October 25, 2013
I am an unapologetic fan of show biz glitz. When organizing an exhibition, my approach is to dip scholarship in dazzle: I firmly believe that injecting an exhibition with spectacle and showmanship fuels the path to understanding. The idea is to inspire visitors rather than to intimidate, baffle or bore them. I’ve always wanted to roll out the red carpet and this time I did.
In the current exhibition, “Dancing the Dream,” which recently opened at the National Portrait Gallery, the idea was to show how Broadway, Hollywood, modern, classical and contemporary dance have captured American culture in motion. In 1900, Loie Fuller unleashed her barefoot and uncorseted version of the “New Woman” on stages around the world; in the 1930s, Fred and Ginger danced an elegant escapism for Depression audiences; at the height of the Cold War, Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov sought asylum and sparked a mania for ballet in America; from the 1980s to today, MTV and YouTube have showcased such dancers as Michael Jackson and Beyoncé and created audiences that are both more diverse and more individualized than ever before.
The dance exhibition’s basic ingredients—strong images of iconic personalities—were already present, as the Gallery has an extraordinary collection of key dance figures—Isadora Duncan, Irene Castle, Josephine Baker, Busby Berkeley Rita Moreno, Alvin Ailey, Shakira and Justin Timberlake, to name a few. The challenge for the museum’s design team was to create a lively showcase that conveyed dance’s dynamism. “I don’t like white walls,” I chirped. “Make it dazzle.”
And they did. One of the most exciting design elements is the red carpet that runs down the center hall connecting each of the six exhibition rooms. Yes, the National Portrait Gallery has a real red carpet. Designer Raymond Cunningham told me that he researched A-List red carpet events and discovered that the “red” used by the Golden Globes is a bluer red than the brighter hue used for the Academy Awards. The color used for “Dancing the Dream” is close to Oscar’s, but has been uniquely created for the Gallery.
Tibor Waldner, the museum’s chief of design, and his remarkable staff created a space that radiates with color—a drawing of Josephine Baker shimmies and shakes in a gallery with stunning teal walls; young ballet dancer Misty Copeland soars as a flaming Firebird in a gallery the color of her fires; Beyoncé hot-steps her “Single Ladies” number in a yellow-green gallery that I call “the riot of Spring.”
I was vastly intrigued by Raymond’s red carpet research, and have since discovered that the red carpet itself has an amazing history. The earliest reference to “walking a red carpet” is in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon in 458 B.C., when the title character is greeted by his vengeful wife Clytemnestra, who invites him to walk a “crimson path” to his house. In Georgetown, South Carolina, a ceremonial red carpet was purportedly rolled out for President James Monroe when he disembarked from a riverboat in 1821. Mainly, though, it seems the red carpet was a railroad phenomenon: in 1902, the New York Central used plush crimson carpets to direct people boarding the 20th Century Limited. It was this usage that seems to mark the origin of the phrase “red carpet treatment.”
Today, we associate red carpets as fashion and celebrity runways at major entertainment events. I asked Linda Mehr, director of the Academy of Motion Pictures’ Margaret Herrick Library, when the Academy began using a red carpet, and she told me that it wasn’t until 1961. Television broadcasts of the Oscars had begun in 1953, and by 1966 when the awards were first broadcast in color, the red carpet had become a major factor in the Oscar experience. Turner Classic Movies primetime host Robert Osborne has said that “for most of us, even a walk down the red carpet is just a dream.” It has also has become the stage for one of the biggest fashion events of the year. At the 2013 Oscars, Jessica Chastain told a reporter that “as a little girl…I always dreamed about my Oscar dress. I love fashion that celebrates a woman’s body, and that maybe is a throwback to the glamour of Old Hollywood.” Amy Adams said of her Oscar de la Renta dress, “I’ve worn a lot of different dresses, but I’ve never worn a big ballgown, so I thought I wanna wear a dress you can’t wear anywhere but the Oscars.”
Many of the iconic figures in the dance exhibition have walked the red carpet: several have won Oscars—including Gene Kelly, James Cagney, Rita Moreno, and Liza Minnelli—and several have been awarded Grammys, including Lady Gaga, Justine Timberlake, and Beyoncé
Installing the red carpet was the exclamation point that finished the exhibition’s high impact design. But once it was unrolled, there was yet another surprise: the carpet’s red reflected off the walls and ceiling in a way that suffused the entire corridor with an unexpected glow.
Dancing the Dream will be open at the National Portrait Gallery until July 13, 2014.
October 24, 2013
“You are being watched.” This warning opens every episode of the hit CBS TV series, “Person of Interest,” created by The Dark Knight screenwriter Jonathan Nolan. In the wake of recent revelations about NSA surveillance, however, those words hew closer to reality than science fiction.
The “Machine” at the center of “Person of Interest” is an all-seeing artificial intelligence that tracks the movements and communications of every person in America—not through theoretical gadgetry, but through the cell phone networks, GPS satellites and surveillance cameras we interact with every day. The show’s two main characters, ex-CIA agent John Reese (Jim Caviezel) and computer genius Harold Finch (Michael Emerson), use this power for good, chasing the social security numbers the system identifies to prevent violent crimes, but they’re constantly fighting to keep the Machine out of the wrong hands.
“Person of Interest” has been ahead of the curve on government surveillance since it debuted in 2011, but showrunners Nolan and Greg Plageman (NYPD Blue, Cold Case) have been following the topic for years. Both writers will appear at the Lemelson Center symposium, “Inventing the Surveillance Society,” this Friday, October 25, at 8 p.m. We caught up with the pair to talk about the balance between privacy and security, the “black box” of Gmail and the cell phone panopticon in Nolan’s The Dark Knight.
I want to start with the elephant in the room: the NSA spying revelations. Now that we have definitive proof that the government is watching us, you guys get to say, “I told you so,” with regard to the surveillance on “Person of Interest.” How did you react when you heard about the government’s PRISM surveillance program, leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden?
Jonathan Nolan: With a mixture of jubilation and horror. [laughs] “We were right, oh, dear, we were right.” Shane Harris [author of The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State], who’s joining us on the panel on Friday, is the one we went to again and again for research, and PRISM was really the tip of the iceberg. Not to sound snobby, but for people who were carefully reading the newspapers, they weren’t revelations at all. William Binney, another NSA whistleblower who’s not on the run, has been saying this publicly for years, which points to this other interesting aspect—the fact that the general public may not care if there’s a massive surveillance state. As the story’s developed, there’s been a slow trickle of information from Glenn Greenwald and the Guardian and the Washington Post, in terms of the documents they have from Snowden, to try to keep the story on the front burner. Clearly the story has got traction. But to what degree the public will actually put up with it is actually a question we’re trying to deal with now on the show.
Were you surprised by the public’s response, or lack thereof?
Greg Plageman: Yeah, I really think the capacity for outrage has been mollified by convenience. People love their phones, they love their Wi-Fi, they love being connected, and everything that’s wired is now being pushed into the cloud. We use it all the time, every day, and we can’t imagine our lives now without it. What the president has been saying, how we have to strike a balance between privacy and security—the problem is they don’t. They never do. And they wouldn’t have bothered even paying lip service to it if Snowden hadn’t blown the whistle. So I think now people are reeling from the “OK, so what?” When you tell them the consequence is we’ll be less secure, or you lose some convenience in your life, that’s when people tend to become placated. I think that’s a scary zone where we come in as entertainers and say, let’s present to you the hypothetical, dramatically, of why you should care. That’s the fun of our show.
How do you personally weigh in on that debate? How much liberty do you feel we can or should sacrifice for security?
Nolan: There’s a reason why people [used to] send letters with wax seals. That sense of privacy, the conflict between the state and the needs of the citizens, has been around for an awfully long time. We’re quite distrustful, at least in the writers’ room, of anyone who comes in with an over-simplistic answer to that question. It’s all terrible or, in the name of security, you can have access to all of my stuff, is an answer that is only acceptable, if possible, in the immediate short term, where we’re not at war, and there’s no widespread suspicion of the American public.
We’ve said this from the beginning, from the pilot onwards: privacy is different from what have you got in the bag. When the government takes your privacy, you don’t necessarily know that it’s been taken from you. It’s a fungible, invisible thing. That’s why this argument that has been hauled out into public view by Snowden is a very healthy one for the country to be having. If someone takes away your right to express yourself or your right to assemble or any of the rights in the Bill of Rights, you’re going to know about it. But when someone takes away your privacy, you may not have any idea until it’s far too late to do anything about it.
How did you develop the Machine in “Person of Interest”? Why did you make it work the way it does?
Nolan: We just use[d] our imagination. We did research. Aspects of the show that at first blush, when the pilot first came out, people kind of dismissed as curios—like, why don’t they find out if the person is a victim or a perpetrator, why don’t they get any more information than a social security number? It’s a great jumping-off point for a nice piece of drama, absolutely. We’re not shy about that. But actually, a lot of the mechanism of the Machine was based on Admiral [John] Poindexter and Total Information Awareness, which was the great-granddaddy of PRISM.
Poindexter is a really interesting Promethean figure who figured out a lot of what the general public is now just starting to get wind of. The tools were already here to peel back all of the layers of every person in the United States. It’s now become increasingly clear that there is no way to be sure that you’ve hidden your voice or email communications from the government. It’s almost impossible. If you want to communicate privately, it’s a person-to-person conversation and your cell phone is literally left elsewhere or broken, like we do in our show all the time, or handwritten messages. We really have stepped into that moment.
So the question was how do you go about this conscientiously? If we were to build this, how do you ensure that it can’t be used for corrupt purposes? How can you be sure that it isn’t used to eliminate political rivals or to categorize Americans according to their political profiles or their leanings, all that sort of stuff? It seemed like the simplest answer to that question was to make this thing a black box, something that absorbs all this information and spits out the right answers, which interestingly is exactly how Gmail works. That’s why we’re all willing to use Gmail—because we are promised that a human will never read our emails. A machine will read them; it will feed us ads, without invading our privacy. And that is a compromise we’ve been willing to make.
The show explicitly states that the Machine was developed in response to 9/11, that 9/11 ushered in this new era of surveillance. Right now, it seems we might be entering a new post-Snowden era, in which we, the general public, are aware that we’re being watched. How will the show respond to that new reality—our reality, outside the world of the show?
Plageman: In terms of whether or not we’re entering another era, it’s difficult to say when you realize that the assault on privacy is both public and private now. It’s Google, it’s Facebook, it’s what you voluntarily have surrendered. What Jonah and I and the writers have been talking about is: What have you personally done about it? Have you changed your surfing habits? Have you gone to a more anonymous email provider? Have any of us done any of these things? There’s a bit of a scare, and we all react and say, wait a minute, do I need to be more privacy-conscious in terms of how I operate technology? And the truth is it’s a huge pain in the ass. I’ve tried a couple of these web-surfing softwares, but it slows things down. Eventually, if you want to be a person that’s connected, if you want to stay connected to your colleagues and your family, you realize that you have to surrender a certain amount of privacy.
I also believe, just having a son who’s now entering his teens, that there’s a huge generation gap between how we view privacy. I think older generations see that as something that we’re entitled to, and I think, to a certain degree, younger generations who’ve grown up with Facebook see it as something that’s already dead or wonder if it really matters, because they don’t understand the consequences of the death of privacy.
Nolan: In terms of the narrative of our show, we’ve already started looking into the idea that there will be a backlash. Maybe this is wishful because we’ve looked at this issue for so long [and seen] the slightly underwhelming response to the revelations by Snowden. We’re certainly not looking for people to take revolution in the streets. But you feel like it would be some consolation if there was an aggressive debate about this in Congress—and quite the opposite. You had both political parties in lockstep behind this president, who didn’t initiate these policies but has benefited from the extended power of the executive, in place for generations of presidents from the postwar environment, from Hoover and the FBI onwards. There isn’t much debate on these issues, and that’s very, very frightening. We’re very close to the moment of the genie coming completely out of the bottle.
One of the questions that Shane deals with most explicitly in his book is storage. It sounds like a banality, like the least sexy aspect of this, but storage in many ways may actually be the most profound part of this. How long is the government able to hang on to this information? Maybe we trust President Obama and all the people currently in power with this information. Who knows what we’ll think of the president three presidents from now? And if he still has access to my emails from 2013, in a different political environment in which suddenly police that are mainstream now become [secret] police, or people are sorted into camps or rounded up? It sounds like tinfoil hat-wearing paranoia, but in truth, if we’re looking at history realistically, bad things happen, fairly regularly. The idea that your words, your associations, your life, to that point could be cached away somewhere and retrieved—it feels very much like a violation of the system, in terms of testifying against yourself, because in this case the process is automatic.
These issues that we’re fascinated by are one part of our show. We presented our show as science fiction in the beginning—but, it turns out, maybe not as fictional as people would hope. Another science fiction component that we’re exploring in the second half of this season is the artificial intelligence of it all. We took the position that in this headlong, post-9/11 rush to prevent terrible things from happening, the only true solution would be to develop artificial intelligence. But if you were to deduce the motives of a human being, you would need a machine at least as smart as a human being. That’s really the place in which the show remained, to our knowledge, science fiction—we’re still a long way off from that. For the second half of the season, we’re exploring the implications of humans interacting with data as the data becomes more interactive.
Jonathan, you previously explored the idea of surveillance in The Dark Knight. How did you develop the system Batman uses to tap the cell phones in Gotham?
Nolan: The thing about a cell phone is it’s incredibly simple and it’s a total Trojan horse. Consumers think of it as something that they use—their little servants. They want a piece of information, they pull it out and they ask it. They don’t think that it’s doing anything other than that; it’s simply working at their behalf. And the truth is, from the government’s perspective or from private corporations’ perspective, it’s a fantastic device to get unbeknownst to the consumer. It’s recording their velocity, their position, their attitude, even if you don’t add Twitter into the mix. It’s incredibly powerful.
In The Dark Knight, [we were] riffing off of storylines from existing Batman comic books. There’s a shifting side to [Batman] where he’s always playing on that edge of how far is too far. In the comic books, at least, he has a contingency and a plan for everyone. He knows how to destroy his friends and allies, should they turn into enemies, and he’s always one step ahead. In a couple of different storylines in the Batman comic books, they play with the idea that he would start constructing [a surveillance device]. In the comic books, it was mainly about spying on his friends and allies and the rest of the Justice League. But for us it felt more interesting to take existing technology and find a way [for] someone like Bruce Wayne, who’s this brilliant mind applied to the utility belt. There are all these gadgets and utilities around him—why should it stop there? Why wouldn’t he use his wealth, his influence and his brilliance to subvert a consumer product into something that could give him information?
In the previous incarnations of Batman on film, it was usually the bad guys doing that—rigging up some device that sits on your TV and hypnotizes you and makes you an acolyte for the Riddler or whatever. In this one, we sort of continued the idea because Batman, most interestingly, is a bit of a villain himself—or at least is a protagonist who dresses like a villain. So he creates this all-seeing eye, the panopticon, which I’ve been interested in since I was a kid growing up in England, where they had CCTV cameras everywhere in the 1970s and 1980s.
[Batman] would deploy those [cell phones] as a nuclear option in terms of trying to track down the Joker’s team, something that definitely spoke to the duality of the character. He does morally questionable things for a good end—hopefully. In The Dark Knight, as epic and long as it took us to make it, [we] really only got to scratch the surface of this issue, the devil’s bargain of: What if someone built this for a really good, really singular purpose? What level of responsibility would they feel towards it, towards what they created?
It’s something you really hope the government is sitting around agonizing over. [laughs] I hope the government spends as much time worrying about this as Bruce Wayne and Lucius Fox do in The Dark Knight, but I’m not 100 percent sure that that’s the case. Certainly if you look at the history of polity and the way that government interacts with checks and balances, you kind of need a crisis, you need a scandal, you need something to prompt this self-policing.
Plageman: Are you saying that the FISA court is a joke, Jonah?
Nolan: [laughs] If it is a joke, it’s a joke on all of us. But again, we don’t want to sound unsympathetic. “Person of Interest” takes for granted the existence of this device and, potentially controversially, the idea that in the right hands, such a device could be a good thing. But I don’t think Greg and I or any of our writers are ever looking at this issue and reducing it to black and white.
We’ve occasionally read that the show is kind of an apologia for PRISM and the surveillance state, just as I had read, a few years ago, certain commentators looking at The Dark Knight and imagining that it was some kind of apologia for George Bush. All those ideas are ridiculous. We look at this show as a great mechanism for posing questions, not supplying answers. That’s where we hope it’s not didactic, and The Dark Knight was certainly not intended as didactic. I think where we were ahead of the curve when it came to “Person of Interest” was that the thing we were assuming was still a question for everyone else. We kind of started the show in the post-Snowden era, as you put it. The show’s premise is that the surveillance state is a given, and we’re not changing that, and you’re not stuffing the genie back in the bottle. So what do we do with all the other information? That I think will increasingly become the real quandary over the next 10 to 15 years.
Jonathan Nolan, Greg Plageman and Shane Harris will speak in a panel discussion on Friday, October 25, as part of the Lemelson Center symposium, “Inventing the Surveillance Society.” This event is free and open to the public. Seating is limited; first come, first seated.
October 22, 2013
The doors of the Smithsonian’s museums were recently shuttered during the debt crisis and shutdown of the United States government. Americans who had long ago planned their trips to the nation’s capital, as well as foreign tourists and school children, arrived only to find signs barring them from entry “due to the government shutdown.” Elsewhere in the country, visitors to national parks, historic monuments and memorials, and even websites found a similar message. The shutdown and debt ceiling crisis brought home to many Americans the fragility of our democracy. That sense of loss and then relief prompts a reflection on why these items came to be significant and how they became, sometimes surprisingly, even precariously, enshrined as icons of our American experience.
The National Zoo’s panda cub born on August 23, 2013, weighed just three pounds when the camera inside the enclosure went dark on October 1. But the cub’s mother Mei Xiang remained diligent in her maternal care, and the Zoo’s animal handlers and veterinarians continued their expert vigilance—so that when the panda cam came back on, the public was delighted to see the little cub was not only healthy, but had gained two pounds and was noticeably more mature. Tens of thousands of viewers rushed to the website on October 18, crashing the system over and over again. The next day, the Zoo’s celebrated reopening made newspaper headlines across the nation.
The excitement reminded me of another type of opening, when the pandas made their original appearance at the Zoo during the Nixon administration. Those first pandas, Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling, came to Washington in 1972 because Nixon was seeking a diplomatic opening of a relationship between the United States and the Communist government of the People’s Republic of China. As part of a mutual exchange of gifts, the Chinese offered the pandas to the United States. And we in turn, gave the Chinese a pair of musk oxen, named Milton and Matilda. This was zoological diplomacy at its most elaborate—the State Department had carefully brokered the deal, ruling out other creatures, like the bald eagle, as unsuitable. The eagle, it determined, was too closely associated with our beloved national symbol. Bears were symbolic of Russia, and mountain lions signaled too much aggression. In any case, I think we got the better of the deal. The pandas became instant celebrities and when they took up residence at the Zoo, they transcended their diplomatic role, becoming instead the much-loved personalities and evolving over time into ambassadors of species and ecosystem conservation.
The Statue of Liberty, so familiar to us in New York Harbor as a symbol of freedom, is a historic beacon to immigrants, and a tourist destination, but it didn’t start out that way. Its sculptor and cheerleader Frédéric Bartholdi initially designed the large statue for the Suez Canal in Egypt. But finding a lack of interest there, Bartholdi modified and repurposed it for a French effort to celebrate friendship with America in celebration of the U.S. centennial. The sculptor found an ideal site for it in New York, and while French citizens enthusiastically donated their money to fabricate the statue, American fundraising for the statue’s land, base and foundation faltered. Hoping to persuade Congress to support the project, Bartholdi sent a scale model of Liberty from Paris to Washington, where it was installed in the Capitol Rotunda. But Congress wasn’t swayed.
Other U.S. cities sought the statue. Newspaper publisher and grateful immigrant Joseph Pulitzer eventually took up the cause—donations large and small at last rolled in. In 1886, with Thomas Edison’s newly invented electric lights installed in Liberty’s torch, President Grover Cleveland pulled the rope to unveil her face, and the Statue of Liberty was open. It was some 17 years later, as a massive influx of immigration was stirring civic debate, that the poem by Emma Lazarus with its famed phrase “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free” was posthumously added as an inscription on its base. It’s wonderful to be able to visit the Statue in New York again every day, and Bartholdi’s model too, is here in Washington, residing on the second floor of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
The shutdown of the immensely popular National Air and Space Museum came at a particularly unfortunate time. The museum was temporarily displaying, through October 22, Leonardo da Vinci’s handwritten and illustrated Codex on the Flight of Birds, a rare and unusual loan from the people of Italy. Tens of thousands of U.S. citizens missed out on an opportunity to see this amazing Renaissance document from the early 16th century—an experience made all the more poignant because it was put on display alongside the Wright brothers’ Kitty Hawk Flyer. Almost like the fulfillment of da Vinci’s musing, this airplane opened the skies to humans in an unprecedented way after a series of flights on North Carolina’s Outer Banks on December 17, 1903. The Flyer was the first heavier than air, self-powered, piloted craft to exhibit controlled, sustained flight. It took on irreparable damage that day and never flew again. Few realize, however, that a disagreement between Orville Wright and the Smithsonian nearly prevented the flyer from ever coming to Washington. Orville was rightly offended by the incorrect labeling of another airplane on view at the Smithsonian. The label claimed the honor of first in flight went to an aircraft invented by Samuel P. Langley, a former Secretary of the Institution. The dispute lasted for decades and the Wright Flyer went to London and would have stayed there had not Orville Wright and the Smithsonian finally settled their differences in 1948 and the little aircraft that changed history came to Washington.
The Star-Spangled Banner on view at the National Museum of American History reminds us of how our government and nation was almost shutdown by war and invasion. In August 1814, British troops, had routed the local militia, invaded Washington, burned the Capitol, the White House and other public buildings and was advancing on to Baltimore, a strategic target with its privateers and port on the Chesapeake Bay. British ships pounded Fort McHenry which defended the city from invasion. Rockets and bombs burst overhead through the night in a vicious assault—but the troops and the fortifications held strong. And on September 14, Francis Scott Key, a lawyer and poet saw the huge American garrison flag still flying in the “dawn’s early light,” and penned the words that once set to music became our national anthem. The flag itself was paraded and celebrated almost to destruction throughout the 19th century; people clipped pieces of its red, white and blue threadbare wool cloth as souvenirs. Finally, in 1907, the flag was sent to the Smithsonian for safekeeping. We’ve cared for it well, using support from the federal government and donors like Kenneth Behring, Ralph Lauren, and others to carefully restore it and house it in an environmentally controlled chamber—but when visitors see the flag and learn its story, they soon realize how tenuous our country’s hold on its freedom really was 200 years ago.
That theme is also illustrated at the White House—when visitors again re-enter the East Room and view the full-length portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart. This is the painting that Dolley Madison, slaves and servants saved when the British invaded the capital and burned the president’s house in 1814. The painting is not the original, but one of several versions from Gilbert Stuart’s studio. The original 1796 portrait was commissioned as gift to a pro-American former British Prime Minister, the Marquis of Lansdowne, who held a great respect for America’s first president. The Lansdowne was on long-term loan to the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, but in 2000, the British owner announced his intention to sell it. Thankfully, the Donald Reynolds Foundation came to the rescue—buying the painting for the Smithsonian so that it could be enjoyed by every American. It can currently be seen in the exhibition “America’s Presidents” in the Portrait Gallery.
The basic principle of democracy—self-government, was spelled out in the Declaration of Independence that affirmed the founding of the United States on July 4, 1776. The Congress had John Dunlap print a broadside version of the Declaration, which was quickly and widely distributed. In the following months, a carefully hand-lettered version on vellum was signed by members of the Congress, including its president, John Hancock. This document is called the engrossed version. Lacking a permanent home during the Revolutionary War, the document traveled with Congress so that it could be safeguarded from the British. The engrossed version faded over the ensuing decades, and fearing its loss, the government had printer William Stone make a replica by literally pulling traces of ink off of the original to make a new engraving. Stone was ordered to print 200 copies so that yet another generation of Americans could understand the basis of nationhood. In 1823, he made 201—which included a copy for himself; that extra one was later donated by his family to the Smithsonian and is now in the collections of the American history museum. The faded engrossed version is on exhibit at the National Archives, re-opened for all to enjoy.
The Declaration of Independence has been preserved, enshrined, and reproduced. Its display continues to inspire visitors—and though its fragility might be taken as a metaphor for the fragility of the principles of democracy and freedom it represents, it also reminds us that democracy requires persistent care. Places like our museums, galleries, archives, libraries, national parks and historic sites provide the spaces in which the American people, no matter how divided on one or another issue of the day, can find inspiration in a rich, shared, and nuanced national heritage.
The Smithsonian’s History of America in 101 Objects, Penguin Press, is out this month.
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.
October 9, 2013
As we reach day nine of the federal shutdown, it’s widely known that all 19 of the Smithsonian Institution’s museums are closed to the public due to the furloughs of all non-essential federal employees.
What’s less often discussed, though, is the fact that the Smithsonian is also an international research organization that employs hundreds of scientists—and consequently, the shutdown has impacted dozens of scientific projects across the U.S. and in far-flung locations around the world. Interrupting this work for even a short-term period, scientists say, can have lasting effects down the road, as in many cases, projects may have to be started anew due to gaps in data.
Because of the furloughs, many researchers and other personnel are unreachable (some may even face penalties for merely checking their e-mail), so collecting information is difficult. But here’s a partial list of Smithsonian research projects interrupted by the ongoing shutdown:
Nick Pyenson of the Natural History Museum has conducted fieldwork on every continent except Antarctica, excavating ancient fossils to understand the evolution of modern marine mammals. As part of his team’s current project, in Chile, they’re 3D scanning a particularly rich site that includes whale, penguin and seal fossils so scientists worldwide can study the digital data.
But last week, that work was abruptly halted. “The Smithsonian is closed, due to a federal government #shutdown. All Pyenson Lab social media, including coverage of the ongoing joint UChile expedition, will be suspended starting 12 pm EST (noon) today (1 Oct),” Pyenson wrote on Facebook. “Also, all federally funded Smithsonian employees are forbidden, under penalty of a $5,000.00 fine and up to 2 years in a federal prison, from logging into their SI email accounts. I will be out of contact until the federal government reopens.”
In 2011, Pyenson’s crew discovered a set of ancient whale fossils in the path of the Pan-American Highway and excavated them just in time. There might not be any looming highway projects currently, but leaving these precious fossils exposed to the elements still poses an enormous risk to their scientific value.
The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, which partners with Harvard to operate and analyze data from dozens of astronomical telescopes, located both on the ground and in space, has managed to keep most of its facilities operating thus far. “You have to shutter federal buildings, but some of these aren’t technically federal buildings,” says David Aguilar, an SAO spokesman, noting that many telescopes, such as those at the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory in Arizona, are shared with local universities and are still staffed by skeleton crews comprised mostly of non-federal employees.
Many SAO researchers, though, depend on data that comes from a range of non-Smithsonian telescopes that have already been shut down. This group includes radio astronomer Mark Reid, who conducts research with the Very Long Baseline Array, a group of telescopes operated by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory that stretches all the way from Hawaii to New England and was closed last week. “This is really bad,” he told Science. “If they don’t operate the telescopes, it could mean a year’s worth of data becomes useless.”
At the National Zoo, the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Virginia, and various research sites around the world, staff has been stripped down to the minimum level necessary to care for animals—and that means all of the research into how these animals behave and how their bodies function has been shut down.
“All of the scientists, with very few exceptions, have been furloughed,” says Steve Monfort, director of the SCBI. “So everything is shut down. All of our labs are closed, and dozens of projects have been put on hold.” This includes the Zoo’s endocrinology lab (which provides crucial services to dozens of zoos across the country to help them breed elephants and other animals) and the genetics lab (which analyzes biodiversity to sustain severely endangered species on the brink of extinction). “We’re pretty much dead in the water, as far as ongoing science work,” he says.
Additionally, some of these projects are conducted in some 35 different countries annually, so travel arrangements and international collaborations—such as a trip to China to study pandas and a Zoo team’s research into emerging infectious animal diseases in Uganda—have been delayed or cancelled.
“What the public sees when we put on displays is only the tip of the iceberg,” says David Ward, a curator at the National Portrait Gallery, which opened the (briefly) acclaimed exhibition “Dancing the Dream” the day before the shutdown. “There’s a tremendous amount of day-to-day work and research necessary to keep everything going, and we can’t do it right now. It’s very frustrating.”
Apart from designing exhibitions—a whole host of which will likely be delayed in opening, including the Sackler Museum’s exhibit on yoga in historic Asian art, the Hirshhorn’s “Damage Control,” a much-anticipated exhibition on the theme of destruction in contemporary at, and the American Art Museum’s “Our America” exhibition on Latino art—curators conduct research to expand knowledge in their fields. This work, too, has been interrupted by the shutdown.
Kristopher Helgen, the Natural History Museum curator and biologist who announced the discovery of the olinguito species to great fanfare in August, announced on Twitter today that he “had to turn away mammalogists from Oz, NZ, S Africa, Brazil, etc. Long way to come to find the collections closed.”
Because the majority of Smithsonian researchers and curators are furloughed and out of contact, what we currently know about interrupted science is only a small measure of the total effects of the shutdown. “I don’t have much information because, scientists are largely furloughed and silent,” says Kirk Johnson, director of the Natural History Museum. “The real impact of this will emerge once the lights are back on.”