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Seven Must-See Museums in Austria

Smithsonian Magazine

Austria's cultural impact far exceeds the country's small size. From the 18th through the early 20th century, it was home to some of the world's most famous artists and musicians, giving rise to or hosting greats like Beethoven, Mozart and Gustav Klimt. The flourishing of the arts was due in large part to the support of the Habsburg monarchs, whose love of grandiose architecture, music and art collecting transformed Austria, and particularly Vienna, into a cultural capital. 

Luckily, many of these great works, as well as pieces from the 20th century Art Nouveau and Actionism movements are now on display in the country's superb museums. Beyond the visual arts, Austria's many museums house massive natural history collections and fascinating portals to the past. With so many good options, it can be hard for a museum-lover to choose just one...or two...or three. Whether you're in the country for a few days or a few months, here are seven museums you won't want to miss:

Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Image by Helmut Meyer zur Capellen/imageBROKER/Corbis. Staircase with ceiling painting by Mihály von Munkácsy, 1890, Kunsthistorisches Museum. (original image)

Image by Atlantide Phototravel/Corbis. Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum was commissioned by a Hapsburg Emperor—and it shows. (original image)

Image by Helmut Meyer zur Capellen/imageBROKER/Corbis. Interior dome view in the staircase, Kunsthistorisches Museum. (original image)

Image by Karl F. Schöfmann/imageBROKER/Corbis. A bust of Emperor Franz Joseph I. by Caspar Zumbusch at the Kunsthistorisches Museum. (original image)

Art lovers won't want to miss the crown jewel of Austria's museum scene—a museum with an interior that's as stunning as its collection. Also known as the Museum of Fine Arts, the Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien was founded to show off the Habsburg​s' lavish array of artworks. Opened in 1891, in a building commissioned by Emperor Franz Joseph I, the museum's perminant displays include works by Michelangelo, Rubens, Rembrandt, Dürer and Raphael. The museum is best known for its large collection of paintings by Northern Renaissance master Pieter Bruegel the Elder. "Hunters in the Snow" shows Bruegel's take on a chilly, pastoral Dutch peasant scene—a taste of idyllic country life that's one of Bruegel's most famous works. Other collection highlights include antiquities, coins and historic musical instruments.

If you can't visit Vienna, you can still view some of the Kunsthistorisches Museum's best works: Google has digitized some of its collection and offers a virtual view of its interior.

Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna

Image by Sylvain Sonnet/Corbis. The Naturhistorisches Museum is home to over 30 million objects. (original image)

Image by Sylvain Sonnet/Corbis. The dinosaur hall at Vienna's Naturhistorisches Museum. (original image)

Image by HERWIG PRAMMER/Reuters/Corbis. A child reaches for the teeth of a model dinosaur at the Naturhistorisches Museum. (original image)

Image by HERBERT NEUBAUER/epa/Corbis. Jeff Koons' sculpture "Balloon Venus Orange" is on display at the Naturhistorisches Museum through March 2016. (original image)

Facing the Kunsthistorisches Museum is its equally impressive neighbor. Devoted entirely to natural history, the Naturhistorisches Museum Wien opened at the same time as the art museum. It houses over 30 million objects that catalog the history, evolution and variety of life on Earth—and beyond. Featuring a planetarium and animal specimens galore, it's a nature lover's playground in a palatial setting.

The museum is known for its large collection of dinosaur bones, including an entire dinosaur hall, and the world's largest exhibit of meteorites. Another highlight is the 28,000-year-old Venus of Willendorf figure—one of the most famous prehistoric sculptures. The Paleolithic representation of a fertile woman was found in Austria, and some theorize it's a precursor of the Venus goddess. 

Whether you're scouring the collection of gems for your favorite treasure or scoping out a meteorite from Mars, the Naturhistorisches Museum is a great place to unwind amidst the wonders of the natural world.

Heeresgeschichtliches Museum, Vienna

Image by HEINZ-PETER BADER/Reuters/Corbis. The car in which Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. (original image)

Image by Charlie Dave - Flickr/Creative Commons. Located in a former arsenal, Vienna's military museum is known for its large collections of firearms and tanks. (original image)

Image by HEINZ-PETER BADER/Reuters/Corbis. The blood stained uniform worn by Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria when he was assassinated. (original image)

This museum's name is a mouthful—it's best translated as the Military Historical Museum. It's known as one of the world's most important history museums and manages to uphold that reputation with a collection of some of history's most significant military artifacts. Inside, you can view everything from elaborate frescoes illustrating the county's various wars to the car in which Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot to death, sparking World War I. Outside is the "tank garden," a yard filled with combat tanks dating from the Soviet period to the present. (If you're at the museum in the summer, you might even catch live demonstrations of the vehicles.) 

While displaying an impressive collection of weaponry, armaments, medals and badges of honor, the Heeresgeschichtliches Museum doesn't shy away from the horrors of war. Blood-soaked uniforms, battle-scared helmets and remnants of Nazi brutality are all contained in its collection—one that highlights Austria's sober, but still fascinating, legacy of armed conflict.

MuseumsQuartier, Vienna

Image by Orietta Gaspari/iStock. Brightly colored benches at the MuseumsQuartier. (original image)

Image by Corbis. "Death and Life" by Gustav Klimt on display in the Leopold Museum. (original image)

Image by Peter Korrak. The MuseumsQuartier in Vienna is home to multiple museums and is an extensive cultural center. (original image)

Image by Carlos Sanchez Pereyra/JAI/Corbis. MUMOK museum in Museums Quartier (original image)

Another of Vienna's must-sees isn't a single museum—it's an entire cultural area. MuseumsQuartier is a mashup of Baroque buildings (that were once the imperial stables) and contemporary architecture. The complex houses multiple museums, including the Leopold Museum, which features the world's largest collection of works by Egon Schiele and other Austrian masters like Gustav Klimt. One of the Leopold's most famous holdings is Klimt's "Death and Life," in which a Grim Reaper lurks next to a chaotic collage of people of all ages and life stages. Next door is the Museum Moderner Kundst Stifgung Ludwig Wien (Mumok), which is central Europe's biggest modern art museum, and Kunsthalle Wien, an important exhibition space for contemporary art.

You may head to MuseumsQuartier for a taste of visual arts, but stay for other kinds of cultural experiences: From artists in residence to dance performances to architectural exhibits, the MuseumsQuartier can provide enough interest for a quick afternoon or a week of cultural bliss.

Mozart's Birthplace, Salzburg

Image by Tatiana Volgutova/iStock. Mozart lived on the third floor of this yellow house in Salzburg, Austria. (original image)

Image by Alfredo Dagli Orti/The Art Archive/Corbis. A portrait of Mozart's family with their musical instruments by La Croce on display at Mozart Geburtshaus. (original image)

Image by Daniel Kalker/dpa/Corbis. Mozart was born in this building in Salzburg. (original image)

Image by Starrynight1. The kitchen in Mozart's childhood home. (original image)

If you're into music, you won't want to miss the place where one of the most impressive composers in history got his start. Tucked into a city street in Salzburg, Mozart's birthplace is now one of the world's most popular museums. And with good reason: The museum features plenty of traces of the composer's youth and vaunted musical career, from the child prodigy's violin to artifacts from his operas. Not a classical fan? Try the museum anyway: The house itself offers an intriguing peek into daily life in the 18th century.

Österreichisches Freilichtsmuseum Stübing, Graz

Visitors to the Österreichisches Freilichtmuseum can check out historic farmsteads and live artisans. (ÖFM Stübing)

Speaking of everyday life, why not add an open-air museum to your agenda? Tucked in an idyllic valley near Austria's second-largest city, Graz, is the largest museum of its kind—an outdoor museum complex featuring over 100 historic buildings in the midst of scenic forests, farms and meadows. The Österreichisches Freilichtsmuseum is a shrine to traditional village life and craft culture. Tour old houses (the oldest dates from the Medieval period), explore heirloom herb gardens and watch artisans carry out the tasks of times past in a series of rotating exhibitions and guided walks of historic farmsteads.

The museum, which prides itself on showcasing historic buildings from all over Austria, is a portal into yesteryear. But the setting of the Freilichtsmuseum feels so serene, it's as much an urban retreat as a peek into the history of vernacular architecture.

Kunsthaus Graz, Graz

Image by Zepp-Cam. 2004/Graz, Austria. Kunsthaus Graz is nicknamed "The Friendly Alien" for its next-level blob design. (original image)

Image by Gabriele Croppi/Grand Tour/Grand Tour/Corbis. The "Friendly Alien." (original image)

Image by Dennis Gilbert/VIEW/Corbis. The Kunsthaus interior view. (original image)

Image by The Kunsthaus Graz lit up at night. (original image)

If you're ready to plunge back into city life, don't forget to stop by one of Austria's most famous architectural marvels. Kunsthaus Graz is an art museum tucked inside a bizarre and beautiful structure better known as "The Friendly Alien." The building is fitting for a contemporary art museum: It manages to be a conversation-starting blob, a solar power generator and even a video screen all at once.

The museum does not have a permanent collection, but offers a constantly changing showcase of installations, film, new media and other forms of contemporary art. On the website, the museum's founders state that they see the museum as "an instrument of art communication"—an ever-changing, organic and completely different kind of museum.

We're answering your questions on Wednesday, September 14

National Museum of American History

Ask a Curator Day has begun! We're sharing some of our favorite questions and answers on Storify.

In Part 1 of the Q&A, we answer questions on maritime history, editing museum labels, the history of money, and women in World War I.

In Part 2, curator Hal Wallace answers questions about electricity.

In Part 3, we answer questions about political history, guitars, and becoming museum professionals.

Museums make me curious. I want to know about the old and often rare objects they display, but I also want to know what happens after hours. For example, how do you dust the Spirit of St. Louis hovering overhead at the National Air and Space Museum? How do the employees at Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens resist the temptation to try on all that stunning jewelry? And who gets to organize the logistics of "carcass feeding" at the National Zoo? Luckily for me, there's Ask a Curator Day, when museums, historic houses, zoos, aquaria, heritage centers, archives, and other educational institutions answer questions via social media sites such as Twitter.

Blue sign with white text

But what to ask? That part sounds easy, but, as curious as I am about how museums work, I can't always phrase a perfect question on demand. When a museum docent or tour guide invites questions at the end of their tour, I panic. But I recently learned a trick from another visitor while touring the National Building Museum. When question time rolled around, she found a smart way to indulge her curiosity without having to come up with a perfectly worded inquiry, saying, "I was interested in the part about how this building was designed with the needs of office workers and Civil War veterans in mind. Could you say more about that?" Voila!

With that "tell me more" trick in mind, check out the schedule of National Museum of American History experts who will be answering questions on Wednesday, September 14.

11 a.m. – 12 p.m.: Motorcycles, maritime history, and money, money, money

Paul Johnston, Curator of Transportation in the Division of Work and Industry: I will answer questions on maritime historyshipwrecksmotorcycles, how aquatic avian excrement changed the world, nuclear submarines, and collecting transportation history for the nation.

Canvas-colored life vest with ties on each side

Hillery York, Collections Manager for the National Numismatic Collection: I'll answer your questions about numismatics, the study of coins, paper currency, and medals. I look forward to chatting about new monetary technologies in the numismatic collection and the digitization of museum collections. One of my favorite things in the museum is our exhibition The Value of Money because it shows the breadth and depth of our numismatic collections.

12-1 p.m.: Wordsmithing and women's military history

Patri O'Gan, Project Assistant in the Division of Armed Forces History: I'll answer questions about World War I and the history of women in the military. I'm particularly excited to chat about the official artwork of the American Expeditionary Force and women's participation in World War I because I'm currently assisting on upcoming exhibitions on these topics. One of my favorite things in the museum is our collection of women's uniforms from World War I because they highlight a groundbreaking time for women in the United States that eventually led to winning the right to vote.

Blue uniform with jacket and skirt, four gold buttons, white cuffs and collar, and black tie

Leslie Poster, Editor, Office of Project Management and Editorial Services: When the words are right, information passes effortlessly from brilliant curators to intrigued museum visitors. I work with those words. I edited several of the exhibitions that opened last summer in our newly renovated West Wing's first floor, and I am now working on exhibitions planned for the second and third floors of the West Wing. You can ask me about any of our current and upcoming exhibits—I've read 'em all! I've blogged about a 400-mile journey for a paint can, the science of mounting glass, and some Alexander Graham Bell facts you may not know.

1-2 p.m.: Electrical science

Hal Wallace, Curator of the Electricity collections: I'll be happy to answer questions about our objects in electrical science and technologies. I'm a specialist in the history of electric lighting and I find rural electrification particularly interesting. I am currently collecting LEDs. I'm also working on a new exhibition on solar power that will open here in November.

Contraption with square box and rectangle

2-3 p.m.: Innovation, guitars, early motion pictures, sports, and culture

Monica Smith, Head of Exhibitions and Interpretation in the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation: I'm excited to answer questions about the history of invention and the inventive process. Ask me about the Places of Invention exhibition currently on display in the museum's Innovation Wing, since I worked on it as the project director and a co-curator. Besides our exhibition, one of my favorite things in the museum is the 1939 Slingerland electric guitar currently on display because it's probably the earliest commercially available solidbody electric guitar and most people, even guitar enthusiasts, have never heard of it.

Brown guitar, red background

Eric Jentsch, Deputy Chair and Curator in the Division of Culture and the Arts: I can answer questions about our upcoming exhibition on American culture, the history of sports, and popular culture. I've blogged about the history of basketball and hair bands. One interesting object I've gotten to research is counterculture guru Ken Kesey's large Acid Test Signboard. I have podcasted about the history of the Olympics. Catch me at the People, Passion, Purpose event in Los Angeles in October.

Ryan Lintelman, Curatorial Assistant in the Division of Culture and the Arts: I'll take questions on the history of popular culture and entertainment. I'm particularly excited to chat about 19th-century music and entertainment because I've been researching those topics for a new exhibition. One of my favorite things in the museum is the Mutoscope collection, because it sheds a light on early movies and their audience.

Claire Jerry, Curator in the Division of Political History: New to the museum, I can answer questions about the odd items used to promote 20th-century presidential campaigns. After all, this is the time of year when yard signs sprout like flowers and campaign buttons shout out from jackets and backpacks. One of my favorite examples in the museum was made by a delegate to the 1996 Democratic National Convention who managed to get four different things on her head at one time!

You can send your questions for these staff members via Twitter or Facebook. We'll share the most interesting questions and answers on the blog.

Ask a Curator day yellow graphic on blue background

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

Posted Date: 
Monday, September 12, 2016 - 12:00


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A Butterfly Species Settles in San Francisco’s Market Street

Smithsonian Magazine

Red Mural, by Amber Hasselbring. Image courtesy of the artist.

“Nature is everywhere,” says lepidopterist Liam O’Brien about the tigers of San Francisco’s Market StreetWestern tiger swallowtail butterflies, that is.

O’Brien and naturalist Amber Hasselbring of Art-ecology have launched a campaign called “Tigers on Market Street” to speak for the butterflies that live in the canopy of trees that line the busiest street in downtown San Francisco. They are bringing the butterfly’s story to light using science and art as the City of San Francisco re-imagines the role of this hardworking boulevard in a project called Better Market Street. On blank walls and in Powerpoint talks given to groups throughout the city, the duo display photographs, paintings and fantastical collages of the butterflies and the urban world in which they live.

Bikes With Wings, by Liam O’Brien. Image courtesy of the artist.

One of the options being considered for Better Market Street is to make way for a Copenhagen-style bike path by removing many of the London plane trees planted 40 years ago. O’Brien and Hasselbring are all for the bike paths, but their mantra is “bikes and butterflies.”

“This is not an ugly brown butterfly,” says O’Brien. “We’re talking the biggest, showiest, prettiest butterfly we have in the city.”

If you stand at the Ferry Building and look up Market Street you can see why the butterflies view the boulevard as a river canyon, their normal habitat. Naturalist John Muir also referred to city streets as canyons—he said he was more comfortable picking through an ice field than to be in the “terrible canyons of New York.” But to a butterfly, San Francisco’s city canyons provide a kind of haven.

A close-up of a tiger swallowtail butterfly. Image courtesy of Liam O’Brien and Amber Hasselbring.

Some species of butterflies need hillside habitats, but a tiger swallowtail lives in corridors on the banks of waterways. “Market Street is a tree-lined linear concourse that our species calls a street,” says O’Brien. “Through the point-of-view of the creature this is a river.”

To understand how a street becomes a river to these creatures, you have to slip into that point of view, says O’Brien. It’s not the species of tree that attracts them as much as it is the topographical lay. They patrol long linear things with plantings on both sides. “It’s a random accident that this street looks just like a river,” he says, “which is the magic of this story.”

They are also attracted to glades, which, in San Francisco, means open areas downtown that are protected by an initiative approved by voters in 1984 that controls shadows from tall buildings. The glades and nearby parks provide sunlight, water from fountains or sprinklers, nectar sources and an increased chance of finding a mate.

Butterfly warriors Liam O’Brien and Amber Hasselbring.

O’Brien and Hasselbring received a grant to conduct a six-month survey of the butterflies. This summer they have walked transects from the Civic Center to the Ferry Building to count them, observe their life cycles and note their nectar and larval sources. Thirteen is the highest number they have counted on any given transect, but that number is deceiving given that a butterfly has four stages of life: egg, larvae, pupae and sexually mature adult, or imago.

We spot our third butterfly after ten minutes of walking on a sunny August day. O’Brien explains that a butterfly has an 80 percent chance of being eaten in each of its four stages, which makes the one in front of us seem like a miracle. It lands on a leaf close enough for us to see the yellow and black stripes running the length of its extremely furry body, which explain the “tiger” in the butterfly’s name.

Hasselbring and O’Brien photograph each butterfly they see, then geo-tag the picture and post it on iNaturalist, an app to record and share observations in nature. They also use the images in artwork to help communicate the tiger’s story.

Gay Freedom Day Parade, 1977, by Liam O’Brien. Image courtesy of the artist.

O’Brien, who describes himself as an Old World illustrator, has not always been a lepidopterist. His metamorphosis happened 15 years ago when a Western tiger swallowtail, the poster child of this very campaign, floated into his backyard and changed his life. To explain why he left a successful acting career to become San Francisco’s butterfly expert, he quoted Russian novelist and lepidopterist Vladimir Nabokov: “When I’m in a rarefied land with a rare butterfly and its host plant all that I love rushes in like a momentary vacuum and I am at one.”

Hasselbring paints and engages in performance art. She moved to San Francisco ten years ago from Colorado and jumped into the natural side of San Francisco. Now she is the director of Nature in the City, a nonprofit that advocates for ecological restoration and stewardship in San Francisco, and sees art in the everyday. She considers all of it art—from watching the butterfly’s behavior to talking to people on the street to installing a temporary mural at Seventh and Market, which she did in 2011.

“We’re not butterfly huggers,” says O’Brien. “We just want to celebrate what’s already here. If a landscape architect had been paid to create swallowtail habitat on Market Street they couldn’t have done a better job.”

O’Brien and Hasselbring would like to design signage that celebrates biodiversity in the city. Image courtesy of Liam O’Brien.

O’Brien and Hasselbring want the butterflies to be a part of an improved Market Street. They’d like to see more hardwood trees and planter boxes with butterfly-friendly flowers that will bring the butterflies down from the canopy where people can see them. They’d also like to design standalone signs similar to those in Paris that celebrate natural biodiversity in that city. On one side, the signs would illustrate the life cycle of the tiger swallowtails, and on the other side, they would list and illustrate all the other creatures in the downtown area.

“I’d like to give people in the densest downtown area these nature moments,” says Hasselbring. “With all the richness that we have on our hilltops and in our city, we could become the city of biodiversity.”

Swallowtail illustration, by Liam O’Brien. Image courtesy of the artist.

The Western tiger swallowtails of Market Street have ambassador potential. The showy species offers an opportunity to connect a lot of people with nature, and help them to see that nature can be celebrated everywhere, even in the canyons of San Francisco.

Meet the Man Who Dropped a Boulder on a Chrysler

Smithsonian Magazine

A boulder-size rock appears to have dropped from the sky, crushing a Chrysler sedan. 

This is not an asteroid impact. It is a sculpture by artist Jimmie Durham. The title, Still Life with Spirit and Xitle, refers to the car, a 1992 Chrysler Spirit, and the rock, which is a red-basalt boulder from a volcano called Xitle in Mexico City.

To create the work in 2007, Durham used a crane to drop the rock, smashing the roof of the car. He painted the boulder with a smug face, one that seems to be delighting in its destructive force.

The artwork arrives on August 6 at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., where it will go on view permanently in the outdoor plaza near the main entrance on Independence Avenue.

Durham is a renowned American artist, who has made five appearances at the Venice Biennale, but few here will recognize his name or his work. “He's been acknowledged in Europe for years, but he's been under the radar in the United States for decades. [Jimmie Durham] is a highly significant artist,” says Stéphane Aquin, the museum's chief curator.

Durham's work has always been simultaneously subversive, funny and rooted in his perspective as a critic of injustice. 

Jimmie Durham (above, in 2012) will receive his first North American retrospective in January 2017 at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. (Wikimedia Commons, Stephan Röhl)

As essayist, poet, humorist and provocateur, his irreverence goes beyond dropping rocks on cars. He cites James Joyce and Samuel Beckett among his heroes, in part because they held their Irish homeland in low esteem. “It’s a hatred for all of the badness,” he said of Joyce's depictions of Ireland in a 1996 interview. “To love the people unsentimentally, to look at all of the badness and say, 'It’s against us, this badness. I hate this and this specifically.'”

In 1987, he wrote about the United States, “Here is the real truth, I absolutely hate this country. Not just the government, but the culture, the group of people called Americans. The country. I hate the country. I HATE AMERICA.”

"It's kind of working as hard as you can to move towards a perfect hatred is the way I think of it," says Durham recently before listing other countries he dislikes. "I hate Canada, I hate Belgium. I hate Italy. I do not yet hate Germany (where he now lives) because it's too big and complex and exotic to me.”

Born in Washington, Arkansas in 1940, Durham permanently left the U.S. for Mexico in the late '80s and moved to Europe in 1994 (which he doesn't like any better than America), where he has become widely admired for his art and writing. 

As a sort of European nomad, Durham hates every place he has ever lived for long enough to get to know it. He hates governments that take land from native people. He hates corporations. He hates marketing. “You have to buy cereal for the good of your country,” Durham said in a 1996 interview. “'All America drinks Coke,' it says. But when they say that, it’s like a fascist instruction.”

“It is universal misanthropy,” says Aquin. “It's also a very critical perspective on America. . . .The obligation to be a patriot weighs so much on everyone's conscience. . . It's good to open a breach into the cement wall of compulsory patriotism.”

Durham's artistic style has always been wry, anti-consumption and anti-establishment. Picture the droll, stinging cultural criticism of Banksy's work during the past decade and that gives you some idea of what Jimmie Durham has been doing for most of his life.

“There is a spirit of irreverence,” says Aquin. “To political systems and to art forms. He's been doing his own stuff with a total disregard for the proper manners and the way to behave. There is some sort of street bravado in his work.”

“It's a marvelous idea just to see what might happen,” Durham says when asked how his rock-on-vehicle pieces would work as street art.

“I did something like that years ago when I lived in Geneva in the late 60s, early 70s. I did street performances with great big sculptures on wheels and I would tie them up somewhere and leave them. And the garbage men would finally take them away after about a week, after looking around and not knowing what to do with them. It was very quiet fun, you might say,” he says.

In 1996 he achieved something of a breakthrough by hurling stones at an old refrigerator and naming the result, St Frigo. On one hand, he used nature to pound out revenge against a symbol of consumerism. On the other hand, the fridge was transformed from an object with no personality into a dented symbol of resilience.

More works involving rocks and manmade objects have followed in the two decades since. While he has also made smaller sculptures and written poems and essays, his rocks have become boulders as the scale of his work has increased. Eventually, Durham moved up to automobiles and at least one airplane which he has crushed with enormous boulders.

“It's great fun,” says Durham, speaking of the process of smashing things with rocks. Sometimes he paints faces on the rocks. The expressions appear slightly confused and apologetic.

“His rock pieces are most eloquent,” says Aquin. “His body [of work] has an amazing sense of humor. His wit. Very few of his pieces have the power of this one.”

Placing a smashed car out in the elements necessarily invites rust and weathering. The piece will gradually change in a way that was not originally intended. “That's part of the conversation we had with the gallery and the artist through the gallery,” says Aquin.

“This car is going to be some rusted jalopy some time soon. What do we do? We have to think for generations. The artist came up with a solution,” Aquin says. “When [the current automobile is too weathered], it should be changed to one of these diplomatic limousines you see in D.C. Maybe in 10 years, 20 years, 30 years, the car will be changed. It will be a typical D.C. power symbol. But it's going to be recontextualized in its new home.”

Durham's work often nods towards the idealization of nature but he says that he cannot live anywhere but in a big city. Permanently separated from the woods he grew up surrounded by in what is called Oklahoma (he would never agree that this particular area of land actually is Oklahoma in any meaningful way), the forests of Europe have only made him more unhappy.

“The problem to me is the stray dogs and stray cats,” he says. “I feel responsible. I feel like I could help but I can't help. I cannot take in every stray dog. In Italy it was a horrible problem. Every place in the woods is taken up by packs of stray dogs. They are intelligent and they are homeless. I see my hatred of Europe building and getting more and more exact.”

It would be wrong to suggest that Durham is an artist for the sake of rebelling. “I don't do art to be subversive,” he said in a 1990 interview (and has often repeated). “I would be the same subversive person no matter what I did. If I was a carpenter, I would want to be just as subversive.”

How visitors react to Still Life with Spirit and Xitle at the Hirshhorn may be somewhat different than originally intended. Since the boulder was dropped on the Dodge, America has experienced a terrorist attack in Florida; the most bizarre political spectacle in modern American history; war with ISIS in the Middle East; and a spate of shootings of black motorists followed by mass shootings of police officers.

It is a summer of violence and upheaval not seen in America since the late 1960s when Durham was a political activist. Could the weight of a boulder crushing a symbol of American culture and industry be taken in a way that the artist who loves all the people unsentimentally never necessarily intended?

“I think one of the problems of doing things where the public might respond to it is that tomorrow is not like today,” Durham says. “We don't know what is going to happen. We hardly know what has happened. It is more complex than what any artist can deal with.”

“I'm extremely happy that we were able to acquire this piece and display it in front of the Hirshhorn,” says Aquin.

“It's an immense and powerful statement. I'm not too concerned about the reactions of people who may question his patriotism. It takes us back to the fundamental point that the museum is a safe place to test unsafe ideas. It is a haven of free thought of going against the grain and going against what is normal and standard. I think that Jimmie Durham pushes that and thank God there is a room for these people to express themselves.”

Still Life With Spirit and Xitle goes on permanent view August 6, 2016, at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

The Devastating Fire That Nearly Consumed the Smithsonian Castle 150 Years Ago This Month

Smithsonian Magazine

Strategically located in Washington, D.C., on the National Mall is a red brick building completed in 1855 and called “The Castle” because of its medieval revival design and architecture. It is also the original home of the Smithsonian Institution, has housed the offices of all 12 Smithsonian secretaries, and remains the meeting place for its governing board of regents. The Smithsonian’s first secretary, a prominent scientist named Joseph Henry, took up residence in the building, living there with his family and his daughter Mary, who kept a diary of the lively events occurring at this location during the Civil War.

Henry advised President Abraham Lincoln on a variety of things, ranging from the use of observation balloons in wartime and proposals for new armaments, to the mining of coal in Central America. The Smithsonian secretary was even asked to investigate a medium who conducted séances for Mrs. Lincoln—and uncovered the trickery employed. President Lincoln often visited Henry in the Castle, and at least on one occasion the pair climbed the north tower to test a light signaling system, whereby warnings of a possible Confederate invasion of the capital could be flashed from the Smithsonian to Fort Washington to the south, the U.S. Capitol, and the Old Soldier’s home—where Lincoln spent the summer months. 

The Castle’s location near the Potomac River and adjacent Virginia was so strategic that in April 1861, Secretary of War Simon Cameron instructed his chief ordinance officer to issue “professor” Henry 12 muskets and 240 rounds of ammunition to defend the Smithsonian. The Castle also hosted an acoustically marvelous 2,000 seat auditorium, which was the site in late 1861 and early 1862 of a series of lectures by prominent abolitionists including Wendell Phillips, Horace Greeley, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Ward Beecher, among others. President Lincoln and many prominent officials attended. Henry though, would not include Frederick Douglass, who was to be the final speaker in the series participate, reporting, “I would not let the lecture of the coloured man to be given in the rooms of the Smithsonian.”

An 1857 print depicts a scientist cataloging specimens in the Natural History Laboratory of the Smithsonian Institution's Castle Building. (Smithsonian Institution Archives)

It was January 24, 1865, and a bitter cold had descended on Washington, D.C. The Civil War had a reached a turning point and Lincoln had won re-election just months earlier. That afternoon an event took place that was so horrific that Congress adjourned for the day as city residents rushed to the Smithsonian grounds.

Only days before, workmen had been carrying out some repairs in the Castle’s cold and drafty “Picture Gallery,” where some 200 of John Mix Stanley’s magnificent paintings of American Indians, among other artworks, were installed in the popular salon-style of the day. Needing to keep warm, the workers connected a wood-burning stove to what they thought was a flue. But instead, it was the brick furring space behind the wall. Embers from the stove smoldered out of sight, probably for several days before the tragedy struck.

On the afternoon of the 24th, the walls of the Smithsonian Castle Building suddenly burst into what was described at the time as a “sheet of flame.” Custodian William DeBeust sounded the alarm and managed to save a handful of paintings before retreating from the inferno. The fire quickly spread to the “Regents Room,” where the Smithsonian’s governing board typically met, and destroyed some of the rare personal effects that had belonged to the Institution’s British benefactor James Smithson.

The fire roared through the “Apparatus Room,” housing scientific equipment, as well as Secretary Henry’s office, consuming his irreplaceable papers, documents and correspondence. It burned through the Smithsonian’s great auditorium—the largest in Washington. A cautious Henry had his staff stored buckets of water around the Castle to fight a possible fire, but the huge conflagration rendered the plan futile.

The fire rose to the Castle’s wooden roof, causing its collapse, along with a tower and several battlements. Mary Henry, the secretary’s daughter described the scene: 

“truly it was a grand sight as well as a sad one, the flames bursting from the windows of the towers rose high above them curling round the ornamental stone work through the arches and trefoils as if in full appreciation of their symmetry, a beautiful fiend tasting to the utmost the pleasure of destruction.”

Among the thousands of city residents gathered on the snow-covered pleasure garden grounds—now known as the National Mall, witnessing the catastrophe, was photographer Alexander Gardner, who took the only known image of the blaze consuming the famous building. Steam-powered fire engines had difficulty pumping water to squelch the blaze, but finally, by evening, the fire abated.

A page from Mary Henry's diary recounts the fire as it engulfed the Castle on January 24, 1865. (Smithsonian Institution Archives)

Fortunately, Col. Barton Alexander, who had managed the Castle’s completion after the original architect James Renwick was dismissed from the job, had prudently used iron for some of the Castle’s main section pillars and beams, which prevented the edifice from completely collapsing. The fire was confined to the main section and upper stories of the building, and though the losses were major, the damage to the collections in the valuable library and museum areas on the lower floor was limited, caused largely by water. Henry and his family, who lived in the building, and a number of staff dragged out furniture and whatever else they could salvage. But by the next morning, Mary Henry noted the scale of the destruction—she could look up through the shell of the Castle and see blue sky.  

Secretary Henry moved immediately to shelter the Smithsonian’s building and its collections. Given Henry’s relationship with Lincoln, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton quickly responded. General Daniel Rucker was ordered to assist with U.S. Army troop support. Under the guidance of Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs, soldiers took tar-soaked felt and re-roofed the Castle in just three days—a tremendous feat. Henry and others were much relieved, though they later received a bill for a then-considerable amount of $1,974 to reimburse the government for the repairs.

An 1857 view of the Reading Room of the Castle. (Smithsonian Institution Archives)

On February 5, 1865, some ten days after the Smithsonian fire, Alexander Gardner—who took the photograph of the Castle ablaze, hosted Lincoln in his studio for what would be the president’s last formal sitting. This generated the famous “cracked plate” portrait of Lincoln (now held in the collections of the National Portrait Gallery). Lincoln, though visibly exhausted from the nation’s tribulations, nonetheless managed a slight smile and even exuded a bit of optimism, as he looked forward to war’s end and the country’s rebuilding.

After the Civil War, Henry renovated the Castle, replacing the temporary roof with a permanent one. He decided not to rebuild the auditorium, as the lecture series and his refusal to let Douglass attend caused much consternation. Instead, he turned it into an exhibition hall. The Castle, of course, has evolved in its purpose, and the Smithsonian has grown enormously over the past 150 years since that fire (19 museums, 9 research facilities and a Zoo). And sometimes history comes full circle, indicating how much our country has changed, and grown. When the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture, currently rising on the Mall, opens next year, Frederick Douglass’s words will certainly be heard in the rooms of the Smithsonian.  


The Smithsonian's History of America in 101 Objects

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Comic book project helps teens discover and share stories of Japanese Americans incarcerated during World War II

National Museum of American History

Comics have historically been used to tell difficult stories and engage youth in important but challenging topics. Martin Luther King Jr. contributed to a comic book titled The Montgomery Story, a copy of which can be found in the museum's Archives Center. That work inspired Congressman John Lewis to tell his own story of the civil rights movement through comics in the New York Times bestseller March. Other famous examples are Maus, Art Spiegelman's series about his family's experiences during the Holocaust, and Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi's autobiographical graphic novel series about her childhood in Iran.

Comics were also a method for Japanese American incarcerees in World War II to express their experiences. Most famous among these artists was Miné Okubo, who was incarcerated in Topaz War Relocation Center in Utah during World War II. A collection of 197 of her original drawings depicting incarceration are housed at the Japanese American National Museum (JANM), our partner for this year's National Youth Summit. Okubo's drawings take you through her time at the Tanforan Assembly Center in San Bruno, California, and eventually to the Topaz camp in Utah. Her artwork inspired her book Citizen 13660, which in 1946 became the first personal account published on this topic.

Black and white drawing of people in line heading to a building. Mountains in background.

Painting in greens, grays, browns, and whites. A wooden guard tower (like a small house raised on stilts) stands to the left of the image, with rolling grassland in front and mountains behind.

Many photographs of incarceration offer a simplistic view of life in the camps. Having lived through this injustice, Okubo was able to portray what everyday life was actually like—dehumanizing and disheartening. Few besides those who experienced the camps truly understood what life behind barbed wire consisted of, and her heartbreaking illustrations help the reader empathize with the plight of their fellow Americans.

To prepare for this year's National Youth Summit, teen participants in the museum's Youth Civic Engagement Program (YCEP) collaborated with Evan Keeling, an artist and exhibition fabricator from the Smithsonian's Office of Exhibits Central, and the incredibly talented teens at Hirshhorn's ARTLAB+, to create original comics to represent oral histories from camp survivors. These comics are now available for the teens' peers, to be used in classrooms as preparation for the Youth Summit webcast.

Photo of a room in which about 12 teenagers are gathered. A man speaks to them while they listen, flip through a comic book, etc. In background, "ArtLab+" collaged on wall.

First, the YCEP teens from the museum listened to and summarized oral histories of incarcerees, then shared them with ARTLAB+ students and Keeling. The artists and students not only helped construct the storylines, but also had to help make difficult editing decisions throughout the process.

Four students lean over white sheets of paper. Two of them draw comics into boxes with markers.

The students learned that they were able to tell these emotional stories and engage audiences in this short-form medium. My fellow intern, Jasmine Daniels, reflected that, "It's been heartwarming to see how engaged our students have become in the topic of incarceration, and seeing that manifest through their tangible and thought-provoking comics is amazing."

With comic books open in front of them, two teens smile.

Our teens were able to use the comics as tools to tell emotional stories and better understand the events of Japanese American incarceration. The use of comics made it possible to break down these often long oral histories into more digestible pieces, without losing the humanity of the narrators.

"Comics allow us to tell deeper and more personal stories," Sage Morgan-Hubbard, the museum's youth programs coordinator, said. "The images and words are capable of expressing intricate personal stories that words or images cannot possible do alone."

I asked Keeling to tell me a little more about why comics are important to him, and why he's chosen to use comics to tell stories that are important to him.

"Working at Smithsonian Exhibits, I've seen how much information about objects at the museums gets left out because you can only fit so much onto a label," Keeling said. "Comics are a great way to provide that extra bit; the combination of words and pictures allows for you to fit a lot of information into a quick, digestible, and easily reproducible format. Learning about Japanese American incarceration with and from the teens has been great."

The students were also able to participate in a panel discussion by comic artists hosted by the National Museum of American History, where they explored issues of creative license and portraying sensitive topics in comic form.

Afterwards, one student noted, "I've learned that comic books, graphic novels, and methods to communicate to the youth need to be developed and incorporated into [high school] curriculum . . . so social issues can be addressed."

Seeing how the students were able to understand and digest the material presented to them in a different way proved to me that comics can be a great tool to teach and engage students of all ages about important historical events and social justice.

"I love sharing my love and knowledge about comics but I also love seeing how the teens approach the creation of the comics," said Keeling. "I enjoy seeing the aspects that they are drawn to and the ways they use the medium to tell these stories. I love researching about people and events and finding new ways to tell their stories in the dynamic medium of comics. Comics are a great tool for reluctant readers but they are also just as great for voracious readers. They quickly immerse the reader into a world fostering the desire to find out more about the subject."

Are you hungry to learn more? You can print out and enjoy the comics our students helped create and we invite you to help students you know to make their own! While you're at it, join us for a nationwide discussion with scholars, students, civil rights activists, and artists to learn more about Japanese American incarceration, its modern parallels, and how we use the lessons of the past to make positive change today.

Cover of comic book. Little boy in tears runs to father. Text: "Dad! They took away my baseball bat!"

Mia Calabretta is an intern for the Youth Civic Engagement Program and an American Studies major at California State University, Fullerton. Learn more about the Boy Scout on the cover of the comic in her recent post. 

Intern Mia Calabretta
Posted Date: 
Thursday, May 12, 2016 - 08:00
OSayCanYouSee?d=qj6IDK7rITs OSayCanYouSee?d=7Q72WNTAKBA OSayCanYouSee?i=PXrI6OjZHcE:Zg92kSJYiO4:V_sGLiPBpWU OSayCanYouSee?i=PXrI6OjZHcE:Zg92kSJYiO4:gIN9vFwOqvQ OSayCanYouSee?d=yIl2AUoC8zA

Lena Gurr sketchbook No. 7

Archives of American Art
Sketchbook : 1 v. : various media ; 25 x 20 cm. 80 pages. Sketchbook is identified as Gurr's on the inside front cover: "Lena Gurr, 240 W. 14th St., New York City." First page inscribed by Gurr: "The nude and figure studies were done in Moses Soyer's studio in the early 1930s" and "studies for paintings are included in between sessions." There are sketches on some of the pages' versos. Images are graphite including nude and clothed figure studies; sketches of hands and feet; studies for a painting of a seamstress, violinist, and still life.
Condition: both front and back covers are dirty and detached from the sketchbook. Pages are in good condition, the first two pages are unbound. There is a small water stain on the right hand edge on about half of the pages.

Five Things We’ve Learned in the Aftermath of the Notre-Dame Fire

Smithsonian Magazine

At 6:20 p.m. on Monday, April 15, an alarm interrupted mass at Paris’ Notre-Dame Cathedral. But for nearly half an hour, evacuated worshipers and tourists believed it had been a false alarm. Then, a second alarm sounded, and visible flames started flickering across the scaffolding surrounding the Gothic church’s iconic spire. At 7:49 p.m., the 295-foot, lead-covered wood tower collapsed. The cathedral’s wooden roof soon followed.

Within just “15 to 30 minutes” of complete destruction, firefighters were able to largely quell the flames. By the end of the night, they’d saved the “structure of Notre-Dame … in its entirety,” preserving the Parisian landmark’s twin bell towers and extinguishing the flames entirely.

While the cause of the fire and exact fate of many of its architectural features and artifacts remain unknown, this is what we’ve learned in the wake of the disaster:

The inferno claimed Notre-Dame’s spire and two-thirds of its wooden roof, but most major religious relics and works of art—including the Crown of Thorns, a tunic worn by King Louis IX, copper sculptures of 16 Biblical figures and three stained glass rose windows—escaped the flames. Authorities told Reuters “some five to 10 percent” of the cathedral’s artwork was likely destroyed, but the extent of damage to objects such as the Great Organ, the bells made famous by Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre-Dame, and paintings dating to the 17th and 18th centuries remains unclear.

Among the most significant losses are the church’s spire, which was designed by French architect Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc in 1859, and its 13th-century attic, which The New York Times describes as a highly flammable “forest” of lattice wooden beams. Aerial footage taken after the fire revealed several large holes in the vaulted ceiling beneath this wooden frame, while photographs of the interior showed mounds of debris littering the cathedral’s floor. Although structurally sound, according to the Washington Post, the vault and gable of the north transept remain points of vulnerability.

Firefighters and technicians work on a balcony of Notre-Dame. (LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP/Getty Images)

A metal rooster perched atop the cathedral’s spire sustained significant damage as the structure toppled over but was located amid the debris and appears to be in a “restorable” state. The status of three relics stored inside the spire topper (including a thorn reputedly from the crown worn by Jesus during the crucifixion) remains unclear. As journalist Doreen Carvajal reports for The New York Times, 16 copper sculptures depicting the Twelve Apostles and four New Testament evangelicals were removed from their normal places alongside the rooster just days before the Monday fire. Experts were scheduled to restore the statues, which have turned green from the elements, back to their natural brown color. This process will now be delayed until more time-sensitive tasks, such as repairing damage to Notre-Dame’s gargoyles, can be completed.

Jean-Francois Martins, Paris’ deputy mayor for tourism and sports, told CBS News that individuals on the scene formed a “human chain” to retrieve the relics stored inside of the cathedral as quickly as possible. In a tweet, Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, thanked the members of this link for successfully rescuing the Holy Crown of Thorns, which was acquired by France’s King Louis IX in 1238, and a tunic that king, who was posthumously canonized as Saint Louis in 1297, once wore. Father Jean-Marc Fournier, chaplain of the Paris Fire Department, personally saved the “consecrated hosts” Catholics consider to represent the body and the blood of Christ.

Notre-Dame’s trio of 12th- and 13th-century stained glass windows appear to have survived the blaze relatively unscathed. “It seems they have not been destroyed for now, although we’ll have to see what real state they’re in, and whether they can be restored properly,” Maxime Cumunel, secretary general of France’s Observatory for Religious Heritage, told Reuters’ Sarah White and Elizabeth Pineau. The 8,000-pipe Great Organ, complete with 12 pipes dating to before the 1730s, was not burned, but it is unclear whether the instrument sustained water damage and will need to be restored. Notre-Dame’s largest bell, the 13-ton Emmanuel (notably, the church’s only bell to survive the French Revolution), also escaped the flames.

According to Reuters, four large-scale 17th- and 18th-century paintings depicting scenes from the lives of the apostles were damaged by smoke and are being transferred to the Louvre to undergo restoration.

About 500 firefighters (and a 1,100-pound robot) battled the blaze, which raged for 12 hours. Authorities are investigating the origins of the inferno, but the leading theory is that the fire started accidentally, perhaps in connection with an electrical short-circuit.

On Thursday, a French judicial police official told the Associated Press that investigators, who are currently interviewing construction workers and security staff, believe an electrical short-circuit was the most likely cause of the fire, which appears to have broken out accidentally.

“At this stage, nothing in the investigations highlights a criminal origin,” the prosecutor’s office said. “Accidental causes remain our privileged lead.”

Notre-Dame’s centuries-old design, as well as a lack of basic safety measures such as fire-resistant walls and a sprinkler system, exacerbated the fire’s spread.

“These cathedrals and houses of worship are built to burn,” former New York City Fire Chief Vincent Dunn told the New York Times when the fire first broke out. “If they weren’t houses of worship, they’d be condemned.”

Historical artifacts that were saved from Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral at Paris City Hall (Chesnot/Getty Images)

But the damage could have been far worse. As Paris Fire Brigade commander Jean-Claude Gallet explains in an interview with The Times’ Adam Sage, Colossus, a 1,100-pound robot equipped with a motorized water cannon capable of releasing more than 660 gallons per minute, played a key role in putting out the blaze. Not only was Colossus able to reduce the temperature in the nave of the church, but it was also capable of reaching areas its human counterparts could not.

Speaking with the Guardian’s Kim Willsher, Laurent Nunez, a junior interior minister, said the fate of the cathedral came down to just a 15- to 30-minute window. At 9:40 p.m., firefighters had expressed concerns that they would not be able to prevent the fire spreading to the north belfry, but by 10:55 p.m., Nunez was able to announce that the “edifice has been saved.” The fire was completely extinguished by 9:30 a.m. the following day.

Billionaires, companies and philanthropic foundations led donations, which raised $1.1 billion toward rebuilding efforts within just 24 hours of the fire. But the massive influx of funds has attracted ire from those who argue the money could be better spent on social programs and less publicized cultural heritage landmarks at risk of destruction, particularly in non-Western regions.

Donations poured in amid news of the fire, with companies ranging from Apple to L’Oreal and Disney, as well as individual donors including France's two wealthiest men, François-Henri Pinault, CEO of Kerin, and Bernard Arnault, CEO of LVMH Group, pledging generous financial support. By Wednesday, broadcaster BFM Paris reported, donations were set to exceed $1.1 billion.

The speed and scale with which this money materialized has proven controversial. As the Telegraphs James Rothwell and Henry Samuel report, the cash flow arrives at a polarizing point in France’s history: “There is growing anger ... over the inertia of big corporations over social misery while they are showing themselves capable of mobilizing a crazy amount of cash overnight for Notre Dame,” stated Ingrid Levavasseur, a founding member of the Yellow Vest movement.

The steady flow of donations is all the more striking in comparison with the relatively slow trickle of funds for other disasters: The Washington Post’s James McAuley cites the United Nation’s February appeal for $4 billion in aid for Yemen (the call has only raised $2.6 billion to date), while the Huffington Post’s Mike Stuchbery reports that following the July 2017 Grenfell Tower fire, which killed 72 people and left hundreds more homeless, “micro-donations from the general public” constituted much of the roughly $26 million raised in support.

“Notre Dame offers a striking contrast,” McAuley writes. “No one was killed, no one is starving, but philanthropists likely provided the full amount—if not more—instantaneously and unprompted.”

The robot firefighter "Colossus" was made by French robotics company Shark Robotics (Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images)

In a tweet, journalist Simon Allison linked the disaster to Brazil’s National Museum, which lost its building and the majority of its 20 million-artifact collection in a fire last September. “In just a few hours today, 650 million euros was donated to rebuild Notre Dame. In six months, just 15 million euros has been pledged to restore Brazil's National Museum,” Allison wrote. "I think this is what they call white privilege."

Notre-Dame is far from the only historic landmark at risk of disaster; as pointed out by the Washington Post’s Siobhán O'Grady, the fire that razed Brazil’s National Museum shows the damage in Paris could have been worse. While France begins the long journey toward recovery, other countries are on alert to assess how their own monuments would hold up against fire and similar threats.

Unlike the September 2018 National Museum fire, which was sparked by a faulty air conditioning unit, facilitated by inadequate safety measures and widely attributed to Brazil’s systemic neglect of its cultural institutions, the Notre-Dame blaze was more a product of medieval construction standards and, as many have speculated, renovations aimed at maintaining the cathedral’s upkeep. Vox’s Umair Irfan notes that scaffolding surrounding the spire, as well as power tools, electric lamps and welding equipment used during construction, posed a significant fire hazard, likely fanning the flames after they broke out. Still, Adam Taylor and Emily Tamkin explain for the Washington Post, a deliberate architectural technique adopted by medieval builders—namely, constructing churches’ roofs out of wood but their walls and underlying structures out of stone—helped firefighters contain the blaze, preventing it from spreading too far beyond the cathedral’s flammable oak structures.

This isn’t the first time disaster has targeted cultural institutions or landmarks: Taylor and Tamkin cite Old St. Paul’s Cathedral, damaged during London’s Great Fire of 1666, and Ireland’s St. Mel’s Cathedral, which was destroyed in a fire on Christmas Day 2009. More recently, reported in the aftermath of the Brazil fire, a 2016 inferno gutted the National Museum of Natural History in New Delhi, and a 2015 blaze razed the Museum of the Portuguese Language in Sao Paulo. In June 2018, a particularly devastating fire broke out at Scotland’s Glasgow School of Art, erasing all traces of the nearly complete $46 million-restoration launched following an earlier blaze in 2014.

As France begins to assess rebuilding options, countries across the world are turning attention to their own national heritage sites—many of which are poorly equipped to face natural disasters. “All medieval buildings are at risk,” Susan Corr, president of the European Confederation of Conservator-Restorers' Organisations, tells NBC News’ Rachel Elbaum. “They all have wood. How they are taken care of, who updates them, and at what point conservation becomes a copy are questions we are constantly dealing with.”

Britain’s Houses of Parliaments, scheduled to undergo renovation in the mid-2020s, are a key locus of concern. And, following the Notre-Dame fire, London’s Westminster Abbey, Canterbury Cathedral and Dublin’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral all reminded visitors of existing fire protocol, with the first posting a statement to Twitter: “Notre Dame’s internal structure was wood whereas Westminster Abbey is mainly composed of stone. But should the worst happen, we have preparations in place to save our 750-year-old building.”

Across the pond, experts emphasized the fact that America’s churches and landmarks are centuries newer than Europe’s, making them more likely to have functional modern fire prevention systems. Speaking with USA Today’s Deirdre Shesgreen, park ranger Adam Duncan said, “Sprinklers, alarms, pretty much anything that you would find in a modern office building, you would find at Independence Hall.”

French President Emmanuel Macron has set a goal of rebuilding Notre-Dame, making it “more beautiful than before” within five years. Experts say this timeline is unrealistic, suggesting the process will take a minimum of 10 to 20 years, with some estimates standing at closer to 40 years or more. Among other rebuilding efforts, the country has announced plans for a competition to redesign the cathedral’s fallen spire and proposed the creation of a temporary wooden church outside of the closed house of worship.

Emily Guerry, a medieval historian from England’s University of Kent, tells CBS News’ Haley Ott the rebuilding process will begin by “assessing the damage, strengthening everything that's there, [doing] a full inventory of what we've lost, and then [finding] the building materials.” Immediate concerns include protecting the caved-in structure from the elements with a temporary metal or plastic roof, as the Associated Press’ Jill Lawless and Raf Casert report, and securing the cathedral without disturbing the debris littered across its floor.

A major question moving forward is whether Notre-Dame will be restored in accordance with its pre-fire form—a viable option given the exhaustive documentation offered by a digital replica created with 3-D laser scanning—or updated to incorporate modern materials, techniques and designs.

If rebuilt exactly as it stood just last week, Notre-Dame’s roof, consisting of some 13,000 wood beams, will require around 3,000 sturdy oak trees to replace in its entirety. Just 4 percent of Europe’s remaining woodland is categorized as primary forests today, but Guerry, the historian, says there may be enough “very tall, old trees” in the Baltic, which provides much of the continent's oak. The original stone used to build the French landmark was quarried and assembled by hand during the 12th century; Guerry adds that new limestone procured will have to go through that same system of quarrying by hand “to create [a] homogeneous effect."

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Édouard Philippe announced plans to host an international competition aimed at replacing Notre-Dame’s fallen tower with a “new spire suited to the techniques and challenges of our time.” Speaking to reporters, Philippe said the contest will allow France to decide whether it wants to recreate the spire exactly as it was designed in 1859 or, “as is often the case in the evolution of heritage,” update the cathedral with a new look—a proposal that already proven divisive.

In an interview with France’s CNews television channel, Notre-Dame's chief priest, Monseigneur Patrick Chauvet, urged viewers not to think of the cathedral as closed. “Can I not build an ephemeral cathedral on the esplanade [in front of Notre-Dame]?” Chauvet said.

Details for this makeshift wooden structure are still in the works, but the mayor has offered her support for the idea. If all goes according to plan, the surrogate “cathedral” will be built as soon as the esplanade reopens.

This isn’t the first time Notre-Dame has faced seemingly insurmountable disaster, and it likely won’t be the last. But if there is one common theme across the Parisian landmark’s chaotic history, it’s endurance. “The fire at Notre Dame reminds us that our history never stops and we will always have challenges to overcome,” President Macron said in a Tuesday address to the nation. “We will rebuild Notre Dame, more beautiful than before,” he continued. “We can do it. After the time of testing comes a time of reflection and then of action.”

The Artist, The Collector, and Quality Correspondence in midst of the Digital Era

Smithsonian Institution Archives
Rachel Guardiola, Intern, Digital Services Division

Letter from (Sandy) Alexander Calder to Joseph and Olga Hirshhorn, July 13, 1966. Record Unit 7449 - Joseph H. Hirshhorn Papers, circa 1926-1982 and undated. Smithsonian Institution Archives.

As a young artist entering the contemporary art world, the opportunity to speak with an art collector or museum director is few and far between.  An art collector like Joseph H. Hirshhorn has always played a crucial role in the development of artist careers, bridging the gap between the maker and the public institution. I am currently a graduate Master of Fine Arts student at the Maryland Institute College of Art participating in a Smithsonian Institution Archives Summer Internship Program to further my thesis investigation into different multimedia based technologies, and the means in which the apparatus shapes the way we create systems of documentation.

Letter to Willem de Kooning from Joseph Hirshhorn, November 15, 1967. Record Unit 7449 - Joseph H. Hirshhorn Papers, circa 1926-1982 and undated. Smithsonian Institution Archives.

While digitizing the correspondence between Joseph H. Hirshhorn and many coveted artists during the 1960s and 1970s, it is made evident through the preservation of these paper documents that bonding relationships formed.  Artists including Alexander Calder, Marc Chagall, and Willem de Kooning share words with members of the Hirshhorn family that extend far beyond business relationships, and move towards a closeness to that of a friend or family member. These materials affirm a physical record over the years as both Hirshhorn and his disciples share all, from their daily dealings, to their most intimate and reflective thoughts, to their major life events. The ongoing conversations reveal Hirshhorn’s utmost reverence for  artists and their lives.

Letter to Joseph Hirshhorn from Lisa de Kooning, January 25, 1966. Record Unit 7449 - Joseph H. Hirshhorn Papers, circa 1926-1982 and undated. Smithsonian Institution Archives.

During the digitization process there were numerous letters, postcards, and telegrams all filled with warm salutations, advice, and admiration for various art works.  I came across a few unique letters and photographs to share with you. It seems Hirshhorn had a close bond specifically with Willem de Kooning as he notes in the letter on November 15, 1967 after an exhibition reception, “I guess it wasn’t enough for the reporter to hear me shout all over the place that you and Picasso are the greatest painters alive—.”  Hirshhorn also shares correspondence with de Kooning’s only daughter Lisa de Kooning. Found above is a letter in child’s handwriting where Lisa thanks Hirshhorn for his gifts that encourage her love of animals. In the letter she draws a portrait, shown adjacent to a photograph of her pet horse Freddy. They later reunite their exchange as Lisa writes to Joseph and Olga Hirshhorn on December 7, 1978 to include them in her organization of ASPCA Animals and Art benefit.  Sifting through, I also came across a series of Kodak color still photographs from 1965 documenting the installation of Alexander Calder’s outdoor sculpture Two Discs, which is amongst the permanent collections at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Calder exchanges multiple letters with Joseph and Olga about travel plans filled with invitations to his home in Saché, France. Lastly, included is a brief letter between Marc Chagall and Hirshhorn about his inquiry for artworks. Hirshhorn was also a frequent guest in the Chagall home, as this snapshot of Chagall and German shepherd was captured during a leisurely afternoon with the Hirshhorn's and friends.

Letter to Joseph and Olga Hirshhorn from Lisa de Kooning, December 7, 1978. Record Unit 7449 - Joseph H. Hirshhorn Papers, circa 1926-1982 and undated. Smithsonian Institution Archives.

After exploring these artifacts, I began to ask myself if these close affinities could exist today.  In the midst of the current art market environment saturated by digital content, concrete communication is often abstract and fleeting.  It can take weeks to get an answer to a telephone call, and for email sometimes never as mailboxes fill up with thousands of messages that can prove overwhelming to answer.  Digital correspondence is so immediate that it can often lack the nuance that adds to the character or intent of a conversation. The current generation communicates primarily through digital outlets. Email, text messaging, and social media definitely have their place, however do these electronic versions have the same meaning and impact as the hardcopies they replace? Can these modes of communication suffice in establishing gallery or museum representation to prolong a future in a fine art field? It is a pleasure to go back and read the development of these special relationships, the impact Hirshhorn had on the lives of the artists he supported, and at the same time allow contemporary artists to consider the importance of the means in which relationships are built within the current art world.

Letter from Joseph Hirshhorn to Marc Chagall, September 27, 1967. Record Unit 7449 - Joseph H. Hirshhorn Papers, circa 1926-1982 and undated. Smithsonian Institution Archives.

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The Story of Thunder Mountain Monument

Smithsonian Magazine

There are many unusual sights in the vast emptiness along I-80 east of Reno. Steam belching from the hot spring vents near Nightingale. Miles of white gypsum sand with hundreds of messages scripted in stones and bottles. And near the exit to Imlay, a tiny town that used to be a stop for the first transcontinental railroad, an edifice of human oddness.

Thunder Mountain Monument looks as if the contents of a landfill popped to the surface and fell into a pattern over five acres that is part sculpture garden, part backyard fort, part Death Valley theme park. I discovered the monument five years ago on a road trip and have visited it every year since. Not far from the dirt parking lot—usually empty— there’s a gate through a fence made of driftwood, bedsprings, wrecked cars and rusted pieces of metal painted with garbled words about the mistreatment of Native Americans. Inside the fence, a smaller fence bristles with No Trespassing signs and surrounds a rambling three-story structure made of concrete, stone and bottles, with old typewriters, televisions, helmets, even a bunch of plastic grapes worked into the walls. Dozens of sculptures with fierce faces encircle the structure and dozens more are part of the structure itself. At the very top, a tangle of giant white loops makes the building look as if it’s crowned with bleached bones.

On my first visit to Thunder Mountain, the desert wind played a tune over the outward-facing bottles in the concrete. Some of the tumbled-down stones near the fence were within reach—big chunks of quartz and copper ore and agate, a temptation to rockhounds like me. But there was a sign declaring Thunder Mountain Monument a state of Nevada historic site and another asking visitors to refrain from vandalism. All I took was pictures.

But that stop made me curious. What were the origins of this strange outpost? The story began 40 years ago, when a World War II vet reinvented himself on this site. He had been called Frank Van Zant most of his life and had worked, at various times, as a forest ranger, sheriff, assistant Methodist pastor and museum director. He had eight children, then his wife died and, later, one of his sons committed suicide. In 1968, he showed up at his oldest son Dan’s house with a new wife and all his possessions packed into a 1946 Chevy truck and a travel trailer. He was headed east, he told Dan, and was going to build an Indian monument.

“I’m going where the Great Spirit takes me,” he said.

Van Zant had always been interested in Native American history and artifacts; gradually, that interest had become an obsession. He believed himself to be a quarter Creek Indian and took on a new name, Chief Rolling Thunder Mountain. When he arrived in Imlay, he began covering his trailer with concrete mixed with stones he’d dragged down from the mountains. Although he’d never done any sort of art before, Thunder turned out to be a whiz at sculpting wet concrete. One of his first pieces was a large, somber statue of the son who killed himself, dressed in a blue button-down shirt. Others were his Native American heroes: Sarah Winnemucca, the Paiute peacemaker; the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl; Standing Bear, a peaceful chief of the Ponca tribe who was imprisoned for leaving Indian territory without permission. Still others were of Thunder himself: one as a mighty chief wielding a lightning bolt to warn away intruders, another as a bent, humbled figure with a downcast face.

Image by Kristin Ohlson. The three-story monument began as a travel trailer, which Chief Rolling Thunder Mountain covered with concrete and stone. The outside was Thunder’s exhibition space, intended to teach visitors about Native American history. The family lived inside. (original image)

Image by Kristin Ohlson. The road that connects the monument to Chief Rolling Thunder Mountain’s hidden retreat above the valley floor. (original image)

Image by Kristin Ohlson. One of the many bottle-house constructions at Thunder Mountain monument. (original image)

Image by Kristin Ohlson. A sculpture of Chief Rolling Thunder Mountain—dejected and alone—atop one section of the monument’s many walls. (original image)

Image by Kristin Ohlson. A concrete sculpture—one of dozens at Thunder Mountain Monument-- juts up from a wall made of rusted cars. (original image)

Image by Kristin Ohlson. Chief Rolling Thunder Mountain—formerly Frank Van Zant—had never tried to create a work of art until he settled in Nevada. There, he taught himself to sculpt wet concrete as well as design and build stone structures. (original image)

Image by Kristin Ohlson. Dan Van Zant tries to keep the monument in good repair. Inside the family’s old living room at the heart of the monument, he shines a light on his father’s “workman’s tree of life” sculpture made from old tools and metal parts. (original image)

Thunder began to attract followers—up to 40 people at the compound’s height—whom he exhorted to have a “pure and radiant heart.” Soon, there were other rooms adjoining the old travel trailer, then a second story with a patio and tiny third floor. This was the heart of the monument, an inside-out museum with the artwork and messages on the exterior and the Thunders living within. There were other buildings, too, and Thunder was the architect, the contractor and the supplier of materials. He scavenged a 60-mile area around the monument, picking up refuse and stripping wood from tumbled down buildings in ghost towns. “I’m using the white mans’ trash to build this Indian monument,” he told everyone.

But in the 1980s, fewer people lingered at Thunder Mountain and bleakness descended upon its creator. Increasingly destitute, he sold his prized collection of Native artifacts. Then an act of arson destroyed all the buildings except the monument itself, and in 1989, his wife and new passel of children moved away. At the end of that year, he wrote a goodbye letter to Dan and shot himself.

For centuries, people with an evangelical bent have built structures along roads to hook passersby with their message—from the shrines built along pilgrimage routes in Europe to the Golgotha Fun Park near Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave. Thunder was unknowingly working in this tradition, welcoming tourists to see the art and hear the lecture. In the process he created what’s often referred to as a “visionary environment,” which some people view as a collection of junk and others consider a valuable folk-art installation. Leslie Umberger, curator at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, an institution interested in preserving such sites, says that hundreds of them have disappeared before people realized they were worth saving.

“These environments were rarely created with the intention of lasting beyond the life of the artist,” Umberger explains. “They’re often ephemeral and exposed to the elements. Sometimes people don’t understand that these places embody aspects of a region’s time and place and culture that are important and interesting.”

Years ago, Dan asked his father why he built the white loops and arches on top of the monument. “In the last days, the Great Spirit’s going to swoop down and grab this place by the handle,” Thunder replied.

But vandals and the desert might get it first. Since his father’s death, Dan’s been steadily fighting both of them. Bored local teenagers break the embedded bottles and the monument windows, which are hard to replace because they’re made from old windshields. Sculptures disappear. The fences keep out the cows—this is open range country—but other animals gnaw and burrow their way in. Winter storms tear at some of the monument’s fragile architectural flourishes. Dan tries to come once a month to work on the place and has a local man look in on it several days a week, but presevation is a tough job. He tried to give it to the state of Nevada, but officials reluctantly declined, saying they didn’t have the resources.

For now, Thunder Mountain still stands. The sculptures are as fierce as ever, the messages fainter but not subdued. When the trees on the site are bare, you can see the monument’s sinewy topknot from far away. It’s easy to imagine the Great Spirit reaching down to snatch it away. That’s the kind of thought you have in the middle of nowhere.

The Mesmerizing Results When a Museum Asks an Artist to Draw All Over Its Walls

Smithsonian Magazine

When people say someone really “lives” her art, they may mean she takes her work very seriously. But for nearly three months, Linn Meyers’ life really did consist of her art – she hardly did anything else. She spent as many as 11 hours a day in the circular second-floor of the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum, drawing on the walls. Which might sound like child’s play, but most definitely isn’t.

Meyers used a combination of utmost precision and complete chance to create Our View From Here, a super-sized drawing that mesmerizes its viewers. Her work, which fills 400 linear feet of museum wall space, is on display through May 14, 2017, and is part of a recent effort to utilize new spaces within the Hirshhorn.

The museum was open for a good part of the time she was working on the piece, and fascinated visitors gawked as she applied her one chosen tool—a kind of thick marker favored by graffiti artists—to the walls, which were painted in two neutral tones. Although she sticks to a single color, the effect is anything but monotonous. The sinuous lines form waves and patterns that unfurl along with the museum walls, almost seeming to move. As the exhibition curator Stéphane Aquin says, “She just dances along with the building. Her art blends beautifully with the architecture. She reveals the movement that is inherent in the building.”

Meyers, a Washington, D.C.-based artist, creates both individual artworks in her studio and site-specific installations such as the one at the Hirshhorn (other installations have been on view at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.). Meyers explains that when she creates a piece in a particular environment, she naturally has to pay attention to the building, to the space that will house her work:  “One of the first questions I ask myself is, ‘How well can I approach the quirks of the architecture?’ ”

The main “quirk” at the donut-shaped Hirshhorn is that museum visitors, viewers of Meyers’ installation, will be following the circular inner walkway. “The space demanded that I create a piece that wrapped around the space, around that path that visitors take through the museum,” she explains.

Meyers used a combination of utmost precision and complete chance to create Our View From Here. (Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden)

“And then there are breaks throughout the space—doorways, entrances to galleries. In preexisting space or architecture, there’s always something that becomes a challenge. I don’t mean that in a negative way. A challenge can provoke some new approach to the way a piece would evolve. So in this case, it’s the way the circle of the gallery is divided into eight parts. And those openings aren’t always open. Sometimes the space is modified for an exhibition and some of the space is closed off.  My piece will overlap with three different shows, and the space will change for each show. I had to think about that. That’s new. I’ve never had a dynamic gallery space before.”

Meyers’ first step was to create preparatory drawings, done at quarter-inch scale. Next, Hirshhorn staffers used CAD (Computer Assisted Design) software to trace a framework—the circles from Meyers' drawings—directly on the museum walls. Meyers then set to work with her Molotow brand graffiti pen, letting her hand go where it would. This is where chance and coincidence come in.

“All of the movement you see in those drawings is just a result of the process,” she explains. “It just evolves, the lines are not planned out. But the compositions are planned. That’s a play between the intended and the unintended. The geometry is mapped out beforehand in my preparatory work. When I would start a section, I would trace a circle. That’s the plan, the intended. Following that point, each line responds to the line before it—a sort of entropy, beyond my control. So: both intended and not-intended. A nice metaphor for life!”

Meyers used a thick marker, favored by graffiti artists, to cover the walls in two neutral tones. (Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden)

Meyers’ color of choice for this project was a blue-gray called Payne’s gray. Because the artist diluted the color to different degrees, she was able to achieve different densities of color throughout the work.

As viewers walk around the rotunda, they can see that the line of the marker at times is so faint it’s just a whisper, while at other times it thickens into a blot, and still elsewhere, there is a mottled effect. In certain parts of the installation, there is a great deal of wall space that has been left undrawn-on, yet other sections are packed with crowded-together undulating lines.

Meyers realized that the first sections she did were the result of all the energy she had stored up while thinking about and planning the project: “The first couple of walls that I did are different than the last couple of walls. At first I was raring to go: all those months of preparation and anticipation. The mark is more aggressive. I kind of attacked the walls!” But by the end, when she allowed more of the walls to stand empty, she notices “a kind of lightness.”

"Her art blends beautifully with the architecture," says curator Stéphane Aquin. (Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden)

Because of the circular dimensions of the rotunda, viewers aren’t able to see the entire piece all at once. It just isn’t possible. And that affects how they perceive the work. It was the same for Meyers. “I had this vision of what the whole thing would look like, but it’s not like in the studio where my eye can pass back and forth over a piece. In the studio, I make discrete works of art and you can stand in front of them. With this, you just physically can’t. I could see the section I’d finished, for example, but then not the section I was working on. You can’t view even a quarter of it at once, standing in one place.”

Such a mammoth undertaking required mammoth concentration. Meyers, who usually goes to her studio daily and works on multiple pieces at once, did neither.

“It was the longest time I’ve been away from my studio,” she says. “I did nothing else. It was good. That frantic way we exist in time—from social media to getting up and getting groceries to being on the phone—it’s just the way we live. But with this, to focus on one thing—it was such a wonderful thing to see progress every day. For hours, not really lifting my head.” As she worked in the museum in her hyper-concentrated state, museum staffers or curator Stéphane Aquin would approach her, try talk to her, and she wouldn’t even notice them. “I would just be so focused. I had to put my blinders on. That’s something we just don’t get to do.”

Perhaps because Meyer’s photograph is on display at the museum’s front desk or perhaps because of the quiet authority she exudes when walking through the finished installation, viewers sense that she’s the artist. They want to talk, compliment her, ask her questions, even pose for phone photos. Meyers grasps to explain her new mini-celebrity. “There’s an element of mystery to what goes on in the studio, where the work comes from. Not that I can distill all those elements for people, but they can see how simple it is: Just me drawing one line, and then drawing another line.”

"Linn Meyers: Our View From Here" is on view at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden through May 14, 2017 in Washington, D.C. Linn Meyers will give a talk about her work as part of the Hirshhorn's Meet the Artist series on Wednesday, May 25, at 6:30 in the museum's auditorium. It is free and open to the public.

UPDATE 5/25/2016: A previous version of this story indicated that it was the artist who worked with a CAD program. She did not. Museum staffers used this process. We regret the error. 

Pauline B. and Myron S. Falk, Jr. Papers, 1904-1998 (bulk 1935-1980)

Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives
Myron S. (Johnny) Falk Jr., and his wife Pauline Baerwald Falk were active philanthropists, prominent Asian art collectors and were both active in the Jewish and Art communities.

The purchase that started their collection happened while on their 1935 honeymoon in the English countryside where they came upon two blue-and-white Ming Dynasty porcelain dishes. Later, taking one of the inaugural Pan Am Clipper flights to China in 1937, their collecting began in earnest. There are home movies in the collection taken by Johnny that document their trip to a largely untouched China. However, because China was closed to the West starting in 1950, they were unable to return until 1979.

As collectors, the Falks made a good team. Due to his engineering background from school, Johnny became an expert on firing techniques and glazes; while Pauline was known as the ''eye.'' Their fervent and long-term involvement in the Asian art community led them to become close friends with the biggest dealers in America and Europe.

Johnny and Pauline collected wares of the Song dynasty, archaic bronzes, jades, stone sculptures, several fine Ming and Qing porcelains, Korean ceramics, and nearly 100 Japanese paintings. After more than fifty years collecting their art work totaled over 700 items.

Johnny and Pauline lent their artworks to museums, advised art institutions in the United States and abroad, and fostered the training of a new generation of curators, scholars and other professionals in the Asian art field.

Johnny was an investment banker, philanthropist and prominent collector of Asian art. He was a longtime trustee of the Asia Society and helped found the Oriental Art Council, Roebling Society of the Brooklyn Museum and Japan Society Gallery. He also served as a director of the New York Foundation and Hebrew Technical Institute, a board member of the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies and chairman of the Bennington College board of trustees.

Pauline was a philanthropist, collector of Asian art, president of the Jewish Board of Family and Children Services, and founder of the New Lincoln School in Manhattan. She worked with displaced Jewish refugees before and during World War II. She was active in the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and became a founding member of the National Refugee Service, the Council for Jewish Women and the Jewish Social Service Association.

Together they were strong supporters of the Asia Society, the Chinese Art Society, they helped establish the Friends of Asia House Gallery in 1971, and founded the Friends of the China Institute in America Gallery. They also established the "Archives of Chinese Art" in 1945 an important scholarly journal that is published today by The Asia Society as the "Archives of Asian Art," and are among the founding members of the Friends of the Far Eastern Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Friends of Asian Art at the Brooklyn Museum.

Gift of the Falk Family.

Papers of art collectors Pauline Baerwald Falk (1910-2000) and Myron (Johnny) Falk Jr. (1906-1992), 1904-1998. Created and collected by the Falks, this collection includes: biographical data; black-and-white and color prints of art objects and people; photo albums of art objects in the Falk's art collection; symposium papers, scholarly reviews, and newspaper articles on Chinese art; Professor Alfred Salmony's lecture notes, Metropolitan Museum; purchase invoices for Chinese art, Japanese art, and Korean art; photographs, receipts, itineraries, one seal, atlases, and journals relating to the Falk's various trips to Asia and Europe, personal correspondence and correspondence with art dealers; guest books from 17 East 66th Street, New York and 888 Park Ave., New York, signed by guests from 1949-1997; committee papers; exhibition loan forms, Mr. Falk's notes about the collection and sale results from property consigned for sale; and four reels 16mm motion picture film taken during the Falk's 1937 trip to Asia.

How the Work of a Sculptor and a Doctor Landed In the Nation's Top Craft Show

Smithsonian Magazine

Laura Baring-Gould’s interest in the craft world came, in her words, “quite late.” She spent the first decade of her career as a sculptor creating large-scale installations for museums, galleries and public spaces. In 2006, she received a commission from the City of Boston to install a 12-foot-tall bronze pear in the historic neighborhood of Dorchester, celebrating the agricultural history of the area. While working on the sculpture, she traveled to a foundry in Thailand, a country with a 5,000-year legacy of casting impressive bronze Buddhas. What ended up striking her as much as Southeast Asia’s masterful bronze casting techniques were the region’s handmade structures—everyday items such as gathering baskets and fish traps.

“As a sculptor, the forms sang,” she says. “They’re exquisite shapes that are driven by functionality; driven by the fact that they’re made from the human hand. And they’re resoundingly beautiful.”

Baring-Gould is now driven by a desire to bestow permanence upon the ephemeral by creating cast bronze replicas of delicate items, such as the gathering baskets and fish traps that first caught her attention. The bamboo and other source materials that she works with are biodegradable, so each individual object is short-lived. And on a larger scale, the cultural practice of making household appliances by hand is in rapid decline due to globalization. To ensure that these unique forms live on, Baring-Gould returned to Thailand on a 2008 Fulbright grant to fine-tune her customized restoration technique. Each piece goes through a painstaking lost-wax casting process, also known as burnout.

Cliff Lee, a renowned potter whose work is on permanent display in the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery, owes his artistic career to another kind of burnout. After starting college at age 15 and graduating from medical school in his mid-twenties, Lee found himself overworked and unhappy. “When we take medical ethics, we learn that the purpose of being a doctor is to heal people,” he says. “Instead, you work so hard to pay your student loans and enrich yourself. As King Solomon said in the Bible, if you become very rich, and by the end you lose yourself, what do you have?”

When a patient suggested he take up pottery and invited him to her studio, Lee discovered a new, meditative world amongst the clay. He was hooked—at age 27, he took a sabbatical from medicine and enrolled at James Madison University to learn how to operate a gas kiln. Since then, Lee has spent more than 40 years using his chemistry background to perfect the shapes and glazes of Song, Ming and Qing dynasty porcelain, the classic Chinese ceramics that his parents collected when he was growing up in Taiwan. For the doctor-turned-potter, this second career has been a godsend. “If you really follow your heart and do what you love, it’s not work anymore,” he says.

The work of Baring-Gould, Lee and 118 of their peers will be featured this week at the 36th annual Smithsonian Craft Show, which carries the theme “Asian Influence/American Design.” The hosting Smithsonian Women’s Committee is anticipating roughly 7,000 visitors at what is regarded as the most prestigious juried exhibition and sale of contemporary fine arts crafts in the country. The objects that will be on display are, as always, all made in America, but this year’s show is unique in highlighting artisans that owe their style to Asian heritage. “Most creative work is derivative,” says co-chair Susan Vallon. “We wanted to find out what it is about Asian design that caught the artists’ attention, and how they wanted to translate what they see into their own voice. It may even be a one-off, because you really can’t point to any other influence as strong as Asian influences.”

Image by Laura Baring-Gould renders delicate structures, such as fish traps, in cast bronze. (Stewart Clements Photography) (original image)

Image by "They’re exquisite shapes that are driven by functionality; driven by the fact that they’re made from the human hand," says Baring-Gould. (Stewart Clements Photography) (original image)

Image by Cliff Lee uses his chemistry background to perfect the shapes and glazes of Song, Ming, and Qing dynasty porcelain. (Cliff Lee) (original image)

Image by Lee's work is on permanent display in the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery. (Cliff Lee) (original image)

The Craft Show, which takes place from April 25-29 at the National Building Museum, will begin with tonight's invitation-only preview, giving attendees an early opportunity to view and purchase artwork. The Women’s Committee will use the proceeds from this opening fundraiser, and from the exhibition as a whole, to fund its 2019 grants program. This year, the committee awarded the Smithsonian’s museums, research centers, and zoo 23 grants, totaling more than $460,000, for projects addressing one or more of the institution’s five grand challenges: Magnifying the Transformative Power of Arts and Design, Unlocking the Mysteries of the Universe, Understanding and Sustaining a Biodiverse Planet, Valuing World Cultures, and Understanding the American Experience.

From a 12-foot pine sculpture by Chinese American sculptor Foon Sham, who organizers named the Asian Influence/American Design Visionary Artist, on the lawn of the National Building Museum, to conversations on Taiwanese, Japanese and Chinese crafts, the show promises to be an immersive and educational experience. “We want attendees to meet the artists, to ask questions, to learn something new, and to be inspired by their creativity,” says co-chair Elizabeth Beck.

At the show, visitors will be able to enjoy works of a dozen different media. Besides Laura Baring-Gould’s bronzes and Cliff Lee’s porcelain, there will be painted textiles, Japanese woodblock prints, Korean hanji paper, and more. For the artists, the exhibition is not only a chance to promote their work, but also an exciting opportunity to engage with other passionate craftspeople. “For me to be juried in to the Smithsonian is just an incredible honor,” says Baring-Gould. “I’m really proud to be among this cadre of the best in the country.”

Among the items that Baring-Gould will have on display are bird nests, Thai gathering baskets, and a fishing trap from Botswana’s Okavango Delta, all in cast bronze. The trailblazing sculptor hopes that these forms, developed across time and across a breadth of human cultures, can open eyes to the power that crafts carry.

“The work that we do is scaled to the human hand,” Baring-Gould says. “We intimately engage with materials in an age of changing digital quickness. I think some of those technologies are really interesting, but they leave us hungry. And the world of materials has fascinated human beings for thousands of years.”

One woman's accelerated art

National Museum of American History

Creating art with unusual materials isn't a new idea, nor is combining art with science. But how about using a particle accelerator to create art? Artist Alyce Rothlein Simon irradiated plastic blocks with a Dynamitron—Radiation Dynamics's trade name for its particle accelerator—to change their molecular structure and create beautiful patterns. I first learned about these objects 10 years ago, but only recently took the opportunity to learn more in honor of Women's History Month.

Alyce Rothlein Simon (1925–2011) worked as an artist in New York City in the early 1960s. She studied at various schools including the Pratt Institute, the Brooklyn Museum Art School, and Syracuse University. Besides acrylics, she also worked with oil paints, watercolors, and stone. In 1962 Dr. Kennard Morganstern offered Simon the facilities of his company, Radiation Dynamics, to use for her art. After two years of trial and error with different materials like wood, fabric, and Plexiglas, Simon found that acrylics were the best medium for her "Atomic Art."

Photo of artwork

Photo of art

Photo of art

With practice and precision, Simon used the particle accelerator to create patterns of lines similar to Lichtenberg figures. In 1777 Georg Christoph Lichtenberg discovered that he could use sparks to create invisible patterns on a plate that didn't conduct electricity. The branching patterns became visible after electrically charged powder was sprinkled on the plate. For her pieces, Simon controlled the basic form through her choice of block shapes and thickness. With assistance from the company's technical staff, she chose energy settings on the accelerator and placed shields around the target to manipulate the tool and anticipate the resulting figure. Dr. Bernard S. Finn, curator emeritus at the museum, described the science: "Such patterns can be produced when a high-voltage beam is discharged inside a non-conducting (dielectric) material. The electrons from the beam become trapped as long as the accumulated electric charge is not enough to break the bonds of the dielectric molecules." So, as long as the electric charge is not too intense, the acrylic remains in one piece.

Photo of woman with short curly hair, blue dress, and large equipment

The ensuing patterns could resemble any number of forms, such as a peacock or branches emanating from a tree. Simon's process entailed some unpredictability because of invisible defects in the acrylic or other factors that could affect the appearance of the piece or result in a failure. The pattern was inherently abstract in nature and could be interpreted in many ways by the viewer. When these acrylic blocks are illuminated, the resulting images are quite powerful. In 1969 curator Philip W. Bishop exhibited some of Simon's work in the Hall of Nuclear Energy at the National Museum of History and Technology (now the National Museum of American History).

Black and white photo of entrance to exhibition

Photo of art

Photo of art

After the Smithsonian's exhibition, her work was displayed in other places. Some of those locations included Palais des Expositions in Geneva and the Center of Science and Industry in Columbus, Ohio. In 2004 Dr. Finn collected eight pieces of irradiated art from Simon for the museum's Electricity Collections, three of which are pictured above.

These fascinating objects, created through Simon's skill with high-tech equipment and guided by her artist's eye, resulted in a new type of art. The artist said her aim was to "help bring about a more vivid and clear understanding of the world in which we live." Looking at her beautiful work, I believe she accomplished her goal.

Connie Holland is a project assistant in the Division of Armed Forces History. She enjoys searching out shocking objects and learning more about them.

Connie Holland
Posted Date: 
Tuesday, March 29, 2016 - 11:00
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The Art and Design Behind Pixar’s Animation

Smithsonian Magazine

New York City has a new destination for animation aficionados: the Process Lab of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

The lab, housed in Andrew Carnegie’s grand old office suite, is the museum’s interactive space where visitors of all ages can participate in the design process, visually, digitally and manually.

The lab just opened “Pixar: the Design of Story,” (on view through August 7, 2016) a show that examines the chemistry of an animated picture. It tracks the arduous five-year process required to make a full-length film at Pixar Animation Studios, from initial idea through development of stories, characters, mood, music, color scripts and settings.

The walls are mounted with rarely seen original hand-drawn pencil and ink “concept” sketches—most Pixar directors started out as animators—architectural drawings, paintings, clay sculptures and digitally created images of such popular Pixar characters as Sadness from Inside Out, cowboy Woody from Toy Story and the redheaded archer Merida from Brave.

“Our films are not about stories but about storytelling,” says Elyse Klaidman, the longtime director of Pixar University (the in-house school for employees) and the Archives at Pixar Animation Studios in California. “It starts with wanting to tell a story. We strive to create appealing characters in a believable world. Who are the characters? How do they change? What do they learn?”

“Our directors come up with ideas they share with [CEO] John Lasseter and our Brain Trust, a team of directors that decides what story is the one that resonates,” Klaidman explains. “These are people who have this passion to tell stories that make us feel wonderful, stories that have deep meaning to them. The stories come from life.”

Consider Inside Out, the 2015 Pixar film that depicts the inside of an 11-year-old girl’s brain, as it is alternatively dominated by conflicting emotions.

“It’s about what happens to the brain of a little girl as she transitions to middle school,” Klaidman says.

In fact, the story for Inside Out came from Pixar director Pete Docter, who was struck by the emotional changes he saw his daughter experiencing as she went from carefree little girl to withdrawn preteen. He decided to make a film that would show the girl’s “outside” life at school and home while illustrating the turmoil inside her brain, especially her emotions: Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Fear and Anger.

Each is given its own color and personality.

So Joy is a sparky yellow “it” girl. Sadness is a shy blue bookworm. Disgust is a green snarky, mean girl. Fear is a purple goofball. Anger is a squat trapezoidal hunk. In Inside Out, emotions are full-blown characters.

“Design is at the heart and center of everything we do,” Klaidman says.

In the Cooper Hewitt's lab we see the Pixar process of research and collaboration in drawings of Toy Story's Woody as first conceived, as he evolves, even as a sculpted clay head. We see how Pixar’s computer programmers “map” the way the long red curls on Merida’s head swing as she prepares to shoot an arrow.

We see Cars compete and The Incredibles in action.

Then there is the lab’s interactive part: On an 84-inch touch-screen table, one can access 650 examples of Pixar artwork and compare each one to works in the museum’s collection. (For example, looking at the décor of a modern house in a Pixar film, you could drag an image of an Eames chair to it, to learn all about the chair.)

“Our intent in the lab was to create a participatory space that is very much the intersection of education and digital,” says curator Cara McCarty. “The underlying goal is to encourage and inspire our public to start thinking about design and the world around them. Design is all about connections.”

Why Pixar?

“We look at the design processes of different industries, and this time it’s film. Pixar came to mind because the films are so highly designed,” says McCarty.

To further that idea, Pixar and the Cooper Hewitt have produced a children’s “work book” to accompany the exhibition. Designing with Pixar: 45 Activities to Create Your Own Characters, Worlds, and Stories (Chronicle Books) has pages encouraging children to draw their own stories, expanding on various Pixar themes.

A different room in the lab serves as a theater to show Luxo Jr.—a groundbreaking short film directed by John Lasseter in 1986. It was the first three-dimensional computer-animated film and the first to receive an Academy Award nomination. It is a short story about a desk lamp (Dad) and his rambunctious son, a mini desk lamp, on a play date that has its ups and downs. (The mini is crestfallen as he bounces on a ball and squashes it, but he recovers when he finds an even bigger ball. Dad merely shakes his head, knowing what’s coming next.)

The film was so important to Pixar’s foundation that the lamp became the studio’s logo.

Lassater, who had been fired from Disney’s animation studio, created it to showcase computer technology and prove it could tell stories with universally appealing characters.

“At that time, most traditional artists were afraid of the computer,” Edwin Catmull, the president of Pixar, is quoted in the wall text. “They did not realize that the computer was merely a different tool in the artist’s kit but instead perceived it as a type of automation that might endanger their jobs…The release of ‘Luxo Jr.’…reinforced this opinion turnaround within the professional community.”

And how.

Seeing the film, the original lamp sketches, the storyboards, even Lassater’s list of lamp-bouncing “actions” on a yellow legal pad lets visitors fully understand Pixar’s design processes—without losing any of the magic.

"Pixar: The Design of Story" is on view through August 7, 2016 at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City.

These Tattoos Honor Lost, Not-So-Loved Species

Smithsonian Magazine

Samantha Dempsey has designed tattoos of little-known extinct creatures, like this species of shrimp, Syncaris pasadenae. Image courtesy of Samantha Dempsey.

As a freshman at the Rhode Island School of Design, Samantha Dempsey made a series of 18 watercolors about humankind’s relationship with infectious diseases. She enjoyed the project but realized in the process that the artwork failed as a communication device. People, she says, didn’t quite understand that one painting, for example, was about Oliver Wendell Holmes discovering the communicability of childbed fever.

“I realized that I wanted to be making art that didn’t describe science but could actually affect the science that was out there and affect our relationships with that science. I guess it’s more science communication activism,” says Dempsey. “I wanted to make art that could do things instead of just talk about what already existed.”

Image courtesy of Samantha Dempsey

So, while earning her BFA in illustration, the artist took classes at both RISD and Brown University to fulfill a science communication minor of her own design.

By this past spring, Dempsey, a senior in her final semester, was thinking like a true activist. She had identified a problem: when it comes to endangered species, people seem to only care about animals that are cute and charismatic, like the giant panda or some exotic bird. “It is upsetting that, though other animals are just as important to our genetic diversity as a planet, no one pays attention to them,” she says. So she devised a solution: the Extinction Tattoo Project.

Image courtesy of Samantha Dempsey

For her project, Dempsey designed tattoos of an oblong rock snail, a St. Helena giant earwig and a Pasadena freshwater shrimp—three extinct, and rather ugly, creatures. Like commemorative tattoos for loved ones who has passed, Dempsey’s designs include references to the species life spans. She writes “in memoriam 1881-2000″ next to the oblong rock snail, for example, which is thought to have died out due to habitat loss in the Cahaba River in Alabama, and “R.I.P. 1798-2000″ for the ill-fated giant earwig.

With the designs, she then launched a campaign to make the public aware of these often ignored animals. She created posters, photoshopping the tattoos onto portraits of models, and hung them around her campus, and she distributed temporary tattoos to students and faculty.

“They went like candy,” she says.

Image courtesy of Samantha Dempsey

For this first foray into temporary tattoo production, Dempsey chose animals that, in her eyes, had at least one redeeming physical quality despite their otherwise homely appearances. For the Pasadena freshwater shrimp, it was its curly antennae, and with the St. Helena giant earwig, it was the sweeping shape of the insect’s pincers. “I tried to find what was beautiful about each of the ugly animals,” she says. Guided by this endearing feature, Dempsey determined the overall layout of the tattoo.

“Because they were extinct, there aren’t a lot of photographs of them, or the photos are hard to find,” Dempsey explains. Some of the tattoos are drawn directly from images but others are a blend of scientific illustrations she could find of both the particular species and of modern animals related to it. “It was a little bit of sleuth work,” she says. “There is slight artistic interpretation as well, because it had to fit into the tattoo style.”

Image courtesy of Samantha Dempsey

Dempsey distributed nearly 100 temporary tattoos, mostly around RISD, to gauge interest. “It was mostly people looking at them and being sort of whaaa, not really sure how to feel, and then deciding, wait, this is great!” she says. Her inventory vanished in just 30 minutes or so. “I would love to produce them at mass scale,” she adds. “There are a lot of ugly animals. The blobfish is pretty awful, but important.”

Image courtesy of Samantha Dempsey

In her projects, Dempsey aims to make science accessible, to make it hip, mainstream and fun. “Design can really affect the public’s relationship with science and how we view it. Instead of some  lab coat, old, white man telling us ‘blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Eat your vegetables,’ the science that is out there should really be as exciting to everyone as it is to the scientists themselves,” she says. “That is what drives me.”

Why Teddy Roosevelt Is Popular On Both Sides of the Political Aisle

Smithsonian Magazine

A president’s career can extend well beyond his death, as family, friends, and fans work tirelessly to maintain his legacy and image.

For roughly 10 years, I have studied the legacy of the 26th president, Theodore Roosevelt. Even after a decade, I continue to be astounded by how regularly Roosevelt is invoked in politics and beyond.

Today, TR is ubiquitous. If you follow sports, you may have seen Teddy Goalsevelt, the self-appointed mascot for Team USA soccer who ran for FIFA president in 2016. Or you may have watched the giant-headed Roosevelt who rarely wins the Presidents’ Race at Washington Nationals baseball games. If you enjoy the cinema, you will likely recall Robin Williams as Roosevelt in the Night at the Museum trilogy, or might know that a biopic starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Roosevelt is slated for production.

In politics, Roosevelt has become the rare figure popular with both left and right. Vice President Mike Pence recently compared his boss Donald Trump to Roosevelt; in 2016, candidate Hillary Clinton named the Rough Rider as her political lodestar. Environmentalists celebrate Roosevelt as the founding father of conservation and a wilderness warrior, and small business interests celebrate his battles against large corporations.

And more than a century after he was shot in Milwaukee during the 1912 presidential campaign, Roosevelt remains a target; last year, his statue in front of the Museum of Natural History in New York was splattered in red paint in protest of its symbolic relationship to white supremacy, among other things.

Roosevelt’s high profile is no mere accident of history. Shortly after Roosevelt’s death, two memorial associations organized and worked to perpetuate his legacy.

One of these organizations sought to tie Roosevelt to the politics of the early 20th century, and cast him as a national icon of Americanism. At that time, Americanism stood for patriotism and civic-mindedness, as well as anti-communism and anti-immigration. This ideology helped Republicans win back the White House in 1920, but it also galvanized the first Red Scare.

The second memorial organization rejected the political approach to commemoration, choosing to represent Roosevelt’s legacy in artistic, creative, and utilitarian forms, including monuments, films, artwork, and by applying the Roosevelt name to bridges and buildings. Of course, some of these activities had implicit political angles, but they generally avoided association with overt causes, in favor of historical commemoration. When it came to fundraising, the apolitical organization raised 10 times as much income as the political one, and within ten years the two organizations folded into a single memorial association that abandoned political interpretations. Roosevelt became bipartisan and polygonal.

This is not to say Roosevelt’s legacy lost all meaning. Quite the opposite; our perception of Roosevelt has endured a number of declines and revivals. And, through the rounds of historical revision and re-revision, he has maintained certain characteristics.

His civic-minded Americanism endures, as does his record as a conservationist and a progressive. Roosevelt still evokes an image of an American cowboy, a preacher of righteousness, and a leading intellectual.

Most interestingly, these elements of his legacy are not mutually exclusive. Invoking one does not require us to exclude another. For example, Barack Obama promoted the Affordable Care Act in 2010 by memorializing Roosevelt’s advocacy for national healthcare in 1911. Obama could recall Roosevelt’s progressivism while avoiding the Bull Moose’s mixed record on race relations or his support of American imperialism. In short, commemorators can take from Roosevelt what they want and, consequently, his legacy grows ever more complex and elastic.

The upcoming centenary of Roosevelt’s death in January 2019 offers us an opportunity to understand more about how presidential legacies are shaped by successive generations. Images of former presidents come from various sources, and because they can act as a powerful emblem for any cause, their images proliferate without much scrutiny.

Politicians are well aware of this. Sarah Palin, a right-wing Republican, co-opted the legacy of Democrat Harry Truman in her 2008 vice-presidential nomination speech, and Barack Obama had a penchant for invoking Ronald Reagan. In a political swamp full of alligators, summoning the ghosts of dead presidents is relatively safe ground.

Likewise, commercial advertisers take great liberty with the past. Beer and whiskey producers have long used presidents as brand ambassadors (Old Hickory bourbon and Budweiser are good examples). Automobile companies have named vehicles for Washington, Monroe, Lincoln, Grant, Cleveland, and Roosevelt.

These contemporary invocations remind us of the real value of legacy, however it might be interpreted. The past has meaning for the present, and that meaning can be translated into advantage. Truth is not the highest value in the contest between presidential ghosts.

Happy Warrior: Teddy Roosevelt in 1919, the last year of his life. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

Despite being the subject of scholarly historical biographies that document their lives with precision and care, American presidents are dogged by half-truths, myths, and arbitrary citations in public memory. At a time when our political climate is referred to as “post-truth,” and a celebrity tycoon who has mastered the art of self-promotion sits in the Oval Office, it is worth reflecting on how these legacies are produced.

If, as philosopher Williams James once said, “The use of a life is to spend it for something that outlasts it,” the former American presidents have lived boundlessly productive lives, with legacies that far outlast their tenure. But because their legacies are produced by successive generations, they often tell us more about the agents of commemoration than the men who sat behind the Resolute Desk.

Examining presidential legacies helps us solve a historical problem: It allows us to see who shapes our perceptions of the past. Memorializers lay claim to historical narratives and create the illusion of public memory, invoking select elements of our shared past as shiny baubles to emulate and admire. So by understanding these myths, the mythmakers, and the motives of memorialization, we can see a laminated past with countless layers. The more myths and the more layers, the more insight we gain into the ways the past connects with the present, and the present with the future.

The “real” Theodore Roosevelt is lost to us. He is an imagined character, even to family. Theodore Roosevelt’s grandson Archie met his grandfather only once. Still, every time he visited Sagamore Hill—his grandfather’s home in Oyster Bay, Long Island—he sensed his ghost. Archie felt that TR’s spirit looked over the kids as they played. On numerous occasions Archie reflected on his grandfather’s likely expectations for his family and even attempted to model his life on that conception. “We knew him only as a ghost,” Archie related, “but what a merry, vital, and energetic ghost he was. And how much encouragement and strength he left behind to help us play the role Fate has assigned us for the rest of the century.”

Indeed, conjuring Roosevelt’s ghost gives us another means of observing the last century, a period of time that Roosevelt himself never saw. Because so many have invoked Roosevelt in the way Archie did, examining his legacy helps to illustrate the motives and judgements of those who remember the past. Theodore Roosevelt’s ghost continues to haunt public memory because we continue to conjure it. TR has been dead for a century, but we refuse to let him rest in peace, believing the use of his life can help us achieve our ends.

Behind the Scenes: Skinning Condors in the Name of Science

Smithsonian Magazine

The majestically macabre California condor is the largest bird in North America, Mother Nature’s critically endangered cleanup crew, and a miracle conservation success story. After making a comeback with captive breeding, things are looking up for the condor—but not the birds that recently arrived at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Bird Collection laboratories. These condors were dead, and many of them had been for quite awhile.

During the Pleistocene Era, 2 million to 11,000 years ago, robust populations of condors soared high over the continent like grim reapers, scavenging the carcasses of giant prehistoric mammals. But once giant sloths, stag-moose and mastodons became extinct and human developments grew across North America, the California condor population took a nosedive.

By 1982, their numbers had dwindled to just 23 surviving condors. With extinction eminent, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) launched the California Condor Recovery Program to capture the remaining birds in the wild and restore the population through captive breeding. After just five years, enough birds had hatched in captivity that they could be released to the wild. About 500 descendents of the original 23 condors thrive today, with more than half released and sailing free over the cliffs of California, Utah and Baja California.

Though condors are still critically endangered, the ongoing program continues to both safeguard them from extinction and provide an unparalleled source of ecological insight into these ancient vultures. FWS has tagged and tracked every condor and kept a record of its life milestones. Researchers know exactly where and when each bird hatched, where it nested once released to the wild and when it ultimately dies. Following death, the carcass is collected and stored for future study in a walk-in freezer at the FWS Pacific Southwest headquarters in Sacramento, California.

A few months ago, that freezer filled up.

Even in death endangered species are protected, so FWS needed somewhere to offload their brimming surplus of giant bird carcasses. Luckily, the Smithsonian Institution’s Division of Birds agreed to take them and put them to use for research and museum display. Last week, the freight of dead, frozen condors arrived and set off a flurry of activity as specialists raced to prepare the frozen specimens for the museum’s collection.   

The California condor is the largest bird in North America. (© Glenn Simmons, Encyclopedia of Life)

“They’re coming to us in various forms of degradation,” says Christopher Milensky, a museum specialist and orchestrator of the condor preparation activities. FWS has been stockpiling the birds for nearly half a century, “so some are sort of fresh, and some are sort of nasty.” Milensky gives this disclaimer as he walks guests through the cavernous Museum Support Center in Suitland, Maryland.

The vast 435,000 square-foot complex serves as a storage facility for the millions of specimens that are not on display in museums. It’s also the laboratories and workspaces for the behind-the-scenes preparation of all the museum’s artifacts. With taxidermied animals from around the planet, jars of preserved specimens suspended in liquid, library books, aircrafts and artwork, the place gives the impression of a giant, immersive diorama put together by a confused curator.

Past the stairs guarded by mountain lions, left at the oryx, and through a hall lined with pygmy whales is the Osteo Prep Lab, the facility where curators have prepared many of the skeletons of mammals, birds, amphibians, and fish on view in the Osteology Hall at the National Museum of Natural History. The lab is also home to one of the most valuable players in a curator’s arsenal: a colony of flesh-eating beetles that hungrily await new specimens to feed upon.

“Most of what we’re doing is turning [the condors] into skeletons,” says Milensky, pulling open the door to the lab to reveal a laundry facility and a bank of shower rooms. “We’re just doing the triage here,” he says. Things tend to get a little messy at the Osteo Prep Lab, hence the showers.  “We’ll make them look pretty back at the museum.”

Sprawled across the hallway to Milensky’s right is an enormous, black-feathered carcass. “There’s a condor,” he says. “That’s one I still need to deal with.” The facility is suddenly so full of dead condors they’re literally overflowing into the hallways. As far as problems go, it’s one the Bird Division is celebrating. The Smithsonian hasn’t had a new condor specimen to study or display for nearly a century. Now they’ve got close to 50.

“Here’s the party,” Milensky jokes, entering the big garage-like room where he and his team are working. He notes that the lab can easily be hosed down when they’re done prepping the birds. The room is crowded, buzzing with researchers and specialists, each wearing a pair of gloves and lab coats as they scurry between operating tables and black industrial garbage bags, each of which is stuffed with a condor carcass.

“This is epic,” says Helen James, beaming as she stretches her arms wide to mimic the prodigious 10-foot wingspan of the condors all around her. In her years as curator in charge of the Smithsonian's Division of Birds at the Natural History Museum, she never expected to receive such a windfall of rare specimens in one fell swoop. “It’s a once in a lifetime chance,” she says.

The majority of the museum’s bird specimens are found in the wild, so they can only make educated guesses about their age or provenance. “Most of our other collections are a mystery,” James says, and that makes comparative anatomy and other studies more of a challenge. That’s not the case for these condors. Thanks to the intensive conservation effort and meticulous monitoring by FWS, James says, “we know how old each specimen is—they were all reared in captivity and followed in the wild.”

In addition to the comparative anatomy and ecological data the condors will provide, these vultures have historical importance as well. “It’s a part of American history,” James says. “It has significance in indigenous populations that have overlapped with its range,” kept alive today through cave paintings and stories of ceremonies where condors were used to heal or imbue people with special powers. 

With that 10 foot wingspan, it takes five people just to measure one of the specimens they’re prepping. “Just look at this bird!” James exclaims as Milensky helps a colleague pull another condor out of a bag on the floor. “It’s the largest vulture,” James says, a master of flight able to reach heights of 15,000 feet and soar more than 150 miles to find a meal.

Scissors snip and feathers fly as the team descends on the condor, skinning it, then trimming and discarding as much muscle and skin as possible. If the birds aren’t stripped of all the juicy pieces, the carcasses run the risk of rotting. The next stop is the flesh-eating beetles, and Milensky points out that they won’t eat any carcass that’s gone bad—apparently it makes them lose their appetite.

“The bugs take it from flesh to bone,” Milensky says, taking a break from the skinning party to go water the beetles (they like it nice and humid). In the beetle room, he picks up a specimen jar that’s recently been finished, awaiting a rinse and rearticulation. Inside is a ghostly white skeleton of a bird that’s been picked perfectly clean.

Being much too large to fit inside a jar, the condor specimens will be placed in enclosed rooms like meat lockers where the bugs roam free. Milensky pulls over a hose and swings the locker door open to give them a spritz. Inside are buckets and trays filled with the carcasses of everything from mice to giant porpoises and turtles. They’re all crawling with the tiny, black, flesh-eating critters. Each the size of a dime, they happily munch meat away from the bones, and in the process help to craft the perfect museum specimen.

Back in the prep lab, Teresa Feo, a postdoctoral researcher, finishes snipping away the last bits of flesh on a condor before breaking for lunch. “Tasty,” she says, picking some condor gristle off her fingers as she surveys her handiwork.

Feo's research relies on fossilized and real feathers in the museum’s collection to study how the mechanical engineering of flight has evolved over time. She’s confidant the condor samples will be tremendously helpful to her research. “I’ve never used them because that type of material is never available,” she says. These condors offer the opportunity to add to her existing dataset an extreme, large bird end member.

“We’re not just talking sparrows and warblers anymore,” she says. One flight feather from a condor is so big it can weigh as much as 30 hummingbirds. She grabs a ball of string and winds it tightly around her cleaned specimen to help keep it intact as the beetles go to work.

“It’s done. The bugs will like it I think,” says Feo as she proffers her trimmed, trussed and beetle-ready condor carcass to Milensky. “Oh, it’s really smelly,” she adds, holding it a bit further from her nose as Milensky swoops in to grab it, saying, “It’s lovely.” 

11 Artists Capture What It Is Like to Live in a Megacity

Smithsonian Magazine

In Boston, March means St. Patrick’s Day, an occasion that obligates convenience stores and supermarkets to stock up on green plastic party supplies. It’s a cultural quirk that worked out well for South Korean artist Han Seok Hyun, who arrived from Seoul in mid-March to find that curators at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts had procured a sizeable stash of emerald bric-a-brac. The raw material would supply the latest iteration of his series Super-Natural, a commission for the 146-year-old museum’s largest ever exhibition of contemporary art, “Megacities Asia.”

With two weeks left before opening day, Han quickly got to work, building a fanciful landscape out of green plastic bowler hats and sunglasses, green party cups, empty beer bottles and shimmering tinsel shamrocks. The American greenery supplemented crates of green products sourced in Korea: fake plants, pool floats, cans of aloe vera drink and packages of squid chips—all a testament to the universality of cheap consumer culture.

“In Seoul, most people live in apartments and survive through supermarkets,” said Han, whose work is a send-up of the idea that the color green means something is healthy and natural. “I see children say to their mother, ‘It’s Sunday! I want to go to the supermarket!’ I feel that’s weird! They should want to go to the playground.” 

Watch this video in the original article

Han was born in 1975, in a South Korea that was emerging from post-war poverty to become one of the richest, most technologically advanced countries on Earth. He is part of a generation of Asian artists responding to massive changes that continue to transform the continent. “Megacities Asia,” which runs through July 17, features 19 installations by 11 of these artists, including Choi Jeong Hwa, also from South Korea, and the Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei. They live and work in Seoul, Beijing, Shanghai, Delhi and Mumbai, each city with a population of more than 10 million people. These are places where forces like rural-to-urban migration, consumerism, technological development, pollution and climate change are dizzyingly apparent—and they may offer a glimpse into our global future.

A little more than a week before previews for the press and museum members were to begin, art handlers, translators and several recently-arrived artists were hard at work throughout the MFA’s sprawling complex. “It really is an all-hands-on-deck project,” said curator Al Miner, showing off an intricate spreadsheet the museum was using to keep track of who was supposed to be where, and when.

Delhi-based artist Asim Waqif was setting up his installation Venu (2012), which takes its title from the Hindi word for “bamboo,” a once common Indian building material that is falling victim to the vogue for steel, bricks and concrete. A network of bamboo and rope rigged with sensors that trigger sound and vibrations when a viewer approaches, Venu is an unlikely combination of traditional and high tech. “The viewer is not going to be able to tell whether it’s natural or artificial,” Waqif said. A former architect who decided he wanted to be more intimately involved with his materials, he confessed to finding “most museums really boring—it’s like there’s a barrier between the viewer and the art. But here, if somebody comes and explores, he’ll find many surprising things.”

In a corridor, visitors were already passing beneath Ai Weiwei’s Snake Ceiling (2009), an enormous serpent built from children’s backpacks to protest the Chinese government’s inaction after poorly-constructed schools collapsed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, killing more than 5,000 schoolchildren. In the museum’s atrium, they stopped to study Ai’s sculpture Forever (2003), an elegant wreath of 64 interconnected bicycles, like those that once clogged China’s streets and are now being replaced by cars.

Upstairs, in an airy gallery normally dedicated to Buddhist funerary sculpture, a team of art handlers under the watchful eye of Chinese artist Song Dong assembled his Wisdom of the Poor: Living with Pigeons (2005-6). It’s a two-story house made up of old windows, bits of wood and other architectural detritus scavenged from Beijing’s traditional courtyard houses, whole neighborhoods of which are being erased as the Chinese capital becomes a modern metropolis.

Placing a contemporary installation in a room full of traditional artwork is an unusual move, but curators realized it felt right in the context of Song’s work, which is about Chinese history as much as the ancient stone steles and seated Buddhas that surround it. And it’s not the only part of the exhibition housed outside the white-walled basement gallery that the museum usually uses for special shows.

Image by Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Delhi-based artist Asim Waqif sets up his installation Venu, a network of bamboo and rope rigged with sensors that trigger sound and vibrations when a viewer approaches. (original image)

Image by Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Mountmaker Brett Angell installs Hema Upadhyay's Build me a nest so I can rest. (original image)

Image by Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Aaditi Joshi's new piece, Untitled, asks viewers to think about the effect waste has on cities. (original image)

Image by Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Seoul-based artist Han Seok Hyun in front of Super-Natural. (original image)

Image by Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Han built Super-Natural from empty beer bottles, party cups and and other green products. (original image)

Image by Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Choi Jeong Hwa sits in an armchair positioned in the center of his Chaosmos Mandala. (original image)

“Megacities” rewards exploration, just as cities themselves do. Poking around a quiet gallery of Korean decorative art, for example, the lucky visitor will stumble across a doorway leading to Seoul-based Choi Jeong Hwa’s Chaosmos Mandala. It’s a delightful space, with reflective Mylar-covered walls, ceiling and floor. An enormous chandelier, assembled from the cheap and ubiquitous candy-colored plastic that is Choi’s signature material, spins hypnotically overhead. Discovering it evokes the serendipity of wandering a city’s back alleys and finding an underground dance club, or a perfect hole-in-the-wall noodle shop.

“Almost everything in this exhibition encourages some kind of physical interaction,” noted Miner. Visitors can climb inside Song’s house, for example, and walk through Shanghai-based Hu Xiangcheng’s Doors Away from Home—Doors Back Home (2016), which combines scavenged architectural elements and video projection. “That interactivity reflects the pace and texture of city life,” Miner said. Of course, some of the best spots in a city are quiet corners where one can pause and take everything in. So in Chaosmos Mandala, visitors are invited to relax in a cream and gold armchair at the room’s center. (The museum accepts the inevitability of selfies.)

Other works offer a different sort of immersive experience. Hema Upadhyay’s 8’x12’ (2009) is a lovingly detailed model of Dharavi, one of Mumbai’s oldest and largest slums, which covers the ceiling and walls of a walk-in metal container. It is scaled to the average size of a home in this squatter’s community, where one million people live and work within less than a square mile. “You get a sense of what it’s like to be in a city like this,” Miner said. “You feel like you’re in this vast space, but you’re also physically constricted. It’s almost unsettling.”

Over the three years Miner and fellow curator Laura Weinstein were organizing the show, they visited the artists in their homes and studios and experienced firsthand the cities the exhibition explores. They toured Dharavi, visiting residents at home. It felt voyeuristic, Miner admitted, “but I also felt it was important to be there—to see it, to smell it.” In Seoul, the curators visited bustling market stalls where their artists scored raw material for found-art installations, and in a high-rise housing block outside Delhi, Miner marveled that “everything was bright and gleaming and new, as if it had sprung up out of nothing.” Each of the megacities was a web of contradictions—both teeming and lonely, chaotic and efficient, places of vast wealth and extreme poverty, where skyscrapers tower over sprawling shantytowns. It would take a lifetime to truly understand these places, but the exhibition’s artists make a valiant effort to evoke what it feels like to walk their streets.

Upadhyay was murdered by an associate in December, either because of a financial dispute or on the alleged orders of her ex-husband. One of her last works of art is a poignant installation commissioned specifically for “Megacities Asia.” Build me a nest so I can rest (2015) consists of 300 painted clay birds, each holding a scrap of paper with a quotation from literature. The birds represent migrants, who are moving to cities in increasing numbers, carrying with them their hopes and dreams for a better life. It’s a reminder that even cities with enormous populations are home to individual people, with their own private tragedies and triumphs—all affected, for good or ill, by the relentless tide of human history.

Over 130 Factories Get New Lives as Tourist Destinations in Taiwan

Smithsonian Magazine

Inside a large, open-floor exhibit space within Taiwan's Lukang Township, glass sparkles at every turn. There's a glass-covered atrium that creates a kaleidoscope of colors as you walk through; tall, freestanding glass mirrors that offer Instagram-ready funhouse photo opportunities; and a series of stunning glass artworks—including an intricate stained-glass flower and a glass Buddha portrait with a headdress of hanging glass beads. But this isn't just a regular art installation, it's a new kind of product showroom designed to transform a traditional glass factory into a tourist destination, one that drew more than 1.3 million visitors last year.

“Tourism factories” are working factories that have added tourism components—things like museum exhibits, souvenir stores, and DIY workshops—to help keep their businesses afloat. Taiwan's Ministry of Economic Affairs conceived of the idea back in 2003, and today there are roughly 136 certified tourism factories spread across the island. There are tourism factories devoted to mochi making, ribbon weaving, saxophone production, cosmetics, dietary supplements, socks, erasers, umbrellas, tea, chocolate, lanterns, soy sauce...and the industry only continues to grow.

Taiwan has a long history of manufacturing, from food and beverage to semiconductors—the island's flagship industry. In the 1980s it had even earned the nickname, “Bicycling Kingdom,” for producing more bikes than anywhere else in the world. But by the 1990s China and other Asian countries were giving the island's industries a literal run for their money, and many of their factories were in peril.

“It became difficult for Taiwan's factories and businesses to keep up with changing business trends,” says Brad Shih, Director of Taiwan's Tourism Bureau in Los Angeles, “so the Ministry of Economic Affairs came up with the idea of tourism factories as a way for them to stay relevant.”

“For example,” says Cathy Hung, Deputy Director at the LA Tourism Bureau, “Shing Long Textile is a famous towel factory that now educates visitors on how they create their textiles, while simultaneously encouraging them to see the environmental benefits of reuse. The factory also hosts DIY classes for visitors to create bring-home souvenirs.”

To become an official tourism factory, Taiwan's manufacturers first apply with Taiwan's government-supported Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI), which helps transform the island's industries  into innovative-driven assets. Once a factory is approved, the ITRI then works alongside them to create a tourism-friendly experience, developing dedicated exhibits and immersive activities that are both interesting and educational. One of their biggest roles comes in training craftspeople to explain their factory's process in a way visitors can understand. While the process requires a substantial upfront investment, it can pay off. According to ITRI, tourism factories attacted more than 22 million visitors last year and brought in a record-high $149.2 million USD in 2016, up 15% from the previous year.

“By incorporating tourism into the mix, many of our factories have gained a second life,” says Dr. Chia-Szu Wen, a specialist with the Tourism Bureau's Ministry of Transportation and Communications. She believes that part of the allure for visitors is the changing way we view industry. “Most people are no longer interested in simply consuming products,” she says, “but also learning about how they're produced and the stories behind them.”

Taiwan's 100-plus tourism factories are separated into five main categories: Art & Culture, Daily Necessities, Health & Beauty, Home Life and Wine & Fine Foods—with each factory offering its own unique theme and experience. Though no all tourism factories offer English translations, Taiwan's government has been drawing special attention (mostly through international tourism campaigns) to those that do. These include the Sha Yang Ye Robot Wonderland Pavilion and the Kuo Yuan Ye Museum of Cake and Pastry—both of them in Taoyuan City in the country's north—and Tainan's Taiwan Metal Creation Museum in the south.

Overall, says Shih, tourism factories are not only adding to the longevity of Taiwan's manufacturers, but also “by fusing Taiwan's rich traditional culture with its economic industries,” creating a unique type of attraction. Here are nine of Taiwan's Tourism Factories not to miss: 

Light Far Lantern Sightseeing Factory:

Paint your own paper lanterns, view traditional lanterns in various styles and shapes, and see how this unique part of Taiwanese culture is produced. 

Xiangyi Robot Dream Factory Future Museum

Execute the movement of robots using body sensory equipment, see the prize-winning Taiwan Victory Black Bear robot – made using 17 pieces of powerful metal gears  and discover the history of robot evolution. 

East and Music Experience Museum:

Play various musical instruments ranging from harmonicas to flutes, and tour a working piano factory to experience just what goes into manufacturing a piano. 

Kuo Yuan Ye Museum of Cake and Pastry:

Journey on a nostalgic trip back through 100 years of Taiwan's pastry culture, learn about its role in Taiwanese weddings and festivals and give your baking skills a go in the DIY “Pastry Play Room.” 

Taiwan Foot Shoes Health Knowledge Museum:

At this factory in Ilan, visitors learn how insoles can help with everything from diabetic foot pain to muscle fatigue in sports.

Meiya Furniture Sightseeing Factory:

This Tainan' factory boasts a guided sensory walk-through that includes both the fresh scent of wood chips and a class in determining the strength of a wood species by sound.

Taiwan Balloon Museum:

See how balloons are produced in Taichung City; then twist them into animal shapes.

Food Happiness Factory:

After observing the process of transforming Chi Mei's baked goods from raw ingredients into finished products, the company's Tainan-based factory provides a chance to make some 'happiness' of your own through DIY dumplings, biscuits and pineapple cakes.

Taiwan Glass Gallery:

Taiwan's most popular tourism factory, the working glass-making museum is located within Changhua Coastal Industrial Park. In addition to the glass fun mirrors and art exhibits, visitors can enjoy several DIY opportunities, including using colorful beads to decorate glassware and glassblowing, with assistance from onsite craftspeople. 

With AI Art, Process Is More Important Than the Product

Smithsonian Magazine

With AI becoming incorporated into more aspects of our daily lives, from writing to driving, it’s only natural that artists would also start to experiment with artificial intelligence.

In fact, Christie’s will be selling its first piece of AI art later this month – a blurred face titled “Portrait of Edmond Belamy.”

The piece being sold at Christie’s is part of a new wave of AI art created via machine learning. Paris-based artists Hugo Caselles-Dupré, Pierre Fautrel and Gauthier Vernier fed thousands of portraits into an algorithm, “teaching” it the aesthetics of past examples of portraiture. The algorithm then created “Portrait of Edmond Belamy.”

The painting is “not the product of a human mind,” Christie’s noted in its preview. “It was created by artificial intelligence, an algorithm defined by [an] algebraic formula.”

If artificial intelligence is used to create images, can the final product really be thought of as art? Should there be a threshold of influence over the final product that an artist needs to wield?

As the director of the Art & AI lab at Rutgers University, I’ve been wrestling with these questions – specifically, the point at which the artist should cede credit to the machine.

The machines enroll in art class

Over the last 50 years, several artists have written computer programs to generate art – what I call “algorithmic art.” It requires the artist to write detailed code with an actual visual outcome in mind.

One the earliest practitioners of this form is Harold Cohen, who wrote the program AARON to produce drawings that followed a set of rules Cohen had created.

But the AI art that has emerged over the past couple of years incorporates machine learning technology.

Artists create algorithms not to follow a set of rules, but to “learn” a specific aesthetic by analyzing thousands of images. The algorithm then tries to generate new images in adherence to the aesthetics it has learned.

To begin, the artist chooses a collection of images to feed the algorithm, a step I call “pre-curation.”

For the purpose of this example, let’s say the artist chooses traditional portraits from the past 500 years.

Most of the AI artworks that have emerged over the past few years have used a class of algorithms called “generative adversarial networks.” First introduced by computer scientist Ian Goodfellow in 2014, these algorithms are called “adversarial” because there are two sides to them: One generates random images; the other has been taught, via the input, how to judge these images and deem which best align with the input.

So the portraits from the past 500 years are fed into a generative AI algorithm that tries to imitate these inputs. The algorithms then come back with a range of output images, and the artist must sift through them and select those he or she wishes to use, a step I call “post-curation.”

So there is an element of creativity: The artist is very involved in pre- and post-curation. The artist might also tweak the algorithm as needed to generate the desired outputs.

When creating AI art, the artist’s hand is involved in the selection of input images, tweaking the algorithm and then choosing from those that have been generated. (Ahmed Elgammal)

Serendipity or malfunction?

The generative algorithm can produce images that surprise even the artist presiding over the process.

For example, a generative adversarial network being fed portraits could end up producing a series of deformed faces.

What should we make of this?

Psychologist Daniel E. Berlyne has studied the psychology of aesthetics for several decades. He found that novelty, surprise, complexity, ambiguity and eccentricity tend to be the most powerful stimuli in works of art.

When fed portraits from the last five centuries, an AI generative model can spit out deformed faces. (Ahmed Elgammal)

The generated portraits from the generative adversarial network – with all of the deformed faces – are certainly novel, surprising and bizarre.

They also evoke British figurative painter Francis Bacon’s famous deformed portraits, such as “Three Studies for a Portrait of Henrietta Moraes.”

‘Three Studies for the Portrait of Henrietta Moraes,’ Francis Bacon, 1963. (MoMA )

But there’s something missing in the deformed, machine-made faces: intent.

While it was Bacon’s intent to make his faces deformed, the deformed faces we see in the example of AI art aren’t necessarily the goal of the artist nor the machine. What we are looking at are instances in which the machine has failed to properly imitate a human face, and has instead spit out some surprising deformities.

Yet this is exactly the sort of image that Christie’s is auctioning.

A form of conceptual art

Does this outcome really indicate a lack of intent?

I would argue that the intent lies in the process, even if it doesn’t appear in the final image.

For example, to create “The Fall of the House of Usher,” artist Anna Ridler took stills from a 1929 film version of the Edgar Allen Poe short story “The Fall of the House of Usher.” She made ink drawings from the still frames and fed them into a generative model, which produced a series of new images that she then arranged into a short film.

Another example is Mario Klingemann’s “The Butcher’s Son,” a nude portrait that was generated by feeding the algorithm images of stick figures and images of pornography.

On the left: A still from ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ by Anna Ridler. On the right: ‘The Butcher’s Son’ by Mario Klingemann.

I use these two examples to show how artists can really play with these AI tools in any number of ways. While the final images might have surprised the artists, they didn’t come out of nowhere: There was a process behind them, and there was certainly an element of intent.

Nonetheless, many are skeptical of AI art. Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic Jerry Saltz has said he finds the art produced by AI artist boring and dull, including “The Butcher’s Son.”

Perhaps they’re correct in some cases. In the deformed portraits, for example, you could argue that the resulting images aren’t all that interesting: They’re really just imitations – with a twist – of pre-curated inputs.

But it’s not just about the final image. It’s a about the creative process – one that involves an artist and a machine collaborating to explore new visual forms in revolutionary ways.

For this reason, I have no doubt that this is conceptual art, a form that dates back to the 1960s, in which the idea behind the work and the process is more important than the outcome.

As for “The Butcher’s Son,” one of the pieces Saltz derided as boring?

It recently won the Lumen Prize, a prize dedicated for art created with technology.

As much as some critics might decry the trend, it seems that AI art is here to stay.

Sketchbook of Ramón Carulla 1980

Archives of American Art
1 sketchbook : various media ; 15 x 10 cm.

Media includes: ink wash and Chinese white over pencil on blue gray paper, ink, gouache and collage. The last nine pages of the sketchbook contain handwritten on Carulla's philosophy of his art and painting. Sketchbook contains 40 single sides, 20 pages. Sketches are primarily of people.

Notes on safeguarding and conserving cultural material in the field, part I

Archives of American Art
Note : 50 p. : typescript ; 28 x 22 cm. Manual prepared by W. G. Constable and compiled by the American Defense - Harvard Group Committee on Protection of Monuments to assist soldiers in the field with preserving artworks and monuments.
Stamped on front page: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Department of Painting.
Date from second-to-last page.

10 things to know about exhibition installation

National Museum of American History

As collections managers and museum specialists, our job is to care, physically and intellectually, for the museum's objects. We research them, ensure their safety and proper handling, and install them in the museum's exhibitions. We are frequently asked "What exactly does putting up an exhibition entail?" so we present:

The top 10 things you need to know about exhibition installation

10) Installation is the culmination of years of work

Exhibitions take several years to put together. It all begins with an idea. Objects are selected, researched, and conserved. Scripts are written, edited, and re-written. A design team uses those ideas to create a drawing of the proposed exhibition. When a final design is reached, then the exhibition can be built. Walls are put up and cases are constructed. Only then can curators and collections managers begin actual object installation. Before anything was built for the exhibition American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith, which opened on June 28, 2017, the team had been working for almost five years.

Two women with hard hats smile for a selfie in a black and white photo

9) Object installation is the shortest part of creating an exhibition, but also the most intense

Larger exhibitions such as American Democracy (AD) take several months to install. AD has almost 900 objects, and each one of those objects needs to be individually mounted (see number seven for more on that), installed, and then lit. This process can take anywhere from minutes to hours for each object depending on how complicated the requirements of the object and design are.

8) It requires mental and physical flexibility

Installation can be demanding. You are standing, walking, lifting, bending, reaching, and climbing ladders. We easily can take over 10,000 steps on any given day of exhibition installation (we know because we've tracked it!). Working in small cases and maneuvering around case furniture can require some interesting gymnastics. For instance, when we installed the woman suffrage wagon (the very first object that went in the exhibition) we had to lie on the floor underneath it while it was placed to ensure it was in proper position and safely on its jacks (we truly see the exhibition from all angles!).

In addition to the physical demands, it can also be mentally taxing. A collections manager has to know the objects well to be able to care for them properly, which means knowing what each object is, what it is made of, how to handle it appropriately, and if it needs any particular special care. You have to know the exhibition design to follow which objects go in which cases. And if a certain case is not ready to be installed, you have to be able to continue to move forward; with an opening date already set, you can't sit and wait. There is a lot of thinking on your tired feet.

Juxtaposed photos of a woman standing on a short stepladder reaching into a display space it adjust a helmet-like object on a pole

A woman stands inside a case with metal objects attached to poles, and there are lanterns hung up. She holds a white cloth out and attempts to clean the glass in front of her.

7) If done well, you will probably never notice one of the most important features of an exhibition: MOUNTS

While some objects can be displayed simply sitting on the case bottom, many require specialized mounts to position them safely in the case and allow for optimum viewing. Highly skilled mountmakers fabricate custom mounts for each specific object, and they are often so carefully crafted as to blend seamlessly with the object. The type of mount fabricated is based on the design layout for how the object is to be displayed along with the conservation and support needs of each particular object. Mountmakers work with curators, conservators, and collections managers to determine the best mount for each object and then meticulously craft each piece, measuring and testing it multiple times to ensure a perfect fit. It requires a great amount of attention to detail, but the result is that a good mount is a piece of artwork in itself.

Some of the mounts done for American Democracy:

An ivory pitcher sits on a pedestal and is lit from above. It has an eagle with laurels painted brown on one side and some sort of rod-like object painted to match the pitcher runs up the side of it and encircles the base.

Two photos juxtaposed of a lantern that looks like an accordion sitting propped up on a white base in a museum exhibit. In one photo a person wearing a purple glove holds a metal rod up which seems to be connected with a glass disco and another rod.

A number of lanterns of paper and metal on poles grouped together in a case in a dark exhibit

6) Lighting can make or break an exhibition—and its objects

Exhibition spaces are generally dark because light is damaging. Light causes things to fade and become brittle. However, it isn't worth putting objects on view if there isn't enough light to see them! Curators, collections managers, and conservators determine how much light an object can tolerate before incurring damage (measured in foot candles, a measurement of light intensity equal to the amount of light given off by one candle at a distance of one foot). Armed with that information, a team of lighting designers very carefully light each object in order to balance care for the object with public visibility. Lighting can set the tone for the exhibition as well, from creating a lively environment to a more subdued tone depending on the subject matter, similar to theater stage lighting (in fact many of the lighting designers we've worked with have backgrounds in stage lighting). When the house lights go off and exhibition-specific lighting is all that remains, not only are the objects better cared for, but the setting takes on a hushed, almost reverential feeling that emphasizes the importance of the objects themselves.

A view of an exhibit. Much of it is dark but some of it is spot-lit. There are signs and artifacts on pedestals.

5) Math: turns out even history majors need it, particularly during an exhibition installation

We often joke to friends and family that we don't do math because we are history people. But much to our dismay, we do have to do math. We have to give accurate measurements to the exhibition designers who must design the cases to the correct dimensions. We also have to be able to calculate square footage. We have to figure out how to center something of X size within a given space (Bethanee in particular does not have a natural affinity for this, she claims). Thankfully on this installation we had mountmakers who were skilled at this to take care of most of the cases. However, in the long campaign cases we refer to as our "gimmicks cases" we had to figure out how to fit over 400 objects into 24.25 linear feet. It took several team members many hours of creating layouts to get that just right!

You can put math on the "list of things we never thought we'd be doing when we majored in history." Considering that most people probably imagine history majors spending their careers in quiet libraries or dim archives, you could probably add a lot of things to that list, which brings us to number four:

4) When installing, you find yourself in some interesting places

Places we never expected to find ourselves on the job but did: At the top of a 12 foot ladder. Underneath a case. Inside a case. Crawling through a hole in the wall. Covered in dust from cleaning. Pulling mannequins on a flatbed. Lifting an 80-pound glass case cover. Driving a pallet jack. Using glass cups (think suction cups with handles that we use to open cases).

A pair of feet wearing womens shoes rests on a wooden platform underneath a sloping sigh of some sort. There is space between whatever is above the wooden platform and one can see several people's legs standing around in a room.

In a large, open case there is an ornate clock. A woman stands in front of it and two men hold open the doors.

3) Every installation is different

Between the two of us, we've worked on at least 10 exhibition installations out of the Division of Political History, and no two have been quite alike. The basis of each installation is the same, but each has its own unique set of circumstances. They are different not only because of who you work with, but because the objects are different. For example, a costume-heavy exhibition has different needs than American Democracy, which is mostly paper and 3D objects. The different objects require different mounts, different lighting, and different conservation techniques.

A woman sits in a large, long blue box with two squares cut out that look like windows. There is a dress on top of one of the boxes and on a similar box next to it there are hems of two more dresses.

2) It's equal parts difficult and a blast

Putting up an exhibition in time for a target opening date can require a lot of long, intense days, but it is also really, really fun. We work very closely with the entire exhibition crew (which includes case fabricators, conservators, construction teams, mountmakers, security, lighting designers, and many, many more) and develop a friendly working relationship. We are all required to work in close proximity, and frequently joke that the somewhat chaotic installation process is like a three-ring circus: mountmakers are installing objects, cases are being lit, and case alarms are being tested. After years of planning, the physical work is a whirlwind. You don't have time to get bored. As crews pack up to go home when opening nears, you get the bittersweet feeling of the end of a school year, a large dose of relief with a side of "I'm going to miss these people and this task."

And let's face it, being around objects like Thomas Jefferson's desk and the Great Clock of America never, ever gets old.

Two women stand with their hands on their hips in a glass case with colorful backgrounds. In the right image is a white piece of paper taped to glass.

A group of people stand smiling in front of a sign.

1) It's never actually over

Even after we've opened the exhibitions to the public, we are never truly done. We periodically rotate light-sensitive objects such as textiles and paper so they don't get damaged from too much light exposure. We update sections of exhibitions to keep them current (in American Democracy, especially, we will need to update our campaign section to reflect new political cycles). The curators and museum specialists responsible for the exhibition have to oversee it for its entire lifespan, be it six months or 20 years, and caring for it physically and intellectually doesn't end until it's de-installed.

But de-installation is another story.

Two women iare in an elevator with a formal white gown that is on a low, flat wheeled cart. One holds a handle to the cart and one stands behind the door frame, waving with only her head sticking out.

Sara Murphy and Bethanee Bemis are museum specialists and collections managers in the Division of Political History.

Posted Date: 
Tuesday, August 22, 2017 - 08:00
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