December 8, 2010
Test Your Jazz Chops: Smithsonian Folkways just announced their forthcoming Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology, which will be available beginning March 29. The collection features 111 songs on six CD’s that chronicle the history of jazz music, focusing on its most notable innovators and styles, from bebop to free jazz. Folkways is offering a quiz through Sporcle.com, where you can listen to samples of tracks and attempt to identify songs on the anthology. There is a shorter, 25-song version available, but in order to guess the full song list of all six discs, take the longer, 111-song quiz.
Crafty Cards: A few days ago, local artist Thalia Doukas facilitated a holiday card-making workshop at the Postal Museum. If you weren’t able to attend, Pushing the Envelope has posted some of her most salient tips on how to make some very worldly, one of a kind cards for the holidays using stamps as a primary decoration. There are also photos to get the imagination flowing.
Peanut Butter and Jellyfish: In Smithsonian’s 40th anniversary issue this past August, our colleague Abigail Tucker wrote about the proliferation of jellyfish in the earth’s oceans. The Ocean Portal blog recently explained why jellyfish populations are exploding, citing overfishing as a primary cause. Over 120 species of fish and over 30 other ocean-bound species feed on jellyfish, and if those populations are overfished, the jellyfish can get out of control. The blog suggests that if fish become a scarcity, we may indeed be stuck eating jellyfish instead.
Twenty-First Century Soda Bottle? Recently on the Cooper-Hewitt’s Design Blog, an unlikely combination of ingredients is being tested in an attempt to make a new, eco-friendly soda bottle. French designer Francois Azambourg is teaming up with Harvard professor of bioengineering Donald Ingber to test a mixture of sea fungus and sodium chloride bath as a possible substitute to the plastic that is accumulating in our oceans in piles like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The duo is using a sausage-making contraption to shape the bottles into a teardrop shape. Word is that the bottles are even healthy enough to eat—whether or not they’re tasty is, of course, another story.
December 6, 2010
It’s that time of year, and the Smithsonian Institution is leaving no corner undecorated for the holidays. Garlands spiral up the banisters of several Smithsonian museums, and Douglas fir trees tower inside the museum entrances. At the very least, almost every Smithsonian building has what is perhaps the most ubiquitous holiday decoration: the poinsettia.
According to Monty Holmes of the Smithsonian Gardens, the horticulture team has grown some 1,700 poinsettias this year. With so many of the plants under his care, Holmes began investigating the original connection between it and the holidays. Surprisingly, he discovered a little-known link between the poinsettia and the Smithsonian.
As it turns out, the red-leafed plant was introduced to the United States by botanist and statesman Joel Poinsett (1779-1851), who as the first U.S. Minister to Mexico found the plant while serving there. The poinsettia is said to have been used by the Aztecs as a red dye and to reduce fevers.
And what was its connection to the Smithsonian?
Poinsett was a founding member of the National Institution for the Promotion of Science, which formed in 1840 to promote the study of natural history and physical sciences, among other fields. It is thought that the organization was founded with the intention of securing the James Smithson bequest. (Although Smithson had never visited the United States, he left his estate of $508,318–about $15 million in today’s dollars–to establish in Washington, D.C. an institution for the “increase and diffusion of knowledge.”) At the time, much debate was going on about how best to achieve Smithson’s request.
When Poinsett was United States Secretary of War in 1838, he presided over the United States Exploring Expedition, the first circumnavigation of the globe sponsored by the United States.
“He insisted when this global exploring expedition went out that it included scientists,” says Smithsonian historian Pamela Henson of Poinsett. “They collected geological, biological, anthropological specimens throughout the trip. They were called ‘scientifics.’”
The artifacts collected on that expedition were brought back to Washington, D.C. and put on display much like a modern-day museum exhibition at the Patent Office building (currently home to the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery). The exhibition was presided over by Poinsett’s National Institution. Poinsett was among dozens of who had strident convictions on how the money ought to be used; some thought it should be a library, others hoped it would support scientific research. But Poinsett was the first to argue that Smithson’s money should be used to create a national museum.
“He basically interjected the concept of creating a national museum into the debate surrounding what to do with Smithson’s money,” says Henson. “He never succeeded in getting the money [the Smithsonian was founded soon after in 1846 and the National Institution for the Promotion of Science promptly dissolved], but his push was what lead to the concept of the museum being part of the Smithsonian.”
As you peruse the halls of the Smithsonian Institution this Christmas, counting the poinsettias, remember Joel Poinsett, who planted the seed for the creation of a national museum.
December 1, 2010
First Aircraft Moved to New Hangar: This week, AirSpace reports that the Curtiss SB2C Helldiver was the first aircraft to move into the Udvar-Hazy Center’s new Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar. Designed in 1938 and manufactured in 1942, the scout bomber flew in World War II. The Air and Space Museum’s plane is one of only a handful still in existence. The plane is scheduled to be restored over the course of the coming year, along with several other aircraft that will soon move into the new hangar. Later in 2011, the mezzanine level of the hangar will open so that visitors can see the aircraft refurbishment in action.
Patti Smith Wins National Book Award: Singer Patti Smith, perhaps best known as the “Godmother of Punk,” just won the National Book Award for her memoir, Just Kids, which chronicles her friendship with photographer and artist Robert Mapplethorpe. The Archives of American Art blog has a sound clip of Smith reading at a 2008 benefit, or your can hear her on NPR.
Twain Galore: It seems that in addition to Around the Mall’s post honoring Mark Twain’s would-be 175th birthday, a couple other blogs around the Smithsonian have paid their own tributes to the 19th century American author. Face to Face has posted some of their favorite Twain quotes as well as Edwin Larson’s 1935 portrait of the writer. The Smithsonian Libraries blog has a list of further reading straight from the Smithsonian’s collections.
Flamingo-Keeping: Now on the Smithsonian Science homepage, a video from the National Zoo features footage of the Zoo’s 61-bird flock of flaming pink Caribbean flamingos. Sara Hallager, flamingo keeper, says the birds are extraordinarily social animals (their squawks can be heard in the background). She discusses how she and the other keepers prevent inbred chicks during mating season by putting different colored bands on the flamingos’ feet to keep track of who’s who.
National Museum of “Dad-Trolling”? The web comic XKCD has proposed a new Smithsonian museum that specializes in enabling fathers to tell little white lies to their children. Click on various parts of the museum’s floorplan and see what waits inside the “Hall of Misunderstood Science,” “Regrettable Pranks: An Interactive Experience” or the “Rotunda of Uncomfortable Topics,” among others.
November 24, 2010
Medical anthropologist Dr. Faith Mitchell will be speaking at 1 PM this Saturday at the Anacostia Community Museum, in conjuction with the museum’s current exhibit, “Word, Shout, Song: Lorenzo Down Turner Connecting Communities Through Language,” Mitchell, currently Vice President of Grantmakers in Health, a medical aid organization, spent time in the Sea Islands researching the herbal remedies of the Gullah people. On Saturday, Mitchell will discuss some of the medicinal plants she learned about, how they’re used and how they became integrated into the culture of the South Carolina Sea Islands. I spoke with Mitchell about her research.
Why is there such a strong herbal tradition among the Gullah?
I think it’s because of the history of those islands. Because first the slave population and then the black population was so [large] that they retained the use of traditional medicines, even when other parts of the South stopped using them as much. Also, because they were so isolated from doctors and hospitals, it kind of reinforced the use of the medicine there so that comparing the Sea Islands with some other parts of the South, it wouldn’t necessarily be that the plants were different, but the tradition was stronger.
What are a couple remedies that you found to be most interesting?
Elderberry. It’s something that the Gullah use in the Sea Islands, but it’s also used by the Native Americans, and it’s also used in Europe. People use it for different things, which I think, just in terms of the botanical issues is always interesting. First of all, how do people even notice that plants are medicinal, and then the fact that they use them for different things, you kind of wonder, well how did they decide what they were going to use it for? In the Sea Islands, they use elderberry for sores, which you could imagine would be pretty common with people who are agricultural, whereas the Native Americans used elderberry as a pain killer. In Europe, they used it for wounds, but also for colds and also as a laxative. So a lot of different uses, but a good plant.
How do the Gullah use these plants?
Boil it and make it into a tea. Depending on the plant they would use different parts, the flower or the leaves, the bark or the root, but they usually do make it into a tea.
Did you test any of these Gullah herbal remedies?
I tested a few, you know a lot of them don’t taste that good, which is considered to be part of the effectiveness. If it’s bitter then it’s [supposed to be] better for you.
What does the word “Hoodoo” mean in your book?
Along with these herbal medicines, there’s also a tradition of magical medicines that would be called voodoo in Louisiana, and actually the term “hoodoo” that is used in the title of my book is often used to refer to magic by the Gullah people and other parts of the South. So that was also something I was interested in. But it was much harder to find out about. Because even though people practice it, they don’t want to talk about it. Sometimes, the same people who are specialists in herbal medicine are also specialists in magical medicine, even though you have to find that out from somebody else.
The substances people use are really different. For magic, people use stuff like black cat bones, graveyard dust, fingernail clippings. That tradition really comes from West Africa. People will sell you stuff and they’ll say it’s black cat bone, but you don’t really know if it is or it isn’t, and in a sense you don’t really know if it’s working or not. It’s a very different frame of reference from a tea you’re drinking for a sore throat, and you can tell yourself whether it works. People use magic to change their luck, to get somebody to fall in love with them. So that tradition is there too.
I would have these indirect conversations with people. They would say, “Well, I don’t know anybody who does that stuff, and I don’t know what they use, but I hear that when you get hexed, you feel like there’s mice running up and down your skin, or you get bumps all over.” So I’d hear about it that way.
November 23, 2010
The African Art Museum’s new exhibit, “African Mosaic,” surveys works collected within the past ten years. The exhibit features more than 100 objects—everything from gold jewelry to ivory carvings to contemporary artworks.
“This particular opening really captures who we are, what this museum is about, and the extent of the diversity and dynamism of African art centered around a decade of collecting,” said the museum’s director Johnnetta Cole at a media preview last week.
One work in the exhibit is a standout, according to Cole, who says Ousmane Sow’s sculpture of Haiti’s liberator, Toussaint Louverture is sure to become a “destination work.” Just as Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” is to the Louvre Museum in Paris, Cole says the piece is certain to become the museum’s must-see icon.
The work, a larger than life sculpture called “Toussaint Louverture and the Elderly Slave” by Sow, a Senegalese artist, towers at the entrance to the exhibit. Louverture (1743-1804) was a Haitian slave who led the Haitian uprising against French colonial rule around the turn of the 18th century. He is widely considered the great liberator of the Haitian people.
Sow, who moved from Senegal to Paris as a young man, created the sculpture in 1989 as part of a three-work series to commemorate the bicentennial of the French Revolution. Each work in the series depicts a hero to liberty, some are French and others, such as the Louverture are colonial subjects who rebelled against the French.
Sow uses a special material to make his sculptures, a mixture of natural fibers and clay. He tends the material every day, keeping it fresh and malleable, even if he doesn’t work on his art at all.
Sow, who was present at the media preview, had not seen the work for 20 years, and said (in French, through a translator) that it was an emotional experience to see the piece once again. He said he felt that the work had, after two decades, finally found its true home.
“African Mosaic” is now on view through 2011 at the African Art Museum.