October 17, 2013
The doors of the Smithsonian Institution’s 19 museums and galleries will open today, following the 16-day government shutdown. The National Zoo will reopen on Friday, October 17 at 10 a.m.; but the Pandacam is expected to go live Thursday afternoon. Regularly scheduled hours—10 to 5:30 for the museums located on the National Mall, and 11:30 to 7 for the American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery—are to resume. Programs will also get underway, but officials recommend checking the Institution’s website for updates on rescheduling and reimbursement for previously canceled events.
The Smithsonian’s fall calendar of exhibitions has a number of much anticipated shows in the works including the highly acclaimed “Dancing the Dream” at the National Portrait Gallery and the Sackler Gallery’s much-anticipated “Yoga: The Art of Transformation.”
As the doors open and the staff welcomes visitors, a number of old favorites await the crowds—the Hope Diamond, the Wright Flyer, Lincoln’s Top Hat, the Ruby Slippers, to name a few of the 137 million artifacts and artworks held in the collections. The Zoo, meanwhile, promises to release an update later today of the panda cub’s growth over the past two weeks.
Five exhibitions you won’t want to miss include:
“You Can, You Will, You Must” Just before the government shutdown, the National Museum of American History installed a stunning billboard from the World War II era. The poster was conserved and reassembled in 12 separate parts and looks just as fresh and vibrant as it did at the beginning of the war, when it debuted.
“Mud Masons of Mali” On view in the Natural History Museum’s African Voices Focus Gallery, this exhibition profiles three generations of masons: master mason Konbaba, 77; masons Boubacar, 52, Lassina, 49, and Salif, 33; and apprentice Almamy, 20. They belong to the Boso ethnic group, which founded present-day Djenné (pronounced JEN-NAY) in the 13th century A.D.
“The William H. Gross Stamp Gallery” The National Postal Museum’s new 12,000-square-foot addition, which opened last month, features some 20,000 philatelic objects, including America’s most famous stamp, the Inverted Jenny.
“Portraits of Planet Ocean: The Photography of Brian Skerry” The how features 20 poignant images of life under the sea. Brian Skerry, an award-winning National Geographic photographer, has spent the last 30 years documenting the world’s most beautiful—and most imperiled—marine environments.
“Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex on the Flight of Birds” Did you know that Leonardo da Vinci was 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. The original codex is at the National Air and Space Museum, but only until October 21, so hurry in.
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:
May 24, 2013
Jack Fogarty and John MacDonald served with the Army’s 98th Evacuation Hospital in World War II’s Pacific Theater from 1944 to 1945, where they spent “many an hour sitting around in a jungle clearing,” according to Fogarty, who is now 92 and living in Teaneck, New Jersey. The two soldiers developed a tight friendship as they worked and relaxed together.
Fogarty became close friends with John’s wife, Mary MacDonald, too, who remained home in Queens, New York. Fogarty had met her before he and John shipped out, and he struck up a correspondence with her that lasted until he and John returned home. An amateur artist, Fogarty illustrated his envelopes to show Mary daily life around the camp—jungle hikes, beach swims, evenings in tents under gaslight.
“My drawings were an expression of love for the MacDonalds,” says Fogarty. “I loved them and they loved me in the best of terms.”
The letters sealed a lifelong friendship between Fogarty and the MacDonald family. Mary MacDonald died in 2003; her husband in 2007.
Meg MacDonald, one of the couple’s four daughters, recently donated 33 illustrated envelopes, eight letters and a watercolor made by Fogarty to the National Postal Museum, which is currently exhibiting them online.
We spoke with Fogarty recently about his time in the War, his art and his enduring friendship with the family. An excerpt of our conversation follows.
When did you first meet Mary?
I met Mary in 1943 when John and I were stationed in an evacuation hospital in the Yuma, Arizona desert. She came to visit John in the first few months we were there. All the soldiers went into town whenever we had time off, so I bumped into John with Mary in town one day. John introduced us and that began our friendship. I started corresponding with her after we went overseas, and she was very loyal, a very good friend. Since I was so close with her husband, she liked hearing about my relationship with him and our time in the service.
What made you decide to illustrate the envelopes you sent her?
I’ve always drawn—all my life I’ve had a talent to paint. I had another dear friend from high school, a cartoonist, and he and I exchanged letters when we both joined the service. He would illustrate his envelopes, so I would do the same. That started it. Then when I was in the South Pacific Islands in World War II, John started a weekly bulletin just for the 217 men in the evacuation hospital. He did the editorials, and I did the artwork on a mimeograph machine. That got me doing more illustrations, so I started drawing on the envelopes to Mary.
Tell us about the illustrations.
They illustrated what was happening at the time. They showed the places we were at, the fantasies we had. They were an outlet, and I had the talent to make them. And they meant so much to Mary, because they showed her husband’s life while they were separated, and she loved him so much. It’s funny, too, because a lot of the drawings would be considered chauvinistic now—you know, jokes about women and so forth.
What was your relationship like with the MacDonalds back then?
It’s difficult to describe, because it’s such an important part of my life. It’s a love relationship. John and Mary were just wonderful, wonderful people. They were friends, and friendship is very important to me. We had the same values, as far as our faith and our family. And John was a mentor to me. I’m a little slow in my growing up, shall we say—I’m still a little naïve. John was a married man, and worldly. He had been a reporter before he joined the service. We would just discuss everything, discuss all the topics that young men would discuss at the time. It was an exchange of values and thoughts and experiences.
A few years ago, Meg MacDonald told you she had found your letters and illustrations among Mary’s things. What was it like to be reunited with them?
I was completely flabbergasted that Mary kept them. But I was flattered. It was a very warm feeling to know that Mary had kept them all these years. It’s strange reading the letters now, looking back on the past. It happened, and yet it’s incredible that it did happen.
Many young people who see your illustrations online will never have known a world without e-mail. What do you hope younger viewers take away from your letters?
My niece is a teacher, and a while ago she has a fellow teacher who invited me in to talk about World War II. I brought souvenirs from the war, my patch, and cap, and pictures, and things from Japan. It was the most rewarding experience. The children were so attentive and interested. They have no idea of the world as I knew it, and yet they were so excited to realize a world they didn’t know. They were learning about something other than Lady Gaga or all these things they need to have today, iPads and so forth. I hope these letters do the same for others.
May 6, 2013
“None of us know the Lord’s will,” Burtis J. “Bert” Dolan wrote to his wife about his journey on the new airship, the Hindenburg. He had purchased his ticket for the trip on May 1, 1937, two days before setting off from Frankfurt, Germany. It cost him 1,000 RM, equivalent to about $450 during the Great Depression, according to the National Postal Museum. His ticket survived the disaster on May 6, 1937. He did not. He died, along with 35 others.
The exhibit, “Fire and Ice,” which opened in spring 2012 for the 75th anniversary, included never-before-seen discoveries like the map of the Hindenburg’s route across the Atlantic, but now, thanks to the Dolan family, it will also include what may be the only surviving passenger ticket from the disaster.
Had Dolan not listened to his friend, Nelson Morris, and changed his travel plans, he would’ve headed back from Europe by sea. But Morris persuaded him to try the passenger airship and surprise his family with an early return. It was the perfect plan for Mothers Day and so Dolan agreed. When the airship caught fire just before docking at the Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey, Morris jumped from a window with Dolan behind him. But Dolan never made it.
Not knowing he was on board, Dolan’s wife learned of her husband’s involvement through Morris’ family and, along with the rest of the country, followed the newsreel and audio reports from the disaster that made headlines. Debates continue about what caused the initial spark and ensuing flame that consumed the ship within 34 seconds.
As part of the museum’s exhibit “Fire and Ice: Hindenburg and Titanic,” visitors to the National Postal Museum can view Dolan’s ticket and passport and learn more about the disasters that still captivate audiences.
April 17, 2013
On April 16, Smithsonian Institution Secretary G. Wayne Clough testified before the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform about the impending effects of sequestration. Though the Obama administration had sought a $59 million budget increase for the Institution in fiscal 2014, this year Clough has to contend with a $41 million budget reduction due to sequestration. Gallery closings, fewer exhibitions, reduced educational offerings, loss of funding for research and cuts to the planning process of the under-construction National Museum of African American History and Culture were listed among the impacts of the sequestration.
Clough began his testimony: “Each year millions of our fellow citizens come to Washington to visit—for free—our great museums and galleries and the National Zoo, all of which are open every day of the year but one. Our visitors come with high aspirations to learn and be inspired by our exhibitions and programs.”
“It is my hope,” Clough told the committee, “that our spring visitors will not notice the impact of the sequestration.” Perhaps most noticeable would be the gallery closures, which, while they would not close entire museums, would restrict access to certain floors or spaces in the museums, unable to pay for sufficient security. Those changes would begin May 1, according to Clough.
Clough warned, however, that while these short-term measures will save in the near future, they might also entail long-term consequences. Unforeseen costs may arise in the form of diminished maintenance capabilities, for example. “Any delays in revitalization or construction projects will certainly result in higher future operating and repair costs,” Clough said.
This also threatens the Institution’s role as steward of thousands of historic and valuable artifacts–”Morse’s telegraph; Edison’s light bulb; the Salk vaccine; the 1865 telescope designed by Maria Mitchell, America’s first woman astronomer who discovered a comet; the Wright Flyer; Amelia Earhart’s plane; Louis Armstrong’s trumpet; the jacket of labor leader Cesar Chavez,” to name a few.