April 5, 2012
Have you ever wanted to wander the halls of the Portrait Gallery or Smithsonian American Art Museum—or see some of their works, such as Andrew Wyeth’s ‘Dodges Ridge,’ in exquisite detail—but can’t make it to DC at the drop of a hat? Now, thanks to the museums’ collaboration with the Google Art Project, you’ll have the opportunity to virtually experience all they have to offer from the comfort of your own home.
On Tuesday, as part of a major expansion of the project, the museums officially became participants, joining 150 other museums and institutions from around the world. As part of the collaboration, Google has created ultra high-resolution scans of 149 of the Art Museum’s pieces and 192 of the Portrait Gallery’s are now freely available for anyone to see online. For some museums, Google has selected a signature image to present at a size over 1 billion pixels (1 gigapixel), allowing viewers to examine the paintings down to remarkably minute details. By comparison, a typical digital camera produces photographs around 10 megapixels in size, or 1000 times smaller than a gigapixel.
Additionally, Google has used its Street View technology to provide remote viewers the chance to virtually tour the halls and galleries of the museums. The company’s special panoramic camera was brought in this past December to capture the interiors, and users can navigate it much as they might tour the streets of the city outside using Street View.
The project was started in February 2011 by Google, and now encompasses more than 32,000 works in total, including paintings, sculptures and drawings. The Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York also became an official participant today, with more than 1500 pieces represented online. The Smithsonian Institution’s involvement started last year, when more than 200 works from the Freer Gallery were captured and made available as part of the first phase of the project. At the time, Julian Raby, the Freer and Sackler Gallery’s director, commended the level of detail made available in the online reproductions and felt the project would only increase interest in the museum’s offerings.
“The gigapixel allows you to see elements that you would really never ever see, certainly in traditional means of reproduction. You might see the crackle in the oil of a painting, you can sense the brushstroke in the artist’s hand and energy, you can see narrative details you would never see otherwise,” he said. “The traditional thing has been to say that any form of surrogate photograph, video, film will mean that people won’t come to the museums; actually, the experience is quite the opposite. In this particular case, I think it will create a sense of fascination that will engage completely new audiences.”
Check out the project to tour museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the National Gallery in London in addition to the three four Smithsonian museums that have joined on. You can wander the halls, select your favorite pieces, and build your own virtual gallery that brings together works from around the world. Google encourages art students and teachers to use the content as educational material, and plans to continue expanding the project in future years to make as much art as possible available to anyone, anywhere—so long as they have access to a computer.
March 30, 2012
As you sit down to read this blog post, there’s likely a cell phone in your pocket, on your desk or in your bag. Within the past hour—if not the past few minutes—you’ve probably used it to call someone, send a text or check email. This device probably also functions as your alarm clock, your calendar and even your camera. Suffice to say, cell phones are an irreplaceable part of our modern lives.
But how often do we stop to consider what’s inside them?
This question is at the heart of a new exhibition and research project in the early stage of development by Joshua Bell, an anthropologist and curator of globalization at the Natural History Museum, along with Joel Kuipers, an anthropologist at George Washington University. “The working title of the exhibition, which I hope will stick, is ‘A Natural History of the Mobile Phone,’” Bell says. “We want to get people to realize that this is not just a manmade object, but something that connects different people and different places around the world.”
Bell and Kuipers plan to explore the intersection of mobile phones and globalization via a pair of different approaches: the ecological impacts of phone production, and the cultural variability with which phones are used around the world.
Mobile phones are constructed using hundreds of different chemicals and elements, and each of these relies on a complex commodity chain with impacts around the world. Bell points out that the plastic in his phone originated from a petroleum product which was likely shipped to China for manufacturing, while the lithium battery includes ions mined in the salt flats of Bolivia and the capacitors include the element tantalum, which is produced in Congo and has been linked to local conflicts.
“If you think about anything you consume, all of its components come from somewhere else,” says Bell. “Your phone is not just connecting you to your parents or children that you talk to on it, but also to Chinese workers in an electronics factory, who are maybe being paid substandard wages, and electronic waste dumps, like in Ghana.” These connections have human and ecological consequences, and since the average American now buys a new phone every two years, the impacts can be steep.
The exhibition, Bell says, will also look at the cultural dimensions of cell phone use in different countries and in different communities. Bell and his research assistants plan to conduct research and interviews on cell phone use among four groups in the DC area: El Salvadoran communities in Mt. Pleasant (a neighborhood in Northwest Washington), Vietnamese communities in Falls Church, Virginia, an African immigrant group in Maryland and George Washington University students.
“Phones allow us to engage in amazing cultural innovation,” he says. “Everything from simply being able to talk to each other and video chat to new innovations in texting language.” The research team plans to track the diversity of these sorts of innovations across the different groups.
The project is still in its initial phases, so it will be some time before we see an exhibition on the Mall, but Bell already has in mind the effect he hopes the show will have on visitors. ”I would love for people to walk away from the exhibit realizing what is in a mobile phone, what it helps us to do, and the cultural variability of its use,” he says. “Cell phones are not the only objects that create global interconnections, but they are some of the most visible.”
Political Ecologies of the Cell Phone is an interdisciplinary project and a collaboration between GWU and the Smithsonian that explores the connections between the intimate and global connections made through cell-phones. Field research in the DC metro area is just beginning and workshops are planned for the Fall.
January 6, 2012
A crowd of hushed spectators packed into the small red factory house at the Speedwell Ironworks in Morristown, New Jersey, unsure of what to expect next. Samuel Morse, along with his colleagues Leonard Gale and Alfred Vail, had packed over two miles of wire into the building, attempting to demonstrate to the public that his strange new invention could be used to transmit messages over long distances. Finally, the inventors manipulated a primitive transmitter, and a receiver scratched Morse’s simple message—”A patient waiter is no loser”—via a code of lines and curves. On this day in 1838, the small group of onlookers saw something special: the first-ever public demonstration of the telegraph.
Of course, as with all technological breakthroughs, the development of the telegraph had started years earlier, says curator Harold Wallace of the American History Museum. But unlike many other inventions, the telegraph was the result of an unusual mix of personal circumstances, artistic influences and pure happenstance. For the first four decades of his life, Morse was first and foremost an artist. “He was a painter of modest renown,” says Wallace. “Not top tier, perhaps, but his name was known.”
Morse was first provoked to think about communications technology because of a tragedy: in 1825, while painting the portrait of the Marquis de Lafayette in Washington, D.C., he received a letter indicating his wife was sick. By the time he reached his home in New Haven, Connecticut, she had already been buried. Stricken by grief, he vowed to develop a faster way to send messages in such crucial circumstances.
For several more years, Morse struggled in vain to succeed in the art world, but in 1832, serendipity intervened. On a transatlantic voyage, returning home from study in Europe, he met Charles Thomas Jackson, a Boston physician and scientist, who showed him a rudimentary electromagnet he had devised. Morse became convinced that he could somehow send a message along a wire by opening and closing an electrical circuit, which could be recorded by an electromagnet on a piece of paper via a written code.
Back in the U.S., he moved forward with his idea, meeting with Joseph Henry, another scientist working in electromagnetism—and the man who would later become the first secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, in 1846. “He met with Henry, who explained how the electromagnets worked and showed his experimental ones,” says Wallace. “And if you look at the electromagnets—the ones Morse uses, and the experimental ones from Henry—it’s obvious they’re the same design. He’s definitely riffing off of Henry, as far as the electromagnet, which is one of the most important pieces of the apparatus.”
Morse returned to his New York apartment and, in 1837, he crafted a primitive telegraph receiver—now part of the Smithsonian’s collections and currently on display at the American Art Museum—that was able to register and record the fluctuations in an electrical circuit. “The most interesting thing about the prototype is that he took an artist’s canvas stretcher and made it into a telegraph receiver,” Wallace says. “So right there, you can see the shift from painter to telegrapher, all in one piece.”
With a means of recording electromagnetic signals theoretically in place, Morse worked with Gale, Vail and others over the next several years to improve the system and make it practical for use over far distances, incorporating Vail’s transmitter key and a code of dots and dashes, which of course would become known as Morse Code. Despite these improvements, the group had some difficulty convincing others that telegraphy was a worthy investment. “It was not difficult to convince people at the time that it was potentially useful,” Wallace says. “What really was the hard sell that Morse and others had to make was whether it could be practical. Could you create wires miles and miles long and send a signal through them?”
To raise capital for long-distance lines, he turned to the U.S. government, and after a small-scale demonstration with wires strung between different committee rooms within the Capitol, he was awarded $30,000 to build a 38-mile line from Baltimore to Washington, D.C. On May 1, 1844, Morse’s communication device was finally met with wide scale public enthusiasm, as the Whig Party’s presidential nomination was telegraphed from Baltimore to D.C. far faster than a courier could have traveled.
Later that month, the line was officially opened for public use—with a message quite a bit more well-known than that of the the earlier Speedwell Ironworks demonstration. This, too was recorded on a strip of paper, which now resides in the American History Museum’s collections. Short yet meaningful, the bible quotation set the stage for the approaching age of electronic communication: “What Hath God Wrought.”
December 9, 2011
In 1890, the U.S. Government had a problem. With the nation’s population growing rapidly, hand-counting the results was proving impractical—the 1880 census took a full 7 years to tabulate. Policymakers worried that the 1890 census wouldn’t even be counted by 1900, making reapportionment of congressional seats—as required by the Constitution—impossible.
Enter the Buffalo, New York, native Herman Hollerith. The engineer was pondering this very problem in the early 1880s when, on a train, his eyes fell upon a conductor’s punch card. Hollerith’s work over the next decade eventually led to the groundbreaking invention of the punch card tabulating machine, installed in a federal government office for the very first time on this day in 1888.
“Hollerith had actually worked on the census of 1880, and he was really intrigued by the notion of trying to automate the process,” says Peggy Kidwell, curator of computing history at the American History Museum, which is home to an early version of Hollerith’s device. He began by experimenting with paper rolls that were punched with holes to represent information, but eventually settled on punch cards, which were more durable and could be fed through a counting machine more easily.
Given the capacities of previous devices of the era, Hollerith’s prototype was revolutionary. “What happened is that you took a card, and you had the punch, and you put in a hole whereever there was something that you wanted to enter as information,” Kidwell says. For the census, each card represented an individual, and each hole a point of data—for example, a hole in one location would represent a male, and a hole in a different spot would represent a female.
“On the tabulating machine, there was a contact point where there were little cups of mercury—as many cups as there could be holes in the card,” says Kidwell. “When it pushed the card down, if there was a hole, you made electrical contact, and that made the machine register the piece of information.” A series of dials across the “dashboard” of the device displayed the counts for a number of categories.
Although an operator still had to manually feed the cards through the counter, this was exponentially faster than simply counting census forms by hand. The machine also included a sorter, which could select a particular group of cards based on multiple criteria. “You could find out, for example, all the Norwegian-born people in Minnesota,” Kidwell says. “If you were of Norwegian descent, you would have a hole for that, if you lived in Minnesota, you’d have another hole, so you could pick out and count all of the cards that had both.”
Before the 1890 census, the machine was first tested in several smaller capacities, including the health departments of Baltimore and New York, and the U.S. War Department, which marked the first federal use of the device. “The department’s Records and Health division would use the machine for compiling monthly health statistics on individual soldiers,” says Kidwell. “Each card represented an individual, and each hole position stood for a particular type of information, such as the type of disease, whether it had been contracted in the line of duty, and whether the solider had been admitted to sick report.”
By the time the census rolled around, the tabulating machine was finely tuned and ready to go. Without the inventions, experts had estimated, the 1890 census would have taken 13 years to fully tabulate. With the device in place, the tabulation finished ahead of schedule and under budget.
Although the tabulating machine looks more like an ancient relic than a modern computer, its invention proved to be pivotal in the history of information technology. With the proceeds from leasing his machines to the Census Bureau, Hollerith founded the Tabulating Machine Company in 1896. Eventually, it would merge with several other firms in 1911, and was renamed International Business Machines in 1924.
The company continued to develop faster and more complex tabulating machines over the next several decades. “The scope of what the machines were able to do expanded, and that meant that the company had enough money to invest in the kinds of research that would be needed when you got really expensive machines, like electronic computers,” says Kidwell. You might know the company better by its acronym, still in use today: I.B.M.
November 29, 2011
Picture a mummy. You probably imagine a lurching horror-movie villain, lumbering out of a tomb with fraying cloth straps trailing behind.
The truth is quite different and no less fascinating. The Natural History Museum‘s new exhibition, “Eternal Life in Ancient Egypt,” reveals that Egyptians made mummies of loved ones, exotic animals and even pets as a means of communicating with the gods—and preserving the body to journey through the afterlife and reunite with the soul.
These mummies and associated artifacts, says curator Lana Troy of Uppsala University in Sweden, can serve as a valuable portal into the Egyptian belief system. Tentkhonsu—a female human mummy on display in the gallery—and the sarcophagus in which she was buried are covered with inscriptions and images that convey details of the Egyptians’ beliefs about life after death.
“This coffin is a product of a long tradition,” Troy says. “Perhaps the most interesting thing, for me, was discovering the way that the pictures actually fit together. They aren’t a compilation of scenes, but rather a narrative.” The detailed paintings that wrap around the outside of the sarcophagus and continue into the interior show the stages of the Egyptian afterlife, moving from death to judgement, the journey through the netherworld, and eventual rebirth.
“These were designed not as static objects, but as agents of resurrection,” says Troy. “They’re actively involved—by depicting the resurrection, showing it step by step, and placing gods in certain positions. It’s feeding into the energy of the coffin as a place where the dead are going to be revived.”
Perhaps even more than the human mummies, the dozens of animal mummies on display—ranging from tiny crocodile hatchlings to hawks to an enormous bull—most fully illustrate the importance of mummification in everyday Egyptian religious ritual. “If you go to a church, and you’re Catholic, you light a candle, and that is your offering,” says Salima Ikram of the American University in Cairo, who also curated the exhibit. “The Egyptians had animal mummies. The idea was that this creature would go and transfer the information to the god, and the god was more likely to hear you.”
The array of animal mummies also tell us about Egyptian social class and status. “If you were a peasant, you would probably pick up a cat of your own and try and wrap it or just give it to the priest,” Ikram says. Some of the more ornate mummies in the show—such as a bronze statue of the god Horus, which probably once contained a bird mummy—likely came from a wealthy family, perhaps seeking to flaunt its high social status.
Legions of workshops created these tokens of piety by the dozen, with mummy industries often based around temple complexes to sell their wares to visiting worshippers. But recent advances in CT scanning have revealed an unexpected surprise about many of these “mummies”: they’re entirely empty.
“With this baboon, you look inside, and its completely fake,” says Ikram. “Baboons were really hard to come by, particularly in this time period, because they had to be imported from Sub-saharan Africa and moved up into the Nile River Valley, so people would make fakes and say, ‘there’s a real baboon inside.’” Other mummies on display, while not empty, include only fragments of animals, so that rare creatures might be split apart and used to create multiple items.
Advanced scanning technologies and forensic techniques were also used to gain information about a pair of the human mummies in the exhibition. Getting an up-close look at bone tissue helps researchers determine the sex and age of these corpses, and examining the details of the mummification process can also tell us about the social class of an individual. “These X-rays and CT scans completely change the way we look at the mummies,” Ikram says. “Our understanding of them is now so much greater.”
“Eternal Life in Ancient Egypt” is a new permanent display at the Natural History Museum.