December 5, 2013
The Smithsonian is here to get you into the swing of the holiday season by way of a free, two-day festival happening this weekend. Come out to the mall for two days of movies, music, book signings and (of course), shopping. For all gifts purchased at the Air and Space, American History and Natural History Museum stores, volunteers will be on hand to wrap your presents from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM. And if you need help getting around, the Smithsonian Holiday Shuttle Bus will loop the National Mall every fifteen minutes from 9:00 AM until 6:00 PM, stopping at the American History Museum, Smithsonian Castle, Air and Space Museum, American Indian Museum and Natural History Museum. Getting excited? Here’s the rundown of events.
Saturday, December 7
Air and Space Museum
9:30 AM-3:00 PM: Holiday Festival Family Activities for All Ages
Learn about comets and make a decorative comet ornament to take home. Learn how different cultures around the world told different stories about the same groups of stars, discover your Tibetan sun sign and then decorate your Greek sun sign. Design and create a paper Native American star quilt.
11:00 AM-2:00 PM: NASA Star Quilt Activity
Create a star-themed fabric quilt block to add to the block created by astronaut Karen Nyberg aboard the International Space Station. Nyberg has invited the public to create star-themed blocks to be combined into a community quilt for the 2014 International Quilt Festival. This event repeats on December 8 at the same time and venue.
11:00 AM-4:00 PM: Trunk Show: Alpha Industries
Alpha Industries has been making military garments for over 50 years. Come explore our assortment of Alpha flight jackets, including our most popular style, the MA-1, which has a bright orange lining used during rescue missions.
11:00 AM-5:00 PM: Trunk Show: Red Canoe
Red Canoe offers aviation inspired apparel and accessories perfect for the flight enthusiast. Meet Dax Wilkinson, Founder and President of Red Canoe, and shop their line featuring products inspired by Boeing, Cessna, Lockheed Martin and North American Aviation. This event repeats on December 8 at 10:00 AM at the same venue.
11:00 AM: US Air Force Band Holiday Concert: Max Impact
Come listen to Max Impact, the United States Air Force’s six-man rock band as they perform a lively holiday concert. This event repeats today at 12:00 PM, and 1:00 PM, and again on December 8 at 11:00 AM, 12:00 PM and 1:00 PM.
3:00 PM-5:00 PM: Book Signing: Margaret Weitekamp, David DeVorkin and Diane Kidd
Air and Space Museum curators Margaret Weitekamp and David DeVorkin teamed up with illustrator Dianne Kidd to create the children’t book Pluto’s Secret: An Icy World’s Tale of Discovery. Meet the authors and illustrator and have your copy of the book signed.
American History Museum
9:30 AM-5:00 PM: Jewelry Trunk Show: Anne Koplik Designs
Anne Koplik’s handmade, vintage-inspired jewelry has studded the fashion scene for the past 30 years and has been featured on television programs such as Dancing With the Stars and America’s Got Talent. A selection of her bangles and baubles will be available for purchase at the museum store. This event repeats on December 8 at the same time and venue.
10:00 AM-5:00 PM: $10 for 10 mins.: Smithsonian Tours by Segway
In the market for alternative modes of transportation? Try the Segway PT for 10 minutes for only $10. If you enjoyed your test run, save your receipt and get $10 off a Smithsonian Segway tour, where you can enjoy a scenic glide along the National Mall. Tickets are required: $10 for the 10-minute Segway experience. This event repeats on December 8 at the same time and venue.
11:00 AM-3:00 PM: The Polar Express 3D
A special, 12-minute 3D adaptation of the Chris Van Allsburg children’s book will be screened at the Warner Brothers Theater. Tickets are $5 and are on sale outside the Warner Brothers Theater. Multiple screenings will occur each hour between 11:00 AM and 3:00 PM. This event repeats on December 8 at the same time and venue.
11:00 AM-1:00 PM: Book Signing: David Bruce Smith
Author David Bruce Smith signs copies of his books Three Miles from Providence, a work of historical fiction about a Mexican-American War veteran called to guard Abraham Lincoln, and American Hero, an illustrated biography of founding father and Chief Justice John Marshall.
11:00 AM-1:00 PM: Book Signing: Susan Castriota
Author Susan Castriota signs copies of her children’s book Wilson and the White House Pups, the story of an adopted poodle who travels back in time to meet the dogs who inhabited the White House.
11:00 AM-2:00 PM: U.S. Air Force Singing Sergeants
The official chorus of the United States Air Force will fill Flag Hall with the sounds of the holidays. Each performance begins on the hour and lasts approximately 20 minutes.
1:00 PM-3:00 PM: Book Signing: Richard Kurin
The Smithsonian Institution’s Under Secretary for History, Art and Culture Richard Kurin signs copies of his book The Smithsonian’s History of America in 101 Objects, which tells the story of the United States from the pre-Columbian era to the present, all in 101 objects from the Institution’s vast collections.
3:00 PM-5:00 PM: Book Signing: Ann Mah
Food and travel writer Ann Mah signs copies of her book Mastering the Art of French Eating: Lessons in Food and Love from a Year in Paris, in which she chronicles her gastronomic adventures in the City of Light.
3:00 PM-5:00 PM: Book Signing: Roland Mesnier
Chef Roland Mesnier, who served sweets to five presidents of the United States, signs copies of his culinary memoir A Sweet World of White House Desserts. You can also satisfy your sweet tooth with a slice of pie made from Brown’s recipes, for sale in the Stars & Stripes Café.
3:00 PM-5:00 PM: Book Signing: Warren Brown
Lawyer-turned-baker Warren Brown, founder of CakeLove bakery, will sign copies of his fourth book Pie Love: Inventive Recipes for Sweet and Savory Pies, Galettes, Pastry Cremes, Tarts, and Turnovers.
3:30 PM-5:00 PM: Puppet Demonstration and Book Signing: the Puppet Co.
Puppet Master Christopher Piper brings to life a Circus Bear, Cinderella’s bossy stepmother, and shows kids how to make a sassy hand puppet with a simple rubber ball. Afterward, Piper is joined by fellow Puppet Masters MayField Piper and Allan Stevens to sign copies of their book of the Puppet Co.’s The Nutcracker, illustrated with color photographs from the production, and celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the show. This event repeats today at 3:30 pm and 4:15 pm.
10:00 AM-4:00 PM: Trunk Show: Kyoto Kimono
Kyoto Kimono offers one-of-a-kind vintage Japanese garments straight from the temple markets and auction houses of Kyoto, Japan. Each vintage kimono is unique, offering its own expression of Japanese life and culture. Come shop our assortment, as well as special trunk show only items, and take home your own piece of wearable art. This event repeats on December 8 at the Natural History Museum.
1:00 PM-4:00 PM: Book Signing: Laura Kelley
Laura Kelley signs copies of her book The Silk Road Gourmet in which she chronicles the cuisine of 30 Asian countries in 1,000 recipes.
Natural History Museum
9:30 AM-5:00 PM: Jewelry Trunk Show: Meridian Jewelry & Design
Inspired by peoples and places from all over the world, designers Lynn and Brad Ölander draw on both old world aesthetics and modern streamlined forms in their collections of handmade jewelry
11:10 AM: Jerusalem 3D
Jerusalem 3D takes you on an inspiring and eye-opening tour of one of the worlds oldest and most enigmatic cities. Destroyed and rebuilt countless times over the past 5,000 years, Jerusalem’s enduring appeal remains a mystery. What made it so important to so many different cultures? How did it become the center of the world for three major religions? Why does it still matter to us? Tickets are required: $9 for adults; $8 for seniors; $7.50 for youth. Tickets may be purchased in advance online or at the Johnson IMAX Theater box office. This event repeats today at 1:50 PM and 3:20 PM and again on December 8 at the same times and venue.
1:00 PM-2:00 PM: Story Time: Dino Tracks with Rhonda Lucas Donald
Author Rhonda Lucas Donald and illustrator Cathy Morrison present their story, Dino Tracks. Come learn which dinosaurs made the tracks and what scientists think they were doing when they made them. American Sign Language interpretation will be provided.
2:00 PM-3:00 PM: Book Signing: Rhonda Lucas Donald
Author Rhonda Lucas Donald signs copies of her children’s books Dino Tracks and Deep in the Desert.
1:00 PM: Holiday Card Workshop
Come to the Postal Museum for this arts and crafts workshop where you can create your own personal, one-of-a-kind holiday greeting cards. Look to the museum’s collection of beautiful holiday stamps to inspire your creations.
11:00 AM-4:00 PM: Jewelry Trunk Show: Cynthia Gale
Cynthia Gale finds inspiration from the collections of American cultural institutions, such as the Kennedy Center and the New York Historical Society, to create her handmade works of sterling silver jewelry.
Sunday, December 8
Air and Space Museum
12:00 PM – 3:00 PM: Book Signing: Tami Lewis Brown
Author Tami Lewis Brown will sign copies of her children’s book Soar, Elinor!, the true story of Elinor Smith who earned her aviator’s license at the tender age of 16 and went on to be hailed as one of the best pilots in America.
American History Museum
11:00 AM-2:00 PM: U.S. Air Force Silver Wings
The premier country band of the United States Air Force will fill Flag Hall with music. Each performance begins on the hour and lasts approximately 20 minutes.
1:00 PM – 3:00 PM: Book Signing: Brian Jay Jones
Author Brian Jay Jones will sign copies of Jim Henson: The Biography, his account of the famous puppeteer and creator of the Muppets.
3:00 PM – 5:00 PM: Book Signing: John Fricke
Author John Fricke will sign copies of The Wonderful World of Oz: An Illustrated History of the American Classic, his latest book on the beloved 1939 movie.
3:00 PM – 5:00 PM: Book Signing: Paula Fleming
Author Paula Fleming will sign copies of her book Diableries: Stereoscopic Adventures in Hell, a book that reprints a series of 19th-century 3D postcards depicting supernatural scenes. Antique stereoscope viewers will be available near the book signing so you can experience first hand the original 3D entertainment.
4:00 PM – 4:30 PM: Walt Whitman High School Chamber Choir
The Walt Whitman High School of Bethesda, Maryland, Chamber Choir is the school’s most advanced choral group. The Chamber Choir has long been considered a flagship of excellence among high school choirs throughout the state of Maryland. The group performs a mix of a cappella pieces from a variety of choral styles, as well as holiday songs. Select jazz octets also perform lighter selections.
2:00 PM – 5:00 PM: Tranquil Tuesdays Tea Tasting Event
Meet Charlene Wang, founder of Tranquil Tuesdays, an online business that showcases China’s finest teas, and sample authentic Chinese tea in this tasting event.
November 27, 2013
In a rare coincidence of the calendar, this Thanksgiving is also the first day of Hanukkah, prompting Buzzfeed, among many others (including Manischewitz) to create a new portmanteau of a holiday: Thanksgivukkah. The next time this amalgam of the Jewish-American experience will occur? In 70,000 years.
The Statue of Liberty Hanukkah lamp in the National Museum of American History’s collections represents the vision of Manfred Anson, whose creation unites the spirits of gratitude and freedom evoked by both Thanksgiving and Hanukkah.
A native of Germany, Anson described his idyllic childhood coming to an abrupt end with the Nazi rise to power in 1933. As conditions for Jews worsened, 14-year-old Manfred was enrolled at an agricultural school in the hope that he could secure a visa to emigrate to Palestine. However, just prior to the start of World War II, another opportunity presented itself, and he was chosen as one of 20 boys rescued by the Jewish Welfare Guardian Society of Australia.
Anson’s family was later deported to Theresienstadt concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic, where his mother and father survived. His younger brother Heinz was killed in Majdanek concentration camp in Poland, while his sister Sigrid survived in several camps before being liberated at Bergen-Belsen in Germany. At the end of the war, while in a rehabilitation hospital in Sweden, and unaware that her parents were alive, Sigrid wrote a letter addressed to “Manfred Anson, Australia.” Amazingly, he received it, and the siblings were in touch once again.
In 1963, Anson immigrated to the United States to join his sister (by then, unfortunately, both of their parents had passed away). An avid collector, he began to acquire memorabilia of his new country, ultimately amassing several thousand souvenirs of the Statue of Liberty, the Liberty Bell and the U.S. Capitol. He designed his Hanukkah lamp for the centennial of the Statue of Liberty in 1986 and donated the original to the Statue of Liberty National Monument, which subsequently acquired many objects from his collection. Over the next 25 years, Anson had a number of other Hanukkah lamps cast; the one at the American History Museum was one of the first and one that he had made for his family.
Anson gave souvenir figurines to a craftsman to cast the statuettes for the lamp, and the Statue of Liberty torch was transformed into a candle holder. According to the Hanukkah story, a single cruse of pure oil kindled the Holy Temple menorah (seven-branched candelabrum) for eight days—a miracle—which is why the holiday is celebrated as the Festival of Lights. To commemorate the holiday, Jews worldwide use a chanukiah, a nine-branched menorah. As such, a traditional seven-branched Polish menorah was reworked with an extra arm and a ninth candleholder for the shamash, a servitor used to light the other candles, affixed at the front. The lamp is surmounted by an American eagle, and the base of each statuette is inscribed with significant dates in Jewish history.
Manfred Anson was proud to be an American and proud of his Jewish heritage. He was deeply honored that his personal tribute to both cultures received public recognition, and his lamp serves as a poignant reminder of what we celebrate on Thanksgiving and during Hanukkah.
The Statue of Liberty Hanukkah Lamp is currently on view at the National Museum of American History. Grace Cohen Grossman was a senior curator at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles until 2012 and was recently a Goldman Sachs Fellow at the National Museum of American History.
This post originally appeared on O Say Can You See!, the blog for the National Museum of American History. For other posts like this, discover how Uncle Sam became a meme and find the message behind an iconic Civil War photograph.
November 4, 2013
Until 1982, anyone who used insulin to manage their diabetes got it from what we’d now think of as an unusual source: the pancreases of cows and pigs, harvested from slaughterhouses and shipped en masse to pharmaceutical processing plants. But there were problems with getting all our insulin this way—fluctuations in the meat market affected the price of the drug, and projected increases in the number of diabetic people made scientists worry that shortfalls in insulin supply could strike within the next few decades.
That all changed with the introduction of Humulin, the first synthetic human insulin. But the drug was a milestone for another reason, too: It was the first commercial product to come out of genetic engineering, synthesized by bacteria that had been altered to include the gene for producing human insulin.
Last year, the American History Museum acquired a handful of key items used to create Humulin from Genentech, the San Francisco company responsible for its development, and put them on view last week in a display titled “The Birth of Biotech,” giving visitors a look into the dawn of the era of genetic engineering.
Genentech’s work began with a discovery made in the 1970s by a pair of Bay Area scientists, Herbert Boyer of UC San Francisco and Stanley Cohen of Stanford: Genes from multi-cellular organisms, including humans, could be implanted into bacteria and still function normally. Soon afterward, they teamed with venture capitalist Robert Swanson to form the company, with the hope of using genetic engineering to create a commercially viable product.
Early on, they decided insulin was a logical choice. “It was convenient. It was an easy protein to handle, and it was obviously something that a lot of people needed,” says Diane Wendt, a Smithsonian curator who worked on the display.
One of their first achievements was synthetically building the human insulin gene in the lab, a single genetic base pair at a time. In order to check the accuracy of their sequence, they used a technique called gel electrophoresis, in which electricity forces the DNA through a gel. Because larger pieces of DNA migrate more slowly than smaller pieces, the process effectively filters the genetic material by size, allowing researchers to pick out the pieces they want, one of the key steps in early genetic sequencing methods.
Electrophoresis is still widely used, but the equipment donated by Genentech is decidedly more improvised than the standard setups seen in labs today. “You can see it’s sort of made by hand,” says Mallory Warner, who also worked on the display. “They used glass plates and binder clips, because they were working really quickly all the time and they wanted something they could take apart and clean easily.”
In order to manipulate DNA and other microscopic molecules, the researchers used a variety of tiny glass instruments. They made many of these tools themselves with a device called a microforge—essentially, a tool shop in extreme miniature, equipped with its own microscope so the makers could see what they were doing.
After synthesizing a gene for insulin, the scientists needed to assimilate it into a bacterium’s DNA so that the organism would produce insulin on its own. They used a variety of enzymes to do so, including Eco R1, a chemical that cuts DNA in a precise location, based on the surrounding base pairs. Researchers extracted small DNA molecules called plasmids from the bacterium, severed them with these enzymes, then used other enzymes to stitch the synthetic insulin gene in place. The new hybrid plasmid could then be inserted into live bacteria.
After the Genentech scientists successfully created bacteria with copies of the insulin gene, they confirmed that the microbes could produce human insulin in sufficient quantities in a fermentation tank like this one. Then the genetically modified bacteria were passed off to researchers at Eli Lilly, who began producing it in commercial quantities for sale. Voila: synthetic human insulin.
Of course, the state of biotechnology continued to evolve in the years after Humulin debuted, and the museum has collected notable items from that time as well. One is a prototype of a gene gun, developed by scientists at Cornell University in the mid-1980s.
The device makes it easier for scientists to introduce foreign genes into plant cells, by coating tiny metal particles in DNA and firing them at plant cells, forcing a small percentage of the genetic materials to penetrate into the cells’ nuclei and enter their genomes. The original gene gun prototype used a modified air pistol as a firing mechanism, and the technique proved successful when it modified onion cells, chosen for their relatively large size.
Another subsequent innovation ushered in the age of biotechnology in earnest: polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, a chemical reaction developed in 1983 by biochemist Kary Mullis that allowed scientists to automatically multiply a DNA sample into greater quantities with significantly less manual work. The first prototype PCR machine, or thermal cycler, was based on researchers’ knowledge of how enzymes like DNA polymerase (which synthesizes DNA from smaller building blocks) functioned at various temperatures. It relied on cycles of heating and cooling to rapidly generate large amounts of DNA from a small sample.
“The Birth of Biotech” is on display on the ground floor of the American History Museum through April 2014.
October 30, 2013
Andy Carvin is a man of many titles—“digital media anchor,” “real-time news DJ” and “online community organizer,” to name a few—but the one he is most comfortable with is “storyteller.” NPR‘s social media strategist, Carvin used Twitter during the Arab Spring to communicate with protesters in the Middle East and verify eyewitness accounts from the front lines, most of the time while he was on his iPhone in the United States. He recently published a book about his work, Distant Witness.
Carvin has donated his old phone to the American History Museum, which will include it in “American Enterprise,” a 2015 exhibition on the role of innovation in the nation’s emergence as a world power. “Engaging with people through my phone on Twitter was a story itself,” he says of his reporting in 2011. Carvin, who still tweets up to 16 hours a day, sees his work as a “form of real-time storytelling…sorting itself out, 140 characters at a time.”
See how the process works in this selection of tweets, and read on for our interview with Carvin on social media in journalism:
How did you use this phone during the Arab Spring?
My job at NPR is to be a journalistic test pilot: I experiment with new ways of conducting journalism and figure out what works and what doesn’t. At the beginning of the Arab Spring, I had contacts in Tunisia and other parts of the region who were talking about protests through Twitter and other social media. Initially I was simply retweeting what they were saying, but as the revolutions expanded from one country to another, I ended up using Twitter to create an online community of volunteers who served as sources, translators and researchers for me. We would all engage with each other mostly through my mobile phone, trying to sort out what was true and what wasn’t.
From 2011 to 2012, I was on Twitter upwards of 18 hours a day, 7 days a week, much of the time on that phone, and rarely in the places where these revolutions were taking place. I don’t have a background as a combat reporter, so this was very much an experiment in collaborative, virtual reporting, in which ultimately my iPhone and Twitter served as the focal points.
I was mostly in the U.S. while this was going on, but I made trips to Egypt, Lebanon, Libya, Tunisia and a number of other countries in the region. I discovered very quickly that when I would be in a place like Tahrir Square in Egypt, I found it really hard to get a big picture of what was going on, simply because when you’re surrounded by tear gas and people throwing rocks, you have a fairly limited field of view. Once I could get away from that scene and get back online, over my phone, I’d immediately have contact with dozens of sources across the field of battle who could help paint this picture for me and give me the type of situational awareness that I actually didn’t have when I was there in person.
A lot of your social media work was fact-checking or fact verification. Did you then funnel those facts to NPR or other journalists?
It varied. I was regularly in contact with our reporters on the ground, so as I discovered things that seemed relevant to our reporting on air and online, it would get incorporated into that work. But much of the time, the goal was to do a long-term experiment in social media and mobile journalism in which I wasn’t working under the assumption that my tweets would ultimately develop into some type of news product, like a blog post or a radio piece. Instead, engaging with people through my phone on Twitter was the story itself. It was the experience of being part of this real-time rollercoaster, with me essentially as a broadcast host trying to explain to people what was going on, what’s true, what’s not—but doing it through Twitter and pulling in people who are on the ground, using these same mobile technologies to share their experiences in real time.
[Social media] worked in parallel to our other reporting methods. It certainly wasn’t a replacement to our foreign correspondents being on the ground in all these places. If anything, it complemented that kind of journalism.
But Twitter can also amplify rumors and spread false reports very quickly. How do you answer that criticism?
All we have to do is look at the last year or two to see a vast array of egregious errors that journalists have made on cable television and broadcast news and online news in general. Whether it’s the Boston bombing mistakes or some of the reporting during the shooting in Newtown, the rumors that spread those days didn’t begin on social media; they began with incorrect reporting on air and online. Now, people immediately began talking about them through social media, so word of this reporting spread just as fast as it would have spread if the reporting had been accurate.
The problem is that news organizations often don’t see this social media space as their concern, except for promoting their work. If they report something incorrectly on air, they’ll correct it when they can—but ultimately the people online are going to have to sort it out themselves. I personally think that’s a big mistake. If anything, I think news organizations should have journalists active in these communities so we can slow down the conservation, ironically, because you think of Twitter as speeding up the news cycle.
You can slow it down by telling people: “This is what we know and what we don’t know. We have not been able to confirm what this other network is reporting, and we don’t have the evidence to back that up.” The types of things that you sometimes say on air but don’t always spell out. The average news consumer doesn’t know the difference between when a news anchor says, “We have confirmed,” versus “We have received reports,” or “Our news outlet has learned.” These all have very distinct meanings in journalism, and we never explain to anyone what they mean.
If you’re part of a conversation with the public on Twitter, you can say to them, just because this network said they’ve received reports that something has happened, that doesn’t mean it’s anywhere near being confirmed. You can actually improve the media literacy of the public so they become more responsible and less apt to be part of that rumor cycle.
So generally speaking, yes, social media amplifies rumors. There’s absolutely no doubt about it. But I think we have to take a really hard look at ourselves in the media and ask, where are these rumors originating? And when they’re originating through our own reporting, what can we do to alleviate them online?
Twitter is also used by ordinary people, celebrities, comedians, etc. Do you see all those uses of Twitter as different silos, or are they all part of the same phenomenon?
They’re all part of the same ecosystem in the same way that life and culture overlap different ecosystems. If you think about what we do in our online worlds, we occasionally enjoy comedy, we talk to our friends about the crappy meal we had at a restaurant the night before or the bad customer service we got from some business. Other times we’ll talk about serious things, try to help friends online, maybe talk about the news. None of these are mutually exclusive. They’re all aspects of who we are and how we engage with our friends and family.
Twitter and social media in general just amplify those same concepts and put them in a space that makes it easier for people who would never normally meet to engage in conversations. So I’m perfectly proud to admit that I watch cat videos and read BuzzFeed and TMZ on a daily basis, while at the same time talking to sources in Syria and reading the latest essays coming out of Foreign Policy magazine. I don’t see that as contradictory because those are things that interest me offline as well.
I think a lot of the people who follow me for professional reasons follow me because I’m also a real human being on Twitter. I talk about my family, I talk about how things are going at work, the apple picking that I took my kids to a week ago or whatever. Social media gives you a chance to demonstrate to the world that you’re not just a talking head on a screen somewhere and that you actually are multidimensional. I think that adds to your authenticity in ways that make people more likely to trust you, to the point where they may want to share things with you as well. Being yourself on Twitter and social media is just a natural part of being a good citizen and cultivating sources online.
Is it possible to share too much information?
People overshare. There’s no doubt that happens. I’ve been guilty of doing it myself sometimes. But we’re all figuring this stuff out at the same time. There is really no precedent in history for this type of network that we’ve created. There’s an identity crisis when it comes to privacy right now, too. On the one hand we have a habit of oversharing, but on the other hand, people are very concerned about what the government is doing here or overseas. I don’t think anyone’s been able to sort this out yet. They know privacy when they see it, and they know oversharing when they see it. That’s just something that’s gonna have to sort itself out over time. I don’t think at the moment it’s necessarily going to stop those people who want to use social media in constructive ways from using them in constructive ways.
What phone do you have now?
I have an iPhone 5.
How do you feel about iOS 7?
I actually haven’t upgraded to it yet. It’s funny, I don’t consider myself a true early adopter of technologies in the sense that I don’t get new gadgets or tools in the first generation. I’d rather watch other people figure out whether they’re functional or not, and once they’re a bit more stable, then I like to tinker with them and figure out how they can be used in a broad sense.
I’d rather be on the cutting edge of figuring out what’s going on in the world than figuring out how to work my iPhone. I can always play catch-up on that as I need to.
October 22, 2013
The doors of the Smithsonian’s museums were recently shuttered during the debt crisis and shutdown of the United States government. Americans who had long ago planned their trips to the nation’s capital, as well as foreign tourists and school children, arrived only to find signs barring them from entry “due to the government shutdown.” Elsewhere in the country, visitors to national parks, historic monuments and memorials, and even websites found a similar message. The shutdown and debt ceiling crisis brought home to many Americans the fragility of our democracy. That sense of loss and then relief prompts a reflection on why these items came to be significant and how they became, sometimes surprisingly, even precariously, enshrined as icons of our American experience.
The National Zoo’s panda cub born on August 23, 2013, weighed just three pounds when the camera inside the enclosure went dark on October 1. But the cub’s mother Mei Xiang remained diligent in her maternal care, and the Zoo’s animal handlers and veterinarians continued their expert vigilance—so that when the panda cam came back on, the public was delighted to see the little cub was not only healthy, but had gained two pounds and was noticeably more mature. Tens of thousands of viewers rushed to the website on October 18, crashing the system over and over again. The next day, the Zoo’s celebrated reopening made newspaper headlines across the nation.
The excitement reminded me of another type of opening, when the pandas made their original appearance at the Zoo during the Nixon administration. Those first pandas, Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling, came to Washington in 1972 because Nixon was seeking a diplomatic opening of a relationship between the United States and the Communist government of the People’s Republic of China. As part of a mutual exchange of gifts, the Chinese offered the pandas to the United States. And we in turn, gave the Chinese a pair of musk oxen, named Milton and Matilda. This was zoological diplomacy at its most elaborate—the State Department had carefully brokered the deal, ruling out other creatures, like the bald eagle, as unsuitable. The eagle, it determined, was too closely associated with our beloved national symbol. Bears were symbolic of Russia, and mountain lions signaled too much aggression. In any case, I think we got the better of the deal. The pandas became instant celebrities and when they took up residence at the Zoo, they transcended their diplomatic role, becoming instead the much-loved personalities and evolving over time into ambassadors of species and ecosystem conservation.
The Statue of Liberty, so familiar to us in New York Harbor as a symbol of freedom, is a historic beacon to immigrants, and a tourist destination, but it didn’t start out that way. Its sculptor and cheerleader Frédéric Bartholdi initially designed the large statue for the Suez Canal in Egypt. But finding a lack of interest there, Bartholdi modified and repurposed it for a French effort to celebrate friendship with America in celebration of the U.S. centennial. The sculptor found an ideal site for it in New York, and while French citizens enthusiastically donated their money to fabricate the statue, American fundraising for the statue’s land, base and foundation faltered. Hoping to persuade Congress to support the project, Bartholdi sent a scale model of Liberty from Paris to Washington, where it was installed in the Capitol Rotunda. But Congress wasn’t swayed.
Other U.S. cities sought the statue. Newspaper publisher and grateful immigrant Joseph Pulitzer eventually took up the cause—donations large and small at last rolled in. In 1886, with Thomas Edison’s newly invented electric lights installed in Liberty’s torch, President Grover Cleveland pulled the rope to unveil her face, and the Statue of Liberty was open. It was some 17 years later, as a massive influx of immigration was stirring civic debate, that the poem by Emma Lazarus with its famed phrase “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free” was posthumously added as an inscription on its base. It’s wonderful to be able to visit the Statue in New York again every day, and Bartholdi’s model too, is here in Washington, residing on the second floor of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
The shutdown of the immensely popular National Air and Space Museum came at a particularly unfortunate time. The museum was temporarily displaying, through October 22, Leonardo da Vinci’s handwritten and illustrated Codex on the Flight of Birds, a rare and unusual loan from the people of Italy. Tens of thousands of U.S. citizens missed out on an opportunity to see this amazing Renaissance document from the early 16th century—an experience made all the more poignant because it was put on display alongside the Wright brothers’ Kitty Hawk Flyer. Almost like the fulfillment of da Vinci’s musing, this airplane opened the skies to humans in an unprecedented way after a series of flights on North Carolina’s Outer Banks on December 17, 1903. The Flyer was the first heavier than air, self-powered, piloted craft to exhibit controlled, sustained flight. It took on irreparable damage that day and never flew again. Few realize, however, that a disagreement between Orville Wright and the Smithsonian nearly prevented the flyer from ever coming to Washington. Orville was rightly offended by the incorrect labeling of another airplane on view at the Smithsonian. The label claimed the honor of first in flight went to an aircraft invented by Samuel P. Langley, a former Secretary of the Institution. The dispute lasted for decades and the Wright Flyer went to London and would have stayed there had not Orville Wright and the Smithsonian finally settled their differences in 1948 and the little aircraft that changed history came to Washington.
The Star-Spangled Banner on view at the National Museum of American History reminds us of how our government and nation was almost shutdown by war and invasion. In August 1814, British troops, had routed the local militia, invaded Washington, burned the Capitol, the White House and other public buildings and was advancing on to Baltimore, a strategic target with its privateers and port on the Chesapeake Bay. British ships pounded Fort McHenry which defended the city from invasion. Rockets and bombs burst overhead through the night in a vicious assault—but the troops and the fortifications held strong. And on September 14, Francis Scott Key, a lawyer and poet saw the huge American garrison flag still flying in the “dawn’s early light,” and penned the words that once set to music became our national anthem. The flag itself was paraded and celebrated almost to destruction throughout the 19th century; people clipped pieces of its red, white and blue threadbare wool cloth as souvenirs. Finally, in 1907, the flag was sent to the Smithsonian for safekeeping. We’ve cared for it well, using support from the federal government and donors like Kenneth Behring, Ralph Lauren, and others to carefully restore it and house it in an environmentally controlled chamber—but when visitors see the flag and learn its story, they soon realize how tenuous our country’s hold on its freedom really was 200 years ago.
That theme is also illustrated at the White House—when visitors again re-enter the East Room and view the full-length portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart. This is the painting that Dolley Madison, slaves and servants saved when the British invaded the capital and burned the president’s house in 1814. The painting is not the original, but one of several versions from Gilbert Stuart’s studio. The original 1796 portrait was commissioned as gift to a pro-American former British Prime Minister, the Marquis of Lansdowne, who held a great respect for America’s first president. The Lansdowne was on long-term loan to the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, but in 2000, the British owner announced his intention to sell it. Thankfully, the Donald Reynolds Foundation came to the rescue—buying the painting for the Smithsonian so that it could be enjoyed by every American. It can currently be seen in the exhibition “America’s Presidents” in the Portrait Gallery.
The basic principle of democracy—self-government, was spelled out in the Declaration of Independence that affirmed the founding of the United States on July 4, 1776. The Congress had John Dunlap print a broadside version of the Declaration, which was quickly and widely distributed. In the following months, a carefully hand-lettered version on vellum was signed by members of the Congress, including its president, John Hancock. This document is called the engrossed version. Lacking a permanent home during the Revolutionary War, the document traveled with Congress so that it could be safeguarded from the British. The engrossed version faded over the ensuing decades, and fearing its loss, the government had printer William Stone make a replica by literally pulling traces of ink off of the original to make a new engraving. Stone was ordered to print 200 copies so that yet another generation of Americans could understand the basis of nationhood. In 1823, he made 201—which included a copy for himself; that extra one was later donated by his family to the Smithsonian and is now in the collections of the American history museum. The faded engrossed version is on exhibit at the National Archives, re-opened for all to enjoy.
The Declaration of Independence has been preserved, enshrined, and reproduced. Its display continues to inspire visitors—and though its fragility might be taken as a metaphor for the fragility of the principles of democracy and freedom it represents, it also reminds us that democracy requires persistent care. Places like our museums, galleries, archives, libraries, national parks and historic sites provide the spaces in which the American people, no matter how divided on one or another issue of the day, can find inspiration in a rich, shared, and nuanced national heritage.
The Smithsonian’s History of America in 101 Objects, Penguin Press, is out this month.