December 22, 2010
Total Eclipse of the Moon—Early yesterday morning (or late Monday night for those on the west coast), an astronomical event took place that only happens once in a blue moon. Well, okay, it wasn’t a blue moon, but it was a total lunar eclipse. This was the first lunar eclipse to fall on the winter solstice since 1638. By the time this happens again in 2094, most of us will be long gone. The AirSpace blog has more information on how lunar eclipses form and what they look like in case you happened to miss out.
Christmas Sweater Archives—I have certainly seen some festive holiday sweaters around the Mall this winter; my personal favorite (worn by ATM’s own Beth Py-Lieberman!) featured chiming jingle bells, appliqued gingerbread men, Christmas trees and red bows. The Archives of American Art has done their own archival roundup of holiday knitwear donned by poets, painters and explorers.
Winter Wonderland—The Bigger Picture blog has a slideshow honoring the onslaught of cold the Washington area has received in recent weeks. The pictures are from the Smithsonian Institution Archives and include snowflake art, icy expeditions, and the Smithsonian covered in snow in the early 1900s. The post also has links to snowflake templates for cutting your own winter decorations.
Solstice—If you thought the weather here was cold, SIRIS has posted photos of Alaska Natives buckling down for the dead of winter from the archives of scientist Leuman M. Waugh, who visited the area in the early 20th century. The photos are likely to make you want a fur-lined winter parka to brave the icy chill. Another post on SIRIS shows images of winter landscape paintings from the National Art Inventories.
Birth of the Christmas Card—Pushing the Envelope has published a guest post by Skidmore College professor Catherine Golden that reveals the first Christmas card ever, from 1843. The card depicts a merry gathering of people eating and drinking, and reads, “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year To You.” Read about the history of the holiday card, as well as Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which Golden writes was arguably more popular for its philanthropic message than even the author’s expert prose.
Poinsettia Video—Recently, Around the Mall brought you the true story of the Poinsettia, which involved Joel Poinsett and his idea to create a national museum. Watch Monty Holmes, a horticulturist at Smithsonian Gardens, talk more about the history of this holiday plant.
December 6, 2010
It’s that time of year, and the Smithsonian Institution is leaving no corner undecorated for the holidays. Garlands spiral up the banisters of several Smithsonian museums, and Douglas fir trees tower inside the museum entrances. At the very least, almost every Smithsonian building has what is perhaps the most ubiquitous holiday decoration: the poinsettia.
According to Monty Holmes of the Smithsonian Gardens, the horticulture team has grown some 1,700 poinsettias this year. With so many of the plants under his care, Holmes began investigating the original connection between it and the holidays. Surprisingly, he discovered a little-known link between the poinsettia and the Smithsonian.
As it turns out, the red-leafed plant was introduced to the United States by botanist and statesman Joel Poinsett (1779-1851), who as the first U.S. Minister to Mexico found the plant while serving there. The poinsettia is said to have been used by the Aztecs as a red dye and to reduce fevers.
And what was its connection to the Smithsonian?
Poinsett was a founding member of the National Institution for the Promotion of Science, which formed in 1840 to promote the study of natural history and physical sciences, among other fields. It is thought that the organization was founded with the intention of securing the James Smithson bequest. (Although Smithson had never visited the United States, he left his estate of $508,318–about $15 million in today’s dollars–to establish in Washington, D.C. an institution for the “increase and diffusion of knowledge.”) At the time, much debate was going on about how best to achieve Smithson’s request.
When Poinsett was United States Secretary of War in 1838, he presided over the United States Exploring Expedition, the first circumnavigation of the globe sponsored by the United States.
“He insisted when this global exploring expedition went out that it included scientists,” says Smithsonian historian Pamela Henson of Poinsett. “They collected geological, biological, anthropological specimens throughout the trip. They were called ‘scientifics.’”
The artifacts collected on that expedition were brought back to Washington, D.C. and put on display much like a modern-day museum exhibition at the Patent Office building (currently home to the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery). The exhibition was presided over by Poinsett’s National Institution. Poinsett was among dozens of who had strident convictions on how the money ought to be used; some thought it should be a library, others hoped it would support scientific research. But Poinsett was the first to argue that Smithson’s money should be used to create a national museum.
“He basically interjected the concept of creating a national museum into the debate surrounding what to do with Smithson’s money,” says Henson. “He never succeeded in getting the money [the Smithsonian was founded soon after in 1846 and the National Institution for the Promotion of Science promptly dissolved], but his push was what lead to the concept of the museum being part of the Smithsonian.”
As you peruse the halls of the Smithsonian Institution this Christmas, counting the poinsettias, remember Joel Poinsett, who planted the seed for the creation of a national museum.
November 17, 2010
Inner Workings of the Space Suit: This week, the AirSpace blog exposes one of their spacesuits from the inside out using X-Ray imaging. Until now, the only way to glimpse the inside of these high-tech uniforms was to shine a flashlight down the wrist or neck of the outfit. But recently, Mark Avino, chief of photographic services at the Air and Space museum undertook the challenge of doing a complete X-Ray of Alan Shephard’s Apollo 14 spacesuit. The result is now featured in the book, Spacesuits: The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum Collection.
Thanksgiving in the Smithsonian: Mary Henry (1834-1903) was the daughter of Joseph Henry, the very first Smithsonian Institution secretary. Her diary provides a firsthand account of a pivotal period in the history of the United States, spanning the years of the Civil War and early Reconstruction. One personal anecdote, quoted in a post this week on The Bigger Picture, describes Henry’s Thanksgiving day in the Smithsonian Castle, where she lived.
Up Where He Belongs: The American Indian Museum’s Current exhibit, “Up Where They Belong: Native Americans in Popular Music” tells the stories of Native Americans in every genre of music, from rock to hip-hop to jazz (see my article on the exhibit in the October issue). The NMAI blog has posted an interview with one of the most well-known musicians in the exhibit, Robbie Robertson, who is perhaps best known as a member of The Band and for writing the song “Up on Cripple Creek.” Robertson talks about his favorite artists and what he’s learned in his long career as a Native musician.
Freer/Sackler Annual Auction: The Freer and Sackler Galleries opens its annual auction today in conjunction with their benefit gala, “Dancing Dragon, Roaring Tiger,” this evening. The gala celebrates the opening of the museum’s Chinese jades and bronzes exhibit. The auction features four works by the renowned Asian artists Mei-Ling Hom, Sun Xun, Hai Bo and Cai Guo-Quiang. View the works and short biographies of the artists. Bids must be emailed to email@example.com before midnight tonight.
World Folk Music Map: Smithsonian Folkways Records has contributed folkloric music from around the world to an interactive map posted on the “Preserving Intangible Culture” section on America.gov. Click on any country or region, from Mongolia to Norway to Sierra Leone, and listen to a Folkways music sample from there.
November 1, 2010
Recently, a crowd of more than 300 people attended the first ever Smithsonian Archives Fair to learn how the Smithsonian helps to maintain millions of artifacts in a condition that withstands the effects of time. Representatives from nearly every museum set up information booths, gave lectures, and taught visitors how to preserve objects of their own through the Ask the Smithsonian program.
“Not only does [the Archives Fair] showcase all the Smithsonian archives have, but it also educates the public on how to preserve their own treasures,” said Freer/Sackler archivist Rachael Christine Woody, who helped organize the event.
I asked the Smithsonian how to preserve a recent gift from my grandmother—her mother’s (my great grandmother’s) scrapbook, from around the 1930s. A member of the Muscogee (Creek) tribe of Oklahoma, my great grandmother traveled the country as a performer, singing songs and telling stories she had learned from her people. She filled her scrapbook with newspaper clippings, photographs, and handwritten notes. The book proved invaluable; she passed away when my grandmother was only nine years old, and this scrapbook was what my grandmother got to remember her by.
Keeping the scrapbook in good condition is important, to say the least; someday, I want my children to be able to leaf through the book’s now brittle pages to learn about their heritage. I consulted with Smithsonian paper conservator Nora Lockshin and photo archivist Marguerite Roby about how to make sure my scrapbook survives for generations to come.
What do I need to know before I start the preservation process?
Nora: We don’t immediately advocate taking anything apart, ever, because in photographs and albums, context is everything. And really, the person who put it together and how they put it together is important. So if you start disrupting that you lose some of the original content.
What would the first step be?
Nora: If the scrapbook doesn’t have a slipcase, the first step is putting it in an enclosure. Check the pages out; make sure there are no problems already going on like bugs or mold. If that seems stable and fine, get a box, an archival drop-front storage box that sits flat is probably the best thing, versus putting it upright on a shelf because gravity will fight you, and things will drop forward. So the best thing to do is put [the book] in a flat, archival, material storage box, so everything is contained. This protects it from the light, and dust and pests.
Nora: You could think about putting interleaving paper between the album pages. Photographic interleaving material is special paper that is meant to be photographically neutral. You can put that in between the leaves so that the pictures aren’t rubbing on each other and potentially sticking. We usually put it in where there’s enough space in the spine to accommodate and definitely where pictures are facing.
Keep it in a safe environment that’s not too dry. It’s not too damp, either. You don’t keep it in the back of the closet where you can’t see what’s going on and where pests can gather. Basically, out of sight, out of mind really is that, and it rarely preserves things. Most often, it leads to their deterioration. No attics, no basements, not the bathroom or the kitchen, you want to try and find the most stable place in the house, away from windows and doors, not on exterior walls. Basically, you want it in a bookshelf, but in a box. That way, in five years you can look at it, and go, “That wasn’t there before,” like a little mousy chew hole or something.
What about the photos and newspaper clippings that are just sort of loose. That’s something that makes me nervous. I worry every time I open it that they’re going to fall.
Nora: It really helps to document original order. But definitely taking pictures of it is a good idea because things can fade and darken. You would take a shot with an overhead camera. That’s the one time you’d put it in a sunny spot in your house so you don’t have glare. Just shoot it all the way through on the highest resolution you possibly have.
And if there’s an image that you love, love, love, and you want it because you want a cool vintage look in your house or something, you can make a duplicate—what we call the access copy and the display copy.
You could also consider separating them and putting them in a “V-fold” sleeve of archival paper, or an archival envelope with a little sling. If you’re getting a box anyway, you might consider taking the clippings out and putting them in a little folder. And you might write on them, for example, “found between pages 18 and 19.”
What’s the one thing I have to keep in mind in the preservation process?
Marguerite: I think preserving that context of every single thing is really the most important part of this. Because if you put all the loose photographs at the end, you don’t know if one is supposed to go with an article, or maybe one does go with an article and the article is in between different pages. You’ll be the biggest help to yourself and future generations by being as meticulous as possible about documenting each page.
October 20, 2010
Just Close Enough To The Sun—This week, the folks at the “AirSpace” blog treat us to a few photos of that fiery red giant near and dear to our hearts, the sun. Using a telescope from the Public Observatory Project made especially for looking into the sun’s harsh light, solar imaging expert Greg Piepol instructed blogger Erin Braswell on how to account for turbulence in the earth’s atmosphere that often obscures photographs of the sun. The resulting pictures show a crisp outline of the star, including sunspots and a “prominence,” or protrusion of hot matter coming from the sun’s surface.
Piano Podcast—Michael Asch, son of Folkways Records founder Moses “Moe” Asch, hosts Smithsonian Folkways: Sounds To Grow On, a 26-part radio program of music from the label’s original collection. Interspersed throughout the show is the story of Asch’s father, who started his own record company in 1948, the products of which were later donated to the Smithsonian. Episode 23, Piano, features a variety of jazz and blues piano music from the 1930s, 40s and 50s. Download the podcast from Folkways, along with the your pick of the 22 preceding installments.
Warhol Meets Jackson—In 1984, pop artist Andy Warhol did a portrait of Michael Jackson, which was published as the cover of Time magazine in March of that year. “Face to Face” has entries from Warhol’s diary of those days, which provide a window into the mind of one of the 20th century’s most famous artists. After reading the story behind the work, you may just be enticed to head on over to the Portrait Gallery to see the actual silkscreened portrait, which is hanging in the “20th Century Americans” exhibit.
Archives Fair—In conjunction with the month-long blogathon for American Archives Month, this Friday the American Archives will be hosting an archives fair, (free and open to the public) from 10 to 5 at the S. Dillon Ripley Center. The event will include lectures from the archivists about preserving, cataloging and ensuring accessibility to the precious collections at the Smithsonian. Today, “SIRIS” has posted interviews with Anne Van Camp, Director of the Smithsonian Archives; Wendy Shay, curator at American History, Archives Center; and Freer/Sackler archivist Rachael Christine Woody.