June 14, 2013
Today, the National Museum of Natural History opens a new multimedia exhibition that’s all about the stuff that makes you you.
“Genome: Unlocking Life’s Code” examines the instruction manual built into all living things: the genome, an organism’s hereditary material bundled up in the nuclei of every one of its cells.
The exhibition, which was created in collaboration with National Human Genome Research Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health, covers 4,400 square feet with interactive games, 3D models, DNA sequencing equipment and videos of real-life stories. It aims to show the relevance of modern genomic research to everyday life as genetic sequencing becomes increasingly accessible.
Marking the 10th anniversary of the completion of the Human Genome Project as well as the 60th anniversary of Watson and Crick’s discovery of DNA’s double helix structure, the exhibition traces the major advances in human health, disease studies, ancestry and other natural sciences that have occurred since the genome project’s completion. It also looks ahead to how genomics will influence our lives as genetic sequencing becomes increasingly easy and inexpensive.
“Genomics is highly relevant, because it’s in the news every day, so people have a broad awareness of this topic, but almost no specific knowledge,” says Kirk Johnson, the Sant Director of the National Museum of Natural History. “You read the paper, and there it is, boom, but what does it mean when the police have my DNA? This exhibition helps to answer questions like this.”
In just the past few weeks, the Supreme Court ruled on two major decisions on genomic research: On June 3, the court ruled law enforcement could collect DNA from anyone who has been arrested. On Thursday, it then ruled naturally occurring human DNA could not be patented. Additionally, Angelina Jolie recently decided to get a preventative double mastectomy based on her predisposition to breast cancer as identified by genetic sequencing.
Genomics’ future raises major ethical questions surrounding human cloning, genetic engineering and prenatal genetic testing.
To address the array of complicated issues surrounding genomic research, the exhibition features four themed areas that cover what the genome is, how it relates to medicine and health, how it connects humans to all life and how it is part of each persona’s individual story. The displays are designed to be adaptable, with physical pieces and digital content that can be rearranged and replaced so that the displays can change as the field advances.
Johnson stresses the exhibition’s capacity to inspire the next generation of scientists who will have to come up with answers to genomics’ big questions. “Out of the millions of teenagers that will visit this exhibition,” he says, “some are going to walk in and go, you know, this is cool. We’re at the edge of this major biomedical revolution, and eighth graders, in 20 years, are going to be 32 -year-olds, and they’re going to be the ones prescribing our medicine. Science is often perceived as hard and boring in classrooms, so we want to break through that stereotype by making things fun and interesting.”
Eric Green, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, believes the exhibition also will help assuage fears of genomics’ future. “Much of what people fear about genomic research is what they don’t understand,” he says. “So this exhibition gives visitors a foundation to think critically and in a more sophisticated way.”
“Genome: Unlocking Life’s Code” will be open in the Natural History Museum through September 1, 2014, after which it will travel around North America for about five years. To learn more about genomics, visit the exhibition’s website and check out Smithsonian Magazine’s own special report on the topic.
June 7, 2013
For the past few months, students, families, as well as church and synagogue groups around the D.C. area have been busy making human bones out of materials like plaster, glass, metal or wood. In fact, some 100,000 people from every state and 30 countries have made bones. Now, the hand-crafted bones–one million of them–will be placed on the National Mall in a symbolic act of artistic intervention, which they call a “visual petition” to act against the ongoing crimes of genocide around the world. Organized by the award-winning artist and activist Naomi Natale, the three-day event beginning this Saturday, June 8, will include a bone-laying ceremony, workshops and a visit to representatives on Capitol Hill.
Natale’s own experience in college reading the wrenching account of the Rwandan genocide in the book We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families by Philip Gourevitch made her realize how little was understood about the violent 1994 slaughter of 800,000 Tutsis. Together with Susan McAllister, she co-founded the Art of Revolution, a group working to inspire social change, which led to the One Million Bones project.
One Million Bones, says Natale, seeks to educate participants about the mass atrocities occurring in places like Syria, Somalia, Burma, Sudan, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo with the belief that once someone makes something with her hands, she forms a new connection to it that will transform her thinking and action. It’s a process she says she has witnessed and experienced. We asked her to tell us about the project.
How did the project start?
As an artist and a photographer, reading these horrific, yet beautifully written, descriptions of what happened in Rwanda made me want to bring the image I had made of [Gourevitch's] words here to the U.S. and think, could we create a symbolic mass grave here? And would people see that? And would it bring something that’s far away close to home?
I did work before on the Cradle Project and that was looking at the issue of orphaned children in Sub-Saharan Africa. In 2002, I was in Kenya as a documentary photographer working with a nonprofit, photographing orphaned children. I worked on this project that was directly related to this personal experience I had in Kenya and it was a call to artists around the world to create a representation of an empty cradle and then they would all be displayed in one space. In the end we had 550 of them.
And from that evolved this idea of participatory art?
Right, exactly, that came out of the project. At that point, I really didn’t understand the kind of impact the project would have on the individual artists who participated. I was just looking overall at the impact of when people would view all those cradles or the impact–we were raising money as well because we asked the cradles to be sponsored and then auctioned off. After the project was done, [I was] able to understand that it actually did have some very significant impacts on these artists and it was a way to bring this issue far away really close to home. I knew I wanted to do this One Million project. I had this vision and I thought it will have an impact on people who make the bones.
And what has been the most impactful?
One that was pretty significant for me, specifically, was in Albuquerque, when we laid our first 50,000 bones down. We’ve had two preview installations–one in New Orleans and one in Albuquerque. A refugee from Congo and a survivor of the massacre in Burundi, about an hour into it, came up to me. And said he was going to go back to his room, his hotel. I offered to drive him and he said: “No, I’m going to walk.” So I offered to walk with him. And he said: “No, I just have to go back to my room and I have to cry for a little while, it’s just so hard.” It was a really important moment, because we had never laid the bones down; and we never knew how people were going to respond. Most importantly, [for] those who [the project] was meant to serve. So I apologized, and I said I would never want to make it harder. And I asked if there was anything that he thought was offensive about it, or wrong. And he said: “No, that’s not it, but you have to understand, we lost so many people and we never saw what happened to those people and in your mind you want to think something else happened.” And he said: “But I saw them today, and it’s so hard, but we have to face it.”
How do you think the process will go in the nation’s capital?
I know it’s going to be extraordinarily powerful. I consider the Mall to be sacred space and powerful. I think that people feel that when they’re there.
We have partnered with the Enough Project. They work on the policy level and on the ground around these issues particularly in South Sudan and Congo. It’s a three-day event, Saturday is the laying of the bones and Sunday we have educational workshops. and a candlelight vigil in the evening, and then Monday is an Act Against Atrocities day so you can bring a bone to Congress. The Enough Project is leading that, so we do hope to make this powerful statement visually and then go to our leaders and explain that these are issues that are really meaningful to us and ask for their leadership.
Is there anyone in Congress who is particularly responsive to the issue?
There’s a number of them. There’s Representative Jim McGovern form Massachusetts. He’s been fantastic. He even made a bone and made a video, as well as Frank Wolf [of Virginia]. There’s Karen Bass in California. There’s definitely a number, Senator Chris Coons in Delaware, who’s been a champion on these issues as well.
When we were speaking to McGovern, he was telling us a story that I thought was really interesting and opened my eyes to how just connecting with our representatives and explaining what’s important to us, can make a difference. He said that a group of students came, their teacher brought them down to D.C. to talk to him about what was going on in East Timor. And they asked him if he would help. From that one meeting, he ended up going to East Timor. And he said, “I pretty much had said I would do something to help, and asked what’s the one thing you want me to do? And they said that, so I said, I guess I have to go.” I think that’s a pretty incredible and extraordinary example of the power of persuasion. At the same time it opens your eyes to the fact that it’s certainly not going to happen if we don’t ask.
November 20, 2012
If you think your house is going to be packed for Thanksgiving, imagine the crowds at a Smithsonian museum. According to the Washington Post, the museums had 418, 000 visitors over the holiday weekend in 2010. Though that number dipped in 2011, the institution is still gearing up for a full house.
To help visitors navigate their way through the 19 museums and National Zoo, Smithsonian will be fielding questions before and during the holiday on its Twitter page. Just follow @smithsonian and use the hashtag “#TgivingVisitTips” to stay up to date. Veteran visitors will also post their own tips with the hashtag, including, “1) eat at
@SmithsonianNMAI 2) take a pic at @NMAAHC site for posterity 3) comfy shoes” by Erin Blasco.
Here are some of our own insider tips, from our Greatest Hits guide (now available on your smart phone!):
Smithsonian Institution Building, The Castle: Your first stop for all things Smithsonian, the Castle is home to the information center where you can scope out all the current exhibits around the Mall, including the Castle’s own exhibit, “Experience Civil War Photography: From the Home Front to the Battlefront.” You can also pay your respects to the founder, James Smithson, who lies at rest in the crypt in the building’s foyer.
National Portrait Gallery: With several new exhibits and a host of permanent favorites, there’s plenty to take in at the gallery (like Alexander Gardner’s famous cracked glass plate portrait of Abraham Lincoln), including the building itself. On the third floor in the Great Hall, is an architectural gem that shouldn’t be missed. The yellow, blue and red stained-glass windows in the octagonal dome, dating to 1885, cast lush hues on sunny days.
American Art Museum: Housed in the same building as NPG, is the American Art Museum, which just opened its splendid new exhibit “The Civil War and American Art,” which is sure to draw crowds. The museum even had its own role in the Civil War: On the third floor near the Woman Eating sculpture, the initials C.H.F. are scrawled on the wall. The work of some hipster tagger? No, the graffiti artist also put a date: “Aug. 8, 1864.” Likely it was left by a patient; the building was a Civil War infirmary.
Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center: Not quite on the Mall, the Udvar-Hazy Center (in Chantilly, Virginia—near Dulles Airport) is home to a world-famous collection of aircraft a space vehicles, including the Air France Concorde and the space shuttle Discovery. After seeing those beauties, tell the kids to check this out. Look for seven hidden oddities in the model of the mother ship made from the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind. These were internal Hollywood jokes that weren’t part of the script. Hint: One is R2-D2 from the movie Star Wars.
Air and Space Museum: The world’s most-visited museum, Air and Space has everything from moon rocks to the Wright flyer. But how did they get it all in there? Look closely at the large window on the west side of the building. The glass slide away like giant garage doors.
American History Museum: Next up from the big three, American History, where even celebrities like Parks and Rec‘s Councilwoman Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) like to hang out. In addition to the brand new exhibit “FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000″ with Julia Child’s kitchen, you’ll also want to stop by the first floor for the Dolls’ House. Inside the house, inhabited by Peter Doll and his family, Christmas decorations are kept in the attic. Each holiday season, curators retrieve the tiny tree and wreaths and decorate the house.
Anacostia Community Museum: After an extensive research process, the museum recently opened its exhibit “Reclaiming the Edge: Urban Waterways and Civic Engagement” as part of its efforts to reach out to the community. Comparing waterways in L.A., Pittsburgh, Louisville, London, Shanghai and here in D.C., the exhibit is full of artworks and informative displays. Check out the playful piece Talking Trash, kinetic sculpture of fish made from plastic water bottles.
Natural History Museum: The grand dame of the big three museum, Natural History is famous partly for housing the “cursed” Hope Diamond. But it’s not all sparkle and shine. Heard of donating your body to science? Professor Grover Krantz volunteered to be put on display at the Smithsonian–with his dog. “I’ve been a teacher all my life, and I think I might as well be a teacher after I’m dead,” he said. Find the pair on the second floor.
American Indian Museum: What better time to visit the American Indian Museum than November, American Indian Heritage Month? In addition to its award-winning cafe and engaging exhibits, it has a treat for those who know where and when to look. Watch for the lovely play of light in the Potomac Atrium. Eight prisms on the south wall project refractions on the floor. See them at the peak of their brilliance between 11 and 2. On the summer and winter solstice, the light lines up precisely.
Freer Gallery: Amid the jades and bronzes from Asia, a fierce fight is playing out. The two birds depicted squawking in battle on the back wall of Whistler’s Peacock Room represent a real-life contretemps between the artist and his patron over a disputed fee for the artwork.
Sackler Gallery: With a new blockbuster exhibit, “Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” the Sackler is as busy as ever. This year, the Sackler celebrates its 25th anniversary of the 1987 gift of some 1,000 works of Asian art from Arthur M. Sackler (1913-1987), a New York City physician.
Hirshhorn Museum: Contemporary art lovers will be filling the circular gallery space to check out Barbara Kruger’s installation and the new exhibit, “Ai Weiwei: According to What?” But you’ll be headed outside. Ready for a little covert operation? Check out the sculpture Antipodes just outside the front door. The piece has two encoded texts, one related to C.I.A. operations and the other in Cyrillic related to the K.G.B.
Museum of African Art: The current exhibit, “African Cosmos: Stellar Arts” is out of this world, combining science and the arts over time. Our insider tips combines its own bit of science and art. Check out the sculpture of Toussaint Louverture. It is made of a mysterious substance that the artist also used to waterproof his house.
Renwick Gallery: Just a few steps from the White House, the Renwick is a must-see in its own right, listed as a National Historic Landmark. Up the stairs is one of the city’s premier galleries, the Grand Salon, modeled in the French Second Empire style.
National Postal Museum: A stamp collection that can’t be beat, including the first ever U.S. government-issued stamp from 1847, is just the start of the Postal Museum. This building was designed by Daniel Burnham, the protagonist of the best-seller Devil in the White City.
National Zoo: In addition to the cuddly cuties on display, the Zoo is also launching this year’s seasonal display, ZooLights, Friday, November 23. As you wander through the animals, listen for the morning songs of the white-cheeked gibbons. They can be heard up to one mile away.
Don’t forget to download our Visitors Guide and Tours app. We’ve packed it with specialty tours, must-see exhibitions, museum floor plans and custom postcards. Get it on Google Play and in the Apple Store for just 99 cents.
October 4, 2012
Friday, October 5 Mrs. Judo
At 99 years old, judo master Keiko Fukuda still keeps a busy schedule, teaching three times a week at her San Francisco dojo. Fukuda holds the highest ranking possible in judo and is the last living student of the sport’s founder, Kanō Jigorō. The new documentary Mrs. Judo: Be Strong, Be Gentle, Be Beautiful tells Fukuda’s unique story. The film explores the roots of judo while also chronicling the life of this living legend. The screening is preceded by Two Seconds after Laughter. Free. 7 p.m. Freer Gallery.
No one ever told Peter Cheimets not to stare at the sun. Or if someone did, he definitely didn’t listen. The senior project engineer at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory spends his days working at the cutting edge of solar observation. This year, after 30 years of development, special telescopes capable of observing the sun were finally perfected. Ushering in a new era of observation, Cheimets will discuss what made this moment possible and some of the early results from his research. Free, but tickets are required. Tickets available 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. at the IMAX Theater Box Offices. 5:15 p.m. to 6:45 p.m. Air and Space Museum. For more information, call 202-633-2398 or e-mail email@example.com.
Sunday, October 7 Masterworks of Three Centuries 2012-2013 Concert Series
The Smithsonian Associates celebrates the Smithsonian Chamber Music Society’s 36th season. Though the event promises to be an eclectic mix of classics and lesser-known works, don’t be intimidated. The Chamber Music Society’s artistic director, Kenneth Slowik, will give a pre-concert talk that digs into the music on tap and explores the biographies behind the featured composers, including Beethoven, Faure and Chausson. It’s the perfect start to a new season. $28 general admission, $22 members. Purchase tickets here. 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. American History Museum, Hall of Musical Instruments.
August 15, 2012
The kitchen is the heart of the home—especially when filled with the sounds of cooking: The knife on the cutting board, the clinking of pots and pans, the laughter of good friends and family around the table. Inside Julia Child’s kitchen, add to the mix the delightful sounds of her chuckle and that famous vibrato and you’ve got a recipe for happiness.
Phila Cousins, Child’s niece and trustee of the Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts, can attest to this.
“When you came for dinner, you didn’t come into the living room or the dining room, you came into the kitchen,” she says. “I had so many moments with Julia in this room. It’s somewhat surreal now to look at this place where I spent so many hours, in a museum. I can’t go in and sit down—Julia’s not there.”
Child would have been 100 years old today, and even though she can’t be present to celebrate, the National Museum of American History will host a soirée pour son in her honor by unveiling the limited re-installation of Julia’s Cambridge, Massachusetts Kitchen through September 3. (The kitchen had been dismantled and taken off view last January as part of the museum’s on-going renovation.)
Nothing about the 20-by 14-foot room has changed—down to the jar of Skippy peanut butter to the right of the same six-burner “big Garland” stove she cooked on in her home on 103 Irving Street in Cambridge, Massachussets. The pots and pans hang on the blue peg board built by her husband Paul. There are the maple counter tops which were constructed a few inches higher than the standard to accommodate Julia’s 6’3.” And her vast collection of kitchen gadgets are still in the drawers.
Curator Rayna Green, who in 2001 worked with Child during the donation process, says that since the kitchen was first installed at the American History Museum 10 years ago, it has only grown in popularity with visitors and the curators.
“This exhibit is personal for us [the curators]. It’s not just keeping fingerprints off the walls and the usual museum maintenance that we do, this is something we really do take personally. Things in the kitchen conjure up stories that we’ve heard from Julia and that we’ve heard from other people. With every new visitor a new story appears.”
Today’s celebration includes screenings from three episodes from WGBH’s The French Chef and appearances from authors like Bob Spitz who will sign copies of his new book, Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child. Visitors will also enjoy Child-inspired meals. Free. 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. with a birthday surprise at 1 p.m. in the Flag Hall. Julia’s kitchen will soon be joined by at least 300 objects in the new exhibition: “FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000” which opens November 20.