August 19, 2011
Beginning today, ATM will bring you posts from a number of Smithsonian Institution guest bloggers: the historians, researchers and scientists who curate the collections and archives at the museums and research facilities. Today, Amy Henderson, a cultural historian from the National Portrait Gallery read this month’s Smithsonian magazine story “Samuel Morse’s Reversal of Fortune” by David McCullough, and weighs in on her favorite historian and what Morse’s revolutionary invention hath wrought.
I’m a huge fan of historian David McCullough: When I read his works, I’m caught up in his prose parade of cinematic images. Subliminally, I hear his rich baritone voice, long-familiar from years when he hosted PBS’s “The American Experience.” Here’s someone who truly makes history come to life.
Without telling anyone—including me—McCullough stopped into the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) this spring with an Associated Press reporter. McCullough took the reporter on a whirlwind tour of the gallery to point out portraits of some of the illustrious characters in his new work, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris. The 77-year-old historian further endeared himself to me when I read in the piece that he careened through the Gallery like “an excited schoolboy,” and praised the museum as “one of the real treasures of the capital city, really of the country.”
Artist G.P.A. Healy is a McCullough favorite as he is mine. Healy went to Paris in 1834 as a struggling artist to learn his trade, and evolved into one of the preeminent portrait artists of his time. In his Portrait Gallery ramble, McCullough pointed out Healy portraits of key Civil War era Senators Daniel Webster, Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun, along with Healy’s posthumous portrayal of Abraham Lincoln (a copy of which hangs in the White House).
Another McCullough headliner is artist-inventor Samuel F.B. Morse, whose youthful ambition was to be an artist who, according to McCullough, “would revive the splendor of the Renaissance and rival the genius of a Raphael or Titian.” Morse’s career never reached those heights, and he ultimately gave up art for technology. The telegraph was Morse’s revolutionary invention, and the Portrait Gallery has both the gleaming brass telegraph patent model on display, and a large canvas depicting Morse and other Men of Progress admiring the wondrous new device. In 1844 Morse telegraphed the first communication from the Old Supreme Court Chamber in the U.S. Capitol to the B & O Railway station in Baltimore. A plaque marking the moment hangs outside the Capitol building chamber today, inscribed with that historic message: “What Hath God Wrought?” With this invention, communications that once took days, weeks, and months were now virtually instant. Life changed.
These kinds of sudden and unanticipated consequences are what fascinate me most about history, culture, and technology. Before the telegraph, the millennia of human existence took place in “the great hush”—this is a wonderful phrase that writer Erik Larson, author of Thunderstruck, has used to describe the period just before Marconi’s invention of the wireless. The quiet before the storm.
Certainly in the past two centuries, the emergence of technology-fueled media has wrought vast change in everyday life: Each generation of new media—including motion pictures, recordings, radio, television and now digital media—has created new audiences with fresh iconic figures that reflect the times. A major consequence of media-generated culture in the 20th century was that it fueled the invention of a mainstream that broadcast shared information and experience. The heyday of the Hollywood studio system produced movie stars embraced by everyone—Clark Gable, Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Fred and Ginger. The original two major radio networks, NBC and CBS, broadcast programming available at the touch of everyone’s dial: You could walk down a street in the 1930s or 1940s and listen without interruption to the shows of Jack Benny, Burns and Allen, or Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. Post-war television was dominated by the same networks and similar formats, with the addition of ABC in the mid-1950s.
But things changed when Madison Avenue and economic prosperity created a culture of consumerism based on discrete economic markets. The meteoric rise of Elvis Presley in 1956 is a classic example of consumer marketing: Fueled by live television exposure and teenagers who, for the first time, had expendable pocket money, Elvis’s popularity was championed by those who wanted a hero of their own, not the Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra of their parents’ generation. A more recent consequence of media culture has been the fragmentation of audiences previously bound by shared interest and experience. Today, the exponential explosion of digital media has created a “narrowcast” world in which individual users of social media emerge as virtual stars of their own “network.” Very few figures have broad enough appeal to cross-over from one segment to another: Oprah? Lady Gaga?
Celebrities have walked the gallery’s halls from its inception. McCullough’s visit reminded me of other famous figures who have been drawn to the building. Originally built between 1838 and 1868 as the Patent Office Building, the historic footprint of this remarkable public space is enormous. It’s the third-oldest public building in Washington, after the White House and the Treasury. Charles Dickens visited the building in 1842 to view an exhibition of artifacts collected by a U.S. Exploratory Expedition to the Pacific. Walt Whitman worked as an orderly when it housed Civil War wounded. And Lincoln attended his Second Inaugural Ball here in March, 1865—only a month before he was assassinated.
Along with such visitors as Dickens, Whitman, Lincoln, and McCullough, what ghost-memories waltz along these corridors after midnight, what spirits remain. I thought of this when I saw a terrific revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies at the Kennedy Center this summer. Follies is set as a reunion of retired showgirls who come back one final night to bid farewell to the theater where they had dazzled audiences in their youth. Each performer, now “of a certain age,” is confronted with a larger-than-life ghost of herself in her prime, bedecked in feathers and sequins and totally spectacular. In a museum dedicated to larger-than-life personalities, do spirits remain to remind us of earlier greatness? Would we see them even if they do? Or is it all “a great hush?”
A cultural historian at the National Portrait Gallery, Amy Henderson specializes in “the lively arts”—particularly media-generated celebrity culture. Her books and exhibitions run the gamut from the pioneers in early broadcasting to Elvis Presley to Katharine Hepburn and Katharine Graham. She is currently at work on a new dance exhibition entitled “One! Singular Sensations in American Dance,” scheduled to open in September 2013.
August 9, 2011
A bear of great distinction was born 67 years ago today. On August 9, 1944, the figure of what would become Smokey Bear began to take shape when Richard Hammett, the director of the Wartime Forest Fire Prevention Program took up pen and set down the characteristics of a short-nose bear—”appealing, knowledgeable, quizzical”—that would become the icon for one of the longest running and most famous advertising campaign slogans of the 20th century.
The first few were clearly duds—”Your Forest, Your Fault, Your Loss,” “Please Mister, Don’t be Careless,” and “Careless Matches Aide the Axis” (more later on that one). None of those roll quite so trippingly off your tongue as “Remember, Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires,” or today’s variant: “Get Your Smokey On, Only You Can Prevent Wildfires.”
Smokey’s story begins during World War II, when a two-man Japanese submarine shelled an oil refinery off the coast of Santa Barbara, California. People began to fear that Japanese submarines could bomb West Coast forests and destroy one of America’s most precious resources—trees that could be turned into rifle cartridges and other valuable war-time products. Forest fire prevention became a goal. Some Mad-Men-style advertising execs were hired to come up with a slogan. That marked the debut of the not-so pithy “Aide the Axis,” as well as “Our Carelessness, Their Secret Weapon.”
Walt Disney’s Bambi got some play in this effort. In 1944, that earnest forest creature appeared on a poster with a beseeching message, “Please Mister, Don’t Be Careless,” but once that campaign ended, forest fire prevention was left without a spokes-animal.
A bear was just what was needed, said Hammett, “perhaps wearing a campaign (or Boy Scout) hat that typifies the outdoors and the woods.” Artist Albert Staehle (1899-1974) got the call because he had a passion for drawing cutesy-type animals. In 1937, he had drafted a devoted mother cow feeding her calf a bottle of Borden’s milk, the first of what would become the long-lashed Elsie the Cow. Staehle’s Smokey Bear poster depicts a well-muscled bear pouring a bucket of water over a campfire with the cautious message: “Smokey Says: Care will prevent 9 out of 10 forest fires.”
Both the bear and the slogan took some time to evolve; sometimes he was fat, other times thin, one time he appeared in a hat that wasn’t regulation. “One year he came out looking like a cross between a bear and a chimpanzee that had eaten too many bananas,” wrote advertising executive Ervin Grant in Boys’ Life in October 1957. Grant is credited with coming up with the “Only You” slogan in 1947.
A forest fire in May 1950 destroyed 17,00o acres in Capitan, New Mexico, and a seriously injured bear cub was found. “When it was all over, we heard this little strange noise and here was this bear cub up in a burned tree,” Forest Service ranger G. W. Chapman told Smithsonian magazine in 2005, Adopted by the Forest Service and awarded the name Smokey, the bear a month later came to live at the Zoo. Fan letters arrived with such frequency, the Post Office decided the Zoo’s new fire prevention celeb need his very own zip code—20252.
“Smokey was an instant success from 1950 until his death in 1976,” says Pam Henson, the director of the Smithsonian’s Institutional History Division. “He was the recipient of hundreds of gifts of honey and money, about 5,000 letters each week poured in from people all over the country.
Smokey Bear lived a long and happy life at the Zoo and even took a wife. Earnest zoo keepers introduced him to a female name “Goldie” in 1962. (The pair never actually hit it off and no little cubs ever came of the match.) Smokey Bear died in November 8, 1976 and was widely eulogized. Albert Staehle, for his part, was paid tribute in the Congressional Record in 1994. The Zoo also had a second Smokey Bear on view.
“Smokey Bear was really a national icon for several generations,” says Henson. “When I was five years old in 1953, I broke my arm. To console me, I was allowed to pick out a toy and I chose a Smokey Bear stuffed animal, complete with uniform, badge, ranger hat and shovel. It was my favorite toy for many years. So of course, when I came to Washington and visited the National Zoo, Smokey Bear was my first choice to go see.”
July 15, 2011
Nobody knows how to throw a dinner party better than the 19th-century Renaissance man Charles Willson Peale.
Peale, a scholar, an artist, an inventor, a dentist, a doctor, a poet, a naturalist (you name it, he did it) held a party in 1802 on a chilly February night in Philadelphia. It was a fine affair. Notable for one dramatic detail, Peale’s friends and family sat graciously at table, sipping wine and laughing, inside the belly of a mastodon skeleton.
Today, a new exhibition entitled, “The Great American Hall of Wonders,” opens at the American Art Museum and two paintings by Peale, Exhumation of the Mastodon and The Artist in His Museum, make their Washington, D.C. debut. Apparently, at least one of the lenders of these iconic works was hard pressed to release it to the Smithsonian Institution. The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia initially told the curator that it couldn’t possibly part with its portrait of Peale. Too special, they said. But fortunately for the show, it did.
Peale plays a pivotal role in the complex story that curator Claire Perry, formerly of Stanford University and now an independent scholar of 19th-century American culture, is telling. On view are some 160 objects that include paintings and drawings, sculptures, prints, survey photographs, zoological and botanical illustrations. And, most unusual for an art museum—some half dozen, or so, patent models that pay homage to the museum’s building, once home to the original U.S. Patent Office. All of which, the curator employs to document the tale of how a young nation took up the Great Experiment in democracy and came to see ingenuity as its most important asset.
“Perry paints a picture of the early United States in psychic distress as the Founding Fathers died and left common citizens to carry forward our Great Experiment in democratic self-government,” writes the museum’s director Elizabeth Broun in the exhibition book of the same title. “There was quite simply, no model to follow, no book of instructions on how to mold a disorganized rabble into a citizenry.”
“Americans believed,” said Perry at a press preview earlier this week, “that the people of the United States shared a genius for invention.” Peale’s dinner party is emblematic of the kind of seat-of-the-pants, free-wheeling spirit that emboldened the nation as it pursued the sciences with unprecedented zeal. Everyday citizens crowded lecture halls and devoted themselves to the sciences. Inventors applied for hundreds of thousands of patents. And artists and photographers and illustrators began to document the country’s seemingly endless bounty.
So that night, Peale’s guests raised their glasses and toasted the occasion. Perry imagines, how the host’s guests, sitting in the glowing candle light, must have marveled at the shifting shadows on the wall of the great mastodon’s tusks. And Peale likely delighted his visitors with the dramatic story of how he had come to extricate the fossil bones of the great Pleistocene beast from the watery mud of a bog on the property of a New York farmer. “The assembled well-wishers raised their glasses and sang ‘Yankee Doodle’ to toast Peale’s triumph in bringing the skeleton of the renowned mastodon to his museum in Philadelphia,” Perry wrote.
Peale’s painting includes about 70 people, many of them are members of his family, including his son the painter Rembrandt Peale. It depicts the gigantic contraption that Charles Willson Peale invented to pump water from the pit. One central figure holds up one of the fossil bones amidst a host of vigorous laborers. Peale is telling us, Perry says, that “work is heroic.” The young boys, inside of the wheel all pulling together as if in harmony is Peale’s message to his fellow countrymen that everyone must work at nation building together. The skeleton became the centerpiece of Peale’s Philadelphia museum, depicted in the self-portrait, The Artist in His Museum. Here, the artist portrays the fossils and taxidermic specimens, the arts, the mechanical marvels, all of which, both in the painting and in real life, Peale dedicated to the citizens of the United States to inspire them and “to equip them for the state-making tasks ahead,” according to Perry.
The exhibit is organized around archetypical inventions of the era—the gun, the clock and the railroad, as well as the natural themes of big trees, Niagara Falls and the buffalo. Perry says she had spent hours
searching through 19th-century works of art and began to see a trend or a pattern to the images in what she called “a mashup of art, science and technology.”
The gun that Annie Oakley clutches in Richard K. Fox’s 1899 photo mirrors the young soldier’s grasp in Winslow Homer’s 1862 The Army of the Potomac—A Sharpshooter on Picket Duty.
The Great Plains are first depicted with vast herds of buffalo only to meet their ultimate destiny in Albert Bierstadt’s 1888 The Last of the Buffalo. Niagara Falls (don’t miss George Catlin’s Bird’s Eye View) glories in multiple depictions, as does the giant sequoia, including everybody’s favorite iconic monster tree, the gateway Wawona tree in Yosemite.
Gorgeous clocks showcased throughout the galleries recall the standardization of America’s railroads, represented not only by works like Andrew Joseph Russell’s 1869 East and West Shaking Hands at the Laying of the Last Rail, but also by the “Golden Spike” or the last spike that Leland Stanford ceremoniously drove into final rails of the Transcontinental Railroad.
“That was a real treat,” says Perry of the loan from Stanford University of the brilliantly gold spike that glows inside a museum vitrine. “It involved some begging, but Stanford in the end was really happy to see it on view at the Smithsonian.”
The show is really two shows in one. The works of art are complimented by the patent models, the guns—including one owned by Wild Bill Hickok, the books—including John James Audubon’s journal, even Thomas Alva Edison’s light bulb. Curator Perry says the show’s crazy quilt pattern of artifacts and art, tells the story of how the United States emerged as a hall of wonders, a showcase of natural abundance, freedom and ingenuity. “A democratic nation is also a work of art,” she says.
The Great American Hall of Wonders is on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum through Jan. 8, 2012. View a gallery of works from the exhibit here.
June 24, 2011
I recently celebrated my 24th-wedding anniversary by doing something rather silly. I put on my wedding dress. I do this every year. I shake it out of its box and slip it on, and parade around my bedroom, just for fun. This year the zipper was a little bit sticky, so I’ll be eating salads for awhile.
June, the month of brides, prompted a post on the O Say Can You See blog over at the American History Museum by Debbie Schaefer-Jacobs, a curator of home and community life. Schaefer-Jacobs’ own daughter is getting married later this summer and so she has been thinking about wedding gowns both personally and professionally (she oversees a collection of 144 wedding dresses at the American History Museum).
Schaefer-Jacobs took an interest in one particular dress that had been worn by Rosalie Bourland on her wedding day on November 15, 1945. The dress had been made from a parachute. The material used in Rosalie’s gown “not only saw combat,” wrote Schaefer-Jacobs in the post, but it “was responsible for saving her groom’s life.” Temple Leslie Bourland enlisted in the army in May of 1941, to become a radio operator on a C-47 Douglas Skytrain for the 77th TC Squadron of the 435th Troop Carrier Group.
According to Schaefer-Jacobs’ post, Bourland’s plane, “Sleepy Time Gal” was hit by enemy fire on March 25, 1945, during Operation Varsity, and he and the crew chief bailed out over the Rhine, near Wesel, Germany, at 590 feet while under fire.
“They landed by a haystack, and Les wrapped himself in the parachute to stay warm, even as it had been shot full of holes by a sniper,” Rosalie Bourland told me from her home in Converse, Texas.
Bourland suffered a hip injury, and he and his comrade spent a couple days in a foxhole, before being rescued by Allied troops. The parachute stayed with Bourland and his wife recalls that the date for their wedding was set once the soldier had returned home from overseas. But it was the bride’s aunt, Lora Hierholzer, who came up with the idea to honor both the soldier and his bride.
“She knew he treasured it, and I was thrilled to death,” said Rosalie, as she recalled how her aunt worked the treadle of her old Singer sewing machine, stitching the difficult fabric to alter it into a beautiful gown. Rosalie’s bridal gown, according to curator Schaefer-Jacobs, is designed with a fitted bodice and seed pearls outline a sweetheart neckline. The dress has 26 small covered buttons down the front, and long, full sleeves. The skirt is full with an empire waistline and has an oval train which retains some of the military issue seams.
“It was a job, the dress was so slinky and there were so many bias pieces,” said Rosalie, But for the train part, her aunt chose to leave much of the parachute intact, except to take metal washers and cover them in satin, and then tack them on to the ends of the train to weight the fabric.
“So as I went down the aisle, that parachute stayed in place,” said Rosalie. Temple Leslie Bourland passed away in 2003, and Rosalie donated the dress to the National Museum of American History in 2004.
Was as it hard to part with something so special, I asked her. “It wasn’t,” she said. “I knew my husband loved history and he would have wanted me to.”
June 7, 2011
Over at the Natural History museum today, the clock struck noon and the speakers blared inside the Sant Ocean Hall. That’s when a couple hundred visitors and staffers (well, mostly staffers) started dancing.
This marks the first ever Smithsonian Flash Mob or rather, Splash Mob, as in splashing around in the ocean. While somewhere between 200 to 300 people either stared in amazed wonder or attempted to do a makeshift version of Bobby Freeman’s “The Swim,” we snapped out-of-focus candids and caught some of it on video for those of you that missed it.
And it was easy to miss. The total time was 2 minutes, 3 seconds. The music was appropriately titled “Surf” by the musician Moby. And the museum says it was all a crazy publicity stunt to get people thinking about tomorrow’s World Oceans Day.
“We wanted to do something fun, and bring visitors to the museum in a unique way,” says spokesperson Kelly Carnes, who was wearing a big orange roughy fish costume, which she attributes to “other duties as assigned.”
The museum is making a video of the event and tomorrow, you can find it at Ocean Portal. But in the meantime, check out ATM’s version by our producer Ryan Reed.