December 9, 2013
As news spread last week about the passing of Nelson Mandela—whose patient, peaceful fight against the apartheid made him a famous symbol for forgiveness and change—it seemed hard to imagine “anyone in our city and our nation and our world that doesn’t want to do something,” said Johnnetta Betsch Cole, Director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art , in an appearance on Fox 5 in the Morning.
She and the museum are giving visitors that chance, in the way of a large condolence book open to all visitors to the museum through this Friday.
And it seems Cole imagined right: Resting beside a striking portrait of the former South African president, the book—in just four days—is nearly full. Just three to five empty pages of the book remained by Monday afternoon, says museum official Edward Burke, but there are plans to put out as many books as they need to accommodate visitors’ well-wishes.
More than 1,300 people, including music legend Carlos Santana (in town for the Kennedy Center Honors gala and an interview at the museum ahead of his 2014 trip to South Africa), Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough and several museum directors, have written messages remembering the man who inspired many for the way he made change seem possible—something within anyone’s reach, Cole says.
“Live your Light, Supreme Lion Nelson Mandela,” Santana’s entry reads. “We for you owe deepest gratitude for being a champion of equality, forgive [sic] and justice.”
The ability to forgive is one reason Cole believes people have had such a strong reaction to the passing of Mandela, whose lungs had long been damaged by the tuberculosis he contracted while in prison.
That “forgiveness as the basis of positive change,” along with Mandela’s “dedicated participation in the struggle for a much better world,” are what made him stand apart, but also helped the world realize those same powers existed within every person, Cole told Fox.
After Friday, the book will be sent to Mandela’s family in South Africa, said Cole, who met the leader two decades ago while serving as president of Spelman College in Atlanta.
But even those that can’t make it to the National Mall can join in the celebration of Mandela’s life: Fans can also email their condolences, which staff members are posting on the museum’s web site, or write them on the National Museum of African Art’s Facebook page.
The National Museum of African Art is open from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily.
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.
June 26, 2013
In time for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, the National Portrait Gallery‘s newest exhibition, “One Life: Martin Luther King, Jr.” looks at the inspiring career of the civil rights leader, from his childhood all the way up to his unfinished Poor People’s Campaign. The show’s curator, Ann Shumard, says she wanted to offer visitors a glimpse of the man beyond the momentous speech he delivered at the March on Washington. King is remember too often only for his “I Have a Dream” speech, cast as an awesome orator but not the man of action that he truly was. In fact, only one portrait in the exhibit captures King in a formal pose. The rest show him either with his family or at work, linking arms with fellow protestors, riding a recently desegregated bus after a successful boycott or rallying from the pulpit. The one-room exhibition opening Friday shows the highs and lows of a career cut short.
The exhibit, “One Life: Martin Luther King, Jr.” opens June 28, 2013 and runs through June 1, 2014 at the National Portrait Gallery.
June 21, 2013
Tony Hawk and Rodney Mullen are skateboarding giants. Both turned pro in their early teens more than 30 years ago, and spent the 1980s and 1990s pioneering modern skating’s two most prevalent styles: Hawk, “the Birdman,” took to the skies to invent many of the sport’s iconic gravity-defying aerials, including the 900; Mullen, “the Godfather of Street Skating,” hit the pavement to make up flips, grinds and balancing maneuvers that don’t seem humanly possible even after you’ve watched them.
Combined, the two have come up with close to 100 tricks.
The pair will be at the National Museum of American History this weekend for Innoskate, a public festival that celebrates skateboarding’s culture of innovation, from tricks to skateboard design to skate shoes and fashion. After Hawk donates his very first skateboard to the museum’s collection on Saturday, he will sit down with Mullen for a panel discussion specifically about trick innovation, during which the two legends will reflect on the challenges and rewards of imagining the big moves that launched their sport from a small, alternative subculture to a mainstream sensation.
In anticipation of this discussion, we asked Hawk and Mullen separately what it takes to invent a killer skateboard trick. Here are the four golden rules we took away from their responses:
1. Respect the Past
“When I came up with most of my tricks, it wasn’t like I was trying to figure out the next move that was impossibly difficult and had never been tried on any level.,” Hawk says. “A lot of the things I’ve created, especially throughout the ’80s, combined existing tricks.”
He invented his first trick, the backside varial, at about age 12. The trick wasn’t earth-shattering, but it was new, and gave Hawk an original move to begin to establish his credibility at such a young age.
“For me, skating wasn’t always about the chase of being the inventor,” he says. “I just wanted to keep improving my skills, and if I could take inspiration from others to do that, I was happy to.”
Mullen had a similar experience in creating one of his most significant early-career tricks, the casper. The move was a slight alteration of what was already known as the 50-50 casper, in which the skater flips the board upside down and balances it with only the tail touching the ground.
“In many ways, that move opened up so many variations,” he says. “But at the time, it was a very, very simple variation itself of what already existed—so much so that it just dropped the 50-50 and used the same name.
“Everything is a variation of a variation, to some degree” he adds. “You can’t expect to come up with something and say, ‘that’s entirely new.’ ”
2. Stay Simple
Great tricks don’t need to be complicated, Hawk and Mullen agree. Instead, the best tricks combine technical proficiency with an element of grace—a certain harmony of imagination and function.
Hawk says that many of his tricks have been “born out of necessity,” the accidental result of trying to accomplish one move and realizing there was a different way to approach things. He came up with the backside varial, for instance, because he was bad at frontside rotations.
“Sometimes I would be trying to learn something that had already been created and my board would keep getting away from me or I felt like I was turning too far, and I’d think, oh, maybe I could do something new here,” he says.
Mullen jokes that “the greatest skaters are the laziest skaters.” For a lot of the tricks he has invented, he says, “my line of reasoning has been it’s going to be 10 percent harder, 20 percent harder, 30 percent harder to do at first, so it costs more upfront to get there, but in the end, if I can count on it more, then it will be easier. That is what has driven a lot of my thinking in terms of what got me to do things a little differently.”
3. Keep an Open Mind
“Usually skaters are stubborn, because they don’t like to be defeated, but that’s something you really have to let go of sometimes,” Mullen says. “If you approach a hard new trick with a mindset of ‘I’m going to overcome this, just turn on the camera,’ you’re probably not going to hit the trick because it’s going to be an uphill battle. Put away the camera and say, ‘I’m just going to tinker with this. I’m a little bit at sea, and I’m going to go with the tides and see where they take me.’ ”
And letting go doesn’t mean settling for anything less. “Open your mind to doing something even harder, too,” he says. “If your environment spins you in a certain direction or gives you a certain torque that works against you in one way, it may work for you in another. Even if a trick is 20 percent harder, if it flows better with the environment you’re skating in, it might actually be easier to do. So just go with it. Play with it. Maybe you won’t get what were dreaming of, but you might be able to get something better.”
Hawk likes to go back to the basics whenever he hits a rough patch.
“I would do tricks that felt good but weren’t necessarily as hard, and tinker with them,” he says. “With grinds, for example, I would think, all right, what’s the limit of these types of grinds? What can we do with them, instead of trying to figure out the next super crazy flip spin. I created a lot tricks by going back to the drawing board, because people don’t always think in those terms.”
4. Be Authentic
“I can do the exact same trick somebody else does and it will look completely different, because I have my own my own flair,” Hawk says. “Skating is about sharing ideas, but at the same time making it your own. It is equally creative as it is athletic, as much an art form as it is a sport.”
“Authenticity is everything in the community,” Mullen agrees, and adds that skateboarding culture is unique in its lack of metrics to define what is good skating and bad skating, proper and improper form; rather than conforming to standards, individuals contribute to the community by developing their own style.
“Be yourself,” he says. “If you have this kind of spastic way of doing something, even if it looks goofy, the fact is that it can look cool, because it’s you. Go with that. Be different. Don’t just try be different and concoct it, because you’re going to be sniffed out.”
“Do what you love, even if it’s not established,” says Hawk. “And keep doing it, because you might be the pioneer of a whole movement.”
June 6, 2013
American swimming champion-turned-movie star Esther Williams died today. She was 91, and passed away this morning in her sleep, according to her family and publicist.
Williams grew up outside of Los Angeles, where she competed for a city swim team and won numerous titles and set national records as a teenager, including a 100-meter freestyle victory at the Women’s Outdoor National Championship in 1939. The next year, she was selected for the Olympic team, but the Games were cancelled when World War II broke out.
Williams left competition in 1940 to make a living, selling clothes in a department store for a few months until she was invited by showman Billy Rose to work a bathing beauty job in his Aquacade show at the World’s Fair. While performing, she was spotted by MGM scouts and given a contract with the film studio in 1941. She became a film sensation over the next decade by starring in the studio’s hugely popular “aqua-musicals,” including Bathing Beauty, Neptune’s Daughter and Million Dollar Mermaid.
She swam more than 1,250 miles in 25 aqua-musicals throughout her film career.
In 2008, Williams donated to the National Museum of American History two giant scrapbooks that MGM kept of her time with the studio, each multiple feet-tall and made of wood. The books are filled with both professional and personal mementos. Williams was recognized throughout her career for her beauty and athleticism, so she appeared in numerous pin up posters and advertisements, as well as magazine and newspaper articles.
The scrapbooks are currently held by Williams’ publicist, but now should be on their way to the museum soon, says entertainment curator Dwight Blocker Bowers. They will likely go on display in a 2016 exhibition on American culture (currently the museum’s popular culture hall is closed for renovations).
Bowers thinks Williams will be remembered not only for putting swimming on the map in film, but also for the genuine star power she brought to the screen as a singer and actress. “You do not remember her just for the swimming sequences,” he says. “She matched her swimming ability with her ability to have a strong presence on the screen. She was a movie star. She was vibrant on screen.”
For more of Bowers’ thoughts on Williams, read the museum’s blog post on her here.