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Who Goes to Norway in February?

Smithsonian Magazine

I'm seated in the back of a horse-drawn wagon that's meandering along a path in Nordmarka, the heavily wooded region encompassing much of Oslo. Beside me are a woman from Vancouver, Canada, another from Liverpool, and a Norwegian mother and her young son Aleister, whose round glasses and tousled hair make him look like Harry Potter.

We joke as the wagon lurches forward, our new group of friends pouring sips from a bottle of Jägermeister that had been conveniently hidden behind the trunk of a spruce tree along the route. Though the sky is heavy with moisture, we're content, enchanted by the surrounding forest and already dressed in waterproof wear.

The horse whinnies and our wagon comes to a halt, directly in front of a folding cart table laden with treats. In one corner sits a pile of oranges, while in another are rows of brightly wrapped Lunsji, chocolate-covered wafers (often compared to Kit Kat bars) that are a Norwegian energy staple (the name translates to “quick lunch”). At the center stand more than a dozen cans of Ringnes beer and Pepsi, along with plastic containers of ketchup and mustard, thermoses filled with mulled wine and a coveted bottle of Aquavit, the country's signature spiced spirit.

Our guide Frodo (not kidding) soon appears carrying a backpack filled with hot dogs, buns and dough for roasting on sticks. We head toward the warming fire, taking our seats on benches softened with reindeer pelts. It's the ultimate Norwegian picnic. Then as if on cue, it begins to snow.

“You're going where this February?” friends asked when I mentioned my upcoming trip to greater Oslo, Norway's colorful capital city positioned on the shores of Oslofjord inlet. Known for its wealth of museums and galleries—as well as its steep prices—Oslo also has an unwarranted reputation in the U.S. for being dark and uninviting, specifically in the dead of winter. “You're going to freeze,” people said. “Not only is it cold, but there's hardly any daylight.”

The truth is, I didn't know what to expect when my plane touched down in Norway. I'd been to Scandinavia on a whirlwind tour of Copenhagen, Oslo and Stockholm years before, but that was during the relatively warm month of April and most of my time was spent on tour buses. On this visit, my goal was to experience southern Norway's wondrous bounty any way I saw fit, despite the frigid temperatures.

I arrived at Oslo's Gardermoen Airport on a Monday morning, a dusting of snow covering much of the runway's surrounds. I collected luggage and boarded a Wi-Fi-equipped train for the two-hour train ride to Lillehammer, a small ski hamlet filled with 19th-century wooden structures and—rumor has it—the largest concentration of sporting good stores and outdoor shops in all of Norway. While not as well known as Oslo, Lillehammer skated its way into public consciousness as host of the 1994 Winter Olympics (the games featuring Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding).

Since then, much of the area's added infrastructure has remained intact, attracting tourists who come to watch athletes tackle the Lysgårdsbakkene Ski Jump, browse the displays at the all-encompassing Norwegian Olympic Museum and dine amongst giant trolls at Trollsalen Restaurant in Hunderfossen Winter Park (the eatery claims that the trolls are made of “troll-flesh and troll-bones”). After arriving, I caught a shuttle to nearby Hafjell ski resort for a turn on the bobraft, a slightly tamer and more padded version of bobsledding aimed at tourists.

Joining three (relative) strangers and a driver provided by the resort, I set off at 60 miles per hour down a 16-turn, 5,610-foot-long Olympic bobsledding track, feeling much like a bobblehead doll as I tried to keep my head from falling forward or back. Securing my elbows and arms against the inside of the raft, I worked to keep myself as straight as possible as we hugged each curve. The driver's skills maneuvering around the track amazed me. The experience definitely earned me my next stop: a Fjellbekk cocktail made with vodka, soda and aqauvit at King Valemon's snow and ice-built Ice Bar, inside Hunderfossen's Snow Hotel.

Image by Tim Graham/Getty Images. A couple walks past traditional wooden buildings along Storgata in the quaint area of Tromso, located in the Arctic Circle in northern Norway (original image)

Image by Tim Graham/Getty Images. Arctic sky and landscape at Ersfjordbotn on Klavoya Island near Tromso in northern Norway (original image)

Image by Tim Graham/Getty Images. Stockfish and cod dry in a fisherman's hut in the Arctic Circle on the island of Ringvassoya, located in northern Norway's region of Tromso (original image)

Image by Atlantide Phototravel/Corbis. The harbor of the Norwegian city of Moskenesoy (original image)

In a country where temperatures can plummet to -40 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter and daylight sometimes never appears, Norwegians have to find innovative ways to amuse themselves during the long winter months. As I quickly learned, it doesn't mean staying indoors. The Norwegian philosophy of Friluftsliv, or “open outdoor living,” is one that permeates Norwegian's lives year-round. Throughout winter you'll see locals dressed in boots and parkas with faux fur-lined hoods wandering the streets of Oslo as if it were sunny and 70 degrees.

Kids may spend their weekdays mornings studying in school, but their evenings are devoted to Vinterpark Tryvann, Oslo's largest ski resort, where they work on perfecting their downhill runs. And in the outskirts of the capital city you'll find people cross-country skiing, ice-fishing, and yes, even picnicking, morning, noon and night.

After leaving Lillehammer I made my way up to Norefjell, another alpine ski resort approximately a 1.5-hour drive north of Oslo. It's home to the ski-in/ski-out Quality Spa & Resort where I booked a room, as well as one of Scandinavia's greatest vertical drops. The slopes were overrun with Danes on winter holiday, visiting their northern neighbor for both its proximity and elevated terrain.

Still, the declaration among locals that Norwegians are “born with skis on their feet” has little to do with downhill (or alpine) skiing, a sport that didn't really gain traction in the area until the 1970s. “Alpine skiing first became popular [with Norwegians] because of the great Swedish champion Ingemar Stenmark, whom they watched on television,” says Jean-Francois Gehin, former marketing manager at Hafjell, as we sit sipping coffee in the resort's cafe. “Then as Norway's standard of living increased—and with the building of ski facilities for the '94 Olympics—alpine skiing has gotten a real push.”

Today, says Gehin, about 15 percent of Norwegians engage in alpine skiing, while approximately 75 percent ski cross-country at least once per year. But despite the sport's mainstream infancy in Norway, the country's alpine skiers remain some of the world's best. Norway's alpine skiers won four medals at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, with the ski team's rock-star athlete Aksel Lund Svindal even beating out U.S. favorite Bode Miller for gold in the Men's Super-G.

Norefjell's beginner runs were ideal for my novice skills, and I spent much of the day on the bunny slope (they also call it this in Norway) just outside the resort, using pull lifts to carry me to the top of the hill and then slowly snow plowing down as toddlers whizzed past me, raising their arms in victory as they went. Maybe it was that I was sporting multiple layers or thinking about the promise of an evening shot of aquavit to warm my throat, but I hardly noticed the cold.

In fact, the energy required to partake in friluftsliv during frigid months leads to one of the season's added bonuses: Norway's nurturing, hearty cuisine. That afternoon as I sat enjoying a bowl of Jerusalem artichoke and potato soup at the resort's Swiss-chalet-style Norefjellhytta Restaurant, which overlooks stunning Lake Noresund, I found myself thinking: winter may indeed be the best time to visit southern Norway.

Still, it wasn't until arriving in Oslo that I sampled one of the country's finest food offerings: torsketunger, or fried cod's tongue, an oyster-like delicacy that's only available during skrei season—roughly January through March. Though actually a small muscle from inside the fish's throat, these “tongues” were larger than I expected and surprisingly pleasing, their crispy breaded exteriors contrasting well with the briny, gelatinous substance inside.

I spent my final few days in Norway exploring its capital city, dining on open-faced sandwiches and slurping up bowls of milky fiskesuppe, or fish soup; perusing exhibits inside the Nobel Peace Center and the National Gallery (home to one of the two painted versions of Edvard Munch's The Scream) and spending even more time outdoors. I walked among Gustav Vigeland's snow-draped human sculptures in Oslo's Vigelandsparken as locals glided by on skis; took a death-defying toboggan ride down Korketrekkeren, a corkscrewing and tenacious track riddled with moguls and serviced by public transport that will carry intrepid souls right back up to the top; and sat around a mid-afternoon campfire beneath snow flurries in the woods, drinking mulled wine, frying hot dogs on sticks, and feeling as content as I'd been if it were bright skies and 80 degrees.

There's no doubt that winters in southern Norway are cold, but with centuries of biting temperatures beneath their belts, Norwegians have figured out how to not only cope with the weather, but also how to embrace it. In fact, it's an art they seem to have perfected.

Why 30,000 People Came Out to See a Swedish Singer Arrive in New York

Smithsonian Magazine

Beatlemania had nothing on Lind Mania. When the Beatles arrived in New York in 1964, they were greeted by 3,000 screaming fans. In 1850, Jenny Lind beat them ten times over–even though she was a virtual unknown in America in 1849.

Lind, a Swedish opera singer, made her American debut in New York on this day in 1850. She’d already received a more-than-warm welcome, as thousands of fans besotted by the 30-year-old singer’s reputation rushed to greet her at the docks. Why? The hype, the hype.

“While she was the darling of Europe, in 1849 almost no one in the United States knew who Lind was,” writes Regan Shrumm for the National Museum of American History. “By September 1850, however, she was one of the most famous and celebrated women in America.” Even though recording technology was decades off and most of the people who participated in Lind Mania had never heard the opera singer use her famous voice, people happily partook in the celebrity-fueled madness. In Europe, Lind became known after debuting in Stockholm in 1838, writes Encyclopedia Britannica. She was known "for her vocal control and agility and for the purity and naturalness of her art," the encylopedia writes, but decided to retire from opera at a young age to focus on her strong Christian faith. 

Lind, retired from performing opera in 1849, was in the process of reinventing herself as a solo performer, writes Keith Williams for The New York Times. Phineas T. Barnum, who had already made a name for himself with showy spectacles such as the Feejee Mermaid, brought her to America to perform. The "mermaid" was part of a hoax that Barnum put on to attract visitors to Barnum's American Museum. Instead of the beautiful mermaid advertised in the newspapers, spectacle-seekers found a monkey body sewed to a dried fish. Even before the advertising campaign that stirred up a frenzy about her visit, the "Swedish Nightingale" promised to be a more legitimate attraction.  At the time he reached out to her, even Barnum himself hadn’t heard the “Swedish Nightingale” sing, writes Williams. But he saw a business opportunity in Lind that had little to do with her singing voice.

Though both this portrait of Lind by Mathew Brady and the wardrobe of the Lind paper doll feature fancy costumes, Lind herself performed in a simple white dress throughout her American tour. (Library of Congress)

"When Barnum was originally seeking investors, he was shunned by a lot of businessmen,” the Barnum Museum’s executive director Kathy Maher told Williams. Getting Lind to come wasn’t cheap, writes Shrumm—in the end, the promoter offered her $1,000 per performance for a planned 150-show run that ended up being 95 shows—but it did end up being a good bet for Barnum. Lind’s American tour, on which she performed songs of her choosing, including a number of pop songs, netted more than $700,000.   

Barnum’s promotional stunts included publishing announcements in the newspaper and auctioning off tickets to drive the prices up. “The showman even held a poetic competition [the Jenny Lind Prize Song Competition], which would furnish the lyrics for a new song that Lind would sing throughout her tour,” Shrumm writes. This was all besides the souvenirs: a popular paper doll including 10 costumes; Jenny Lind-themed commercial goods, like bonnets, pianos and chairs; and commemorative programs.

But all the hype would likely have come to little if Lind was just an opera singer. The biographic materials made available to American audiences focused on her perceived personal qualities, writes historian Sherry Lee Linkon:

Briefly, the story goes like this: Lind was a poor, lonely child, who rose to become the best singer in the world through a combination of luck and hard work. She lost her voice early on, but she regained it through careful study, discipline, and, in some versions, an almost miraculous recovery. She struggled to develop her voice and overcome her teacher’s skepticism, but she had faith in herself, and her perseverance paid off. Having achieved great success, Lind now devoted herself to sharing her gift, both through the music itself and through the money she earned.

By all accounts, Lind was a talented singer and she did donate a chunk of her earnings from the tour to charitable causes. But the Lind Mania that prompted people to buy probably-not-real pieces of her hair allegedly taken from her hairbrush at the hotels she stayed at, writes Williams, had little to do with the singer as she actually was. It had more to do with the middle-class aspirations Lind and her merch could be associated with: good business sense, a charitable spirit and demure, Christian, white femininity. In this way, like many female celebrities who would follow, Jenny Lind was larger than life.

Why Americans Flocked to Catch a Glimpse of Hitler's Car

Smithsonian Magazine

When Chicago businessman Christopher Janus bought a used Mercedes-Benz from a Swedish firm in 1948, he had to deal with more than just the car’s mammoth size (it was seven feet wide and weighed five tons) and abysmal gas mileage (four to seven miles per gallon). Janus was also forced to grapple with the car’s ghosts. The behemoth was formerly owned by Adolf Hitler—or so Janus thought.

In his new book The Devil’s Mercedes: The Bizarre and Disturbing Adventures of Hitler’s Limousine in America, Robert Klara takes readers across the country with two Mercedes-Benz limousines whose ties to the Nazis made the cars irresistible attractions at state fairs and exhibition halls. One car was a war prize of American GI Joe Azara. The other was part of an import deal. Both were equipped with over a dozen secret compartments, a folding passenger-side platform on which Adolf Hitler could stand to add six inches to his 5-foot-8 height, and a 52-gallon gas tank. They also both toured the country, drawing crowds and earning money for charities and the U.S. military. But which one actually belonged to Hitler?

To unravel the mystery and understand their powerful symbolism, Klara dove into the history of both cars’ origins. But the real discovery wasn’t deducing whether or not they were driven by Hitler; it was uncovering the profound effect the cars had on American audiences. talked to Klara about his inspiration for the book, what the cars symbolized in the post-war period, and how they helped Americans grapple with the violence wrought by the Nazis.

What inspired you to tackle this subject?

I had wanted to do a story about the cursed object. Strangely enough, you could even say this idea started at the Smithsonian, because I’d been in Washington a number of years ago and devoted a few days just to museum hopping and made a point of seeing the Hope Diamond, which is surrounded by a great deal of lore. I’m not sure how credible those stories are, but some of the people who owned it met with early and unpleasant ends. That idea was rolling around my head and I thought, what about a cursed car? That would be pretty unusual. I started cycling through those and I went through the predictable ones, the car that Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated in and none of those seemed to pan out. Then out of the blue I thought, what did Hitler drive around in? That was the beginning point of this.

I think in a sense just about anything associated with Hitler can be cursed in a metaphorical way. There’s such an aura and symbolic weight to anything associated with that man. I wasn’t looking to do something sensational about him, and I wasn’t looking to add just another Hitler book to the pile of ones that are out there, but nobody had really tapped into this before. There’s something specific about an automobile, especially in the American psyche. Cars have never been just means of transportation for us. They’re windows to people’s personalities and so I thought, there’s a great deal to work with here. It just started rolling, as it were, and getting stranger by the month.

Did you realize there was a mystery behind the true car that belonged to Hitler?

No, I completely lucked into that to be honest. But when I started digging through old newspaper accounts, I kept seeing mentions of Hitler’s car and at some point had a whole stack of old newspaper stories and it became clear to me that there’s no way it could’ve been just one car. I thought, don’t even tell me there was more than one of these crazy things here, and of course there were.

It wasn’t important to me to do a definitive guide to Hitler’s automobiles. I wanted to tell a story that was set in post-war America about these objects as they influenced Americans’ understanding of World War II, both as a military event and as something with a great deal of moral and historical weight. I wasn’t really interested in chasing every single car through the midways of America.

How did people respond to seeing Hitler’s cars?

It was a whole range of responses. What was more surprising to me was the intensity of those responses, which ranged from extreme and perhaps unhealthy fascination on through to anger to the point of violence. I’m hard-pressed to think of many other objects that would have that effect on the public.

Obviously there was so much more going on than the exhibition or sale or display of an old Mercedes-Benz. Even if this was a one-of-a-kind car, which it wasn’t, you wouldn’t have tens of thousands of people waiting in line to look at a Mercedes-Benz. I think what was happening is when they were looking at Hitler’s car, in a sense they were looking at Hitler. These cars have always been a proxy to Hitler. In the immediate post-war period, the late ’40s and early ’50s, this car was a tangible, visceral link to the biggest war in our history. It allowed visitors to face, if only by proxy, if only symbolically, the man who was responsible for burning a great portion of the world. 

Image by Robert Klara . Hitler's car on display at the Canadian War Museum. (original image)

Image by K. H. Gibson III. Christopher Janus accepting one of the Mercedes 770K cars, which he took on a tour around the country as "Hitler's Car." (original image)

Image by Finnish Armed Forces. Hitler gave Mercedes 770K cars as gifts, including to Finnish Field Marshal Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim. (original image)

Image by Finnish Armed Forces. Hitler boards the 770K he gave to Finnish Field Marshal Mannerheim. (original image)

Do you think the cars gave Americans a better understanding of the war?

There are many parts of the American public, then and now, who are not inclined to visit museums or do a great deal of reading about historical subjects. And I don’t argue that the car enabled people to learn very much about the Second World War, but it certainly, in the minds of a lot of people, put them in touch with it. As to what they got out of it—it’s hard to say. Did they come away with a deeper understanding of the war? It’s doubtful to me. Insofar as they promoted awareness of the war, the cars furnished people with a means of coming to terms with it, if that’s not giving too much credit to an old Mercedes-Benz. Perhaps it didn’t enrich people very much, but it provoked thought and reflection.

It’s something on the order of 10 percent of Americans were actually involved in the fighting in the two major theaters of the war, and that is an enormous number of people, but it leaves about 90 percent of the country on the home front. Their picture of the war would’ve been limited to newsreels that they saw in theaters and to newspaper and radio stories. Many of those were sanitized to one degree or another and given a steep patriotic slant. One of the arguments I advance in the book is when an artifact that is not only this large and unusual, but one that is linked or believed to be linked to Hitler himself came back to the U.S., it represented a very rare and unusual opportunity for people to interact with an artifact from the war. That was something that just was not easy to do. I think the uniqueness of this car’s presence on American soil went beyond the spectacle of it and into the realm of it being a kind of tangible symbol.

Why are cars so symbolically important to Americans?

Our primary means of getting around has been the automobile ever since the interstates were built after the war and we let what had been the world’s finest railroad system collapse. There’s always been something of the American identity interwoven with the fabric of the automobile that you just don’t see in other places. The car has always functioned for Americans as a symbol of what you’ve been able to attain in the world. It’s a badge of pride sitting in your driveway, so the brand is important and the make is important, and especially in my Brooklyn neighborhood how relentlessly you can trick out the car is important. The car is an integral part of our identities as Americans and I think that fact played very heavily into the public’s fascination with these cars.

But also, the Mercedes-Benz Grosser 770K played a functional part in the propagandist structure of National Socialism. It was designed to be a very strong, powerful, over-large intimidating machine. It was part of the Nazi stagecraft. So the kind of awe and fear and intimidation that the car inspired in Germany, it was something that you could still experience by looking at it here.

Does putting the car up for display, especially at fairs, trivialize the horror of the war? Should we just have destroyed the cars?

There’s no doubt an element of distaste in all of this. Especially given the fact that many of the settings in which the car was displayed were essentially midways and sideshows. There were many people who wanted to [junk the cars]. There was one gentleman who bid on it at an auction who publicly pledged to destroy it. Personally, I don’t believe that we are better off destroying any artifact simply by virtue of its association, even with something as horrible and tragic as World War II. Every relic, every artifact, can be deployed for as much good as bad and the responsibility rests with the owner to put this object in context.

The two cars that are in this book, one is with a private owner and the other is in a museum, so the sideshow days are past. One of the ways we understand and interpret the cultural past is to lay eyes upon these objects, which in and of themselves are rarely much to look at. But if it’s put in proper context, an academic or museum setting, displayed in such a way that you understand where it came from and what it means, physical artifacts can go a great way in making sense of the world.

What do you hope readers get out of the book?

More than anything, I hope that the book demonstrates the way our understanding of an event like World War II has evolved and grown more sophisticated over the decades. When the two cars were first put on display, it was in a very rah-rah, patriotic, “yay-us” fashion. And now if you take a look at how the Canadian War museum car is displayed, it is so much more sobering. The car is arguably more frightening than ever, as it should be. In the immediate days after the war, everybody I think was grateful that it was in the rearview mirror, if you’ll forgive the automotive pun, so the car was little more than war booty and a way to sell bonds. It evolved over the years, through a lot of somewhat tawdry and somewhat distasteful steps, to the point where today, the car is instrumental in helping people to understand the magnitude of the tragedy that that war was.

The other thing that I hope people take from it is a greater understanding of the power of symbols and how they can be deployed for both good and evil. One of the things that pleased me about how these cars were used, many of the owners of this car put them on display—granted in environments that were very lowbrow—but donated the proceeds to charities. And I thought that that reversal of polarity was fascinating. Because their intent, whether they succeeded or not, was to take something that had been a symbol of great evil and turn it on its head into an engine for doing some good. To me that demonstrated the central role that symbols play in the culture.

We’re really just talking about a Mercedes-Benz here at the end of the day. The effect the car had on people derived from the symbolic weight the car carried. The fact that as time went on that the car could actually be used to do some good, either giving money through charity or today in a museum setting demonstrates to me that even something as horrifying as an automobile that drove Hitler through the Nuremberg rallies can now be a means of understanding what happens when a megalomaniac gains control.

Why Are We So Obsessed With Dead Bodies?

Smithsonian Magazine

When Dr. Gunther von Hagens started using “plastination” in the 1970s to preserve human bodies, he likely did not anticipate the wild success of the Body Worlds exhibitions that stem from his creation. Body Worlds has since hosted millions of visitors to its exhibits, including six spin-offs. The offshoots include a version on vital organs and another featuring plastinated animal remains. The process replaces natural bodily fluids with polymers that harden to create odorless and dry “specimens.”

Frozen in place, plastinated remains in the exhibits are rigidly posed—both for dramatic effect and to illustrate specific bodily features. Over 40 million museum visitors have encountered these exhibitions in more than 100 different locations worldwide. Even copycat exhibits have taken off, eschewing accredited museums in favor of places like the Luxor Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.

But Body Worlds—though seemingly an entirely modern phenomenon only made possible with futuristic plastic technology—emerges from a long tradition of popular exhibits featuring actual and simulated human remains. What continues to draw so many people to human body exhibitions—even today?

Early exhibits of human bodies

For nearly as long as physicians and anatomists have attempted to understand the body, they have attempted to preserve, illustrate and present it. Cabinets of curiosities displayed in the homes of European nobility in the 16th century frequently included human skulls. As civic museums emerged in cities throughout Europe and the United States, some began to formally organize collections around anatomical questions.

The Hyrtl Skull Collection at the Mütter Museum continues to be displayed together. Recently, the museum organized a ‘Save Our Skulls’ fundraising campaign in order to better conserve the collection. (George Widman, 2009, for the Mütter Museum of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia)

Medical museums were often more interested in pathologies—abnormal medical conditions or disease. They also collected thousands of skulls and bones, attempting to address basic questions about race. Early on, medical museums were generally closed to the public, instead focusing on training medical students through hands-on experience with specimens. Almost reluctantly, they began opening their doors to the public. Once they did, they were surprised by the relatively large number of visitors curiously entering their galleries.

Medical museums were not the sole institutions housing and displaying remains, however. Collections aimed more squarely at the general public often included such items as well. The Army Medical Museum, for instance, located along the National Mall, exhibited human remains between 1887 and the 1960s (living on as the National Museum of Health and Medicine). The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History built its own large body collections, especially during the early 20th century. Popular exhibits at the American Museum of Natural History exhibited human remains in New York City just steps from Central Park.

Notable exhibits featuring human remains or innovative reproductions were also wildly popular at World’s Fairs, including Chicago (1893), St. Louis (1904) and San Diego (1915), among many others. People crowded galleries even as these exhibits proved vexing to critics.

Troubling transition from person to specimen

In the quest to rapidly build collections, remains were sometimes collected under highly questionable ethical circumstances. Bodies were removed from graves and sold, gathered from hospitals near exhibitions reminiscent of human zoos, and rounded up haphazardly from battlefields.

In the United States, the human body in the late 19th and early 20th century was racialized in almost every respect imaginable. Many people became obsessed with the supposed differentiations between Native Americans, African Americans and European Americans—occasionally stretching claims into rigid hierarchies of humankind. The exhibitions dehumanized bodies by casting them as observable data points rather than actual human beings.

Some exhibits blended medical science and racial science in a bizarrely inaccurate manner. Medical doctors supported eugenics groups organizing temporary exhibits comparing hair and skulls from different apes and nonwhite humans, underscoring popular notions about the supposedly primitive nature of those outside of Western civilization. To our modern eyes, these attempts are obviously stained by scientific racism.

Eventually, the racialized science that had led to collecting thousands of skulls and other bones from people around the world came under increased scrutiny. The comparative study of race—dominating many early displays of human remains—was largely discredited.

Indigenous activists, tired of seeing their ancestors viewed as “specimens,” also began pushing back against their display. Some exhibit planners began seeking other methods—including more sophisticated models—and exhibiting actual human remains became less prominent.

By midcentury it was less common to display actual human remains in museum exhibits. The occasional Egyptian mummy notwithstanding, museum remains were largely relegated behind the scenes to bone rooms.

Specimen exhibits fade, temporarily

With largely unfounded concern, museum administrators, curators and other critics worried audiences would be disgusted when shown vivid details about human anatomy. Gradually, as medical illustrations became better and easier to reproduce in textbooks, the need for demonstrations with real “specimens” seemed to dissipate.

First displayed at a World’s Fair in Chicago in 1933, see-through models of the human body became a favorite attraction at medical exhibits in years to come. Models replicated actual human body parts rather than displaying them in preserved form. Exhibits were sometimes animated with light shows and synchronized lectures.

Popular Science described a model from the 1939 World’s Fair, an alternative to real human specimens. (Popular Science, CC BY-NC)

Later, in the 1960s, new transparent models were created for popular education. Eventually, some of the many transparent medical models wound up in science museums. Although popular, it remains unclear how effective the models were in either teaching visitors or inspiring them to learn more about the human body.

Over the years, methods for teaching anatomy shifted. Many medical museums even closed permanently. Those that could not dispose of collections by destroying them donated or sold them. Human body exhibits generally faded from public consciousness.

But after decades of declining visitor numbers, something surprising started happening at one of the nation’s most important medical museums. The Mütter Museum’s displays continued to draw heavily from its human remains collections even as similar institutions moved away from such exhibits. From the mid-1980s to 2007, the number of visitors entering the Mütter’s galleries grew from roughly 5,000 visitors per year to more than 60,000. Today, the museum is the most visited small museum in Philadelphia, hosting over 130,000 visitors annually.

When Body Worlds began touring museums in the mid-1990s, it tapped into a curiosity in the U.S. that has probably always existed—a fascination with death and the human body.

Displaying once-living people in museums brings up uncomfortable ethical questions. (Paul Stevenson, CC BY)

Adding a gloss of scientization to the dead

People are very often unsettled by seeing what were once living, breathing, human beings—people with emotions and families—turned into scientific specimens intended for public consumption. Despite whatever discomfort emerges, however, the curious appeal of medicalized body displays at public museums lingers, enough so to make them consistently appealing as fodder for popular exhibitions.

Body Worlds states “health education” is its “primary goal,” elaborating that the bodies in exhibits are posed to suggest that we as humans are “naturally fragile in a mechanized world.”

The exhibits are partially successful in achieving that mission. In tension with the message about human fragility, though, is the desire to preserve them by preventing their natural decay through technology.

With public schools cutting health programs in classrooms around the U.S., it stands to reason people might seek this kind of body knowledge elsewhere. Models are never quite as uniquely appealing as actual flesh and bone.

But while charged emotional responses have the potential to heighten curiosity, they can also inhibit learning. While museum administrators voiced concern that visitors would be horrified viewing actual human bodies on exhibit, the public has instead proven to have an almost insatiable thirst for seeing scientized dead.

Inside the plastination room. (Alamy)

In the face of this popularity, museums must fully consider the special implications and problems with these exhibitions when choosing to display human bodies.

One basic concern relates to the exact origins of these bodies. Criticisms elicited an official response from von Hagens. Major ethical differences exist between exhibitions including human remains where permission has been granted in advance by the deceased or through descendants and museum displays revealing bodies of individuals offered no choice in the matter.

Spiritually sacred objects and the remains of past people present unique issues which must be dealt with sensitively and on an individual basis. Cultural and historical context is important. Consulting with living ancestors is critical.

Exhibitors also need to do more to put these displays into greater historical context for visitors. Without it, visitors might mistake artfully posed cadavers as art pieces, which they most assuredly are not.

These are all issues we will likely be grappling with for years to come. If past history is suggestive of future trends, visitors will continue to be drawn to these exhibits as long as the human body remains mysterious and alluring.

Why Charles Dickens Wrote "A Christmas Carol"

Smithsonian Magazine

A Christmas Carol is more than a timeless Christmas story. Its author hoped that its lessons would be remembered all through the year.

The publication of A Christmas Carol on this day in 1843 ensured that Charles Dickens’ name would forever be linked with Christmas. In some ways, it’s a very Victorian story of urban circumstances: extremes of wealth and poverty, industry and inability. But it also helped change Victorian society, writes historian Catherine Golden for the National Postal Museum blog. And that’s why Dickens wrote it.

Aside from boosting people’s awareness of the plight of the poor in Victorian England, though, Dickens also had a more immediate need: cash. He’d spent too much on his 1842 American tour, Golden writes, and he needed to support his large family. “Thinking creatively, he wrote himself out of his dilemma,” she reports.

The already well-known writer’s solution worked, to a degree. He sold out the first print run in a week, all 6,000 copies of it. By the end of the next year, writes Brandon Ambrosino for Vox, the book had sold more than 15,000 copies. But due to the book’s lavish bindings and the relatively low price he chose to sell it for, writes Michael Varese for The Guardian, much of that money didn’t make it back to the author, who was hoping to make at least £1000 from the book.  “What a wonderful thing it is that such a great success should occasion me such intolerable anxiety and disappointment!” he wrote.

The book did have the cultural impact Dickens was hoping for, though. The writer came from a poor family and is remembered as a friend to the poor throughout his life. In the fall of that year, writes Ambrosino, the author had visited a Samuel Starey’s Field Land Ragged School, which taught poor children. “Dickens easily empathized with such children living in poverty, coming, as he did, from a poor childhood himself--a fact that set him apart from many other English authors,” writes Ambrosino.

“Even if economics motivated Dickens to write A Christmas Carol, his story stimulated charity,” writes Golden. Characters like Bob Cratchitt’s family, Scrooge’s lost love and of course Scrooge himself paint a vivid picture of a time and place where need was everywhere, especially in London. And Scrooge’s redemption arc that anchors the story is an important voice to potential middle-class givers, writes Ambrosino. “Though he doesn’t give away any of his money [at the beginning of the story], and though he feels no sympathy for those less fortunate than he, Scrooge, as Dickens makes clear, is no criminal. He works hard for his money, day in and day out.”  In the end, Scrooge becomes a sympathetic character. And his belief that prisons and workhouses were enough social aid for those in poverty--a common enough belief in Victorian times--is overwhelmed only when he realizes that the city needs something more: empathy, in the form of charity.

Like Scrooge at the end of the story, when he becomes “as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew,” Dickens himself was a charitable man. He made a good living, writes Ambrosino, “and he used his wealth and influence to help those less fortunate.”

Dickens may not have gotten rich off of the publication of A Christmas Carol, but he did make the world a little richer.

Why Every Food Lover Should Visit the Twin Cities

Smithsonian Magazine

Let's talk about the sweet potatoes at Young Joni. How they're blackened like campfire marshmallows, the insides all gooey and sweet. How they're spiked with gochugaro and topped with barely-there ruffles of bonito flakes. And, underneath it all, clinging to the plate, an enlightened schmear of crème fraîche and smoky charred scallions.

And, sure, let's talk about how the mushrooms are freakishly juicy — water-balloon juicy — because they're confited in olive oil before they hit the grill. Or how my favorite of Minnesota's embarrassment of lakes is the miniature one made of chestnut-miso butter pooled beneath those plump mushrooms.

We could talk this way about a lot of what's coming off the wood fire at this handsome Korean-ish pizza-and-other-stuff restaurant in the artsy, low-slung Minneapolis neighborhood of Northeast. But I'm inclined not to belabor the thesaurus-taxing explications and dutiful prepositions of the professional food describer (this thing atop that one, and a dollop of something else) and just say it directly: this stuff is really good. Get here and eat it if you can. Even if that means strapping on a pair of cross-country skis and braving the whiteout of a freak spring blizzard, as it did for some undeterred Young Joni devotees just before I visited in late April.

"I want you to walk in here and feel like the restaurant is giving you a big hug," said Ann Kim, chef-proprietor of the two-year-old establishment, who also runs Pizzeria Lola and Hello Pizza, in Southwest Minneapolis. Call it Korean-Midwestern hygge. Call it the embrace of fire and spice by an often-freezing city newly hip to the multidimensional tastes of its increasingly diverse populace. Call it the embodiment of quirky, cosmopolitan Minneapolis, St. Paul's ever-so-slightly showier younger sibling. Whatever it is, it's working. The place was packed to the wood-beamed rafters. Guests ordered the amatriciana pizza, a meat-heavy pie called the Yolo, and another topped with fennel sausage, mozzarella, onion, and a dusting of fennel pollen.

Kim grew up in the suburb of Apple Valley in the late 1970s when, it's fair to say, the full spectrum of the Asian pantry had not yet permeated the markets or mindshare of America's Casserole Belt. With her parents working, her grandmother ran and fed the household.

"Every November, we'd help her make enough kimchi to last the year," Kim said. "The only vessel we had that was big enough was our plastic kiddie pool. She'd let the cabbage brine in there, and then, in summer, my sister and I would clean out the pool and swim in it again."

Another pizza served at Young Joni comes topped with arugula and Korean barbecue, which Kim served at Lola as a lark years ago. "For some people, their first experience with Korean food is on top of a pizza pie — I love that."


In 1850, the Swedish novelist Fredrika Bremer toured the territory that eight years later would become a state and declared prophetically: "What a glorious new Scandinavia might not Minnesota become!"

And so, over the next century or so, it kind of did. Swedes and Danes and Norwegians joined Germans, Italians, and other settlers. The power of the St. Anthony Falls was harnessed, and the flour-milling industry blossomed on the shores of the Mississippi River. Minneapolis and its next-door neighbor, St. Paul, grew large and prosperous, and everyone agreed, in their Midwestern, non-braggadocious way, that they were pretty nice places to live if you didn't mind the winter. Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale's presence on the national stage gave the Twin Cities a reputation as a bastion of liberalism, even as they remained mostly white.

The Stone Arch Bridge over St. Anthony Falls, in Minneapolis. (Christopher Testani)

But in more recent decades, the demographics have shifted. The Twin Cities have benefited from a transformative influx of immigrants from Mexico, Korea, and Vietnam, among others. Hmong refugees from Laos and Thailand began arriving in the mid 1970s. Today, there are thriving populations of Somalians, Liberians, and Ethiopians, and a dynamic South Asian community. The state's foreign-born population has more than doubled since the early 1990s.

Sitting at Young Joni's bar, I was joined by Cameron Gainer, an artist and publisher of a literary arts-and-culture quarterly called the Third Rail. Gainer came to town a decade ago from New York, when his wife, Olga Viso, took over as executive director of the Walker Art Center.

"Back then, it was difficult to find anywhere to go after 8:30," Gainer said. "I'd tell people where we'd moved and they'd say, "Oh, Milwaukee's great!"" Now, he explained, living here feels like being at the center of something rapidly expanding and evolving: a vibrant creative class; a community of engaged artists, architects, and chefs. An American city like no other.

From left: The North Loop neighborhood, in Minneapolis; menswear shop Askov Finlayson; the famed Grain Belt sign by the Mississippi River. (Christopher Testani)

Andrew Zimmern, host of Bizarre Foods and outspoken booster of his adopted hometown, added to the list of reasons to love this place: "Prince was from here. You can swim, sail, or canoe on our lakes — on your lunch hour. We have the Minnesota State Fair, the single greatest party on planet Earth. And we've gone from not having a single oyster bar in town to being a national powerhouse as a restaurant city. All in one generation."

The Twin Cities' pioneering cultural institutions have continued to reinvent themselves. The Walker, which was reclad and expanded in 2005 by Herzog & de Meuron, last year completed a lengthy overhaul of its iconic sculpture garden, adding 18 new works by artists such as Katharina Fritsch and Theaster Gates. The 55-year-old Guthrie Theater unveiled a striking new Jean Nouvel–designed home in 2006, with its Endless Bridge cantilevered out toward the Mississippi. St. Paul's Minnesota Museum of American Art is in the midst of a massive expansion. Also last year, the century-old Minneapolis Institute of Art put on the first major exhibition of contemporary Somalian artwork. Artists have colonized the industrial buildings of Northeast Minneapolis, converting the brick husks into studios and galleries. This dynamic cultural scene is by design: Minnesota ranks second in the nation after Washington, D.C., for per-capita government spending on the arts. "There's a let's-make-stuff vibe that's amazing," Gainer said. "There are opportunities to collaborate, to do things that don't exist yet, like start an art journal or open a Korean pizza joint."

"Give us one fried-chicken sandwich as a garnish, please," Sameh Wadi said. We were wearing plastic bibs and slurping frozen daiquiri slushies at Grand Catch, the bright and buoyant Asian-style Cajun seafood-boil restaurant that he and his brother Saed just opened with Thien Ly, a Vietnamese chef, on St. Paul's leafy Grand Avenue.

Sameh, a Palestinian-American chef and restaurateur with a general air of mischievous merriment, was ordering lunch for the two of us. The sandwich, he emphasized, was a mere palate cleanser to be shared between the main events: copious platters of pungently spiced crawfish, corn, gangly shrimp, and a Dungeness crab the size of a large chihuahua, whose carapace we'd lift and drink from as if it were a sacred chalice filled with brothy crab-innard delights.

He met Thien Ly when a friend brought him to Cajun Deli, Ly's hole-in-the-wall seafood-boil spot in suburban Brooklyn Park. For Sameh, who'd opened and closed a Middle Eastern fine-dining restaurant and moved on to run an eclectic street food truck and restaurant called World Street Kitchen ("burritos with fried rice and curry chicken, shawarma tacos — everything's delicious and makes no sense"), the border-bending Viet-Cajun boil was a revelation.

"It burned my face, but it's so addicting," he said. Returning obsessively for years, he got to know Ly. Eventually, he and the Wadi brothers talked shop and decided to open one.

The bar at Young Joni, a Korean-influenced restaurant in Northeast Minneapolis. (Christopher Testani)

And here we were, bibbed and broth-splattered, drinking pink slushies in coupe glasses in this bright spot on a flush avenue, and there was a neon sign on the wall that read WHAT'S CRACKIN? and crab dip with fermented crab paste and Middle Eastern spices and an ice-cream machine nicknamed Betty Lou that dispensed raspberry-lychee soft serve to help cool the burn. I kept forgetting what state or country I was in — and hoping I didn't have to leave.

I wondered, were the Twin Cities ready for this 10 years ago? "Absolutely not," Sameh said. "Ten years ago, people weren't ready for my white-tablecloth Middle Eastern restaurant with foie gras on the menu. Now people are just game. Now you can go to a Vietnamese restaurant, and they're doing Minnesota walleye in clay pots. It's a gorgeous thing."


"Last week people were so angry!" the chef Gavin Kaysen said with a laugh. Happily, I'd missed the late-season blizzard. The Great Thaw had come to the Cities and nobody seemed angry about anything.

Kaysen's restaurant, Spoon & Stable, is in Minneapolis's North Loop, a fast-changing riverfront neighborhood of broad avenues, where old stables and warehouses are now populated by start-ups and coffee bars. A Minnesota native, Kaysen left for a decade or so to work in Napa Valley and New York City, where he ran kitchens for Daniel Boulud and won a James Beard Award. When he came home in 2014, he had a sense that the city's restaurant scene was ready for its close-up. There's been a line out the door for his impeccable modern American food with regional ingredients (bison tartare with watermelon radishes; birch-smoked cobia; pea-leaf fusilli with lamb and morels) ever since.

From left: Grand Catch, a St. Paul Viet-Cajun seafood spot; Balinese chicken thigh at Hai Hai, in Minneapolis; a sever at Parallel espresso bar. (Christopher Testani)

I met Kaysen and his pastry chef, Diane Yang, a first-generation Hmong-American, at Hmong Village, where we ate chicken wings stuffed with vermicelli noodles and ogled bitter melon vines. I’d arrived at the market with Carolina barbecue sauce on my shirt, slightly sauced myself on Old Fashioneds made with Dr. Pepper syrup and a proprietary bourbon peculiar to the restaurant Revival, in another part of St. Paul. There, I’d received useful instruction from Thomas Boemer in both the proper coloring of North Carolina-style fried chicken (“golden retriever slash labradoodle”) and the subtle differences between Minneapolis and St. Paul. Thomas grew up in the South, but his family is old St. Paul blood. It’s here he and his business partner run a group of Revivals and are opening a gigantic Basque-inspired live-fire restaurant, food market, and event space in the soon-to-be-revitalized Keg & Case warehouse next to the historic Schmidt Brewery in the Bluffs. “You’re not going to see a cat café here,” Boemer said, a subtle dig at flashier, more cosmopolitan Minneapolis which has, in point of fact, just opened its first cat café. “I was going to go, but my wife gave shamed me out of it.”

I mention the barbecue sauce at Hmong Village not just to emphasize that it had been a busy period of eating. (As the hometown hero Prince sang under different circumstances, "Touch if you will my stomach/Feel how it trembles inside.") Taken together, the Twin Cities today are less a New Scandinavia and more a varied, singularly American cultural smorgasbord.

Another thing that's changed is the embrace of winter. Eric Dayton and his brother, Andrew, sons of Minnesota governor Mark Dayton and vocal supporters of modern Minnesota, own the men's boutique and lifestyle brand Askov Finlayson, which has the motto "Keep the North Cold." The Daytons are among those working to rebrand the state as the "North" and reposition its famously cold winters as a point of pride.

Eric recalled a trip to Copenhagen at a time when the global spotlight was on all things Nordic. "I thought we had a lot of the same strengths in our city and our state, yet we were getting written off as flyover country," he says. "We had allowed the rest of the country to tell our narrative for us." The effort started with a line of beanies emblazoned with NORTH. Now Eric is among the leaders of the midwinter Great Northern festival, a 10-day food-and-activity-filled celebration that unites three of the Twin Cities' most popular cold-weather events: St. Paul's winter carnival, a cross-country ski festival, and the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships. (Tagline: "Hockey. The Way Nature Intended.")

What are we getting wrong about this place, I — East Coast outsider, air-dropped in to tell this place's story because we'd heard there was good food and endless cultural diversions — asked, a little sheepishly.

"When I went off for college, people I'd meet would tell me they'd seen Fargo," Eric said. "I don't think we get credit for what a vibrant city this is, the strength of the creative community, the dining scene, and world-class museums. These things get overlooked when it gets lumped in with this catchall idea of the region."

From left: A view along the West River Parkway, in Minneapolis; a croque madame at Parallel, an espresso bar in Minneapolis. (Christopher Testani)

For a sense of the changing face and can-do spirit of the North, head over to artisan glassblowing factory Hennepin Made and Parallel, the sleek espresso bar inside. Jackson Schwartz, a friend of Kaysen's, trained in glassblowing in Australia but came back to make his mark in Minnesota.

"I don't want to compete at a level of what Minneapolis has to offer," Schwartz told me. "I want to compete on an international level. If you walked into this café in Amsterdam or Seattle or wherever, you'd think, Okay, this fits here. This is the place to be. That's the level I want to be at."

Another glimpse of the new can be found at the Hewing Hotel in the North Loop, a recent arrival that has the familiar hallmarks of a hiply converted industrial building (the exposed brick walls, the naked light bulbs), along with bear-patterned wallpaper and framed axes. There's a fireplace in the lobby and a rooftop spa pool that converts to a hot tub in the winter. It's a stylized Paul- Bunyan-goes-to-Brooklyn kind of atmosphere that might feel hokey were the Hewing not housed in a former farm-machinery warehouse, in a city still in touch with its outdoorsy, hunting-fishing-axe-wielding side.

I'd come to the Twin Cities to wander their side streets and waterfronts and to feast on the fat of their land. At Grand Café in South Minneapolis, I feasted, tiny fork in hand, on the fat itself. Described on the menu, simply and weirdly, as "Beef fat slowly roasted in bay leaf," the dish is a lip of fat from a rib eye, gently poached with rosemary and thyme and bay leaf, then rolled and cut and served warmish. Jamie Malone (chef, owner, soft-spoken enabler) had upgraded the situation with caviar that crowned nickel-size disks of opaline fat. On paper, it sounds like comical overkill. In actuality, it's just really nice, understated (if caviar-topped fat can be understated), and suave. Which pretty much sums up this generous, comfortable but not grandly proportioned dining room and everything Malone's doing in it.

Next, because I am an adult and can eat whatever I want even if it kills me, I ordered the Paris-Brest pastry filled with chicken-liver mousse, a recent cover star for this publication's sister magazine, Food & Wine. The choux was crisp, burnished with a glaze made of black honey and luster dust (which sounds like something you'd encounter in the loo of a louche 70s Parisian nightclub, but is actually a product bakers use to make their cupcakes sparkle). Was it good? It's an uppity, sweet, salty, fatty, crunchy, creamy, savory doughnut that's luster-dusted Instagram gold. Bien sûr, it was very, very good.

From left: Lobby décor at the Hewing Hotel, in Minneapolis's North Loop; sturgeon custard in an eggshell at Grand Café, in South Minneapolis. (Christopher Testani)

The Grand Café is descended from a bakery that opened on these premises in 1951. Fifteen years ago it morphed into a café with a neighborhood following and minimal culinary aspirations. When Malone took over last year, she was committed to not sprucing the place up any more than she needed to. The walls are dusky pink, the wood tables uncovered, the tin ceiling hasn't been tended to in a while. The effect of the whole is quietly chic, a captivating, relaxing space that doesn't try too hard to be any one of those things.

"I want people to feel transported. I want it to feel whimsical," Malone said. "And — this is going to sound really stupid — I want you to feel genuinely cared about, because there's a lot of love and respect in this room. Oh, and I want it to feel like a Wes Anderson movie."

"We spritz our pepperoni with red wine," said the server at Pig Ate My Pizza. His T-shirt said SURLY BREWING. His bearing said: Not surly at all. He was earnest and enthusiastic about the spritzing and maybe a little distracted by the cloud of flavored smoke rising off the Morning Maple pizza as he lifted up a cloche with a flourish. This is, by a rather wide margin, the second-looniest place run by Travail Collective, a merry band of chefs and DIY showmen whose flagship enterprise, Travail, serves ticketed, "20+ course" tasting-menu dinners twice a night, Wednesdays through Saturdays.

"It's about disconnecting people from their reality and bringing them together in our reality," said chef and cofounder Mike Brown, of a communal dining style that might include eating off meat hooks dangled above your head, or a vegetable dish choreographed to musical accompaniment by a cello player (Brown's neighbor). One memorable engagement involved, as Brown put it, "a liquid-nitrogen bomb exploding and a person in a rabbit suit running around."

“Oh I remember that,” said Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl, affectionately. Dara’s the restaurant critic for Mpls. St. Paul magazine and host of “Off the Menu” on Minneapolis CBS radio. After two pizzas and a gigantic platter of house-made charcuterie at Pig, neither of us had the energy for twenty plus more courses, so we were snacking on a reuben sandwich at Travail’s bar. “I’m talking to a puppeteer and a robotics guy,” Brown went on. “Sometimes an idea like Chuck E. Cheese will just come into our mind and we’ll construct a dish around that.”

I’m not sure animatronic Chuck E. Cheese servers are the future of fine dining, in Minneapolis or anywhere. But I do like talking to Mike. I like his antic schemes and I like the general genuineness with which they seem to be received. The room is full of happy people.

Brown has a theory about why Minnesotans are so earnest and easygoing. Coming back to Minneapolis after a long absence, he recalled, "I stepped off the plane and breathed in this tasteless, smell-less winter air and just thought, Oh, thank god, the great equalizer is here! You kind of have to respect each other for surviving winter here. You have to put up with each other and help them shovel their car out of the snow."

Ahmed, an Uber driver from Mogadishu who picked me up on my way home, agreed. "Winter is hard," he said, "but it keeps the bad people away. That's what they say."

I hadn't heard that said, but it made sense to me. In those last few days of wandering and eating, I hadn't met a single one.

Other articles from Travel + Leisure:

Why Go To Bulgaria?

Smithsonian Magazine

My bicycle, ready for its Bulgarian adventure. Photo by the author

Two times while cycling in Greece on lengthy solo tours I have entered a range of mountains that crosses the northeastern edge of the nation. The dark slopes were blanketed with pines, and thunderheads skulked among the peaks. And each time as I ascended into the gloomy, chilly heights, a strange apprehension crept over me, spooking me back into sunny, familiar Greece and leaving the mysterious Balkan nation on the north side a blank place on my cognitive world map.

But for the past hour I’ve been perusing a borrowed Lonely Planet guidebook, gleaning the essential vocabulary and phraseology for where I’m finally going:  Bulgaria. I leave in 24 hours and must know when I arrive how to say “where,” “how far,” “village,” kilometers,” “alone,” “water,” “figs,” “road to____” and “cheese.” Some numbers and a few pronouns, too, will facilitate a smooth journey, which will begin just as soon as I reassemble my bicycle in the Sofia airport, ride out of the city and make my getaway into the nearest hills to camp—maybe to the Vitosha Nature Park, a wilderness just a few miles south of town.

Why Bulgaria? Several reasons: First, I’ve never been there. Second, Bulgaria is situated in what I perceive as the “Old World Fig Belt”—a magical land where the confluence of Mediterranean climate and ancient agrarian culture produce a bounty of free figs to be eaten along nearly any roadside, and what on a thousand-mile bicycle ride is better than that? Third, I’m attracted to Bulgaria because of its mountains—several ranges low enough to be green but high enough to be wild. (That truest signature of a wild place even lives in Bulgaria’s mountains—the brown bear, Ursus arctos, between 600 and 1000 animals in two distinct populations.) Fourth, Bulgaria is eastern enough not to be mundanely western, northern enough not to crush me with heat, and southern enough not be promiscuously rainy.

I’ve had it with this Lonely Planet book. Traveling should be a form of learning, but this darn guidebook keeps blowing Bulgaria’s secrets. I just read, for instance, that espresso is prevalent in coffee-loving Bulgaria. That’s great news—but wouldn’t it have been a wonderful surprise for me to discover this on my own after arriving with a stomach steeled for Nescafe? I also have learned from these pages that Bulgarians nod for no and shake their heads for yes. This is key and vital information—yet slapstick comedy could have gotten no finer than if I had arrived in Sofia no wiser than I was an hour ago. I’ll sneak a few more vocabulary basics from this book, then close it and let the adventures begin.

Bulgaria is layered with relics and shadows of the Thracians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Bulgars, the Ottoman Turks and the Soviet era. Democracy resumed in 1989, and now modernity has befallen this freshly inaugurated member of the European Union. For better or for worse, resorts are now appearing rapidly on both Black Sea beaches and mountainsides—yet I will dodge them. I intend to camp “rough” in the shrubbery most nights, and since Bulgaria occupies 42,823 square miles of the Earth’s surface while containing just 7 million people, rough camping should be easy. What I mean is, consider Italy, where 60 million souls occupy 116,000 square miles: 515 people per square mile. The United Kingdom is even denser, with 660 people per square mile. India, spare me, has 900-plus. But Bulgaria’s population density measures out at a quiet 160 folks per square mile (with, sadly, only a hundredth of a bear per square mile).

I box my bike tonight and fly out at dawn. I bring with me a sleeping bag, a toothbrush, a pocketknife, a journal, a corkscrew and other select items. I pack along, too, a piece of advice handed to me from another experienced cyclist: “If you go Bulgaria,” he said grimly, “God defend you, and bring a spear. The dogs are the devil.” Yikes. Is it too late for London?

Why Is This Indian Ocean Island a Hot Spot for Shark Attacks?

Smithsonian Magazine

On a tropically warm day in November, French, South African and German tourists took to the aquamarine waves at the Lux* resort in the southwest of Mauritius, a booming Indian Ocean tourist destination. Besides the simple joy of basking in 77-degree water, the program offered by the posh resort included snorkeling, scuba diving, kitesurfing and swimming with the dolphins.

Meanwhile, in Mauritius's nearest island neighbor La Réunion, very few people do more than dip a toe in the water. Swimming and surfing are banned on La Réunion in all but a few places because of a fear of shark attacks.

Since 2011 there have been 18 shark attacks resulting in 7 deaths in La Réunion, where citizens, fishers and politicians have begun discussing the relative merits of a large-scale shark cull. Meanwhile, the last unprovoked human-shark confrontation recorded in Mauritius took place in the 1980s, and the island is now joining the ranks of those calling for tighter shark conservation rules.

Any concerns about sharks raised by tourists on Mauritius are invariably answered by a version of this: “The ring of coral reefs protects these waters.”

However, the coral reef is just a ready explanation to reassure those who pay top dollar to stay at luxury resorts. Fishers, scientists, government officials and most everyone else knows that sharks easily traverse the coral ring. Besides, many of the water activities on offer at the Lux* or by any tour operator on the island take place on or beyond the coral ring, which runs from 30 feet to a mile from the shoreline. 

But if the pat answer of an all-protecting coral reef is woefully incomplete, what can explain why La Réunion has become one of the world’s most active shark attack zones while Mauritius continues to enjoy safe waters? 

The truth involves a complicated array of factors, including underwater geography, effluent runoff, a global reduction in fish stocks, and the fact that hunting sharks in Mauritius and selling their meat and fins continues to be legal.

Le Morne in Mauritius, a popular tourist destination, is safe from shark attacks. The popular theory holds that a coral reef protects swimmers, but the truth is not so simple. (Christopher F. Schuetze)

La Réunion and Mauritius are both relatively small islands situated deep in the Indian Ocean on roughly the same latitude as Madagascar. Despite the two islands’ physical proximity and similar cultures and languages, they are a study in socio-political contrasts. Mauritius has been an independent country since 1968, while La Réunion is part of France, so the islands are governed by completely different laws.

Such differences do not matter to sharks. “Sharks don’t have passports,” quips Hugues Vitry, one of Mauritius’ best-known shark experts. In the 30 years that he has been diving, Vitry has spent much time around tiger and bull sharks—the suspects in virtually every shark attack in La Réunion. 

As it is in most of the world, the reputation of sharks in the Indian Ocean region is near mythical. Around foreigners, the word is spoken in a hush, as though the mere mention of the animal could burst the tourism boom.

Just a short plane ride to the west, sharks have been dominating headlines since 2011, when a body boarder named Eddy Auber was killed off a beach on the west side of the island.

“Before the crisis started, we knew just as much as Mauritians know about sharks,” says Marc Soria, a researcher at the IRD, the French national institute for research and development. “What makes sharks swim through your legs one day and bite them off the next?”

Spurred by the unfortunate encounters with sharks in La Réunion, Soria’s team has since conducted the region’s most extensive and perhaps only scientifically rigorous research on shark behavior, backed by the heft of France’s national research institution and underwritten by a regional, national and European research fund.

After three years of tagging and collecting data from 45 tiger sharks and 38 bull sharks, Soria thinks he has some answers to help explain why beaches in La Réunion have been a target when the ones teeming with sunburned tourists in Mauritius have been so safe.

One widely accepted theory links the surge in attacks to overfishing of fish stocks and the smaller reef sharks that once competed for space and food with bigger predators. That may be part of the answer: Soria and his team noticed the sharks had a tendency to approach coastlines when the fish stocks in the surrounding ocean ran low. However, he also found more complex behaviors.

Bull sharks prefer muddy water and tend to give birth in freshwater estuaries. Though no estuaries exist for them in La Réunion, Soria’s team found evidence that the muddy freshwater runoff caused by the recent buildup of urban areas — in one case flowing into a bay in the city of St. Paul, where attacks have been documented — seems to attract the sharks.

A scientist tags a shark near La Réunion, as part of a three-year effort to identify why sharks near this island are more likely to attack humans than in neighboring places. (Courtesy Marc Soria)

However, Mauritius has also been urbanizing and has plenty of sites where effluent-laden freshwater flows into the ocean. In one especially eerie point of comparison, the Straights of Maheburg in the south of Mauritius are known for their muddy waters and are located next to a large fish farm. St. Paul in La Réunion had a similar fish farm that was forced to shut down in 2012 because of an island-wide boycott of its products. Despite the dearth of scientific proof, enough of the island’s consumers were convinced that the farm was contributing to their shark problem.

That suggests additional factors are at play. Around La Réunion, Soria and his team documented aggressive behavior during mating seasons and a daily pattern of sharks heading toward land in the afternoon, which is when most shark attacks are documented.

Shark behavior in La Réunion might also be influenced by differences in underwater topology, says Vitry. While sharks can and do reach tourist beaches in Mauritius, the underwater environment there makes them much less likely to strike.

For one, the geologically younger, volcanic La Réunion juts out of the deep ocean much more steeply than Mauritius, leaving the island surrounded by smaller zones fit for the wide variety of aquatic life that thrives in relatively shallow seas. At the same time, the steepness of its shores allows sharks used to living in the deep, such as tiger sharks, to approach the coastal bounty more easily. In effect, sharks come closer to La Réunion's shores specifically in search of food.

In addition, subtle and very localized differences in the underwater landscape can influence shark encounters.

Surfers can resemble sick animals at the surface of the water and so appear to scavenging sharks as easy prey. According to Vitry, surfers on Mauritius tend to be active over sandy beaches while the big waves at the popular surf sites in La Réunion break over corals, a place where sharks naturally are more likely to be looking for food.

Based on their studies, Soria and many other experts dispute the widely held theory that the opening of a protected marine area along the west side of La Réunion in 2007 is to blame for the spike in shark attacks.

A ban on the sale of shark meat on the island is also unlikely to be responsible for the recent spate of attacks, because not enough people on La Réunion would buy the meat to affect the shark population, explains Nathalie Verlinden, an independent local marine biologist who specializes in sharks.

Tourists dip into the water in Mauritius. (Christopher F. Schuetze)

But the situation has made sharks political in La Réunion, with a large part of the population supporting two projects officially aimed at testing ways to catch sharks for culling, carried out by the Réunion Island Regional Committee for Sea Fisheries and Aquaculture.

In 2015 the island, supported by France, also spent two million Euros on two shark-proof fences on the west of the island. The fences are strung below the water’s surface and cost the region a million Euros a year to maintain. While they might be considered an extreme solution, the fences allow many residents and tourists who have deep-seated fears of sharks to swim in the open ocean.

Back on Mauritius, a couple from La Réunion visiting for a two-week diving vacation set out very early one morning intending to find sharks. “I’ve never seen them in the wild before,” says Claire Marion, just moments after having resurfaced from a successful sightseeing dive.

While his neighbors on La Réunion seek ways to cut back their shark numbers, Vitry regularly takes divers to visit shark pits, underwater hollows and gullies along the north of the island where sharks gather. These days the pits are mostly visited by reef sharks, considered relatively harmless to humans, though bull sharks do make an occasional appearance.

Most shark species, even the notorious bull and tiger sharks, are unlikely to attack a diver if the latter does not provoke them or carry bloody foods. Experienced divers on Mauritius often compare sharks to the many stray dogs that roam the island: an animal that should be respected but not feared.

“Ten years ago there were a lot more sharks,” says Vitry, who blames their decline around Mauritius on tourists looking for trophies and on fishers failing to catch anything more valuable. “I used to go over to them and try to talk with them,” he says of the fishers he would find hovering around shark pits. But as the subject became heated and the sharks rarer, such confrontations miles from land had the potential of becoming dangerous.

David Ardill, a retired long-time fisheries officer in Mauritius and a consultant with the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission, compares the sharks to sturgeon in the caviar trade. Most of the time, the fish itself has little value, and fishers are only after its valuable fins, considered a delicacy in some cultures.

Spanish and Portuguese commercial long-line fishers do hunt shark for their meat north of the islands. Although not nearly as prized as tuna or marlin, shark flesh can be sold for use in fish sticks or battered fish, says Ardill.

Hugues Vitry has created a niche "shark tourism" business in Mauritius, taking tourists to dive with sharks. Like most experienced divers on the island, Vitry believes that sharks should be respected, but not feared. (Christopher F. Schuetze)

As a signatory to the tuna commission’s global action plan, which requires national commitments, Mauritius is soon to publish its own national plan on shark conservation. Although the details are not public yet, one rule will stipulate that if sharks are caught as by-catch, they may be kept only if the entire fish and not just the fins are brought in.

“We are for the conservation of sharks because we know it is a very important part of the ecosystem, it acts as a scavenger,” says Devanand Norungee, Mauritius' assistant director of fisheries. Given the island's available resources, though, enforcement will likley remain an issue. 

If its conservation efforts lag, Mauritius might simply ignore sharks, since the island does not see them as a danger to the tourism trade. That attitude, however, seems nearly impossible just 120 miles to the west.

“We have quite a different relationship with sharks here,” says Vitry, standing on his Mauritian diving club’s pier and looking west over the turquoise blue ocean in the general direction of La Réunion.

Why Is there Wine on the UNESCO World Heritage List?

Smithsonian Magazine

When you think of UNESCO world heritage sites, archaeological ruins and lavish temples may come to mind. But this week, reports the AFP, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s newest cultural preservation site spotlights something a little different: wine. Specifically, the vineyards of Champagne and Bordeaux — places wine worshipers cite as the home of the world’s best wines.

The designation covers the places where the sparkling wine now known as Champagne was developed along with vineyards south of Dijon, which are known for their fine red wines. The move is “a double victory for French wine,” reports the AFP, noting that a UNESCO designation can bring tourist and preservation dollars to countries lucky enough to earn the honor. 

France has long been possessive of the unique terroir and characteristics of its famous national wines. According to the International Organization of Vine and Wine, France is the world’s biggest wine producer, though it no longer leads the world in grape production (that honor goes to China). Proclaiming “Champagne only comes from Champagne, France,” French champagne growers have fought hard for the right to use the term Champagne, even succeeding in EU regulation of the word.

But though the designation of distinctly French wine country as culturally significant will surely be cause for celebration in a country that drinks the third-most amount of wine in the world, France isn’t the first place to receive UNESCO recognition for its vineyards. In fact, the body has recognized several other regions known for their historic wines, from Pico Island in Portugal to the scenic vineyard terraces of Lavaux, Switzerland.

At the very least, a UNESCO winery tour would be a pretty great trip. You can see some of the stops on that theoretical tour here, but you'll have to bring your own wine.  

Why Peter the Great Established a Beard Tax

Smithsonian Magazine

Around this day in 1698, Tsar Peter I—known as Peter the Great—established a beard tax. He wasn’t the only ruler in history to do this—England’s Henry VII did the same—but what’s interesting is the story behind Peter's reason for the tax.

Before Peter I, Russia wasn’t very connected with Europe, nor did it have a navy that could assert authority on its sea borders. Although Russia was huge, writes Encyclopedia Britannica, it lagged behind in ships at a time when European powers such as England and the Dutch were exploring and colonizing the globe—and impinging on each other’s borders. With the goal of learning from European nations’ successes, Peter I spent time during 1697 and 1698 travelling around Europe, in disguise, on a “Grand Embassy.”

The tsar travelled incognito as “Sergeant Pyotr Mikhaylov.” As the Grand Embassy consisted of 250 people, including high-ranking ambassadors, he was able to blend in and spend time learning about Europe firsthand. According to the encyclopedia, he spent four months working at a shipyard for the Dutch East India Company, where he was able to learn about the shipbuilding innovations of the day. After that, the encyclopedia writes, “he went to Great Britain, where he continued his study of shipbuilding, working in the Royal Navy’s dockyard at Deptford, and he also visited factories, arsenals, schools, and museums and even attended a session of Parliament.”

When he came back from the Grand Embassy, Peter I embarked on an ambitious project of modernizing Russia so that it could compete with the European superpowers. He “played a crucial role in westernizing Russia by changing its economy, government, culture, and religious affairs,” writes Mario Sosa for St. Mary’s University.  “By doing all of this, Russia was able to expand and become one of the most powerful countries in the eastern hemisphere.”

Among his reforms, he revised Russia’s calendar, introduced changes to the way Russian was written, completely changed the military and tried to get Russians to go beardless, like the "modern" Western Europeans he had met on his tour.

As Mark Mancini writes for Mental Floss, Peter I begun the practice of beardlessness in quite a dramatic fashion at a reception held in his honor not long after he came back from Europe. “In attendance were his commander of the army, his frequent second-in-command Fyodor Romodanovsky, and a host of assorted aides and diplomats,” writes Mancini. “Suddenly, the crowd’s mood went from elation to horror as Peter unexpectedly pulled out a massive barber’s razor.” As the Grand Embassy proved, Peter I was a do-it-yourself kind of ruler. He proceeded to personally shave the beards from his horrified guests.

He declared that all the men in Russia had to lose their beards—a massively unpopular policy with many including the Russian Orthodox church, which said going around sans facial hair was blasphemous.

“Eventually, the ruler’s stance softened,” Mancini writes. Figuring he could make money for the state while still allowing people to opt to keep their beards, he imposed a beard tax. As the State Department describes, “for nobility and merchants, the tax could be as high as 100 rubles annually; for commoners it was much lower — as little as 1 kopek. Those paying the tax were given a token, silver for nobility and copper for commoners.”

Although many of Peter I’s reforms aren’t routinely recalled today, the beard tax has gone down as one of history’s quirkier moments. But one thing is for sure—Peter I did change Russia forever.

Why Radish Carving Has Become a Popular Holiday Event in Oaxaca

Smithsonian Magazine

Each December 23, the bracing peppery fragrance of thousands of radishes fills the air at the zócalo in Oaxaca, Mexico, as competitors put final touches on their ruby-red masterpieces.

Called La Noche de Rábanos or Night of the Radishes, the annual event has been a local tradition for more than 120 years and began as a way for local farmers and peasants to showcase their produce to potential customers browsing the marketplace. To stand out from their competition, vendors began carving radishes, which are colossal in size compared to the garnishes accompanying tacos and topping beds of lettuce at restaurants here in the United States.

Noticing an opportunity, in 1897, Oaxaca’s then-municipal president, Francisco Vasconcelos, announced that a radish-carving competition would take place each December 23. The event was just peculiar enough to grab people’s attention and whet their appetites for something different during the holiday season.

Gabriel Sanchez, a local tour guide who grew up in Oaxaca, says that the competition has always been an important part of the local culture, and he often recommends it to visitors.

“It’s become very famous over the years,” Sanchez tells “People will drive hundreds of [miles] to Oaxaca to experience it.”

While Sanchez admits that he has never wielded a carving knife as a competitor, he says that the competition grows in popularity with each passing year.

According to a CNN article on the topic, the local government in recent years has taken a more active role in the competition, securing a plot of land near the local airport to grow the radishes. During the growing months, new plantings are added every few weeks to give competitors a range of sizes to work with (and to prevent anyone from cheating). A few days before the event, competitors of all ages and skill levels can harvest their assigned plot. Most years, the total haul of the ruby-skinned roots weighs in at approximately ten tons, with some of the individual radishes swelling in size to more than 30 inches in length.

Once harvested, competitors get busy carving their lot into elaborate dioramas ranging from nativity scenes to dramatic moments in Mexican history. If selected by judges, the winning entry in each of two categories (“traditional,” which must embrace Oaxacan culture, and “free,” where anything goes) receives an award of about $1,500.

Why These Early Images of American Slavery Have Led to a Lawsuit Against Harvard

Smithsonian Magazine

There is an image of a man most Americans have probably seen that has come to represent the institution of slavery. He’s bone-thin, big-eyed and shirtless. Without context, he personifies the nameless, storyless mass of people brought over to this country in bondage. But the man in the image has a name, Renty, as does his daughter, Delia, who also appears in a series of mid-19th-century daguerreotypes. We also know they were forced to strip naked and pose for the images commissioned by Harvard biologist and racial theorist Louis Agassiz in 1850 to “prove” the racial inferiority of black people.

Recently, Collin Binkley at the Associated Press reports, their story has opened up new conversation on race and history. This week, Tamara Lanier, a resident of Norwich, Connecticut, filed a suit in Massachusetts state court saying she is a direct descendant of Renty and accusing Harvard of “wrongful seizure, possession and expropriation” of the images of Renty and Delia. The suit asks the university to acknowledge Lanier’s link to Renty and Delia, pay damages, and turn over the images; it also calls upon the university to acknowledge and condemn Agassiz’s racist actions.

Harvard has yet to comment on the case, stating it has not yet been served with papers, Scott Jaschik at Inside Higher Ed reports.

“It is unprecedented in terms of legal theory and reclaiming property that was wrongfully taken,” one of Lanier’s lawyers, Benjamin Crump, says in an interview with Anemona Hartocollis of The New York Times. “Renty’s descendants may be the first descendants of slave ancestors to be able to get their property rights.”

According to Che R. Applewhaite and Molly C. McCafferty at The Harvard Crimson, Agassiz commissioned the images after touring a plantation in South Carolina, looking for enslaved people who were “racially pure”—aka born in Africa—to support his theory of polygenism, the now debunked idea that different human racial groups don’t share the same ancient ancestry. Renty and Delia were two of the subjects selected for the project.

At some point, the images were filed away, but in 1976, a researcher re-discovered the photos in storage. They were recognized to be among the oldest, if not the oldest, images of enslaved people in North America. Since then, the historic images have become almost iconic, appearing in documentaries, on book covers and on conference banners. The Harvard Peabody Museum, which currently holds the now-fragile daguerreotypes, tells The Harvard Crimson that the images are currently in the public domain, and the museum does not charge usage right. It does, however, charge $15 for high-resolution images of the daguerreotypes, which are requested about 10 times a year.

Lanier, a retired chief probation officer for the State of Connecticut, became aware of the images when she began researching her ancestry in 2010. She sent Harvard a letter in 2011 detailing her possible connections.

Lanier had grown up hearing family oral history about an ancestor named Renty Taylor or “Papa Renty” and through her work she believes she has connected her family to the man in the photograph, and by extension his daughter Delia.

Lanier’s genealogical case is a hard one to prove. Records of enslaved families sometimes include people not affiliated by blood. And a handwritten slave inventory list from 1834 that Lanier believes connect her to Renty is not definitive evidence, reports Hartocollis of the New York Times, since it’s not clear if two enslaved men on the plantation called “Big Renty” and “Renty” are related.

Then there is intellectual property law. Photographs are usually the property of the photographer, though Lanier’s suit claims that since the images were taken without the consent of Renty and Delia by Agassiz, he had no right to transfer them to Harvard and they should belong to their next of kin.

The current suit was inspired, in part, by a 2017 conference she attended on the associations between academia and slavery where Renty’s image was projected above the speakers.

Author Ta-Nehisi Coates, who also attended the conference, tells Hartocollis he understands how Lanier must have felt. “That photograph is like a hostage photograph,” he says. “This is an enslaved black man with no choice being forced to participate in white supremacist propaganda — that’s what that photograph was taken for."

If Lanier did win, Crump, her lawyer, suggested in a press conference they would take the images on a tour across the U.S. before loaning them to museums.

Why USO Tours Were Vital for Troop Morale in the Pacific

Smithsonian Channel
After a long-drawn out conflict in the Pacific, the troops needed a morale boost. And the United Service Organizations provided it in spades, thanks to spectacular shows by Hollywood legends like Bob Hope and Joe E. Brown. From the Series: The Pacific War in Color: No Surrender

Why We Should Teach Music History Backwards

Smithsonian Magazine

The problem with music history is it’s almost always presented in the wrong direction: forward, from the beginning of something to the end. History would be more meaningful if it were taught backwards.

Think about it: how does one discover and fall in love with the music by the likes of the Black Keys? Is it through first investigating Charley Patton and then working the way through Son House, the Yardbirds, Led Zeppelin and Lynyrd Skynyrd till finally reaching the Ohio-based blues-rock band? Not if you’re under 35, because by the time you began listening to music, the Black Keys were already part of your world. Once hooked, you love them so much that you read every interview to find out who influenced them. That’s how you and other true fans find out about the backwards progression to North Mississippi Allstars, R.L. Burnside, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and then finally back to Charley Patton.

Fo their part, the Beatles and Rolling Stones sent music lovers scouring for recordings by Buddy Holly, Carl Perkins, Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters in the dusty back bins of the local department store. Holly and Perkins in turn led to Elvis Presley, who led to Bill Monroe and Hank Williams. Berry and Waters led to Howlin’ Wolf, who led to Robert Johnson, and then once again, back to Charley Patton.

That’s how we learn about music: backwards, always backwards. We don’t start our investigations at some arbitrarily chosen point in the past; we begin where we are, from our current burning passion. This is the most effective kind of learning, driven by emotion rather than obligation. If learning is best done this way, shouldn’t music history writing and teaching be done in the same backwards direction?

Obvious problems present themselves. In the history of Western narrative, stories have always been told in the forward direction—with such rare exceptions as playwright Harold Pinter's Betrayal,  “Seinfeld”’s riff on Pinter, and the noir thriller Memento, written by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan. Authors want to give us the earliest incident first and the subsequent incidents later, the cause first and then the effect. But when it comes to cultural history, we already know the effect, because we’re living with it. What we’re curious about is the cause.

The solution to this conundrum is the flashback, a common device in modern fiction. Within each flashback scene, the action and dialogue move forward—even the most sophisticated readers aren’t ready for backwards dialogue. But through the skillful manipulation of such scenes, writers and teachers can lead readers and students backwards through history, reinforcing the audience’s natural inclination.

How might this work? Suppose we were teaching a class of high school students about American music. Where would we begin? We might start with the Brit-soul singer Sam Smith singing his signature song, “Stay with Me.” singer with the buttoned-up white shirt, three-piece blue suit and close-cropped hair. When that song, its album, In the Lonely Hour, and the singer swept four of this year’s biggest Grammy Awards—Best Record, Best Song, Best Pop Vocal Album and Best New Artist—the natural reaction is to ask, “Where did this come from?”

It’s not that Smith is merely copying the past, for he and his producers/co-writers have honed the R&B ballad tradition to a new leanness: the simple drum thump and half-note piano chords allow Smith’s honeyed tenor to remain so conversational that it feels like we’re eavesdropping on his mumbled plea to a departing lover. But Smith is not inventing this sound from scratch either, and the curious young listener is going to want to know what he borrowed. (Curious listeners may be a minority of all listeners, but they’re a significant minority—and it’s for them that music critics write.) Smith is transforming arena-rock anthems by setting their clarion melodies in hymn-like arrangements. With “Stay with Me,” the rock source material (“I Won’t Back Down”) was so obvious that Smith had to share writing credits with Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne.

So we critics must lead those listeners backwards through history. We don’t have to go very far to hear Smith confessing his debt to Mary J. Blige. “I remember holding her Breakthrough album,” Smith confesses in an interview snippet on Blige's newest record, London Sessions. “Holding it in my hands, in my car, listening to it on repeat. To me she was this untouchable goddess.” Smith repays that debt by co-writing four of the new disc's dozen songs with Blige, including the first single, “Therapy,” an obvious allusion to “Rehab” by another Brit-soul singer, the late Amy Winehouse.

Blige sounds revitalized on The London Sessions, as if working with Smith and his British colleagues had returned her to the days of 2005’s The Breakthrough, when her all her collaborations with rappers such as Ghostface Killah, Nas and Jay-Z allowed her to refashion R&B by replacing maximalist arrangements with minimalist beats and romantic sentiment with streetwise skepticism. But let’s go backwards even further and find out where Blige found her sound.

If her attitude and backing tracks came out of the hip-hop scene in the Bronx, where she was born, the vibrancy of her big mezzo was inspired by gospel-soul singers such as Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan and Anita Baker.

Blige recorded songs made famous by all three of those role models early in her career, and got her start singing in churches in Georgia and the Yonkers, where she spent her troubled childhood. Like Blige, Franklin was a church soloist and a child-abuse victim, according to Respect, the new biography by David Ritz. That dramatic combination of deep wounds and yearning for redemption marks both singers.

Following our historical trail backwards, we find ourselves in 1956 at Detroit's New Bethel Baptist Church, where the 14-year-old Franklin is singing hymns from her new gospel album. She has been touring with her famous preacher father C.L. Franklin and such gospel stars as Sam Cooke, Clara Ward and Inez Andrews, and the teenage prodigy already displays the robust warmth and piercing urgency of those role models. But she also hints at something extra, a cutting edge that comes not from buttery bounty of the “Gospel Queen” Mahalia Jackson but from the guitar-playing gospel renegade: Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

So we go back even further and find ourselves at New York’s Carnegie Hall on December 23, 1938, as the 23-year-old Tharpe performs in the legendary “From Spirituals to Swing” concert organized by John Hammond, who would later sign Franklin to Columbia Records and produce her early albums. This show introduces white New York audiences to the genius of African-American artists such as Tharpe, Count Basie, Joe Turner, James P. Johnson and Big Bill Broonzy, and kicks off the boogie-woogie craze with appearances by pianists Meade Lux Lewis, Pete Johnson and Albert Ammons. Ammons accompanies Tharpe on her two songs, and she steals the show. When she sings her recent hit, “Rock Me,” the lyrics may be asking God to rock her in the bosom of Abraham, but her voice and guitar are hinting at another kind of rocking.

They are also hinting at how easily a love song to God can be turned into a love song for a more earthly creature and how that porous boundary will inspire Franklin, Cooke, Blige, Winehouse, Smith and much of the rest of Anglo-American music for the next 77 years.

If we had tried to tell this story forward, we would have lost most of our audience once they encountered Tharpe’s old-fashioned dresses, twangy guitar and sanctified lyrics. But by telling the story backwards, we were able to lead our listeners from their existing enthusiasm for Smith to newfound excitement over Blige and then Franklin. When our reverse historical journey finally reached Tharpe, our fellow travelers were primed to embrace a spectacular talent they may never have bothered with coming from any other direction.

Why You Should Visit Europe's Two New Capitals of Culture

Smithsonian Magazine

What would a city be without a few quirks? Wroclaw, Poland has plenty, like its love of dwarves—over 300 miniature bronze statues of gnomes dot the city. And then there's San Sebastián, Spain, whose sun-bathed residents care as much about modernist architecture as building handmade boats.

Aside from their towering cathedrals, these cities don't seem to have much in common. But their histories follow a similar arc. Despite moments of adversity, both cities came back from trying times and are now stronger than ever. And now, both have been designated European Capitals of Culture for 2016.

The list of Capitals of Culture, which is added to by the European Union each year, was intended to enrich each selected city through art and culture, instill a sense of community and boost tourism. More than 50 cities have earned the designation, which is selected by a team of cultural experts.

Over the next 12 months, both Wroclaw and San Sebastián will celebrate the designation with festivals, parades, concerts, art exhibitions and theatrical performances. Here are a few of the destinations that make each city deserving of the honor.

Wroclaw, Poland

Market Square

Wroclaw's Market Square is encircled by brightly colored residential buildings begging to be Instagrammed. #nofilterneeded (Anna Stowe/LOOP IMAGES/Corbis)

Located about 225 miles southwest of Warsaw, Poland, Wroclaw is a picturesque playground with a rich culture to match. This city of half a million is filled with towering cathedrals, ornate bridges and colorful historic buildings that will host over 1,000 cultural events in 2016.

For a glimpse of what day-to-day life is like, visit Market Square, an area filled with restaurants and boutiques. It’s also where many of the Capitals of Culture festivities will take place. Kick off the Capital of Culture celebrations at “Made in Europe,” an exhibition that traces 25 years of contemporary architecture in Europe at the Museum of Architecture just off the square.

National Museum of Wroclaw

The National Museum of Wroclaw contains one of the largest collections of contemporary art in Poland. (Imaginechina/Corbis)

Wroclaw boasts dozens of museums, but one of its most popular is the National Museum of Wroclaw. Although much of Wroclaw’s art history was lost during World War II after the Nazis extinguished any remnants of Polish culture in the city, many priceless pieces of artwork were saved and stored at museums outside of Poland. After the war, they were returned to Wroclaw and are now on display as part of the museum’s permanent collection.

For the Capitals of Culture celebration, the museum will host a number of special exhibitions for 2016, including “Masterpieces of Japanese Art in Polish Collections” (through January 31) and “Chairs, Stools, Armchairs: A Brief History of Seats” (through February 28).

Cathedral Island

Cathedral Island or Ostrow Tumski is the oldest part of the city and contains several examples of cathedral architecture. (Frank Fell/robertharding/Corbis)

Just across the Odra River from the city center is Cathedral Island (Ostrów Tumski), the city’s oldest area. It’s named after the many cathedrals that make up its skyline. Archaeological digs have unearthed remnants of buildings dating back to the ninth century.

Visitors can explore the area’s cobblestone streets and tour the oldest church still standing, St. Giles, which was built in the 13th century. Other notable cathedrals include the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist, known for its Gothic architecture and dual towers, and St. Elizabeth’s Church, which has a nearly 300-foot-tall tower and an observation deck.

Centennial Hall

More than 800 lights illuminate the fountain outside Centennial Hall. The fountain can project streams of water up to 40 feet in height. (Arno Burgi/epa/Corbis)

When the final section of Wroclaw’s Centennial Hall was set in 1912, critics claimed that the concrete building looked like either a hatbox or a gas meter. Today it stands as an architectural marvel that was one of the first European structures built using reinforced concrete technology. The massive building has hosted concerts, sports, exhibitions, and other events, including a Nazi rally led by Adolf Hitler.

This year, Centennial Hall will serve as one of the main venues for Capitals of Culture festivities, hosting a ballet and a concert starring Polish rock band KULT. The fountains outside the building are also great for photo ops, especially during the Hall’s after-dark multimedia music and light show.

The Dwarves of Wroclaw

More than 300 miniature dwarf statues can be found throughout Wroclaw, and have been a unique part of the city since 2001. (Yvan Travert/Photononstop/Corbis)

Wroclaw is a city of dwarves: Since 2001, over 300 miniature bronze statues of gnomes have popped throughout the city center. Many are in plain sight, clasping onto light poles or leaning against a building’s facade, while others are hidden. The city’s tourist information center at Market Square sells maps showing each dwarf’s location, or you can try to sleuth them out on your own.

San Sebastián

Playa de la Concha

Playa de la Concha is a popular urban beach in the heart of San Sebastián. (John Harper/Corbis)

If ever there were a land of leisure, it would be San Sebastián. The coastal city of nearly 200,000, located 280 miles northeast of Madrid in Basque Country, is known for its white sand beaches and epic surf. San Sebastián will kick off its 2016 Capital of Culture festivities with the “Big Opening,” a day of celebration set for January 23.

One of San Sebastián’s most popular places to sunbathe and swim is Playa de la Concha—but it wasn’t always so serene. In 1961, the area was plunged into political unrest due to the Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA), a Basque separatist movement that launched surprise attacks on the city. Even today, many of San Sebastián’s whitewashed buildings are pockmarked with bullet holes as a silent reminder of its turbulent past. In 2011, the ETA declared a permanent ceasefire, and the city has been quietly recovering ever since. As a way to help the community heal, this year’s celebrations will include “Peace Treaty,” a series of seminars, conferences and artistic productions that highlight the role of peace in the arts.

Kursaal Congress Centre and Auditorium

Locals often call the Kursaal Congress Centre and Auditorium "the cubes" thanks to its boxy architecture. (Melba/age fotostock Spain S.L./Corbis)

One of the main venues for this year’s festivities will be San Sebastián’s Kursaal Congress Centre and Auditorium, a glass megaplex designed by Spanish architect Rafael Moneo that overlooks the coastline. Locals call it “the cubes” thanks to twin glass structures that house a 1,800-seat concert hall, exhibition spaces and a chamber hall.

Among the concerts planned for 2016 are performances by Elvis Costello, the Swedish Chamber Orchestra, the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, Javier Camarena, Buika, George Benson and more. Click for a full list of events.

Buen Pastor Cathedral and Iesu Church

The San Sebastián Cathedral is one of the tallest buildings in the city and contains a crypt, an organ, and elaborate stained-glass windows. (Rob Tilley/Corbis)

Like other Capitals of Culture, San Sebastián is known for its stunning architecture. Built in 1897 and 246 feet tall, the Buen Pastor Cathedral is the city’s tallest structure. It’s famous for its Gothic architecture and impressive stained glass windows representing the 12 apostles, Jesus and the Virgin Mary.

More modern but equally impressive is the Iesu Church in the city’s suburbs. Designed by Rafael Moneo (he also designed the Kursaal), Iesu resembles a two-story white box. The Catholic temple is known for its minimalist design and is a striking contrast to the city’s more typical medieval structures. In 2010, a white flower garden called Memory Park was built at the church as a solemn reminder of those whose lives were lost during times of war and terrorism.

Albaola: The Sea Factory of the Basques

The Albaola: the Sea Factory of the Basques is part museum, part factory. Visitors can watch as builders construct boats using ancient methods passed down from previous generations of craftspeople. (Robert B. Fishman/dpa/Corbis)

Life revolves around the beach in San Sebastián, from the tanned, barefoot tourists who stroll the coastline to surfers scrambling to find the perfect wave. The city has a longstanding boat building history too. To get a glimpse of its seafaring past, there’s no better place to visit than Albaola: The Sea Factory of the Basques. Part factory, part boat building school, it hosts daily tours that focus on maritime history and technology.

Stay in the maritime mood with a visit to Concha Promenade, which hugs the Concha Bay and is a popular spot to watch the sunset. Or take a boat ride to nearby Santa Clara Island for breathtaking views of the city skyline.

Bandera de la Concha

One of the city's most popular events is the Bandera de la Concha, an annual boat race held in the Bay of Biscay. The first race was held in 1879. (Juan Herrero/epa/Corbis)

San Sebastián is a city of festivals. One of the most popular is the annual Bandera de la Concha (Kontxako Bandera) boat race in the city’s Bay of Biscay, which typically draws a crowd of more than 100,000 onlookers and takes place the first two weekends in September.

Other popular annual events include the International Jazz Festival, which will take place July 20 through 25 with performances on stages throughout the city, and the Donostia-San Sebastián Musical Fortnight, Spain’s longest-running classical music festival.

Why a Walk Along the Beaches of Normandy Is the Ideal Way to Remember D-Day

Smithsonian Magazine

On a brilliant, spring morning in Normandy, the beach at Colleville-sur-Mer is peaceful. Tall grasses sway in the breeze, sunlight dapples the water, and in the distance, a boat glides lazily along the English Channel.

Only a sign on the hill overlooking the shore suggests that this is anything but a bucolic, seaside resort area: Omaha Beach.

Seventy years ago, this place was a hellish inferno of noise, smoke and slaughter. Here along an approximately five mile stretch of shoreline, what commanding General Dwight Eisenhower called "the great crusade" to liberate Western Europe from Nazi domination, foundered. Had the men of the American 1st and 29th Divisions, supported by engineers and Rangers, not rallied and battled their way through the fierce German defenses along this beach, the outcome of the entire invasion might have been in doubt.

From films such as The Longest Day to Saving Private Ryan, from books by Cornelius Ryan to Stephen Ambrose, the story of the horror and heroism of Omaha Beach has been told and retold. I am here on the eve of the 70th anniversary of D-Day, June 6, 1944, to follow in the footsteps of one of the battles earliest chroniclers: Ernie Pyle, a correspondent for the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain who at the time of the invasion was already a celebrity. In fact, when he landed here on June 7, Hollywood was already planning a movie based on his stories, which would be released in 1945 as The Story of G.I. Joe, with Burgess Meredith playing the role of Pyle.

The real Pyle was 43 years old in June 1944 and already a veteran. The Indiana native’s coverage of the campaigns in North Africa, Sicily and Italy had earned him a Pulitzer Prize in 1944 and a vast audience. “He was at the zenith of his popularity,” says Owen V. Johnson, a professor at Indiana University’s School of Journalism (the offices of which are in Ernie Pyle Hall).  According to Johnson, an estimated one out of six Americans read Pyle's columns, which appeared four or five times a week during the war.

Perhaps most importantly, at least to the columnist himself, he had earned the respect of the front line American soldiers whose dreary, dirty and sometimes terrifying lives he captured accurately and affectionately.

Watch this video in the original article

There were fewer more terrifying hours than those endured by the first waves at Omaha Beach on June 6. Only a handful of correspondents were with the assault troops on D-Day. One of them was Pyle's colleague and friend, photographer Robert Capa, whose few surviving photos of the fighting on Omaha have become iconic. When Pyle landed the next morning, the fighting had pretty much stopped but the wreckage was still smoldering. What he decided to do in order to communicate to his readers back home what had happened at this place, not yet even recognized by its invasion code name of Omaha Beach, resulted in some of the most powerful reporting he would produce.

Image by U.S. Army photograph, Library of Congress. General Dwight D. Eisenhower gives the order of the day, "Full victory--nothing else" to paratroopers somewhere in England, just before they board their airplanes to participate in the first assault in the invasion of the continent of Europe. (original image)

Image by CORBIS. Troops are crowded onto a landing craft on D-Day. (original image)

Image by Sygma/Corbis. A Ninth Air Force B-26 flies over one of the beaches during the invasion of Normandy. (original image)

Image by Sygma/Corbis. American soldiers prepare to invade the beaches of Normandy. (original image)

Image by Bettmann/CORBIS. Helmeted US soldiers crouch, tightly packed, behind the bulwarks of a Coast Guard landing barge in the historic sweep across the English Channel to the shores of Normandy. (original image)

Image by CORBIS. The first wave of allied landing craft heads toward the Normandy beaches on D-Day. (original image)

Image by CORBIS. Omaha Beach on D-Day. (original image)

Image by CORBIS. General Gerhardt (l) and Commodore Edgar (r) watch the Normandy Invasion. (original image)

Image by Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS. American troops in landing craft go ashore on one of four beaches in Normandy, France. (original image)

Image by CORBIS. Allied soldiers crawl on their stomachs past log fortifications on Omaha Beach. (original image)

Image by Jeffrey Markowitz/Sygma/Corbis. Military mobilization along a Normandy beach following the D-Day invasion. (original image)

Image by Bettmann/CORBIS. American troops wade onto one of four beaches in Normandy, France. (original image)

Image by Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS. A view of Omaha beach during the Normandy invasion. Barrage balloons hover over assembled warships as the Allies pour in an unending flow of supplies for the armies ashore. (original image)

Image by CORBIS. Scores of soldiers get into a landing craft from the deck of a ship in preparation for the invasion of the beaches in Normandy, France. (original image)

Image by CORBIS. Landing troops at Omaha Beach. (original image)

Image by dpa/Corbis. Allied troops advance on a beach during the invasion of the Allies in Normandy, France. (original image)

Image by Bettmann/CORBIS. An American flag marks a US command post near Omaha Beach where captured German soldiers are brought before being evacuated on waiting ships. (original image)

Image by Bettmann/CORBIS. American soldiers wait in foxholes at Utah Beach for the order to move inland against German fortifications. (original image)

Image by Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS. Tanks, vehicles and stores unloading. (original image)

Image by CORBIS. General Omar Bradley and Admiral Kirk sit and talk as they go ashore on D-day, after the Normandy invasion. (original image)

Image by Wounded US and Nazi soldiers are transported to England from the French coast aboard an LCVP (Landing Craft Vehicle, Personnel). (original image)

Image by CORBIS. American assault troops of the 16th Infantry Regiment, injured while storming Omaha Beach during the invasion of Normandy, wait by the Chalk Cliffs for evacuation to a field hospital for further medical treatment. (original image)

Image by The Mariners' Museum/CORBIS. After being defeated during the allied invasion of Normandy, Nazi prisoners lie in beach trenches awaiting transportation across the English Channel. (original image)

Image by CORBIS. A U.S. Navy communications command post, set up at Normandy shortly after the initial landing on D-Day. (original image)

Image by Bettmann/CORBIS. American dead after D-Day landings. (original image)

He simply took a walk and wrote what he saw. “It was if he had a video camera in his head,” Johnson said. “He uses words so efficiently...he allows you to gaze and think, just as he did as he walked along.”

I am accompanied for my walk by Claire Lesourd, a licensed, English-speaking tour guide and D-Day expert, who has been giving tours here since 1995. We are heading from east to west, about 1.5 miles, the same length Pyle guessed he had walked along the same beach in 1944.

What he saw that day was a shoreline covered in the litter of battle and the personal effects of men already dead: “A long line of personal anguish,” as he memorably called it.  

What I see is emptiness. Aside from a few hikers, we walk alone on a seemingly unending stripe of sand, riven by rivulets of water and sandbars to the water’s edge, which is at this time of day about 600 yards from the low, sandy embankments where the G.I.s—or at least those who made it that far—found some shelter.

My original thought had been to follow Pyle’s lead and wander alone, allowing me to observe and reflect.

But Paul Reed, the British author of Walking D-Day, warned that I could waste a lot of time on areas where there was no fighting. He recommended getting a rental car, which would allow me to visit as many of the significant invasion sites as possible: In addition to Omaha, these would include Utah Beach to the west, where American forces staged a far less bloody and more efficient operation; and Pointe du Hoc, the promontory between the two American beaches that U.S. Army Rangers scaled to knock out German artillery and observation posts.   

Reed was right. My reluctance about tooling around in a car in a foreign country proved unfounded. Besides driving on the same side of the road as we do, the French have exceptionally well maintained and marked roads. And in Normandy at least, English is spoken everywhere. So I was indeed able to successfully navigate the entire D-Day area on my own (often relying on nothing more than road signs). I visited the village of St. Mere Eglise—which was liberated by U.S. paratroopers on D-Day—as well as some of the approximately 27 area museums that help deepen one’s understanding of the titanic events that took place here. (I only wish I had had an extra day or two to visit the British invasion beaches, Gold and Sword—which is where the official 70th anniversary observations will be held—and Juno, the Canadian beach.)

At Omaha, I thought all I would need is my notebook and my imagination. A quick re-reading of Pyle’s stories before the walk and some help from Reed’s field guide would suffice. A friend of mine from New York had done just that a few years ago, with less planning than I, and pronounced the experience capital.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the detail and context a well-informed guide could bring would be helpful, if only for my ability to tell this story. Claire proved to be an excellent choice, although she is by no means the only one. There are dozens of competent guides: while they’re not cheap (Ms. LeSourd charges 200€ for a half-day and 300€ for a full-day tour), the time she and I spent walking Omaha proved invaluable—and unforgettable.

On Omaha Beach, monuments to the battle and subsequent carnage are spread out discretely, near the location of the “draws” (paths) that lead up from the beach.

What we know today as Omaha Beach was once called La Plage de Sables D'or; the Beach of the Golden Sands. A century ago, holiday cottages and villas dotted the shore, as well as a railroad line that connected to Cherbourg, then the main junction from Paris. The area attracted artists, including one of the founders of the pointillist school of painters, George Seurat. One of his more famous paintings, Port-en-Bessin, Outer Harbor at High Tide, depicts the nearby seaside village where I stayed the previous night (at the Omaha Beach Hotel).

Much of that was gone by 1944. The Germans, bracing for the attack they were sure would come somewhere along the French coast, demolished the summer homes of Colleville and nearby Vierville sur Mer, minus one Gothic-looking structure whose turret still peaks out from beyond the bike path that runs along the beach road. The Nazis didn't have time to blow that one up (the current owner, Claire tells me, uses the bunker that the Germans built underneath the house as a wine cellar.)

Despite the tranquility of the beach today, it is sobering to look up at the high bluffs overhead and realize that 70 years ago, these wooded hills bristled with weapons—aimed at you. According to Reed, the Germans had at least 85 heavy weapons and machine guns positioned on the high ground, enabling them to rain down about 100,000 rounds a minute. Claire tells me that a few years ago she was escorting a veteran returning to Omaha Beach for the first time since June 6, 1944. Seeing it clearly, without the smoke, noise or adrenaline of battle, he suddenly dropped to his knees and began weeping. "He looked at me,” she recalls, “and said, `I don't know how any of us survived.’"

Pyle said pretty much the same thing. “It seemed to me a pure miracle that we ever took the beach at all,” he wrote.

Most of the approximately 2,000 men killed that morning were buried in temporary cemeteries. Many would have their final resting place in the American Cemetery, located on 172 acres on one of the high points overlooking this sacred space (from the shore, you can see the Stars and Stripes peeking out high above, over the tree-line). Here, 9,387 Americans are buried, the vast majority of them casualties not only from Omaha Beach but throughout the Battle of Normandy which began on June 6 and went on until late August, when German forces retreated across the Seine. And not all D-Day casualties are buried there. After the war, families of deceased soldiers had the option to either have the bodies repatriated to the U.S. or buried in Europe. More than 60 percent chose to have the bodies shipped home. Still, the sight of nearly 10,000 graves is sobering, to say the least. As Reed writes, “The sheer scale of the American sacrifice is understood here, with crosses seemingly going on into infinity.”

Pyle moved along with the army. He joined forward units fighting in the hedgerows and ancient Norman towns, but also spent time with an antiaircraft battery protecting the newly secured invasion beaches and an ordinance repair unit. He would go on to witness the liberation of Paris. And in April, 1945, when Germany surrendered, the exhausted correspondent would agree to go cover the war in the Pacific, where American servicemen were eager to have him tell their stories, as well. On an island near Okinawa, in April, 1945, Pyle was killed by a Japanese sniper.

He is buried in Honolulu, but it could be argued that his spirit rests here with so many of the soldiers he wrote about on D Day.

As he finished his grim walk of Omaha Beach, Pyle noticed something in the sand. It inspired the poignant, almost poetic ending to his dispatch:

The strong swirling tides of the Normandy coast line shifted the contours of the sandy beach as they moved in and out. They carried soldier’s bodies out to sea, and later they returned them. They covered the corpses of heroes with sand, and then in their whims they uncovered them.

As I plowed out over the wet sand, I walked around what seemed to be a couple of pieces of driftwood sticking out of the sand. But they weren’t driftwood. They were a soldier’s two feet. He was completely covered except for his feet; the toes of his GI shoes pointed towards the land he had come so far to see, and which he saw so briefly.”

I, too, have come far to see this place, albeit with the privileges and comforts of 21st century travel.  As we head back to the car, I feel the warmth of the spring sun and a sense of unlimited space and possibility. Despite the gravity of what happened here 70 years ago, I feel like I could walk all day along this beach—and I have the freedom to do so. The men here gave their lives for that. Ernie Pyle told their stories, and died with them. It’s hard not to be humbled in their presence.

Editor's Note, June 6, 2013: This piece has been edited to correct the date of Ernie Pyle's death. He died in April, 1945, not August of that year. Thank you to commenter Kate  for alerting us to the error.

Why and What (Yellow)

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

Why is Turquoise Becoming Rarer and More Valuable Than Diamonds?

Smithsonian Magazine

A sky-blue colored stone with a gray and gold spiderweb matrix sits melded into an intricate silver ring with engraved feathers along the sides. This one piece of jewelry may have taken years to make and is worth thousands of dollars, but the story it tells is priceless. It’s the story of a stone, of a culture, a history and of tradition—the story of the Navajos.

The stone is turquoise, an opaque mineral, chemically a hydrous phosphate of copper and aluminum. Its natural color ranges from sky blue to yellow-green and its luster from waxy to subvitreous. The mineral is typically found in arid climates—major regions include Iran (Persia), northwest China, the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt and the American Southwest. The word itself is derived from an Old French word for “Turkish” traders who first brought the Persian turquoise to Europe. It has graced the halls and tombs of Aztec kings and Egyptian pharaohs, such as Tutankhamun, whose golden funeral mask is inlaid with turquoise.  

The importance of this gem lies far beyond its name (Doo tl’ izh ii in Navajo) and characteristics in the culture as showcased in the exhibition “Glittering World: Navajo Jewelry of the Yazzie Family,” which opened last week at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York City. The show features more than 300 examples of contemporary jewelry made by the Yazzie family of Gallup, New Mexico. It is the museum’s first exhibition to explore the intersection of art and commerce and the personification of culture through jewelry. Although turquoise is not the only stone incorporated in the jewelry, it may be the most important.

“Turquoise is a great example of a secular and sacred stone,” says Lois Sherr Dubin, the curator for the “Glittering World” exhibition. “There is no more important defining gem stone in Southwest jewelry and part of the exhibition’s purpose is to expose people to turquoise that is not dyed or stabilized, but is the authentic stone.”

Turquoise is a central element in Navajo religious observances. One belief is that to bring rainfall, a piece of turquoise must be cast into a river, accompanied by a prayer. Its unique hue of green, blue, black and white represents happiness, luck and health and if given as a gift to someone, it is seen as an expression of kinship.

There are some 20 mines throughout the American Southwest that supply gem-quality turquoise, the majority of them are in Nevada, but others are in Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico. According to turquoise expert Joe Tanner, when Spanish conquistador Coronodo took home riches to the Spanish king, the turquoise from the jewelry was traced back to the Cerrillos mine in New Mexico, the oldest known in America.      

“What the Yazzies work with is the finest from the mines,” says Dubin. “We’re saying it’s more rare than diamonds.”

Less than five percent of turquoise mined worldwide has the characteristics to be cut and set into jewelry. Once a thriving industry, many Southwest mines have run dry and are now closed. Government restrictions and the high costs of mining have also impeded the ability to find gem-quality turquoise. Very few mines operate commercially and most of today’s turquoise is recovered as a byproduct of copper mining.

Despite the lack of mines in North America, turquoise is readily available on the market, with more than 75 percent coming out of China.  However, much of this turquoise has either been filled with epoxy for stabilization or enhanced for color and luster.

Lee Yazzie, known as one of the world’s leading crafters of this artform, prefers his turquoise from the Lone Mountain in Nevada. “I was exposed to the stone in my early life,” he says. “My mother wore it and I remember her working with turquoise to make rings and other pieces. Later, I learned it was considered a sacred stone.”

He set out to find the sacredness of this stone. “One day, I tried to connect to that spirit. I started talking to it and said, ‘I have very little knowledge on how to work with you and need you to give me direction on what it is you want.’ I can testify to you that when I started communicating in this very special way, I discovered why the Navajos considered turquoise to be sacred—everything is sacred in this life.”

This idea of sacred and secular coincides with the idea of preserving tradition through innovation, a common theme in the Yazzie family’s production of jewelry.

“My tradition has always been in my work, no matter how contemporary my pieces look,” says Raymond Yazzie, whose jewelry is distinguished by the quality of his domed inlay work.

“The ability to take traditional forms and make it contemporary is a clear expression of how native people have transitioned from their traditional cultures into a world that is very different,” says Kevin Gover, the museum's director, “yet they have managed to retain their cultural identity.”

Raymond incorporates turquoise into his designs, although he is better known for his use of coral, which he says is also rare when trying to find good quality.

“The Lone Mountain and Lander Blue mine are coming to be like diamonds," says Raymond, "with how much you pay for the turquoise."

“Glittering World: Navajo Jewelry of the Yazzie Family” runs through January 10, 2016 in New York City at the National Museum of the American Indian's Heye Center, is located at One Bowling Green, across from Battery Park. The exhibition will be accompanied by a gallery store that features the work of up and coming Navajo artists. 

On December 6 to 7, the National Museum of the American Indian in New York hosts the 2014 Native Art Market from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. The free event in the Diker Pavillion, first floor, brings many of the best well-known and up-and-coming contemporary Native artists to New York City and includes jewelry makers, basket and traditional weavers, sculptors and ceramic artisans. A ticketed preview party and lecture "Sustainability in native Art & Design" on December 5, features the opportunity to meet the artists, sample Native American influenced food and drink, and tour the exhibition,”Glittering World: Navajo Jewelry of the Yazzie Family.”

Why isn't my favorite artifact on display?

National Museum of American History

On rainy weekends, my mom would say, "Let's go visit Boomer." With big, wise eyes and a grumpy mouth, Boomer the Queensland Grouper was a key part of every visit to our local science museum. Because of our visits to Boomer's large aquarium, I know what it's like to love something in a museum and to make a tradition of visiting it. So I know how our visitors feel when they come to this museum and the thing that they love isn't on display.

As social media manager, I sometimes hear from visitors who are disappointed that the puffy shirt from Seinfeld, the script from The Wizard of Oz, or Fonzie's jacket aren't on display. Museums are places we visit to connect with our memories of the past, and we know how disappointing it can be when a favorite object isn't here to greet you. In the spirit of transparency, I want to share a few reasons why your favorite thing may not be on view as well as a few tips on how to get the most out of your visit.

Two shoes with bow-shaped decorations covered in red sequins

Most of museums' stuff is in storage 
Museums have much larger collections than they have space to display. Do you really want to see every single example of a single butterfly species from the National Museum of Natural History's collection? Probably not, unless you're a researcher. According to a BBC article, the Louvre shows eight percent of its collection. Space limitations and conservation concerns make it even more important for Smithsonian museums to digitize our collections so you can explore them online.

We display more objects online than we do in our building 
Our Information Desk volunteers and Museum Ambassadors often hear from visitors who come to the museum hoping to see an object they spotted on our website or Facebook page. Sharing our collections online is an important part of our mission and we'll continue to do our best to communicate what's on display and what’s not.

Change is good, even for a history museum
We love that families visit the museum again and again to re-connect with favorite exhibitions, but we can't stay static. To be a place where memories are made, we have to provide an excellent visitor experience. This means closing exhibitions to make way for new ones, revamping programming to meet evolving educational needs, and rotating content to represent the diverse stories of American history.

Young woman wearing blue gloves gets ready to remove a Girl Scout uniform from a display

Display is great for visitors, not so great for objects
When I got my first museum job, I was surprised to learn how damaging light can be. Textiles, documents, and most museum artifacts are irreversibly affected by light. We take measures to protect objects from light damage, carefully controlling the length and intensity of exposure. This means that many objects can only be displayed for a limited time in order to protect them from damage.

Rotating objects isn't easy
When a 1960s dress was too sensitive to stay on display for the length of a recent exhibition, curators and conservators collaborated to identify other dresses that could be displayed on rotation. This minimized light exposure and allowed visitors to see more of our collections. But there are only so many people on staff who have the specialized skills to manage rotations across our many exhibitions, and some one-of-a-kind objects don't have a back-up.

Photo of a dress with a pattern of Campbell's soup labels in white and red

Building a new exhibition for objects takes time 
Until Exhibition Development 101 in graduate school, I didn't realize exhibition building is as complicated as producing a Hollywood movie. Creating storylines, scripts, casting plans, and audiovisual content takes time. The gap between closing one exhibition and opening another can feel long. We recommend you check exhibition closing dates to make sure you don't miss out. And remember, our online exhibitions and object groups make objects available online, whether they're on display physically or not.

Objects that join our collection usually aren't displayed right away
We're constantly collecting. For example, our political history curators are on the campaign trail tracking down objects representative of the presidential race. Objects must be processed before they're eligible for display, so you may hear that we acquired something, but that typically doesn't mean we can put it on display right away.

3D model of a boat with orange spots where the user can click for more info

Displaying objects is only part of our job 
The Smithsonian's collections belong to the nation—you trust us to take good care of them, which includes preservation, research, and educational outreach. "The increase and diffusion of knowledge" is our mission and we carry it out in a variety of ways. Visiting us in Washington, D.C., is a great way to learn about history, but we also publish books and blog posts, showcase objects on the Smithsonian Channel, present online and on-site educational programs, lend objects to Smithsonian Affiliate museums, and develop resources for classrooms around the country.

Now that you're fluent how museums work behind the scenes, here are some tips for your next visit:

  • Subscribe to our newsletter (or swing by our website occasionally), for information on openings and closings.
  • Download our self-guides, especially if you're visiting with young people.
  • Get in touch on social media. I'll be happy to answer your questions!
  • Our History Explorer team can provide great advice on which exhibitions are best for students or teens.
  • Read our blog posts with tips on bringing kids to museums.
  • To cover a lot of ground, visit on a quiet day (Tuesdays and Wednesdays are a good bet) or outside of tourist season (fall and winter are great times to visit).
  • Get through security and into the museum quicker by traveling light and familiarizing yourself with our security policies.  
  • Check our calendar for programs to enhance your trip.
  • Once here, stop by our second floor Welcome Center, where knowledgeable volunteers will help you plan your visit or point you towards the next Highlights Tour. 
  • Look for our Museum Ambassodors in blue shirts. They're here to help you enjoy all the museum has to offer. 

Erin Blasco is an education specialist in the museum's New Media Department.

Posted Date: 
Tuesday, April 12, 2016 - 08:00
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Why the Best Way to See Iceland Is by Horse

Smithsonian Magazine

Iceland’s landscapes can look post-apocalyptic: endless black volcanic sand, and nothing else visible for miles but tall power lines. There are spots with lunar-like craters—then, suddenly, a wild covering of bright-green moss. Moss and more moss, until you come to another new terrain: golden vegetation. Next, a boiling geyser, followed by waterfalls, frigid glaciers, lagoons filled with crackling ice. It’s this often-surreal mix of scenery, of hot and cold and lush and open, than can make Iceland seem otherworldly, and make those who’ve been there sound perhaps a little loopy when describing it. But it’s just that magical a place—and riding one of the country’s horses unlocks even more of it.

María Tinna Árnadóttir is a stable supervisor at the Icelandic horse tour company Íshestar, based in Hafnarfjörður in the country’s southeast. “In the highlands,” she notes, “there are so many places you can’t walk, but you can go by horse.” The highlands are part of Iceland’s interior, and were once almost inaccessible due to rough terrain and huge glaciers. (Outlaws would occasional brave the cold, harsh environment to hide there.) But as roads were built starting in the 1970s, the highlands—with its deserts, volcanoes and ice caps, which are part of what makes Iceland known as “the land of fire and ice”—began to open up. While it's possible to traverse many parts of the highlands by walking or by 4x4 vehicle, the most breathtaking, remote parts are inaccessible without an equine transport, since the land is too rocky.

The country’s equines are a distinct breed with a unique history. As Árnadóttir explained, all of the horses in Iceland are bred from stock the Vikings are said to have brought over 900 years ago from Ireland and northern Europe, and legend has it that because their ships had limited space, they took only the best animals.

All horses have what are called natural gaits—inherent patterns of walking they don’t have to be taught. But whereas other breeds share a few natural gaits—including the walk, the trot and the gallop—Icelandic horses use a gait, known as the tölt, that no other breed on the planet does. While their hooves hit the ground in the same sequence as the walk, the movement is faster, yet still smooth. And unlike some gaits, one of the horse’s hooves always touches the ground. As the United States Icelandic Horse Congress writes, although horses using the tölt can reach speeds similar to fast trotting, the experience is much less jolting to the rider. Since it’s so fluid, newbie riders can take an Icelandic horse through the country’s wilds without worrying about a bumpy ride. “You are never bouncing in the saddle—it’s more just like gliding,” Árnadóttir says.

Here are five stunning locations in Iceland that are best experienced on horseback:

Why the Composer of Candy Crush Soda Saga is the New King of Video Game Music

Smithsonian Magazine

Abbey Road Studios in London has heard more than its share of memorable music. It's where the Beatles recorded “A Hard Day's Night” and “Revolver,” and where John Williams conducted the stirring themes of the Star Wars films. But a few months ago, the London Symphony Orchestra performed music that's popular on a entirely different platform: the soundtrack for the video game Candy Crush Soda Saga. Its composer, Johan Holmström, has created the music for more than a dozen popular games.

In an era of shrinking audiences for classical music, performers and composers have found an unlikely ally in the simplest and cheapest kinds of video games. Candy Crush Soda Saga is the sequel to one of the most successful casual games ever, King Digital Entertainment's Candy Crush Saga, which was downloaded half a billion times. (“Casual” games are the sort you play for a few minutes on the subway, or waiting in line.) If the sequel continues to succeed on mobile devices and online, Holmström's composition will deliver the London Symphony Orchestra to low-fi laptop speakers and iPhone earbuds across the world.

Holmström is a Swede, but as a teenager he moved the United States to study and perform music. When he returned to Sweden, he spent years touring with funk and jazz groups. He tired of life on the road, however, and decided to leave music in favor of molecular biology and journalism. His second and third careers didn't last long. Soon he was itching to play music for a living again. “I was thinking about how I can make money from sitting inside my studio,” he says. “That's where I love to be.”

It was around that time that Holmström joined Facebook and started reconnecting with old friends. One was a fellow Swede who worked for a company called Gamers First in California. As they caught up, Holmström mentioned that he wanted to make music again. Before the conversation ended, he'd landed his first freelance gig as a video game composer.

Holmström now composes full-time for King Digital Entertainment, which develops easy-to-play, impossible-to-put-down games for mobile devices and the web. His studio in Malmö, Sweden, consists of little more than keyboards, virtual instruments, and software. “Ninety-nine percent of what I do is on the computer,” he says. When he's not composing, he’s editing custom sound effects like underwater explosions and disappearing candy.

For each new assignment, game producers start by bringing Holmström sketches and ideas. He then prototypes music to fit, be it hard rock, electronica, or classical. For Candy Crush Soda Saga, he tried out several iterations of electronic music before landing on his main orchestral theme. In the game, it rises and falls for a brief 7 minutes, but pivots to additional tracks as the player explores new levels.

Composer Johan Holmström has created the music for more than a dozen popular games. (King Digital Entertainment)

If you've never heard of Candy Crush, consider this: King is one of a handful of casual game developers valued at over $4 billion. The number of people who play their games each day (137 million) is more than double the population of the United Kingdom (64 million), where the company is headquartered. That's significantly more than play console games on Xbox or Playstation, which generate more revenue per player but require expensive purchases to get started. Candy Crush, by comparison, is a free app that makes its millions from in-game purchases such as extra lives and game bonuses.

These figures mark an important shift. Games like Candy Crush, Angry Birds and Bejeweled have proven that tiny screens can still turn huge profits. As game developers such as King, Rovio, and Zynga have expanded into multi-billion dollar enterprises, they've followed in the footsteps of movie studios and console game companies—by hiring armies of in-house creatives like illustrators, animators and composers.

Video game music really caught on in the 1980s, back when games barely fit onto physical cartridges. Back then, even adding a single melodic line of electronic tones was difficult. But with the advent of 8-bit consoles like the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), video game music started to diversify into three lines of bass, treble, and sound effects. (Compare this to the recordings for Candy Crush Soda Saga, which featured 67 performers.)

It took a while for game music to mature. According to Karen Collins, a historian of video game music at the University of Waterloo in Canada, many early games included melodies cobbled together by programmers. “A lot of times they would take piano music and just kind of convert it into code,” she explains. “So you have, like, Bach turning up in 80's games—because they just pulled it from public domain sheet music.”

Once technology improved, leaving more storage capacity for audio, music was a missed opportunity. Video games grew more immersive and complex, but soundtracks weren't keeping up. Nintendo was one company to change that, by hiring dedicated composers. One of their early discoveries was Koji Kondo, the Japanese composer responsible for the memorable theme song of Super Mario Bros.

As layered, subtle music became a common feature of games, theme music started to develop its own aesthetic. “For me, good game music really integrates the game and the music,” says Collins. “To pull it out of the game and listen to it—or to play the game with the music off—just ruins the whole experience.” 

This makes the soundtrack for a video game different than the soundtrack for a movie, which is a linear medium with a beginning, middle, and end. Game music needs to be fluid and adaptable. Video games in the ’80s and ’90s could last dozens or even hundreds of hours, with a constantly shifting setting and cast of characters. Imagine hearing melodies that simply loop for days on end. In most successful game soundtracks, Collins says, “the music is reacting to what you're doing in the game.”

This was her only complaint with the soundtrack of Candy Crush Soda Saga. “I really enjoyed it,” she says, particularly for its nostalgic atmosphere that seems to echo old movies. “It reminded me very much of 1940's Disney music—perhaps a touch of Fantasia—maybe because of all the tuned percussion and pizzicato strings.” She thought the soundtrack wasn't well-integrated into the game, however, because it plays on a loop under loud sound effects.

You could say this another way: There's still plenty of room for improvement in quite good video game music. These days, technical limits for web and mobile games have been largely overcome. The constraints on composers have more to do with the needs of gaming companies, rather than the number of bytes on a sound chip.

The London Symphony Orchestra rehearses Johan Holmström's composition for Candy Crush Soda Saga at the Abbey Road Studios. (King Digital Entertainment)

The brave new world of musical possibilities makes Johan Holmström a bit nostalgic. As a kid, he played games on a popular model of 8-bit home computer, the Commodore 64. “I remember it was such a big thing when I had my first Commodore 64,” he says. One of his games, Commando, had music that sounded like 80's dance music converted into frantic beeps, blips, and buzzes. “That was so cool.”

On the other hand, technical improvements also created Holmström's job, since they enabled even casual games to feature rich orchestral scores. So he can't really complain. When the London Symphony Orchestra started performing the music to Candy Crush Soda Saga, Holmström was with his wife in the Abbey Road control room, watching from above. It made both of them tear up. Music hasn't lost the power to do that.

Why the Japanese Eat Cake For Christmas

Smithsonian Magazine

Fluffy white sponge cake might not be the first dessert that comes to mind around Christmastime, but in Japan, the cake is king. Despite less than one percent of Japan’s population identifying as Christian, Christmas cheer is widespread on the island nation. There are Santas aplenty, Christmas tree decorations, lights on display and presents for children. But nothing says Christmas in Japan quite like the Christmas cake. The ubiquitous dessert is made of round sponge layers covered in whipped cream, with strawberries between the layers and placed on top. The dessert is so iconic you can even see its representation in the cake emoji on your phone.

Christmas first made a limited appearance in Japan in the 16th century, when Christian missionaries from Portugal arrived. But the holiday didn’t spread in its secularized, commercial form for several hundred years, until the 1870s, when Tokyo stores like Maruzen (a bookstore chain) began creating displays with Christmas decorations and selling imported greeting cards. In the decades before World War II, the country seemed primed for an American cultural boom. Charlie Chaplin visited the country in 1932, Japan’s first professional baseball teams began competition, and Babe Ruth came to Japan on a tour and was greeted by hundreds of thousands of fans. Consumerism was on the rise—but was forced back down as Imperial Japan embroiled itself in World War II. Soon the slogan “luxury is the enemy” could be seen everywhere.

Before the war, Japanese treats fell into two large categories. Wagashi (Japanese sweets) were the more traditional variety, made from bean paste and powdered rice and very lightly sweetened. On the other side were yogashi (Western sweets), things like chocolates, made with rare ingredients like milk and butter. Yogashi were signs of wealth, status and modernity—but during the war they were all but impossible to find. In 1944, due to food shortages, official sugar distribution by the Japanese government ended; by 1946 the average amount of sugar used by one person in a year was only 0.2 kilograms, the equivalent of about four cans of Coke.

After World War II ended, the U.S. occupied Japan from 1945 to 1952. During that period, the Supreme Commander for Allied Powers’ economic and scientific division formulated and instituted a number of economic policies, inspired by the New Deal, to assist in the rebuilding of Japan’s infrastructure. As Japan’s economy began to rebound, sugar consumption increased anew. Mass-produced yogashi-like caramels and chocolates gradually filled supermarkets, signaling the rise of the national standard of living. From the mid-1950s to the 1960s, chocolates were being produced at five times the pre-war rate, and cakes were being produced 2.5 times more. As cultural anthropologist Hideyo Konagaya writes, “Tangible acts of consuming sweetness, typically of chocolates, marked a certain psychological achievement once they looked back to the state of hunger a few decades earlier.”

Christmas was the perfect opportunity to celebrate economic prosperity and the unique mixing of Japanese and Western culture. References to the holiday were also made in English reader books, helping children become familiar with it, and it soon came to be celebrated in several main ways: giving toys to children, ordering KFC for dinner, and eating Christmas cakes.

The cake itself is highly symbolic as well, according to Konagaya. The round shape calls back to other traditional sweets (think of the rice-wrapped treats called mochi), whereas white has a connection to rice. Red is the color that repels evil spirits, and is considered auspicious when combined with white, as it is on the national flag.

It was popularized by Japanese confectioner Fujiya Co., but technological advances were what made its creation possible. Earlier sponge cakes were iced with butter cream, since the frosting didn’t require refrigeration. But when most households began owning personal refrigerators, the classier, fresh whipped cream was used. As for the strawberries, they were rare, expensive commodities until after World War II, when greenhouses and new agricultural technology made them available in the colder winter months. Like with the cream and sugar, strawberries symbolized economic advancement. Today strawberries are popular in mochi and other desserts, but their most iconic use is still the Christmas cake.

If the Christmas cake sounds like an irresistible tradition to adopt, follow the instructions on how to make it from the popular Japanese cooking show, “Cooking with Dog.”

Why the Skeleton of the "Irish Giant" Could Be Buried at Sea

Smithsonian Magazine

The Hunterian Museum, run by the Royal College of Surgeons of England, contains approximately 3,500 anatomical oddities and medical specimens amassed by its namesake, 18th-century surgeon John Hunter. Looming over the collection is the 235-year-old skeleton of Charles Byrne, the so-called “Irish Giant.”

The problem is, Byrne had no desire to have his remains turned into a museum display. In fact, he specifically asked for that to never happen. Over the last decade, advocates for repatriation have increasingly put pressure on the Hunterian to observe to Byrne’s final wishes and release his bones for burial.

Now, reports Hannah Devlin at The Guardian, the museum — which is currently closed to the public for a three-year refurbishment — has stated its board of trustees will meet to discuss what to do about the controversial bones.

Byrne’s story is a tragic one. Born in 1761 in what is now Northern Ireland, he experienced massive growth spurts due to acromegalic gigantism —the same condition that Andre the Giant lived with— which causes abnormal growth.

By early adulthood, Byrne’s towering size had made him become somewhat of a celebrity. He even went on a tour of the British Isles, amassing some money from presenting himself as a curiosity. But at the age of 22, he suffered a tuberculosis flare up, and his health began to fail.

Hunter, the London surgeon and anatomist, saw a scientific opportunity in Byrne’s failing health. He propositioned Byrne, telling him that he would pay to own his corpse. Horrified by the idea, Byrne instructed friends to bury him at sea when he died to prevent his bones from being taken by grave robbers.

Hunter was not the only one who wanted Byrne’s remains. When Byrne died in 1783, one contemporary newspaper account reported “a whole tribe of surgeons put in a claim for the poor departed Irishman,” adding that they gathered around his house “just as harpooners would an enormous whale.”

Though friends tried to carry out Byrne’s wishes — transporting his remains to the coastal town of Margate to be buried at sea — Byrne’s body was not in the casket. Instead, as the story goes, Hunter paid the undertaker 500 pounds to steal it and replace it with stones.

After Hunter defleshed and boiled the corpse, he stashed the bones away. Several years later, when Byrne had drifted out of public focus, Hunter revealed he had the bones. In 1799, Hunter's entire collection, including Byrne’s skeletal remains, was purchased by the Royal College of Surgeons, and soon after, Byrne’s bones went on display at the Hunterian.

The recent statement by the Royal College of Surgeons suggests that ­­a new chapter may be coming in the bones’ long saga.

The museum has long held the position that the bones are important for long-term research and education. Since Byrne has no direct descendants, the museum has also pointed to support from individuals in a recent genetic study that traced Byrne’s genetics and those living with the same aryl hydrocarbon-interacting protein gene mutation in Northern Ireland today to a common ancestor. One 2013 museum panel included anonymized quotes from those individuals that spoke to the biomedical potential of the remains for diagnosis and treatment. “Byrne’s body has yielded us vital information in the understanding of this condition,” one said, according to Catherine Nash, professor of human geography at the University of London, in her 2018 paper Making kinship with human remains: Repatriation, biomedicine and the many relations of Charles Byrne.

However, Nash explains that Byrne could be genetically close or closer to thousands in Northern Ireland, Ireland and beyond if a larger survey of genetic diversity was conducted. “As is often the case in similar studies of genetic relatedness, an account of a shared ancestor produces an idea of distinctive ancestral connections within what would be a genealogical tangle of shared ancestry if viewed more widely,” she writes. “In this case, it is used to produce an idea of a distinctive degree of genetic connection that validates a position of authority in discussions of what should be done with the remains.”

Campaigners for burial also make the argument that Byrne’s DNA has already been sequenced and researchers could make an exact copy of his skeleton if need be. Additionally, they point out that there are other people suffering from acromegaly who have voluntarily offered to donate their bodies for science.

Thomas Muinzer, a law lecturer at the University of Stirling who has advocated for Byrne's burial for years, tells Ceimin Burke at that he believes the museum’s statement is the first time it has showed a willingness to discuss the issue of relinquishing the body. “This is a huge move on their part,” he says.

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