April 17, 2013
On April 16, Smithsonian Institution Secretary G. Wayne Clough testified before the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform about the impending effects of sequestration. Though the Obama administration had sought a $59 million budget increase for the Institution in fiscal 2014, this year Clough has to contend with a $41 million budget reduction due to sequestration. Gallery closings, fewer exhibitions, reduced educational offerings, loss of funding for research and cuts to the planning process of the under-construction National Museum of African American History and Culture were listed among the impacts of the sequestration.
Clough began his testimony: “Each year millions of our fellow citizens come to Washington to visit—for free—our great museums and galleries and the National Zoo, all of which are open every day of the year but one. Our visitors come with high aspirations to learn and be inspired by our exhibitions and programs.”
“It is my hope,” Clough told the committee, “that our spring visitors will not notice the impact of the sequestration.” Perhaps most noticeable would be the gallery closures, which, while they would not close entire museums, would restrict access to certain floors or spaces in the museums, unable to pay for sufficient security. Those changes would begin May 1, according to Clough.
Clough warned, however, that while these short-term measures will save in the near future, they might also entail long-term consequences. Unforeseen costs may arise in the form of diminished maintenance capabilities, for example. “Any delays in revitalization or construction projects will certainly result in higher future operating and repair costs,” Clough said.
This also threatens the Institution’s role as steward of thousands of historic and valuable artifacts–”Morse’s telegraph; Edison’s light bulb; the Salk vaccine; the 1865 telescope designed by Maria Mitchell, America’s first woman astronomer who discovered a comet; the Wright Flyer; Amelia Earhart’s plane; Louis Armstrong’s trumpet; the jacket of labor leader Cesar Chavez,” to name a few.
January 15, 2013
Nothing says, “Welcome, Mr. President,” like 3,000 gas lights and a big hulking statue. At least, that is what America decided in 1881, the year James Garfield was sworn into office. On a snowy March 4, the Smithsonian’s spanking new Arts and Industries Building hosted an inaugural ball for the country’s 20th president after he won the seat by a slim margin over Democratic candidate Winfield Scott Hancock. Though the weather kept many people from witnessing the inauguration itself (including Garfield’s lengthy inaugural address), more than 7,000 well-dressed citizens still trekked to the big party. Decorations included elaborate flag displays, garlands of lights strung from the ceiling, a temporary wooden floor, 10,000 bins for hats and coats and, in the museum’s rotunda, a huge female “Statue of America.”
According to a flyer for the ball (pictured below), the decor was “artistic, munificent, and attractive, embellished by the coats-of-arms of the different States, handsomely festooned with State flags and seals.”
The lady America, the flyer notes, was “illustrative of peace, justice, and liberty.” The statue’s uplifted hand held an electric light, which was “indicative of the skill, genius, progress, and civilization of the 19th century.”
The ball was not only an important political event, but a significant milestone in the Smithsonian’s history. It was the first public event ever held at the iconic museum, which was undergoing the final stages of construction for its opening in October (The Arts and Industries Building is currently closed and undergoing a major renovation.). Exhibits had yet to be installed in the museum, so no one had to worry about relocating priceless artifacts so that Garfield could spend an evening dancing.
Smithsonian museums have since hosted inaugural balls for Presidents Nixon, Reagan, G.H.W. Bush and Clinton, as well as “unofficial” balls for Presidents G.W. Bush and Obama. (The building that is now the American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery also hosted a ball for Lincoln’s second term in 1864.) The styles of these celebrations have changed with the times, so check out the pictures below from Smithsonian’s photo archives to see the late 19th century’s patriotic zeal for a president who, sadly–thanks to an assassination attempt and some poor doctors—would only remain in office for only 200 days.
July 13, 2012
Each morning around five, the crew of roughly 150 workers begins its day on the roof of the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries building. From below, the building doesn’t look like much. Under construction since 2004, the historic structure is jacketed in scaffolding. Tourists skirt around the building, looking for the carousel perhaps. But Debbie Maynard can’t imagine being anywhere else.
“Everyone loves working here,” says Maynard, “because of the historical meaning.” She takes care to point out the original brick, finials and steel frames. Completed in 1881, the building has aged gracefully. Here and there, bricks crumble into pieces and the statues all had to be removed and restored. The project even won an award for its scaffolding craftsmanship.
Friday morning, the ironworkers took a break in their busy schedule to recreate a historic photograph taken 106 years earlier. Maynard says every now and then someone will go home and search for information about the building, finding old images from its construction. A black and white image of workers installing roofing made its way to work and the crew decided they wanted to create their own moment in history.
It’s humid and only getting worse as the men lose valuable time in the morning cool, but they pose patiently. One jokes, “Didn’t those guys have pipes in the picture? We should have cigarettes.” No such luck.
As soon as the photographer has snapped his shots, General Foreman Scott Christensen yells, “Back to work!”
A whiteboard sits on the ground floor of the building displaying a growing collection of portraits of the workers. Maynard says they like to stop by and see if “they’ve made the board,” because they like being part of the building’s history. In the bottom right corner is the black and white photo that inspired Friday’s shoot.
As Project Engineer, Maynard is up on the roof every day. For now, the renovation plans only involve the exterior of the building. Those are expected to be completed in March 2013. But as for the inside, she just laughs. There’s no plan in place yet but she’s crossing her fingers that when there is one, she’ll be back again as Project Engineer.
Read more about the building’s history and recent renovations.
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
April 6, 2011
It seems that the weather is finally breaking and spring temperatures might be here to stay. So, the ATM blog team has come up with a list of the five best kept secret gardens and getaways around the Smithsonian Institution. Get the jump on summer and discover some great new places to take in the beautiful weather, warm your face with sun, enjoy a meal with a co-worker, or rest a bit between museum visits. The warm weather rush is upon us, so get out there and explore.
1. The View From Outside- It is said that the gardens around the Smithsonian Institution are more like “living museums,” whose beauty and design augment and complement the brick and mortar structures surrounding them. Nowhere is this more evident than at the Courtyard at the Freer Gallery of Art. Commissioned by Charles Lang Freer and designed by Charles A. Platt in the American Renaissance tradition, this garden is visible from the galleries inside and provides a quiet respite for visitors passing through its doors. Come for the art, stick around for the ambiance.
2. A Plant Lover’s Dream- When visiting the museums, take some time to just walk around and enjoy the scenery. Meander between Independence Avenue and the Mall, and you may find yourself in the Mary Livingston Ripley Garden. Tucked between the Arts and Industries Building and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, this courtyard promises a quiet retreat from the crowds on the street. Named after Mary Livingston Ripley, wife of former Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley, this garden was envisioned as a “sensory garden for the enjoyment of handicapped and other visitors to the Smithsonian.” The brick walkways encourage visitors to slow down, and with the variety of plants and bulbs—at last count numbering more than 1,000—there’s plenty more to smell than just the roses.
3. Plants and Animals- The next time you’re at the National Zoo, visiting some of your favorite animals, don’t forget to check out the diverse plant life that coexists with them. Attached to the Invertebrate Exhibit is the Pollinarium, a greenhouse with twoflower passionflower, blue porterweed and other flowering plants pollinated by bees and hummingbirds. (If you don’t know what any of those flowers are, that’s all the more reason to go). Step right outside and into the Butterfly Garden, where you never know what butterfly species you might see.
4. In Case of April Showers- If you do find yourself trying to dodge those sporadic April showers, duck into the Robert and Arlene Kogod Courtyard at the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture. Enjoy a cup of coffee or a snack while admiring the amazing architecture in a place that Walt Whitman once called, “the noblest of Washington’s buildings.” The glass and steel canopy holds 864 panels of blown glass from Poland—no two of which are a like. The courtyard itself is surrounded by marble planters filled with trees, shrubs and flowers. Warm and dry all year around, it’s an ideal great way to wait out the rain.
5. Escape from New York- New York City is known for never sleeping or slowing down. But even native New Yorkers would be hard-pressed to walk by the Arthur Ross Terrace and Garden at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum and not take a peek inside. Located on Fifth Avenue at Ninety-first Street, visitors and passersby can enjoy the lush gardens once lovingly tended to by Louise Carnegie. So, take a load off, the bustling city will be there when you get back.
The Mall is teeming with amazing gardens and out of the way courtyards. Take some time to explore exhibits outside the museums, tour the gardens, and see what other secrets the Smithsonian is hiding in plain sight. What fun would it be if we gave them all away?