September 14, 2010
In the 1930s as automobiles became a fixture in American culture, millions of people took to the roads, causing hotels, restaurants and other roadside entertainment to flourish. But for African Americans, hopping in a car and taking a road trip was no simple endeavor. Having to contend with wide-spread racism, it was all too often that the proprietors of hotels, eateries and gas stations would deny them service.
But in 1936, a postal worker living in New York City named Victor H. Green provided African Americans with an indispensable tool: The Negro Motorist Green Book, a travel guide that provided a list of nondiscriminatory places to eat and rest so to save travelers from indignities on the road. Each year, Green printed and sold 15,000 of the books, which were available at Esso Stations (the only gas station to welcome African Americans) and black-owned businesses until 1964. “There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published,” he wrote in the introduction. “That is when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States.”
Green began collecting citywide information about hotels, eateries, gas stations and businesses that would serve black customers. First published in 1936, demand was so great that Green continued to expand his guide on an annual basis so that it eventually covered the continental United States, Bermuda, Mexico and Canada.
Atlanta author and playwright Calvin Alexander Ramsey never heard of the Green Book until a few years ago when it casually sprung up in conversation. He has since written both a play and a children’s book around the traveler’s guide and the light it sheds on race relations in mid-century America. A dramatic reading of the play, sponsored by the Smithsonian’s African American History Museum and set in a Missouri African American tourist home, takes place Wednesday evening, September 15 16, at Washington, D.C.’s Lincoln Theater. (And for a discussion of spots in the District of Columbia that were once featured in The Green Book, check out this Washington Post piece.)
For those unable to make the reading, check out Ramsey’s new children’s story Ruth and the Green Book. It’s a wonderful take on the classic “to grandmother’s house we go” tale, but with the hardships of the Jim Crow South thrown into the mix—and the Green Book as the “magic talisman” that helps a young girl and her family safely reach their destination.
August 26, 2010
Celebrated photographer John Gossage first came to Washington, D.C., as a boy to attend Walden, an experimental school in the mid-1960s. His first book, published in 1985, was aptly titled The Pond, and explored marginal spaces in the modern landscape. It is widely considered one of the most important works of its kind, and features several photographs from the Washington D.C. area.
For the first time ever, the photographs from the book are featured in an exhibit, “The Pond,” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The show opens today and runs through January 17, 2011. Twenty-five years and 18 books after he produced The Pond, Gossage and I had a conversation about his first major work and whether or not Henry David Thoreau was onto something.
How does it feel to be revisiting The Pond after its original publication in 1985?
The Pond was actually my first major [mass] circulation book. I did one limited edition book with my gallery before that, but there were only 14 copies made, so this is the first one that really went out to a book-buying public. I have lived with it an awfully long time. Now, I’ve started looking at it again.
A contemporary artist’s job description is, if you have great ambition, make great work. But then you’re also obliged to set the context in which the work needs to be seen. The odd thing is, for the first edition I decided—since I wanted it to be emphatically a book—that the book was the original, instead of a catalog from the show. I never did a show of it. This is the first time I’ve ever seen it all up on the wall, which was really interesting for me. I actually sort of liked the show. I’m so used to [the photographs]. But it actually is a new way of looking at it.
How does it affect one’s perspective?
With books, you get a picture, and then you turn the page, it passes into memory and you get another picture. So you’re seeing one image at a time. To actually stand in a room and be able to scan multiple images is a very different experience. You see where you’re headed and where you’ve been at the same moment, because the book is a narrative. It’s actually about the proposition that there is such a thing as narrative landscape, which doesn’t really happen in literature, or it’s hard to pull off in literature, which is more character-driven. In photography, there is that possibility of being able to do that. So that’s what I wanted to experiment with, because I had not known of it being intently done before.
Photography books tag along on the literary model; you start at one point, and you end at another. With shows, no matter what intention you have, there are three rooms at the Smithsonian that contain the show. And with all intent, you want people to start at the start. But, there is absolutely no expectation on my part that at least half of the people will come in the right door. It doesn’t happen. You can’t herd people like that. I don’t herd like that. So they will see them in the order that they see them.
Speaking of literature, at the time you were taking these photos, what did you see as the connections between The Pond and the work of Henry David Thoreau?
Well, the reason I came to Washington was to go to a place called Walden School. So let’s put it this way: I’ve read Thoreau. Or else, you fail certain courses at a school called Walden.
One of the things I wanted to reference is Thoreau’s vision in Walden Pond of nature being a respite from the city, being this sort of philosophical escape from the 19th century. And it wasn’t quite true anymore. It’s a wonderful book. But what, in the late 20th century, could you say about going to the edge of town and looking at a pond? What does the pond look like now?
Which came first: the concept for The Pond, or the actual photos themselves?
The photos. I don’t work as a conceptualist. Let’s say the conceptual art model is that you have a project idea, or a set of concerns, and then you illustrate those concerns in whatever manner you see appropriate. For me, it has always been that the world suggests far more subtle and interesting variations than I could ever come up with. At a certain point in each project, you get an idea and you investigate it. But I always take my prompting from the work being done. And back then, I had some pictures and I thought, yes. And then I filled it out.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
I’m tall and handsome.
To see for yourself, Gossage will be at the American Art Museum on October 14 at 7 p.m., for a conversation with museum-goers about the exhibit. His book will be re-issued with a new introduction written by the museum’s curator of photography and will be available for purchase in the museum store in September.
June 17, 2010
Pop-up books? Sure, they sound like kid fare, but as the recent new exhibition at the National Museum of American History proves, they are far more than just that. “Paper Engineering: Fold, Pull, Pop, and Turn,” on view until next fall, not only showcases the history of the pop-up book, (which dates back to the 11th century), but also the intricate complexities that artisans have employed in creating these endlessly fascinating works.
When this visitor recently entered the darkened exhibit (many of the oldest pieces must be kept sheltered from light), the fantastical array of spinning carousels, giant spaceships, moveable skeletons, and airplanes poised for flight brought on an almost childlike giddiness.
Each book—the product of the author, the illustrator and the paper engineer—is ingeniously endowed with pull tabs, cut paper, string, boxes and cylinders. In some cases, the paper engineer proves to be doubly talented and serves as the illustrator as well. The exhibit showcases 53 of these works of genius, dating from the 14th century to modern times. A video explores the collaborative efforts among the three artists and a stop-motion film details the impressive feat it is to construct the pop-up book’s most revered and anticipated feature—the large centerpiece that unfurls in splendor when the book is opened and collapses between pages when the book is closed.
Modern assumptions make children the popular target of these wondrous works, but the exhibit quickly renders that notion myth. Anatomy, astrology, geometry, astronomy, theology, technology are just a few of the subjects the pop-ups in this exhibit cover. In fact, the oldest pop-up books were intended as instructional tools for adults, rendering difficult concepts into a kind of 3D instruction manual. The pop-ups in Euclid’s 1570 book, The Elements of Geometrie . . . help readers visualize geometrical forms and three-dimensional figures. More recent pop-up books, such as Sharon Gallagher’s 1984 Inside the Personal Computer uses similar strategies to help readers identify and understand the workings of a personal computer. Of course, books for children are featured in the exhibit. An 1850 rendering of the popular tales the Little Glass Slipper and Cinderella are sure to delight young visitors.
Stephen Van Dyk , director of the library at the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York City, said that the hardest part about putting together the show was deciding what would be displayed. “I had over 1,200 books available to showcase, but could choose just 53 books that best show the diversity.”
– by Jacqueline Sheppard
Paper Engineering: Fold, Pull, Pop, and Turn will be on view through the Fall of 2011 at the National Museum of American History.
December 10, 2009
First, we heard that bestselling writer Dan Brown visited the Smithsonian for book research. Then, when “The Lost Symbol” came out, we checked his version of the institution for accuracy. Now, in the wake of the book’s publication, the National Postal Museum has combed its collection and published an online exhibition on the theme, “The Lost Symbol on U.S. Postage Stamps.”
Curators selected about 50 stamps featuring images related to Brown’s fast-paced thriller set in Washington D.C. “As I read the book, I kept thinking, there is a stamp of that scene,” says chief curator of philately Cheryl Ganz. “The surprising discovery was how many stamps exist of sites in Washington D.C.”
Included are artistic renderings of Dulles Airport, where the book’s main character Robert Langdon lands; the Smithsonian Castle and the Capitol Rotunda, which are described at length; and 14 presidents who were prominent Masons, since the plot delves into the history of Freemasonry.
“I hope visitors see stamps as a creative way to illustrate a story,” says Ganz. “We never gave away the plot, and at the same time, someone who had not read the book could still enjoy the exhibit because of the historical significance of the images and the beauty of the engravings and art.”
October 14, 2009
Towards the beginning of his new thriller The Lost Symbol, Dan Brown introduces his main character Peter Solomon, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Peter’s phone number is mentioned twice in two pages (a detail that struck this reader as odd). And if by chance you should happen to call the number, as I did, your call will go directly to a hauntingly realistic voicemail—“Hello. You’ve reached Peter Solomon….”
Typical Dan Brown.
The bestselling writer is notorious for blurring the boundary between fact and fiction, and his latest book is no exception. The Smithsonian plays a dominant role in the plot. A major character works at the Smithsonian’s Museum Support Center in Suitland, Maryland. The true-life address of that facility is even revealed. And he includes brief forays into the architecture and history of the Castle and the story of founder James Smithson.
So naturally (the magazine has schooled me well in fact checking), I thought I’d look into some of the details included in the book. How accurately did Brown describe the Smithsonian?
Fact or fiction?
1.Dan Brown asserts that the Museum Support Center, a storage center for objects in the Smithsonian collection not on display, houses more pieces than the Hermitage, the Vatican Museum and the New York Metropolitan, combined.
Fact: The MSC houses 55 million objects and specimens. Some quick sleuthing on the web sites of the Hermitage, the Vatican Museum and the Met reveal that the total number of objects in their collections, combined, is less than 10 million.
2. In the story, the MSC is a zigzag-shaped building and includes five connected pods—each larger than a football field.
Fact: Each pod is three stories high, and in addition to the pods, there is a wing with labs and offices. The pods are referred to by number, as Brown does in the book, but he took some liberties with their uses.
3. The “wet pod,” with its many jarred specimen, houses over 20,000 species.
Fact (sort of): The operative word here is “over.” Brown was a little off. I checked in with MSC. Try about 212,000 species.
4. The MSC contains, in its holdings, poisoned darts from New Guinea, handwritten codices, a kayak made of baleen and extinct flowers.
Fiction: This may be splitting hairs, but a source at the MSC says that Brown was shown poison darts from Ecuador on the tour he took of the facility in April 2008. They have a few blowgun darts from New Guinea, but they do not know if they are poisoned. Also, some handwritten Islamic and Buddhist manuscripts, prayer books and Korans, all from the 19th and 20th centuries, are kept there. But they don’t really fit the definition of a codex. The facility reports having no kayaks made completely of baleen and says that extinct flowers are kept in the herbarium at the National Museum of Natural History. He did, however, get it right in saying that the MSC has meteorites, a collection of elephant skulls brought back from an African safari by Teddy Roosevelt and Sitting Bull’s pictographic diary.
5. Only two percent of the Smithsonian’s collection can be displayed in the museums at any given time; the MSC stores the other 98 percent.
Fiction: The Smithsonian, as a whole, displays less than two percent of its collection, estimated at the end of 2008 to be 136.8 million items. And the MSC stores more like 40 percent of the collection, while the rest of the objects not on display are housed behind-the-scenes in the museums (about 58 percent at the Natural History museum) or other off-site storage facilities.
6. The Smithsonian Castle, located on the National Mall, is a blend of Gothic and late Romanesque architecture—basically, a quintessential Norman castle, like those found in England at about the 12th century.
Partly Fiction: Though influenced by the Gothic, Romanesque and Norman styles, the building is a 19th century hybrid, a romanticized Victorian era mix that was meant to be a new “national style” of architecture, according to Richard Stamm, curator of the Castle collection.
7. The Castle once had two resident owls, named Diffusion and Increase.
Fact: Secretary S. Dillon Ripley (1964-84) had a pair of barn owls housed in one of the towers. He hoped that they would produce offspring (increase), explains Stamm. They did, but they “flew the coop” (diffusion) when the windows were opened to let the owls fend for themselves. Ripley named the adult pair Increase and Diffusion in reference to the Smithsonian’s mission, “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.”
Interested in more about Dan Brown’s Washington? Read about the Masonic temple that features heavily in the novel.