April 12, 2012
On March 17, Ollie Cantos took his 12-year-old triplet sons, Leo, Nic and Steven—not otherwise big fans of art—for a visit to the Smithsonian American Art Museum. But what Cantos hadn’t told the boys was that the museum was debuting its new exhibition “The Art of Video Games.”
“They absolutely live for video games,” says Cantos, an attorney that works for the federal government. The boys have a Nintendo GameCube and a Wii, also a broken PlayStation 2. They are aficionados of combat games, such as Dragon Ball Z and Marvel vs. Capcom, and play them in a room in their home equipped with a booming surround sound system.
“When we finally got there, we walked in, and they had no idea still. We went to the front desk, and I said, ‘Hi, we are here for ‘The Art of Video Games?’” says Cantos. “Suddenly, the three of them lit up. ‘Video games!’”
To a lot of folks, Cantos says, our interest in gaming seems counterintuitive. “Because none of us can see at all,” he says. “We are totally blind.” Cantos has been blind his entire life. “I have light perception, but they don’t,” he says, of his three sons.
Cantos and his sons spent more than three hours touring the exhibition. Leo, Nic and Steven played Pac-Man, Super Mario Brothers, The Secret of Monkey Island, Myst and Flower in one room, where the games are projected on backdrops 12 feet high. Another room contains an interactive timeline of the 40-year history of video games, with 20 kiosks featuring systems from the Atari 2600, released in 1977, to Wii and PlayStation 3. Each kiosk has the actual gaming device in a display case, and visitors can press buttons to hear about four games that were popular on the system. “They listened to every word on the headsets at every kiosk,” says LeeAnn Lawch, a docent at the museum.
Video games are just as addictive to the visually-impaired, explains Cantos, a former owner of an Atari 2600 and a fan of classic games including Space Invaders and Ms. Pac-Man. (He also plays Ms. Pac-Man, Angry Birds and Temple Run on his iPhone.) As for his sons, he adds, “They are making their way through the levels somehow.”
Leo, Nic and Steven prefer combat games, because they can compete head-to-head and stay within one virtual space. “I thought maybe driving games aren’t their thing, but they love Mario Kart 7,” says Cantos. “I don’t really know how they do it, but they keep doing really well.” Adventure games that require maneuvering through a three-dimensional space, jumping over and through things, are, naturally, more difficult for them. But Cantos has coached some of his sons’ friends to provide verbal cues as they navigate their way through different scenes. “Their friends feel like they get to help. They don’t want my boys to die in the game, so they are like, ‘No, no, no. Go left! Right!’ There is a lot of yelling that tends to take place. In the meantime, my boys are in suspense too. Their adrenaline is going because they are trying to do exactly what their friends tell them,” says Cantos. “When they succeed, they all feel victorious.”
As the Cantos family toured “The Art of Video Games,” Lawch read panels and described the graphics and actions of the games. A retired registered nurse, she has experience working with visually-impaired individuals. “Mostly, I tried to translate the visuals to descriptions utilizing additional senses. ‘The air appears hot. There don’t appear to be any nature sounds like birds or waterfalls—just hot, dusty and dry wind. It might smell like hot metal or burning tires,’” says Lawch. Keeping up with the action was a challenge. “He’s running through fire, jumping over a cliff. He’s going to fall. Things are exploding,” says Lawch. “I have never talked and read so fast in my life!”
Cantos and his sons visited the exhibition during the opening weekend in hopes that they would cross paths with some of the movers and shakers within the video game industry. They met Billy Mitchell, a former record holder for Kong and Pac-Man and star of the 2007 documentary “King of Kong,” as well as Chris Melissinos, the exhibition’s curator and self-admitted game addict. Now, they are eager to connect with video game designers. “The big thing that we want programmers to know is to just factor us in,” says Cantos. “We would like to not be an afterthought. We are just another part of the video game market.”
At this point, text-adventure games accommodate the visually-impaired, but many graphics-based games, popular today, could use some accessibility features. Cantos suggests that designers program the games so that menu options and any other text or narrative that appears on the screen is read aloud. Like subtitles for the deaf, maybe an option for verbal descriptions could be offered at the beginning of a game.
“My boys are willing to market test it,” says Cantos. His sons, he adds, have spread the Gospel of video gaming to others who otherwise may not have considered it much. “They are very, very passionate about this stuff,” says Cantos.
As a father, Cantos is grateful to the video game industry for providing an incentive for his sons to do well in school. “If they don’t do well with their grades, then they don’t get to play,” says Cantos. “They are just like any other kids. They like to have fun.”
March 22, 2012
The Huichol, a native people in the Sierra Madre mountains of west-central Mexico, are known for their elaborate beadwork. Typically, the community’s artisans adorn bowls, masks, animal skulls and gourds with brightly-colored glass beads. The tiny beads are arranged in geometric patterns as well as to represent fanciful depictions of animals and crops that carry spiritual significance.
However, in 2010, two Huichol families—the Bautistas from Jalisco and the Ortiz from Nayarit, Mexico—embarked on a project that gave a contemporary spin to the traditional art form. In no less than 9,000 hours, eight family members used resin to adhere more than two million beads to the exterior of a 1990 Volkswagen Beetle, on display at the National Museum of American Indian through May 6. The eye-catching work of art is called the Vochol, a name derived from a combination of “Vocho,” a slang term in Mexico for a VW Beetle, and “Huichol.”
In this video, Kerry Boyd, assistant director of exhibitions, operations and program support at the American Indian Museum, describes the car and its vivid imagery. The Vochol was given a grand welcome Tuesday evening by Smithsonian Institution Secretary G. Wayne Clough, Mexican Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan, museum director Kevin Gover and the Washington, D.C.-based mariachi ensemble Mariachi Los Amigos.
The art project was made possible by the Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City, the Association of Friends of the Museo de Arte Popular, the Embassy of Mexico and the Mexican Cultural Institute. After its stay at the American Indian Museum, the car will continue on its international tour, and will ultimately be auctioned off with the proceeds to go towards promoting the work of other native Mexican artists.
In January 2011, the Smithsonian Channel approached Kevin Hockley, an Ontario-based model maker, with a tall (and rather long) order: Build us a snake.
Several years ago, Carlos Jaramillo, a paleontologist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, and scientists from the University of Florida, University of Toronto and Indiana University unearthed fossils of a prehistoric snake in northern Colombia. To tell the story of the discovery, the film producers wanted a full-scale replica of the creature.
The snake, however, was not your typical garter snake or rattlesnake, which Hockley had sculpted before, but Titanoboa, a 2,500-pound “titanic boa” as long as a school bus that lived 58 million years ago.
Hockley’s 48-foot long replica of Titanoboa slurping down a dyrosaur (an ancient relative of crocodiles), is being unveiled today at Grand Central Station in New York City. The sculpture will be on display through March 23, and then it will be transported to Washington, D.C., where it will be featured in the exhibition “Titanoboa: Monster Snake” at the National Museum of Natural History, opening March 30. Smithsonian Channel’s two-hour special of the same title will premiere on April 1.
“Kevin seemed like a natural choice,” says Charles Poe, an executive producer at the Smithsonian Channel. Poe was especially impressed by a narwhal and a 28-foot-long giant squid that the artist made for the Royal Ontario Museum. “He had experience making museum-quality replicas, and even more important, he’d created some that seem larger than life. When you’re recreating the largest snake in world history it helps to have a background in the fantastical,” Poe says.
In fact, Hockley has been in the business of making taxidermy mounts and life-size sculptures for more than 30 years. He mounted his first ruffed grouse as a teen by following instructions from a library book. Hockley spent his high school years apprenticing as a taxidermist in Collingwood, Ontario, and he worked a dozen years at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, creating mounts as well as artistic reconstructions of animals and their habitats. Today, as owner of Hockley Studios, a three-person operation headquartered on the 15-acre property where he lives, near Bancroft, Ontario, he builds bronze sculptures of caribou, lynx and wolves and life-like replicas of mastodon and other Ice Age animals, such as extinct peccaries and jaguars, for museums, visitor centers and parks.
Creating Titanoboa wasn’t easy. Scientists piecing together what the prehistoric creature might have looked like provided Hockley with some basic parameters. “They linked it strongly to modern-day snakes, which was very helpful,” says Hockley. “It was sort of a blend of a boa constrictor and an anaconda.” He studied photographs and video of boas and anacondas and visited live specimens at the Indian River Reptile Zoo, near Peterborough, Ontario. “I could see the way the skeleton and the musculature moved as the animal moved,” says Hockley. “There are all these little bulges of muscle at the back of the head that convey the animal’s jaws are working.” He made sure that those bulges were on his model. Hockley also noted the background colors of anacondas and the markings of boa constrictors. Jason Head, a vertebrate paleontologist and herpetologist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, surmised that the coloration of the prehistoric snake might have been similar. “Of course, this is speculation,” says Hockley. “It could have been pink with polka dots for all we know.”
The first step to building the replica was coming up with a pose. Hockley produced a scale model in clay, an inch of which represented a foot of the actual replica. The snake’s body forms two loops, where museum visitors can wander. “I tried to make it interactive, so you can actually get in and feel what it is like to be surrounded by a snake,” says Hockley. He stacked large sheets of 12-inch-thick Styrofoam high enough to make a snake with a 30-inch circumference. He drew the pose on to the Styrofoam and used a chainsaw, fish filet knives and a power grinder with coarse sand paper disks on it to carve the snake. Hockley applied paper mâché to the Styrofoam and then a layer of polyester resin to strengthen it. On top of that, he put epoxy putty and used rubber molds to texture it with scales. “The hardest part was trying to make the scales flow and continue as lines,” he says. When the putty dried, he primed and painted the snake. He started with the strongest markings and then layered shades over the top to achieve the depth of color he desired. “It makes the finished product that much more convincing,” he says. The snake was made in six sections to allow for easier transport, but devising a way to seamlessly connect the parts was also tricky. Hockley used a gear mechanism in a trailer jack, so that by ratcheting
racheting a tool, he can draw the pieces tightly together.
From start to finish, construction of the replica took about five months. As for materials, it required 12 four-foot-by-eight-foot sheets of Styrofoam, 20 gallons of polyester resin, 400 pounds of epoxy resin and numerous gallons of paint. Smithsonian Channel producers installed a camera in Hockley’s studio to create a timelapse video (above) of the process.
“It was an amazing opportunity,” says Hockley. The artist hopes that his model of Titanoboa gives people an appreciation for how big animals could be 60 million years ago. Since snakes are coldblooded, the size they can attain is dependent on the temperature in which they live, and temperatures during Titanoboa‘s time were warmer than today. As a result, the snake was much bigger than today’s super snakes. “Hopefully they will be awestruck by its realism,” he says. “A little bit of fear would be nice.”
March 21, 2012
Each March, the Smithsonian Institution Archives celebrates Women’s History Month by posting historical photographs of female scientists, science journalists and engineers to a Flickr Commons album. Taken from the 191os to 1960s, the portraits capture many women who were pioneers in their fields. But for a number of the photographs, however, there is little in terms of caption information identifying the women.
The women are pictured at their desks with microscopes, botanical illustrations or jarred specimens; standing at chalkboards displaying graphs and equations; and in labs tending to test tubes, beakers and petri dishes. A few are scraping away at archaeological sites.
“There are a lot of firsts,” says supervisory archivist Tammy Peters of the photos that are identified. “First woman to get a PhD in geology, or first woman to get this particular degree.”
The images come from a cache of records from a news organization called Science Service. Founded in 1921, Science Service popularized and disseminated scientific information. (It is now called the Society for Science & the Public.) ”It was kind of at the forefront of putting information about these women out there,” says Peters.
But with so many of the photos lacking identification, the Smithsonian Institution Archives decided it would reach out to the public for help in identifying and researching the scientists. Each March, a handful of largely unidentified portraits are posted to the Archives’ Flickr site.
“I was a little skeptical at first about what we could achieve through crowd-sourcing,” says Peters, “but we had really great success.” According to the archivist, the first real “OMG moment” was sparked by a photograph (above) posted in March 2009. In it, a young woman with a black bob, eyes deadlocked on the camera, sat at a desk, pen in hand. She was identified simply as “E.S. Goodwin.”
Thanks to the detective work of Flickr users, bits and pieces surfaced—first, her wedding announcement and then a high school yearbook photo. The woman was positively identified as Elizabeth Sabin Goodwin, an artist based in Washington, D.C. who had attended the Corcoran School of Art in the 1920s. Given that her portrait was in the Science Service files, the archives guessed that Goodwin was a scientific illustrator.
Then, came a surprise. Linda Goodwin Eisenstadt posted a comment: “This is my grandmother.” Eisenstadt was able to fill in many of the gaps in Goodwin’s life story. She lived from 1902 to 1980, and was, in fact, an illustrator for Science Service. In the 1920s, she drew cartoonographs, which comically illustrated political, social and economic statistics.
Marcel Chotkowski LaFollette, a research associate at the archives, compared drawings Eisenstadt provided to others in the Smithsonian collections and ultimately found 38 unsigned cartoonographs that she could comfortably attribute to Goodwin.
“This is still is one of my favourite ‘stories’ on Flickr,” wrote Flickr user Brenda Anderson.
Of the 15 photographs of scientists the archives posted this month, Peters has strong leads on eight. She was particularly curious about Bertha Pallan, an “expedition secretary” shown holding atlatl darts (right).
“Certain images are going to attract your attention. This was one of them,” says Peters. “It is a stunning picture.” So far, Flickr users have reported that Pallan grew up in Southern California in the early 1900s. She married three times; her third husband was Oscar Cody, or “Iron Eyes Cody,” an actor who played Indian roles in numerous 20th-Century American films. Most significantly, Pallan has been referred to as the first female Native American archaeologist. She was secretary for an expedition of the Gypsum Cave in Nevada, when this photograph was taken.
Perhaps you know more.
Browse through this year’s additions.
March 20, 2012
In February, to commemorate Black History Month, the Smithsonian Channel, Comcast and the National Museum of American History hosted an essay contest for high school students. Participants were asked to watch “Seizing Justice: The Greensboro 4,” a Smithsonian Channel program about the 1960 sit-in at the F.W. Woolworth store in Greensboro, North Carolina. Then, they had to answer one of three questions for the chance to win an iPad 2. More than 200 students entered, but it was 15-year-old Kaleb Harris, a sophomore at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Maryland, who won the grand prize.
According to Harris, he wrote his winning essay at his mother’s urging. He was not familiar with the story of the Greensboro sit-in, but he watched the Smithsonian Channel segment and learned about Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, David Richmond and Ezell Blair, Jr. (now Jabreel Khazan), the four African-American students at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College, who defiantly sat down at the whites-only luncheonette. Harris was moved when he visited the National Museum of American History and saw the actual lunch counter where the nonviolent protest was held.
“I honestly don’t know if I could have done what they did back in the day,” says Harris. “I would have liked to have tried, but it might have taken awhile for me to get used to it.”
In his essay, Harris reflects on the Civil Rights movement and what its leaders set out to do. He writes:
Have the goals of the Civil Rights movement been achieved? Yes and no. The Civil Rights Movement was centered on justice and equal treatment for African Americans and other races. Not all of the goals have been reached. The goals of freedom, education and justice have been reached, but there is still racism that is present to this very day.
In fact, Harris recalls a time just last year when he felt that he faced discrimination as an African American. He and his family were driving to California and had stopped at a restaurant in Texas late one evening. When they asked if they could be seated for dinner, the restaurant employees said they were just closing. “We saw a bunch of white people staring at us like we were awkward and out of our territory,” says Harris. “I didn’t like the way that felt.”
At a recent event for area high school students at the National Museum of American History, Joseph McNeil, one of the “Greensboro 4,” announced that Harris was the essay contest winner. The teenager had the opportunity to meet McNeil. “It was inspirational,” says Harris. “Also, it was kind of funny because the first thing he said to me was ‘Wow, that was really good. It sounded like I wrote that myself.’”
McNeil spoke to the group about why he did what he did and the gumption it took to be able to sit down at the segregated lunch counter. For as serious as the address was, McNeil also conveyed a sense of humor. “He talked about how the pie and the coffee wasn’t all that great,” says Harris. The two exchanged email addresses so that they might stay in touch.