February 9, 2011
Business Plan—Calling all business execs and start-up ventures. Get in at the bottom on this deal. The National Museum of American History is planning a new exhibition on the history of business and innovation and is looking for your help. The museum has launched a site, American Enterprise, so that anybody with a good idea can log in and help plan the exhibit. Curators will blog about research trips and artifact collecting and you can offer tips on anything from artifacts to topics and even test ideas. The exhibit is slated to go on view in 2014.
Renaissance Man— In honor of Black History Month, The Bigger Picture remembers Solomon G. Brown, the first African-American to work at the Smithsonian. Brown, born a free man in 1829, worked at the institution for more than 50 years, serving in a variety of capacities, including: building exhibit cases, moving and cleaning furniture, and helping prepare maps and drawings for lectures. Learn more about Brown’s life and work at the Smithsonian, including his close relationship with the second Smithsonian Secretary, Spencer F. Baird, in the first in a series of related posts this month.
What Goes Up— What happens when you drop 200 paper planes from “the edge of space?” Well, that’s what Project Space Planes is trying to find out. The team dropped the planes, each containing a memory card with a message for the person who finds it, back in January. They are hoping to see a) whether the memory cards are tough enough to survive the journey and, b) how far the planes travel. Check out their site for more information and updates on the project. Thanks to the team over at The Daily Planet for the heads up.
Artists on Art— The Archives of American Art has made available excerpts from its oral history interviews with artists like: Robert Bechtle, Judy Chicago, Dennis Oppenheim and Joan Snyder. Hear their thoughts on photography, controversy, public vs. studio art and changes in their work. In addition to the podcasts, summaries of each interview, as well as transcripts of the conversations are available online.
December 22, 2010
Total Eclipse of the Moon—Early yesterday morning (or late Monday night for those on the west coast), an astronomical event took place that only happens once in a blue moon. Well, okay, it wasn’t a blue moon, but it was a total lunar eclipse. This was the first lunar eclipse to fall on the winter solstice since 1638. By the time this happens again in 2094, most of us will be long gone. The AirSpace blog has more information on how lunar eclipses form and what they look like in case you happened to miss out.
Christmas Sweater Archives—I have certainly seen some festive holiday sweaters around the Mall this winter; my personal favorite (worn by ATM’s own Beth Py-Lieberman!) featured chiming jingle bells, appliqued gingerbread men, Christmas trees and red bows. The Archives of American Art has done their own archival roundup of holiday knitwear donned by poets, painters and explorers.
Winter Wonderland—The Bigger Picture blog has a slideshow honoring the onslaught of cold the Washington area has received in recent weeks. The pictures are from the Smithsonian Institution Archives and include snowflake art, icy expeditions, and the Smithsonian covered in snow in the early 1900s. The post also has links to snowflake templates for cutting your own winter decorations.
Solstice—If you thought the weather here was cold, SIRIS has posted photos of Alaska Natives buckling down for the dead of winter from the archives of scientist Leuman M. Waugh, who visited the area in the early 20th century. The photos are likely to make you want a fur-lined winter parka to brave the icy chill. Another post on SIRIS shows images of winter landscape paintings from the National Art Inventories.
Birth of the Christmas Card—Pushing the Envelope has published a guest post by Skidmore College professor Catherine Golden that reveals the first Christmas card ever, from 1843. The card depicts a merry gathering of people eating and drinking, and reads, “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year To You.” Read about the history of the holiday card, as well as Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which Golden writes was arguably more popular for its philanthropic message than even the author’s expert prose.
Poinsettia Video—Recently, Around the Mall brought you the true story of the Poinsettia, which involved Joel Poinsett and his idea to create a national museum. Watch Monty Holmes, a horticulturist at Smithsonian Gardens, talk more about the history of this holiday plant.
December 1, 2010
First Aircraft Moved to New Hangar: This week, AirSpace reports that the Curtiss SB2C Helldiver was the first aircraft to move into the Udvar-Hazy Center’s new Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar. Designed in 1938 and manufactured in 1942, the scout bomber flew in World War II. The Air and Space Museum’s plane is one of only a handful still in existence. The plane is scheduled to be restored over the course of the coming year, along with several other aircraft that will soon move into the new hangar. Later in 2011, the mezzanine level of the hangar will open so that visitors can see the aircraft refurbishment in action.
Patti Smith Wins National Book Award: Singer Patti Smith, perhaps best known as the “Godmother of Punk,” just won the National Book Award for her memoir, Just Kids, which chronicles her friendship with photographer and artist Robert Mapplethorpe. The Archives of American Art blog has a sound clip of Smith reading at a 2008 benefit, or your can hear her on NPR.
Twain Galore: It seems that in addition to Around the Mall’s post honoring Mark Twain’s would-be 175th birthday, a couple other blogs around the Smithsonian have paid their own tributes to the 19th century American author. Face to Face has posted some of their favorite Twain quotes as well as Edwin Larson’s 1935 portrait of the writer. The Smithsonian Libraries blog has a list of further reading straight from the Smithsonian’s collections.
Flamingo-Keeping: Now on the Smithsonian Science homepage, a video from the National Zoo features footage of the Zoo’s 61-bird flock of flaming pink Caribbean flamingos. Sara Hallager, flamingo keeper, says the birds are extraordinarily social animals (their squawks can be heard in the background). She discusses how she and the other keepers prevent inbred chicks during mating season by putting different colored bands on the flamingos’ feet to keep track of who’s who.
National Museum of “Dad-Trolling”? The web comic XKCD has proposed a new Smithsonian museum that specializes in enabling fathers to tell little white lies to their children. Click on various parts of the museum’s floorplan and see what waits inside the “Hall of Misunderstood Science,” “Regrettable Pranks: An Interactive Experience” or the “Rotunda of Uncomfortable Topics,” among others.
November 4, 2010
American photographer Walker Evans is perhaps best remembered for his images of America in the 1930s. Born on November 3 in 1903, Evans initially aspired to become a writer and studied French literature, but by 1928, he changed course and took up photography. Starting off as an advertising photographer, Evans worked for the Farm Security Administration, a New Deal organization whose photography program set out to document rural America during the Great Depression.
Traveling throughout the southeastern United States, Evans created a body of work that captured the suffering of communities of people who were hardest-hit by the nation’s economic troubles. “Here are the records of the age before an imminent collapse,” wrote friend and critic Lincoln Kirstein. “His pictures exist to testify to the symptoms of waste and selfishness that caused the ruin and to salvage whatever was splendid for the future reference of the survivors.”
Evans’ works have since joined the collections of major museums across the country, including the Smithsonian. And what better day could there be to dive into the Smithsonian’s wealth of online goodies to get to know Evans a little better?
Evans, like many artists, was fairly guarded about revealing much about himself, preferring to cultivate an enigmatic image of himself. However, courtesy of the Archives of American Art, you can get to know the artist on a more personal level by way of this 1971 interview done exclusively for the Smithsonian. Of particular interest are his reminisces of his early years just as Evans was beginning to pursue photography. “My poor father,” Evans recalls, “had a conventional attitude toward the arts and all that decided that all I wanted to do was to be naughty and get hold of girls through photography, that kind of thing. He had no idea that I was serious about it. And respectable, educated people didn’t. That was a world you wouldn’t go into. Of course that made it all the more interesting, the fact that it was perverse, for me.”
And if you would like to see examples of Evans’s non-FSA work, like the above image, the American Art Museum has a number of online offerings.
For those of you interested in seeing more photography from the Farm Security Administration, which encouraged the work of other masters such as Dorothea Lange, check out this online collection from the Library of Congress.
October 28, 2010
The modern gay rights movement in America was jump-started in June 1969 when police raided the Stonewall Inn, a New York gay bar, and met with massive resistance from the patrons therein. The days of rioting that followed was a major rallying cry to all gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons to stand up for their civil rights and take pride in being different from the others. But these communities of people simply didn’t spring up out of nowhere to demand their due. They have always been a part of our nation’s cultural fabric, but, for fear of social persecution or legal prosecution, gays have long felt the need to live under the radar. Living in times of extreme social intolerance, these people have had to mask parts of their identity in self-defense, but sometimes these hidden lives play out on the page. For the new show Lost and Found (opening on Saturday), the Archives of American Art has unearthed a trove of letters, photographs and other ephemera that illustrates the gay experience in America and brings to light social enclaves and romantic relationships that provided support to people rejected by society at large.
“It’s within artistic communities that gays and lesbians were first able to express themselves in American culture,” says Archives of American Art manuscripts curator Liza Kirwin. “Because it’s a bohemian milieu, they were allowed certain broader parameters to express who they were within an artistic community. And I think that’s pretty provable going back to the 19th century that gays and lesbians within the artistic community—both the visual arts and performing arts—were accepted within that group to a point. More so there than within the broader culture.”
But divining who was involved in homosexual relationships—especially before the late 1960s— is a bit of a trick. Even in personal correspondence, the language of love may be suggestive, but not explicit. “Part of it is knowing the surrounding context of these artists’ lives,” Kirwin says. “You already know that they’re gay or lesbian, so you go to their papers and you find evidence of it that way. If you didn’t really know, and you just went to the papers, you wouldn’t necessarily know that they were gay.”
Such is the case of Appalachian Spring composer Aaron Copland, who was a private man disinclined to discuss or write about his personal life. In the summer of 1928, he made the acquaintance of painter and lithographer Prentiss Taylor and the two struck up a correspondence in November of that year. Copland’s initial letters express a warm cordiality befitting good friends. But by spring 1929, cordiality evolved into romance. “It’s always a dangerous business to write the kind of letter I sent you,” Copland wrote in March 1929. “Now that I know how you took it, I don’t regret having sent it.”
In addition to one letter from April 1929 on display, you can see a selection of Copland’s letters to Taylor online. It’s genuinely heartwarming to read through the progression of their relationship, especially since it makes you wonder if the art of the love letter—be it authored by a gay or straight person—is alive in the digital age. Somehow love texting or love tweeting seems inherently trite, and email too impersonal for the occasion. But if you want to see it done well, read the writings between people who—without public displays of affection as an option—made such beautiful use of the written word.
Lost and Found complements the National Portrait Gallery’s LGBT-themed exhibition Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture. Both shows are open from October 30, 2010 through February 13, 2011. You can preview some of the Lost and Found artifacts in our online gallery.