January 24, 2013
After serving in the Army Reserve for 21 years, and working at the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts as a curator, Corine Wegener now travels the country training soldiers in cultural heritage preservation. As the founder of the U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield, Wegener covers everything from material science to museum organization to international law and often calls on Smithsonian curators and collections to help impress upon the soldiers the importance of the shared cultural items she calls touchstones. A unit preparing to deploy to the Horn of Africa, for example, received a special tour at the African Art Museum.
Now at the Smithsonian as a cultural heritage preservation specialist, Wegener’s played a critical role in the recovery of the National Museum of Iraq after devastating looting took place there during the war in 2003.
An estimated 15,000 items were stolen and the collection was in disarray. Former director general of Iraqi museums, Donny George Youkhanna, says ”Every single item that was lost is a great loss for humanity.” He told Smithsonian magazine, ”It is the only museum in the world where you can trace the earliest development of human culture—technology, agriculture, art, language and writing—in just one place.”
Many, though not all of the objects, have since been recovered and the museum reopened in 2009. But Wegener says recent experiences in Libya, Syria and now Mali show how much work there is left to do.
The 1954 Hague Convention helped create international guidelines for handling cultural property during armed conflict but it took the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives of WWII, who helped save some of Europe’s most iconic artifacts, as a model. How did that team from Civil Affairs manage to do that?
The very first line of defense for collections and monuments and historic places is the people that work there every day. Those are the people who are going to do an emergency plan, do a risk assessment, figure out what will we do if this collection is at risk, or if there is a disaster.
During World War II, a lot of collections were hidden away. They were moved to underground storage locations and this was all throughout Europe. In Italy for instance, they built a brick wall around [Michelangelo's] the statue of David. They completed de-installed the Louvre. . .It was protected, first of all, by the cultural heritage professionals who cared for those things every day and a lot of people risked their lives to hide these things from the Nazis, especially the sort of “degenerate” art that [the Nazis] were trying to destroy. When they decided, just prior to the invasion of Italy, that they would institute these Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives teams in the middle of the war, some of the other allied countries did this as well. They made maps to try and let the allied bombers know where some of these important places were.
They would try to avoid them, but of course, they didn’t have nearly as sophisticated targeting systems as we do today. And they also had the teams that would go out and advise the commanders and say, this is an important cathedral in the center of town, let’s try to avoid it. But often times it just wasn’t possible, there was still this doctrine of military necessity that if something had to go it had to go.
But Eisenhower put out this famous letter to his commanders on the eve of the invasion of Italy basically saying, yes, there may be military necessity but when you come across cultural heritage, you better be sure it’s a military necessity and not just laziness or personal convenience on your part. If you decide it needs to be destroyed, you’re going to answer to me.
What does Blue Shield do?
The Hague Convention is a really good plan but how do you execute it in reality? It says, avoid these cultural sites. Well, you can figure out a few because they’re on the World Heritage List but what about a contemporary museum building full of ancient collections, that’s not going to be on a World Heritage List? We don’t have a list like that, why do we expect these other countries to be able to provide that at a moment’s notice too?
It’s a goal that I think each country needs to work toward, but in the meantime, it feels a little bit like we’re scrambling when something happens like the Libya no-fly zone. We really had to scramble to put together something because otherwise they would have had very little information about what to avoid during that bombing. I think after that, the awareness is out there and there’s a lot more people out there working toward that goal now, which I think is really great.
When you are in those scrambling situations, are the governments helping you?
No, and especially in a case like Syria or Libya, no, because the government is who they’re fighting against. What we try to do is, we go through the whole Blue Shield network. For instance, part of the Blue Shield international network is the International Council of Museums. They have contacts in their membership within these countries. They try to reach out to people. If they don’t work for the government, that might work. If they work for the Ministry of Culture, they may hesitate to cooperate with such a request because what if they are found out and get fired or get shot, it’s a big risk.
Our next level of queries are to our colleagues in the United States who excavate in those countries and they have a lot of information, often times GIS coordinates for archaeological sites in those countries and often they will also know at least some site information for museums, especially if they have archaeological contents. That’s why Smithsonian is such a great resource because you have so many people doing research in these various countries and have experience and contacts there where they can reach out in a more unofficial way to get information. People are often very willing to provide this information if they know that their identity is going to be protected and that it’s kind of as an aside to a friend. It’s a trusted network and we only provide the information on a need-to-know basis.
What is the situation in Mali right now?
The big issue there right now is the intentional destruction of the Sufi tombs which the Islamic extremists see as against Islam because they’re seen as venerating a sort of god in the form of this Sufi mystic. They don’t think people should be making pilgrimages to these tombs. The Islamic manuscripts are really important also but so far I have not heard of any instances where they’re being destroyed and my understanding is that they’ve been kind of spirited away to various locations and that’s a good thing. That’s exactly what happened in Baghdad too, some of the more important Islamic manuscripts were hidden away in various mosques and homes and that’s what kept them from the looters.
What is the toughest part of the job?
One of the toughest things in a situation like that is to work with the owners of the collection, be it a private non-profit foundation or a gallery or a country like a ministry of culture, to get them to think about prioritizing the damaged collections and to quickly commit to what they want to do first. It’s like asking people to choose their favorite child.
People ask the question, how can you worry about culture when there are all these people dead or homeless and suffering? What I learned in my travels in going to Baghdad and Haiti and other places is that that’s not for you to decide. That’s for the people who are effected to decide. Without a doubt, every place I have been, it’s been a priority for them…I was thinking about this the other day when somebody asked me this question for the millionth time and I thought, it’s always an American who asks that question. I have never been asked that by somebody on the ground when I’m working.
Do you have a personal triumph, an object you’re personally proud of that you can point to and say I helped save that and we’re better for it?
I don’t know how much personal credit I can take for it, but my favorite save is getting back the head of Warka in Iraq. The military police unit that was working in the area recovered it in a raid. They were looking for illegal weapons and objects that had been looted from the museum. They caught one guy who had a couple of museum objects and he said, if you let me go, I’ll tell you who has the most famous object in the Iraqi national collection, the head of Warka. They found it and called me up. They brought it to the museum the next day and we had a huge press conference to celebrate the return. People call it the Mona Lisa of Mesopotamia and seeing that come back was one of the highlights of my life. The museum just completely had an about-face. Everybody became motivated again to get things back in order, it was great.
Update: Though it was initially believed, according to reports from the Guardian, that many of the manuscripts housed in Timbuktu may have been burned by extremist militants, later reports from the New York Times indicated that the manuscripts had instead been successfully hidden.
January 21, 2013
Inauguration day, it’s finally here, along with millions of visitors looking to take in some uniquely D.C.-culture. While our special presidents tour from our visitors guide app will keep you exploring in your spare-time, this post is all about the when, where and how of January 21. Plus, a few select events happening around the Smithsonian, you know, in between the whole inauguration thing.
On Inauguration Day, January 21, Smithsonian museums on the National Mall are open 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. A few museums will open early—the Castle opens at 7:30 a.m., Sackler Gallery, Freer Gallery, Hirshhorn and African Art open at 8 a.m. Mall entrances on the south side will be closed. Visitors will be asked to use the Independence Ave. entrances.
The American Indian Museum and the Renwick Gallery are closed January 21.
The Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery are open from 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.
The Luce Center at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Lunder Conservation Center will be closed Sunday, January 20.
Most streets around the National Mall—including Independence and Constitution avenues and Jefferson and Madison drives—will be closed Monday, January 21.
The Archives, Smithsonian and Mt. Vernon Square stations will be closed Sunday, January 20 to Monday, January 21, midnight to 5:30 p.m. All other stations will open Monday, January 21 at 4 a.m.
No Parking on the National Mall after 6 p.m. on Sunday, January 20.
All museums, open to the public during designated hours, have accessible restrooms
Live broadcast of the swearing-in ceremony in Flag Hall in American History Museum, beginning at 11:30 a.m. A live broadcast will also begin at 11:30 a.m. at the African Art Museum.
Inaugural theme walk-in tours, Monday, January 21, 12:30 p.m. and 2 p.m. at the American Art Museum.
For “Super Sonic Weekend: Sounds and Songs of the American Presidency” (all day Monday), Smithsonian Folkways Recordings is streaming audio recordings related to the American presidency, from a 1757 campaign song used by George Washington in his first race for the Virginia House of Burgesses, to presidential speeches and much more.
Tour America’s Presidents at the National Portrait Gallery at 1:00 p.m. and 3:30 p.m.
At the National Portrait Gallery: ”Portrait of President Barack Obama” The original artwork, a hand-finished collage by artist Shepard Fairey, from President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign is on view January 19 – 22. The work is joined by two larger-than-life tapestry portraits of the president by artist Chuck Close.
At the American Indian Museum: ”A Century Ago: They Came as Sovereign Leaders” This photo exhibition focuses on President Theodore Roosevelt’s 1905 inaugural parade and the six great chiefs who participated in the parade arriving with their own purposes in mind and representing the needs of their people.
At the National Museum of African American History and Culture Gallery in the American History Museum: Changing America: The Emancipation Proclamation, 1863, and the March on Washington, 1963″ In 2013 the country will commemorate two events that changed the course of the nation-the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation and the 1963 March on Washington. Standing as milestone moments in the grand sweep of American history, these achievements were the culmination of decades of struggles by individuals – both famous and unknown – who believed in the American promise that this nation was dedicated to the proposition that “all men are created equal.”
January 16, 2013
The votes have been cast and counted, the campaign offices have been packed up. But things are just getting started in D.C. as the city prepares for a rush of excitement for Barack Obama’s second inauguration, January 21. More than a million people sought a spot near the Capitol to witness his first inauguration in 2009. For his second, Obama is sure to bring out the crowds again and all of D.C. is gearing up for inauguration day, from hotels to restaurants, including Ben’s Chili, which expects to serve 1,000 gallons of its famous chili the week of Obama’s swearing in, according to NBC.
You might not be running for office any time soon, but you can still win big this weekend with the help of our editors.
Conveniently situated around the Mall, the Smithsonian offers a wealth of presidential pomp and history to help get you up to speed for the big day, from Bill Clinton’s saxophone to Thomas Jefferson’s desk. Since this is the land of the free after all, we’ll be offering our custom inauguration-themed app for most smartphones for free with step-by-step tours to the best of the collections and exhibits. The tour includes stately highlights at the American History Museum, Natural History Museum, American Indian Museum, National Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum. From the gowns of inaugural balls past to the hall of presidential portraits, the tour will get you geared up for the festivities.
On Jan. 21, all Smithsonian museums will operate on their normal schedules, with the following exceptions:
• The Renwick will be closed.
• The National Museum of the American Indian will be closed because of its proximity to the swearing-in ceremony.
• The Castle will open at 7:30 a.m.
• The Hirshhorn, the Ripley Center, the National Museum of African Art, and the Freer and Sackler Galleries will open at 8 a.m.
The museums on the south side of the National Mall will be accessible from Independence Avenue only. The museums on the north side of the National Mall will be accessible from both Madison Drive and Constitution Avenue.
More good news, the bathrooms will be available. And if you’re feeling peckish, you can get food at the Air and Space Museum (McDonald’s McCafe, Boston Market and Donato’s Pizza), Natural History Museum (Atrium Cafe, Cafe Natural and Fossil Cafe), American History (Stars and Stripes Cafe and Constitution Cafe) and the Smithsonian Castle’s Cafe and Coffee Bar.
For more information on the when, where and how to get there, view our inauguration at the Smithsonian page.
And if the inauguration tour leaves you curious about what else the Smithsonian has to offer, upgrade to our full visitors guide for just 99 cents. The app includes interactive postcards (starring you wearing the Hope Diamond or Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers, or other fun items from the collections) as well as custom tours for history buffs, art lovers and even a three-hour tour for the brave of heart and swift of feet. One of our own former interns tried to conquer the tall task:
November 29, 2012
Events Nov. 30-Dec. 2: Africa’s Space Programs, the Middle East’s Diva and Ang Lee’s Wedding Banquet
Friday, November 30: Africa and the World’s Space Programs
In conjunction with the African Art Museum’s out-of-this-world exhibit “African Cosmos: Stellar Arts,” astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell discusses Africa’s involvement in the world’s space programs. Starting from the continent’s early history charting and investigating the stars, McDowell tracks a long relationship into modern times. Though Ghana’s Space Science and Technology Centre, for example, only has a handful of employees, the country is optimistic about its future in the industry. According to the BBC, countries like Nigeria and Ghana are hoping to use their space centers for “natural-resource management, weather forecasting, agriculture and national security.” Free. 4 p.m. African Art Museum.
In the midst of the Sackler’s 25th anniversary celebrations, the gallery has found time to host the “next great diva of Arab music,” Karima Skalli. Joined by Hanna Khoury (violin), Kinan Abou-afach (cello), Hicham Chami (quanun), Kinan Idnawi (oud) and Hafez El Ali Kotain (percussion); Skalli will perform traditional and contemporary favorites from the Arab Peninsula in honor of the gallery’s groundbreaking exhibit, “Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.” Free. 7:30 p.m. Freer Gallery.
Sunday, December 2: The Wedding Banquet
Another Ang Lee classic, The Wedding Banquet, tells the story of a gay Taiwanese man living in New York who finds himself in the middle of his own wedding celebrations after agreeing to marry a woman to secure a green card for her. Like many of his films, Lee succeeds in showing the tensions and strengths family inevitably brings. The comedy was a surprise hit for Lee, delighting audiences when it came out in 1993. Nearly ten years later, it still resonates. The series of screenings continues on Dec. 7 with Lee’s even more famous, Eat, Drink, Man, Woman. Free. 3 p.m. Freer Gallery.
November 20, 2012
If you think your house is going to be packed for Thanksgiving, imagine the crowds at a Smithsonian museum. According to the Washington Post, the museums had 418, 000 visitors over the holiday weekend in 2010. Though that number dipped in 2011, the institution is still gearing up for a full house.
To help visitors navigate their way through the 19 museums and National Zoo, Smithsonian will be fielding questions before and during the holiday on its Twitter page. Just follow @smithsonian and use the hashtag “#TgivingVisitTips” to stay up to date. Veteran visitors will also post their own tips with the hashtag, including, “1) eat at
@SmithsonianNMAI 2) take a pic at @NMAAHC site for posterity 3) comfy shoes” by Erin Blasco.
Here are some of our own insider tips, from our Greatest Hits guide (now available on your smart phone!):
Smithsonian Institution Building, The Castle: Your first stop for all things Smithsonian, the Castle is home to the information center where you can scope out all the current exhibits around the Mall, including the Castle’s own exhibit, “Experience Civil War Photography: From the Home Front to the Battlefront.” You can also pay your respects to the founder, James Smithson, who lies at rest in the crypt in the building’s foyer.
National Portrait Gallery: With several new exhibits and a host of permanent favorites, there’s plenty to take in at the gallery (like Alexander Gardner’s famous cracked glass plate portrait of Abraham Lincoln), including the building itself. On the third floor in the Great Hall, is an architectural gem that shouldn’t be missed. The yellow, blue and red stained-glass windows in the octagonal dome, dating to 1885, cast lush hues on sunny days.
American Art Museum: Housed in the same building as NPG, is the American Art Museum, which just opened its splendid new exhibit “The Civil War and American Art,” which is sure to draw crowds. The museum even had its own role in the Civil War: On the third floor near the Woman Eating sculpture, the initials C.H.F. are scrawled on the wall. The work of some hipster tagger? No, the graffiti artist also put a date: “Aug. 8, 1864.” Likely it was left by a patient; the building was a Civil War infirmary.
Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center: Not quite on the Mall, the Udvar-Hazy Center (in Chantilly, Virginia—near Dulles Airport) is home to a world-famous collection of aircraft a space vehicles, including the Air France Concorde and the space shuttle Discovery. After seeing those beauties, tell the kids to check this out. Look for seven hidden oddities in the model of the mother ship made from the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind. These were internal Hollywood jokes that weren’t part of the script. Hint: One is R2-D2 from the movie Star Wars.
Air and Space Museum: The world’s most-visited museum, Air and Space has everything from moon rocks to the Wright flyer. But how did they get it all in there? Look closely at the large window on the west side of the building. The glass slide away like giant garage doors.
American History Museum: Next up from the big three, American History, where even celebrities like Parks and Rec‘s Councilwoman Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) like to hang out. In addition to the brand new exhibit “FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000″ with Julia Child’s kitchen, you’ll also want to stop by the first floor for the Dolls’ House. Inside the house, inhabited by Peter Doll and his family, Christmas decorations are kept in the attic. Each holiday season, curators retrieve the tiny tree and wreaths and decorate the house.
Anacostia Community Museum: After an extensive research process, the museum recently opened its exhibit “Reclaiming the Edge: Urban Waterways and Civic Engagement” as part of its efforts to reach out to the community. Comparing waterways in L.A., Pittsburgh, Louisville, London, Shanghai and here in D.C., the exhibit is full of artworks and informative displays. Check out the playful piece Talking Trash, kinetic sculpture of fish made from plastic water bottles.
Natural History Museum: The grand dame of the big three museum, Natural History is famous partly for housing the “cursed” Hope Diamond. But it’s not all sparkle and shine. Heard of donating your body to science? Professor Grover Krantz volunteered to be put on display at the Smithsonian–with his dog. “I’ve been a teacher all my life, and I think I might as well be a teacher after I’m dead,” he said. Find the pair on the second floor.
American Indian Museum: What better time to visit the American Indian Museum than November, American Indian Heritage Month? In addition to its award-winning cafe and engaging exhibits, it has a treat for those who know where and when to look. Watch for the lovely play of light in the Potomac Atrium. Eight prisms on the south wall project refractions on the floor. See them at the peak of their brilliance between 11 and 2. On the summer and winter solstice, the light lines up precisely.
Freer Gallery: Amid the jades and bronzes from Asia, a fierce fight is playing out. The two birds depicted squawking in battle on the back wall of Whistler’s Peacock Room represent a real-life contretemps between the artist and his patron over a disputed fee for the artwork.
Sackler Gallery: With a new blockbuster exhibit, “Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” the Sackler is as busy as ever. This year, the Sackler celebrates its 25th anniversary of the 1987 gift of some 1,000 works of Asian art from Arthur M. Sackler (1913-1987), a New York City physician.
Hirshhorn Museum: Contemporary art lovers will be filling the circular gallery space to check out Barbara Kruger’s installation and the new exhibit, “Ai Weiwei: According to What?” But you’ll be headed outside. Ready for a little covert operation? Check out the sculpture Antipodes just outside the front door. The piece has two encoded texts, one related to C.I.A. operations and the other in Cyrillic related to the K.G.B.
Museum of African Art: The current exhibit, “African Cosmos: Stellar Arts” is out of this world, combining science and the arts over time. Our insider tips combines its own bit of science and art. Check out the sculpture of Toussaint Louverture. It is made of a mysterious substance that the artist also used to waterproof his house.
Renwick Gallery: Just a few steps from the White House, the Renwick is a must-see in its own right, listed as a National Historic Landmark. Up the stairs is one of the city’s premier galleries, the Grand Salon, modeled in the French Second Empire style.
National Postal Museum: A stamp collection that can’t be beat, including the first ever U.S. government-issued stamp from 1847, is just the start of the Postal Museum. This building was designed by Daniel Burnham, the protagonist of the best-seller Devil in the White City.
National Zoo: In addition to the cuddly cuties on display, the Zoo is also launching this year’s seasonal display, ZooLights, Friday, November 23. As you wander through the animals, listen for the morning songs of the white-cheeked gibbons. They can be heard up to one mile away.
Don’t forget to download our Visitors Guide and Tours app. We’ve packed it with specialty tours, must-see exhibitions, museum floor plans and custom postcards. Get it on Google Play and in the Apple Store for just 99 cents.