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 27, 2011
In past years, our ATM team of bloggers has collectively pored over the Smithsonian’s collections to bring you museum-inspired costume ideas. Last year was a banner year for us, as we ginned up ideas for dressing as Carol Burnett in her curtain rod dress, from when she spoofed Gone With the Wind on her comedy show, and Abel the Monkey, who paved the way for human space flight. For a group costume, we went conceptual, suggesting you and six friends each wear a white t-shirt inscribed with one of the seven words in artist Lawrence Weiner’s “A RUBBER BALL THROWN ON THE SEA,” on display at the Hirshhorn.
This year, however, I decided to turn to the Institution’s resident experts—curators at the museums—for their insider’s insight. Here is what they suggest:
1. Man Ray’s Nut Girls
Melissa Ho, assistant curator at the Hirshhorn Museum, has had collage on the brain, as she has been busily working on an upcoming show of collage and assemblage works called “Over, Under, Next.” She suggests cobbling together a costume inspired by Man Ray’s 1941 photograph and mixed media collage, Nut Girls. In it, the American artist puts a walnut, in place of a head, on a cutout of one woman, and on another figure, the walnut covers the woman’s head and torso. “Carve a big walnut out of Styrofoam and slip on a romper,” says Ho.
Another idea for a costume party, she says, is to dress as Swiss sculptor Jean Tinguely’s The Sorceress (1961). “This is one of his motorized kinetic sculptures,” says Ho. “When turned on, it shakes and vibrates until its bits and pieces start to fall off—so perfect outfit for dancing!”
According to Thomas Lera, the Winton M. Blout Chair in Research at the National Postal Museum, Dracula is the Halloween character that postal administrations around the world have depicted the most on stamps. In 1997, the U.S. Postal Service issued a “Classic Movie Monsters” stamp set, featuring five villains from Universal Studio films. Dracula was one. “As a special security feature, a process called ‘scrambled indicia’ was used, which overlaps symbols and images that are not seen by the naked eye when printed,” says Lera. “The Dracula stamp has three vampire bats in the blue background, which can only be seen by a precision optical device using elongated lenses called lenticules.” Lera suggests modeling a Dracula costume after this or the many other portrayals—a Canadian stamp honoring the 100th anniversary of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula in 1997, a Samoan stamp from 2000 featuring the Sesame Street’s Count von Count and a British stamp from 2008 with actor Christopher Lee as Dracula commemorating the 50th anniversary of Hammer Horror Films.
3. Dr. John Jeffries
Seeking input from Smithsonian curators certainly brought some little-known characters to light. When I asked Tom Crouch, senior curator of aeronautics at the National Air and Space Museum, who or what he might be inspired to dress up as for Halloween, he was quick to answer Dr. John Jeffries. Who, you might ask? Jeffries is not exactly a household name, but his story may be an interesting one to tell at a party. On January 7, 1785, Jeffries flew the English Channel in a balloon with Pierre Blanchard, making him the first American to make a free flight. “He wore a great costume, which included a leopard skin hat to keep his head warm, a cork jacket to keep him afloat in case of a channel landing and a Jerry Seinfeld style ‘puffy shirt,’ complete with frilled cuffs, so that, I suppose, he would look good in the post-flight interviews,” says Crouch. NASM has the large barometer and thermometer that Jeffries carried with him in its collection. As it would have it, some pieces of the outfit are at Harvard’s Houghton Library, where his papers are kept. “Fortunately, some years ago my friend and Smithsonian curator of costume, Claudia Kidwell, studied the Jeffries garments and prepared patterns for them, so sewing up my costume would not be all that difficult,” says Crouch. Over three decades, Crouch has researched the life of Jeffries. “I could step right into the good doctor’s shoes and answer any questions that might arise,” he says.
4. Empress Dowager Cixi
Although he does not think he would make a convincing Empress Dowager, David Hogge, head of the archives at the Freer and Sackler galleries, offers it up as a suggestion to others. Empress Cixi reigned as sovereign of China for 45 years in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Nineteen portraits of her are currently on display in the exhibition “Power | Play: China’s Empress Dowager,” which Hogge curated, at the Arther M. Sackler Gallery, if you are in need of some inspiration. Empress Cixi wore her fingernails about an inch long, and on her third and pinky fingers, notes Hogge, she wore elaborate jeweled, gold filigreed fingernail protectors. “Those seem to give people the creeps,” says Hogge.
5. An Early Human
Rick Potts, curator of anthropology at the National Museum of Natural History, is a self-described Halloween fanatic. “What could be better than to skulk around the neighborhood or delight party-goers on Halloween night by dressing up as a realistic early human?” he says. “I wish I could turn some of the amazing visages in our Hall of Human Origins into masks.”
6. Annie Oakley
In 2007, the National Portrait Gallery purchased a photograph at an auction of sharpshooter Annie Oakley taken in 1885. “She was a cowgirl, known as “little sure shot” for her extraordinary ability to hit a moving target, most famously a small coin, even on horseback, all while maintaining ‘lady-like’ composure and elegance,” says Anne Collins Goodyear, associate curator of prints and drawings at the museum. “Wonderful inspiration for the imagination!” In the photograph, Oakley holds a rifle and is wearing a hat, blouse and fringed skirt with embroidered flowers.
7. Bob Dylan
Gail Davidson, head of the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum’s department of drawings, prints and graphic design, considers Milton Glaser’s famous 1966 poster of singer Bob Dylan great costume fodder. Glaser, an artist and graphic designer, created the poster early in his career, to be included in the packaging of Dylan’s “Greatest Hits” LP. In terms of the poster’s composition, Glaser was influenced by a 1957 self-portrait by Marcel Duchamp. But, he gave it a psychedelic feel by adding bold colors to Dylan’s tousled hair. “I would dress up by dying my hair in wavelets of the different colors in the poster,” says Davidson.
8. A Zoo Animal…Take Your Pick
Cute baby animals born at the National Zoo are our bread and butter here at the ATM blog. But Craig Saffoe, the Zoo’s curator of Great Cats and Andean Bears, reminds us, “What’s cuter than an infant dressed as a full-maned lion?” Animals make fine costumes for adults too. Dressing as an endangered species gives one the opportunity to have an awesome costume and educate friends, notes Saffoe. There is also great potential for themed family costumes. “A mother and her infant could dress as a kangaroo and her joey, a banana and a monkey or a eucalyptus tree and a koala bear. A family could dress as a pride of lions, a gaggle of geese or a flock of flamingos. Whatever animal costume you choose, don’t forget you’ll need a zookeeper!” says the curator, whose son attended this year’s Boo at the Zoo event at the National Zoo in a zookeeper uniform.
October 26, 2011
For decades, in Medellín, Columbia, the difference between rich and poor areas has been a virtual tale of two cities. “The formal city grew in the valley, and the informal settlement on the hills around. It was the most violent city in the world” says Cynthia E. Smith, a curator of socially responsible design at the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, in New York City.
Then, the city embarked on a large-scale project to tie the two areas together, building a cable mass transit system up the hillsides and surrounding the stations with parks. “The mayor said ‘I want to build the most beautiful buildings in the poorest parts of the city,’ and so he built worldclass libraries and business centers next to the parks,” Smith says. Over time, violence in the outlying areas of the cities dropped sharply and land values rose.
Medellín is one of dozens of success stories, large and small, that fill the newly opened “Design with the Other 90%: Cities” exhibition at the United Nations Building in New York. On Manhattan’s East Side, among skyscrapers and luxury hotels in one of the wealthiest cities on the planet, the exhibition showcases how the world’s most destitute countries have solved integral problems of housing, health care, infrastructure and the environment. Through multimedia, scale models, maps and prototypes, the show illustrates to visitors the worries of daily life in the squatter communities of countries like India, Uganda and Mexico—as well as the potential for design to provide solutions.
In recent years, urbanization and population growth in developing countries have caused countless problems in cities across Asia, Africa and South America to escalate. “Close to one billion people live in informal settlements, more commonly known as slums or squatter communities, and that’s projected to grow to two billion over the next 20 years,” Smith says. “Many municipalities and regional governments can’t keep up with this rapid growth, and so there’s an exchange that’s taking place between the informal communities and designers, architects, urban planners and engineers.”
“The show is specifically design ‘with,’” she says. “It’s really about working in partnership with people in the informal settlements, exchanging design information so that they can build their own, better housing.”
The show features 60 novel design approaches that have been applied to problems as varied as transferring money to relatives (using a mobile phone based system) and charging devices without an electrical grid (running a bicycle wheel to create an electrical current).
They also range from the ingeniously obvious to the remarkably intricate. In Bangladesh, arsenic is the most common toxin in drinking water, and in severe cases can cause death. Abul Hussam, a chemist at George Mason University designed the SONO Water Filter to address this problem as simply and inexpensively as possible. “It’s a sand and composite iron matrix, and wood charcoal, and brick chips,” says Smith. “You just pour in the water, and it filters through, and you end up without toxins.”
In Uganda, meanwhile, researchers found an information gap: only 3 percent of Ugandan adults typically use the internet, compared to 15 percent in neighboring Kenya. A UNICEF team created the Digital Drum, a freestanding solar-powered computing hub. “They work locally with car mechanics to build them,” Smith says, using discarded oil drums to enclose rugged computers equipped with basic software. “They provide some very basic information about rights and safety, health, education, and there are games on here that the kids can play to teach them about math.”
In designing the exhibition, which updates the original 2007 Cooper-Hewitt “Design with the Other 90%” show, Smith traveled the world and consulted with an international panel to select the range of projects shown. Along with the exhibition and the website, Smith says, “We have a new ‘Design with the Other 90%’ network, which is a social network linked to the website, where designers can upload their own projects.”
Along with the show’s backers, which include the UN Academic Impact Initiative, Smith hopes to use this network—and the exhibition’s placement at the UN—to spark further innovation and collaboration among the international design community. “Because this growth is happening so quickly, you can look at it as one billion problems, or one billion solutions,” she says.
Wandering the rows of innovations on display, ones sees that the point of “Design with the Other 90%” is not that solutions are immediate or easy. It’s made clear, through graphics and data, that the developing world’s problems are growing exponentially. But the exhibition is uplifting; despite seemingly daunting circumstances, design can put relief within reach—and the movement to employ it in slums and squatter communities is growing.
The Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum’s “Design with the Other 90%: Cities” is on display at the UN Building in New York City through January 9, 2012.
September 30, 2011
Every fall, I look forward to the time when the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum hosts its People’s Design Award contest. For this aspect of its larger National Design Awards program, the museum invites the public to nominate an object by uploading an image of it or to vote for an existing nominee that, in their opinion, constitutes good design.
Polls opened this week, and as I write, there are already 66 nominees. Up for debate are the usual throwback designs. One this year is the Ford Model T. And, of course, there are some shoe-ins, like the iPad 2. But, otherwise, the ballot is a real smorgasbord. Cuboro Marble Run puts the Marbleworks of my childhood to shame, in the way it encourages kids to think more mechanically. I hadn’t yet seen Puma’s Clever Little Bag, a reusable bag that the shoe company is now using in place of a cardboard shoebox. Speaking of shoes (a shoe took the prize in 2007), the nominated Mojito Shoe is so artistically abstract it is almost unrecognizable as a shoe. Even WordPress, the publishing platform we use for this blog, is part of the mix.
As I see it, the ballot always becomes this neat, crowd-sourced catalog of the interests and priorities of today’s consumers. And, in its light, we consumers look quite good—fun, eco-friendly, socially-conscious and artistic!
Voting continues until 6 p.m. EST on October 17, and the winner will be announced October 20 at the National Design Awards gala at Pier Sixty in New York City. The Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum will offer free admission and public programs during National Design Week, which runs October 15-23.
July 6, 2011
Last week, the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum hosted a dedication ceremony for the U.S. Postal Service’s new set of stamps honoring 12 pioneers in American industrial design.
Each stamp features a sleek product, be it a camera, flatware or typewriter, on a white backdrop, and the name of the design and its designer. The designers chosen include Peter Müller-Munk, Frederick Hurten Rhead, Raymond Loewy, Donald Deskey, Walter Dorwin Teague, Henry Dreyfuss, Norman Bel Geddes, Dave Chapman, Greta von Nessen, Eliot Noyes, Russel Wright and Gilbert Rohde.
“They were very important in getting the profession of industrial design off of the ground,” says Gail Davidson, head curator of Drawings, Prints and Graphic Design at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum. “A number of these people were immigrants to the United States. These were men who were in the right place at the right time. Many of them were artists. They could not make a career in the fine arts, and they turned to industrial design as a way of making a living. Many of them entered the profession through set design and costume design. People like Norman Bel Geddes and Henry Dreyfuss would be included in that group. Other people entered the profession through advertising or window display. Raymond Loewy is an example of that group and also Donald Deskey.”
The field of industrial design emerged in the United States in the 1920s and ’30s, when manufacturers turned to designers to create products with a modern look. What resulted were products that were simple, functional and more aesthetically clean than their ornate predecessors. After World War II, products were mass produced and designers experimented with new materials, such as plastic, vinyl, chrome, aluminum and plywood, which made the products more reasonably priced. “Industry turned to designers directly as a way of distinguishing their products from those of another company,” says Davidson.
The 12 designers whose work is featured on the stamps heavily influenced the look of everyday life in the 20th century. Some of the more familiar designs on the stamps are boldly colored Fiesta dinnerware from 1936 by Frederick Hurten Rhead and the 1961 IBM “Selectric” typewriter by Eliot Noyes. Davidson hopes that the stamps will make people aware of design and how it impacts their lives.
If you like the stamps, there are related artifacts within the Cooper-Hewitt’s collection. For instance, the museum has a pitcher and other examples of Rhead’s Fiesta line; cameras designed by Walter Dorwin Teague, who collaborated with the Eastman Kodak Company; dinnerware designed by Raymond Loewy for the 1976 Concorde airliner; drawings and examples of flatware designed by Russel Wright; and drawings for John Deere tractors and models of Bell telephones by Henry Dreyfuss. The Cooper-Hewitt also holds the archives of both Henry Dreyfuss and Donald Deskey.
The Pioneers of American Industrial Design stamps are on sale now at local post offices and online at usps.com.