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8 tips for experiencing Latino History at the museum

National Museum of American History

Looking to discover Latino history during your museum visit this Hispanic Heritage Month? Christine Miranda, who interned with our Program in Latino History and Culture, has the inside scoop. 

Our museum endeavors to "understand the past in order to make sense of the present and shape a more humane future," and diverse Latino stories are a critical part of that. Here's how to find them across three floors, plenty of exhibitions, and fascinating collections.

Mexican-style dress worn from around 1960. Bearing the colors and Aztec eagle design of the Mexican national flag, entertainers wore the dress during promotional events at El Chico restaurants. It is currently on display in our food history exhibition.
Mexican-style dress worn from around 1960. Bearing the colors and Aztec eagle design of the Mexican national flag, entertainers wore the dress during promotional events at El Chico restaurants. It is currently on display in our food history exhibition.

1. Start at the Welcome Center

We have two entrances: one on Constitution Avenue that brings you to the first floor, and one from the National Mall that leads to the second floor. Immediately to your right after you pass through security at the Mall-side entrance is the Welcome Center. It's a good first stop if you have any questions or need help with accessibility in the museum.

In my recommendations below, I mention some specific exhibitions, but we all know that an exhibit can't last forever. The Welcome Center can connect you with a current list of things to see and do.

The Welcome Center also has Spanish-language resources and alternative format exhibition guides, including Spanish translations of several of our major exhibits. Of course, not all Latino museum-goers or visitors interested in Latino history speak or prefer Spanish, but the Smithsonian is working to make history accessible to as many people as possible.

Bonus tip: Spanish-language museum resources, including translated exhibitions, are also available online for you to access while planning your trip.

2. Visit the interactive immigration cart

The Latino immigration cart is staffed by interns and volunteers eager to engage you in hands-on history. The cart displays a diversity of artifacts related to Latino culture and immigration, including Abuelita hot chocolate, a tortilla press, huaraches, a short hoe, a Quinceañera pillow, and an apron. By seeing and touching these objects, and sharing your own thoughts and stories, you can explore the long and complex history of Latino people in the United States.

Christine, left, and another former intern share the immigration cart with museum-goers. The cart is a great way to explore Latino heritage and history during your visit.
Christine, left, and another former intern share the immigration cart with museum-goers. The cart is a great way to explore Latino heritage and history during your visit.

3. Stop by the FOOD exhibition

FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950–2000 is another hotspot of Latino history. The exhibition, which also notably includes Julia Child's actual kitchen, highlights the impact of Latino (primarily Mexican) labor and culture on America food in the 20th century.Explore the forgotten history of the bracero program, which brought Mexican guest workers to the United States from 1942 to 1964 as farm laborers. View bracero photographs and objects, including an example of the dreaded short-handled hoe that caused severe health problems for migrant workers.

In other sections of the exhibition, you can learn about a Latino winemaking family or the "Mexican Food Revolution" that made tacos and margaritas American classics.

Bonus tip: If the exhibition leaves your stomach growling, head downstairs to our Stars and Stripes cafe. Thanks to some wonderful Latino chefs, we occasionally have the chance to serve up Latin American cuisine.

4. See Celia Cruz's artifact wall

In 2012, the museum held a contest to discover which iconic historical figure visitors wanted to see commemorated by a unique Weingarten portrait. The winner? Beloved "Queen of Salsa," Celia Cruz. The display is on the second floor and will probably only be on display through the end of 2014.

5. Keep your eyes peeled in American Stories

The popular American Stories exhibition, home to Dorothy's ruby slippers and other favorite objects throughout American history. Artifacts in the large display cases are constantly rotating. In the past, a Quinceañera dress, an Escaramuza Charra riding outfit, and Brazilian superstar Pelé's soccer jersey have been on view.

Roberto Clemente's baseball jersey and Natalie Flores's Quinceañera dress are two of the many great Latino objects that have been exhibited in "American Stories."
Roberto Clemente's baseball jersey and Natalie Flores's Quinceañera dress are two of the many great Latino objects that have been exhibited in "American Stories."

6. Attend public programs

The Program in Latino History and Culture organizes some truly special events, ranging from book readings, to food tastings, to cultural celebrations, to naturalization ceremonies. Subscribe to our newsletter to be the first to know about what the museum is planning.

7. Visit other Smithsonian museums

Don't miss the National Museum of the American Indian! The Anacostia Community Museum is located five miles away from the National Mall, but it is worth the trip for its devotion to local history, including DC's Latino population.

8. Utilize online resources

Supplement your visit with a plethora of cool online resources. Websites for the museum's Program in Latino History and Culture and the separate Smithsonian Latino Center are great places to start. You can check out our past Latino programs, rediscover past exhibitions (like this bilingual one about the Peruvian woman who translated the national anthem into Spanish), and browse diverse collections.

Some other digital highlights: this multimedia exhibition about Celia Cruz, the Bracero archive about Mexican guest workers, our massive Puerto Rico collection, and a 2010 video interview with Dominican American author Junot Diaz.

Some iconic Latino objects, like Selena's leather outfit and Crazy Leg's jean jacket, aren't on display right now. That doesn't mean you can't enjoy them online, though.
Some iconic Latino objects, like Selena's leather outfit and Crazy Leg's jean jacket, aren't on display right now. That doesn't mean you can't enjoy them online, though.

Bonus tip: come back soon!

Our museum is going through a lot of change at the moment, with the entire west wing of the building set to start reopening in 2015. Exhibitions on American enterprise, migration history, and culture will all highlight new Latino stories. Our artifact walls rotate frequently, and temporary exhibitions are always giving new objects a chance to shine.

Christine Miranda is an intern in the Program in Latino History and Culture. After completing her internship, she will be returning to Amherst College for her senior year.

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Intern Christine Miranda
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Eighteen Podcasts to Listen to in 2020

Smithsonian Magazine

By 2020, the podcast will be a whopping 17-or-so years old; the Apple Podcasts catalogue contains more than 700,000 unique offerings, not counting episodes. With such an abundance from which to choose, Smithsonian magazine turned to scholars and podcast fiends across the Smithsonian Institution for guidance. From a critical look at Disney tales to poetry to a podcast that’ll get the kids in the carpool group interested in science, here’s a curated list of the podcasts that’ll make perfect earbud fodder for 2020.

“Sidedoor”: This Smithsonian podcast delves into the stories behind some of the 154 million objects in the Institution’s collections. It’s subject-omnivorous; episodes explore vaccine science, Adam Rippon’s boundary-breaking figure skating and dueling paleontologists. For a plane-flight listen, host Lizzie Peabody suggests an episode from their current season, “The Worst Video Game Ever?” which takes listeners back to the 1980s, when a truly abominable E.T. spinoff video game managed to tank the industry.

“Uncivil”: The version of the Civil War taught in classrooms is often an incomplete history, and this podcast seeks to correct that by spotlighting lesser-known stories about the Union-Confederacy conflict. Melanie Adams, the director of the Anacostia Community Museum, says, “I enjoy [“Uncivil” episodes] because they help to explain the nuances of history and the multitude of players and events beyond a single batter or a single heroic figure.”

“Her STEM Story”: Carol O’Donnell, the director of the Smithsonian Science Education Center, says, “I like “Her STEM Story,” which is a weekly podcast about extraordinary stories of real women in the STEM fields…It covers the amazing work of women across the globe who work in different STEM and STEM-related fields. Students (and others) who listen to the podcast learn about what motivates women in STEM, what struggles they overcame, and how we can close the gender gap in male-dominated fields.”

“VS”: This bi-weekly podcast from the Poetry Foundation sees hosts Danez Smith and Frannie Choi dig deep in conversations with fellow poets. Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis, a curator for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center (APAC), describes it as “a beautiful, hilarious, deeply felt mash-up of poetry and racial and queer justice.” The most recent season features an episode recorded live at the APAC’s Asian American Literature Festival.

“The Museum of Lost Objects”: This BBC podcast comes with a recommendation from Nora Lockshin, a senior conservator at Smithsonian Archives. She’s a fan of the podcast, which tracks lost, stolen or destroyed objects—from the items turned to ash by Brazil’s National Museum fire to a stolen Nobel Prize medal. It’s an “incredibly poignant, cross-cultural and sensitive examination,” says Lockshin, that offers “reflections on the values of people, museums and collected objects.”

“Time Sensitive”: The thoughtful conversations with luminaries like architect Liz Diller and designer Stefan Sagmeister about “culture, nature and the future” (plus the slick logo and branding from a National Design Award-winning firm) keep Caroline Baumann, director of design-focused museum Cooper Hewitt, tuning in. “In keeping with its name, each episode is one hour long and focuses on curious and courageous people who have a distinct perspective on time,” says Baumann.

“The Right Time with Bomani Jones”: “In an era in which many sports fans implore commentators to ‘stick to sports,’ host Bomani Jones is not afraid to address how race shapes the sporting contests we consume. A former academic turned sportswriter, Jones has a way of breaking down and analyzing social issues within sports and pop culture that is desperately needed in a sports media environment often devoid of intellectually stimulating conversation about such issues,” says National Museum of African American History and Culture’s Justin Hudson, the assistant curator of sports, of why this ESPN podcast ranks among his favorites.

“You Must Remember This”: The latest season of this pop-culture-time-machine podcast dives into the Disney canon from long before Moana, Elsa and Merida to scrutinize the legacy of the 1946 movie Song of the South. “From the casual Disney fan to the classic film historian, there's something in this podcast for everyone,” says National Museum of American History museum specialist Bethanee Bemis. “My work investigates the relationship of the public with Disney, so I found host Karina Longworth's deep dives into how the film and its products have been received at different points in time based on the cultural and political moment in America particularly relevant.”

“Yale Climate Connections”: This daily podcast keeps it short—as in, each episode clocks in at 90 seconds. But those one-and-a-half minutes pack in a lot of learning about climate change and the environment, with recent episodes spanning carbon removal technology and climate change’s influence on immigration. This appetizer of a podcast came recommended by not one but two Smithsonian scholars—Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s forest researcher Kristina Anderson-Texeira and Earth Optimism communications manager Cat Kutz.

“This Land”: In its next term, the Supreme Court will hear a case—McGirt v. Oklahoma—that on its face is about who can prosecute a criminal. But the real question at hand is about treaty rights and tribal sovereignty. Journalist Rebecca Nagle (Cherokee) examines the history that undergirds McGirt’s sister case (Sharp v. Murphy, decision still pending) and its lingering effects. Alexandra Harris, an editor for National Museum of the American Indian’s magazine, recommends a listen.

“Heavyweight”: Lizzie Peabody is a podcast person; she hosts Smithsonian’s “Sidedoor” podcast, after all. Of all the podcasts on her radar, “Heavyweight,” hosted by Jonathan Goldstein, stands out as “absolutely one-of-a-kind.” Why? “In each episode, Goldstein steps into someone else’s life and helps them confront a moment in their past that they haven’t been able to let go of,” she says. “Usually this involves making contact with long-lost relatives, friends, or even acquaintances, and as an audience member you get to enjoy that ever-elusive (in our own lives anyway) sensation of closing the circle, answering a long unanswered question. It’s voyeurism, therapy, humor, and generosity all in one show. Each week I count the days until Thursday.”

“Radio Ambulante”: NPR is an audio storytelling titan, and their Spanish-language podcast “Radio Ambulante” is predictably top-notch. Sojin Kim, a curator for the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, recommends it for “the production quality, the range of topics, and the accessibility of the content—including for people like me, who are Spanish-language learners. I like that stories pull from communities in the U.S. and Latin America—the podcast offers a transnational space and glimpse into the ways that experiences and issues connect and are relevant across communities and geographies.”

“with out meaning”: Think D.C. is all about politics? Adriel Luis, curator of digital & emerging media at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, likes this podcast because it shines a floodlight on another dimension of the nation’s capital city, offering “a refreshing source of local perspectives” on art, culture and gentrification. “I also love that the podcast takes on experimental and unconventional formatting and sound design that reminds me of 'This American Life,' 'Mr. Robot,' and Parliament Funkadelic all at the same time,” he says. For a good starter episode, give its second installment a listen.

“Still Processing”: This production from the New York Times also received multiple nominations for its incisive pop culture coverage. “Each episode is a thoughtful examination of our cultural landscape, as told through the unflinching critical eyes and compelling personal insights of two people [hosts Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris] on a perpetual quest to get to the heart of the matter,” says Anne Showalter, a digital interpretation specialist at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

“Future of X”: As an exhibition designer for the National Museum of American History, Isabella Bruno spends a lot of time mulling over the past. But, she told Smithsonian magazine, it’s also critical for her as a museum staffer to keep her eyes trained on the future. Last season, the show asked what the 21st century might have in store for health and healthcare; now, host Fay Schlesinger has turned her attention to the modern workplace.

“Portraits”: The National Portrait Gallery’s new podcast is, naturally, a favorite of curator Taína Caragol. But this podcast doesn’t paint by the numbers; it uses portraiture as a way to understand how these works of art capture big historical currents just as clearly as they depict the details of someone’s dimples. A recent episode, for example, looked at (literally and figuratively) a portrait of Pocahontas and, she says, “brought forward her place as a foundational figure of American history, but also one that has been really mythologized to different ends, either deployed by white Americans to signify their national authenticity as her descendants, or simply painted in a sweeter light in order to illustrate the ‘happy’ assimilation of Native Americans.”

Brains On!”: This kid-geared science podcast, says Cat Kutz, is one her first-grader eagerly listens to. With a Bill Nye the Science Guy approach to making science accessible, the show is downright fun. As the Smithsonian’s Earth Optimism summit communications manager, Kutz says she is “really hopeful and optimistic that youth are the future and youth are our climate leaders.” So if a podcast teaching about narwhals and the inner workings of pianos can get Gen Z invigorated about science, weather and the climate, that gives Kutz hope (and her son some carpool entertainment).

“Getting Curious With Jonathan Van Ness”: This podcast has been a passion project since before JVN became a household name as the hair and grooming guru on “Queer Eye.” Van Ness’ over-the-top earnest enthusiasm and genuine curiosity are near-propulsive forces that carry the listener through questions like “How Are Turtles Doing These Days and Are They the Same Thing As Tortoises?” or “What Do District Attorneys Do?” David Coronado, the senior communications officer for the Smithsonian Latino Center, endorses the episode “Why Don’t We Know Enough About Ancient Latin American History?” which sees JVN interviewing the Latino Center’s own Ranald Woodaman.

The Podcast Shortlist (also recommended)

"Revisionist History"
"Lab Out Loud"
"The C Word – The Conservators’ Podcast"
"Disney History Institute Podcast"
"I’m in the Band"
"How Did This Get Made?"
"Mongabay Newscast"
"Native Lights Podcast"
"How to Survive the End of the World"
"All My Relations"

Lonnie Bunch Sizes Up His Past and Future at the Smithsonian

Smithsonian Magazine

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) is a historical and cultural nexus where American life bears its complex, painful and often self-contradictory soul. NMAAHC is built on fascinating dualities: celebrating African-American history, yet bearing witness to its greatest tragedies; exhibiting objects from everyday homes, yet contextualizing them with academic rigor; acknowledging America’s promises, yet making clear its failures to live up to them; offering an oasis of peace and coming-together, yet reminding all who enter of the deep rifts that still divide us. It is a museum that argues compellingly that the African-American story is the American story.

Walking these various ideological tightropes was the constant honor and burden of Lonnie Bunch, the museum’s founding director, who signed on to the project in 2005 and fought tooth and nail to make what had for a century been a strictly conceptual museum a tangible, physical, beautiful place of learning with a prominent spot on America’s National Mall. Bunch presided over the groundbreaking ceremony in 2012 and the museum’s triumphant opening in 2016.

For more than ten years nonstop in his career as a historian and educator, Bunch lived and breathed the African American History Museum. Now he is beginning a new chapter, leaving the museum he shepherded in capable hands and assuming the position of Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, where he will oversee the entirety of Smithsonian operations using his hard-won success at NMAAHC as a template for bold new initiatives.

Bunch’s memoir of his time fighting to bring NMAAHC to fruition, titled A Fool’s Errand: Creating the National Museum of African American History and Culture in the Age of Bush, Obama, and Trump, comes out this Tuesday, September 24, offering an in-depth look at Bunch’s vision for NMAAHC and providing hints at his vision for the Smithsonian Institution as a whole moving forward.

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) is a historical and cultural nexus where American life bears its complex, painful and often self-contradictory soul. (Jason Flakes)

Though painstaking in its detail, A Fool’s Errand is far from a dry memoir. Bunch’s recollections of one scrappy victory after another—securing funding, mustering staff, icing prime real estate on the National Mall, unearthing artifacts across the country—are so tense and laden with drama that the book often reads more like the plot of a crowd-pleasing underdog boxing movie than a ho-hum institutional history. The narrative and frequently humorous quality of Bunch’s writing is no accident, as he modeled his work on Langston Hughes’s Not Without Laughter, which Bunch said in a recent interview taught him to “capture a period, but contextualize it through my own personal lens.”

He hopes these personal touches will make the book more accessible to those looking for guidance with their own efforts in the museum field and will give his daughters and grandchildren an approachable and poignant look at one of the most important segments of his life. “Someday,” Bunch says, “they may be interested in this 11-year period, and I couldn’t explain or tell them all the stories. So I thought putting them in the book would be great.”

Bunch found the process of methodically looking back on building NMAAHC revelatory. The magnitude of what he and his team had been able to accomplish was something he could never fully appreciate during the whirlwind of activity itself. “I can’t believe we pulled it off!” he says. “I literally thought, ‘Are you kidding me? We went through all of that?’ It was almost frightening.”

In A Fool’s Errand, Bunch writes of his shock at the emergence of such artifacts as a photo album containing a never-before-seen image of young Harriett Tubman. (NMAAHC)

A Fool’s Errand details several instances of anxiety and self-doubt for Bunch in the museum’s long march to success, including demoralizing meetings with potential donors and a near-catastrophic run-in with D.C.’s water table as the museum’s subterranean exhibition spaces expanded downward into the earth. One incident that Bunch says particularly shook him was a freak accident that claimed the life of a construction worker at a time when everything seemed to be coming together. “I never wanted anybody to sacrifice for this museum, and here I felt this man gave his life,” Bunch recalls. Ultimately, though, Bunch says the tragedy spurred him and his team to redouble their efforts to make NMAAHC real. “It convinced me that we would pull this off,” he says, “and that we would honor not just him, but everyone else who lost lives and suffered in the struggle to find fairness.”

One key aspect of pulling off a museum of this scope was conjuring collections of artifacts to serve as the basis for exhibitions—collections which simply did not exist when Bunch took the job of founding director. Among other ambitious expeditions, Bunch remembers traveling personally to Mozambique Island off the southeastern coast of Africa with the support of the Slave Wrecks Project in search of a better understanding of the slave trade and the remains of a Portuguese slave ship sunken near Cape Town, South Africa—a portion of which Bunch got to bring back to Washington for the museum. “A young woman came up to me and told me that her ancestor was on that boat and died, and that she thinks of him every day,” Bunch says. “It reminded me that even though I saw this as the past, it really was the present to so many.”

In the end, a staggering 70 percent or so of the items in NMAAHC’s collections wound up coming from the homes of families strewn across the U.S.—a testament to the museum’s emphasis on community and representation. In A Fool’s Errand, Bunch writes of his shock at the emergence of such artifacts as a photo album containing a never-before-seen image of young Harriett Tubman and a Bible that once belonged to abolitionist rebel Nat Turner. “I knew there were things out there,” Bunch says, “but I didn’t realize the depth or extensiveness, and how much people would trust us to give us that material.”

At the opening day ceremony for the new museum, Ruth Odom Bonner, a woman whose father had been born enslaved in Mississippi, rang the deeply symbolic Freedom Bell to mark the historic moment. ( David Hume Kennerly via Bank of America/Getty Images)

The dream of NMAAHC crystallized with an emotional opening ceremony in September of 2016, where Bunch recalls President Barack Obama asserted eloquently the need for a national African-American museum. To mark the historic moment, Ruth Odom Bonner, a woman whose father had been born enslaved in Mississippi, rang the deeply symbolic Freedom Bell with three generations of family gathered around her.

Bunch says the importance of NMAAHC as a beacon for African-Americans across the country was never clearer to him than when an elderly woman recognized him on 16th Street mid-power walk one day and stopped him for a heartfelt hug. “She simply said, ‘Thank you for doing something nobody believed in. Thank you for giving my culture a home.’ That just meant the world to me.”

Though understandably bittersweet about leaving NMAAHC in the hands of his colleagues to assume the overarching role of Secretary of the Smithsonian, Bunch is ultimately very excited to make use of the lessons he learned there and bring his dynamic brand of leadership to bear as overseer of the Smithsonian Institution at large. And while he recognizes that he won’t be able to shape every last detail of the Institution like he did at NMAAHC, Bunch seems self-assured about his ability to leave a mark on the position and improve the Smithsonian collaboratively in the years ahead. “They didn’t hire me simply to manage, they hired me to lead,” he says. He likens the balance of delegation and direct input to a pilot’s decision to use autopilot vs. flying manually. “There are times when you need it on autopilot,” he explains, “but there are other times when you actually need to bank it left or right.”

It’s no secret that political entrenchment and animosity is running high in America, but Bunch maintains that the Smithsonian is committed to truth and nuance in historical and cultural scholarship, not political agendas. “What the country needs are places that are nonpartisan and safe, where people can grapple with what’s going on around them,” he says. “Regardless of political challenges, we will always be that great educator—one that will sometimes confirm what people think, sometimes confront their notions, and help them remember who they once were and who they could become.”

What are Bunch’s plans to carry the Smithsonian forward into a new era? He admits he’s still figuring that out, but at the core of his philosophy lies an emphasis on technology and community engagement via innovative new avenues. “As museums do new exhibitions and refurbish old ones,” he says, “I’d like to see them do a better job of understanding their audience.” In terms of tech, he says this might mean moving away from digitization for digitization’s sake and focusing instead on user-friendly online interfaces where everyday people, rather than niche academic circles, can engage meaningfully with the collections of the Smithsonian. “I do not want us to become a kind of intellectual think tank,” he says, “but rather a place where the work of intellectuals, scholars and educators is made accessible and meaningful to the American public.”

One early illustration of this public-minded vision for the Smithsonian was Bunch’s insistence that the Smithsonian support the New York Times1619 Project, a moving profile of the arrival of the slave trade in colonial America 400 years ago which, in the words of the Times, set out to “reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.” Bunch worked with NMAAHC curator Mary Elliott on the museum’s contributions to the project and took pains to ensure the Smithsonian name would be publicly associated with it.

“I knew there were things out there,” Bunch says (above: a Bible that belonged to Nat Turner), “but I didn’t realize the depth or extensiveness, and how much people would trust us to give us that material.” (NMAAHC)

“We call ourselves the Great Convener,” Bunch says of the Smithsonian, “but really we’re a Great Legitimizer. And I want the Smithsonian to legitimize important issues, whether it’s 1619 or climate change. We help people think about what’s important, what they should debate, what they should embrace. Everybody that thought about the 1619 Project, whether they liked it or disagreed with it, saw that the Smithsonian had fingerprints on it. And that to me was a great victory.”

Bunch also firmly believes that in order for the Institution to faithfully represent the American public in the content it produces, it must first do so in the composition of its workforce. As Secretary, he hopes to give America’s disparate cultures the opportunity to tell their own stories rather than see them distorted through the lenses of those who lack direct experience. “I want the Smithsonian to make diversity and inclusion so central that it’s no longer talked about,” he says.

It’s clear the new Secretary has his work cut out for him. But as is typical of Lonnie Bunch, he’s excited, not scared, to overcome the hurdles ahead and make the Smithsonian better for America. “As we say in Chicago,” he says with a nod to his old home, “Make no small plans!”

Cutting-edge recent acquisitions sharpen our understanding of food history

National Museum of American History

One of our favorite food history collecting trips over the last year started with a predicament we are all familiar with—the frustration of a dull knife and a Thanksgiving turkey in need of carving. While continuing to expand our collections on the major changes in American food production, distribution, preparation, and consumption, curator Paula Johnson and I traveled to the headquarters of the EdgeCraft Corporation in Avondale, Pennsylvania in December 2015. We started our day at the family home of Dan Friel, Sr., the late founder of EdgeCraft and the creator of the company’s signature product, a knife sharpener for household knives that could achieve the edge of a professional chef’s best tools.

Two women and a man stand on a driveway running beside a white building/house. It is a cloudy day.

An oval sign nailed to a wooden door or wall that is grey and yellow reading "The Original Home of EdgeCraft Corporation 1985"

A small workroom with white walls and ceilings and a workbench against one wall that shows signs of use and age. There is a red object on the edge of the counter that is used to press items down.

Friel’s son, Dan Friel Jr., showed us his father’s tiny basement workshop, where the story of the EdgeCraft company first began. In 1984, Friel, Sr., was in the process of retiring from DuPont, where he had worked with biomedical products and instruments for 39 years. After a frustrating and spectacularly messy experience with a dull knife and a Thanksgiving turkey, the 64-year-old Friel began testing different materials in his workshop to create a safe, professional-grade sharpening tool for home cooks. The workshop told the story of those early trials, with phone numbers scribbled along the door frame and an wooden sharpening wheel standing nearby. This is where Friel sketched his initial designs on paper, and after testing 13 prototypes, he debuted his first sharpener, the Model 100, under the Chef’s Choice brand in 1985.

The Model 100 electric sharpener featured a magnetic angle guide (eliminating guesswork about how to angle the knife to achieve the best edge) and 100% diamond abrasives, resulting in a sharper, more precise cutting edge. For many professional chefs as well as home cooks, the Model 100 electric sharpener represented a major improvement over the traditional yet unwieldy sharpening sticks and whetstones, and it became one of the top selling home cooking appliances of the 1980s and 1990s.

A wood box, long, thin and rectangular, sits open with three knives resting inside. Their blades are thin and sharp and they have metal handles

At the company headquarters in Avondale, Pennsylvania, we were ushered into a conference room set up for our research—the EdgeCraft team had prepared an array of objects from the company’s history for our review, including different prototypes and models of their knife sharpeners, appliances, and affiliated products. This gave us a better sense of the range of EdgeCraft’s innovations and how Friel’s original designs created a dynamic foundation for the following three decades of kitchen innovation. They also had on display the original prototype Friel developed for the knife sharpener, and one of the Model 110s used at trade shows to expand awareness of the Chef’s Choice sharpener to sport and game aficionados.

A piece of lined notebook paper siting on top of a wood desk with a drawing of it of a small machine/contraption, which looks like an electronic knife sharpener. "A Possibility" is written underneath and it is signed in the righthand bottom corner

A cubed machine that is beige and brown in color. It has a switch near its base and a plug. Some features protrude from it, including a white piece on the top that has slats in it.

An electronic knofe sharpener rectangular in shape and encased in white plastic with a plug and cord. It has a black base with a switch and black sections where one places the knives.

We also collected archival material that explained the advertising campaigns and consumer reactions to the products. A look through archival documents from EdgeCraft reveals testimonials from satisfied customers. A key testimonial came from Craig Claiborne, the restaurant critic and food editor for The New York Times, who was so enthusiastic about the sharpeners that he offered to endorse them by name. Through the 1980s, as more Americans looked to improve their home cooking arsenal with gourmet foods and restaurant-quality cookware, support from a figure such as Claiborne would launch a company’s products into homes across the United States. Chef’s Choice was one of many companies that, via specialty cookware stores like Sur La Table and Williams-Sonoma, made it possible for home cooks to experience commercial, kitchen-quality equipment and to hone high-end culinary techniques at home.

A letter sitting in an open manila folder on a table. The letter appears to have been produced by a typewriter and the letterhead says "Craig Claiborne." It is signed at the bottom.

A ledger lays open on a table. Two pieces of paper lay side to side and are taped down. They are old and one is ripped and discolored. There are lists on both with items and numbers to the right of them. The tops of the pages say "Edgecraft Corporation"

By collecting these 15 unique objects, we are not only chronicling the history of one company, but the way that history informs how we think about innovation, technology, and food history here at the museum. We are proud to include these new objects from EdgeCraft in our food history collection. 

Learn more about the EdgeCraft donations in the donated corporation records in our Archives center, and more about the history of knives and cutlery in this blog post by Alison Oswald of the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation.

Jessica Carbone is a project associate in the Division of Work and Industry, Food History Project, and the host of the monthly Cooking Up History series. You can learn more about the changes in food in American history in our exhibition FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000.


Posted Date: 
Monday, November 21, 2016 - 08:00
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How Plants and Animals Can Prepare Us for the Next Big Disaster

Smithsonian Magazine

Rafe Sagarin is what you might call a “natural” security expert. In his new book, Learning From the Octopus, the University of Arizona marine ecologist and environmental policy analyst argues that we ought to look to nature—and its 3.5 billion years of adaptations for survival—for how to better protect ourselves from terrorist attacks, natural disasters and infectious disease. He spoke with Megan Gambino.

You are both an ecologist and a security expert. How did that happen?

I was a marine ecologist first. Back in 2002, I was working in Washington as a science adviser to Congresswoman Hilda Solis, now the Secretary of Labor. I was watching all the new security measures unfold in Washington less than a year after 9/11, with the eye of a naturalist. What I immediately saw was that these systems that were being put in place were not adaptable. They didn’t change or vary once they were installed. As a Hill staffer, I learned very quickly to put my hand over my keys in my pocket when I went through the metal detectors to avoid setting them off. If staffers who wanted to save 30 seconds could figure out how to avoid security measures, I thought, how quickly could terrorists figure out how to get around these measures? Likewise, security officers started screening cars by checking drivers’ IDs and then checking the trunks of the cars, but they did that exactly the same for every car pulling into the Capitol parking lots. How long would it take to figure out to put the bomb in the back seat and not the trunk? The security systems didn’t change at all like the systems I knew so well from the tide pools that I studied.

So what can we learn from an octopus?

Octopuses do so many different things. They are an exemplar of an adaptable system. The skin cells of an octopus each respond to color and texture in their environment. By doing that individually, they are, overall, giving the octopus a sense of camouflage. Then once the octopus identifies what is going on in the environment, it has many, many ways to respond. It can jet away in a cloud of ink. It can squeeze itself into a tiny shape or crevice. It can actually make tools that help protect itself. We have seen octopuses using halves of coconuts and putting them together to make a suit of armor.

That is not to say that humans should have a cloud of ink or something like that. But people should follow the principles of the octopus, which are to sense changes in the environment using as many sensors as possible and to respond to those changes with as many different strategies as possible. If one doesn’t work at a certain time, you have another to back it up.

What about other animals?

You can certainly find lessons in marmots, centipedes, sharks and just about everything. Ground squirrels do some very complex communication with predators. If they see a hawk or a coyote around, they make a shrill alarm call. This serves two purposes. It may warn other ground squirrels that there is a predator, but it also tells the hawk or the coyote that it can’t sneak up on it, that the uncertainty advantage is gone.

When this same ground squirrel sees a snake predator, it doesn’t make an alarm call, because snakes don’t hear. It actually puffs up its tail in a menacing way. It makes itself look bigger. But it gets even more complex than that. If and only if the snake is a rattlesnake, the squirrel will actually heat up its tail, because rattlesnakes see in infrared. Here are different ways of communicating with its predator that are very tightly tied to what its predator perceives.

That is an important lesson for how we communicate what we know about what our enemies are doing. Too often we just communicate some kind of blanket fear—we are at “code-level orange”—which doesn’t really give any indication that we’re reducing the uncertainty that our adversaries are trying to create.

Where else in nature should we look for guidance?

In the relationships among species. One thing that is very important and very underutilized in society is the power of symbiotic relationships. These partnerships are sometimes between the most unlikely pairs of organisms—large predatory fish and small fish that are cleaning them. Many symbiotic relationships came out of relationships that used to be antagonistic.

My friend Terry Taylor has organized partnerships between health practitioners in Israel, Palestinian territories and Jordan. They are all working together to identify diseases, respond to them and neutralize them. It is not part of some road map to peace. It is not prime ministers getting together. It is just people who realize that they have a problem that transcends national borders and politics.

What sectors could most benefit from looking to nature?

Business has ignored biological principles at its peril. There is such a huge emphasis in business and management on planning, on optimizing and on trying to predict the future. Those are three things that biological organisms don’t do. They don’t plan. They don’t try to predict the future. And they don’t try to be perfect.

There is a lot of talk in the management world about how important it is to learn from failure. But learning from failure is really a dead end, biologically. In any situation, it only helps you learn what to do if the next problem is exactly like the last problem. Every biological organism is an example of learning from success and the success of its ancestors. I advocate that we need to identify and learn from success and replicate any part, even of a situation that overall was a failure, that succeeded.

We have sometimes focused so much on failure that we have failed to actually look at the successes that might be useful. For example, the after-action report from Hurricane Katrina identified over 100 different failures. But it totally ignored one major success, which was how well the Coast Guard contained a massive oil spill. Now, that one success is the one thing that would have been useful in the next big Gulf of Mexico catastrophe, which was the Deepwater Horizon blowout.

Watch this video in the original article

How do you see a smart corporation applying the lessons of nature? What would an adaptable corporation look like?

You can incorporate adaptable strategies into any organization, no matter how bureaucratic or top-down it is now. The best way to start is to switch from giving orders to issuing challenges. Giving an order means a small group of experts have said, “This is the right thing to do.” Issuing a challenge says, “We have a problem here. Can someone figure out how to solve it?”

The corporation 3M wanted to reduce its environmental footprint, but instead of a CEO sending out a memo saying, “Everyone reduce your paper by 20 percent,” the company said, “Anyone in any department who can figure out a way to reduce our environmental footprint, let us know.” It is just like activating all those skin cells on the octopus or activating all our immune system cells. You had mailroom clerks figuring out ways to reduce paper. You had chemists figuring out how they could reduce chemical wastes and emissions. Everyone in his or her own place is figuring out a solution. Collectively, this has saved the company tens of millions of dollars and vastly reduced its environmental impact.

In the book, you also highlight DARPA, the Department of Defense’s agency for developing new technology for the military, as being particularly adaptable.

DARPA is a great example. Unlike the rest of the Department of Defense, which hires one or maybe two mega defense contractors to produce something, DARPA will send out challenges to anyone, like “Figure out if you can create a vehicle that will navigate a course autonomously. DARPA will give you a million- or two-million-dollar prize”—an amount that is practically nothing to the Department of Defense.

All of these university engineering groups go out and try to solve this problem. The thing that is neat about challenge-based problem solving is it rarely takes many resources. People want to solve problems.

Are there other examples of challenge-based problem solving that you find interesting?

There are video games that have been created by biologists. The biologists are trying to figure out how proteins can be folded in different configurations, which is an incredibly complex problem. So they created a video game where gamers online compete with one another to try to come up with the best configurations for proteins. That has been incredibly effective, with much faster results than any individual biology lab could come up with. There is virtually no incentive there except to beat your fellow gamers.

Anytime you are issuing these challenges, if you ask the right question, you are likely to get a range of responses, some of which will be very good, some of which will be completely surprising, and you’ll do it at a very low cost and in a very quick time frame.

How have people taken to your idea?

The security people were very hungry for new ideas. Biologists tend to be more skeptical. But I eventually amassed a large group of biologists who are really excited about these kinds of applications. To me, the most interesting people to work with are the practitioners—the first responders, the soldiers, air marshals, and Marines coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan. I talk with these groups in various ways, and what I always find is the ones who have been closest to lethal-type situations are the ones who are the most adaptable. They had to do things that weren’t in the standard operating procedures because they got on the ground and quickly recognized that they were in a completely different kind of war and one that changed from tour to tour.

What evidence is there that organizations that incorporate biological lessons are more fortified against risks?

You never know until the risk hits. We have seen examples after big events where this kind of organic organization really works. Think about the boatlift out of Lower Manhattan after 9/11. It wasn’t some big organized thing. There was no plan in place that said if there is a massive catastrophe in Lower Manhattan, every boat owner who can take passengers should go down there. But it happened. As those boats started coming, the Coast Guard said, OK, we’ve got something here. We’re going to basically let these guys come in, get out of the way, facilitate as much as we can but not put up any barriers because we got to get these people out of here.

A Tribute to a Great Artist: Steve Jobs

Smithsonian Magazine

Steve Jobs, who died October 5 after resigning in August as CEO of Apple, the company he co-founded, had many talents. But what set him apart from other computer wizards was his artistic sense. He continually used the word “taste” in explaining what was ready to be manufactured at Apple, and what wasn’t ready yet—what he had to reject. The Apple computer, the iPhone, the iPad and the iPod are all strikingly beautiful objects; the clarity of their visual design matches the way they function. It’s clear that Steve Jobs was an artist and that his artistry worked at many levels: it was a visual sensitivity that extended outward to a way of thinking about how things worked and how different variables could interact with each other in a pleasing harmony. Where did this ability come from?

Jobs gave some credit for his success to a seemingly unlikely source—a course on calligraphy that he took as an undergraduate at Reed College, a course established by a maverick professor named Lloyd Reynolds and continued by Father Robert Palladino. In fact, Jobs was not the only “genius” to benefit from Reynolds’ teaching. Other notable students have included the poet Gary Snyder, the poet and Zen master Philip Whalen and the entrepreneur Peter Norton of Norton Utilities, who became a major patron of contemporary art.

Reynolds began teaching calligraphy at Reed College in 1938 as a no-credit course (it became full-credit in 1948) on the third floor of a building that had just been vacated by the chemistry department. Reynolds’ art credentials were almost nonexistent; he had actually gone to Reed to teach in the English department. His interest in calligraphy went back to 1924, when he had worked briefly for a greeting card and sign company, and largely through self-teaching he had become one of the masters of the art. Reynolds’ calligraphy class eluded simple description. It focused on mastering a hand skill—writing letters—and for that reason was always viewed with suspicion by the rest of the college faculty, since it seemed to them more like calisthenics or lessons in ballroom dancing than a college-level course that involved thinking. But for Reynolds, the skill of writing letters was all-embracing and mystical, and it took thought. To do it properly required a total understanding of the art and culture that gave rise to particular modes of writing. As one of his students, the type-designer Chuck Bigelow, has explained, in summarizing Reynolds’ teachings:

“When you write in an italic hand, you are making the same kinds of motions that Queen Elizabeth I made when she practiced Chancery Cursive as a teenager; the same motions as Poggio Bracciolini, a fifteenth-century chancellor of Florence; the same motions as Michelangelo. And if you write in a Carolingian hand, you are making the same moves as the notable scribes that Charlemagne assembled in his court in the late eighth century: Alcuin of York, Peter of Pisa, Theodulf the Visigoth, Paul the deacon, and Dungal the Irishman.”

Consequently, as Todd Schwartz has commented, in an excellent article about Reynolds in the Reed Alumni Magazine: “Reynolds’s classes were never simply about the thing—they were about everything.” Reynolds’ three greatest enthusiasms were the “Three Bills”: William Blake, the poet and painter of mystical visions; William Morris, the master of Arts and Crafts; and William Shakespeare. But his enthusiasm for “The Big Three” was mixed in with religious interests—he was fascinated by Zen Buddhism—and also tied into leftist politics of some sort: he was once called up in front of the Committee for the Investigation of Un-American Activities.

Learning to write well, for Reynolds, was a key to achieving a mystical, spiritual harmony with the universe as well as to attaining such social goals as ending poverty and racism and achieving world peace. As the graphic designer Michael McPherson, who studied with him, recalls: “He’d jump from Michelangelo to William Blake to Zen Buddhism effortlessly, and it all made sense.” In essence, Reynolds was encouraging his students to think about what’s good and significant and why, in a way that cut across the traditional boundaries between academic fields: to learn to exercise good taste. It was a mode of thinking that would profoundly influence Jobs, who provided us with an interesting definition of taste: “Taste is trying to expose yourself to the best things humans have done and then trying to bring those things into what you are doing.”

But Reynolds’ very successes—huge student attendance, teaching and art awards, even a television show—also attracted enemies, who viewed all this hoopla as proof that what he was doing wasn’t academically rigorous. Each year he had to do battle for the survival of his class against an ever-growing coalition of enemies. Reynolds bowed out when his wife became terminally ill. To continue his legacy he chose a singularly spiritual figure, a former Trappist monk and monastery scribe, Father Robert Palladino, under whose benevolent care calligraphy remained the most popular elective offering at Reed. But Palladino, who had spent much of his life under a vow of silence, had no grasp of how to handle faculty politics and faculty arguments. In 1984, six years after Reynolds’ death, the art department pulled the plug on the calligraphy class, ostensibly because it didn’t fit with the new mission of focusing entirely on “modern art.”

Though seemingly irrational, this pattern of faculty politics is familiar to anyone who has worked in a university. It comes from a love of following the regulations, and inventing new regulations if old ones aren’t already in place, to make teaching tidy, measurable and predictable. The philosopher Plato, who viewed artists as dangerous renegades, wanted to banish them from his ideal Republic, and real artists seem to always exist with the threat of banishment hovering over them—or worse. When the course on calligraphy was eliminated, Reed College was diminished. “There was never another course quite like that,” one of Reynolds’ former students, Georgianna Greenwood, has commented.

Image by Courtesy of Special Collections, Eric V. Hauser Memorial Library, Reed College. Lloyd Reynolds, background with glasses, established a course on calligraphy at Reed College. (original image)

Image by Apic / Getty Images. When designing the first Macintosh computer, Steve Jobs remembered his calligraphy course at Reed College and built it all into the Mac. "It was the first computer with beautiful typography," said Jobs. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Special Collections, Eric V. Hauser Memorial Library, Reed College. Robert Palladino taught for 15 years and briefly continued Reynolds' calligraphy course at Reed College. He had Jobs as a student and the two worked together years later on Greek letters. Jobs also introduced him to the Apple mouse. (original image)

Image by Bruce Forster Dorling Kindersley / Newscom. Jobs gave some credit for his success to the calligraphy course he took as an undergraduate at Reed College located in Portland, Oregon. (original image)

Image by Fred Wilson / Reed College. Jobs returning to Reed College to accept the Vollum Award in 1991. The award was created to recognize exceptional achievement of a member of the scientific and technical community. (original image)

Jobs and Calligraphy

Jobs entered Reed in 1972 and dropped out after six months. But he continued to audit classes for another year, while sleeping on the floor of friends’ rooms, collecting Coke bottles for survival money and getting free meals at the local Hare Krishna temple. The most inspiring classes were calligraphy. As Jobs recalled in his 2005 Stanford commencement address:

“Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. … I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.”

“None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography.”

From this statement, it’s clear that the stylish graphics we now take for granted on computers might never have taken hold without the calligraphy class. Indeed, Jobs made comments about this many times. For some reason, it’s a thing in which he took particular pride. But I’d like to propose that what Jobs learned from studying calligraphy went deeper than nice typography.

Typography is a peculiar art, which operates with unusually tight restraints, but is also amazingly free. The basic forms of the letters have stayed pretty much the same for centuries, and the order in which they go is generally fixed by the text. But within those seemingly rigid parameters there’s room for seemingly endless variations of shape and spacing, of shifts from delicate to bold, and of many other things. Seemingly modest changes can completely change the overall effect for good or ill, and can make the letters trigger entirely different emotions. There’s even a bit of time travel involved, since different letter forms evoke different historical periods. Most of all a great piece of typography needs to work as an ensemble. One wrong mark can throw off the entire effect. And a little accent can sometimes lift something that’s harmonious but dull to the level of a masterpiece.

Visual thinking has properties that are a little different from thinking in language. One of its most attractive qualities is that it encourages us to move out of a strictly linear sequence and to take in many variables at once, including variables that are mobile and that exist in shifting configurations. By developing mastery of typography, Jobs developed mastery of design: the ability to think about how hundreds of different variables can coalesce to create a harmonious effect that seems “perfect.” This is the skill that he practiced at Apple, transposing it from the realm of letter forms to that of product design. Jobs explained in an interview with Businessweek in 2004: “Lots of companies have tons of great engineers and smart people. But ultimately, there needs to be some gravitational force that pulls it all together. Otherwise you can get great pieces of technology all floating around the universe.”

What pulls it all together, of course, is art. As the great architect Alvar Aalto once stated: “Nearly every design task involves tens, often hundreds, sometimes thousands of different contradictory elements, which are forced into a functional harmony only by man’s will. This harmony cannot be achieved by any other means than those of art.”

Significantly, Jobs always thought of himself not as a manager but as a leader—an artistic visionary. After the fashion of a great artist, Jobs ultimately based his decisions not on the recommendations of committees or focus groups but on his own intuition—often on factors not easily expressed or analyzed in words. Perhaps most important, at some level, his mastery of visual skills was transposed to another level as well. Visual harmony became a sort of metaphor for what happens when everything works well together: when at a glance we can instantly understand a large field of variables, and see that everything coordinates with everything else and they all work together with a unified purpose.

In short, through mastering calligraphy, Jobs learned to think like an artist. It became the skill that separated him from other computer geniuses and business leaders. It enabled him to move out ahead of the pack, to build out of almost nothing one of the world’s largest corporations and to revolutionize modern life. We usually think of art as essentially a recreational activity: as something that stands apart from the serious business of life. But art does matter. When all is said and done, it’s the thing that makes it possible to have a world that holds together and is beautiful and makes sense.

Genius can never be reduced to a single trick. But let’s take note of the fact that one of the keys to Jobs’ success, to all that he achieved, is that, years ago, at the outset of his amazing career, he took a controversial and inspiring art class.

(Editor's Note, October 7, 2011: We have changed this article from its original version to clarify two errors in the description of Reynolds' and Palladino's careers at Reed College.)

Great Food Festivals of the World

Smithsonian Magazine

Heirloom tomatoes will star at the Sonoma Heirloom Tomato Festival this September at Kendall-Jackson Winery. Photo courtesy of Flickr user tamaradulva.

Where does a traveler go to best taste the foods and flavors of a region? Local restaurants? Not me. Because when a dish arrives at the table in a fine restaurant, it is more often the artful work of a chef, not the pure product of the land, and I don’t know about you, but I travel to experience a place, not its chefs. When I visit the East Coast of America, I want a steamed lobster, plain and simple—not shredded and rendered into a bisque, or folded into a delicate soufflé. And when I visit Southern California, I want to see the avocados, whole and complete, one variety beside the next, not whipped into some unidentifiable frothy salad dressing or blended into ice cream. And when I travel to Turkey, I want to eat Turkish figs, fresh off the branch as the tree offered them—not wrapped in bacon, doused with oil, stuffed with cheese and grilled. And in Alaska, there may be no better summertime dinner than a steak of salmon, grilled over open flames and drizzled with lemon—no fancy kitchen tricks required.

No, it doesn’t take a culinary college graduate to make good food. The land does it for us—and here are a few walk-around festivals this summer and fall, each starring some of the world’s greatest ingredients.

Tomatoes. The 16th Annual Sonoma County Heirloom Tomato Festival arrives on September 14 for a two-day gala at Kendall-Jackson Winery in Fulton, California, where visitors will meet 175 varieties of tomatoes that have almost slipped to the wayside in the shadow of Romas and other dominating commercial varieties. Tasting opportunities will abound for those interested in discerning the subtle and dramatic differences between varieties, while local star chefs will also get their hands on a few tomatoes for a competitive cook-off. In Valencia, Spain, meanwhile, the annual giant tomato fight arrives again on August 29 as thousands of revelers engage in La Tomatina. There is less food at this event than there is tomato smashing, stomping and squashing, plus half-naked wrestling in freshly pulped tomato sauce.

Figs. In Fresno, California, heart of America’s fig-growing industry, the 11th Annual Fig Fest comes this Saturday, August 11, on the front lawn of Fresno State University. The gathering will feature farmers, each at their own stalls and each showcasing the fruits of their mid-summer labors for guests to see and taste—like the Calimyrna, black mission, Kadota, brown Turkey, panache and other varieties of fig grown in local orchards. Wine and fig-based hors d’oeuvres can also be sampled, while a “Fig Feast” later in the evening at the Vineyard Restaurant will present the sweet and squishy fig in a fine-dining context. I’ll sate myself with unadulterated figs on the university lawn, thank you—though I’ll venture to guess (and correct me if I’m wrong) that those who buy the $75 meal ticket will find figs wrapped in salted swine and grilled.

Fresh figs are decadent as jam and the cause for celebration at the annual Fig Fest in Fresno, California. Photo by Alastair Bland.

Oysters. Any seafood fan knows that the best oyster is a raw one, slurped down minutes after being shucked from its shell—and oyster lovers at the annual International Oyster & Seafood Festival in Galway, Ireland, held the last three days of September, will find no short supply of their favorite cold and clammy mollusk. Events at the the festival include an oyster- shucking contest (watch that knife!) and Irish dancing. And don’t mark my words, but I would bet that somewhere in that three-day spell you could find yourself a pint of oyster stout. We just missed another oyster fest in June in New Orleans, as well as in Arcata, on the wild, black bear-trodden North Coast of California. Pencil them in for next year.

Wild Salmon. In British Columbia more than anywhere else, perhaps, a sharp line separates farmed salmon from wild. The former is abundant, cheap and likely a direct cause of the decline of some wild salmon populations—and proceeds from the annual Wild Salmon Festival of Lumby, British Columbia, held each July, go toward restoring local salmon-spawning habitat. As the event’s website poignantly states, “This festival honors the Wild Salmon who still come here to spawn and die.”

Mangoes. A festival each July in Coral Gables, Florida, features all things mango in one of the only American states where this tropical rock star of fruits can thrive. Florida farmers grow unique local varieties that festival visitors may taste nowhere else. In Guam, a celebration each June in the village of Agat showcases the island’s summer mango harvest with tastings, music, two- and five-kilometer runs and plant sales.

Watermelons arrive in heaps each summer, as do the worldwide festivals that honor them. Photo courtesy of Flickr user UGA College of Ag.

Watermelons. Festivals for America’s favorite and clumsiest fruit abound each summer. In Hope, Arkansas, watermelons take the stage this weekend at the 36th annual Watermelon Festival. Other similar festivals occur in Fair Bluff, North Carolina, in Carytown, Virginia, and in Mize, Mississippi. Throughout the Old World, too, summertime festivities honor the big juicy fruit, native to Eurasia. Upcoming is the annual watermelon festival in Salamanovo, Bulgaria, while the one in Beijing, China, came and went in late May.

Avocados. The Hass is the king of commercial avocado varieties, but hundreds of others can be found in Central American forests, in smaller orchards in California and Florida, and in government tree collections—like the experimental orchard at U.C. Irvine, where we just missed the annual walk-around-and-taste tour of the 80-variety avocado grove. But yet to come this year and early in 2013 are the avocado festival in Carpinteria, California, from October 5 to 7, next February’s avocado festival on the Big Island of Hawaii, where 200 varieties of avocados grow on local farms, and still another festival next April in Fallbrook, California. At each event there is sure to be mountains of guacamole—and even avocado ice cream.

Maine Lobster. We missed this one by a week—but pencil the Maine Lobster Festival into your 2013 calendar. Here, at Harbor Park in Rockland, the East Coast’s favorite crustacean will be served up in almost every manner. Consider getting to know the lobster first with a whole steamed two-pounder before moving on to more complicated dishes, which will be served by competing chefs in the lobster cook-off.

Black trumpets and golden chanterelles take center stage at such fungus celebrations as the Mendocino Wine and Mushroom Festival, coming this fall in Northern California. Photo courtesy of Flickr user portmanteaus.

Mushrooms. They rise unpredictably from the mossy forest floor, in dark, damp places, and in a vast array of colors, shapes and sizes—and the fact that some wild mushrooms are gourmet-grade edibles stirs fascination in millions of human admirers, who wait for them aboveground, frying pans greased to go. And so it’s hardly a surprise that countless fungus festivals celebrate wild mushrooms. In California’s Mendocino County in November, the annual Wine and Mushroom Festival spotlights one of the world’s most productive mushroom hotspots. Visitors will see and taste such culinary stars as the porcini, chanterelle, morel, lobster and black trumpet. Other annual mushroom festivals occur in Madisonville, Texas, Boyne City, Michigan, and Telluride, Colorado. And the world’s favorite underground mushroom, the white truffle, stars at the 82nd Annual International White Truffle Fair, which runs October 6 through November 18 in Alba, Italy.

Zinfandel. The largest single-variety wine tasting in the world, held each January in San Francisco, is a celebration of the Zinfandel grape, but just as much, it is a celebration of California itself, producer of virtually all the Zinfandel wine in the world. This Croatian-native grape variety makes a distinctively sharp and peppery red wine, which may owe its unique qualities in part to the chemistry of California soil. Scientists have found compounds of marine origin in the skins and juice of Zinfandel grapes—delivered, so the theory goes, from ocean to inland valley via migrating Chinook salmon, which die after spawning and whose carcasses were historically hauled from the rivers by bears and eaten in the state’s future vineyards. Taste a Zinfandel today, and you’re tasting California of yesteryear.

Yogurt, garlic, apples, wild game, olives, durians, cheese, jackfruit—foods of almost every sort are celebrated by the people who love them in the lands that produce them. So tell us: Which great or off-the-beaten-path food festivals did we leave out?

Where Travelers Go to Pay Their Respects

Smithsonian Magazine

Arbeit macht frei: At the iron gates of the Auschwitz prison camp, a sign translated into English reads “labor makes you free.” Today, the site is a memorial and museum, where 30 million tourists have come to see the grounds where so many people met their deaths. Photo courtesy of Flickr user adotmanda.

People have traveled for many, many reasons. They have traveled to explore, to discover and to rediscover. They have traveled to eat and to drink, to attend college and to skip college; to protest war, to wage war and to dodge war; to make music and to hear music; to pray and to do yoga; to climb mountains, go fishing, go shopping, find love, find work, go to school, party, gamble and, sometimes, just to get away from it all. Some travel for the thrill of coming home again. Some people have traveled to die.

There is also a strange yet commanding allure in traveling abroad to visit the grim preserved sites of disasters and atrocities. In 2010, for instance, almost one-and-a-half million people visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, where there is often hardly a dry eye in the house. The scene of at least 1.1 million murders is funded and maintained to preserve some of the hardest evidence that remains of the Holocaust, and to offer visitors a vague understanding of what it might have felt like to be a prisoner here in 1944. We may all have read about the Holocaust, Auschwitz and the gas chambers in schoolbooks, but nothing makes it all become so real like approaching Auschwitz’s iron gates, where one may shiver at the sight of an overhead sign reading, “Arbeit macht frei.” So plainly a lie from our illuminated vantage point of the future, the words translate into, “Labor makes you free.” Inside, tour guides lead groups past waist-deep piles of eyeglasses, shoes and artificial limbs and crutches, all worn and dirty as the day they were stripped from their owners. There even remain tangled heaps of human hair, which the Germans had planned to use for making clothing. Farther through the camp, tourists see the ominous train tracks that terminate at Auschwitz, the captives’ living quarters, and the gas chambers and ovens where they met their ends. Just how many died at Auschwitz may be uncertain. Figures cited in online discussions range from just over a million people to more than four million. No, the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum is not a fun place to go. And tourists flock here. As of 2010, 29 million people had visited.

Where else do people go to pay tribute to tragedies?

Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Perhaps never have so many people died in one place, in one instant, as in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. That day, at 8:15 in the morning, 70,000 human lives ended. By 1950, 200,000 people may have died as a result of the bombing and its radioactive legacy. Today, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum preserves a vivid image of that day’s horror. The numbers above do not account for the city of Nagasaki, where the bombing on August 9 caused the deaths of between 60,000 and 80,000 people. The bomb dropped on this city (it was nicknamed “Fat Man”) was said to be stronger than the Hiroshima bomb (nicknamed “Little Boy”), but the hilly terrain of Nagasaki prevented the complete destruction of the city and surely saved many lives. For those lost, a memorial museum in Nagasaki preserves the tragedy–and neither of the two terrible bombings of Japan is an event that posterity is willing to forget.

A cannon and a monument on the Gettysburg Battlefield remind us of the deadliest days of fighting in the Civil War. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Mecki Mac.

Gettysburg. One of the very bloodiest battles of the Civil War, the three days of combat at Gettysburg cost about 7,000 American soldiers their lives. Total casualties–including soldiers taken prisoner and those reported missing–amounted to 51,000. After General Lee retreated, his victorious momentum of months prior fizzled, and historians consider the Battle of Gettysburg the event that drove the outcome of the Civil War, and shaped the future of America. The battlefield has been preserved much as the soldiers in blue and gray saw it on July 1, 2 and 3 of 1863, though today it goes by the institutional moniker Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitors Center. Cannons remain poised for battle, their barrels still aimed over the fields where swarms of men once moved. Statues depict soldiers in action. And row after row of headstones represent the lives lost. Other preserved Civil War battlefields include Fort Sanders, Fort Davidson, Helena, Manassas, Fredericksburg and Antietam, where more than 3,600 soldiers died on a single day.

A one-acre depression in the ground marks the spot where one of the Trade Center towers stood before it fell on September 11, 2001. Photo courtesy of Flickr user wallyg.

Ground Zero at the former New York World Trade Center. For many people living who are old enough to remember 9/11, the chronology of our world can be divided into two eras–the time before the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center, and the years that have followed. Exactly a decade after the attack, the National September 11 Memorial & Museum opened to commemorate the time and place that more than 3,000 people abruptly died in the downtown heart of one of America’s greatest cities. The site commemorating the tragedy features two depressions in the city floor where each of the Twin Towers previously stood, and visitors who have seen the buildings fall on TV scores of times may nonetheless marvel that it’s true: The two skyscrapers really are gone. Each memorial is walled with polished stone and rimmed by an unbroken waterfall that sprinkles into a pool below. The names of every victim who died in the attack are engraved in bronze plating along each pool’s perimeter. Visiting the memorial is free but requires reservations.

Wounded Knee Creek. On December 29, 1890, American soldiers marched onto the Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, in South Dakota, and strategically surrounded a camp of 350 Lakota Sioux people–most of whom were women and children. After setting up four wheel-mounted Hotchkiss guns to provide cover, a group of the soldiers advanced. Suspecting the presence of armed warriors under the leadership of Big Foot, whom the Army had been pursuing in the weeks prior, the soldiers intended to strip the Lakota of their weapons. A scuffle ensued between one soldier and a Lakota man. A shot was reportedly fired, and then panic ensued. Lakota Sioux and Americans alike began firing from all directions indiscriminately. Warriors, women and children fell dead–including the leaders Spotted Elk and Big Foot–along with 25 American soldiers (many possibly hit by “friendly” fire). Among the Lakota Sioux, 150 were dead, and the massacre–two weeks to the day after Sitting Bull was attacked and killed–marked the last major conflict between white Americans and the Sioux. An entire continent of indigenous cultures had been mostly eradicated. Today, the site of the Wounded Knee massacre is a national historic landmark.

Gallipoli Peninsula. Between April 25, 1915, and January 9, 1916, more than 100,000 soldiers died along the beaches of the Gallipoli Peninsula, in northwest Turkey. Turkish, French, English, New Zealand, Australian, German and Canadian troops all died here. Many casualties occurred during poorly arranged landings in which Turkish gunmen situated on cliffs dispatched entire boatloads of Allied soldiers before their boots had even touched the sand. Today, cemetery after cemetery line the waters of the Aegean Sea, with almost countless tombstones honoring one young soldier after another who was commanded to his death. Signs remind visitors that these public grounds are not to serve as picnic sites, which may be tempting. Sloped lawns of green-trimmed grass spread among the stones and run down to the water’s edge, where these soldiers came trampling ashore, while a plaque at Anzac Cove bears the words of the former Turkish ruler Mustafa Kemal: “Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives… You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side now here in this country of ours… you, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land. They have become our sons as well.” The Turks suffered the greatest losses during the siege–perhaps 80,000 or more soldiers killed–while the official New Zealand soldier death rate of nearly 32 percent may be an inflated statistic, according to some historians. Now, ANZAC Day (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps Day) occurs every 25th day of April, an event that draws thousands to participate in services in the nearest cities, like Eceabat, Gelibolu and Çanakkale. The 100th anniversary of the first day of the siege will take place April 25, 2015.

An engraved headstone honors one of almost 9,000 Australian soldiers who died on Turkish shores during the 1915 Allied assault campaign at the Gallipoli Peninsula. Photo by Alastair Bland.

Museums With Their Own Niche

Smithsonian Magazine

I peered at the rows of lunchboxes and stopped with a smile in front of a gleaming Strawberry Shortcake, its pink and white figures recalling peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, piles of crayons and an overnight party where at least one lucky girl unrolled a Strawberry Shortcake sleeping bag. I wondered if one of these lunchboxes was still hidden in the dusty recesses of my house. In an instant, a tall man with hair like gray steel wool was at my side.

“Ah, you’re of the metal lunchbox era!” said Tim Seewer, artist, cook and partner in Etta’s Lunchbox Café and Museum in New Plymouth, Ohio. “The Florida Board of Education decided in 1985 to ban metal lunchboxes because they could be used as a weapon. All across the United States, lunchboxes started to go plastic. Ironically, the last metal lunchbox was Rambo.”

Etta’s is a thoroughly charming bit of Americana. Lodged in an old blue-tiled general store, this free museum displays owner LaDora Ousley’s collection of 850 lunchboxes as well as the tobacco and lard tins that were the precursors to the lunchbox. The collection offers a unique lens into the popular culture of the last century—especially when accompanied by commentary from Seewer and Ousley, who do double time in the kitchen making pizza, sandwiches and salads. A 1953 Roy Rogers and Dale Evans lunchbox, the first to have a four-color lithograph panel, is among the collection’s notable items. Also on display are lunchboxes featuring the many television icons that followed: Gunsmoke, Looney Tunes, a host of Disney characters, Popeye, Space Cadet, the Dukes of Hazzard, and more.

The collection both chronicles the stories and characters that shaped many a childhood and offers a perspective on larger social trends in America. As an example, Ousley points to her tobacco tins, which were produced beginning in 1860 with sentimental domestic scenes on them. “It was a clever cross-marketing ploy,” Ousley explains. “Women weren’t allowed to buy tobacco, but it was a sign of status to own one of these tins. It showed you knew a man wealthy enough to buy one and that you were special enough to receive it as a gift.”

Museums with a singular focus—whether on an object or a theme—offer visitors an intimate educational experience, often enhanced by the presence of an owner or curator with an unmatched passion for the subject. Here are seven more narrowly focused museums from around the country, some tiny and precariously funded, others more firmly established.

Image by Courtesy of Etta's Lunchbox Cafe & Lunchbox Museum. Located in New Plymouth, Ohio, Etta's Lunchbox Café and Museum displays owner LaDora Ousley's collection of 850 lunchboxes. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Etta's Lunchbox Cafe & Lunchbox Museum. A 1953 Roy Rogers and Dale Evans lunchbox, the first to have a four-color lithograph panel, is among the collection's notable items. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Etta's Lunchbox Cafe & Lunchbox Museum. In 1985, the Florida Board of Education banned metal lunchboxes because they could be used as a weapon. Rambo was the last metal lunchbox made. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Etta's Lunchbox Cafe & Lunchbox Museum. Lunchboxes on display at Etta's Lunchbox Café and Museum include television icons such as Looney Tunes, Disney characters, Popeye and the Dukes of Hazzard. (original image)

Image by Richard Clement / Reuters / Corbis. At last count, Velveteria, the Museum of Velvet Paintings has nearly 2,500 velvet paintings. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of the National Museum of Roller Skating. The National Museum of Roller Skating boasts 2,000 square feet of memorabilia from roller derby, roller speed and figure skating, and roller hockey. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of the National Museum of Roller Skating. The National Museum of Roller Skating contains the largest collection of historical roller skates in the world. Some of their skates date back to 1819. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Roadchix. The Hobo Museum is located in the hobo capital of the world, Britt, Iowa. Every year the museum and Britt host a hobo convention that attracts up to 20,000 ramblers from all parts of the country. (original image)

Image by Newscom. The Bigfoot Discovery Museum was inspired by owner Michael Rugg's encounter with a Sasquatch-like creature when he was a child. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Vent Haven Museum. Located in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky is the world's only public collection of materials related to ventriloquism. The Vent Haven Museum features 700 ventriloquist dummies arranged in three buildings, some sitting in rows as if waiting for a class to begin. (original image)

Velveteria, the Museum of Velvet Paintings in Portland, Oregon, has nearly 2,500 velvet paintings at last count. Eleven years ago, Caren Anderson and Carl Baldwin were shopping in a thrift store, spied a black velvet painting of a naked woman emerging from a flower and had to have it. That impulse buy ultimately led to a vast collection, much of which is now displayed in an 1,800-square-foot museum. Co-authors of Black Velvet Masterpieces: Highlights from the Collection of the Velveteria Museum, Anderson and Baldwin have a connoisseur’s eye for this neglected art form and an appreciation for its history. The paint-on-velvet form had its origins in ancient China and Japan, enjoyed some popularity in Victorian England, then had its modern heyday when American servicemen like Edgar Leeteg expressed the beauty they saw in the South Seas islands on black velvet. You can tour the museum for $5.00, but watch out for unexpected emotion. “A young couple got engaged in our black light room the other day,” says Anderson.

The National Museum of Roller Skating in Lincoln, Nebraska, boasts 2,000 square feet of memorabilia from roller derby, roller speed and figure skating, and roller hockey. Included are a pair of the first skates ever made, which resemble modern inline skates, patent models from the history of roller skate design, costumes, trophies, photos and magazines on skating. Oddest items: a pair of skates powered by an engine worn on the back and a pair of skates made for a horse—with a photograph of the horse wearing them. This is the world’s only museum devoted to roller skating; admission is free.

The Hobo Museum is located in the hobo capital of the world, Britt, Iowa. According to curator Linda Hughes, the town fathers of Britt tossed out a welcome mat for hoboes in 1899 after hearing that Chicago rolled up theirs when Tourist Union 63—the hobo union—wanted to come to town. A famous hobo named Onion Cotton came to Britt in 1900, and hoboes have been gathering there ever since. The museum is currently housed in an old movie theater, but has so much material it plans to expand into a larger space. The collection includes contents of famous hobo satchels, a hat adorned with clothespins and feathers from Pennsylvania Kid, tramp art, hobo walking sticks, and an exhibit of the character language hoboes use to leave each other messages. Every year, Britt and the museum host a hobo convention that attracts up to 20,000 ramblers from all parts of the country. “It’s like a big family reunion,” Hughes says.

The Museum of Mountain Bike Art and Technology Museum is located above a bike store in Statesville, North Carolina, with a 5,000 square-foot showroom displaying the evolution of mountain bikes. The collection includes “boneshakers”—bikes from 1869 with wooden spoke wheels—as well as bikes with interchangeable parts from the turn of the century. Among this free museum’s 250 bikes are several from the mountain bike boom beginning in the 1970s, when the energy crisis pushed people to make tougher bikes. Many of these are highly designed with great craftsmanship. “Even if you have no interest in bikes, you’d hang one on the wall because they’re so pretty,” says owner Jeff Archer. The museum holds an annual mountain-bike festival that attracts many of the sport’s pioneers.

The Bigfoot Discovery Museum in Felton, California, was inspired by owner Michael Rugg’s encounter with a Sasquatch-like creature when he was a child. The museum offers local history tied to Bigfoot; plaster casts of foot and hand prints; hair, scat and tooth samples; displays that discuss hypotheses to explain Bigfoot sightings and Bigfoot in popular culture; and a research library. In the audio-visual section, the controversial Patterson-Gimlin film purporting to show a Bigfoot spied in the wild runs on a continuous loop. “I’ve got everything I’ve found dealing with Bigfoot or mystery primates here,” Hughes says.

Vent Haven Museum in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky, is the world’s only public collection of materials related to ventriloquism. A Cincinnati businessman named William Shakespeare Berger and later president of the International Brotherhood of Ventriloquists began the collection in the early 1900s; ventriloquists—“vents”—still donate materials. There are 700 ventriloquist dummies arranged in three buildings, some sitting in rows as if waiting for a class to begin. Unusual creations include a head carved by a German prisoner in a Soviet POW camp from World War II—the vent performed for fellow prisoners as well as for the cook to get extra food—and a family of figures used by a blind Vaudeville-era vent. Photographs and drawings of vents abound, including one from the late 1700s, when ventriloquism was more often a trick to con people out of money instead of a form of entertainment. The museum also has a library with 1,000 volumes and voluminous correspondence for scholars. Admission is by appointment only, and curator Jennifer Dawson leads hour-and-a-half tours for $5.00. A yearly convention is held nearby.

The Robert C. Williams Paper Museum in Atlanta originated with a collection by Dard Hunter, an artist from America’s Arts and Crafts Movement who traveled the world to record the ways that people made paper and collect artifacts. In the museum, visitors can examine precursors to modern paper, including many tapa cloths made from pounded bark in Sumatra and Tunisia with inscriptions from special occasions; a vat used by Chinese papermakers in 200 B.C.; and one of the one million prayers printed on paper and enshrined in wooden pagodas that were commissioned by the Empress Shotuku after Japan’s smallpox epidemic of 735. In all, there are over 100,000 watermarks, papers, tools, machines and manuscripts. Admission for individuals is free; guided tours are $5 per person or $8.50 for a tour and paper-making exercise.

Seven Must-See Museums in Austria

Smithsonian Magazine

Austria's cultural impact far exceeds the country's small size. From the 18th through the early 20th century, it was home to some of the world's most famous artists and musicians, giving rise to or hosting greats like Beethoven, Mozart and Gustav Klimt. The flourishing of the arts was due in large part to the support of the Habsburg monarchs, whose love of grandiose architecture, music and art collecting transformed Austria, and particularly Vienna, into a cultural capital. 

Luckily, many of these great works, as well as pieces from the 20th century Art Nouveau and Actionism movements are now on display in the country's superb museums. Beyond the visual arts, Austria's many museums house massive natural history collections and fascinating portals to the past. With so many good options, it can be hard for a museum-lover to choose just one...or two...or three. Whether you're in the country for a few days or a few months, here are seven museums you won't want to miss:

Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Image by Helmut Meyer zur Capellen/imageBROKER/Corbis. Staircase with ceiling painting by Mihály von Munkácsy, 1890, Kunsthistorisches Museum. (original image)

Image by Atlantide Phototravel/Corbis. Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum was commissioned by a Hapsburg Emperor—and it shows. (original image)

Image by Helmut Meyer zur Capellen/imageBROKER/Corbis. Interior dome view in the staircase, Kunsthistorisches Museum. (original image)

Image by Karl F. Schöfmann/imageBROKER/Corbis. A bust of Emperor Franz Joseph I. by Caspar Zumbusch at the Kunsthistorisches Museum. (original image)

Art lovers won't want to miss the crown jewel of Austria's museum scene—a museum with an interior that's as stunning as its collection. Also known as the Museum of Fine Arts, the Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien was founded to show off the Habsburg​s' lavish array of artworks. Opened in 1891, in a building commissioned by Emperor Franz Joseph I, the museum's perminant displays include works by Michelangelo, Rubens, Rembrandt, Dürer and Raphael. The museum is best known for its large collection of paintings by Northern Renaissance master Pieter Bruegel the Elder. "Hunters in the Snow" shows Bruegel's take on a chilly, pastoral Dutch peasant scene—a taste of idyllic country life that's one of Bruegel's most famous works. Other collection highlights include antiquities, coins and historic musical instruments.

If you can't visit Vienna, you can still view some of the Kunsthistorisches Museum's best works: Google has digitized some of its collection and offers a virtual view of its interior.

Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna

Image by Sylvain Sonnet/Corbis. The Naturhistorisches Museum is home to over 30 million objects. (original image)

Image by Sylvain Sonnet/Corbis. The dinosaur hall at Vienna's Naturhistorisches Museum. (original image)

Image by HERWIG PRAMMER/Reuters/Corbis. A child reaches for the teeth of a model dinosaur at the Naturhistorisches Museum. (original image)

Image by HERBERT NEUBAUER/epa/Corbis. Jeff Koons' sculpture "Balloon Venus Orange" is on display at the Naturhistorisches Museum through March 2016. (original image)

Facing the Kunsthistorisches Museum is its equally impressive neighbor. Devoted entirely to natural history, the Naturhistorisches Museum Wien opened at the same time as the art museum. It houses over 30 million objects that catalog the history, evolution and variety of life on Earth—and beyond. Featuring a planetarium and animal specimens galore, it's a nature lover's playground in a palatial setting.

The museum is known for its large collection of dinosaur bones, including an entire dinosaur hall, and the world's largest exhibit of meteorites. Another highlight is the 28,000-year-old Venus of Willendorf figure—one of the most famous prehistoric sculptures. The Paleolithic representation of a fertile woman was found in Austria, and some theorize it's a precursor of the Venus goddess. 

Whether you're scouring the collection of gems for your favorite treasure or scoping out a meteorite from Mars, the Naturhistorisches Museum is a great place to unwind amidst the wonders of the natural world.

Heeresgeschichtliches Museum, Vienna

Image by HEINZ-PETER BADER/Reuters/Corbis. The car in which Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. (original image)

Image by Charlie Dave - Flickr/Creative Commons. Located in a former arsenal, Vienna's military museum is known for its large collections of firearms and tanks. (original image)

Image by HEINZ-PETER BADER/Reuters/Corbis. The blood stained uniform worn by Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria when he was assassinated. (original image)

This museum's name is a mouthful—it's best translated as the Military Historical Museum. It's known as one of the world's most important history museums and manages to uphold that reputation with a collection of some of history's most significant military artifacts. Inside, you can view everything from elaborate frescoes illustrating the county's various wars to the car in which Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot to death, sparking World War I. Outside is the "tank garden," a yard filled with combat tanks dating from the Soviet period to the present. (If you're at the museum in the summer, you might even catch live demonstrations of the vehicles.) 

While displaying an impressive collection of weaponry, armaments, medals and badges of honor, the Heeresgeschichtliches Museum doesn't shy away from the horrors of war. Blood-soaked uniforms, battle-scared helmets and remnants of Nazi brutality are all contained in its collection—one that highlights Austria's sober, but still fascinating, legacy of armed conflict.

MuseumsQuartier, Vienna

Image by Orietta Gaspari/iStock. Brightly colored benches at the MuseumsQuartier. (original image)

Image by Corbis. "Death and Life" by Gustav Klimt on display in the Leopold Museum. (original image)

Image by Peter Korrak. The MuseumsQuartier in Vienna is home to multiple museums and is an extensive cultural center. (original image)

Image by Carlos Sanchez Pereyra/JAI/Corbis. MUMOK museum in Museums Quartier (original image)

Another of Vienna's must-sees isn't a single museum—it's an entire cultural area. MuseumsQuartier is a mashup of Baroque buildings (that were once the imperial stables) and contemporary architecture. The complex houses multiple museums, including the Leopold Museum, which features the world's largest collection of works by Egon Schiele and other Austrian masters like Gustav Klimt. One of the Leopold's most famous holdings is Klimt's "Death and Life," in which a Grim Reaper lurks next to a chaotic collage of people of all ages and life stages. Next door is the Museum Moderner Kundst Stifgung Ludwig Wien (Mumok), which is central Europe's biggest modern art museum, and Kunsthalle Wien, an important exhibition space for contemporary art.

You may head to MuseumsQuartier for a taste of visual arts, but stay for other kinds of cultural experiences: From artists in residence to dance performances to architectural exhibits, the MuseumsQuartier can provide enough interest for a quick afternoon or a week of cultural bliss.

Mozart's Birthplace, Salzburg

Image by Tatiana Volgutova/iStock. Mozart lived on the third floor of this yellow house in Salzburg, Austria. (original image)

Image by Alfredo Dagli Orti/The Art Archive/Corbis. A portrait of Mozart's family with their musical instruments by La Croce on display at Mozart Geburtshaus. (original image)

Image by Daniel Kalker/dpa/Corbis. Mozart was born in this building in Salzburg. (original image)

Image by Starrynight1. The kitchen in Mozart's childhood home. (original image)

If you're into music, you won't want to miss the place where one of the most impressive composers in history got his start. Tucked into a city street in Salzburg, Mozart's birthplace is now one of the world's most popular museums. And with good reason: The museum features plenty of traces of the composer's youth and vaunted musical career, from the child prodigy's violin to artifacts from his operas. Not a classical fan? Try the museum anyway: The house itself offers an intriguing peek into daily life in the 18th century.

Österreichisches Freilichtsmuseum Stübing, Graz

Visitors to the Österreichisches Freilichtmuseum can check out historic farmsteads and live artisans. (ÖFM Stübing)

Speaking of everyday life, why not add an open-air museum to your agenda? Tucked in an idyllic valley near Austria's second-largest city, Graz, is the largest museum of its kind—an outdoor museum complex featuring over 100 historic buildings in the midst of scenic forests, farms and meadows. The Österreichisches Freilichtsmuseum is a shrine to traditional village life and craft culture. Tour old houses (the oldest dates from the Medieval period), explore heirloom herb gardens and watch artisans carry out the tasks of times past in a series of rotating exhibitions and guided walks of historic farmsteads.

The museum, which prides itself on showcasing historic buildings from all over Austria, is a portal into yesteryear. But the setting of the Freilichtsmuseum feels so serene, it's as much an urban retreat as a peek into the history of vernacular architecture.

Kunsthaus Graz, Graz

Image by Zepp-Cam. 2004/Graz, Austria. Kunsthaus Graz is nicknamed "The Friendly Alien" for its next-level blob design. (original image)

Image by Gabriele Croppi/Grand Tour/Grand Tour/Corbis. The "Friendly Alien." (original image)

Image by Dennis Gilbert/VIEW/Corbis. The Kunsthaus interior view. (original image)

Image by The Kunsthaus Graz lit up at night. (original image)

If you're ready to plunge back into city life, don't forget to stop by one of Austria's most famous architectural marvels. Kunsthaus Graz is an art museum tucked inside a bizarre and beautiful structure better known as "The Friendly Alien." The building is fitting for a contemporary art museum: It manages to be a conversation-starting blob, a solar power generator and even a video screen all at once.

The museum does not have a permanent collection, but offers a constantly changing showcase of installations, film, new media and other forms of contemporary art. On the website, the museum's founders state that they see the museum as "an instrument of art communication"—an ever-changing, organic and completely different kind of museum.

When the Nazis Tried to Bring Animals Back From Extinction

Smithsonian Magazine

Born to the director of the Berlin Zoo, Lutz Heck seemed destined for the world of wildlife. But instead of simply protecting animals, Heck had a darker relationship with them: he hunted and experimented with them.

In the new movie The Zookeeper’s Wife (based on a nonfiction book of the same title by Diane Ackerman), Heck is the nemesis of Warsaw zookeepers Antonina and Jan Zabinski, who risk their lives to hide Jews in cages that once held animals. All told, the couple smuggled around 300 Jewish people through their zoo. Not only was Heck tasked with pillaging the Warsaw Zoo for animals that could be sent to Germany, he was also at work on project that began before the Nazis came to power: reinvent nature by bringing extinct species back to life.

Lutz and his younger brother, Heinz, grew up surrounded by animals and immersed in animal breeding, beginning with small creatures like rabbits. At the same time that the boys learned more about these practices, zoologists around Europe were engaged in debates about the role of humans in preventing extinction and creating new species.

“It was kicked off by all kinds of what we would consider quite weird experiments. People were trying to breed ligers and tigons,” says Clemens Driessen, a researcher in cultural geography at Wageningen University and Research in the Netherlands.

While breeders’ imaginations ran wild with thoughts of new species to create, closer to home, European bison, known as wisent, were going extinct in the wild. Scientists began to consider the role of zoos could play in keeping the species alive—and in Germany, to combine those answers with theories about the supposed “purity” of long-gone landscapes.

Should wisent be revitalized using American bison as breeding stock? Would the resulting offspring still be considered proper bison? As they grew older, the Heck brothers were immersed in these same questions.

According to an article written by Driessen and co-author Jamie Lorimer, Heinz saw the extinction of the wisent as the natural progression of the result of nomadic tribes overhunting. His brother, on the other hand, became more and more interested in what he considered to be “primeval German game”—an interest increasingly shared by Nazis who sought a return to a mythic German past free of racial impurities.

In his autobiography Animals: My Adventure Lutz describes being fascinated by animals he associated with that mythical past, especially wisent and the formidable aurochs.

Lutz Heck with a scaly anteater, 1940 (Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo / Alamy Stock Photo)

Aurochs were large, horned cattle that went extinct in 1627 from excessive hunting and competition from domesticated cattle. The brothers believed they could recreate the animals through back-breeding: choosing existing cattle species for the right horn shape, coloration and behavior, then breeding them until they had something approximating the original animal. This was before the discovery of DNA’s double helix, so everything the brothers looked to for information on aurochs was from archaeological finds and written records. They believed that since modern cattle descended from aurochs, different cattle breeds contained the traces of their more ancient lineage.

“What my brother and I now had to do was to unite in a single breeding stock all those characteristics of the wild animal which are now found only separately in individual animals,” Heck wrote in his book. Their plan was the inverse of Russian experiments to create domesticated foxes through selective breeding—rather than breed forward with particular traits in mind, they thought they could breed backwards to eliminate the aspects of their phenotype that made them domesticated. (Similar experiments have been picked back up by modern scientists hoping to create aurochs once more, and by scientists trying to recreate the extinct quagga. Researchers disagree over whether this type of de-extinction is possible.)

The brothers traveled the continent, selecting everything from fighting cattle in Spain to Hungarian steppe cattle to create their aurochs. They studied skulls and cave paintings to decide what aurochs should look like, and both claimed success at reviving aurochs by the mid-1930s. Their cattle were tall with large horns and aggressive personalities, capable of surviving with limited human care, and in modern times would come to be called Heck cattle. The animals were spread around the country, living everywhere from the Munich Zoo to a forest on the modern-day border of Poland and Russia.

But despite their shared interest in zoology and animal husbandry, the brothers’ paths diverged greatly as the Nazis rose to power. In the early 1930s, Heinz was among the first people interned at Dachau as a political prisoner for suspected membership in the Communist Party and his brief marriage to a Jewish woman. Though Heinz was released, it was clear he would never be a great beneficiary of Nazi rule, nor did he seem to support their ideology focused on the purity of nature and the environment.

Lutz joined the Nazi Party early in its reign, and earned himself a powerful ally: Hermann Göring, Adolf Hilter’s second-in-command. The two men bonded over a shared interest in hunting and recreating ancestral German landscapes. Göring amassed political titles like trading cards, serving in many positions at once: he became the prime minister of Prussia, commander in chief of the Luftwaffe, and Reich Hunt Master and Forest Master. It was in this last position that he bestowed the title of Nature Protection Authority to Lutz, a close friend, in 1938.

Hermann Göring (Wikimedia Commons)

“Göring saw the opportunity to make nature protection part of his political empire,” says environmental historian Frank Uekotter. “He also used the funds [from the Nature Protection Law of 1935] for his estate.” The law, which created nature reserves, allowed for the designation of natural monuments, and removed the protection of private property rights, had been up for consideration for years before the Nazis came to power. Once the Nazis no longer had the shackles of the democratic process to hold them back, Göring quickly pushed the law through to enhance his prestige and promote his personal interest in hunting.

Lutz continued his back-breeding experiments with support from Göring, experimenting with tarpans (wild horses, whose Heck-created descendants still exist today) and wisent. Lutz’s creations were released in various forests and hunting reserves, where Göring could indulge his wish to recreate mythic scenes from the German epic poem Nibelungenlied (think the German version of Beowulf), in which the Teutonic hero Siegfried kills dragons and other creatures of the forest.

“Göring had a very peculiar interest in living a kind of fantasy of carrying spears and wearing peculiar dress,” Driessen says. “He had this eerie combination of childish fascination [with the poem] with the power of a murderous country behind it.” In practical terms, this meant seizing land from Poland, especially the vast wilderness of Białowieża Forest, then using it to create his own hunting reserves. This fit into the larger Nazi ideology of lebensraum, or living space, and a return to the heroic past.

“On the one hand National Socialism embraced modernity and instrumental rationality; something found in the Nazi emphasis on engineering, eugenics, experimental physics and applied mathematics,” write geographers Trevor Barnes and Claudio Minca. “On the other hand was National Socialism’s other embrace: a dark anti-modernity, the anti-enlightenment. Triumphed were tradition, a mythic past, irrational sentiment and emotion, mysticism, and a cultural essentialism that turned easily into dogma, prejudice, and much, much worse.”

In 1941 Lutz went to the Warsaw Zoo to oversee its transition to German hands. After selecting the species that would be most valuable to German zoos, he organized a private hunting party to dispatch with the rest. “These animals could not be recuperated for any meaningful reason, and Heck, with his companions, enjoyed killing them,” writes Jewish studies scholar Kitty Millet.

Millet sees an ominous connection to the Nazi ideology of racial purity. “The assumption was that the Nazis were the transitional state to the recovery of Aryan being,” Millet wrote in an email. In order to recover that racial purity, says Millet, “nature had to be transformed from a polluted space to a Nazi space.”

While Driessen sees little direct evidence of Lutz engaging with those ideas, at least in his published research, Lutz did correspond with Eugen Fischer, one of the architects of Nazi eugenics.

But his work creating aurochs and wisent for Göring shared the same conclusion as other Nazi projects. Allied forces killed the wild animals as they closed in on the Germans at the end of the war. Some Heck cattle descended from those that survived the end of the war in zoos still exist, and their movement around Europe has become a source of controversy that renews itself every few years. They’ve also been tagged as a possible component of larger European rewilding programs, such as the one envisioned by Stichting Taurus, a Dutch conservationist group Stichting Taurus.

With scientists like the Dutch and others considering the revival of extinct wildlife to help restore disturbed environments, Uekotter thinks Heck’s role in the Nazi Party can serve as a cautionary tale. “There is no value-neutral position when you talk about the environment. You need partners and, [compared to gridlock that happens in democracy,] there is a lure of the authoritarian regime that things are all of a sudden very simple,” Uekotter says. “The Nazi experience shows what you can end up with if you fall for this in a naïve way.”

Pilot, Thinker, Soldier, Spy: The Epic "Timeless" Season Finale Twofer

Smithsonian Magazine

Well, another season of Timeless has ended with a bang. Some predictable twists, some less so. As always, these writeups contain not just history but major plot spoilers, so read with caution.

The last two episodes of the season take us to Civil War-era South Carolina and San Francisco's Chinatown, circa 1888. As they aired together, we'll tackle them together.

First, South Carolina, June 1, 1863. In real history, this is the day that a ragtag group of soldiers pull off one of the most audacious operations of the entire war: sail gunboats into the heart of enemy territory, burn Southern plantations, and rescue all the enslaved people. Their leader? Harriet Tubman.

Born into slavery, Tubman suffered under various cruel masters. She escaped to Pennsylvania, and freedom, in 1849, at about age 27 (her birth year is contested), then returned to Maryland to rescue her family on the Underground Railroad. She would ultimately make 19 trips into slaveholding states to rescue enslaved people; conservative accounts say she rescued 70 people, other accounts say up to 300. When the Civil War broke out, she worked for the Union as a cook, nurse and spy.

Which brings us to June 1, 1863. On this night and into the pre-dawn hours of the following day, Tubman, under the command of Union Colonel James Montgomery, took between 150 and 300 black Union soldiers (the 2nd South Carolina Volunteer Infantry (African Descent)) up the Combahee River. The river was filled with mines, but Tubman had gathered intel on where they were. Three ships traveled up the river under cover of darkness. By dawn, they had reached the first plantation. Enslaved families ran for the boats, and the soldiers burned everything else.

As the podcast UnCivil reports, the Union freed 700 enslaved people that night. Most of the men of fighting age immediately enlisted in the Union Army.

This is one of those arresting stories that really ought to be taught in history class. (In a nod to the unfortunate relative obscurity of this story, even Lucy needs a refresher, provided by Rufus) In "Timeless," which gets the story mostly right, the mission seems fated for failure because Emma (BOO! HISS!) has given the Rittenhouse sleeper, a fictional Confederate colonel, a modern-day military history of the Civil War that gives him a roadmap to victory, including exactly where Montgomery’s Union troops are camping out. The Rebs massacre members of the 2nd South Carolina, Montgomery flees, and the raid looks to be doomed before it even started.

The Time Team meets up with Tubman, who insists on raiding the plantations, troops or no troops; Rufus is starstruck. Lucy, realizing that the raid will be a disaster for the Union without the extra manpower, goes with Flynn to convince Montgomery to return. Meanwhile, Rufus and Wyatt go incognito at a nearby plantation to find the sleeper and destroy the Confederate version of Gray’s Sports Almanac. Spoiler, they do both.

Then—at the end of episode nine—a twist: Jessica is a Rittenhouse agent. Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal! She swipes Wyatt’s gun, forces Jiya into the Lifeboat and vanishes just in time for Wyatt to realize what an incredible idiot he's been. Whoops.

The season finale picks up where we left off. A slightly sedated Jiya escapes Rittenhouse HQ thanks to some fancy fighting (where'd you learn that, Jiya?) and zooms off in the Lifeboat with Jessica shooting behind her. Still drugged and piloting a Lifeboat damaged by one of Jessica’s bullets, Jiya’s unable to bring the time machine back to the bunker. Instead, she has jumped in time and space. But Where? And When? Knowing that Jiya will try to change the historical record to communicate with the present, Lucy hits the stacks and finds a photo of Jiya in San Francisco's Chinatown, circa 1888. There's also a message in the photo (written in Klingon, natch): GPS coordinates to where the Lifeboat has been hidden and two words: "DON'T COME."

Of course the team ignores the message. After they've fixed up the Lifeboat, which has been hiding under some bushes since Jiya hid it there 130 years ago, they immediately jump to late-19th century San Francisco and soon find her.

She's spent the last three years working in a seedy saloon and refuses to leave, explaining that her vision shows Rufus dying if and when she attempts to go back to the future. (The gold rush miners filling the bar here aren't exactly cowboys, per her doomsday vision, but they do all have bad teeth and spurs on their boots, so close enough.) Finally convinced to return after Lucy speechifies about friendship and family, events play out almost exactly as Jiya foresaw them. Acting quickly, Jiya prevents her vision—of a Rittenhouse sleeper stabbing Rufus in the back—from coming true, but she can't, tragically, save him from what’s hiding across the street, Emma’s gun.

The Time Team returns down a man, with everyone shocked in disbelief. This would be a depressing note to end on; the "rules" of time travel say that the team can never go back to a place they already were, and it'd take too long to train a new pilot to mount a rescue mission. But just as all hope is lost, what appears but another version of the Lifeboat. Out step older, more badass versions of Wyatt and Lucy. Just before the show closes, Lucy says to a stunned audience (and probably a not-insignificant number of gleeful #Lyatt shippers): "You guys wanna get Rufus back, or what?"

More of note:

  • NBC has yet to announce whether or not “Timeless” will be renewed for a third season, leaving quite a compelling cliffhanger for the rabid “clockblockers” out there.

  • Should there be a new season, there’s been a reshuffling in the House of Rittenhouse. While in San Francisco, Emma murders Lucy’s mom and “big bad” Nicholas Keynes in cold blood, accurately sensing that she was being pushed out of the organization. It’s now her and Jessica as the new matriarchs of Rittenhouse.

  • Episode 9 takes us deep into metaphysical sci-fi territory, with Jiya learning more about her visions from a mentally unstable pilot who's also been seeing visions. He tells her that he's been spending weeks inside his visions, "time traveling" inside his own head. He says he believes the visions are a gift, just like the gifts given to, he says, Joan of Arc, Florence Nightingale, and Kirk Cameron. (Joan did say she spoke to God; your guesses are as good as ours on the other two people.) Another character who we learn is seeing visions? Harriet Tubman herself, who says that God told her to expect Wyatt and Rufus (and showed her a vision of them "stepping out of a giant metal ball, " aka the Lifeboat.) Are we to believe there were other famous people through history who traveled (at least in their heads) through time, and explained those visions through whatever lens made sense to them? Sure seems that way.

  • As in the show, Harriet Tubman did actually report having blackouts, seizures and visions. Historians believe they started when an overseer tried to throw a heavy object at another slave, but hit Tubman in the head instead. A devout Christian, Tubman attributed the visions to God speaking to her. She remained deeply religious her whole life. (Her hymnal is now in the collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.)

  • It seemed remarkably easy for Lucy to convince Montgomery to return—all she had to say is that there were 750 potential soldiers on the plantations. This number may have been exaggerated; again, historians believe that the total number of people freed, including including women and children, was closer to 700, putting the population of men of fighting age a bit lower. But, by 1863, the Union Army was in poor shape. After the Battle of Fredericksburg late the prior year, morale was low. Some historians believe that the Union was seeing 100 desertions a day. So perhaps Montgomery would have been thrilled to get a couple hundred replacement soldiers.

  • When Tubman first meets up with the Time Team, Wyatt says that General McClellan had sent them from the North to help. Actually, George McClellan had been sent back to his home in New Jersey months earlier after he failed to land a decisive victory against the Confederates after the Battle of Antietam in September 1862. Some historians believe he was doing the best he could; others argue that his own caution and incompetence caused the battle to end in more of a tie than a rout. McClellan's troops had, by '63, been transferred to Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside.

  • In the Chinatown episode, Lucy said she knew to look in a book about San Francisco—one she co-wrote with her mother, confusingly—because Jiya had been obsessed with it ever since she had her first vision of the Golden Gate Bridge under construction. (This happened at the end of season 1, as you may remember.) The Golden Gate, however, was far, far in the future in 1888. Construction began in 1933. The engineers primarily involved in its design, Joseph Strauss and Charles Ellis, were teenagers at the time.

  • Chinatown in San Francisco arguably was founded in the mid-1840s, when the first Chinese immigrants arrived. By 1880, the 12 square blocks of Chinatown were home to an estimated 22,000 people, and white San Franciscans were getting anxious. By that time, California and San Francisco had passed eight anti-Chinese laws, banning gongs, fining laundry operators and requiring men who wore their hair in a queue to have it cut, among other indignities. (Some of these laws were later repealed or declared unconstitutional.) The racist lawmakers were just getting started, though: 1882 saw the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first U.S. law passed that banned immigration on the basis of race. And in 1890, two years after our story is set, San Francisco passed a law that banned Chinese people, including citizens of Chinese descent, from living or working outside of “a portion set apart for...the Chinese.” (This law was mercifully declared unconstitutional the same year.)

That’s it for our writeups for now, unless NBC decides to renew this fan-favorite show for a third season. But we’re not quite done yet. Look out for our Q&A with co-creator Shawn Ryan to publish tomorrow.

Pass the gelatin: A taste of history through mid-century cooking

National Museum of American History

The Patrick F. Taylor Foundation Object Project is a new learning space that explores "everyday things that changed everything." The refrigerators section of Object Project includes period hands-on cookbooks from the 1930s to the 1960s. For insight on what these recipes taste like in practice, I spoke with Ruth Clark, the creator of a blog called "Mid-Century Menu." In 2009, she began an experiment: Make one mid-century recipe a week and taste-test it. As she continues to explore new recipes and perfect her favorite mid-century meals, Ruth says she's learned a lot about food trends, unusual ingredients, and even what food can reveal about American culture at a specific time.

"Ham Mousse" and "Molded Chicken Salad" illustrations from the "Silent Hostess"

Caitlin: Hi, Ruth! So I know the majority of these dishes are inspired by authentic mid-century cookbooks you've gathered. How did that collection start?

Lamb cake pan

Ruth: It started when I was about 13. I inherited my grandmother's cookbooks and a lot of her cooking equipment. One of the things was a vintage lamb cake pan, which I very much enjoy and use to make a lamb cake every Easter. I started reading the cookbooks like they were novels; I'd read them before bed. I kept running to my mom with questions: "What does this mean? How does this technique work?" There were things I had never seen before, and I think that started my interest in learning about the era.

Caitlin: Do you think the mid-century recipes have more colorful descriptions compared to today's cookbooks? What makes them so riveting?

Ruth: A lot of these cookbooks have introductions and little suggestions for how you can serve things. I was interested in the different lifestyles they helped convey. There are also some unexpected names for ingredients, like 1920s and '30s recipes referring to avocados as "alligator pears."

Ruth with one of her mid-century cookbooks

Caitlin: What have you learned from doing this project so far?

Ruth: I've learned that cookbooks themselves are a great record of an era. Cooking can be a product of a time period, and at the same time, it's universal. There have always been ingredient trends, equipment innovations, and preparation and presentation styles. I really like watching everything evolve throughout time while also seeing the similarities.

1930s ice cube tray

Caitlin: That's a theme in Object Project, too. There are some fascinating evolutions in refrigeration, like the advent of ice cube trays and how they were a new innovation that people used to make these trendy chilled beverages.

Ruth: It was exciting! We have this new technology that becomes a trend. That's what I find interesting in exploring these recipes over time—how certain things become trendy, and then sometimes fall by the wayside.

Caitlin: What do you think mid-century food and cookbooks say about the times in which they were popular?

Ruth: In the 1940s, rationing played a big role in how people ate. And I think the '50s is kind of the antithesis of that. There was a lot of rich food, a lot of big parties; food presentation and garnishes were very intricate. Sitting down at the table and having dinner became a cultural phenomenon.

Caitlin: We've seen a number of recipes in our Object Project books that use gelatin in molds of various shapes. Are you tired of Jell-O yet?

1930s entrée salad molds

Ruth: I definitely think that this project has made me appreciate Jell-O more. Before, if you had asked me what my favorite gelatin dish was, I would've said, "None." But now I can say, my favorite gelatin dish is "Under the Sea" salad. It's a Jell-O brand creation that includes lime Jell-O, cream cheese, and canned pears. How does that sound?

Caitlin: Ooh. I don't feel good about that.

Ruth: Right? It's the weirdest thing. And I thought to myself, "I'm going to be horrified." But I ate it, and it was surprisingly good.

Illustrations of desserts in the "Silent Hostess" book

Caitlin: What's one of the best things you've made?

Ruth: The best one was "Black Magic Chocolate Cake." This was based on a chocolate cake recipe that I believe originated with Hershey's in the 1930s. The secret ingredient in the original recipe was a cup of cold coffee. And I found a handwritten edit from the 1970s that substituted the coffee with a can of condensed tomato soup. You'd think that would be the biggest mistake ever, but it was probably the best chocolate cake I've ever made.

Caitlin: Have you found yourself incorporating anything you've learned from mid-century cooking into your day-to-day meals?

Ruth: I do, actually. There are a lot of techniques I've learned through this project that have made me a better cook. One of the things I enjoy most is being able to make a white sauce, no recipe, whenever I feel like it. I've made various white sauces so many times because they're so common in mid-century cooking. I can crank out mac and cheese in no time flat, which is great when you have a toddler. That's a life skill.

Caitlin: Agreed. As a vegetarian, would I survive on a mid-century diet?

Ruth: You would! If you could eat cheese, dairy, and eggs, you would be fine. Casseroles were often made with vegetables and served as a side dish, and they resembled something that we might now serve as a main course. If you were vegan, you would be in trouble in the '50s but probably okay in the '40s. The cooking literature of the '40s is one of the few places where I've seen soy mentioned. Because of rationing, people were interested in making meat substitutes. So there was nut loaf, like cashew loaf, and also loaves made of soy and oatmeal. Similar recipes don’t reoccur regularly until people were getting into the health kick of the '70s.

Caitlin: One last question for you: Do you have any suggestions for hosting a mid-century dinner potluck if, say, the Object Project team decided to try it out?

Depiction of a Sunday buffet supper

Ruth: My biggest suggestion would be to keep an open mind. Everyone should agree that they are going to try one bite of every dish, unless they have allergies or other restrictions. Make sure someone brings cocktails, of course. And I would definitely have someone make the "Black Magic Chocolate Cake."

Caitlin: I'll bring the nut loaf. Thanks, Ruth!

Black Magic cake made by museum staffer Kathy Sklar

*Update* After reading this post, the museum's business program manager Kathy Sklar was inspired to try making the "Black Magic Chocolate Cake" herself! She brought some in to share, and we all agreed it tastes delicious. 

Caitlin Kearney is a new media assistant for the Taylor Foundation Object Project. She is a student in the Museum Studies program at The George Washington University. Previously, she has blogged about the history of Tabasco.

Posted Date: 
Monday, August 10, 2015 - 08:15
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Board games have been teaching us how to shop for more than a century

National Museum of American History


Photograph of "Credit Ability" board game, released in 1980

This November 27, 2015, the day after Thanksgiving, millions of Americans will kick off the holiday shopping season with what has become a "Black Friday" tradition: waking up bleary-eyed in the early morning and journeying (hopefully with coffee in hand) to the closest mall. Familiar though it may be, this Black Friday tradition shows signs of changing. Last year, around 87 million people visited stores on Black Friday, but a substantial number of these "visits" were online. According to the National Retail Federation, average consumers believe that they will do 46 percent of their holiday shopping online in 2015, and forecasters expect that number to grow annually as more and more Americans opt to stay home and avoid seasonal crowds entirely.
The shift in Americans' Black Friday shopping habits reflects a larger trend within American culture: while shopping has been a favorite American pastime since the 1800s, the way Americans shop has changed dramatically. Historians study the transformation in Americans’ shopping habits (what scholars refer to as "consumption") using a variety of sources, but some of the most interesting are popular toys. Board games are particularly useful in this regard because, unlike other toys, they give the people who play them explicit rules and goals. In effect, board games teach people (especially young people) how to shop, reflecting and reinforcing the values of consumer culture.
Shopping board games can be dated back to the 1800s. The Good Old Game of Corner Grocery, patented in 1887 by George S. Parker (of later Parker Brothers fame), was a nostalgic recreation of what shopping had been like before mass production, when the majority of Americans still bought their goods from small shops or independent wholesalers. Unlike later shopping games, the true adversary in Corner Grocery was uncertainty. At the start of every round, players did not know how much money they would have to use, or even which goods would be available for purchase.

Photograph of The Good Old Game of Corner Grocery card game, patented in 1887

Though it came out only a decade later, The Game of Playing Department Store (created by McLoughlin Bros., Inc.) heralded a vastly different style of shopping, one that was taking hold in American cities. Instead of a simple general store, players were transported to a vast downtown department store modeled after one of the many "palaces of consumption" that were built in urban centers across the country in the late 1800s. While the overall goal of the game stayed the same (spend money wisely in order to collect more goods than your opponents), players now had a cornucopia of luxury products to choose from, all neatly divided into different departments like "drygoods" and "hosiery." Fresh seafood, ready-to-wear clothes, and toys (including board games!) were just a few of the items that players could choose between as they wandered through the imaginary store.

Photograph of scale model of a department store window display

Park and Shop, created in the early 1950s, shows how dramatically Americans' shopping habits could change in 50 years. Instead of walking through a busy department store or vying for goods at a general store, the game asked players to climb into their cars and race around town, driving from store to store in order to complete their shopping list before their opponents. Players were rewarded for securing the best parking spots and reducing the number of "steps" it took their pedestrian tokens to walk to each retailer. Americans from an earlier era would have been confused by some of the hazards Park and Shop players had to avoid during their shopping trips: fender benders, empty gas tanks, and impromptu bowling matches could easily cost a player his or her turn.

Photograph of Park and Shop board game, released in 1950s

The origins of Park and Shop are a reminder that board games could be both prescriptive and descriptive. Developed by newspaper artist Campe B. Euwer and heavily promoted by the paper's owner, Donald Miller, Park and Shop was actually a clever attempt to promote a new parking system developed by merchants in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Fearful that their customers would abandon Allentown's downtown shopping district in favor of new and convenient strip-malls and stores at the edge of town, 48 merchants banded together in 1947 to create Park & Shop, Inc. By 1949 their corporation had purchased 10 public parking lots, and customers who shopped at participating stores were rewarded with four hours of free parking. Park and Shop drove home the merchants' message that shopping downtown could still be both fast and fun.
Few technologies have had as much of an impact on Americans' consumptive habits as credit cards. First introduced in the 1950s, credit card usage exploded in the 1980s, and the challenge of shopping with credit became a new dynamic for board games to explore. In Bargain Hunter, released in 1981 by Milton Bradley, players raced to furnish their new apartments with necessary items (which, interestingly, included not one but two pets).

Photograph of Bargain Hunter board game, released in 1981

Perhaps unsurprisingly given that the game was released during a recession, Bargain Hunter made leveraging debt and comparison shopping essential strategies for winning. The prices for various products fluctuated wildly throughout the game, and players could take advantage of sudden sales by paying for their purchases with a credit card. (Players could borrow up to $1,000 before the game decided that they were in "Financial Disaster" and forced them to stop shopping.) Other credit card-based board games from the period, such as Ungame's 1980 title Credit Ability, marketed themselves as educational tools for teachers. On the back of the game box, a special note addressed to teachers promised that Credit Ability would teach their students "valuable consumer skills" as they learned "some of the hazards as well as the delights of buying with credit cards."

Photograph of credit card playing pieces from board game Credit Ability released in 1980

For more than a century, shopping has proven to be an enduring source of inspiration for board games, and while these toys are easy to overlook, they have shaped how generations of Americans understand consumption: what they should buy, how they should buy it, and what meanings they should attach to the experience of shopping. As more and more people choose to do their shopping online and new forms of currency replace the cash and credit systems we've grown familiar with, it will be fascinating to see what game makers think of next.

Jordan Grant is a New Media assistant working with the American Enterprise exhibition. 

Posted Date: 
Tuesday, November 24, 2015 - 15:00
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Kids pitched in to defeat disease and advance medical research

National Museum of American History

Giving blood, getting a flu shotraising money for a cure—plenty of Americans participate every day to help secure the health and wellness of their fellow citizens. Children have been an important part of these communal efforts and they in return have received small tokens in recognition of their participation (and sometimes to help lure them into participating). Here are a few of these historic tokens and the stories of the American kids whose participation contributed to all of our well-being.

Polio Pioneers
In 1954, 1.8 million American school children participated in a national trial of the new polio vaccine. The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (now the March of Dimes) supported both the development of the vaccine and the subsequent trial. More than 300,000 people—mostly volunteers, including physicians, nurses, schoolteachers, public health officials, and community members—carried out the work. School children served as the test population.

Because half of all reported poliomyelitis cases occurred in children under 10, the trial's study population targeted children in the first three grades of elementary school.

Metal pin picturing illustration of two children, a girl and a boy. The little girl has the boy by the elbow, helping him. She has a brace on her leg. The boy uses crutches. They are dressed in nice clothes. Text on red background says "Fight Infantile Paralysis." The girl is smiling. The boy has a partial smile.

The children became known as "Polio Pioneers." After obtaining the consent of their parents, about 650,000 children received either the vaccine or a placebo (a solution made to look like vaccine, but with no active materials). Over a million more children served as "observed" controls. The success of this trial led to widespread use of the polio vaccine and near eradication of the virus in the United States by the early 1960s.

Front and back of wallet-sized card. Text: "The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis Certifies That Helena Wright has been enrolled as a Polio Pioneer." On reverse: "Attested" followed by child's school, city, county, state, date, and chairman's signature.

Metal pin in circle shape. Red silhouette of a doctor leaning over to look into a microscope with other medical instruments nearby. Text: "Polio Pioneer in 1954"

The Smallpox 12
Nearly 150 years earlier, in October 1809, 12 children from the town of Milton, Massachusetts participated in an unusual demonstration of a new medical technique. In July of that year, the town leaders of Milton had offered free vaccination to all inhabitants and over 300 persons were inoculated. Vaccination was a relatively new idea at this time and many individuals (including medical professionals) were unconvinced of its value. The technique involved inoculating patients with cowpox in order to provide protection from the more serious disease smallpox.

Following the vaccination campaign, the town leaders took an unusual step—they decided to hold a public demonstration to prove without a doubt that the cowpox vaccine worked. On October 9, 1809, 12 children, selected from those vaccinated in July, were inoculated with fresh, virulent smallpox matter. The men on the vaccination committee were confident of good results and apparently chose their own children (or other young relatives) to participate. After 15 days of confinement, all the children were discharged with no sign of smallpox infection.

Each child participant received a personalized certificate pronouncing them a living testament to the "never failing power of the mild preventative the Cow Pox," "a blessing great as it is singular in its kind." A detailed account of the experiment was sent to the officers of every town in the state, as well as to Governor Christopher Gore, a proponent of vaccination. In 1810 the State of Massachusetts passed the Cow Pox Act directing every town, district, or plantation, within the Commonwealth, to provide for the vaccination of their inhabitants.

The world is now free of smallpox—a remarkable global achievement that owes a small debt to the children in a little town in New England in the early years of our republic.

Front and back of document, handwritten

Cheating the Tooth Fairy, for science

In the late 1950s, children in St. Louis, Missouri, began spurning the tooth fairy and sending their baby teeth to scientists at Washington University. Researchers were investigating possible links between cancer rates and the fallout produced by the detonation of the first atomic bomb at the White Sands Proving Ground in 1945 as well as the hundreds of nuclear tests conducted by the United States and the USSR in the following years.

Pin and wallet-sized card. Pin is white with cartoon of a smiling child missing front tooth in all green. "I gave my tooth to science." Card is blue with same graphic and "Operation Tooth Club."

By collecting a large number of baby teeth, scientists could assess and compare cancer rates with levels of strontium-90 in an individual's bones. A radioactive isotope produced by nuclear fission, strontium-90 had an "affinity for bone" and scientists in the 1950s and 1960s feared that it could cause cancer. Although teeth are not bone, similarities between the formation of bone and teeth mean that studying one can lead to insights into the other.

Borne by high winds, strontium-90 had contaminated vegetable crops, meat, and the milk supply across the country, and the levels of contamination in St. Louis were particularly high. Tooth collection areas were quickly set up around the city—in libraries, schools, dentists' offices, and drugstores. By 1962 the children of St. Louis were donating nearly 750 teeth a week for a grand total of 70,000 teeth.

Early results, indicating that children born after 1945 had high levels of strontium-90, influenced President John F. Kennedy as a Partial Test Ban Treaty was being negotiated between the United States, the Soviet Union, and Britain. The children who gave their teeth "to science" may be grandparents themselves today, but their baby teeth are still being studied by scientists in the belief that they will shed even greater light on the impact of atomic testing.

Graphic with text "America Participates"

Alexandra M. Lord, Ph.D., is chair of the History of Medicine and Science Division. Diane Wendt is associate curator in the History of Medicine and Science Division.

Posted Date: 
Wednesday, February 24, 2016 - 08:00
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11 Heart-Pounding Moments at Kennedy Space Center

Smithsonian Magazine

There's power in place—and when it comes to space flight, Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex℠ in Florida is truly the center of the universe. Since 1962, the site has been host to some of NASA's most important launches, including all human missions to space, the Hubble Space Telescope, Mars rovers and New Horizons probe, which entered the Pluto system in January 2015. The Space Launch System, which will bring astronauts to Mars, is set to launch from launch pad 39-B in the coming years.

And trips to space are just the beginning: In addition to its space flight programs, Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex welcomes 1.5 million visitors a year. From meeting astronauts to seeing historic spacecraft up close, here are 11 heart-pounding moments from the epicenter of American space travel:

1) Watch a Live Rocket Launch

The fact that a rocket weighing thousands of tons can travel from the Earth's surface into orbit is staggering in and of itself—but witnessing takeoff is unforgettable. As engines ignite in a burst of flame and sound waves rip through the air, your heart skips a beat. 

Four locations at the visitor complex offer launch viewings accompanied by live commentary. From the viewing room of the four-story LC-39 Observation Gantry, watch rockets take off from the same launch pad that launched the Apollo and space shuttle missions while sizing up the Vehicle Assembly Building, where the center assembles its largest rockets. From the lawn of the NASA Causeway, enjoy an up-close view of the launch pads across Indian River, or watch from the comfort of the Apollo/Saturn V Center and main complex. Whatever the location, the anticipation is palpable as the countdown reaches 3…2…1.

2) Launch Into Orbit

While very few people have experienced the thrill of space travel, veteran astronauts say the Shuttle Launch Experience® is the next best thing. In this simulation, travel from four hours before launch to the final seconds in a matter of minutes. Following a prelaunch briefing by veteran Space Shuttle Commander and NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, your seat shifts back into a vertical position to prepare for takeoff. The final countdown commences, engines rev up and suddenly you’re flying at simulated speeds of 17,500 miles per hour. Eight-and-a-half minutes later, a feeling of weightlessness settles over you. The payload bay doors open to reveal Earth—a shifting mass of vivid greens and blues, set against a starry sky only astronauts can recount.

3) Walk the Apollo 11 Gantry

(Image Credit: Aaron Sheldon)

On July 16, 1969, the crew of Apollo 11 left Earth to complete the first crewed mission to the moon. Four days later, Neil Armstrong took the first step on the moon, proclaiming: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” In the Rocket Garden, relive the historic mission by walking on the very same gantry that Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins used to board the Saturn V rocket. Outside of the gantry, walk among rockets that span the history of space flight. Or climb inside replicas of capsules from the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo eras to understand the conditions experienced by America’s first astronauts.

4) Touch the Moon in the Apollo Treasures Gallery

The Apollo/Saturn V Center is a trove of items commemorating the Apollo missions. Held up by support beams and spanning a football field in length is the sister rocket to the one that transported the crew of Apollo 11 to the moon. After walking its length, stop by a replica moon buggy used to train astronauts on Earth, or peer inside a full-size model of Skylab, the precursor to the International Space Station. The Apollo/Saturn V Center is also one of the only places on Earth where you can touch a piece of the moon. As you glide your fingers over a sample of moon rock, the fact that man traveled 238,000 miles to the moon and back—a round trip almost 20 times the circumference of the Earth—sinks in.

5) Meet an Astronaut

No one tells the story of space travel quite like the people who have been there themselves. Each day in the Astronaut Encounter Theater, a featured astronaut shares his or her experiences training for and living in space, followed by a tell-all Q&A session. “If you’re bold enough to ask, I’m bold enough to answer,” says astronaut Bob Springer, who served as a mission specialist on the STS-29 Discovery and STS-38 Atlantis shuttle flights. He enjoys the Q&A sessions for the chance to inspire a new generation and share what NASA releases leave out – “the emotional part” and “stories behind stories." After the Q&A, visitors can meet and take photos with featured astronauts, who range from commanders to pilots, mission specialists and payload specialists.

6) See the Space Shuttle Atlantis® Up Close

In 2011, the space shuttle Atlantis completed its 33rd and final mission since 1985, the last of space shuttle era. The legendary orbiter, whose missions include the final servicing of the Hubble Space Telescope in 2009, traveled a total of 126 million miles and transported 146 astronauts. It is now on display at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex with payload bay doors open and robotic arm extended, the way it would have appeared after undocking from the International Space Station. Sixty state-of-the-art multimedia presentations surround the orbiter, bringing to life its systems and components. Adding to the effect are the building’s orange and gold hues, which emulate the colors of re-entry, and gray floor tiling, mimicking the tiles used to protect the orbiter from heat.

7) Relive the Daring Feats of Early Space Pioneers

High-tech special effects will bring the adventure and danger of America’s earliest space missions to life in the Heroes & Legends exhibit, opening November 11. Featuring 360-degree visual presentations, a 4D multisensory theater experience and interactive exhibits, Heroes & Legends will present the stories of pioneering astronauts while exploring how Americans define heroism. Interact with the nearly 100 astronaut heroes inducted to date in the new U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame® and watch a hologram reenact Gene Cernan’s hair-raising “spacewalk from hell," during which his goggles fogged up and he struggled to reenter the Gemini 9 capsule.

8) See Footage Shot by Astronauts in 3D IMAX®

The world’s only twin IMAX® screens, each a jaw-dropping five stories tall, bring footage shot by astronauts to life in two motion pictures. Journey to Space, narrated by Sir Patrick Stewart, explores groundbreaking plans to land astronauts on Mars and introduces the team selected for the task. Interviews with commander of the final shuttle mission Chris Ferguson and Serena Aunon, an astronaut selected for future flight, emphasize how these future plans would not be possible without the contributions made by the Space Shuttle program. A Beautiful Planet, narrated by Jennifer Lawrence, casts Earth in a new light from the perspective of the International Space Station. Using Canon 4K cameras, International Space Station astronauts captured all manner of breathtaking natural phenomena, from lightning storms to volcanoes, coral reefs and even the Northern Lights. At night, they documented city lights, a gripping visualization of how humans have shaped the planet.  

9) Remember Fallen Heroes of Space

Forever Remembered is a powerful tribute to the 14 astronauts who lost their lives in the STS-51L/Challenger and STS-107/Columbia space shuttle missions. As you enter the memorial, mission patches and personal items, such as Michael Anderson’s Star Trek lunch box and Rick Husband’s cowboy boots and Bible, highlight the astronauts’ passions and achievements. An adjacent gallery displays recovered sections of both orbiters: a large section of the Challenger’s left side body with the American flag intact and the framework of Columbia’s cockpit windows. Other galleries emphasize the importance of learning from the past. “The crews of Challenger and Columbia are forever a part of a story that is ongoing,” says NASA administrator Charles Bolden of the exhibit. “It is the story of humankind’s evolving journey into space, the unknown, and the outer-reaches of knowledge, discovery and possibility. It is a story of hope.”

10) Train Like an Astronaut

Astronauts spend years preparing for missions to space. The Astronaut Training Experience® is an exhilarating, hands-on, half-day program designed by veteran astronauts that walks you through how they prepare for the rigors of space flight in the months before launch. Following a mission briefing, space flight experts instruct you on how to execute a high-Earth orbit, dock and perform crucial repairs. Next, test your strength and stamina on the Micro-Gravity Wall and 1/6th Gravity Chair, or dare to enter the Multi-Axis Trainer, which rotates in multiple directions up to 360º. After receiving your mission role, enter a full-scale mock-up of a space shuttle orbiter or mission control room to conduct a mission simulation. A final graduation ceremony includes an inspiring debriefing on the future of the U.S. space program.

11) See the Farthest Reaches of the Universe in 4K Resolution

For over 25 years, the Hubble Space Telescope has orbited the Earth, affording us invaluable views of deep space, including stars, nebulas and black holes. Five grueling repair missions and dozens of hours of spacewalks have kept the telescope in service, allowing scientists to continue to answer fundamental questions of our existence: How do stars form? What are galaxies made of? What does our cosmic neighborhood look like? Now you can traverse 13.4 billion years through the eyes of the telescope in stunning 3D, 4K resolution during the “Eyes on the Universe: NASA’s Space Telescope 3D” live presentation at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. The presentation also discusses what may be the next great observatory: NASA's James Webb Telescope, set to orbit the sun in 2018.

Inside a Remarkable Repository that Supplies Eagle Parts to Native Americans and Science

Smithsonian Magazine

Dennis Wiist stands hunched over a bald eagle, its majestic wings spread out across a stainless-steel table. Wearing white disposable coveralls, blue latex gloves and a facemask, the wildlife specialist examines the bird’s wingspan, running his fingers between each wing feather to count them. Turning the bird face up, he notices a trickle of blood coming from one of its nostrils. “It looks like this one may have flown into something,” he says.

Wiist jots down a couple of notes before checking the bird's talons and tail feathers for wounds or fractures. All told, the examination takes about 15 minutes. Afterwards, he gingerly places the carcass in a plastic bag and sets it inside a walk-in freezer, where it will be boxed and shipped off from the National Eagle Repository, the only facility of its kind in the United States.

Wiist’s job is a cross between a mortician and a medical examiner. “I get to observe eagles in a way that very few people ever get to do,” he says. But unlike morticians, who prepare corpses for wakes and burials, Wiist is readying the eagles for another purpose: to be used by Native Americans for religious and cultural purposes. The National Eagle Repository, which is part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is meant to “provide a central location for the receipt, storage and distribution of bald and golden eagles found dead and their parts throughout the United States,” according to its website.

By federal law, it’s illegal to possess, use or sell eagle feathers—a policy that is meant to deter hunters from poaching wild eagles for their feathers or body parts. A violation can result in a fine of up to $200,000, one year of imprisonment, or both.

However, the law, which is part of the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the 100-year-old Migratory Bird Treaty Act, stipulates that Native Americans who are members of federally recognized tribes can obtain a permit under the Federally Recognized Tribal List Act of 1994 to gain access to golden eagles and bald eagles. The majestic avians have long held a significant role among Native Americans, who use the feathers in religious and cultural ceremonies.

In the 1970s, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service established the repository "in recognition of the significance of these feathers to Native Americans." In 1994, after meeting with 300 tribal leaders, President Bill Clinton signed an executive memorandum that required all federal agencies send deceased eagles to the repository. The following year, it was moved from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Forensic Laboratory in Oregon to its current home within the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in Commerce City, a suburb of Denver. 

Wiist has been examining deceased eagles for the past 21 years. After he examines them, he prepares them to be boxed and shipped across the country to tribal members who will then use the feathers and other parts to create intricate headdresses, dance shawls and other pieces for religious and cultural ceremonies. Every year, each tribal member over the age of 18 can apply to receive up to one whole golden or bald eagle, or various pieces that are equivalent to what one single eagle would contain, such as a pair of wings, a tail, a pair of talons, a head or a trunk.

“Occasionally, there is an applicant who is especially grateful, and seems quite sincere about what they are doing,” Wiist says. “It really touches some people's hearts."

Dennis Wiist with a bald eagle. (Jennifer Nalewicki)

Geoffrey M. Standing Bear, principal chief of the Osage Nation, first learned about the repository when he was in his 20s. Using eagle parts in ceremonies is a long held tradition among his people. Not only are the feathers worn during ceremonies, but they’re also used on a daily basis to bless oneself or others. “My elders once told me to look at [an eagle’s wing] like the Catholics do a crucifix,” he says. “I bless myself every morning and say a prayer with it.”

Back then, Standing Bear found himself short on feathers to pass down to his younger relatives. So he connected with tribal artisans, who pointed him toward the repository. 

According to Standing Bear, Native Americans believe that the eagle is closer to God than humans are. “The eagle flies above us and has been here longer than we have and knows God better than we do,” he says. “It has holy powers that we can draw from by respectful use of its feathers [and other body parts]. We show our respect and distill blessings to another person by taking the feathers and touching them on the head and on the heart and on the hands to bless their minds, their emotions and their experiences in life.”

Tink Tinker, also a member of the Osage Nation in Oklahoma, agrees. “The eagle is one of our closest relatives,” he says. “We believe that all of our relatives have distinct energy or power attached to them, and we use the eagle for its powers to help with healing and to give people strength, courage, wisdom and generosity. We use [the feathers] ceremonially to bring the intrinsic energy of the eagle into the ceremony. They’re not just symbols, they have actual power that relates closely to the Indian people.”

Tinker, who is a professor of American Indian cultures and religious traditions at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, says that he and his relatives have been sending applications through the repository for decades. He received his last shipment of feathers on behalf of his tribe about a year ago, which he divided among several relatives.

Tinker says that he has known about the repository since he was a child, and that its existence is passed on by word of mouth. But the number of requests has increased dramatically since Tinker was young. For example, ten years ago, in 1996, the repository received around 1,300 eagles and fulfilled approximately 2,400 orders. In 2015, the repository received around 3,500 eagles with a fulfillment rate of approximately 4,500 orders, according to Schaefer. Given that kind of demand, it’s not uncommon for applicants to wait up to two years for their requests to be fulfilled.

“I’m very liberal in [approving the applications] because I want all of our people to practice our traditional culture and religion, and eagles are critical to those practices," says Standing Bear, who is responsible for approving all applications from his tribe before they’re sent to the repository. "Feathers are handed down from generation to generation, but as families grow, there’s a shortage.” When asked about the delay, he adds: “It is what it is. We’re just grateful to get what we can."

There are only a handful of full-time employees at the repository, and Wiist is often the only one processing the eagles. It’s not uncommon for him to have about a half-dozen carcasses resting on shelves inside the laboratory awaiting examination. “The better the condition the birds come in, the faster the processing is,” he says. “Some of them arrive in pretty bad shape.”

Over the years, he’s seen eagles die due to numerous causes, including crashing into telephone poles, hit by cars, lead poisoning and being caught in hunting traps. It’s the responsibility of local state wildlife agencies and special agents working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to alert the repository of the death and include coordinates of where the bodies were found.

Eagle feathers get inspected and counted before shipment. (Jennifer Nalewicki)

Native Americans aren’t the only ones who benefit from the work done at the repository. In a fortuitous twist, scientists have also been able to obtain the samples for work on eagle conservation.

In 2014, Gary Roemer, a professor in the department of fish, wildlife and conservation ecology at New Mexico State University, was investigating how deadly wind turbines could be for golden eagles. Roemer needed eagle samples to study, so he reached out to the repository. Ever since then, Wiist has been sending Roemer tissue samples, feathers and details of the demise of some of the birds that pass through the repository. (The government issued Roemer, who is working in tandem with a team of researchers with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, special permits that allow them to handle and study the parts, as well as tag eagles out in the wild.)

Wind turbines caused the demise of nearly 600,000 birds in 2012, which included golden eagles and migratory songbirds, according to the American Bird Conservancy. “The USFWS is studying the stability of the golden eagle population and how much of a mortality rate is allowed before there’s a fallout of the population,” says Roemer, in reference to research done by one fellow researcher, Brian Millsap of the USFWS. “They're trying to work with wind-energy companies to come up with a strategy that will lessen the impact of eagle mortalities caused by wind turbines. Deaths will happen, so the question is how many eagles can be killed in a given year before there’s a population decline, and can those deaths be mitigated through other means, such as reducing electrocutions by retrofitting power lines.”

And it's vital that we assess the impacts of wind turbines sooner rather than later: By 2030, the number of turbines in the United States will increase ten-fold and could account for the deaths of an estimated 1.4 to 2 million birds each year, according to the conservancy.

Eagles move widely, meaning that wind turbines could spell trouble for eagle populations nationwide, Roemer adds. “For example, we know that golden eagles tagged in Denali National Park often winter in southern New Mexico and West Texas,” he says. “So, something like a wind turbine could be influencing breeding populations from several areas across the continent, not just within the area where the wind turbine is sited. Understanding eagle movements and genetic structure will help us better manage the continental population.”

A sampling of eagle wing feathers available at the repository. (Jennifer Nalewicki)

Although Roemer is quick to point out that wind turbines are a step in the right direction to increase clean energy, “they’re also not benign, so we’re trying to find ways to at least mitigate their impact.” Some of the ideas that the researchers have considered include placing turbines farther away from flyway zones and putting money into a fund to help increase the visibility of power lines (which are also the cause of many a bird’s demise).

The repository's samples have been crucial to Roemer's work. Last year his team released a status report of the project, explaining the importance of the tissue and feather database they are setting up using the samples. They've also been studying golden eagle genetics. “We have to understand eagle biology better to come up with a sustainable approach to protect them,” he says.

Meanwhile, back at the repository, Wiist carefully selects feathers and takes small tissue samples of some of the golden eagles that pass through his lab, packing them up in boxes. Some he will mail to tribes for traditional uses, while others will go to New Mexico to be examined for their genetic structure. Both, in their own way, help support the continued appreciation of these iconic American species.

American Children Faced Great Dangers in the 1930s, None Greater Than “Little Orphan Annie”

Smithsonian Magazine

In a scene from the classic film A Christmas Story (1983), the arrival of a lamp in the shape of a woman's leg throws the Parker home into discord. Young Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) can't keep his eyes (or his hands) off the thing; his mother (Melinda Dillion) looks on in pure horror. She can't stop her husband (Darren McGavin) from displaying his “major award” in their front window, but she knows just how to divert her son's attention elsewhere. All she has to do is remind him that he's missing his “favorite radio program,” Little Orphan Annie.

Ralphie immediately plops himself down and stares up at the family radio the way later generations would gaze unblinkingly at the TV. “Only one thing in the world could've dragged me away from the soft glow of electric sex gleaming in the window,” Ralphie's older self, voiced by the humorist Jean Shepherd (upon whose book the movie is based), says in narration.

This scene perfectly captures the powerful hold that radio in general, and Little Orphan Annie in particular, had on young minds in the 1930s and 1940s, when A Christmas Story is set. The exploits of the redheaded comic-strip heroine and her dog Sandy—who battled gangsters, pirates, and other scoundrels on air from 1931 to 1942—had a surprisingly wide listenership. “All people during that period, budding delinquents, safecrackers, stock market manipulators, or whatever, listened to Little Orphan Annie,” wrote Richard Gehman in the Saturday Review in 1969.

Because radio’s “theater of the mind” requires a fertile imagination, it has always had a special appeal for children. The same lively imagination Ralphie uses to picture himself defending his family with a Red Ryder BB gun, or reduced to a blind beggar by the effects of Lifebuoy soap, brought Annie's adventures to life more vividly than a television ever could.

This imaginative power is precisely why some parents and reformers saw the radio in much the same way Ralphie's mother saw the leg lamp: as a seductive villain, sneaking into their homes to harm the minds and corrupt the morals of their children. They saw the intense excitement Annie and other shows inspired in children and quickly concluded that such excitement was dangerous and unhealthy. One father, in a letter to The New York Times in 1933, described the effects on his child of the “all-too-hair-raising adventures” broadcast during radio’s “Children’s Hours.” “My son has never known fear,” he wrote. “He now imagines footsteps in the dark, kidnappers lurking in every corner and ghosts appearing and disappearing everywhere and emitting their blood-curdling noises, all in true radio fashion.”

Many claims about the harm allegedly caused by violent video games, movies, and other media today—that they turn kids into violent criminals, rob them of sleep, and wreak havoc with their nervous systems—were lobbed just as strongly at radio in the 1930s. “These broadcasts are dealing exclusively with mystery and murder,” wrote a Brooklyn mother to the Times in 1935. “They result in an unhealthy excitement, unnecessary nervousness, irritability and restless sleep.”

The year before, noted educator Sidonie Gruenberg told the Times “that children pick as favorites the very programs which parents as a whole view with special concern—the thriller, the mystery, the low comedy and the melodramatic adventure.” She asked, rhetorically: “Why is it that the children seem to get their greatest pleasure from the very things which the parents most deplore?”

Among the programs most adored by kids but deplored by parents was Ralphie’s favorite: Little Orphan Annie. In March 1933, Time reported that a group of concerned mothers in Scarsdale, New York, got together to protest radio shows that “shatter nerves, stimulate emotions of horror, and teach bad grammar.” They singled out Little Orphan Annie as “Very Poor,” because of the protagonist’s “bad emotional effect and unnatural voice.” That same year, wrote H. B. Summers in his 1939 book Radio Censorship, “a Minneapolis branch of the American Association of University Women, and the Board of Managers of the Iowa Congress of Parents and Teachers adopted resolutions condemning the ‘unnatural overstimulation and thrill’ of children’s serials—principally the ‘Orphan Annie’ and ‘Skippy’ serials.” (Skippy was based on a comic strip about a “streetwise” city boy that served as a major influence on Charles Schulz’s Peanuts.)

These days, when Annie is known mainly as the little girl who sang brightly about “Tomorrow,” it may be hard to picture her radio series as the Grand Theft Auto of its day. But the radio show had a much closer relationship to its source material—a “frequently downbeat, even grim comic” created in 1924 by Harold Gray—than the relentlessly optimistic (and very loosely adapted) Broadway musical. The comic-strip Annie’s most defining and admired trait—her self-reliance—came from the fact that she existed in “a comfortless world, vaguely sinister,” surrounded by violence, where few could be trusted and no one could be counted on. “Annie is tougher than hell, with a heart of gold and a fast left, who can take care of herself because she has to,” Gray once explained. “She’s controversial, there’s no question about that. But I keep her on the side of motherhood, honesty, and decency.”

The radio series softened some of the strip’s sharp edges, most especially by dropping its virulently anti-Roosevelt politics. But the unceasing undercurrent of danger remained, heightened by the cliffhanger at the end of each episode. Those cliffhangers were key to the show’s success—and the element that most disturbed parents. Frank Dahm, who wrote the scripts for the series, discovered this very quickly after having Annie kidnapped at the end of one early episode. “The announcer had scarcely had time to sign off the program when the telephones began to ring,” Dahm told Radio Guide in 1935. “Frantic mothers unable to pacify their children all but blasphemed me for so jeopardizing their favorite.” Dahm dutifully put kidnapping on the list of the show’s “mustn’ts,” which soon grew to include other plot points that drew complaints.

The producers of Little Orphan Annie had to walk a very fine line, indulging their audience’s appetite for thrills while not offending adults. The adults, after all, held the purchasing power. The companies that sponsored Annie and other shows aimed at children knew, as Francis Chase, Jr., observed in his 1942 book Sound and Fury, that “kids love action. … And because kids like murder and excitement, such programs proved good merchandising mechanisms.” Annie, as A Christmas Story accurately depicted, was sponsored by “rich, chocolaty Ovaltine”—a malted powder added to milk. As much as a third of every fifteen-minute episode was devoted to having the announcer sing Ovaltine’s praises, telling kids it would give them added “pep” and imploring them to “do a favor” for Annie and tell their mothers about it.

Such advertising, as psychologists Hadley Cantril and Gordon Allport noted in their 1935 book The Psychology of Radio, was devilishly effective. They wrote about a 7-year-old boy named Andrew, whose favorite radio show (unnamed, but with a “little heroine” who is almost certainly Annie) was sponsored by “chocolate flavoring to be added to milk” (unquestionably Ovaltine). Andrew “insists that his mother buy it,” even after his mother reads up on the product and discovers that it has “no significant advantage over cocoa prepared with milk in the home” and isn’t worth the price. “In vain does she suggest that Andrew derive his pep from ordinary cocoa, or at least from one of the less expensive preparations,” write Cantril and Allport. “Andrew wins his point by refusing to drink milk at all without the costly addition!”

Ovaltine had another marketing strategy that was even more effective—the giveaway. Week after week, Annie announcer Pierre André instructed kids to send in a dime “wrapped in a metal foil seal from under the lid of a can of Ovaltine” so they could get the latest in a series of premiums: mugs, buttons, booklets, badges, masks, and on and on. Many other radio shows offered “free” items in exchange for wrappers or box tops, but, as Bruce Smith observed in his History of Little Orphan Annie, Ovaltine gave away more items than anyone else.

By far the most coveted item Ovaltine had to offer were the “secret decoder pins” awarded to members of “Annie’s Secret Circle,” so they could decipher the “secret message” read at the end of each episode. In A Christmas Story, Ralphie acquires one such pin after “weeks of drinking gallons of Ovaltine,” and memorably uses it to decipher a message reminding him to “BE SURE TO DRINK YOUR OVALTINE.” In real life, such messages were never so blatantly commercial. Brief references to the plot of next week’s show, such as “S-E-N-D H-E-L-P” or “S-A-N-D-Y I-S S-A-F-E,” were more typical. But Ralphie’s fervent desire for a decoder pin, and his excitement (admittedly short-lived) at finally being a member of the “Secret Circle,” is absolutely true to life.

Many parents resented having to battle their children over the grocery list week after week, as a growing list of giveaways threatened to break the bank. (“If a weak-willed mother should buy all these prize ‘box tops,’” wrote News-Week in December 1934, “her grocery budget…would swell at least $2 a week”—or about $35.50 today.) But they also knew that the show’s dependence on its advertiser gave them leverage. By threatening to boycott Ovaltine, or any company that sponsored a show they found objectionable, they could (and did) influence its content. Broadcasters listened to these complaints and tightened their standards for children’s programming.

By the end of the 1930s, Annie’s cliffhangers had been toned down, and this may have hastened its end. Ovaltine stopped sponsoring the show in 1940, and the series went off the air not long after—making Ralphie, who uses a decoder ring clearly marked “1940,” one of the last members of the “Secret Circle.” The cultural winds had shifted; in the early 1940s, writes Chase, parents clearly stated their preference for more “educational” children’s programming. But the style of advertising used on Annie remained, and—despite the occasional controversy every now and then—has never gone away.

There’s a certain irony here. Ralphie’s trusty decoder pin teaches him an important lesson—one that his “Old Man,” delighted at receiving his “major award” of a leg lamp, apparently never learned. Holed up in the family bathroom, Ralphie discovers that the “message from Annie herself” is nothing but “a crummy commercial”—an ad for the very stuff he had to drink by the gallon in order to get the decoder pin in the first place. “I went out to face the world again—wiser,” he says in narration. He’s learned a thing or two about the rules of commerce, and about the true cost of a “free” giveaway.

What could be more educational than that?

At the New “Slavery and Freedom” Show, a Mother Finds an Empowering Message for Her Young Daughters

Smithsonian Magazine

Amber Coleman-Mortley knelt on the floor with her three daughters, pointing into one of the display cases at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. They were at the beginning of the museum’s “Slavery and Freedom” exhibition, and inside the case were beads once used to count money, and a whip once used to beat slaves. One could almost hear the sound of it slashing through the air. But for Coleman-Mortley, being here was a point of pride.

“I’ve read about all this stuff, but seeing it personally is empowering, and I needed my children to understand that,” says Coleman-Mortley, who was with daughters Garvey, 8, Naima, 7, and Sofia Toussaint, 5. The Bethesda-based Digital Media Manager runs a blog entitled, and named her daughters after prominent blacks in history. Garvey is named for Black Nationalist Marcus Garvey, Naima after jazz great John Coltrane's gorgeous ballad, and Sofia Toussaint for Haitian Revolution leader Toussaint Louverture. “I can trace my lineage back five or six generations, all the way back to slavery, and I’m extremely proud of that and I think they should be too—because there is nothing to be ashamed of. Nothing.”

Museum specialist Mary Elliott says that’s one of the takeaways she and curator Nancy Bercaw were hoping visitors get from this visceral exhibition. It includes many objects that exude tangible emotions, ranging from the ballast from a sunken slave ship, to shackles used for an enslaved child.

“We talk about the harsh reality of slavery, but juxtaposed against the resistance and the resilience and the survival of a people,” Elliott says. “But it is also the story of how African-Americans helped define this nation, shaped it physically, geographically, culturally, socially, politically and economically. We want people to see all that, and we want people to see the juxtaposition of profit and power against the human cost.”

A slave whip made of hide and wood and owned by British abolitionist Charles James Fox, late 18th century (NMAAHC)

Objects such as the bull whip, are as upsetting to many on the museum’s staff as they are to those visiting the long-awaited facility.

“The first time I saw that in storage, I just looked at it and had to turn away. The level of emotion on seeing that object is something I’m having a hard time explaining,” says Bercaw. “I only hope that people, when they see these objects, understand and feel some of the things that we did, because this is really documenting a past—our shared past—and it’s really the nation’s commitment to collecting, displaying and fully addressing this past. . . . I hope that people will continue to bring objects forward because it is important that we never lose sight of this history again.”

The vibe in this exhibition is different than in much of the rest of the museum. People unconsciously lower their voices as they cluster around display cases telling the narrative of how slavery began, and how nations including Britain, France, Portugal and Spain invested in the slave trade. Visitors stand for long minutes, reading the meticulously researched narratives that describe how slavery was the foundation of both the United States and of modern Europe.

Cobalt blue glass trade beads, c. 17th century (NMAAHC, Gift of Oprah Winfrey)

Curators also hope that the exhibition teaches visitors that all Americans, both in the North and in the South, were involved in the institution of slavery. But most importantly, they want people to understand that these were human beings, with their own voices and stories, and their own challenges.

“We have a wage book from a slave ship, crew member wages, so that allows us to think more deeply about what did people wrestle with when deciding to be on board these slave ships?,” Elliot says. “Did they wrestle with, ‘I just want passage to the new world, I need to feed my family,’ or did they think ‘I’m all for this and I need to make some money?’”

As one winds their way through what almost feels like a subterranean passage at the beginning, one gets to a point where enslaved people are being transported to different parts of the nation, and into completely alien environments.

“I hope that when people walk through and experience this, they’ll see that if you were kidnapped and sold and transported with hundreds of other strangers, you would have suddenly found yourself in a very different environment. The Chesapeake, or the Carolina low country, and these all created very different African-American communities,” says Bercaw. “People say African-American as if it’s one thing. We’re looking at the roots of really different forms of expressions and we’re looking at how race was made, how our notions of black and white and difference were made in this very early era.”

Wage book for the slave trading ship Fox captained by Robert Mitchell, 1774-1775 (NMAAHC)

She explains that the displays try to show people what it means to suddenly become black in America, to no longer be a member of an African nation such as the Dahomey kingdom.

“And then to understand the different levels of what that really meant—the political consciousness that comes out of that. The tremendous skills, the faith practices,” Bercaw explains, adding that “they were all different within these different areas.”

After the colonial era, visitors pass into a large open room. Directly in front of them, stands a statue of President Thomas Jefferson, in front of stacked bricks that represent the people enslaved by him in 1776. The exhibition explains that like many slave owners, Jefferson owned his own children and their mother, Sally Hemings. Overhead in huge letters, quotes from people and from documents such as the Declaration of Independence adorn the sweeping multi-storied walls.

In fact, the declaration is in this room, along with other freedom-related documents including the Emancipation Proclamation, the U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. There are plaques explaining how slavery fueled this nation’s economy, a cotton gin, and a slave auction block. It bears an engraving noting that General Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay spoke from the stone in Hagerstown, Maryland, in 1830. President Barack Obama alluded to the latter in his speech when he formally dedicated this museum in September.

I want you to think about this. Consider what this artifact tells us about history, about how it’s told, and about what can be cast aside. On a stone where day after day, for years, men and women were torn from their spouse or their child, shackled and bound, and bought and sold, and bid like cattle; on a stone worn down by the tragedy of over a thousand bare feet—for a long time, the only thing we considered important, the singular thing we once chose to commemorate as “history” with a plaque were the unmemorable speeches of two powerful men. 

And that block I think explains why this museum is so necessary. Because that same object, reframed, put in context, tells us so much more. As Americans, we rightfully passed on the tales of the giants who built this country; who led armies into battle and waged seminal debates in the halls of Congress and the corridors of power. But too often, we ignored or forgot the stories of millions upon millions of others, who built this nation just as surely, whose humble eloquence, whose calloused hands, whose steady drive helped to create cities, erect industries, build the arsenals of democracy.

In the same room, a bible belonging to Nat Turner is on display. He led an 1831 slave uprising in which about 55 whites were killed. A hymnal and shawl belonging to abolitionist and Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman is also on display. So is a slave cabin from Edisto, Island in South Carolina.

A stone slave auction block from Hagerstown, Maryland, early 19th-century with a plaque inscribed “General Andrew Jackson/ and Henry Clay spoke from this slave block in Hagerstown during the year 1830." (NMAAHC)

“You can actually feel lives within that cabin,” says Bercaw, who was there when the cabin was dismantled and brought back to the museum, where it has been rebuilt. The walls visitors see that are whitewashed are original to the cabin, which was reconstructed with other boards to keep it upright.

“When we were down there collecting . . . the cabin, you could see the layers of wall paper. You could see the degree of care that people had tried to take to make their lives more livable within [it],” Bercaw says.

Iron shackles, before 1860 (NMAAHC)

Some visitors find the “Slavery and Freedom” exhibition difficult to experience. But not Amber Coleman-Mortley and her daughters.

“It reinforces the strength of black people throughout the continent, throughout the globe. . . .We are the children of slaves that didn’t die so how powerful are we? How strong are we?” Coleman-Mortley asks. “We should be proud of what people had to go through so that I could get in my car, so I could drive my kids to a good school, so I could make a difference, and we should do something with that power. Go out, help the community, uplift each other.”

"Slavery and Freedom"  is a new inaugural exhibition on view in the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Timed-entry passes are now available at the museum's website or by calling ETIX Customer Support Center at (866) 297-4020. Timed passes are required for entry to the museum and will continue to be required indefinitely.

Did the Cowardly Lion give the greatest campaign speech of all time? Quite possibly.

National Museum of American History

Many writers have suggested that L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is an allegory for late 19th-century American Populism. (For a deep dive into that allegory and its criticisms, check out Peter Liebhold's recent post.) In a world where Dorothy's silver slippers on the yellow-brick road represent the debate between the gold and silver standards, and the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman are American farmers and factory workers, the Cowardly Lion is a single man—William Jennings Bryan, three-time presidential nominee, three-time loser, and the most spellbinding speaker of his day.

The cover of sheet music for "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." The main characters faces are on the right side and there's a red, white and blue color scheme. There are other illustrations from the film around the edges and in the center are credits for the work.

Known for his speaking skill from the age of 12, Bryan delivered an oration at the 1896 Democratic National Convention that author Michael A. Cohen has called "the single most influential and electrifying campaign speech in American political history." Although Bryan had hoped to be his party's standard-bearer that year, his chances were slim until he delivered the final speech of the convention's platform debate. Newspapers across the country described it as "magnetic," "hypnotic," "remarkable," and "inspiring."  His rousing conclusion about the silver standard and the common people brought the "shrieking" audience to its feet and gave the speech its name:

Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world, supported by the commercial interests, the laboring interests, and the toilers everywhere, we will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.

Rarely can a single speech, especially a campaign speech, be said to have produced a specific result but "Cross of Gold" unquestionably made Bryan, only 36 years old, the youngest major party nominee in American history. 

A white campaign button that has a portrait of a man looking to the viewer's left on it with "Bryan" underneath. Around the edges reads: "No crown of thorns. / No cross of gold."

So why was William Jennings Bryan the Cowardly Lion? Well, for starters, "Bryan" rhymes with "lion." More significantly, Bryan was physically imposing and his oratory powerful. In many ways he personified the Cowardly Lion's self-description: "I learned that if I roared very loudly every living thing was frightened and got out of my way." Why Bryan was "cowardly" is less obvious. By the time The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was published in 1900, Bryan was accused of downplaying free silver and focusing on his anti-imperialist opposition to the Spanish-American War, two actions seen by some as cowardly. Of course, the Cowardly Lion had never really been cowardly at all. Throughout their journeys he fought bravely to protect his friends, even postponing his own plans because Dorothy needed protection. Similarly, Bryan courageously stuck to positions he believed were in the best interest of his loyal supporters even though this approach led to his repetitive defeats.

Bryan's 1896 campaign was groundbreaking for more than his oratorical skill. One of the first candidates to appear widely on his own behalf, he was the original whistle-stop campaigner. Bryan traveled 18,000 miles by train to give over 600 speeches (36 in one day) to about five million people. In addition, because of improvements in technology, especially the invention of celluloid, thousands of new items were produced promoting Bryan and his Republican opponent William McKinley.  

A paper box that is open and lying on its side, with the top pulled off and placed above the bottom so you can see that it is advertising for Bryan. In the bottom part of the box is a baby made out of soap. It is stretched out in the box and, frankly, looks like it is resting in a coffin. There is a tag around its neck with a note that says "My papa will vote for Bryan." The baby has a strange expression on its face which matches the overall disturbing nature of the object perfectly.

A paper hat lying flat. The cap portion is triangular like a hat one would make from folded newspaper. The "brim" is vertical red and white stripes. There is a pattern on the cap and within it is a picture of "Democratic Candidate for President, William J. Bryan, of Nebraska"

Finally, one can argue that Bryan's famous speech was a rhetorical role model for future young candidates who, with a single speech, overcame potentially career-ending attacks. In 1952, 39-year-old Richard Nixon, who would later be compared to the charlatan Wizard of Oz, used his "Checkers" speech to defend his campaign finances and save his job as Eisenhower's running mate. At the age of 43, John F. Kennedy put the "Catholic question" to rest with his 1960 address to the Houston Ministerial Association.

A photograph of Richard Nixon and his family. He and his wife each hold a child, who are quite young in the picture. They are smiling.

The back of a postcard. The name and address of the recipient has been obscured. The message on the left is signed "Dick Nixon" and is quasi-handwritten in black cursive script. In the upper righthand corner there is square that indicates that postage was paid for.

William Jennings Bryan may have been, in the words of historian Michael Kazin, "the first celebrity politician," but Nixon and Kennedy succeeded where he failed. (Even the Cowardly Lion eventually became King of the Beasts.) Although he holds the record for winning the most Electoral College votes without ever winning an election, Bryan unintentionally fulfilled the wish his political opponent Illinois Governor John Peter Altgeld made after hearing the "Cross of Gold"—"I had rather be able to make a speech like that than be president of the United States."

An oblong gold medallion with a gold beetle on it.

A gold pin shaped like a bee or insect. Its wings are out and there are tiny portraits of two men on them.

Graphic including Ruby Slippers and Scarecrow's hat. Text: "help conserve Scarecrow's costume."

Claire Jerry is a curator in the Division of Political History.

Posted Date: 
Thursday, November 3, 2016 - 08:00
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How White House Chiefs of Staff Help Govern

Smithsonian Magazine

When H.R. Haldeman agreed to be what incoming president Richard Nixon called his head “son of a bitch,” he knew what he was getting into. The job would require absolute authority over the rest of the White House staff. He would need an organized structure for transferring information. And above all else, Haldeman wanted to avoid end-running: private meetings between an agenda-driven individual and the president.

“That is the principal occupation of 98 percent of the people in the bureaucracy,” he ordered. “Do not permit anyone to end-run you or any of the rest of us. Don't become a source of end-running yourself, or we'll miss you at the White House.”

Those orders were more than an annoyed attempt to keep the president’s schedule clear. Haldeman may not have known it, but as head S.O.B. he would make history, essentially creating the modern chief of staff. Part gatekeeper, part taskmaster, a chief of staff is the White House’s most put-upon power broker—an employer who must juggle the demands of all branches of government and report to the chief executive.

“When government works, it is usually because the chief [of staff] understands the fabric of power, threading the needle where policy and politics converge,” writes Chris Whipple in the opening pages of his new book, The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency. From Richard Nixon to Barack Obama, Whipple explores the relationship between president and chief of staff and how those relationships have shaped the country over the past 50 years.

The role is an enormously taxing one, with an average tenure of just over 18 months. But when filled by competent people, it can make all the difference.

“Looking at the presidency through the prism of these 17 living White House chiefs who make the difference between success and disaster changed my understanding of the presidency,” Whipple says. “It was eye opening.”

To learn more about how the position came into existence, how it has changed over time, and what it means for the country today, spoke with Whipple about his research.


The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency

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Why did you decide to cover this topic?

This whole journey began with a phone call out of the blue with a filmmaker named Jules Naudet. [He and his brother] wanted to know if I would partner with them on a White House chiefs documentary for Discovery. Even though it was four hours, I thought it barely scratched the surface of this incredible untold story about the men who really made the difference between success and disaster. After the documentary aired, I started to dig much deeper, went back for follow up interviews, talked to the chiefs’ colleagues, their staffers, two presidents and CIA directors, national security advisors. The result was the book.

When did this model of empowered chiefs of staff begin?

Presidents going all the way back to Washington had confidants. But the modern White House chief of staff began with Eisenhower and Sherman Adams, who was so famously gruff and tough they called him the Abominable No-man.

Haldeman created the template for the modern empowered White House chief of staff. Nixon and Haldeman were obsessed with this. Nixon wanted a powerful chief of staff who would create time and space for him to think. It’s a model that presidents have strayed from at their peril ever since.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of the position. He’s not only the president’s closest confidant, but the president’s gatekeeper. He’s the honest broker who makes sure every decision is teed up with information and only the tough decisions get into the oval office. He’s what Donald Rumsfeld called “the heat shield,” the person who takes fire so the president doesn’t have to. He is who tells the president what people can’t afford to tell the president themselves. And at the end of the day, he’s the person who executes the president’s policies.

What has happened when presidents have abandoned that model?

Every president who tried a different model has paid the price. Jimmy Carter really tried to run the White House by himself and he found himself overwhelmed. Two-and-a-half years into his presidency, he realized he had to appoint a chief of staff. Bill Clinton tried to run the White House much as he ran his campaign, without empowering the chief of staff to take charge. Mack McLarty was his friend, but he wasn’t given enough authority. Leon Panetta replaced McLarty and turned it around. Every president learns, often the hard way, that you cannot govern effectively unless the White House chief of staff is first among equals. That’s a lesson our current president has yet to learn.

Why did we need a new model for the modern political system?

When it comes to the White House, the team of rivals [model] is so 19th-century; it doesn’t work in the modern era. Gerald Ford tried to govern according to a model called “spokes of the wheel,” with five or six advisors of equal authority coming to him. It was a disaster. As someone put it, he was learning by fire hose.

You can’t imagine the demands of the office and how impossible it is to try and govern without an effective gatekeeper, who makes sure you get only the toughest decisions and are not drowning in minutiae. That’s the difference between governing in the modern era and governing in the 19th century.

How important is the decision about who to appoint as chief of staff?

That choice of chief makes all the difference. Reagan was famously called an amiable dunce, and that was unfair, but Reagan understood something [his predecessor] Carter did not. An outsider president needs a consummate insider to get things done. Reagan intuited this with help from Nancy Reagan and other advisers. He knew he needed somebody who could really get his agenda done, who knew Capitol Hill and how the White House worked. And James Baker was a 50-year-old smooth-as-silk Texas lawyer who wasn’t afraid to walk into the Oval Office and tell Reagan what he didn’t want to hear.

What role does personality play in the success of the chief of staff?

I think [a steady] temperament is an underrated attribute that means a lot. James Baker had it. Leon Panetta had it. He was Clinton’s second chief of staff and really turned the White House around. He was a guy who’d been around the block. He was comfortable in his own skin, could walk into the Oval Office and tell Bill Clinton hard truths. It takes somebody who is grounded and comfortable in their skin.

No president can govern by himself. It’s important to have a chief of staff who compliments his weaknesses, who is strong where the president may be weak. I think having a friend in that job is risky because friends have a hard time telling the president what they don’t want to hear. As Nancy Reagan famously said, the most important word in the title is 'staff' not 'chief.'

How has technology changed the role of the chief of staff?

Technology has obviously exploded, and there’s no such thing as a news cycle anymore. The news cycle is 24/7, and there are more platforms than ever. I do think it makes it more challenging for the president to govern and the chief of staff to execute policy, but it makes it all the more important that you have a chief of staff who understands the nexus between policy and communications. You have to be able to manage the administration’s message and make sure everyone is on the same page.

At the beginning of the book you recount the time when numerous chiefs of staff gathered together to help President Obama's first chief, Rahm Emanuel, get started. How do chiefs of staff build on each other’s legacies?

One of the extraordinary things I discovered is that no matter how fiercely partisan they may be, at the end of the day they care about the country, how the White House functions, and about the position of chief of staff, which is so little understood. I think that’s why they came together that day, December 5, 2008, that really bleak morning when it looked as though the country was on the verge of a great depression, the auto industry was about to go belly-up, and there were two wars in a stalemate. As Vice PresCheney put it, they were there to show Rahm the keys to the men’s room.

As the quote from Cheney suggests, there have been no women chiefs of staff. Can you talk about that?

I think there will be, there definitely will be. Maybe not under this administration, but there almost was under Obama. There was one woman in contention. How many female presidents have we had? How many female campaign managers have we had? Up to this point it’s been a boys’ club. I think that’s going to change.

Does Reince Priebus face any unique challenges as the current chief of staff?

Absolutely. At the end of the day, the problem, the challenge is fundamentally Donald Trump’s. If he heeds the obvious lessons of recent presidential history he will realize that he has to empower a White House chief of staff as first among equals if he wants to be able to govern. 

Back in December, ten [former chiefs of staff] went to see Reince Priebus at the invitation of Denis McDonough [Obama’s last chief of staff] to give him advice, much the way they did for Rahm back in 2008. They all had the same message. This is not going to work unless you are first among equals. But [the success of the chief of staff] really all depends on the president at the end of the day. There’s almost nothing a chief of staff can do unless he’s empowered to do it. 

A Taste of Sticky Rice, Laos’ National Dish

Smithsonian Magazine

Luck was losing patience, and his stomach was grumbling like the diesel engine of the bus transporting him to northern Laos. He needed to eat sticky rice, he said, so badly!

He checked his cellphone: No service. Slumping into his seat, he looked out the windows — but it was mid-November in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, and in field after field, Laotian farmers were harvesting sticky rice and burning the discarded husks for fertilizer. Luck sighed. The smoky air carried a sweet, ricey aroma.

It was the first day of a six-day, northbound journey from Vientiane, the tranquil capital, to a remote village near the Laos-China border. Luck — short for Vilayluck Onphanmany — is my 23-year-old Laotian friend and translator whom I’d met on my first of three previous trips to the landlocked Southeast Asian country. He was assisting a gastronomic investigation: a friend and I were on a mission to learn the secrets of sticky rice, the mainstay of Laotian cuisine, and in the process, to eat as much of it as possible.

When our bus rattled into a dusty market, a group of women crowded the windows. “Ao khao bor?” they called (“Do you want sticky rice?”). Luck snapped to attention and called for two bags — one for me and my traveling companion, and one for himself. We ate with our hands, Laotian-style. Luck finished his portion before the bus started rolling.

“I feel better!” he said, and promptly dozed off. Other passengers were either eating sticky rice or, like Luck, sleeping it off.

What explains the national love of sticky rice? Many Laotians laughed when I asked them. Sticky rice is what their grandparents and great-grandparents ate, they said. Perhaps they were caught off guard by my question: like baguettes in France and sushi in Japan, sticky rice is so ingrained in Laos’ culinary heritage that most Laotians don’t think about it in isolation.

Sticky, or “glutinous,” rice has been growing in mainland Southeast Asia for at least 4,000 years. Historians debate whether ancient farmers grew sticky rice because it was suited to local growing conditions or because they liked its taste and chewy texture. What’s clear is that, by the 18th century, sticky rice had been largely replaced across the region by varieties of non-glutinous rice, a.k.a. “white rice.”

But sticky rice is still the primary staple in Laos parts of the five countries bordering it: China, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. In Laos, slightly larger in area than Utah, per-capita sticky rice consumption is the highest on earth at more than 345 pounds per year. The average American, by contrast, eats less than 20 pounds of rice annually, according to the United States Drug Administration.

Urbanization, migration and other forces are altering rice-consumption habits across Laos, says historian Grant Evans, to the point where some urban dwellers now associate sticky rice with “country bumpkin ways of eating.” But Evans, the author of several books about Laos, also says he doesn’t know a single Laotian person who never eats sticky rice. From a cultural perspective, he explained, sticky rice is still “the way the Lao identify themselves.” Case in point: as of the mid-1990s, a popular Laotian band in the United States was calling itself Khao niaw — the Laotian words for, sure enough, sticky rice.

The dish comes in various shapes and sizes — a recent agricultural research project on rice in Laos involved more than 13,000 rice samples, more than 11,000 of them glutinous — but the basic method of consuming khao niaw is the same countrywide. Harvested sticky rice grains, which are typically shorter and fatter than non-glutinous ones, are soaked overnight, steamed in the morning and eaten all day.

Sticky rice still tastes great after two steamings, said Luck, but steaming it thrice makes it “too sticky.” Because sticky rice lacks the starch amylose, it congeals — and breaks off into fist-sized pieces — more easily than white rice under similar cooking conditions.

Image by Ashley Szczesiak. Sticky rice grows in Laotian lowlands and uplands. Lowland farmers plant it in flooded paddies. (original image)

Image by Ashley Szczesiak. Upland farmers intercrop sticky rice on hillsides with companion crops like taro, cassava and chilli peppers. (original image)

Image by Ashley Szczesiak. Sticky rice is so ingrained in Laos' culinary heritage that most Laotians don't think about it in isolation. (original image)

Image by Ashley Szczesiak. In Laos, sticky rice harvests are communal affairs. These Laotian students are cutting and threshing mature sticky rice stalks near Luang Namtha on a sleepy Saturday morning. (original image)

Image by Ashley Szczesiak. Historians debate whether Laotian farmers of old grew sticky rice because it was suited to local growing conditions or because they liked its taste and chewy texture. (original image)

Image by Ashley Szczesiak. Urbanization, migration and other forces are altering rice-consumption habits across Laos, says historian Grant Evans, to the point where some urban dwellers now associate sticky rice with "country bumpkin ways of eating." (original image)

Image by Ashley Szczesiak. Harvested sticky rice grains, which are typically shorter and fatter than non-glutinous ones, are soaked overnight, steamed in the morning and eaten all day. (original image)

Image by Mike Ives. In Laos, which is slightly larger in area than Utah, per-capita sticky rice consumption is the highest on earth at more than 345 pounds per year. (original image)

A hunk of sticky rice is a delicious, bread-like dipping implement. Laotians prefer to eat sticky rice with non-soupy dishes, rather than with just curries and sauces, said Caroline Gaylard, co-founder of Tamarind, a café and cooking school in Luang Prabang, the former Laotian royal capital. According to Gaylard, an Australian who moved to the country, sticky rice complements the popular Laotian dish jeow, a dry paste made from chili peppers and herbs, as well as the royal dish mok pa fork, which features steamed fish, dill, shallots and coconut milk.

Sticky rice figures in religious traditions across Laos, where the predominant faith is Theravada Buddhism. Laotians cook sticky rice dishes — notably khao tom, a fusion of sticky rice, coconut, banana and mung bean — for ceremonies related to plantings, rainfall, harvests and death. During the popular baci ceremony, uncooked sticky rice grains are tossed into the air after communal prayers. And when a Laotian is dying, a village elder may rub sticky rice on the person and throw the rice away to banish bad spirits.

But sticky rice isn’t merely spiritual fuel. Because it takes longer to digest than white rice does, it sates hunger for longer periods. That’s good for Laotian monks, who generally don’t eat after midday. “People give us only sticky rice, which is awesome,” said Sary Phonesay, a 19-year-old monk with brown eyes and a gentle smile. He was standing in the sun-dappled courtyard of a Buddhist temple in Luang Prabang, where tourists line up each morning like band groupies outside of a stadium box office to place steaming clumps of khao niaw into the monks’ collection pots. When I asked why he prefers sticky rice to white rice, the monk said, “If I eat sticky rice, I’ll be full longer.” Laotian farmers I asked repeated variations of Sary’s explanation. Agriculture, mainly subsistence rice farming, employs three out of four Laotians. Sticky rice packs well in banana leaves and is a common field-side snack.

Sticky rice grows in Laotian lowlands and uplands. Lowland farmers plant it in flooded paddies; upland farmers intercrop it on hillsides with companion crops like taro, cassava and chili peppers. Because hillsides generally receive less-predictable supplies of water than paddies do, hillside rice fields tend to be more susceptible to drought.

Curious about hillside sticky rice, my friends and I rode an overnight bus from Luang Prabang to Luang Namtha, a one-lane town near the Laos-China border. At a Luang Namtha eco-outfitter, we asked a friendly guide to take us into the surrounding countryside and introduce us to hillside sticky rice farmers. We cruised out of town on rented motorbikes. The passing landscape alternated between forests, rubber plantations, thatch-roof houses and cleared hillsides whose golden color reminded me of California’s Santa Ynez Valley.

Soon we were hiking near a sleepy village whose sign read Khoua Soung. Farmers from the Kmhmu ethnic group were harvesting sticky rice on a distant hillside. As we approached russet-colored rice stalks, Luck praised the view: he had sketched similarly pastoral scenes in primary school, he recalled, but always from his imagination. “We’re not in the lowlands anymore,” said Luck, whose white headphones were playing Laotian pop music from a pocket MP3 player. “Those people have to stand up all day, and they don’t have any technology to help!”

Watch this video in the original article

Indeed, most Kmhmu people are upland subsistence farmers, and they use decidedly low-tech production techniques. Men and women stripped sticky rice grains by hand from mature stalks, then dropped the grains into woven baskets attached to their hips. After dumping the rice into white sacks, they carried the sacks down the hill.

Rural development experts told me that many Laotian farmers wage a constant battle against food insecurity. The farmers of Khoua Soung were no exception: Because of drought and rodent infestations, they said, 16 of their village’s 57 families wouldn’t harvest enough sticky rice this year to meet their own needs. “In the cities, they eat sticky rice for taste,” said Juelang, a quiet farmer who was drinking water from a plastic motor-oil can. “Here we eat it for survival.”

Over an evening bonfire in Khoua Soung — a roadside cluster of wooden stilt houses — farmers discussed survival strategies. Some were selling rubber sap and wild cardamom to Chinese traders; others were selling rice-harvesting baskets to tourists. If all else failed, said 41-year-old farmer Han Tom Keo, needy farmers would borrow sticky rice from their neighbors.

The threat of hunger didn’t diminish their hospitality. As stars replaced the sun in a cloudless sky, the farmers invited us into a stilt house and served us spicy jeow, pickled bamboo shoots, fresh chicken soup and steaming hunks of khao niaw. I handled my sticky rice carefully, conscious of how much elbow grease had gone into each grain. We ate and chatted, and ate some more, until about 8 p.m.. Afterward we were so full that we went directly to bed.

Lying under a mosquito net in the head villager’s drafty stilt house, I listened for sounds of evening activity. Silence. The farmers were sleeping, and for good reason: There was more sticky rice to harvest, starting at daybreak.

Mike Ives is a freelance writer based in Hanoi, Vietnam.

When Concorde First Flew, It Was a Supersonic Sight to Behold

Smithsonian Magazine

On January 21, 1976, two of what many aviation enthusiasts consider the most beautiful man-made object ever to fly—took off simultaneously from Heathrow Airport near London and Orly Airport near Paris with their first paying passengers. Those two airplanes, called Concorde, would fly faster than the speed of sound from London to Bahrain and from Paris to Rio de Janeiro, elegant harbingers of a brave new era in commercial air travel.

One of the three Concordes on public view in the United States stands regally in the hangar of Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Chantilly, Virginia, the red, white, and blue colors of Air France emblazoned on its vertical stabilizer. (The other two are at the Intrepid Museum in New York City and the Museum of Flight in Seattle.)

The performance of Concorde—airline pilot and author Patrick Smith tells me that one does not put a “the” in front of the plane’s name—was spectacular. Able to cruise at a near-stratospheric altitude of 60,000 feet at 1350 miles per hour, the plane cut travel times on its routes in half. But speed and altitude were not the only factors that made Concorde so remarkable. The plane was a beauty.

Since back when flight was only a dream, there has been an aesthetic element in imagined flying machines. It’s easy to imagine Daedalus fixing feathers onto the arms of his doomed son Icarus in a visually appealing, bird-like pattern. Leonardo da Vinci envisioned the symmetrical shape of a bat wing in his drawings of possible airplanes. Some of this aesthetic is still carried over (ironically perhaps) in military fighter jets, but in commercial aviation, where profit demands more and more passengers, aircraft designers have swapped beauty for capacity.

The workhorse 747, for instance, looks like a plane sculpted by Botero. At a time when airliners are called buses, Concorde, designed by Bill Strang and Lucien Servanty, was the dream of Daedalus come true. It seemed to embody the miracle of flight, long after that miracle was taken for granted. In my book on elegant industrial designs, the graceful creature occupies a two-page spread.

Concorde was one competitor in a three-team international race. In the U.S., Boeing won a design face-off with Lockheed for a supersonic airliner, but, according to Bob van der Linden, curator of air transportation and special purpose aircraft at the Air and Space Museum, Wall Street never invested in the U.S. version, and Congress turned down the funding necessary to build the plane for a combination of budget and environmental reasons.

Russia also entered the foray and produced the TU-144, a plane that looked somewhat similar to Concorde, and beat the Anglo-French plane into the air by a few months in December of 1968. The ill-fated Russian SST crashed during a demonstration flight at the Paris Air Show in 1973, and never flew again.

Concorde began test flights early in 1969 and—with pilots and crews specially trained and engineering honed—began carrying paying passengers in 1976. (And pay they did, with a first class ticket costing around $12,000.)

Smith, author of the blog “Ask the Pilot” and of the book Cockpit Confidential, told me that the sleek supersonic transport (SST) was “a difficult plane to engineer, and just as difficult to fly.” But, he continued, Concorde was an engineering triumph, a formidably complex machine “all done with slide rules.” Despite the cost of tickets, the plane was not luxurious inside, seating only about 144, with a single aisle in constant use by the aircrew needing to serve meals in half the usual time. A story, possibly apocryphal, tells of a passenger who was asked by the captain on debarkation how she liked Concorde: “It’s so ordinary,” she complained. An SST engineer, hearing this, responded: “That was the hardest part.”

Between 14 and 16 of the French and British Concordes made an average of two flights a day for several years. Smith says the plane’s stellar safety record was “more the work of probability than engineering. It’s possible that with a significantly larger number of Concordes on the roster of the world’s carriers, there would have been an altogether different safety record.”

British Airways advertising poster, c. 1996 (National Air and Space Museum)

That safety record came to a terrible end on July 25, 2000. On takeoff from Paris, a flaming tail of fire followed Flight 4590 into the air, and seconds later the Air France Concorde crashed, killing all aboard, 109 passengers and crew members and four people on the ground. Initial reports blamed a piece of metal that had fallen off a Continental DC-10 taking off just ahead of Concorde and caused pieces of a blown tire to pierce the fuel tank.

Later investigations told a more complicated story, one that involved a cascade of human errors. The plane was over its recommended takeoff weight, and a last minute addition of baggage shifted the center of gravity farther back than normal, both of which changed the takeoff characteristics.

Many experts speculate that if it hadn’t been for the additional weight, Flight 4590 would have been in the air before reaching the damaging metal debris. After the tire was damaged, the plane skidded toward the edge of the runway, and the pilot, wanting to avoid losing control on the ground, lifted off at too slow a speed.

There is also a prevailing opinion that the engine fire that looks so disastrous in photos taken from an airliner next to the runway would have blown out once the plane was in the air. But apparently the flight engineer shut down another engine in an unnecessary abundance of caution, making the plane unflyable.

Perhaps because an unlikely coincidence of factors caused the crash, Concorde continued in service after modifications to the fuel tanks. But both countries permanently grounded the fleet in 2003.

In the end, the problem was not mechanical but financial. Concorde was a gorgeous glutton, burning twice as much fuel as other airliners, and was expensive to maintain.

According to curator Van der Linden, for a trans-Atlantic flight, the plane used one ton of fuel for each passenger seat. He also points out that many of the plane’s passengers didn’t pay in full for their seats, instead using mileage upgrades. Just as Wall Street had failed to invest in the plane, other airlines never ordered more Concordes, meaning that the governments of Britain and France were footing all the bills, and losing money despite the burnishing of national pride.

“The plane was a technological masterpiece,” says the curator, “but an economic black hole.”

In 1989, on the bicentennial of the French Revolution, when French officials came to the States to present the U.S. with a copy of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, an agreement was struck with the Smithsonian to present the Institution with one of the Concordes when the planes were finally phased out.

“We figured that wouldn’t be for many years,” says Van der Linden, who has edited a soon-to-be-released book called Milestones of Flight. “But in April of 2003, we got a call that our airplane would be coming. Luckily, it was just when the Udvar-Hazy Center was opening, and we managed to find room on the hangar floor. There was some initial worry that such a long aircraft would block access to other exhibits, but the plane stands so high that we could drive a truck under the nose.”

On June 12, 2003, the Smithsonian Concorde left Paris for Washington, D.C. Van der Linden happened to be in Paris on other business at the time, and was invited to fly gratis along with 50 VIPs. “We flew at between 55,000 and 60,000 feet, and at that altitude the sky, seen through the hand-size window, was a wonderful dark purple. One other great thing about the flight was that U.S. taxpayers didn’t have to pay for my trip home.”

Two months later, with the help of Boeing crews, the extraordinary plane was towed into place, and now commands the southern end of the building. Though first built more than four decades ago, Concorde still looks like the future. As Patrick Smith told me, “Concorde evoked a lot of things—a bird, a woman’s body, an origami mantis—but it never looked old. And had it remained in service that would still be true today.

‘Timeless’ is such an overused word, but very few things in the world of industrial design can still appear modern 50 years after their blueprints were first drawn up.”

In what is perhaps an inevitable post-script to the commercial SST era, a group that calls itself Club Concorde has come up with the nostalgic dream of buying one of the mothballed SSTs and putting it into service again for those who consider time money, and have plenty of money to spare.

According to newspaper reports in England, the club has so far raised $200 million to restore former glory aloft, and has approached current owner Airbus to buy one of that company’s planes.

The suggestion has met with a “talk to the hand” response. French officials have compared Concorde to the Mona Lisa (an apt da Vinci reference) as a national treasure, not to be sold off. And the expense and difficulty of resurrecting the plane, even if it could be purchased, are formidable obstacles.

David Kaminsky-Morrow, the air transport editor of, points out that “Concorde is an immensely complex supersonic aircraft and [civil aviation authorities] will not entrust the safe upkeep of its airframe to a group of enthusiasts without this technical support in place.”

So all those who missed the boat (or rather, the bird) when Concordes were still flying can still go to the Udvar-Hazy Center to exercise their right to gawk admiringly at a true milestone of flight.

Concorde is on display in the Boeing Aviation Hangar at the Smithsonian's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, Chantilly, Virginia.

Vivid Images of Civil War Casualties Inspire a Scholar's Inner Muse

Smithsonian Magazine

Antietam is my favorite battlefield because it is still largely unspoiled—it doesn’t have the huge number of memorials that dot Gettysburg and it is more pristine than Chancellorsville and the Wilderness, where roads, shopping malls and housing developments encroach on the sites. The landscape and the buildings here recall the 19th century—if you can ignore the automobiles—and a visitor is left to contemplate what happened on this otherwise peaceful, cultivated landscape on September 17, 1862—still known as America’s bloodiest day, when nearly 23,000 soldiers were wounded or lost their lives.

Occasionally as the land is worked or eroded by water, a corpse surfaces on the battlefield as it did one day in 1989, making headlines in the local press. The macabre story prompted me to write the poem: “On a Recently Discovered Casualty of the Battle of Antietam,” which was published in the Kentucky Poetry Review. It’s not a very good poem—verbally clunky—but I like the opening lines:

“Farm land, plowed land, shot plowed,/Now plowed again to uncover a biography.”

I’ve gone on to have modest success as a poet, but after that first Antietam work I have not written more than one or two “history” poems. I think my unconscious decision was that poetry is another part of my life, separate from my job as an historian. Recently though, I started writing poetry about the Civil War as I worked on the upcoming exhibition for the National Portrait Gallery, “Dark Fields of the Republic. Alexander Gardner’s Photographs, 1859-1872.”

An 1862 photograph by Alexander Gardner depicts the the dead on the field after the Battle of Antietam. (Collection of Bob Zeller)

Gardner was one of the pioneering figures in creating documentary photography. Not only an excellent technician, he made his name by taking pictures of the Antietam battlefield soon after the fighting ended, and he left a cache of indelible images of the dead and the blasted landscape. When displayed to the public at a gallery in Manhattan, the New York Times wrote that Gardner’s photographs had “a terrible distinctness” and that the images brought the reality of modern war into the parlors and streets of the home front. It was a devastating moment for Americans as they saw the costs of war pictured so graphically and distinctly in the pitiless gaze of the camera.

BRADY’S STUDIO: “The Dead at Antietam”

Photographs of the battle
dead had a “terrible distinctness,”
horror fused in the clarity
of the new imagery

the gallery crowds
scarred yet flocking to it
unable to look away
the reality of war

the camera caught KIA
with pockets turned out
looted, shoes and socks stripped off
faces contorted

(We regret . . .your son
            Maryland campaign. . .painlessly
            . . .he didn’t suffer, at peace,
                        Sincerely, Col. . . . )

the old proprieties
dissolving in the acid of the new
the modern arriving, click of a shutter,
without warning

"Field Where General Reynolds Fell, Battle of Gettysburg, July, 1863" is from Alexander Gardner's Photographic Sketch Book of the War . (National Archives Still Picture Branch, College Park, Maryland)

It was “the birth of the new,” not just for photography, but in the culture and society at large. The photographs contributed to the huge sea change in America with the onset of modernism in everything from manufacturing to literature. And the photographs influenced the course of the War itself. A year after Antietam, Gardner went to Gettysburg where he again documented the cost of battle.

BURIAL DETAIL, Gettysburg July 7, 1863

                          —more than 3,000 horses and mules were killed at the Battle of Gettysburg

it wasn’t the men
somehow you got numb to the bodies
blown apart, befouled and twisted
black like metal work

no, it was the horses
bloated in their caisson or wagon
traces, a dying struggle to get up
dead on their haunches

uncomprehending eyes frozen
bulging bewildered at what had fallen
on them shrieking
from a cloud of steel

no, it was the horses
that the Iron Brigade’s  farm boy
veterans wept over as they pyred
them into a torch of smoke


Abraham Lincoln by Alexander Gardner, 1861 (National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)

Gardner was Lincoln’s favorite photographer and the president must have seen the photographs of Gettysburg when he visited Gardner’s Washington studio in early November 1863, just before he went to the battlefield to help dedicate the cemetery. It is my supposition that the rhetoric of the Gettysburg Address was shaped in part by Lincoln’s photographic encounter of the battle dead. It is there in the chasteness of Lincoln’s language as well as in the appeal that “. . .we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.” 


The crowd, vaguely gathered
about the podium, what was next?
the President suddenly
doffing his tall hat, taking

a small paper from it, rising,
without introduction
or preliminary throat clearing,
the crowd distracted

barely noticing that tall figure
or hearing that reedy tenor,
the flat midwestern vowels, the words
and sentences cadenced,

cast out above them
promissory, floating up and into
then  past the grey November sky,
arcing out above the earth bound

uncomprehending crowd
hearing only fragments, incomplete:
“cannot hallow. . .”, “last full
measure. . .,” “new birth. . .”

“of the. . .,” “. . people,”
“ by the. . . ,” “shall not perish,” “earth.”
Words uttered, flying, the President
suddenly sitting, proceedings

resumed, while unnoticed
far out and high, the words regathered
meaning, force, and fell back
to earth, seeding the dark fields.

It is this sense of hallowed ground that motivates my work on the first major retrospective of Alexander Gardner’s photography. Details of biography, history and photographic detail aside, the exhibition is called “Dark Fields of the Republic” because I want Gardner’s photographs to evoke for a modern audience what they did for 19th century Americans, including Lincoln, who saw them for the first time.

Gardner’s photographs are a record of the sacrifice and loss that occurred in the great national struggle over the Union and for American freedom. They are a graphic, documentary record of how heroism in history is as equally mixed with tragedy–and that all change entails loss along with the gains. In the ceaseless workings of American democracy, the sacrifice that Lincoln noted is indelibly imprinted not just in his words, but in the photographs of Alexander Gardner: “That from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.” The battlefield exerts its gravitational pull both on myself and, whether knowingly or not, on all Americans and our history.

“Dark Fields of the Republic. Alexander Gardner’s Photographs” opens at the National Portrait Gallery on September 17, 2015–the 153rd anniversary of the battle of Antietam, the battle that permitted Abraham Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation and so change the nature and consequences of the Civil War.


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