September 17, 2012
This morning Washington, D.C. woke up to joyful news. For the first time in seven years, there is a new little cub hanging out with her mother, the Giant Panda Mei Xiang. Visitors flocked to the Zoo when baby Tai Shan was born. Because of an agreement with Chinese officials, all giant pandas born at the Zoo have to be returned for breeding. The Smithsonian wished Tai Shan a heartfelt farewell with a charming video.
The Zoo reports the new cub was born at 10:46 p.m., Sunday, September 16.
“Mei Xiang is behaving exactly the same way she did when Tai Shan was born,” says chief veterinarian Suzan Murray. “She is cradling her cub closely, and she looks so tired, but every time she tries to lay down, the cub squawks and she sits right up and cradles the cub more closely. She is the poster child for a perfect panda mom.”
For now, the staff will have to monitor the giant panda from afar, giving the mother time to bond with the cub. One of the caretakers, Juan Rodriguez says the team is now surveying the pair 24-7; “We’re rotating amongst the keepers, overnight shifts.”
The cub was first discovered when one of Rodriguez’ colleagues just happened to turn on the panda cam at home and noticed some funny noises, indicating Mei Xiang might have some company.
“They’re very vocal when they’re young,” explains Rodriguez. The team has largely been observing the pair of pandas through audio cues. “We really havent gotten the chance to get a good visual yet, just a few glimpses here and there, but we have been hearing the baby.”
According to Chinese tradition, says Rodriguez, the cub won’t be named until 100 days after the birth, just in time for holiday season. Name suggestions have already come rolling into Smithsonian magazine’s twitter feed, including Shu Yun, which means gentle cloud and Country Crock, a riff on older brother Tai Shan’s nickname Butterstick.
Like Tai Shan, the new cub will eventually have to go to China for further breeding. Though that transfer usually occurs when the panda is around two years old and would be independent in the wild, Tai Shan was granted a two-year extension.
After seven years and five failed pregnancies, the giant panda population (only around 1,600 in the wild) can claim another victory.
“Everyone’s very, very excited,” says Rodriguez. “Just statistically, the numbers were very, very low, so this is a very pleasant surprise. We’re ready to take on the responsibility now.”
Rodriguez explains, “The first month is one of the most crucial in terms of the survival of the cub,” but, he says, the team has no reason to worry. “She’s a very good mom.”
Rodriguez says the entire effort has been immense. “It’s a lot of work from different departments working together to help an endagnered species, the fact that you have the rebirth team, the veterinary staff, the animal care staff and even the public relations staff, it’s just so intricate and everyone is working together as a team and that team effort is what brought about the whole process.”
“Now we’re just very eager to see this cub develop and partake in the betterment of the species,” says Rodriguez.
For now, the public can get updates on the cub from the camera feed online. Staff expects the new baby will be on view in four to five months.
Leah Binkovitz contributed reporting to this article.
August 20, 2012
Phyllis Diller, the much-loved comedic star of zany wigs, painful gag lines and an inimitable blast of a laugh, died this morning at her home in Brentwood, California. She was 95.
Last fall, the National Museum of American History debuted a collection of highlights from Diller’s multifaceted career. The show, entitled “Have You Heard the One . . ?” included a relic from the star’s life that might be among the most unique artifacts in the history of the performing arts—Diller’s joke file. The 48-drawer, steel file cabinet, which the star called “my life in one-liners,” contains 50,000 jokes, each typed on an index card and filed under such prophetic taglines as “Science, Seasons, Secretary, Senile, Sex, Sex Symbols, Sex Harassment, Shoes, Shopping…” and “Food Gripes, Foreign (incidents & personalities), Foundations (bra & underwear), Fractured Speech, Freeways, Friends, Frugality, Frustrations, Funerals, Funny Names…”
Diller’s famous one liners took self-deprecation to new limits. “When I first got into this business, I thought a punchline was organized drinking.” One can almost hear the ensuing blast of her famous laugh. And of course her relationship with her husband Fang was without exception, always good fodder. “Fang has some very strange ideas about housework. He thinks I should do it.”
“The [joke] file is like a tree,” Diller told the magazine’s Owen Edwards in 2007. “Leaves drop off, and new leaves are added—the new stuff pushes out the old.”
Diller, it turns out was not only the boisterous comic of late night television. She was a multifaceted artist who besides stand-up comedy enjoyed painting and sculpture and was a classical pianist. According to American History’s curator of the performing arts, Dwight Blocker Bowers, she also harbored tendencies toward museum curation. Bowers remembers arriving at Diller’s home in 2006 to arrange for the donation. “She was the most organized donor I’d ever met.”
“She had a rack of her costumes that she wished to donate. Each costume came with a plastic bag attached to it and inside the bag, she had carefully included not only the props—her cigarette holder, the head-dress, the gloves, the shoes—but also a photograph of her wearing the entire ensemble. She was better at curation than I was,” Bowers jokes.
The museum is now home to an impressive Diller collection that includes ten of her costumes, a wig, and a cigarette holder, one of Diller’s signature props. (The cigarette was wooden: “I’ve never smoked,” Bowers says she always insisted.) The cache also includes a number of photographs—including one of her wearing the green and gold lame gown from her Vietnam tour with Bob Hope in 1967—three of her comedy albums, and the scripts from two of her 1960s television shows. She also donated several of her sculptures including a self-portrait bust and one made of her hands. A curious relic of her artistic talents includes the painting she called “The Phyllis Fuge.” It depicts the notes of a musical score that she wrote.
“She was an artist,” Bowers says. “She was an accomplished pianist, she painted, she sculpted and she did stand-up comedy.”
“We even received two recordings of her singing,” Bowers added.
But did she have a good voice? “Well, she was not the recording industry’s best singer,” Bowers demurs, “but she was the best comedian.”
“I think the most important thing I can say about Phyllis Diller,” says Bowers, “is that she was like Betty Friedan and the Feminine Mystique. Just like Friedan, Phyllis Diller chronicled the daily lives of woman. But she did it with laughs.”
July 30, 2012
The new Visitors Guide & Tours app, created by the editors of Smithsonian magazine and Around the Mall was released today in the Apple Store, an Android version was released in Google Play last week. The app, which is a 99-cent download, simplifies the overwhelming and vast choices to be made when touring the Smithsonian’s 15 Washington, D.C.-based museums and the National Zoo
The new app includes ten customized tours, a list of this summer’s must-see exhibitions, easy-to-use floor plans, a Google map of the National Mall, and more than 100 “Greatest Hits” artifacts and Smithsonian treasures that should not be missed. We designed the tour with everyone in mind, not just families, but for nature lovers, science geeks and history buffs, plus a specialty tour for those who have only three-hours to see it all.
For the Around the Mall team, the Smithsonian is our playground, and we’ve become accustomed to being the go-to guide for visiting guests and families. We’ve scribbled out plenty of quick lists, taking into account the special interests of our mothers (Hope Diamond and Katharine Hepburn’s Oscar), our fathers (Archie Bunker’s chair and the Wright Flyer), our friends (the cool beaded kicks over at the American Indian museum.)
But for all of you others, we know that when facing down the idea that there are 137 million objects, specimens, artifacts and works of art that are contained within the 19 different Smithsonian museums in D.C. and New York, you just need a little tour guide in your pocket to help you find you’re way.
Our favorite part about the app?
A postcard feature that allows you to snap photos of yourself or your friends wearing the Hope Diamond, walking the stegosaurus like it was dog, hanging out with the Zoo’s orangutan, or finding your way around D.C. with Lewis & Clark’s compass.
We’ll be continually updating the app with the latest exhibitions, crafting new tours and selecting more of the Smithsonian’s treasures to profile, all while keeping you abreast of the latest happenings Around the Mall with Twitter feeds and push notifications.
To those visitors and DC residents who have failed to visit the Smithsonian museums for fear of not knowing where to start, you just ran out of excuses. Buy the app here.
May 23, 2012
My morning starts early, usually 6 a.m., and hopefully with a cup of coffee in hand to get me started, I walk to work. I saw the rainbow, one that I hadn’t seen in my 29 years as a Smithsonian Institution staff photographer, and I could only think of one thing—my camera. I hurried inside, grabbed what I could and dashed back out to the National Mall, knowing that the sun was rising and perfectly illuminating the north and east sides of the Air and Space Museum and the Smithsonian Institution “Castle” building. Photography is about capturing the moment, whether it be a space shuttle flying over DC, or a beautiful sunrise followed with a rainbow. As I took the shots, I continued walking towards the Castle because my experience has told me that another part of photography is working with the light that makes the moment possible. I caught the couple presumably on their way to work, the sunlight pleasantly warming their moment. At the Castle, the roses in the Katherine Dulin Folger garden are majestic this time of year. The heavy early morning rain had left water droplets on the pedals. The Castle doors of the east entrance are not normally closed at this time of day, a bit of luck for a passing photographer. I knew the sun striking the solid wood with the iron decoration would make for a handsome backdrop for the roses. On my walk back to work at the Air and Space Museum, I could see the sun striking the tall stems of the flowers, more photographic opportunity—a pleasant end to a morning shoot.
Eric F. Long is a staff photographer at the National Air and Space Museum. His recent work can be viewed in the new book A Guide to Smithsonian Gardens by Carole Ottesen.
April 3, 2012
Reader questions have a way of bringing out some of the best of Smithsonian Institution knowledge. In the video above, curator Evelyn Hankins gives us a better understanding of the materials used to make contemporary art. And thanks to your questions, we learn that Ben Franklin’s kite experiment may have been a bit of a tall tale, but that he did invent the lightning rod. How bees make honey is another sweet story. And finally, when you snuggle up with your cat and hear that familiar purr, don’t you wish you knew how they do that? You asked and we answered. Hey, this is fun: send us more.
What is lightning, and did Benjamin Franklin really fly a kite in a thunderstorm?
Janice Lee, Bethesda, Maryland
Thanks to Franklin, we know lightning is simply a discharge of atmospheric electricity—but historians still debate whether he conducted the kite experiment.
That debate, however, misses a more important story. In 1749, Franklin published a proposal for an experiment to prove that lightning and electricity are the same; that experiment involved erecting a tall metal rod to accumulate atmospheric electricity. In 1752 a team of French experimenters became the first to try it. Franklin’s experiment gained credibility because the French scientists—men of standing, not some British colonist—lent it their imprimatur. Franklin would apply the knowledge collected in this experiment to invent the lightning rod.
Steve Madewell, Interpretive Exhibits Coordinator
National Museum of American History
How do honeybees make honey?
Elsie Talbert, Los Angeles, California
Foraging bees siphon nectar out of flowers with their proboscis (tongue), store it in their crop (“honey stomach”) and feed it to hive bees when they return to the hive. The hive bees “process” the nectar with enzymes and regurgitate it into empty waxen cells as honey. Since nectar is more than 70 percent water, hive bees will fan the developing honey to encourage water evaporation. Bees make honey to feed themselves when little or no nectar is available (e.g., winter). In temperate zones, honeybees remain in the hive unless it’s 54 degrees Fahrenheit or warmer; while in the hive they consume the honey they made over the summer.
Nathan Erwin, Entomologist
National Museum of Natural History
How do cats purr?
Stacey Flynn, Germantown, Maryland
As cats inhale and exhale, the muscles of the larynx alternatively dilate and constrict the glottis; that movement of the glottis produces sudden separations of the vocal folds, or cords; those separations produce the purring sound. The muscles that move the vocal folds are driven by a free-running neural oscillator that generates contractions and release every 30 to 40 milliseconds. Except for a brief transition pause, purring is produced during both inhaling and exhaling and sounds like a continuous vocalization. Purring is nearly ubiquitous among the cats, but it is not heard in lions and tigers.
John Seidensticker, Conservation Biologist
Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, National Zoological Park
We’re ready for still more questions. Please submit your queries here.