March 23, 2012
The night was ablaze on the National Mall yesterday evening when suddenly at about 7:40 pm, the circular building that critic Ada Louis Huxtable once derided as the “largest donut in the world” became, with a burst of image and sound, one of the most unusual movie screens in the world, maybe the universe. Hyperbole not withstanding, it was a moment. Runners stopped running. Bike messengers leaned on their bikes. Buses on Seventh Street slowed to crawl, the passengers inside craning their necks. And dozens of passersby sat down on the Jersey barricades and granite walls along the streets.
It was a night to remember. Normally, the nighttime quiet on the National Mall is broken only by the footsteps of marathoners hitting the pebble pathways. The nine to fivers flee and the city sidewalks roll up for the night. But even a New Yorker from that city that never sleeps, that urban epicenter of art and culture, might begrudge this southern town of politicos and policy wonks, just a brief acknowledgement.
Because last night, the Hirshhorn Museum’s debut of SONG 1, a 360-degree projection screen work by the internationally acclaimed Los Angeles artist Doug Aitken, briefly changed all that.
At least that’s my humble opinion. I was up on the rooftop of the adjacent National Museum of Air and Space with my colleague Ryan Reed filming scenes for the video presented above. When the sun finally dropped below the clouds and the 11 projectors and multiple outdoor speakers blared, we both said in unison. “Now, that’s cool.”
The work, described in the April issue of Smithsonian magazine, revolves around the classic 1934 pop song “I Only Have Eyes for You.” A number of musical artists, including Beck and Tilda Swinton, perform the song in ragtime, gospel, doo-wop and high-speed percussion variations. “The music evolves with each playing, sometimes resembling a torch song, or a country standard, or raw electronica,” reports Abigail Tucker. “Its rhythms shape the images streaming across the Hirshhorn, from highway traffic patterns to the movements of clouds.”
Says Aitken: “It’s about bringing architecture to life.”
Dear Ms. Huxtable, the largest donut in the world is now one of the most exciting 360-movie screens and its playing nightly from just past sunset until midnight through May 13. Now, that’s cool, don’t you think?
March 15, 2012
Readers questions continue this month with some really intriguing queries. Can you identify a bird just by its feather? The aptly named Carla Dove, a Smithsonian ornithologist weighs in on that one in the video above. And speaking of our fine feathered friends, another reader wonders why it is that birds all seem to want to hang out near electrical transformers? From dinosaurs to telescopes to gemstones, you asked and we found the answers.
Are there any paleontological discoveries, such as dinosaur bones, left to be made in the United States?
Susanne Ott, Bern, Switzerland
There sure are. This is such a large country, and there are so many areas yet to be searched, that we may not run out of finds for several lifetimes. Just think: We have found only about 2,000 species of dinosaurs for the 160 million years they were alive on Earth. Given that a species lasts only a few million years, we must be missing many thousands of dinosaur species. The most promising places are out West, where it’s drier and paleontologists can get access to fossil-bearing rocks.
Matthew Carrano, Paleontologist
Museum of Natural History
How much artistic license do scientists use when they portray astronomical features detected by radio telescopes?
Jeanne Long, Atlanta, Georgia
A lot, actually. Radio-telescope images differ from the images captured by the Hubble Space Telescope—while Hubble images are recorded in the visible wavelengths of light we see in rainbows, radio telescopes record electromagnetic radio waves sent out by distant galactic objects. They detect what our ears might pick up if we could hear the universe. (Luckily, we can’t, or the world would be a jumbled mess of rumbling sounds.) Based on the intensity of the radio waves, astronomers plot signal strengths and assign different colors to them.
Although it would be handy and logical, there is no set convention to those color assignments. Scientists choose different colors to bring out specific details or molecules found in the image. (If you do a quick Google image search for the Trifid Nebula, you’ll see images with different color representations of the same object.) Is it fair to randomly assign different colors to objects in space? To astronomers, that’s not an issue. They are simply trying to isolate data. And the truth is, the human eye is not sensitive enough to pick up the true colors of these objects anyway. So, the next time you see a breathtaking picture from space, thank a scientist for putting it all together.
David Aguilar, Astronomer and illustrator
Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory
Is it true that the Smithsonian is still cataloguing items from Charles Wilkes’ United States Exploring Expedition?
Kevin Ramsey, Washington, D.C.
That expedition returned from its four-year exploration of the Pacific in 1842 with an immense trove—hundreds of fish and mammal specimens, more than 2,000 bird specimens, 50,000 plant specimens, a thousand live plants, some 4,000 ethnographic objects, such as Fijian war clubs, Samoan fish hooks and New Zealand baskets. But no, the Smithsonian is not still cataloguing them. That job largely fell to the scientists who accompanied Wilkes, and they completed it, well, expeditiously. The collection was exhibited in the Patent Office Building in Washington, D.C. for several years, before it came to the Smithsonian.
Pamela M. Henson, Historian
Smithsonian Institution Archives
Did Mathew Brady really take all the Civil War photographs that are credited to him?
Patrick Ian, Bethesda, Maryland
No. By 1861, Mathew Brady was one of the best-known photographers in America, with portrait studios in New York City and Washington, D.C. While his staff handled day-to-day operations, Brady provided the creative vision and marketing expertise that made his studios famous. When the Civil War began, he assembled and outfitted teams of photographers and sent them into the field to ensure that his cameras would be present to produce a visual record of the conflict. Although Brady traveled periodically to battlefields and encampments, the Civil War photographs that carry his credit line were typically made by his cameramen. The look of the portraits produced in Brady’s studios—such as those featured in the National Portrait Gallery’s new exhibition, Mathew Brady’s Photographs of Union Generals (March 30, 2012-May 31, 2015)—reflected his aesthetic even when he was not present for the portrait session.
Ann M. Shumard, Curator of Photographs
National Portrait Gallery
Why do birds like to congregate around electric transformers?
Luis Tewes, Palm Beach Gardens, Florida
While the ever-growing electrical grid spells trouble for most species of birds, some have incorporated human structures into their lives. Power lines are a flight hazard to many species, but they also provide elevated perches, particularly in open country where there are few natural alternatives, for sit-and-wait predators, such as bluebirds, shrikes and small raptors. Many species use electric lines to rest or monitor their territories; and flocks of blackbirds and starlings and other birds gather on wires before they join large communal roosts. Power-line poles and towers and their attendant transformers provide additional support and protection for flocks and larger species, such as raptors. A few species even commandeer power poles and transformers as nesting sites. Transformers may produce some heat, which may explain why some birds like them. The monk parrakeet, introduced from Argentina, nests and roosts around transformers and has expanded into some pretty cold urban areas.
Birds’ use of power equipment illustrates their impressive adaptability, but awareness of high-voltage electric currents is not in their DNA. While a bird can perch on a high-voltage line in complete safety, as soon as it makes secondary contact with a conductor that leads to a ground, it will be fried. Large birds taking flight or producing “streamers” of fecal material often complete the circuit to their demise. Fecal build-up, gnawing (by parrots) and nesting material can short out lines or transformers, leading to massive power outages. Bird mortality might be reduced, and electrical service might be more reliable, if we had a better-designed grid.
Russell Greenberg, Wildlife Biologist,
Migratory Bird Center, National Zoo
In aserated (or “starred”) gemstones, such as the ruby and sapphire varieties of corundum, what is the average amount of rutile per square millimeter? And how many asterated gemstones does the Smithsonian Institution have?
Davis M. Upchurch, Fletcher, North Carolina
In synthetic asterated corundum, about 0.1 to 0.3 percent titanium oxide is typically mixed with the aluminum oxide. That gives you a ballpark idea as to the fraction of rutile (which is usually given as an amount per cubic millimeter). The Museum of Natural History has about 50 asterated gems in its collection, including, 21 specimens of corundum. We add new ones sporadically, and we’re always on the lookout for different or better examples.
Jeffrey Post, Curator of Gems and Minerals,
Museum of Natural History
We’re ready for still more questions. Please submit your queries here.
January 23, 2012
The Smithsonian Institution today announced that it will delay the openings of all the Washington, DC area museums and the National Zoo until 11 a.m.
October 11, 2011
The National Portrait Gallery’s historian David C. Ward is a biographer of Charles Willson Peale and has written extensively about such figures as Hart Crane and Ernest Hemingway. He has curated exhibitions on Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman, as well as last year’s controversial “Hide/Seek. Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.” Over the past two decades, however, he has occasionally turned from history to verse and has recently published a small volume of poetry entitled, Internal Difference, from Carcanet Press. “Ward’s carefully plotted chapbook describes American social spaces, past and present, and the links between them,” writes critic David Kinloch in the June/July issue of PN Review. In one poem, the historian amusingly offers a poet’s take on the imagined inner world of Andy Warhol, an artist attempting to escape the confines of his own accelerating celebrity.
In 1987, aged fifty-nine Andy Warhol bored
and played out in the modern life he made
(after the first lunch with Jackie O/there is no other)
faked his own death—routine gallbladder procedure:
gone awry—slipped quietly from the hospital
back into his mother’s house, his Pittsburgh boyhood
home. Wig gone, black suit and fancy glasses trashed,
he donned the clothes and life of a nondescript ordinary
working man, took a bakery assistant’s job making crullers
and cakes, introduced himself as Stosh from somewhere
vaguely somewhere else, and joined the local bowling
league. He learned to polka at the Legion Hall, amiably
fending off the local widows, and grew quietly old alone.
He cooked for one and after dinner would sit and watch
as the neighborhood wound down from dusk to night.
He developed a real fondness for baseball:
it was so slow.
Ward is currently at work on an upcoming exhibition entitled “Poetic Likeness,” scheduled to open at the Portrait Gallery in November of 2012. We asked Ward to discuss his multiple muses—poetry and history.
I started writing poetry in my late 30s, just over 20 years ago. I think at that time I needed a creative outlet that was different from my professional work as an historian who works in a large institution. Also, around that time I was starting to do more as an historian so feeling more creative in that may have made me open to the odd idea of taking up poetry. The immediate trigger was the death of Robert Penn Warren. I had never read his poetry so to pay tribute, I bought his Collected Poems and went through it and something in the way he wrote about America and American subjects clicked with me. I can remember thinking, “hmm. . .I should try this.” I batted out a poem called “On A Recently Discovered Casualty of the Battle of Antietam”—it’s very “Warren-ish”!—and it was published and since it would look lame if I only ever had one published poem, I had to keep writing. I also was lucky enough early on to develop a connection with a very good poet, editor, publisher, Michael Schmidt in England who has been very supportive of my work. I am self-taught as a poet but Michael has been an excellent tutor. And friend.
Where do you find inspiration?
Let me turn this question around: now that I’ve demonstrated to myself that I can get individual poems on random topics published, I’m trying to write poems around themes or subjects so that I can have a group of at least loosely linked work that will add up to something. I do find it helpful to set myself a topic and just make myself write on it. For instance, this year I’ve started writing about my family history, re-imagining it in a way that derives somewhat from Robert Lowell. I have some political poems going as well as some on art and artists—I had been resisting writing about art because it’s too close to my work at the Portrait Gallery, but that seems kind of foolishly self-denying. In general, I think my poems have tried to explore the disjunction between ideals or dreams and the reality of life: how choices or accidents ramify in unintentional or unseen ways and you end up somewhere that you didn’t expect to be. The challenge is to do that in a clear- eyed way and not to devolve into self-pity.
How and when and where do you write?
It’s kind of hit or miss, which I suppose is a sign of the non-professional poet. I’d like to be more disciplined and set aside a fixed time, especially on the weekends, to write poetry. But I don’t keep to that resolution, maybe because I need poetry to be creative play instead of the routine of work. Either that or I’m lazy. So topics and poems tend to show up rather randomly at rather random times. For instance, I wrote two political poems when I woke up in the middle of the night, suddenly thinking of opening lines, and how I could make a poem work from those starting points. Obviously something was working in my subconscious and jelled into realization. That tends to be how things go, although not usually at 2:30 a.m. The problem is that relying on your subconscious suddenly popping out a starting point, let alone a whole poem, is kind of chancy and I can go for a long time without writing anything. Once I get a “hook,” I can write a poem pretty quickly. I am trying to make myself revise and re-write more.
Do you draw any parallels between your day job as an historian scholar and your poetry?
Well, I think they are self-reinforcing in the sense that both involve intellectual application through the creative use of language. I should say that I also write a fair amount of literary criticism (actually, I’m a better critic than poet) and that work helps to bridge the two disciplines as well. I have certainly improved as an historian from writing poetry (and criticism)—a better writer, and I think more questioning and imaginative. Without being too hard on myself, though, I think that being a historian limits my poetry: I’m aware that my writing tends to be observational or distanced from its subject, like a historian objectifies a problem. (For instance, “Camouflage Self-Portrait” came out of my exhibit Hide/Seek and thinking about how Andy Warhol just seemed to disappear as his passing was so undramatic, and I came up with the conceit that he faked his death precisely because he was tired of all the drama.) Some of that distancing, I’m sure, derives from my upbringing and personal temperament, but regardless, I can’t merge my poetic voice with the subject in the way that Emerson suggested was necessary for the poet. I find it nearly impossible to write poems about emotions themselves, although I can show how emotions are acted out in behavior.
In the poem, “Angle of Deflection,” you write of the “ironic voice” that “works well for scholars,” what then is the poet’s voice?
As I suggested earlier, I think my poetic voice is overly ironic! That I retain the “scholar’s voice” in writing verse in a way that shapes my poetry in ways that can become restrictive in all sorts of ways. “Angle” was as much about me as it was about my father who was also an historian. But what I’ve tried to do as I’ve moved along is to develop a self-awareness about the way that I write, so that I can take what I think is a weakness and turn it into a strength. I am always going to be an historian first and my temperament will always tend toward the detached and skeptical—ironic, in both senses of the word. But I think there are a lot of interesting things to find in voicing the gap between self and subject. At least I hope so.
August 24, 2011
The Smithsonian Institution announced that all museums and the National Zoo would be open today. The Castle, however, which sustained some damage in yesterday’s earthquake, will be closed until further notice.
The Castle did have some damage, according to Smithsonian officials, mostly cracked plaster, windows and there some issues with some of the door frames.
Also of concern are the stability of some of the turrets in the Smithsonian’s original home, a Medieval Revival building designed by James Renwick Jr, and completed in 1855. The Castle building’s nine towers, battlements and chimneys have become the iconic symbol of the Smithsonian Institution.
Structural engineers today are assessing the building.
Other historical buildings that house Smithsonian museums, including the Old Patent Office building at 8th and F streets, NW, home to the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery, and the Renwick Gallery at 17th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue suffered no damages.
The Renwick is a Second Empire-style building and was designed by architect James Renwick Jr. in 1859 and completed in 1874. Today, it is a National Historic Landmark. The Old Patent Office building is considered one of the finest examples of Greek Revival architecture in the United States. Begun in 1836 and completed in 1868, it was the site of Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural ball in March 1865.
At the Natural History museum, spokesperson Kelly Carnes reports that several exhibitions—the Dinosaur Hall and portions of the Gems and Minerals Halls—will be closed off to the public while collections managers and curators assess any damages. The museum, housed in a 1910 Beaux Arts building, however, is open today.
At the National Zoo, many resident animals acted as warning bells for the quake, showing changes in behavior shortly before it struck. Gorillas, orangutans and lemurs sounded alarm calls seconds beforehand, while the flock of 64 flamingos huddled together in preparation. During the shaking, snakes, tigers, beavers and deer, among others, appeared disturbed and interrupted their normal activities.
More updates to come throughout the day, as curators, engineers and archivists inspect the collections and exhibits