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Explore Extremes

Smithsonian Magazine

Power to Explore

National Air and Space Museum
By Pat Rawlings: Framed

Button, Explore Micron

National Museum of American History
This circular button has pink circles on a black background. The black/pink text reads: EXPLORE Micron. This button has a metal pin and a green and purple lanyard. A mark in black ink on the reverse reads: Comdex 11/89.

Electrofishing: Explore Smithsonian

Smithsonian Environmental Research Center
How can electricity help scientists study fish? Blue catfish are an invasive species in Chesapeake Bay, in part due to their voracious appetites that disrupt the food web. In some areas of the Bay, invasive catfish can take up 75 percent of the total biomass. But tracking their numbers can be tough, as the Chesapeake's waters are notoriously murky. So marine biologists at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) use a less conventional way to catch them: zap the waters with electricity. Electrofishing doesn't harm or kill the catfish--it only temporarily stuns them so they float to the surface. SERC marine biologist Rob Aguilar took TV host Josh Bernstein out on the Patuxent River in Maryland to show him how it's done.

Explore Pueblo Pots

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Lesson looking at imagery on Pueblo pots by examining images and reading short excerpts from Native American folklore. Students create their own pots and explain the symbolism they use. Part of the resource 'Pueblo Pots.'

Explore the Universe

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Online exhibition exploring how astronomical tools from Galileos telescope in the early 1600s to the latest high techobservatories on Earth and in space have revolutionized our understanding of the universe.

Renwick Opening: Explore ‘WONDER’

Smithsonian American Art Museum
‘WONDER’ is the Renwick Gallery’s inaugural exhibition following a major renovation. Nine contemporary artists created site-specific installations, each taking over a different gallery and turning the building into a larger-than-life work of art.

River Seining: Explore Smithsonian

Smithsonian Environmental Research Center
What life is hiding beneath the clouded waters of Chesapeake Bay? While scientists have devised several high-tech ways to peer beneath the surface, they also rely on one tried and true method: dragging a giant seine net through the water and seeing what they catch! Marine biologist Stacey Havard of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center took TV host Josh Bernstein seining in the Rhode River, where they discovered the tiny creatures that can make a big difference for life in the Chesapeake.

Catfish Surgery: Explore Smithsonian

Smithsonian Environmental Research Center
Blue catfish are a delicious but dangerous invasive species in the Chesapeake Bay. Their ravenous appetites have caused serious disruptions in the food web. But they're also very fast and, in the Bay's clouded waters, tracking their movements can be a challenge. Marine biologists at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center insert small acoustic tags into the fish, enabling them to track them with sound. TV host Josh Bernstein joins SERC biologist Rob Aguilar to perform "catfish surgery." Learn more about catfish surgery:

Explore Julius Caesar's Rome

Smithsonian Magazine

Rome doesn't want for famous residents—from artists to politicians, many notables have called the city home. But, arguably, none changed its course more than Julius Caesar, the shrewd military leader and politician who greatly expanded the Roman Empire and eventually become its self-appointed dictator, paving the way for the imperial system.

To tour Caesar's Rome requires imagination. Many of the iconic structures that comes to mind when one thinks of Rome—The Coliseum, the Pantheon, the Baths of Caracalla—hadn't been built when Caesar ruled, and many of the important features of his daily life have long since been buried beneath the growing city. But the archaeological hints that remain transport visitors into the footsteps of one of history's most heralded and controversial figures.

Julius Caesar was born in Rome, on either the 12 or 13 of July in 100 B.C. Through a combination of political savvy, charisma and backhanded dealings, he quickly rose to power, becoming dictator of Rome in 49 B.C. after emerging victorious from a civil war. As dictator he instituted a number of reforms, from expanding who could be considered a Roman citizen to changing the Roman calendar, but his brief reign came to a bloody end when he was stabbed by a group of Roman senators in Pompey's Theater on March 15, 44 B.C.

Explore the Space Hangar

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Downloadable PDF self-guided tour of James S. McDonnell Space Hangar at the Udvar-Hazy Center. Includes many educational activities for students.

Explore Helsinki's Private Saunas

Smithsonian Magazine

It might seem like every day in Finland is Sauna Day— the majority of the population owns at least one, and residents of the Nordic country invented the steamy room more than 2,000 years ago as an extension of their homes. But on March 12, Helsinki will take its sultry tradition to the streets with its inaugural Sauna Day, an event where homes and businesses open their private saunas for public use, free of charge. The 30 or so saunas that will open for the day run the gamut of interesting places to bask in the heat, beckoning Finns to yurts, islands, rooftops and even an old castle to soak in the hot, humid tradition.

Yhteismaa, the social innovations group running the March event, specializes in unique celebrations. They’ve already organized several other festivals in Helsinki, including a market day where residents cleaned out their houses and sold their stuff in a citywide outdoor flea market, a living room gallery event that turned living rooms into art showcases, and a sauna theater festival where plays were performed inside the saunas.

“During the last five years, there’s kind of a mood in Helsinki,” Jaakko Blomberg, the man who founded Yhteismaa, told “People want to do stuff together. Usually Finns are quite shy and not that social, but at the same time there’s a need for this kind of action. Summer has it, but summer is really short in Finland. What are we going to do the rest of the year? What spaces can you use when it’s too cold outside?”

Saunas, of course. There are about three million saunas in Finland—and only five million Finns. The hotbox rooms are a Finnish tradition, a gathering place for a typically reserved nation where anyone can talk about anything with anybody and where, according to Blomberg, all important decisions are made.

The original Finnish saunas appeared in about the fifth century as a sweat bath called “smoke saunas” dug into hillsides. Back then, stones were heated in a wood fireplace and smoke from the fire filled the room. Once it was hot enough, owners let the smoke out the door and everyone piled in. Blomberg says that once saunas became freestanding buildings and ventilation arrived, nearly everything started to be done in the sauna, from heating and preserving food to giving birth.

“Often when you moved to a new area, it was not the house that you built first, but the sauna,” he said. “You can use the sauna for everything, but not the house.”

Modern saunas are no longer smoky lodges—they’re generally either wood-heated or electric, and when stones atop the sauna stove are hot enough, water is ladled on to create steam. You don’t wait for the smoke to clear; rather, you soak in the steam.

Saunas may be universal in Finland, but the process changes whether you’re in a city or out in a cottage, Blomberg says. In his apartment sauna in the city, he and his friends go for three rounds—in the sauna for a bit, then a break for beer, then back in the sauna, another break, then one more round of heat. “You have some breaks so you can stay longer in sauna,” he said. “You don’t just go for a few minutes. It’s more about taking time and relaxing, not something to do in a rush.”

In the country, the tradition is even more involved. People cook sauna makkara (sausage) over the wood-burning sauna stoves. They smack one another with bundled birch branches on special occasions to relax muscles, perk up skin and relieve mosquito bites. And in the winter, during sauna breaks, they jump in an ice hole or roll in the snow.

But no matter where you are, city or country cottage, be prepared to bare it all. “You have to be naked,” Blomberg said. “Everyone is on the same level. All the pretenses are gone.”

In Case You Miss It: Can't make it to Helsinki for Sauna Day? Don’t worry. The city has several year-round public ones available.

Explore the Freer/Sackler Bookshelf

Smithsonian Libraries
Discover the wealth of information contained in the Freer and Sackler Galleries’ digitized publications. Spanning from 1753 to the present, these catalogues, journals, and manuscripts contain expert insights on a more »

Explore the F-117 Nighthawk

National Air and Space Museum
The National Air and Space Museum took a field trip to one of two places on the planet you can see the Stealth Fighter.

Explore Smithsonian Gardens’ Orchids Online!

Smithsonian Gardens
At the end of April, after ten months of planning, coordinating, and troubleshooting, the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection (SGOC) went live. No, we didn’t kill off all of the plants over the winter and revive them for this announcement . . . I mean live as in on-air, online, and freely accessible! SGOC is now available […]

Blue Crab Tagging: Explore Smithsonian

Smithsonian Environmental Research Center
The Chesapeake's beloved blue crabs entered a downward spiral in the 1990s that lasted almost two decades. Now they've started showing signs of recovery. But what will it take to ensure that blue crab numbers remain healthy for generations to come? Marine biologists at the Smithsonian have been tracking blue crabs on the Chesapeake since the 1970s. Tuck Hines, director and blue crab guru at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, Md., takes TV host Josh Bernstein for a trip on the Rhode River to show him how it's done. Learn more about blue crab tagging:

Arches, Step in and Explore

Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum
Arches is from the first collection of murals Ilonka Karasz designed in 1948 for Katzenbach & Warren, the New York wallpaper firm for whom she designed almost exclusively. Like the majority of her murals it was printed in the blueprint process, her favorite reproduction process for murals as it captured all the nuances of her...

Explore Austria's Underwater Hiking Trails

Smithsonian Magazine

Situated at the base of the Hochschwab Mountains in the southeastern state of Styria, Austria, Grüner See, or Green Lake, is unlike any other park in the world. During the colder months, it’s a hiker’s paradise—miles of trails snake across the base of the mountain range’s rambling foothills. But come springtime, a flood of melted snow cascades down the mountain range, submerging the basin-like area and transforming it into a crystal-clear, 40-foot-deep lake. For several months out of the year, a scuba mask and flippers become more appropriate than a pair of hiking boots.

The geological phenomenon has been naturally occurring for centuries and has been a secret getaway for in-the-know scuba divers, photographers and locals for decades. But only in recent years has this otherworldly body of water grown in popularity. Today, it’s a curiosity that lures adventure-seekers from around the world to its calming shores.

Because Grüner See is the result of snowmelt, its clear waters reveal a surreal scene below. Divers and swimmers can view the park’s many wooden benches, bridges, and pathways beneath the water’s surface, giving the lake an Atlantis-like feel. The meltwater also takes on an emerald-green hue thanks to the park’s ample grasses and other vegetation, which continue to thrive under water.

One local resident who feels the pull of Grüner See’s chilly waters each spring is professional photographer and scuba diver Thomas Aichinger, who has been diving for more than 25 years. He’s been visiting the lake since he was a child, and has built up a collection of wanderlust-inducing photographs that would cause any nature-starved city dweller to book the next flight to Austria.

“You feel like you’re swimming in a bottle of water—the lake is that clear,” Aichinger tells “But you have to be careful, because if you scrape the bottom of the lake with your flippers, you can kick up sand and then have zero visibility.”

Aichinger recommends wearing the appropriate gear when diving, which includes a wetsuit, as the water temperature rarely climbs above 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

“When you’re diving, you feel like you’re flying,” he says, “since you’re swimming above the park’s submerged benches and bridges.”

(original image)

The window of opportunity for travelers to see this geological phenomenon is limited to a few short weeks and usually occurs during the spring and summer months, beginning in late April or early May. Come July, the water has started to recede, causing the lake to disappear just as quickly as it formed, leaving behind nothing more than a mirage.

For travelers who want to keep their feet on solid ground, there are several hiking trails and overlooks around the perimeter of the lake that don’t get flooded out, making it an ideal place to relax or have a picnic. For hikers, the best time to visit is during the fall or winter, when the water level drops to reveal several miles of trails. The park is also a popular spot for cross-country skiing in the wintertime when the area is blanketed in snow.

Explore China's Ancient Water Towns

Smithsonian Magazine

Surrounded by rivers, lakes and canals, three parts of China comprise a “golden triangle” of historical towns that mostly run on the water. Shanghai, Suzhou and Hangzhou form this pyramid-shaped area known as the “Venice of the East,” filled with thousands of years of history and cities built around complex canal systems. Here, locals and tourists still get around by hand-controlled boats—and sometimes, the captain will even serenade you with a traditional Chinese folk song. Here are eight ancient water towns to visit.


Nanxun. (Creative Commons)

Escape the tourism crunch of Shanghai in Nanxun, about 70 miles to the west. This water town is a bit different from others in the area: it typically draws smaller crowds and the architecture is a unique mix of traditional Chinese and Western. As you walk along the ancient canals, you’re likely to see locals out playing cards or having some tea. The town dates back to the Chunyou Period of the Song Dynasty, between the years of 1241 to 1252. Today, it's considered to be the epicenter for weddings on the canals—10 ferries travel through town on the water for a wedding, decked out in red flowers and ribbons, with the bride and groom standing on the first ferry in the line.


Image by Jennifer Billock. A local fishing with birds on the canal in Tongli. (original image)

Image by Jennifer Billock. On the canal in Tongli. (original image)

Image by Jennifer Billock. Boats on the canal in Tongli. (original image)

Thirty minutes from Suzhou by car, you'll find one of the most well-known water towns in China: Tongli. It’s considered a miniature Venice, with nearly every building on or by a canal. The town itself is composed of seven islets, separated by 15 canals and joined by more than 40 bridges—plus, five lakes surround the town itself. Tongli is more than 1,000 years old, and the oldest bridge in town dates back to the Song Dynasty, which began in the year 960. Visitors here should check out the wedding museum, which has antique Chinese wedding clothes and items on display, then head to the Moxibustion Institute for a session of heat- and incense-based massage therapy.


Xitang. (Creative Commons)

Xitang separates itself from other water towns in the area with langpeng, sheltered waterside streets, allowing locals and guests to comfortably walk alongside the canals even during the rainy season. It takes about an hour to drive there from Shanghai, but those making the trip will be rewarded with a less commercial vibe and plenty of great photo opportunities, among other draws you aren't likely to find in other water towns—like fishing with locals on the canals, having dinner on a boat, and browsing museums for wood carvings and decorative tile-ends. Xitang is truly ancient, dating back to the Warring States Period of 476 BC to 221 BC.


Wuzhen. (Creative Commons)

This town is about 90 miles from Shanghai and sits along the Grand Canal—the longest canal in the world at 1,104 miles, and once the main trade route connecting Hangzhou and Beijing. In 2013, a massive, multi-year renovation of the 1,300-year-old town finished; the updates had begun in 1999. Now about 1.5 million visitors come to Wuzhen every year, observing traditional architecture and temples while relaxing in five-star resorts at the day's end. About half the buildings in town are still-standing structures from Wuzhen’s past, and the other half are new, reclaimed, or updated.


Zhujiajiao. (Creative Commons)

Easily accessible by public transportation from downtown Shanghai, Zhujiajiao is one of the best preserved ancient water towns in the region. It dates back about 1,700 years and was, at one point, a flourishing rice market town. Visitors can now see one of the largest gardens in southern China, the Majia Garden, and more than 10,000 buildings original to the Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368 to 1911). Get there soon, though—locals are concerned the history and culture of the area is threatened already with the 2012 construction of a large mall and entertainment complex in town.


Qibao. (Creative Commons)

Located only 10 miles from downtown Shanghai, this is also an easily accessible water town for a day or weekend trip. Qibao was built around water as well as a temple dating back to the early 900s. The town’s name means “seven treasures,” and those treasures are thought once to have been housed in the temple: an iron Buddha, a bronze bell, a gold script lotus sutra, a 1,000-year-old catalpa tree, a pair of jade chopsticks, a jade axe and a gold cockerel. For a truly local experience, catch a shadow play (a play in which puppets’ shadows are cast onto a screen), or visit the cricket fighting museum to witness a live bug fight.


Luzhi. (Creative Commons)

Use Suzhou as a base to visit this water town—it’s only about 10 miles away. There’s about 2,500 years of known history here, once as a small village called Puli before becoming the bustling town it is today. Puli was actually a recluse poet named Lu Guimeng (also known by the courtesy name Luwang). He retired in the town, and it was named for his pseudonym, Mr. Pu-Li. The town is known for its bridges, many original to the dynasties in which they were built, earning Luzhi the nickname “Museum of Chinese Ancient Bridges.” Along with the original bridges, many of the buildings are original, as well—not rebuilt as in many of the other ancient water towns.


Zhouzhuang. (Creative Commons)

This is the most famous and most commercialized ancient water town in China, situated about halfway between Shanghai and Suzhou. The architecture here dates back more than 900 years, with about 60 original brick archways and 100 original courtyards. More recently, an antique-shaped tower called Quanfu Temple was built in 1987—climb to the top to get the best view of the ancient town. Or for a more authentic experience, visit Chengxu Taoist Temple, built between 1086 and 1093; it’s one of the most famous Taoist temples in the area.

Explore the High Fashion of Exploration

Smithsonian Magazine

Back when American explorers Frederick Cook and Robert Peary were racing to reach the North Pole, the men smartly studied the ways that the native Inuit people survived the harsh cold so they wouldn't end up like the failed expeditions of their predecessors. One tool quickly adapted by the men was a warm, waterproof article of clothing with a fur-lined hood called an anorak or a parka. The clothing has since been embraced by skiers and soldiers alike and has become a staple of cold-weather fashion in cities far from the Arctic (last year the New York Post even ironically proclaimed a $4,000 Italian parka "the summer's hottest coat").

The innovative coat is one example of how clothing worn and observed by voyagers in extreme environments has made its way onto the runway, writes Laird Borrelli-Persson of Vogue. Now, a new exhibit, "Expedition: Fashion from the Extreme" at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology is highlighting this rich history by considering how clothing and materials inspired or designed for exploration has been adopted by the fashion industry.

Take the iconic safari outfit. With its lightweight, light-colored fabric that keeps you cool even in intense heat, it was perfect for British soldiers in the empire's various desert and tropical colonies. Adopted by wealthy travelers and immortalized in films like Out of Africa, the tan colors and loose, draping lines of the outfits later turned heads on the runway in designer Yves Saint-Laurent's line.

The voluminous down jacket follows a similar narrative. Patented by sportsman Eddie Bauer in 1940, it was designed to be warm, yet breathable for his mountain-climbing adventures, notes Rosemary Feitelberg for WWD. Decades later, the jacket hit mainstream popularity after being embraced by the hip-hop movement in the 1990s, which dubbed them "puffers."

This is the first major exhibition to explore how designers draw inspiration by the clothing that outfits people in extreme environments, according to the press release, and yes, it also includes a tribute to the shiny spacesuits and relentless optimism of the Space Age. After all, the final frontier of extreme climates did inspire a whole slew of fashion trends.

"Expedition: Fashion from the Extreme" is on view until January 6.

Explore Frida Kahlo's Mexico City

Smithsonian Magazine

It was a single moment that changed everything: On September 17, 1925, a young high school student was traveling in a bus in her native Mexico City when it collided with a trolley. Thrown from her feet, she sustained multiple injuries and broken bones. She was bedridden for months; the doctors didn’t think she would survive. To help pass the time, her mother had a custom easel made for her to use in bed, and her father lent her his set of oil paints and brushes. “I paint myself because I am so often alone, and because I am the subject I know best,” she once said. Little did she know that the moment of her injury would indelibly impact the art world, too.

Now, more than a half-century since her death, few modern Mexican artists are as recognizable as Frida Kahlo. Her likeness, complete with raven-colored hair and halo-like flowered crown, can be found on everything from key chains and magnets to T-shirts and posters. But there’s only one place where you can truly immerse yourself in all things Kahlo: her hometown. Here are four points of interest in Mexico City with a Kahlo connection—there's no better place to celebrate Kahlo's birthday on July 6.

Museo Frida Kahlo

Museo Frida Kahlo (aka La Casa Azul) (Courtesy Mexico City Tourism Trust)

Also known as La Casa Azul, Museo Frida Kahlo is the cobalt blue home where Kahlo was born and raised. (She later moved back with her husband, artist Diego Rivera.) To ensure that Kahlo’s legacy would live on, Rivera donated the home and its contents posthumously so that it could be turned into a museum. Today the estate and gardens, which are located in the city’s Colonia del Carmen area, are open to the public, and they look much as they did when Kahlo was alive.

Several of her most celebrated works are on display throughout the home, including Viva la Vida (1954), Frida and Cesarean Operation (1931) and Portrait of My Father Wilhelm Kahlo (1952). The four-poster bed where Kahlo began painting is also on display, as well as some of her photos, postcards and letters. Personal effects like her wheelchair and the plaster corset she wore after her multiple spinal surgeries are also on view. After strolling through the home’s multiple floors and four-walled courtyard, it’s easy to see where Kahlo found her inspiration.

Museo Casa Estudio Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo

Museo Casa Estudio Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo (Flickr <ahref="flickr url"="">Pavel Kirillov - Flickr/Creative Commons)

Rather than live together under the same roof, Kahlo and Rivera opted to reside in separate homes adjoined by a skywalk. Today, those homes and studios serve as Museo Casa Estudio Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo in Mexico City’s San Ángel neighborhood. Juan O'Gorman, an architect and friend of Rivera’s, designed the homes (Kahlo’s is painted in a similar shade of blue as her childhood home). The buildings were considered avant-garde at the time, as they veered from the traditional Mexican architecture popular back then.

The compound is predominately dedicated to the works of Rivera and includes a sampling of the hundreds of paintings he created while living there along with the original glass bottles of paint pigments, brushes and easels that he used. But there are traces of Kahlo there, too, and guests can explore the very rooms where she once lived and worked.

Museo Dolores Olmedo

Museo Dolores Olmedo (Courtesy Mexico City Tourism Trust)

The world’s largest collection of works by Kahlo—more than two dozen in total—can be found at Museo Dolores Olmedo, located in the city’s Xochimilco neighborhood. Some of the museum’s most important holdings include, The Broken Column (1944), Henry Ford Hospital (1932) and Self Portrait with Small Monkey (1945). Much of the collection belonged to Dolores Olmedo, a Mexican businesswoman and philanthropist who donated her collection and home to the people of Mexico. In 1994, her home opened as a museum, and in addition to Kahlo’s paintings and drawings, it contains nearly 6,000 pre-Hispanic figurines and sculptures, plus more than 100 paintings by Rivera.  

San Ildefonso College

San Ildefonso College (Miranda Zackowski)

One of the most memorable scenes in the movie Frida was when Kahlo, then just a student attending the National Preparatory School, met Rivera while he was painting La Creación (1922), his first ever mural, at her school. Today the historic building, which was built in the 16th century and served as a Jesuit convent before becoming a prep school, is home to San Ildefonso College, a museum dedicated to the works of some of Mexico’s most important artists.

The historic building is often considered the birthplace of the Mexican muralist movement, and includes murals by Ramón Alva de la Canal, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros, in addition to Rivera. Although there are no works by Kahlo on display, the expansive building and its grounds offer a glimpse into a turning point in Kahlo’s lifetime, and marks the moment when she met her future husband.


National Museum of American History


National Museum of American History


National Museum of American History
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