Skip to Content

Found 6,688 Resources

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 Smithsonian.com. “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 http://bit.ly/2O5QvN7

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
OSayCanYouSee?d=qj6IDK7rITs OSayCanYouSee?d=7Q72WNTAKBA OSayCanYouSee?i=mJCfdVaPowM:P2-zz5ZQBrw:V_sGLiPBpWU OSayCanYouSee?i=mJCfdVaPowM:P2-zz5ZQBrw:gIN9vFwOqvQ OSayCanYouSee?d=yIl2AUoC8zA

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 TheJournal.ie 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.

Wide Load

National Air and Space Museum
Felt tip pen drawing on paper. Wide load, 1/30/71.

The spring of 1962 was a busy time for the men and women of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. On February 20, John H. Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth. For the first time since the launch of Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957, the U.S. was positioned to match and exceed Soviet achievements in space. NASA was an agency with a mission -- to meet President John F. Kennedy's challenge of sending human beings to the moon and returning them safely to earth by the end of the decade. Within a year, three more Mercury astronauts would fly into orbit. Plans were falling into place for a follow-on series of two-man Gemini missions that would set the stage for the Apollo voyages to the moon.

In early March 1962, artist Bruce Stevenson brought his large portrait of Alan Shepard, the first American to fly in space, to NASA headquarters.(1) James E. Webb, the administrator of NASA, assumed that the artist was interested in painting a similar portrait of all seven of the Mercury astronauts. Instead, Webb voiced his preference for a group portrait that would emphasize "…the team effort and the togetherness that has characterized the first group of astronauts to be trained by this nation." More important, the episode convinced the administrator that "…we should consider in a deliberate way just what NASA should do in the field of fine arts to commemorate the …historic events" of the American space program.(2)

In addition to portraits, Webb wanted to encourage artists to capture the excitement and deeper meaning of space flight. He imagined "a nighttime scene showing the great amount of activity involved in the preparation of and countdown for launching," as well as paintings that portrayed activities in space. "The important thing," he concluded, "is to develop a policy on how we intend to treat this matter now and in the next several years and then to get down to the specifics of how we intend to implement this policy…." The first step, he suggested, was to consult with experts in the field, including the director of the National Gallery of Art, and the members of the Fine Arts Commission, the arbiters of architectural and artistic taste who passed judgment on the appearance of official buildings and monuments in the nation's capital.

Webb's memo of March 16, 1962 was the birth certificate of the NASA art program. Shelby Thompson, the director of the agency's Office of Educational Programs and Services, assigned James Dean, a young artist working as a special assistant in his office, to the project. On June 19, 1962 Thompson met with the Fine Arts Commission, requesting advice as to how "…NASA should develop a basis for use of paintings and sculptures to depict significant historical events and other activities in our program."(3)

David E. Finley, the chairman and former director of the National Gallery of Art, applauded the idea, and suggested that the agency should study the experience of the U.S. Air Force, which had amassed some 800 paintings since establishing an art program in 1954. He also introduced Thompson to Hereward Lester Cooke, curator of paintings at the National Gallery of Art.

An imposing bear of a man standing over six feet tall, Lester Cooke was a graduate of Yale and Oxford, with a Princeton PhD. The son of a physics professor and a veteran of the U.S. Army Air Forces, he was both fascinated by science and felt a personal connection to flight. On a professional level, Cooke had directed American participation in international art competitions and produced articles and illustrations for the National Geographic Magazine. He jumped at the chance to advise NASA on its art program.

While initially cautious with regard to the time the project might require of one of his chief curators, John Walker, director of the National Gallery, quickly became one of the most vocal supporters of the NASA art initiative. Certain that "the present space exploration effort by the United States will probably rank among the more important events in the history of mankind," Walker believed that "every possible method of documentation …be used." Artists should be expected "…not only to record the physical appearance of the strange new world which space technology is creating, but to edit, select and probe for the inner meaning and emotional impact of events which may change the destiny of our race." He urged quick action so that "the full flavor of the achievement …not be lost," and hoped that "the past held captive" in any paintings resulting from the effort "will prove to future generations that America produced not only scientists and engineers capable of shaping the destiny of our age, but also artists worthy to keep them company."(4)

Gordon Cooper, the last Mercury astronaut to fly, was scheduled to ride an Atlas rocket into orbit on May 15, 1963. That event would provide the ideal occasion for a test run of the plan Cooke and Dean evolved to launch the art program. In mid-February, Cooke provided Thompson with a list of the artists who should be invited to travel to Cape Canaveral to record their impressions of the event. Andrew Wyeth, whom the curator identified as "the top artist in the U.S. today," headed the list. When the time came, however, Andrew Wyeth did not go to the Cape for the Cooper launch, but his son Jamie would participate in the program during the Gemini and Apollo years.

The list of invited artists also included Peter Hurd, Andrew Wyeth's brother-in-law, who had served as a wartime artist with the Army Air Force; George Weymouth, whom Wyeth regarded as "the best of his pupils"; and John McCoy, another Wyeth associate. Cooke regarded the next man on the list, Robert McCall, who had been running the Air Force art program, as "America's top aero-space illustrator. Paul Calle and Robert Shore had both painted for the Air Force program. Mitchell Jamieson, who had run a unit of the Navy art program during WW II, rounded out the program. Alfred Blaustein was the only artist to turn down the invitation.

The procedures that would remain in place for more than a decade were given a trial run in the spring of 1963. The artists received an $800 commission, which had to cover any expenses incurred while visiting a NASA facility where they could paint whatever interested them. In return, they would present their finished pieces, and all of their sketches, to the space agency. The experiment was a success, and what might have been a one-time effort to dispatch artists to witness and record the Gordon Cooper flight provided the basis for an on-going, if small-scale, program. By the end of 1970, Jim Dean and Lester Cooke had dispatched 38 artists to Mercury, Gemini and Apollo launches and to other NASA facilities.

The art program became everything that Jim Webb had hoped it would be. NASA artists produced stunning works of art that documented the agency's step-by-step progress on the way to the moon. The early fruits of the program were presented in a lavishly illustrated book, Eyewitness to Space (New York: Abrams, 1971). Works from the collection illustrated NASA publications and were the basis for educational film strips aimed at school children. In 1965 and again in 1969 the National Gallery of Art mounted two major exhibitions of work from the NASA collection. The USIA sent a selection of NASA paintings overseas, while the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service created two exhibitions of NASA art that toured the nation.

"Since we …began," Dean noted in a reflection on the tenth anniversary of the program, the art initiative had resulted in a long string of positive "press interviews and reports, congressional inquiries, columns in the Congressional Record, [and] White House reports." The NASA effort, he continued, had directly inspired other government art programs. "The Department of the Interior (at least two programs), the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of the Army and even the Veterans Administration have, or are starting, art programs." While he could not take all of the credit, Dean insisted that "our success has encouraged other agencies to get involved and they have succeeded, too."(5)

For all of that, he noted, it was still necessary to "defend" the role of art in the space agency. Dean, with the assistance of Lester Cooke, had been a one-man show, handling the complex logistics of the program, receiving and cataloguing works of art, hanging them himself in museums or on office walls, and struggling to find adequate storage space. In January 1976, a NASA supervisor went so far as to comment that: "Mr. Dean is far too valuable in other areas to spend his time on the relatively menial …jobs he is often burdened with in connection with the art program."(6) Dean placed a much higher value on the art collection, and immediately recommended that NASA officials either devote additional resources to the program, or get out of the art business and turn the existing collection over the National Air and Space Museum, "where it can be properly cared for."(7)

In January 1974 a new building for the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) was taking shape right across the street from NASA headquarters. Discussions regarding areas of cooperation were already underway between NASA officials and museum director Michael Collins, who had flown to the moon as a member of the Apollo 11 crew. Before the end of the year, the space agency had transferred its art collection to the NASM. Mike Collins succeeded in luring Jim Dean to the museum, as well.

The museum already maintained a small art collection, including portraits of aerospace heroes, an assortment of 18th and 19th century prints illustrating the early history of the balloon, an eclectic assortment of works portraying aspects of the history of aviation and a few recent prizes, including several Norman Rockwell paintings of NASA activity. With the acquisition of the NASA art, the museum was in possession of one of the world's great collections of art exploring aerospace themes. Jim Dean would continue to build the NASM collection as the museum's first curator of art. Following his retirement in 1980, other curators would follow in his footsteps, continuing to strengthen the role of art at the NASM. Over three decades after its arrival, however, the NASA art accession of 2,091 works still constitutes almost half of the NASM art collection.

(1) Stevenson's portrait is now in the collection of the National Air and Space Museum (1981-627)

(2) James E. Webb to Hiden Cox, March 16, 1962, memorandum in the NASA art historical collection, Aeronautics Division, National air and Space Museum. Webb's preference for a group portrait of the astronauts was apparently not heeded. In the end, Stevenson painted an individual portrait of John Glenn, which is also in the NASM collection (1963-398).

(3) Shelby Thompson, memorandum for the record, July 6, 1962, NASA art historical collection, NASA, Aeronautics Division.

(4) John Walker draft of a talk, March 5, 1965, copy in NASA Art historical collection, NASM Aeronautics Division.

(5) James Dean, memorandum for the record, August 6, 1973, NASA art history collection, NASM Aeronautics Division.

(6) Director of Planning and Media Development to Assistant Administrator for Public Affairs, January 24, 1974, NASA art history collection, NASM Aeronautics Division.

(7) James Dean to the Assistant Administrator for Public Affairs, January 24, 1974, copy in NASA Art history Collection, Aeronautics Division, NASM.

Tom D. Crouch

Senior Curator, Aeronautics

National Air and Space Museum

Smithsonian Institution

July 26, 2007

Wide Load

National Air and Space Museum
Wide Load. The first stage of an Atlas booster is in transit on Cape Kennedy. This rear view perspective includes the "wide load" sign at the bottom of the structure. The lush green landscape is broken on the right by a white rectangular sign with a red arrow pointing to the right and the words "US AIR FORCE" above it. To the left is a yellow diamond street sign.

In March 1962, James Webb, Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, suggested that artists be enlisted to document the historic effort to send the first human beings to the moon. John Walker, director of the National Gallery of Art, was among those who applauded the idea, urging that artists be encouraged "…not only to record the physical appearance of the strange new world which space technology is creating, but to edit, select and probe for the inner meaning and emotional impact of events which may change the destiny of our race."

Working together, James Dean, a young artist employed by the NASA Public Affairs office, and Dr. H. Lester Cooke, curator of paintings at the National Gallery of Art, created a program that dispatched artists to NASA facilities with an invitation to paint whatever interested them. The result was an extraordinary collection of works of art proving, as one observer noted, "that America produced not only scientists and engineers capable of shaping the destiny of our age, but also artists worthy to keep them company." Transferred to the National Air and Space Museum in 1975, the NASA art collection remains one of the most important elements of what has become perhaps the world's finest collection of aerospace themed art.

The spring of 1962 was a busy time for the men and women of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. On February 20, John H. Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth. For the first time since the launch of Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957, the U.S. was positioned to match and exceed Soviet achievements in space. NASA was an agency with a mission -- to meet President John F. Kennedy's challenge of sending human beings to the moon and returning them safely to earth by the end of the decade. Within a year, three more Mercury astronauts would fly into orbit. Plans were falling into place for a follow-on series of two-man Gemini missions that would set the stage for the Apollo voyages to the moon.

In early March 1962, artist Bruce Stevenson brought his large portrait of Alan Shepard, the first American to fly in space, to NASA headquarters.(1) James E. Webb, the administrator of NASA, assumed that the artist was interested in painting a similar portrait of all seven of the Mercury astronauts. Instead, Webb voiced his preference for a group portrait that would emphasize "…the team effort and the togetherness that has characterized the first group of astronauts to be trained by this nation." More important, the episode convinced the administrator that "…we should consider in a deliberate way just what NASA should do in the field of fine arts to commemorate the …historic events" of the American space program.(2)

In addition to portraits, Webb wanted to encourage artists to capture the excitement and deeper meaning of space flight. He imagined "a nighttime scene showing the great amount of activity involved in the preparation of and countdown for launching," as well as paintings that portrayed activities in space. "The important thing," he concluded, "is to develop a policy on how we intend to treat this matter now and in the next several years and then to get down to the specifics of how we intend to implement this policy…." The first step, he suggested, was to consult with experts in the field, including the director of the National Gallery of Art, and the members of the Fine Arts Commission, the arbiters of architectural and artistic taste who passed judgment on the appearance of official buildings and monuments in the nation's capital.

Webb's memo of March 16, 1962 was the birth certificate of the NASA art program. Shelby Thompson, the director of the agency's Office of Educational Programs and Services, assigned James Dean, a young artist working as a special assistant in his office, to the project. On June 19, 1962 Thompson met with the Fine Arts Commission, requesting advice as to how "…NASA should develop a basis for use of paintings and sculptures to depict significant historical events and other activities in our program."(3)

David E. Finley, the chairman and former director of the National Gallery of Art, applauded the idea, and suggested that the agency should study the experience of the U.S. Air Force, which had amassed some 800 paintings since establishing an art program in 1954. He also introduced Thompson to Hereward Lester Cooke, curator of paintings at the National Gallery of Art.

An imposing bear of a man standing over six feet tall, Lester Cooke was a graduate of Yale and Oxford, with a Princeton PhD. The son of a physics professor and a veteran of the U.S. Army Air Forces, he was both fascinated by science and felt a personal connection to flight. On a professional level, Cooke had directed American participation in international art competitions and produced articles and illustrations for the National Geographic Magazine. He jumped at the chance to advise NASA on its art program.

While initially cautious with regard to the time the project might require of one of his chief curators, John Walker, director of the National Gallery, quickly became one of the most vocal supporters of the NASA art initiative. Certain that "the present space exploration effort by the United States will probably rank among the more important events in the history of mankind," Walker believed that "every possible method of documentation …be used." Artists should be expected "…not only to record the physical appearance of the strange new world which space technology is creating, but to edit, select and probe for the inner meaning and emotional impact of events which may change the destiny of our race." He urged quick action so that "the full flavor of the achievement …not be lost," and hoped that "the past held captive" in any paintings resulting from the effort "will prove to future generations that America produced not only scientists and engineers capable of shaping the destiny of our age, but also artists worthy to keep them company."(4)

Gordon Cooper, the last Mercury astronaut to fly, was scheduled to ride an Atlas rocket into orbit on May 15, 1963. That event would provide the ideal occasion for a test run of the plan Cooke and Dean evolved to launch the art program. In mid-February, Cooke provided Thompson with a list of the artists who should be invited to travel to Cape Canaveral to record their impressions of the event. Andrew Wyeth, whom the curator identified as "the top artist in the U.S. today," headed the list. When the time came, however, Andrew Wyeth did not go to the Cape for the Cooper launch, but his son Jamie would participate in the program during the Gemini and Apollo years.

The list of invited artists also included Peter Hurd, Andrew Wyeth's brother-in-law, who had served as a wartime artist with the Army Air Force; George Weymouth, whom Wyeth regarded as "the best of his pupils"; and John McCoy, another Wyeth associate. Cooke regarded the next man on the list, Robert McCall, who had been running the Air Force art program, as "America's top aero-space illustrator. Paul Calle and Robert Shore had both painted for the Air Force program. Mitchell Jamieson, who had run a unit of the Navy art program during WW II, rounded out the program. Alfred Blaustein was the only artist to turn down the invitation.

The procedures that would remain in place for more than a decade were given a trial run in the spring of 1963. The artists received an $800 commission, which had to cover any expenses incurred while visiting a NASA facility where they could paint whatever interested them. In return, they would present their finished pieces, and all of their sketches, to the space agency. The experiment was a success, and what might have been a one-time effort to dispatch artists to witness and record the Gordon Cooper flight provided the basis for an on-going, if small-scale, program. By the end of 1970, Jim Dean and Lester Cooke had dispatched 38 artists to Mercury, Gemini and Apollo launches and to other NASA facilities.

The art program became everything that Jim Webb had hoped it would be. NASA artists produced stunning works of art that documented the agency's step-by-step progress on the way to the moon. The early fruits of the program were presented in a lavishly illustrated book, Eyewitness to Space (New York: Abrams, 1971). Works from the collection illustrated NASA publications and were the basis for educational film strips aimed at school children. In 1965 and again in 1969 the National Gallery of Art mounted two major exhibitions of work from the NASA collection. The USIA sent a selection of NASA paintings overseas, while the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service created two exhibitions of NASA art that toured the nation.

"Since we …began," Dean noted in a reflection on the tenth anniversary of the program, the art initiative had resulted in a long string of positive "press interviews and reports, congressional inquiries, columns in the Congressional Record, [and] White House reports." The NASA effort, he continued, had directly inspired other government art programs. "The Department of the Interior (at least two programs), the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of the Army and even the Veterans Administration have, or are starting, art programs." While he could not take all of the credit, Dean insisted that "our success has encouraged other agencies to get involved and they have succeeded, too."(5)

For all of that, he noted, it was still necessary to "defend" the role of art in the space agency. Dean, with the assistance of Lester Cooke, had been a one-man show, handling the complex logistics of the program, receiving and cataloguing works of art, hanging them himself in museums or on office walls, and struggling to find adequate storage space. In January 1976, a NASA supervisor went so far as to comment that: "Mr. Dean is far too valuable in other areas to spend his time on the relatively menial …jobs he is often burdened with in connection with the art program."(6) Dean placed a much higher value on the art collection, and immediately recommended that NASA officials either devote additional resources to the program, or get out of the art business and turn the existing collection over the National Air and Space Museum, "where it can be properly cared for."(7)

In January 1974 a new building for the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) was taking shape right across the street from NASA headquarters. Discussions regarding areas of cooperation were already underway between NASA officials and museum director Michael Collins, who had flown to the moon as a member of the Apollo 11 crew. Before the end of the year, the space agency had transferred its art collection to the NASM. Mike Collins succeeded in luring Jim Dean to the museum, as well.

The museum already maintained a small art collection, including portraits of aerospace heroes, an assortment of 18th and 19th century prints illustrating the early history of the balloon, an eclectic assortment of works portraying aspects of the history of aviation and a few recent prizes, including several Norman Rockwell paintings of NASA activity. With the acquisition of the NASA art, the museum was in possession of one of the world's great collections of art exploring aerospace themes. Jim Dean would continue to build the NASM collection as the museum's first curator of art. Following his retirement in 1980, other curators would follow in his footsteps, continuing to strengthen the role of art at the NASM. Over three decades after its arrival, however, the NASA art accession of 2,091 works still constitutes almost half of the NASM art collection.

(1) Stevenson's portrait is now in the collection of the National Air and Space Museum (1981-627)

(2) James E. Webb to Hiden Cox, March 16, 1962, memorandum in the NASA art historical collection, Aeronautics Division, National air and Space Museum. Webb's preference for a group portrait of the astronauts was apparently not heeded. In the end, Stevenson painted an individual portrait of John Glenn, which is also in the NASM collection (1963-398).

(3) Shelby Thompson, memorandum for the record, July 6, 1962, NASA art historical collection, NASA, Aeronautics Division.

(4) John Walker draft of a talk, March 5, 1965, copy in NASA Art historical collection, NASM Aeronautics Division.

(5) James Dean, memorandum for the record, August 6, 1973, NASA art history collection, NASM Aeronautics Division.

(6) Director of Planning and Media Development to Assistant Administrator for Public Affairs, January 24, 1974, NASA art history collection, NASM Aeronautics Division.

(7) James Dean to the Assistant Administrator for Public Affairs, January 24, 1974, copy in NASA Art history Collection, Aeronautics Division, NASM.

Tom D. Crouch

Senior Curator, Aeronautics

National Air and Space Museum

Smithsonian Institution

July 26, 2007

Widening the Conversation: Involving Communities in Interpretive Planning

Smithsonian Education
Sarah Blannett, Director of Education Margaret Hughes, Director of Immigrant Heritage Project Jeff Tancil, Director of Web and IT Lower East Side Tenement Museum Sarah Blannett, Director of Education, Margaret Hughes, Director of Immigrant Heritage Project, and Jeff Tancil, Director of Web and IT from the Lower East Side Tenement Museum give a presentation on their successful community programs for new speakers of English and their ImMigrant Trails self-guided tours program and lead a discussion on possibilities for other museum-based educational programs. For more information on TM programs, see their article, Immigrant Voices: A New Language for Museums, which won first prize for the Brooking Paper on Creativity in Museums competition in 2006. The program was held on Tuesday, July 17 at 3 PM and is the first in an occasional series hosted jointly by the Smithsonian Center for Education and Museum Studies and the Smithsonian Heritage Months Steering Committee. The series features other museums that are doing innovative work in the fields of community outreach and heritage. For further information on this event, please contact heritage@si.edu. Tuesday, July 17, 2007 3:00 PM

Wig from Bombalurina costume used in the musical Cats

National Museum of American History
This wig is part of a costume worn by actresses portraying the character Bombalurina in the original Broadway production of Cats. The orange, brown, blond, white, and black wig is made of synthetic fur stitched to a net cap and is styled to suggest cat ears. Bombalurina is a flirtatious and confident feline who often has featured solos in the show’s numbers “The Gumbie Cat,” “Rum Tum Tugger,” “Grizabella the Glamour Cat,” and “Bustopher Jones.” Bombalurina’s largest singing part is in “Macavity.” Depending on the production, Bombalurina sings various parts of these songs and usually sings the entirety of “Macavity.” Geraldine Gardner originated the role on the West End in 1981 and Donna King and Marlene Danielle later took on the role on Broadway. On the screen, Rosemarie Ford portrayed the character in the 1998 film and Taylor Swift portrayed her in the 2019 film adaptation. Cats broke Broadway records with its run of 7,485 performances from 1982 until 2000 at New York’s Winter Garden Theatre. The play, written and composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber based on stories and characters from T. S. Eliot's 1939 Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, and first premiered in London’s West End in 1981. The expensive and spectacular production has been called the first “megamusical,” inaugurating a new period of Broadway theater history when big-budget shows with elaborate special effects, spectacular costumes, and rock music revived the theater district’s sagging fortunes. Cats earned multiple Tony awards in its original run and has since been revived on Broadway and in numerous national and international tours.

Wig from Grizabella costume used in the musical Cats

National Museum of American History
This wig is part of a costume worn by actresses portraying the character Grizabella in the original Broadway production of Cats. The wig is made of curly brown and blond synthetic hair stitched to a synthetic net cap. Grizabella the Glamour Cat is the musical’s main character, responsible for singing the hit song “Memory.” Grizabella was once a glamourous cat but is now lonely and decrepit; she is ostracized by the Jellicle tribe and seeks re-acceptance in the community. She is eventually chosen as the “Jellicle choice” to ascend to the Heaviside Layer and return to a new life. Grizabella’s story was not included in Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, as it was deemed “too sad for children.” T. S. Eliot’s widow, Valerie Eliot, gave Andrew Lloyd Webber the poem which describes the former glamour cat who has fallen on hard times and roams the red-light district near Tottenham Court. Elaine Page originated the role on the West End in 1981 and reprised the role in the 1998 film. Betty Buckley later took on the role on Broadway in 1982. Jennifer Hudson portrayed her in the 2019 film adaptation. Cats broke Broadway records with its run of 7,485 performances from 1982 until 2000 at New York’s Winter Garden Theatre. The play, written and composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber based on stories and characters from T. S. Eliot's 1939 Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, and first premiered in London’s West End in 1981. The expensive and spectacular production has been called the first “megamusical,” inaugurating a new period of Broadway theater history when big-budget shows with elaborate special effects, spectacular costumes, and rock music revived the theater district’s sagging fortunes. Cats earned multiple Tony awards in its original run and has since been revived on Broadway and in numerous national and international tours.

Wig from Mistoffelees costume used in the musical Cats

National Museum of American History
This wig was part of a costume worn by actors portraying the character Mr. Mistoffelees in the original Broadway production of Cats. The black synthetic fiber wig is styled to suggest the appearance of cat's ears. A black-and-white tuxedo cat, Mr. Mistoffelees possesses magical powers celebrated in the song “Magical Mr. Mistoffelees.” While Mistoffelees sometimes sings depending on the production, Mistoffelees is primarily a featured dancing role. The character has some of the most challenging choreography in the show, including his signature move the “Conjuring Turn,” which is twenty-four consecutive fouettés en tournant. Wayne Sleep originated the role on the West End in 1981 and Timothy Scott later took on the role on Broadway in 1982. On the screen, Jacob Brent portrayed the character in the 1998 film and Laurie Davidson portrayed him in the 2019 film adaptation. Cats broke Broadway records with its run of 7,485 performances from 1982 until 2000 at New York’s Winter Garden Theatre. The play, written and composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber based on stories and characters from T. S. Eliot's 1939 Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, and first premiered in London’s West End in 1981. The expensive and spectacular production has been called the first “megamusical,” inaugurating a new period of Broadway theater history when big-budget shows with elaborate special effects, spectacular costumes, and rock music revived the theater district’s sagging fortunes. Cats earned multiple Tony awards in its original run and has since been revived on Broadway and in numerous national and international tours.

Wig from Rum Tum Tugger costume used in the musical Cats

National Museum of American History
This wig is part of a costume worn by actors portraying the character Rum Tum Tugger in the original Broadway production of Cats. The blond, brown, and orange-streaked synthetic hair wig is styled like a lion’s mane with ears ending in curled points. One of the Jellicle tribe that introduces themselves over the course of the show, Rum Tum Tugger is portrayed as a rebellious and flirtatious cat who loves to be the center of attention. Rum Tum Tugger is a singing role with several solos like “The Rum Tum Tugger,” “Magical Mr. Mistoffelees,” and other featured parts. He originally embodied a rock star persona but takes on more of a rapper style in more recent adaptations, like the 2014 West End revival and the 2019 film adaptation. Paul Nicholas originated the role on the West End in 1981 and Terrance Mann later took on the role on Broadway in 1982. On the screen, John Partridge portrayed the character in the 1998 film and Jason Derulo portrayed him in the 2019 film adaptation. Cats broke Broadway records with its run of 7,485 performances from 1982 until 2000 at New York’s Winter Garden Theatre. The play, written and composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber based on stories and characters from T. S. Eliot's 1939 Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, and first premiered in London’s West End in 1981. The expensive and spectacular production has been called the first “megamusical,” inaugurating a new period of Broadway theater history when big-budget shows with elaborate special effects, spectacular costumes, and rock music revived the theater district’s sagging fortunes. Cats earned multiple Tony awards in its original run and has since been revived on Broadway and in numerous national and international tours.

Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon: Women in Science

Smithsonian Institution Archives

Dr. Christine Jones Forman, Senior Astrophysicist, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for AstrophysicsJoin us online on Tuesday, March 18th, from 3-6pm EST for our second Wikipedia edit-a-thon focused on women in science. Our goal is to increase the representation of women on Wikipedia. There are several important women scientists who to date have no Wikipedia page. Take for example, Dr. Christine Jones Forman, Senior Astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian's Center for Astrophysics whose research focuses on the structure and growth of clusters of galaxies and feedback from supermassive black holes in galaxies and clusters. She is the group leader for Chandra calibration, vice president of the American Astronomical Society and the president of Division XI Investigator for the Center for Astrophysics Research Experiences for Undergraduates. Incredible, right? But, no English Wikipedia page.

If you join us as an online participant, you will have access to a live stream of a behind-the-scenes tour of the Archives with Head Reference Archivist, Ellen Alers, as well as a discussion on the portrayal of women in the media by Archives' research fellow, Marcel LaFollette. LaFollette is the author of Science on the Air: Popularizers and Personalities on Radio and Television and Science on American Television: A History.

Blog Categories: 
6505-6528 of 6,688 Resources