August 1, 2011
Thirty years ago today, MTV went on the air for the first time with footage from the Apollo 11 moon landing–with a twist, of course. The black-and-white image of the American flag was replaced by a technicolor MTV logo. The picture became iconic, and today, at the channel’s famous Video Music Awards, category winners are awarded the “Moon Man”–a silver statuette of an astronaut holding an MTV flag.
Surprisingly, the National Air and Space Museum houses within its collections two of those iconic statuettes, including one that flew to space with Russian cosmonauts in 1996. Space history curator Margaret Weitekamp explained that MTV chose the moon landing as the opening images for their new channel because of the implications of venturing into new territory.
“When MTV started, the idea was that this would be a very different kind of television,” Weitekamp said. “Instead of tuning in to watch a program or a particular star, you would tune in to the network of music videos and current music programming. So what they wanted to do to launch that was the idea that this was a giant leap forward in television programming and thinking about television.”
The network had originally planned to use the audio from the Apollo 11 moon landing, with Neil Armstrong proclaiming, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Two weeks before the planned air date, however, MTV got a call from NASA–they didn’t have permission to use Neil Armstrong’s voice. They scrambled to re-cut the sequence and change the soundtrack, and put music in the background instead of dialogue.
“They had this kind of Andy Warhol-ized, colorized version of these Apollo moonwalkers crossed with the rock and roll,” Weitekamp said. “And I’m not sure people entirely got the connection to the new giant leap forward in the network because the form of it had to change so much in the weeks before they went to air, but it still became very identifiable.”
So identifiable in fact, that for the 1996 VMAs, Pepsi paid to have a moon man statuette flown into space, and planned to have the Russian cosmonauts (wearing Pepsi hats) talk live with the host of the show, comedian Dennis Miller.
“The whole thing turned out to be a little bit of a disaster,” Weitekamp said. “The cosmonauts didn’t speak English, and obviously Dennis Miller doesn’t speak Russian, plus there was a few seconds delay. So on live television, he would ask them a question, and they would be waiting not only for the transmission but for the Russian translation and then finally, around the time that they would start to speak the host would decide it was time to ask another question, so they just talked all over each other.”
The statuette (minus its base, which had been removed for weight purposes) came to Air and Space in 2007 when curators were working on an exhibit about images of astronauts in popular culture. The museum approached MTV, and the network donated the Moon Man, along with another blank statuette with an intact base to show what the entire piece looks like together (seen at left). The statuettes aren’t currently on display, but Weitekamp says that one day she would love to do a popular culture exhibit and allow visitors to see a little bit of MTV history.
July 27, 2011
The old Patent Office Building in Washington, D.C. covers an entire city block, and currently houses not just one, but two museums as well as an archive gallery: The Smithsonian American Art Museum, the National Portrait Gallery and the Lawrence A. Fleischman Gallery of the Archives of American Art.
Poet Walt Whitman called it the “noblest of the Washington buildings,” and it was modeled in part after the Parthenon in Athens, Greece. City planner Pierre L’Enfant originally intended the building to house a “church of the Republic,” but although the structure has survived several transformations, it never actually became a church. This week, the American Art Museum’s deputy director emeritus Charles Robertson will lead a now fully-booked tour describing the uses of the historic building during the Civil War. But since the museum is only taking wait-list requests for the popular tour, we took a look back in time to show you the five lives of the old Patent Office Building.
1. Patent Office: Bet you never would have guessed, but the Patent Office moved into the building in 1842, even before the structure was entirely completed. It granted patents from the building until 1932.
2. Civil War Hospital: During the Civil War, which lasted from 1861 to 1865, the Patent Office Building served as a hospital for wounded soldiers, in addition to housing a temporary barracks and a morgue. American Red Cross founder and nurse Clara Barton worked there as a volunteer nurse. Walt Whitman, who also served as a Civil War nurse, often came to the building to read to the wounded.
3. Ballroom: In March of 1865, the building was host to President Lincoln’s second inaugural ball, the first time a government had been used for the event. A ten dollar ticket admitted “one gentleman and two ladies” to the celebration.
4. Civil Service Commission Offices: After the Patent Office left the historic building in 1932, the Civil Service Commission took over. The commission administers the country’s civil service, which is composed of government employees not in the military. It was renamed as the Office of Personnel Management in 1978.
5. Museum: The Patent Office Building was given to the Smithsonian Institution by Congress, and was restored from 1964 to 1967. In January of 1968, the building opened to the public and today houses two museums, the American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery (which is currently hosting a series of interviews with curators and historians about the people and events of the Civil War).
July 25, 2011
The discovery of anesthesia dates to right around 1842, says Judy Chelnick, a curator who works with the medical history collections at the National Museum of American History. But at the start of the Civil War in 1861, effective techniques of administering drugs such as ether had not yet been perfected. Many patients may have died from receiving too much ether, Chelnick says, while others woke to experience the painful procedure.
Chelnick is standing in a room full of fascinating objects behind an exhibition on the third floor of the museum. It’s a place few tourists ever get to see, but the tools we’re discussing will be on display for visitors attending the Resident Associate program’s Civil War Medicine at the American History Museum event tomorrow, July 26.
I ask about a scary-looking curved metal tool with a sharp point.
“What’s that for?”
“You don’t want to know,” Chelnick responds.
She explains, but it turns out that no, I really didn’t want to know that that tool was used for puncturing the bladder directly through the abdomen to relieve pressure on the organ. I cringe involuntarily. Yes, I could have done without that knowledge.
As we continue our survey of the tools, most of which are still surprisingly shiny but have old wooden handles (“This was before germ theory,” Chelnick says), we come across many other objects that you probably don’t want to see in your next operating room. A brutal-looking pair of forceps that Chelnick says were used for cutting bone, some saws that look just like the ones I used in wood shop in high school and a terrifying object slightly reminiscent of a drill that was used to bore holes in the skull.
The sets of tools are incongruously packaged in elegant wooden boxes with red and purple fabric lining that I suspect is velvet. I can’t help thinking that those are good colors, because blood probably wouldn’t stain too badly.
Chelnick lifts up a tray of knives in one of the kits, and reveals something really amazing. It’s a set of cards, matriculation cards, Chelnick says they’re called, belonging to the doctor who owned this particular set. They’re from his time in
medical school (only two years were required back then), and they list his name (J.B. Cline) and the classes he took. It seems that Dr. Cline studied chemistry, diseases of women and children, pharmacy, anatomy and surgery, among other topics. For the sake of the Civil War soldiers he treated, I’m glad this was an educated man, but I still wouldn’t let him near me with any of those knives.
All in all, it’s enough to make anyone uneasy, but Chelnick says that’s part of the point.
“I think that a lot of times people have a romanticized vision of the war in their head,” Chelnick says. “And so I think the medical equipment really brings out the reality of the situation. It’s a reminder that there are consequences–people got hurt, people got killed.”
She adds that gunshot wounds and other battle injuries were not even close to the greatest killers during the Civil War. Rather, most fatalities occurred from diseases or infection spread in the close quarters of military camps.
I point out another tool in one of the kits. Chelnick restates what has become a frequent phrase in our conversation: “You don’t want to know.”
July 22, 2011
The Anacostia Community Museum is sadly at the end of one of its most visited exhibitions in recent history—the show “Word, Shout, Song” was so popular, it had been extended for four months. This weekend the show closes. But don’t worry, it it is slated to make a reappearance as a traveling exhibition.
“Word, Shout, Song” traces the social and linguistic history of the Gullah people back to their ancestral homeland of Africa, following the work of 20th-century linguist and professor Lorenzo Dow Turner.
Turner became fascinated by the language of the Gullah people, which was previously dismissed simply as “bad English,” and discovered that the dialect was actually a mix of 32 diverse African languages. The Gullah people have their roots among the 645,000 Africans captured, enslaved and brought to America between the 16th and 19th centuries.
On Saturday, July 23, the museum will hold a special event celebrating the final days of the exhibition. “Family Day: All Things Gullah” will include everything from storytelling to food, music and crafts. Around 3:30 p.m., the Geechee Gullah Ring Shouters and the Santa Barbara Shout Project will attempt to lead the crowd in an attempt to break the record for the world’s largest ring shout.
A ring shout is a traditionally religious African-American dance in which participants dance counterclockwise in a circle to the beat of clapping and a stick that is banged on a wooden surface. The stick takes the place of drums, said Griffin Lotson, manager of the Geechee Gullah Ring Shouters, because slaves were forbidden to beat drums on plantations in the 18th century.
“People really love it,” Lotson said. “For us, it’s basically about keeping the culture alive and pumping in some new life.”
Lotson said only a handful of groups that practice the tradition remain in the U.S., so his group does their best to preserve and protect the culture of the Gullah people, who today live in areas of South Carolina and Georgia.
He added that part of the reason the tradition has faded out is that after the Civil War, many Gullah did their best to adapt to mainstream American culture in order to better fit in, often abandoning traditions like the Gullah language of Geechee and rituals such as the ring shout.
“Being a Geechee was super unpopular–I was taught not to be Geechee,” said Lotson, who was born in 1954. “‘You’re too Geechee, boy,’ they’d say. Because it wasn’t mainstream, you couldn’t get the better jobs, you talked funny.”
Today, Lotson said, he and his group do their best to maintain what has been an unbroken thread of a unique culture within the U.S. through traveling and performing across the country. Lotson and most of his group are direct descendants of plantation slaves, and Lotson’s grandfather and mother were both involved in preserving the ring shout tradition.
“I think this exhibition is great,” Lotson said. “’It be my people,’ as we say in Geechee.”
July 15, 2011
The National Museum of American History gained a little star power yesterday when actors Denis Leary and Lenny Clarke stopped by to donate a few objects from their hit television show, Rescue Me.
Rescue Me, which airs on FX, follows a community of post-9/11 New York City firefighters in and out of burning buildings, high-drama relationships (it’s complicated) and other volatile situations. The show just premiered the first episode of its seventh and final season on Wednesday.
Leary and Clarke, joined by executive producer and writer Peter Tolan, donated objects including Leary’s firefighter’s costume, props such as an axe, flashlights and helmets and Tolan’s annotated script from the pilot episode, all of which will be added to the museum’s popular culture history collections.
Co-creators Leary and Tolan said they were honored and amazed to have objects from their show displayed at the Smithsonian.
“This is kind of a big thing for me–this is one of the few things in my career, in my life, that impressed my mother when I called her and told her,” Leary said.
The donation ceremony is the first in a series of events sponsored by the museum that will commemorate the 10th anniversary of September 11. Rescue Me was inspired in part by the tragedy, and Leary’s character on the show, Tommy Gavin, is haunted by his cousin, a firefighter who died in the 9/11 attacks.
“Rescue Me isn’t the end all of the examinations of 9/11 in entertainment, but I think once enough time has passed, and people are able to look at this tragedy, they will see it as a small step on the road to healing and acceptance for an awful day in our history,” Tolan said.
Museum curators said the donations will help to represent the place that popular culture, and in particular television, has in telling the story of 9/11.
“Americans rely on popular culture, our movies, our TV shows, to touch on and reflect on what happens in real life,” said Melinda Machado, the museum’s
director of public affairs.
The Smithsonian was designated the national repository for September 11 collections by Congress in 2002, and other items in the collections include photographs, parts of the planes, parts of the fire trucks and first responder uniforms, as well as oral histories, scrapbooks and personal memorials. This fall many of those artifacts will go on temporary display from September 3 through September 11 between 11 and 3 at the museum.
“In many ways, Denis and Peter’s donation today is their own personal memorial,” said Cedric Yeh, the collections manager for the September 11 collection. “Some people raised flags, others made banners, still more sent cards and volunteered their services to the public. Denis and Peter chose to create a TV series, one that is consistently recognized for its accurate portrayal of a post-9/11 world amongst firefighters in New York City.”
The next event in the series commemorating the attacks will be “The Public Memory of September 11,” a discussion featuring representatives from the memorial projects at Ground Zero, the Pentagon and the Flight 93 site in Pennsylvania, who will talk about the challenges of commemorating recent history. The event will take place at the National Building Museum on July 26 from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m.