October 7, 2013
The day before the government shutdown began, the American History Museum installed this stunning billboard from World War II in the west wing off the second-floor Flag Hall. The poster was conserved and reassembled in 12 separate parts and looks just as fresh and vibrant as it did at the beginning of the war, when it debuted.
This image, created by artist Carl Paulson for the U.S. Treasury Department, is believed to be the most popular poster design of World War II. It appeared in more than 30,000 locations in March and April 1942 and was revived by the Treasury in July 1942 and 1943. In the video above, curators William Bird, Jr. and Harry Rubenstein explain how the billboard came together.
The billboard will be on view to visitors as soon as the Smithsonian museums re-open. Until then, watch the video above to see how it was installed.
September 13, 2013
On September 15, 1963, two and a half weeks after the March on Washington, four little girls were killed in the Ku Klux Klan bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Addie Mae Collins, 14, Denise McNair, 11, Carole Robertson, 14, and Cynthia Wesley, 14, were the youngest casualties in a year that had already seen the murder of Medgar Evers and police brutality in Birmingham and Danville. For many Americans, it was this single act of terrorism, targeted at children, that made plain the need for action on civil rights.
Joan Mulholland was among the mourners at a funeral service for three of the girls on September 18, 1963. (A separate service was held for the fourth victim.) Thousands gathered around nearby 6th Avenue Baptist Church to hear Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who observed that “life is hard, at times as hard as crucible steel.”
Mulholland, a former Freedom Rider who turns 72 this weekend, was then one of the few white students at historically black Tougaloo College in Mississippi. She and a VW busload of her classmates came to Birmingham to bear witness, to “try to understand.” She says of the victims, “They were so innocent—why them?”
Mulholland stopped at the ruined 16th Street church first, picking up shards of stained glass and spent shotgun shell casings that remained on the grounds three days after the bombing. Ten of those shards of glass will join one other shard, recently donated by the family of Rev. Norman Jimerson, in the collections of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. For now, Mulholland’s shards can be viewed in “Changing America: The Emancipation Proclamation, 1863 and the March on Washington, 1963” at the American History Museum.
Mulholland joined us for an exclusive interview in the gallery. She is a short, sturdy woman with a quiet demeanor, her long white hair tied back in a bandana. A smile flickers perpetually across her lips, even as her still, steel blue eyes suggest that she has seen it all before.
As a SNCC activist in the early 1960s, Mulholland participated in sit-ins in Durham, North Carolina, and Arlington, Virginia, her home. She joined the Freedom Rides in 1961 and served a two-month sentence at Parchman State Prison Farm.
Looking back, Mulholland recognizes that she was a part of history in the making. But at the time, she and other civil rights activists were just “in the moment,” she says, “doing what we needed to do to make America true to itself—for me particularly, to make my home in the South true to its best self.”
Mulholland spent the summer of 1963 volunteering in the March on Washington’s D.C. office. On the morning of the March, she watched as the buses rolled in and the crowds formed without incident. That day, she says, was “like heaven”—utterly peaceful, despite fear-mongering predictions to the contrary.
Eighteen days later, the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church changed all that. “Things had been so beautiful,” Mulholland remembers, “and now it was worse than normal.” The explosion, which claimed the lives of four children and injured 22 others, set off a wave of violence in Birmingham. There were riots, fires and rock-throwing. Two black boys were shot to death, and Gov. George Wallace readied the Alabama National Guard.
The funeral on September 18 brought a respite from the chaos. Mourners clustered in the streets singing freedom songs and listened to the service from loudspeakers outside the 6th Avenue church. “We were there just in tears and trying to keep strong,” Mulholland recalls.
The tragedy sent shockwaves through the nation, galvanizing the public in the final push toward passage of the Civil Rights Act. “The bombing brought the civil rights movement home to a lot more people,” says Mulholland. “It made people much more aware of how bad things were, how bad we could be.” As Rev. King said in his eulogy, the four little girls “did not die in vain.”
Mulholland hopes that her collection of shards will keep their memory alive. “I just wish this display had their pictures and names up there,” she says. “That’s the one shortcoming.”
After graduating from Tougaloo College in 1964, Mulholland went back home to the Washington, D.C. area—but she never really left the civil rights movement. She took a job in the Smithsonian’s Community Relations Service and helped create the first Smithsonian collection to document the African American experience. She donated many artifacts from her time in the movement—newspaper clippings, buttons and posters, a burned cross and a deck of cards made out of envelopes during her prison stint, in addition to the shards from Birmingham.
She kept some of the shards and sometimes wears one around her neck as a memento. “Necklace is too nice a word,” she says.
Others she used as a teaching tool. From 1980 to 2007, Mulholland worked as a teaching assistant in Arlington and created lessons that reflected her experience in the civil rights movement. She brought the shards to her second grade class, juxtaposing the church bombing in Birmingham with the Sharpeville massacre in South Africa.
“I saw second graders rubbing this glass and in tears as it was passing around,” she says. “You might say they were too young. . . but they were old enough to understand it at some level. And their understanding would only grow with age.”
Fifty years after the bombing, Mulholland says that “we aren’t the country we were.” She sees the ripple effects of the sit-ins culminating, but by no means ending, with the election of President Barack Obama in 2008. And while the struggle for civil rights isn’t over, she says, when it comes to voting rights, immigration reform, gender discrimination and criminal justice, Mulholland remains optimistic about America’s ability to change for the better.
It’s “not as fast as I’d want,” she says. “I think I’m still one of those impatient students on that. But the changes I’ve seen give me hope that it’ll happen.”
August 6, 2013
When it comes to educating children about gardening, first lessons can seem surprisingly basic.
“Kids learn that food grows!” said Anna Benfield, Education Programs Manager at Washington Youth Garden. “Kids say, ‘I’ve never eaten a leaf,’ and I ask, ‘Well, have you ever had lettuce? That’s a leaf!’”
Benfield spoke as part of a four-woman panel led by Susan Evans, program director of the American Food History Project at the National Museum of American History, a project that, in conjunction with Smithsonian Gardens, is putting on the five-event series Food in the Garden within the idyllic setting of the American History Museum’s Victory Garden. Located on the east side of the museum, the Victory Garden is immense, spanning almost the size of an Olympic swimming pool and housing more than 50 varieties of flowers and vegetables.
On August 1, Evans and Benfield spoke at the museum alongside Sophia Maravell of Brickyard Educational Farm, Christina Conell of the USDA’s Farm to School Program and Joan Horwitt of Lawns 2 Lettuce 4 Lunch to discuss a provocative question: Can gardening change the world?
These issues serve as the backbone for the museum’s Food in the Garden series, held in conjunction with the FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950–2000 exhibition, which explores where our nutrient resources comes from and how we grow them. Previous events have discussed the history of heirloom produce and foraging for food in your backyard, but the recent event centered around a more contemporary—and at times aspirational—concept. Community gardens seek to bring people together toward a common goal: growing food within a community plot. It’s an idea that’s at the same time quite new and very old; from the food gardens of World War I to the small urban farms of today, community gardening is steadily on the rise, especially in recent years. In nearby Montgomery County, Maryland, alone some 600 gardeners participate in community gardens at ten locations.
“When you look back in history, people used to grow their own food,” Horwitt explained, noting that the concepts of community garden and community food education aren’t as unusual as they might seem.
What may seem different is the idea of community gardens as a vehicle for social change, a common platform which all four panelists were arguing for. Community and school gardens, they all claimed, can be used just as effectively as math and science textbooks to teach children important life skills. The Chez Panisse Foundation’s Edible Schoolyard Project developed by the Berkeley, California chef Alice Waters functions as one model for such a vision. The 17-year-old project serves more than 7,000 Berkeley, middle-schoolers and impacts food education on a national level. When it comes to these young students, many suffer from a disconnect in understanding how the food that they eat grows—and even more fundamentally, where it comes from.
Brickyard Educational Farm, located in Montgomery County, is a new school garden program, functioning as an educational tool where students come for a visit to the farm—or watch in-class presentations put on by farm staff—to learn more about sustainable farming, food systems and food economy. These are life skills that Marvell sees as being equally important as more traditional subjects required by educational standards.
“In Montgomery County, we have an environmental literacy standard,” Marvell explained. “I think we need a food literacy standard. Once educators accept that this is just as valuable a subject as math, then we can mainstream it.”
From a wider viewpoint, the USDA’s Conell argued that gardens and food education have far-reaching positive impacts on the community at large. “In order to get people behind the idea of community gardens and food education,” she explained, “it’s important to show the positive economic repercussions.” The USDA is investing in this idea nationally, awarding up to $5 million annually to help schools create positive farm to school education.
Not all of the Food in the Garden events carry such a weighty social message, but Evans sees the evening’s focus on education and activism as indicative of a larger tradition in American history. “What we’re really doing is presenting how current policies and trends fit on a broad continuum of food history in America. By sharing stories of the past with our visitors, we encourage them to make connections to their own lives and ask how their actions affect history as well,” she said. “By situating the programs in the Victory Garden, we are having our conversations in the shadow of a fascinating historical story about the importance of growing your own food, both to America and to your community.”
Attendees didn’t need to get their hands dirty to enjoy the delicious fruits of local farms—while listening to the panel discuss the importance of community food education, guests were treated to a sort of taste education themselves, dining on a selection of locally grown dishes and artisan cocktails from the DC distillery New Columbia Distillers. August 1 marked the half-way point in this summer’s series, with two remaining events scheduled for August 8 and August 15—an exploration of the science behind soil, and a celebration of the enduring legacy of American food icon Julia Child.
July 18, 2013
As the weather heats up, some of the Smithsonian’s exhibits are preparing to cool down. To make way for future shows, a dozen current ones at various museums will close their doors by summer’s end, so don’t miss a chance to see some of these historic, unique, beautiful, innovative and thought-provoking exhibits. Here is a list of all exhibits closing before September 15.
Thomas Day was black man living in North Carolina before the Civil War. An expert cabinetmaker with his own business and more success than many white plantation owners, he was a freedman whose craftmanship earned him both respect and brisk sales. His style was classified as “exuberant” and was adapted from the French Antique tradition. Step back in time to the Victorian South and view Day’s ornate cabinetry work on display. Ends July 28. Renwick Gallery.
The Madrid-based artist group DEMOCRACIA created a video featuring the art of movement in a socio-political context. The film features practitioners of “parkour,” a kind of urban street sport with virtually no rules or equipment and where participants move quickly and efficiently through space by running, jumping, swinging, rolling, climbing and flipping. The actors are filmed practicing parkour in a Madrid cemetery, providing a spooky backdrop for their amazing acrobatics and interspersed with symbols of the working class, internationalism, anarchy, secret societies and revolution that pop up throughout the film. Ends August 4. Hirshhorn Museum.
The Edo period (1603-1868) marked a peaceful and stable time in Japan, but in the world of art, culture and literature, it was a prolific era. These companion exhibitions showcase great works of the Edo period that depict natural beauty as well as challenge the old social order. “Edo Aviary” features paintings of birds during that period, which reflected a shift toward natural history and science and away from religious and spiritual influence in art. “Poetic License: Making Old Words New” showcases works demonstrating how the domain of art and literature transitioned from wealthy aristocrats to one more inclusive of artisans and merchants. Ends August 4. Freer Gallery.
This exhibit, held at the American Indian Museum’s Gustav Heye Center in New York City, explores the significant contributions of Native Americans to contemporary music. From Jimi Hendrix (he’s part Cherokee) to Russell “Big Chief” Moore of the Gila River Indian Community to Rita Coolidge, a Cherokee, and Buffy Sainte-Marie, a Cree, Native Americans have had a hand in creating and influencing popular jazz, rock, folk, blues and country music. Don’t miss your chance to see the influence of Native Americans in mainstream music and pop culture. Ends August 11. American Indian Museum in New York.
The exhibition featuring works by the innovative Korean-American artist Nam June Paik, whose bright television screens and various electronic devices helped to bring modern art into the technological age during the 1960s, features 67 pieces of artwork and 140 other items from the artist’s archives. Ends August 11. American Art Museum.
Come to the Sackler Gallery and learn about the Japanese precursor to today’s electronic mass media: the woodblock-printed books of the Edo period. The books brought art and literature to the masses in compact and entertaining volumes that circulated Japan, passed around much like today’s Internet memes. The mixing of art with mass consumption helped to bridge the gap between the upper and lower classes in Japan, a characteristic of the progression during the Edo period. The exhibit features books in a variety of genres, from the action-packed to the tranquil, including sketches from Manga, not related to the Japanese art phenomenon of today, by the famous woodblock printer Hokusai. Ends August 11. Sackler Gallery.
In this seventh installation of the “Portraiture Now” series, view contemporary portraits by artists Mequitta Ahuja, Mary Borgman, Adam Chapman, Ben Durham, Till Freiwald and Rob Matthews, each exploring different ways to create such personal works of art. From charcoal drawings and acrylic paints to video and computer technology, these artists use their own style in preserving a face and bringing it alive for viewers. Ends August 18. National Portrait Gallery.
Celebrate Asian Pacific American history at the American History Museum and view posters depicting Asian American history in the United States ranging from the pre-Columbian years to the present day. The exhibit explores the role of Asian Americans in this country, from Filipino fishing villages in New Orleans in the 1760s to Asian-American involvement in the Civil War and later in the Civil Rights Movement. The name of the exhibit comes from the famed Filipino American poet Carlos Bulosan, who wrote, “Before the brave, before the proud builders and workers, / I say I want the wide American earth / For all the free . . .” Ends August 25. American History Museum.
This exhibit features a collection of eight portraits of influential women in American history, but you may not know all their names. They came long before the Women’s Rights Movement and questioned their status in a newly freed America by fighting for equal rights and career opportunities. Come see the portraits of these forward-thinking pioneers—Judith Sargent Murray, Abigail Smith Adams, Elizabeth Seton and Phillis Wheatley. Ends September 2. National Portrait Gallery.
Take a peek into the creative world of Chinese artist Xu Bing in this exhibition showcasing materials Bing used to create his massive sculpture Phoenix Project, which all came from construction sites in Beijing. The two-part installation, weighing 12 tons and extending nearly 100 feet long, features the traditional Chinese symbol of the phoenix, but the construction materials add a more modern message about Chinese economic development. While Phoenix Project resides at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, the Sackler’s companion exhibition displays drawings, scale models and reconfigured construction fragments. Ends September 2. Sackler Gallery.
Stroll through the London of the 1800s in this exhibit featuring works by painter James McNeill Whistler, who lived in and documented the transformation of the Chelsea neighborhood. Whistler witnessed the destruction of historic, decaying buildings that made way for mansions and a new riverbank, followed by a wave of the elite. With artistic domination of the neighborhood throughout the transition, Whistler documented an important part of London’s history. The exhibit features small etchings and watercolor and oil paintings of scenes in Chelsea during the 1880s. Ends September 8. Freer Gallery.
From Picasso to Man Ray to present-day sculptor Doris Salcedo, many of the most innovative and prolific modern artists have set aside paint brush and canvas to embrace mixed media. View works by artists from all over the world during the last century and see the evolution of the collage and assemblage throughout the years. Featured in this exhibit is a tiny Joseph Stella collage made with scraps of paper and Ann Hamilton’s room-sized installation made of newsprint, beeswax tablets and snails, among other things. Ends September 8. Hirshhorn Museum.
July 11, 2013
On June 2, 1969, Washington philanthropist and socialite Gwendolyn Cafritz stood with sculptor Alexander Calder in front of an audience on the west side of the Smithsonian Museum of History and Technology (now the American History Museum) for the dedication of Calder’s latest sculpture.
Calder presented his work in few words: “I call it the Caftolin.”
The 71-year-old artist’s voice did not carry over the sounds of an aircraft flying overhead, and the trucks and cars in the nearby street, so Cafritz had to repeat to the crowd what he had said. But she called the work instead by another name—one that Calder had originally considered—the “Gwenfritz.”
Both titles were a play on Cafritz’s first and last names, because she had commissioned the work and was donating it to the Smithsonian Institution.
Minutes later, S. Dillon Ripley, secretary of the Smithsonian at the time, announced what would become the official name. “Bravo to the Gwenfritz,” he said.
This wasn’t the only time Calder’s intentions were overlooked regarding his 40-foot black steel structure. The first was when he was still designing the piece in the surrounding landscape. He had envisioned the sculpture within a pool of fountains, but the project was downsized to a static pool. The other was in 1983 when the sculpture was unceremoniously moved from its original location on the museum’s west side to a spot on the corner of 14th Street and Constitution Avenue where it was placed in a grove of trees that soon grew to be taller than the sculpture’s highest point.
Calder fans were not pleased. “You couldn’t see it,” says historian James Goode, who criticized the move in a book about Washington sculptures. “It didn’t have the breathing space.”
Now, “Gwenfritz,” one of Washington, D.C.’s first modernist public sculptures, will not only be moved back to its original location, but it will get a thorough conservation treatment. This week, a conservation team will finish disassembling the structure, and the parts will be shipped to Manassas Park, Virginia, July 18 in a caravan of wide-load trucks. After the conservation treatment is complete, the newly painted pieces will be shipped back to the museum in October, to be reassembled and reinstalled.
One of the biggest differences between the 1969 debut of the sculpture, known as a stabile (the opposite of a mobile) and its current restoration is the shifting attitude toward abstract art. Karen Lemmey, a curator at the American Art Museum, which owns the sculpture, says “Gwenfritz” was one of those pieces that broke ground for abstract art in Washington D.C. “Gwenfritz” along with Jose de Rivera’s “Infinity” (also on view in the plaza in front of the American History Museum) possibly played a part in changing the city’s aesthetic and steering it away from its former “very predictable arts program,” Lemmey says. At the time, the city was dotted with public works depicting generals on horseback. Calder’s work was something entirely new.
“It speaks to a high point in the arts at that moment,” says Lemmey. The sculpture was originally made in France and shipped to the United States in pieces. The staff at the American Art Museum were involved in putting it together according to Calder’s instructions. “We are in some ways reliving that moment as an Institution . . . that intimacy between Calder and the Smithsonian,” Lemmey says.
The treatment that conservators have planned for it in many ways mirrors that intimacy. “It’s a very interesting time in the field of outdoor painted conservation because these objects that were built in the ‘60s and ‘70s are now hitting that 45 to 50-year mark, and they’re actually at a tipping point,” Abigail Mack, a member of the conservation team, says. “For many years, [conservators] would just recoat it. You put a new coat of paint on it. But at this point the object needs structural work.”
Although often forgotten and unseen by museum-goers in its current location among the trees, “Gwenfritz” has been on the verge of a makeover for more than 20 years, says Catherine Perge, an assistant director for exhibitions and projects at the American History Museum. This year was the first time that the funding and the timing aligned, so Perge and the conservators began to make immediate plans for the move.
Although removing 1,270 rusty bolts and dismantling the 75-piece structure seems more harmful than restorative, the goal is to revitalize the sculpture and revive its former glory. The conservation team will accomplish this by taking every piece apart, clearing out the corrosion and repainting the surface. The paint will mimic Calder’s signature matt-black color, but the new paint, a result of a collaboration between the U.S. Army Research Lab and the National Gallery of Art, will last longer and help to prevent future corrosion.
“Gwenfritz” will be among the first recipients of the military-strength paint, but despite the advancement in technology over the last few decades, the conservation process is not meant to remake “Gwenfritz” into a stabile of the future.
“You can’t expect a paint to last for 45 years,” Mack says. “That’s something that the artist understood. For objects that are made by fabricators, painted by industrial painters, it’s understood that we’re going to be repainting it, so my goal is to conserve the artist’s intent, not the original paint.”
Mack, who has helped conserve more than 40 Calder sculptures in her career, calls this project a challenge. It’s the largest structure she’s ever worked with, and the pieces must be put back together in exactly the right way. The first piece taken off—the tip of one of the many points on the sculpture—alone weighed as much as the average car. Calder, who was trained in engineering, designed every bit of the sculpture himself, and one misplacement would change the aesthetic. To the conservation team, “Gwenfritz” is a giant jigsaw puzzle.
“They should see Alexander Calder when they look at this object,” Mack says. “They shouldn’t see my marks . . . .We’re just trying to preserve what the artist wanted.”
When the sculpture’s makeover is completed and the parts are put back together, it should appear as if nothing has changed. The steel points will shoot prominently toward the sky as before, and the jet black color will reflect clearly in the pool just the same. Not only will the metal parts be restored, but so will Calder’s intentions.