June 14, 2012
Friday June 15: Book Signing: Phillip Thomas Tucker
Before the Tuskegee Airmen took to the skies during World War II, no African American military aviators had served in the United States armed forces. When faced with adversity and the restrictions of the Jim Crow Laws, this group of pilots flew with distinction. Between 1941 and 1946, 992 were trained at the Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama. This Friday, Phillip Thomas Tucker, prolific writer and historian will sign copies of his book Father of the Tuskegee Airmen, John C. Robinson. Copies of the book are available at the signing. One of the planes used by the Tuskegee pilots at Moton Field, the PT-13D U.S. Army Air Corps Stearman, is slated to go on display at the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in 2015. Free. 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. American History Museum.
Saturday June 16: Developing Connoisseurship in American Glass
Even glass has a history—especially when it comes to the decorative arts. This Saturday, trace this art form from the Colonial period to the present. In this fascinating, all-day seminar, Glass historian and educator Mary Cheek Mills will unravel the mystery of one of the most-used materials in the decorative arts. Learn important details assessing glass color, weight, form, function, technique, decoration and more. Purchase tickets here. 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. S. Dillon Ripley Center.
Sunday June 17: Native Music: “Jim Thorpe: American Sunlight and Shadow”
In case you missed the memo, this Sunday is Father’s Day. What better present to give him than to spend some quality time? Bring him and the whole family to join Jack Gladstone, Montana’s Blackfeet troubadour, for an original multimedia musical performance honoring the enduring spirit of Native American athletes, especially Sac and Fox Olympian Jim Thorpe, who swept the Pentathlon and Decathlon events exactly 100 years ago at the Stockholm Olympics. This program is presented in support of the museum’s exhibition, “Best in the World, Native Athletes in the Olympics,” now on view through September 3, 2012. Seats are available on a first come, first served basis. Free. 3:30 p.m. American Indian Museum.
June 7, 2012
Friday, June 8 Celebrate World Oceans Day at the Smithsonian
When you walk into the Sant Ocean Hall in the Natural History Museum, look up. Phoenix, a full-scale model of a North Atlantic right whale hangs from the ceiling—a staple piece in the museum’s largest exhibit. This Friday, celebrate World Oceans Day; meet at the whale to begin your afternoon of activities and presentations. Experts will discuss our planet’s oceans and ocean careers in a series of events throughout the day. From 2:30-3:30 p.m., help cartoonist Jim Toomey, well known for his comic Sherman’s Lagoon, create a mural of the ocean at the Ocean Explorer Theater. Later, gather the group to watch a series of short films on Marine Protected Areas and meet the producers in the Baird Auditorium. At 4 p.m., listen in on a panel discussion with renowned oceanographer Dr. Sylvia Earle and Youth Ocean Leaders. 1 to 5 p.m. Free. Natural History Museum.
Saturday, June 9 Girl Scouts 1912-2012
No one can resist digging into a box of Thin Mints or Samoas® come Girl Scout cookie season. They are a classic snack that represents a much larger organization: the Girl Scouts. This year, the iconic program for young girls celebrates its 100th year.
Come check out the exhibit, Girl Scouts 1912 – 2012, at the American History Museum this Saturday, and begin the morning with breakfast with a curator at the Stars & Stripes Café. A preview of the museum’s History Highlights Display Case on the Girl Scouts, including a guided tour through the artifacts, will follow as a part of the “Girl Scouts Rock the Mall” 100th anniversary celebration in Washington, D.C. The exhibition focuses on the evolution of the Girl Scout organization, which began with 18 members and, over its 100-year history, has grown into the world’s largest voluntary organization for girls. Don’t forget to visit the portrait of Girl Scouts founder, Juliette Gordon at the National Portrait Gallery. Reservations for breakfast are required. Call (866) 868-7774 or or make reservations online. Girl Scouts 1912 – 2012, which runs through June 11 is free. American History Museum.
A “showstopper” is what milliner and accessories designer extraordinaire Lula Mae Reeves called her marvelous hats. Reeves is the first African American woman to open her own business in downtown Philadelphia, and her collection of toppers are now at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. This Sunday, learn how to make a paper hat inspired by her designs in a workshop at the American History Museum. Participating Girl Scouts receive a patch upon completion of the activity. Free. 1 to 4 p.m. American History Museum.
For a complete listing of Smithsonian events and exhibitions visit the goSmithsonian Visitors Guide. Additional reporting by Michelle Strange.
May 17, 2012
Washington, D.C. lost a musical icon yesterday. The legendary Chuck Brown died at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore at the age of 75. Brown will be remembered for his decades of engaging live performances, his distinctive stage personality and his development of go-go music, a sub-genre of funk which incorporated R&B, early hip-hop elements and audience participation.
“He’s got such a legacy in music in creating a genre of its own,” says Dwan Reece, a curator of music at the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. “The chanting, the call-and-response—it was, more than anything, one long party.”
Brown was born in Gaston, North Carolina in 1936; after moving around as a child, his family settled in Washington, D.C. in the early 1940s. As a boy, he hustled, shining shoes and selling newspapers in the street. During this time, he met many prominent African-American entertainers—he said that he once shined Louis Armstrong’s shoes at the Howard Theater. His musical talent showed early on, as he sang in church from the age of two and learned to play the piano by ear as a seven-year-old.
The performer endured a turbulent adolescence, in which he worked odd jobs, hopped trains as a hobo and served three years of prison time (the crime was assault, but Brown maintained that he acted in self-defense). While at Lorton Penitentiary, Brown rediscovered his love of music, teaching himself to play guitar and putting on shows for other inmates. Once he was paroled, he began performing in clubs and lounges around D.C.
In the early ’70s, Brown put together a band called the Soul Searchers and began innovating his signature sound: go-go. He blended funk, R&B, the call-and-response tradition from African-American church culture and other elements to create a highly energetic, danceable style that took the city by storm. “He started off playing with rhythm and percussion, and adding Latin instruments,” Reece says. “Then he learned that he could keep the percussion going between songs, so there was always some kind of activity, no break. He would chant, he would rhyme, and it became like a house party, a really familiar, down home environment.” His biggest early hits included “We Need Some Money” and “Bustin’ Loose.”
Brown’s close relationships with neighborhood audiences enabled him to take participation to a whole new level. “People would shout out birthdays, they’d send notes of things for him to say. he would call them out, and the audience would repeat back, and then he’d break into the next song,” Reece says. “There was an energy, and it was infectious. There was no line between the performer and the audience.”
Brown never became well-known nationally—his music had to be appreciated in a live setting to truly understand what made it so special. In D.C., though, where he played as often as six nights a week and sometimes twice a night, he became an icon. “He was so intricately tied to this city,” says Reece. “There are certain cities that are just defined by their music—when you think jazz, you think of New Orleans, and for R&B, you think Memphis. When you look at go-go, it is really the only music indigenous to Washington, DC.”
Although it never took off as a country-wide phenomenon, go-go had an indelible impact on contemporary American music. “It was definitely influential, especially with hip-hop,” Reece says. “His music involved samples, and was all about rhyming and the beat, and using energy to keep it going.”
Brown said that the genre took its name because “the music just goes and goes.” And just like his music, the legendary performer kept on going, regularly performing through his final years.
The National Museum of African-American History and Culture, set to open in its own building on the Mall in 2015, will feature an exhibition called “Musical Crossroads” that examines the influence of African-Americans on music. “The exhibit will have a section on music on the city, with go-go as a case study, looking at the role that place and community play in helping to define music,” says Reece. “We had been talking to Chuck Brown, and he was very excited about it, so I’m sad that he won’t be able to see it, but it will certainty illustrate his legacy in a larger way.”
February 27, 2012
Events Feb 28-March 1: Paradox of Liberty, A Not So Still Life, and Perspectives on “Limits to Growth”
Tuesday, February 28 Paradox of Liberty Tour
If you haven’t yet seen the National Museum of African American History and Culture’s exhibition, “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty,” take a guided tour through the history of the plantation and the men and women who kept it running. Free. 10:30 a.m. and 11:15 a.m. American History Museum.
Wednesday, February 29 A Not So Still Life
This documentary follows the riveting story of world-renowned glass artist Ginny Ruffner, whose new body of work springs from a near-fatal car accident that left her in a coma for several weeks. From pop-up books, to room-sized installation pieces, to public works, Ruffner’s art continues to blossom. After the film, meet the artist herself and hear her thoughts on the experience. Free. 12:00 p.m. Renwick Gallery.
Thursday, March 1 Perspectives on “Limits to Growth”
This symposium marks the 40th anniversary of the launch of the seminal 1972 report Limits to Growth, one of the earliest scholarly treatises to recognize the unsustainable nature of the planet’s growth. Even now, we face many of the same social, economic and environmental issues we did when the report was first published. Join scholars and experts in a day of debate and discussion on the sustainability challenges facing the world today. Free, RSVP at Consortia@si.edu. 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Rasmuson Theater, American Indian Museum.
For a complete listing of Smithsonian events and exhibitions visit the goSmithsonian Visitors Guide. Additional reporting by Michelle Strange.
February 22, 2012
This morning, amidst camera flashbulbs and television cameras in an enormous white tent on the National Mall, with President Barack Obama presiding, former First Lady Laura Bush, Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough, museum director Lonnie Bunch and others took part in a milestone moment in Smithsonian history. After a five-second countdown shouted in unison by the jubilant crowd, the assembled dignitaries plunged their shovels into a small rectangle of dirt, marking the groundbreaking for the 19th museum of the Smithsonian Institution: the National Museum of African-American History and Culture.
President Obama spoke moments before the ground was broken, praising the efforts of those responsible for the museum. “This day has been a long time coming,” he said. “We will preserve within these walls the history of a people who, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, ‘injected new meaning and dignity into the veins of civilization.’ We will remember their stories.”
The ceremony that preceded the groundbreaking featured stirring speeches by notables such as civil rights leader and Georgia Representative John Lewis, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback and others. There were inspirational performances by opera singer Denyce Graves, baritone Thomas Hampson, jazz pianist Jason Moran and the U.S. Navy Band.
Watch a clip from the Smithsonian Channel’s “Museum in the Making” special program:
Once the thousands of folding chairs are hauled away and the tent broken down, construction teams will begin the work of building a new museum that will tell a new strand of the American story to the public. Bunch and others will continue seeking out artifacts and curating exhibitions, adding to the more than 25,000 pieces they have already collected since 2005, when he was named director. Once it is completed in 2015, the museum will tell generations the story of the African-American struggle for freedom.
“Millions of visitors will stand where we stand long after we’re gone,” Obama said. “When our children look at Harriet Tubman’s shawl, or Nat Turner’s bible, or the plane flown by the Tuskegee airmen, I don’t want them to be seen as figures somehow larger than life—I want them to see how ordinary Americans can do extraordinary things, how men and women just like them had the courage and the determination to right a wrong.”
Museum Director Lonnie Bunch echoed Obama’s call for the museum to illustrate the multifaceted history of African-Americans, from slavery through the present. “It must tell the unvarnished truth. This will be a museum with moments that make one cry, or ponder the pain of slavery and segregation,” he said. “It will also be a museum that soars on the resiliency of a people, and will illuminate the joy and the belief in the promise of America that has shaped this community.”
Creation of the museum began with passage of a congressional act in 2003. The building will be located on Constitution Avenue between 14th and 15th streets, just beside the Washington Monument and the American History Museum, and within eyesight of the Lincoln Memorial, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made his powerful “I Have a Dream” speech on August 28, 1963. “What a magnificent location, and view, with powerful symbolism,” the Smithsonian’s Secretary G. Wayne Clough said. “It’s a fitting home for this museum, invoking the indelible threads that connect the fabric of African-American stories to the American tapestry.”
The building itself is designed by a team including award-winning architect David Adjaye, who was selected in April 2009 by a jury chaired by Bunch. The unique design includes a three-tiered copper-coated “corona,” which will house the main gallery spaces, along with a “porch,” which will serve as the entrance that connects the museum to the surrounding Mall. “The form of the building suggests a very upward mobility,” Adjaye said in an interview in this month’s issue of Smithsonian. “It brings that sense that this is not a story about past trauma. It’s not a story of a people that were taken down, but actually a people that overcame.”
The museum will feature exhibitions on African-American culture, community and history, starting with the Middle Passage and continuing through slavery, Reconstruction, the civil rights era, the Harlem Renaissance and into the 21st century. Notable artifacts already in the museum’s collections include Emmett Till’s casket, a Jim Crow-era segregated railway car, a vintage Tuskegee plane and Chuck Berry’s red Cadillac convertible.
President Obama is confident that these artifacts and the exhibitions will not just serve as history lessons, but also motivate future generations to struggle against injustice and continue striving for equality. “The museum will do more than simply keep these memories alive,” he said. “It should stand as proof that the most important things in life rarely come quickly or easily. It should remind us that although we have yet to reach the mountaintop, we cannot stop trying.”