December 7, 2011
In the years since its 1987 1948 founding, Folkways Records has become a treasured home to thousands of albums of jazz, blues, world and folk music. In For this holiday season, we present to you a list of Smithsonian Folkways’ best holiday songs. Purchase CDs or downloads from the Folkways’ website—and gather the whole family round the yule log to have a listen.
1. American Folk Songs for Christmas: In 1957, composer Ruth Crawford Seeger gathered her three daughters with children from the South Boston Music School to record 17 tracks for the holiday season. The collection ranges from traditional tunes from the British Isles to African-American spirituals and chants from the slavery era.
2. Christmas Carols: This 1956 classic has all the traditional Christmas carols—”O Come All Ye Faithful,” and “Silent Night, Holy Night” included—sung by folk artist Andrew Rowan Summers with an accompanying dulcimer. But Rowan’s renditions may differ from what you’ve heard before: he returns to the ancient lyrics for many of these tunes, producing a more authentic version of the song. The liner notes include a fascinating history on the development of caroling in Europe.
3. Holiday Times: This album, by beloved folk artist Ella Jenkins, features 26 songs, stories, rhymes and chants for Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and other holidays. Enjoy the Christmas classic “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” along with the Hanukkah tune “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel.” Listen to Jenkins and others play the harmonica, ukelele, pipe organ and other instruments and have your own family sing-along.
4. Traditional Christmas Carols: Pete Seeger’s holiday album is “a real alternative to the wall of strings or the overly sweet sound of many Christmas collections,” says Dirty Linen, a bi-monthy folk music magazine. Seeger’s collection includes 13 French, English, Italian and African-American carols and spirituals, all performed in his trademark folk style.
5. Christmas Songs from Many Lands: The late Canadian folk singer Alan Mills, a prolific performer on the Folkways label, joins with guitarist Gilbert Lacombe to perform holiday music from 15 different cultures and countries. The tracks include a number of Mills’ personal favorites that depart from the traditional Christmas repertoire and provide listeners with unusual surprises.
November 23, 2011
With Thanksgiving Day at hand, the ATM team combed the collections for the some of the best feasts depicted in art. Visit the American Art Museum and its branch, the Renwick Gallery, to see these and other masterpieces of holiday food festivities.
1. Sioux Dog Feast: George Catlin was a self-taught artist who traveled the American West during the 1830s. This painting portrays a feast given by the Lakota people to visiting U.S. government representatives, likely observed at Fort Pierre in 1832. Recounting the event in his Letters and Notes Catlin wrote, “Near the foot of the flag-staff were placed in a row on the ground, six or eight kettles, with iron covers on them, shutting them tight, in which were prepared the viands for our voluptuous feast.”
2. Vegetable Dinner: This 1927 work, painted by artist Peter Blume at the precocious age of 21, depicts a pair of women—one, seated and smoking, the other, standing and chopping vegetables. “Blume was involved with a style called Purism, which emphasized exquisite contours and simplified shapes,” writes museum director Elizabeth Broun. “Still, there’s something in the way the knife slicing away a potato skin is poised against the vulnerable thumb, perhaps to cut more deeply. Blume could find a dark tension in this game of edges and surfaces.”
3. Thanksgiving: During her lifetime, Doris Lee was a popular mainstream artist whose work evoked Norman Rockwell and appeared in Life magazine. This 1935 painting provided a look back at the simpler domestic life many yearned for during the years of the Great Depression. The bustling kitchen is full of preparation for the annual feast, and although the work appears simple in terms of subject, it is filled with countless realistic details.
4. Archelous and Hercules: In ancient Greek myth, the god Archelous took the form of a bull during flood season and carved channels into the earth, while Hercules tore off his horn to create a cornucopia of plenty. Thomas Hart Benton’s 1947 oil painting adapts this legend as a parable for the American Midwest, where engineers worked to tame the Missouri River. The plentiful harvest spilling from the horn represents the future bumper crops farmers would enjoy as a result of this work.
5. Bancketje: This sculpture—named after the banquets often featured in 17th century Dutch still-life paintings—is a literal feast, but one already eaten. Contemporary glass artist Beth Lipman worked with 15 other artisans to create the extravagant installation, piling 400 pieces of hand-blown glass tableware, stemware, candlesticks and serving dishes atop an oak table. The 2003 piece manages to combine an initial impression of abundance with a subsequent awareness of emptiness and decay.
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 19, 2011
With the St. Louis Cardinals and Texas Rangers set to play game one of the World Series tonight, the country is abuzz with excitement to see some of the top players perform on the sport’s biggest stage. Get your baseball fix by taking a look at some artifacts from the game’s greatest all-time legends that are now part of the Smithsonian Institution.
1. Jackie Robinson Autographed Ball There is just one number retired by every major league baseball team: #42. Jackie Robinson’s contribution as the first African-American to play in the majors in the modern era transcended the sport, as he became a symbol of the emerging civil rights movement and discredited racial stereotypes with his poise and performance. After winning the first MLB Rookie of the Year award in 1947, his debut season for the Brooklyn Dodgers, he went on to an outstanding career as an infielder, and was named NL MVP in 1947. This ball, autographed by Robinson and other members of the Dodgers during their 1952 pennant-winning season, eventually made its way into the American History Museum‘s collection.
2. Yogi Berra Sculpture Although Yogi is perhaps best-known nowadays for his self-deprecating humor and “Yogi-isms” (“When you come to a fork in the road, take it,” and “It’s déja vu all over again”), during the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s he was consistently the best catcher in the game. After making 15 straight All-Star teams and leading the Yankees to a remarkable ten World Series championships, he embarked on a successful career as a manager, guiding both the Mets and Yankees to the World Series. The National Portrait Gallery‘s bronze sculpture of Berra was cast by Rhonda Sherbell and is on display in the “Champions” exhibition.
3. Stan Musial’s 3000th Hit Bat As his St. Louis Cardinals go for their 11th championship, Stan “the Man” Musial is still known as one of major league baseball’s most consistent, powerful and prolific hitters, 48 years after his retirement. In his first full season, he led the team to a World Series title; the next year, he earned his initial MVP and made the first of his record 24 trips to the All-Star game, all with the same team. On May 13, 1958, with a pinch hit RBI double against the rival Cubs, he became the eighth player to reach the 3000-hit milestone. His storied Louisville Slugger is now at the American History Museum.
4. Sandy Koufax’s Glove With a blazing fastball at the age of 20, Sandy Koufax signed with his hometown Dodgers for a then-remarkable $4,000 bonus. In 1961, after five years of inconsistent performance, he decided to give baseball one last shot and quickly became the most dominant pitcher in the major leagues. He went on to throw four no-hitters, make seven All-Star games and win three triple crowns, but his greatest cultural significance may have come when, as a Jew, he famously declined to pitch game one of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur. Weathering criticism, he came back to play in three of the final six games, posting a shutout victory in the decisive game seven and winning World Series MVP.
5. Carl Yastrzemski’s Batting Helmet: One of the Boston Red Sox’ all-time greats, Yastrzemski was a stellar hitter for both power and average, and won seven Gold Gloves for his work in left field. In 1967, he was the last batter to win the triple crown—leading both leagues in average, home runs, and runs batted in. Although the Sox had finished in 9th place the year before and were considered heavy underdogs, “Yaz” hit with a .513 average over the last two weeks of the season to win the A.L. pennant on the final day of the season. Among Yastrzemski’s quirks was his habit of enlarging the right ear hole and removing part of the right ear flap of his batting helmets, to improve his vision and hearing at the plate, as seen in the circa 1970 helmet in the museum’s collection.
October 13, 2011
In honor of American Archives Month, the Smithsonian Institution is hosting an Archives Fair on Friday, October 14 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Ripley Center. There, meet archivists and see some of the ephemera and materials held within the Smithsonian collections in person. Bring your own family heirlooms and precious items to participate in the popular “Ask the Smithsonian” program and get tips on preserving them (free consultation appointments can be made online).
With Archives Month in mind, we bring you a list featuring items from the Smithsonian Institution Archives, home to pieces of the Smithsonian’s history from its 19th century birth through recent times. Here are a few of the archive’s offerings:
1. The Last Will and Testament of James Smithson: The Institution’s founder James Smithson was a wealthy British scientist who never set foot in America. He stipulated that, if his nephew died without a legitimate heir, the Smithson fortune would go towards creating an establishment for the “increase and diffusion of knowledge” in Washington, D.C. The Smithsonian Institution bears the name of this unlikely founder and strives to carry out his mission to this day.
2. 1894 Exhibit of Automobiles: This 19th-century photo looks like one of a historical exhibition. At the time, though, the display of automobiles on view in the Arts and Industries Building (now closed for renovation) must have looked like the future. Nearly a decade before the Ford Motor Company was even established, the cars on display were still a new-fangled invention with little practical application.
3. The Wright Brothers’ Letters to the Smithsonian: Before the Wright brothers became world famous for inventing the first successful airplane, they wrote to the Smithsonian asking for help. This set of six letters, beginning in 1899, asked for information on aeronautics and suggestions for relevant readings. The last letter, dated June 1903, came just six months before their legendary flight, December 3, 1903.
4. Letter Offering to Sell a Two-Legged Dog: In 1902, Frank Elliott of Phillips Station, Pennsylvania, wrote to the Smithsonian with a proposition: that the Institution pay him $800 for a remarkable two-legged dog named Clelonda. The dog, Elliott wrote, “is the liveliest dog I ever saw, handling himself with only the two hind leggs [sic] as well as other dogs can with four.” Despite its reputation as “the Nation’s Attic,” the Smithsonian declined the offer.
5. The World’s Longest Beard: Hans Langseth was born in Norway in 1846. When he died on November 10, 1927, he was an American citizen and had a beard 18-and-a-half feet long. During his years as a farmer in Minnesota and North Dakota, he used to roll up the beard and tuck it into his jacket. Later on, he joined a circus act and displayed his beard full-time. His relatives cut off the beard and donated it to the Natural History Museum upon his death, where it remains one of the Smithsonian’s strangest artifacts, and a photo of museum staff “trying on” the beard resides in the Institution Archives.