February 7, 2012
Our inquisitive readers are rising to the challenge we gave them last month. The questions are pouring in and we’re ready for more. Do you have any questions for our curators? Submit your questions here.
How much is the Hope Diamond worth? — Marjorie Mathews, Silver Spring, Maryland
That’s the most popular question we get, but we don’t really satisfy people by giving them a number. There are a number of answers, but the best one is that we honestly don’t know. It’s a little bit like Liz Taylor’s jewels being sold in December—all kinds of people guessed at what they would sell for, but everybody I know was way off. Only when those pieces were opened up to bidding at a public auction could you find out what their values were. When they were sold, then at least for that day and that night you could say, well, they were worth that much. The Hope Diamond is kind of the same way, but more so. There’s simply nothing else like it. So how do you put a value on the history, on the fact it’s been here on display for over 50 years and a few hundred million people have seen it, and on that fact it’s a rare blue diamond on top of everything else? You don’t. – Jeffrey E. Post, mineralogist, National Museum of Natural History
What’s the worst impact of ocean acidification so far?- Nancy Schaefer, Virginia Beach, Virginia
The impacts of ocean acidification are really just starting to be felt, but two big reports that came out in 2011 show that it could have very serious effects on coral reefs. These studies did not measure the warming effect of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but rather its effect of making the ocean more acidic when it dissolves in the ocean. Places where large amounts of carbon dioxide seep into the water from the sea floor provide a natural experiment and show us how ocean waters might look, say, 50 or 100 years from now. Both studies showed branching, lacy, delicate coral forms are likely to disappear, and with them that kind of three-dimensional complexity so many species depend on. Also, other species that build a stony skeleton or shell, such as oysters or mussels, are likely to be affected. This happens because acidification makes carbonate ions, which these species need for their skeletons, less abundant.
Nancy Knowlton, marine biologist
National Museum of Natural History
Art and artifacts from ancient South Pacific and Pacific Northwest tribes have similarities in form and function. Is it possible that early Hawaiians caught part of the Kuroshio Current of the North Pacific Gyre to end up along the northwest coast of America from northern California to Alaska? — April Amy Croan, Maple Valley, Washington
Those similarities have given rise to various theories, including trans-Pacific navigation, independent drifts of floating artifacts, inadvertent crossings by ships that have lost their rudders or rigging, or whales harpooned in one area that died or were captured in a distant place. Some connections are well-known, like feather garment fragments found in an archaeological site in Southeast Alaska that appear to have been brought there by whaling ships that had stopped in the Hawaiian Islands, a regular route for 19th-century whalers. Before the period of European contact, the greatest similarities are with the southwest Pacific, not Hawaii. The Kushiro current would have facilitated Asian coastal contacts with northwestern North America, but would not have helped Hawaiians. The problem of identification is one of context, form and dating. Most of the reported similarities are either out of their original context (which can’t be reconstructed), or their form is not specific enough to relate to another area’s style, or the date of creation cannot be established. To date there is no acceptable proof for South Pacific-Northwest Coast historical connections that predates the European whaling era, except for links that follow the coastal region of the North Pacific into Alaska.
William Fitzhugh, archeologist
Natural History Museum
February 1, 2012
February is Black History Month, and if you’re wondering how to properly commemorate the holiday, look no further. There are lots of (mostly free) events around the Mall this month celebrating African American heritage.
Black History Month Family Day: On Saturday, February 4, kick off the month with a full afternoon of music, performances and crafts at the National Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum. Enjoy the blues stylings of “Guitar Man” Warner Williams and a puppet show, Can You Spell Harlem? Plus, learn the art of step in a workshop by the Taratibu Youth Association step performers. After the festivities end, head over to the McEvoy Auditorium for a screening of Chris Rock’s documentary, Good Hair. Free. 11:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Film screening at 3:30 p.m.
Tales from Mother Africa: Kenyan poet, singer, storyteller and dancer Anna Mwalagho weaves traditional tales from “Mama Africa” into an interactive performance at S. Dillon Ripley Center’s Discovery Theater on February 2 and 3. The program is geared toward young children, but a little singing and dancing is good for adults, too. Tickets required: $8 for adults, $6 for children, $5 for Resident Associate Members, $3 for children under 2. 10:15 a.m. and 11:30 a.m.
Enslavement to Emancipation: Celebrate the 150th anniversary of the passage of the District of Columbia’s Emancipation Act in 1862 with a video and discussion at the Anacostia Community Museum. The talk will touch on a wide range of subjects, including the Civil War, laws governing slavery, the abolitionist movement, and civil rights. Free. Reserve a spot at 202-633-4844. February 5 at 2:00 p.m. and and February 24 at 10:30 a.m.
Monticello, Slavery, and the Hemingses: Join NPR host Michel Martin and Harvard Law professor Annette Gordon-Reed for a discussion about the six Monticello slave families featured in the exhibition “Paradox of Liberty: Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello” at the American History Museum. Hosted by the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Martin and Gordon-Reed will challenge conventional wisdom about slavery and the political reality of the era. Professor Gordon-Reed’s book, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family will also be discussed. Free. February 6 from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m. Baird Auditorium, Natural History Museum.
Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975: The Black Power movement has been both venerated and vilified, but what exactly did it mean? Test your knowledge at the National Portrait Gallery’s screening of The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, which documents this tumultuous period and features interviews with activists Angela Davis, Bobby Seale and Stokely Carmichael. Free. February 18 at 1:00 p.m.
The Black List: Reinterpreting the exclusionary definition of a “blacklist,” photographer/filmmaker Timothy Greenfield-Sanders and NPR’s Elvis Mitchell compiled a list of people who represent the African American experience in the 20th century. The result is an inspiring exhibition of large-format photographic portraits and film interviews of artists, politicians, writers, athletes and civil rights activists who have made a difference in their fields. The 50 portraits on display include musician John Legend, artist Kara Walker and political activist Angela Davis. On view at the National Portrait Gallery until April 22.
Groundbreaking for the National Museum of African American History and Culture: Almost a decade after the establishment of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, construction on the museum site breaks ground on February 22. Catch the webcast of the groundbreaking ceremony, which will feature speeches and musical performances starting at 9:00 a.m. The museum construction should be finished in 2015, so you’ll have plenty of time to head down to the new site between the Washington Monument and the American History Museum and check its progress.
For the full schedule of Black History Month events, click here.
We know you’ve got enough “looking forward to 2012″ lists under your belt by now; our Who to Follow post alone will keep you pretty busy. But we can’t resist sneaking in just one more. Here’s our guide to the exhibitions we’re most excited for this year. Mark your calendars now so you’ll have no excuse to say you’re bored later.
A new look at Monticello: Founding father Thomas Jefferson called slavery an “abominable crime”. . . but owned more than 600 slaves who sustained his plantation, Monticello. “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty,” opened on January 27 in the American History Museum‘s National Museum of African American History and Culture Gallery, and focuses on the long-overlooked history of slave life at the third president’s Virginia home. Be sure to keep up with the latest news from Monticello on Twitter at @TJMonticello.
Happy birthday, Jackson Pollock: If he were alive today, Jackson Pollock would have turned 100 on January 28. To honor the stormy life and revolutionary work of the modern art icon, the Archives of American Art presents Pollock’s personal family photos, letters, and writings in “Art Memories Arrested in Space, a centennial tribute to Jackson Pollock” at the Reynolds Center through May 15.
Game on: Can video games be art? To answer that question, the American Art Museum‘s upcoming exhibit, “The Art of Video Games,” pulls together the most arresting graphics and innovative designs in the gaming world, on view March 16 through September 30. Even if you forgot to vote for your favorite game, don’t miss out on GameFest, which kicks off the exhibit with three days packed with open play, panel talks with artists and designers, and live-action gaming. To tide you over til March, follow curator Chris Melissinos at @CMelissinos for updates and teasers.
Hokusai: In anticipation of the Cherry Blossom Centennial, the Sackler Gallery presents a study of Katsushika Hosukai, Japan’s most famous artist (yes, that’s his Great Wave that has probably graced every college dorm wall in America). “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji,” his most acclaimed woodblock print series, was first published in 1830 when Hokusai was in his 70s and goes on view on March 24 through June 17. The gallery has set up an interactive website with more information on Hokusai’s life and artistic technique.
Ai Weiwei: The controversial Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, arrested last year, brings a new installation, “Fragments,” to the Sackler Gallery beginning May 12. Using antique wood salvaged from Qing Dynasty temples, Ai worked with skilled traditional carpenters to create what he calls an “irrational structure” that both affirms and defies centuries of architectural traditions. In October, the Hirshhorn gets in on the action with an exhibit of 25 of Ai’s recent works entitled “Ai Weiwei: According to What?” For an English translation of Ai’s Twitter, follow @aiwwenglish.
January 31, 2012
In June of 1776, Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.” But after he signed his name to that now immortal document, he returned home to Monticello and resumed a lifestyle that denied this equality to more than 600 men, women and children who toiled as slaves on his Virginian plantation. Over the course of the third president’s lifetime, Jefferson would set only two of them free.
A new exhibition, “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty,” now on view at the National Museum of American History, addresses this fundamental contradiction in the life of one of America’s greatest leaders. “Jefferson wrote and saved 19,000 letters in his life, so we know a vast amount about him,” says Elizabeth Chew, a curator at Monticello and co-curator of the exhibition, along with Rex Ellis of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. “But all we had of these enslaved people,” Chew adds, “was his list of their names.”
From this list, Chew and Ellis, wove together a picture of another Monticello, home to the weavers, spinners, blacksmiths, tinsmiths, nail-makers, carpenters, sawyers, charcoal-burners, stablemen, joiners, and domestic servants that kept the plantation operating. The exhibit features Jefferson’s records and artifacts from Mulberry Row—the slave quarters. But most importantly, it follows six families through the generations: arrival at Monticello as slaves; dispersal at Jefferson’s death in 1827; migration across the country down to their descendants today.
These families are descended from Elizabeth Hemings and her children, Edward and Jane Gillette, George and Ursula Granger David and Isabel Hern and James and Cate Hubbard. Thanks to the Getting Word oral history project at Monticello, which has collected interviews from more than 170 descendants, the exhibit tells colorful stories about how they lived, what their work was, what skills they had, where they came from, and where they went.
According to Chew, looking at Monticello through the eyes of slaves is a relatively new perspective. Until the mid-1980s, tours at Monticello avoided the topic of slavery, often referring to slaves more euphemistically as “servants.” Sometimes they were cut out of the story entirely; tour guides and signs “would say things like “the food was brought” from the kitchen to the dining room,” Chew says. “Now we would say, the head cook Edith Fossett and her assistants brought the food from the kitchen to the dining room.”
For Chew, the most significant aspect of this exhibit is “the degree to which we can make the story of slavery the story of individual people and families.”
Bringing these people back into the narrative is essential to understanding Thomas Jefferson’s life and work. As Ellis said in a press preview, “They represent the community who brought him to his father on a pillow when he was born to those who adjusted the pillow under his head when he died.”
By extension, understanding Jefferson’s own complexities illuminates the contradictions within the country he built. “Most Americans probably don’t think of it, but the founders founded this country as a slave society, and that didn’t go away for a hundred years,” Chew says. The paradox of Jefferson, who called slavery “an abominable crime” and proposed several plans to end the slave trade, is a perfect lens for the national tensions that resulted in the bloodiest war in American history.
At their core, however, these stories are first and foremost about individuals and families. Because many African Americans cannot trace their family back past the Civil War, the stories collected here are especially precious. Bill Webb, a descendent of the Hemings family, explains his decision to try to find out his lineage: “I love history. I think it’s about a sense of who you are, and knowing some of your history.” Webb’s ancestor, Brown Colbert, was sold by Thomas Jefferson to another slaveowner in Lexington, Virginia, before he was freed by the American Colonization Society on the condition that he leave the United States for Liberia in Africa. Though Colbert and the children who accompanied him died shortly after arriving in Liberia, one of his daughters stayed in America and became the matriarch of Webb’s family. “They kept his name through generations–Brown, Brown, Brown,” Webb says.
Of course, the story doesn’t end there. Webb, for one, plans to return to the exhibit many times with his family: “I’ve warned my friends who live in DC that they’ll see a lot of us, because it takes time to absorb everything. There’s just so much to see.”
“Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty,” presented by Monticello and the National Museum of African American History and Culture, is on view at the American History Museum from January 27 through October 14, 2012.
September 20, 2011
As part of the museum’s “Save Our African American Treasures” program, representatives from the National Museum of African American History and Culture made a trip to Indianola, Mississippi. For two days earlier this month, people were invited to bring family heirlooms and other items of historical and cultural significance to the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center for a one-on-one consultation with a Smithsonian expert.
The mission of the “Treasures” program is twofold: to raise awareness about how important family heirlooms are in telling the story of African American history to future generations, and to provide information about how to care for them. Occasionally, the museum even acquires some of the artifacts for its collection. (In April 2008, we included a story about a sleeping-car porter’s hat that turned up at a Chicago event.)
I spoke with Elaine Nichols, supervisory curator of culture at NMAAHC, who reviewed the items that were brought in to the B.B. King Museum. Nichols joined the museum’s staff in October 2009 and has attended other “Treasures” events in Charleston and Beaufort, South Carolina, and Atlanta, Georgia.
What were some of the most exciting treasures that came in?
Well, of course, they are all exciting, because people are bringing in their family objects. For the most part, there were items that were passed down through individuals’ families. Some were purchased. Some were gifts. There were some interesting ones. There was a child’s organ that we looked at that was made by the Magnus Company. It was an electric organ, and she [the owner] said her mother gave it to her in 1948. She would have been about a year old at the time. It was in great condition. It looked like it was probably made out of Bakelite, but it actually played. It was the first time I had seen a child’s organ. She was quite proud and quite pleased to bring it in. Most of the people are excited about the items that they are bringing in.
A woman brought in a rectangular, wooden box. On the outside, it said it was made by a particular tobacco company. It had their label on it. So people kind of got excited because they recognized the name of the tobacco company. And, she said, “Oh no, that is not what is in the box.” It had about eight to ten locks and braids of hair, hair that would have belonged to different individuals. Some were brunette, some were blonde, some were very fine, some were coarse, and a few pieces were wrapped in newspaper. Probably one of the earliest was from 1848, and one of the latter pieces was from 1861. Then, a few had notes attached to them that gave the date and the name of the person whose hair it was. My thinking is that it was hair that was going to be used to make a hair wreath, which is sort of like a genealogy chart with hair. You can shape the hair into attractive flowers or other kinds of decorative designs. But sometimes it is used for mourning jewelry. We don’t really have an idea of knowing how it would have been used, but since there are so many locks of hair, there is a good possibility that it could have been used in that way.
There was a woman who brought in two silver coins. One was a Mexican coin dated 1828 and then another coin from Peru that was dated 1835.
Pocket watches, there was one that was there that was made by Remington Watch Company. We probably needed to do quite a bit more research, because in some cases you have the watch workings that are made by one company and then the casing made by another company. We think that might have been the case with this particular watch. In those cases, we point people towards their local libraries, where they can get lots of resource information and, of course, the Internet.
Someone brought in a tire repair kit. Now, someone else might look at that and say, wow, I wonder why that is a big deal? But, again, it was something that was important to that individual. We consider all of the items that people bring in important items because they belong to them. We try to encourage them to tell us their stories before we begin talking about the item, trying to date it or to talk about the material or condition. We let them talk to us about the history of the item.
I think they are all precious stories because, again, when you see someone coming in with whatever it is, the dictionary, the photograph, the quilt, the doll, it is important to them. So if it is important to them, it is important to us.
What are you looking for as a reviewer?
Our role is to be there to talk to people about how to take care of the objects that they bring in. If something is rusting, what are there options for stopping the rust and preserving it? Or, if it is a photograph and it is starting to fade, what do you do? In an instance like that we often recommend that people copy those photographs and distribute them to other family members, so that if something happens to the original, you have another resource for accessing it. So it is about conservation and care of the items that they have.
In some cases, we would make a new box or what we call “housing” for the object. For instance, someone had a Bible dictionary that belonged to their father and grandfather who were both ministers. It was in somewhat fragile condition, so we recommended that they allow our person to make a box to house that item, an acid-free box that they could take home.
One lady brought in an alligator purse that probably belonged to her mother because it was found among her mother’s things. It had a few condition problems, and we talked about that. It was an odd shape, because it had the head of the small alligator and the feet, both the front and hind feet, attached to it. But we created a special box for it.
They were all pleased that someone was looking at those items, that we were talking to them about the specific objects and about how to care for them. People said, you know, the fact that the Smithsonian has come to Indianola, Mississippi, really makes us feel special. We just think it is really important that we include rural communities as part of these services that we offer, as well as large urban areas. It is all America’s history and the history of African American culture. And, we are excited to provide this service to them.
Will you be considering any of the artifacts for the museum’s collection?
We were not at that level of conversation. What will happen is we will review all of the information that we collected and then we might follow up with individuals that we feel like we need to have additional conversations with.
The next “Save our American Treasures” event will be in Houston, Texas, at the Houston Public Library on October 29, 2011.