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Remote-Controlled Cattle

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Removal of Silicone Adhesives

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Removing Just a Few Trees Can Lower Tropical Animal Biodiversity

Smithsonian Magazine

It’s easy to understand how the clear-cutting of vast tracts of tropical forest might be bad. After all, the loss of all those trees is bound to also take out many of the animals that made that forest their home. So selective logging—in which just at most 20 trees are removed from a single hectare of land (10,000 square meters, about the size of two football fields)—would seem to be a no-brainer improvement.

But a new study published today in Current Biology is adding to evidence that this type of timber removal can still be destructive. Zuzana Burivalova of ETH Zurich and colleagues found that taking out just three or four trees in a hectare of tropical forest can halve the number of mammal species present. Logging six or seven trees can do the same to amphibians.

Burivalova and colleagues looked at 48 published studies of species diversity in forests before and after they were logged. With this information, they built a computer model that let the researchers calculate the effects of selective logging on wildlife in tropical forests in three regions: Africa, Central and South America, and Southeast Asia.

The model showed them that for mammals, amphibians and invertebrates, species richness (the number of different species) dropped as logging intensity rose. But it didn’t take all that much logging to have a big effect on mammals and amphibians.

 Extrapolating from the published data, the researchers found that amphibian diversity dropped by 50 percent once logging reached 63 square meters per hectare; for mammals, it took the removal of only 38 square meters of forest from that two-football-field-sized parcel to cut diversity in half. The number of different bird species, however, actually rose on logged land, the researchers calculated.

So what’s up with this seemingly counterintuitive result? After all, selective logging brings up images of one guy with a chainsaw removing a single tree from a forest with pinpoint precision. But this type of logging can take out multiple trees at a time, and it requires more than just one guy. There’s the guy’s buddies, their trucks and equipment, and the roads to get them where they need to go. The logging can leave behind bare patches of forest that are open to the heat of the sun. And it can let in people who are even more dangerous to wildlife than loggers—hunters.

Just which factors are driving the changes in richness of the various types of animals isn’t exactly clear, but the researchers have some ideas. Mammals, for instance, are probably taking a hit from poaching. Amphibians may be more susceptible to the changes in microclimates created by logging—those spots that become unbearably hotter and drier when the heat of the sun is suddenly able to reach the ground.

And the story for birds may not be as great as it seems. That’s because the types of birds in logged forests frequently changes and some species are lost, while others move in. Specialists that may have depended on the fruit or nectar of specific trees or plants may disappear, for instance, replaced by species that are generalists and can survive on a more varied diet.

There was a level below which species appeared to be resilient to logging, according to the model—10 square meters per hectare, or about one tree or less in that space. And the researchers note that there are measures that can be taken to reduce the impact of logging on forest creatures, such as leaving behind hollow trees that provide homes for animals but aren’t all that useful to the timber industry.

Burivalova and colleagues caution that their results are not applicable to every forest—some will be more resilient than others. But they warn that the conservation value of this type of logging may be overestimated, and efforts to harvest tropical trees sustainably may not be as successful as hoped.

Plus, the researchers note, it would be helpful if the timber harvesters would consider biodiversity, and not just which species are the most desirable and profitable, when choosing which trees to cut down.

Removing a Dam Can Be a Net Win for the Planet

Smithsonian Magazine

Once trumpeted as river-taming, energy-producing feats of engineering, America’s dams have become the subject of introspection and, in a growing number of cases, demolition.

The country spent millions to erect an estimated 80,000 of these concrete walls across rivers all over the country, but now a variety of interest groups are rallying to remove many of them, even if it happens at great cost.

“Everything has a life,” says Rupak Thapaliya, national coordinator of the Hydropower Reform Coalition, an organization that advocates for building better hydroelectric dams and removing poor performers. “We are starting to see some hydropower dams being decommissioned, and much of it is because of economics.”

For dams that produce little power compared with newer technologies, updating their aging infrastructure would cost more than removing it.   

Seventy-two dams were demolished last year to open up more than 700 miles of streams, according to American Rivers, which advocates for the removal of certain dams to restore natural flows.

Americans have been building dams to harness rivers for energy production, irrigation, flood control and water storage since the late 1800s. To fuel a growing appetite for electricity, dam building reached a crescendo around World War II. At the time, hydropower provided three-quarters of the West’s electricity and one-third of the country’s, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

But its grip on the country’s power grid has slipped amid competing energy sources, and today hydropower provides just one-tenth of the country’s electricity.

In the process of storing water to produce energy, dams can turn whitewater rapids into tepid reservoirs and make stretches of river unreachable to the fish that once filled them. So while economics are driving many of today’s dam removals, stricter environmental regulations also are behind the wheel.

Interactive: Before and After a Dam Removal
Illustration by Maya Wei-Haas; large tree image from VectorOpenStock, CC 2.0; text by Whitney Pipkin

The environmental rules for what constitutes a “good” dam have changed dramatically since some of the earliest dams were built.

The Endangered Species and Clean Water acts of the 1970s and the Electric Consumers Protection Act of the '80s have implications for how dams must consider fish species, water quality and “non-power values” such as recreation in their operations. For these reasons, local stakeholders see a dam’s relicensing process as “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to improve conditions on the river,” says Thapaliya.

Take the Condit Dam on Washington’s White Salmon River. As the hydropower project neared its 100th birthday, the dam’s generator was producing an average of 10 megawatts per hour—a mere trickle compared to the thousands of megawatts that newer projects along the Columbia River produce.

“It was going to be like $60 million to bring it up to modern environmental standards,” says Thomas O’Keefe, Pacific Northwest stewardship director for American Whitewater, which lobbies for unfettered whitewater rivers for recreation.

The dam would have to create a passage for fish and reduce its impact on water temperatures and flows downstream that affect fish spawning. Removing the dam altogether would cost the owner, PacifiCorp, about half as much as bringing it up to code.

So in October 2011, the company began with a blast of dynamite the painstaking process of removing the dam and restoring the river in its wake. A year later, O’Keefe and a celebratory contingent kayaked the length of the river that had been blocked by the dam, as recorded in the documentary film DamNation.

The following spring, a few steelhead salmon made their way past the former dam site to spawn in reaches of the river they hadn’t accessed in almost a century, while Chinook salmon laid their eggs in the new layer of gravel released by the dam removal. This spring, the number of spawning steelheads above the former dam site reached 55, O’Keefe says.

Similar stories of dam destruction and regeneration are occurring throughout the Pacific Northwest, where regional power grids built on the backs of powerful rivers are being revisited.

Now, Washington—the state with more hydropower projects than any other—is the stage for high profile dam removals that are bringing the federal fishing rights of Native American tribes, among other factors, to bear on aging infrastructure. The world’s largest dam removal took place along the once salmon-rich Elwha River last year, opening up a river closed to fish passage for a century.

Though the country’s appetite for hydropower might be waning, its energy portfolio will continue to include dams that produce enough energy to justify their presence, especially if their impacts on fish and other factors are moderated, says Thapaliya. Dams that already exist but don’t include hydropower could begin producing energy in the coming years, and others could be made more efficient.

“However,” he says, “I don’t think we are going to see new hydro[power] dams built, because the good sites have already been built on. It’s just not economical to build a new dam to produce power.”

Removing the Sting with Will Rogers

National Portrait Gallery

Long before Coronavirus upended our lives, Will Rogers saw the United States through another difficult and divisive time. The good-humored cowboy is perhaps best remembered for his movies, but he was also a prolific social commentator who managed to cross divides with his comedic wit… and also advocated for those hardest hit by the Great Depression.

Check out the portraits we discussed on our website!

Removing the Sting with Will Rogers

National Portrait Gallery

Long before Coronavirus upended our lives, Will Rogers saw the United States through another difficult and divisive time. The good-humored cowboy is perhaps best remembered for his movies, but he was also a prolific social commentator who managed to cross divides with his comedic wit… and also advocated for those hardest hit by the Great Depression.

Check out the portraits we discussed on our website!

Renaissance Europe Was Horrified by Reports of a Sea Monster That Looked Like a Monk Wearing Fish Scales

Smithsonian Magazine

In the 16th century, the so-called “sea monk” became the talk of Europe. Drawings of the half-man, half-fish “monster” appeared in naturalists’ tomes and were circulated among naturalists and members of royal courts across the continent. It was the end of the Renaissance, when Europeans were enamoured with art, science, philosophy and exploring the natural world. 

But over the centuries, the creature, and talk of it, faded into obscurity. Whatever it was, it was never definitively identified. The lack of an answer has given scientists and folklore-loving researchers something to chew on over the years.

The sea monk was first described by a French naturalist and ichythyologist, Pierre Belon, in 1553, and again by a French colleague, Guillaume Rondelet, in 1554. The creature was also included in a 1558 volume of the widely-read and respected Renaissance natural history encyclopedia, Historiae Animalium, which was compiled by Conrad Gesner, a Swiss physician and professor. These rare books are all held in the collections of the Smithsonian Libraries and have been digitized for public viewing. 

The sea monk is just one of a host of creepy monsters and ghoulish visuals culled from rare and antique books and curated this month on the website PageFrights by the Smithsonian Libraries and other archives, museums and cultural institutions around the world to share for Halloween. 

Sometime between 1545 and 1550, the peculiar sea monk washed up on a beach near, or was caught in the Oresund, the strait between modern-day Denmark and Sweden. The actual circumstances of its discovery have never been well-documented. None of the naturalists of the day who drew or discussed the animal had ever actually laid eyes on the sea monk specimen. It was described as almost eight-feet-long, having mid-body fins, a tail fin, a black head, and a mouth on its ventral side.

A published account in the 1770s—which drew upon the Renaissance scholars’ work—described it as an animal with “a human head and face, resembling in appearance the men with shorn heads, whom we call monks because of their solitary life; but the appearance of its lower parts, bearing a coating of scales, barely indicated the torn and severed limbs and joints of the human body.” 

That description was unearthed by Charles G.M. Paxton, who, along with a colleague, published in 2005 a full accounting of their research into the sea monk’s origins. They also offered their own take on its true identity. Paxton, a statistical ecologist and marine biologist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, says the sea monk is just one of his many forays into monster mysteries.

“For the past 20-odd years or so, I’ve had a strange hobby, which is exploring the hard science behind the accounts of sea monsters,” says Paxton.

The sea monk intrigued him because it seemed to him that maybe, in the attempts to classify the creature, something obvious had been overlooked. For instance, “monkfish” is a common name in Britain for a fish found in the North Atlantic.

Paxton was not the first in modern times to try to determine the sea monk’s identity. Japetus Steenstrup, an influential Danish marine biologist, delivered a lecture in 1855, in which he postulated that the sea monk was a giant squid, Archeteuthis dux. It wasn’t too surprising, given that Steenstrup was an authority on cephalopods, and one of the first zoologists to properly document the existence of the giant squid, says Paxton.

Steenstrup gave the sea monk the name Architeuthis monachus (Latin for monk). He noted that the sea monk’s body was similar to a squid; it also had a black head and red and black spots, just like a squid. He believed that some of the early descriptions mistakenly said the sea monk had scales, noting that Rondelet claimed it was scaleless—as would be true of a squid.

Paxton, however, isn’t buying it. He says in his paper that while Steenstrup’s giant squid was a good explanation for the many sea monsters described in the 16th and 17th centuries, “he may have been a little overenthusiastic in implicating Architeuthis as the prime suspect for the sea monk.”

Others have suggested that the sea monk was an anglerfish (Lophius), a seal, or a walrus. Another candidate is a “Jenny Haniver.” That’s what you call a tricked-out specimen that is fashioned into a devil or dragon-like creature by modifying a dried carcass of a shark, a skate or a ray.

No one knows where the term Jenny Haniver (sometimes Jenny Hanver or Havier) came from, but the trinkets were in existence in the 1500s, says Paxton. Even so, if the sea monk was found alive when discovered—as the accounts have suggested, it could not have been a Jenny Haniver, says Paxton. Also, the dried sharks are smaller than the sea monk.

The angel shark (Squatina) could have been the sea monk. (Wikimedia Commons)

Paxton says the most likely explanation is that the sea monk was a species of shark, known as the angel shark (Squatina), given its known habitat and range, coloration, length, subtle scales, and pelvic and pectoral girdles that might appear to be a monk’s habit.

“If you put a gun to my head and force me to say what the answer is, I’d say Squatina,” says Paxton. But, he says, “we can’t go back in time, so we can’t say for sure what the answer is.”

Paxton is continuing his investigation into the sea monk, and a similar creature from that period, known as the sea bishop.

Both of those animals caught the attention of Louisa Mackenzie, associate professor of French and Italian studies at the University of Washington in Seattle. The sea creatures serve as a window into Renaissance scholarship and the history of scientific inquiry, along with an animals’ place in the Anthropocene world, says Mackenzie.

The fervent interest in the sea monk and other creatures in the 16th century indicates that scientific inquiry was a serious business. “We might look at these images today and find them quaint, amusing, superstitious, or fantastical—proof of how ‘unscientific’ Renaissance science was,” says Mackenzie.

But, she argues in a recent chapter about the sea monk and sea bishop in the book Animals and Early Modern Identity, that those inquiries deserve more respect. “What I was trying to do with this chapter was to ‘call out’ our own tendency to not take these creatures seriously as sites of investigation,” Mackenzie says.

So, did 16th century scholars and royals truly believe the sea monk was a fantastical half-man, half-fish?

Paxton says it’s hard to know what they actually believed, but that some may have embraced the idea of a chimera. The naturalists most likely saw a resemblance, and then decided it was expedient to describe the sea monk in terms that would be familiar. “My gut feeling is that they weren’t suggesting there was a whole society of merpeople under the sea,” Paxton says.

But Mackenzie says “it’s very possible that naturalists believed it to be a true hybrid, and that, possibly, it was to be feared,” especially, since “theology was baked into natural history at the time.”

Paxton found a report that upon hearing of its discovery, the King of Denmark ordered that the sea monk be immediately buried in the ground, so it would not, according to the account, “provide a fertile subject for offensive talk.”

What kind of talk? Paxton theorizes that perhaps the sea monk could have represented some sort of primacy of Catholicism, with lots of monks swimming under the sea—given that monks were traditionally Catholic, not Protestant.

Remember, he says, that this discovery came during the time of the Protestant Reformation, when Europe was fulminating with religious sectional discord.

Paxton is moving on to his next mystery—a decidedly more ominous creature: a man-eating sea monk discovered during the medieval period.

Renaissance Style from a Renaissance Man: An architectural staircase model

Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum
One of a group of staircase models, many of which are masterworks from a guild-like system of design instruction and apprenticeship called Compagnonnage, this model was part of a significant gift, the most significant outside of France, from Eugene V. and Clare E. Thaw. The donors, who both recently died, Clare in June, 2017, and...

Renaissance of the Longrifle

Smithsonian Magazine

At the turn of the millennium, New Hampshireman David Price practices a most unusual craft. He is a maker of longrifles popularly known as Kentucky rifles, for the most famous wilderness they helped subdue and several samples of his work were exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution's Folklife Festival in the summer of 1999, where they were much admired by many of the festival's 1.1 million visitors.

The longrifles that Price creates are modern versions of slender, elegant flintlock firearms of the 18th and early 19th centuries. Originally made in Pennsylvania, the longrifle played a crucial role in early settlement. Part tool, part weapon, sometimes status symbol, it was a unique creation growing out of European technology and the demands of the American frontier.

Today, original longrifles are sprinkled in collections throughout America, including the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, but they have been joined in recent decades by contemporary versions made by Price, Wallace Gusler, John Bivins, Judson Brennan, Frank House and others that rival, and in some cases surpass, the earlier guns in craftsmanship.

Contemporary longrifles are often purchased by shooters or collectors or by devotees of history who don period clothes and gather together to camp, cook and practice living in another time.

At one such "rendezvous" visited by our author, James Conaway, a camper picked his longrifle up and wiped away the dew with a cloth. It was made by David Price, but in the firelight it was indistinguishable from a flintlock that might have emerged in colonial Pennsylvania or Virginia, in another time. It was, Conaway and its owner agreed, "a work of art."


Smithsonian Libraries
Series 5-6, 8- issued as Atti della Accademia nazionale dei Lincei; series 7, as Atti della Reale Accademia d'Italia.

Chemical abstracts 0009-2258

Rendiconti / Reale Accademia dei Lincei

Smithsonian Libraries
"Atti della Reale Accademia dei Lincei."

Vols. 1-6 include separately paged section "Bullettino bibliografico" and v. 2-6 also include separately paged section "Osservazioni meteorologiche del R. Osservatorio del Campidoglio."

Also available online.

Split into: Rendiconti (Reale Accademia dei Lincei. Classe de scienze fisiche, matematiche e naturale), and: Rendiconti della Reale Accademia dei Lincei, Classe di scienze morali, storiche, critiche e filologiche.


Renewables Generated Ten Percent of U.S. Energy In March

Smithsonian Magazine

In March, power generated by wind and solar energy in the United States topped ten percent for the first time, reports Reuters. The figure comes from a report released by the Energy Department's Energy Information Administration which keeps track of power generation.

The ten percent figure is encouraging, but the peak this time of year is somewhat expected. Spring usually marks a period of low electricity demand. It also is usually a time with strong winds and increasing daylight, which cause renewable power to spike. The agency expects wind and solar will represent a similar amount in their April report as well before decreasing a bit during the summer and increasing again in autumn. According to the report, both wind and solar are growing, and represented seven percent of total U.S. power generation in 2016.

Some states did even better than the average ten percent. In 2016, Iowa produced 37 percent of its electricity from wind and solar, Kansas produced 30 percent, Oklahoma produced 25 percent and Texas produced 13 percent. In absolute terms, however, Texas generated the most wind power in the U.S. last year.

As Julian Spector at Green Tech Media reports, those numbers will likely go up. Sixty percent of new power-generating capacity put online in 2016 came from wind and solar. U.S. Solar installations doubled in 2016 compared to 2015. However, it’s unlikely that renewables will make up the lion’s share of energy generation anytime soon, reports Sarah Gibbens at National Geographic. Under the Clean Power Plan, it was estimated that renewables would surpass energy production from coal by 2040. But with that plan’s future in doubt, natural gas and coal will likely remain the number one and number two energy sources for the foreseeable future.

Renewables are taking off in the rest of the world as well. Last week, the U.K.’s National Grid reported that for the first time 50.7 percent of the nation’s energy was coming from renewables—at least for the span of lunchtime on June 8. That same sunny, windy day, Germany powered two-thirds of its electricity demand using renewables. 

According to Ian Johnston at The Independent, renewable energy is on the rise. Last year the cost of renewable energy dropped 23 percent compared to the year before, making it more affordable. In fact, in several nations, including Denmark, Egypt, India, Mexico, Peru and the UAE, the price of renewables is now cheaper than fossil fuel production.

Reno, Nevada

Smithsonian Magazine

With the mountains as our back drop and Lake Tahoe in our back yard, Reno, Nevada is an ideal location to raise a family. Sailing on Lake Tahoe every Wednesday night in the beer can races, is a great way to break the tension of your work week. Hiking to the top of Mount Rose, elevation 10,800 ft, is a wonderful Saturday morning reconnect with nature. Although the local economy is struggling, it is still one the great locations in the US to live.

Renovated Museum Wing Delves Into Untold Chapters of American History

Smithsonian Magazine

A week before the United States’ 241st birthday, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History unveiled a new perspective on how the nation came together—and continues to re-invent itself.

The 30,000-square-foot recently renovated west wing of the museum’s second floor, entitled “The Nation We Build Together,” opened on June 28. It includes four major exhibitions that explore the question “What kind of nation do we want to be?”

The exhibits re-contextualize some of the museum’s core holdings, presenting hundreds of items previously hidden away in storage. “The Nation We Build Together” offers a fresh look at the events that built America through its exploration of “the common values of freedom, liberty and opportunity,” according to museum director John Gray. “These American ideals bind us together as a people, all working together to build on and shape this great nation.”

An effort to share more voices and backgrounds in America’s story is at the heart of the new exhibitions: “American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith” in the Linda and Pete Claussen Hall of Democracy; “Many Voices, One Nation” in the Hall of the American People; “Religion in Early America” in the new Nicholas F. and Eugenia Tubman Gallery; and interactive displays of “American Experiments” in the Wallace H. Coulter Unity Square. 

Additionally, “Within These Walls,” a popular installation that traces the history of a single Massachusetts house, has been updated. Much of the new information revolves around a former enslaved man known as Chance.

The museum’s recent renovations began with the re-opening of a first floor “innovation” exhibit space in 2015. The last part of the renovation—an exploration of culture on the museum’s third floor—is set for completion in 2018.

Image by NMAH. On view in "American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith:" The table used by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott at Seneca Falls, New York, to draft a declaration of rights for women (original image)

Image by NMAH. On view in "American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith:" Womens' suffrage banner (original image)

Image by NMAH. On view in "American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith:" Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence on this portable writing box (original image)

Image by NMAH. On view in "American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith:" The debate chairs used in the 1960 televised debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon (original image)

The cost of the full renovation was $58 million in federal funds, plus an additional $100 million in private support. The American History Museum is the third most popular Smithsonian site, with 3.8 million visitors last year and 1.8 million as of May 2017.

Controversy has always been part of the American story. Horatio Greenough’s 12-ton marble statue of George Washington heralds the newly reopened wing; originally commissioned by Congress in 1832 for the centennial of Washington’s birth, it generated criticism soon after its 1841 installation in the Capitol rotunda.

Greenough based his statue on a pose of Zeus, so the president is depicted shirtless. Washington’s nudity disturbed visitors enough to warrant several relocations, so the statue was sent to the East Lawn of the Capitol, the front of the Patent Office, the Smithsonian Castle and finally the American History Museum (then known as the National Museum of History and Technology) when its McKim, Mead and White building opened on the Mall in 1964.

Today, Greenough’s creation points visitors toward the “American Democracy” exhibition, which presents a streamlined look at the rise of the nation through iconic treasures such as the writing box Thomas Jefferson used to draft the Declaration of Independence and the inkstand Abraham Lincoln used to draft the Emancipation Proclamation. 

To these have been added the table on which Elizabeth Cady Stanton drafted the Declaration of Sentiments, and a yellow feather pen that Pennsylvania Gov. William Cameron Sproul used to sign his state’s ratification of the 19th amendment giving women the right to vote.

Additional artifacts include the pen Ulysses S. Grant used to sign the proclamation of the 15th Amendment, which enfranchised African American men, and the pen President Lyndon Johnson used to sign the Voting Rights Act 95 years later. 

Among the 900 or so objects on display is the large, fanciful 19th-century Great Clock of America. The clock features iconic figures and scenes animated through a series of moving parts.

Image by NMAH. On View in "Many Voices, One Nation:" The Immokalee Statue of Liberty, made by Katherine Rodriguez in 2000, used in the migrant farm worker struggles (original image)

Image by NMAH. On View in "Many Voices, One Nation:" Pitcher commemorating the first U.S. Census and decorated with the 1790 census population counts from states and territories (original image)

Image by NMAH. On View in "Many Voices, One Nation:" Uncle Sam figure, early 1900s (original image)

Image by NMAH. On View in "Many Voices, One Nation:" A section of the U.S. border fence from the 1940s, Calexico, California and Mexicali, Mexico (original image)

In another corner, cases of campaign buttons rest below monitors displaying presidential campaign commercials. The screens spill onto the ceiling of the gallery, entertaining visitors with clips ranging in date from 1952 to 2016.

Other familiar items from the 20th century include chairs from the televised 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debate and a magnifying glass used to examine hanging chads during the 2000 Florida presidential recount.

Some items speak to the diversity of America: Manfred Anson escaped Nazi Germany as a teenager. He created his folk art “Liberty Menorah” to mark the 1986 centennial of the Statue of Liberty.

Lady Liberty appears throughout the refurbished museum space: There is a nine-foot-tall replica made entirely of LEGO bricks on the museum’s first floor, an eight-foot-tall wooden sculpture dating to around 1900 and a tomato-carrying papier-mâché version used in a 2000 Florida protest.

Image by NMAH. "On view in "Religion in Early America:" The Shearith Torah was burned during the British occupation of Manhattan in 1776. Shearith Israel was the first Jewish religious community in North America (original image)

Image by NMAH. "On view in "Religion in Early America:" Noah's Ark Playset, 1828 (original image)

Image by NMAH. "On view in "Religion in Early America:" An original 1802 Paul Revere and Son bronze bell, first installed at a Meeting House of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Castine, Maine (original image)

Image by NMAH. "On view in "Religion in Early America:" Bible created by Thomas Jefferson, using a pen knife and glue, to express his own rational approach to faith (original image)

The breadth of culture that defines America is showcased in “Many Voices, One Nation.” The exhibit features 200 museum artifacts and 90 lent items, including a painted elk hide found in the Southwest circa 1693, a 19th-century Norwegian bowl brought by immigrants and a trunk carried by a gold miner seeking his fortune in California.

Diverse communities are also represented. There are artifacts from a utopian Icarian group that moved into Nauvoo, Illinois, after the Mormons traveled west, the now-abandoned all-black community of New Philadelphia, Illinois, and the Anishinaabe people of northwestern Michigan.

“Many Voices” includes recent original scholarship as well, says Nancy Davis, curator in the division of home and community life, project director and one of the organizers of the exhibition.  

Contemporary history is reflected in a dress from one of the more than 14,000 Cuban children who escaped to the U.S. in the early 1960s, as well as equipment used by a refugee youth soccer team created in an Atlanta suburb just a decade ago. 

Davis says the sheer variety in the display shows that history continues to be written.

“The collecting we had been doing for the last eight years is actually broadening our collection, because it had been, as you know, very Eurocentric—and very East Coast-centric,” she explains. “This exhibit is an outgrowth of a new thinking of collecting for our division of home and community life.”

This broadening in scope is also apparent in “Religion in Early America,” a temporary exhibition that focuses on spirituality between the colonial era and the 1840s.

Christianity is represented by George Washington’s christening robe from 1732, the George Mason family baptismal bowl (also used for chilling wine), Thomas Jefferson’s modified personal Bible and the cloak of Quaker minister Lucretia Mott. 

Other religions are highlighted as well: The display includes a Torah scroll from New York’s oldest synagogue (partly burned during the Revolutionary War), wampum beads used by Native Americans and a 19th-century Arabic manuscript written by an enslaved Muslim in Georgia.

It’s estimated that 15 to 20 percent of enslaved people were Muslim, says Peter Manseau, the museum’s curator of religion. “Though that tradition was lost through the conversion to Christianity, certain isolated island plantations kept the traditions longer.”

Rare notes from the first Book of Mormon are on display, as is a cross from one of the ships that carried the first English Catholics to Maryland.

“The real power of an exhibit like this is you’ll come looking for your own story, but then you’ll see these other objects and realize it’s all part of the same American story,” Manseau says.

The “Religion in Early America” exhibition will be up for a year; the other exhibitions are “permanent,” meaning they will be up through the country’s 250th birthday.

Renseignements sur les opérations topographiques éxécutées par le dépôt de la guerre de Belgique pour la rédaction de la carte du pays

Smithsonian Libraries
Plates from a variety of techniques, including printed and photomechanical

Text on recto of leaves only

The identify of the scribe is unknown

Title transcried from caption of leaf 1

Smithsonian Institution Libraries. Manuscripts of the Dibner collection, 746

Also available online.

Collected by Bern Dibner for his Burndy Library in Norwalk, Connecticut, founded in 1941. Donated to the Smithsonian Libraries in 1974 by Dibner DSI

SCDIRB copy (39088003312121) has bookplate: Burndy Library, gift of Bern Dibner

SCDIRB copy armorial with rampant lion stamped on back cover with motto of Belgium: l'union fait la force

SCDIRB copy bound in red goatskin, title and elaborate border in gilt on front cover, armorial on back cover, gilt-decorated spine, gilt turn-ins and edges


Rent a Recreation of Van Gogh’s Bedroom and Other Artistic Airbnbs

Smithsonian Magazine

Looking to rent a room with a view is one thing, but for the next few months the Art Institute of Chicago is offering patrons of Airbnb the chance to experience a night in a life-size replica of Vincent van Gogh’s iconic painting, The Bedroom. For just $10 a night, visitors can stay in the installation, which takes up a single bedroom in a larger apartment outside of the museum’s River North campus.

From the colors of the furniture to the skewed angles of the room’s walls, the real-life rental faithfully recreates van Gogh’s masterpiece to a T, but it’s only part of the Art Institute’s new exhibition, “Van Gogh’s Bedrooms.” Alongside dozens of van Gogh’s paintings, the museum is hosting three of van Gogh’s paintings of his “Yellow House” in Arles, France in the same space for the first time in North America, Kate Sierzputowski writes for Colossal. The exhibition is running through May 10, and new dates for those interested in spending a night in a van Gogh painting will be posted to Airbnb each month.

“Van Gogh’s Bedrooms” may offer people a unique chance to live inside a famous painting, but over the years Airbnb has become a hotbed for silly, surreal and even, occasionally, thoughtful listings that could be considered forms of art, themselves. In January, a resident of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, briefly listed a backyard igloo he built during a blizzard for $200 a night as a joke after discovering Airbnb listed “igloos” as a housing category, Gwynne Hogan reports for DNAinfo. Others have listed houses shaped like dogs and boots and one user in the United Kingdom even posted a rental inside an inflatable dome.

“For us, it’s more from an artistic perspective,” artist Tom Galle, who lists a “Netflix and Chill”-themed bedroom on Airbnb, tells Parker Richards for the Observer. “We’re all artists and we view our medium as our subject. That was our primary goal: to do a project that does something with internet culture and gets the attention of people.”

For some adventurous travelers, a stay in one of these surreal and artistic rentals would certainly make for a unique experience.

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