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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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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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The Struggle for Justice

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Webpage with information on the scholarly journals in the field of Asian art published in part by the Freer and Sackler galleries, Ars Orientalis and Artibus Asiae.

A Michigan Museum of Shipwrecks

Smithsonian Magazine

The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, located at Whitefish Point in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, was founded in 1978 by a group of teachers, divers and shipwreck enthusiasts who were interested in exploring the area around Whitefish Point. The museum is home to 19 different exhibits incorporating artifacts that were raised from wrecks, ship models and a memorial to those lost in the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. In addition to the museum, visitors can also see the restored lighthouse keeper’s quarters, the fog signal building, the surf boat house and the Whitefish Point bird observatory.  “We were hoping to find shipwrecks and we were successful, as far as that went,” says Sean Ley, development officer for the museum. He spoke with about the history of shipwrecks in the Great Lakes region and why the museum is such a popular tourist destination.

Why is there a shipwreck museum at Whitefish Point?
In all five Great Lakes, we know there are over 6,000 shipwrecks with over 30,000 lives having been lost. Lake Superior is perhaps one of the most dramatic, although it doesn’t have the highest concentration of shipwrecks. It is the biggest water of the five Great Lakes and has seas that sweep across from the northwest to the southeast of the lake with tremendous force. Of the 550 known wrecks in Lake Superior, well over 200 rest along the shoreline from Whitefish Point, which is where our museum is, west to the town of Munising. The reason there are so many wrecks along there is because there are no natural harbors for ships to hide when they have these huge storms. Whitefish Bay is kind of a natural bay, and with its point sticking out, it does provide a great deal of protection for ships that are lost.

Many people seem fascinated by shipwrecks. Why is that?
The most modern connection to shipwrecks was the loss of the Edmund Fitzgerald on November 10, 1975, in Lake Superior. The Fitzgerald was a 729-foot modern freighter with radio, radar and up-to-date safety equipment. Suddenly, she disappeared off the radar screen with no survivors; that was not supposed to happen during the modern day. That shipwreck is one of the biggest mysteries because it’s so recent and because no one knows exactly why the ship was lost. Canadian folk singer Gordon Lightfoot wrote the song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” in 1976.

Before the Fitzgerald there were two other major losses on the Great Lakes— the Daniel J. Morrell in November 1966 in Lake Huron and the Carl D. Bradley in November 1958 in northern Lake Michigan.

Describe the worst shipwreck in the history of the Great Lakes.
In terms of loss of life, hands down, that’s called the SS Eastland, which went down in the Chicago River on July 24, 1915. For whatever reason, the ship turned over onto its port side right there in the river. Passengers either wanted to see something in the river and they went to port side, or the engineer improperly ballasted the ship, or it wasn’t a stable ship to begin, but she flipped over right into the Chicago River, not terribly deep water maybe 20-30 feet, and killed 844 passengers and crew. It still remains the worst loss of life on any single shipwreck in the Great Lakes.

How has the museum been received, both by the public and families who have lost relatives in shipwrecks?  
We constantly hear from people who lost loved ones to shipwrecks, and they want to find out more about their ancestor who was aboard a ship and how he lost his life on it. We get a lot of inquiries about that. The population of Whitefish Township, where the museum us, is only about 550 people, and each year we get an average of 70,000 visitors to Whitefish Point. People want to see something different.

You’ve worked at the museum for 15 years. What is it about shipwrecks that fascinates you? 
It primarily has to do with a lifelong interest in shipwrecks that was generated when I was a young boy. I grew up in Winnetka, Illinois, not far away from where the Eastland tipped over. As a matter of fact, on September 8, 1860, a very famous Great Lakes wreck called the Lady Elgin went down right off of Winnetka, so when I was a kid, there were parts of the Lady Elgin still on the beach. There are graves of those lost who washed ashore from the Lady Elgin and were buried in the bluff right there. I ended up pursuing an arts career but I was always associated with the shipwreck historical society. It’s just a very interesting piece of culture, of U.S. history, to be affiliated with.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve found since you’ve been at the shipwreck museum? 
What I would say is most surprising since the early days is the invasion of zebra mussels in the Great Lakes. Zebra mussels are an invasive species brought in by saltwater vessels coming through the St. Lawrence into the Great Lakes, and we can’t get rid of them. Many dive sites in the lower lakes are just covered with destructive zebra mussels, so scuba divers can dive on historic wrecks but they don’t look like ships anymore, they look like a coral reef, filled with zebra mussels. I mean millions of zebra mussels. Lake Superior, so far, has not been invaded.

Do shipwrecks still occur? 
Oh yes they do. One might think they wouldn’t, but that’s what they thought about the Titanic and the Fitzgerald. Even with the latest safety equipment, a ship is still a vessel that’s been constructed a certain way. If it takes on water in a way it shouldn’t, just the physical property of water and buoyancy will cause it to flip.

There hasn’t been a shipwreck quite as a dramatic as the Fitzgerald. In 1989, the Coast Guard lost a vessel up here called the Mesquite, but there was no loss of life. There are some fishing boats that have been lost to collision and recreational vessels, but I don’t think we’ve had a shipwreck with significant loss of life since the Fitzgerald when down.

Anything can happen and certainly there are many organizations and safety procedures that try to prevent shipwrecks but you won’t find anyone who goes on the lakes who will say ‘I guarantee you we will not get in a shipwreck.’ The danger is always there. And the awareness of the danger keeps you on your guard so that you are a little more cautious. One old gentleman once told me, “Constant vigilance is the price you pay for traveling on the Great Lakes.”

The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, owned and operated by the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society, is open daily from May 1 to October 31. Accessible by automobile, the museum features shipwrecks, and the history of the U.S. lifesaving service, the U.S. lighthouse service and the U.S. Coast Guard, as well as other exhibits. For more information, visit the museum online or call 1-800-635-1742.

Three questions for a brewing historian

National Museum of American History

Last summer, the National Museum of American History announced that we were hiring a brewing historian to join the team working on the American Brewing History Initiative. With its promises of research, documentation, and travel about the history of one of America's favorite beverages, the job quickly became the most sought-after Smithsonian position in America. We were looking for a trained historian with proven experience to lead this project and, after receiving an unprecedented number of applications, announced the new appointment this week. Please raise your glass to our new staff member and brewing historian, Theresa McCulla!

A color portrait of a woman in a coral shirt and dark blazer. She sits outside.

Theresa brings her experiences working in academia (she will receive a PhD in American Studies from Harvard this spring), in restaurants (she has a culinary diploma from the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts), and with the public (she managed two local farmers' markets in Massachusetts). On top of that, she has an inquiring mind and brings her perspective as a cultural historian to this big job of researching, documenting, and sharing the history of American beer, with an emphasis on the home and craft brewing movements of the second half of the 20th century.

A large mug with a lid and handle. It is made from a light colored substance but has carvings with dark backgrounds, including one of a man

Theresa took some time to answer a few key questions about her experiences and the American Brewing History Initiative.

What are you most looking forward to in your new role?

Brewing sheds light on all facets of American history, and American history is all about people. I'm most looking forward to the people I will meet who have created the story of craft and home-brewed beer in America, in conjunction with that of the larger beer industry: brewers, entrepreneurs, farmers, teachers, journalists, collectors, and more. From experts to enthusiasts, so many men and women have played a part in shaping the breadth and depth of American beer today.

Tell us about one of your research projects that has shaped your understanding of the field of history.

Through my book project on the New Orleans food industry I've discovered an incredible array of objects that make the city's food culture come alive. French Quarter souvenirs, restaurant menus, gumbo recipes scrawled on index cards: these pieces of material culture were used by real people as they experienced—and tasted—the world around them. The same is true for brewing history, which can be understood through items as varied as neon signage to recorded radio ads to microbrewery equipment. Telling the history of taste requires us to move beyond documents. Fortunately, that is exactly what the National Museum of American History does best.

a long, rectangular ad portraying an industrial city at night. A woman sits on top of a globe looking down and on the other side, an angel floats next to a bottle of beer and holds a wand up that broadcasts the name "schlitz" over the town

What can beer tell us about American history?

Beer, like other food and drink, makes tangible so many abstract ideas about American history and culture. Through brewing we can understand stories of immigration, urbanization, agriculture, and technology. Beer shows us how innovations in advertising and evolving consumer tastes have always gone hand in hand. The museum holds rich collections of beer advertisements dating to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, such as this ad for Schlitz beer. The image touts Milwaukee's Schlitz as "famous for purity," yet simultaneously the product of modern industry and linked to a specific geographic place. Many of the same themes recur in ads of later eras. I'm so excited to bring that story, among many others, forward to the present day.

The Brewing History Initiative will also feature two public events annually. Both the initiative and brewing historian position have been made possible through the generous support of the Brewers Association, the not-for-profit trade association dedicated to small and independent American brewers.

To stay in the know, sign up for the Food History email list and receive brewing history right in your inbox.

Susan Evans McClure is the director of Smithsonian Food History programs at the National Museum of American History.


Posted Date: 
Monday, January 30, 2017 - 09:45
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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.

A Family Visit to the Smithsonian

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Interactive site featuring one family's week-long experience visiting museums and exhibits. Features the family's journal entries and activities they created to help make the most of a visit to Washington, D.C.

A Brief History of the Stoplight

Smithsonian Magazine

Driving home from a dinner party on a March night in 1913, the oil magnate George Harbaugh turned on to Cleveland’s Euclid Avenue. It was one of the city’s busiest streets, jammed with automobiles, horse-drawn carriages, bicyclists, trolleys and pedestrians, all believing they had the right of way. Harbaugh did not see the streetcar until it smashed into his roadster. “It is remarkable,” the local newspaper reported, “that the passengers escaped with their lives.”

Many others wouldn’t. More than 4,000 people died in car crashes in the United States in 1913, the same year that Model T’s started to roll off Henry Ford’s assembly line. The nation’s roads weren’t built for vehicles that could speed along at 40 miles an hour, and when those unforgiving machines met at a crowded intersection, there was confusion and, often, collision. Though police officers stood in the center of many of the most dangerous crossroads blowing whistles and waving their arms, few drivers paid attention.

A Cleveland engineer named James Hoge had a solution for all this chaos. Borrowing the red and green signals long used by railroads, and tapping into the electricity that ran through the trolley lines, Hoge created the first “municipal traffic control system.” Patented 100 years ago, Hoge’s invention was the forerunner of a ubiquitous and uncelebrated device that has shaped American cities and daily life ever since-—the stoplight.

Hoge’s light made its debut on Euclid Avenue at 105th Street in Cleveland in 1914 (before the patent was issued). Drivers approaching the intersection now saw two lights suspended above it. A policeman sitting in a booth on the sidewalk controlled the signals with a flip of a switch. “The public is pleased with its operation, as it makes for greater safety, speeds up traffic, and largely controls pedestrians in their movements across the street,” the city’s public safety director wrote after a year of operation.

Others were already experimenting with and improving upon Hoge’s concept, until various inventors had refined the design to the one that controls traffic and raises blood pressure today. We have
William Potts, a Detroit police officer who had studied electrical engineering, to thank for the yellow light, but as a municipal employee he could not patent his invention.

By 1930, all major American cities and many small towns had at least one electric traffic signal, and the innovation was spreading around the world. The simple device tamed the streets; motor vehicle fatality rates in the United States fell by more than 50 percent between 1914 and 1930. And the technology became a symbol of progress. To be a “one stoplight town” was an embarrassment. “Because of the potent power of suggestion, [or] a delusion of grandeur, almost every crossroad hamlet, village, and town installed it where it was neither ornate nor useful,” the Ohio Department of Highways grumbled.

An additional complaint that gained traction was the device’s unfortunate impact on civility. Long before today’s epidemic of road rage, critics warned that drivers had surrendered some of their humanity; they didn’t have to acknowledge each other or pedestrians at intersections, but rather just stare at the light and wait for it to change. As early as 1916, the Detroit Automobile Club found it necessary to declare a “Courtesy Week,” during which drivers were encouraged to display “the breeding that motorists are expected to manifest in all other human relations.” As personal interactions declined, a new, particularly modern scourge appeared—impatience. In 1930, a Michigan policeman noted that drivers “are becoming more and more critical and will not tolerate sitting under red lights.”

The new rules of the road took some getting used to, and some indoctrination. In 1919, a Cleveland teacher invented a game to teach children how to recognize traffic signals, and today, kids still play a version of it, Red Light, Green Light. Within a few decades, the traffic light symbol had been incorporated into children’s entertainment and toys. Heeding the signals has become so ingrained that it governs all kinds of non-driving behavior. Elementary schools put the brakes on bad behavior with traffic light flashcards, and a pediatrician created the “Red Light, Green Light, Eat Right” program to promote healthful eating. Sexual assault prevention programs have adopted the traffic light scheme to signal consent. And the consulting firm Booz Allen suggested in 2002 that companies assess their CEOs as crisis (“red light”), visionary (“green light”) or analytical (“yellow light”) leaders. You can even find the colorful cues on the soccer field: A referee first issues a yellow warning card before holding up the red card, which tells the offending player to hit the road, so to speak.

A newsboy’s stand and traffic light in Los Angeles, 1942 (Library of Congress)

In a century the traffic light went from a contraption that only an engineer could love to a pervasive feature of everyday life—there are some two million of them in the United States today—and a powerful symbol. But its future is not bright. Driverless vehicles are the 21st-century’s Model T, poised to dramatically change not only how we move from place to place but also our very surroundings. Researchers are already designing “autonomous intersections,” where smart cars will practice the art of nonverbal communication to optimize traffic flow, as drivers themselves once did. Traffic lights will begin to disappear from the landscape, and the new sign of modernity will be living in a “no stoplight town.”

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

U.S. crosswalk signals are downright pedestrian. but others are so clever they’ll stop you in your tracks.

Image by Chris Lyons. (original image)

Image by Chris Lyons. (original image)

Image by Chris Lyons. (original image)

Image by Chris Lyons. (original image)

Image by Chris Lyons. (original image)

Image by Chris Lyons. (original image)

Image by Chris Lyons. (original image)

Image by Chris Lyons. (original image)

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.

One Life: Walt Whitman, a Kosmos

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Online exhibition celebrating the life and work of Walt Whitman. Presents a timeline of his life, highlighting important events and peers with portraits, a reading of 'Leaves of Grass', Walt Whitman's own reading of 'America,' an essay on his work, and a look at his artistic heirs.

Smithsonian Education Online Conference: Climate Change

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Archived online conference in which Smithsonian staff and audience members look at the issues surrounding climate change from the perspectives of science, history, and art. From this website, you can access session recordings, topic discussions, and related Smithsonian resources.

Glimpse of the Past: A Neighborhood Evolves

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Online exhibition describing the rise, fall, and rebirth of the heart of Penn Quarter, Washington DC, from the perspective of one of the neighborhood's enduring monuments: the old Patent Office building, which today houses the National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum. Includes historic and contemporary photos.

Early Films (Including One by Thomas Edison) Made Yoga Look Like Magic

Smithsonian Magazine

In this still from Hindoo Fakir (1902), the magician levitates his assistant. Image courtesy of Sackler Gallery

To Americans living in the late 19th century, yoga looked an awful lot like magic. The ancient discipline appeared to Western observers primarily in the form of ethnographic images of “fakirs”—a blanket term encompassing Sufi dervishes, Hindu ascetics and, most importantly, stage and street performers of death-defying stunts, such as the bed-of-nails and Indian rope tricks. In 1902, the “fakir-yogi” made his big screen debut in a “trick film” produced by Thomas Edison, Hindoo Fakir, one of three motion pictures in the Sackler Gallery’s pioneering exhibition, “Yoga: The Art of Transformation.”

Hindoo Fakir, said to be the first film ever made about India, depicts the stage act of an Indian magician who makes his assistant disappear and reappear, as a butterfly emerging from a flower. To a modern eye, the special effects may leave something to be desired. But Edison’s audiences, in nickelodeons and vaudeville houses, would have marveled at the magic on screen as well as the magic of the moving image itself. Cinema was still new at the time and dominated by “actuality films” of exotic destinations and “trick films,” like Hindoo Fakir, which featured dissolves, superimpositions and other seemingly magical techniques. Indeed, some of the most important early filmmakers were magicians, including George Melies and Dadasaheb Phalke, director of India’s first feature film. “The early days of cinema were about wonder and showing off this technology,” says Tom Vick, curator of film at the Freer and Sackler galleries.

Early cinema was certainly not about cultural sensitivity. The similarity between “fakir” and “faker” is no coincidence; these words became synonyms in the American imagination, as performers in circuses and magic shows invoked supernatural powers commonly attributed to the fakir-yogi. Howard Thurston, a stage magician from Ohio, appropriated the Indian rope trick for his popular 1920s traveling show. In the 1930s, the French magician Koringa, billed as the “only female fakir in the world,” baffled audiences with hypnosis and crocodile wrestling. Her assumed Indian identity was an “understandable idea by that time,” says Sita Reddy, a Smithsonian Folklife research associate and “Yoga” curator. “The fakir became something that didn’t have to be explained anew; it was already circulating.” Fakir was, if not a household name, a part of popular parlance—pervasive enough that in 1931, Winston Churchill used it as a slur against Gandhi.

The self-described fakir Koringa confronts a crocodile in this 1937 Look magazine cover. Image courtesy of Sackler Gallery

Yet Western taste for fakir-style huckstering appears to have waned by 1941, when the musical You’re the One presented the yogi as an object of ridicule. In a big band number called “The Yogi Who Lost His Will Power,” the eponymous yogi runs through all of the typical “Indian” cliches, wearing the obligatory turban and robes, gazing into a crystal ball, lying on a bed of nails and more. But the lyrics by Johnny Mercer cast him as a hapless romantic who “couldn’t concentrate or lie on broken glass” after falling for the “Maharajah’s turtle dove”; for all his yogic powers, this yogi is powerless when it comes to love. Arriving at the tail end of the fakir phenomenon, You’re the One encouraged audiences to laugh, rather than marvel, at the stock character.

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How did yoga make the leap from the circus ring to the American mainstream? Reddy traces yoga’s current popularity to the loosening of Indian immigration restrictions in 1965, which brought droves of yogis into the U.S.—and into the confidence of celebrities like the Beatles and Marilyn Monroe. But the transformation began much earlier, she says, with the teachings of Swami Vivekananda, the Hindu spiritual leader whose 1896 book, Raja Yoga, inaugurated the modern era of yoga. Vivekananda denounced the conjurers and contortionists he felt had hijacked the practice and instead proposed a yoga of the mind that would serve as an “emblem of authentic Hinduism.” Vivekananda’s vision of rational spirituality contended with the fakir trope in the early decades of the 20th century, but after the 1940s, yoga was increasingly linked to medicine and fitness culture, gaining a new kind of cultural legitimacy in the West.

The physicality of yoga is revived in the third and final film of the exhibit, in which master practitioner T. Krishnamacharya demonstrates a series of linked asanas, or postures, which form the backbone of yoga practice today. This 1938 silent film introduced yoga to new audiences across the whole of India, expanding the practice beyond the traditionally private teacher-student relationship for the first time in history. Unlike Hindoo Fakir and You’re the One, the Krishnamacharya film was made by and for Indians. But like them, it affirms the power of the moving image to communicate the dynamism of yoga.

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"The Wonder Years" comes to Smithsonian collections

National Museum of American History

When I was in eighth grade, my government teacher gave us a homework assignment that I did not do. The next day, we were told to hand something in, even if it was a brief explanation as to why we didn't do the homework. I wrote this: "I did not do the homework last night because I was watching the series finale of The Wonder Years and, seeing as how I've grown up watching this show, I thought it was much more important for me to do that." I was given an F, but I did successfully make it out of middle school, and I still count myself as a fan of The Wonder Years.

Today, several objects from the iconic 1980s television series found a new home in our collections and, while they will not be on display right away, are still an exciting addition to the National Museum of American History. I asked our Entertainment Curator Dwight Blocker Bowers to tell me why a show about the 1960s, made in the 1980s, still resonates with people today.

New York Jets jacket from "The Wonder Years"

New York Jets jacket worn by actor Fred Savage as Kevin in The Wonder Years 

"There was something wonderfully true about the show," said Bowers, who works in the museum's Division of Culture and the Arts. "All the elements together—the performances, the costumes, the music—formed a beautiful whole."

My nine-year-old self didn't see the big picture. Every week—for one half hour—while I thought I was simply enjoying a television show about a cute boy, I was actually getting a history lesson. I was spending quality time with my parents while also witnessing what it was like for them to be my age, albeit through a Hollywood version of what it was like to grow up in the 1960s. I developed a love for the culture and an appreciation for the struggles of the era, and when it was all over I found myself nostalgic for a time period I never lived through.

For a show as specific to a period of time as The Wonder Years, the natural fit for our collections is costumes. Perhaps the most iconic article of clothing from the show is Kevin Arnold's green and white New York Jets jacket. This jacket is synonymous with the character played by Fred Savage. Though he eventually outgrew it, it is still widely recognized from the pilot episode when Kevin finds "girl-next-door" Winnie Cooper sitting in the park. He places the jacket on her shoulders and the two share their first kiss.

Along with the jacket, the museum received the two-piece dress worn by matriarch Norma Arnold during the show's opening title sequence during a family barbecue. With the obvious exception of Joe Cocker's rendition of "With a Little Help From My Friends," the one thing that always stood out to me about the credits was this dress. The colorful print top and skirt with bare midriff was evocative of the time. It spoke of a generation of women beginning to reveal their identities through clothing choices and moving away from their conservative predecessors.

Two-piece dress worn by actress Alley Mills

Two-piece dress worn by actress Alley Mills

The hippie wedding dress was worn by Kevin's free-spirited sister, Karen. This too signified a rebellion of sorts within the show. Even as mother Norma was making a statement in her barbecue dress, she maintained a level of decorum common for that time period. This dress, made of unbleached muslin and embroidered with brown flowers, was yet another indication of the growing strength of youth culture.

The Wonder Years was also remarkably innovative. Single-camera comedies were rare, though much of what we see on television today is done in this format. There was no laugh track, and we were allowed to appreciate the human feelings being portrayed, both comedic and tragic.

"Where a show like Happy Days played it for laughs, The Wonder Years totally understood the era which it defined," Bowers explained to me. "Meticulous attention to the elements made [the show] work."

The voice-over narration was almost unheard of at the time and even today is an uncommon practice, except notably in the long-running comedy How I Met Your Mother. As Bowers said, "The past was playing out in front of our eyes, but also being reviewed by an adult Kevin. This allowed America to look back, question, and re-examine that time period."

Few things in life take us back to our childhoods the way television shows, movies and music can. Unfortunately, these things don't always hold up. Time and experiences force us to view the world with a new perspective, or the productions reveal themselves to be contrived and dated. To me, The Wonder Years remains as relevant and poignant as it was when it first aired. No matter my age, no matter my view of the world, just as the narrator states in the last line of the series finale that I was willing to take a failing grade for, "after all these years I still look back, with wonder."

Amelia Avalos works in the museum's Office of Communications and Marketing.

Office of Communications and Marketing Assistant Amelia Avalos
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Hidden turtles and rude gestures in World War II-era Chinese banknotes

National Museum of American History

When we joined the museum's National Numismatic Collection team this summer to rehouse a collection of international banknotes, we expected to come across some fascinating paper currency as we moved the notes from plastic sleeves to archival-quality folders. The tremendous breadth and variety of the collection, however, was quickly revealed to us when we came across a series of intriguing banknotes from 1930s–1940s China. Upon closer inspection, we noticed subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) differences in the notes' designs, which we discovered were actually secret propaganda messages that Chinese engravers snuck in as a way to protest Japanese occupation during World War II.

After decades of increasing its military, political, and economic influence across the Far East, Japan invaded China in 1937, initiating what is known as the Second Sino-Japanese War. The conflict continued as Europe marched into World War II. Following Japan's bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, China formally joined the Allied forces and continued to fight the Japanese with the help of the United States and the Soviet Union, resulting in the absorption of the Second Sino-Japanese War into World War II as part of the Pacific Theater.

During its occupation of China, Japan established a series of puppet governments (many of which printed currency) to control local populations—and whose treatment of the Chinese resulted in deep feelings of ill will toward the Japanese. One of the ways in which the Chinese promoted nationalism and boosted morale was through propaganda hidden in paper currency. The most seemingly blatant example we discovered is in a 1938 one yuan note, issued by the Federal Reserve Bank of China.

Green paper bill with dragon-like figure in center, flying over a ship with sails and other smaller ships. Portrait of a man set in an oval. Red text and characters.

Traditionally, this note was decorated with a portrait of the renowned teacher and philosopher Confucius, in which his hands are clasped piously in prayer. The engraver of this note, however, redesigned the image to include an obscene gesture, one that was recognizably offensive in both Chinese and Japanese cultures and conveyed Chinese distaste for the Japanese that occupied the country.

Detail of above banknote--the portrait of man set in an oval

Black and brown portrait of man set in an oval

Rebellious Chinese engravers also used animal symbolism to discreetly express their contempt for the puppet governments. A 100 yuan note from 1942 depicts pairs of wolf heads dispersed throughout the border of the obverse side. In Chinese culture, wolves are considered emblematic of extreme greed, particularly in reference to public officials—yet another indication of subtle defiance toward the Japanese.

Bill with dark gray and blue and portrait of man set in oval

Another type of animal symbolism used was the turtle, as seen in a 1940 10 yuan note that includes a series of bisected turtles along the borders of its obverse side. These animals were held in low esteem by both the Chinese and the Japanese: to call another person "a son of a turtle" was the equivalent of calling that person a bastard. Inserting these types of hidden images into the engraving plates likely provided local people with a humorous diversion from life under the new regime.

Paper bill with blue ink, dark and light. In center, portrait of man set in oval.

In addition to the symbolism mentioned above, Chinese engravers also hid coded messages in their propaganda banknotes. In a 50 cent note from 1940 issued by the Central Reserve Bank of China, the English letters C, G, W, R, and S can be found scattered discreetly across the ornamental border on the reverse side. Scholars believe that, once unscrambled, the letters read "Central Government Will Return Soon," a message to give hope to the oppressed people.

Paper bill with ink in a few colors, including brown, blue, and orange, in vertical bands. "Fifty cents" is written on it. "The Central Reserve Bank of China."

Detail of bill with arrows indicating certain areas and the letters G, R, C, W, and S.

A second concealed message appears in a 200 yuan note, issued by the Central Reserve Bank of China in 1944. It includes the letters U, S, A, and C hidden across the obverse and reverse faces of the note. When assembled, the letters spell out the prophecy "United States Army [is] Coming," a message that angered the Japanese and resulted in efforts to have the issue recalled. This message has been attributed to the engraver Chung Kue-jen, and its discovery by the Japanese caused him to flee to Hong Kong for the duration of the war to escape punishment.

Bill with red ink with portrait of man in center oval.

Red bill with building with many stairs in center

Detail images of letters U S A and C

Coming across these fascinating banknotes encouraged us to delve deeper into a period of world history that we had not previously had the opportunity to explore. As we continue to organize and rehouse this vast, diverse collection of paper currency, we look forward to sharing the many interesting facts, events, and individuals we uncover with you!

Sammie Hatton and Kelly Lindberg are museum specialists with the National Numismatic Collection working on an international banknote rehousing initiative.

To learn more, check out some of the resources we consulted in writing this post: Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect (by M.Y. Chen), World War II Remembered: History in Your Hands, a Numismatic Study (by C.F. Schwan and J.E. Boling), Chinese Banknotes (by Ward D. Smith and Brian Matravers) and Outlines of Chinese Symbolism & Art Motives (by C.A.S. Williams).

Posted Date: 
Tuesday, December 6, 2016 - 08:00
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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.

Character Composite Portrait

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Lesson plan serving as an introduction to Roberto Clemente. Use symbols to construct a character composite portrait. Aligned to national language arts standards. Bilingual English/Spanish.

The Kumeyaay Communities of California

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage
Stan Rodriguez sets up a round of sarap, a Kumeyaay betting game that introduces students to numbers in the Kumeyaay language. Photo by Maureen Spagnolo, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

This year the Folklife Festival focused on resilient communities: groups of people who have survived and thrived through political oppression, forced migration, social discrimination, and more. In Sounds of California, a prime example was the Kumeyaay, a Native tribe that is not likely mentioned in California history books but is quite active around San Diego. Stan Rodriguez, a language teacher at the Kumeyaay Community College and legislator for the Santa Ysabel Tribe of the Iipay Nation, came to Washington with his family to represent the Kumeyaay.

Between Native song and story performances, Stan was busy in The Studio demonstrating Kumeyaay games, making animal traps, knotting cordage into nets, answering questions about his culture, and asking others about theirs. He beamed as a wealth of knowledge and curiosity, encouraging people to research their family lineage and language. A dedicated lifelong learner, Stan is now, at age fifty-eight, earning his doctor of education degree at UC San Diego.

Always eager to share, Stan stepped away from The Studio for a few minutes to explain the history of the Kumeyaay people.

Stan Rodriguez leads a traditional Kumeyaay song. His wife Marta, here in the black top and purple skirt, leads the accompanying dance. Photo by Hank Douglas, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives
Stan Rodriguez leads a traditional Kumeyaay song. His wife Marta, here in the black top and purple skirt, leads the accompanying dance. Photo by Hank Douglas, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

Who are the Kumeyaay?

Our traditional area is from Southern California into Baja California, Mexico. Our tribe is a people of the ocean, the valleys, the mountains, and the desert, all the way to the Colorado River. That has been our territory for thousands and thousands of years.

San Diego has more tribes and more reservations than any other county in the country. We have eighteen reservations in San Diego. Of those eighteen, thirteen are Kumeyaay, and then there’s another five or six in Baja. So the total population prior to contact was over 60,000 people, and now it’s about 4,250.

Our people have been encroached upon first by the Spanish government, then the Mexicans, and then the American government. Diseases took their toll—small pox, measles. It devastated the communities. Warfare took a big part out. We fought against the Spaniards. We burned down the missions. That resistance continued in the Mexican era. San Diego almost fell three time to Kumeyaay forces, but we lost a lot of people.

Right now our tribes, our reservations are starting to recover.

Stan's family joined him in Washington to represent the Kumeyaay: (L-R) Marta Rodriguez, Maricella Rodriguez, Raymond Martinez, and Hwaa Hawk. Photo by Josh Weilepp, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives
Stan Rodriguez’s family joined him in Washington to represent the Kumeyaay: (L-R) Marta Rodriguez, Maricella Rodriguez, Raymond Martinez, and Hwaa Hawk. Photo by Josh Weilepp, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

How does the border between the United States and Mexico affect Kumeyaay culture?

It’s very similar to what the Basques talk about. They’re caught between France and Spain. The Basques on the French side speak French and Basque, and on the Spanish side, same thing. We have the same issues. The Kumeyaays in Baja speak Spanish and some of them speak Kumeyaay. The ones in the U.S. speak English and some speak Kumeyaay.

Crossing the border has been difficult, especially after 9/11. Let’s say you’re Kumeyaay from Baja, and I’m Kumeyaay from this side of the border. You want me to go sing over there. Okay, I’ll grab my rattle and I’ll go sing. It’s a little bit easier for me to cross, but now the Mexican government wants Americans to get visas. So now I have to get a visa, I cross into Mexico, I sing, then I come back.

Now for you to come across the border into the United States, you need a “laser visa”—a visa that the Mexican government puts out that gives you the ability to cross the border for six days. The problem with that is it costs money, and most Kumeyaays in Baja live in isolated communities and lack the economic infrastructure to generate that kind of money.

Preston Arrow-weed, Stan Rodriguez, Hwaa Hawk, and Raymond Martinez collaborate on sharing Native California song traditions. Photo by Francisco Guerra, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives
Preston Arrow-weed, Stan Rodriguez, Hwaa Hawk, and Raymond Martinez collaborate on sharing Native California song traditions. Photo by Francisco Guerra, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

Do you see the culture diverging on either side of the border?

We are Kumeyaay, so that’s the unifying part. The divergent part is they speak Spanish, we speak English, and unless someone speaks both languages, it becomes difficult to communicate.

The survival skills such as pottery making, basket making, food gathering, and hunting with bows and arrows are much more intact in Baja because they are in isolated communities. On the United States side of the border, the religion is much more intact, even though the religion was declared illegal until 1978 when the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed.

What makes the Kumeyaay a resilient community?

Even though many people have tried to erase our culture, it is still here. We see our culture as an askay, a pot. This pot holds everything that we are: our religion, our ceremonies, our language—all that we are as a people. When different groups have come encroaching on our communities, they grabbed that pot and they threw it on the ground, and it shattered into many different pieces.

Those pieces are what happened with the Reservation Era, when our tribe was cut in half. It made it difficult for our people. There was a time when we could not just leave the reservations. We had to get a permission slip in order to leave. Rather than be angry at all the things that have happened, we’re getting those pieces and putting them back together. We’re grinding those shards and mixing them with new clay. From there we’re going to make another pot, and that pot is stronger than it was before, because it has the past, it has the present, and it will go on into the future.

Stan Rodriguez introduces a group of young Festival visitors to a Kumeyaay game. Photo by Joe Furgal, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives
Stan Rodriguez introduces a group of young Festival visitors to a Kumeyaay game. Photo by Joe Furgal, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

Why is it important to teach your culture at the Folklife Festival?

Many people tend to look at the differences we have, and that can be a splitting factor. However, when we come here and share our cultures, we celebrate that diversity. We celebrate the differences. Together we can learn and grow as a people. We can become strong as a people, and not be afraid of others.

I got to see many of the things the Basques are doing and hear about their history and preserving their cultural identity. By sharing that with other people, it makes them stronger, too. And I learned a lot from that. It reaffirmed the belief I have that we’re always students. We’re always learning.

Stan’s Introduction to Kumeyaay Language

Hawka = hello
Eyaay ahan = thank you
Po wim pai yo = that’s the way it is
Kunmuk = let it go
Ha mu yu uy mao ha = yeah, sure, why not?
Ha ho pu yu sa = so? (as a taunt)

Stan Rodriguez. Photo by Maureen Spagnolo, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives
Photo by Maureen Spagnolo, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

Elisa Hough is the editor for the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.

The 2016 Sounds of California Smithsonian Folklife Festival program was co-produced with the Alliance for California Traditional Arts, Radio Bilingüe, the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, and the Smithsonian Latino Center.

The Women of R&B: Kim Weston and Shirley Jones

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage

Two R&B singers featured at the 2011 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, Kim Weston and Shirley Jones, sat down yesterday to share stories about their lives in the music business with Timothy Anne Burnside of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Motown artist Kim Weston’s high school music teacher was the esteemed George Shirley, first Black tenor to sing at the Metropolitan Opera. Ms. Weston had already been singing for years before she began studying with Mr. Shirley, having joined her church choir at the age of three. As a young adult she was approached one Sunday after church by an aspiring music producer. He asked her to make a demo recording, and her career quickly took off. Ms. Weston doesn’t consider herself an R&B singer, but rather a singer with the flexibility to sing in any style she chooses; she suggested that thanks to her classical training, she could have pursued a career in opera.

In talking about life on the road, Kim Weston said that male fans from the heyday of her career don’t necessarily remember her for her singing, but more likely for the form-fitting dresses she wore onstage. “I don’t know if that’s a plus or a minus,” she said. When she sang for the Motown Revue, and faced the challenge of performing for an audience of breathless young women right after the all-male group the Contours ("Do You Love Me?"), Ms. Weston had to be strategic. She asked for a blackout with a pin spot—a very tight spotlight—to begin her act, and she started off singing in the wings. In this way she “broke the spell” that the Contours had created, and captured the attention of her audience.

Kim Weston’s influences include LaVern Baker, niece of blues singer Memphis Minnie, who is remembered for hits such as “See See Rider.” Ms. Weston also admires Tony Award-winning actress and Atlantic recording artist Ruth Brown, and singer Maxine Brown (“All in My Mind”). For Ms. Weston, these three performers are “the real roots of R&B.” She is also a great admirer of Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, and Sarah Vaughan. The singer and bandleader Billy Eckstine, who worked with both Ms. Vaughan and Ms. Weston, commented that Ms. Weston’s voice was “the greatest I’ve heard since Sarah Vaughan.”

Shirley Jones and her sisters were the Jones Girls, backup singers for Diana Ross, and sought-after session singers for Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, Luther Vandross, Cher, and others. The Jones Girls were savvy when it came to the business of music, and worked out a contract with Ms. Ross that allowed them to record with other artists during the five months of the year when they were not on the road with her. Like Kim Weston, Shirley Jones got her start singing in church. She grew up in Detroit going to see the Motown Revue, and she and her sisters aspired to R&B stardom in the style of girl groups such as the Supremes and Martha and the Vandellas. Shirley considers herself an “old-school” R&B singer; Ms. Weston qualified this, saying Ms. Jones is “a new sound for the old school.” Shirley Jones’ influences are wide-ranging; her favorite singer is Barbra Streisand, and she admires vocalists as different as Gladys Knight and Céline Dion.

Shirley Jones learned from three years of touring with Diana Ross how best to relate to promoters. Ms. Ross was a perfectionist, very clear about boundaries, and very businesslike. She made it plain that she was in a venue to do a job, and not to party; many promoters assumed otherwise. Ms. Jones commented that if Diana Ross had been a man, her professional attitude would not have been questioned, but since she was a woman, she gained a reputation for being excessively demanding.

In discussing the importance of lyrics, Kim Weston and Shirley Jones agreed that they prefer songs that don’t cast women as sad and helpless; they noted that these kinds of R&B songs were largely written by men. Kim Weston questioned the prevalence of this type of song, asking, “Wasn’t nobody happy?” Shirley Jones’ biggest hit tells the story of a woman who decides to leave her unfaithful man. Ms. Jones likes songs that are in the form of a conversation between people and have a positive tone. Cynthia Biggs wrote most of the Jones Girls’ songs; Ms. Jones, who co-wrote two songs on every Jones Girls album, said “We always wrote strong songs.” Ms. Weston and Ms. Jones talked about their admiration for writer-producers such as Motown’s pioneering Sylvia Moy (“It Takes Two,” “My Cherie Amour”); Valerie Simpson (“Ain’t no Mountain High Enough”), and the better-known Carole King. Ms. Weston hastened to add that while many Blues songs were written by men, and some do cast women as helpless and forlorn, many affirm the sheer joy of being alive; as an example, she quoted the lyric, “rock me baby like my back ain’t got no bone.” Ms. Weston and Ms. Jones agreed that the songs that endure are those that speak to universal themes and experiences.

Both musicians feel a responsibility to pass along their musical knowledge to younger performers, to encourage, tutor, and mentor them. Ms. Jones advises young singers to focus on lyrics, to feel the words of a song deeply and act them out. They talked about singing as a form of storytelling, and compared R&B to Country and Western music, because of the importance of narrative in both genres. While Shirley Jones is not a fan of Hip Hop, saying, “it makes me blush,” Kim Weston likes it.

Ariel Fielding is a Fellow at the Folklife Festival working to increase online and community engagement. She is also a producer of culturally diverse performing arts and educational programming, with an emphasis on South Asian and Afrocentric work, and holds a M.Mus. in Ethnomusicology from the University of London.

Kim Weston performs with Motown legends the Funk Brothers on the Motor City stage on Monday, July 4, at noon and 4:25PM.

Shirley Jones performs on the Motor City Stage on  Monday, July 4, at noon and 4:25PM.

Kim Weston and Shirley Jones will appear once more on the Session Stage, for a conversation on Monday, July 4 at 2 p.m.

A Nigerian Yoruba Naming Ceremony

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Online exhibit focuses on the cultural traditions of an African immigrant community in the United States. A Nigerian family's Naming Ceremony story raises the topics of cultural preservation, community, and family. Includes descriptions of the event, people, and links to relevant local publications.

Smithsonian LVM Interactive

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Media archive on Latino identity. Students explore art, culture, environmental science, and more. Includes 3D games, "augmented reality," and videos.

Toward world understanding with song [sound recording] / compiled and edited by Nye, Nye, and Nye

Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections
Program notes printed on container.

Selections on the recording are compiled chiefly from other items recorded or produced by Folkways Records. Conceived as an accompaniment to the book Exploring music with children / Robert E. Nye and Vernice T. Nye (Wadsworth, 1966).

Performed by various artists.

Related materials may be found in the Moses anf Frances Asch Collection, also held by this repository. Related materials include production files, cover art designs, correspondence, and three open-reel audiotapes.

"This album was developed to be used with a song collection, Toward World Understanding with Song, by Vernice Nye, Robert Nye, and Virginia Nye, published by Wadsworth Publishing Company, Inc., Belmont, California, and sold largely through college bookstores. The book was written to help teachers and parents introduce the study of world understanding to elementary-school-age children. The music for most of the songs on these records appears in the book along with many other songs selected to complement commonly taught social studies units." -- text from notes.
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