November 25, 2013
It’s not the place you would expect to find the world’s third-oldest manuscript of the gospels. The jade-like walls of the Freer Gallery’s Peacock Room are beautifully rendered in rich detail work. Delicate spirals rim the panels and gold-painted shelves line the walls, housing dozens of works of Asian ceramics. On one end, a woman immortalized in portrait, robe falling from her shoulders, watches over the room. To her left, a row of closed shutters block the room’s access to the sunlight. Golden peacocks, their feathers and tails painted in intricate detail, cover the shutters. On the far wall, two more peacocks are poised in an angry standoff. One is dripping with golden coins. The creature is a caricature of the Peacock Room’s original owner, the wealthy Englishman Frederick R. Leyland. The other peacock represents the struggling, underpaid artist—James McNeill Whistler. Whistler, who fought with Leyland, his patron, dubbed the piece “Art and Money; or, the Story of the Room.”
The parchment pages of the late 4th to 6th century biblical manuscripts, recently placed on view in the middle of the room, were originally intended to be handled and turned gently, most likely, as a part of the liturgy, by the monks that owned and read them. In the seventh century, wooden covers painted with the figures of the four Evangelists were added, binding the manuscript tightly and making the pages much harder to turn. At that time, the bound books probably made the transition to a venerated object—but yet not a work of art.
The man who saw them as works of art was Charles Lang Freer, who purchased the manuscripts from an Egyptian antiques dealer in 1906 for the princely sum of 1,800 pounds, about $7,500 in today’s dollars. In 1912, after having purchased the Peacock Room in London and shipping it to his Detroit home, Freer set out the manuscripts in the room, displaying them for his guests, along with his collection of pottery and various Buddhist statues.
“Freer had this idea that even though all of the objects in his collection were quite diverse from all different times and places, they were linked together in a common narrative of beauty that reached back in time and came forward all the way to the present,” says curator Lee Glazer. “By putting the bibles in this setting which is a work of art in its own right, with all of these diverse ceramics, it was kind of a demonstration of this idea that all works of art go together, that there’s this kind of harmony that links past and present and East and West.”
The Freer Gallery chose to exhibit the manuscripts—their first public showing since 2006—much as the museum’s founder first did in 1912, focusing on their value as aesthetic objects and their juxtaposition against the opulence of the Peacock Room.
“This display of the bibles is less about the bibles as bibles than the surprising fact that he chose to exhibit them in the Peacock Room as aesthetic objects among other aesthetic objects,” explains Glazer.
The bibles are the first antique manuscripts that Freer bought, and while he purchased a few other rare texts in his lifetime, he never really threw himself into collecting them with the same fervor that he applied to his pottery collection. To Freer, the manuscripts were an important chapter to include in his collection at the Smithsonian—another chapter in the history of beauty throughout the ages.
Not everyone agreed with Freer’s presentation of the rare texts, however. “In one of the newspaper clippings, they accuse Freer of being too fastidious in the way that he’s treating the bibles,” Glazer says. “They suggested that they shouldn’t be considered works of art as objects, but as holy scripture.”
To Freer, the manuscripts represented an ancient chapter in the history of beauty, but he also understood their historical significance for biblical study. Upon his return to America, Freer underwrote $30,000 to support research conducted by the University of Michigan. In translating and studying the texts, the scholars found that one of the gospels contains a passage not found in any other biblical text. The segment, located at the end of the Gospel of Mark, includes a post-resurrection appearance of Christ before his disciples where he proclaims the reign of Satan to be over. For some, this revelation was more scandalous than Freer’s decision to showcase the manuscripts as aesthetic objects.
“It’s not found in any other known version of the gospels,” explains Glazer. “The fact that it said that the reign of Satan was over seemed really potentially outrageous. People were in a tizzy over it.”
The manuscripts, normally kept in the Freer Gallery archives due to their sensitivity to light, are some of the most sought after pieces in the gallery’s collection. The manuscripts will remain on display in the Peacock Room through February 2014.
September 19, 2013
Stamp collectors like nothing better than a mistake. Take for example the notorious blunder of 1918 that flipped a Curtiss Jenny aircraft upside-down on a United States 24-cent postage stamp. The so-called “Inverted Jenny” has since become America’s most famous stamp and one of the world’s most famous errors. “This is a stamp that just makes every collector’s heart beat,” says Postal Museum curator Cheryl Ganz.
On Sunday, September 22, the original Inverted Jenny goes on permanent view for the first time in Smithsonian history. Presented in a four-stamp block with three singles, the Jennies are the crown jewels of the new William H. Gross Stamp Gallery, a 12,000-square-foot addition to the Postal Museum. The gallery will feature some 20,000 philatelic objects, a handful of which are reproduced below. Curator Daniel Piazza hopes that the Jennies will become a “stop on the tour of Washington,” canonized with other great artifacts in American history.
The Jenny was the first U.S. airmail stamp as well as the first airmail stamp to be printed in two colors. Its complex production process allowed ample room for error. One collector, William T. Robey, anticipating a potentially lucrative printing error, was waiting for the new stamps at a Washington, D.C. post office on May 14, 1918. He asked the clerk if any of the new stamps had come in. “He brought forth a full sheet,” Robey recalled in 1938, “and my heart stood still.” The image was upside down! “It was a thrill that comes once in a lifetime.”
Robey sold the sheet of 100 stamps for $15,000. That sheet, which was later broken up, has a storied history that includes resale, theft, recovery, deterioration and even some fleeting disappearances. The National Postal Museum says that the Inverted Jenny is the stamp that visitors most often ask for, but because of conservation issues, the stamps were rarely put on view; the last time was in 2009.
The Jennies will be displayed in a custom-designed case fitted with lights that automatically switch on and off as visitors move through the exhibit. Also debuting on the Stamp Gallery’s opening day is a new $2 USPS reprint of the Inverted Jenny, so visitors can take home the best loved error in philatelic history—at a fraction of the price tag.
UPDATE 9/23/2013: This post has been updated to indicate that the Jenny stamp was the first bicolored airmail stamp and not the first bicolored stamp.
Scroll down to preview other treasures from the William H. Gross Stamp Gallery:
September 13, 2013
On September 15, 1963, two and a half weeks after the March on Washington, four little girls were killed in the Ku Klux Klan bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Addie Mae Collins, 14, Denise McNair, 11, Carole Robertson, 14, and Cynthia Wesley, 14, were the youngest casualties in a year that had already seen the murder of Medgar Evers and police brutality in Birmingham and Danville. For many Americans, it was this single act of terrorism, targeted at children, that made plain the need for action on civil rights.
Joan Mulholland was among the mourners at a funeral service for three of the girls on September 18, 1963. (A separate service was held for the fourth victim.) Thousands gathered around nearby 6th Avenue Baptist Church to hear Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who observed that “life is hard, at times as hard as crucible steel.”
Mulholland, a former Freedom Rider who turns 72 this weekend, was then one of the few white students at historically black Tougaloo College in Mississippi. She and a VW busload of her classmates came to Birmingham to bear witness, to “try to understand.” She says of the victims, “They were so innocent—why them?”
Mulholland stopped at the ruined 16th Street church first, picking up shards of stained glass and spent shotgun shell casings that remained on the grounds three days after the bombing. Ten of those shards of glass will join one other shard, recently donated by the family of Rev. Norman Jimerson, in the collections of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. For now, Mulholland’s shards can be viewed in “Changing America: The Emancipation Proclamation, 1863 and the March on Washington, 1963” at the American History Museum.
Mulholland joined us for an exclusive interview in the gallery. She is a short, sturdy woman with a quiet demeanor, her long white hair tied back in a bandana. A smile flickers perpetually across her lips, even as her still, steel blue eyes suggest that she has seen it all before.
As a SNCC activist in the early 1960s, Mulholland participated in sit-ins in Durham, North Carolina, and Arlington, Virginia, her home. She joined the Freedom Rides in 1961 and served a two-month sentence at Parchman State Prison Farm.
Looking back, Mulholland recognizes that she was a part of history in the making. But at the time, she and other civil rights activists were just “in the moment,” she says, “doing what we needed to do to make America true to itself—for me particularly, to make my home in the South true to its best self.”
Mulholland spent the summer of 1963 volunteering in the March on Washington’s D.C. office. On the morning of the March, she watched as the buses rolled in and the crowds formed without incident. That day, she says, was “like heaven”—utterly peaceful, despite fear-mongering predictions to the contrary.
Eighteen days later, the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church changed all that. “Things had been so beautiful,” Mulholland remembers, “and now it was worse than normal.” The explosion, which claimed the lives of four children and injured 22 others, set off a wave of violence in Birmingham. There were riots, fires and rock-throwing. Two black boys were shot to death, and Gov. George Wallace readied the Alabama National Guard.
The funeral on September 18 brought a respite from the chaos. Mourners clustered in the streets singing freedom songs and listened to the service from loudspeakers outside the 6th Avenue church. “We were there just in tears and trying to keep strong,” Mulholland recalls.
The tragedy sent shockwaves through the nation, galvanizing the public in the final push toward passage of the Civil Rights Act. “The bombing brought the civil rights movement home to a lot more people,” says Mulholland. “It made people much more aware of how bad things were, how bad we could be.” As Rev. King said in his eulogy, the four little girls “did not die in vain.”
Mulholland hopes that her collection of shards will keep their memory alive. “I just wish this display had their pictures and names up there,” she says. “That’s the one shortcoming.”
After graduating from Tougaloo College in 1964, Mulholland went back home to the Washington, D.C. area—but she never really left the civil rights movement. She took a job in the Smithsonian’s Community Relations Service and helped create the first Smithsonian collection to document the African American experience. She donated many artifacts from her time in the movement—newspaper clippings, buttons and posters, a burned cross and a deck of cards made out of envelopes during her prison stint, in addition to the shards from Birmingham.
She kept some of the shards and sometimes wears one around her neck as a memento. “Necklace is too nice a word,” she says.
Others she used as a teaching tool. From 1980 to 2007, Mulholland worked as a teaching assistant in Arlington and created lessons that reflected her experience in the civil rights movement. She brought the shards to her second grade class, juxtaposing the church bombing in Birmingham with the Sharpeville massacre in South Africa.
“I saw second graders rubbing this glass and in tears as it was passing around,” she says. “You might say they were too young. . . but they were old enough to understand it at some level. And their understanding would only grow with age.”
Fifty years after the bombing, Mulholland says that “we aren’t the country we were.” She sees the ripple effects of the sit-ins culminating, but by no means ending, with the election of President Barack Obama in 2008. And while the struggle for civil rights isn’t over, she says, when it comes to voting rights, immigration reform, gender discrimination and criminal justice, Mulholland remains optimistic about America’s ability to change for the better.
It’s “not as fast as I’d want,” she says. “I think I’m still one of those impatient students on that. But the changes I’ve seen give me hope that it’ll happen.”
August 21, 2013
The top movie at the U.S. box office last weekend was Lee Daniels’ The Butler, a drama loosely based on the life of White House butler and maître d’ Eugene Allen. Allen, who died in 2010 at age 90, served eight presidents from Truman to Reagan during his 34-year tenure. The new film, which stars Forest Whitaker as the fictional butler Cecil Gaines, is not a biopic, rather a portrait of race relations through the eyes of one man.
It is also not the first time Allen’s story has appeared on film. In 1994, Smithsonian Folkways released the documentary “Workers at the White House,” featuring interviews with Eugene Allen and other residence staff in a range of occupations. The film was directed by Dr. Marjorie Hunt, curator for the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, and was produced in conjunction with the 1992 Folklife Festival.
The documentary can now be found on the Smithsonian Folkways DVD White House Workers: Traditions and Memories. In the following excerpts, Eugene Allen talks about his career, his friendship with President Jimmy Carter and his farewell dinner with the Reagans.
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.