November 10, 2011
Despite having offices just across the National Mall from each other, it was in the tiny town of Bocas del Toro, Panama, that I met Laetitia Plaisance. It was September 2009, and I was at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute’s field station in Bocas tagging along with coral reef biologist Nancy Knowlton, as she studied a coral reef’s mass spawning event. Plaisance, a marine ecologist at the National Museum of Natural History, was on Knowlton’s scuba diving team.
During her stay at STRI, Plaisance was also deploying devices called autonomous reef monitoring structures, or ARMS, off the coast, for the purposes of her own study. In the past few years, she has collected crustaceans—ranging in size from five millimeters to five centimeters—from dead coral heads or ARMs at depths of 26 to 39 feet in designated sites in the Indian, Pacific and Caribbean oceans. Recently, using DNA barcoding, she determined that a far greater number of crustaceans—as many as 525 different species—far higher than expected, lived in the 20.6 square feet of natural and manmade structures. The results of her globe-trotting research, a study titled “The Diversity of Coral Reefs: What Are We Missing?” is now available in the journal PLoS ONE. I caught up with her the other day to discuss the study.
What sites did you include, and how were those sites selected?
We selected the sites to span the range of diversity that we find on a reef. Typically, there are more species in the North (Lizard Island, Australia) than in the South (Heron Island, Australia) and in the West (Great Barrier Reef sites) than in the East (French Frigate Shoals, Hawaii – The Line Islands – Moorea, Frecnh Polynesia) in the Pacific Ocean. We also added two other ocean basins—the Eastern Indian Ocean (Ningaloo Reef, Australia) and the Caribbean (Bocas del Toro, Panama) that have very different evolutionary histories and biogeographies. The Caribbean reefs are very degraded and it was interesting to see how they compare with Indo-Pacific sites.
Can you explain what an ARMS is?
The ARMS were developed by NOAA in Hawaii. Basically, it is a little home for all the different species to settle in. It is about 20 centimeters with layers, completely opened or closed, for the species that prefer open layers with a lot of currents or the species that like little caves. You have all these different habitats in it. It is a great sampling device that supposed to mimic, roughly, the complexity of dead coral. We can use them in sand, grass beds, in all different sorts of habitats. We can process them very easily, and we can compare the results from site to site.
How often did you visit the sites? And, how did you go about your collecting at each?
I visited the sites once or twice depending on how and when the field trips were organized. Usually, we would dive in the morning. We tried to find live coral heads. Sometimes we were successful and sometimes not. Then, we’d take them back to the lab. I worked mainly alone, but sometimes I had volunteers helping. I would start in the lab, opening the coral head, breaking them down. It took about a day to examine the whole coral head because there were so many things living in it. I just grabbed all of the crustaceans that I could see and stored them under running saltwater. I would take the crustaceans, take pictures, record data and then take a bit of tissue for molecular studies and store the rest of the body for morphological studies later on. I didn’t do any morphological studies, but we have collaborations with people who do, so I would save the rest of the crustaceans for them. Then, I would take back to Washington only the tissues to work on the DNA sequencing.
Why did you choose to focus on crustaceans?
They are probably the most numerous group living in the coral heads. It is about half crustaceans and the rest would be mollusk and other things. Crustaceans were really diverse and abundant. But also they are very easy to sequence. Mollusks are a hassle to sequence. To avoid those technical problems, we chose the crustaceans.
How did you use DNA barcoding?
People have been using DNA barcoding now for about 10 years. It is a short sequence fragment, and we sequence the same fragment for everything. We have universal primers. It’s not that easy, of course. You always have problems. But it is easier than all the other molecular techniques right now. I sequenced that short fragment in each crustacean and then compared all those fragments for all the different species. Basically, if it is five percent different, it is two different species. If it is less than five percent different, it is the same species. So it was really easy to determine how many species we had.
In total, you found 525 different species. How many did you expect to find?
Yes. We really didn’t expect that much. Compared with diversity estimations in coral reefs, we found a lot. In the Great Barrier Reef, we had about 200 decapods, when the Great Barrier Reef is supposed to have 900—and we only sequenced [what was found in] two square meters. So it is just so much more compared to the estimates that have been published.
After I sequenced everything, I compared my sequences with the sequences that have been published and are available. Only a few of the crustaceans have been sequenced previously, and a lot of them have probably not been described yet.
What’s next for you?
The highlight of this research was really to be able to dive on the reef and witness the beauty of it. But the shocking part was to see how everything can be destroyed so fast. When we went back to Panama in 2010, the reef had bleached completely. The temperatures were really high. Where we actually had deployed the ARMS there, it was a dead zone a year later. There was nothing living anymore.
I think coral reefs are much more important than the general public knows and the government knows. They have so many threats right now, locally and globally. It is unbearable to see the destruction. That is why right now I am actually transitioning to conservation.
I am interested in the resiliency of the reefs. Reefs can undergo a phase shift. Basically, you have plenty of healthy corals and a few weeks later you just have algae that has overgrown the reef. I am trying to find solutions to reverse these phase shifts.
October 27, 2011
In past years, our ATM team of bloggers has collectively pored over the Smithsonian’s collections to bring you museum-inspired costume ideas. Last year was a banner year for us, as we ginned up ideas for dressing as Carol Burnett in her curtain rod dress, from when she spoofed Gone With the Wind on her comedy show, and Abel the Monkey, who paved the way for human space flight. For a group costume, we went conceptual, suggesting you and six friends each wear a white t-shirt inscribed with one of the seven words in artist Lawrence Weiner’s “A RUBBER BALL THROWN ON THE SEA,” on display at the Hirshhorn.
This year, however, I decided to turn to the Institution’s resident experts—curators at the museums—for their insider’s insight. Here is what they suggest:
1. Man Ray’s Nut Girls
Melissa Ho, assistant curator at the Hirshhorn Museum, has had collage on the brain, as she has been busily working on an upcoming show of collage and assemblage works called “Over, Under, Next.” She suggests cobbling together a costume inspired by Man Ray’s 1941 photograph and mixed media collage, Nut Girls. In it, the American artist puts a walnut, in place of a head, on a cutout of one woman, and on another figure, the walnut covers the woman’s head and torso. “Carve a big walnut out of Styrofoam and slip on a romper,” says Ho.
Another idea for a costume party, she says, is to dress as Swiss sculptor Jean Tinguely’s The Sorceress (1961). “This is one of his motorized kinetic sculptures,” says Ho. “When turned on, it shakes and vibrates until its bits and pieces start to fall off—so perfect outfit for dancing!”
According to Thomas Lera, the Winton M. Blout Chair in Research at the National Postal Museum, Dracula is the Halloween character that postal administrations around the world have depicted the most on stamps. In 1997, the U.S. Postal Service issued a “Classic Movie Monsters” stamp set, featuring five villains from Universal Studio films. Dracula was one. “As a special security feature, a process called ‘scrambled indicia’ was used, which overlaps symbols and images that are not seen by the naked eye when printed,” says Lera. “The Dracula stamp has three vampire bats in the blue background, which can only be seen by a precision optical device using elongated lenses called lenticules.” Lera suggests modeling a Dracula costume after this or the many other portrayals—a Canadian stamp honoring the 100th anniversary of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula in 1997, a Samoan stamp from 2000 featuring the Sesame Street’s Count von Count and a British stamp from 2008 with actor Christopher Lee as Dracula commemorating the 50th anniversary of Hammer Horror Films.
3. Dr. John Jeffries
Seeking input from Smithsonian curators certainly brought some little-known characters to light. When I asked Tom Crouch, senior curator of aeronautics at the National Air and Space Museum, who or what he might be inspired to dress up as for Halloween, he was quick to answer Dr. John Jeffries. Who, you might ask? Jeffries is not exactly a household name, but his story may be an interesting one to tell at a party. On January 7, 1785, Jeffries flew the English Channel in a balloon with Pierre Blanchard, making him the first American to make a free flight. “He wore a great costume, which included a leopard skin hat to keep his head warm, a cork jacket to keep him afloat in case of a channel landing and a Jerry Seinfeld style ‘puffy shirt,’ complete with frilled cuffs, so that, I suppose, he would look good in the post-flight interviews,” says Crouch. NASM has the large barometer and thermometer that Jeffries carried with him in its collection. As it would have it, some pieces of the outfit are at Harvard’s Houghton Library, where his papers are kept. “Fortunately, some years ago my friend and Smithsonian curator of costume, Claudia Kidwell, studied the Jeffries garments and prepared patterns for them, so sewing up my costume would not be all that difficult,” says Crouch. Over three decades, Crouch has researched the life of Jeffries. “I could step right into the good doctor’s shoes and answer any questions that might arise,” he says.
4. Empress Dowager Cixi
Although he does not think he would make a convincing Empress Dowager, David Hogge, head of the archives at the Freer and Sackler galleries, offers it up as a suggestion to others. Empress Cixi reigned as sovereign of China for 45 years in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Nineteen portraits of her are currently on display in the exhibition “Power | Play: China’s Empress Dowager,” which Hogge curated, at the Arther M. Sackler Gallery, if you are in need of some inspiration. Empress Cixi wore her fingernails about an inch long, and on her third and pinky fingers, notes Hogge, she wore elaborate jeweled, gold filigreed fingernail protectors. “Those seem to give people the creeps,” says Hogge.
5. An Early Human
Rick Potts, curator of anthropology at the National Museum of Natural History, is a self-described Halloween fanatic. “What could be better than to skulk around the neighborhood or delight party-goers on Halloween night by dressing up as a realistic early human?” he says. “I wish I could turn some of the amazing visages in our Hall of Human Origins into masks.”
6. Annie Oakley
In 2007, the National Portrait Gallery purchased a photograph at an auction of sharpshooter Annie Oakley taken in 1885. “She was a cowgirl, known as “little sure shot” for her extraordinary ability to hit a moving target, most famously a small coin, even on horseback, all while maintaining ‘lady-like’ composure and elegance,” says Anne Collins Goodyear, associate curator of prints and drawings at the museum. “Wonderful inspiration for the imagination!” In the photograph, Oakley holds a rifle and is wearing a hat, blouse and fringed skirt with embroidered flowers.
7. Bob Dylan
Gail Davidson, head of the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum’s department of drawings, prints and graphic design, considers Milton Glaser’s famous 1966 poster of singer Bob Dylan great costume fodder. Glaser, an artist and graphic designer, created the poster early in his career, to be included in the packaging of Dylan’s “Greatest Hits” LP. In terms of the poster’s composition, Glaser was influenced by a 1957 self-portrait by Marcel Duchamp. But, he gave it a psychedelic feel by adding bold colors to Dylan’s tousled hair. “I would dress up by dying my hair in wavelets of the different colors in the poster,” says Davidson.
8. A Zoo Animal…Take Your Pick
Cute baby animals born at the National Zoo are our bread and butter here at the ATM blog. But Craig Saffoe, the Zoo’s curator of Great Cats and Andean Bears, reminds us, “What’s cuter than an infant dressed as a full-maned lion?” Animals make fine costumes for adults too. Dressing as an endangered species gives one the opportunity to have an awesome costume and educate friends, notes Saffoe. There is also great potential for themed family costumes. “A mother and her infant could dress as a kangaroo and her joey, a banana and a monkey or a eucalyptus tree and a koala bear. A family could dress as a pride of lions, a gaggle of geese or a flock of flamingos. Whatever animal costume you choose, don’t forget you’ll need a zookeeper!” says the curator, whose son attended this year’s Boo at the Zoo event at the National Zoo in a zookeeper uniform.
October 25, 2011
The National Portrait Gallery has hosted two installments of its Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition. Simply put, artists submit one portrait. The artist must create it from an in-person encounter with his or subject, as opposed to from a photograph, and a jury of curators, artists and professors reviews the entries. The finalists’ portraits are exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery, and three top winners receive cash prizes. The grand prize winner is awarded $25,000 and may be commissioned to portray a famous, living American in a portrait for the museum’s collection.
The winner of the first, David Lenz, painted a portrait of Eunice Kennedy Shriver for the museum’s collection, and Dave Woody, grand prize winner of the second contest, captured restaurateur Alice Waters in a photographic portrait, to be installed at the National Portrait Gallery in late January. Now, the museum is in search of the next top portraitist. The museum is accepting submissions through November 30. (The original call for entries through October 31 was extended.)
“I look for interesting approaches to the idea of a portrait, for a work of art that has a strong impact on me, and for evidence that the artist has mastered his or her craft, whether that is painting, photography, time-based media, etc.,” says Brandon Fortune, a curator of painting and sculpture at the National Portrait Gallery and a juror in the competition. The museum is interested in seeing how portraiture is being redefined in the contemporary art scene, and jurors have been impressed by the ways that past entrants have pushed boundaries. “We have seen videos with no images—only words—and paintings with no visible face. We’ve also seen artists who are finding subjects everywhere around them. Contemporary portraits no longer focus on elite subjects.”
Fortune encourages artists to take a chance. “In 2009, the second place winner, Stanley Rayfield, was a newly minted art school graduate. The jury didn’t know that—and they were very moved by the strength of his portrait of his father,” she says.
Virginia Outwin Boochever, a former docent at the National Portrait Gallery, endowed the competition to support artists who were exploring the realm of portraiture. Boochever studied art at the graduate level and was an avid collector herself. She knew about an annual competition held at London’s National Portrait Gallery and wanted the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery to host a similar contest.
The grand prize winner of the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition has the opportunity to create a portrait of a famous American. “We work with the artist to see what areas of contemporary life and endeavor are important to them,” says Fortune. “Then, consulting with our staff historians, we draw up a list of possible candidates, whose portraits would be significant additions to our permanent collection. Our advisory board votes on the subject.” And, with that commissioned portrait, the museum expands its collection, further exploring American history through portraits and visual biography. From my perspective, it seems to be a win-win for both parties involved.
October 20, 2011
Alabama-based artist Kathleen Nowak Tucci takes rubber bicycle and motorcycle inner tubes and turns them into couture necklaces, bracelets and earrings. This coming weekend, she will be among 40 artists from around the country in Washington, D.C., to show, and sell, their clothes, jewelry and accessories at Craft2Wear, an event organized by the Smithsonian Women’s Committee. I recently interviewed the eco-artist by email:
How did you first get involved with making jewelry from recycled rubber?
I have been a gallery artist for over 25 years and have worked in many mediums including ceramics, silversmithing and painting in watercolor and acrylics. I had been experimenting using industrial rubber products such as o-rings to make jewelry. Then I got an idea that needed thin rubber. I ended up with two boxes of bicycle inner tubes, but my original idea did not work. So after sitting in my studio for several months, I started to just play with the rubber inner tubes and realized that it was a really interesting material for jewelry. It is lightweight, flexible and easy to manipulate.
Where do you get the rubber?
I get the rubber from bicycle shops in Pensacola, Florida, and Mobile, Alabama. The motorcycle inner tubes come from a Harley-Davidson shop in Pensacola. At first, they would forget and throw them away. Then my mother started to make cookies for the bike shops, and they saved them all for me. They are so happy to see me with the cookies that they even carry the tubes out to the car for me. I think that they are also happy to not have to discard them and to know that they will be recycled.
In what ways do you find rubber to be an interesting medium to work in?
It is readily available, flexible, malleable and easy to cut. The inner tubes go through a washing process that removes all the “old inner tube smell.” Most people have a hard time guessing that my jewelry is made of recycled inner tubes. I purposely have stayed with just the black of the tubes because I love design and it is hard to get away with bad design using just black. After design, construction is really important to me. I spend a lot of time engineering my work to be comfortable and durable. I have found that the qualities of the rubber determine many of my designs and not what is trendy or in fashion at the moment.
You live in Atmore, Alabama, a small town that was affected by the Gulf Oil Spill. How has the spill affected your vision as an artist?
The Gulf Oil Spill was such a tragedy for the wildlife, ecosystem and economy of the Gulf Coast area. This area has some of the most beautiful white sand beaches in the world. Seeing them covered with oil was heartbreaking. Much of our economy in this area, from tourism to seafood, depends on the Gulf. We all realize how fragile this ecosystem is and how close we came to losing it.
Our small town was already affected by the recession when the Gulf Oil Spill occurred. My sister’s coffee shop, Annie’s Community Cup, was on Main Street, which is a shortcut to the beaches in Florida for anyone driving from the Midwest. The coffee shop depended on tourist stopping on the way to the beach. When all tourism stopped because of the oil spill, she had no choice but to close.
The coffee shop was in a beautiful historic building with wood floors and brick walls. I decided to rent the building from her to be able to store the inner tubes and to have a larger space to work. My studio at home had begun to look like a tire blowout. We now use the “Rubber Factory” to produce and distribute the jewelry. My jewelry was featured on the August 2010 cover of the controversial “Water and Oil Issue” of Vogue Italia.
I have come to realize how much is thrown away and ends up in landfills and can actually be recycled. Though it was not my first intention, I am proud to call myself an eco-artist.
Craft2Wear will be held this Saturday and Sunday, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., at the National Building Museum. Admission is $5.
October 19, 2011
Owney, the National Postal Museum’s favorite dog, served as the unofficial mascot of the U.S. Railway Mail Service for nine years in the late 19th century. Loved by mail clerks, he was preserved by a taxidermist after he died in 1897. The Smithsonian Institution acquired his remains in 1912, and he became a permanent fixture and much-loved artifact at the National Postal Museum, when it opened in 1993.
This past year, Owney has gotten a lot of love. He underwent a conservation treatment by a taxidermist. He is the star of a new exhibition at the National Postal Museum, an augmented reality iPhone App and an upcoming children’s e-book. In July, the U.S. Postal Service released a postage stamp with his face on it. And, most recently, in partnership with the Washington Humane Society, the museum hosted an Owney look-alike contest.
The contest opened on July 27, the same day the stamp was released. Before the submission round ended in mid-September, 73 dogs were nominated. Over the voting period, from September 16 to October 17, a grand total of 8,284 votes were cast. And, today, the National Postal Museum announced the grand winner: Bentley, a four- or five-year-old terrier mix from Fremont, California.
Bentley will have his photo displayed at the museum for two weeks. His owner, Judy Perry, a legal secretary with the city attorney of San Francisco, will receive an iPad 2—and bragging rights. I spoke with Perry yesterday:
The National Postal Museum was looking for a dog that captured Owney’s spirit even more so than his looks. But Bentley actually does look like Owney. Are they similar breeds?
It’s hard to say. When I adopted Bentley from the shelter, he was listed as a border terrier mix. He is basically a terrier mutt, and I think Owney probably was too. I have seen the pictures of Owney and they look to be about the same size and same kind of coloring.
Bentley has actually played the role of Owney before. Can you explain?
Yes. Every year in early July there is a local dog show [the Niles Dog Show]. It is just a get together in the area and people bring their dogs, of all kinds. There are silly little contests like “Oldest Dog,” “Biggest Dog,” “Most Unusual Mix,” and so forth. This year, the Golden Gate Railroad Museum got involved, and they had a special category for an Owney look-alike, because they were planning a celebration here in Fremont. They had a railway postal car that they were in the process of restoring. They were going to have an event later in the month to display their car and celebrate the Owney stamp. Bentley won that contest, pretty much paws down. He was such a look-alike. So, when they had their event on July 30th, they had me bring Bentley there. Bentley was in the railway car as people came through. He was Owney for the day.
In what ways does Bentley have Owney’s spirit?
Bentley is a rescue, and a fearful dog in some ways. He is not really good with having strangers come right up to him and try to pet him. But he jumped into that railway car, and he became Owney. He was the perfect little Owney. He sat there, and people were coming up to him, petting him and taking pictures. Can you pose him this way? Can my daughter sit with him? He just sat there and was a perfect little dog. I thought he sort of got the Owney spirit a little bit that day.
How did you hear about the contest?
When he won this little local contest, that was the first time I had heard of Owney. I started researching Owney, his story and seeing everything I could find on them. I guess I must have stumbled across somewhere online some kind of an announcement that there was this National Postal Museum contest.
Did you campaign for votes?
Yes, I did. I sent out messages on Facebook and an email to all my friends, and asked them to ask their friends to vote. I made a little poster, which I posted in my office. I’ve got this whole display of Bentley and encouraged everyone there to vote. Last night, I was on the computer from the time I got home from work to the time the contest was over, just reaching out to everybody I knew online and asking them to vote and get other people to vote if they could too. We managed to pull it through.
What does it mean to you to have Bentley’s photo on display at the National Postal Museum in the coming weeks?
That was really the whole goal. When he won the first little contest here locally, and got a lot of attention, the way he took to it, I just thought he is the guy that should be the Owney representative. So, I am pretty excited about that. My daughter actually lives in Washington, D.C., and I was there in September visiting her. We did go to the Postal Museum, and we did see the Owney display. I even asked the docent there where he thought my dog’s picture would be, because I was pretty confident we were going to win.
How did you come to own Bentley?
I got him in 2008. I was at the Niles Dog Show that year. The local animal shelter has an adoption mobile, a big bus. It has windows with little displays for the dogs or cats to be in. Bentley was in one of those windows. I looked at him and just thought that’s the dog I want. I went down a few days later to the shelter. Fortunately, he was still there, and I adopted him.