Tag Archives: Smithsonian

When remarkable artifacts meet exceptional stagecraft

A museum visit can be such a powerful experience that you walk out of a gallery feeling like the world has shifted on its axis.  Sometimes it’s because you see an artifact so remarkable that it stops you dead in your tracks.  Sometimes it’s because of exceptional stagecraft on the part of the exhibit designers.  And sometimes it’s both, a combination of artifact and stagecraft so outstanding that it knocks the wind right out of you.

It happened to me a couple of weeks ago at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.  The artifact was Emmett Till’s coffin.  (If you’re unfamiliar with the story of how it ended up at the NMAAHC, click here and here.)

It’s not just the object itself, but the presentation that packs such an emotional punch.  It’s in its own small gallery, set up to look like the front of a church.  You can hear a choir performing.  You line up with other visitors and file past the coffin, just as you would if you were one of the mourners paying your respects in Chicago more than six decades ago.  In a small anteroom there’s a short video with interviews from Till’s mother and other people who knew him.

Sometimes I’m skeptical of attempts to recreate or generate the emotions and perceptions of people caught up in past historical circumstances in a museum setting.  But I think the Emmett Till exhibit works because the emotions it stirs up in visitors are the very same emotions that made Till’s murder and funeral such a watershed.  The sight of his body confronted people with the monstrous nature of racism.  And the exhibit serves the same purpose.  It turns the history of racism into something concrete, immediate, and individual.  Putting the coffin on exhibit in the NMAAHC accomplishes the same thing in the present that putting it on exhibit in a church effected for people living at the time.

And the effect is magnified by the setup.  Visitors are going through the same physical motions as the mourners themselves, standing in line and filing past in order to see, to bear witness for themselves.  The distance between the 1950s and the present—between that Chicago church and the museum gallery that represents a section of it—collapses.  For a few moments, you forget that you’re a tourist in a museum.

I watched visitors stand there in the anteroom and literally weep, while others would spontaneously walk by and comfort them.  I’ve never seen an exhibit generate such emotion, let alone prompt strangers to embrace one another.  Lots of exhibits recreate or simulate historic settings, but this is one of the few that deserves to be called transportive—and transformational.

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GDP: The Smithsonian fossils are back, and better than ever

One of the perks of my job is an annual trip to DC for the celebration of Lincoln’s birthday on the National Mall.  Every year, I make a point to visit the National Museum of Natural History.

It was the first big natural history museum I ever visited as a child, and may very well be the place that first turned me into a museum junkie.  But it’s been years since I was able to see my favorite part of the NMNH—the dinosaur hall on the first floor.  The fossil exhibits have been closed for renovation since 2014.

Last week marked the first time I’ve been to DC since it reopened.  I was both excited and nervous.  As I’ve said before, the idea of this renovation was a bittersweet thing for me.  I was thrilled at the thought of an updated exhibit, but I was also afraid I’d miss the old mounts.  And I was especially worried I’d miss the dinosaur dioramas at the back of the hall.

I shouldn’t have worried.  The new exhibit Deep Time is nothing short of magnificent.  It combines everything that was great about the old hall with beautifully updated mounts, the latest science, and the finest in both modern and old-fashioned exhibitry.

Chronologically, Deep Time is about as comprehensive as it gets, from the emergence of life all the way up to the first human migrations and the extinction of the Ice Age megafauna, with hundreds of specimens along the way.

But let’s start with that T. rex.  Hoo boy!

My tastes tend to be pretty conventional when it comes to T. rex mounts.  I usually prefer your standard pose, with the animal in a simple striding position, head raised up to show off its height.  When I heard about the plan for the Nation’s T. rex—one foot planted on a Triceratops carcass, the neck and skull craning down to wrench its prey’s head off by the frill—I had my doubts.

But as soon as I stood in front of it, the NMNH’s mount instantly became my favorite T. rex display anywhere.

I don’t know why, but the whole creature just seems a lot more massive and powerful when you see it in this position.  Maybe it’s because the skull is closer to eye level.  Come to think of it, when Henry Fairfield Osborn planned the first-ever full T.rex mount at the American Museum of Natural History more than a century ago, he initially wanted to have two of them crouched over a carcass, with those big skull and hip bones down where visitors could get a good look at them.

This pose also allows you to examine the head from different angles.  You can really see the cranium shape that is so characteristic of tyrannosaurs—wider at the back, and then narrowing toward the snout.

I was under the impression that NMNH was going to attach the original skull to the mount, but a docent informed me that this is a copy.  Still looks pretty awesome.  And a lot of the bones in the photo below are the genuine article.

Diplodocus is still there, although no longer the centerpiece of the hall as it once was.  The new layout is a tremendous improvement.  You can get much closer to a lot of the big specimens now than you could in the old hall.

Stegosaurus and Ceratosaurs are back, too.  Now they’re engaged in combat, and it looks like the carnivore’s getting the worst of it.  Check out that patch of  armor on the stego’s throat.

Allosaurus, by contrast, is taking some down time.

And those dioramas from the old hall I was afraid I’d miss?  The new exhibit features a whole series of new ones, as exquisitely detailed as the masterpieces from the former exhibit.

Take this scene from the Cretaceous, for example.  If these little hadrosaurs know what’s good for them, they’ll put some serious distance between themselves and this creek bed…

…because somebody on the other side of it is about to wake up.

A much more recent scene, as a mastodon finds itself mired down at Big Bone Lick in Kentucky.

Yes, mammals are here, too—from the armored Glyptodon

…to the “Irish elk” Megaloceras.

And here’s everybody’s favorite sail-backed distant cousin, Dimetrodon.

Moving on from the terrestrial to the marine, here’s a mosasaur…

…and a mosasaur meal.

And we haven’t even gotten to the fish, invertebrates, or plants yet.  You could easily spend three or four hours wandering through the hall without taking it all in.

In fact, if there’s anything to criticize, it’s this: Deep Time perhaps tries to do too much from an interpretive standpoint.  The main theme is the extent to which changes in climate impacted environments and drove evolution, and how humans are accelerating these changes at a dangerous rate.  But the exhibit also delves into convergent evolution, migrations, predator-prey relationships, and taphonomy.

But having a lot to chew on is a great problem to have when you’re a museum visitor.  This is definitely an experience that will reward repeat visits.  And since I plan on repeating my visit annually, I’m totally okay with that.

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Peale’s mastodon is headed back to America

While we’re on the subject of moving really big museum artifacts, the Smithsonian American Art Museum is bringing the Peale mastodon from the Hessisches Landesmuseum Darmstadt back to the U.S. for a special exhibit.

By the time Charles Wilson Peale—artist, museum entrepreneur, and Rev War veteran—was excavating mastodon bones near present-day Montgomery, NY in 1801, the fossils of massive, elephantine creatures had been turning up in America for almost a century.  But Peale was the first to mount a mastodon skeleton for exhibition.  (Indeed, he was among the first to articulate any fossil skeleton for display.)  It became a star attraction at his Philadelphia museum, alongside his taxidermied birds and portraits of Revolutionary notables.

The mastodon figures in two of Peale’s artistic works.  He painted the scene of its exhumation in 1806…

…while its bones are visible beneath the curtain in the 1822 self-portrait, The Artist in His Museum.

Since mastodons became an emblem of the young American republic’s vitality—and since Peale himself was so caught up in the intellectual currents of the founding era—it’ll be nice to have this specimen back in the U.S., at least for a while.

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The plane, boss!

Moving everything out of the ALLM to make way for our big renovation project has been a labor of herculean proportions.  But hey, at least we didn’t have to disassemble an entire DC-3 and haul it across town, like the folks at the Smithsonian.

The biggest items we had to take apart and move were a 3-inch Ordnance rifle, an ambulance wagon, and William Seward’s carriage.  Seems pretty easy compared to a 17,000-lb. aircraft, although we weren’t thinking it at the time.

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Back to blogging with a look at some NMAI artifacts

Well, folks…it’s been a while.

Between running a museum that’s about to undergo a major renovation and trying to write a dissertation, the blog obviously fell by the wayside there for a few weeks.  I’m going to try to get back in the habit.

One of the reasons I slacked off was the fact that my job has me on the road quite a bit.  Luckily, however, it takes me to some really great places.  Every February, LMU sends a delegation to Washington, D.C. to participate in a ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial.  It’s a great opportunity to hit some museums.

This year I visited the National Museum of the American Indian.  I particularly enjoyed the Nation to Nation exhibit, which examines the history of treaty-making between tribes and the U.S.

Let’s take a look at some artifacts.

Seventeenth-century Lenape wampum belts.  The lower one belonged to William Penn:

A Creek bandolier bag, reportedly captured at Horseshoe Bend:

A hide painting of the Battle of Little Bighorn/Greasy Grass:

Serape belonging to William T. Sherman.  He probably got it in 1868, around the time he was negotiating the Treaty of Bosque Redondo with the Navajo:

A relic of forced acculturation.  Uniform from the Carlisle Indian Industrial School:

Nineteenth-century reservation ration cards and beaded card holder:

Painted shields from the days of the Plains conflicts:

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A Smithsonian smorgasbord of awesome objects

I used one of my free afternoons in Washington to take a whirlwind tour of the National Museum of American History.  I hadn’t been inside since the renovations that wrapped up in 2008.  I like the changes; the new halls are much more open and inviting, and easier to navigate.

But as I’ve said before, what I’m really after when I visit the NMAH isn’t so much interpretation as the chance to stand in the presence of iconic “superstar” objects—the things the Smithsonian has because it’s, y’know, the Smithsonian.

And hoo boy, does the NMAH have them in spades, especially in the exhibition The Price of Freedom: Americans at War.  From the French and Indian War through the War on Terror, it’s nothing less than a comprehensive military history of the United States in exhibit form, bristling with incredible artifacts.  One of them—Gen. John Pershing’s WWI desk—is right outside the exhibit entrance.

I was mostly drawn to the Rev War stuff, of course.  Hessians of the Ansbach-Bayreuth Regiment surrendered this flag at Yorktown.

Perhaps the most awe-inspiring pieces in the exhibit are personal items worn or used by George Washington: epaulets, sword, camp stool and chest, and 1789 uniform.

While we’re on the subject of generals and their apparel, here’s the uniform coat Andrew Jackson wore at the Battle of New Orleans…

…and William Sherman’s hat, along with the sword he carried at Shiloh.

If you visit the McLean House at Appomattox today, the chairs inside the parlor are reproductions.  Here are the originals, in which Grant and Lee sat to hash out the end of the Army of Northern Virginia.

If you’re going to be a frontier officer, you might as well dress like a frontiersman.  Here’s George Armstrong Custer’s buckskin coat.

And we haven’t even gotten to the twentieth century yet.  You could easily spend an entire day in the Price of Freedom exhibit—and if you can’t visit yourself, you can check out the artifacts online—but there are treasures on every floor of the NMAH.  Some of the most remarkable are in American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith, which boasts the portable desk Thomas Jefferson used to write the Declaration of Independence…

…and the box Washington used to store papers from the Constitutional Convention.

Here’s an object with a Tennessee connection.  Davy Crockett received this ceremonial hatchet from a group of admirers in 1835.

Some of the coolest objects are in the NMAH’s maritime exhibit On the Water.  Here’s some ammo recovered from the wreck of Blackbeard’s ship.

I’ve mentioned my interest in the history of whaling before, so I was delighted to find a section of the maritime exhibit devoted to it.  Here’s one of the basic tools of the trade.  Once this harpoon’s toggle head sank into a whale’s flesh, the rear prong sprang outward, holding the blade fast.  Think of it: Men climbed into small boats and used these things to wage close-quarter battles to the death against sixty-foot leviathans on the open sea.

The twisted iron below, wrung out of shape by a diving whale, is mute evidence of how fierce these contests could be.  That thing gave me chills.  It brings to mind Ahab’s remark about Moby Dick bearing harpoons “all twisted and wrenched in him.”  You can also see some of the improvements in the whalers’ arsenal that became more common in the late nineteenth century.  The harpoon gun and the exploding harpoon head, patented by Sven Foyd in 1870, allowed whalers to take down even the largest and fastest species.

A whaleboat outfitted for the chase:

With their prey dead, the whalers towed the carcass back to the ship and lashed it alongside.  Some men donned “monkey belts” like the one below to hang over the vessel’s side, where they stripped the blubber to render it into oil.  It was messy, dangerous work.

Chopping blades hacked the strips of blubber into “Bible leaves,” while skimmers and forks were indispensable tools around the boiling vats.

At the end of the day, of course, whaling was a business.  Ships’ logs recorded the number of barrels of oil obtained from each kill.

Whaling voyages were long; many ships stayed at sea for years at a time.  Scrimshaw carvings in teeth and bone helped sailors pass the time.

The NMAH also has an extensive collection of objects related to mass media and pop culture, but as a serious history professional, I wasn’t about to sully my intellect wi—HOLY CRAP, IS THAT THE BATMOBILE!?

Indeed it is, and it’ll be parked at the Smithsonian for three years.  And maybe it’s as appropriate an object as any for wrapping up a visit to NMAH.

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Psalm 23 as the Pilgrims heard it

Here’s a post-Thanksgiving addendum to that discussion of colonial dialects we had back in March.  The Smithsonian and Plimouth Plantation gave some visitors the chance to eavesdrop on seventeenth-century New England.

“Waking the Ancestors: Recovering the Lost Sacred Sounds of Colonial America,” was no ordinary living history program. Performed by educators from Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Massachusetts, the program was developed as part of the Smithsonian’s Religion in America initiative.

Just as calls to prayer and church bells are part of city life around the world, the religious lives of America’s indigenous people and colonists had their own distinctive sounds. “Waking the Ancestors” explored just what those sounds might have been like. With the help of meticulous historical research, the team behind the program reconstructed how worship traditions sounded after the arrival of the Mayflower in 1620 in what is now Massachusetts.

That soundscape is anything but familiar to 21st-century listeners. The region was new to English colonists, but not to the Wampanoag, who once numbered over 100,000 in what is now Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The Pilgrims would have heard the traditional songs and dances of Wampanoag people when they arrived—and in turn, the Wampanoag would have heard Pilgrims worshiping in Anglican, Puritan and Separatist styles.

To demonstrate, the program featured worship music in all three styles, ranging from the choral harmonies of Anglicans to the unadorned chanting of Puritans and Separatists, which focused more on the text than music. “For [Separatists], music was just the handmaiden of worship,” Richard Pickering, Plimoth Plantation’s deputy director and the “Waking the Ancestors” program leader, tells Smithsonian.com. Attendees heard multiple versions of psalms sung in different styles and period accents—an attempt to illustrate the spiritual rifts and changes that occurred within what many think of as a homogenous group of colonists.

Here’s the Twenty-Third Psalm as it sounded in New England four hundred years ago.

It’s quite reminiscent of the Shakespearean pronunciation reconstructed by David Crystal, especially in the long “i”s and “a”s.  But what about the dialect of the Pilgrims’ Wampanoag neighbors?

In 1992, Jessie Little Doe Baird, who belongs to the Wampanoag Nation’s Mashpee tribe, began having dreams in which her ancestors appeared to her speaking a language she could not understand. Compelled to bring back Wôpanâak, which had been little used since the 1830s, Baird and researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology used a rare book by missionary John Eliot to reconstruct the language. Eliot, who was given the nickname “the Apostle of the American Indian” due to his efforts to convert the area’s indigenous people, translated his so-called “Indian Bible,” a translation of the King James Bible, into the language of the local indigenous people in order to convert them, but his book has helped the Wampanoag connect even more deeply to their past traditions.

Though Wôpanâak is being taught to children and indigenous people today with the help of the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project, it is fiercely guarded by the Wampanoag people and is rarely spoken in public. Toodie Coombs, Darius’ wife, spoke in the language in a moment that was not recorded out of respect for the language itself. “That was incredibly powerful,” says Pickering. Coombs agrees. “A lot of people think that language is just an object. You can’t [treat it] like that—it took us a century to get our language back.”

I can see why it’s a sensitive issue.  Still, I can’t help but wish somebody had recorded at least a snippet, so that those of us who weren’t in attendance could get a fuller sense of the colonial New England soundscape.

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When scientific specimens become historic artifacts

In the summer of 1909, just after vacating the White House, Theodore Roosevelt killed a lion in Kenya as part of a collecting expedition for the Smithsonian.  Now the mounted cat is going back on exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History after spending twenty years in mothballs.  Here’s Sarah Kaplan’s fascinating piece at The Washington Post:

The past century has taken a toll on the majestic creature. The lion’s tawny fur is crushed in places, and his rumpled mane gives him the appearance of having bed head. A portion of his ear is clipped, chunks of fur are missing, and his glass eyes have gone foggy with age.

Conservator Ron Harvey surveyed the mount, assessing the damage, deciding what to repair and what to leave as is.

“I want him to look his best,” he explained. “But it is 100 years old. I want to maintain that sense of history too.”

The job of a natural history conservator goes far beyond simple aesthetics. Harvey must maintain the specimen’s scientific usefulness, ensuring that it can be studied by future generations. He also wants to preserve it as a historical artifact — an object that can tell us about our past and its own. When museum visitors look at this mount in six months, Harvey hopes they’ll get a sense of how it got to the museum, what it meant when they arrived, what it stills mean today.

“What story did this lion and Roosevelt want to tell us?” Harvey wondered. That’s what he aims to conserve.…

After consulting with museum conservation specialist Cathy Hawks, he decided to leave the lion’s glass eyes — which are cloudy and crizzled from a phenomenon called glass disease — as they are. They’re historic artifacts too, after all, and they’re suggestive of the lion’s old age and impressive backstory. On top of which, it would probably cause more damage to try to take them out.

“What we’re trying to do in conservation is preserve and extend the life of . . . this body that has not been sapped of all its knowledge,” Harvey said.

He noted that the specimen has been cited in scientific journal articles as recently as 2010, and that scientists are developing new tools for research all the time. There may be other stories — about lion biology, East African ecosystems, 20th century taxidermy methods — buried inside this specimen, waiting for someone with the right question and the right tools to answer it.

Roosevelt’s lion is a working scientific research specimen, but it’s also a historic artifact.  It reminds us that science is a human process embedded in the time and culture in which it takes place.  The National Museum of Natural History, the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the Peabody Museum at Yale, and the Natural History Museum don’t just preserve the record of life on earth, but also the record of how we’ve come to understand it.

Mounted lions from Roosevelt's Smithsonian safari. Image from Smithsonian Institution Archives (negative no. 24881 or NHB-24881) via Wikimedia Commons

Mounted lions from Roosevelt’s Smithsonian safari. Image from Smithsonian Institution Archives (negative no. 24881 or NHB-24881) via Wikimedia Commons

That’s one of the things that makes a visit to venerable old natural history museums so special.  As I’ve said before, a stroll through the fossil galleries of the American Museum of Natural History is almost like a tour of milestones in the history of vertebrate paleontology in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  Seeing any real dinosaur fossil is a treat, but at the AMNH you’re also seeing the life’s work of legendary figures like Barnum Brown, Henry F. Osborn, Charles H. Sternberg, and Roy Chapman Andrews.  You’re standing in the presence of giants in a dual sense, both the remains of long-dead creatures and the ghosts of those who brought them to light.

If you’re planning a trip to the AMNH, I heartily recommend reading Douglas Preston’s Dinosaurs in the Attic: An Excursion into the American Museum of Natural History before your visit.  It’s an engrossing reminder that natural history and human history are intertwined, and that museums house stories as well as specimens.  Thousands of stories, millions of stories—stories behind every pair of glass eyes, mounted on every metal armature, locked away in every drawer.

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Battle of the Smithsonian superstars

What’s the most iconic item in the whole Smithsonian Institution?  Here’s your chance to help decide:

This is it: the ultimate competition. We’re looking for the one item that says “SMITHSONIAN” like nothing else — and you get to decide the winner.

Our museums, research centers, and zoo have picked one iconic item each as its champion in the Smithsonian Summer Showdown. These titans of the Smithsonian will battle head-to-head through three rounds until there is ONE winner! Voting for Round One ends August 4. Vote now!

My first round picks are the T. rex in the science category (natch), the issue of Wonder Woman #1 in culture, the Star-Spangled Banner in history, and the Landsdowne portrait of Washington in art.  I’ll be very surprised if the flag doesn’t emerge as the last artifact standing when the final round of voting closes.

You know, I think it’s the iconic “superstar” objects that really make the Smithsonian what it is as far as most people are concerned, especially when it comes to the National Museum of American History.  Despite the comprehensiveness of the collections, and despite all the work that goes into researching, writing, and installing exhibitions on particular aspects of the American experience, what most people really want to see at the Smithsonian are these one-of-a-kind treasures, the kinds of things you can see at the NMAH and nowhere else: the Star-Spangled Banner, Washington’s uniform, the ruby slippers, and so on.

Museums have changed a lot in the past few decades, but I think what still draws in most visitors is the opportunity to stand in the presence of extraordinary objects.  And there’s nothing wrong with that.

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New space for old bones

This is bittersweet news for me.  The dinosaur hall at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History is closed for five years to make way for a total renovation.

I love the Smithsonian’s dino gallery.  It was the first major fossil exhibit I ever saw (so long ago that some of the occupants were probably breathing at the time).  There aren’t many museum experiences that could excite me more than walking through the NMNH rotunda, past that big bull elephant, and stepping into that massive hall dominated by a Diplodocus.

smithsonianmag.com

What I loved almost as much as the skeletons were the dioramas in the rear of the gallery.  They were like little windows into a world I usually had to imagine.  I doubt they’ll survive the renovation, since they’re pretty outdated.  But to tell you the truth, once I got older I loved the fact that they were showing their age, because they took me back to the dinosaur books I read when I was a kid—books with dinos that hadn’t yet caught up with science, still lumbering around in swampy forests with their tails dragging behind them.

Wikimedia Commons

The new exhibit should be pretty awesome.  They’re mounting a new T. rex, which I guess will replace the cast of “Stan” from the old hall.  Until then, Washington, D.C. is going to be a lot less awesome.  I really wish I could’ve visited this year, just to walk through one last time.

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