February 7, 2012
Our inquisitive readers are rising to the challenge we gave them last month. The questions are pouring in and we’re ready for more. Do you have any questions for our curators? Submit your questions here.
How much is the Hope Diamond worth? — Marjorie Mathews, Silver Spring, Maryland
That’s the most popular question we get, but we don’t really satisfy people by giving them a number. There are a number of answers, but the best one is that we honestly don’t know. It’s a little bit like Liz Taylor’s jewels being sold in December—all kinds of people guessed at what they would sell for, but everybody I know was way off. Only when those pieces were opened up to bidding at a public auction could you find out what their values were. When they were sold, then at least for that day and that night you could say, well, they were worth that much. The Hope Diamond is kind of the same way, but more so. There’s simply nothing else like it. So how do you put a value on the history, on the fact it’s been here on display for over 50 years and a few hundred million people have seen it, and on that fact it’s a rare blue diamond on top of everything else? You don’t. – Jeffrey E. Post, mineralogist, National Museum of Natural History
What’s the worst impact of ocean acidification so far?- Nancy Schaefer, Virginia Beach, Virginia
The impacts of ocean acidification are really just starting to be felt, but two big reports that came out in 2011 show that it could have very serious effects on coral reefs. These studies did not measure the warming effect of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but rather its effect of making the ocean more acidic when it dissolves in the ocean. Places where large amounts of carbon dioxide seep into the water from the sea floor provide a natural experiment and show us how ocean waters might look, say, 50 or 100 years from now. Both studies showed branching, lacy, delicate coral forms are likely to disappear, and with them that kind of three-dimensional complexity so many species depend on. Also, other species that build a stony skeleton or shell, such as oysters or mussels, are likely to be affected. This happens because acidification makes carbonate ions, which these species need for their skeletons, less abundant.
Nancy Knowlton, marine biologist
National Museum of Natural History
Art and artifacts from ancient South Pacific and Pacific Northwest tribes have similarities in form and function. Is it possible that early Hawaiians caught part of the Kuroshio Current of the North Pacific Gyre to end up along the northwest coast of America from northern California to Alaska? — April Amy Croan, Maple Valley, Washington
Those similarities have given rise to various theories, including trans-Pacific navigation, independent drifts of floating artifacts, inadvertent crossings by ships that have lost their rudders or rigging, or whales harpooned in one area that died or were captured in a distant place. Some connections are well-known, like feather garment fragments found in an archaeological site in Southeast Alaska that appear to have been brought there by whaling ships that had stopped in the Hawaiian Islands, a regular route for 19th-century whalers. Before the period of European contact, the greatest similarities are with the southwest Pacific, not Hawaii. The Kushiro current would have facilitated Asian coastal contacts with northwestern North America, but would not have helped Hawaiians. The problem of identification is one of context, form and dating. Most of the reported similarities are either out of their original context (which can’t be reconstructed), or their form is not specific enough to relate to another area’s style, or the date of creation cannot be established. To date there is no acceptable proof for South Pacific-Northwest Coast historical connections that predates the European whaling era, except for links that follow the coastal region of the North Pacific into Alaska.
William Fitzhugh, archeologist
Natural History Museum
February 1, 2012
We know you’ve got enough “looking forward to 2012″ lists under your belt by now; our Who to Follow post alone will keep you pretty busy. But we can’t resist sneaking in just one more. Here’s our guide to the exhibitions we’re most excited for this year. Mark your calendars now so you’ll have no excuse to say you’re bored later.
A new look at Monticello: Founding father Thomas Jefferson called slavery an “abominable crime”. . . but owned more than 600 slaves who sustained his plantation, Monticello. “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty,” opened on January 27 in the American History Museum‘s National Museum of African American History and Culture Gallery, and focuses on the long-overlooked history of slave life at the third president’s Virginia home. Be sure to keep up with the latest news from Monticello on Twitter at @TJMonticello.
Happy birthday, Jackson Pollock: If he were alive today, Jackson Pollock would have turned 100 on January 28. To honor the stormy life and revolutionary work of the modern art icon, the Archives of American Art presents Pollock’s personal family photos, letters, and writings in “Art Memories Arrested in Space, a centennial tribute to Jackson Pollock” at the Reynolds Center through May 15.
Game on: Can video games be art? To answer that question, the American Art Museum‘s upcoming exhibit, “The Art of Video Games,” pulls together the most arresting graphics and innovative designs in the gaming world, on view March 16 through September 30. Even if you forgot to vote for your favorite game, don’t miss out on GameFest, which kicks off the exhibit with three days packed with open play, panel talks with artists and designers, and live-action gaming. To tide you over til March, follow curator Chris Melissinos at @CMelissinos for updates and teasers.
Hokusai: In anticipation of the Cherry Blossom Centennial, the Sackler Gallery presents a study of Katsushika Hosukai, Japan’s most famous artist (yes, that’s his Great Wave that has probably graced every college dorm wall in America). “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji,” his most acclaimed woodblock print series, was first published in 1830 when Hokusai was in his 70s and goes on view on March 24 through June 17. The gallery has set up an interactive website with more information on Hokusai’s life and artistic technique.
Ai Weiwei: The controversial Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, arrested last year, brings a new installation, “Fragments,” to the Sackler Gallery beginning May 12. Using antique wood salvaged from Qing Dynasty temples, Ai worked with skilled traditional carpenters to create what he calls an “irrational structure” that both affirms and defies centuries of architectural traditions. In October, the Hirshhorn gets in on the action with an exhibit of 25 of Ai’s recent works entitled “Ai Weiwei: According to What?” For an English translation of Ai’s Twitter, follow @aiwwenglish.
January 20, 2012
Now that you’ve probably burned through the lists of historians, innovators, and food-writers to follow this year, we’re bringing it back home to the Smithsonian. As always, the Mall is cooking up some fascinating, crazy, and sometimes grotesque stuff for 2012. Bookmark these people and projects to keep up with this year:
Nicholas Pyenson: Pyenson studies and curates fossils of marine mammals. Get a feel for what is going on inside his lab and follow his team into the field—fresh from an expedition in Chile—at his blog, Pyenson Lab.
Postal Museum: Time for a pop quiz: A “hamper dumper” is:
a) machine in postal processing
b) bin of misprint stamps
c) failed mail vehicle
d) philatelic tool.
If you know the answer, you should be following the Postal Museum (@postalmuseum) for their daily #PostalQuiz and other philatelic factoids.
Biodiversity Heritage Library: As part of the Biodiversity Heritage Library consortium, the Smithsonian Libraries collects and digitizes biodiversity research for open online access—essentially, a bio-wiki. Check out @biodivlibrary for the species of the day: plants that eat worms, albino penguins and other bizarre creatures you never knew existed.
Archives of American Art Pinterest: The American Art Pinterest lets you browse the archives and “pin” the images you like to your virtual board. Mix and match from collections like “facial hair of note” and “ain’t no party like an artist’s party.”
Book Dragon: The Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program’s Book Dragon is the pet project of former APA Media Arts Consultant Terry Hong, featuring reviews of “books for the multi-cultural reader.” Hong highlights literature for kids and adults alike that speaks to the Asian American experience. Follow her at @SIBookDragon.
Smithsonian Vids: For a moving view of the Institution, follow @SmithsonianVids. Meet a scientist studying frog-eating bats, or get a video tour of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings from Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart.
Smithsonian Marine Station: This Natural History Museum field station, located in Fort Pierce, Florida, tweets news updates and photos from the field (er, coral reef) @SmithsonianSMS. Plus, there’s #followfriday trivia every week.
Field Book Project: Also, from the Natural History Museum and the Smithsonian Institution Archives check out this blog, where researchers post updates on their initiative to compile an online database of field books and journals documenting biodiversity research. Besides progress updates, you’ll also find excerpts of century-old field notes from explorers, birdwatchers and scientists (including lots of fun, old-timey sketches) and learn a lot more than you ever thought there was to know about indices.
Encyclopedia of Life: Take your best shot and enter the picture in the Smithsonian’s Encyclopedia of Life Flickr photo contest. The bi-weekly contest could be (and has been) any theme from “backyard life” to “sexual dimorphism.” Even if you don’t enter, be sure to browse the entries for gems like this.
And of course, if you’re not following them already, the museums are always Tweeting up a storm. Here’s the checklist:
American Indian Museum: @SmithsonianNMAI
National Portrait Gallery: @npg
American Art Museum: @americanart
Anacostia Community Museum: @anacostiamuseum
American History Museum: @amhistorymuseum
Air and Space Museum: @airandspace
Museum of Natural History: @NMNH
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden: @hirshhorn
Freer and Sackler Galleries: @FreerSackler
Museum of African Art: @NMAfA
National Zoo: @NationalZoo
Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum: @cooperhewitt
October 24, 2011
Wikipedia, the most widely used encyclopedia on the world, consistently ranks among the web’s top sites and garners instant recognition among nearly all internet users. A related project—Wikimedia Commons, a source of free-use, public domain photos, video and other multimedia available to anyone—is less widely known, but essential for supplying multimedia content for Wikipedia articles.
Earlier this month, the Wikimedia Foundation (the umbrella organization for both of these wiki projects, as well as several others) began a landmark collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution when the Archives of American Art donated a trove of 285 WPA-era photographs to the Commons database.
“We’ve been interested in Wikipedia for years, but we didn’t really know how big the Foundation was and the efforts of the Commons until Sarah Stierch came on,” says Sara Snyder, an IT specialist at the Archives of American Art. Stierch became the Smithsonian’s first “Wikipedian-in-Residence” this summer at the Archives, as part of Wikimedia’s “GLAM” Project (Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums) that strives to increase the flow of information between these institutions and Wikimedia.
“She really opened our eyes to how many opportunities there are, not just editing articles, but being able to donate or share content on the Wikimedia platform through the Commons,” Snyder says.
The Archives team started out by trying to find a batch of photos without any intellectual property restrictions that would be appropriate for a donation. “The first thing we thought of was, ‘well, what do we have that’s public domain?’” says Stierch. “This collection was a clear candidate, because first of all, it’s really engaging, and it’s all created by the government, so its clearly in the public domain,” says Snyder.
The images donated are all part of the Archives’ collection of Works Progress Administration (WPA) photography, and this is the first time they are available to the public in a high-resolution, digitized format. The WPA was a Great Depression-era government program intended to provide relief for the unemployed. In addition to completing infrastructure and education projects, the WPA commissioned artists to produce paintings, murals and sculptures. Many of the photographs in the donation detail these activities, while others were creative assignments for exhibitions and photo murals.
“The different types of people and artists featured, it’s really remarkable,” says Stierch. “We’ve got photographs of works being created—showing the techniques of how to make a lithograph, how to make stained glass, how they sketch these giant murals. It’s a really varied collection of photographs, showing all different processes of art creation, documenting some of the most important as well as some of the lesser-known artists of the 20th century.”
As a collection of multimedia intended for unrestricted use, the Wikimedia Foundation anticipates these photos being used for anything from education to artistic inspiration.
“We hope that art students will look at these photographs and find inspiration in them. We hope that they’re going to be utilized in Wikimedia projects, whether its Wikipedia articles on these artists or anything else,” Stierch says. “If someone can find some educational or aesthetic or special value in these photographs, and I know they will, that’s what we hope comes out of it.”
Stierch and Snyder both envision this donation as the beginning of a long-lasting collaboration between the Wikimedia Foundation and the Smithsonian Institution. “There are 19 units of the Smithsonian, and a lot of those have photographs or images in their collections that are in the public domian, everything from dinosaur bones to WPA paintings,” Stierch says. “It all comes down to what is valuable for the public to be able to learn from.”
April 18, 2011
It’s that time of year, again, the deadline for filing your federal and state income tax returns. And if you’ve procrastinated until the absolute last day—extended from April 15 until April 18 because of the Emancipation Day holiday as celebrated in Washington, D.C.— you still have some time. You are also in good company. Filing taxes is probably one of the few remaining equalizers that exists in society; everyone has to do it— including the rich, the famous, and the rich and famous. But the way we do it—before time or at the last minute; happily or begrudingly—cuts across all sections the population.
The Archives of American Art boasts over 6,000 different collections, many of which include the financial papers and tax returns of U.S. artists. But what can looking at the tax returns of artists tell us about them, and possibly ourselves? Curatorial Archives Specialist Mary Savig shares some of what she learned.
Where did this collection come from?
Normally when we acquire papers, we do get a lot of tax material included in them. The gamut of collections usually runs between personal letters, tax returns, financial records and sketch books. It really ranges, but we do tend to have a lot of financial material.
What can looking at an artist’s tax returns tell us about him or her?
You learn what their studio conditions were like, what they were making on their art at the time and what they were spending their money on. So, tax returns can reveal information about their level of success at the time and whether or not they were charitable with their money.
Did you find anything interesting?
We have a great tax return from the artist Mitchell Siporin, who was a muralist during the Works Progress Administration (WPA). We have a lot of WPA artists in our collections, but what’s notable about these tax returns it that their only source of income during the Great Depression was from the federal government. It’s just a financial record, but it is poignant to show that if they had not been supported by the WPA, they probably wouldn’t have been able to remain artists and they would’ve had to find work doing other things. So the fact that the federal government was able to support their art was really great because it allowed them to flourish after the depression as well.
The collection seems fairly mundane. Was that surprising?
I think what’s so great about some of these financial records is that they’re pretty mundane. Tax returns are kind of a burden that we share with artists, so it show that artists can also be relatable —they also have to do their taxes.It’s the irksome tasks that we all have to do which kind of bring us together, so we can understand kind of their work, too.
Since many of the financial records in the archives contain personal material, there aren’t any plans for a public display, however; they collections are open to researchers who may find the information useful to their scholarship.