as switching re to er in theatre, dropping the u from colour and honour, and dropping the double l in traveller and the k from musick,” she adds.
If anything sums up the message Hart and Penman are striving for in the exhibition, though, it is the final painting, We Owe Allegiance to No Crown, by John Archibald Woodside (above). In it, a strapping young man, with a broken chain and a squashed crown at his feet, valiantly holds an American flag. The image encompasses the feeling Americans had in the wake of the war. “We are going to create our own trade, our own language and our own heroes,” says Penman.
“1812: A Nation Emerges,” opening today, is on display at the National Portrait Gallery through January 27, 2013.
June 12, 2012
It was about 10:15 p.m. on April 14, 1865, when John Wilkes Booth snuck up behind President Lincoln, enjoying “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theatre, and shot him point-blank in the head. The assassin brandished a dagger and cut Maj. Henry Rathbone, a guest of the president’s, before leaping to the stage, yelling “Sic semper tyrannis,” before fleeing.
According to most surviving accounts, the scene was sheer chaos. “There will never be anything like it on earth,” said Helen Truman, who was in the audience. “The shouts, groans, curses, smashing of seats, screams of women, shuffling of feet and cries of terror created a pandemonium that through all the ages will stand out in my memory as the hell of hells.”
A newly discovered document, however, offers a different perspective. Late last month, a researcher with the Papers of Abraham Lincoln—an online project that is imaging and digitizing documents written by or to the 16th president—located a long-lost medical report at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. The report was written by Dr. Charles Leale, the first doctor to tend to the dying president. Leale, a 23-year-old Army surgeon, ran from his seat in the audience to the president’s box, a distance of about 40 feet away.
In the report, Leale describes what happened next:
“I immediately ran to the President’s box and as soon as the door was opened was admitted and introduced to Mrs. Lincoln when she exclaimed several times, ‘O Doctor, do what you can for him, do what you can!’ I told her we would do all that we possibly could.”
When I entered the box the ladies were very much excited. Mr. Lincoln was seated in a high backed arm-chair with his head leaning towards his right side supported by Mrs. Lincoln who was weeping bitterly. . . .
While approaching the President I sent a gentleman for brandy and another for water.
When I reached the President he was in a state of general paralysis, his eyes were closed and he was in a profoundly comatose condition, while his breathing was intermittent and exceedingly stertorous.”
Although the full report does not shed much new light on the assassination or how doctors attempted to treat Lincoln’s fatal injury, it is, no doubt, an amazing find. Daniel Stowell, director of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln told the Associated Press last week that the document’s significance lies in the fact that “it’s the first draft” of the tragedy.
I was particularly interested in what Harry Rubenstein, chair of the National Museum of American History’s political history division, thought of the firsthand account. Rubenstein is curator of the museum’s permanent exhibition on presidents, “The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden.” He also curated the much-acclaimed 2009-2011 exhibition “Abraham Lincoln: An Extraordinary Life.”
The museum holds in its collections Leale’s bloodstained cuffs that he wore the night of Lincoln’s assassination and the ceremonial sword that Leale carried while serving as an honor guard while Lincoln’s body lay in state at the White House and the U.S. Capitol. (The estate of Helen Leale Harper, Jr, granddaughter of Dr. Leale, bequeathed both to the Smithsonian Institution in 2006.)
Rubenstein is fascinated with the subdued tone of the report. “You are used to all these reports of mayhem and the chaos and the confusion,” he says. “Here, you are seeing it from the view of somebody who is trying to gain and take control.” The curator points to Leale’s choice of words, “the ladies were very much excited,” as one of the report’s understatements. “A lot of the emotion is removed from this, and it is a very clinical look at what took place, in comparison to others,” says Rubenstein.”To me, it is this detached quality that is so interesting.”
Leale gives a detailed description of looking for where Lincoln’s blood was coming from and assessing his injuries. The report chronicles the president’s condition up until the moment shortly after 7 a.m. the next day when he dies. “It is just interesting to see the different perspectives of this one pivotal historical moment,” says Rubenstein.
May 18, 2012
Betty White is a self-described “zoo nut.” At age 90, she balances her still-thriving acting career with advocacy work for zoos—particularly the Los Angeles Zoo, where she serves as a trustee. “Wherever I travel, I try to steal time to check out whatever zoo is within reach,” she writes, in her latest book Betty & Friends: My Life at the Zoo.
Last night, here in Washington, D.C., White regaled an audience at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium with stories of the many animal friends she has had over the years. The Smithsonian Associates, a division of the institution that offers lectures, film screenings, live performances and workshops, hosted the sold-out event.
Today, White made a stop, as one might expect, at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. When I interviewed White last week in anticipation of her trip, she was excited for this side excursion. “I have been to the National Zoo a couple of times, but this time I get a backstage tour, and I am really thrilled,” she said.
White started her morning at the Giant Panda House, where she met 13-year-old Mei Xiang. She fed Mei a pear, and the panda showed White how she extends her arm through the cage to have her blood routinely drawn. Next, White visited the Bird House, where she hugged a kiwi. “We have a very unusual kiwi here, our ambassador kiwi,” says Kathy Brader, the zoo’s kiwi expert. “Kiwi are not known to be warm and fuzzy creatures. In fact, they are usually quite aggressive. But Manaia is just this really laid back kind of puppy dog.” White fed six-year-old Manaia some “kiwi loaf,” a mixture of beef, mixed vegetables, chopped up fruit and bird pellets, and the bird climbed up into her lap. “I have only seen him do that with two other people, besides me,” says Brader. Not only did she respond to the bird himself, adds Brader, but White wanted to hear about the zoo’s work with the birds. The zookeeper gave the actress a little lesson in kiwi reproduction. “They actually lay one of the largest eggs per body weight,” Brader later explained to me. “In human terms, it is like a 100-pound woman having a 15 to 20-pound baby.”
White then watched the Western lowland gorillas, including three-year-old Kibibi, in their habitat. She held a tiny lemur leaf frog, admired some Japanese giant salamanders and visited with the elephants. (White had heard about Shanthi, the zoo’s harmonica-playing elephant.) She was even introduced to “Rose,” the zoo’s Cuban crocodile, named after her “Golden Girls” character, Rose Nylund. “You could tell that this was someone who really generally cares about zoos,” says Brader. After her tour, from 12:30 p.m. to 2 p.m., White signed copies of her books for the public.
In Betty & Friends, the actress credits her love for zoos to her parents, who were also animal lovers. ”It was from them I learned that a visit to the zoo was like traveling to a whole new country inhabited by a variety of wondrous creatures I could never see anywhere else in quite the same way,” she writes. “They taught me not to rush from one exhibit to the next but to spend time watching one group until I began to really see the animals and observe their interactions.”
May 15, 2012
“We do not want a war. We do not know whether there will be war. But we know that forces hostile to us possess weapons that could destroy us if we were unready. These weapons create a new threat—radioactive fallout that can spread death anywhere.
That is why we must prepare.”
-The Family Fallout Shelter (1959), published by the United States Office of Civil and Defense mobilization
The Andersons of Fort Wayne, Indiana, were preparing for nuclear fallout even before the government disseminated this booklet, which includes building plans for five basic shelters. In 1955, the family of three purchased a steel fallout shelter, complete with four drop-down beds, a chemical pit toilet and a hand cranked air exchanger for refreshing their air supply, and had it installed 15 feet below their front lawn for a total of $1,800.
Neighbors watched as a crane lowered the shelter, resembling a septic tank, into a pit. A few years later, in 1961, there was reportedly more commotion, when, at about the time of the Berlin Crisis, the Andersons had the shelter reinterred. Because it had not been sufficiently anchored, with the area’s water table in mind, it had crept back up until it finally poked through the surface.
Larry Bird, a curator in the division of political history at the National Museum of American History, first heard about the Cold War relic in 1991. Tim Howey, then-owner of the Fort Wayne home, had written a letter to the museum. He had removed some trees and shrubs that had hid the shelter’s access point and a few ventilation pipes for years, and, as a result, was fielding more and more questions from curious passers-by. While Howey was tiring of the attention, there was clearly public interest in the artifact, and he wondered if perhaps the Smithsonian would want it for its collection.
At the time, Bird was on the lookout for objects that would tell interesting stories about science in American life. Some of his colleagues at the museum were preparing an exhibition on the topic and were trying to recruit him to curate a section specifically on domestic life. “I saw the letter, and I thought this is your science in the home right here,” recalls Bird.
The curator had to see the fallout shelter for himself, and in late March of 1991, he made a scouting trip to Fort Wayne. Louis Hutchins, a historian, and Martin Burke, a museum conservator, accompanied him. “When you actually see it and sit in it,” says Bird, “it raises more questions about just what they thought they were doing.”
For starters, in the case of nuclear attack, exactly how long was a family expected to stay burrowed in this tiny space? (Bird recently posted a video (embedded below) to YouTube of his first climb down into the shelter, which gives a sense of just how cramped the quarters are.) ”There is enough space for a six-foot person to stand up in the crown of it,” he says.
The curator found most government literature on fallout shelters to be pretty nondescript in terms of how much time had to pass after a bomb struck before it was safe to emerge, but the magazine Popular Science made an estimate. “The best guess now is: Prepare to live in your shelter for two weeks,” declared an article from December 1961. After being in it, Bird says, “That is probably about the length anyone would want to stay in one of these things before they killed each other or ran out of supplies and then killed each other.”
The fallout shelter, the museum team decided, was a powerful symbol of the fear that was so pervasive in the United States during the Cold War. “If you had money and you were frightened enough, it is the kind of thing that you would have invested in,” says Bird. And, in the 1950s and ’60s, many people, like the Andersons, were investing. “The shelter business is booming like a 25-megaton blast,” Popular Science reported.
The National Museum of American History arranged for Martin Enterprises, the company that had originally installed the shelter, to exhume it and haul it to Washington, D.C. on a flatbed. (As it turned out, the company did it for free.) “Some people thought that it would be so corroded. But you have to go along and do the job to find out,” says Bird. “It turned out it was fine.”
Until this past November, the family fallout shelter was on display in the museum’s long-running “Science in American Life” exhibition. A window was cut into the side of the double-hulled structure, so that visitors could peer inside. The museum staged it with sleeping bags, board games, toothpaste and other supplies from the era to suggest what it might have looked like when its owners had readied it for an emergency.
After his involvement in the acquisition, Bird started to get calls to let him know about and even invite him to other fallout shelters. “There are many, many more,” he says. “I imagine that the suburbs in Virginia and Maryland are just honeycombed with this kind of stuff.”
* For more about disaster shelters, read Smithsonian staff writer Abigail Tucker’s story on a recent boom in the luxury bomb shelter market.