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?
November 12, 2009
I remember well the first day I came to work at Smithsonian magazine 24 years ago. The offices then were located in the Arts and Industries Building, or the A&I, our affectionate acronym for that grand, red-bricked 19th-century exhibition palace. I climbed the wrought-iron steps to my third-floor corner office. With dozens of nook and crannies, the building is a far more democratic place than today’s boxy glass and concrete monoliths, so even plebes like me got corner offices. I was literally working in the attic of the “Nation’s Attic” and it was every bit as romantic as you could imagine. After all, what famous 19th-century writer didn’t repair to an aerie-type chamber to make a mark with glorious prose? I was a young, impressionable editor back then.
Recently on a cold and overcast November day, photo editor Brendan McCabe and I met up with the Smithsonian’s project manager for the building, Christopher B. Lethbridge, and we were treated to an exclusive, behind-the-scenes tour of the enormous Romanesque-style edifice, now shuttered to the public since 2004.
I was feeling a tad bit annoyed with the weather because Lethbridge had promised that the interior of the empty building was especially lovely to see when the sunlight came through the windows at the top of the rotunda and would lend us some graceful lighting for good photography. But Lethbridge wasn’t bothered at all. The overcast day would do nothing to hinder the light, he assured me, having in mind the building’s original visionary architect, the German-born Adolph Cluss. The building, Cluss had promised, would deliver “a well-calculated and pleasing admission of light.” (See a photo gallery of McCabe’s photographs.)
The occasion for our visit came on the heels of recent evidences that the building was at last receiving its due. For some time now, staff around the Smithsonian have sadly shaken their heads at the notion that one of the Institution’s finest and most historic buildings was closed for repairs, and that no funds had been found to begin the necessary process. Some time in early October, however, with little fanfare, signs went up at the front and in the back of the building announcing that construction was underway with moneys garnered from the American Recovery and Investment Act. Next, scaffolding was assembled at places outside the building. A crane appeared at the building’s west door. And a statue of one of the Smithsonian’s former secretaries, Spencer Baird, was safely encased in a plywood box.
“What we’re doing now is,” Lethbridge explained, “repairing the exterior of the building, replacing all the windows and clearing out all of the inappropriate construction that’s happened over the past one hundred years.” In fact, a $25 million dollar appropriation this summer from the stimulus package, part of which went to the Arts and Industries Building project, “got the ball rolling,” said Lethbridge. The entire restoration and renovation will likely cost $200 million and could take until the year 2014.
The story of the A&I begins in the early days of our young, earnest nation, in a time when it was vying for status among the world’s nations. Nations of stature had glorious buildings and palaces that housed museums and exhibitions that touted the forward thinking arts and industries of the era. The British had the new Crystal Palace. In Munich, the Glass Palace had been built in 1854. And in Paris, too, plans were underway to build an exposition building. But the capital city of the United States, was still struggling to define itself, constructing its meager government buildings in the muddy swamps along the Potomac. What the young nation needed was a modern, public space for exhibitions.
Meanwhile, the Smithsonian story had already begun after a wealthy, but untitled, British scientist died without heir in 1829 and left his substantial wealth to the United States for the founding at Washington of an “Institution for the increase and diffusion of knowledge” (among men, the will actually said, but we’re pretty sure he meant women, too).
At first, James Smithson’s money and how to spend it twisted the early Smithsonian officers up in knots. Throughout the mid-1800s, debate was ongoing. Should the Smithsonian be a scientific venture, a library, a museum? The Castle building was the first Smithsonian building to take shape. It was completed in 1855. Some of the historic stuff that comes from nation building was housed in that post-Norman construct, but the Smithsonian’s officials back then resisted efforts to make the place a museum. Then, when a 1865 fire damaged the Castle and much of what was in it, Congress began to think seriously about what the Smithsonian should be and where to house some of the things the country was collecting. The Smithsonian needed another building, Congress decided, that would house a museum.
A proponent of the museum vision was the Smithsonian associate secretary Spencer Baird. He would eventually become the Smithsonian’s second secretary in 1878. And it was on Baird’s watch that the brand new Arts and Industries Building was built between 1879 and 1881. The building made its first public debut as the site of the Inaugural reception for President James Garfield on March 4, 1881.
Another important figure in our A&I story is chief architect Cluss, who had settle in the United States after his native Germany’s failed revolution in 1848. (Cluss was also tight with Karl Marx and Friedrick Engle, but that’s yet another story.) The German architect was a genius when it came to large, public buildings. He built market places and churches and became one of Washington’s most sought-after architects of the time.
And it was to Cluss that we owed a great debt to for that harmonious, soft light that was making the interior of the cavernous building an easy shot for Brendan’s camera on the day of our tour (left). Indeed, as Brendan and I walked through the building with Lethbridge, we wandered through the warren of offices and ill-advised, extraneous additions that had grown up inside the A&I over the last hundred years and we saw numerous impressions in the walls where grand arched windows had been covered or removed. The originial building did not have any electricity, Lethbridge pointed out and was not installed in the A&I until two years later in 1883.
The building stands ready for its pending renovation. All of its historic, stone, tile and terrazo floors have been carefully covered with foam padding and plywood. The balustrades and ornamental railings each are housed in custom-made plywood cabinetry designed to safeguard them. On the walls in the rotunda, the ersatz decorative stencils, recreated in the 1970s, have been gently scraped at places to reveal the originals underneath that were based on Moorish, Greek and Byzantine designs.
Lethbridge and his team have studied the building, combing through original documentation from its inception and throughout all of its subsequent uses and periods and have determined to restore the building to the era of its “Primary Period of Significance,” as they call it, the years between 1881 and 1902. The building will bask in the natural light after all of the original site lines are restored, which should make it worthy of the coveted green building status of Gold, if not Platinum, LEED certification.
As we walked around the outside of the building, a team of masonry restoration contractors were atop a crane and raising themselves up above the west door and gently using wet sponges to carefully wipe away the years of wear and tear off of the painted brickwork. We all stood admiring their industry, when our reverie was interrupted by a passerby, another Smithsonian staffer. “They should have torn it down, Chris,” she chided Lethbridge with a smile.
A crestfallen Lethbridge replied, “No, I’ve read reports of the times, they meant for the building to last until the time of their grandchildren.”
Clearly the A&I is in good hands, the Smithsonian’s first museum building is likely going to be around for another generation.