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At head of title: The Willughby Society.
Stacy A. Cordery was a Brownie the first time she heard the name Juliette Gordon Low. She was instantly fascinated by the woman, who founded the Girl Scouts in 1912, and by the fact that she was hearing impaired for most of her adult life. “Her deafness made me want to learn sign language, which I attempted as a young girl,” says Cordery, now a historian and professor at Monmouth College in Illinois.
But, while in high school, and college and graduate school at the University of Texas, Cordery noticed that Low was absent from history textbooks and lectures. “The older I got, the more I thought we don’t know enough about her,” says Cordery. Low’s legacy is monumental: Now celebrating its 100-year history, the Girl Scouts is the largest educational organization for girls in the world, with 3.3 million current members. Over the years, some 50 million women have worn the uniform and earned badges for its sash.
Cordery’s new biography, Juliette Gordon Low: The Remarkable Founder of the Girl Scouts, pieces together Low’s life story, from her beginnings in Savannah, Georgia, at the outbreak of the Civil War to her establishing the first troop of Girl Scouts in the United States. From diaries, letters, institutional correspondence and photographs, Cordery describes Low’s time as a Georgia debutante, the years she spent in England married to an aristocrat named William Mackay Low, Willy’s adultery and his death during their divorce proceedings, and her discovery of Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides in England.
Why did you want to learn more about Juliette Gordon Low?
Every biographer has some autobiographical connection to his or her subject. For me, it was not just that I was a Brownie, but that my mother was a Girl Scout and my grandmother was a troop leader. My mother always kept her Girl Scout uniform. I still have it. And I thought, what was it about this organization that was so important that my mom kept her Girl Scout uniform in the same box as her wedding dress?
By having access to primary source documents you were privy to Low’s personality a bit. How would you describe it?
She was impetuous like her mother. She was thoughtful like her father. She was more organized than I think people gave her credit for. She loved literature. She was deeply spiritual and at the same time phenomenally superstitious. She had a family commitment to duty.
I think she had the biblical instruction to do good in the world, and she had been doing good in the world in her own way ever since she was putting on plays as a girl and charging admission to send off to missionaries. When she was hanging out with the aristocracy in England, she called herself a “woman of ease.” She simultaneously enjoyed that and felt horribly guilty about it. Willy, her husband, was not a supporter of women’s rights and did not believe that women should be out of the home. Consequently, Juliette Low had to do her good deeds in secret.
After Low led three groups of Girl Guides in the United Kingdom, she formed the first troop of 18 American Girl Guides, as the Girl Scouts were originally called, on March 12, 1912. How were they received?
In the United States, there was not a tremendous backlash against Girl Guides as there was in England. There were complaints, in England, about mannish girls and girls not being peaceful if they were in a uniform that looked like a military uniform. There were concerns about girls being overly athletic or indulging in sports, games or outdoor activities that were not appropriate for their gender. But, in the United States, there were already progressive era movements afoot suggesting that children needed outdoor exercise, to play, to get out of the classroom and to be able to run and be free.
On part of Low’s land in Savannah by her home, girls could play tennis and basketball. Basketball was a pretty new sport in our country. She strung up this canvas curtain to keep these girls in their skirts with their basketballs away from the eyes of passersby, for fear she would offend some of them. Of course, it made everyone want to know what the heck was going on. I don’t believe she hung up the curtain in order to heighten interest in her organization, but that’s the effect it had. Little kids had to peek through, and it just looked terrifically fun.
Image by Courtesy Juliette Gordon Low, Birthplace, Savannah, GA and Girl Scout National Historic Preservation Center, New York, NY. Robertine "Robbie" McClendon, left, of Thomasville, Ga., Juliette Gordon Low and Helen Ross, right, of Macon, Ga., after Juliette Gordon Low presented them with the Golden Eaglet, May 1925, in Macon, Ga. (original image)
Image by Courtesy Juliette Gordon Low, Birthplace, Savannah, GA and Girl Scout National Historic Preservation Center, New York, NY. Low, far left, presents the "Founder's Banner" annually to the troop that best upholds the Girl Scout ideals. (original image)
Image by National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of the Girl Scouts of the United States of America; Frame conserved with funds from the Smithsonian Women's Committee. An oil portrait of Low by Edward Hughes. (original image)
Image by Bettmann / Corbis. Mrs. Harry S. Truman, wife of the President, opens the 1951 Girl Scouts cookie sale by accepting the first box of cookies at Blair House. (original image)
Image by Bettmann / Corbis. Girl Scouts collecting peach seeds during World War I. The oil from the seeds were used for war industries. (original image)
What skills did Low want Girl Scouts to learn?
Most women were going to be wives and mothers and she knew that, so, better to train girls to be really exceptional homemakers. She wanted them to learn about cooking and preserving food. She wanted them to know how to run a sterile kitchen. She taught about nursing—taking care of invalids and sick children—and sewing. Anything that a wife and mother should do she thought she could train her girls to do better.
Low understood how it was possible that any woman might find herself in the situation of needing to take care of herself. So, she emphasized career training for girls. Some of the early badges were about flying, typing, telegraph skills and farming.
Then there was this whole path of outdoor activity, which ranged from gardening to camping. Her program taught you how to identify a poisonous mushroom from a nonpoisonous mushroom and how to pitch a tent and which kind of wood was useful to burn in a fire and which kind wasn’t. There was a fear that some of these ideas were beginning to fade.
Then, there was the part of her program that had to do with citizenship. She wanted her girls to know something about the Constitution of the United States, the history of the United States, geography, then particularly as World War I came along, military preparedness, so semaphore, Morse Code and how to prepare for civic emergencies of any kind.
What do those skills say about her idea of a woman’s role in the world?
I think that Juliette Gordon Low, by the time she was 51 years old and had founded the Girl Scouts, understood that a woman’s life was no longer predictable and that you could not count anymore on being a pampered wife and a beloved mother and grandmother. It behooved you as a teacher of young girls to train them for unexpected futures.
All kinds of girls joined scouting—middle-class girls, elite girls, poor girls, factory girls and orphans, from every religious and ethnic background. And, they all joined for different reasons. Girl Scouting was equal parts of fun and education. Juliette Low wanted girls to become better women.
Do you consider her a feminist?
That word wasn’t even really used in this country until about the time she founded the scouts. I do not have a single scrap of paper where she self-identifies as a feminist. I know she supported suffrage. Do I think that a broad general definition of feminist today applies to Juliette Low? Yes, I do. Do I think it always applied to her? No. It definitely applied to her as an adult.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, other similar girl scouting groups sprung up. What, culturally speaking, do you think was going on that inspired the need for scouts?
Historians talk about the end of the 19th century and early 20th century as a time of industrialization, immigration and urbanization. American factories were chugging away at a tremendous pace. The 1920 census for the first time told us that more people were living in urban areas than rural areas. People were coming from all over, and we weren’t certain how that was going to work out.
Juliette Low wanted immigrant girls in Girl Scouting. She thought it would help to Americanize them, which can be an ugly thing to think about from the perspective of 2012 but wasn’t seen as a bad thing in 1912. Urbanization also comes into play because these children in cities didn’t have access to fresh air and fresh water and fields to run in and hills to roll down, like Juliette had had when she was a little girl. Girl Scouting picked up on the fresh air movement and the other camping movements of the time and said, let’s get kids out of the city. Girl Scouting and other reforms of the progressive era were an attempt, in part, to mitigate the worst excesses of industrialization, to help immigrants become Americans and succeed here both personally and professionally, and to make sure that we all did this in an atmosphere of friendship and trust.
Some things are impossible to know about Low’s life. What are you most curious about?
That’s the biographer’s question. If you had your subject over to tea, what three questions would you ask her? I would ask her the professional question: How did you feel in 1920 when you voluntarily gave up the presidency of the Girl Scouts? I think that must have been one of the hardest decisions she ever had to make. Then, the personal, gossipy question: What’s the dish about Robert Baden-Powell? I’d like to know whether they were really in love or if they decided they would just make good mates. And, I think the historian’s question I would ask would be, were you aware of all the other reforms and reformers around you? As a historian, that is what really puzzles me. I kept thinking I would see, in her correspondences, letters to prominent reformers of her time, and they just are not there. There is no letter to Florence Kelley. There is no long, thoughtful missive from Jane Addams, saying let’s talk about how you’re working with youth and I’m working with youth. While she was contributing to reforms of the progressive era, she was not connected to the progressive era women we know so well. I just want to know why that connection wasn’t made.
What lessons does her life story impart?
There has got to be some kind of lesson about not letting your worst mistake get the best of you. I think her worst mistake was marrying Willy Low. In her own estimation, her life was in shambles. She had failed to have a successful marriage, and she had failed to produce children. She could have been a bitter old woman sitting on her pots of money. She could have been angry and withdrawn, but somehow she wasn’t. From that rose this dogged, determined, passionate, committed dynamo of a woman who threw herself into girl scouting. She opened doors for girls that were closed to her. I think her story says something about resilience and optimism.
Old Faithful geyser in Yellowstone National Park may draw a lot of attention, but it's far from the park's only water feature. North of Old Faithful, in the Norris Geyser Basin, lies Steamboat, the world’s largest active geyser. While Old Faithful can spew streams of boiling water over 100 feet in the air, Steamboat can top 300 feet.
The problem is Steamboat's eruptions are super erratic, and no one can predict when it’s going to be active—sometimes it takes months, sometimes it takes years. But now, three and a half years since its last major outburst, Steamboat has awakened, spouting three times in the last six weeks, reports Alex Horton at the Washington Post.
Steamboat erupted on March 15, April 19 and April 27, the first time it’s blown its lid three times in a year since 2003. As Sean Reichard at Yellowstone Insider reports, seismic data from the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory suggests the latest eruptions were pretty impressive. For one, the April 27 event shot up more than 10 times as much water as the average Old Faithful event. But still, they pale in comparison to Steamboat's previous eruptions in July 2013 and September 2014.
So, does the reawakening of Steamboat mean the Yellowstone Volcano will soon rumble to life after 70,000 years of slumber? The possibility is extremely remote.
The latest eruptions are just business as usual for Steamboat, which goes through cycles of dormancy and activity. As Reichard reports, since European explorers discovered Yellowstone’s geyser basins in 1878, Steamboat has been temperamental. In the 50 years between 1911 and 1961, it didn’t spout at all.
Then, the geyser blew its top at least seven times in 1962 and 77 times between 1963 and 1965. It had another burst of energy in 1982 and 1983, going off 35 times total. Since then, it’s had smaller outbursts, including the three-peat in 2003 and similar eruption pattern this year.
Michael Poland, the researcher who heads the Observatory, tells Horton that Steamboat is so unpredictable because of its complex plumbing. Old Faithful, which is an oddball when it comes to geysers, has fairly simple underground waterworks. Its water is evenly heated by magma rising from the Earth's mantle, leading to its regularity. Steamboat’s plumbing, however, is likely more complex. Uneven heating of its water source would create the geyser’s seemingly random bursts of hot water.
The eruptions could have several other causes, according to Reuters. It’s possible that, instead of having one large eruption to vent pressure like in 2013 and 2014, Steamboat is simply venting its steam in a series of smaller outbursts. It’s also possible the thermal basin is undergoing some subsurface shifts. The 2003 event was linked to an underground thermal disturbance in the Norris Basin that killed some trees and almost swallowed nearby trails, reports Horton.
One thing is clear—the changes at Steamboat are not signs that the Yellowstone Supervolcano is waking up. The chances of Yellowstone erupting anytime soon are miniscule.
In fact, as Reuters reports, it would be far more worrying if the geysers suddenly dried up.
Conchyliologie fossile du bassin de l'Adour (4e mémoire) : famille des Mélaniens : description des genres et des espèces de coquilles fossiles appartenant a cette famille de Trachélipodes, qu'on observe dans les couches des terrains marins supérieurs du bassin de l'Adour aux environs de Dax (Landes) : avec figures / par Mr. le docteur Grateloup
Also available online.
SCNHRB copy (H360152C) stamped on title page: Isaac Lea Collection. Inscribed in ink on cover title: Mr. Lea.
SCNHRB copy stamped on title page: Library, U.S. National Museum, Smithsonian Institution Jan 9 1890 [manuscript accession no.] 134880.
SCNHRB copy in original blue printed paper wrappers.
SCNHRB copy bound with: Grateloup, Jean-Pierre Silvestre de. Conchyliologie fossile du bassin de l'Adour. A Bordeaux : Chez Th. Lafargue, 1837 -- Grateloup, Jean-Pierre Silvestre de. Notice sur la famille des Bulléens. A Bordeaux : Th. Lafargue, 1837 -- Grateloup, Jean-Pierre Silvestre de. Mémoire sur les coquilles fossiles des mollusques terrestres et fluviatiles. Bordeaux : Th. Lafargue, 1838 -- Grateloup, Jean-Pierre Silvestre de. Conchyliologie fossile du bassin de l'Adour (5e mémoire). Bordeaux : Th. Lafargue, 1838 -- Grateloup, Jean-Pierre Silvestre de. Mémoire de géo-zoologie sur les coquilles fossiles de la famille des Néritacés. Bordeaux : Th. LaFargue, 1840. Bound together subsequent to publication.
While 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. may be the most notable presidential address, it isn’t the only residence our past presidents have occupied. From quaint boyhood homes tucked away in the countryside to private getaways just steps from the beach, many of the homes and estates of former U.S. presidents are open to the public today, offering a glimpse into the lives of these men and their families when they stepped outside the public eye. Here are six presidential homes that you can tour now, just in time for the presidential inauguration year.
Harry S. Truman Little White House, Key West, FloridaHarry S. Truman Little White House (<ahref="flickr url"="">Roman Boed - Flickr/Creative Commons)
As soon as the first hint of a winter chill swept through the nation’s capital each year, President Harry S. Truman and key members of his staff would pack their bags and head south to what has come to be known as the “Little White House.” Located a short distance from a local beach on Key West, Florida, Truman’s winter retreat was built in 1890 as officers’ quarters for the local naval base—but in 1911, it was converted into a private residence, serving for a time as a temporary home for inventor Thomas Edison while he conducted experiments during the First World War. From 1946 until 1952, Truman spent 175 days of his presidency at this southern getaway, and after his passing in 1972, the home played host as a respite for a number of subsequent presidents, including Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. It also served as the site of the international peace talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 2011.
Today visitors can explore the bleached-white home, which houses nearly all of its original furnishings (including the famous “The Buck Stops Here” sign on Truman’s desk), read through the logs detailing the daily accounts of each of his visits, and stroll through the onsite botanical gardens.
Eisenhower National Historic Site, Gettysburg, PennsylvaniaEisenhower National Historic Site (fdastudillo/iStock)
A mere stone’s throw from the Gettysburg Battlefield in Pennsylvania, where one of the most significant battles of the American Civil War unfolded, you'll find former President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 189-acre farm and retreat. Eisenhower purchased the property in 1950 as a retirement home, some 30 years after he had been appointed commander of Camp Colt, a former military installation located near the legendary battlefield. His fond memories of the area are what drew him back with his wife, Mamie. But they wouldn’t stay in retirement for long. In 1953, the five-star general became the country’s 34th president, during which time the couple would only see their homestead on weekends and holidays, as well as a brief period in 1955 while Ike recuperated from a heart attack. He was fond of inviting fellow politicians and foreign dignitaries to the “Temporary White House” to show off his herd of Angus cattle and to relax on the front porch, saying that the informal conversations he had there allowed him “to get the other man’s equation.”
A herd of cattle still grazes at the historic site, and visitors today can take self-guided walking tours along the farm lanes and trails that meander throughout the property. The onsite museum houses a collection of approximately 48,000 artifacts that includes everything from military paraphernalia to awards for Ike's livestock, in addition to many photos.
Lincoln Home National Historic Site, Springfield, IllinoisLincoln Home National Historic Site (<ahref="flickr url"="">Matt Turner - Flickr/Creative Commons)
Abraham Lincoln’s former home has been a popular spot for visitors since it opened its doors to the public in 1887, a full 22 years after his assassination. While it was first built in 1839, Lincoln purchased the 12-room Greek revival, located 200 miles south of Chicago, in 1844; it was later restored in 1860. For 17 years, it served as his home, which he shared with his wife, Mary Todd, until their move to Washington, D.C. where Lincoln would serve as the country's 16th president.
Fast forward and today hundreds of thousands of visitors flock to this historic property each year, experiencing park ranger-led tours that explore the couple’s separate bedrooms, children’s rooms, kitchen, formal parlor, sitting rooms and various outbuildings.
Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site, St. Louis, MissouriWhite Haven, Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site (<ahref="flickr url"="">Roland Klose - Flickr/Creative Commons)
After graduating from the United States Military Academy (West Point) in 1843, the U.S. Army stationed Second Lieutenant Ulysses S. Grant to the Jefferson Barracks, located on the outskirts of St. Louis, Missouri. It was during his service there that he met Julia Dent, the sister of Frederick Dent, one of his former roommates. After a five-year engagement, the couple married in 1848. Over the course of the next four decades, White Haven, the Dent family’s homestead, would serve as the couple’s on-again-off-again home, where they resided until his death in 1885.
Now, more than 130 years after his passing, the green-clapboard main house, outbuildings, and stables remain a popular draw for visitors, while interpretative tours of the property, as well as a screening of the 22-minute film, Ulysses S. Grant: A Legacy of Freedom, are also available.
Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace, New York, New YorkInterior of Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace (Courtesy NPS)
Living in New York City has been a rite of passage for many a U.S. president, but few can actually say they were born there. On Oct. 27, 1858, Theodore Roosevelt was born and raised at 28 E. 20th St. in Manhattan’s Gramercy Park neighborhood. In 1872, the family moved Uptown, and eventually the original brownstone was demolished as the neighborhood transitioned from residential to commercial. However, in 1919 the Women's Roosevelt Memorial Association purchased the lot and rebuilt a replica of the former home, which has served as a national historic site since 1962, when the National Park Service assumed management of the property. Today the home's rooms are decorated with period furnishings and family-owned possessions, and visitors will find ranger-guided tours available.
Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park, Johnson City, TexasLyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park (<ahref="flickr url"="">Michael Coghlan - Flickr/Creative Commons)
Located an hour’s drive west of Austin in the Texas Hill Country, spanning the central and southern regions of the state, sits Lyndon B. Johnson’s famed ranch, which the 36th president occupied with his family as a young boy beginning in 1913. At the time, many residents living in this rural corner of Texas didn’t have electricity or indoor plumbing in their homes, which later compelled Johnson to introduce programs designed to help fellow U.S. citizens who were living in similar circumstances; this includes his famous "war on poverty" legislation, which he discussed during his State of the Union Address in 1964.
Visitors today can experience the 1,570-acre property in person, which includes Johnson's boyhood home, stockyards, farmhouse and the family gravesites for both LBJ and his wife and former First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson.
This summer, Cleveland joins the ranks of Venice, Miami, Berlin and other global cities known in the art world for their citywide art exhibitions with the introduction of FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art. Kicking off July 14 and continuing through September 30, the inaugural event features the work of more than 100 local, national and international artists at some of the city and region’s most respected institutions, including the Cleveland Museum of Art, Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) Cleveland, the Cleveland Clinic, Playhouse Square, Oberlin College and the Akron Art Museum.
An art festival of this caliber is a first for Cleveland and is the largest event of its kind in North America, making it an ambitious jump for a city whose art scene is often overshadowed by Chicago, New York City and Miami.
Michelle Grabner, FRONT’s artistic director and an artist herself, sees it as a pivotal step in putting the city and region on the art world map. To take this objective from idea to reality, Grabner focused on the idea of community and what makes a city An American City—the festival’s theme—by building a network of artists and institutions that would work in tandem to create a sense of unity that permeates throughout the city and region.
“FRONT is not only an exhibition, but it’s also an experiment in collaboration and partnership that weaves through neighborhoods and communities as readily as it populates civic institutions and landmarks,” Grabner tells Smithsonian.com. “Responding to the city’s dynamic social web, each artist brings moral, social and emotional perspectives to the conditions that shape the idea of the city.”
In the months leading up to the event, FRONT created a yearlong residency for a dozen artists inside a renovated building that once served as a medical facility for Glenville, a low-income, predominately black neighborhood located about five miles east of downtown Cleveland. Inspired by the idea of bringing often overlooked neighborhoods and underutilized locations into the conversation, Grabner and her team then searched for other places throughout the area that might not typically fit the mold as spots to view artwork. These include a Transformer Station built in 1924, the retired William G. Mather Steamship docked on the coast of Lake Eerie and the still operational Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland.
Image by The Cleveland Museum of Art.. Marlon de Azambuja, "Brutalismo-Cleveland," 2018. Installation view at the Cleveland Museum of Art. June 3, 2018–December 30, 2018. Commissioned by FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art. (original image)
Image by Field Studio. Philip Vanderhyden, "Volatility Smile 3," 2018. Installation view at Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland. Commissioned by FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art with support from The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. July 14-September 30, 2018. (original image)
Image by FRONT International. Yinka Shonibare MBE, "The American Library," 2018. Installation view at The Cleveland Public Library. © Yinka Shonibare MBE. Commissioned by FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art. July 14-September 30, 2018. Courtesy James Cohan Gallery, New York and FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art with funds from VIA Art Fund, Cleveland Public Library and The City of Cleveland’s Cable Television Minority Arts and Education Fund. (original image)
Image by Field Studio. Kay Rosen, "DIVISIBILITY," 2018. Installation view at 750 Prospect Avenue. Commissioned by FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art. (original image)
Image by Field Studio. Lauren Yeager, "Sculptures Bases," 2018. Installation view at Vista Color Building. Commissioned by FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art. July 14-September 30, 2018. (original image)
Image by Field Studio. A.K. Burns, "The Dispossessed," 2018. Installation view at Transformer Station. Commissioned by FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art. July 14-September 30, 2018. (original image)
Image by Field Studio. Tony Tasset, "Judy's Hand Pavilion," 2018. Installation view at Toby's Plaza, Case Western Reserve University. Commissioned by FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art in collaboration with Toby Lewis and the John and Mildred Putnam Collection at Case Western Reserve University. July 14-September 30, 2018. (original image)
In creating their works, many artists sought inspiration directly from the venues housing their creations. For example, Yinka Shonibare MBE, a British-Nigerian artist from the United Kingdom, partnered with the Cleveland Public Library for “The American Library,” an installation of 6,000 hardback books whose covers he wrapped in colorful African wax cloth, each book’s spine emblazoned in gold with the names of first- or second-generation immigrants to the United States who have made important contributions in the country’s arts and sciences communities. The expansive piece also features the names of “immigration dissenters who opposed such ideas,” and includes an interactive element that invites viewers to add in their own immigration stories and photographs by posting on Instagram with the hashtag #FRONTart2018.
Another example is a video installation by American artist Philip Vanderhyden, who created a 15-minute video loop that spreads across an accordion of two-dozen flat-screen monitors housed inside the gilded lobby of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland. To create his animations, Vanderhyden used design elements taken from the Beaux-Arts building’s interior along with publications put out by various financial institutions to explore the American financial system.
“When I was asked to participate in FRONT, it was a dream scenario for me,” Vanderhyden says. “I’ve always shown my work in galleries, and it tends to get seen by a certain group of people, but this work came out of a lot of my own personal anxieties about money.”
Both pieces are the first logical step in creating an open dialogue on the many political, social, racial and economic subjects that have taken center stage throughout Cleveland and other cities across the United States. A dialogue that contains all voices.
FRONT International will be on display now through September 30. For more information, including a full list of artists, venues and events, click here.
Rural bird life : being essays on ornithology with instructions for preserving objects relating to that science / by Charles Dixon ; with forty-five illustrations and a preface by Elliott Coues
Date from preface.
Book advertisement on colophon page.
On double leaves, fukurotoji style.
A century ago, a British art critic by the name of Clive Bell attempted to explain what makes art, well, art. He postulated that there is a “significant form”—a distinct set of lines, colors, textures and shapes—that qualifies a given work as art. These aesthetic qualities trigger a pleasing response in the viewer. And, that response, he argued, is universal, no matter where or when that viewer lives.
In 2010, neuroscientists at the Zanvyl Krieger Mind/Brain Institute at Johns Hopkins University joined forces with the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore to conduct an experiment. What shapes are most pleasing, the group wondered, and what exactly is happening in our brains when we look at them? They had three hypotheses. It is possible, they thought, that the shapes we most prefer are more visually exciting, meaning that they spark intense brain activity. At the same time, it could be that our favorite shapes are serene and calm brain activity. Or, they surmised we very well might gravitate to shapes that spur a pattern of alternating strong and weak activity.
To investigate, the scientists created ten sets of images, which they hung on a wall at the Walters Art Museum in 2010. Each set included 25 shapes, all variations on a laser scan of a sculpture by artist Jean Arp. Arp’s work was chosen, in this case, because his sculptures are abstract forms that are not meant to represent any recognizable objects. Upon entering the exhibition, called “Beauty and the Brain,” visitors put on a pair of 3D glasses and then, for each image set, noted the their “most preferred” and “least preferred” shape on a ballot. The shapes were basically blobs with various appendages. The neuroscientists then reviewed the museum-goers’ responses in conjunction with fMRI scans taken on lab study participants looking at the very same images.
“We wanted to be rigorous about it, quantitative, that is, try to really understand what kind of information neurons are encoding and…why some things would seem more pleasing or preferable to human observers than other things. I have found it to be almost universally true in data and also in audiences that the vast majority have a specific set of preferences,” says Charles E. Connor, director of the Zanvyl Krieger Mind/Brain Institute.
“Beauty and the Brain Revealed,” an exhibition now on display at the AAAS Art Gallery in Washington, D.C., allows others to participate in the exercise, while also reporting the original experiment’s results. Ultimately, the scientists found that visitors like shapes with gentle curves as opposed to sharp points. And, the magnetic brain imaging scans of the lab participants prove the team’s first hypothesis to be true: these preferred shapes produce stronger responses and increased activity in the brain.
As Johns Hopkins Magazine so eloquently put it, “Beauty is in the brain of the beholder.”
Now, you might expect, as the neuroscientists did, that sharp objects incite more of a reaction, given that they can signal danger. But the exhibition offers up some pretty sound reasoning for why the opposite may be true.
“One could speculate that the way we perceive sculpture relates to how the human brain is adapted for optimal information processing in the natural world,” reads the display. “Shallow convex surface curvature is characteristic of living organisms, because it is naturally produced by the fluid pressure of healthy tissue (e.g. muscle) against outer membranes (e.g. skin). The brain may have evolved to process information about such smoothly rounded shapes in order to guide survival behaviors like eating, mating and predator evasion. In contrast, the brain may devote less processing to high curvature, jagged forms, which tend to be inorganic (e.g. rocks) and thus less important.”
Another group of neuroscientists, this time at the University of Toronto at Scarborough, actually found similar results when looking at people’s preferences in architecture. In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences earlier this year, they reported that test subjects shown 200 images—of rooms with round columns and oval ottomans and others with boxy couches and coffee tables—were much more likely to call the former “beautiful” than the latter. Brain scans taken while these participants were evaluating the interior designs showed that rounded decor prompted significantly more brain activity, much like what the Johns Hopkins group discovered.
“It’s worth noting this isn’t a men-love-curves thing: twice as many women as men took part in the study. Roundness seems to be a universal human pleasure,” writes Eric Jaffe on Co.Design.
Gary Vikan, former director of the Walters Art Museum and guest curator of the AAAS show, finds “Beauty and the Brain Revealed” to support Clive Bell’s postulation on significant form as a universal basis for art, as well as the idea professed by some in the field of neuroaesthetics that artists have an intuitive sense for neuroscience. Maybe, he claims, the best artists are those that tap into shapes that stimulate the viewer’s brain.
“Beauty and the Brain Revealed” is on display at the AAAS Art Gallery in Washington, D.C., through January 3, 2014.