December 5, 2012
The curators and researchers spend a lot of time reading, everything from classic novels to the latest exhibition catalog. We asked some of them to lend us their reading lists to see which titles rose to the top and why.
For the Art Connoisseurs:
Leslie Umberger, from the American Art Museum, recommends:
“James Castle: Show and Store, an exhibition catalogue produced by the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sophia in 2011 brilliantly navigates the complex depths of Idaho artist James Castle (1899-1977). Fresh, insightful, and deeply moving, the images and essays explore a truly, astonishing, poetic and enigmatic body of work–drawings of soot, paper constructions, and carefully rendered books and letters–entirely in its own terms. Perfectly magical.”
Lisa Hostetler, from the American Art Museum, recommends:
“Photography Changes Everything, edited by Marvin Heiferman (Aperture/Smithsonian Institution, 2012). It’s an interesting look at the wide variety of ways that photographs are used and how photography itself has affected contemporary culture. Two exhibition catalogues that I’ve been looking forward to reading are Cindy Sherman (MoMA, 2012) and Rineke Dijkstra (Guggenheim, 2012). Sherman and Dijkstra are two of today’s most compelling artists, and these retrospectives are important compendia of their careers.”
Maya Foo, from the Freer and Sackler, recommends:
“Rome by Robert Hughes. In college, I studied art history in Rome and I have wanted to return to Italy ever since. Robert Hughes’ Rome is a readable and rich history of the city told through art, architecture, literature and the author’s personal narrative.”
For the Wordsmiths:
David Ward, from the National Portrait Gallery, recommends:
“What with the opening of Poetic Likeness at the museum this fall and co-editing Lines in Long Array: A Civil War Commemoration, which includes 12 newly commissioned poems, my mind has been mostly on poetry the last year or so. I have been especially taken by the following titles: First, work by two of the great “voices” in modern American poetry, one still vital even at 85, John Ashbery, and the other sadly gone, Adrienne Rich, who passed away earlier this year after an amazingly powerful career. Adrienne Rich, Later Poems: Selected and New, 1971-2012 (WW Norton, 2012). John Ashbery, Quick Question: New Poems (Ecco, 2012).
The writer Eavan Boland is not only a first-rate poet but she is continually interesting on the subject of writing, literary history and social roles. Her latest book explores the sense of doubleness that she navigates in her career: A Journey with Two Maps: Becoming a Woman Poet.
Two prize-winning books by two of America’s best poets are also of note: Jorie Graham’s Place (Ecco, 2012) and Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars (Greywolf, 2011), which won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2012.
Also, a pitch for a book that was published a couple of years ago that I don’t think got as much attention as it should have, from Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors, A New Literary History of America (Harvard University Press, 2009), which came out in paperback in 2012. It provides a really valuable, entertaining and incisive view of 500 years of American writing.”
For the Scientists:
John Grant, from the National Air and Space Museum, recommends:
Roving Mars: Spirit, Opportunity and the Exploration of the Red Planet by Steve Squyres is good for adults. Squyres writes about his work as the principal investigator on both the Spirit and Opportunity missions to Mars in 2004. A good read for people following the more recent Mars developments with the Curiosity mission.
And for the younger set: Fly Me to Mars by Catherine Weitz is a terrific kids book.
For the History Buffs:
Cory Bernat, co-curator of FOOD: Transforming the American Table at American History, recommends:
Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in Modern America by Harvey Levestein, which covers America’s eating habits from the 1930s to present day.
John Edward Hasse, at the American History Museum, likes:
Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood and How It Changed America, by John M. Barry, because it’s a “fascinating story told so compellingly that it reads almost like a novel.”
Nancy Bercaw, of the American History Museum, suggests:
Tiya Miles’ Ties That Bind: The Story of an Afro-Cherokee Family in Slavery and Freedom, first published in 2006, but an interesting read for readers looking for something different in the Civil War sesquicentennial.
December 3, 2012
Tuesday, December 4: Madcap May: The Many Lives and Loves of a Scandalous Showgirl
From owner of the Hope Diamond and darling of the stage to penniless ex-pat, May Yohe lived a diva’s life. Headlines followed her around the world, through multiple high-profile marriages and equally tantalizing performances, but only Richard Kurin’s new biography, Madcap May: Mistress of Myth, Men and Hope brings her many adventures into one story. The Smithsonian Institution’s under secretary for history, art and culture knew he had to write the book after he came across May while doing the research for another book on the Hope Diamond. Kurin told the Around the Mall blog, “When you start thinking about all the things that she did: that many lovers and husbands at that time, to go to the height of fame in the British theater at that time—this is the time of Gilbert and Sullivan and George Bernard Shaw, so to be so successful and then end up playing in ten-cent vaudeville theaters, really in poverty, and running a chicken, and running a tea plantation, and a rubber plantation! She did so much more than any one human being, it’s kind of hard to imagine.” Hear more of her story from Kurin, who will discussing and signing copies of his book for Smithsonian Associates. Tickets $18 members, $25 non-members. 6:45 p.m. to 8:15 p.m. Museum of African Art.
Much was made of the importance of America’s changing demographics in the recent election, particularly the role of Latino voters in deciding the presidential race. But the Smithsonian’s Latino Center has been hard at work researching the historic roots of the Latino community in the nation’s capital. Joined by regional experts, the Center presents a discussion of the region’s relationship to its Bolivian community, its immigrant entrepreneurs and its low-income populations from World War II to today. Catholic University’s Enrique Pumar, the Brookings Institution’s Audrey Singer, George Washington University’s Marie Price and Institute for Women’s Policy Research’s Jane Henrici will discuss their own work and the Latino Center’s research. Free. 6:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. American Indian Museum.
Thursday, December 6: Carbon for Water
As part of the Anacostia Community Museum’s “Reclaiming the Edge: Urban Waterways and Civic Engagement” exhibit, the museum presents a documentary about the vulnerability of people living in Kenya’s Western Province. Reliant on the rivers for drinking water, many of the people are exposed to water-borne illness. The documentary, by Evan Abramson and Carmen Elsa Lopez, will be discussed by Anacostia Riverkeeper Mike Bolinder. Free. 7 p.m. Anacostia Community Museum.
November 22, 2012
Friday, November 23: ZooLights
It’s that time of year at last, when we get to see all of our favorite Zoo creatures as giant, light-up sculptures! That’s right, folks, ZooLights is back at the National Zoo. So yeah, you can go and enjoy the wildlife and educational extras (and you should) but the real show starts at night when dazzling greens, yellows and reds bring the Zoo to life. The show attracts 100,000 visitors each year. And new this year, the Conservation Carousel done in the grand tradition of old-fashioned carousels with handcrafted representations of the Zoo’s animal icons. Model trains, snowless tubing and plenty of photo opportunities, ZooLights entertains young and old. Admission is free. Parking $9 FONZ members,
$16 nonmembers. Begins Friday 5:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. National Zoo.
Saturday, November 24: Booksigning with Mary Savig, Handmade Holiday Cards
Author Mary Savig will be signing her book, Handmade Holiday Cards from 20th-Century Artists. With 190 reproductions of holiday cards straight from the Archives of American Art’s collections, the book is an historical tour of commonplace commercial graphic design. From the Mondrian-inspired abstractions to Japanese prints, the collection provides an alternative take on holiday greetings with designs by famous artist, including Josef Albers, John Lennon and Yoko Ono and Robert Motherwell. Talk with the author about her research process and maybe get some ideas for your own holiday card. Free. 1:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. The Castle.
Sunday, November 25: Metaphysical Baseball
David Stinson will be at the American History Museum signing copies of his book, Deadball, A Metaphysical Baseball Novel, about a minor league player possessed by visions of baseball greats gone by. Driven to the point of obsession, he begins traveling the country to see for himself the vanished stadiums and places that made baseball history. A novel thriller, the book also incorporates plenty of baseball history that fans will appreciate and enjoy. Free. 12:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. American History Museum.
August 21, 2012
May Yohe epitomized the Naughty Nineties. Larger than life, Yohe burned a path to greatness from humble beginnings in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Known for her sexuality and contralto voice that allowed her to take on male roles, Yohe scandalized audiences just as much on stage as off. Headlines of her rumored affairs captured public attention and when she married Lord Francis Hope, owner of the Hope Diamond, in 1894, her standing within high society seemed assured.
But after divorcing him eight years later, her life took a tumultuous turn. She ended up doing 10-cent vaudeville shows around the United States and traveling the world sometimes having to perform to raise funds for the next leg of the trip.
Throughout her life, Yohe continued to scrap by. If she wasn’t helping to write and create movie serials about the curse of the famous diamond that she had once owned (though may have never actually worn), she was working as a janitor in a steamship yard. Yohe married twice more, her profile rising and falling with every decade, until she died in 1938 at age 72.
Now Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian Institution’s under secretary for history, art and culture and the author of a book about the Hope Diamond, has written the first biography of Yohe. Madcap May: Mistress of Myth, Men and Hope, a riveting illumination of her nerve, verve and resilience, arrives in bookstores on September 4th.
I interviewed Kurin about Madcap May:
What was it that drew you to her story?
Well, I mean she was larger than life. She lived more than one lifetime. When you start thinking about all the things that she did: that many lovers and husbands at that time, to go to the height of fame in the British theater at that time—this is the time of Gilbert and Sullivan and George Bernard Shaw, so to be so successful and then end up playing in ten-cent vaudeville theaters, really in poverty, and running a chicken, and running a tea plantation, and a rubber plantation! She did so much more than any one human being, it’s kind of hard to imagine.
Falling in and out favor as she did, how do you think audiences will receive her today?
On one hand, she’s not that likable, so I’m not sure she occasions people saying, “Well, I really like this person,” but you’ve got to respect her for getting knocked down and getting up. I think it really is a story of resilience.
What was driving her through all of this, what made her keep trying?
My central hypothesis is that she came out of this Moravian tradition that did not doubt women’s rights or abilities. If you were born at the Inn at Bethlehem, you might think there’s something kind of sacred about your life. And so I think she was born in a community which had encouraged women, had never doubted the ability of women, had promoted women and made women feel that they can achieve anything on the planet. I think that she took that to heart, now she took that to heart more in a kind of secular way than she did in a religious way but nevertheless I think she got it from a very strong Moravian upbringing.
You wrote that she never described herself as a “new woman,” she never really cast herself in a politicized role. How do you think she saw herself?
I think this goes to the unlikability factor. I mean sometimes when I was writing this, I hated her because she was so narcissistic. She’s a prima donna of the prima donnas and she’s over the top and a lot of her writing and talk is so self-centered. She really is narcissistic. On the other hand, just when I hate her the most she runs off and does something that is very social whether it’s working in Whitechapel for the poor or working with Irish peasantry or taking up the cause of the chorus girls in the editorial pages of the British press during the height of the Suffragette movement. She did take up these causes, now I don’t think she politicized them because I don’t think she saw herself as part of a political party. I think she sort of saw herself as standing along. If she was a “new woman,” she was a singular new woman. Sometimes I say, “She was for women’s rights, her own.”
Are there any celebrities or starlets today who you would compare to May?
I don’t see any particular one. At the beginning of the book I say you can look at her as a combination of Britney Spears and Lady Di. She wasn’t just singular, there’s entertainers but how many entertainers are part of high British aristocracy? There’s a lot of celebrities, but how many have scrubbed floors and worked in the worst slums in the Western world in Whitechapel just ten years after Jack the Ripper? I would find it very difficult to come up with three or four people that match May Yohe.
July 24, 2012
Sam Kean entertained readers with his first book, New York Times best seller The Disappearing Spoon, offering tales of discovery and intrigue from the world of the periodic table. His follow up, The Violinist’s Thumb, takes the same approach to the headline-grabbing field of genetics. Kean will be discussing both at the Natural History Museum Thursday at noon.
“I knew the human genome was a big enough topic to find a lot of great stories,” Kean says. A field whose history has seen its share of controversial theories and horrific as well as awe-inspiring applications, genetics did not disappoint.
For example, Kean mentions polar bears who happen to have an usually high concentration of vitamin A in their livers. Dutch explorer Gerrit de Veer first recorded the toxic effects of eating polar bears in 1597. Voyagers to the Arctic, when finding themselves stranded, hungry and staring down a polar bear, knew that a meal was at hand. “They end up eating the polar bear liver,” which, Kean says, doesn’t end well. Your cell walls begin to break down, you get bloated and dizzy. Not to mention, “It actually makes your skin start to come off, it just peels off your body, partly because it interferes with skin cell genes,” says Kean. A notoriously horrific genre anyway, polar exploration proved fertile ground.
Kean’s anecdotal approach to chemistry and now genetics has been hailed as a diverting, sneaky way to introduce readers to science, but he points out, it also useful for scientists to learn the history of their field. “I think it makes you a better scientist in that you’re a little more aware of what your work means to people, how other people view your work,” Kean says.
DNA research in particular can feel, well, so scientific, but Kean highlights the dramatic and personal connections. He came to this realization after submitting his DNA for testing. “I admit, I kind of did it on a lark,” he says. “But there were a few syndromes or diseases I found out I was susceptible too and it was sort of scary to face that because there was a history of that in my family. It brought back some bad memories,” Kean recalls. In the end, the testing episode also provided a valuable lesson for the rest of the book.
“The more I looked into it,” says Kean, “the more I realized genes really deal in probabilities, not certainties.” So while scientists are learning more about the influence genes can have on specific personality traits, we’re also learning about the role of the environment on DNA. The classic nature versus nurture split no longer holds true.
For example, identical twins have the same DNA. “But if you have ever known identical twins, you know that there are differences, you can tell them apart,” says Kean. That led Kean to his chapter on epigenetics, which examines how environmental factors can switch on or off or even amplify gene expression.
Nicoló Paganini, the eponymous violinist, was considered one of the greatest performers of all time because of his “freakishly flexible fingers.” He could do all sorts of parlor tricks with his unusual fingers and his performances in the early 19th century were so inspired that his audiences were said to burst into tears. One man, allegedly driven mad by the Italian musician’s virtuoso, swore he saw the Devil himself helping the violinist.
Satanic involvement aside, Kean says it all comes down to DNA. “It allowed him to write and play music that other violinists simply couldn’t because they didn’t have the same kind of hands.”
Check out notes, games and more extras from The Violinist’s Thumb here.