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How Maps Shaped Shakespeare

Smithsonian Magazine

William Shakespeare knew his way around a map—just look at how King Lear divides his kingdom into three parts, creating chaos while he pursues his “darker purpose.” But what did the world look like when the Bard still walked the earth? An exhibition at the Boston Public Library celebrates the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death through historical maps. The play might be the thing for Shakespeare, but these maps, Linda Poon reports for CityLab, shed light on the playwright’s unique perspective and how he created drama for 16th-century theatergoers.

Shakespeare Here and Everywherewhich can be viewed at the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library through February 26, 2017, uses maps to show how Shakespeare thought of far-off worlds. Though he was based in England, the Bard often used foreign settings to create exotic stories—and thanks to the development of maps and atlases during his era, he was able to elevate what amounted to armchair traveling into fine art.

International travel was treacherous and expensive during Shakespeare’s day, so it’s not surprising that neither he nor many of his contemporaries ever left England. But in a time before TV or the internet, maps were a source not just of coveted information, but of entertainment. As the British Museum notes, to own or look at a map meant the viewer was literally worldly, and atlases and wall maps were used not as ways of navigating places most people would never encounter, but as symbols of education and adventure.

Can’t make it to Boston? Do some armchair traveling of your own: You can view the maps in the exhibition on the library’s website. Or explore the locales mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays with Shakespeare on the Map, a project that uses Google Maps to show how the playwright used location.

Editor's note, December 6, 2016: The piece has been updated to reflect that the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center is an independent organization located at the Boston Public Library.

“… of course, it’s electric!”

Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum
WestinghouseAdvertBHAG“The Battle of the Centuries” was a dish washing contest between Mrs. Drudge and Mrs. Modern, between hand washing vs. electric dishwashers at the 1939/40 New York World’s Fair. This contest promoted all the benefits of modern appliances and is part of the history of new and improved technology in the modern age. The Cooper Hewitt Library...

“This letter was left here for you. Yes, you!!”

National Postal Museum
By Ren Cooper, Marketing AssistantHere at the National Postal Museum, we love letters. Obviously! As poet and cleric John Donne once wrote, “…more than kisses, letters mingle souls.” One of our steadfast security officers came upon an unexpected object that had slipped into a crack within the mud wagon: a letter. How fitting for a museum dedicated to the preservation, study, and presentation of postal history!

“This is 9-1-1. What is your emergency?”: A history of raising the alarm

National Museum of American History

At 2 p.m. on February 16, 1968, a special red telephone rang at the police station in Haleyville, Alabama. Rather than a police officer, U.S. Congressman Tom Bevill answered the call. On the other end of the line was Alabama Speaker of the House Rankin Fite, calling from the mayor’s office (actually located in another part of the same building). Bevill’s simple answer of “hello” may not rank alongside Samuel Morse’s “What hath God wrought,” but it ushered in an important part of daily life, one that has saved countless American lives over the past 50 years. The call marked the first use of the emergency number 9-1-1, a technological answer to a life-and-death question—how do you get help quickly in the event of an emergency? Americans wrestling with the problem have experimented with many innovative solutions over the years.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, getting to the scene of a fire as quickly as possible was the best defense against a damaging conflagration. Just as today, time was of the essence. Watchmen would alert the populace with wooden rattles and raise the alarm by shouting through the streets (sometimes known as “hallooing fire”). Citizens and volunteer firefighters alike would grab leather buckets, hooks, axes, and other necessary equipment and head in the direction of the clamor. A simple fire pumper might be drawn by hand to the scene as well. But finding a fire fast, especially in a warren of urban streets, could be difficult.

Wooden device with a grooved handleA wooden alarm rattle like this one would have been standard equipment for watchmen patrolling city streets in late-18th and early-19th-century America.

The citizens of Philadelphia tried one solution when they restored the steeple of the Pennsylvania State House (better known as Independence Hall) in 1828. They hung a new bell and put a watchman on duty to keep a lookout for fires. Franklin Peale, son of painter Charles Willson Peale, suggested an alarm system for the new bell that would direct fire companies to the scene of a blaze. In the event of a fire near the State House itself, the bell in the steeple was rung continuously. One peal at regular intervals indicated a fire to the north, two peals meant a fire to the south, three to the east, four to the west, and so on. This system is preserved in the decoration on the top of a fire hat from Philadelphia in the museum collections. A compass rose, with a bell at the center, displays the alarm code. Bell codes were used in other cities as well, like New York. In Boston, the city was divided into fire districts, and church bells would peal the number of a district where a fire was discovered. However, the 19th century saw American cities growing in size and population, and a better system was needed to pinpoint the location of an emergency.

Two images; Left, a fire hat with elaborate designs. Right, the top of the hat decorated with a compass rose.This fire hat, worn by a member of Philadelphia’s Taylor Hose Company, has the bell code for the city painted on its crown, in the form of a compass rose. The marks stand for the number of peals of the bell that corresponded to each direction, with Independence Hall as the center point.

William F. Channing and Moses Farmer were both obsessed with the potential for electromagnetism and telegraphy. Specifically, both believed it could be harnessed to create a reliable and near-instantaneous fire alarm system throughout the city of Boston. The two collaborated to lobby city officials to fund “the Application of the Electric Telegraph to signalizing Alarms of Fire” (as their presentation was titled) and received $10,000 to develop and establish their system.

After running nearly 50 miles of wire throughout the city, connected to dozens of alarm boxes and bells, Channing and Farmer’s system was ready in the spring of 1852. If someone opened an alarm box and turned a small crank, the special-purpose telegraph would send out a pulsating electric current to electromagnets that pulled and released the bell clappers, producing alarms both at the scene of the emergency and at the central station, where the location was recorded. The first attempt by the public to use the system was on April 29, 1852. Unfortunately, the helpful citizen cranked too fast, such that the message could not be read, and the man had to run to the central signal office to alert them of the fire in person. Nevertheless, Channing and Farmer would continue to refine their system, and within months it proved a reliable tool in raising the alarm in Boston.

Channing and Farmer made a joint application for a patent for their system, and a patent was issued on May 19, 1857 (Patent No. 17355). Their patent model resides today in the Electricity Collections here at the museum, along with earlier prototypes.

A wooden model. It consists of a wooden base supporting an upright board that has two fire alarm transmitting stations operated by a crank and one alarm station, powered by two battery cells at the back.This is the original patent model for William Channing and Moses Farmer’s “Electromagnetic Fire Alarm Telegraph for Cities.” Patent No. 17355 was issued on May 19, 1857. It consists of a wooden base supporting an upright board that has two fire alarm transmitting stations operated by a crank and one alarm station, powered by two battery cells at the back.

It was at a Smithsonian Institution lecture in March 1855 that emergency alarms took another step. At that lecture, William Channing described the details and merits of the Channing and Farmer system, humbly noting theirs was “a higher system of municipal organization than any which has heretofore been proposed or adopted.” Despite this lofty claim, both men had failed to sell their system to other cities and municipalities, and Channing was falling into debt.

Attending the lecture was John Nelson Gamewell, a postmaster and telegraph operator from Camden, South Carolina. Seeing an opportunity, Gamewell raised the funds to buy the rights to market the Channing and Farmer system. Beginning in 1856, he sold the system to several American cities, including New Orleans, St. Louis, and Philadelphia. By 1859 Gamewell obtained the full rights and patents to the system and was on the verge of creating a fire alarm empire when the Civil War broke out. The U.S. government seized the patents from the Confederate Gamewell, and John Kennard, a fire official from Boston, bought them on the cheap in 1867.

After the war, Gamewell moved north and partnered with Kennard to create a new company to manufacture and sell fire alarms. Building on their success, Gamewell established the Gamewell Fire Alarm Telegraph Company, and its logo—a fist holding a clutch of lightning bolts—would soon be found on alarm boxes throughout North America. By 1890 Gamewell systems were installed in nearly 500 cities in the United States and Canada.

A red box shaped like a fire house station with a pull handle. The box is decorated with the company logo of Gamewell, complete with a hand gripping bolts of electricity.An example of a Gamewell fire alarm box, with the company’s innovative Peerless 3 Fold mechanism still inside. This unit dates to the mid-1940s. By the early 20th century, Gamewell had over 90% of the market share in the United States; these fire alarm boxes would have been a common feature in nearly every American town and city.

While Gamewell boxes became a common sight on public streets and buildings in the early 20th century, more and more Americans were installing a new device in their homes and businesses: the telephone. Before the advent of rotary dial phones (ask your parents, kids), all calls went through with operator assistance, and emergency calls could be directed to the appropriate party. With dial service, a person with an emergency had to call direct to their local police station, hospital, or fire department. Experiments with a universal emergency number in the UK in the 1930s prompted the National Association of Fire Chiefs to recommend such a system for the United States in 1957. On January 12, 1968, after a decade of study and debate and presidential commissions, the Federal Communications Commission and AT&T announced the selection of 9-1-1 as a national emergency number. One FCC member boasted at the time that 911 would be better remembered than 007.

The number was indeed easy to remember, quick to dial when needed, particularly on rotary phones (did you ask?), and difficult to dial in error. AT&T had already established special three-digit numbers—4-1-1 for directory assistance and 6-1-1 for customer service—so the new emergency number fit the existing system.

Some 2,000 independent phone companies in the United States had been left out of the decision, many preferring “0” as the standard number. Nevertheless, one such company decided get behind 9-1-1 in a big way. Bob Gallagher, the president of the Alabama Telephone Company (ATC), decided his company would beat “Ma Bell” to the punch. ATC staff picked Haleyville as the best location and worked after hours to design and implement the infrastructure. Almost exactly one month after AT&T’s announcement, Speaker Fite and Congressman Bevill spoke over the first dedicated 9-1-1 line. Nome, Alaska, would debut a 9-1-1 system about a week later.

A red rotary phoneThe phone from the first 9-1-1 call, on display in Haleyville, Alabama. Photo courtesy of Mayor Ken Sunseri, Haleyville, Alabama.

It would take time for the system to grow in the United States, so publicity like that which surrounded the Haleyville call helped to spread the idea. Twenty years later, only half the U.S. population had access to a 9-1-1 system. By the end of the last century, that number had grown to well over 90%. Today an estimated 240 million calls a year are made to 9-1-1. Upwards of 80% of these calls now come from wireless devices, something almost impossible to consider 50 years ago, just as the watchman with a wooden rattle might not envision an alarm traveling over electrical wires.

Tim Winkle is the deputy chair of the Division of Home and Community Life and the curator of the Firefighting and Law Enforcement Collection.

Posted Date: 
Thursday, February 15, 2018 - 06:30
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“This Is a D.C. Thing!” Head-Roc on Social Issues in Music

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage

He has been called the “Mayor of D.C. Hip-Hop.” Vance Levy, known to many as Head-Roc, has made a name for himself across the region through his commitment to making and supporting music that matters. On the scene since 1993—as a founding member of Infinite Loop and a member of Three Levels of Genius (3LG), which won the Washington Area Music Association’s hip-hop award four times—his musical talents and fearless outspokenness have distinguished him as a force to be reckoned with on and off the stage.

With his initiative Chocolate City Rocks, Levy works to bring public awareness and support to socially conscious D.C. artists by organizing performances and other events held around the city. As a writer, he has commented on local issues for the Washington City Paper and Huffington Post DC. As the education director for Washington Area Lawyers for the Arts, he also contributes to ensuring that artists have access to legal resources.

Levy grew up near Seventh and Kennedy streets NW, an area he refers to as “Uptown.” Though his family later moved to Maryland, he has spent much of his adult life working and living in the district. From this vantage point, he can testify to how music in the city has impacted both him and the broader culture of Washington, D.C.

Here’s what he had to say in an interview from September 2019.

How did you get the name Head-Roc?

My first name, attribute, was G-Clef. It stands for Giving Civilized Lessons Educating Forever. I went by that in the hip-hop collective I’m a member of, the Infinite Loop. One day we were doing a show with KRS-ONE in a place called the Zulu Cave, which was near Bladensburg Road and New York Avenue—where the train tracks are—at a place called De Zulu Cave. This was a place that catered to sounds from Jamaica, reggae music, dance hall. At this show, I was handling the business for the Infinite Loop, and there were some negotiations that needed to happen last minute.

So, I was talking to the promoter, and there was a Rasta nearby, who, apparently, witnessed everything that went down between me and the promoter. When that situation ended, he stopped us and he said, “Man, where I’m from, we call you Heady!” And they started laughing, and they started calling me Heady, and they wouldn’t call me G-Clef no more.

So to put the “hip-hopinization” on it, if you will: Head. Dash. Roc. You got Vin Rock (Naughty By Nature), Chubb Rock. You got a lot of “Rocks,” you know, so: Head-Roc. That’s how that came about.

How has D.C. music influenced you?

Fourth or fifth grade, sixth grade, middle school, high school—that’s when I really began to identify D.C. music. Like understanding about go-go, “Oh, this is a D.C. thing!” You know, you heard it, but I began to understand it as something unique to D.C. in my middle school years, in the 1980s. Once we identified that this is from D.C., we all wanted to play it. So, we would have go-go bands in the garage, practicing in the garage at my parents’ house or at my friends’ parents’ houses.

How did you know you wanted to be a musician?

In elementary school, I used to make comic books with a group of friends. It was called the “Cosmic Comics Group.” We would have our own comic book characters. We had our own universe. That was my first artistic expression.

It wasn’t until high school when a brother named Sir Johnson and his family moved into my neighborhood. They were from New Jersey. Sir was a barber. He used to cut hair for Busta Rhymes. He’s actually quite a figure in hip-hop. I don’t like to say he’s a “background” figure, but, you know, he was a less recognized figure in hip-hop.

But let me be clear about this: I attribute meeting him to be the origins of my wanting to be a musician. One thousand percent! His family had two turntables in the basement and all these records. I had never seen a setup like that before. And they would be in there practicing, DJing and all that. There was a brother, who goes by the name DJ Infinite, used to live with the Johnson family. He and I, together with Sir, formed a group we called Last Resort.

I credit Infinite and Sir and the Johnson family with being the reasons why I eventually decided that I could earn a living as an artist in the discipline of music.

What do you find most powerful and unique about D.C. music?

For me as a black artist, D.C. music is very bluesy. It’s very soulful. It’s very funky. We are laid back! We some laid back cats here. So I have a D.C. understanding of rhythm, and that gave me an advantage in hip-hop because our rhythm is laid back. It’s very funk, heavily funk-based. And what’s more, the standards for funk here are very high. Extremely high. There are a lot of D.C. musicians that play all over the world, in funk bands, in different types of outfits that require a funky understanding of rhythm, if you will.

I find this to be true of D.C. music, whether it’s go-go, hip-hop, punk: a lot of us are talking about the social conditions in this town because this is the nation’s capital. If there’s one place in the country where the Constitution and the amendments—where like things are supposed to run by the book, it’s supposed to be here. But it doesn’t run like that! So that’s what artists are talking about.

Even in go-go music, I mean very powerful music. The Junkyard Band’s song “The Word,” talking about Reagan and the Pentagon. It’s a go-go song talking about Reagan in the early eighties! They’re talking about what’s going on in this town. Hip-hop music does the same thing, and so does the punk community. The punk community’s famous for talking about what’s going on in this town. And then there’s the music of other cultures and communities here as well, who are expressing themselves as they carve out their way to hold their ground to survive in this city.

So there’s a lot going on. There’s pop culture and the mainstream and what you would call the “underground.” I’d like to give it a little more prestige than that: “independent”! Let’s say it like that. There’s the community that is independent of the opinions of the mainstream and pop gatekeepers and tastemakers, and so at that independent level, aw man, everybody knows D.C. music is awesome! Some of the best musicians in the country, in the world, come out of here!

Find more from Head-Roc on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Flyer for “Make Me Wanna Holler!” event on April 20, 2019
Design by Emmaline Nelson, National Postal Museum

Perspectives on D.C.’s Music Legacy

Music is embedded into every nook and cranny of D.C. It begs the question: what is D.C. music? Can it be defined?

On April 20, 2019, the Smithsonian collaborated with Chocolate City Rocks and the Charles Sumner School Museum and Archives to present Make Me Wanna Holler!, a series of activities celebrating the U.S. Postal Service’s new stamp honoring D.C. native son Marvin Gaye. Levy organized a discussion in which artists working in different social spaces dug deep into their thoughts and feelings about D.C.

The panel included Elise Bryant (DC Labor Chorus and the Labor Heritage Foundation), Anthony Fields (hip-hop musician, BKA Dimensions of The Package, A.R.K., Infinite Loop), Raj Lidj (funk/go-go musician and creator of Reg’go), and Katy Otto (punk musician and activist, Trophy Wife). Read transcripts of audio excerpts.

Vance “Head-Roc” Levy: What Is D.C. Music?

Levy begins the panel discussion by sharing his thoughts on the meaning of “D.C. music.” He calls attention to the significance of go-go and its components, addressing why it’s so significant to D.C.’s culture.

Katy Otto: The D.C. Punk Scene

Otto talks about her introduction to punk music in high school and how it resonated with her, inspiring her to play the drums.

Ras Lidj: The Reg-go Sound

Creator of the “reg-go” sound, Ras Lidj recites lyrics from two songs, beginning with “Tour Bus,” which was inspired by his experience working at Tower Records in Northwest D.C. during the day and not being able to find cabs that were willing to take him home at night.

Katy Otto, Infinite, Elise Bryant, and Ras Lidj take part in a discussion panel moderated by Vance Levy
Katy Otto, Infinite, Elise Bryant, and Ras Lidj take part in a discussion panel moderated by Vance Levy.
Photo by Nichole Procopenko, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives
A chalkboard at the panel discussion asks, “What does D.C. music mean to you?” Visitors responded on Post-It notes.
Photo by Nichole Procopenko, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives
A chalkboard at the panel discussion asks, “What does D.C. music mean to you?” One visitor responded, “Go-go, hand dancing, marching bands...everything!!”
Photo by Sojin Kim, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

Gissel Bonilla is a senior at School Without Walls, a magnet school in Northwest D.C. She volunteered at the 2018 Smithsonian Folklife Festival and began interning at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage in 2019 through the Center for Inspired Teaching’s afterschool program, Real World History.

Special thanks to Takoma Radio WOWD FM for the audio recording of the discussion session.

“The Poem of Fujiwara no Michinobu Ason” from the series The Hundred Poems Explained by the Nurse (Hyaku’nin Isshu Uba-ga-Etoki)

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Travelers setting out at the first blush of dawn shows pairs of men running with heavy cargo balancing on their shoulders — two sets in the foreground alternate between men who are carrying bails of round sacks. Shown in the bottom right corner is a man bent over to fix his sandal with his heavy load resting on the side. The background shows a trail of workers running further in the distance. In front of them is a slower group of people hunched over as they walk towards the rising sun. Throughout the landscape are meandering trails and the silhouette of a forest just beyond the horizon.


Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum
Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum has announced that a special exhibition, “Partnering with Nature,” will be on view at the World Economic Forum’s 50th Annual Meeting, Jan. 21 through Jan. 24 in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland. Drawing from the “Nature—Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial” exhibition originally organized by Cooper Hewitt and Cube design museum, this adaptation is a collaboration...

“Old" Nice

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
View looking down on houses, close together.

“Mega” Architecture: An Evening with Moshe Safdie

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

“Mega” Architecture: An Evening with Moshe Safdie

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

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

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

“Less, but better”

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

“Langley Leap” at the Hirshhorn Library

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

“La Salle Wilton” Pattern

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Rectangular black wool rug with grey double border and central wreath of grey lattice pattern with abstracted lilies, blossoms and shapes in gradients of rust, orange and yellow; corners boast additional lattice pattern punctuated by orange circles.


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

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

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

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

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Eye”-vy League Bulldog

Smithsonian Insider

In this poster, graphic designer Paul Rand plays with the iconography of eye charts to create a clever advertisement for Yale University. He incorporates the […]

The post “Eye”-vy League Bulldog appeared first on Smithsonian Insider.

“Cubearc,” [2,3]

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

“Color in a New Light” tote bags now available

Smithsonian Libraries

Back to school means back to books! And why not tote around your favorite tomes in a Color in a New Light tote bag? Through the Smithsonian Libraries exhibition Color in a New Light , visitors follow the theme of color through the collections and make a few unexpected connections and discoveries. Now, book lovers more »

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“Color in a New Light” puzzle now available

Smithsonian Libraries

On view in the National Museum of Natural History until March 2017, the exhibition Color in a New Light explores the theme of color through Smithsonian Libraries collections. Now you can take some vibrant color home with the Color in a New Light puzzle, produced with the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum and manufactured by more »

The post “Color in a New Light” puzzle now available appeared first on Smithsonian Libraries Unbound.

“Closing the Cycle”: Sustainable Fashion with Eileen Fisher and Patagonia

Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum
In conjunction with the exhibition Scraps: Fashion, Textiles, and Creative Reuse, a discussion with two fashion leaders whose companies are at the forefront of the industry’s sustainability movement. Eileen Fisher, who founded her namesake company in 1984, and Nellie Cohen, Patagonia’s Worn Wear program manager, will explain how their organizations have innovated the reuse of...

“Closing the Cycle”: Sustainable Fashion with Eileen Fisher and Patagonia

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
In conjunction with the exhibition Scraps: Fashion, Textiles, and Creative Reuse, a discussion with two fashion leaders whose companies are at the forefront of the industry’s sustainability movement. Eileen Fisher, who founded her namesake company in 1984, and Nellie Cohen, Patagonia’s Worn Wear program manager, will explain how their organizations have innovated the reuse of textiles in the production process and transformed “closed cycle” design into a profitable business model. Moderated by Associate Curator of Textiles at Cooper Hewitt, Susan Brown.

“Call Me Ishmael” Is the Only Melville Tradition in This Innovative Presentation of “Moby Dick”

Smithsonian Magazine

“Call me Ishmael.” So begins Arena Stage’s current presentation of the play Moby Dick. But after that familiar line, this highly engaging production shrugs off tradition with strobe lights flashing, giant waves crashing and the audience swept up in a relentless sense of movement. The play has become an "experience" of life aboard the Nantucket whaler Pequod with Capt Ahab in pursuit of the white whale Moby-Dick.

Arriving at Arena from Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company and with an upcoming stop at South Coast Repertory in Cosa Mesa, California in January, Moby Dick is the product of a multidisciplinary group that received the 2011 Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theatre.

Founded in 1988, the company is dedicated to creating original, story-centered theater through physical and improvisational techniques. For this production, playwright-director and founding member David Catlin was inspired by the challenge of transforming Herman Melville’s lengthy 1851 novel into a compact 21st-century production that reflects the pace and interaction demanded by today’s audiences.

As a faculty member of Northwestern University, Catlin calls himself a “theater-maker who acts, writes, directs and teaches.” Since Lookingglass was created, he has been part of more than 50 world premieres, and currently serves as the company’s director of artistic development.

Traditional “static theater” is dead-in-the-water to today’s theatergoers who are “used to interacting with multiple screens” and multitasking, says Catlin. So the idea for Moby Dick was to dramatically reimagine Melville’s classic seafaring tale, strip it of convention, and make it pulsate with bold acrobatics.

“We refer to the stage as the deck,” Catlin says, and “the people working back stage are the crew.”

He appreciates that theater has long been a primarily auditory experience. “In Shakespearean England, you wouldn’t go to see a play, you’d go to hear a play,” he says, referring to the rich language and iambic rhythms of Elizabethan theater. 

While he respects that tradition, Catlin wants to experiment with a type of theater that people “can experience in other ways, too.”

Lookingglass continually innovates with a performance style that shapes an immersive audience environment. Their method incorporates music, circus, movement, puppetry and object animation, symbol and metaphor, and visual storytelling to create work that is visceral, kinesthetic, cinematic, aural and psychological.  

The company collaborated with The Actors Gymnasium, in Evanston, Illinois, one of the nation’s premier circus and performing arts training centers. Actors tell their stories acrobatically, propelling themselves across a set designed as a ship’s deck. Filled with interlocking cables and rope riggings, the entire stage, or deck, is framed by arching steel-tubed pipes suggesting the curved ribs of a whale. The set, says Catlin, conveys the long connection between theater and ships—many of the mechanical elements used to move theatrical scenery are common to sailing, such as the block and tackle used to raise and lower curtains, and the use of rope lines.

This production of Moby Dick with its daring use of circus techniques plays to a shared history with the book’s origins.

Anthony Fleming III as Queequeg, Christopher Donahue as Captain Ahab and Emma Cadd as Fate in Moby Dick at Arena Stage. (Liz Lauren/Lookingglass Theatre Company)

Herman Melville published Moby Dick in a decade that’s been called “the golden age of the circus.” The circus was considered America’s most popular form of entertainment in the mid-19th century, and master showman P.T. Barnum even established his American Museum as a proto-circus on Broadway, winning great notoriety by displaying such wildly diverse entertainments as “industrious fleas, automatons, jugglers, ventriloquists….” 

While Melville never met Barnum, he was certainly aware of the circus and wrote about it evocatively in his short story “The Fiddler,” published anonymously in Harper’s in 1854. The story depicts a sad poet being cheered up by a friend who takes him to a circus:  he is swept up by “the broad amphitheater of eagerly interested and all-applauding human faces. Hark! claps, thumps, deafening huzzas; one vast assembly seemed frantic with acclamation. . . .” 

The stage audience experiences circus and movement, says Catlin, “in a visceral and kinesthetic and muscular way.” Some of the performers are circus-trained, adding authenticity to the aerial acrobatics displayed.

“The dangers of sailing and whaling are made that much more immediate,” he says, “when the performers are engaged in the danger inherent in circus.” 

Herman Melville's sixth and most famous novel, Moby-Dick was published in 1851. (Moby Dick, illustration by Rockwell Kent, Random House, 1930, NMAH)

Using movement to propel the art of storytelling is an increasingly popular theatrical approach. Earlier, modern dance pioneers occasionally incorporated a mix of artistic and theatrical ingredients; Martha Graham notably had a brilliant 40-year collaboration with sculptor Isamu Noguchi that resulted in 19 productions. A photograph of Noguchi’s “Spider Dress” for Graham is currently on display in the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s new exhibition, "Isamu Noguchi, Archaic/Modern."

Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon is contemporary ballet’s leading proponent of storytelling through movement, and has applied his flowing narrative approach both to classical ballet and to Broadway, where his production of An American in Paris won a 2015 Tony Award.

Perhaps the singular, most dramatic example of a company that tells stories through movement is the Synetic Theater in Arlington, Virigina, which is renowned for its fluid synthesis of innovative techniques for silent storytelling using only mime and movement.    

Moby Dick has inspired countless adaptations: Orson Welles broadcast a 1946 radio version, Gregory Peck starred in a 1956 film, Cameron Mackintosh produced a 1992 musical that became a West End hit, and there was a 2010 Dallas Opera production that was a box office triumph.

The Lookingglass production of Moby Dick taps into the public’s continuing fascination for the classic novel with a grand and obsessive vengeance, but Lookingglass employs a more intimate approach.

The company creates a small-scale immersive theatrical experience that largely succeeds, although coherent storytelling in Act II sometimes loses out to vivid theatricality. The costume designs are highly imaginative—actors opening-and-closing black umbrellas seem perfectly credible as whales spouting alongside the Pequod, and the humongous skirt of one actor magically flows across the stage/deck in giant wave-like ocean swells.

Ahab’s doom is never in doubt, and we are there for every vengeful step. For David Catlin, the set’s rope riggings convey the play’s essential metaphor: the web they weave provides the “aerial story-telling” that connects Ahab to his fate, and the rest of us “to each other.”

Moby Dick is a co-production with The Alliance Theatre and South Coast Repertory. It will be in residence at Arena Stage through December 24, before heading to the South Coast Repertory in Cosa Mesa, California, January 20 through February 19, 2017. 

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