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"A Good Dog Knows What to Do"

Smithsonian Magazine

"Like most people these days who have seen Babe or caught a sheepdog trial segment on TV," writes Timothy Foote in his paean to Border collies and the wonders of sheepherding, "I have a slight grip on a few words in sheepdog-speak." There's "Away to me," which tells the dog to swing counterclockwise to head off the sheep, and "Come bye," which sends the dog into a clockwise curve instead. But it would take some time before Foote became familiar with even half the dozens of calls and whistles that handlers use to direct their Border collies in sheepherding trials.

At the Seclusival trials, on a 200-year-old farm in Shipman, Virginia, Foote spent a weekend with dog handlers and dogs, judges and observers, trying to get a feel for the sport and an understanding of its complexities. "Decisions — flank left, flank right, slow, stop, come on — are commanded and countermanded in fractions of a second. They are made by the handler, but ratified and then executed by the dog in an exquisite complexity, with the handler playing god but the dog still capable of free will."

And Border collies — famous for their intelligence and workaholic tendencies — apparently know what they're doing at least as well as their handlers. It would be nice if they could simply converse with the sheep, as Pig did in the movie Babe. But even without the benefit of language, these dogs seem preternaturally able to "read" a sheep's movements and intentions — far better than your average human, or even your better-than-average handler. As one disheartened handler confessed to Foote after a bad run: "I blew it. He read them right, but I gave him the wrong commands."

"A huge amount of logistical and detail work!" An Interview with Museum Registration Specialist Allison Dixon

National Museum of the American Indian
Museum registrars deal with object acquisitions, loans, exhibitions, deaccessions, storage, packing and shipping, and fine art insurance and risk management. A registration specialist's day is likely to include working on an exhibition team or two, conducting inventories and confirming object information, and reading and writing a lot of email.

"Armenian Public Radio" Brings Nirvana Attitude to the Folklife Festival

Smithsonian Magazine

California is known as a melting pot of immigrants. People from Western Europe, Asia and Latin America are among the most visible in California's cultural landscape.

But Los Angeles also happens to hold the largest population of Armenians outside of Armenia. One group of Armenian musicians is bringing the traditional sound of that community to Washington, D.C. for Smithsonian's 2016 Folklife Festival, Sounds of California. Armenian Public Radio will play two concerts on the National Mall during the festival.

“We're all first-generation born in the U.S.,” says Mher Vahakn Ajamian, percussionist and guitar player. “All of our parents were born not in the U.S., they were born in the Middle East. Lebanon or Syria.”

Most Armenians in California arrived as they fled various wars during the 20th century. “My grandfather was born in Syria. The reason my grandfather was born in Syria was the Armenian genocide,” when the Ottoman government that later became Turkey systematically exterminated around 1.5 million Armenians starting in 1915.

“My great-grandfather escaped during the genocide and ended up in Syria. My grandfather gets married, moves to Lebanon, has my dad and my aunt. They came to the U.S. due to the invasion of Lebanon in the Lebanese Civil War.”

Armenian-American culture and music has a distinctly multicultural flavor due to the experiences of so many refugees spending years (or even generations) in other countries before settling here.

Traditional Armenian folk music was all around as Ajamian was growing up. As was other music from the family's history. “At weddings, we also listen to Arabic music and Greek music being played. You'll hear the Gypsy Kings and Latin music.” Ajamian's father grew up listening to Pink Floyd and Simon and Garfunkel while in Lebanon.

Armenian Public Radio, a trio consisting of Ajamian along with Ryan Demirjian, guitarist and Saro Koujakian on lead vocals and guitar, exclusively performs traditional Armenian folk songs with a modern American sensibility and on modern acoustic guitars. “The Nirvana Unplugged album, the Alice in Chains Unplugged album. Those are things we listened to over and over again,” says Ajamian. “What we want to be is Armenian music, but sounding like Nirvana playing.”

The easy comparison with Armenian Public Radio is the well-known metal band, System of a Down, led by fellow L.A. County-raised Armenian-American, Serj Tankian. “System of a Down did some great things for our culture, especially as far as getting recognition for the genocide,” says Ajamian. “But I'm not into heavy metal. The other two [band members] listen to them, some albums more than others. I don't know that it has influenced us musically. The Armenian musicians who influenced [SOAD] also influenced us. Definitely in our audience, most people our age here and even a little bit younger, they love System of a Down.”

Armenian folk music is filled with references to the nation's history. During the past century, much of that music evolved with lyrics about what happened starting in 1915. But Armenian Public Radio prefers to maintain a different attitude. “Are we affected by the genocide, yeah, obviously,” says Ajamian. “But we also come from the philosophy that our history goes back thousands of years with folklore and tradition. As much as the genocide history is important, I don't want our entire cultural narrative to become about that.”

“We're a very proud culture.”

Armenian Public Radio performs July 7 and July 8 at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival for its "Sound of California" program, running from June 29 to July 4 and July 7 to July, 10 on the National Mall. Other performers include Quetzal, an “East LA Chicana rock group;” Grupo Nuu Yuku, a large ensemble of Oaxacan Mixteco immigrant farmworkers from the Madera area; for a total of 16 world renowned bands and artistic organizations.

"Baby Dinosaur" Appears on Rock

Smithsonian Magazine

"Better Gay than Grumpy"

National Museum of American History

"Better Gay than Grumpy"

"My Unicorn is a Lesbian. Is Yours?"

"I'm Straight. But not Narrow"

The National Museum of American History recently received more than 400 buttons representing a snapshot of LGBT visual and textual culture spanning three decades from the 1970s through the 1990s. I helped Curator Katherine Ott organize the buttons into categories in order to better understand the scope and depth of the collection. In the process of cataloging and documenting the buttons' words and images, I was continually amazed by their diversity. There were protest buttons, buttons from marches and pride parades, buttons for gay-friendly destinations and businesses, and buttons to raise awareness around ballot initiatives, the AIDS crisis, and boycott movements. But to me, the most interesting buttons (and certainly one of the largest categories) centered on humor, puns, and a certain tongue-in-cheek affirmation of what scholars categorize as "queer culture."

Photo of three buttons: "Better gay than grump" "I'm straight. But not narrow." "My unicorn is a lesbian. Is yours?"

The use of humor, double entendre, and secret language is a well-documented aspect of queer culture and LGBT history. Often forced to speak in code or to use phrases with more than one meaning, gays and lesbians living before the era of gay rights movements and calls for civic equality resorted to a language filled with puns and humorous double meanings. Whether this was done as an affirmation within closed social circles or as a defense mechanism against outsiders overhearing queer conversation remains a subject of scholarly debate. What is clear, however, is that queer culture developed myriad uses for words with multiple meanings. Thus a "wolf" came to denote a man who preferred men, and possessed what many would consider the more traditional markers of masculinity, but the "wolf" moniker also suggested a man on the prowl who was perhaps a bit dangerous. "Coming out" borrows terminology used by elite and powerful families to describe their ritual of debutant balls; however, for gay men especially this phrase meant accepting and joining a network of peers within the world of urban, queer society. By taking a phrase regularly splashed across the society page of newspapers to describe a city's wealthiest and most privileged daughters' entrance into high society, and applying it to their own, often difficult entry into a much more hidden society, users of queer language set out to subvert norms and stretch meaning to almost comical extremes.
After 1969's Stonewall riots helped propel the LGBT civil rights movement into the public eye, gays and lesbians inherited this subversive but humorous language. Rather than abandon it, a new generation put it on display as a hallmark of a distinct culture. Thus the affirming and often-humorous buttons can be seen as a continuation of an earlier tradition—one that in many ways perpetuated the subversive tendency to rely on puns and double meanings. In fact, the button format itself is an interesting communication tactic. On the one hand, buttons are inherently public displays, placed on jackets and bags to be seen, read, and understood. On the other hand, they rarely are larger than an inch or two, requiring close contact and intimacy in order to be effective. Like the pun or double entendre, they are simultaneously both fully exposed and carefully hidden.

Four buttons. "How dare you presume I'm heterosexual!" "Come out, come out." "I AM R U." "Closets are for clothes."

Thus a button with the letter combination "IMRU" exists as both coded language and an invitation to connect with others who are LGBT-identified. The button "How Dare You Presume I'm Heterosexual," evokes both campy indignation as well as a serious call to reconsider normative assumptions. "Come Out, Come Out," simultaneously references the sing-song cadence of fairy tales as well as serving as a modern-day statement for proudly self-declared "fairies." The use of language could also work in reverse. "Closets are for Clothes" is an attempt to retire a double meaning deemed demeaning and unhealthy—returning the term "closet" to its original purpose.

As the LGBT-rights movement grew in size and prominence during the 1970s and 1980s, the use of queer humor became more overt, graduating from small buttons to T-shirts, signs, and—later still with the advent of online media—readily shared memes, gifs, and photos. One milestone in this chronology came in 1990 when Skyler Hynes printed up some "Nobody Knows I'm Gay" T-shirts for a booth at the annual Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Festival. In three months, Hynes had sold more than $30,000 worth of shirts, and went on to launch Don't Panic! Designs, which produced iconic T-shirts for LGBT's who came of age (and out) in the 1990s and early 2000s. "2QT2BSTR8" and "I Can't Even Think Straight" evoke the same techniques of wordplay that historians of LGBT history see in earlier eras.

While connected to their historical antecedents, the marketplace's assortment of consumer goods including T-shirts, buttons, coffee mugs, and refrigerator magnets ultimately helped alter the course of LGBT history moving forward. Though tempting to dismiss as campy or kitschy today, objects like these also were part of moving queer language and puns (and thus gays and lesbians themselves) into the mainstream. As the question of marriage equality recently advanced to the Supreme Court's ultimate affirmation, the new venue of online memes continued the tradition of relying on humor.

Meme that says "Everyone gets a a marriage!"

Thus the LGBT buttons currently being evaluated and processed can be seen as important pieces of American history—one born out of a need for secrecy and camouflage that later became a celebrated hallmark of queer culture for everyone to enjoy.

The manager of Museum Advisory Committees in the museum's Office of External Affairs, Daniel Gifford is a scholar of holidays (see his post on Thanksgiving cartoons) and the history of vacationing in America. Have a question for Daniel about the history of holidays, postcards, or other aspects of American culture? Ask in the comments and he may answer it in a future blog post!

Posted Date: 
Wednesday, October 14, 2015 - 08:00


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"Bloggie" Nominations Are Now Open

Smithsonian American Art Museum

"body/freedom/art": Rethinking disability through art

National Museum of American History

Curator Dr. Katherine Ott invited students in Dr. Samuel J. Redman's Museum/Historic Site Interpretation Seminar to explore the museum's collections and write blog posts sharing their research. Read more blog posts by the students.

What is disability? Performance artist, writer, and actor Neil Marcus encourages his audience to rethink disability as something that is not medical or physiological. Rather, Marcus suggests, "Disability is an art. It's an ingenious way to live." Based on this perspective, Marcus aims to live artfully: non-medically, non-stereotypically, and full of soul.

Daytime outdoor photo of man crouching out of wheelchair. He wears yellow pants.

I found Neil Marcus' poem, "Disabled Country," on the museum's online exhibition titled "EveryBody: An Artifact History of Disability in America." I felt moved by Marcus' discussion of identity, disability, and "home," especially within the context of my own experiences with art and disability. I contacted Marcus with a number of questions about his artistic motivations and creative process.

"Neil Marcus – Disabled Country" is also available on YouTube

Even though disability varies across cultures and encompasses a range of experiences, most people still think it is a medical problem to be solved. Since the 1970s, artists and activists have joined with academics to challenge the dominant medical model of disability and encourage people to understand disability as an expansive and positive experience. In his engagement with the arts and politics of disability, Marcus is part of this wide-ranging group dedicated to breaking down stigmas of disability and challenging stereotypes.

In "Disabled Country," Neil Marcus presents his audience with a story about disability, identity, and belonging. I asked Marcus how these issues relate to his motivation as an artist, and Marcus says that in the realm of art and disability, you can't be disabled without addressing its politics. Most importantly, the artist highlights that a person's disability can't be separated from their identity and daily interactions. Disability becomes place: a place to which people migrate, and a place in which Marcus found himself staying after he was diagnosed with a neurological disorder that affects muscles and movement (dystonia) as a child. The speaker, who makes a home for himself in this country called Disabled, lives Disabled culture, and lives Disabled stories. Not only are these categories self-defined, but other people also impose these categories on the speaker. As a result, we learn that disability is deeply connected with culture, communication, and how people interact with each other.

Black and white photo of two dancers, barefoot, wearing black pants. Feet, limbs intertwine.

The National Museum of American History commissioned Neil Marcus to do a reading of his poem, which resulted in a video that, in his words, Marcus "cobbled together." In his video, Marcus reads "Disabled Country" while in a swimming pool. Between lines of his poem, we also hear voice-overs from Petra Kuppers, a professor of English and women's studies at the University of Michigan. Kuppers highlights the patronizing and exploitative treatment of persons with disabilities by non-disabled people, especially in the art world. In this field, Kuppers says, "history is not a good guidance to good practice." Also in the video are clips from Marcus' play "Storm Reading" and the Salamander project by Olimpias, an artists' collective and performance research series led by Kuppers. Salamander is a community performance project begun after Marcus bought a $30 underwater Kodak camera. Marcus takes photographs and videos while the Olimpias team swims together. The team started a writing project to accompany their images.

I asked Marcus how these underwater images visualize how bodies interact with space, and how different people interact with each other. In response, Marcus explained that the underwater vantage point offers a new expression of "body/freedom/art," because the water shows the body in a new way. This process creates new ideas of "disability" and self which change the public sphere and self-image. These ideas challenge how disabled people may feel about hiding themselves. What is especially significant about this project (and those created by Olimpias) is that it is art produced by and for persons with disabilities. This pushes against the frequent invisibility of disability in art and media.

Color photo of man with brown hair and beard, with intense expression in his wide eyes. Blue shirt, gray pants. Slightly reflection in background.

For many years, Neil Marcus worked as an actor performing in his autobiographical play "Storm Reading" and even appeared on NBC's television show E.R. in 1998. In "Storm Reading," Marcus and two other actors recreate his life and his encounters with the world, or the world's encounters with him. Marcus says that he identifies as a "disabled actor" because so much of who he is, what he thinks, and how he acts is impacted by his disability. Because of the oppression surrounding people whose bodies are different, his embrace of this identity offers one avenue for representation of disability in the media and arts. By being a disabled person who is acting and being seen, Marcus pushes media outlets to make disability visible.

A final theme that Marcus incorporates in his art is contact, and, indeed, much of his recent performance art consists of contact improvisation. For example, during a public presentation, Marcus asked each member of the audience to lean on the person next to them. I asked him why he asked the audience to do this, and what this contact means to him. This activity highlighted the importance of human connections and interdependence that is central to his work as an artist and activist. Marcus emphasizes this shared humanity through intense emotional interactions in performances that offer a model for how we might better interact with each other on a day-to-day basis.

Black and white close-up photo of two people, one wearing glasses, eyes closed. Their foreheads are pressed together.

Chelsea Miller is a graduate student in the History Department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Source credit: e-mail correspondence between Chelsea and Neil Marcus, an oral history interview conducted by Esther Ehrlich in 2004 for the Bancroft Library, and the Olimpias project website. 

Chelsea Miller, graduate student in Public History, University of Massachusetts Amherst
Posted Date: 
Tuesday, August 18, 2015 - 11:30


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"Capitalsaurus," A D.C. Dinosaur

Smithsonian Magazine

"Cast as white by default": Exploring the lack of diversity in movies

National Museum of American History

What if you watched only the lines in E.T. or the entire Harry Potter series that were spoken by people of color? You might realize two things: First, it doesn't take long. Second, it leaves you with questions. I interviewed Venezuelan American actor Dylan Marron, creator of the Every Single Word project, as part of my research for the upcoming History Film Forum.

Dylan, tell us a little about your Every Single Word project. What inspired you to do this project? How did you decide what films to use?

I created Every Single Word from two vantage points: film lover and actor. I've long been aware of the dearth of diversity in mainstream American films as a viewer, but it was only recently that I've come to feel the consequences of it from the inside. Casting calls that I would not be "right" for, roles that would call for me to "play up" my ethnicity, and agents who would compliment my work but then tell me that they weren't sure how much work there would be for my "type." I became well acquainted with the euphemisms employed to tell me I wasn't white enough to regularly get work.

I wanted to express this in a way that presented facts, not feelings. I figured if I presented the truth without comment that it would present a question rather than a statement. This is how many people of color speak in mainstream films. How does this sit with you?

I choose films that tell universal stories that are not about race whose protagonists could have been any color, but were cast as white by default.

Black-and-white portrait of woman with headwrap and stern or determined expression

I've noticed that you have an image of Scarlett O'Hara and Mammy, (characters from Gone with the Wind) as a background to your Every Single Word blog. What significance does that film hold for you? What are your views on the representation of people of color in that film?

In my mind Hattie McDaniel (the actor who played Mammy in Gone with the Wind) is the posterwoman for Every Single Word. Yes, she had a large supporting role in the most popular film in history. Yes, she won an Oscar for it. But what kind of role? Mammy was Scarlett O'Hara's dutiful servant, a house slave tending to her selfish white master in the context of a war that was fighting for her freedom. From a storytelling perspective that is a fascinating character who could easily be the protagonist of her own four-hour epic film. But she isn't, she's a one-note character (played beautifully by McDaniel with what she was given) that has little to no agency to change or affect the story of the film.

We still see the Mammy archetype today. Maids, servants, slaves—humans stripped of their agency whose characters don't have an arc. But why can people of color still only play characters written to be of color? Why are roles that are written to tell a colorless story automatically cast as white?

Recently you've been looking into historically based films. Do you see a contrast in these types of films? How do you think the lack of diversity in historical films shapes America's collective memory and American culture?

As we're seeing right now in the Texas textbook debate, history is just as much about the person teaching that history as it is about the history they're teaching. If only straight white dudes are controlling how history is told in film, then that's the only perspective we're going to get.

Dylan Marron's playlist includes scenes from Cimarron (1931) and other movies of the past, most of which feature very little dialogue by people of color

In many historical movies, specifically in war films, women are often absent from those narratives. Would you ever consider focusing your project on another group, such as women?

The lack of women in film is also a huge problem, specifically the absence of women with agency. For now, Every Single Word will be about race but I encourage all moviegoers to question not only the quantity but the content of the words any minority is allowed to speak in pop storytelling.

Why do you believe there is still this profound lack of diversity in Hollywood films?

The problems here are largely structural. It's all about who has the power and who has access to the means of production. If one group is still controlling the money in Hollywood, then they're also going to influence what stories Hollywood tells. We craft stories in our own image.

What historical films would you want to do Every Single Word to in the future?

I think Lawrence of Arabia will be interesting.

Black-and-white photo of a theater and surrounding buildings

Lastly, Dylan, what are you looking to accomplish with this project? Do you believe that your project will circulate enough awareness through mainstream America about the lack of diversity in films?

All I want to do is to present facts and ask questions. That's what I hope Every Single Word will do. Who is crafting universal stories? And which people get to be avatars for those universal stories? I am only one voice asking these questions but I'm also part of a loud and strong chorus.

The Smithsonian and partners at the National Endowment for the Humanities present the History Film Forum, a four-day exploration of history on the screen, November 19-22, 2015. Three events in particular that might interest you: Discussion: Diversity in History Film, Screening: Uniquely Nasty: The U.S. Government's War on Gays, and Discussion: The Free State of Jones

Posted Date: 
Tuesday, November 17, 2015 - 11:15


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"Chinasaurs" come to Maryland

Smithsonian Magazine

"Chinasaurs" Invade Maryland

Smithsonian Magazine
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