March 5, 2013
Cindy Chao knew, with more than 2,300 gems of diamonds, rubies and tsavorite garnets, her butterfly brooch was masterpiece of craftsmanship. Made in 2009, the brooch found its way to the cover of Women’s Wear Daily–the first piece of jewelry ever to do so in 100 years. Known for her wearable works of art, Chao had made a name for herself as the first Taiwanese jeweler included at a Christie’s auction in 2007, and her work even debuted on the Hollywood red carpet.
Now her butterfly brooch comes to the Natural History Museum’s Gems and Minerals collection as the first piece designed by a Taiwanese artist. Small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, and brilliant enough to illuminate a room. The brooch packs a punch. But it also packs a surprise.
Curator Jeffrey Post says he was compelled by his ongoing interest in the optical behaviors of diamonds to put the piece under ultraviolet light, and the ensuing light show was nothing short of spectacular. The diamonds and sapphires fluoresced, glowing neon in the dark. “When we saw all these fluorescing diamonds, all these different colors, it was just the whipped cream on top of the cake,” says Post, “It was just the most wonderful surprise.”
Chao, meanwhile, had never seen this phenomenon. “When Dr. Post showed it to me under the ultraviolet light, I was shocked because he thought I did it on purpose.” An artist influenced by her father’s career as both an architect and sculptor, Chao cares about the craft of jewelry-making and working with unique materials. She calls the fluorescent reaction a natural miracle. Now, she says, “I check everything under the ultraviolet light.”
A symbol of metamorphosis, the butterfly speaks to Chao’s own transformation from jeweler to artist. While she’s had great success in the market (her pieces command any where from $15,000 for a ring and nearly $1 million for a brooch), she says earning a spot in the Smithsonian was a great honor as an artist. She hopes to pass on her lessons to students who share her passion for the craft of jewelry-making.
The brooch also speaks to the natural metamorphosis each gemstone undergoes. “Every gemstone,” says Post, “including this butterfly, starts out as a mineral crystal that forms, and only the best and most perfect of those mineral crystals are transformed into gemstones.” Post says that the incredibly detailed design of the brooch, which mimics the microstructure and scale of a living butterfly’s wings, speaks to the piece’s rarified quality. “The other side of the butterfly is just as beautiful as the front and that’s how you know, this is really a masterpiece creation,” he says.
Joining the recent Dom Pedro donation, as well as the famed Hope Diamond, the piece will brooch in the Hall of Gems and Minerals. Its donation also marks the fifth anniversary of the museum’s Butterfly Pavilion.
July 6, 2012
According to the theory of the six degrees of separation, she is connected to Albert Einstein, Cézanne, Eleanor Roosevelt, Babe Ruth, Frida Kahlo and President Ulysses S. Grant.
But who is Peggy Bacon?
Bacon (1895-1997) was a New York artist and talented caricaturist of celebrities and artists, however, her name is by no means well known. The Archives of American Art specialists, who created the “Six Degrees of Peggy Bacon” exhibit, do not expect people to know who Peggy Bacon is—in fact, that’s the point.
While the original concept of the six degrees of separation dates back to Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi, who developed a radio telegraph system, the term became commonplace in 1990 when playwright John Guare debuted his production, “Six Degrees of Separation.” The play was based on the idea that no more than six acquaintances separate any two people.
Playing off the popular celebrity trivia game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,” in which players try to prove that any actor or actress can be linked to Kevin Bacon in fewer than six steps of film roles, the “Six Degrees of Peggy Bacon” exhibit creators hoped to show how a relatively unknown but well-connected artist was linked through archival documents to many of art and society’s most influential people.
“We wanted it to be surprising,” says Mary Savig, the exhibit’s curator and an archives specialist at Archives of American Art. “We chose Peggy Bacon because we knew nobody would know who she is.”
On display June 27, 2012, through November 4, 2012, in the Lawrence A. Fleischman Gallery at the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture, demonstrates how artists inform and inspire each other. “They don’t just work alone in their studios,” Savig said.
The exhibit is also intended to demonstrate the “shrinking world theory.”
The advent of radio technology, telecommunications and most recently, social media, has vastly increased the connectedness among the world’s inhabitants. In fact, Savig says, a study conducted last year by Facebook and the University of Milan demonstrated that social media has reduced the average degree of relatedness between each person on Earth to a mere 4.74 degrees.
“These documents show exactly how people are personally connected,” Savig says, pointing to a layout of correspondence and photographs connecting Bacon to artists like Andy Warhol, Marcel Duchamp, Janice Lowry, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Archival letters and materials provide paper trails to document each of the connections in Bacon’s web of six degrees.
The incredible ability to present such detailed documentation stems from the concerns of former Director of the Detroit Institute of Art E.P. Richardson and art collector Lawrence A. Fleischman. Richardson and Fleischman founded the Archives in 1954 in Detroit as an effort to address the lack of archival material documenting American art and artists. The Archives of American Art became a part of the Smithsonian Institution in 1970, and today holds more than 16 million items in the world’s largest collection of primary resources relating to the history of American art.
The Archives’ fastidious documentation and research of their collection is what allowed for the success of “Six Degrees of Peggy Bacon.”
In fact, on the exhibit’s opening day, a member of the public was shocked to find her former babysitter incorporated into Bacon’s web of relatedness.
“The woman pointed to the picture of Mary Chapin Carpenter and said, ‘She used to babysit me,’” Savig explains. Carpenter, a folk and country music singer, is bubbled into Bacon’s web as a sixth-degree connection.
Carpenter is included on the web for her connection to Joseph Cornell, who was the inspiration for her 1996 song “Ideas Are Like Stars.” Cornell is connected to Ad Reinhardt for their shared Christmas Eve birthdays and the fact that both artists’ works were displayed in art dealer Peggy Guggenheim’s 1943 Collages exhibit. Reinhardt described in a memoir how in 1938 he listened to loud jazz music carrying through the walls of the neighboring studio to his, occupied by Stuart Davis. Davis was represented by art dealer Edith Halpert who represented his work at The Downtown Gallery for close to four decades. Halpert opened her gallery in 1926 at which time she displayed the works of Japanese-born Yasuo Kuniyoshi. And Kuniyoshi developed a friendship with Peggy Bacon while the two attended classes together at the Art Students League.
The visitor’s relationship with Carpenter drives home the entire point of the exhibit, Savig says. “We all really can connect to Bacon.”
June 29, 2012
The exhibit, coinciding with the 75th anniversary of Earhart’s disappearance, arrives roughly one month after a group of hopefuls uncovered what they believe is Earhart’s anti-freckle cream jar. The jar was recovered with other artifacts from a tiny coral atoll in the Pacific, where female skeletal remains were reportedly discovered in 1940.
Earhart’s life is documented in a clockwise journey around the one-room exhibit through a thoughtful and deliberate selection of photographs, artwork and memorabilia.
In a 1903 portrait taken of Earhart at the age of 5 or 6, she is donned in a frilly, white frock with a large bow fastened in her hair. The young, wide-eyed girl looks a far cry from the jumpsuit-clad aviator captured in later photographs of Earhart leaning against a Lockheed Vega, the famous aircraft that made an appearance in the 2006 film Night at the Museum and is on view at the National Air and Space Museum.
Another photograph shows Earhart standing with Wilmer Stultz and Louis Gordon, the two men who piloted the flight that earned Earhart the distinction of being the first woman to cross the Atlantic by airplane. She became an overnight celebrity, a reputation she didn’t relish, since she had only been a backseat passenger for the flight. An embarrassed Earhart confessed that aside from navigation tasks, “I was just baggage, like a sack of potatoes.”
Earhart’s first solo transatlantic flight took place four years later in 1932, when she piloted the Lockheed Vega. The cabin was so tight she could only spare room to bring a few small accessories, including a leather flying cap and a bottle of smelling salts that she used to stay alert throughout the difficult flight.
The woman behind the leather flying cap springs to life in a selection of video and audio footage. Earhart is ceremoniously christening a plane for Transcontinental Air Transport. Earhart speaks into a microphone and addresses a crowd and radio audience, her voice sweet and friendly, her manner humble—almost reluctant to be at the center of attention. Earhart flashes her winning smile, then bashfully smashes a bottle of champagne on the propeller of a TAT plane.
“It’s great to give visitors the opportunity to hear her and see her,” said curator Frank Goodyear.
A more intimate look into Earhart’s personal life can be gleaned from a letter she penned to her fiancé the night before their nuptials. George Putnum, a publisher and explorer who helped select Earhart to be the woman on the 1928 transatlantic flight piloted by Stultz and Gordon, proposed to Earhart six times before she finally acquiesced to his requests in 1931. The letter she wrote on the eve of their union depicts a young woman filled with trepidation even hours before the ceremony.
“You must know my reluctance to marry…” she wrote. “I must exact a cruel promise and that is you will let me go in a year if we find no happiness together.”
It appears they did have a successful union, Goodyear explained, although infidelities were rumored to be true of both parties. After her disappearance, Putnam personally funded months of additional searches, combing the Pacific long after the U.S. Navy abandoned recovery efforts.
One of the last photographs taken of Earhart during her attempt to circumnavigate the globe shows the pilot shortly before she vanished on July 2, 1937. Earhart’s cropped hair is wind-touseled, an easy smile plays upon her face.
“It’s a quiet picture,” Goodyear said.
Even though Earhart was rumored to be sick and exhausted toward the last legs of her journey, her expression in the photograph is of a woman in her own element; confident, happy, and hauntingly at peace.
“It’s apparent from this picture, flying was her absolute passion,” Goodyear said.
“One Life: Amelia Earhart” will run through May 27, 2013.
June 28, 2012
This past weekend’s release of the movie Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter raises the question of how other American presidents might have dealt with monsters and conspiracy theories. Harry Rubenstein, chair and curator of the National Museum of American History’s Division of Political History, fields questions posed by Smithsonian magazine editorial intern Kat J. McAlpine.
In the event that the United States was attacked by an army of zombies, which president would best direct a defensive military campaign?
I think if it was a small, local uprising, a young Andrew Jackson would lead the campaign. As a frontier fighter, he would do a good job. His frontier experience, battle-tested organization skills and abilities proven during his defense of New Orleans in the War of 1812 showed him to be a strong military leader with the ability to rally a band of people. However, it is young, pre-presidential Jackson that would do well against a zombie uprising; when he was the president, he would have been too old to lead a battle against zombies.
On the other hand, if it was a large, international-scale zombie uprising, the best for the job would be Dwight Eisenhower. Eisenhower had extensive military experience and was responsible for the organization of D-Day and other military campaigns of World War II, which would put him in good stead to defend Americans against a zombie invasion.
What personality traits, personal strengths or abilities did Abraham Lincoln possess that would have made him a skilled vampire hunter?
I don’t really think of Lincoln as a vampire hunter, to be honest. He grew up on the frontier, so he was used to operating in the wilderness and he possessed a sharp, cunning mind. But Lincoln was not a very militaristic kind of individual. He sought to avoid conflicts and personal fights. There were a number of cases when he got into wrestling matches to demonstrate his toughness and to impress people, but he didn’t go looking for that kind of conflict. In those respects, he’s not the vampire slayer I imagine.
Someone who would go out and seek that kind of adventure and defense, and the character that colleagues have suggested to me – that’s Teddy Roosevelt. When he was a cowboy out in Dakota he hunted outlaws; he carried a big stick so to speak. Roosevelt was adventure seeking, looking for conflict, a real rough and ready type of character. He would make a more predictable vampire hunter.
What about Roosevelt vs. Sasquatch? Would he put up the best presidential fight in a scuffle with bigfoot?
Roosevelt was a sportsman and a hunter, he went to Africa looking for game and he was a well-known hunter in this country. He was a member of the Harvard boxing club. I think in some ways, however, if it was just a conflict between a president and the abominable snowman, this might be where Lincoln would shine. Lincoln was known as such a tough wrestler, known for hand-to-hand combat, frontier style.
We’ve talked about presidents who could take on monsters, but have there been any presidents who were monsters themselves? Werewolves in the White House?
I’ve consulted some of my colleagues and they suggest that there seems to be a trend that’s developed since World War II – none of the presidents have had facial hair. I’m not making a claim that this might be a conspiracy, but it does raise a question of why they have all chosen to strike a hairless appearance. Going on facial hair alone, you have to look at Hayes, Carter, Harrison and Garfield. And Van Buren with those mutton chops – could something have been going on? But these are just observations, we have no evidence.
And what about the creation of monsters? Were any of the presidents smart enough to have built a Frankenstein-esque creature?
Thomas Jefferson was our inventor president, dabbling in the sciences. While he was busy making different kinds of simple chairs and desks, if he was challenged to create a new man – he was active in imagining a new nation – I think he would have been up for the task. And the other, although a little bit harder to imagine, is Jimmy Carter. He was somewhat of a scientist, although he was more of a reformer than interested in making things anew. The real Frankenstein builder in some ways may very well have been Jefferson.
So what about unearthly creatures? All these conspiracy theories fly around about the government concealing information about UFOs and extraterrestrials. Which president is most likely to have made contact with an alien from another world?
I have no discernible evidence that a president has ever made contact with aliens, but in terms of which president would seek it out or embrace it – there’s a number of them. Thomas Jefferson, a man of enlightenment, would embrace the idea of intelligence around the universe. He definitely sought out minds with different opinions and ideas, so I believe he would embrace wanting to have that contact. Many internationalists would feel the same way, but out of the early American presidents, Jefferson sticks out.
In more modern presidencies, I’d have to say that Bill Clinton has always tended to engage people from different backgrounds. He might find the whole idea of extraterrestrial contact very intriguing, while others might be fearful.
What about threats from those hidden among us? Have any U.S. presidents been members of secret, conspiratorial organizations?
I think there is a lot more evidence that, yes – could you say they are involved in large organizations with secret aspects to them, with agents around the country, conspiring together to obtain power and put themselves in a leadership position of the nation? I think you could say all of the presidents have done that.
That’s what political parties are all about. It’s people organizing for political power, or for their point of view. The idea that there is something more powerful than agents, who are actively spending time working on their political base, is both silly and just competitive. Wherever people are gathering together, they are organizing and building support for what they believe in – but there is a quality to all political parties that is secretive and national; you could treat it as a conspiracy. They are conspiring.
January 20, 2012
Now that you’ve probably burned through the lists of historians, innovators, and food-writers to follow this year, we’re bringing it back home to the Smithsonian. As always, the Mall is cooking up some fascinating, crazy, and sometimes grotesque stuff for 2012. Bookmark these people and projects to keep up with this year:
Nicholas Pyenson: Pyenson studies and curates fossils of marine mammals. Get a feel for what is going on inside his lab and follow his team into the field—fresh from an expedition in Chile—at his blog, Pyenson Lab.
Postal Museum: Time for a pop quiz: A “hamper dumper” is:
a) machine in postal processing
b) bin of misprint stamps
c) failed mail vehicle
d) philatelic tool.
If you know the answer, you should be following the Postal Museum (@postalmuseum) for their daily #PostalQuiz and other philatelic factoids.
Biodiversity Heritage Library: As part of the Biodiversity Heritage Library consortium, the Smithsonian Libraries collects and digitizes biodiversity research for open online access—essentially, a bio-wiki. Check out @biodivlibrary for the species of the day: plants that eat worms, albino penguins and other bizarre creatures you never knew existed.
Archives of American Art Pinterest: The American Art Pinterest lets you browse the archives and “pin” the images you like to your virtual board. Mix and match from collections like “facial hair of note” and “ain’t no party like an artist’s party.”
Book Dragon: The Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program’s Book Dragon is the pet project of former APA Media Arts Consultant Terry Hong, featuring reviews of “books for the multi-cultural reader.” Hong highlights literature for kids and adults alike that speaks to the Asian American experience. Follow her at @SIBookDragon.
Smithsonian Vids: For a moving view of the Institution, follow @SmithsonianVids. Meet a scientist studying frog-eating bats, or get a video tour of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings from Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart.
Smithsonian Marine Station: This Natural History Museum field station, located in Fort Pierce, Florida, tweets news updates and photos from the field (er, coral reef) @SmithsonianSMS. Plus, there’s #followfriday trivia every week.
Field Book Project: Also, from the Natural History Museum and the Smithsonian Institution Archives check out this blog, where researchers post updates on their initiative to compile an online database of field books and journals documenting biodiversity research. Besides progress updates, you’ll also find excerpts of century-old field notes from explorers, birdwatchers and scientists (including lots of fun, old-timey sketches) and learn a lot more than you ever thought there was to know about indices.
Encyclopedia of Life: Take your best shot and enter the picture in the Smithsonian’s Encyclopedia of Life Flickr photo contest. The bi-weekly contest could be (and has been) any theme from “backyard life” to “sexual dimorphism.” Even if you don’t enter, be sure to browse the entries for gems like this.
And of course, if you’re not following them already, the museums are always Tweeting up a storm. Here’s the checklist:
American Indian Museum: @SmithsonianNMAI
National Portrait Gallery: @npg
American Art Museum: @americanart
Anacostia Community Museum: @anacostiamuseum
American History Museum: @amhistorymuseum
Air and Space Museum: @airandspace
Museum of Natural History: @NMNH
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden: @hirshhorn
Freer and Sackler Galleries: @FreerSackler
Museum of African Art: @NMAfA
National Zoo: @NationalZoo
Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum: @cooperhewitt