April 11, 2013
The first several Soviet and American spacecrafts sent to the moon missed it completely, crashed on the moon or were lost in space, according to a new exhibition at the Air and Space Museum. Navigation is a tricky business and has long been so, even before we ever set our sights on the moon. But the steady march of technological advances and a spirit of exploration have helped guide us into new realms. And today, any one with GPS can be a navigator.
From the sea and sky to outer space and back, the history of how we get where we’re going is on view at the National Air and Space Museum’s new exhibit “Time and Navigation: The Untold Story of Getting from Here to There,” co-sponsored by both Air and Space and the National Museum of American History.
Historian Carlene Stephens, who studies the history of time and is one of four Smithsonian curators who worked on the show, says: “If you want to know where you are, if you want to know where you’re going, you need a reliable clock and that’s been true since the 18th century.”
That interplay of time and space is at the heart of the exhibit—from sea to satellites. As technology allows for greater accuracy, so too does it ease navigation for the average user, so that by World War II, navigators could be trained in a matter of hours or days.
What began as “dead reckoning,” or positioning oneself using time, speed and direction, has transformed into an ever-more accurate process with atomic clocks capable of keeping time within three-billionths of a second. Where it once took roughly 14 minutes to calculate one’s position at sea, it now takes fractions of a second. And though it still takes 14 minutes to communicate via satellite with instruments on Mars, like Curiosity, curator Paul Ceruzzi says, we were still able to complete the landing with calculations made from earth.
“That gives you a sense of how good we’re getting at these things,” says Ceruzzi.
The exhibit tells the story with an array of elegantly crafted and historical instruments, including models of clocks designed by Galileo, Charles Lindbergh’s sextant used to learn celestial navigation, artifacts from the Wilkes Expedition and Stanley, the most famous early robotic vehicle that can navigate itself. It as much a testament to the distances we’ve traversed as it is to the capacity of human intellect that first dreamed it was all possible.
April 5, 2013
How better to celebrate April Fool’s Day among scholars than to parse, deconstruct, reconsider and otherwise dismantle a subject rarely considered. This year Smithsonian curators, historians and researchers assembled at the National Museum of American History to take part in the annual (well, sometimes) “Conference on Stuff.” In the past, we’ve considered the marshmallow, Jell-O, corn, crackers, peanut butter and pie. This year, our subject was grease.
I was drawn instantly by the spirit of “dedicated hilarity” and volunteered to make a presentation on “greasepaint”—a pig fat concoction originally invented as a makeup base for actors, but one that has since morphed into a cosmetic industry that grosses an estimated $170 billion dollars annually.
For those of you who missed my talk “Greasepaint Glamour,” providing both intellectual gravitas and an excuse to fluff up and wear my boa, I will share now with my adoring online fans.
The tradition of face-painting extends as far back as the advent of image creation. Ancient Egyptians rimmed their eyes with kohl—a mixture of lead, copper, burned almonds, and soot—to ward off evil spirits; they also used a type of rouge to stain their lips and cheeks—a stain made from a deadly combination of iodine and bromine that gave us the phrase, “kiss of death.”
Historically, pale skin was a status symbol of upper class fashion, meant to distinguish women who spent their lives indoors rather than out in the fields. Elizabeth I coated her face with white lead and vinegar, optimistically intending to evoke a “Mask of Youth.” In the 19th century, Queen Victoria went bare-faced and declared makeup was something only worn by loose women or actors, neither of which category included Her Royal Highness. Leading actors of the American stage such as Joseph Jefferson—known for his role as Rip Van Winkle—and singer Lillian Russell wore makeup composed of an unappetizing mixture of zinc oxide, lead, mercury, and nitrate of silver.
At the turn of the 20th Century, a theatrical cosmetic based on pig fat (lard) was invented in Germany: known as “grease paint,” it was a flesh-colored paste that combined lard with zinc and ochre and gave actors a less garish, more natural appearance onstage.
With the advent of moving pictures, the demand for makeup burgeoned with the rise of the “close-up” as actors scrambled to cover flaws and enhance their most attractive facial features. Makeup also had to stand up to the powerful new lighting technology invented for filmmaking, and because black and white film stock didn’t register all colors accurately (red looked black on screen, for example), actors had to wear a green-tinged arsenic makeup that looked “natural” once projected onscreen.
Arsenic makeup’s side-effects were dangerous, but Polish immigrant Max Factor soon came to the rescue. Factor arrived in Los Angeles with his family in 1904, and by the time the movie industry began its migration from New York to “Hollywood” in the early teens, he had set up shop as a wig-maker and a makeup artist. In 1914, Factor invented “flexible greasepaint”—a makeup in a tube that revolutionized movie cosmetics because it reflected well under movie lighting. Happily, it also didn’t contain anything that could poison actors.
Flexible greasepaint was applied with a wet sponge and then “set” with powder; Factor went on to devise a “color harmony” palette that individualized makeup for such stars as Rudolph Valentino and Mary Pickford. He also coined the noun “makeup” from the verb phrase “to makeup one’s face.”
As Hollywood moved into its glamorous heyday in the 1930s, movie makeup had an enormous impact on everyday life. Women followed such fads as bleaching their hair to imitate Jean Harlow’s platinum locks, or painting their nails “Jungle Red” as Joan Crawford did in the 1939 film The Women. In 1937, Max Factor patented his “pancake makeup,” and it became so wildly successful that one-third of all American women wore it by 1940.
Cosmetics had become big business, and Factor was joined in this increasingly competitive trade by Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden. Like Factor, Rubenstein was born in Poland: she first immigrated to Australia and set up beauty salons marketing pots of her special “Krakow face cream.” Enormously successful, she soon opened salons in London, Paris, and in 1914, New York City.
Rubenstein’s Fifth Avenue salon was mere blocks from Elizabeth Arden’s, another pioneering figure in cosmetics who came to New York from rural Canada in 1907. Arden worked at a beauty salon at Fifth Avenue before opening her own salon on Fifth Avenue and 42d Street. Fiercely competitive, the two would battle royally over what a PBS documentary termed “The Powder & The Glory” for the next half century.
As I wrapped up my contribution to the Stuff Conference, I gave the final words on makeup to one of my oracles—Miss Piggy. Curator of entertainment Dwight Blocker Bowers, himself, is a fan of the grand dame of pork and before the conference we had mused together on what Miss Piggy might offer on the subject of pig-fat makeup. No fool is that pig. “If you’re going to slap lipstick on a pig,” she would likely intone, “make very sure it’s not a relative.”
March 18, 2013
Tuesday, March 19: Verbal Gymnastics
Poet, playwright and Verbal Gymnastics founder John Johnson is in the house this morning to help you unlock your inner poet. In line with his mission to use the arts to tackle troubling social issues, Johnson will show participants how to use their personal observations of and experiences in their communities to create original verse. Free. 10:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Anacostia Community Museum.
Wednesday, March 20: The Films of Nam June Paik
Nam June Paik (1932-2006) was an avant garde musician, installation artist and the world’s first video artist. The American Art Museum opened a retrospective of his career earlier this year (see some of his work at his website), and this evening curators at the museum will introduce a series of short films and video works by the multi-media pioneer. Free. 6:30 p.m. American Art Museum.
Thursday, March 21: Wahzhazhe: An Osage Ballet
The history of the Osage people comes alive this afternoon through a unique medium–ballet. The performance features the traditional dance, music and design of the Oklahoma-area Native people, and shows the triumphs and tragedies of their complex history, from their relocation from their homeland on the Osage River to the discovery of oil on their reservation to their lives today. Free. Daily at 3 p.m. through March 23. American Indian Museum.
Also, check out our Visitors Guide App. Get the most out of your trip to Washington, D.C. and the National Mall with this selection of custom-built tours, based on your available time and passions. From the editors of Smithsonian magazine, the app is packed with handy navigational tools, maps, museum floor plans and museum information including ‘Greatest Hits’ for each Smithsonian museum.
For a complete listing of Smithsonian events and exhibitions visit the goSmithsonian Visitors Guide. Additional reporting by Michelle Strange.
February 28, 2013
As a curator of medicine at the American History Museum, Katherine Ott is used to seeing some odd things. But when she started spotting collections of teeth tucked around the museum, she got suspicious. With the help of other curators and even the director, Ott put together a video documenting her hunt for answers. Turns out, lots of odd things had been happening across the collections and all signs pointed to one culprit: the tooth fairy!
Spoiler alert, the documentary is actually more of a “mockumentary,” and the tooth fairy is none other than Katherine Ott herself. She created the video as a tool to get kids thinking about how objects end up at the museum and the process of collecting.
“Years ago when we were cleaning out the old medical storage hall, I found this box of teeth,” says Ott. The teeth were actually fakes, made for dentures by the Philadelphia company S.S. White. Hundreds of loose pearly whites (or faded yellows at this point) filled jars and folders.
“They were just there and I thought, ‘Oh my god, the tooth fairy was here!’” Ott and her coworkers made up a fake file of crime scene investigations and enlisted the help of an American University graduate student to film the video.
“The hope is to get little kids to learn without knowing they’re learning,” she says. Ott even learned a little something, discovering a whole new character in the process, Ratoncito Pérez. The story of the tiny rodent originated in Madrid, but is popular in Latin America where the critter acts as a sort of tooth fairy.
With an international appeal, the video is intended to reach as many kids as possible. Locals and visitors are encouraged to come to the museum and hunt for the tooth fairy’s glitter-covered box of teeth.
Ott says the quirkiness of the video, which coincides perfectly with National Tooth Fairy Day on February 28, also highlights the quirkiness of the work she does. She’s always thinking about how to bring her collections to as broad an audience as possible. To that end, she participated in this year’s TweetUp event, showing off her wares to admiring Tweeters and Instagramers in a behind-the-scenes tour.
The museum plans to leave the “hidden” cache of tooth fairy teeth on display indefinitely in one of the first floor display cases for inquiring minds to discover for themselves, so plan your visit accordingly.