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Smart Growth: Reshaping Communities (4-8)

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Activity introducing students to different aspects of smart growth as they explore a model community, engage in creative problem solving, and create presentations on this topic.

Thinking Tuna Fish, Talking Death

National Portrait Gallery

Massachusetts Elementary Students Led Campaign to Install ‘3-D’ Crosswalk in Front of School

Smithsonian Magazine

Thank fifth-grader Eric and fourth-grader Isa of Brooks Elementary School in Medford, Massachusetts, for a new optical illusion designed to force drivers to slow down in their community school zone. As Matt Rocheleau reports for the Boston Globe, the pair, spurred to action by a classmate's narrow miss with a speeding car, successfully petitioned the city to install an unusual crosswalk near their school. The nontraditional crosswalk debuted earlier this week and will soon be joined by similar “3-D” crosswalks installed at Medford’s three other elementary schools.

According to Mental Floss’ Michele Debczak, the design concept is simple: to make the flat white sidewalk stripes appear as raised blocks to oncoming cars, the two-dimensional, grayish blocks are simply angled off of brighter shades.

Medford is far from the first city to employ such eye-catching crossings: Dubbed “Icelandic crosswalks” in honor of the country that popularized them, the traffic safety tools have also caught on in Kansas, India, China and Russia, Iceland magazine reports. In 2017, Ralf Trylla, the local government worker behind the “levitating” crosswalk in the Icelandic city of Ísafjörður, told Quartz’s Anne Quito that the illusion offers a promising alternative to speed bumps, which have been shown to exacerbate air pollution levels by encouraging drivers to abruptly speed up, then slow down.

Known as "Icelandic crosswalks" in honor of the country that popularized them, the unusual crossings use an optical illusion to force drivers to slow down (Gústi Productions via YouTube)

Still, as Adam Gaffin of Boston-area news site Universal Hub points out, the design has its critics. Last year, Cambridge, home of Harvard University, opted to leave its crosswalks as is amid concerns that drivers would view Icelandic crossings as “real raised objects in the roadway” and therefore swerve to avoid them.

This likely won’t be an issue with the Brooks Elementary School crosswalk, which Gaffin reports is situated at the corner of a “narrow side street that almost forces drivers … to go slowly anyway as they turn onto it.”

According to local news station WBZ4, the students behind the idea, Isa and Eric (whose brother had the brush with the speeding vehicle), spent a year working on their proposal. Aided by Michael Coates, a teacher at the school and adviser to the city’s Center for Citizenship and Social Responsibility, the duo shared their proposal with local leaders including Medford Mayor Stephanie Burke. The city later gave the work the green light and commissioned artist Nate Swain to implement the design while students were away for spring break.

“It’s a pretty cool concept for traffic calming and I do like the idea of slowing traffic down,” Swain—a local artist known for creating photo murals in Boston’s North End, according to Curbed’s Tom Acitelli—tells the Globe’s Rocheleau.

It remains to be seen how parents, students and Medford residents will react to the crossing, but the finished product has at least one vocal fan: As Isa tells WBZ4, “I love it. It looks amazing. Exactly how I pictured it and more."

Stamp Collecting

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Brief introduction to stamp collecting as a hobby includes sections on philately, preservation and conservation, collecting resources and references, related videos, and how to schedule a preservation lecture.

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.

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Revolutionary Truths: Challenging Mass Media as Minority Reporters

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage

“I used to get sent home on Columbus Day because I pissed off the teachers, I guess,” Simon Moya-Smith laughed. “I wouldn’t eat the Niña, Pinta, Santa María cupcakes, and my mom loved that. She raised me to talk back.”

Moya-Smith is the culture editor at Indian Country Today and a contributing columnist at CNN, and at the 2017 On the Move program, he was part of a panel called“Media Matters: Ethics and Representation.” Led by radio journalist Kojo Nnamdi, participants discussed the disparities between mainstream news and alternative media. As minority writers, they navigated the dynamics of privilege and discrimination in journalism—and dissected their own experiences when writing for marginalized communities.

Sebi Medina-Tayac, a grassroots community organizer and journalist, highlighted the ways in which the versatile nature of his identity affected his writing.

“I’ve become very used to shapeshifting and codeswitching throughout my life,” he said.

The nephew of current Piscataway chief William Redwing Tayac, Medina-Tayac translated his uncle’s sermons into Spanish as a young boy. While writing for the New Haven Independent, he readily mediated separate cultural spheres, like when he interviewed undocumented migrants from San Francisco Tetlanohcan, a municipality in Mexico.

“It’s just presenting different sides of yourself,” he explained, noting that his ability to act as a “chameleon” has allowed him to access overlooked spaces. Rather than ignore the silences that prejudice yields, he seeks to explain it.

Media Matters panel
Simon Moya-Smith, Sharon Shahid, Sebi Medina-Tayac, and Kojo Nnamdi at the 2017 Folklife Festival.
Photo by Art Pittman, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

Yet, for many journalists who do not identify as white, a crucial conversation arises: how to carve out an identity in newsrooms without being relegated to the “other.” While writing for “predominately white media,” Medina-Tayac frequently experienced tokenization as a Colombian American member of the Piscataway Nation.  

“They’re like, ‘Oh, you’re going to go talk to the brown people for us, so they can’t accuse us of not representing those narratives.’ And I become a shield, in a way, for this large institution.”

The panelists emphasized the necessity of claiming their own platforms and generating media for themselves. Alternative publications, including Indian Country Today, Telesur, and Akwesasne Notes, offer distinct perspectives that subvert misconceptions about racial and ethnic groups, specifically Native and Latin American communities. Moreover, these works help dismantle the insular networks of mainstream journalism.

“People of color have come together and, instead of trying to fit into this white paradigm of objectivity and equal representation, [they] focused on truth-telling,” Medina-Tayac said.

Traditional journalism, including the New York Times and the Associated Press, follow specific stylebooks when crafting stories. According to Moya-Smith, their vocabulary has been shaped by a limited lens that perpetuates an exclusive version of the American narrative. When he writes for Indian Country Today, he explicitly refers to pilgrims as “undocumented farm workers.” This phrase splinters the obscure social language that serves to sanitize the actions of early explorers. As he underscored, whole populations existed in the “New World” far before these “undocumented farm workers” arrived and claimed the land.

“I think it is incumbent upon the conscientious objector, and especially the writer of color, the ethnic minority, to push back against the American narrative,” Moya-Smith stated.

Sebi Medina-Tayac
Sebi Medina-Tayac at the 2017 Folklife Festival.
Photo by Art Pittman, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

While reporting for the New Haven Independent, Medina-Tayac grappled with the question of bias in his own work. He wanted to write a story about a Native issue that related to his personal experiences.

“I talked to my editor, and I said, ‘Well, I’m worried about writing the story because everything I’ve learned in my journalism classes is that I’m not objective. I’m not an objective reporter.’ And he looked at me and laughed. He said, ‘Objective? Who’s objective?’ He said, ‘Tell the truth.’”

Throughout the panel, the participants debated the meanings of objectivity and accuracy. As they noted, works published by the mainstream media maintain the illusion of neutrality. Yet, this “neutrality” is its own form of subjectivity; it is a standard predicated on the experiences and assumptions of a dominant majority, specifically white journalists.

“We have to look at what we agree as being objective,” Moya-Smith said.

Highly personal readings have always existed—they were simply deemed “neutral” by those who considered their white experiences universal. Communities that white journalists could not implicitly relate to, nor grasp their cultural cues and colloquialisms, were labeled “other.”

Sharon Shahid, an African American founding member of USA Today’s editorial staff, referenced the media coverage surrounding the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. In regards to police corruption and brutality, “black people have been talking about that for years,” she said. Her mother, who lives near Ferguson, often shared stories about police pulling over civilians. When television crews swept the town after Brown’s death, most publications framed police brutality as a new phenomenon—rather than a systemic problem ingrained in the social infrastructure.  

Sharon Shahid
Sharon Shahid at the 2017 Folklife Festival.
Photo by Art Pittman, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

“The black press did a much better job than that,” Shahid said. “They were in it from the beginning, and they didn’t just leave when the cameras packed up and left. They were still talking about those issues.”

In 2014, the Huffington Post collected headlines from multiple news outlets to compare descriptions of white suspects and black victims. Following the shooting and death of Trayvon Martin in 2012, NBC News published an article titled “Trayvon Martin was suspended three times from school.” After a mass shooting perpetrated by a white man in 2014, the Whittier Daily News wrote, “Santa Barbara shooting: Suspect was ‘soft-spoken, polite, a gentleman,’ ex-principal says.” Language does not exist in a social vacuum, but instead retains historical weight and power. These headlines reify racist tropes that position marginalized figures as aggressors, regardless of context.

As an Oglala Lakota and Chicano journalist, Moya-Smith critiqued the varied manifestations of racism that many Native groups experience. He repeatedly mentioned the prevalence of police brutality against indigenous communities, which rarely receives proper reporting.

According to a 2014 study released by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, Native Americans are more likely to be killed by police, per capita, than any other demographic in the United States. A 2000 survey backed by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights stated, “Many Native Americans in South Dakota…believe that the administration of justice at the Federal and State levels is permeated by racism.” In 2015, Al Jazeera reported that four officers used a stun gun on an eight-year-old member of the Rosebud Sioux tribe. The Washington Post published a story about Renee Davis, a pregnant mother of three, who was shot and killed in her home during a wellness check in 2016. There are many stories like this, but they rarely gain national attention.

Simon Moya-Smith
Simon Moya-Smith at the 2017 Folklife Festival.
Photo by Art Pittman, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

“People don’t want to know that Native Americans are the smallest racial minority in their ancestral homeland,” Moya-Smith said. “People don’t want to know that Native American women are 2.5 times more likely to be assaulted. These things fly in the face of the American narrative because it’s comfortable to have Thanksgiving and not know how bloody that was.”

As the panelists explained, denying an uneasy reality through the media creates a distorted view of the world.

“I walk through the door, and I don’t have braids or I’m not in moccasins or feathers, people are like, ‘What the hell is he?’” Moya-Smith shifted in his seat and gestured to himself. “Look, I have short hair, right? I’m wearing glasses, I have a phone—” He reached for his Starbucks cup and shook it, “—I have a latte.”

With a sigh, he explained that most people are unaware that there are 566 federally recognized tribes, precluding state-recognized tribes, First Nation groups from Canada, and indigenous communities in Mexico and farther south. There is no one way to be Native American. As Moya-Smith shared, his Oglala Lakota heritage does not automatically grant him access to the experiences of the Diné people. They possess distinct languages, spiritualties, and histories.

“I think we need to expand our minds and think of the indigenous peoples as complex—and not just see us as a football mascot logo,” he urged.

Too often, mainstream media reduces marginalized groups to concepts as opposed to real, multifaceted people. Rather than acknowledge and explore the intricacies of their humanity, these journalists often fall back on easy stereotypes and placid descriptions of personhood; they reduce whole communities to a single, amorphous faction. The inability to differentiate figures in a nuanced manner, the dependence on common tropes and prejudices of racial minorities, proves dangerous. These problematic renderings too often become part of “history,” of the nebulous, unknowable past, because readers accept them at face value. It is necessary to establish a comprehensive narrative grounded in the works of minority journalists—instead of speaking for or over them.

As Medina-Tayac stated, “The truth itself is revolutionary.”

Michelle Mehrtens is a documentary production intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a recent graduate of Brown University, where she studied English and history. Her work at the Center is part of the Katzenberger Foundation Art History Internship program.

Viajando por Las Americas: From Guatemala to Washington, D.C.

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage

The immigrant experience is a complex one. Public debates on immigration—around such issues as citizenship and deportation—occur at a national level, but it’s not a monolithic experience, and it entails more than a generic story of a search for a better life. Beyond this narrative are memories of our homeland, childhoods, joy, and heartache. It’s often embedded with difficult decisions—ones involving risk and uncertainty, both physical and emotional. Whether we migrate by foot, land, water, or air, these journeys continue even after arrival with new challenges such as learning a new language or securing a place to live.

Along the way, we discover our resilience.

The 2017 Folklife Festival program On the Move explored the experiences we carry with us as we move to and within the United States. Wherever we go, viajamos—we travel—with our backpack of memories, knowledge, music, dance, food, language, and generations of ancestors who came before us. We reach for these items as we settle in and adapt. It is our toolbox from which we resourcefully build our place in new surroundings and circumstances. We remember the past, but we also learn to adapt.

One such resilient individual at the Festival was Ubaldo Sánchez, an accomplished Central American artist committed to sustaining the craft and tradition of the alfombra de aserrín, which he began learning from his family back in Guatemala when he was five years old. The alfombra is a rug-like decorative piece created on the ground from moist dyed sawdust and other natural materials such as flower petals, rice, beans, and corn. It’s a tradition related to the celebration of Holy Week as practiced throughout Central America and dating back to the sixteenth century. Today, the tradition is not limited to religious occasions.

In the D.C. area, Ubaldo formed a group called Los Viajeros de las Americas—the travelers of the Americas. Here, the craft of the alfombra bridges multiple communities, and Ubaldo’s memory is a resource offered to his new community in the United States. During the Festival, his group created an alfombra on a wooden walkway with four panels: one celebrating the Festival’s 50th anniversary and three depicting scenes in Guatemala and the United States.


Producer: Sean Baker

“An immigrant remembers everything he had to go through in order to get here,” Ubaldo explained. “I remember that one day I carried a gallon of water through the desert. Just like the images I depicted in the alfombra, it made me remember how that journey was once part of my life. All of us who worked on the piece have experienced something like what is represented in the images we created. It is part of what we live in order to get to this country.

“Although I was young, I remember seeing small children in the desert. Sometimes we had to help carry the kids when they were too tired to walk. I also remember how we were left for a night in the snow. One of the people traveling with us almost died.”

Ubaldo described his vision for the alfombra and the significance of its imagery. He explained why the American flag is held by four different hands.

“We put the four [cardinal] directions,” he said. “That represents the colors of the skin according to the color of maize. For the Maya, these four colors are really important. The white corn represents white, the yellow represents the Hispanic or something along those lines, the black represents African Americans, and the red represents the Native Americans or indigenous peoples. Everything has a relationship to nature. All of this has the same colors that we as humans also possess. Based on that, we made the design to represent North America using the American flag with the four colors that represent the human.”


Click on the above image to see a slideshow of the making of the alfombra de aserrín

Finding and affirming one’s own identity can be a struggle that takes time to resolve. Ubaldo explained how he had once tried to deny his own indigenous heritage.

“There was a time when I didn’t want to speak my language, Mam,” he recalled. “Perhaps it was my own ignorance, or maybe it was just a phase of my rebellious youth years. Then one day, my high school teacher shows up at my front door unexpectedly. He told me, ‘Look, Ubaldo. If you would recognize your identity, you could go really far with your art. Your cultural roots are really important. I expect that your mother understands Spanish, but I imagine that she also spoke to you in Mamduring the nine months she spent with you in her womb. So how is it that you deny your mother?’”

In that moment, Ubaldo realized that art could support his sense of self, and that he in turn could teach other generations of people to continue the tradition of the alfombra. Today Ubaldo continues to create alfombrasat local churches for Holy Week and other religious holidays. He has been invited to produce pieces at the Smithsonian and the Kennedy Center, and in honor of President Barack Obama and Pope Francis during his visit to D.C. in 2015.

As an active member of his community, Ubaldo is committed to passing on his craft to younger generations. He also wishes to use his art to break stigmas against indigenous peoples, who are sometimes viewed as possessing primitive knowledge. With the wellbeing of his community in his homeland always in mind, he started a nonprofit organization that sends support for medical aid and access to drinking water for indigenous children in Guatemala.

The remarkable immigrant and migrant experiences—the ones we carry from other places to the ones we create in our new homes—give meaning to our livelihoods and shape the way we interact with the world. The voices and cultural resources of immigrants significantly contribute to who we are as nation. They are stories that deserve to be told.

Michelle Aranda Coss was born in Mexico City and raised in Los Angeles. She is a student in Chicanx Studies at California State University, Northridge, and she is particularly interested in the arts as tools for transformation and social justice. She was an intern with the On the Move program of the 2017 Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

Read more: Colorful Sawdust Carpets: A Guatemalan Tradition from Hola Cultura

Mourning pictures: How women used embroidery to memorialize George Washington, family, and friends

National Museum of American History

The trauma of losing its first leader, George Washington, was greatly felt by a new nation. Ezra Stiles, a pastor of the Second Congregational Church in Newport, Rhode Island, and later president of Yale, implied in one of his wartime sermons that the nation perceived Washington as an instrument of God. This view was shared by many artists and poets of the revolutionary era.

After George Washington died on December 14, 1799, Samuel Folwell, an artist from Philadelphia, created a series of designs for memorial embroidered pictures to honor his death. Other artists followed his example, and these embroidered pictures became known as mourning pictures. They included an assortment of plinth and urn forms, mourners, angels, and trees in a garden setting. These symbols had classical roots and were brought to the American colonies in the 1600s. Folwell’s wife, Elizabeth, had a school in Philadelphia where many of these embroideries were probably executed.

Three female figures gather beside an outdoor grave and urn, some carrying garlands of flowers as decorationThis 21 ½ x 27 5/8 inch oval embroidered memorial piece was designed by Samuel Folwell. It was probably worked at the school his wife, Elizabeth Folwell, ran for young ladies in Philadelphia. This example has painted features (such as the heads and hands) that appear to have been done by Folwell himself.

The oval embroidered memorial above is dedicated to George Washington. It features an urn-topped plinth. The urn is inscribed “GW” and the inscription on the plinth is “SACRED TO THE MEMORY OF THE ILLUSTRIOUS WASHINGTON.” To the left of this group are two weeping willow trees with crossed trunks. Overhead is an angel with a trumpet and a laurel wreath. Many people see the willow tree as a symbol of mourning and sorrow. The angel, trumpet, and laurel wreath could signify the deceased being summoned by the trumpet of the archangel.

Not only were pictures embroidered in memory of George Washington, but young ladies, often in academies for women, also worked embroideries in memory of deceased relatives. According to an object record from the Moravian Museum of Bethlehem displayed on the website of the Bethlehem Digital History Project, “the mourning piece later transcended its original purpose and became a fashionable needlework motif exemplifying refinement and culture.”

Because the embroideries created by the young women used advanced techniques, the students often had help with stitching as well as with painting the background, the faces, and hands. I’ll share with you a few of the interesting mourning pictures in our collection and what we’ve been able to learn of their makers: Susan Winn, Hannah Walbridge Converse, Olive Brown, and Hester Ann Posey. Because the lives of women in this era are often poorly documented, these objects are particularly important in increasing our understanding of their lives and their roles in their families, communities, and their nation.

Several figuers in robes gather around an outdoor grave and urn, the resting place of Caroline WinnEmbroidery by Susan Winn, around 1816

The example above was embroidered by Susan Winn, around 1816, in Lititz, Pennsylvania, and dedicated to her sister Caroline, who died in infancy in 1806. It is 25 ¼ x 25 ¼ inches. A cloth-draped urn on which is printed “rests in Peace” appears at the top of the plinth. The woman and girls depicted wear necklaces with pendants or plaques; the one worn by the girl on the right is lettered “SW.” The boy holds a book on which is printed “Ble—ed are the Dead that die in the L—-.” Printed in blue ink on the front of the plinth is “Sacred to the Memory of / my dear Sister / CAROLINE WINN. / Sweet be Thy sepulchral rest / Sister dear! supremely blest! / May the ties which us unite / Be renew’d in realms of light! / Erected by / Susan Winn.”

Susan Winn was born October 18, 1801, in Baltimore, Maryland. Her father was a flour merchant and entered Susan and her sister Elizabeth, who was two years younger, in Linden Hall Seminary in 1815. Located in Lititz, it was a Moravian boarding school. This is where she embroidered this picture.

Two outdoor graves and urns sit side by side, shaded by treesMourning picture by Hannah Walbridge Converse

Another mourning picture in the museum’s Textile Collection was made by Hannah Walbridge Converse. A memorial to several members of the William Poole family of Williamston, Vermont, the mourning picture led us on a genealogical journey. Hannah Walbridge Converse lived with the Poole family while teaching school in Williamston. She painted it on cotton velvet in 1828 and it is 20 x 27 inches.

Inscribed on the pedestal is “Sacred to the memory of Leonora Poole who died August 16, 1828 aged 16 years 6 months and 3 days." Below on the pedestal is “There is a voice from the tomb, Sweeter than song.” To the right on the small pedestal is inscribed “Sacred to the memory of Sally Poole who died Dec 7th 1807 aged 3 years and 10 months." Also inscribed is “To the memory of Warren Poole who died August 13th 1798 aged 9 months and 10 days. Sacred to the memory of Curtis Poole who died Dec 20, 1800, age 3 weeks."

On the back of this picture dedicated to members of the Poole family—many of them quite young—was attached a slip of paper that made it known that the picture was made by Mark Hanna’s grandmother. Well who was Mark Hanna, and why was he so notable? If you are from Ohio, you may know who he is. For the rest of us, it took another clue to solve that puzzle. A flyer about President William McKinley was in the museum’s accession folder that mentioned Hanna. Hanna was McKinley’s campaign manager and was also a senator from Ohio. With that connection made, Google and led me to Hannah Walbridge Converse, the maker of this mourning picture.

Hannah Walbridge was born in Stafford, Connecticut, on October 11, 1751. She married Israel Converse on June 27, 1771. Israel served in the Revolutionary War at the Lexington alarm in 1775 and then again later in 1775 and 1776. In 1780 they moved to Randolph, Vermont, where they were among the first settlers. Hannah and Israel had a son named Porter. Israel died in 1806. Hannah probably found employment as a teacher to support herself. She died in Ohio, two years after making this picture, on October 17, 1830. Porter went on to marry and have a daughter who married Leonard Hanna—Leonard Hanna’s son was Mark Hanna.

In addition to these pictorial mourning works, girls sometimes also crafted samplers with mourning or “in memoriam” aspects.

A brown sampler with black and white letteringOlive Brown made this little 9 x 6 inch marking sampler in memory of George Washington.

After she stitched an alphabet, she changed the thread color to black, to indicate death or mourning, and included the inscription: “GENERAL G / WASHINGT / ON PRES, US / BN, FEBRAUR / Y 22 1732. DEC / DECEMBER 14 1799. OLIVE / BROWN BORN / NOVEMR 7, 1782.”

Olive Brown was born November 7, 1782, in Winchendon, Massachusetts. On November 30, 1809, she married Dr. Nathaniel Howard from Temple, New Hampshire. They had four children. She died March 13, 1820.

An embroidery shows a pyramidal monument flanked by rosebushes and butterflies, under a weeping willow treeEmbroidery by Hester Ann Posey, 1837

In 1837, 14-year-old Hester Ann Posey combined a family record with a memorial to her sister Margaret. It is 27 x 25 1/4 inches. On a pyramidal monument flanked by rosebushes and butterflies, under a weeping willow tree, she stitched, “sacred to The Memory of Margaret Posey Who died Feb 2 A.D. 1824 aged 8 YS 1 Month and 14 days.”

In a box on the left she included this poem, "Weep not my friends as you Pass by, as you are now so once Was I, as I am now So you must be, prepare to meet me in Eternity.”

Hester Ann Posey was a teacher. She did not marry. Toward the end of July 2016, a descendant of Posey’s came to the museum to see her sampler. She informed us that Posey’s death date was November 7, 1916, and that she was buried in Frederick, Maryland, at the Mount Olivet Cemetery. It is always wonderful when a descendant or others can help us correct or complete our genealogical information about the maker or user of an object in the Textile Collection.

You will find additional mourning pictures by Mary Stevenson, Mary Gorham, Mary Parker, and Sophia W. Childs in the embroidered pictures object group.

Sheryl De Jong is a volunteer in the Textile Collection, Division of Home and Community Life.

Sheryl De Jong
Posted Date: 
Friday, February 16, 2018 - 11:00
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Collecting in the wake of Hurricane Katrina

National Museum of American History

Late curator David Shayt of the museum's Work and Industry division once said, "All museum work in one form or another is digging in the dirt. We dig in the dirt of old factories to find old machines and blue prints. We dig in musty film vaults to find old films. . . . It's a process of digging, and searching, and looking for the unknown, the unexpected."

So when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in August 2005, Shayt said it was "a natural response for me to take interest . . . thinking about ways of preserving what quickly became a national tragedy, not just a local or regional event but one with truly national scope. And that's why we got involved."

Man in baseball cap holding a baseball glove-sized chunk of concrete

Shayt and photographer Hugh Talman took two trips to the region, in September and December 2005. They visited areas affected by both Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita.

For the tenth anniversary of the devastating hurricane, listen to an interview with Shayt in our History Explorer podcast. You'll find out why the museum responded by collecting objects and learn about a few of the things Shayt and his team collected. (Educators, there's also a teacher guide to help you share the interview with your students.) I'll highlight a few of the moments in the interview I found most interesting.

You can also hear the podcast on our Soundcloud account.

As a museum professional, I confess that I often think museums move a bit slowly, allowing historical legacies to develop before jumping to collect objects. But Shayt explained that the decision to send a team to collect in the wake of Katrina happened fairly quickly.

"It took a few days after Katrina came and went through the Gulf Coast for me to realize that this could be a collecting opportunity. . . . There was a collective judgment made by the curatorial staff and the museum management that something needed to be done. And what that usually means in a museum is that something needed to be collected."

Disaster collecting is a specialized skill, but Shayt had experience. "I was selected in part because of my experience during the aftermath of September 11, 2001, when, due to my connections in New York City, I was part of a team that collected objects and artifacts from that experience. So I'd had some field work under my belt and knew in a sense what to expect. But we really hadn't ever before, until now, collected a natural disaster."

Shayt explained that his team decided to focus not just on New Orleans, but on the entire Gulf Coast area affected by the storm—a daunting task. "What was in our favor," he said, "was the freshness of our response. We didn't wait too long before buying plane tickets and renting a car in a fairly desolate airport in New Orleans to start making our way around. Right away, we found things and found people to talk to."

One of the people the team met was Dr. Michael White, a local jazz performer, professor, and a collector of clarinets. His house was flooded with nine feet of water. When he entered his house weeks later, he found a scene of devastation, his sheet music, records, and clarinets caked with mud and mold. His belongings were in "a very soupy condition," Shayt said.

Man crouches on a lawn, looking seriously into the camera. Clarinets in cases covered in dirt are spread out in front of him.

"In the process of meeting with [Dr. White]," Shayt said, "we actually helped him empty his house and hauled out, through a broken window, clarinet after clarinet after clarinet, in moldy, rotting cases. I selected one of those with his approval to add to the collections, a 1930s Pan American Special from Elkhart, Indiana—a metal clarinet, so it has held up pretty well. Its case, which I also collected, of blue velvet and wood, is in pretty shabby shape but I wanted that as well. So that too is here. And it's dried out, of course, but it adds a certain flavor and character to this lovely silver clarinet."

Other objects the team collected also related to music history, including two photographs by jazz photographer Herman Leonard. "I met with Herman—and his studio, also flooded out, also a victim of great loss—and received from him a photo of Miles Davis and another one of Lena Horne," Shayt said. "These were badly damaged in the flood but, because they were bubble wrapped, they floated for weeks on the flood waters in his studio, so they have this very interesting vignette of mold and growth coming in from the edges of these beautiful black-and-white prints inside their frames. So those, too, are an aspect of jazz and jazz history that are here at the Smithsonian."

Man sits on couch, looking at camera with neutral expression. Leaned against his legs are large framed photos of jazz personalities.

Shayt's team also collected objects that reflect the experiences of everyday people affected by the storm: signs.

Titled sign, knocked over half way. Blue circular sign with arrow saying "HURRICANE EVACUATION ROUTE." Below that is square sign with AM FM radio stations for information. There is a dirty plastic bag on the ground.

"Signs matter," Shayt said. "Signs are symbols. Of course for us, they're straight ahead, almost self-written museum labels."

Those now in the collection include the familiar hurricane evacuation route signs, homemade cardboard signs thanking volunteers and rescuers, and many signs announcing business opportunities created by the storm, such as signs advertising "Get Rid of Your Katrina Water Stain," house cleaning, junk removal, or legal services. Shayt said these are "emblematic of the resilient American desire to make money, to have enterprise, even in a disaster zone like that."

Shayt collected about twenty-four signs. This one is particularly heartbreaking.

Family gathered around plywood sign that says "have we been forgotten." Two toddlers, men, women. Green trees and lawn behind them. Street sign says "Rouen."

"One of the signs that we collected is a supplication," Shayt said. "It says 'Have we been forgotten?' a large plywood sign from the outskirts of New Orleans, people left by the side of the road as aid trucks zoomed by. I think signs like that and like the enterprising signs that offer services testify to this enduring American trust in one another, that somebody's reading these signs, that there's faith, there's hope, there is a brighter future around the corner, if they can just get their message out."

Erin Blasco is an education specialist in the New Media Department. Other objects collected in the wake of Hurricane Katrina can be found in our online collections database. Photographer Hugh Talman spoke about his experience photographing the devastation in a video by Folkways Magazine. See additional photos in the museum's collection in the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank, a project of the the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University and the University of New Orleans.

Posted Date: 
Tuesday, August 25, 2015 - 08:00
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Inauguration of FDR

National Portrait Gallery
With the exception of Abraham Lincoln, no president has ever taken office against a darker backdrop than Franklin D. Roosevelt did on March 4, 1933. With banks failing and unemployment at 28 percent, a total national collapse seemed possible, and the day’s gray weather only reinforced the bleak mood. The carefully chosen words of Roosevelt’s inaugural speech, however, briefly lifted the gloom, and when he broke into a confident smile at the close, the crowd cheered in relief. The optimism of that moment grew in the coming months as Roosevelt’s New Dealers launched a series of innovative measures to end the Great Depression.

Mexican caricaturist Miguel Covarrubias produced this rendering of Roosevelt’s inauguration for Vanity Fair, which billed it as a panorama of “magnificos, diplomats, and military commanders.” In the lower right is the doleful “Forgotten Man,” wearing a sandwich board—a grim reminder of the country’s dire straits.

Excepto Abraham Lincoln, ningún presidente había asumido el cargo con un país en condiciones tan nefastas como las que enfrentó Franklin D. Roosevelt el 4 de marzo de 1933. Con los bancos en quiebra y una tasa de desempleo del 28 por ciento, la posibilidad de un derrumbe nacional era real, y el día nublado contribuía a ensombrecer los ánimos. Sin embargo, el cuidadoso fraseo del discurso inaugural logró mitigar la pesadumbre brevemente. Al final del mensaje, el presidente desplegó una sonrisa llena de confianza y el público lo vitoreó con alivio. El optimismo de ese momento creció en los meses siguientes con la implantación de las medidas innovadoras del New Deal, dirigidas a poner fin a la Gran Depresión.

El caricaturista mexicano Miguel Covarrubias produjo esta imagen de la toma de posesión de Roosevelt para la revista Vanity Fair, que describió el evento como un panorama de “magníficos, diplomáticos y líderes militares”. En la parte inferior derecha se ve al afligido “hombre olvidado” con un panel-sándwich, un triste recordatorio de la terrible situación del país.

How Does Your Garden Grow

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
This lesson plan engages students in an ongoing garden project, in which they use language arts, math, and science skills. They write letters to local businesses, measure and plot garden dimensions, and monitor plant growth.

What does it really mean to look presidential?

National Museum of American History

As November 8 draws nearer, I have been thinking about what "electability" means for an American president. What makes someone look presidential, and how does the presidency change the look of the president? How can teachers help their students consider the nature of the American presidency this fall and throughout history? With this I mind, I considered the life, presidency, and changing appearance of Abraham Lincoln.

Illustrated portrait (a bust) of Abraham Lincoln

During the election of 1860, Lincoln was praised for looking presidential. After Lincoln was photographed by Mathew Brady during his speech at the Cooper Institute in Manhattan, New York, Harper's Weekly made the photograph into a full-page portrait of Lincoln, who would soon receive his party's nomination. Lincoln was portrayed with a regal high collar, his hair smoothed and his features subtly refined. This "presidential" portrayal was so successful that Lincoln later said, "Brady and the Cooper Institute made me president."

In the spring of 1860, just before Lincoln was named the Republican nominee for president, Leonard Volk created a plaster cast of his face. Years later, John Hay, one of Lincoln's White House secretaries, commented that the cast shows, "a man of fifty-one, and young for his years. . . . It is a face full of life, of energy, of vivid aspiration."

But this image of Lincoln—of an intelligent and confident leader—only really reflects Lincoln as a candidate. Five years later, after becoming president and leading the Union though four years of the Civil War, Clark Mills created another cast of Lincoln's face. In the second cast, Lincoln looks drastically different. His full beard seems to cover a face that is far more gaunt. The bags under his eyes have become more pronounced, and the wrinkles on his forehead seem to indicate a permanently furrowed brow. As John Hay observed, his face is "so sad and peaceful in its infinite repose . . . a look as of one on whom sorrow and care had done their worst without victory is on all the features." The youthful energy and optimism that had once made Lincoln look "presidential" is no longer there.

two masks of Lincoln. The bottom masks shows how much aging the President underwent in a few years, with wrinkles, hollow cheeks, and other signs of aging

These two masks, snapshots of the beginning and the end of Lincoln's presidency, offer an amazing opportunity to think about the role of the president and the challenges that a president must face. Using Smithsonian's X 3D website you can view the life masks side-by-side in 3D as you explore these topics in class and have students consider the challenges of the Civil War and the difficult decisions that Lincoln faced while in office.

President Barack Obama's transformation over the past eight years offers similar opportunities for discussion of the role of the president. At the 2016 White House Correspondents' Dinner, Obama joked, "Eight years ago I was a young man, full of idealism and vigor . . . and look at me now! I am gray and grizzled…" His comments produced a chuckle from the crowd—they were funny because they are all too true.

two pictures of Obama juxtaposed against each other. He sits at his desk in the Oval Office listening to someone on the phone. In the left, he has dark hair. In the right, he has aged and his hair is gray.

What challenges do presidents face during their time in office? What difficult decisions do presidents have to consider while in office? And what exactly do presidents do each day that takes such a toll? This activity from the museum's exhibition The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden (a title well illustrated by these portraits) takes a day in the life of President Harry Truman to help elementary and middle-school kids consider the "glorious burden" of being the president of the United States.

After examining Lincoln's life masks, considering Obama as a contemporary example, and exploring the American Presidency interactive, students will better understand the role of the president—and how the office of the presidency changes what it means to "look presidential."

Anali Alegria is an intern in the Office of Education and Public Engagement. She is an undergraduate at Harvard University studying history. She recommends the museum's e-book The Mind Behind the Mask: 3D Technology and the Portrayal of Abraham Lincolnto learn more and find related activities.

intern Anali Alegria
Posted Date: 
Monday, September 26, 2016 - 08:00
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The Entertaining Saga of the Worst Crook in Colonial America

Smithsonian Magazine

For every hero in American history, there must be a hundred scoundrels—con men, Ponzi schemers, cat burglars, greedy gigolos, jewel thieves, loan sharks, phony doctors, phony charities, phony preachers, body snatchers, bootleggers, blackmailers, cattle rustlers, money launderers, smash-and-grabbers, forgers, swindlers, pickpockets, flimflam artists, stickup specialists and at least one goat-gland purveyor, not to mention all the high-tech varieties made possible by the internet.

Most of these vandals have been specialists who stuck to a single line of skullduggery until they got caught, retired or died. Some liked to brag to admirers about their enterprises, and a tiny few dared to write and publish books about them; Willie Sutton, for example, the Tommy Gun-wielding "Slick Willie" who heisted some $2 million robbing banks back in the first half of the last century (when that was a lot of money), wrote Where the Money Was: The Memoirs of a Bank Robber in 1976. There was Xaviera Hollander, the Park Avenue madam whose memoir, The Happy Hooker, inspired a series of Hollywood movies and helped encourage the sexual frankness of recent decades.

Occasionally, one of these memoirists tells of diversifying, spreading out, trying this dodge if that one doesn’t work. Sutton's lesser known contemporary, Frank Abagnale, who was portrayed in the movie Catch Me If You Can, wrote of bilking wealthy innocents of some $2.5 million by posing as a lawyer, teacher, doctor and airline pilot before going straight. Other such confessors are hiding in the archives.

But there has been only one Stephen Burroughs, a poseur whose life would make a fabulous movie if today’s audiences were as interested in early American history as in robotic space monsters. His exploits began during the Revolutionary War when he ran off to join—then depart—the Continental Army three times at the age of 14. By the time he was 33, he had lived and misbehaved vigorously enough to make up the first version of his autobiography. So far, Memoirs of the Notorious Stephen Burroughs false has been published with slightly differing titles in more than 30 editions over a span of more than 216 years. 

The New England poet Robert Frost wrote that Burroughs's book should stand on the shelf beside the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. To Frost, Franklin's volume was "a reminder of what we have been as a young nation," while Burroughs "comes in reassuringly when there is a question of our not unprincipled wickedness…sophisticated wickedness, the kind that knows its grounds and can twinkle…Could we have been expected to produce so fine a flower in a pioneer state?"

Harper’s Magazine once described Stephen Burroughs as “a gentleman who at times came in somewhat violent contact with the laws of his country.” (NMAH, from the Memoirs of the Notorious Stephen Burroughs,1835)

“Sophisticated wickedness that can twinkle” sounds like a review of one of Shakespeare’s greatest hits, his sublime caricatures of English nobility. But in Burroughs we find no nobility, only 378 or so flowing pages by the only son of a harsh Presbyterian preacher in a colonial New England village; a memoirist who lived his adventures before he wrote about them with such jolly sophistication. Or at least he said he did.

Stephen Burroughs was born in 1765 in Connecticut, and moved as a child to Hanover, New Hampshire. At home and briefly away at school, he earned and proudly wore a reputation as an incorrigible child, stealing watermelons, upsetting outhouses, restlessly looking for trouble.

He explained his boyhood thus: “My thirst for amusement was insatiable…I sought it in pestering others…I became the terror of the people where I lived, and all were very unanimous in declaring that Stephen Burroughs was the worst boy in town; and those who could get him whipt were most worthy of esteem…however, the repeated application of this birchen medicine never cured my pursuit of fun.”

Indeed, that attitude explained most of Burroughs’s imaginative career. 

When he was 16, his father enrolled him at nearby Dartmouth College, but that didn’t last long—after another prank involving watermelons, he was sent home. Young Burroughs proved that schooling was not necessary for a quick-witted young man zipping between gullible New England communities so nimbly that primitive communications couldn’t keep up with him.

At 17, he decided to go to sea. Venturing to Newburyport, Massachusetts, he went aboard a privateer, a private vessel authorized to prey on enemy shipping. Having no pertinent skills, he picked the brain of an elderly medicine man before talking himself aboard as the ship’s doctor. This produced a dramatic account of surgery amid storms, battling a British gunship and later being jailed for improperly issuing wine to the crew, a series of adventures that would strain even Horatio Hornblower.

The historian Larry Cebula recalls two unacquainted travelers sharing a coach in 1790 New England when one of them, a Boston lawyer, discoursed about a famed confidence man named Burroughs. This Burroughs, he said, had “led a course of the most barefaced and horrid crimes of any man living, including stealing, counterfeiting, robbing and adultery, escaping prison, burning the prison and killing guards.” He did not realize that the fellow listening quietly to all this was Stephen Burroughs himself, who by then, at the age of 25, had a log of misdeeds stretching well beyond the lawyer’s account.

Burroughs’s life can barely hint at the richness of his memoirs, which scholars accept as mostly, or at least partly, true. (NMAH, From the Memoirs of the Notorious Stephen Burroughs,1835)

A hundred years after Burroughs first tried to become a boy soldier, Harper’s Magazine described him as “a gentleman who at times came in somewhat violent contact with the laws of his country.”  Yes: after his seafaring adventure, he snitched some of his father’s sermons and headed out pretending to be a preacher; he got away with it until the congregation caught on and chased him out of town. Skipping from village to village, he briefly occupied pulpit after pulpit.

When that career dwindled, he branched into counterfeiting. Printing phony money was a popular crime in those days, before common currency was established, and Burroughs was a master. The National Museum of American History in its new exhibition American Enterprise, displays a prime example of his art—a $1 certificate on the Union Bank of Boston, dated 1807, signed by Burroughs as cashier, and later stamped COUNTERFEIT.  

Artful but not quite perfect, he was caught and jailed, but broke out and moved on, becoming a schoolteacher. Convicted of seducing a teenage student, he was sentenced to the public whipping post. He escaped again and took his tutorial talents to Long Island, where he helped organize one of the nation’s first public libraries. After failing at land speculation in Georgia, he returned north and settled across the border in Quebec, nominally a farmer but still counterfeiting till he was caught and convicted yet again. But there he settled down, converting to Catholicism and living as a mostly respectable citizen until he died in 1840.   

This race through some of the high/low spots of Burroughs’s life can barely hint at the richness of his memoirs, which scholars accept as mostly, or at least partly, true. Whatever their factual percentage, they remain an affectionate, sometimes hilarious, extremely readable meander voyage through provincial life in the brand-new republic.

The permanent exhibition “American Enterprise” opened on July 1 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. and traces the development of the United States from a small dependent agricultural nation to one of the world's largest economies.

The Disappearing Habitats of the Vaux’s Swifts

Smithsonian Magazine

Larry Schwitters, a fit 70-year-old in black Ray-Ban sunglasses, climbed a narrow, 40-foot ladder to the top of an old brick chimney on an elementary school. It was a sunny day in Monroe, Washington, and heat radiated off the flat, tar roof. Schwitters, uncertain whether or not the extension on the ladder was locking securely, jiggled it warily. Schwitters looked vulnerable so high in the air, even rigged to a climbing rope held by a friend. “Larry takes his life into his hands when he does this,” said the man holding the rope, Jim Rettig, president of a nearby Audubon Society chapter. “No, I take my life in your hands,” Schwitters called down.

Schwitters is a retired science teacher and former mountain climber who no longer thrills to heights. But he needed to repair a microphone he had fitted to the top of the chimney along with a video camera. When it’s working correctly, the equipment records the activity of birds called Vaux’s swifts. Like their cousins the chimney swifts, which live in the Eastern United States, these Western birds gather in huge groups inside old brick chimneys. The sounds and images from the equipment stream live over the Internet. The swift is Schwitters’ idée fixe. He spends at least 30 hours a each week on swift-related projects like this one.

No one knows exactly where Vaux’s (pronounced “vauks”) swifts spend the winter, or the details of their migration route. It’s not even known whether they migrate at night, as most birds do. But we do know the birds need chimneys. Schwitters has discovered that this one at Frank Wagner Elementary School might be the most important chimney in the region—more than 26,000 birds have been counted entering it in one evening.

Four years ago, this unused, 1939 chimney was a candidate for demolition as an earthquake hazard. Countless other old swift-sheltering chimneys, obsolete in buildings with modern heating systems, have already been lost to renovations or collapse. Schwitters and a growing band of others want to uncover more of the swifts’ secrets, and in the process stop more of the birds’ chimney stacks from falling.

On a busy night, the birds would be clinging to the bricks on the inside of the chimney in overlapping layers. But today Schwitters saw only one inside the stack. “Well, hello, birdie,” he piped.

Standing on the roof, I found a dead swift, remarkably intact, and scooped it up. Hold a soft, soot-brown Chaetura vauxi in your hand and you’ll feel how light it is—no heavier than a handful of cotton balls. You’ll also get a sense for what kind of flier it might be—the bird is mostly wings, two scimitar-shaped extensions that give loft to a stubby body and short, squared-off tail.

“They’re some of the most aerial of all birds,” says Charles Collins, a swift researcher and professor emeritus at California State University, Long Beach. “If they’re not feeding young, they’re probably on the wing all day.” In the air, they feed on insects and ballooning baby spiders. The birds’ high-flying ways may be one reason we know so little about this species.

The birds gather in huge numbers in the sky in the evening, swooping and whirling together on those elegant wings, then forming a gyre and plunging into the chimney for the night. “There are prettier birds, like the warblers, or bigger birds, like the great blue heron,” says Rettig. “But just to watch the swifts all together, well, it takes my breath away.”

Vaux’s swifts originally roosted and nested not in chimneys but in the hollow trunks and branches of old or dead trees. But those are few and far between on the modern migration route. Looking south from the Wagner School roof, there’s a bald patch on the foothills of the Cascade mountain range, a clear-cut in a spot where swifts might once have slept over. That’s why chimneys like these have become essential habitat.

Swifts are agile in the air, but not on land. They’re in the family Apodidae, a group of birds that can’t perch or walk—they can only cling. Since around the time of World War II, brick chimneys have been lined with metal or other materials to meet modern fire codes, and Vaux’s can’t use them. Chimneys older than that are generally crumbling, and therefore endangered.

The Monroe chimney may have hosted swifts, unnoticed, for years. “People who lived right there didn’t know about it,” Schwitters said. If they did, they thought the birds were some other species. An unidentified wag had even posted a sign on one of the school’s windows: “They’re not bats.”

Audubon members approached Schwitters and asked if he could help make the case for saving the chimney. “Just pulling your car up beside a school with a chimney on it looked pretty easy for this old guy,” he said. So he set to work counting the birds on evenings in spring and fall. His first visit in 2006 wasn’t especially promising—only 1,000 birds. But every night he returned—eventually with other people he’d recruited and trained in the art of counting birds by tens—he saw more. “We discovered that the numbers here dwarfed those at the Chapman School,” a more famous roosting site in Portland. “If this chimney was removed, the birds would have to roost elsewhere.” As he soon learned, there weren’t a lot of other elsewheres.

Schwitters, local Audubon chapters and school officials organized into a group called Vaux’s Happening to begin fund-raising for a hazard assessment and retrofit. They also held their first public event, a Swift’s Night Out. Audubon volunteers showed people what a swift’s wing looks like. Schwitters gave a presentation inside the school auditorium, and near the end of it someone threw open the door at the back of the auditorium and cried, “The swifts are here!” Outside, people gasped and squealed at the bird acrobatics, and cheered as they finally began circling the chimney, and then funneled in.

Schwitters decided to expand his range, calling bird organizations up and down the migration route, seeking more volunteers to look for other chimneys and count their swifts. He used Google Earth to identify likely chimneys in the bird’s range and e-mailed strangers nearby, asking if they’d be willing to go to a chimney some evening and look to see if little birds were gathering around it.

Collins, the swift professor in Long Beach, says the research Schwitters is aggregating is not only good for saving chimneys, it’s also useful science. “On a year to year basis, it’s a way of keeping an eye on whether or not there’s a dramatic decrease that might be an early warning that there’s something going wrong in their collective environment,” he said.

The project to save chimneys has already had several successes. Mark Sylbert, a painter and Hollywood art director who lives in a converted 1918 factory building in Los Angeles, learned about the project through a series of forwarded e-mails. Years ago he had stood with his wife and infant daughter on their fire escape and watched birds flying over another old brick building at sunset. The birds’ high-pitched twittering was often drowned out by city noise, but nothing overshadowed the visual drama as they swirled into a huge brick chimney. “It was so thick with birds it was staggering,” said Sylbert. When he heard about the Vaux’s Happening project Sylbert e-mailed Schwitters, sure that this was the same species. But Sylbert had lost track of the birds with a second kid and busy career. The building the birds had used had been converted to lofts, and the chimney knocked down. Schwitters convinced him to look for another likely chimney.

“To me that was just like a treasure hunt,” Sylbert said. He drove around downtown Los Angeles with his head tilted up at the sky. “It’s not really a safe activity,” he said. “I don’t recommend copying me.”

He found the birds, though, flying over City Hall at sunset. He followed them to the 12-story brick Chester Williams building and got out to watch them. An article about it ended up in the Los Angeles Times, and Jeff Chapman of the Audubon Society in Los Angeles has gone on to organize events for public school kids to come out and see the Chester Williams Vaux’s. Sylbert compares the event to taking his kids on a whale watch expedition. “But you have to have money to go out and whale-watch—this is something that brings itself right into the core of L.A."

Other volunteers have similar stories of finding sites in San Diego, San Francisco and elsewhere along the migration route. But few locations so far have been protected. Out of the 12 biggest roost sites Schwitters has identified, five have been torn down or capped since the study began. Several others, while not under immediate threat, could be torn down at any time.

But not the chimney in Monroe. Last fall, repairs there were finally completed. As it turned out, the stack didn’t need rebuilding, only stabilizing with angle iron, brackets on all four corners of the chimney which extend up its length. There was even money left for a kiosk in front of the school, where the community and Vaux’s watchers can learn more about the birds’ lives. “In fact, the chimney has added value to the school,” said Ken Hoover, superintendent of Monroe public schools.

“I’ve traveled far to watch birds,” said Christopher Adler, a music professor in San Diego who helped find a roost site in a nearby church chimney. “Thailand, Laos, Cambodia. But seeing those 10,000 Vaux’s in one night,” he said. “I’ve really never seen anything like that. Every direction I looked, they were as far as the eyes could see.”

If Larry Schwitters gets his way, more and more people will have that thrill. “We took him on to help save the chimney,” said Mike Blackbird, president of the Pilchuck Audubon society, at a recent celebration of the Monroe chimney win. “He went on to try to save the species.”

Link Love: 7/31/2015

Smithsonian Institution Archives

A team of scientists used multiple lines of evidence, including archaeology, skeletal analyses, chemical testing, 3-D technology and genealogical research, to single out the names of the four men who died at Jamestown from 1608 through 1617. Photo by Donald E. Hurlbert.

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In “Defending Freedom,” the Vanguards Who Refused to Be Suppressed Are Reunited

Smithsonian Magazine

The eyes of Spencer Crew gleam as he watches a maelstrom of people, moms and dads, grandparents and children ranging from infants to teens, navigate through the exhibition he curates at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

“This is the time after the Civil War, as African-Americans are trying to figure out what not being a slave means, and the nation is trying to figure out what it is going to do with all of these new citizens in terms of their treatment and their rights as citizens of the United States,” says Crew, explaining why this part of the museum is vitally important to the story of the journey of blacks for self determination, equality and freedom. “What are the steps going forward?”

“Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom: Era of Segregation 1876 to 1968,” begins at the top of a long ramp rising out of the belowground galleries of the “Slavery and Freedom” exhibition.

A wooden dwelling marks the start. The Jones-Hall Sims House, built around 1875 by freed slaves in rural Montgomery County, Maryland, who were just learning the feeling of controlling their own lives, and land. Nearby is a statue of the former slave Clara Brown, who died in 1885. A powerful symbol of the resilience of blacks trying to find their way through the complicated maze of being free, Brown was born into slavery in 1800 in Virginia. She married and had four children, but the family was broken up and sold at auction.

“She was an enslaved woman who got her freedom after her family had been broken apart, and then she moved out to Colorado where she became a washerwoman who invests in land, becomes fairly well-to-do, and became a philanthropist,” Crew explains as families stop to take pictures and selfies with Brown and the house.

“She uses part of her money to try and reconnect her family back again. Unfortunately she is only able to find one daughter who she brings out to Colorado for a while before she passes away. But it’s a wonderful story about the importance of family, but also the success of African-Americans coming out of slavery.”

A pew from the Quinn Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, 1891 (NMAAHC, gift of Quinn Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Chicago, Illinois)

Another statue depicts Robert Smalls, a former slave who stole a Confederate ship in 1862, gave it to the Union Army, became a member of that army, and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1874. Some museum visitors, emotionally drained from navigating the exhibition about slavery, visibly revive a bit as they began walking through this part of the museum. Crew isn’t surprised, and notes that the stories told here are partly designed with that reaction in mind.

“At least initially, because you see some success and you see that enslavement doesn’t break the spirit. The end of enslavement does offer opportunities,” Crew explains, “although the work to take advantage of that is very hard to do because the opposition is very strong. But yes, I think the house and these two people help us understand the possibilities of people going forward after enslavement.”

Soon visitors are led to understand some of the challenges faced by African-Americans as a new society is created based on segregation, along with a climate of fear and intimidation against blacks. But the displays juxtapose the ugly and upsetting with the inspiring stories of African-Americans who fought back, sometimes at the cost of their lives.

“We have a number of very sad cases of people being attacked and killed just because they want to express their freedom,” says Crew. “We also talk about the rise of the Ku Klux Klan—we have a hood from that period—but at the same time we try to say that even with the rise of the Jim Crow laws and segregation you have push back from the African-American community.”

Visitors learn about Ida B. Wells, a prominent journalist, newspaper editor, Civil Rights activist and suffragette who wrote scathing pamphlets in the 1890s about lynching in the South, which she learned were based on the success of blacks rather than attacks on white women.

Stereotypical images and objects depicting African-Americans with bulging eyes and bright red lips are on view across from a wall of more positive day-to-day images of the black community.

A prison guard tower from the plantation-turned Louisiana State penitentiary in Angola. (Jason Flakes)

There’s a picture of the Fisk Jubilee Singers from Fisk University, a chorale that began traveling in 1871 to raise money for the first American University to begin offering a liberal arts education to students irrespective of color. Visitors learn about the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), and the emphasis on getting an education and raising money for themselves. There’s the rise of local black institutions such as Quinn Chapel A.M.E. in Chicago, Illinois, (1844) the oldest African-American congregation in the city, which also supported the growth of Provident Hospital. It was the first African-American owned hospital in the nation.

But Crew stresses that the black community, then and now, did not have a monolithic view about the direction resistance to racism should take.

“There’s a film, with (Tuskegee University’s first principal, leading educator, orator and advisor to American presidents) Booker T. Washington, (NAACP co-founder, sociologist, historian and scholar) W.E.B. DuBois and Ida B. Wells all offering different approaches as to how African-Americans should move forward,” Crew says. “Washington argued that economics was the way to go, not pushing for political or social rights, and Wells and DuBois saying the opposite that you have to agitate and educate and push because nothing comes easily.”

In a gallery with headlines from black newspapers adorning the walls, as music from ragtime composer Scott Joplin playing, sits a gorgeous Tiffany-style clock.

Clock from Citizens Savings and Trust Company, the oldest continuously operating African-American bank in the nation. (NMAAHC, gift of Dr. and Mrs. T.B. Boyd, III and R.H. Boyd Publishing Corporation)

It once held pride of place at the One Cent Savings Bank in Nashville, Tennessee, which opened in 1904. Now known as the Citizens Bank and Trust, it is the oldest continuously operating African-American bank in the nation. Black businessman came together to open the institution because they were unable to get loans elsewhere. In that same gallery, is a beautiful organ, once owned by an Pullman porter and donated to the museum by his family.

“I think it represents his desire to provide something more for his children, and to offer them a different view of life going forward,” Crew says.

Visitors next encounter the rise of national organizations such as the NAACP, and the intensifying battle for change as segregation and lynching increase around the end of the 19th century.

A training aircraft used by the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II (Jason Flakes)

One traces the migration of blacks to the North from the South—known as the Great Migration during and after World War II. By 1919, about one million African-Americans had left the South. A second migration occurs during World War II and into the 1960s, as blacks found alternative job opportunities and places to live.

“Now you have African-Americans not only in the South, but also in the North pushing for change, and pushing society to see itself differently,” Crew explains. “Talking about migration is important to explain . . . how issues of race and change became more national than they ever had before.”

Then it’s into the 1920s and 30s, covering everything from the effect of soldiers returning from World War I after fighting from democracy aboard and finding that it still didn’t exist in much of the U.S., to the Harlem Renaissance.

The music of Duke Ellington and Fats Waller graced the nation, and there was the legendary poet Langston Hughes among many others including Zora Neale Hurston. Lines from Hughes’ iconic “I, Too, Sing America” are dramatically lit on the soaring wall overhead.

There’s a hat that belonged to Black Nationalist Marcus Garvey, jewelry once worn by Civil Rights icon, YWCA and National Council of Negro Women leader Dorothy Height, and the stories of many pre-cursors to the so-called modern Civil Rights Movement. That includes the Double V campaign—a battle for victory abroad and victory at home, the March on Washington movement by A. Philip Randolph, and "Don’t Buy Where you Can’t Work Campaigns" from Washington, D.C. to Chicago to Los Angeles.

“The modern Civil Rights Movement was built on the shoulders of those who came before them using similar tactics,” explains Crew. “World War II also reminds us of efforts underway before the 1950s. Soldiers who participated in the war see things differently when they return. Many argue the South was never the same after World War II.”

The segregated Southern Railway car from the Jim crow era (Jason Flakes)

The period from 1945 to 1968, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is assassinated, begins with a poignant picture of NAACP leader, World War II veteran and Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers getting married. The look of pride and anticipation in his eyes stops those who know the tragic history of his 1963 assassination in Jackson, Mississippi, where in front of his wife and children, he collapsed in his driveway after being shot in the back.

“You can see in their eyes the hopes and dreams going forward, and he comes back as a soldier and wants to register to vote and he and his brother are chased off at gunpoint. It starts his role and life as a Civil Rights activist,” Crew explains. “This wonderful picture talks about his hope for the future and then his determination to make the United States, the world different as a consequence.”

Visitors also learn about lesser-known activists who gave their lives in the struggle for equality, including Harry T. and Harriette V.Moore. The Florida teachers were fired for advancing the idea of equal pay for black teachers, and Harry Moore became very active in the NAACP. On Christmas Eve in 1951, someone bombed their house, killing them both. The museum has watches, a locket and a wallet that were recovered from the bombing site.

“This is a reminder of those fighting in the battle field and the sacrifices and the danger that comes with deciding to become a Civil Rights activist. We don’t always remember that enough, “Crew says.

There are artifacts here related to the historic Brown v. Board of Education case, and in a larger space covering the 1950s and 1960s, there’s everything from a tape recorder belonging to Malcolm X, a watch given to activist Bayard Rustin from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and shards of glass from the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, where four little girls were killed in 1963.

There are highlights from the Selma March, including the visceral speeches of Civil Rights icon Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga). Lewis was nearly killed during that March, on what’s known as “Bloody Sunday” in 1965. He was also the youngest speaker at the 1963 March on Washington. In 1988, a year after Lewis was elected to Congress; he introduced a bill to create a national African-American museum in Washington, and gave an emotional speech at the museum’s opening on September 24, 2016.

But among the huge artifacts in the large room opening off of the final gallery of this exhibition, including the segregated Southern Railway car from the Jim Crow era, and a prison tower from the plantation-turned Louisiana State penitentiary in Angola, and the interactive replica of a lunch counter in Greensboro, S.C, where sit-ins were held, is a quiet little hallway.

There’s almost always a line there, and the people who walk into the room where it leads, where no photography is allowed, are clearly thoughtful. Some are in tears. Others are angry. The casket, in which Emmett Till was buried after his murder in 1955, sits in that room. Crew calls it one of the most powerful objects in the museum.

“He was murdered in Mississippi . . . murdered and maimed, and his mother decided to have an open casket. . . . As a consequence, it lets the nation see what is happening to African-Americans in the South, that very often is not reported and the funeral, which gets national press coverage, is the stimulus for a lot of people saying ‘we’ll no longer accept things as they are’ and ‘we’ll begin to push for change more powerfully,’” Crew explains.

“We see it as one of the most important, precious objects that we have in the museum to tell the story of the resistance, and the toll a lot of people paid to allow the Civil Rights Movement to move forward and lead to the rights we have today.”

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

These New 3D Models Put the Smithsonian’s Most Renowned Items in Your Hands

Smithsonian Magazine

The Wright Flyer, the legendary aircraft built by the Wright Brothers and sent skyward over Kitty Hawk in 1903, was acquired by the Smithsonian in 1948. Since then, it’s been on public display nearly continuously.

Of course, visitors aren’t allowed to touch the plane, and educators teaching lessons on the Flyer have had to use models to give students the chance to handle it and see it from different positions. Engineers and historians have faced similar limitations, unable to climb inside to examine its inner machinery or take out a tape measure to assess its specs.

Now, though, anyone with an internet connection can handle a virtual 3D version of the Flyer and print a replica at any scale. The 3D model viewer above, along with 20 other 3D models released today as part of the Digitization Program Office‘s Smithsonian X 3D Conference, is the result of years of labor by Vince Rossi, Adam Metallo and other staff in the Digitization Office. As they continue their work of digitally scanning as many of the Smithsonian’s 137 million artifacts as possible, the Smithsonian X 3D Explorer is the means by which they’ll take this valuable 3D data public.

“For a while, we were able to create these incredible, high-resolution 3D models, but in terms of public access to the data, we were really limited,” says Rossi. “In developing these tools, we’re able to share our work with the world.”

Each model is a simplified version of the “point cloud“—the thousands of points that make up the contours of an item’s surface—that they collect using 3D scanning tools. Because the actual point cloud is far too large in size to make available in a web browser, some digital compression is necessary.

“If you play any video game, you’re looking at a polygonal model, and that’s also what you’re looking at in the viewer,” Rossi says. In essence, the 3D contours of an object are flattened, forming thousands of polygons (mostly triangles) that represent the surface of the object. As polygons, these triangles can be represented in two dimensions—at which point colors, shading and textures are added to the object’s surface—then contorted back into a 3D shape that captures most of the visual detail of the original but has a file size small enough to load in a web browser.

In the rendering of the Gunboat Philadelphia above, for instance users can examine the vessel’s textured planks to see the spot where it was hit by a British cannonball in October 1776.

The viewer allows users to explore these models in detail—rotating the items, isolating different components of them, measuring them with built-in tools and creating specific views that can be shared over social media or embedded on a website or blog post just like a video. It also makes it possible to take a virtual guided tour of the object (by clicking on the globe icon), with text, images and video that accompany a specific set of views and let users learn historical and scientific background. “The 3D explorer allows you to tell a story,” Rossi says. “Essentially, you can use the 3D model as a scaffolding to tell the history of an object.”

The Digitization Office staff see dozens of potential uses for these models: Teachers can use them as education tools, researchers can use them to analyze their own artifacts and share them with colleagues, and most of all, they’ll allow the public to more easily appreciate millions of Smithsonian objects, both on display and hidden away in archives. Once, plaster masks—such as the mask of Abraham Lincoln made shortly after his death, above—were the height of technology used to preserve the three-dimensional shape of a specimen or artifact. Now, digital capture of an item’s contours in three-dimensions can be done with lasers and computer software.

In addition to the compressed versions of these artifacts available in the viewers, the Digitization Office has also made the full-size 3D datasets available for downloading, which will let users use 3D printers to recreate the objects in full detail at any scale. Although 3D printing at home is still in its nascency, they’re becoming increasingly economical, with base models now available for a few hundred dollars. “We think the implications of this are pretty big,” Rossi says.

So far, the Digitization Office has scanned hundreds of objects. For the first batch of viewable items, they chose a sampling that represents all of the fields of inquiry the Smithsonian is involved in—art, history and science, conveyed with priceless artifacts, ancient specimens and, in the case of an orchid, actual living organisms.

This whale fossil, for instance, was scanned when dozens of seven million-year-old whale remains were discovered in Chile, in the path of imminent Pan-American Highway construction. To preserve the specimens in their geological context, Metallo, Rossi and others scanned them in 3D. “ Nick Pyenson is already planning on using these viewers to share information with researchers in Chile,” Rossi says. “So this site no longer exists in Chile, but anyone is still able to take measurements of it and use that data.”

Scanning has also been put to use as part of internal Smithsonian projects, such as the comprehensive scanning of Dinosaur Hall to document the position of all of the hall’s specimens before it closes next year for a ground-up renovation. As part of the project, the team scanned the wooly mammoth represented above.

“This was challenging not only because of the size, but also its complexity,” Rossi says. To capture the contours of every rib bone and tusk, he and Metallo had to position their scanners in more than 60 different vantage points, then carefully knit together the data sets to yield a complete animal.

They’ve gone small, too, with specimens such as the bee above, taken from the Smithsonian’s entomology collection. In order to capture details as small as the hairs on its abdomen, Metallo and Rossi used a micro CT scanner, which is similar to a medical CT scanner, but able to capture smaller objects at high resolution.

With their scanning technique practiced and a new means of sharing their data with the public, Rossi and Metallo’s plan going forward is to increase the scale of their operation. “The next step is going big—scanning hundreds or thousands of objects per year, instead of a few dozen,” Rossi says. It might not be possible to digitally capture all 137 million of the Smithsonian’s items, but they want to scan as many as they possibly can.

For the rest of the first batch of models—including digital versions of Amelia Earhart’s flight suit, a 550 A.D. intricately carved “Cosmic Buddha” sculpture and the remnants of a distant supernova—head over to the Smithsonian X 3D site. The conference is sold out, but is being simulcast online, and an associated showcase of 3D technology is open to the public.

Live blog: Answering our favorite #AskACurator questions

National Museum of American History

Today, museum staff members are answering questions sent in to us through social media, particularly Twitter. Here are a few of our favorite questions and answers. We'll update this blog throughout the day on September 16, 2015. Have a questions? Check the schedule to find out who is answering questions at what time and send us a tweet

Christy Wallover, Project Assistant in the Division of Armed Forces History: Before I worked in a museum or went to school for museum studies, I was a cultural resources management archaeologist for four years. I excavated sites ranging in time from the archaic period to the turn of the 20th century and anywhere from the Northeast Corridor to the Mid-West. During an excavation in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, I was able to participate in a public program that connected the present community to artifacts that we recovered from excavations from around that area. We made exhibitions and were able to talk directly to the public. The experience changed the direction of my career—I was hooked on museum work. 

Group answer from staff members on the 10-11 a.m. EDT shift: I haven't read the book but appreciate the recommendation, as someone who values things, joy, and a tidy life. Encouraging people to "discard" could encourage people to contact a museum or archive earlier than they would have, when more information is available. Also, knowledgeable collectors would definitely hold onto objects/papers of significance (or would ask a specialist, like a museum, to help them determine what is significant). And I think some people are collectors and will collect no matter what popular organizing trend is happening. Perhaps this trend toward minimalism means people will go out and see things vs. keep them? That might mean an attendnce boost for museums! 

Hillery York, Collections Manager for the National Numismatic Collection: We have a selection of feathers from Quetzal birds that were once used as currency in Mayan Culture. This is how Fred ended up in our numismatics collection!

Photo of green bird


Patri O'Gan, Project Assistant in the Division of Armed Forces History: We have a fairly large collection of World War I sheet music. Patriotic music was very popular before and during the war. Our "Women in World War I" object group has a section on music that contains a lot of great info and links to collection objects. Music was also important during the Civil War. Our Archives Center has a collection of illustrated sheet music from both the Confederate and Union sides of the Civil War. 

Hillery York, Collections Manager for the National Numismatic Collection: When Parks and Recreation filmed a scene here in our America on the Move exhibition. The episode and related photos are hilarious.

Jennifer Gloede, Project Specialist, National Numismatic Collection: Obivously, "This belongs in a museum!!!" - Indiana Jones

Christy Wallover, Project Assistant in the Division of Armed Forces History: We have an extensive collection of Civil War Navy objects. For example, we have uniform articles that include a flat hat from a man stationed aboard the U.S.S. Kearsarge as well as a jumper that belonged to Charles Gillette Pratt, who enlisted on August, 29, 1864, and served aboard the U.S.S. Rhode Island. (Both of those objects will be in an online object group coming soon!). The collection also holds numerous objects from Admiral David G. Farragut. We have models of the U.S.S. Monitor and the C.S.S. Virginia

Hillery York, Collections Manager for the National Numismatic Collection: These objects give us a detailed look at the intended designs for much of our nation's currency history. The value lies in comparing changes in design and spellings from the approved proof to what was actually circulated and printed!

Sage Xaxua Morgan-Hubbard, Youth Programs Coordinator: Museum professionals can support school teachers with professional development trainings such as our free Let's Do History and Teach it Forward workshops for educators on how best to use objects in their classrooms. We also have a twitter feed @explorehistory where we send daily tweets with resources from our vast collections and an incredible amount of lesson plans and activities listed on our website where teachers can find specific exercises, books, and links to specific topics/subject areas and search by resource type, grade level, historical era, and cross-curricular connections. For more information on commonly asked questions from educators please see our FAQ

Patri O'Gan, Project Assistant in the Division of Armed Forces History: Yes! Women have been serving with the Armed Forces for a long time! Army Nurse Corps was established in 1901. Navy Nurse Corps was established in 1908. June 1948 marked the passage of Women's Armed Services Integration Act, which helped establish women as permanent part of U.S. Armed Forces. Here are a few links you might enjoy from World War I and World War II. 

World War I: 

World War II:

Katherine Ott, Curator in the Division of Medicine and Science: It depends on how something relates to projects in the works, other objects in the collection, and  can we respectfully care for it (size, materials, condition)

John Hasse, Curator of American Music: We seek to take the long view—500 years from now, what objects will endure and help tell the story of the American musical experience?

Patri O'Gan, Project Assistant in the Division of Armed Forces History: I would say it's definitely a very powerful way! Especially before photography became more widespread. See World War I American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) Art collection. My favorite is below. It's called "On the Wire." 


Sage Xaxua Morgan-Hubbard, Youth Programs Coordinator: This is a great question. There are many ways to engage teens. Many of our exhibits are interactive by design so that teens can use touch screens or games to better understand the narrative of the exhibit. It also is helpful to use our self-guides and prepare the teens before they arrive here for the shows they are going to see. Teens like to be in charge of their own learning as much as possible, so challenge them to do research beforehand or a scavenger hunt competition that makes them dig deeper. You will be surprised by what the teens might enjoy and pay attention to. Each teen is different but our museum is so large, we have something for everyone!


Sage Xaxua Morgan-Hubbard, Youth Programs Coordinator: This depends, but our teens in our summer program this summer especially loved the DJ turntables in Places of Invention. They loved Muhammad Ali's boxing gloves in American Stories, interactive elements in American Enterprise and Object Project. Teens also say that they are "wowed" by the large objects such as the "El" train in America on the Move and Julia Child's Kitchen. There is also always a teen that is blown away by some of our military history objects because "they were really at war." But don't take my word for it. Come in yourself or browse our online collections and see what your teens are wowed by. I bet you will be surprised by what might catch their attention and impress them. I am always surprised by what objects particular teens are impressed by daily. 

Katherine Ott, Curator in the Division of Medicine and Science: I try to keep on top of current practice and events, for sure. But it is very tricky to weigh the significance of an event for the long term and documentation. I wish knowledge of history was a better predictor. 

John Hasse, Curator of American Music: We take the long view, and it usually takes some years to achieve the psychic and temporal distance to put developments into perspective. We use lots of judgment and discussions with our colleagues to determine what ought to be added to the National Collections.


Katherine Ott, Curator in the Division of Medicine and Science: Joseph Lister got that going in the 1860s. He noticed that dressing wounds with bandages soaked in carbolic acid dramatically reduced infections. Sterilizing instruments followed quickly after that.

Shannon Perich, Curator of Photographic History: The Morse Daguerreotype camera was made for the inventor and artist best known for his telegraph. While in Paris in 1839, visiting with Jacque Louis Mande Daguerre, he acquired a daguerreotype lens. There were no camera manufacturers yet, so the box of the camera was made by a furniture maker! The first U.S. patent issued for a camera is the Walcott camera, May 8, 1840. It was tiny and made one little daguerreotype at a time.  It's about the same size as a smart phone like this one used by John Paul Caponigro. Think about the difference in the capacity and power!

Photo of camera

Photo of iphone and camera

Roger Sherman, Curator of the Modern Physics collection: What appeals to me about physics is that it is a never-ending search to find out how the world works, in the most fundamental sense. For many centuries, what we now know as physics was treated as part of philosophy and handled in a speculative way. Then, in the 17th century, the techniques of experiment and careful observation became popular, and physics took off. From then on, we have example after example of clever thinkers, individually or as members of teams, devising and implementing ingenious ways to answer specific questions about nature.  As a museum curator, I am responsible for preserving and understanding the instruments, the gadgets, and the apparatus for asking nature these questions. The opportunity for examining, close up, these goodies can be a real thrill.

Shannon Perich, Curator of Photographic History: I'm not a conservator, but the most pungent identifier of nitrate is the smell. It often has vinegar syndrome. Nitratre film, ironically, usually has the word "safety" on it. If you think you have nitrate film, call a conservator!

Shannon Perich, Curator of Photographic History: There isn't a single moment, but the most noted, and perhaps most deliberate was Kodak's 1888, "You push the button, we do the rest" moment when they separated the processing from the picture taking. But each new innovation seems to open the possibilities for more participation. Photography is patented in 1839, but it took until 1842 until there were good mass manufactured daguerreotype plates. That opened the doors for photographers because it was one less step they had to do. The Brownie camera in 1900 at $1, made cameras accessible because they were cheap! So there a lot of moments where entry into photography is made easier depending on your skill level, ambition and economics.

Roger Sherman, Curator of the Modern Physics collection: Not only are many everyday things radioactive, but to greater extent scientific artifacts embody radioactive materials. Modern Physics has its fair share of artifacts that embody radioactive materials, ranging from some samples representing the refining of radium, prepared early in the 20th century when that novel energy-emitting element was all the rage, up to a trowel with a uranium blade, made for President Eisenhower to lay the cornerstone for the Atomic Energy Commission's headquarters. (In what ought to take some prize for irony, the White House staff, worried about radiation danger, would not allow the President to use it!)

So, radioactivity in the collections is a real concern, and we take it seriously. I have been designated the museum's Radiation Safety Officer, and provided with a Geiger counter. From time to time colleagues call me in to check things, either new acquisitions, or artifacts they find in the collections. It is quite remarkable how many old watches, compasses, and gun sights turn out to have glow-in-the-dark radium paint on them. In almost every case, the radiation itself is not hazardous; what is important is to make sure the material cannot flake off and contaminate things or get on skin. I keep careful records of what is radioactive and to what degree and this is true acros the Smithsonian Institution. 

Shannon Perich, Curator of Photographic History: There are so many great photographs out in the world! I look for a photograph or group of photographs that make about how individual lives or stories are connected to larger historical narrative. For example, I recently collected a group of snapshots from about 1910-1960. One photo might not tell me much, but the group of them say something larger about this particular tradition in the U.S. One of my favorites is one in which there is a Christmas tree, a Buddah, and a Menorah.  Fine art is one aspect of the collection, as most people would expect, but we collect for the technology, art and history of photography. So, I've even collected a giant IRIS printer to document the history of digital photography. 

Black and white photo


Shannon Perich, Curator of Photographic History: First let me say, the flash is bad for a lot of paper based art and especially textiles, so that's often where the no photography policy comes from and we all want to preserve museum objects. But, today, to take a picture of something is usually do it out of enthusiasm, appreciation, and desire to remember. Often, we use this kind of act of photography as memory making. But if you take a photograph, give credit to the artist and don't do anything with it that takes away from the artist's integrity and rights!

Roger Sherman, Curator of the Modern Physics collection: As most people know, only a small fraction of a museum's collection is on display at any one time, something like 5%. In the past, Modern Physics has had a number of exhibitions, the two most ambitious being Atom Smashers: 50 Years and Atomic Clocks. Both came down many years ago, and at present there is only one single small Modern Physics artifact on display here. It can be a little frustrating to be in charge of a collection filled with remarkable objects, and not be able to put them out for people to enjoy and learn from.

One practical consideration is that many Modern Physics objects are big and heavy. The liquid hydrogen bubble chamber from the Brookhaven National Laboratory is a huge mass of stainless steel and optical glass that weighs many tons and looks like a modern abstract sculpture. It was barely able to fit under the museum's high ceiling in Atom Smashers, and no doubt will not go on exhibit again for a long time. 

Another piece from that exhibition appeals to me more, though: the Van de Graaff accelerator from the Carnegie Institution of Washington. It consists of a big aluminum ball on three legs, with a glass tube going up into it, looking very much like a prop from a 1930s science fiction movie. (Could the movie makers of those days have been inspired by it?  I wouldn't be surprised.) It was constructed in the early 1930s and, despite its outlandish appearance, it was used for some very serious and important research that shed light on the forces between protons in atomic nuclei. It is so tall that it had to be installed in a special pit in the museum floor, with a staircase going down into it. When the time came to dismantle it, I had to identify, number, and tag every one of the hundreds of pieces that we dismantled it into. That was a huge project, but I like to think that some curator way in the future will be able to put the machine back together thanks to my efforts.

Shannon Perich, Curator of Photographic History: At the Smithsonian, there are over seven hundred (no, that's not a typo!) photography collections. Each will have a specific collecting plan, scope, and use. No doubt one of photography's chief attributes is its reproducibility, so there are photographs that exist in multiple collections. This museum has over twenty photography collections alone! The Photographic History Collection is the largest collection, though, with almost 250,000 images and pieces of apparatus. 

Roger Sherman, Curator of the Modern Physics collection: Before World War I, physics in this country was a minor discipline that lacked prestige and did not attract much attention from the general public. At schools and universities, it was generally treated as an academic discipline whose chief value was to train minds in careful thinking and teach that the world is fundamentally an orderly place. Little emphasis was placed on research, and what research there was came from universities. 

Industries at that time were far more interested in supporting research in chemistry, and the government provided little support. Nevertheless, the field was growing slowly. 

Albert Michelson won the first American Nobel Prize in physics for his optical researches. Experiments by him and others to measure the speed of light attracted attention, and right around the turn of the century Nichols and Hull carried out an elaborate, carefully performed experiment that detected the pressure of light and confirmed James Clerk Maxwell's prediction of this extremely delicate effect. More and more, students with a serious interest in physics went to Germany for graduate work, and came back, building up a corps of young physicists whose accumulated expertise before long began training the next generation here. The result was that by the time of World War II, the nation had built up a highly competent, motivated generation of physicists whose exploits transformed the discipline and brought it to world prominence.


Dan Gifford, Manager, Museum Advisory Committees, and Project Historian: I guess my favorite is actually a whole bunch of stories—women's stories. One of things I find fascinating about the history of charities and giving in American history is the role of women. Women in the 1800s were incredibly active and successful fundraisers, running charitable organizations that often were basically large, complex businesses. And this gave women access to financial worlds, contracts, investments, bookkeeping, etc. –realms that supposedly were reserved just for men. So the history of charities is in part the history of women gaining access to that kind of power… and of course, ultimately demanding more. 

Jon Grinspan, Jefferson Fellow, Division of Political History: Alcohol is inherently political, and has been from the start of the country. Some campaigners have used it to rile up voters, or as a cheap give-away to win friends, while others opposed alcohol, preached Temperance and Prohibition, and saw it as the root of all evils, from poverty to prostitution to domestic violence.

Most important, alcohol blurs the line between politics and culture, which is really what I'm most interested in. It makes it impossible to distinguish what parts of a campaign are about ideologies and personalities, and what parts are about getting drunk and hollering in the street.

Harold Wallace, Curator in the Division of Work and Industry: That depends on who's doing the consideration. Building buyers began demanding electricity in the 1890s in urban areas. But building codes are set at the local and state level and they vary widely. Most codes began including electrical sections in the early 20th century and not all require a building to be electrified. Even today, people can build a recreational cabin, for example, and if they don't want electricity, they don't have to install it. Some interesting history here.

Jon Grinspan, Jefferson Fellow, Division of Political History: There's a long history of drinking before, during, and after debates, not just in taverns but in the public square and even in Congress. Before amplification, when debates were held by two shouting men in a town square, the drinking often got out of hand and many spectators couldn't hear the candidates. We have records of all these debates, including the Lincoln-Douglas debates, but very often the audience just heard the drinking going on around them.

And in the Capitol, especially before the Civil War, congressmen often drank openly while their colleagues were speaking. Rachel Shelden wrote about it in her book on the social lives of congressmen before the Civil War.

As for me, I'm not much of a drinking-game guy. I don't like to have to wait for an excuse to pour myself another drink, especially when the debates get dull.

Monica Smith, Exhibition Program Manager, Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation: From an invention perspective, I'd say the construction is extremely interesting because it provides insights on the inventive process of the inventor making it. What problem were they trying to solve and why? Then how did they design the solution? Did they do sketches? Build prototypes? What materials did they test and end up selecting? How did they tinker and tweak their design? The 3D product is just the tip of the iceberg of a fascinating creative process!


Jon Grinspan, Jefferson Fellow, Division of Political History: P.T. Barnum's American Museum, in lower Manhattan, in the 1830s through 1860s. He put up something like 10,000 exhibits a year, and always kept his visitors guessing. He often went too far, but no one ever did more to define American museums, or popular culture. I'd like to get to watch a flimflam-artist like Barnum at work.





Erin Blasco is an education specialist in the New Media Department. She's facilitating the Q&A today and appreciates your questions. 


Posted Date: 
Wednesday, September 16, 2015 - 09:00
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A Song for the Horse Nation: Horses in Native American Culture

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Online exhibit exploring the deep connections between horses and Native Americans, looks at the history, impact, and arts of horses and the native peoples. Extensive descriptions, pictures, selected objects from the museum, and audio pronunciation guides paint a thorough picture of the Native American's profound connection to and reliance on horses.

Paper Engineering: Fold, Pull, Pop & Turn

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Online exhibition of the libraries' collection of pop-up and other moveable books. Includes short videos of the books in action.

Judging a Book by Its Cover

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Through this lesson plan, students explore the relationship between the form of books and the content inside. They 'author and publish' a book using binding techniques that relate to the content of their writing. The techniques are both ancient and modern.

Visit the German Castle Where DNA Was First Discovered

Smithsonian Magazine

Biologist James Watson and physicist Francis Crick are often credited with the discovery of DNA. In 1953, the pair modeled the double helix structure of it, thanks to an x-ray of DNA obtained by researcher Rosalind Franklin—a finding they said unveiled “the secret of life.” But it was Swiss chemist Friedrich Miescher who actually identified nucleic acid, what we commonly know now as DNA. Unfortunately, he didn't know what he'd found at the time—and so he was largely overlooked throughout history, the glory of DNA's findings relegated to later researchers who used Miescher's experiments as a foundation for their own work.

In 1869, Miescher was a biochemistry student at Germany's University of Tübingen. He worked under the tutelage of Felix Hoppe-Seyler, the biochemist who studied and named hemoglobin, in a former kitchen converted to a lab in 1818 in Tübingen Castle, originally built during the Renaissance atop older ruins. The lab itself was one of the biggest and best equipped of its time; most medical facilities didn’t have their own lab at all.

"At that time, biochemistry was a relatively new field of science and researchers only recently became aware of how to deduce vital processes from living organisms by means of experimental chemical approaches," says University of Tübingen masters graduate and museum tour guide Martin Groß. "Saying these people were groping in the dark in a way of trial and error would underrate their potential of what they were able to do and plan. Instead, research in the lab of Hoppe-Seyler was curiousity-driven and inspired by the intent to capture the very chemical basis of cells and tissues of most diverse range."

An original test tube, still labeled with Miescher's handwriting, is on display in the museum, containing isolated nucleic acid that he collected from salmon sperm. (Sebastian Gollnow/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Miescher didn’t set out to discover anything about DNA; he was actually researching leukocytes, or white blood cells. His method was on the more unpleasant side. He worked together with a local clinic, who supplied him with used bandages. Miescher would then wash the pus off the bandages and filter out the leukocytes in order to determine the exact proteins in white blood cells. Instead, 150 years ago, he found something completely unexpected—a non-protein substance with a high phosphorous content that no one knew about. He named it “nuclein.” In order to investigate it more, Miescher took pepsin, a digestion enzyme, out of pig stomachs and used it to dissolve everything in the pus cells except the nuclein. That remaining substance was later renamed nucleic acid, and then deoxyribonucleic acid, commonly known as DNA.

Both Miescher and his teacher, Hoppe-Seyler, were skeptical of his discovery of this new substance. According to Groß, Miescher surmised that his nuclein held the keys to heredity—but then tossed that idea aside, incorrectly deducing the substance was just a phosphorus store and genes were actually made of protein, which was a common belief at the time. As a result of his discarded suggestion and the prevailing genes-are-protein idea, he gave his paper about the discovery an unfortunate title: "On the chemical composition of pus cells." Hoppe-Seyler wanted to be sure his student's work was correct, so he repeated the experiments before publishing the paper in 1871. Miescher's work went largely untouched for decades, until the 1930s, when Oswald Avery at the Rockefeller Institute in New York began working to straighten out the incorrect public opinion that genes were proteins.

Today, the lab Miescher worked in to discover DNA is a 700-square-foot museum at Tübingen Castle. An original test tube, still labeled with Miescher's handwriting, is on display in the museum, containing isolated nucleic acid that he collected from salmon sperm. It's inconspicuous—a single test tube in a row of others, with chunky remains of an organic seal at the top and coarse light brown powder (the nucleic acid) at the bottom. Opposite the test tube is a 3D animation of DNA and gene expression projected around a lab flask, designed to visually express Miescher's discovery. Hoppe-Seyler has a presence in the museum as well, in the form of a lab manual from 1870, two volumes of his self-published scientific journals and an inventory register from when he took over the lab in 1861.

A 3D animation is projected around an Erlenmeyer flask in the museum of the University of Tübingen. (Sebastian Gollnow/picture alliance via Getty Images)

The museum, owned by the University of Tübingen, opened in 2015, keeping the bones of the lab, which closed in 1875, intact. Miescher's test tube is in almost the exact spot where he worked. A lighted wall nearby displays lab equipment, vessels and tools used by Miescher and other researchers during the 1860s. The museum’s collection also includes historical preparations of different substances, like the natural dyes cyanin and delphinin, and old photographs of the lab.

An interactive display catches the attention of visitors, as well.

"Visitors are always fascinated by the possibility of being able to perform microscopy with a smartphone," says Ernst Seidl, director of the museum and an art history professor at the University of Tübingen, referring to the interactive portion of the exhibit allowing you to use your phone to do some mock lab work. "This is a special scenographic and museal feature that works amazingly well."

This exhibit and others show how biologists after Miescher—Watson and Crick included—were able to build on his discovery. Beginning in 1881, German biochemist Albrecht Kossel worked off Miescher's research to determine the exact chemical makeup of nucleic acid. By 1944, the composition of DNA—a white stringy substance—was determined. Then Watson and Crick, along with Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins, figured out that DNA was made of long molecules twisted together in a double helix structure—a finding that Watson and Crick published in the journal Nature in April 1953.

"Everyone should be informed about the discoveries of Felix Hoppe-Seyler and Friedrich Miescher," Seidl says. "[Those discoveries] are the essential prerequisites of life and genetic engineering. DNA research and everything related to it are the cutting edge sciences of our time. Without the knowledge of their history it will be difficult to understand our existence."

Ocean Planet Lesson Plans

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Six interdisciplinary lesson plans on aspects of the sea from geography to its influence on literature. Each lesson has the same elements: background information, learning objectives, list of materials; step-by-step procedures, student handouts, and a list of resources.
3457-3480 of 3,524 Resources