August 8, 2013
You’ve heard of the “Mona Lisa”, “The Last Supper” and “Vitruvian Man,” but did you know that Leonardo da Vinci was also an early innovator in the science of aviation? Between 1505 and 1506, the legendary polymath created his “Codex on the Flight of Birds,” an 18-page notebook containing detailed observations on aerodynamics. A digitized version of the d0cument went to Mars on the Curiosity Rover in 2011. This September, the original codex comes to the National Air and Space Museum.
From September 12 to October 22, 2013, ”Codex on the Flight of Birds” will be displayed in the gallery that houses the 1903 Wright flyer—though Leonardo preceded the Kitty Hawk pair by four centuries. According to Peter Jakab, chief curator of the Air and Space Museum, the codex contains the “seeds of the ideas that would lead to humans spreading their wings. . . . In aeronautics, as with so many of the subjects he studied, he strode where no one had before.” Leonardo’s notes even “hinted at the force Newton would later define as gravity.”
The exhibition will feature “interactive stations” allowing visitors to flip through the pages of the codex. This landmark work, which has rarely left Italy, is on loan from the Royal Library of Turin as part of the Year of Italian Culture in the United States.
August 6, 2013
When it comes to educating children about gardening, first lessons can seem surprisingly basic.
“Kids learn that food grows!” said Anna Benfield, Education Programs Manager at Washington Youth Garden. “Kids say, ‘I’ve never eaten a leaf,’ and I ask, ‘Well, have you ever had lettuce? That’s a leaf!’”
Benfield spoke as part of a four-woman panel led by Susan Evans, program director of the American Food History Project at the National Museum of American History, a project that, in conjunction with Smithsonian Gardens, is putting on the five-event series Food in the Garden within the idyllic setting of the American History Museum’s Victory Garden. Located on the east side of the museum, the Victory Garden is immense, spanning almost the size of an Olympic swimming pool and housing more than 50 varieties of flowers and vegetables.
On August 1, Evans and Benfield spoke at the museum alongside Sophia Maravell of Brickyard Educational Farm, Christina Conell of the USDA’s Farm to School Program and Joan Horwitt of Lawns 2 Lettuce 4 Lunch to discuss a provocative question: Can gardening change the world?
These issues serve as the backbone for the museum’s Food in the Garden series, held in conjunction with the FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950–2000 exhibition, which explores where our nutrient resources comes from and how we grow them. Previous events have discussed the history of heirloom produce and foraging for food in your backyard, but the recent event centered around a more contemporary—and at times aspirational—concept. Community gardens seek to bring people together toward a common goal: growing food within a community plot. It’s an idea that’s at the same time quite new and very old; from the food gardens of World War I to the small urban farms of today, community gardening is steadily on the rise, especially in recent years. In nearby Montgomery County, Maryland, alone some 600 gardeners participate in community gardens at ten locations.
“When you look back in history, people used to grow their own food,” Horwitt explained, noting that the concepts of community garden and community food education aren’t as unusual as they might seem.
What may seem different is the idea of community gardens as a vehicle for social change, a common platform which all four panelists were arguing for. Community and school gardens, they all claimed, can be used just as effectively as math and science textbooks to teach children important life skills. The Chez Panisse Foundation’s Edible Schoolyard Project developed by the Berkeley, California chef Alice Waters functions as one model for such a vision. The 17-year-old project serves more than 7,000 Berkeley, middle-schoolers and impacts food education on a national level. When it comes to these young students, many suffer from a disconnect in understanding how the food that they eat grows—and even more fundamentally, where it comes from.
Brickyard Educational Farm, located in Montgomery County, is a new school garden program, functioning as an educational tool where students come for a visit to the farm—or watch in-class presentations put on by farm staff—to learn more about sustainable farming, food systems and food economy. These are life skills that Marvell sees as being equally important as more traditional subjects required by educational standards.
“In Montgomery County, we have an environmental literacy standard,” Marvell explained. “I think we need a food literacy standard. Once educators accept that this is just as valuable a subject as math, then we can mainstream it.”
From a wider viewpoint, the USDA’s Conell argued that gardens and food education have far-reaching positive impacts on the community at large. “In order to get people behind the idea of community gardens and food education,” she explained, “it’s important to show the positive economic repercussions.” The USDA is investing in this idea nationally, awarding up to $5 million annually to help schools create positive farm to school education.
Not all of the Food in the Garden events carry such a weighty social message, but Evans sees the evening’s focus on education and activism as indicative of a larger tradition in American history. “What we’re really doing is presenting how current policies and trends fit on a broad continuum of food history in America. By sharing stories of the past with our visitors, we encourage them to make connections to their own lives and ask how their actions affect history as well,” she said. “By situating the programs in the Victory Garden, we are having our conversations in the shadow of a fascinating historical story about the importance of growing your own food, both to America and to your community.”
Attendees didn’t need to get their hands dirty to enjoy the delicious fruits of local farms—while listening to the panel discuss the importance of community food education, guests were treated to a sort of taste education themselves, dining on a selection of locally grown dishes and artisan cocktails from the DC distillery New Columbia Distillers. August 1 marked the half-way point in this summer’s series, with two remaining events scheduled for August 8 and August 15—an exploration of the science behind soil, and a celebration of the enduring legacy of American food icon Julia Child.
In today’s food truck-obsessed age, Korean tacos have come to symbolize Asian and Latino American cultural exchange. Since July, the Smithsonian Asian-Latino Festival has built off of that flavorful groundwork to examine the interaction of these communities through three lenses: Food, Art and Thought. This innovative collaboration between the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center (APAC) and the Smithsonian Latino Center recently concluded its “Gourmet Intersections” program and, this week, takes its show on the road for “Art Intersections,” a public art show popping up in Silver Spring, Maryland, on August 6 and 7. Works by Asian and Latino American artists will be projected onto Veterans Plaza, along with a soundscape of Asian-Latino fusion music. Both programs will feature different artworks: August 6 will explore the theme of migration, while August 7 will have a West Coast focus.
To learn more about the program and its origins, we spoke with three of the festival’s APAC-based organizers: Konrad Ng, director of APAC; Adriel Luis, curator of digital and emerging media; and Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis, APAC initiative coordinator.
How did the Asian-Latino project come about?
Konrad Ng: This was the outcome of a conversation between the director of the Smithsonian Latino Center, Eduardo Díaz, and myself. We share the same hallway and the same space, and we feel that we share the same mission, just working with different communities. But through the course of just living and working together, we realized that we shared a lot more than just the mission. When you try to understand the American experience and the American story, you have to understand how different communities interact and form the cultural fabric, the cultural history and art of this nation. There is a great deal of intersection—and collision—between Asian Americans and Latino communities in the U.S. We have done a few public programs over the last few years, just to feel that out. . . .
That all came down to the Asian-Latino Festival, and we picked different ways to try to breathe life into this intersection. One is through food, which is a wonderful vehicle for understanding home and identity. It’s a point of contact for lots of people where it immediately brings out a reaction, some emotional reaction that is usually founded in memory. Art. . . captures kinds of expressions that we felt our communities were using. . . . And we also wanted an element of scholarship because this is a project that we want to bring to scale. We want to increase it. We feel that what we’re doing is important. It [contributes] to the civic culture of the United States by allowing us to understand ourselves in a deeper and more complete way. So we’ve invited scholars and artists from across the country, and also curators and researchers at the Smithsonian, to think about what this so-called field means. What could it look like? How could we create something here at the Smithsonian that would position the Smithsonian at the center of this conversation, of having these incredibly diverse, dynamic communities who have been part of the United States for generations? How can we bring them into the national fold at the world’s largest museum and research center?
What do Asian Americans and Latinos have in common at this particular moment?
Ng: Right now I think the United States recognizes there’s a demographic shift in terms of what our population will look like over the next 50 years. Asian Americans and Latino communities find that they will become in many ways part of the majority in places across the country. Certainly, in smaller communities, Latinos and Asian Americans are [already] close to the majority. So I think [we share] that idea that there will be a greater contribution or recognition of us being around, but also knowing that our histories aren’t represented as we feel we’ve lived them. That’s where we find that the United States is us and always has been us. . . . This project is meant to celebrate and show that, and be a point of departure for conversations and ways to envision America, as it’s lived by people across the country.
Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis: We come back to this idea of siloed thinking. Culture, cuisine, is impossible to understand in a single silo; they’re always intersectional. [At Gourmet Intersections] Pati Jinich was speaking about the Chinese influence in Mexico and how you can’t think about what Mexican cuisine means without thinking about the early Manila galleon trade and Chinese immigration to Mexico and how that influences what kind of ingredients and cooking techniques are used. There’s not this pure, distinct culture that’s separate; they’re always woven together and always changing over time.
Adriel Luis: With the Asian-Latino project, a lot of times the questions that people ask us are along the lines of “What do Latino and Asian American cultures have in common?” Through the process of developing this project, I think the question that has really come to surface has been more along the lines of “What do we not have in common?” I think in the beginning I was very tempted to answer, well, in L.A. there’s Korean tacos, and in Mexico City there’s a Chinatown, and things that were built with an intention of being a hybrid between Asian American and Latino culture. But we’re finding that a lot of the crossings between Asians and Latinos are not necessarily things that were intentionally mounted as a means of camaraderie. More so they are things that exist by circumstance, some of which date back to where we come from.
When we talk about common herbs and ingredients—chili peppers, adobo sauces, things like that—that’s something that through trade became so deeply embedded in our history that we don’t really think of that as an intersection, because it just happened so long ago that now it’s become a staple to our own individual cultures. And then there are things that I think are common to our communities that happened by circumstance of being in America. For example, Asian Americans and Latino Americans both have the experience of sitting in race conversations that kind of stick within the black and white binary, and not knowing where to belong in that conversation. Or immigration issues and having the fingers pointed at us as a people and as a community. The idea of family existing beyond just your town borders or your state borders or your country borders. And then, when we talk about technology, how have those dynamics, such as having family in other countries, shaped the ways that we use the telephone, the ways that we use Skype and the internet and things like that?
It has been as much exploring history as it has been tickling out the things that have been developed more recent[ly], but that haven’t really been capsuled by any institution or organization. What stories are being told right now that haven’t really been wrapped up and packaged? We’re trying to find those and place them in these conversations about food and art and scholarship.
What are the “collisions” between these two cultures—points of conflict or points of contact?
Ng: All of it. I think that what Eduardo and myself wanted to avoid was arriving at a narrative which was entirely smooth. I think that what’s interesting is textures and ambiguity—and tension. And I think that doesn’t necessarily have to mean it’s all negative. So the use of “collision” is to see things that might become “mashed” or “mashable”—communities colliding, then something emerging from that—but also tensions, whether that’s between communities or even within communities. Trying to see what you felt was your community through the perspective of another always opens up space to rethink who you are, and I think that’s a good thing.
Adriel, what was your role in Art Intersections?
Adriel Luis: My approach with Art Intersections is demonstrating that not everything has to be cut and dry, where either this piece of art is just Asian-American or it’s an Asian-American creating something for an Asian-Latino exhibition. Sometimes things just exist based on the circumstances and the environments in which they’re sprouted.
For example, one of the artists, Monica Ramos, is from Manila, went to Parsons and now lives in Brooklyn. [Her] set is called “Fat Tats”—it’s different food items tattooed. Some of the pieces use terminology from Filipino cuisine, but the same terminology is also used in Mexican cuisine. As a Filipino, you might look at that work and interpret something, and then as a Latino American, you might look at that work and interpret something similar, but still a bit more nuanced because of where that perspective is coming from.
Some of the work is a hybrid of Asian-Latino stuff. For example, one of the pieces is a rickshaw converted into a low rider. But I think the more interesting aspects of presenting this type of artwork has been stuff that was developed years ago but not in the frame of being an Asian-Latino hybrid. For example, the other curators [Eric Nakamura and Shizu Saldamando] are from L.A. and a lot of their work is from L.A. artists. So you have Los Angeles, which is influenced heavily by immigrant communities. You have street art that was sprouted in Latino neighborhoods. You have Mexican American artists who are influenced by anime. And you have conversations that are not necessarily in that vacuum. So even as an Asian American, this L.A.-based artist may not necessarily think about these pieces speaking directly just to that community. But if, for example, it is speaking to the L.A. community, then that encompasses so much of what we’re talking about here.
Again, the focus of this project—and I would even say of this festival—is. . . definitely not trying to contrive any types of connections, but demonstrating that more than what we assume exists as a connection is actually out there. And more than anything, the things that we typically tie to one culture and another actually don’t exist in these separate vacuums.
Why Silver Spring?
Davis: We thought, let’s go into Silver Spring as opposed to something in the Smithsonian. Let’s go out into a community, particularly a community that is so rich in cultural diversity and [whose] cultural landscape is fundamentally shaped by waves of immigration over the last 50 years. This is a street art and urban culture program, so we want to do something that engages that idea and is literally on top of the street.
Luis: In general, when you ask [the public] what the Smithsonian is, a lot of times they’ll say a museum. When I walk around the mall, people ask, “Where’s the Smithsonian?” So to go from that to a pair of units, Latino Center and Asian Pacific American Center, which exist within the Smithsonian but we don’t have a building—we’re a long way away from the person who thinks that Smithsonian is one museum. Part of us having this exhibition and calling it an exhibition in Silver Spring is not just to reach out to immigrant communities there but also to start expanding the idea of where the Smithsonian can exist and where it can pop up. If we just remain in the Mall, then [there's] a very small amount of outreach that we can do as a non-physical center. But on the other end of the spectrum, if we can train the community to look at the Smithsonian as something that can exist on their campus or in Hawaii or in Washington state—or something that you can even download and pop up yourself—then for a space like APAC, that gives us a nimbleness that allows us to move much faster than some of the other brick-and-mortar institutions. I think because we are awhile away from having a building and also because museums in general are moving towards digital, we’re also, by just moving a few train stops away, [taking] our first step towards creating a national and global presence.
August 2, 2013
By happy coincidence, the new American Art exhibition, “Landscapes in Passing,” is located down the hall from an 1868 painting by Albert Bierstadt—a lush, majestic panorama of the untouched American wilderness, and what most people have in mind when they hear the word “landscape.”
“Landscapes in Passing” brings together the work of three artists who challenged this canonical view in the 1970s. Inspired by the interstate highway system, photographers Elaine Mayes, Steve Fitch and Robbert Flick dared to look past the overweening grandeur of landscapes past, to explore the transient, auto-mediated way we see nature in the present.
The earliest series in the exhibition, Elaine Mayes’ Autolandscapes (1971), captures the view from a car window. Mayes drove from California to Massachusetts, snapping a photograph every time the landscape changed. From a moving car, the road, horizon line and variations of terrain are abstracted to bands of black, white and gray. “She wanted to capture her experience of moving through the space and how the landscape changes from urban to rural to somewhere in between,” says curator Lisa Hostetler. In the gallery, the series is displayed sequentially and unfolds like a zoetrope, with a strong horizontal through-line conveying speed and motion.
Steve Fitch’s Diesels and Dinosaurs (1976) focuses exclusively on the American West. The photographs narrate a collision between the prehistoric and the modern, the mythic and the mass-produced: A kitschy dinosaur sculpture looms over a gas station. An ersatz tipi advertises low motel rates. A neon sign glows like a beacon of salvation in the night. For Hostetler, the images reflect Fitch’s background in anthropology. “There’s a sense of studying people,” she says. “It makes me think, ‘What is this alien place where they build dinosaur sculptures and put them in the middle of nowhere?’” Seen through this new iconography, the West is a site of continuous activity and a habitat for frontiersmen and freak shows alike.
In Robbert Flick’s Sequential Views (1980), the process of making the landscape is as significant as the landscape itself. Flick, influenced by 1970s conceptual art, planned walking routes on a map and set out with rules to govern his photography, clicking the shutter at particular geographic or temporal intervals. To create SV009/80, Marina del Ray, 180 Degree Views, for example, Flick looked one way, took a picture, looked the opposite way, took a picture, moved forward, took a picture and so on. Each piece in Sequential Views contains 100 individual photographs assembled in a 10 by 10 grid using the analog graphic design process called stripping. In Marina del Ray, Flick arranged the photographs into alternating columns of beach and buildings, visualizing the camera’s movement back and forth.
According to Hostetler, this method reveals two principal things about our perception of landscape: 1) that it is often mediated by the automobile and the glimpses we catch in transit; and 2) that it is telegraphic, leaping from one spot to the next. Think about driving: you see a sign in front of you, you get closer to it, you pass it—and your gaze shifts to the next block. The brain fuses these glimpses into a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Flick deconstructs this phenomenon in each photographic array, implicating the viewer in the creation of landscape.
All three artists approached landscape with, if not realism, a new frankness. They acknowledged that tract houses, drive-ins, motels and other roadside attractions were part of the American story—and that the concept of “landscape” is itself fraught with ambiguity. Landscape can mean a sublime and spectacular Bierstadt, but it can also mean nature, the environment generally or something more abstract. Asked to define the term, Hostetler hesitates. “That’s a hard question because I think of [landscape] as a genre of art,” she says. “But I also think of looking out at our surroundings. I guess when you’re looking at it, it becomes a landscape. The second you take it in as an image, it’s a landscape.”
Elaine Mayes, Steve Fitch and Robbert Flick will discuss their work at a panel discussion on September 12, 2013, at 7:00PM.
July 30, 2013
With Jane Austen confirmed as the next face of England’s ten-pound note and yet another Austen-themed film on the way, the global phenomenon surrounding the novelist shows no signs of abating. Recently, a group of D.C.-area fans indulged their Austenmania at the Smithsonian Associates seminar, “Life at Pemberley: Ever After with Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth.” Sandra Lerner, founder of the Chawton House Library and author of Second Impressions (a sequel to Pride and Prejudice), served as mistress of ceremonies and covered matters mundane and monumental in the life and times of Jane Austen. Below, dear readers, are some of the insights she had to offer:
- Jane Austen didn’t have a clue about money. She wrote during the Regency era (1775-1817), when England was in the throes of the Industrial Revolution, mass rural-to-urban migration, and transition from a barter to a cash economy. People from all walks of life struggled to adjust to the new paradigm. The wealthy, who had no concept of cash, took to gambling and often accrued astronomical debts. Jane Austen lived in the country, where the subject of money was still strictly taboo, and the fuzzy figures in her novels reflect her financial ignorance. According to Lerner, Mr. Darcy’s income of £10,000 a year was grossly unrealistic for a time when even a politician like Charles Fox held more than £100,000 in debt. Lerner estimates that Darcy would have needed an income of at least ten times as much to manage both his London house and his Pemberley estate.
- Men wore corsets. Gentlemen as well as ladies shaped their waists in the Regency era. Ladies’ corsets were relatively forgiving, providing lift rather than Victorian-era constriction.
- Pants were the latest in men’s fashion and would have been considered outré in Jane Austen’s social circle. Breeches and stockings were still the norm in the country.
- Regency dance was a blend of high and low culture. In the wake of the French Revolution, English elites abandoned stately and elegant dance styles in favor of traditional country dance; even the well-to-do knew these lively jigs from their summer holidays in the country. Regency dance adapted these folk styles to courtly tastes, replacing the claps, hops and stomps with dainty steps and baroque music while retaining the rustic flavor of the original.
- Ladies led, gentlemen followed. Regency-era dances were designed to showcase eligible young ladies. The lady always moved first, and the gentleman’s duty was to guide her through the dance and protect her from any errant Mr. Collinses on the dance floor. Couples danced very close to each other and with tiny, intricate steps to allow for conversation and flirtation.
- Downstairs was just as hierarchical as upstairs. A servant’s rank determined his or her contact with the masters of the house. Highest in the chain of command was the master’s steward, akin to a personal assistant, who managed all staff and household affairs. Under him, the butler and the housekeeper supervised male and female staff, respectively. The lower one’s rank, the more physically demanding the work; scullery maids, lowest of the female servants, were expected to clean and scour the kitchen for 18 hours a day. Rank was always more important than tenure, meaning that a footman of ten years ranked no higher than a butler of five. These conventions did not change until after World War I.
- Jane Austen was preceded by a long line of female authors. Some two thousand novels came before hers, mostly written by poor single women and deemed unsavory by contemporary standards. The majority of these works have been lost to posterity because, in the straitlaced Victorian era, England’s royal repositories declined to preserve them. The Chawton House Library strives to uncover this forgotten legacy by sponsoring research and acquisition of women’s writing from the period 1600-1830.
- Jane Austen’s novels are not “chick lit.” Benjamin Disraeli read Pride and Prejudice 17 times. Sir Walter Scott called Austen’s “talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life. . . the most wonderful I ever met with.” Winston Churchill maintained that her words kept him going through the Second World War. With citations like these, it should be a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen was and still is important.