Tag Archives: Smithsonian

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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101 awesome Smithsonian artifacts, plus a set of Spidey tights

If you were wondering which artifacts made The Smithsonian’s History of America in 101 Objects but didn’t want to shell out the shekels for the book, you’re in luck.  Here’s the whole list, plus an interview with author Richard Kurin.

Speaking of the Smithsonian, the National Museum of American History is getting a costume from that Spider-Man musical.  Seems like an odd addition for the NMAH.  I saw that show when I was in New York this past summer, and it was pretty meh.

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What impact will minority museums have on majority visitors?

There’s a movement underway to add a new National Museum of the American Latino to the Smithsonian system.  The NMAL would be one of several Smithsonian museums focused on the experiences of particular ethnic groups, alongside the National Museum of the American Indian and the National Museum of African American History and Culture (slated to open in 2015).  There’s also been some recent activity in an effort to put a women’s history museum on the National Mall, so we could be seeing quite a few new D.C. museums focused on the history of various minority groups in the coming years.

I’ve always been of the opinion that you can’t have too many museums.  Going to museums is one of my favorite things to do, so every new facility means something else I’ll get to enjoy visiting.

Wikimedia Commons

At the same time, though, part of me worries that these new museums might lead to some unintentional “re-segregation” of public history.  The National Museum of American History is a popular destination, and “American history” is a subject broad enough to appeal to a lot of people.  Trying to encompass everybody’s history under one roof has its disadvantages; you don’t get as many chances to cover minority-related subjects.  But when a general museum does mount an exhibit on the history of a minority group, it exposes visitors of a variety of backgrounds to the material, even visitors who wouldn’t normally visit a museum focused solely on minority history.  How many people who weren’t necessarily interested in twentieth-century black history got to experience the NMAH’s highly successful “Field to Factory” exhibit on the Great Migration?  Indeed, one wonders how many thousands of people have been exposed to specialized aspects of history at the NMAH just because they came to see the Star-Spangled Banner and then decided to explore the other exhibits.

I should point out that I’m not saying your average white visitor to the Smithsonian is a closet racist who will consciously avoid a black or Latino history museum.  I’m just saying that it might not occur to them that such a museum would be of interest.  The problem I’m concerned about here is visitor apathy, not hostility.  White Americans shouldn’t think of black or Latino history as “somebody else’s” history, but as critical components of American history as a whole.

And I definitely don’t want to give the impression that I think the construction of any of these museums would be a bad thing.  I just hope white visitors to D.C. don’t assume the new museums are irrelevant to them and miss out on all they have to offer.

On the other hand, maybe the addition of new museums focused on minority history will have the opposite effect.  Maybe a lot of white visitors to the Smithsonian will pay their first visit to a black history museum when the NMAAHC opens, since the new building will be right there on the Mall, in a location frequented by tourists who are passionate about their country’s past.

Your thoughts?

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Hope you weren’t about to visit a national park or the Smithsonian

Too bad we can’t let the park rangers and curators stay on the job and send the guys who make the decisions home without a paycheck instead.

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