November 19, 2013
A portrait of Winston Churchill photographed by Yousuf Karsh during the darkest days of World War II reveals a leader resolute in the face of crisis. The year was 1941; Churchill was visiting Canada, and the Nazi puppet government in France had just sworn to wring the neck of Britain like a chicken. Staring straight into Karsh’s camera, Churchill’s eyes are steely, almost obstinate. Moments prior, he had stood in the Canadian parliament, hands on hips, and announced passionately: “Some chicken! Some neck!”
When Karsh took the iconic photo—the one that would grace the cover of Life magazine and launch his international career—he was a young man, excited but nervous about photographing the historic figure. MacKenzie King, former prime minister of Canada, had first noticed Yousuf when he was photographing a meeting with FDR. King asked Karsh if he would photograph Churchill during the Canadian visit, and Karsh agreed.
To prepare, Karsh practiced with a subject similar in stature to Churchill from the waist down. He set up his equipment in the speaker’s chamber in the Canadian House of Parliament, a huge Tudor apartment that was used for the speaker to entertain guests. Wrangling hundreds of pounds of photography equipment, Karsh next waited patiently for the moment when Churchill would finish his speech and exit the House of Commons and enter the speaker’s chamber.
On the tail of his impassioned speech, Churchill came striding into the chamber, arms outstretch, hands open: in one, somebody placed a glass of brandy, in the other, a Havana cigar. It took a moment, but Churchill soon noticed the small, young photographer standing amid his mass of equipment.
“What’s this? What’s this?” Churchill demanded.
Karsh realized, suddenly, that no one had told Churchill that he was to have his picture taken. “Sir, I hope I will be worthy enough to make a photography equal to this historic moment.”
Churchill, reluctantly, acquiesced—sort of. “You may take one.”
One picture, one chance.
Churchill relinquished his glass to an assistant and began to sit for the photograph, still puffing on his cigar. Karsh readied the equipment but, just before taking the picture, he placed an ashtray in front of Churchill, asking that the prime minister remove the cigar from his mouth.
Churchill obstinately refused, and Karsh was perplexed: the smoke from the cigar would certainly obscure the image. He returned to the camera, ready to take the picture—but then with lightening speed, Karsh leaned over the camera and plucked the cigar from Churchill’s lips.
“He looked so belligerent, he could have devoured me,” Karsh would remember later, and it’s a belligerence that comes across in the famous photograph—a scowl over the pilfered cigar that came to represent, seemingly, a fierce glare as if confronting the enemy.
Karsh’s iconic Churchill portrait, as well as 26 other photographs, are on display at the National Portrait Gallery through April 27, 2014. The installation is made possible thanks to a large gift—more than 100 photographs—to the Portrait Gallery by Yousuf Karsh’s wife Estrellita Karsh.
“Yousuf was so thrilled when he came over as a poor Armenian immigrant boy in 1927 to be in this country. He always called it (Canada, America and the United States) the sunshine of freedom,” says Mrs. Karsh. “He would be thrilled that his photographs of Americans are here—and what better home than the Smithsonian, really, what better home.”
The 27 photographs span Karsh’s long career, from the oldest image (a 1936 black and white of FDR, ) to a color photograph of César Chávez, taken 11 years before Karsh’s death in 2002.
“In selecting the portraits to feature, I wanted to spotlight Karsh’s ability to create distinctive and evocative images of such a wide range of famous Americans—from Eleanor Roosevelt to Colonel Sanders to I.M. Pei,” Ann Shumard, curator of the exhibit, explains. “It is my hope that visitors to the exhibition will come away with a new appreciation for Karsh’s singular artistry as a portraitist.”
Spanning nearly six-decades, Karsh gained a reputation for photographing some of the most iconic and influential men and women in the world, from Fidel Castro to Queen Elizabeth. But behind the iconic faces lies a kind of radiant humanity that Karsh was so skilled at capturing: the person behind the mask of society.
“His honest, open approach, his great ability to have the viewer give the best in himself—that comes through,” Mrs. Karsh explains. “And this is what people see whether they’re going to see it in 1920, 1930, 2015 or 3000. That is the element that remains.”
The Churchill portrait is on view until November 2, 2014. From May 2, 2014 to November 2, 2014, the museum will display an ongoing rotation a selection of portraits from the Karsh collection. To see a selection of the portraits online, visit our photo collection.
November 15, 2013
For many, the most poignant symbols of segregation during the Jim Crow era are the four men who refused to leave a Greensboro lunch counter or the arrest of Rosa Parks after she refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery City bus.
But segregation, says Spencer Crew, a curator for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, was everywhere—even airplanes and train cars. After 1900, all southbound trains were divided into sections for whites and blacks, the former with more room for men’s and women’s lounges, luggage and hat racks, and spacious restrooms.
The train car provides a vivid backdrop for the inaugural exhibition on segregation that the museum will open with in 2015. The only problem: the nine-decade-old, 44-seat Southern Railway car, donated by railway executive Pete Claussen and his company Gulf & Ohio Railways, won’t be able to fit through the door once construction is finished.
So on Sunday, the 153,900-pound passenger car, No. 1200, will dangle above the scaffold-ridden Washington skyline, lifted by cranes and then lowered onto the construction site on Constitution Avenue between 14th and 15th Streets—the first of two major artifacts that will be installed before the museum is built around it.
It’s the first time (as far as we can tell) artifacts have been installed into a Smithsonian museum before the building, or at least its shell, takes shape.
The George Washington in a toga statue by Horatio Greenough and the 1926 Pacific steam locomotive at the National Museum of American History and the Skylab at the National Air and Space Museum were put in place before construction was completed, Smithsonian curators say. But at American History, some walls had already been built around the artifacts, and at Air and Space, the roof was already up, making Sunday’s installation at the African American History Museum all the more unusual.
Crews on Sunday will also install a more than 21-foot guard tower from the Louisiana State Penitentiary, one of the largest maximum-security prisons in the country nicknamed “Angola” for the 19th-century plantation that once stood on its land.
After final touches are put on the artifacts next week, the rail car and tower will be covered by protective structures so construction can continue around them.
The event, which is open to the public, will close roads for six hours (see details below), but it’s a milestone five years in the making.
Pete Claussen and Gulf & Ohio Railways donated the railway car—first built in 1918 as an open-window coach—to the museum in 2009.
In 1940, it was renovated to create separate seating, lounges and restrooms for black and white passengers. But the car was not simply divided in half: to accommodate the larger luxuries in the white seating section, nearly two-thirds of the train was dedicated to white passengers, leaving only a third of car for the “colored section.”
Segregation on trains isn’t documented as it was in schools or at water fountains, visuals that endure as one of the practice’s most common symbols, said Spencer Crew, a curator for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, who noted Frederick Douglass was among those kicked off of trains for refusing to sit in the black passenger car.
“The ability, or inability, to travel is a critical issue,” Crew says, one he plans to explore in the museum’s first exhibit that will tell the story segregation between the years 1876 and 1968.
The train car was in storage at the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum in Chattanooga, before it was acquired by the museum. Renovations began in 2012 in Stearns, Kentucky, in preparation of this year’s arrival in Washington, a process that required 20 different tradesman, from electricians to metalworkers and painters.
The car was in fairly good condition when work began, said John E. Rimmasch, the CEO of Wasatch Railroad Contractors, who was charged with restoring the artifact. After the structural elements had been secured, workers went through the car and restored everything from the hat racks to the paint colors.
Once the car is installed in the museum, visitors will pass through it as they move through the exhibit—giving them a chance to “internalize [it] and feel what that was to walk from the white section of the car to the colored section of the car,” Rimmasch said.
The interior of the prison tower won’t be accessible to the public once the museum opens, but Crew says it will help drive home the exploration of white power and black incarceration in the mid-20th century, which he’ll also feature in the exhibit.
Before the Louisiana State Penitentiary was handed over to the state, the land was used as a plantation that drew its workers from prisoners leased by the state. As a prison, Angola earned a reputation for the corruption that ran rampant behind closed walls, “the nearest kin to slavery that could legally exist,” Patricia Cohen once wrote in the New York Times.
From the more than 21-foot tower, wardens kept constant watch over the mostly-black prisoners at the facility, “a reminder that there was a constant effort to control their lives,” Crew said.
“The tower—and its role in the penal system—are important to the story I’m telling about the power of the tower and trying to keep African Americans under the control of others,” Crew said.
The Louisiana State Penitentiary donated the tower and a prisoner cell to the museum in 2012. This past July, the tower was taken down from the prison’s “Camp H” and transported to Stearns, to join the rail car.
Together, they made a three-day journey in a seven-vehicle convoy to Washington, DC,where they will serve as rare reminders of what segregation actually felt like for much of the 20th-century, Claussen says.
“You learn that separate but equal was certainly separate but it wasn’t really equal and that’s one of the things this demonstrates,” he says. “There are very few tangible pieces of segregation left. . .there are so few things you can [use to] actually experience what segregation was like and this was one of them,” he says.
The tower and rail car are scheduled to arrive around 7 a.m. Sunday. Both objects will be lifted from trucks on Constitution Avenue with cranes and placed into the museum site. Constitution Avenue between 14th and 15th streets will be closed to pedestrians and vehicles throughout the event, which is expected to last from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. For those who want to watch the installation take place, the objects will be visible from Madison Drive, between 14th and 15th streets.
October 7, 2013
The day before the government shutdown began, the American History Museum installed this stunning billboard from World War II in the west wing off the second-floor Flag Hall. 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.
This image, created by artist Carl Paulson for the U.S. Treasury Department, is believed to be the most popular poster design of World War II. It appeared in more than 30,000 locations in March and April 1942 and was revived by the Treasury in July 1942 and 1943. In the video above, curators William Bird, Jr. and Harry Rubenstein explain how the billboard came together.
The billboard will be on view to visitors as soon as the Smithsonian museums re-open. Until then, watch the video above to see how it was installed.
September 13, 2013
On September 15, 1963, two and a half weeks after the March on Washington, four little girls were killed in the Ku Klux Klan bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Addie Mae Collins, 14, Denise McNair, 11, Carole Robertson, 14, and Cynthia Wesley, 14, were the youngest casualties in a year that had already seen the murder of Medgar Evers and police brutality in Birmingham and Danville. For many Americans, it was this single act of terrorism, targeted at children, that made plain the need for action on civil rights.
Joan Mulholland was among the mourners at a funeral service for three of the girls on September 18, 1963. (A separate service was held for the fourth victim.) Thousands gathered around nearby 6th Avenue Baptist Church to hear Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who observed that “life is hard, at times as hard as crucible steel.”
Mulholland, a former Freedom Rider who turns 72 this weekend, was then one of the few white students at historically black Tougaloo College in Mississippi. She and a VW busload of her classmates came to Birmingham to bear witness, to “try to understand.” She says of the victims, “They were so innocent—why them?”
Mulholland stopped at the ruined 16th Street church first, picking up shards of stained glass and spent shotgun shell casings that remained on the grounds three days after the bombing. Ten of those shards of glass will join one other shard, recently donated by the family of Rev. Norman Jimerson, in the collections of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. For now, Mulholland’s shards can be viewed in “Changing America: The Emancipation Proclamation, 1863 and the March on Washington, 1963” at the American History Museum.
Mulholland joined us for an exclusive interview in the gallery. She is a short, sturdy woman with a quiet demeanor, her long white hair tied back in a bandana. A smile flickers perpetually across her lips, even as her still, steel blue eyes suggest that she has seen it all before.
As a SNCC activist in the early 1960s, Mulholland participated in sit-ins in Durham, North Carolina, and Arlington, Virginia, her home. She joined the Freedom Rides in 1961 and served a two-month sentence at Parchman State Prison Farm.
Looking back, Mulholland recognizes that she was a part of history in the making. But at the time, she and other civil rights activists were just “in the moment,” she says, “doing what we needed to do to make America true to itself—for me particularly, to make my home in the South true to its best self.”
Mulholland spent the summer of 1963 volunteering in the March on Washington’s D.C. office. On the morning of the March, she watched as the buses rolled in and the crowds formed without incident. That day, she says, was “like heaven”—utterly peaceful, despite fear-mongering predictions to the contrary.
Eighteen days later, the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church changed all that. “Things had been so beautiful,” Mulholland remembers, “and now it was worse than normal.” The explosion, which claimed the lives of four children and injured 22 others, set off a wave of violence in Birmingham. There were riots, fires and rock-throwing. Two black boys were shot to death, and Gov. George Wallace readied the Alabama National Guard.
The funeral on September 18 brought a respite from the chaos. Mourners clustered in the streets singing freedom songs and listened to the service from loudspeakers outside the 6th Avenue church. “We were there just in tears and trying to keep strong,” Mulholland recalls.
The tragedy sent shockwaves through the nation, galvanizing the public in the final push toward passage of the Civil Rights Act. “The bombing brought the civil rights movement home to a lot more people,” says Mulholland. “It made people much more aware of how bad things were, how bad we could be.” As Rev. King said in his eulogy, the four little girls “did not die in vain.”
Mulholland hopes that her collection of shards will keep their memory alive. “I just wish this display had their pictures and names up there,” she says. “That’s the one shortcoming.”
After graduating from Tougaloo College in 1964, Mulholland went back home to the Washington, D.C. area—but she never really left the civil rights movement. She took a job in the Smithsonian’s Community Relations Service and helped create the first Smithsonian collection to document the African American experience. She donated many artifacts from her time in the movement—newspaper clippings, buttons and posters, a burned cross and a deck of cards made out of envelopes during her prison stint, in addition to the shards from Birmingham.
She kept some of the shards and sometimes wears one around her neck as a memento. “Necklace is too nice a word,” she says.
Others she used as a teaching tool. From 1980 to 2007, Mulholland worked as a teaching assistant in Arlington and created lessons that reflected her experience in the civil rights movement. She brought the shards to her second grade class, juxtaposing the church bombing in Birmingham with the Sharpeville massacre in South Africa.
“I saw second graders rubbing this glass and in tears as it was passing around,” she says. “You might say they were too young. . . but they were old enough to understand it at some level. And their understanding would only grow with age.”
Fifty years after the bombing, Mulholland says that “we aren’t the country we were.” She sees the ripple effects of the sit-ins culminating, but by no means ending, with the election of President Barack Obama in 2008. And while the struggle for civil rights isn’t over, she says, when it comes to voting rights, immigration reform, gender discrimination and criminal justice, Mulholland remains optimistic about America’s ability to change for the better.
It’s “not as fast as I’d want,” she says. “I think I’m still one of those impatient students on that. But the changes I’ve seen give me hope that it’ll happen.”
August 21, 2013
The top movie at the U.S. box office last weekend was Lee Daniels’ The Butler, a drama loosely based on the life of White House butler and maître d’ Eugene Allen. Allen, who died in 2010 at age 90, served eight presidents from Truman to Reagan during his 34-year tenure. The new film, which stars Forest Whitaker as the fictional butler Cecil Gaines, is not a biopic, rather a portrait of race relations through the eyes of one man.
It is also not the first time Allen’s story has appeared on film. In 1994, Smithsonian Folkways released the documentary “Workers at the White House,” featuring interviews with Eugene Allen and other residence staff in a range of occupations. The film was directed by Dr. Marjorie Hunt, curator for the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, and was produced in conjunction with the 1992 Folklife Festival.
The documentary can now be found on the Smithsonian Folkways DVD White House Workers: Traditions and Memories. In the following excerpts, Eugene Allen talks about his career, his friendship with President Jimmy Carter and his farewell dinner with the Reagans.