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“No More Long Faces”

Smithsonian Magazine

Gawking at the love lives of public figures–from Brangelina to Eliot Spitzer–is something of a national pastime these days, and things weren't much different during the lifetime of celebrated American artist Winslow Homer (1836-1910).

While prolific in depicting the outside world, Homer adamantly refused to reveal his inner landscape to an increasingly curious public throughout his career. Perhaps that is why, nearly a century after his death, we're still interested: Secrecy often suggests something worth concealing.

Homer himself hinted at this sentiment in a 1908 note to a would-be biographer: "I think that it would probably kill me to have such a thing appear–and as the most interesting part of my life is of no concern to the public I must decline to give you any particulars in regard to it."

Although Homer remained a bachelor for all of his 74 years, after his death, one of his close friends told biographer Lloyd Goodrich that the artist "had the usual number of love affairs." No conclusive evidence is available about any of these, but a thin trail of emotional clues exists amid Homer's correspondence with friends and family, as well as in his work.

The first such clue comes in a March 1862 letter to his father, Charles Savage Homer. The young Homer is planning to travel to Washington to illustrate Civil War action for Harper's Weekly, and mentions a comment made by his editor: "He thinks (I am) smart and will do well if (I) meet no pretty girls down there, which he thinks I have a weakness for."

Homer spent ten months in France in 1866-7, and had an active social life there, if his vivacious engravings of Parisian dance halls are any indication (see above sketch). For the next five or six years, back in America, he continued to paint generally cheerful, lively scenes, often featuring pretty young women.

"The numerous portrayals of fetching women suggest a longing for feminine company…these scenes may have been this shy man's way of safely bringing women closer," Randall Griffin wrote in his 2006 book Winslow Homer: An American Vision.

Specifically, it seems the painter yearned to be closer to Helena De Kay, an art student and the sister of Homer's friend Charles De Kay. She was the apparent model for several of Homer's works in the early 1870s, until she married the poet and editor Richard Watson Gilder in 1874.

As fine arts scholar Sarah Burns explained in a 2002 article for The Magazine ANTIQUES, Helena De Kay's correspondence shows how Homer may have tried to court her. Homer often asked her to visit his studio, an invitation he rarely extended to anyone, and she is the only painter he ever offered to instruct (though there is no evidence she accepted). In one note, he even compared a photo of her to a Beethoven symphony, "as any remembrance of you will always be."

Perhaps Homer's circa 1872 oil "Portrait of Helena De Kay" reflects his realization that he would likely lose his beloved to Gilder, who began courting her that year. It was an unusual work for Homer's style up to then – a somber, formal portrait, and an uncommissioned one at that.

In the painting, DeKay is seated on a couch in profile, dressed in black and looking down at a closed book in her hands. The indoor setting, presumably Homer's studio, is dark and empty but for a small spot of color on the floor–a discarded and dying rose; a few of its petals scattered nearby.

It is "a very suggestive picture, and unlike any other he painted," says Nicolai Cikovsky Jr., a Homer biographer and retired National Gallery of Art curator. "I'd say she is the most nameable candidate (for a love interest), certainly."

A letter from Homer to De Kay in December 1872 indicates that something had come between them. He asks her to pick up a sketch he had made of her, adding a few cryptic words of reassurance: "I am very jolly, no more long faces. It is not all wrong."

The next year, another of Homer's notes alludes to his feelings by what it omits: "My dear Miss Helena, I have just found your picture. I think it very fine. As a picture I mean, not because, etc."

It is unclear whether Homer ever actually proposed to De Kay, but he painted a picture of a proposal scene in 1872, with the telling title, "Waiting For an Answer," and in 1874 he painted an almost identical scene minus the young suitor ("Girl in an Orchard"), suggesting that the girl's answer had been to send the boy away. Around the same time, he painted several other pictures of "thwarted love," as Burns describes it.

Some scholars think he fell in love again a few years later, when he was around 40 years old. He visited friends in rural Orange County, New York, and painted several pictures of women there. One of them, titled "Shall I Tell Your Fortune?" shows a saucy-looking lass seated barefoot on the grass, holding playing cards in one hand. Her other hand rests palm-up on her hip, and her direct gaze seems to be asking the painter much more than the title suggests.

A similar woman appears in other Homer paintings from the mid to late 1870s, and this may have been the schoolteacher referred to by Homer's grandniece, Lois Homer Graham, in a piece she wrote for the book Prout's Neck Observed decades later: "The year 1874 found all of the Homer sons well established in their careers…Winslow had courted a pretty school teacher, but lost her to his career."

It does seem clear that Homer wanted a major change of scenery and lifestyle rather suddenly at the end of the 1870s. As Cikovsky puts it, "something was stirring in Homer's life, and I think some sort of intimacy gone wrong was part of that."

The artist withdrew from society, moving first to an island off Gloucester, Mass., then the remote fishing village of Cullercoats, England, and finally in 1883 to Prout's Neck, Maine, where he stayed the rest of his life. He developed a reputation as a grumpy recluse, discouraging visitors and turning down most social invitations, although he remained close to his family. His personal life may have suffered, but his professional life flourished in these years, as the seacoast inspired some of his best works.

Interestingly, Homer never attempted to sell the painting of the fortune-telling girl. It was still on an easel in his Prout's Neck studio when he died in 1910.

But before you get too wrapped up in the romance of that idea, keep in mind that alternate theories abound. Homer scholar Philip Beam thinks the mystery woman was no woman at all, but rather a boy modeling as a woman for the "girl-shy" painter.

At least one reviewer has argued that Homer was homosexual, though most art historians now reject the theory. Others, including Beam, think he was simply married to his work.

"To an artist of Homer's caliber much is given, but if he is to put his great gift to its fullest use, much is also demanded. So much that there is little time left to share with a wife," Beam wrote in Winslow Homer at Prout's Neck (1966).

The truth, it seems, remains as stubbornly elusive as the artist himself.

“New” 2,000-Year-Old Geoglyph Spotted in Peru

Smithsonian Magazine

Easter Island has its iconic statues. England has Stonehenge. And Peru has its own mysterious modification to the landscape—the Nazca lines. The enormous geoglyphs were made in the desert ground around 2,000 years ago and have long been the subject of speculation. Now, Japanese researchers have discovered an entirely new geoglyph in Nazca, showing how much more there is to learn about the puzzling designs.

Masato Sakai and Jorge Olano of Yamagata University in Japan recently announced the discovery of the 98-foot-long geoglyph, which is thought to represent a mythical animal sticking out its tongue. Its makers seem to have forged it by removing stones with darker colors from the plateau surface to expose whitish ground below. They then piled up the stones to shape the image. It’s in the vicinity of another geoglyph the team discovered in 2011 that shows what they characterize as “a scene of decapitation.”

Imaginary animals and gory scenes may seem like strange things to encounter in the vast pampas of Peru, but they’re all part of the enigma of Nazca. Archaeologists now think that the lines were part of astronomical religious rituals enacted by the pre-Columbian Nazca culture, a group of ancient indigenous Peruvians who lived as farmers and warriors on the desert plains of Peru’s Rio Grande de Nasca. Since the pampas are so untouched by wind and rain, the lines they contain have remained relatively unscathed over thousands of years.

An outline reconstruction of the figure. (Yamagata University)

In a time before planes or satellites, the creation of thousands of geoglyphs that could only be fully appreciated from above was a leap of faith. But in the 1940s, archaeologists began to study the lines from the sky. The lines are now considered one of the world’s most impressive—and baffling—ancient feats.

Their symbolism continues into the 21st century, too: In 2014, they were irreparably damaged by Greenpeace activists looking to make a point about renewable energy. They may be co-opted by modern voices, but the Unesco-protected lines are a mute testament to a religion and culture that is largely lost.

But archaeologists are determined to find out as much as they can about the lines. As the Japan Times reports, Sakai’s team has already discovered over 100 “new” geoglyphs. The lines may be old, but there’s always more to learn.

“My Goodness We Were Hungry!” An Immigrant’s Voyage to Catalonia

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage

Llegiu aquest article en català

Maria Àngels Córdoba tells me her story in steady Catalan, but when she wants to emphasize a feeling, like these ferocious hunger pangs, she quickly switches to Spanish.

“In the morning, we had some café con leche [half coffee, half milk]—well, it was brown, but it wasn’t coffee—and sopitas, slices of day-old dry bread. For lunch, chickpeas, olives, corn, grapes. Meanwhile the señoritos owned mountains, forests, creeks, rivers, entire towns even, but they didn’t pay the day’s wages in good time. My dad protested—he had five children to feed and one on the way. He worked days and nights and still owed the daily bread. He didn’t want to leave. He’d been stationed in Catalonia during the Civil War, and he didn’t want to return to Catalonia... but in Catalonia there were jobs and regular weekly wages. In the end, we left.”

In 1963, when Maria Àngels left Salinas, Córdoba, for Navas, Catalonia, she was thirteen years old. What she didn’t realize until she attempted to get in the train with the family mattress on her back was that their journey was a common one. So prevalent, in fact, that between the early 1950s and 1975, Catalonia’s population increased by 2,222,812 people. Maria Àngels is considered an immigrant, even though she was a Spaniard moving to another part of Spain.

“Our train came from Granada, and it was packed with people, belongings of all kinds. The air was thick. We pushed to get in. Grandma and Mama, round as a watermelon, sat down. We, kids crowded on the mattresses on the corridor. It was fun!” says Maria Àngels, looking both excited and sad.

Mora la Nova train station
The packed train in the station of Mora la Nova in the 1960s.
Photo courtesy of Museu d’història de la Immigració de Catalunya

It took them two full days to get to Catalonia—nowadays it takes half a day. They shared games, stories, food, and dreams.

Then, “I saw the sea! It was so big and blue. It hurt my eyes to look.” The sea was, to Maria Àngels, the promise of the good things to come.

In Navas, Maria Àngels went to school for a month, but soon she found a job in a factory in Ametlla de Merola. She remembers the peals of laughter from the teenage girls working next to her. It was there, over the noise of the loud textile machinery, that she realized her manager, Mr. Ton, spoke another language.

He gave her an order, and Maria Àngels stood there dumbfounded. She asked for clarification in Spanish, but he responded in Catalan. She discovered later that he didn’t understand Spanish. She was sure she would be fired. But, in what she interprets as an act of kindess, Mr. Ton approached her and, speaking slowly, showed her what he had asked her to do. This is how she began to learn Catalan.

While Maria Àngels took language lessons with Mr. Ton, other Andalusian immigrants who, like her, escaped hunger or political persecution, weren’t so lucky. Since the 1950s immigration wave took place during Francisco Franco’s dictatorial regime, many Catalans misinterpreted the arrival of 100,000 Andalusian inhabitants per year as an attempt to erase Catalan identity, according to Imma Boj, curator at the History of Immigration in Catalonia Museum. Franco declared these immigrants illegal, and many were even deported. Many immigrants felt not only uprooted but also rejected by many Catalans, as their presence was seen as a form of political occupation.

Workers at the factory of Ametlla de Merola
Maria Àngels (right) with her pals during a break in front of the factory of Ametlla de Merola.
Photo courtesy of Maria Àngels

Meanwhile, Maria Àngels’ family moved as much in Catalonia as it had in Andalusia, looking for a place to settle. “We were like snails” she jokes, because they carried their possessions with them from one house to another. “We stayed in Navas for five years, but then moved to Ribes de Freser. There the bell rang to call the workers to the factory. On winter Sundays, we went to the movies, and in the summers, we hiked the Taga [Mountain]. Life had changed.

“One good day, the director of the Tolrà factory from Castellar del Vallès came to Ribes. He was looking for large families, so the Pérez, Pinilla, Gallardo, Jurado, and Córdoba families moved to Castellar. We were given a new appartment to live in, and we all started to work at the Tolrà factory.”

Founded in 1856, the Tolrà textile factory took advantage of the rugged landscape of Castellar del Vallès by installing two hydraulic wheels in the Ripoll River to generate energy to move the looms. The looms were renowned for two reasons: 1) the quality of the product, with the bright white cotton fabric winning international awards, and 2) the quality of life for the workers. The managers established a daycare center and several schools for children of employees. They gave workers regular holidays and a retirement pension before it was required by the law. They built housing, laundry facilities, a church, a coffee shop, a soccer field, a theater, and a supermarket. The Tolrà patronage is a paradigmatic example of how Catalan industries behaved in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Tolrà looms
Heavy textile machinery of the Tolrà looms in the 1960s.
Photo courtesy of Arxiu d’Història de Castellar

“In Tolrà, my father continued to be an unskilled laborer, but I wasn’t. I worked in the salvage team—there were three of us. The chemical products we worked with were so dangerous that once I saw a cat disappear when it fell, accidentally, into one of the tanks. But what fabrics we produced! Nothing like it today, nothing at all,” Maria Àngels explains melancholically, remembering how the Tolrà looms shut down in 1995.

“It was there that I met Jordi, a handsome industrial master. I kind of had to hurry and learn Catalan well. But, you know, Jordi helped me!” she jokes.

According to geographer Anna Cabré, Catalonia was a pioneer in a new model of population growth, with immigration rather than procreation at its center. Between 1787 and 1887, Catalonia went from having the highest matrimonial fertility rate in Spain to the lowest. This transition paved the way for the capitalist transformation of the Catalan economy. The industry offered tempting job opportunities and higher salaries—just what immigrants sought.

So in the late nineteenth century, immigrants began to arrive from Aragon, Valencia, and the Balearic Islands. In the 1900s, they came from Murcia, Alicante, and Almeria, and in the 1950s, from Andalusia. By 1975, 38.4 percent of the Catalan population had been born outside Catalan territory.

As was common in Catalonia in the 1970s, Maria Àngels stopped working when she got pregnant with her first daughter. In her living room hangs a painting of the Salinas house her father sold to purchase the train tickets, but she has never been back. She would like to, but there was never time or money. Anyway, she found a place to settle and call home a long time ago.

Meritxell Martín-Pardo is a research associate for the Catalonia program at the 2018 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. She studied philosophy at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona and earned her PhD in religious studies at the University of Virginia.

«¡Que hambre había, madre mía!»
El viatge a Catalunya d’una immigrant

La Maria Àngels Córdoba m’explica la seva història en català, però de seguida canvia al castellà quan vol emfasitzar sentiments i sensacions, com aquella gana ferotge i punyent que passava.

«Al matí, preníem cafè amb llet —bé, era de color marró, però no era cafè— i sopitas, llesques de pa sec del dia abans. Per dinar, menjàvem cigrons, olives, blat de moro, raïm... Mentrestant, els señoritos eren els amos de muntanyes, boscos, rius i torrents, fins i tot de pobles sencers, però no pagaven els jornals puntualment. El meu pare protestava, tenia cinc fills per mantenir i un altre en camí. Treballava nit i dia per guanyar-se el pa. No volia marxar. Durant la Guerra Civil havia estat destinat a Catalunya, i no hi volia tornar..., però a Catalunya hi havia feina i es podia cobrar una paga setmanal amb regularitat, de manera que, finalment, vam marxar.»

El 1963, amb tretze anys, la Maria Àngels va deixar el poble cordovès de Salinas per anar a Navàs. Quan va intentar pujar al tren amb el matalàs a l’esquena, es va adonar que el seu era un viatge força comú. De fet, era tan comú que, entre principis de la dècada del 1950 i el 1975, la població catalana va augmentar en 2.222.812 habitants. La Maria Àngels és considerada una immigrant, encara que fos una espanyola que es traslladava a una altra part d’Espanya.

«El nostre tren venia des de Granada i anava ple com un ou. Els viatgers duien tota mena d’efectes personals, les seves pertinences. L’ambient estava carregat. Vam entrar al vagó a empentes. L’àvia i la mare, molt grasses, seien, mentre que els nens ens atapeíem sobre els matalassos al passadís. Era divertit», explica la Maria Àngels, amb una barreja d’emoció i tristor al rostre.

Van tardar dos dies sencers a arribar a Catalunya —avui tardarien mig dia. Compartien jocs, històries, menjar i somnis.
«Vaig veure el mar! Era tan gran i tan blau que feia mal als ulls.» Per a la Maria Àngels, el mar era com la promesa de les coses bones que havien de venir.

A Navàs, la Maria Àngels va anar a l’escola un mes, però aviat va trobar feina en una fàbrica de l’Ametlla de Merola. Recorda les riallades de les seves companyes de feina adolescents. Va ser allà on, amb el brogit de la maquinària tèxtil de fons, es va adonar que el seu cap, el senyor Ton, parlava en una altra llengua.

Li va donar una ordre, i la Maria Àngels es va quedar esbalaïda. Va demanar que li ho expliqués en castellà, però ell va respondre en català. Més tard va descobrir que ell no entenia el castellà. Estava convençuda que la despatxarien, però, en el que ella interpreta com un acte d’amabilitat, el senyor Ton se li va acostar i, parlant a poc a poc, li va ensenyar el que li havia demanat que fes. Així va ser com va començar a aprendre català.

Mentre la Maria Àngels aprenia català amb el senyor Ton, altres immigrants andalusos que, com ella, fugien de la fam o de la persecució política, no eren tan afortunats. Segons Imma Boj, directora del Museu d’Història de la Immigració a Catalunya, com que l’onada d’immigració de la dècada del 1950 va tenir lloc durant la dictadura de Franco, molts catalans van interpretar l’arribada de 100.000 habitants andalusos a l’any com un intent d’esborrar la identitat catalana. Franco va declarar aquells immigrants il·legals, i molts fins i tot van ser deportats. Molts d’aquells immigrants es van sentir no tan sols desarrelats, sinó també rebutjats per molts catalans, perquè la seva presència es percebia com una forma d’ocupació política.

Mentrestant, la família de la Maria Àngels recorria Catalunya com havia recorregut Andalusia, a la recerca d’un lloc on establir-se. «Fèiem com els cargols», comenta rient, perquè s’enduien totes les seves pertinences d’una casa a una altra. «Vam quedar-nos cinc anys a Navàs, però després ens vam mudar a Ribes de Freser. Allà la campana tocava per avisar els treballadors per anar a la fàbrica. Els diumenges d’hivern anàvem al cinema, i a l’estiu, fèiem excursions al Taga. La vida havia canviat.

«Un bon dia, el director de la fàbrica Tolrà de Castellar del Vallès es va presentar a Ribes. Buscava famílies grans, i així va ser com els Pérez, els Pinilla, els Gallardo, els Jurado i els Córdoba ens vam traslladar a Castellar. Ens van donar un pis nou per viure-hi i tots vam entrar a treballar a la Tolrà.»

La fàbrica tèxtil Tolrà va ser fundada el 1856. Aprofitant el terreny accidentat de Castellar del Vallès, van instal·lar al riu Ripoll dos molins per generar energia per fer anar els telers. La fàbrica tenia molta anomenada per dos motius: per una banda, la qualitat dels seus productes (les seves peces de roba blanca de cotó havien guanyat premis internacionals), i per una altra, la qualitat de vida dels treballadors. Els responsables de la fàbrica van obrir una llar d’infants i escoles per als fills dels treballadors. Els empleats tenien dret a vacances periòdiques i a una pensió de jubilació abans que ho exigís la llei. La Tolrà havia construït habitatges, safareigs, una església, un cafè, un camp de futbol, un teatre i un economat. El patronat Tolrà és un exemple paradigmàtic del comportament dels industrials catalans als segles xix i xx.

«A la Tolrà, el meu pare seguia sent un treballador no qualificat, però jo no. Treballava a l’equip de socors —érem tres. Els productes químics amb què treballàvem eren tan perillosos que una vegada vaig veure com desapareixia un gat que va caure per accident en un dels dipòsits. Però quins teixits que fèiem! Avui dia no es fa res semblant, res», explica la Maria Àngels amb malenconia, recordant el tancament de la Tolrà, el 1995.
«Allà vaig conèixer en Jordi, un capatàs molt ben plantat. Vaig haver d’espavilar-me i aprendre bé el català, però en Jordi m’hi va ajudar!», diu rient.

Segons la geògrafa Anna Cabré, Catalunya fou pionera en un nou model de creixement de la població, basat en la immigració, més que no pas en la procreació. Entre el 1787 i el 1887, Catalunya va passar de tenir l’índex més elevat de fecunditat matrimonial d’Espanya a tenir el més baix. Aquesta transició va propiciar la transformació capitalista de l’economia catalana. La indústria oferia oportunitats laborals atractives i salaris més elevats, justament el que buscaven els immigrants.

A finals del segle xix, van començar a arribar immigrants des d’Aragó, València i les illes Balears. A la dècada del 1900, van venir de Múrcia, Alacant i Almeria, i a la del 1950, d’Andalusia. L’any 1975, el 38,4 % de la població catalana ja havia nascut fora del territori català.

Com era habitual a Catalunya als anys setanta, la Maria Àngels va deixar la feina quan es va quedar embarassada de la seva primera filla. Al menjador té penjat un quadre on es reprodueix la casa Salinas, la casa que el seu pare va vendre per comprar els bitllets de tren. No hi ha tornat mai. Li hauria agradat, però no ho ha fet per falta de temps o per falta de diners. En qualsevol cas, fa temps que la Maria Àngels va trobar un lloc on instal·lar-se, una llar.

Meritxell Martín-Pardo és investigadora associada per al programa de Catalunya de l’Smithsonian Folklife Festival del 2018. És llicenciada en filosofia per la Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona i doctora en estudis religiosos per la Universitat de Virgínia.

“Mermaid Ivory” Stirs Controversy Over How Extinct Species Are Studied

Smithsonian Magazine

The Steller’s sea cow was almost extinct by the time German naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller first laid eyes on the plump marine mammal. The species that would bear his name once ranged throughout the North Pacific, but by the time of Steller’s visit in 1741, the last population was sequestered around Russia’s Commander Islands. The species was hunted into extinction before the close of the 18th century.

Then, a discovery complicated this classic story of extinction. In 2014, George Mason University biologist Lorelei Crerar and her coauthors announced that a hidden population of Steller’s sea cow bobbed through the waters around St. Lawrence Island, west of the Alaskan coast, up until about 1,000 years ago.

Why this second pocket went extinct wasn’t clear—in their report in Biology Letters, the researchers proposed that a brief uptick in temperatures called the Medieval Warm Period could have made the kelp the marine mammals ate harder to find, or that Inuit hunted them into extinction. Either way, the discovery of this “hidden” population added a new wrinkle to the animal's tragic tale.

Now the study is making waves for a very different reason: It highlights the squishy state of regulations surrounding “mermaid ivory,” the colorful name for the bones of marine mammals carved into sculptures, and what that means for scientific research.

For their work, Crerar and her coauthors used bone specimens bought at knife shows and on Ebay. The bone dealers assured them that the samples came from St. Lawrence Island. The team's initial intention was to detect whether protected marine species were being illegally traded under the banner of mermaid ivory, says study co-author Chris Parsons. Their genetic analysis identified some of the samples as Steller's sea cow, and those bones were dated at about 1,000 years old, which Crerar and Parsons deem a serendipitous result.

But not everyone is sold on the idea that the sea cows inhabited the waters around St. Lawrence Island way back when. In a response article published this month in Biology Letters, marine mammal experts Nicholas Pyenson, James Parham and Jorge Velez-Juarbe question where these critical sea cow bones came from and, more broadly, how commercially purchased specimens are used in studying the past.

“While I certainly hope that the material did come from St. Lawrence Island, we have no basis, given the current facts, to affirm this geographic placement with confidence,” says Pyenson, of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. Location is just as important as anatomy or tatters of genes in examining where species used to live. Even though it was not Crerar and colleagues' intention to conduct a paleontological study, Pyenson and his coauthors are dismayed that there is no concrete evidence for where the bone samples came from.

A bone sold as mermaid ivory is stripped of its context and can only give you scant anatomical details, Parham says. “Because the fossil record is so incomplete already, any time we lose attendant data, the science suffers.” Promises from bone dealers are not sufficient, he adds. “In science, you should not really pick and choose which merchant to believe.”

Complicating matters, this species falls through a regulatory loophole.

“The specimens in question fall outside of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, because Steller’s sea cow is extinct. And because these specimens are not technically fossils either, they fall outside of the Paleontological Resources Protection Act,” says Pyenson. That means dealers can legally buy and sell the bones without having to worry much about documenting their origins. And that makes the original study problematic, Pyenson says.

“I think their broad conclusions would be interesting and relevant to a more complex extinction scenario if we did have such traceability," he says. "But what confidence do we have that the isotopic and DNA results can be tracked to actual physical vouchers, given these issues?”

Pyenson and his coauthors are also concerned that the 2014 study grated against the standards of paleontology and other biological disciplines. The bones used in the 2014 study were held in a private collection, which was put in a George Mason University collection last December. That means the original specimens were privately held at the time they were formally described.

When important specimens are in private hands, the owner may deny access to scientists for any reason they like, the trio point out. "And then there’s always the question of what will happen to those specimens beyond the lifetime of the owner,” says Velez-Juarbe of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles.

Reiterating that their initial findings were a happenstance that came out of a different project, the authors of the 2014 study dispute these arguments. In a published reply to Pyenson and his colleagues, Crerar says that the samples were not hard to access.

“All 200 of the bones are at George Mason University,” she says, with the exception of five that are currently at the Smithsonian, and she says that other researchers have already examined the collection. And while Crerar would also like to know more about where the bones came from, she has not yet visited St. Lawrence Island and talk to the people who dig the bones from middens.

Parsons adds that he is “dumbfounded by the furor over the samples,” especially because the sea cow samples “are tiny fragments that aren’t really recognizable as bones or carvings.” He likens them to genetic tissue samples, which are not always stored in museum collections.

Still, archiving genetic samples has rapidly become a scientific standard for biologists, and museums and zoos around the world are building huge collections of frozen tissues, says Parham of California State University.

While the tricky nature of mermaid ivory may not be resolved any time soon, there is some hope for resolving the mystery of the St. Lawrence Island sea cows. Middens likely to harbor more sea cow bones have previously been excavated on the islands, and their fully documented contents are now being cared for at museums, say Pyenson, Parham and Velez-Juarbe.

“Could there be Steller’s sea cow already in museum collections at Fairbanks?” Pyenson wonders. “I’m going to go and find out.”

“Mega” Architecture: An Evening with Moshe Safdie

Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum
Architect and 2016 National Design Award winner for Lifetime Achievement Moshe Safdie discusses the four design principles that have guided his work over the past five decades and how they relate to the evolution of architecture in the era of globalization. Safdie sheds light on the ramifications of “megascale” and “megastructure,” examining scale, site, buildability,...

“Making | Breaking: New Arrivals” Explores Emerging Technologies and Techniques

Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum
Image of Enignum Free Form Chair. Designed by Joseph WalshEXHIBITION FEATURES RECENTLY ACQUIRED CONTEMPORARY WORKS Pushing the boundaries of materials, making and form, 43 new objects recently acquired by Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum will be on view in “Making | Breaking: New Arrivals” from May 19 through Oct. 29. Presented in the museum’s first-floor Process Galleries, the exhibition features contemporary works along with...

“Mail Trolleys” tracks era when mail was sorted all across town

Smithsonian Insider

In October 1891, flourishing after a long period of Civil-War stagnation, the city of St. Louis got America’s first mail trolley up and rolling through […]

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“Lost” 18th-Century Garden Found at Scottish Castle

Smithsonian Magazine

Culzean Castle, one of the grandest estates in Scotland, is best known for its sumptuous landscapes and structures, designed by famed architect Robert Adam in the late 18th century. There is a sweeping swan pond, a collection of foliage-filled greenhouses, and a towering, turreted castle situated dramatically on a cliff. But as Martin Hannan reports for The National, archaeologists recently uncovered an earlier feature of the sprawling property at Culzean: the remains of a walled garden that survived Adams’ renovations.

The stone walls of the garden were unearthed during a construction project to improve the drainage at Fountain Court, a manicured expanse of lawn set below the castle. Stretching for almost 200 feet across the landscape, the walls are “thought to result from work undertaken by Sir John Kennedy of Culzean, 2nd Baronet, in 1733,” the National Trust for Scotland (NTS) said in a statement. John Kennedy’s ancestors acquired the property in the late 16th century, according to Historic Environment Scotland.

The 1733 renovation extended the walls of the garden along the east side of the castle. Lined with a row of fruit trees, the space likely functioned as an enclosed kitchen garden. A 1755 map of the estate did in fact mark the kitchen garden with sketches of plant beds, but archaeologists did not realize that remains of the structure still stood beneath Culzean's grounds.

“[W]e never knew that any of it survived below the immaculate turf of the Fountain Court,” said Derek Alexander, Head of Archaeological Services for the NTS, according to the aforementioned statement.“This work has given us the perfect opportunity to explore a hidden aspect of Culzean’s past.”

In the late 18th century, Culzean was inherited by David Kennedy, “a man who was keen to impress with his wealth and status,” according to the NTS website. Looking to upgrade the estate, Kennedy commissioned Adam to lead a series of opulent building projects at Culzean. The kitchen garden was dismantled—though not completely—during the renovations and moved further afield, thereby improving the view from the castle, according to the BBC.

The site where the kitchen garden once stood continued to evolve over the course of the next century. In the mid 1800s, the area was used as a bowling green. In 1876, a large fountain was installed on the turf. Today, the aptly-named "Fountain Court" is popular amongst tourists and wedding parties, who have trod across the land, not knowing that a secret garden lay beneath their feet.

(National Trust for Scotland)

“Los Gauchos de Roldán”: Button Accordion and Bandoneón Music from Northern Uruguay

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Fall/Winter 2011: Dispatches from Latin America

“Los Gauchos de Roldán” Share Down-Home Dance Music Tradition from Uruguay

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Uruguayan accordion master Walter Roldán, from the northern city of Tacuarembó, assembled an all-star group to record the rural dance music that has enlivened the social life of cattle-herding gaucho families since the mid 1800s.

“Less, but better”

Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum
Image features an off-white rectangular speaker, the front with two rows of vertical slits; left and right sides faced with square, blond wood panels. Please scroll down to read the blog post about this object.In celebration of our new exhibition The Senses: Design Beyond Vision, this Object of the Day post explores the multisensory experience of an object in Cooper Hewitt’s permanent collection. Dieter Rams, Chief Design Officer for German consumer products manufacturer Braun AG from 1961-95, designed the neutral and unassuming L1 speaker in 1957. Influenced by Braun’s...

“Langley Leap” at the Hirshhorn Library

Smithsonian Libraries
This post was written by Lily Zhang, a senior at Langley High School. I had no idea how real senioritis was until I caught it. Worse than the common cold, the dreaded senioritis hinders motivation with distracting visions of prom, parties, and graduation. But at Langley High in McLean, we are provided with a novel more »

“Khargai Dün” A Mongolian Long Song by D. Byambaa

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
D. Byambaa, a locally trained singer and herder from the Bayankhongor province of Mongolia, sings a long song called “Khargai Dün” in the Khalkh style in summer 2012. Recorded by Sunmin Yoon.


Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum
Fall exhibition brings 150 avant-garde works to the public, showcasing the limitless potential of jewelry design. “Jewelry of Ideas: Gifts from the Susan Grant Lewin Collection,” opening Nov. 17, celebrates the recent gift from the renowned collector to Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. On view through May 28, 2018, the exhibition, co-curated by Ursula Ilse-Neuman...

“It’s Summer Somewhere in the World”

Smithsonian Insider

As snow sweeps across the country and the cold seeps into our bones, thinking about balmy temperatures on exotic shores offers a little relief from […]

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“It screeched, it bellowed… Raucous? Yes. Crude? Undoubtedly.”

Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum
In celebration of Jazz Appreciation Month, Elizabeth Broman discusses selections from the Smithsonian Design Library's collection of jazz sheet music.

“It Is Heritage”: Two Families of Cloth Dyers in Dakar, Senegal

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage

According to Sekou (Cheikh) Fofana, his skill as a dyer is a direct result of his love for his mother. His parents are deceased, but he keeps large portraits of them in his home in Guédiawaye, a large suburb of Dakar, Senegal.

His father was a Guinean Soninke itinerant trader, who was often away for long periods. Sekou’s mother was a Malian Soninke dyer, who used the synthetic dyes that became widely available in West Africa from the 1960s. Soninke people are an old and storied Mande ethnic group, particularly known for travel and trade, Islamic scholarship, and cloth dyeing.

From his relatives on his father’s side, Sekou knows a bit about the complex processes of gathering, processing, and dyeing with indigo. But it is from his mother that Sekou derives his skills: as a child, he was constantly by her side, learning much of what she knew. With this multilayered family legacy, dyeing is more than a business for Sekou: “o kɛra ciyɛn,” he says in Bamanankan. “It is heritage.”

Like many African textile artists working in urban settings, Sekou walks a professional tightrope. He must produce cloth that will sell in competitive, fashion-centered Dakar, which often means making things with new, rapid techniques on inexpensive materials. At the same time, keeping in business is what allows Sekou to sustain and teach traditional dyeing skills, techniques that are laborious and complex, yielding pieces that are highly valued but slow to sell. Sekou is open-minded and experimental in his approach to new techniques like silkscreen printing. The balancing act today is to transform his dyeing heritage without destroying it.

Senegalese textile art
Fashionable cloth like this “VIP” will be sold in a marketplace or boutique, then tailored into garments like dresses, top-and-skirt ensembles, or boubous (a voluminous West African robe). Clients may approach dyers to create custom pieces, or purchase from merchants who commission material from dyers like Sekou.
Photo by Rebecca Fenton
Senegalese textile art
Cloth decorated with stitch-resist by members of the Wagué family. Despite the apparent design limitation of the tiny straight lines of sewn thread, Fatoumata creates a varied and lively composition of motifs that seem to shimmer on the cloth. Some of the motifs are passed down in the family, while others are her own design.
Photo by Rebecca Fenton

The terminology used in contemporary cloth decoration also reflects a regard for old techniques, even as new methods supplant them. The silkscreens themselves are called clichés, French for “film” or “printing plate,” as they are produced through photographic means. To describe the printed motifs, artists borrow from hand techniques, like miselini (Bamanankan, “little needle”) or takka (Wolof, “to tie”).

Although almost any image can be created on the silkscreens, often the motifs or the style of drawing them likewise refer to the hand techniques that artists and consumers continue to value. Silkscreens have been used in cloth decoration in Mali since at least the 1990s, but have attained new heights of popularity across West Africa since about 2013. In 2015 and 2016, shimmer ink became available, and the radiant cloths printed with it were marketed as “VIP,” evoking prestigious cosmopolitan style.

Senegalese textile art
Fatoumata Wagué holds a work in progress. This lightweight cotton cloth is about twenty feet long and will become a mulahfa, a wrap-around garment like the one she is wearing.
Photo by Rebecca Fenton

The women of the Wagué family, a prominent clan in the central neighborhood of Grand Dakar, have practiced dyeing nearly all their lives. Now in middle age, they have ceased to dye for income, but they continue to create elaborate stitch-resist cloths as a hobby—only for the pleasure of creating. The lexicon of marks, stitches, and designs they possess provides a well of creativity, grounded in the past.

Skilled in the design of intricate, multicolored resist patterns, the Wagués had no interest in adopting the quicker, cheaper techniques that have become prevalent in Dakar, but the declining prices of dyed and decorated cloth have effectively pushed them out of the market. They are proud to have sent the young people in their family to school, but they are concerned that their skills were not being passed on and troubled by knowledge they themselves had lost.

But “in the village, they still know,” they said, voicing the widely held imagining of “the village” as a repository of tradition skills and values. I was able to meet one of the “village” Wagués, and she did indeed “still know” and more importantly, still do, some of these old skills, particularly the dense stitch-resist for which Soninke dyers are renowned.

Unlike the silkscreens, which are used to apply designs after the cloth has been dyed, the older methods of decoration involve resist techniques, meaning that artists use knots, thread, wax, or resin to create the spaces where color will not go. Indigo and other natural colorants require careful preparation according to often secret vat recipes. By contrast, dyeing with synthetic dyes appears simple.

Senegalese textile art
A stand featuring cloths decorated with stitch-resist, wax resist, and other techniques, made by Fatoumata Wagué and others from Matam, Senegal.
Photo by Rebecca Fenton
Senegalese textile art
Aminata (left) and Binetou carry the batiste out to dry in the street midway through its printing process. The pattern will be completed with a second color and design filling in the grid.
Photo by Rebecca Fenton

According to Sekou, it is the mixing of sophisticated colors, creating attractive and attention-grabbing tones with reliable results, which requires experience and skill. Many people may dabble in dyeing, having seen dye packets for sale in shops and dyers at work in their neighbors’ courtyards, but without appreciating the complexity of the work involved. Sekou is a kind and attentive teacher, but it has been hard for him to find an apprentice who will work with him long enough to learn all he has to share.

Dyeing represents an ancient tradition and an important economic activity across West Africa, with many local variations. In many places, including Mali and Senegal, dyeing cloth has historically been the domain of women, and all the stages of cloth production moved back and forth between women’s and men’s work. To generalize, men grow cotton, women card and spin it, men weave, women dye, men tailor garments. There are exceptions, and the techniques and the social contexts of work change.

Senegalese textile art
Fatou ties a series of small knots in a white shirt with thread, in preparation for dyeing.
Photo by Rebecca Fenton

Along with dramatic urbanization and increasing Islamization during the twentieth century, which affected many traditions, new technologies have also played a role in transforming textile traditions, from the introduction of manufactured cloths, to machine-spun cotton yarn, to vivid synthetic dyes that became widely available from the 1960s.

Like these earlier technologies, silkscreen printing has changed the equations of labor and value in cloth production. It doesn’t make sense to invest months of embroidery work, like the Wagués’, into a low-quality cloth that will not be durable, for example. However, silkscreens go down just as rapidly on the best, most costly manufactured cloth as on the inexpensive batiste.

The lightweight batiste cloth is bright, attractive, and desirable for the hot summer months. Even when decorated, however, it is cheap, not expected to last more than a season. It is essentially fast-fashion. In Dakar, where many potential clients lack much purchasing power, demand for lower costs drives the development of faster methods and cheaper goods.

Despite these pressures, the older, slower methods persist. Sekou and his family, the Wagués, and other dyers travel to learn from practitioners in small towns in Senegal and neighboring countries. On one occasion in Guédiawaye, I observed Sekou, his relative Fatou, and his assistant Moussa working on hand-tied resists. They spread their work on the cool tile floor of Fatou’s courtyard, taking care to show me the different motifs they created. Their delight and pride in these hand skills suffused the little space as we worked into the evening. Without prompting, Fatou’s daughter imitated her mother’s deft movements as she picked up scraps and began to try some ties.

Senegalese textile art
Fatou’s daughter tries tie-resist techniques with cloth scraps.
Photo by Rebecca Fenton

The immense popularity of artisanal fashion cloth in West Africa at once sustains and threatens the embodied knowledge that the Fofanas and the Wagués have inherited. Here at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, a new initiative called Crafts of African Fashion will explore the role of traditional craft skills in the contemporary fashion industry and promote sustainable cultural heritage enterprises. The initiative will launch at this year’s Folklife Festival, where visitors to the Festival Marketplace will be able to meet and observe the work of visiting master artisans from Africa and enjoy a display of contemporary clothing by designers from Africa and the African diaspora.

Rebecca Fenton is a predoctoral fellow at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and National Museum of Natural History. She recently completed her Ph.D. in art history at Indiana University. Her research focuses on expressive dress and other forms of creativity in everyday life in Africa.

“Inventing Utamaro” unveils dark truth behind Edo artist’s work

Smithsonian Insider

“Inventing Utamaro: A Japanese Masterpiece Rediscovered,” open recently at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, is a challenging exhibition, says Julian Raby, The Dame Jillian […]

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“I Hope It Is Not Too Late”: How the U.S. Decided to Send Millions of Troops Into World War I

Smithsonian Magazine

U.S. General John J. Pershing, newly arrived in France, visited his counterpart, French general Philippe Pétain, with a sobering message on June 16, 1917. It had been two months since the U.S. entered World War I, but Pershing, newly appointed to command the American Expeditionary Force in France, had hardly any troops to deploy. The United States, Pershing told Pétain, wouldn’t have enough soldiers to make a difference in France until spring 1918.

“I hope it is not too late,” the general replied.

Tens of thousands of Parisians had thronged the streets to cheer Pershing on his June 13 arrival. Women climbed onto the cars in his motorcade, shouting, “Vive l’Amérique!” The French, after three years of war with Germany, were desperate for the United States to save them.

Now Pétain told Pershing that French army was near collapse. A million French soldiers had been killed in trench warfare. Robert-Georges Nivelle’s failed April offensive against the German line in northern France had caused 120,000 French casualties. After that, 750,000 soldiers mutinied, refusing to go to the front line. Pétain, who replaced Nivelle in May, had kept the army together by granting some of the soldiers’ demands for better food and living conditions and leave to see their families. But the French were in no condition to launch any more offensives. “We must wait for the Americans,” Pétain told Pershing.

But the United States wasn’t ready to fight. It had declared war in April 1917 with only a small standing army. Pershing arrived in France just four weeks after the Selective Service Act authorized a draft of at least 500,000 men. Though President Woodrow Wilson intended to send troops to France, there was no consensus on how many. “The more serious the situation in France,” Pershing wrote in his 1931 memoir, My Experiences in the World War, “the more deplorable the loss of time by our inaction at home appeared.”

It fell to Pershing to devise the American war strategy. The 56-year-old West Point graduate had fought the Apache and Sioux in the West, the Spanish in Cuba, Filipino nationalists in their insurrection against U.S. rule and Pancho Villa in Mexico. He was blunt, tough, and stubborn—“a large man with small, trim arms and legs, and an underslung jaw that would defy an aerial bomb,” a contemporary wrote. He hated dithering, spoke little and hardly ever smiled.

Resisting French and British pressure to reinforce their armies with American soldiers, Pershing and his aides studied where to best deploy the American Expeditionary Force. Germany had seized nearly all of Belgium and the northeast edge of France, so the war’s Western front now stretched 468 miles, from the Swiss border to the North Sea. The British were deployed in France’s northern tip, where they could quickly escape home if they had to. The French were defending Paris by holding the front about 50 miles northeast of the capital.

So Pershing chose Lorraine, in northeastern France, as “a chance for the decisive use of our army.” If the Americans could advance just 40 miles from there, they could reach Germany itself, cut off the main German supply line, and threaten the enemy’s coalfields and iron mines. On June 26, Pershing visited Pétain again, and tentatively agreed on where to begin the first American offensive.

On June 28, the first 14,500 American troops arrived in France. “Their arrival left Pershing singularly unimpressed,” wrote Jim Lacey in his 2008 biography, Pershing. “To his expert eye the soldiers were undisciplined and poorly trained. Many of their uniforms did not fit and most were fresh from recruiting stations, with little training other than basic drill.” But Parisians wanted to throw a gala celebration for the troops on America’s Independence Day.

To boost French morale, Pershing reluctantly agreed. On July 4, he and the troops marched five miles through Paris’ streets to the tomb of the Marquis de Lafayette. There, Pershing aide Charles E. Stanton delivered a speech that ended with a sweeping salute. “Nous voilà, Lafayette!” Stanton declared—“Lafayette, we are here!” in English—a phrase often misattributed to Pershing himself.

Ceremonies performed, Pershing got back to work. The British and French counted on 500,000 U.S. troops in 1918. But Pershing suspected a half-million soldiers wouldn’t be enough. His three weeks in France had deepened his understanding of the Allies’ plight and their inability to break the stalemate on the Western Front. America, he decided, needed to do more. 

On July 6, Pershing cabled Newton Baker, the Secretary of War. “Plans should contemplate sending over at least 1,000,000 men by next May,” the telegram read. Soon after, Pershing and his aides forwarded a battle plan to Washington. It called for a larger military effort than the United States had ever seen.

“It is evident that a force of about 1,000,000 is the smallest unit which in modern war will be a complete, well-balanced, and independent fighting organization,” Pershing wrote. And plans for the future, he added, might require as many as 3 million men.

Pershing’s demand sent shock waves through the War Department. Admiral William Sims, who commanded the U.S. fleet in European waters, thought Pershing was joking when he heard it. Tasker Bliss, the War Department’s acting chief of staff, expressed alarm, but had no alternate plan. “Baker seemed unruffled,” wrote Frank E. Vandiver in his 1977 Pershing biography, Black Jack. “Committed to winning peace at any kind of rates, Wilson followed Baker’s calm.” They accepted Pershing’s war plan.

Almost 10 million young men had already registered for the draft, giving the Wilson administration the means to fulfill Pershing’s demand. On July 20, Baker, wearing a blindfold, pulled numbers out of a glass bowl, choosing 687,000 men in the nation’s first draft lottery since the Civil War. By the end of July, the outlines of the war effort’s true scale—1 to 2 million men—began to emerge in the press.

But the news didn’t reverse public and congressional support for the war. The shock of the Zimmermann Telegram and the patriotic exhortations of the government’s Committee on Public Information had overcome many Americans’ past skepticism about sending troops to fight in Europe. By the end of 1918, the United States would draft 2.8 million men into the armed forces—just in time to help its allies win the war.

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