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Preliminary plans by Cluss and Schulze Architects, dated April 1878, for the United States National Museum building, now known as the Arts and Industries Building. Drawings are of the front elevation and cross sections of the building.
After a two-and-a-half year run of bringing the art of macabre to the masses, Brooklyn’s Morbid Anatomy Museum has closed its doors.
Museum board member and co-founder Tonya Hurley confirmed the news of the museum’s closure on her personal Facebook page Sunday night, reports Emma Whitford for Gothamist.
Just weeks before, the bestselling gothic author Anne Rice paid a visit to the eclectic museum with The New York Times’ Katie Rogers. As she made her way through the three-story building, she lingered on Victorian taxidermist Walter Potter’s work, “The Kittens’ Wedding,” where taxidermied kittens are positioned to look like they’re taking part in the celebration.
“There have to be kitties on the astral plane,” she mused.
Money troubles were what led to Morbid Anatomy Museum’s closure, Amanda Mikelberg reports for Metro. In order for the non-profit to stay open another year, the museum needed to raise at least $75,000.
Fashioned out of a former nightclub by Robert Kirkbride and Anthony Cohn, the 4,200-square-foot space opened its doors in June 2014. Featuring exhibitions, a working library as well as a lecture and events space, a gift shop and a café, the Morbid Anatomy Museum quickly became the darling of those interested in exploring death in its many forms. It developed a deserved reputation for often going, “where no other exhibition spaces have gone before,” notes Meaghan McGoldrick for the Brooklyn Reporter.
The museum first evolved out of a conversation between Hurley, her twin Tracy Hurley Martin and macabre expert Joanna Ebenstein one Halloween several years back. The sisters had attended a talk by Ebenstein on the cult of Santa Muerte at a Brooklyn library and they got to talking, Penelope Green reports for The New York Times.
At the time, Ebenstein oversaw the Morbid Anatomy Library, which had evolved following the popularity of her Morbid Anatomy blog. Their conversation about a brick-and-mortar museum dedicated to exploring the morbid quickly turned serious, Green reports. Soon, they, along with writer and editor Colin Dickey and former director of the Coney Island Museum Aaron Beebe, had pulled together a leadership team and launched a Kickstarter campaign for the museum.
During a Q&A with LennyLetter’s Dianca Potts in March, Hurley and Martin spoke about what makes the forces surrounding death such a rich topic. In a way, the pair was born into the subject as their great-uncle owned a funeral parlor. As Hurley told Potts, “We've always been obsessed with death really, since we were young, because it's horrifying but also because you have to do it alone and I don't think that we've ever been alone. We've always had each other.”
The closure of the physical museum, however, is not a call for a, well, post mortem, Whiftford reports. "We don’t yet know what comes next, but we’ll look forward to seeing you on the other side of this," the museum writes in a statement on Monday.
Fittingly, one of the museum’s last acts was to throw a party celebrating Krampus, Santa's “cloven-hooved, chain-swinging, lolling-tongued, child-punishing Eastern-European sidekick,” as the invitation’s description put it.
Editor's Note, December 20, 2016: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly reported that movie-set designers Robin Standefer and Stephen Alesch designed the Morbid Anatomy Museum. Robert Kirkbride and Anthony Cohn designed the Morbid Anatomy Museum. Standefer and Alesch designed Tracey Hurley Martin's house. We regret the error.
Engraving of the Smithsonian Institution Building, or "Castle," gateway with visitors outside the gates and man going through a door to the right of the gates. On the left is a dog running. The engraving was published in the Smithsonian Guidebook of 1857. The gates were designed in 1849 by James Renwick, but were not built in the nineteenth century.
The Ilka and Jacoby Lace Collection from the Gewerbe Museum, St. Gall, Switzerland, exhibited in the National Collection of Fine Arts, now the National Museum of American Art, gallery at the Natural History Building, February 11- March 4,1962. The exhibit, arranged in cooperation with the Ambassador of Switzerland, Dr. August R. Lindt, and the Swiss Cotton and Embroidery Industry, presents a history of lace from the 16th century to the present. It subsequently toured the United States under the aegis of the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service. This opening day photograph shows L to R: Thomas M. Beggs, director of NCFA; Remington Kellogg, assistant secretary of the SI and Dr. Lindt. Background shows rare antique needlepoint.
When word leaked out that President Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation, the 1863 document outlining the legal end of slavery in the United States, jubilation swept through the North. As far north as Vermont, church bells rang out in celebration. And on Friday, as America’s first African-American president dedicates America’s first national museum of African-American history, a famous bell will be rung in an echo of that happy day 153 years ago.
The bell in question is called the Freedom Bell, and it was specially restored for the event. Cast in 1886 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Williamsburg, Virginia’s historic First Baptist Church, the bell has long stood silent. That will all change on Friday, though, as the newly restored bell makes a trip to Washington for the the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. As the President rings the Freedom Bell in lieu of a ribbon-cutting, bells all over the country will ring in unison. At last count, at least 17 churches around the nation had plans to ring their bells in celebration.
“Everything’s coming full circle,” says Pastor Reverend Dr. Reginald Davis, who presides over the congregation of First Baptist. Davis wasn’t in church—he was riding on a bus that accompanied the bell from Williamsburg to Washington. And for the pastor, who is known for his scholarship on African-American icons like Frederick Douglass and his work interpreting scripture through an African-American lens, the bell means more than a chance to ring in a new museum.
“This bell represents the spirit of America,” Davis explains. For over a century, it’s been connected with a church whose history reads like a litany of the struggles and challenges faced by African-Americans throughout the nation’s history. Founded in 1776, the church was founded in defiance of laws that prevented black people from congregating or preaching. Gowan Pamphlet, the church’s first pastor, organized secret church outdoor church services for slaves and free people and survived whippings and accusations of criminal activity for the sake of his freedom to worship. But the church survived, and in memory of the congregation’s struggle for liberty and the wider struggles of African-Americans, the church’s women’s auxiliary raised money for a commemorative bell.
The Freedom Bell immediately took on an important role for the first Baptist church organized entirely by African-Americans. But history was not kind to the bell—it remained silent throughout much of the 20th century after falling into disrepair. That silence coincided with hard years for African-Americans, who had to contend with virulent racism and Jim Crow laws long after slavery’s technical end.
Bells have a long connection to the struggle for African-American civil rights in the United States. Perhaps the most famous example is Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell, which was adopted as a symbol of freedom by abolitionists and patriots alike during the 1830s. But they have links to oppression, too: Many slaves were forced to respond to plantation bells while working in the fields, and some were even fitted with personal bells designed to keep them from escaping.This device to keep slaves from running away was described by Moses Roper, a runaway slave whose 1839 account of the conditions of slavery was one of the first of its kind in the United States. (>NYPL)
After slavery ended, sound became inextricably linked with the struggle for African-American civil rights, from the strains of “We Shall Overcome” at Selma to Mahalia Jackson’s rendition of “Amazing Grace” at multiple Civil Rights rallies to President Obama’s intonations of the same song during his eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pickney, who was gunned down at the 2015 shooting of nine black churchgoers in Charleston. And then there was Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose booming “I Have a Dream” speech reminded Americans to let freedom ring.
For Davis, the sound of the newly-restored bell evokes both past and present. “We felt that this bell needs to be rung again so that we can help make our nation a more perfect union,” he said. “Looking at our current climate of racial division, of government division, we feel that we need to ring this bell again to bring us all together and to remind us that we are one nation under God.”
Restoring the 130-year-old bell was no easy task. Funded in part by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, the work finished up in time for Black History Month, when members of Davis’ congregation challenged themselves to ring the bell continuously for the entire month of February, in part to make up for the many events it never commemorated.
But the bell’s brief foray to Washington will not be its last sounding. After the museum opens, the 500-bell will be carted back home and rehung in the church. And you can ring it once it returns: The church is inviting members of the public to sign up to ring the bell themselves this October.
Whether you ring the bell in person, take part in a virtual bell-ringing by using the hashtag #LetFreedomRingChallenge online, or just watch the President ring in the new museum, Davis hopes you’ll remember the significance of its sound. “I’m part of an ongoing storytelling about a people up against significant odds,” he explained. “Due to their faith, courage and perseverance, [African-Americans] have been able to struggle on and help make our country live up to its creed.” Though that struggle is made more challenging by factors like ongoing police brutality against young African-American men and a climate of racial tension, he said, it can be easy to wonder if the nation has regressed. “Do we want to go back?” he asked. “What kind of progress will we continue to make? I think America wants to move forward.”
Can that work be accomplished by a single bell? Probably not—but by celebrating the culture and accomplishments of African-Americans, Davis hopes the museum and the bell will ring in a new era of cooperation and hope. “We see this as unfinished work,” he said. “The work goes on.”
Serious critics tend to dismiss dog-related art for being too kitschy and sentimental. But the newly rebooted Museum of the Dog is not trying to go head to head with MoMA. Rather the museum, which just made its return to the American Kennel Club's headquarters in Manhattan after three decades in suburban St. Louis, is using its 200-item collection to put the dog/human and dog/art relationship in context.
Highlights of the Museum of the Dog, per Amanda Morris at NPR, include a 30-million-year-old dog fossil, a terracotta paw print found in a Roman archaeological dig, a Victorian-era cart for children pulled by dogs and an Edwardian dog house designed for a Chihuahua.
The museum also presents famous doggos throughout history, including Edward VII's wire fox terrier Caesar, who was part of the king’s 1910 funeral procession. Likenesses of U.S. presidents also made the cut: there are paintings of George H.W. Bush’s English springer spaniel Millie and George W. Bush’s Scottish terriers Barney and Miss Beazley. (The museum has long had the approval of former FLOTUS Barbara Bush, who praised the museum in in a 1990 letter, according to Jennifer Peltz reports for the Associated Press.)
Artist William Wegman’s well-known Weimaraner muses are also on view, as is a case dedicated to Smoky, a Yorkshire terrier who crawled through a pipe in Luzon during World War II to reestablish communication between American units and served as a therapy dog for the wounded in the Pacific. You can also pay your respects to the remains of Belgrave Joe, the Fox Terrier who more or less set the standard for the breed.
As an organization, the American Kennel Club sets the standard for dog breeds in the U.S., so it’s no wonder the crown jewel of its museum is a 42,000-volume library on dogs and specific breeds. The museum also includes a digital encyclopedia of dog breeds, a kiosk that matches people to dogs based on how they look and a gallery exploring dogs in popular culture.
Purebred dog breeding has undergone its share of criticism in recent years. In an interview with the AP, Alan Fausel, the executive director, says the museum hopes to put its work in context. “I think the best thing to take away is the fact that dogs were meant to have different jobs,” Fausel tells Peltz at the AP. “It’s learning why they were purposely bred for certain jobs, and their activities and their attributes.”
Bree Driscoll at NY1 reports that the museum originally opened in New York in 1982 as part of the American Kennel Club’s offices. But due to a lack of financial support and space the club decided to relocate the museum to Jarville House, a mansion in Queeny Park in West St. Louis in 1987, where the more remote spot had trouble attracting people.
Last year, the museum received just 10,000 visitors, reports Peltz at the AP. The American Kennel Club has more ambitious plans for its new doghouse at 101 Park Avenue, hoping to attract 80,000 to 100,000 visitors this year. However, with the exception of service animals, those museum-goers will all be two-legged: the museum does not allow dogs.
As we reach day nine of the federal shutdown, it’s widely known that all 19 of the Smithsonian Institution’s museums are closed to the public due to the furloughs of all non-essential federal employees.
What’s less often discussed, though, is the fact that the Smithsonian is also an international research organization that employs hundreds of scientists—and consequently, the shutdown has impacted dozens of scientific projects across the U.S. and in far-flung locations around the world. Interrupting this work for even a short-term period, scientists say, can have lasting effects down the road, as in many cases, projects may have to be started anew due to gaps in data.
Because of the furloughs, many researchers and other personnel are unreachable (some may even face penalties for merely checking their e-mail), so collecting information is difficult. But here’s a partial list of Smithsonian research projects interrupted by the ongoing shutdown:
Nick Pyenson of the Natural History Museum has conducted fieldwork on every continent except Antarctica, excavating ancient fossils to understand the evolution of modern marine mammals. As part of his team’s current project, in Chile, they’re 3D scanning a particularly rich site that includes whale, penguin and seal fossils so scientists worldwide can study the digital data.
But last week, that work was abruptly halted. “The Smithsonian is closed, due to a federal government #shutdown. All Pyenson Lab social media, including coverage of the ongoing joint UChile expedition, will be suspended starting 12 pm EST (noon) today (1 Oct),” Pyenson wrote on Facebook. “Also, all federally funded Smithsonian employees are forbidden, under penalty of a $5,000.00 fine and up to 2 years in a federal prison, from logging into their SI email accounts. I will be out of contact until the federal government reopens.”
In 2011, Pyenson’s crew discovered a set of ancient whale fossils in the path of the Pan-American Highway and excavated them just in time. There might not be any looming highway projects currently, but leaving these precious fossils exposed to the elements still poses an enormous risk to their scientific value.
The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, which partners with Harvard to operate and analyze data from dozens of astronomical telescopes, located both on the ground and in space, has managed to keep most of its facilities operating thus far. “You have to shutter federal buildings, but some of these aren’t technically federal buildings,” says David Aguilar, an SAO spokesman, noting that many telescopes, such as those at the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory in Arizona, are shared with local universities and are still staffed by skeleton crews comprised mostly of non-federal employees.
Many SAO researchers, though, depend on data that comes from a range of non-Smithsonian telescopes that have already been shut down. This group includes radio astronomer Mark Reid, who conducts research with the Very Long Baseline Array, a group of telescopes operated by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory that stretches all the way from Hawaii to New England and was closed last week. “This is really bad,” he told Science. “If they don’t operate the telescopes, it could mean a year’s worth of data becomes useless.”
At the National Zoo, the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Virginia, and various research sites around the world, staff has been stripped down to the minimum level necessary to care for animals—and that means all of the research into how these animals behave and how their bodies function has been shut down.
“All of the scientists, with very few exceptions, have been furloughed,” says Steve Monfort, director of the SCBI. “So everything is shut down. All of our labs are closed, and dozens of projects have been put on hold.” This includes the Zoo’s endocrinology lab (which provides crucial services to dozens of zoos across the country to help them breed elephants and other animals) and the genetics lab (which analyzes biodiversity to sustain severely endangered species on the brink of extinction). “We’re pretty much dead in the water, as far as ongoing science work,” he says.
Additionally, some of these projects are conducted in some 35 different countries annually, so travel arrangements and international collaborations—such as a trip to China to study pandas and a Zoo team’s research into emerging infectious animal diseases in Uganda—have been delayed or cancelled.
“What the public sees when we put on displays is only the tip of the iceberg,” says David Ward, a curator at the National Portrait Gallery, which opened the (briefly) acclaimed exhibition “Dancing the Dream” the day before the shutdown. “There’s a tremendous amount of day-to-day work and research necessary to keep everything going, and we can’t do it right now. It’s very frustrating.”
Apart from designing exhibitions—a whole host of which will likely be delayed in opening, including the Sackler Museum’s exhibit on yoga in historic Asian art, the Hirshhorn’s “Damage Control,” a much-anticipated exhibition on the theme of destruction in contemporary at, and the American Art Museum’s “Our America” exhibition on Latino art—curators conduct research to expand knowledge in their fields. This work, too, has been interrupted by the shutdown.
Kristopher Helgen, the Natural History Museum curator and biologist who announced the discovery of the olinguito species to great fanfare in August, announced on Twitter today that he “had to turn away mammalogists from Oz, NZ, S Africa, Brazil, etc. Long way to come to find the collections closed.”
Because the majority of Smithsonian researchers and curators are furloughed and out of contact, what we currently know about interrupted science is only a small measure of the total effects of the shutdown. “I don’t have much information because, scientists are largely furloughed and silent,” says Kirk Johnson, director of the Natural History Museum. “The real impact of this will emerge once the lights are back on.”
As humans continue to transform the planet at an increasingly rapid rate, the need to inform and encourage change has become ever more urgent. The situation is becoming critical for wild species and for the preservation of human civilization. Recognizing this urgency, the Smithsonian Institution has formulated its first official statement about the causes and impacts of climate change.
With special emphasis on the Smithsonian’s 160-year history and tradition of collection, research and global monitoring, the statement delivers a bold assessment: "Scientific evidence has demonstrated that the global climate is warming as a result of increasing levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases generated by human activities."
"The 500 Smithsonian scientists working around the world see the impact of a warming planet each day in the course of their diverse studies," reads the statement. "A sample of our investigations includes anthropologists learning from the Yupik people of Alaska, who see warming as a threat to their 4,000-year-old culture; marine biologists tracking the impacts of climate change on delicate corals in tropical waters; and coastal ecologists investigating the many ways climate change is affecting the Chesapeake Bay."
“What we realized at the Smithsonian is that many people think that climate change is just an environmental topic,” says John Kress, acting undersecretary of science at the Smithsonian. “It’s much more than that. Climate change will affect everything.”
Many scientists, including Smithsonian researchers, believe we have entered a new interval called the Anthropocene. Coined in the 1980s by Eugene F. Stoermer, a researcher in diatoms, but popularized by atmospheric chemist and Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen in 2000, the term is derived from the Greek words anthrop for man and cene for current or new. Unlike the Holocene, which began at the end of the last glaciation about 12,000 years ago, the Anthropocene has no formal start date. But in adopting the term, the Smithsonian recently organized its initiative “Living in the Anthropocene” to “expand climate change outside of just science and take Smithsonian resources to look at what other scholars and professionals are doing in various areas with regard to climate change,” Kress says.
As part of this initiative, the Smithsonian is bringing together some of the nation’s top critical thinkers to offer their perspectives in a symposium on October 9 called “Living in the Anthropocene: Prospects for Climate, Economics, Health, and Security.” The symposium features Rachel Kyte, group vice president and special envoy for climate change at the World Bank; James J. Hack, the director of the National Center for Computational Science at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory; George Luber, the associate director for climate change in the Division of Environmental Hazards and Health Effects at the National Center for Environmental Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Admiral Thad Allen, the executive vice president of Booz Allen Hamilton and former commander of the U.S. Coast Guard; and Thomas L. Friedman, a Pulitzer-winning columnist for the New York Times.
For economies to grow and prosper, especially in underdeveloped countries, the need to address climate change is crucial. Last year, the World Bank changed their business model and added a special envoy for climate change to reach their goal of eradicating poverty by 2030. “Climate change is already having an impact on our goals because of extreme weather events. If you’re a country that is vulnerable to weather events, than those events can wipe out decades worth of development in just a few minutes or hours. We’ve seen countries and regions lose anywhere from 2 to 200 percent of their GDP,” Kyte says. “In almost every aspect of our economy, climate change is beginning to bite down, and that means we have to help our climate adapt and build a resilience plan for an increasingly uncertain future.”
Admiral Allen, who was designated principal federal official for the U.S. government’s response and recovery operations in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and later served as the national incident coordinator for the federal response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, agrees that there needs to be resilience, although he emphasizes a bottom-up concept. “I always tell people that the first responder in any natural disaster is you and the second first responder is your neighbor. The more you become resilient, the less demand you put on the services in the community and the more you can help each other to create a resilient community.”
The Smithsonian initiative will also examine the health effects that emerge from changing environments and climate, including deaths, disease and trauma. “We have the direct effects of events like hurricanes, which have both immediate and long-lasting health consequences, but then we also have health effects that come with changing ecology. There are pathogens such as Lyme disease or dengue fever that are sensitive to weather, and their environment can expand or shift,” says Luber, who is also an epidemiologist.
Understanding such complex systems requires computational models, which can make predictions and reveal current activities on both grand and small scales. “The better the computational foundations and facilities to help the scientists, the more we’re going to start making progress toward more formally evaluating where uncertainties lie in the process of developing models,” Hack says. Even small uncertainties in the data could have trillion-dollar impacts and undermine faith in the modeling community, he adds.
As the struggle to understand and cope with global change continues, a “unity of effort” is needed across all platforms to better understand our challenges and determine solutions. “I think the challenge is to understand the complexity of the world we live in and the interaction of technology, human beings and the natural environment and try and think of new ways to build in resiliency into not only the human side of the planet but also the natural side,” Admiral Allen says.
James J. Hack, Rachel Kyte, George Luber, Admiral Thad Allen and Thomas L. Friedman will speak at the Smithsonian Institution on October 9, 2014 at a one-day symposium entitled, “Living in the Anthropocene: Prospects for Climate, Economics, Health, and Security,” 9:15 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., with a reception to follow in the Baird Auditorium at the National Museum of Natural History. The event is free and open to the public, but space is limited. To get your ticket, RSVP to Consortia@si.edu by October 7.
HOK were the architects selected. However their original design was revised and this became the final design.
For the 1972 final design by Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum (HOK), see Neg. SIA2017-018111 through 018119, SIA2017-018122 through SIA2017-018134, and 94-2479. For other designs for a proposed new National Air Museum see: United States, Public Building Administration 1949; McKim, Mead & White 1955; Harbeson, Hough, Livingston & Larson 1962; and HOK's preliminary design of 1964.
The original design was revised and this final design is a drawing of an exterior view for the new National Air Museum (now known as the National Air and Space Museum), designed by Gyo Obata of Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum (HOK). The drawing is of the outside facade of the museum on the Mall side and shows people on the walkway and the United States Capitol in the distance.
Caption from Torch: "There's a new look to the Hirshhorn Museum's fountain plaza, where eight spectacular banners in black, white, and six colors are now hanging. The 22-foot nylon banners, suspended from poles alongside gallery windows, were designed by HMSG's exhibits and design department, headed by Joseph Shannon."
A bevy of billionaires, including Bill and Melinda Gates, Warren Buffett and Ted Turner, joined Smithsonian officials last week, to launch an initiative to research and document the country’s philanthropic history and its role in shaping the nation.
“Expansive, active, results-driven philanthropy is a particularly American innovation, a type of philanthropy that reflects the core values and character of this nation,” said Smithsonian Secretary David J. Skorton.
As part of the program, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History hosted a half-day symposium to explore philanthropy’s impact on American life. Designed to examine the power and impact of all types of giving, the Smithsonian initiative supports an annual symposium, an exhibition display and endows a curatorial position.
Launched on the fourth anniversary of the annual #GivingTuesday, a global outpouring of donations fueled by social media, the movement’s creator Henry Timms, director of the 92nd Street Y, a New York City community and cultural center, was on hand as one of the featured speakers. According to Timms, more than 40,000 organizations participated this year and raised more than $116 million.
It was on #GivingTuesday this year that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan honored the birth of their daughter Maxima with a pledge to donate 99 percent of their Facebook shares, valued at $45 billion, to a new limited liability corporation known as the Chan Zuckerburg Initiative. (Critics quickly jumped in to question the unusual arrangement because the new entity does not have nonprofit status.)
By contrast, the Smithsonian philanthropy initiative sparked little in the way of controversy, but a powerhouse of beneficient donors witnessed as museum director John L. Gray accepted into the collections a simple relic of American charity—a firefighter's boot.
The scuffed and careworn artifact, sporting stickers for muscular dystrophy, along with a sign used to gather money from motorists at traffic light intersections was donated by fire and rescue personnel from Fairfax County, Virginia. The crew has set national records for their charitable solicitations.
Gray also accepted signs and a banner from Jamie McDonald, the founder of Generosity Inc., who ran the BMoreGivesMore campaign during #GivingTuesday 2013, and which raised $5.7 million—earning Baltimore the moniker #MostGenerousCity.
Image by NMAH/SI. A firefighters boot scuffed and careworn, and sporting stickers for muscular dystrophy is now in the collections. (original image)
Image by NMAH/SI. From the “Fill the Boot” campaign for muscular dystrophy (original image)
Image by NMAH/SI. Donations included a firefighter’s boot from the Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Department and the Fairfax County Professional Fire Fighters & Paramedics and sign and T-shirt from the #BMoreGivesMore 2013 campaign. (original image)
When the lights dimmed suddenly and dramatically, a textile conservator wheeled out the fragile three-piece silk suit that Benjamin Franklin wore to secure the 1778 Treaty of Alliance with France. The rare artifact prompted oohs and aahs from the audience and Gray noted a historic first in the art of giving by none other than Franklin himself. Known as the father of American philanthropy, Franklin’s pioneering efforts to collect money from all who would benefit helped to build the nation’s first hospital and public subscription library.
“Franklin introduced an alternative way of thinking about the improvement of mankind, a way that proved to be more democratic, egalitarian, creative and resourceful, much like the new nation itself,” Gray reminded them.
David Rubenstein, co-founder and co-CEO of the Carlyle Group and a member of the Smithsonian Board of Regents, later moderated a panel that examined the past century of American philanthropy. He asked Warren Buffett, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway holding Inc., about the origins of The Giving Pledge, a commitment by the world’s wealthiest individuals and families to dedicate the majority of their wealth to philanthropy.
Buffett, who still lives in the same modest house in Omaha, Nebraska, that he purchased in 1958, explained that it was an idea developed in 2010 with Bill and Melinda Gates, David Rockefeller Sr., and others after a serious slump in philanthropic giving followed the 2007 financial crisis. Currently, 139 individuals and families have signed the pledge. A rotating selection of these pledge letters is on view as part of the Smithsonian’s philanthropy exhibit.A preview case unveiled Dec. 1, 2015 includes a register book showing the 1,600 libraries financed by steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie and an 1881 gown designed by English fashion designer Charles Frederick Worth for philanthropist Mary Eno Pinchot. (NMAH/SI)
Buffett has promised about 95 percent of his estimated $64 billion fortune to five philanthropies, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. He described the thinking behind his bequests.
“When we were in our 20s, my wife and I decided that we would give away all the money that we didn’t need, and basically, we didn’t think we would need that much,” he said. “Originally, I thought that my first wife would outlive me and I would do ‘the piling up’ and she would do ‘the unpiling,’ but when she died first, I had to have a plan that made sense.“
Buffet, 85, also made it clear that he wants all his funds to be spent within 10 years after his estate is settled. “I do not believe in trying to figure out what the needs of the world are going to be,” he continued.
“You won’t be looking down to see what’s happening?” asked Rubenstein.
“I’ll be looking up, actually,” he quipped.
Rubenstein, who’s estimated worth is $2.8 billion, also signed the Giving Pledge after reading an article detailing that the average, white male lived to be 81.
“I realized that I had lived two-thirds of my normal expected life and I could either take all my money and be buried with it and have an executor give it away, or I could give it away while I was alive,” he said. “I realized that I had made a lot more money than I really needed and my family needed, so I started the process of giving it away.”
Among the many projects to which he has donated are repairs to the Washington Monument after earthquake damage, the purchase of a copy of the Magna Carta for permanent display at the National Archives, the endowment of the panda habitat at the National Zoo, and repairs at both George Washington’s Mount Vernon, and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.
Rubenstein, along with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, endowed the Smithsonian’s Philanthropy Initiative, to among other things, encourage people of every income level to give back.
“My goal has been to expand the concept of philanthropy beyond rich people writing checks," he said. "Money does not have to be the only way that you measure philanthropy. It can be about your energy, your time, your ideas or your volunteerism.”
In another panel discussion, Melinda Gates explained how she and her husband Bill narrowed their philanthropic focus since they started their foundation in 2000. Bill Gates has an estimated worth of more than $79 billion.
“Warren gave us really good advice early on. To figure out who we are and what we cared about deeply and then to define our bull’s-eye and the rest would sort of fall away. I still feel badly if we don’t give to lung cancer, but I know that others are doing that,” said Gates.
“The other great advice that he gave was ‘swing for the fences.’ These are hard problems that society has left behind, so you’ve got to take risks and not everything is going to work, and you are going to do a few things that might look foolish, but that’s OK. You have to take on these tough problems and I have to get comfortable being uncomfortable, and that’s the most important lesson I’ve learned,” she continued.
The Gates Foundation primarily focuses on global health, global poverty reduction and K-12 education in the United States.
Philanthropy has always been close to the Smithsonian’s heart. The Institution itself was founded by an act of individual giving. James Smithson, a British scientist, left his estate to the United States in 1829 for “an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” This year marks the 250th anniversary of Smithson’s birth. As well, the treasures that make up the vast majority of the Institution’s collections are often donated.
The National Museum of American History will open the first, full-scale philanthropy exhibition entitled “Giving in America” on #GivingTuesday 2016. The preview case currently on view focuses on how philanthropy has shaped civic culture in both the Gilded Age (1870 – 1900) and the present day.