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96 Hours in Qatar

Smithsonian Magazine

From centuries-old maritime forts to state-of-the-art museums and from majestic desert sands to lush mangrove forests, Qatar is a land of rich contrasts. Combining old-world sensibility with cosmopolitan sophistication, it offers something for every traveler. What's more, travelers on Qatar Airways can book a stopover for up to four nights in the vibrant capital city of Doha. While you could spend weeks exploring Qatar, this itinerary will introduce you to Qatar's best natural and cultural treasures.

Day 1

Morning: Visit Katara Village

Located on Qatar's eastern coast between Doha's West Bay and The Pearl neighborhoods, Katara Cultural Village is one of the country's preeminent cultural hubs. Opened in 2010, it is home to an impressive network of theaters, galleries and performance venues featuring artists from around the country. Spend the morning wandering through the village's narrow alleyways past waterways and structures inspired by ancient Arabian architecture. Whether or not you reserve tickets for a concert, show or exhibition, there is no shortage of things to do and see. Stop into one of its many top-tier restaurants offering up a wide range of cuisines, soak up rays at the well-maintained Katara Beach or stroll along its promenade, enjoying expansive views of Doha’s skyline and browsing the seaside food stalls and markets. If you're visiting Qatar in late November, don't miss the Doha Film Institute’s annual Ajyal Youth Film Festival, one of the village's signature calendar events.

Afternoon: Discover The Museum of Islamic Art

This afternoon, head south to the Museum of Islamic Art, where in the space of just a few hours, you can travel through 14 centuries of Islamic history. Housed in a Pritzker Architecture Prize-winning modern building, the museum's collection of textiles, manuscripts, ceramics, glass, metalwork and more is regarded as one of the world's leading collections of Islamic art. Highlights include a 19th-century jewel-encrusted coffee cup holder and a ceramic bowl featuring one of the earliest modes of Arabic calligraphy. Between exhibitions, stop into one of the museum's cafes for a pick-me-up or enjoy a meal at IDAM, a world-class restaurant run by Michelin-starred chef Alain Ducasse.

Evening: Stroll Through Souq Waqif

This evening, head to Souq Waqif, a bustling street market located a short distance from the Museum of Islamic Art. The market is a veritable maze: around each corner, more and more shops greet you. As you walk through, inhale the aroma of spices, sample fresh dates and nuts, catch an impromptu musical performance and marvel at the dazzling array of merchandise for sale, from perfumes to jewelry, art clothing and handicrafts. Be sure to stop into one of the souq's many restaurants and cafes, which serve up everything from traditional Qatari food to regional dishes and cuisine from Asia and North Africa. And don't leave without stopping by souq's traditional falconry market, where the prized birds are bought and sold.

Day 2

Morning: Venture to Khor Al Adaid, or the Inland Sea

Some 40 miles from Doha in the southeastern corner of the country lies one of Qatar’s most impressive natural wonders: Khor Al Adaid, or the Inland Sea. A UNESCO-recognized natural reserve with its own ecosystem, it is one of the few places in the world where the sea encroaches deep into the heart of the desert. Inaccessible by road, this tranquil expanse of water can only be reached by driving across the rolling dunes. Tour operators offer dune bashing excercusions to this remarkable landscape.

After a morning packed with adventure, stop for lunch at the Regency Sealine Camp on the shores of the Inland Sea. Enjoy mouth-watering dishes, both regional and international, in a traditional Arabian lounge. If you're feeling adventurous after your meal, explore the surrounding desert on a quad bike or camel.

Afternoon: Promenade on Doha’s Corniche

Travel back to Doha this afternoon. Upon return, stretch your legs with a walk along the Corniche, a palm-tree lined promenade that spans four miles along Doha Bay. Enjoy spectacular vistas of the city, from the dramatic high-rise towers of the central business district to the bold shapes of the Museum of Islamic Art, and encounter traditional wooden dhow boats up close.

Evening: Cruise on a Dhow Boat

From pearl diving to fishing to trading with neighboring countries, Qatar enjoys a unique relationship with the open seas. This evening, experience country’s rich seafaring heritage with a cruise a traditional wooden Qatari dhow, or sailing, boat. Dhow sightseeing excursions, which include meals, can be arranged via a hotel or through any of the leading local tour operators.

Day 3

Morning: Visit the New National Museum of Qatar

Designed by world-famous French architect Jean Nouvel, the much-anticipated National Museum of Qatar opened to the public in March 2019 in Doha. A celebration of Qatari culture, it connects the country's rich heritage with its diverse cosmopolitan present through eleven immersive and experiential galleries. Representing this marriage of old and new, the museums surrounds the iconic and newly restored Old Palace of Sheikh Adbullah bin Jassim Al-Thani, a symbol of Qatari national identity. Between galleries, stop into the 220-seat auditorium to catch a film, wander through the landscaped garden featuring indigenous plants or head to the rooftop restaurant for a bite. Don't leave without catching a glimpse of the Pearl Carpet of Baroda, a collection highlight made from 1.5 million Gulf pearls.

Afternoon: Tour Al Shaqab

This afternoon, head to the Al Shaqab equestrian center located on the outskirts of Doha at the landmark Al Shaqab battle site, where over a century ago the people of Qatar fought a pivotal battle that led to Qatar's independence. On your tour, learn how the center's award-winning Arabian horses are cared for and trained. Stops include the air-conditioned stables as well as treadmills, swimming pools and jacuzzis—yes for the horses, not people.

Afternoon (Seasonal): Attend a Camel Race

From November through February, you will want to add camel racing to your afternoon itinerary. A centuries-old tradition, camel racing in Qatar has evolved into an official and professional sport. Al-Shahaniya racing track, an hour's drive into the gleaming desert north of Doha, holds domestic and international tournaments on Fridays during the winter.

Evening: See Art in the Middle of the Desert

This evening, travel west to the village of Zeekreet. Along the way, pass "East-West/West-East" by famed sculptor Richard Serra. Comprised of four, 50-foot steel plates rising vertically out of the desert, the installation emphasizes the vastness of the Qatari landscape and offers space for reflection on isolation and the passing of time.

Day 4

Morning: Kayak Through Mangroves

This morning, travel to Al Khor, a seaside city on Qatar's northeastern coast and home to one of Qatar's natural treasures: the Al Thakira white mangroves. Rent a kayak from one of several tour operators in the city to explore waterways that crisscross through the forest and keep an eye out for flamingos and herons.

Afternoon: Visit Al Zubarah Fort

For your final adventure, travel to Qatar’s northwestern coast. Your destination? The immaculately restored Al Zubarah Fort. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the walled coastal town once ranked as one of the Gulf’s most important pearl diving and trading centers with links extending to the Indian Ocean. Today, it is one of the most extensive and best-preserved examples of an 18th–19th century settlement in the region. Stop first at the visitor's center to get your bearings.

Evening: Reflect & Depart

Return to Doha in the evening and reflect on exceptional four days in Qatar filled with art, culture, history and jaw-dropping scenery.

Model of a Riemann Surface by Richard P. Baker, Baker #410W

National Museum of American History
This geometric model was constructed by Richard P. Baker in about 1930 when he was Associate Professor of Mathematics at the University of Iowa. Baker believed that models were essential for the teaching of many parts of mathematics and physics, and over one hundred of his models are in the museum collections. The mark 410 w is inscribed on an edge of the wooden base of this model and the typed part of a paper tag on the base reads: No. 410w (/) Riemann surface : (/) w2 = z5 - z (/) 2 models. The 2 models refers to this model and model No. 410z (211257.073) that are associated with the same equation. Both models are listed on page 17 of Baker’s 1931 catalog of models as w2 = z5 - z under the heading Riemann Surfaces. This means that both models represent a Riemann surface consisting of pairs of complex numbers, (z,w), for which w2 = z5 - z. Complex numbers are of the form x + yi for x and y real numbers and i the square root of –1. A complex plane is like the usual real Cartesian plane but with the horizontal axis representing the real part of the number and the vertical axis representing the imaginary part of the number. Riemann surfaces are named after the 19th-century German mathematician Bernhard Riemann. Baker explains in his catalog that the w after the number of this model indicates that the metal disks above the wooden base represent copies of a disk in the complex w-plane. These disks are called the sheets of the model. The painted disk on the wooden base of the model represents a disk in the complex z-plane with the point z = 0 at its center. The disk is divided into twelve sectors, pie-piece-shaped parts of a circle centered at 0, each of which has a central angle of 30 degrees. There are eight values of w for which the equation w2 = z5 - z is satisfied by only four values of z. These eight points all lie on a circle centered at w =0 with radius slightly less than 3/4 (the exact value is 2 divided by the 8th root of 55). Two points have real values, two have purely imaginary values, and the remaining four lie on the circle, half way between a real and a purely imaginary point. These eight points on the w-plane are called branch points of the model and for all other points on the w-plane the equation w2 = z5 - z is satisfied by five distinct values of z, each of which produces a different pair on the Riemann surface (if w = 0, the five distinct pairs on the Riemann surface are the origin and the points (0,±1) and (0,±i).). Thus there are five sheets representing the complex w-plane and together they represent part of what is called a branched cover of the complex w-plane. The color of a region on a sheet is chosen with the aim of indicating a sector or sectors on the base into which it is mapped. On all but the middle sheet the same pattern appears, a curve that looks like an ellipse and two curves that look like apples. Each half of the outer curve maps onto the same portion of the outermost of the five circles appearing on the base, while each of the apple-like curves maps onto the same portion of the next smaller circle on the base. In addition, each of the eight branch points lies inside one of the eight apple-like curves. The middle sheet, which is much more complicated, has five wavy closed curves that map onto various portions of the five circles on the base. The line segments that appear on all five sheets are mapped to radii or diameters on the base. On upper sheet the two dark points mark the approximate locations of two of the branch points of the model. The vertical surfaces between the two sheets are not part of the Riemann surface but call attention to what are called branch cuts of the model, i.e., curves on a sheet that produce movement to another sheet. This movement occurs when meeting a branch cut while following a path of the inputs of w values into the equation. While the defining equation determines the branch points, the branch cuts are not fixed by the equation but, normally, each branch cut goes through two of the surface’s branch points or runs out to infinity. In this model all of the branch cuts run out to infinity and are represented by the horizontal edges of the vertical surfaces. In this model the movement is always between the middle sheet and one of the other four sheets.

Meissen tea bowl and saucer

National Museum of American History
TITLE: Meissen quatrefoil tea bowl and saucer

MAKER: Meissen Manufactory

PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION: ceramic, porcelain (overall material)

MEASUREMENTS: Tea bowl: H. 1¾" 4.5cm; Saucer: W. 4½" 11.4cm x 4" 10.2cm

OBJECT NAME: Tea bowl and saucer

PLACE MADE: Meissen, Saxony, Germany

DATE MADE: 1730-1735


Domestic Furnishing

Industry and Manufacturing

CREDIT LINE: Hans C. Syz Collection

ID NUMBER: 1983.0565.12 ab



(DATA SOURCE: National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center)

MARKS: Crossed swords in underglaze blue; “//” incised.

PURCHASED FROM: Minerva Antiques, New York, 1943.

This tea bowl and saucer is from the Smithsonian’s Hans Syz Collection of Meissen Porcelain. Dr. Syz (1894-1991) began his collection in the early years of World War II, when he purchased eighteenth-century Meissen table wares from the Art Exchange run by the New York dealer Adolf Beckhardt (1889-1962). Dr. Syz, a Swiss immigrant to the United States, collected Meissen porcelain while engaged in a professional career in psychiatry and the research of human behavior. He believed that cultural artifacts have an important role to play in enhancing our awareness and understanding of human creativity and its communication among peoples. His collection grew to represent this conviction.

The invention of Meissen porcelain, declared over three hundred years ago early in 1709, was a collective achievement that represents an early modern precursor to industrial chemistry and materials science. The porcelains we see in our museum collections, made in the small town of Meissen in the German States, were the result of an intense period of empirical research. Generally associated with artistic achievement of a high order, Meissen porcelain was also a technological achievement in the development of inorganic, non-metallic materials.

The tea bowl and saucer in quatrefoil shape have an onglaze enamel painted pattern adapted from Japanese motifs in the Kakiemon style by Meissen artists. The design has scattered stylized flowers and two bundles of rice on both the tea bowl and the saucer. The rims have a single line painted in an iron-oxide glaze as seen on many original Japanese Kakiemon type vessels and on earlier Chinese blue and white vessels of the late Ming period (1368-1644).

The onglaze enamel design was first produced at Meissen for the Parisian dealer Rodolphe Lemaire, who sold Meissen porcelain fraudulently for higher prices, passing them off as original Japanese pieces for which there was a great demand. After confiscation of all remaining Meissen products held on the property of his Saxon accomplice Count Hoym, the pattern was later used for the dinner service commissioned for Count Alexander Joseph Sulkowski.

Kakiemon is the name given to very white (nigoshida meaning milky-white) finely potted Japanese porcelain made in the Nangawara Valley near the town of Arita in the North-West of the island of Kyushu. The porcelain bears a characteristic style of enamel painting using a palette of translucent colors painted with refined assymetric designs attributed to a family of painters with the name Kakiemon. In the 1650s, when Chinese porcelain was in short supply due to civil unrest following the fall of the Ming Dynasty to the Manchu in 1644, Arita porcelain was at first exported to Europe through the Dutch East India Company’s base on the island of Dejima in the Bay of Nagasaki. The Japanese traded Arita porcelain only with Chinese, Korean, and Dutch merchants and the Chinese resold Japanese porcelain to the Dutch in Batavia (present day Jakarta), to the English and French at the port of Canton (present day Guangzhou) and Amoy (present day Xiamen). Augustus II, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, obtained Japanese porcelain through his agents operating in Amsterdam who purchased items from Dutch merchants, and from a Dutch dealer in Dresden, Elizabeth Bassetouche.

For a detailed account of the Kakiemon style and its European imitators see Ayers, J., Impey, O., Mallet, J.V.G., 1990, Porcelain for Palaces: the fashion for Japan in Europe 1650-1750 and Impey, O., Jörg, J. A., Mason, C., 2009, Dragons, Tigers and Bamboo: Japanese Porcelain and its Impact in Europe, the Macdonald Collection, p. 127. See also Takeshi Nagataki, 2003, Classic Japanese Porcelain: Imari and Kakiemon.

On the Sulkowski dinner service see Pietsch, U., Banz, C., 2010, Triumph of the Blue Swords: Meissen Porcelain for Aristocracy and Bourgoisie 1710-1815, pp. 278-280. See also Weber, J., 2013, Meissener Porzellane mit Dekoren nach ostasiatischen Vorbildern: Stiftung Ernst Schneider in Schloss Lustheim, Band II, S. 185-187; Pietsch, U., 2011, Early Meissen Porcelain: the Wark Collection from the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens, p. 278, for a dish with the same Kakiemon pattern.

For a Vincennes copy of a Meissen bowl that carries this pattern see den Blaauwen, A. L., 2000, Meissen Porcelain in the Rijksmuseum, p. 249.

Jefferson Miller II, J., Rückert, R., Syz, H., 1979, Catalogue of the Hans Syz Collection: Meissen Porcelain and Hausmalerei, pp. 152-153.

A place at the park: LGBTQ+ inclusion and skateboarding

National Museum of American History

When you think about the culture around skateboarding, you might think about the laid-back vibe of acceptance and inclusion that the sport has come to foster. But skaters from the LGBTQ+ community haven’t always felt accepted and included. Violent anti-gay attacks in the early 1980s and 1990s within the male-dominated world of skate led many to hide their sexuality. Brian Anderson, a skater who rose to popularity in the 1990s, remembers regularly hearing gay slurs, which made him think at a young age that it was dangerous to talk about his sexuality.

Recently, however, skate has made great strides in its acceptance of LGBTQ+ skaters. To document this shift, the museum has collected from members of this diverse and fiercely dedicated community.

Brian Anderson

A black skateboard with a red logoThis skate deck was one of Brian Anderson’s first pro model decks issued when he skated for Toy Machine in the mid-1990s. Anderson would go on to skate for Girl Skateboards and found his own company, 3D Skateboards, in 2013.

Brian Anderson first gained notoriety in the skateboarding world in 1996 and quickly became one of the most popular skaters in the sport. In 2016 Anderson became the first high-profile professional skater to come out as gay, something he never thought he would do. Afraid to come out when he was younger, Anderson put his rage and frustration into his skating.

“I think a part of me was so irritated and angry from holding that in," Anderson told Vice, "so it made me more of an animal on my skateboard.”

Anderson’s skateboarding notoriety has made him a symbol for the LGBTQ+ community, leading him to take an active role in public awareness. Proceeds from sales of his Cave Homo zine, which explores Anderson’s journey as an openly gay man, are donated to the LGBTQ+ suicide prevention nonprofit The Trevor Project.

A magazine cover featuring a bare-chested man on a magazine cover with the text Cave Homo.This is the first issue of the zine Cave Homo, a collaboration with Anderson’s friends, designer Luke Williams and photographer Christian Trippe. Cave Homo became a venue for Anderson’s art, sketches, and photography, highlighting Anderson’s personal interests and his newfound freedom as an openly gay man.

Cher Strauberry

A skateboarder doing a trick with a pink skateboard.Cher Strauberry using her first signature skateboard.

Stevil Kinevil designed transgender skater Cher Strauberry’s first signature deck. Kinevil conveyed to me that he made the board “to celebrate [Strauberry] as a talented skateboarder, but additionally to recognize and honor the diversity of the community who frequents the parking lot where we first met, and spend time together on a weekly basis.”

That parking lot proved to be a safe haven with smooth blacktop, few people, and great curbs for grinds (or slappies, as they are known).

“Transgender skaters haven’t been a visible component in our community until recently,” Kinevil told me, and he wanted to celebrate that shift through this board.

A pink skateboard, broken in half.Strauberry broke her first signature skateboard while doing a backside heelflip down six big steps.
“I was filming my best friend Mae after and she broke her ankle on the same stairs," Strauberry revealed to me. "The rest of the day was spent in the ER, her with her broken foot and me holding what was left of the first Cher board.”
The art on the board was drawn and designed by Olivia Gibb.

Unity Skateboards

A white skateboard with an orange design.This Unity Skateboarding deck is a wood maple laminate construction with a red deck surface. The bottom of the deck has a white ground with an original drawing from Unity Skateboarding founder Jeff Cheung.

Unity Skateboarding is the creation of Jeffrey Cheung, a California-based artist who wanted to provide a safe environment for queer skaters who might otherwise face ridicule and shame in their local skate parks. Unity Skateboarding started with the Unity Press zines Cheung would publish. They spread the word throughout the LGBTQ+ skateboarding community. This led to opportunities for sponsorship and eventually the start of Unity Skateboarding’s own skate team.

“Unity Skateboards will be for queer youth and queer people out there: an encouraging and positive force,” Cheung told Vice. “I am hoping that by being an all-inclusive project, it could be a bigger idea than a gay skate company—and that we can break down barriers together.”

Pave The Way Skateboards

A green and black skateboardThis Pave the Way skate deck is a maple wood laminate with a green top surface. The bottom has a green and black checkerboard design throughout with well-known LGBTQ+ performers, athletes, and activists drawn by company co-founder Miriam Stahl.

Pave the Way skateboards, created by writer and performer Tara Jepsen and graphic artist and teacher Miriam Klein Stahl, celebrates being queer and living life through skate without fear of self-expression. Jepsen and Stahl’s board depicts LGBTQ+ icons who modeled an ethos of acceptance reflected in their impact on skate culture.

Lacey Baker

A collage of the front and back of a skateboard. The front shows Lady Gaga. The back is a torn up board.Skateboards allow for a skater’s personal expression to shine through. Lacey Baker affixed a photograph of their idol, Lady Gaga, to the top surface of her board. The bottom includes sponsor stickers—and depicts the use and abuse a skateboard used by a professional skateboarder experiences.

Lacey Baker began skating at an early age, winning bronze at the 2006 X-Games at 15. It took eight years to finally win gold but when they did, it was on their own terms, as a queer skater.

“That’s really important for me, because for a long time the industry wanted to shape me in a way that wasn’t me," Baker told Huck magazine. "To be unapologetic about my image and who I am and then to have people acknowledge how important that is in the skate industry. . . . I can’t even describe how that feels. To bring together girls who skate, queers who skate . . . and let those worlds collide. I’m lucky to be here.”

Skate is still working on its acceptance of gay and queer skaters, but Baker has hope for inclusion.

“I would love to just carve out a bigger space for women who skate, and queer people who skate and gender non-conforming people," Baker told, "and just like, really open up that space for people like me, and people that understand what it’s like to experience life this way.”

Jane Rogers is a curator in the Division of Cultural and Community Life.

Posted Date: 
Wednesday, August 21, 2019 - 09:30
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Modern Climate Change Is the Only Worldwide Warming Event of the Past 2,000 Years

Smithsonian Magazine

A group of climate scientists has reached a surprising conclusion about Earth’s past eras of naturally-driven, global warming and cooling—they weren’t global after all.

The authors of new studies in Nature and Nature Geoscience used evidence of ancient climates gathered around the world, from tree rings to coral reefs, to examine the pace and extent of well-known episodes of warming or cooling over the past 2,000 years. They report that events like the Little Ice Age and Mediaeval Warm Period, driven by natural variability, were actually more regional than global in scope.

In fact, the only time in the past 2,000 years that nearly all of the Earth has undergone significant warming or cooling is the present period of change that began in the 20th century, according to the research of Nathan Steiger, an atmospheric scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, and colleagues. The rate of warming was also higher during the second half of the 20th century than during any similar period of the past 2,000 years, the studies found.

“It was surprising to us that the coherence of the climate, prior to the industrial revolution, was much more regional,” Steiger says. “There were regional periods of cold or warmth, but it’s only during the contemporary period where there’s a global warm period that’s very different from what we see in the past. On one hand it isn’t all that surprising that the climate now is fundamentally different, but this provides a really nice long-term context where can clearly see that contrast.”

Previous studies of past climates have identified well-known periods when the Earth warmed or cooled abruptly during the past 2,000 years. Standout eras include the Little Ice Age (1300s to 1800s), the Mediaeval Warm Period (800 to 1200), the Dark Ages Cold Period (400 to 800), and the Roman Warm Period, which occurred during the first few centuries A.D.

“I think that back in the past the assumption was that these must have been global events, and that if you have a record from a tree ring or an ice core somewhere on the planet you should see evidence of the Medieval Warm Period or you should see evidence of the Little Ice Age,” says Scott St. George, who studies environmental variability at the University of Minnesota and wasn’t involved in the research.

But the new studies suggest otherwise. For example, the coldest period of the Little Ice Age varied widely depending on the region of the planet. The coldest temperatures of the past 2,000 years occurred in the 15th century in the Pacific Ocean, the 17th century in northwestern Europe and southeastern North America, and elsewhere not until the mid-19th century.

Finding the warmest period of the past 2,000 years is far simpler. For 98 percent of the globe, the warmest temperatures in the last two milleneia occurred in the late 20th century, the authors report.

The smokestack of a lignite-fired power station in Bogatynia, Poland. ( Florian Gaertner / Getty Images)

Kevin Anchukaitis, a paleoclimatologist at the University of Arizona not involved in the research, says the idea that the Medieval period and Little Ice Age weren’t eras of truly global change has been discussed in previous studies, and the authors’ recent conclusions support that earlier work. “They were broad warm and cold periods, within which different regions of the globe had their coldest or warmest periods at different times. For the Little Ice Age, we know this is linked to volcanism,” Anchukaitis says.

One of the studies also found that rates of warming during the second half of the 20th century were the fastest of the 2,000-year period, based on global average temperatures over timespans of two decades or more. “We looked at the warming rate, how fast it was warming or cooling over the globe over the last 2,000 years, and we found that the most drastic warming over the past 2,000 years occurred during the second half of the 20th century, which highlights the extraordinary character of current climate change,” coauthor and paleolimnologist Raphael Neukom of the University of Bern said in a media briefing. Neukom also noted that the team’s various past climate reconstructions largely agreed with the predictions of climate models on the scale of one to three decades, suggesting that those models’ future climate forecasts may also be accurate over the next few decades.

“What struck me is how robust the earlier reconstructions are,” says Kim Cobb, a climate scientist at the Georgia Institute of Technology unaffiliated with the research, agrees. “This vastly enriched dataset of new paleoclimate records, combined with state-of-the-art modeling, tends to confirm earlier efforts of climate scientists going back 20 years or more. … So the idea that 20th century climate change is very unusual, and outside the rage of natural variability, is certainly being reinforced with an exclamation point now with these new efforts.”

Both studies’ global temperature reconstructions used multiple methodologies, created with the ever-growing repository of ancient climate data maintained in the Past Global Changes or PAGES 2k. Dozens of scientists from countries around the world have contributed nearly 700 records to the open-access database, adding details about ancient climate that were uncovered in glacial ice, ocean sediments, tree rings, corals and other sources. The resource allows scientists to recreate wide snapshots of global climate that would have been extremely difficult just a few short years ago.

“Each one of those records requires an enormous amount of work in the field, and then in the lab,” St. George says. “When you think of ocean corals, a lot of those are recovered using an underwater drill by people in scuba suits. It’s hard to find a 1,000-year-old tree that can reflect changes in temperature or find sediments in an undisturbed lake. So it’s a real challenge sometimes, and there’s a lot of effort that goes into each one of the data points that was used as the foundation for these climate maps.”

A view of Earth’s Western Hemisphere captured by NOAA's GOES-17 weather satellite on May 20, 2018. (NOAA / NASA)

Despite the fact that more data is available to paleoclimatologists than ever before, Anchukaitis believes that significantly more work needs to be done if scientists are to gather a truly global picture of past climate. “To make progress in understanding the climate of the [past 2,000 years], we should move beyond applying a smorgasbord of different statistical methods,” he says via email. Instead, scientists need a renewed effort to gather paleoclimate records from places and times that are underrepresented in compilations like PAGES 2k.

“The proxy network is largely Northern Hemisphere tree-rings, tropical records (corals) decline rapidly by 1600, and there are relatively few Southern Hemisphere records outside of the Antarctic ice cores,” Anchukaitis says. “So claims about global spatial patterns prior to about 1600, particularly for the tropics and southern hemisphere, must be viewed cautiously.”

Neukom and colleagues’ study also found that huge volcanic eruptions were a major driver of temperature fluctuations at timescales of two or three decades, while other natural factors, like solar output, didn’t seem to have a significant influence. A third, related study by Stefan Brönnimann and colleagues focused exclusively on the role that five massive volcanic eruptions, including the 1815 Tambora episode, had on shaping climate at the end of the Little Ice Age. The eruptions created a cooling effect, weakened monsoons in Africa causing droughts, and shifted storm tracks over Europe that resulted in increased snowfall and glacier growth in the Alps.

This volcanically active time period, unusual in the past 2,000 years, coincides with the start of industrialization. The overlap makes teasing out which factors impacted climate at that time both difficult and extremely important.

“It does sort of mask the effect of industrial processes, where they are starting to omit more CO2, because they counteract each other,” Steiger says. “So volcanoes could cool, and humans would warm by the release of greenhouse gasses. It’s tricky to parse out what’s what.”

Taken together, the findings of these three studies help better our understanding of Earth’s past climate history and highlight how contemporary climate change is unique over the past 2,000 years.

“They’ve shown that not only is the warming that we’ve experienced in the last few decades larger in magnitude than the kinds of changes we’ve seen due to natural factors in the past, [but] it’s affecting almost the entire planet in the same way at the same time,” St. George says. “That’s really different than earlier prolonged climate changes due to natural factors which sometimes affected a large part of the planet but nothing close to 100 percent. The current warming that we’re going through is almost everywhere, and that’s what really makes it distinct from earlier climatic events due to natural causes.”

These Four Black Women Inventors Reimagined the Technology of the Home

Smithsonian Magazine

In 1888, a woman named Sarah Goode applied for and was granted a patent in Chicago, Illinois. Goode had just conceptualized what she called the "cabinet-bed," a bed designed to fold out into a writing desk. Meeting the increasing demands of urban living in small spaces, Goode invented the cabinet-bed “so as to occupy less space, and made generally to resemble some article of furniture when so folded.”

Goode was a 19th century inventor who reimagined the domestic space to make city living more efficient. Yet unless you’re a very specific kind of historian, you’ve probably never heard of her name. She doesn’t appear in history books, and what she did remains largely unknown. The same goes for Mariam E. Benjamin, Sarah Boone and Ellen Elgin—all 19th century African-American women who successfully gained patents in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.

In a post-Civil War America, job opportunities and social mobility for African-American citizens were highly restricted. The obstacles for African-American women were even stronger. Universities seldom accepted women—let alone women of color—into their programs. And most careers in science and engineering, paid or unpaid, remained closed off to them for decades to come.

Women faced similar discrimination in the patent office, as law professor Deborah Merritt notes in her article “Hypatia in the Patent Office,” published in The American Journal of Legal History. “Restrictive state laws, poor educational systems, condescending cultural attitudes, and limited business opportunities combined to hamper the work of female inventors,” Merritt writes. And in the era of Reconstruction, “[r]acism and a strictly segregated society further encumbered female inventors of color.”

As a result, historians can identify only four African-American women who were granted patents for their inventions between 1865, the end of the Civil War, and the turn of the 19th century. Of these, Goode was the first.

Sarah Goode's cabinet-bed. (U.S. Patent Office / Google Patents)

The second was schoolteacher named Mariam E. Benjamin. Benjamin was granted her patent by the District of Columbia in 1888 for something called the gong and signal chair. Benjamin’s chair allowed for its occupant to signal when service was needed through a crank that would simultaneously sound a gong and display a red signal (think of it as the precursor to the call button on your airplane seat, which signals for a flight attendant to assist you).

Benjamin had grand plans for her design, which she laid out in her patent paperwork. She wanted her chair to be used in “dining-rooms, in hotels, restaurants, steamboats, railroad-trains, theaters, the hall of the Congress of the United States, the halls of the legislatures of the various States, for the use of all deliberative bodies, and for the use of invalids in hospitals.” Intending to see her invention realized, Benjamin lobbied to have her chair adopted for use in the House of Representatives. Though a candidate, the House opted for another means to summon messengers to the floor.

Next was Sarah Boone, who received a U.S. government patent from the state of Connecticut for an improvement on the ironing board in 1892. Before her improvement, ironing boards were assembled by placing a board between two supports. Boone’s design, which consisted of hinged and curved ends, made it possible to iron the inside and outside seam of slim sleeves and the curved waist of women’s dresses.

In her patent paperwork, Boone writes: “My invention relates to an improvement in ironing-boards, the object being to produce a cheap, simple, convenient, and highly effective device, particularly adapted to be used in ironing the sleeves and bodies of ladies garments.”

Ellen Elgin might be completely unknown as an inventor if not for her testimony in an 1890 Washington, D.C. periodical The Woman Inventor, the first publication of its kind devoted entirely to women inventors. Elgin invented a clothes wringer in 1888, which had “great financial success” according to the writer. But Elgin did not personally reap the profits, because she sold the rights to an agent for $18. 

When asked why, Elgin replied: “You know, I am black, and if it was known that a negro woman patented the invention, white ladies would not buy the wringer; I was afraid to be known because of my color in having it introduced to the market, that is the only reason.”

Mariam E. Benjamin's gong and signal chair. ( Credit: U.S. Patent Office / Google Patents)

Disenfranchised groups often participated in science and technology outside of institutions. For women, that place was the home. Yet although we utilize its many tools and amenities to make our lives easier and more comfortable, the home is not typically regarded as a hotbed of technological advancement. It lies outside our current understanding of technological change—and so, in turn, do women, like Goode, Benjamin, Boone, and Elgin, who sparked that change.

When I asked historian of technology Ruth Schwartz Cowan why domestic technology is not typically recognized as technology proper, she gave two main reasons. First, “[t]he definition of what technology is has shrunk so much in the last 20 years,” she says. Many of us conceptualize technology through a modern—and limited—framework of automation, computerization, and digitization. So when we look to the past, we highlight the inventions that appear to have led to where we are today—which forces us to overlook much of the domestic technology that has made our everyday living more efficient.

The second reason, Cowan says, is that “we usually associate technology with males, which is just false.” For over a century, the domestic sphere has been coded as female, the domain of women, while science, engineering, and the workplace at large has been seen as the realm of men. These associations persist even today, undermining the inventive work that women have done in the domestic sphere. Goode, Benjamin, Boone and Elgin were not associated with any university or institution. Yet they invented new technology based on what they knew through their lived experiences, making domestic labor easier and more efficient.

One can only guess how many other African American women inventors are lost to history because of restricted education possibilities and multiple forms of discrimination, we may never know who they are. This does not mean, however, that women of color were not there—learning, inventing, shaping the places in which we have lived. Discrimination kept the world from recognizing them during their lifetimes, and the narrow framework by which we define technology keeps them hidden from us now. 

Humans May Have Arrived in North America 10,000 Years Earlier Than We Thought

Smithsonian Magazine

The caves were hidden high above the Yukon's Bluefish River, at the base of a limestone ridge in the middle of a sprawling wilderness. When a helicopter reconnaissance of the river spotted the caves in 1975, it may well have been thousands of years since the last humans entered them—or so hoped archaeologist Jacques Cinq-Mars.

Between 1977 and 1987, Cinq-Mars led a team into the remote wilderness, battling clouds of mosquitoes and cold weather to excavate the layers of sediment and bones. What he found was a game-changer.

At the time, the prevailing theory was that the Clovis were the earliest human inhabitants of the Americas, with sites across North and Central America containing their iconic spearheads. As early as the 16th century, Europeans proposed that a land bridge between Asia and North America might have provided the route for early human migration; by the 1940s scientists were actively looking for and finding evidence for the bridge’s existence. And in the 1930s, spear points discovered near Clovis, New Mexico were discovered to match the artifacts found in Beringia, convincing people that the Clovis came first, approximately 13,000 years ago.

But when Cinq-Mars brought the fragments found at the Bluefish Caves back to the laboratory, he came to an incredible conclusion: humans had actually occupied North America as early as 24,000 years ago.

Naturally, the scientific community was skeptical. Other archaeologists raised a number of doubts about the bone samples. Anything in the environment can leave marks on artifacts: freeze-thaw cycle can snap bones, wolves and other carnivores chew on them, rocks fall on them from the ceiling of the cave. And it just didn’t fit into the Clovis hypothesis.

“For at least 70 years, everybody was stuck on ‘Clovis first,’” said anthropologist Dennis Stanford with the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. “Anybody that came up with another kind of site was shouted down or disproved.”

The discord surrounding Cinq-Mars’ discovery resulted in a portion of the collection never being thoroughly analyzed, and researchers eventually lost interest. But now, 40 years after Cinq-Mars’ initial discovery, it seems the archaeologist has been vindicated.

Canadian scientists Lauriane Bourgeon and Ariane Burke, assisted by University of Oxford professor Thomas Higham, conducted a two-year re-analysis of the bones found in the Bluefish Caves, poring over 36,000 bone fragments held in a collection at the Canadian Museum of History and studying fragments that hadn’t previously been taphonomically classified. After doing a thorough classification of the markings on the bones as made by natural forces or humans, they conducted radiocarbon dating of those they deemed to have been marked by humans. The earliest bone to show distinct human-made marks—a horse jaw, sawed by a stone tool that indicates the hunter was attempting to remove the tongue—dates to 24,000 years ago.

The horse mandible was the most exciting find for Bourgeon. It bears multiple straight cuts, very similar to those made by stone tools and distinct in shape from marks made by carnivore teeth and natural abrasion. Additionally, the cuts match the patterns that would be created from butchering the horse. Altogether, Bourgeon says, the marks on the bone fulfill multiple criteria that would classify them as having a cultural origin, whereas it would be hard to explain their existence by natural processes.

“It was fairly exhausting,” said Bourgeon of their investigation in an interview conducted in French. “But I was really passionate about the project. When you see those traces of cuts on the bones, and know that horse is believed to have disappeared 14,000 years ago, that means we can guess humans were here before. It was a huge discovery.”

Bourgeon and Burke’s research provides new evidence for a more recent hypothesis that aims at overturning the old ‘Clovis first’ assumption. Known as the Beringia standstill hypothesis, it states that there was a pause in human migration from Asia to North America between 30,000 and 15,000 years ago due to the frigid climate. The standstill coincides with the last glacial maximum (about 26,000 years ago to 19,000 years ago), the most recent period in Earth’s history when the ice sheets were at their furthest southward extension (think glaciers down to New York City).

If the evidence bears out, it would also mean that humans came to North America a whole lot earlier than previously believed: 10,000 years earlier. Humans were living in the Siberian Arctic prior to the last glacial maximum, when the climate was milder and hunting options were abundant. Archaeologists have found evidence of human habitation in western Beringia (the landmass now beneath the Bering Strait) from 32,000 years ago, near the Yana River. But as the climate grew colder, humans would have been forced to migrate in search of food and shelter.

“Think of Arctic deserts as sets of lungs,” writes archaeologist Brian Fagan. “In warmer and moister times they breathe in people and animals, then they exhale them when aridity and cold intensify. This is what happened in Siberia during the last glacial maximum”—and what presumably chased humans out and likely decreased the size of their population.

Luckily for the early humans, the Beringia land bridge had a relatively mild climate despite its high latitude, thanks to the North Pacific Ocean circulation patterns bringing humidity to the region. That humidity allowed for more plant growth, in turn giving humans the fuel to build fires. And with the new evidence from the Bluefish Caves bones, researchers can see that humans did migrate sometime during the last glacial maximum, and were likely trapped on the Beringia land bridge due to the presence of glaciers all around them. In other words, they were stuck at a standstill.

Of course, not all archaeologists are completely convinced by the Bluefish Caves research. “I’ve seen pictures of the new bone they found, and it does look like it could possibly be human [markings],” said Stanford, who was not involved in the study. “But they didn’t leave much of an echo of a record if they were there. If there was a human in [the caves], why haven’t they been able to find any real artifacts? What technology did they have and why didn’t they leave anything?”

Bourgeon agrees that she’d like to do far more research on the region. Based on their discovery, she’s convinced they’ll find more equally ancient sites with evidence of human habitation. She’s never been to the Bluefish Caves and would like to visit that site, and look for others in the Yukon. But between the financing and logistics of such an expedition, it’s no easy undertaking.

“You can only work in the summertime, between June and August,” Bourgeon said. “It’s a very vast, sparsely populated region, an environment that’s hostile.” But, she added, the standstill hypothesis is starting to be more widely accepted, meaning more scientists will want to develop projects in the region. And as they do, she hopes they’ll find more pieces in the puzzle of human colonization of North America. 

Editor's note, February 1, 2017: This article originally missplaced the Bluefish River in Alaska. It also stated that the horse jawbone in question was dated to 24,800 years, rather than 24,000. 

Our Eyes Are Always Darting Around, So How Come Our Vision Isn't Blurry?

Smithsonian Magazine

The image above, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” was painted in 1884 by French artist Georges Seurat. The black lines crisscrossing it are not the work of a toddler wreaking havoc with a permanent marker, but that of neuroscientist Robert Wurtz of the National Eye Institute in the United States. Ten years ago, he asked a colleague to look at the painting while wearing a contact lens–like contraption that recorded the colleague’s eye movements. These were then translated into the graffiti you see here.

Art lovers may cringe, yet it is likely that Seurat would have been intrigued by this augmentation of his work. The movement Seurat kick-started with this painting—Neo-Impressionism—drew inspiration from the scientific study of how our vision works. Particularly influential was the pioneering research of Hermann von Helmholtz, a German physician, physicist and philosopher and author of a seminal 1867 book, Handbook of Physiological Optics, on the way we perceive depth, color and motion.

One of the questions that occupied Helmholtz, and quite possibly Seurat, is why we don’t perceive the constant eye movements we make when we are scanning our surroundings (or a painted representation of them). Consider that the lines above were drawn in just three minutes. If we saw all those movements as we made them, our view of the world would be a blur of constant motion. As Wurtz and his Italian colleagues Paola Binda and Maria Concetta Morrone explain in two articles in the Annual Review of Vision Science, there’s a lot we know about why that doesn’t happen—and more yet to learn.

A short movie of an eye making saccades, shown in slow motion. (Weekend Way via Giphy)

Beginning with the basics: The only things we can ever hope to see are those that send or reflect light toward our eyes, where it might end up hitting the retina, a layer of nervous tissue that covers the back two-thirds of the inner eyeball. There, the complex image of whatever we are looking at is first translated into activity of individual light-sensitive photoreceptor cells. This pattern is then transmitted to a variety of neurons in the retina that specifically respond to certain colors, shapes, orientations, movements or contrasts. The signals they produce are sent up to the brain through the optic nerve, where they are interpreted and put back together in a progression of specialized areas in the visual cortex.

Yet to transmit all the information that reaches our retina at the resolution we are used to would require an optic nerve with roughly the diameter of an elephant’s trunk. Since that would be rather unwieldy, only one tiny area of the retina—called the fovea—provides this kind of resolution. So in order to grant all the interesting features of our environment their moment in the foveal spotlight, we move our eyes around—a lot—in darts that scientists call saccades. (French for “jerks,” the word was coined in 1879 by French ophthalmologist Émile Javal.) Saccades are guided by what we are paying attention to, even though we are often blissfully unaware of them.

This illustration laying out the basic structure of the eye shows where the fovea—where images are rendered in high resolution—is situated. Eye jerks known as saccades allow different parts of a scene to come into the line of sight of the fovea. (Cancer Research UK / Wikimedia Commons / Knowable Magazine)

There are a number of reasons why these movements don’t transform our view of the world into a blur of motion. One is that the most distinct things in our field of view may render us blind to other stimuli that are fleeting and faint: Objects that are in clear sight when our eyes don’t move are likely to make a more vivid impression than the blur in between. Scientists refer to this phenomenon as visual masking, and it is thought to be very common in real-life situations where a lot is going on at the same time.

If scientists set up experiments in a way that avoids this visual masking, it reveals that our brains can perceive the less noticeable things. This can be done, Morrone explains, by showing people nothing but very faint and short-lived visual stimuli on an otherwise empty background. Under these conditions, surprising things may happen. When researchers create a motion very similar to what we should normally perceive when we make a saccade, by rapidly moving a mirror around in front of people’s eyes, those people do report seeing movement—and they often find it rather disturbing. Since we do not notice our constant saccades, this suggests that the brain specifically suppresses the signals that reach our retina while a saccadic eye movement is in process. And indeed, experiments have shown that if something appears during a saccade, we may miss it entirely.

But suppression does not adequately explain why the image in our mind’s eye is so stable. If we were to see our surroundings from one angle, then see nothing, and then suddenly see it from another angle, that would still be unsettling. Instead, as Wurtz and others have shown, a kind of remapping happens even before we move our eyes. In experiments with macaques that were trained to make predictable saccades, brain cells that receive signals from one particular spot in the retina switched from responding to things currently in view there to things that would show up only after the saccade. And that happened before the monkeys moved their eyes. In this way, Wurtz thinks, the current image is gradually replaced by the future one.

So how do these brain cells know in advance that a saccade is on the way? Scientists theorized for many years that this would require them to receive an additional signal from the brain area that gives the command for eye movement. And they have shown that such signals do occur, arriving at areas of the brain involved in coordinating what we see and where we will look next. Wurtz and others believe that this kind of signal nudges brain cells to start responding to things that their part of the retina will see only after the saccade.

Georges Seurat, along with other artists of his time, was interested in the workings of human visual perception. (Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain / Gif by Knowable)

All of this is very likely to work almost exactly the same way in humans as it does in monkeys. But if you ask people what they see right before a saccade, as Morrone and Binda have done, they don’t report a gradual replacement of one image by another before their eyes move. Instead, anything they’re shown during a 100-millisecond period right before the saccade becomes visible only after the saccade ends. The result of this delay is that stimuli appearing at different times within that short period before the saccade may all be perceived at the same time—50 milliseconds after it ends.

And if these stimuli are sufficiently similar, they might be perceived as fused together into one thing, even when they were shown at slightly different times or places before the eye movements. Binda and Morrone call this time window right before the saccade the confusion period. The things we see may literally be con-fused—fused together—by our vision, and then more conventionally confused—mistaken for each other—in our minds.

In real life, this fusion of similar elements across space and time during saccades might actually help to prevent confusion, because the continuity helps us to grasp that things we saw before and after a saccade are the same, even if they have moved or if the light has shifted. So though the mechanism may seem sloppy, Binda and Morrone believe this sloppiness usually works to our advantage.

A similar sort of desirable imprecision might be what allows us to enjoy Seurat’s painting in the first place. Instead of a perhaps more accurate perception of colorful collections of distinct dots, a beautiful Sunday afternoon emerges. Hats off to that—or, as the French would say: “Chapeau!”

What's So Important About the Bottom of a Cargo Ship? A Smithsonian Dive Team Explains

Smithsonian Magazine

I am once again leaving my familiar world behind and descending into the abyss below. The first dive of an entirely new expedition is the most magical. I am a member of a scientific research dive team studying biological invasions in coastal marine ecosystems off the coast of Bermuda for the Smithsonian Marine Invasions Research Lab. As I sink beneath the belly of a massive cargo ship, I glide my hand down the side of the vessel. The painted metal feels like smooth skin, but it is covered in a thin layer of brown biofilm, microbial life that clings to painted surfaces and is generally found covering the bottom of ships. Larger organisms reside inside the recesses of the ship’s hull.  

Invasive species are fundamentally changing the structure and function of ecosystems around the world and impacting many dimensions of human society.  Our research is important because the unintentional transfer of organisms by ships is the leading cause of biological invasions to coastal marine systems in North America, and also globally. ‘Biofouling’ organisms “hitch a ride,” attaching themselves to the hull and underwater surfaces of ocean-going vessels. Some of these species are the root cause of severe ecological, economic and human-health effects. The species—including the microbial biofilms—are also a major nuisance to shippers because they slow down the ships and increase fuel costs.

As I descend from the water surface at the bow of the ship, a large grated hole opens up in front of me and reveals its enormous propellers.  I swim closer to the grate to get a better view inside the tunnel containing the bow thrusters. Before even entering the water, the dive team made sure to check with the ship’s captain and chief engineer that all moving parts—potential hazards, such as bow thrusters, propellers, rudders and stabilizers—are locked down and secured. Swimming up to a propeller twice your size is a wonderful moment, but only if you know it will not whisk you away or chop you into bits.  

Occasionally during the dive I hear and feel the vibration of the ship “breathing.” The sound comes from the water intake vents, known as “sea chests,” which feed the ship’s cooling system and must remain operational. We are careful to avoid these areas of the hull. Low visibility—dimmed by the density of the particulates suspended in the water column—adds to the mystery, but I can make out the vague shapes of the other divers, ecologist Ian Davidson and researchers Lina Ceballos and Kim Holzer.

Ian photographs areas of interest and Lina is collecting specimens. In my excitement, I take a moment to grab a quick selfie.

Image by Photograph by Laurie Penland. Smithsonian divers explore the hull of a massive cargo ship for biological invasions of organisms that "hitch a ride" on the hull of the vessel. (original image)

Image by Photograph by Laurie Penland. Biofilms are microorganisms that accumulate in layers on the ship's hull. (original image)

Image by Photograph by Ian Davidson. The clean circle on the ships hole designates where the researchers have collected samples of the biofilms. (original image)

Image by Photograph by Ian Davidson. Larger organisms reside inside the recesses of the ship’s hull. (original image)

Image by Photograph by Laurie Penland. All moving parts and potential hazards—such as bow thrusters, propellers, rudders and stabilizers—are locked down and secured. (original image)

Image by Photograph by Laurie Penland. Visibility is so low that divers have to carefully steer clear of the ship's giant propeller. (original image)

Image by Photograph by Laurie Penland. The water intake vents, known as “sea chests,” feed the ship’s cooling system and must remain operational. So we diagram those areas of the hull to avoid them. (original image)

Image by Photograph by Laurie Penland. Low visibility—dimmed by the density of the particulates suspended in the water column—adds to the mystery. (original image)

Image by Photograph by Laurie Penland. Ecologist Ian Davidson photographs areas of interest. (original image)

Image by Photograph by Laurie Penland. Researcher Lina Ceballos (left) is scraping samples and Kim Holzer collects them. (original image)

Image by Photograph by Laurie Penland. Samples are sealed in a plastic bag and dropped into a mesh bag clipped to the divers' gear. (original image)

Image by Photograph by Laurie Penland. Pencils seem to float away from the slates like they are on their own spacewalk. (original image)

Image by Photograph by Ian Davidson. Bubbles from the divers' breathing aparatus collect on the belly of the ship. (original image)

Image by Photograph by Laurie Penland. Using a funnel and a syringe, biofilms are collected. (original image)

Image by Photograph by Laurie Penland. Propeller is nearly twice the size of the divers. (original image)

Image by Photograph by Laurie Penland. Ian Davidson collecting specimens under the cargo ship. (original image)

Soon, I am catching the specimens Lina collects and sealing them in a plastic sample bag, and dropping them into the larger mesh bag I have clipped to my gear. I then record the location and sample bag number on a slate with a pencil, which are tethered to my body.  

Simple tasks. Except everything wants to float or sink away, nothing wants to stay where I put it, including myself. If I spend too much time looking for something clipped to me, or writing on the slate, I look up to find I have drifted away from my intended position. Our pencils and slates float away like they are on their own mini spacewalk. If we don’t make sure that our tools are clipped to us, they are gone. We lost a slate once filled with data—it’s still down there somewhere. Fortunately, we had a duplicate available, otherwise we would have completely wiped-out an entire day’s work.

For the day’s second dive, we descend at mid-ship to go entirely underneath the ship’s belly. With every exhale, the bubbles collect above our heads onto the ship’s hull and reflect back at us like mirrors of mercury. Ian is trying to take pictures; too many bubbles are getting in his way. I move further away so with each exhale, I’m not contributing to his bubble problems. As I look back, I see a solitary scientist who appears completely engrossed in his work.

The third and fourth dives of the day are at the stern. Fatigue is starting to creep in, as we descend down the huge rudder. Visibility is poor and I almost swim right into the ship’s giant propeller. We proceed with the same sampling process, which by now feels like a routine.

On our fourth dive, our task is to take high-resolution images in small sections to create one deep-zoom image of the entire rudder. This is the last dive of the day and the most tedious, but I shoot 312 photographs just to create one image. Throughout the effort, I am constantly trying to maintain position, working slowly from left to right, from bottom to top, up the rudder, picture by picture.  

After we return to the marine station by boat, we unload and wash down all the equipment, refill the boat with fuel, and haul our equipment back to the house to hang it out to dry. Next, we get to work. These vessel surveys are designed to evaluate the extent, composition and condition (live versus dead, reproductive condition, stuff like that) of the organisms.  

Lina, Kim and Ian labor late into the night processing the specimens, while I download and manage today’s images. We’ll repeat this tomorrow and every day while we are here, weather permitting. Field time is expensive and precious. Bad weather can take that time away quickly, so we work constantly while we can.

When I return from the field, I am often asked by my family and friends what I experienced. Rarely do I have time to do what a tourist might, so I tend to miss a lot. However, any postcard that I send from Bermuda is going to say this: Today, what I experienced underneath the belly of a ship, was amazingly beautiful.

Are These Baked Mushroom Sandals the Future of Fashion?

Smithsonian Magazine

Over the past three years, the fashion industry has started paying attention to biodegradable and renewable fabrics. Last year, Salvatore Ferragamo used a citrus byproduct material that feels like silk for a collection of shirts, dresses and pants; Philippines-based AnanasAnam created a faux-leather out of pineapple leaves dubbed Piñatex; and Dutch textile designer Aniela Hoitink created a mycelium dress that was as stylish as any satin cocktail dress.

Yes, mycelium—the interlocking root system that spawns forests of mushrooms in your yard after it rains. And this fungi fashion seems to be a trend: Microsoft’s Artist-in-Residence Erin Smith grew her own wedding dress out of tree mulch and mycelium; lighting designer Danielle Trofe uses mycelium to create biodegradable light fixtures; and Life Materials sells sheets of its mycelium leather for anyone interested in a do-it-yourself creation.

Jillian Silverman, a University of Delaware fashion and apparel graduate student focused on environmental sustainability, recently crafted a prototype shoe that combines mushrooms, agriculture waste and fabric scraps. “A lot of fashion fabrics are not compostable or it takes a really long time for them to break down,” says Silverman. In her shoe, “everything is natural, everything is biodegradable, nontoxic. It's a perfect solution to reducing the impacts of textile waste, reducing toxic inputs and using all renewable inputs.”

Because mushroom mycelium has previously been used to create compostable packaging and building materials, Silverman thought there was a good chance it could be grown into fashion products to replace other unsustainable materials in the fashion industry. Her university is also conveniently close to Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, is “the mushroom capital of the world,” says Silverman. “So this offers opportunities for local sourcing and the expertise of the nearby mushroom farms and growers.”

Mycelium naturally binds together materials—in the shoe’s case, chicken feathers and other textile—as it grows. After testing, Silverman decided to use reishi, oyster, king oyster, and yellow oyster varieties for their superior aesthetic and strength. She then designed a shoe sole mold in which to grow the mycelium into the specific shape needed. Mycelium can grow to fill any mold in about a week. Once it filled the mold, Silverman baked it to “halt the growth and prevent mushrooms from fruiting on the surface.”

“There is only a slightly earthy smell during the growing process,” says Silverman. “There is no live fungi in the finished product.”

Silverman (R) and Wing Tang (L), an undergraduate student helping her with the shoe project. (provided by the University of Delaware)

Huantian Cao, Silverman’s graduate advisor, says the challenge was creating the perfect growth mixture for the mycelium to thrive. To do this, Silverman tested several fabrics and decided upon an insulation material comprised of recycled cotton and jute, a rough fiber similar to twine or rope. This material, which would otherwise be destined for a landfill, created a strong material as it intertwined and bonded with the fibers during its growth stage.

Other components in the final mycelium substrate included psyllium husk (a natural plant fiber), cornstarch (which acted as food sources for the mycelium) and chicken feathers (which added strength to the final product).

“Both the textile material and feathers are soft, but strong,” says Cao, a professor of fashion and apparel studies and co-director of the University of Delaware’s Sustainable Apparel Initiative. “Including these materials in mycelium composite makes the composite comfortable to wear and also strong to step on.”

According to Silverman, the end result is a compostable, biodegradable mushroom-based sole that could replace rubber and other manmade components. But if it’s a compostable material, what happens if you wear the shoe in the rain?

John Taylor, professor of plant and microbial biology at the University of California at Berkeley, believes that unless the shoe sole is treated to prevent water intrusion, it’s far from ready to wear.

“There is likely a trade-off in durability versus compostability,” says Taylor, who isn’t involved in Silverman’s project. “Mycelium would absorb water if untreated, leading to degradation of shoe soles but promoting compostability. If the mycelium is treated to prevent absorption of water, the shoe sole function would be improved, but the compostability would decline.”

Silverman says that compostable products cannot compost without the correct conditions and organisms, so the soles shouldn't just biodegrade during use. “Mycelium is naturally water-resistant so we believe if we let it grow to fully cover the substrate materials that the shoes would be able to tolerate at least some moisture,” says Silverman, though she does admit that “we do have some concerns about the flexibility of the material.”

While Silverman’s product may need some fine-tuning before it is market-ready, a California-based materials innovation startup called Bolt Threads is already accepting pre-orders for its mushroom “leather” bag in June. The company is known for creating its Microsilk fabric by copying spider silk gene technology. Through a new partnership with Ecovative Design, a company that created mycelium-based packaging and industrial-based materials, Bolt Threads Co-Founder Dan Widmaier is excited about the possibilities of renewable, sustainable fabrics, especially one that has the ability to replace leather and possibly lessen leather’s carbon footprint.

“If you think about leather, you've got a product there that is from the waste stream of the meat industry,” says Widmaier. “Then you look at a future with 7 billion inhabitants on Planet Earth, growing to 10 billion … there’s just not enough skins and hides to make leather.” That’s what makes mycelium a sustainable solution, says Widmaier, who points out the contrast between producing mycelium and raising an animal for meat/leather.

“Mycelium is growing on a celluloise feedstock – in our case, corn stover (the leaves, stalks and cobs leftover in a field after a harvest),” he says. “That’s a pretty low impact compared to raising a whole animal for three years when you look at the sustainability profile of water use, land use, carbon cycle, nitrogen cycle.”

Stella McCartney, a designer known for her commitment to sustainable fashion, recently used Bolt Thread’s mycelium “leather” (branded as Mylo) for a handbag trimmed in metal chain at the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Fashioned from Nature exhibit, which opened April 21.

While Widmaier’s company is a few steps ahead of Silverman, both are in agreement that mushrooms have a place in fashion. And both see a future where material innovation evolves and grows as more consumers realize that fashion can be on-trend both stylishly and sustainably—a future where fungi fabric is as common as silk or cotton. “Biowaste materials in general are gaining a lot of attention and a lot of traction in the sustainable fashion industry as well as other industries,” says Silverman.

Let’s hope so, because our current levels of consumer waste are frankly unsustainable. Every year, the average person throws away roughly 70lbs of clothing and other wearable waste like backpacks, broken watches and hats, according to the Council for Textile Recycling. The EPA estimates that textile waste make up 5 percent of all landfill space, with those dirty leather and rubber soles coexisting for upwards of 50 years surrounded by other consumer waste.

Lowering our waste levels will require all sectors of society to catch up. “For an industry where we make something like 80 billion units of apparel every year, we need new ways to make materials that are more long-term compatible with the planet and the environment,” says Widmaier.

Three Big Ableist Myths About the Life of Helen Keller

Smithsonian Magazine

Helen Keller got a lot done in her lifetime. Much of it had nothing to do with her disability, though some of it did. But her stature as a public figure has created myths that reveal as much about longstanding societal biases as they do about her real life.

As schoolchildren learn, Keller lived most of her life as a deaf-blind woman. She was born—on this day in 1880—with the abilities to see and hear, but when she was less than two years old she contracted an illness–perhaps meningitis or scarlet fever, according to Daven Hiskey for Today I Found Out–that left her unable to see or hear. But beyond that simple fact, there’s a lot of misinformation out there.

Myth: She wasn’t able to do anything until she met Anne Sullivan

It’s commonly thought that Keller “had no way of communicating with her family until her teacher arrived around her seventh birthday,” writes Hiskey. However, Keller–who had no cognitive impairments–was able to use about 60 different signs to make herself understood.

She mostly used those to communicate with her friend Martha Washington, who was the daughter of the Keller family’s cook. “We spent a great deal of time in the kitchen, kneading dough balls, helping make ice-cream, grinding coffee, quarreling over the cake-bowl and feeding the hens and turkeys that swarmed about the kitchen steps,” Keller wrote in The Story of My Life.

Keller’s relationship with Washington was shaped by their different social statuses, she wrote, and the fact that Keller knew how to make her wants known: “It pleased me to domineer over her, and she generally submitted to my tyranny rather than risk a hand-to-hand encounter,” she wrote.

It is true, though, that during these early years Keller’s family didn’t think she could ever be educated, Hiskey writes. When she was six, though, her mother pursued the idea of her education and was eventually introduced (by Alexander Graham Bell, no less) to the Perkins Institute for the Blind, which landed Anne Sullivan as a companion for Keller.

Myth: She was apolitical

In fact, Keller had strong personal politics that even landed her on a 1949 list of Communist Party members compiled by the FBI. For the record, though Keller was a true-blue socialist, she was not a member of the Communist Party.

When she was sixteen, in 1896, she was catapulted to national fame, writes Keith Rosenthal for the International Socialist Review. By 1904, when she graduated from Radcliffe College, she was internationally famous. She joined the Socialist Party of America a few years later and began advocating for revolutionary change. “She noticed the close relationship between disability and poverty, and blamed capitalism and poor industrial conditions for both,” writes Sascha Cohen for Time.

But even though she had strong politics and a national voice, nobody took her opinions seriously. “Newspaper editors would use her disability as a means to dismiss her politics and to dissuade people from taking her seriously,” writes Rosenthal. “Her radicalism, conservative writers would aver, was a product of the political ‘mistakes [which] spring out of the manifest limitations of her development.’”

Despite this, she was a leading light of the American socialist movement, Rosenthal writes. Among many other causes, she championed pacifism and the U.S. staying out of World War I. 

Helen Keller circa 1913, around the age she was when she met Peter Fagan. (Library of Congress)

Myth: She had no romantic life

Like many other people, Keller wanted a life partner as well as romance. And once, it seemed like that desire might be fulfilled. She was in her thirties, world-famous and still living with her supporter and companion Anne Sullivan, who by this time had married and was estranged from her husband.

Sullivan became very sick and had to take some time off for the sake of her health, so she was unable to act as Keller’s secretary. Peter Fagan, a twenty-nine year old reporter for the Boston Herald, stepped in to act in her place. The pair fell in love and made plans to marry.

“Her extended family vigorously squashed the relationship,” writes Kim E. Nielsen in Helen Keller: Selected Writings. “All felt adamantly that marriage and child-bearing were not options for a deaf-blind woman.” Under pressure from her family and without the support of her companion, “she apparently acquiesced to this belief,” Nielsen writes. “Peter Fagan disappeared from her life.”

“How alone and unprepared I often feel, especially when I wake in the night!” she wrote to Sullivan during this time.

“Her triumph over multiple disabilities and her enormous celebrity had trapped her within a constricting saintliness and an image of purity,” writes Rosie Sultan for Huffington Post. “Though she could speak up about equality, the rights of others–even, occasionally, sexuality–she was not granted the rights she sought for others.”

How This Tiny Town Drew World-Class Artists Into the Forests of Finland

Smithsonian Magazine

One night in the early 1990s, Ingmar Lindberg, an executive at the Fiskars metal tool company — famous for making scissors, knives, and gardening tools — was lying in bed, drifting off to sleep. But something kept nagging him. For months, Lindberg had been trying to puzzle out how to reinvigorate the small Finnish village where the company was founded in the 17th century. The town had thrived as an industrial and commercial center for more than 300 years, but by the 1980s, after it became clear that the ironworks were too small to support a global business, Fiskars shifted the bulk of its operations to larger facilities elsewhere in Finland and in the Midwestern United States. As a result, many of the factories and homes sat empty and were falling apart.

That night, Lindberg had an epiphany. "I sat up in bed and told my wife I knew what to do," he recalled. "I had to bring new people to Fiskars: designers and artists. So I made an offer to Helsinki's creative community that they couldn't refuse. I offered to rent space at a very affordable price. Once we had a group of about twenty people, I started to get calls from other artists, and it became easy."

More than two decades on, the plan has succeeded beyond Lindberg's wildest dreams. Approximately 600 people live in Fiskars Village, and among them are some of Finland's most respected creative talents. They encompass world-class furniture makers, contemporary glassblowers, innovative jewelry designers, and groundbreaking artists, one of whom builds sculptures out of fabrics like silk and linen. The town is just over an hour's drive west of Helsinki and makes for a lovely day trip from the capital. Travelers can make appointments for tours, check out exhibitions and studios, and buy pieces at the artists' cooperative boutique.

When I visited Fiskars one clear morning, I was immediately captivated by its rural charm. With its cobalt lakes and forests of oak, maple, and white birch, the town feels a world away from Helsinki. The main street is dotted with restored butter-yellow buildings that now house small shops and cafés. Tree-lined paths follow a river that winds through the village, leading to early-19th-century villas and lovely old wooden buildings, including a blacksmith foundry, a granary, and a coppersmith workshop, now reinvented as restaurants and exhibition halls. The artists' homes, mostly rustic, one-story structures painted white and oxblood, are scattered on backstreets or throughout the surrounding woodlands.

One of the first people to move to this creative Eden was Karin Widnäs, an award-winning ceramist famous for her modern tableware, which can be found in some of Helsinki's top restaurants. Widnäs lives about a half-mile from the center of Fiskars on Degersjö Lake. Her triangular, two-story home has a living-room wall made almost entirely of glass, and it looks out at a tangle of birch trees, wild growth, and sky.

"When I moved here in 1995 the village was dying," Widnäs recalled as we sat around her dining-room table drinking coffee. "The knife factory was the only thing still in operation. But three years later, I arranged an international ceramics exhibition, and we got a lot of publicity. It made other artists and designers very eager to move here. They saw we were working together — and working like hell." Widnäs also explained that at first, there was confusion around the new identity of the village and its connection to Fiskars, the business; some people thought the artists were working for the company. "Fiskars owns the buildings, but that's it. We make the town alive."

Later that day, I saw the village in full swing during Antique Days, its largest annual fair. Dozens of tents and stalls were selling a variety of furniture and objects. I set off down a small side street and arrived at the Laundry Café, a red-brick building that has been transformed into a restaurant. Outside, a few locals were seated at tables on either side of the entrance. It was as if a group of 1970s-era New York City artists were all convening at a general store in Vermont.

From left: A cinnamon pastry at Café Antique; ceramist Karin Widnäs with one of her pieces; ceramics at the Onoma Shop, in the center of town. (Johannes Romppanen & Risto Musta)

Since the beginning, one of Fiskars's essential but unwritten rules has been that not just any artist or designer could settle here. "When we started, it wasn't very democratic or legal," Lindberg told me, "but if you wanted to move to the village you had to fill out a form describing the work you did and whether you could make a living on it. And if we felt you weren't good enough, there wasn't a place for you."

These days, there are empty plots of land, but no houses or apartments for sale or rent; still, many artists and entrepreneurs are interested in living here, and those who are committed to living in Fiskars full-time stand the best chance of getting in when vacancies arise. A three-bedroom cottage rents for $1,000 a month — affordable compared with Helsinki, but not dirt cheap like in the early days. "We get e-mail almost every week from people who want to move here," said Kari Selkälä, vice president and head of real estate.

A fabric sculpture by textile artist Deepa Panchamia. (Johannes Romppanen & Risto Musta)

Also crucial to the town's success: the artists have to be able to sell their goods. Enter Onoma, Fiskars's artist cooperative, which currently counts 113 members from the town and has a beautiful, airy shop on the main street. There you will find ceramic tiles by Widnäs; sleek, modern wooden tables by Antrei Hartikainen; and colorful orb-shaped vases by Camilla Moberg. Last year, Onoma brought on Matleena Kalajoki, a Finnish jewelry designer who had just spent six years in London, to market and grow the business. Kalajoki was thrilled by what she discovered. "I was stunned by the density and diversity of talent in this small area," she told me when we met at the Onoma Shop. "And the natural beauty. It is a wonderland. I can't think of a better place to fulfill your creative urges."

The two of us set out on an impromptu bike tour of various artists' studios, weaving through antiques stalls and onto a small road lined with homes and former machinery workshops and production spaces. We passed Nikari, a design studio whose founder built furniture for Alvar Aalto in the 1960s, before arriving at the atelier of sculptor Kim Simonsson, who makes manga-like ceramic sculptures. He echoed Kalajoki's sentiments: "It's so beautiful here it's crazy. We've also got a soccer team, a tennis team, and even a village sauna."

Mossy ceramic sculptures by artist Kim Simonsson. (Johannes Romppanen & Risto Musta)

Kalajoki and I then continued on through the surrounding woodlands to a sprawling yellow villa, a space British textile artist Deepa Panchamia shares with several others. "I never thought I'd leave London," said Panchamia as we talked in her light-filled studio. "But here I am, in the forests of Finland, the artist I always wanted to be. In London there were too many distractions; in Fiskars I have endless time to focus and be creative. All my ideas come to fruition."

We ended our tour at Fiskarin Panimo, a brewery and café founded by Finnish chef Jari Leinonen and his partner, Juha Kuronen. The duo's rye-juniper beers and spruce-shoot ales have become so popular that they decided to expand into gin and aquavit, opening the Ägräs Distillery in a neighboring space. Food production is a more recent development in Fiskars, but the village is actively marketing the remaining commercial spaces to chefs and growers.

Though Fiskars Village has generated revenue for the company since the early 2000s, business-minded skeptics still question why Fiskars continues to invest in the town. "They say, ‘Why don't you just sell the village and the land and focus on the core business?' " Selkälä said. "But from our perspective, as one of the oldest companies in Europe, we consider the village to be an excellent asset."

The taproom at Ägräs Distillery, which produces gin and aquavit. (Johannes Romppanen & Risto Musta)

In fact, others are looking to follow Fiskars's lead. Delegations from China and Europe have come to Fiskars in hopes of learning how to replicate the effect in their own countries. But Lindberg believes that the village can't be copied. "Many countries have industrial towns that are dying, he said. "A project like ours seems like the answer, but most of these governments have the same problem — they don't own the real estate, so they can't make key decisions." In the end, Lindberg emphasized, the village was a success because the goal was about community, not profit: "That was the intention. Not to bring tourists. Not to make money. But eventually, it worked out beyond our wildest dreams."

Other articles from Travel + Leisure:

Will Supervolcanoes Help Power Our Future?

Smithsonian Magazine

There’s no doubt that in coming years, we’re going to need a lot of lithium. The growing market of electric automobiles, plus new household energy storage and large-scale battery farms, and the current lack of any technology better for storage than lithium ion batteries, puts the future of energy storage in the hands of just a few places around the world where the alkali metal is extracted.

Earlier this decade, researchers from the University of Michigan projected the growth in demand for lithium up until the year 2100. It’s a lot—likely somewhere between 12 million and 20 million metric tons—but those same scientists, as well as others, at the USGS and elsewhere, have estimated that global deposits well exceed those numbers. The issue is not the presence of lithium on Earth, then, but being able to get at it. Most of what we use currently comes from just a few sources, mostly in Chile and Australia, which produce 75 percent of the lithium the world uses, and also by Argentina and China, according to USGS research from 2016.

Looking to solve this problem, Stanford geologists went in search of new sources of the metal. They knew it originates in volcanic rock, and so they went to the biggest volcanoes they could find: Supervolcanoes, which appear not as a mountain with a hole in it, but a big, wide, cauldron-shaped caldera where a large-scale eruption happened millions of years ago. There, they saw high concentrations of lithium contained in a type of volcanic clay called hectorite. Geologists already knew generally that lithium came from volcanic rocks, but the team from Stanford was able to measure it in unexpected locations and quantities opening up a wider range of potential sites.

“It turns out you don’t really need super high concentrations of lithium in the magma,” says Gail Mahood, a Stanford geology professor and author of the study, in Nature Communications, about the discovery. “Many of the volcanoes that erupted in the western U.S. would have enough lithium to produce an economic deposit, as long as the eruption is big enough … and as long as [it] created a situation where you could concentrate the lithium that was leached out of the rocks.”

Lithium is mined from these white rocks, which are caldera lake sediments. (Tom Benson)

Currently, most of the lithium we use comes from lithium brine—salty groundwater loaded with lithium. Volcanic rocks give up their lithium as rainwater or hot hydrothermal water leaches it out of them. It runs downhill to big, geologic basins where the crust of the Earth actually stretches and sags. When that happens in particularly arid regions, the water evaporates faster than it can accumulate, and you get denser and denser concentrations of lithium. This is why the best lithium deposits so far have been in places like Clayton Valley, Nevada, and Chile’s Atacama Desert. It consolidates in a liquid brine beneath the dry desert surface, which is pumped out of the ground, condensed further in evaporation pools, and extracted from the brine in chemical plants.

LeeAnn Munk, a geologist at the University of Alaska, has been working for years to develop a “geologic recipe” of the conditions under which lithium brine forms, and her team has been the first to describe this ore deposit model—the volcanic action, the tectonic structure, the arid climate, etc. Her work, which often pairs her with the USGS, has focused on brine.

But brine is just one of the ways lithium is found. It’s well known that the metal can be found in solid rock called pegmatite, and in hectorite. Hectorite is not clay like you would use to make a pot, but a dried out, layered, white ashy substance that formed due to hydrothermal action after the volcano erupted. The clay absorbs and affixes lithium that has leached out of the volcanic rock. Because these volcanoes are old—the most notable one, perhaps, is the 16 million-year-old McDermitt Volcanic Field in Kings Valley, Nevada—the land has shifted, and the clay is often found not in a basin but exposed, up on high desert mountain ranges.

“[Mahood and her team] have identified how lithium is held in these high silica volcanic rocks,” says Munk. “It helps further our understanding of where lithium occurs, within the Earth. If we don’t fully understand that then we have a hard time telling how much lithium we have, and how much lithium we can actually extract. They’ve helped advance the understanding of where lithium exists in the crust.”

Other locations identified by Mahood’s group include Sonora, Mexico, the Yellowstone caldera, and Pantelleria, an island in the Mediterranean. Each showed varying concentrations of lithium, which the researchers were able to correlate to the concentration of the more easily-detectable elements rubidium and zirconium, meaning in the future, those can be used as indicators in the search for further lithium.

But there’s more to it than just looking for lithium-rich supervolcano sites. “The issue right now is that there’s really no existing technology at a big enough scale to actually mine the lithium out of the clays that is economical,” says Munk. “It could be something that happens in the future.”

Mahood acknowledges this. “As far as I know, people have not worked out a commercial scale process for removing lithium from hectorite,” she says. “The irony of all of this is, the hectorite is being mined right now, but it’s not actually being mined for the lithium. What they’re mining it for is the hectorite as a clay, and hectorite clays have unusual properties in that they are stable to very high temperatures. So what the deposit at King’s Valley is being mined for now is to make specialty drilling muds that are used in the natural gas and oil industry.”

But to extract lithium from brine is also expensive, particularly in the amount of fresh water it requires, in places where water is scarce. There’s probably plenty of lithium to go around, says Mahood, but you don’t want it all to come from one source. “You want it to come from diversified places in terms of both countries and companies,” she says, “so that you’re never held hostage to the pricing practices of one country.”

The "M*A*S*H" scripts: A collection of laughter and tears

National Museum of American History

Watching the television show M*A*S*H is a family tradition in my house. My grandfather introduced the show to my mother and uncle, and they introduced it to me. It reminded my grandfather of the time when he served as a Marine during the Korean War, repairing and building the same helicopters you see in the show's opening sequence. The entire family shared his love of the show, and eventually I fell for it too, watching how the show balanced knee-slapping laughter with the brutal reality of war in episode after episode.

Wooden branch sign post with arrow-shaped wooden signs posted that point to different places and list distances. For example, "Seoul 34 mi" "Coney Island 7033 miles" "Toledo 6133 miles"

As an intern in the museum's Archives Center, I was thrilled to get an insight into the behind-the-scenes making of the sitcom, which ran from September 17, 1972, to February 28, 1983. M*A*S*H told the story of the fictitious 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) during the Korean War. It won numerous awards, from the Writers and Directors Guild Awards to the Emmys. The show centers on the characters "Hawkeye" Pierce, "Trapper" John McIntyre, B. J. Hunnicutt, Frank Burns, Charles Winchester III, Margaret "Hot Lips" Houlihan, "Radar" O'Reilly, Max Klinger, Father Mulcahy, Henry Blake, and Sherman Potter.

Hawkeye, Trapper, and B.J. are the main practical jokers of the show. They put eggs in Frank Burns's helmet, made dry gin in their quarters (called "The Swamp"), and switched Charles Winchester's clothes to make him think he was simultaneously losing and gaining weight. Klinger's bid to get out of the Army by dressing up in women's clothing not only displayed the best in women's fashion, but also showed how far some men were willing to go to get out of the Army. Hawkeye gave one of the most famous monologues written for the show, which delivered an antiwar message embedded in a comedic moment, telling Frank he will not carry a gun in the episode "Officer of the Day." As part of my work in the Archives Center, I was privileged to have the opportunity to study that page.

A page from a television script. The paper is beige colored and the text looks like it is from a typewriter and is centered on the page

It was not all laughter at the 4077th, however. The show presented the many emotional experiences of the doctors, nurses, and soldiers who fought in the war. Helicopters roared into the compound carrying wounded soldiers while ambulances and buses brought scores more. The Operating Room (OR) consistently reappeared to display the dedication of doctors and nurses in trying to save every patient they could. Weary and stained in blood, doctors Hawkeye, Trapper, B.J., Colonels Blake and later Potter, Frank Burns, and Charles Winchester would emerge from the OR only to triage more soldiers for surgery.

Perhaps the most emotional episode was "Abyssinia, Henry," when the commander of the 4077th, Henry Blake, leaves to come home. At the end of the episode, Radar appears in the OR with news that Henry's plane was shot down. Many viewers were shocked. A fan of the show from Cranbury, New Jersey, wrote to the show, ". . . when Radar entered the Operation room with the news of Henry's death I almost cried. That was the most tasteless, totally unnecessary thing I have ever witnessed on T.V." The show received tons of fan letters reporting astonishment and anguish that the show chose to let one of its main characters die. Some of these letters were kept and are found in the collection of the museum's Archives Center, where they're available for researchers.

The show's writers conducted extensive research to strike the right balance of brutal realism and sometimes absurd humor, completing interviews with over 72 doctors, nurses, and soldiers who were in the Korean War. In one interview, a post-operative nurse reflected on the occasional dullness of war: "Sometimes we'd get lulls where we didn't do anything which was nerve-wracking. It was a strange place—you couldn't exactly wish to be busy—but doing nothing drove you crazy."

A page from a television script. The paper is beige colored and the text looks like it is from a typewriter and is centered on the page
Interviews like the one served as inspiration and background for many of the episodes. Along with interviews, the collection contains materials used by the writers to get a better sense of the Korean War, and war as a whole, including the history of the 43rd Surgical Hospital, research notes on Korean customs and history, and even the book Back Down the Ridge by W. L. White.

It was enormously satisfying to see the real scripts of the show and the collection as a whole. From my grandfather's time to my own, M*A*S*H brings many people to laughter and tears.

The collection is located offsite at one of the museum's storage facilities, but it is open for research. To get a better idea about what the collection has, please check out the finding aid. If you would like to research the collection yourself, please email the Archives Center at or give us a call at (202) 633-3270 to schedule an appointment.

Corey Schmidt completed a summer internship in the Archives Center. He is a recent graduate of Truman State University and is a history major.

intern Corey Schmidt
Posted Date: 
Wednesday, November 9, 2016 - 08:00
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A Tasting of the Grape, Among Other Things

Smithsonian Magazine

The event took place in southern Vermont, late in April, on one of those weekends when people tell each other, "it is a crime to stay indoors." The sky was high and so blue it gave you vertigo to stare into it. The first tentative leaves were unfolding on some of the birch trees and a few daffodils bloomed for some of the more fortunate gardeners. Most people did, indeed, get outdoors where they did yard and garden work, played golf, or rode a bike.

There were, however, fifty visitors to Manchester's stately Equinox Hotel who remained, resolutely, indoors all weekend. From shortly after breakfast until almost dinner, they sat around tables, drinking wine.

Well, they were actually tasting wine; not drinking it. Which is a good thing because even though they were fifty in number, they had a formidable 4,321 varieties of wine to taste, evaluate and judge. And, then, there was another consideration. A lot of this wine was a little, ah, unorthodox. These fifty hardy souls would be called on to taste wines made from, among other things, jalapeños, dandelions (just like the ones the gardeners around town were doing battle with), muscadines, peaches and honey. These were wines one would definitely not want to sit around drinking, glass after glass, for an entire three days. Unless, that is, one had some notion of embalming himself before dying; perhaps to cut down on the funeral expenses. You might enjoy a glass—even two—of wild plum wine from a Florida Panhandle vintner. But you would not, of your own volition, spend an entire weekend drinking the stuff.

And, in point of fact, the fifty tasters spent only a small fraction of their three days in Vermont sampling wines made from fermented exotics. Most of those 4,321 bottles held what had begun life as traditional wine grapes—merlot, cabernet, pinot, etc.—and had been transmogrified through love and fermentation into something the maker took enough pride in that he (or she) had entered this, the largest wine competition in North America. The previous year, wines had come from 44 American states, 8 Canadian provinces and 4 countries.

"This is the first year when we've actually been the largest," said Brad Ring, whose WineMaker magazine sponsored the event. He was between chores which included taking empties out to a dumpster that was the size of a boxcar and that was slowly filling up with broken glass. The scent off that dumpster was like the morning after a dinner party that had gotten slightly out of hand.

"There is a tasting, for wines that come from commercial vineyards, and it is out in Sonoma. They get about 4,100 entries. So…we're number one."

Up, he explains, from obscurity. "We judged about 600 bottles five years ago, the first time we did it. By last year, we were up to 3,400."

WineMaker's publisher, Ring is an amiable man with much to be amiable about today. Every one of the 4,321 tasting submissions came with a $20 entrance fee. Ring's expenses included hiring the hall and picking up the tasters' travel costs. But most of them are from New England and they do it for the love so "we make a little money," Ring says.

Plus, the event gives him a bump in circulation (which is now 40,000 subscribers), additional advertiser interest and additional credibility in the winemaking community. "And," he says, "it is a lot of fun. There's an element of drudgery. We have a small staff at the magazine and we spend a lot of time opening packages—people want to make sure the bottle doesn't break during shipping, so the packaging can be pretty substantial. And we have to catalog everything that comes in. So there's a lot of pure paperwork."

Still, it is about wine. Not clerical chores. By Friday, when the thing gets underway, there is a festive spirit you can feel in the hotel meeting rooms that Ring has reserved for the occasion. The tasters sit in clusters of three around tables arranged in horseshoe shape. Volunteers and magazine staffers bring around the wines— six bottles to a flight—and the tasters go to work. There is no way for them to know who has made any one wine. All the bottles are identified by a numerical code.

Judges tasted and evaluated over 4,300 submissions. (Photo courtesy of

Each taster ranks the wines by five criteria: appearance, aroma & bouquet, taste, aftertaste and overall impression. The wines are scored from one to twenty points in each category and then given an overall, average score. Anything over 15 is very good.

The judges fill out a scoring sheet on every wine they taste and the results are later sent to the wine maker. "It gives people a pump if they score high," Ring says. "Something to work on if they don't."

And, he adds, there are a few soreheads who write back; communicating exactly how they feel about the judges who got it so badly wrong about their handsome wine.

I spent several hours, over those three days, at the Equinox and I can report one thing with absolute confidence: A wine tasting—even the largest wine tasting in North America—is not exactly a spectator event. There is nothing especially suspenseful or thrilling about watching someone sip a little wine, let it sit on the tongue for a while, swish it around, then spit it out, ponder for a moment and finally write a number on a printed form.

There was much sipping and spitting and cracker eating and cleansing of the pallet with bottled water, and after you've seen a little of that, you've seen entirely enough.

Still, there are things to be learned if you talked to Ring and to the judges when they were on break. Among them:

• There are some 1 million people making their own wine in North America. (The hobby is very strong in Canada.)

• A wine made at home is not necessarily fit only for amateur consumption. "Some of what we get here, at this tasting, is every bit as good as some of the famous commercial table wines," one of the judges told me. "In fact, we put a few bottles of decent commercial wine in the mix just as a control. It scores where it should and a lot of the wines that are entered here score the same. Or even a little better."

• The popularity of kits for wine making at home has led to a lot of "sameness" in the wines the judges work their way through. "The kits guarantee that you won't go very far wrong if you do everything the instructions tell you to do. But you won't come out with anything unique or inspired, either."

• You don't have to spend a lot of money to make your own wine. A couple of hundred bucks will get you started. But if you get the fever, you can spend your retirement money on French oak barrels, high-end bottling equipment, a cellar, etc., etc.

• Making wine works fine as a hobby but not as a way of saving money. "It's something you do for yourself. And so you can impress your friends."

• If you need an excuse to get started, use the one that worked for many, many before you. Say you are doing it for your health. "We saw a big surge in interest," Ring says, "when people started reading about the ‘French paradox.'" Which is, I learned, not the title of some impenetrable book by Sartre but the medical evidence that red wine improves coronary health.

By lunch on Sunday, the dumpster was nearly filled with broken glass and I was ready to go pull dandelions instead of drink them—or, to be precise, watching while other people drank them. The winners in each of 50 different categories would be announced later, and they would be feted at an awards dinner in California in late spring or early summer.

Before leaving, I did sample a little mead, something I've wanted to try ever since I was compelled to read Chaucer. It wasn't bad, either. And, thought I, there is the guy I know who raises bees. So a supply of honey wouldn't be a problem and every man needs a hobby, they say. With a little practice, some water and yeast, I might just take Best in Show in the Mead division—next year at the Equinox.

The Failed Attempt to Design a Memorial for Franklin Roosevelt

Smithsonian Magazine

Frank Gehry, who you might remember from such TV shows as “The Simpsons” but who also is an architect of some note, has been struggling for nearly five years with the design of the memorial for President (and World War II general) Dwight D. Eisenhower in Washington, D.C. Last week, the proposal met with another setback, as a House appropriations committee eliminated funding for it as part of a proposed budget bill, but first, here’s a quick recap:

(original image)

In 2009, Gehry won a competition organized by the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Commission (EMC), including the participation of Eisenhower's grandson David, with a proposal calling for large stone reliefs of Eisenhower surrounded by enormous metal "tapestries" depicting scenes from his childhood in Kansas. An initial concept was approved by the United States Commission of Fine Arts in September 2011 and construction was to begin in 2012. But a couple months later, David Eisenhower stepped down from the EMC and withdrew his support for the memorial. The Eisenhower family has been vocal in its opposition to the design, criticizing it for its focus on Eisenhower's childhood, the use and placement of the “tapestry,” among other reasons.

In May 2012, Gehry revised his design in response to public and congressional concerns, adding statues that celebrating Eisenhower as both a military leader and a political leader (traditional statues are often the first compromise in abstract memorials). Critics were not appeased, and the family began calling for a new competition. Problems and questions continued to plague the project; in April 2014, the National Capital Planning Commission voted not to approve the design, asking for amendments before consenting to further development of the project. The Eisenhower Memorial Commission, who have continued to support the project in spite of mounting costs and criticism, will present a variation on the plan in early September.

This is all standard operating procedure in Washington. There is a long history of memorial controversies, the most famous being Maya Lin's iconic Vietnam Memorial, but even the Jefferson Memorial stirred up trouble, as did the Franklin Delano Roosevelt memorial. This latter case in particular shares similarities with the Eisenhower project.

In 1959, the recently established Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial Commission launched a competition for the design of a memorial to commemorate the former president. From a field of nearly 600 submissions, the commission was awarded to New York architects Pedersen and Tilney, whose design called for eight building-sized concrete slabs engraved with quotations from Roosevelt’s speeches

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It was a controversial choice, derided in the press as an “instant Stonehenge” and summarily rejected by, the public, the United States Commission of the Fine Arts, and by Roosevelt’s daughter Anna. After much debate, the architects were asked to revise their design, and in 1964, they resubmitted a scaled-down version of their Stonehenge that included the notable addition of a large statue of Roosevelt. Though it was approved by the Fine Arts Commission, now made up of all new members, the Roosevelt family expressed their strong objections and Congress, who also needed to approve the design, tabled the project. Undeterred, (well, maybe a little deterred), the Memorial Commission changed tactics: abandoning the winning design and the idea of an open competition, the Commission consulted with the American Institute of Architects and other professional organizations, interviewed five candidates -- Marcel Breuer, Philip Johnson, Paul Rudolph, E. Lawrence Bellante, and Andrew Euston -- and, in 1966, awarded the commission to Breuer.

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As New York Times critic Ada Louise Huxtable noted at the time, the method of the appointment “aroused some criticism in professional circles.” But in retrospect it seems like an obvious choice. Breuer was hot off his Whitney Museum in New York and had previously experience working with the government, designing the United States embassy in The Hague, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which at the time of his selection was under construction and under budget.

For any architect, no matter how talented, a memorial is a complex undertaking. It needs to celebrate an individual while also representing a nation’s collective unconscious. In Breuer’s view, Roosevelt was a modern man and only a modern memorial would do his memory justice. “He discovered and supported new solutions,” Breuer wrote in his proposal, “and it would perhaps be anachronistic to identify him in this Memorial by the usual idolizing statue.” His design was unveiled in December 1966 and immediately and unanimously approved by the FDR Memorial Commission and Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr.

Like the rejected design from Pedersen & Co, Breuer’s abstract memorial design was sculpture at the scale of architecture. It consisted of 60-foot-high rough granite triangles--”stone darts,” as Breuer called them-- spiraling around a large, spinning, dark granite cube engraved with a half-tone portrait of the former President, along with hidden loudspeakers intended to commemorate Roosevelt’s innovative and inspiring radio broadcasts by playing excerpts from his most famous speeches. Huxtable called it “the most promising monument to loom on the memorial quite a while,” going on to call the scheme “a thoughtful, contemporary, creative solution that honors the man it commemorates at a representative level of today’s esthetic achievement, without doing violence to the classical Washington image.”

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Unfortunately, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts did not agree. In January 1967, Breuer’s design met with harsh and unexpected criticism from all the Commission members: artist William Walton, critic Aline B. Saarinen, architects Gordon Bunshaft and John Carl Warnecke, and sculptor Theodore Roszak. Calling it “coarse”, “unpleasant,” and “disrespectful”,  the critics attacked the design for its lack of a focal point, the overwhelming scale of the project, and the gimmicky use of the canned recordings. Rather than creating a timeless design, Breuer had, in the the view of the Commission, created “pop art sculpture.”

Breuer kept his cool. After listening to the onslaught of criticism, he made a passionate speech explaining the concepts behind his design. It almost worked. The committee began to second-guess their initial assessment, causing Saarinen to wonder if indeed it would be possible to do anything better.

The reconsideration was short lived.

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At the end of the month, the Commission of Fine Arts formally rejected the proposal in a press release, stating, “such a memorial requires the highest standard of artistic achievement and significance. In the Commission’s view the proposed design does not fulfil either criteria.” Debates continued, perhaps even grew. the widely published project attracted strong passionate responses both for and against it. But any debate was in vain. The memorial was dead. A few months later, a small memorial to Roosevelt, paid for with private funds donated by his living friends and associates, was installed on April 12, 1965 near the National Archives. In accordance to Roosevelt's wishes, the simple block of marble, about the size of his desk, was "plain without any ornamentation" other than the simple carving, "In Memory of Franklin Delano Roosevelt 1882-1945.” As an additional conciliatory gesture, in 1969 President Johnson proclaimed that the original memorial site along the Tidal Basin should be preserved as a park dedicated to Roosevelt and, should a design eventually pass muster, the eventual home of a larger Roosevelt memorial.

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We know how this story ends. In 1974, a memorial designed by landscape architect Lawrence Halprin finally won approval, though it too was not without controversy. It took 20 years for construction to start but the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial was finally dedicated on May 2, 1997. Made up of four outdoor galleries tied together across seven-and-a-half acres with a meandering pathway and symbolic water features, the Halprin design tells the story of America during Roosevelt’s presidency through bronze sculptures and quotations carved into granite.

The Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Commission is now planning to re-present their design in September. While they rework the proposal, lest it go the way of Breuer’s forgotten memorial, the architects might want to keep in mind these sound words of advice from Ada Louise Huxtable: "A monument stands for its age, as well as for a man. Those with the criteria to judge will question the greatness of both if the expressive medium of immortalization is mediocrity."


  • Bess Furman, “A Shrine Chose for Roosevelt,” The New York Times (December 31, 1960)
  • Ada Louise Huxtable, “Breuer to Shape Roosevelt Shrine,” The New York Times (June 9, 1966)    
  • Ada Louise Huxtable, “If at First You Don’t Succeed,” The New York Times (January 1, 1967)    
  • Isabelle Hyman, “Marcel Breuer and the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 54, No. 4 (December, 1995): 446- 458

Editors' Note, July 23, 2014: This piece has been edited from its original version to clarify a variety of facts about the state of the proposed Eisenhower memorial. We regret the inaccuracies.

The Topsy-Turvy Worldview of Georg Baselitz

Smithsonian Magazine

Encountering the first upside down figure in the massive retrospective of German artist Georg Baselitz may seem at first to an unaware visitor to be an installation lapse. But walk a little farther into Baselitz: Six Decades at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, and the inverted figures begin to multiply.

There are enough such canvases—dozens—amid the more than 100 works in the show, his first major U.S. survey in 20 years, to begin to create a topsy-turvy world view.

A working artist since the late 1950s in Berlin, Baselitz was heavily influenced by the freeing expressionism of Willem de Kooning after seeing a traveling U.S. exhibition there. The artist first drew widespread attention with his army of upside downs in the 1970s. All along, it’s been more than a matter of inverting canvases, says Stéphane Aquin, the Hirshhorn curator who helped organize the survey.

“To all the questions that you may have,” Aquin begins with, as he walks through the exhibition, “Baselitz paints like this. He does not paint them right side up and turn them upside down. He paints them upside down.”

Image by Privately owned. © George Baselitz 2018, photo by Jochen Littkemann. Portrait of Elke I by Georg Baselitz, 1969 (original image)

Image by Privately owned. © George Baselitz 2018, photo by Jochen Littkemann. Fifties Portrait—M.W. by Georg Baselitz, 1969 (original image)

Image by Privately owned. © George Baselitz 2018, photo by Jochen Littkemann. Da. Portrait (Franz Dahlem) by Georg Baselitz (original image)

Image by © Georg Baselitz 2018, photo by Jochen Littkemann. Bedroom by Georg Baselitz, 1975 (original image)

Image by © Georg Baselitz 2018, König Collection, photo courtessy of Skarstedt Gallery, New York. Drinker with Glass by Georg Baselitz, 1981 (original image)

Image by © Georg Baselitz 2018, Hall collection, courtesy Hall Art Foundation, photo by Robert McKeever. Maria and Fran Marc by Georg Baselitz, 2002 (original image)

Image by © Georg Baselitz 2018, Skarstedt, New York, photo by Friedrich Rosenstiel, Cologne. Orange Eater (IX) by Georg Baselitz, 1981 (original image)

Using photographs as a model, he finds a new way to perceive the figure, Aquin says. In doing so, “he defeats the purpose of iconography by inverting the image.”

“Turning the motif upside down gave me the freedom to tackle the problems of paintings,” Baselitz once said.

It was a method to further distance him from reality, according to the show’s wall text, “reducing the images to the base formal qualities of line, shape and color.”

The Naked Man by Georg Baselitz, 1962 (© Georg Baselitz 2018, private collection, Seatle, photo by Richard Brown)

First seen in 1969 on a variation of a 19th-century landscape by Ferdinand von Rayski, the inverted images of Baselitz raised his profile. It’s an approach to which he has returned in recent decades. But as the show makes clear, the German expressionist has had a knack of getting attention since his earliest days.

Indeed, his very first artwork received front page headlines when German authorities confiscated his 1962 painting The Naked Man for obscenity. “Baselitz’ career starts with major, major scandal,” Aquin says. “And it has sort of defined his career to be always against systems, against authority, against any forms of imposed order.”

As a young artist raised in East Germany, he learned about freedom and flouting authority from a traveling exhibition of American expressionism that came to Berlin in 1958. “The power of that exhibition was incredible,” Baselitz says through an interpreter at a Hirshhorn artist’s talk. “The most important artist was [Jackson] Pollock—he was already dead, but he was towering over everything. But the other artist that made a big impression was De Kooning.” The freedom of De Kooning’s brush stroke left an impression in the bold strokes Baselitz would also use. But at the same time, he was determined to forge his own course.

My New Hat by Georg Baselitz (Pinault Collection © Baselitz 2018, photo by Jochen Littkemann, Berlin)

After shaking up the German art world with his first show, he did a series of portraits, “Heroes,” that put the German experience in context before he began his topsy-turvy phase.

He was asked to come to the U.S. after his monumental three-dimensional wooden work, Model for a Sculpture, the sole representative of Germany in the 39th Venice Biennale in 1980 got a lot of attention (again for the wrong reasons: some thought the figure with an upraised hand was doing a Nazi salute).

But it was the sight of six upside down Baselitz canvases at the 2015 Biennale that led to the current exhibition, Aquin says. “It was striking to see this man who was there [so long ago] come up with strong, strong works.”

“I knew Baselitz’ work and had followed his influence on American painters in the 1980s,” says Hirshhorn director Melissa Chiu. “But here was an artist who was painting on such a scale and with such an attention to humanity that it was time to review his work.”

In fact, his last major U.S. survey, organized by the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1995, traveled to the Hirshhorn in 1996. The current show, though, covers half again as many years of work, with many of the pieces painted in the last 20 years and receiving their first appearances in the U.S. Baselitz may still be best known for being such a direct inspiration for the New York painter Jean-Michel Basquiat. Aquin calls his inverted 1981 series Orange Eater “Basquiat before Basquiat.”

Baselitz never accepted the connection. Still, getting that Guggenheim retrospective in 1995 “was like being in heaven,” he says. With the new Hirshhorn exhibition, he added, it is a feeling “that has continued until today.”

Baselitz: Six Decades continues through September 16, 2018 at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C.

Seven of the Most Scenic Ferry Rides in the United States

Smithsonian Magazine

Bridges and tunnels may be the most convenient way to cross a body of water, but they’re far from scenic. If views are what you're seeking, a ferry ride is just the answer, whether you're in a car or on foot. According to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation, nearly 119 million passengers and 25 million motor vehicles received ferry transport in 2015, the bureau's most recent data, with New York and Washington being the two states with the most ferry boardings. Here are seven of the most scenic ferry rides this country has to offer.

Staten Island Ferry, New York City

Staten Island Ferry, New York City (400tmax)

Probably the most recognizable ferry in the United States and for good reason, the Staten Island Ferry shuttles 22 million passengers each year (70,000 each weekday) across the New York Harbor between Lower Manhattan and Staten Island. The cost for the five-mile, 25-minute ride: $0. And while most passengers use it for commuting between the two islands (before September 11 the ferries carried passenger vehicles), the ferry has also garnered a reputation for being “the poor man’s cruise,” eliciting spectacular views of the city’s hulking skyline along with the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Plus, the fully stocked snack bar aboard is open 24/7 and serves beer. The Staten Island Ferry is one of the longest operating ferry lines in the United States, with origins dating back to 1817 when the Richmond Turnpike Company launched a steamboat service. Today the New York City Department of Transportation operates the nine-vessel fleet.

Block Island Ferry, Rhode Island

Block Island Ferry, Rhode Island (<ahref="flickr url"="">spablab - Flickr/Creative Commons)

There are two ways to get to Block Island (also known as New Shoreham, Rhode Island), a pear-shaped speck of land situated just south of the state’s mainland: by plane or by ferry. The latter is the cheaper of the two options, with a fleet of six ferries shuttling pedestrians across Block Island Sound from Point Judith and Newport, Rhode Island, and Fall River, Massachusetts year round. (While you can make a reservation with the ferry service to bring your car, part of Block Island's allure is that it limits the number of motor vehicles on the island—most people get around on foot, bicycle or moped—plus getting a car there isn't cheap.) Depending on your point of origin and whether you’re onboard a traditional or high-speed ferry, travel times between ports can take between 30 minutes to a little over two hours, buying you more time to take in the endless great blue beyond.

Washington State Ferries, Washington

Washington State Ferries, Washington (SteveDF/iStock)

As a city surrounded by water, Seattle would probably come to a standstill if it weren’t for its ferry service, which is open to both passengers and motor vehicles. At all hours of the day, ferries crisscross the Puget Sound carrying passengers from the Bainbridge Island and Seattle harbors to nearly two dozen ports of call in between. According to the Washington States Department of Transportation, which operates the 23-ferry fleet, 25 million passengers ride its vessels each year, and it’s no surprise. Besides being a popular mode of transport for locals in a city known for its gridlock, it’s also one of the best ways to get a sweeping view of Seattle’s skyline, including the Space Needle.

Galveston-Port Bolivar Ferry, Texas

Galveston-Port Bolivar Ferry, Texas (Baxternator/iStock)

Texas State Highway 87 comes to a dead end when it meets Galveston Bay. Drivers can either turn around or drive aboard one of the Texas Department of Transportation’s fleet of nearly a half-dozen ferries. The voyage between Port Bolivar and Galveston is brief, taking about 18 minutes total to cross one of the world’s busiest waterways. While today TxDOT abides by a regular schedule that runs around the clock, when the first ferries embarked across the bay in the 19th century, skiffs only made the trip when they had paying passengers. These days it’s not uncommon for dolphins to swim alongside the ferries.

Alaska Marine Highway System, Alaska

Alaska Marine Highway System, Alaska (<ahref="flickr url"="">brewbooks - Flickr/Creative Commons)

Out of all the ferry operations in the United States, Alaska’s is easily the most extensive, with the Alaska Marine Highway operating a system comprised of 3,500 miles of routes navigated by a fleet of 11 vessels that can ferry both pedestrians and motor vehicles alike (even RVs!). No big surprise considering the state’s land size and the chain of islands that make up its southwestern coast. Traveling by ferry is the easiest way to access many of the 35 coastal communities serviced by the fleet, including popular locales like Glacier Bay National Park, the Inside Passage and Kenai Peninsula.

S.S. Badger Ferry, Michigan and Wisconsin

S.S. Badger Ferry, Michigan and Wisconsin (eyfoto/iStock)

The S.S. Badger dubs itself as a “mini-cruise,” and it’s hard to not agree. From outdoor decks furnished with lounge chairs for sunbathing to a bloody Mary bar located on the upper deck, not to mention 40 staterooms, the ferry boasts perks not commonly found on most commuter vessels. The S.S. Badger travels the four-hour, 60-mile journey across Lake Michigan to ports in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, and Ludington, Michigan, providing daily service since 1953, and motor vehicles are welcome.

Cape May-Lewes Ferry, Delaware and New Jersey

Cape May-Lewes Ferry, Delaware and New Jersey (David Osberg/iStock)

Linking Cape May on New Jersey’s southern tip to Lewes, Delaware, the Cape May-Lewes Ferry provides an 85-minute journey past striking lighthouses and charming harbors, often escorted by a pod of dolphins or whales. Make sure to arrive early, as both ports are home to dockside grills known for serving New England clam chowder, conch fritters and burgers, not to mention a variety of coastal-inspired cocktails like Mai Tais and Rum Runners. In addition to its regularly scheduled year round crossings that can accommodate both passengers and motor vehicles, the ferry also hosts firework cruises, holiday brunches, wine dinners and other events.

Frankenstrats and families: Inspiring family engagement in our "Draper Spark!Lab"

National Museum of American History

Rolling across the Potomac on any given Sunday morning in the late 1990s, you could probably find a white Volvo with my dad driving my brother and me into the city, where we would visit one of the city's museums—like the National Museum of American History. This trip into the city wasn't a silent one though, because music was always playing, tunes that began to slowly shape my own music tastes. It wasn't just the rides over that have made these memories stick for the last 15 years; it was also the experiences my family and I shared. Today, as an intern for the museum, I see families creating similar memories together, sharing experiences through different objects and activities. So, what better place to spend time with family than a hands-on, interactive learning space, like Draper Spark!Lab?

Photograph of museum space with large Spark!Lab sign overheard. Desks, stools, and supplies for a hands-on activity can be seen among display cases and colorful setting.

Located in the Innovation Wing of the museum, Draper Spark!Lab is a is an invention workshop, developed and operated by the museum's Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, where families can come to learn, play, and invent together. Activities in Draper Spark!Lab are based around different themes, like "Things That Make Sound" or "Things That Help Us See." With the current theme "Planet," visitors engage in hands-on activities focused on building a planet-friendly building, helping clean up the ocean, moving water from place to place without pipes, testing renewable energy, powering up a solar tree, and "upcycling" e-waste (reusing discarded material to create a product of a higher quality or value than the original). At the Hub, they can also create their own original invention using cardboard, Popsicle sticks, straws, and other materials. To complement these activities, Draper Spark!Lab is also host to interesting objects that tie in with each activity theme—objects include a 19th-century stethoscope as well as a cold-fusion cathode. My personal favorite however, is Frankenstrat, Eddie Van Halen's beloved red, white, and black-striped guitar, which tied in to the "Things That Make Sound" activity theme.

In a black velvet lined case, a red and white electric guitar.

Well, Frankenstein 2 to be exact (RIP, Frank 1). This 2007 replica, used by Van Halen on a 2007 tour, can currently be seen in Draper Spark!Lab. This guitar resulted from Van Halen's tinkering and desire to find a sound that had not yet existed. As the head of exhibitions and interpretation for the Lemelson Center (and the museum's resident electric guitar expert), Monica Smith explained that Van Halen knew the sound he was going for, but lacked the equipment to produce it. Taking a variety of parts, including a Gibson humbucking pickup, and putting them into a body of a Fender Stratocaster, Van Halen created the "Frankenstrat."

The guitar introduced new thrashing and sawing sounds to rock and was, as Van Halen described, "an instrument that wasn't offered as an 'off the rack' guitar by any other manufacturer at the time." Innovations like Van Halen's show exactly what we in Draper Spark!Lab are trying to encourage in kids—curiosity and innovative thinking to solve everyday problems.

Draper Spark!Lab can also create lasting bonds in families the same way music can. Both have the great potential to spark fantastic conversations and engage families in a way that can often only be found in an informal learning space, like a museum. Family engagement in museums, as free-choice learning professor and author Lynn Dierking explains, often leaves a lifelong impact on families and children, fostering a love and habit of museum-going. Taking home the skills they learned in Draper Spark!Lab, visitors continue to think innovatively at home—and perhaps (with the permission of their parents) begin tinkering with equipment like guitars.

Small, handmade car designed from cardboard pieces in red, white, and brown.

In fact, one inventor was so inspired by the guitar that she created a car that rocked Frankenstrat's iconic red, white, and black stripes at the invention hub during Draper Spark!Lab's "Things that Roll" theme. After her father introduced her to Van Halen (during car trips), they bonded over the music. The two were pumped to see the guitar, especially since they were attending a Van Halen concert later that week! This kid inventor and her father are certainly not the only two visitors inspired by the guitar. As one of the Draper Spark!Lab interns, I got to witness firsthand parents introducing the guitar to their kids, and in turn, the music that inspired them when they were young.

The Frankenstrat represents a new generation of sound, and also new perspectives and connections among families. Whether it's the band Van Halen itself—where Eddie Van Halen's son, Wolfgang, is now bassist—or in the Draper Spark!Lab, family engagement will continue to inspire connections that can last a lifetime.

Children work on activities in Spark!Lab. In the background, a case featuring red and white guitar.

Katie Fapp completed a Draper Spark!Lab internship, part of the Lemelson Center for Innovation and Invention here at the museum. When not inventing out on the floor, she is a junior at the University of Arizona studying history.

Intern Katie Fapp
Posted Date: 
Wednesday, October 5, 2016 - 10:00
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The New Woman meets the old witch

National Museum of American History

How would you describe a witch? Black pointy hats probably spring to mind, as well as a range of distinguishing ugly features like crooked noses, stringy hair, and weathered faces—warts and all. The image of a witch as a hag or evil old woman spans everything from Shakespeare to fairy tales to Greek mythology. Yet in the early 20th century another kind of witch permeated popular culture around Halloween—one who was beautiful, sumptuous, and alluring. Although we may think of the "sexy witch" as a modern marketing gimmick for adult Halloween costumes, there is actually a historically important antecedent.

Sheet music cover with witches

To see the beautiful witch in context we need to understand a bit about this period. First, Halloween in the early 20th century had far less emphasis on blood, gore, and scary monsters and much more emphasis on courtship, romance, and the opportunity for love. In fact, the image of cupid was often interspersed among the more familiar black cats, witches, and jack-o-lanterns. Second, the central ritual of Halloween was not going door to door trick-or-treating (that would gain popularity much later, particularly after the post-1945 baby boom); rather, it was attending Halloween parties in peoples' homes. Typically set in the domestic spaces of the parlor, dining room, or kitchen, these parties involved decorating, organizing games, sending out invitations, and maintaining social relationships—in other words, all things that were seen as part of the feminine sphere. So while men were certainly involved in Halloween, including evolving traditions of tricking and pranking, Halloween in the early 1900s could largely be described as a feminine holiday—organized around and for women.

Image of witch on broom

So what did women do with this holiday? Looked into the future (or at least pretended to). The most commonly described and depicted activity at these parties involved playing games that purported to predict a future suitor or husband. Games ranged from throwing an apple peel over your shoulder (the letter it resembled would be your future husband's initial) to naming several chestnuts after potential beaus and seeing which one popped first while roasting. The number of these rituals was legion. One book had over 45 pages of variations. What they all had in common was an emphasis on seeing one's fate, not shaping it. This is significant because in the early 20th century, that underlying sense of passivity and lack of control in women's lives was being directly and forcefully challenged.

Magazine advertisement - "THE NEW WOMAN should use the new soap - COPCO - the perfect soap...." with illustration of woman in bloomers (?) on orange background.

The early 1900s women were awash in articles and images about The New Woman. The New Woman was described as a woman who took action and made things happen for herself, be it attending college, entering the workforce, joining men in sports like golf or tennis, or organizing around important causes like suffrage. Of course, the New Woman as just described was also built around whiteness and certain levels of wealth and comfort—the New Woman was not a universally inclusive motif. Still, the discourse around the New Woman was an important one, suggesting that timidity and passivity were no longer acceptable ways of defining large groups of women.

So what does any of this have to do with beautiful witches? Women still enjoyed Halloween. It was a time to socialize with friends, encourage romantic encounters, and show off skills in planning and executing a party. But the central activity of passively predicting the future was becoming increasingly out of step with how many women saw themselves. Enter the beautiful witch. The witch is a woman who has power—the power to create spells, alter fate, and change the future. The witch does; the witch doesn't wait. And for many women of the era, this was an attractive aspect of the witch, with one obvious problem: what young, self-actualizing woman wants to see herself as an old hag? This is why the motif of the beautiful witch gained such popular currency. The beautiful witch had both power and attractiveness, and could use both to make her own decisions about romance, suitors, and the future of her love life. The beautiful witch could control her destiny, not meekly wait for it to unfold. She was the perfect personification of a holiday that was still part of the feminine sphere, while acknowledging the changing dynamics of gender and sexual power relations in the early 20th century.

Halloween witch postcard

Halloween witch postcard

Daniel Gifford is the museum's manager of museum advisory committees and a project historian. He has blogged about birdwatching in America and the connection between immigration and innovation.

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Tuesday, October 27, 2015 - 08:00
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The Age-Old Tradition of Armenian Carpet Making Refuses to Be Swept Under the Rug

Smithsonian Magazine

Twin sisters Sahkanush and Haykanush Stepanyan learned rugmaking while still teenagers at a craft center in Gyumri, Armenia’s second-largest city. Today at 23, they work for Tufenkian, a company that specializes in carpets made of hand-carded, -spun, -dyed, and -knotted wool. Under a hot July sun on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., they are stretching warp threads vertically over the timbers of a large loom, entwining the horizontal weft thread between them, over and under in a basket-like pattern.

Perhaps the most renowned of the Armenian arts is carpet making, a domestic craft that women took up at home in the late hours of the day as a quiet reprieve from cooking, cleaning and childcare. For the Stepanyan sisters, who are participants at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival this summer, once each row is completed, individual strands of thread will be knotted around pairs of warp threads, varying the colors to make intricate patterns.

At her loom, the weaver makes the patterns her own, placing motifs in endless combinations, organizing them into grand tableaux, then most importantly, breaking the dominant symmetries with unique variations of form and color, making the patterns flow and breathe. Over countless hours, the vision she holds in her mind emerges, in row upon row of brilliant thread. She is the architect of a vast garden, choosing and planting each tiny strand.

“These rugs were mainly used for personal reasons, such as dowry pieces, gifts, commemorative pieces,” explains Hratch Kozibeyokian, who is a master weaver and scholar on the history of the craft, and serves as president of the Armenian Rugs Society, located in Glendale, California. Eventually the work was commercialized, he says, during the 19th century and merchants began paying women by the square inch.

But today, Kozibeyokian says that Armenian rugmaking is healthier than it has been in a long time: “There is this huge revival.” Across the country, traveling teachers are introducing the art to young women who didn’t learn it at home. Where the strands of tradition were broken, they are now being retied.

The Armenian communities, he says, are now rediscovering their histories through the stories that these rugs tell. Kozibeyokian says he relies on a knowledge that has been handed down through the years one generation to another, and cultivated through experience and ongoing study. “I come from a family that has been in this trade, in this craft for at least the four generations that I know of.” And untold generations before that, he says. “[A rug] is still produced the same way as it was a thousand years ago.” Although occasionally the weaver will be a man, today just as in ages past, it is usually women who take responsibility for maintaining and extending the art, training the weavers who will carry it forward.

Despite a long and rich history of carpet making, Armenians have had to battle to maintain a hold over their own tradition. The work of the Armenian weavers was so prized that it was praised by observers from Herodotus (“brilliant colors”) to Marco Polo (“the choicest and most beautiful”). During the Middle Ages, Armenians rugs were traded and dispersed throughout the Middle East and Europe so that by the time of the Renaissance, Armenian rugs appeared under the feet of saints in altarpieces by painters as renowned as Hans Memling, Hans Holbein and Lorenzo Lotto. But unfortunately, as these woven masterpieces were swept up into a global trade and appreciation, their provenance was lost and many Armenian rugs and their styles have been either appropriated by, or attributed to, other cultures.

Take for example, the oldest carpet known is the Pazyryk, which dates from the 5th century B.C.E. Although found in Siberia and now housed in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. It is now claimed to be both Persian and Armenian. Levon Abrahamian, one of the Folklife Festival curators, takes pains to note the “rather complicated and delicate situation” when scholarly and political interests overlap. Referring to contested areas in the south and east of Armenia, he notes that “Karabagh and Syunik regional carpets are claimed by Azerbaijanis to be Azerbaijani as a result of territorial claims.”

The geometric motifs found on Armenian rugs date back millennia. Long before the pinwheel symbol was corrupted by the Nazis to become the swastika, many ancient cultures saw it as a symbol of life, luck and well-being. In Armenian hands, it flowered into a form with anywhere from two arms to more than 12, eventually becoming the wheel of eternity, a symbol of eternal life. In carpets, the symbol takes on many guises—stars, medallions, jagged S-shapes. During the Christian era—Armenia officially adopted the religion at the beginning of the fourth century C.E.—crosses and angels began to appear.

But even today, it is the pre-Christian iconography that predominates: strong, jagged geometries and sometimes flora and fauna—drawn in deep rich colors that make liberal use of a red made from the Armenian cochineal, a scale insect native to the Armenian highlands. Scholars continue to pursue research that links the iconography of Armenian rugs to both pagan and Christian symbols, including those literally carved in stone, either as architectural elements or on khachkars, memorial “cross stones” that combine both cross and wheel.

It takes time and care to perfect the famed Armenian (or Ghiordez) double knot that makes the colorful patterned pile of a carpet, but it’s worth the effort. The knot makes for a sturdier, more durable weave. (Today, the Armenian knot is now also widely known in the business as a Turkish knot.)

Twin sisters Sahkanush and Haykanush Stepanyan at their loom at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. (Sonya Pencheva, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives)

One of the most prized items in the White House collection is an 11- by 18-foot rug, crafted by Armenian girls living at an orphanage in Ghazir, Lebanon. It took the girls, 10 months to complete, tracing out a veritable Garden of Eden in more than 4 million individually tied knots. Birds perch amid twining greenery. Proud beasts circle one another. Holding in the great profusion of nature is complex geometry, unfolding like the symmetries of a kaleidoscope.

After Armenia was invaded by the Red Army in 1920 and swallowed by the Soviet Union, rugmaking was brought into factories and became forbidden in the home. Soviet-era carpets often featured portraits of Lenin and Stalin; and at times, the image of Mount Ararat, the symbol of the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic. Still, the tradition was handed down and continued to survive behind closed doors. “Those women who inherited this skill, some of them still have it and they still weave it,” Kozibeyokian says. “Although it was illegal during the Soviet era, it was done in homes in a secret way, like many other things.”

The 1980s saw a resurgence of interest in Armenian carpets in the United States, largely due to the efforts of the Armenian Rugs Society, which was founded in Washington, D.C., at the start of the decade. In 1984, a milestone exhibition of rugs that bore inscriptions of Armenian text as part of their designs opened at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. Made possible by the database of rugs maintained by the Society, it was the first major exhibition to focus on Near Eastern rugs that carried inscriptions. The texts often contained a Bible verse, or honored an esteemed guest, or simply noted where and when the rug was made. The Gohar Carpet, whose Armenian date translates to 1700, is poignantly inscribed: “I, Gohar, full of sin and weak of soul, with my newly learned hands wove this rug. Whosoever reads this say a word of mercy to God for me.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, traditional Armenian rugmaking is once again thriving. Kozibeyokian notes that the Armenian Rugs Society has teamed with another nonprofit to teach the art to more than 400 students in nine different villages. And that is but one initiative. Other organizations are pursuing their own.

At the Folklife Festival, Dianna Hovhannisyan is weaving rugs of silk. The finer thread makes for a doubly dense weave, says Kozibeyokian, with as many as 144 knots per square inch. It is exacting work. “Also, what makes it difficult is the silk shines and reflects the light on the weaver’s eyes,” he explains. “The weaver cannot sit and weave as long as they do on the other non-silk rugs. They have to take a break and rest.”

The work of this new generation is a testament to the resilience of Armenian people and Armenian culture. In many ways, this enduring tradition of rugmaking recalls the age-old hand-tied double knot. Attempts to unravel it by brute force are bound to fail. “The harder you pull on the pile,” Kozibeyokian explains, “the tighter the knot gets.”

The Folklife Festival will conclude after a final run from July 4 through July 8, 2018.

When Rock Bands Flocked to Howard Finster’s Remote, Bizarre Artist Compound

Smithsonian Magazine

Most art critics never took Howard Finster seriously. If they wrote about him at all, they shunted him off into the category of “self-taught folk artist” or “outsider artist,” a quaint curiosity but nothing to take seriously.  Even when his paintings were shown at the Library of Congress or the Venice Biennale, they were presented as novelty items.

But rock musicians, including the legendary ’80s band R.E.M., recognized Finster as one of their own: an unschooled genius who shrugged off the establishment's condescension to enjoy the last laugh.

After R.E.M. filmed its first music video at the fellow Georgian’s home studio in 1983, Finster and lead singer Michael Stipe then collaborated on the cover for the group’s 1984 album, Reckoning. The New York band the Talking Heads commissioned Finster to paint the cover for their 1985 album, Little Creatures; it was named “Album Cover of the Year” by Rolling Stone. Another Georgia musician, the Vigilantes of Love's Bill Mallonnee, wrote a song about Finster: “The Glory and the Dream.”

Finster’s studio, known as “Paradise Garden,” is still standing on the land he bought in 1961, located at the end of a narrow street in the unincorporated town of Pennville, Georgia. The bicycle repair shop that provided his main income for years lives on, as do many of the buildings Finster built as parts of his “sacred art” project: the Mirror House, Bottle House, Mosaic Garden, Rolling Chair Gallery, Hubcap Tower and the five-story World's Folk Art Chapel.

During the 1980s and ‘90s, it was not unusual to a big tour bus to pull up at Paradise Garden and for a rock band to climb out and marvel at Finster’s exuberant, unruly visions. The exteriors and interiors of his buildings were covered with Biblical verses, floating angels, Satanic flames and celestial clouds, all part of the painter's mission to spread God's word

Image by Geoffrey Himes. Finster's hand-painted Cadillac (original image)

Image by Geoffrey Himes. Depictions of Elvis Presley in the Rolling Chair Gallery (original image)

Image by Geoffrey Himes. Finster's manifesto (original image)

Image by Geoffrey Himes. American icons: Coke, Santa and wagon wheels (original image)

Image by Geoffrey Himes. Memory jars embedded in cement wall (original image)

Image by Geoffrey Himes. Finster's studio (original image)

Image by Geoffrey Himes. An R.A. Miller rooster inside the Rolling Chair Gallery (original image)

Image by Geoffrey Himes. Colored bottles cemented into a small chapel (original image)

Image by Geoffrey Himes. The Hubcap Tree (original image)

Image by Geoffrey Himes. The World's Folk Art Chapel (original image)

Image by Geoffrey Himes. A Purvis Young painting (original image)

But as the painter aged, he moved away in 1994 and finally died in 2001. In his absence, the compound declined dramatically: the detachable art works were removed by family members and looters; the buildings leaked, tilted and sank into accumulating mud. It wasn’t until 2012 when Chattooga County bought the property and turned it over to the non-profit Paradise Garden Foundation that the property began to turn around. Heading up the foundation is 32-year-old Jordan Poole, who grew up in the area before earning a master's degree in historic preservation from Savannah College.

“My grandparents had a grocery store two blocks away,” Poole remembers. “My mother went to grade school at the top of the hill, and my family's buried a block away. I first visited here when I was five years old, and to me it was magical, enchanting. But my dad would say, ‘There’s that crazy Finster place.’ That was the common attitude. He was that crazy Baptist preacher who did what you shouldn’t do.”

When I visited in May, Poole provided a personal tour. He pulled out a mini-album of snapshots to show how bad the property had become by 2010. Water is always the biggest enemy of abandoned buildings, and rain had streaked the walls and ceilings, rotted the beams and carried the mud into every low-lying area. When I glanced from the photos to the landscape in front of me, the transformation was remarkable.

Finster’s former studio, a clapboard bungalow painted with images of George Washington, an orange panther and willowy saints, now serves as a gift shop and visitors’ center, where you can buy a ticket for the low price of $5 (even cheaper if you’re a senior, student or child). As you walk out the back door, you’re confronted by the World's Folk Art Chapel, which resembles nothing so much as a five-layer wedding cake, featuring a 12-sided white-wood balcony, a cylindrical tower and an inverted-funnel spire.

Covering one of the chapel's windows is a painting that serves as the most succinct summary of Finster’s artistic purpose: “Visions of Other Worlds,” it reads across a landscape of exploding volcanoes and swirling stars. “I took the pieces you threw away—put them together by night & day—washed by rain and dried by sun—a million pieces all in one.”

Indeed recycled materials are to be seen everywhere: rusted farm implements, teapots, broken dishes, light fixtures, empty pop bottles, plastic toys, sea shells, shattered mirrors, bicycle rims and much more, all juxtaposed with wire and cement into new arrangements—always startling and often beautiful. A workshop is still filled with such bits and pieces waiting to be assembled into new art works.

Finster dug serpentine paths for the creek that crossed his property so the water snaked between his structures large and small. It was his own, personal “Garden of Eden,” as he put it. The creek had been silted up, but it was one of the first things restored by the new foundation.

One shed is raised on stilts and covered inside and out with mirrors. When you walk into this “Mirror House,” you find your reflection fractured and multiplied many times over. A 20-foot-tall tower of hubcaps is entangled in vines. His hand-painted Cadillac is parked in another shed. Three adjacent trees that he braided into one are still standing. The Rolling Chair Ramp Gallery, designed for wheelchairs, is a long, L-shaped building lined with news reports and testimonials as well as art works by Finster and his colleagues, all annotated by Finster’s black Sharpie.

Outsider folk artists have a reputation for being isolated loners, but Paradise Garden deflates that stereotype. Even as a septuagenarian Baptist minister, Finster loved to have scruffy rock'n'rollers and camera-clicking tourists visit, and their greetings are hung in the gallery. He especially like to meet his fellow outsider artists, and such famous names as Purvis Young, Keith Haring and R.A. Miller all left art works behind in gratitude for Finster’s trail-blazing example.

Finster’s legacy is complicated by the fact that he was more interested in getting his message out to as many people as possible than in creating the best possible art. Later in his career, he started churning out what he called “souvenir art,” multiple variations on a few simple themes to feed the demand. These were inevitably lacking in inspiration and diminished his reputation, but his best work stands up as great American art. He had a strong sense of line and color and a genius for combining text and imagery. But the greatest of his works may be Paradise Garden itself.

The Paradise Garden Foundation has accomplished much in a few years, but there is still much to do. The buildings were originally covered with paintings on plywood, and the foundation wants to restore those—not with originals that will be damaged by the elements but by weatherproof replicas. The most expensive challenge is stabilizing and weatherproofing the World's Folk Art Chapel. Paradise Garden deserved its notoriety in the ‘00s as a dilapidated ruin of its former self, but it deserves that reputation no longer.

The site is worth an out-of-the-way trip not only for art lovers but also for music fans—not just because Finster painted a few album covers but more so because he seemed to embody the unschooled, non-corporate, non-academic spirit of the earliest, strangest and best rock 'n' roll.

The Mesmerizing Results When a Museum Asks an Artist to Draw All Over Its Walls

Smithsonian Magazine

When people say someone really “lives” her art, they may mean she takes her work very seriously. But for nearly three months, Linn Meyers’ life really did consist of her art – she hardly did anything else. She spent as many as 11 hours a day in the circular second-floor of the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum, drawing on the walls. Which might sound like child’s play, but most definitely isn’t.

Meyers used a combination of utmost precision and complete chance to create Our View From Here, a super-sized drawing that mesmerizes its viewers. Her work, which fills 400 linear feet of museum wall space, is on display through May 14, 2017, and is part of a recent effort to utilize new spaces within the Hirshhorn.

The museum was open for a good part of the time she was working on the piece, and fascinated visitors gawked as she applied her one chosen tool—a kind of thick marker favored by graffiti artists—to the walls, which were painted in two neutral tones. Although she sticks to a single color, the effect is anything but monotonous. The sinuous lines form waves and patterns that unfurl along with the museum walls, almost seeming to move. As the exhibition curator Stéphane Aquin says, “She just dances along with the building. Her art blends beautifully with the architecture. She reveals the movement that is inherent in the building.”

Meyers, a Washington, D.C.-based artist, creates both individual artworks in her studio and site-specific installations such as the one at the Hirshhorn (other installations have been on view at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.). Meyers explains that when she creates a piece in a particular environment, she naturally has to pay attention to the building, to the space that will house her work:  “One of the first questions I ask myself is, ‘How well can I approach the quirks of the architecture?’ ”

The main “quirk” at the donut-shaped Hirshhorn is that museum visitors, viewers of Meyers’ installation, will be following the circular inner walkway. “The space demanded that I create a piece that wrapped around the space, around that path that visitors take through the museum,” she explains.

Meyers used a combination of utmost precision and complete chance to create Our View From Here. (Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden)

“And then there are breaks throughout the space—doorways, entrances to galleries. In preexisting space or architecture, there’s always something that becomes a challenge. I don’t mean that in a negative way. A challenge can provoke some new approach to the way a piece would evolve. So in this case, it’s the way the circle of the gallery is divided into eight parts. And those openings aren’t always open. Sometimes the space is modified for an exhibition and some of the space is closed off.  My piece will overlap with three different shows, and the space will change for each show. I had to think about that. That’s new. I’ve never had a dynamic gallery space before.”

Meyers’ first step was to create preparatory drawings, done at quarter-inch scale. Next, Hirshhorn staffers used CAD (Computer Assisted Design) software to trace a framework—the circles from Meyers' drawings—directly on the museum walls. Meyers then set to work with her Molotow brand graffiti pen, letting her hand go where it would. This is where chance and coincidence come in.

“All of the movement you see in those drawings is just a result of the process,” she explains. “It just evolves, the lines are not planned out. But the compositions are planned. That’s a play between the intended and the unintended. The geometry is mapped out beforehand in my preparatory work. When I would start a section, I would trace a circle. That’s the plan, the intended. Following that point, each line responds to the line before it—a sort of entropy, beyond my control. So: both intended and not-intended. A nice metaphor for life!”

Meyers used a thick marker, favored by graffiti artists, to cover the walls in two neutral tones. (Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden)

Meyers’ color of choice for this project was a blue-gray called Payne’s gray. Because the artist diluted the color to different degrees, she was able to achieve different densities of color throughout the work.

As viewers walk around the rotunda, they can see that the line of the marker at times is so faint it’s just a whisper, while at other times it thickens into a blot, and still elsewhere, there is a mottled effect. In certain parts of the installation, there is a great deal of wall space that has been left undrawn-on, yet other sections are packed with crowded-together undulating lines.

Meyers realized that the first sections she did were the result of all the energy she had stored up while thinking about and planning the project: “The first couple of walls that I did are different than the last couple of walls. At first I was raring to go: all those months of preparation and anticipation. The mark is more aggressive. I kind of attacked the walls!” But by the end, when she allowed more of the walls to stand empty, she notices “a kind of lightness.”

"Her art blends beautifully with the architecture," says curator Stéphane Aquin. (Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden)

Because of the circular dimensions of the rotunda, viewers aren’t able to see the entire piece all at once. It just isn’t possible. And that affects how they perceive the work. It was the same for Meyers. “I had this vision of what the whole thing would look like, but it’s not like in the studio where my eye can pass back and forth over a piece. In the studio, I make discrete works of art and you can stand in front of them. With this, you just physically can’t. I could see the section I’d finished, for example, but then not the section I was working on. You can’t view even a quarter of it at once, standing in one place.”

Such a mammoth undertaking required mammoth concentration. Meyers, who usually goes to her studio daily and works on multiple pieces at once, did neither.

“It was the longest time I’ve been away from my studio,” she says. “I did nothing else. It was good. That frantic way we exist in time—from social media to getting up and getting groceries to being on the phone—it’s just the way we live. But with this, to focus on one thing—it was such a wonderful thing to see progress every day. For hours, not really lifting my head.” As she worked in the museum in her hyper-concentrated state, museum staffers or curator Stéphane Aquin would approach her, try talk to her, and she wouldn’t even notice them. “I would just be so focused. I had to put my blinders on. That’s something we just don’t get to do.”

Perhaps because Meyer’s photograph is on display at the museum’s front desk or perhaps because of the quiet authority she exudes when walking through the finished installation, viewers sense that she’s the artist. They want to talk, compliment her, ask her questions, even pose for phone photos. Meyers grasps to explain her new mini-celebrity. “There’s an element of mystery to what goes on in the studio, where the work comes from. Not that I can distill all those elements for people, but they can see how simple it is: Just me drawing one line, and then drawing another line.”

"Linn Meyers: Our View From Here" is on view at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden through May 14, 2017 in Washington, D.C. Linn Meyers will give a talk about her work as part of the Hirshhorn's Meet the Artist series on Wednesday, May 25, at 6:30 in the museum's auditorium. It is free and open to the public.

UPDATE 5/25/2016: A previous version of this story indicated that it was the artist who worked with a CAD program. She did not. Museum staffers used this process. We regret the error. 

Doctors Can Use Robotic Telemedicine to Assess Coma Patients

Smithsonian Magazine

“We don’t expect your son to survive the night. You should prepare your goodbyes.”

I’ll never forget the look of anguish in the young doctor’s eyes as he delivered the news. His words opened a wound in my heart that still bleeds when I think back to that evening in April of 2006—the night my son Adam fell into a coma. We had just traveled by ambulance from our small rural hospital to a larger, better equipped medical facility in Portland, Maine, nearly two hours away. It was a risky transfer, but we were assured it was my son’s best shot. I couldn’t give up now.

So, rather than goodbyes, I made the conscious decision to rally for my child. And I knew Adam would do the same. He was a fighter—a kid that overcame obstacles and defied anything that tried to hold him back. Together, we hunkered down in the ICU.

There are moments when I can still smell the heat from the machines humming around us. To distract myself from the overwhelming complexity of the tubes, wires and rainbow of flashing lights, I timed my own breathing with the rise and fall of his ventilator. And I watched. I watched every swell of his chest, each tiny twitch of his hands. I monitored the lineup of screens with numbers increasing and decreasing, learning from the nurses what was good and what needed to be addressed. When there was a change, any change, it didn’t matter how big or small, I reported my findings to the medical staff. The only time I left his side was at night—not by choice, by hospital policy. A friend allowed me to stay at her empty condo only a few miles away. It saved hours of traveling and being gone from my son for too long. Not many families in our situation are this fortunate.

Adam remained in a coma for five days, before being diagnosed with an unidentified viral infection that led to the onset of Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a rare disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks the peripheral nervous system. He spent a month in the hospital recovering from the aftermath of this debilitating disease. As a family, we had to manage life with half of us being away from home. We had no other option.

Since our experience more than ten years ago, the potential of telemedicine has emerged—allowing for the remote diagnosis and treatment of patients. I’ve often wondered if this technology had been available when Adam was sick, would he have received a quicker diagnosis? Would we have been able to stay closer to home? According to a new study, the answer to both is “yes.” This groundbreaking research conducted at the Mayo Clinic Hospital in Arizona is the first to question if medical providers need to be in the same room as a patient, or if robotic telemedicine can be used to successfully complete an assessment of someone in a comatose state.

Led by Bart Demaerschalk, a professor of neurology at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and director of synchronous telemedicine at the Mayo Clinic Center for Connected Care in Rochester, Minnesota, the 15-month study included 100 patients of varying levels of coma. The patients underwent assessments utilizing two closely related scales: the Glasgow Coma Scale (GCS) and the Full Outline of UnResponsiveness (FOUR) score. The GCS measures eye opening, verbal response and motor response, with scores ranging between 3 (severe) and 15 (mild). The FOUR score is a 17-point scale (with potential scores ranging from 0 to 16) that assesses eye response, motor response, brainstem reflexes and respiration.

A pair of neurologists was assigned to each patient. One was assigned to the bedside of a patient in the ICU and the other was assigned to an office in the neurology center where they had access to a computer workstation. They conducted their neurological assessments simultaneously, one doing a normal bedside assessment and one through robotic telemedicine. Each pair submitted their score independently. The differences between total bedside and remote GCS and FOUR scores were trivial. The mean GCS total score at bedside was 7.5, while the one conducted remotely scored a 7.23; a difference of 0.25. Similarly, the mean FOUR total score at bedside was 9.63 compared to the remote score of 9.21; a difference of only 0.40.

“This study is significant in the sense that it attempts to connect telemedicine to the physical examination, which is a historical weak point,” says Daniel Holena, assistant professor of surgery and co-director of the rapid response team in the division of traumatology, surgical critical care, and emergency surgery at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. “It does a good job showing this is a possibility.”

Robotic telepresence, like that used in the study, is the most sophisticated type of telemedicine technology deployed today. In addition to an audio-video connection, these tall, vertical units, which resemble antique street lights in their contoured shape, are remotely controlled using a desktop, laptop or mobile device. They can be pre-programmed to drive on their own or the drive mode can be overridden and controlled by an individual, located in the same building or hundreds or thousands of miles away, with a joystick or keyboard. Medical professionals on site can plug peripherals into the units to directly extend the remote doctor’s capabilities beyond just audio-visual. For example, a nurse could plug a stethoscope into the robot and then place one end the stethoscope on a patient’s chest, so that the neurologist at the workstation could hear the breath or heart sounds directly as if they were at the bedside.

The current study is an extension of previous telestroke research conducted at the Mayo Clinic, done in light of a major urban-rural disparity for expertise in the clinical neurological sciences, both in the number of neurologists and neurosurgeons. “In Arizona, we discovered that the neurological and stroke centers were, by and large, located in metropolitan Phoenix and Tucson, and most of the remainder of the state had no access whatsoever to neurological expertise,” says Demaerschalk. “Patients were being transferred from small, rural community hospitals to larger centers when there were neurological emergencies, like strokes, often arriving too late for there to be any treatment delivered.”

Many of the treatments for patients in comas can be started at a remote hospital if the emergency department physician works in concert with a neurologist or neurosurgeon via telemedicine. This provides an earlier diagnosis and treatment plan, and can even make a transfer completely unnecessary.

Although the equipment can be expensive, upwards of $25,000 a unit, telemedicine is a cost-effective mode of care when compared to traditional methodologies, and the outcomes are often improved. Mayo now has a mature, multistate telemedicine network, which includes nearly 50 hospitals across nine states. These participating facilities are equipped with robots that Mayo owns and deploys, allowing them access to teleproviders in Arizona, Florida and Minnesota.

Approximately 5,000 patients with neurological emergencies are treated annually who would have otherwise been transported hundreds of miles away to neurological centers. With telemedicine, this network has achieved a 68 percent reduction in unnecessary transfers.

Demaerschalk and his team are now turning their attention to a subset of patients in coma: those who might meet the criteria of brain death. “It’s a very important state and there are very strict criteria to make that diagnosis. We believe that the assessment could successfully be done via telemedicine,” he says.

He also believes a nationwide rollout of telemedicine programs could vastly improve our health care system. There are several bills introduced in legislature that could help streamline this process and reduce the barriers for physicians to practice telemedicine in underserved regions in multiple states.

For patients, telemedicine means the best possible care, as early as possible, no matter where they are located. For families, like mine, it means hope—even when the odds must be defied.

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