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.
October 1, 2013
September 30, 2013
The story of Djenné, Mali, is typically told through its architecture—monumental mud-brick structures that seem to rise out of the earth like a desert mirage. Every building in Djenné’s historic sector, designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988, has been molded and reinforced by generations of mud masons, following an indigenous tradition as old as the city itself. When Natural History Museum curator Mary Jo Arnoldi traveled to Djenné in 2010, she wanted to meet the masons behind the city of mud, to give them a chance to “tell this story in their own words.”
The new exhibition, “Mud Masons of Mali,” now on view in the Natural History Museum’s African Voices Focus Gallery, profiles three generations of masons: master mason Konbaba, 77; masons Boubacar, 52, Lassina, 49, and Salif, 33; and apprentice Almamy, 20. They belong to the Boso ethnic group, which founded present-day Djenné (pronounced JEN-NAY) in the 13th century A.D. (An older city, Djenné-Jeno, was founded southeast of the current town but was later abandoned.)
Djenné flourished in the 15th and 16th centuries as a hub for trade and Islamic scholarship, and to this day the city’s population is predominantly Muslim. The world-renowned Great Mosque of Djenné is the city’s spiritual and geographic center, and some of Djenné’s most impressive mud buildings—two-story houses with grand entrances and buttresses—reflect the influence of Moroccan architecture and the 19th-century reign of the Islamic Tukolor Empire.
Visitors to the exhibition can explore the city of Djenné through more than 50 photographs, films and objects. On display are some of the tools of the masons’ ancient trade, including a basket for carrying mud, a rectangular frame for shaping bricks and a rod of the same local palm wood used in the long beams that jut out of the Great Mosque’s exterior. Masons use these beams as a built-in scaffolding, clambering up the sides of the structure to replaster the mud.
Djenné building mud is a calcite-rich alluvial mixture, extraordinarily durable but requiring regular reapplication. Most of the masons’ contracts are maintenance jobs on mud homes. Traditionally every family had its own mason who remudded the house year after year. “You were connected to a building,” Arnoldi says. When the mason died, his contracts would pass to an apprentice, thereby keeping clients in the family.
But as the masons explain in a series of short films in the exhibition, the old ways are disappearing. These days, Djenné residents seeking repairs often turn to younger masons rather than masters, bypassing the ancestral system. “If you have a friend with money, they may ask you to build a house,” says Lassina. “That’s how it’s done now.”
The craft itself is also changing. Boubacar is part of a new cohort of masons contracting with international groups on restoration projects, and the young apprentice Almamy goes to engineering school in Bamako, the capital of Mali, hoping to apply his technical education to time-honored masonry practices. “People aren’t against change,” says Arnoldi. “They just are against disrespect for people who hold knowledge. In Malian culture, knowledge is passed down from generation to generation.”
In recent years, the city’s architectural fabric has become a battleground in this conflict between tradition and modernity. Many Djenné residents want to expand their homes and put in modern amenities and decorative accents. Photographs in the exhibition reveal satellite dishes, tiles, turquoise frames and steel doors peeking out of the earthen cityscape—but Djenné’s UNESCO World Heritage status forbids any alteration to building exteriors in the historic sector. “There’s a problem of freezing this architecture in time,” says Arnoldi. “People live here. This is their home. You can’t make them a museum.”
Tensions came to a head in 2009 when the Aga Khan Trust for Culture began restoration of Djenné’s Great Mosque, which was built in 1907. Every year the structure is replastered with mud in a celebration that brings out all of the city’s residents. After a century of accumulation, however, these layers of mud had undermined the structure. The Aga Khan project stripped away much of the mud on the surface and suspended the annual remudding.
Many masons objected to this action, citing the spiritual and aesthetic significance of the remudding. The mosque is thinner now, with straight lines and sharper edges erasing the handmade, sculptural quality of the original. Master mason Boubacar says, “If you ask us, we would say that they did it in a European way. It’s no longer the African way.”
Judging by the jubilant crowds that still surround the mosque every year, the “African way” will endure—though it will undoubtedly change. New generations will graft their own skills and experience to the architectural legacy of their ancestors. The young apprentice Almamy, who represents the future of the craft, puts it best: “We’ll work with our own ideas and make our own mark, but we’ll leave the elders to their old ways of working. We want those to remain a reminder of what our parents have done.”
September 19, 2013
Stamp collectors like nothing better than a mistake. Take for example the notorious blunder of 1918 that flipped a Curtiss Jenny aircraft upside-down on a United States 24-cent postage stamp. The so-called “Inverted Jenny” has since become America’s most famous stamp and one of the world’s most famous errors. “This is a stamp that just makes every collector’s heart beat,” says Postal Museum curator Cheryl Ganz.
On Sunday, September 22, the original Inverted Jenny goes on permanent view for the first time in Smithsonian history. Presented in a four-stamp block with three singles, the Jennies are the crown jewels of the new William H. Gross Stamp Gallery, a 12,000-square-foot addition to the Postal Museum. The gallery will feature some 20,000 philatelic objects, a handful of which are reproduced below. Curator Daniel Piazza hopes that the Jennies will become a “stop on the tour of Washington,” canonized with other great artifacts in American history.
The Jenny was the first U.S. airmail stamp as well as the first airmail stamp to be printed in two colors. Its complex production process allowed ample room for error. One collector, William T. Robey, anticipating a potentially lucrative printing error, was waiting for the new stamps at a Washington, D.C. post office on May 14, 1918. He asked the clerk if any of the new stamps had come in. “He brought forth a full sheet,” Robey recalled in 1938, “and my heart stood still.” The image was upside down! “It was a thrill that comes once in a lifetime.”
Robey sold the sheet of 100 stamps for $15,000. That sheet, which was later broken up, has a storied history that includes resale, theft, recovery, deterioration and even some fleeting disappearances. The National Postal Museum says that the Inverted Jenny is the stamp that visitors most often ask for, but because of conservation issues, the stamps were rarely put on view; the last time was in 2009.
The Jennies will be displayed in a custom-designed case fitted with lights that automatically switch on and off as visitors move through the exhibit. Also debuting on the Stamp Gallery’s opening day is a new $2 USPS reprint of the Inverted Jenny, so visitors can take home the best loved error in philatelic history—at a fraction of the price tag.
UPDATE 9/23/2013: This post has been updated to indicate that the Jenny stamp was the first bicolored airmail stamp and not the first bicolored stamp.
Scroll down to preview other treasures from the William H. Gross Stamp Gallery:
September 17, 2013
The Natural History Museum’s Sant Ocean Hall is getting another makeover today, unveiling three new exhibitions to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the hall’s renovation. The 23,000-square-foot space, recognizable for its giant suspended whale replica, now features two temporary exhibitions combining art and science, as well as a revamped permanent gallery exhibition highlighting the intimate connection between humans and the ocean.
According to Nancy Knowlton, Sant Chair for Marine Science at the Natural History Museum, the hall was designed to present a “wide-ranging vision of the ocean,” encompassing biology, history and conservation. “One of the primary goals was to strengthen the messages that all humans are connected to the ocean, that everything we do affects the ocean and that the ocean essentially needs our help,” she says.
“Portraits of Planet Ocean: The Photography of Brian Skerry,” one of the hall’s two temporary exhibitions, features 20 poignant images of life under the sea. Brian Skerry, an award-winning National Geographic photographer, has spent the last 30 years documenting the world’s most beautiful—and most imperiled—marine environments. Five of the photos in the exhibition (including the harp seal image below) were crowd-curated by visitors to Ocean Portal, Smithsonian’s online hub for ocean information.
The other temporary exhibition, “Fragile Beauty: The Art & Science of Sea Butterflies,” represents the collaboration of artist Cornelia Kubler Kavanagh (left) and biological oceanographer Gareth Lawson. “Fragile Beauty” features ethereal, larger-than-life sculptures of ocean pteropods, or “sea butterflies,” which are threatened by ocean acidification. These organisms have extremely delicate shells, which dissolve as the ocean becomes more acidic.
The Sant Ocean Hall’s permanent gallery was overhauled to emphasize humans’ ties to the ocean. The new exhibition, “Living on an Ocean Planet,” focuses on the six major threats to marine ecosystems—climate change, ocean acidification, pollution, habitat destruction, overfishing and invasive species—and what societies and individuals can do to address those threats. One section illustrates the concept of “shifting baselines” in ocean conservation: studies show that humans have lost sight of what is “natural” over time, as each successive generation lowers its standards for measuring the health of the world’s oceans. The centerpiece of “Living on an Ocean Planet” is a large-scale sculpture composed of trash collected on a remote Pacific atoll in a matter of hours.
But the narrative is not all negative. For each threat to marine life, the exhibition enumerates specific actions that ordinary people can take to protect and conserve the world’s oceans. ”We’ve learned that doom and gloom doesn’t work very well to motivate people,” says Knowlton. “It’s not hopeless. The whole idea is that we have time to address these problems.”