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"10 Free Hours!" Marketing and the World Wide Web in the 1990s

National Museum of American History
A floppy disk advertising AOL: It's free! It's easy! It's fun.Remember these?

Getting free stuff in the mail can be exciting, especially if the stuff that’s free is new and novel. On the other hand, it can be frustrating to have unsolicited stuff pouring into your mailbox. From the mid-1990s to the early 2000s, households across the United States received promotional disks in the mail from online service providers. These mailings contained free floppy disks (and later CD-ROMs) for software that provided access to the World Wide Web (WWW), a browser-based application for connecting to the internet made available to ordinary consumers in the early 1990s. Disks in flashy packaging with eye-catching slogans hawked several free hours of web browsing to entice newcomers to the online experience.

The museum’s Computing Collection contains examples of these direct-to-consumer mailings of web browsing software. America Online (AOL) is well represented in our collection, but we also have disks from CompuServe, Prodigy, and Global Network Navigator.

Multiple rectangular cardboard boxes. They're colorful with advertising.A group of mailings from several online service providers in the museum's Computing Collection.

AOL was notorious for aggressive direct-to-consumer marketing campaigns, as the company competed with other providers to get more consumers online, browsing the web, and paying to access it. Why did AOL opt for this aggressive and undifferentiated approach to gaining more clientele? The newness of browsing the web, joining chat rooms, and sending and receiving electronic mail were mediated by desktop computers outfitted with bulky monitors. To a consumer unfamiliar with computing technology in the early 1990s, gaining access to a personal computer and experiencing the dial-up process of connecting to the web were far from trivial activities. AOL’s “bundled solutions” offered a one-stop portal on a user-friendly interface at a time when more discriminating consumers could instead purchase separate providers, search portals, news sites, and map providers in an à-la-carte fashion. So how do you get a population unfamiliar with the experience of connecting to and browsing the web to buy into it? AOL’s approach amounted to bombarding consumers with promotional material from several avenues.

In addition to shipping disks to mailboxes across the country, AOL distributed disks as part of promotional sample packages at Blockbuster Video and placed them at stadium seats at NASCAR races, at the Super Bowl, at seats on American Airlines commuter flights, and even in flash-frozen packages for Omaha Steaks!

Jan Brandt was the mastermind behind the AOL marketing strategy. In an interview conducted by Brian McCullough for the Internet History Podcast, Brandt reflected on the marketing tactics she developed throughout the 1990s at AOL. “At that time floppies had value," Brandt said. "They weren’t cheap. If you went into the store, they probably cost 10 or 20 bucks for a 10-pack. So the fact that you got a floppy disk in the mail for free, it felt like it had some value.”

The mass mailing campaigns were effective in reaching households across the United States, but not without complaints from recipients who considered the unsolicited mail unwelcome. Over the mid to late 1990s, criticism of AOL grew in part because of the carpet-bombing method of advertising—as well as connectivity issues from enrolling too many users in a short period of time and the company’s sale of customer e-mail addresses.

A closer look at the packaging of the disks provides a window into AOL’s target markets, imagined users, and promises to its customers. One AOL mailing features a man in a business suit, tearing apart his white buttoned shirt to reveal a blue T-shirt bearing the AOL logo. The slogan at the bottom reads, “Experience the POWER of America Online!” Playing on the superhero subtext, the promotional material suggests that the target consumer was a white man who might work a routine office job by day and harness the power of the World Wide Web by night.

A folder containing a floppy disk. On the cover a man in business attire pulls open his suit to reveal an AOL tee. The text reads "Experience the Power of America Online Pop this FREE software in your computer for 10 free hours online!"The still-unopened cardboard envelope encloses a 3 ½ inch floppy disk containing AOL Version 2.5 for Windows, 1994-1995.

Another example from AOL appeals to the transformative potential of the internet, promising more knowledge, prosperity, and happiness to its users. It also emphasizes the ease with which one can connect, simply by inserting a disk—a novel activity for amateur computer users. “If you want to be more capable, powerful, connected, knowledgeable, productive, prosperous, and happier,” the mailing reads, “Just insert this disk!” It’s that easy. Just point, click, and connect . . . the more hours the better!

A cardboard folder with a floppy disk in it. The text reads "If you want to be more capable powerful connected knowledgeable productive prosperous and happier just insert this disk"A mailing from America Online Version 2.5, 1994–1995.

The novelty of receiving a computer disk for free in the mail was one thing, but being able to put the free disk to use was another. In the early 1990s, when the World Wide Web was in its infancy, only about 15% of households in the United States owned a personal computer. According to a study from the U.S. Department of Labor, by 1997, that figure rose to about thirty-five percent. Despite the steep rise in computer ownership over much of that decade, many people did not own their own computers. Folks who didn’t have a computer in the home could choose to access their e-mail and browse the web at a local library or a web café. While many promotional software mailings were never opened, the carpet-bombing technique paid off, as AOL became the largest service provider by 2000.

AOL’s direct-to-consumer mailings were phased out in 2006 as organizational and internet infrastructures evolved, along with evolving architectures of personal computing devices. In the last 30 or so years, the promotional mailing landscape has also changed, as our virtual inboxes get flooded with e-mails for online deals and other offers. Whether you’re excited about or frustrated by getting free stuff in the mail unsolicited, AOL’s legendary campaign maintains a special place in the history of the World Wide Web, as well as in the history of American marketing.

Alana Staiti is a curator in the Division of Medicine and Sciences.

The Computer Oral History Collection in the Archives Center at NMAH contains interviews with several notable figures in computing history, including Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, and Marc Andreessen, founder of Mosaic.

Posted Date: 
Friday, May 24, 2019 - 04:45
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"A huge amount of logistical and detail work!" An Interview with Museum Registration Specialist Allison Dixon

National Museum of the American Indian
Museum registrars deal with object acquisitions, loans, exhibitions, deaccessions, storage, packing and shipping, and fine art insurance and risk management. A registration specialist's day is likely to include working on an exhibition team or two, conducting inventories and confirming object information, and reading and writing a lot of email.

"Apollo 50: Go for the Moon" Behind-the-Scenes

National Air and Space Museum
Over 500,000 people joined us on the National Mall on July 19 and 20, 2019, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 in spectacular fashion. The "Apollo 50: Go for the Moon" projection show unfolded on the face of the Washington Monument and supporting screens, telling the story of the iconic mission from launch to landing and beyond. Let us take you behind the scenes of how a projection show of this scale comes together, featuring interviews with the Air and Space team and the creators of the show, 59 Productions. Go for the Moon was made possible by the generous support of Boeing, with additional support from Raytheon.

"Black Wings" Exhibit Opens at National Air and Space Museum 09/1982

Smithsonian Archives - History Div
For more information, see Louis Purnell Oral History Interviews, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 9578

Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 9578, Purnell, Louis R. interviewee, Louis R. Purnell Interviews

the National Air and Space Museum opens "Black Wings", the now permanent exhibit on the Tuskegee Airmen. The journey began in 1977 when Robert Trip, an African American school teacher from Virginia, noticed there was no African American representation at NASM. He began a campaign to change this, and in 1982 got in contact with Louis Purnell, a curator at the National Air and Space Museum and California Representative Ronald V. Dellums who were instrumental in the opening of the exhibit.

"Cast as white by default": Exploring the lack of diversity in movies

National Museum of American History

What if you watched only the lines in E.T. or the entire Harry Potter series that were spoken by people of color? You might realize two things: First, it doesn't take long. Second, it leaves you with questions. I interviewed Venezuelan American actor Dylan Marron, creator of the Every Single Word project, as part of my research for the upcoming History Film Forum.

Dylan, tell us a little about your Every Single Word project. What inspired you to do this project? How did you decide what films to use?

I created Every Single Word from two vantage points: film lover and actor. I've long been aware of the dearth of diversity in mainstream American films as a viewer, but it was only recently that I've come to feel the consequences of it from the inside. Casting calls that I would not be "right" for, roles that would call for me to "play up" my ethnicity, and agents who would compliment my work but then tell me that they weren't sure how much work there would be for my "type." I became well acquainted with the euphemisms employed to tell me I wasn't white enough to regularly get work.

I wanted to express this in a way that presented facts, not feelings. I figured if I presented the truth without comment that it would present a question rather than a statement. This is how many people of color speak in mainstream films. How does this sit with you?

I choose films that tell universal stories that are not about race whose protagonists could have been any color, but were cast as white by default.

Black-and-white portrait of woman with headwrap and stern or determined expression

I've noticed that you have an image of Scarlett O'Hara and Mammy, (characters from Gone with the Wind) as a background to your Every Single Word blog. What significance does that film hold for you? What are your views on the representation of people of color in that film?

In my mind Hattie McDaniel (the actor who played Mammy in Gone with the Wind) is the posterwoman for Every Single Word. Yes, she had a large supporting role in the most popular film in history. Yes, she won an Oscar for it. But what kind of role? Mammy was Scarlett O'Hara's dutiful servant, a house slave tending to her selfish white master in the context of a war that was fighting for her freedom. From a storytelling perspective that is a fascinating character who could easily be the protagonist of her own four-hour epic film. But she isn't, she's a one-note character (played beautifully by McDaniel with what she was given) that has little to no agency to change or affect the story of the film.

We still see the Mammy archetype today. Maids, servants, slaves—humans stripped of their agency whose characters don't have an arc. But why can people of color still only play characters written to be of color? Why are roles that are written to tell a colorless story automatically cast as white?

Recently you've been looking into historically based films. Do you see a contrast in these types of films? How do you think the lack of diversity in historical films shapes America's collective memory and American culture?

As we're seeing right now in the Texas textbook debate, history is just as much about the person teaching that history as it is about the history they're teaching. If only straight white dudes are controlling how history is told in film, then that's the only perspective we're going to get.

Dylan Marron's playlist includes scenes from Cimarron (1931) and other movies of the past, most of which feature very little dialogue by people of color

In many historical movies, specifically in war films, women are often absent from those narratives. Would you ever consider focusing your project on another group, such as women?

The lack of women in film is also a huge problem, specifically the absence of women with agency. For now, Every Single Word will be about race but I encourage all moviegoers to question not only the quantity but the content of the words any minority is allowed to speak in pop storytelling.

Why do you believe there is still this profound lack of diversity in Hollywood films?

The problems here are largely structural. It's all about who has the power and who has access to the means of production. If one group is still controlling the money in Hollywood, then they're also going to influence what stories Hollywood tells. We craft stories in our own image.

What historical films would you want to do Every Single Word to in the future?

I think Lawrence of Arabia will be interesting.

Black-and-white photo of a theater and surrounding buildings

Lastly, Dylan, what are you looking to accomplish with this project? Do you believe that your project will circulate enough awareness through mainstream America about the lack of diversity in films?

All I want to do is to present facts and ask questions. That's what I hope Every Single Word will do. Who is crafting universal stories? And which people get to be avatars for those universal stories? I am only one voice asking these questions but I'm also part of a loud and strong chorus.

The Smithsonian and partners at the National Endowment for the Humanities present the History Film Forum, a four-day exploration of history on the screen, November 19-22, 2015. Three events in particular that might interest you: Discussion: Diversity in History Film, Screening: Uniquely Nasty: The U.S. Government's War on Gays, and Discussion: The Free State of Jones

Posted Date: 
Tuesday, November 17, 2015 - 11:15

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"Check One" – Regie Cabico

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage
Read more: http://festival.si.edu/blog/five-minutes-of-political-theater-an-interview-with-spoken-word-poet-regie-cabico Production: Emma Cregan [Catalog No. CFV10926; Copyright 2017, Smithsonian Institution]

"El Circo" by Los Texmaniacs from Borders y Bailes

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Los Texmaniacs performs “El Circo” and discusses the inspiration for the band and its passion for music.

"Elvis at 21": Alfred Wertheimer Artist Interview - National Portrait Gallery

National Portrait Gallery
Warren Perry, co-curator of "Elvis at 21: Photographs by Alfred Wertheimer" interviews Alfred Wertheimer. "Elvis at 21" is on tour; the exhibition is on view at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery from October 23, 2010 to January 23, 2010. Learn more and view selected photographs on the online exhibition: http://160.111.252.141/elvis/ In 1956, 26-year old Alfred Wertheimer was asked to photograph a rising 21-year-old-star named Elvis Presley. When Presley walked on stage that year, he altered the beat of everyday life. The world changed. Wertheimer captured the singer's transit to superstardom and the cultural transformation he helped launch. "Elvis at 21" offers viewers an intimate look at the public and private life of one of the world's most famous figures, and documents classic American life—from the diners to the train stops—in 1956. "Elvis at 21: Photographs by Alfred Wertheimer" was developed collaboratively by the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, and Govinda Gallery, and is sponsored nationally by The History Channel

"Herblock's Presidents: 'Puncturing Pomposity'" exhibition, interview with Sid Hart, NPG senior historian

National Portrait Gallery
NPG historian Sid Hart discusses "Herblock's Presidents: 'Puncturing Pomposity.'" Interview by Warren Perry.

"How is that for high?"

National Museum of American History

What do you do after recovering sound from 130-year old recordings? For the museum, the next step was trying to understand that sound. In the exhibition "Hear My Voice": Alexander Graham Bell and the Origins of Recorded Sound," experimental historic sound recordings made by Bell and his Volta Laboratory team in the 1880s are matched with transcripts of the speakers' words. Matching the sound with the written word took a lot of work. Patrick Feaster, three-time Grammy nominee and specialist in history, culture, and preservation of early sound, helped with that effort. In an interview, Feaster discussed his involvement in the project, the process of rediscovering the content of historic sound recordings, and one of the New Media department's favorite phrases from the recordings.

What was your role in the Bell recordings project?

For a long time, I've been studying early sound recordings in the way that some people study early cinema. With this interest, I approached museum curator Carlene Stephens, and got a better understanding of the Bell recordings and the challenges of understanding them. I put in an application for a Lemelson Center Fellowship to study the recordings, and go through written materials about the experiments—some are at the museum and some are at the Library of Congress—and try to pull them together into a better picture of what Bell and his team were doing and how the recordings fit into it.

Man with brown hair and glasses holds a measuring tape up to a record in front of a laptop screen

What can you tell me about the experience of deciphering early sound recordings?

I think a lot of people assume sound recording should be easy to understand. We're used to old writings being difficult to decipher and old artworks taking some work to figure out, but sound recordings that don't make sense tend to throw people. I've done a good bit of listening to early sound recordings and I've developed something of an ear for it. It’s certainly nothing magical; it's having a sense of what certain phonographic processes do to different speech sounds. A lot of it is understanding the culture and context well enough to know the range of possibilities: what things are people most likely to have said?

Round, clear glass sound recording

How do you research phrases you hear that were more common in spoken language than in written language?

When I listen, I try to pick out names of people or short phrases of recitations, just to lock onto four or five distinctive words in a row that I'm pretty sure about. I then search for that string of words online. Often I find digitized texts that contained those words. I see what words are before them, what words are after them, and hopefully that fits a part of the recording that I hadn't been able to figure out. When all of that falls into place, it's incredibly gratifying, like finding the final piece in a jigsaw puzzle.

Notebook page of text

Can you explain the phrase "How is that for high?" from the recordings?

Going through written Volta materials, I got a sense for the kinds of test phrases they liked to use. "How is that (or this, both occur) for high?" was one. I'd say it's something along the lines of "How do you like them apples?," "Well what do you think of that?," or "Amazing, isn't it?" It’s a little hard to find an equivalent, but it's a slightly boastful, slightly playful, remark of something being very clever, interesting, astonishing, or marvelous. I don't know that anyone from the period defined it clearly or unambiguously. It would be like trying to define Homer Simpson's "D'oh!" "How's that for high?" turns up all over the place in popular songs, newspaper stories, and apparently, it occurred to the folks who were making these recordings. Why they used it is an interesting question. Generally you might use it in a way such as, "Hey I just found a $50 bill on the sidewalk! How's that for high?" But in this case, it just pops up in the middle of the recording, among other phrases. So I guess just the fact that the words could be reproduced at all is one of these things you might want to say that about.

Deciphering the words and phrases in 130-year old sound recordings? How’s that for high?

Julia Falkowski is an intern in the New Media Department of the National Museum of American History. She has also blogged about hearing historic voices on fragile recordings and yo-yos.

Want more stories of American innovation and inventiveness? Join us to explore the theme of American innovation through blog postsexhibitions, collections, programs, and more

Author(s): 
Julia Falkowski
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"Inventions" - Women's History Month Family Day 2012 Video Interviews

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
During the 2012 Women's History Month Family Day: A Celebration of Innovation and Invention, held at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, a team of ARTLAB+ teens filmed video interviews, asking festival goers about what they would like to invent. To learn more about ARTLAB+ Production Teams and other programs, visit artlabplus.si.edu.

"Lost Continent" Rises Again With New Expedition

Smithsonian Magazine

Tens of millions of years after it disappeared under the waters of the Pacific Ocean, scientists have completed the first explorations of what some scientists are calling a hidden continent, Naaman Zhou reports at the Guardian.

During a two-month ocean voyage this summer, a team of more than 30 scientists from 12 countries explored the submerged landmass of Zealandia on an advanced research vessel and collected samples from the seabed. Scientists were able to drill into the ocean floor at depths of more than 4,000 feet, collecting more than 8,000 feet of sediment cores that provides a window into 70 million years of geologic history, reports Georgie Burgess for ABC News.

More than 8,000 fossils from hundreds of species were also collected in the drilling, giving scientists a glimpse at terrestrial life that lived tens of millions of years ago in the area. "The discovery of microscopic shells of organisms that lived in warm shallow seas, and of spores and pollen from land plants, reveal that the geography and climate of Zealandia were dramatically different in the past," expedition leader Gerald Dickens said in a statement. While more than 90 percent of Zealandia is now submerged under more than a kilometer (two-thirds of a mile) of water, when it was above the surface, it likely provided a path that many land animals and plants could have used to spread across the South Pacific, notes Naaman Zhou of the Guardian.

The Geological Society of America officially endorsed the long-standing theory that a nearly 2 million-square-mile section of Pacific Ocean floor around the country of New Zealand was actually continental crust that had submerged beneath the water in a paper published by its journal in February. As Sarah Sloat reports for Inverse, this sinking, believed have taken place after the continent broke off from Australia around 60 to 85 million years ago, made New Zealand, and other seemingly disparate islands in the area, the remains of what was once a large landmass. 

However, classifying Zealandia as a continent is still a source of debate among scientists. In an interview with Michael Greshko of National Geographic in February, Christopher Scotese, a Northwestern University geologist was skeptical. “My judgment is that though Zealandia is continental, it is not a continent,” Scotese said. “If it were emergent, we would readily identify it with Australia, much like we identify Greenland with North America and Madagascar with Africa.” 

Scientists now plan to study the sediment cores and fossils to help create models of how the region looked and changed over the course of tens of millions of years, reports Sloat, and plans are always in the works for a return expedition next year.

"OK," "Sheeple" Says Scrabble, Which Added 300 New Words to Official Dictionary

Smithsonian Magazine

As a jobless architect living in the Great Depression, there’s no way Alfred Mosher Butts could have foreseen the 1933 board game he invented would one day be found in three out of every five American homes. Initially dubbed “Lexiko,” the game underwent several retoolings in the decade that followed, but failed to gain any traction. It was only in the early 1950s—just a few years after the game had been rebranded “Scrabble”—that it began to fly off the shelves.

But the game still needed to be standardized. According to David Bukszpan’s book Is That A Word? From AA to ZZZ: The Weird and Wonderful Language of Scrabble, it was Scrabble’s growing popularity in the 1960s, and its adoption on the “penny-a-point” chess club circuit in Manhattan (aka “once money became involved”), which forced the game to adopt an official dictionary. By 1978, the first edition of The Official SCRABBLE Players Dictionary had made its debut.

This week, the sixth edition of the dictionary has dropped. Brace yourself, Scrabble fiends: More than 300 new words have been adopted, and the compilers have embraced some millennial mainstays like “twerk,” “emoji” and “listicle.”

“For a living language, the only constant is change,” says Peter Sokolowski, editor at large for Merriam-Webster in a press release.

The new additions bring the acceptable Scrabble lexicon up to more than 100,000 two- to eight-letter words.

It’s a sure bet that many players will be pleased to find that among the new entries are some long-awaited two-letter power plays, such as “ew.” In an interview with Leanne Italie at the Associated Press, Sokolowski refers to two-letter and three-letter words as the “lifeblood of the game,” and says that the inclusion of words like “ew” fit an evolving English-language lexicon. “[S]o much of our communication [now] is texting and social media,” he says.

New words don’t just enter the Scrabble dictionary willy-nilly (which, incidentally, is not included in the game’s official dictionary). Specific requirements must be met: According to the press release, the words must be entries in a standard dictionary, be between two and eight letters in length, and can’t be abbreviated words, capitalized words or words containing hyphens or apostrophes.

No change comes without controversy, of course, and the addition of “OK” in the latest edition, for instance, might excite some serious debate. Normally, the rules of Scrabble prohibit acronyms that are always spelled with capital letters like IQ or TV, reports Mark Abadi at Business Insider. But nowadays, “OK” has been appearing more and more often in lowercase, which is what finally garnered its inclusion in the game.

“OK” certainly breaks precedent: It’s the first valid word ending with the letter “K” to be inducted into the Scrabble dictionary, which will cause a shakeup for serious players of the board game.

Jackson Smylie, who ranks among the top 10 tournament Scrabble players in North America, described “OK” as an initialism “that [is] not very word-like” in an interview with Abadi of Business Insider, but gave his own “OK” to its inclusion in the game.

The latest batch of approved entries also shows an increasing nod to terms derived from other languages. Unsurprisingly, a lot of these words—like bibimbap (the well-known Korean rice bowl with flavorful toppings), cotija (crumbly Mexican cheese) and sriracha (the beloved Southeast Asian hot sauce)—involve a favorite American pastime: eating.

Notably, Merriam-Webster’s version of The Official SCRABBLE Players Dictionary is far from the be-all-end-all. In tournament play, overseen by the North American Scrabble Players Association, Scrabblers dip into an augmented edition containing nearly 190,000 words, reports Ruben Kimmelman for NPR. The two main differences? Longer words—up to 15 letters in length—as well as obscene or offensive words, though a 1996 update shaved off some of the worst offenders.

"One Life: The Mask of Lincoln" exhibition - interview with David Ward, NPG historian

National Portrait Gallery
David Ward, historian at NPG, discusses "One Life: The Mask of Lincoln." Interview by Warren Perry

"Service in the Grand Manner" in the Front Window of the Natural History Library

Smithsonian Archives - History Div
The front window of the Natural History Library in the National Museum of Natural History shows a photo of staff members Richard Greene, library technician, and Courtney Shaw dressed in butler and maid's clothes. The window reads "Service in a Grand Manner." Libarian Martha Rosen captioned the photo, "'Service in a Grand Manner' only at the Natural History Library." A visitor can be seen inside in the library. Curator Ray Gagne can be seen in the background.

"Stalking the Wild Asparagus" by Ewell Gibbons

National Museum of American History
Euell Gibbons’ most popular book taught the art of foraging for wild edible and nutritious plants to the new back-to-the-landers and to others exploring alternative economic pursuits and foodways.The outdoorsman Gibbons produced a number of influential works which included Stalking the Blue-Eyed Scallop and Stalking the Healthful Herbs. These fed into the new health food movement as well as the back-to-nature movement. “We made our own recipe book. . . and foraged for things. We loved the idea of stalking the wild asparagus.”—Ruth, a 1970s farm commune member, interview, 2011 On their farm commune in upstate New York in the early 1970s, Ruth, her husband Steve and their fellow communards had to learn to use many new tools as they applied methods of food production, preparation, and preservation learned from alternative sources such as Mother Earth News, their food co-op’s cookbook, and their farming neighbors in the area. They would often buy their tools at second hand shops, farm sales, and yard sales in the area. The Mason jars, canning funnels (used to fill the Mason jars with food to be preserved (by canning), apple slicers, and books, such as Stalking the Wild Asparagus, were all tools new, but necessary to the new farmers and foragers of the 1970s and thereafter. “Coming out of the 1960s, we were concerned about the war, where the country was going. . . [By] going to the farm, we would be accountable and have responsibility for our lives, for the way that we lived. .. . We had the Whole Earth Catalog, Mother Earth News. Reduce, reuse, recycle. We learned from the farm community. . . Be self-sufficient, live off the land. . . My whole life [on the commune] revolved around food. . . . We had a three-acre garden. . . canning and freezing. . .600 quarts of tomatoes , three 20 ft. freezers full [of] corn, broccoli, cabbage, potatoes, carrots. “—Ruth, a 1970s farm commune member, interview, 2011 During the 1960s and 1970s, as waves of cultural and political change swept through American society, food became a tool of resistance, consciousness-raising, and self-expression. Embracing the motto “You are what you eat,” hippies, feminists, religious seekers, ethnic nationalists, and antiwar and civil rights activists rejected mass-marketed, mass-produced food, which they termed “slave” food, “corporate” food, and “white-bread,” as symbols of the establishment they rallied against. They questioned how the food Americans ate was produced, prepared, and consumed and advocated new models of food production and new diets. A major part of these movements were served, in the 1970s and forward, by the “back-to-the-landers,” those who left their mostly middle class or privileged lives to live “off the grid,” to feed themselves, to farm, to cook, to forage, to raise animals, to live self-sufficiently.

"The Death of Ellsworth" Civil War exhibition

National Portrait Gallery
Jim Barber, historian at NPG discusses the exhibiton "The Death of Ellsworth." He is interviewed by the NPG's Warren Perry. "The Death of Ellsworth" recounts the death of Colonel Elmer E. Ellsworth in Alexandria, Virginia. Ellsworth was the first Union officer to be killed in the four-year-long struggle. His death at the hands of a local innkeeper made headlines throughout the country and he became a martyr in the North and an inspirational figure for legions of Yankees marching off to war. The exhibition is on view from April 29, 2011 through March 18, 2012; it brings together a select grouping of once-prized mementoes, including portraits of Ellsworth and Lincoln, as well as Alonzo Chappel's historic painting, "The Death of Ellsworth." Recorded at NPG, May 19, 2011.

"The Death of Ellsworth" Exhibition with Historian James Barber - National Portrait Gallery

National Portrait Gallery
Discussion by James Barber, historian at the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. He is Interviewed by Warren Perry, also of the National Portrait Gallery. "The Death of Ellsworth" recounts the death of Colonel Elmer E. Ellsworth in Alexandria, Virginia. The exhibition is open from April 29, 2011 through March 18, 2012 Elmer Ellsworth was the first Union officer to be killed in the four-year-long struggle. A friend of President Abraham Lincoln, Ellsworth commanded a regiment of New York Fire Zouaves—regiments raised for volunteer service—which participated in the invasion of Northern Virginia on May 24, 1861. Ellsworth's death at the hands of a local innkeeper made headlines throughout the country and he became a martyr in the North and an inspirational figure for legions of Yankees marching off to war. His funeral services were held in the White House, where thousands of mourners viewed his corpse lying in state in the East Room. Throughout the Civil War his name, face and heroism was recalled in stationery, sheet music and memorial lithographs. Francis E. Brownell, the soldier who mortally avenged Ellsworth's assailant, bequeathed several artifacts to the Smithsonian Institution, including the weapons used in the incident and Brownell's Congressional Medal of Honor. The exhibition will bring together a select grouping of once-prized mementoes, including portraits of Ellsworth and Lincoln, as well as Alonzo Chappel's historic painting, The Death of Ellsworth. James Barber, National Portrait Gallery Historian, is the curator of this exhibition.

"The Interview" Joins the Ranks of These Banned or Restricted Movies

Smithsonian Magazine

A Hollywood comedy lampoons a foreign dictator. That dictator gets peeved. A major studio has second thoughts about releasing the film to a wide audience. This scenario might make The Interview, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and Sony Pictures come to mind. But in the best of Hollywood traditions, the recent ruckus over the Seth Rogen and James Franco comedy is little more than a remake.

Past films have taken tyrants to task, and other studios have pulled the plug on productions for apparently political considerations. The Interview is just the latest in a long list of films that have had their public availability limited thanks to dissed despots or scissor-mad censors. Here are 10 previous films, both famous and obscure, that have been banned or drastically censored over the course of cinema history:

The Great Dictator (1940)

Charlie Chaplin’s comic turn as Adenoid Hynkel, a tyrant with an unmistakable resemblance to Adolph Hitler, may be the most famous film ever to poke fun at a foreign head of state. It also performed a similar service for the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, parodied as Benzino Napaloni by the actor Jack Oakie. Not surprisingly, the film was banned in Germany (where Chaplin’s films were already verboten), as well as in Japan, Spain, Peru and Argentina. It was also banned in Chicago, reportedly due to fear of antagonizing the city’s German-American population.

It Can’t Happen Here (1936)

This movie was based on Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 bestseller about a fascist takeover of the United States. Or it would have been. Production was already underway when MGM, which had bought the rights, decided to shelve the project, allegedly not wanting to anger fascist governments overseas. As the frustrated Lewis put it in a statement to The New York Times, “I wrote ‘It Can’t Happen Here,’ but I begin to think it certainly can.”

A still from All Quiet on the Western Front shows how the movie captured the grim realities of war. (John Springer Collection/CORBIS)

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

Based on the Erich Maria Remarque novel about German soldiers in the First World War, All Quiet won the Academy Award for Outstanding Production, the equivalent of today’s Best Picture nod. But its anti-war message did not sit well with the Nazi party in Germany, which not only picketed outside theaters but also released stink bombs and mice (some sources say rats) inside them. Shortly thereafter the film was banned in Germany. At various times it was also banned in Austria, Poland, Italy, France and Australia, largely because of its unromanticized depiction of war.

The Day the Clown Cried (1972)

This unreleased, possibly unfinished and much-discussed film stars Jerry Lewis as a circus clown imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. The movie’s critics, few of whom have actually seen a copy, have depicted it as tasteless, maudlin or simply bad. Even Lewis, who also directed and helped finance the film, has said that watching it made him feel “embarrassed” and “ashamed” and that he was grateful he had the power to make sure no one else ever saw it—a rare instance of a film banned by its own creator.

Frankenstein (1931)

The all-time horror classic may have spent more time on censors’ cutting blocks than its monster did on Dr. Frankenstein’s operating table, for fear that audiences would find it too shocking. It was edited in many parts of the United States and banned outright in Czechoslovakia, Italy, Northern Ireland and Sweden, according to the American Film Institute. Its 1935 sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein, was reportedly banned in Hungary, Palestine and Trinidad, not to mention the state of Ohio. Despite the outcry, both husband and wife are now on the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry for “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” films.

The shadow of Count Orlok, seen in a still from the movie. (Courtesy of Flickr user Insomnia Cured Here)

Nosferatu (1922)

This silent and still-spooky interpretation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, by the German director F. W. Murnau, was spiked soon after its first release because Murnau had failed to secure the rights to the book. Though he changed Dracula’s name to Orlok and moved much of the mayhem from England to Germany, Stoker’s widow sued, and a judge ordered the movie destroyed. Like the bloodthirsty count, however, Nosferatu proved difficult to kill. At least one copy survived, and in later years the film returned to movie screens and became an acknowledged classic.

Little Caesar (1930)

The pioneering gangster flick, with Edward G. Robinson as an Al Capone-like hoodlum named Rico, was censored across the United States and banned in Australia and parts of Canada. Though Rico gets his comeuppance at the end of the film in a blaze of machine-gun fire, censors apparently thought it glamorized the gangster lifestyle, a charge that has been leveled against movies in this genre ever since.

We the Living (1942)

This Italian version of Ayn Rand’s 1936 novel about life in Soviet Russia was banned and ordered destroyed by the Mussolini government. Although it was ostensibly about communism, its dim view of totalitarian regimes apparently hit too close to home. A producer managed to hide the film negatives, which resurfaced years later. According to the biography Ayn Rand and the World She Made by Anne C. Heller, Rand later received $35,000 in compensation for the unauthorized use of her work, a portion of which she used to buy a mink coat. It was finally released in the U.S. in the 1980s.

Mae West was perhaps a bit too sultry for 1930s sensibilities. (John Springer Collection/CORBIS)

She Done Him Wrong (1933)

Mae West was no stranger to censorship when she began her movie career. She had even been jailed for 10 days on obscenity charges for her role in a stage play, the unambiguously titled Sex. So she probably wasn’t surprised when this film was banned in Australia, Austria and Finland and hacked to pieces by censors across the United States for its sly sexuality and double entendres. Even so, it made a star of the young male lead, Cary Grant, and an even bigger one of West. It also provided what may be her most famous and often misquoted line of dialog: “Why don’t you come up sometime and see me?”

Prizefighting Films (1910 to 1940)

Here's a rare case of an entire category of films being banned. In 1910, the African-American boxer Jack Johnson clobbered his white opponent, Jim Jeffries, in a fight for the heavyweight title. Apparently upset by that outcome, states and cities across the U.S. began banning films of live boxing matches. Two years later, the U.S. Congress entered the ring, making the interstate transportation of boxing films illegal. Though enforced only sporadically in later years, the law wasn’t repealed until 1940.

"The heart of what we do." An Interview with Collections Manager Gail Joice

National Museum of the American Indian
Every job in a museum brings unique rewards. For the collections manager at the National Museum of the American Indian, nothing beats working hands-on with museum objects and having a direct connection with the people whose ancestors made them.

"This Museum Is about American Identity as Much as It Is About African American History": An Interview with Lonnie G. Bunch

Smithsonian Archives - History Div
In this interview of Lonnie Bunch, Director of the National Museum of African American History, Bogues discusses many topics. The process of getting to the position of being able to build the museum, as well as deciding what the museum was going to be about and the curatorial processes behind the museum are discussed. Bunch speaks on the difficulties of portraying the message of the museum and what makes this museum distinct from other Smithsonian museums. They discussed why Bunch decided to go into the museum field and what role museums had in public curriculum.

"To that sheer verge where horror hangs" --Conrad Aiken [graphic arts] / (photographed by Peter A. Juley & Son)

Archives and Special Collections, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Title supplied by cataloger.

Part of a series of lithographs based on studies done during the artist's travel to Sicilian monasteries.

Oral history interview with George Biddle, 1963, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

"George Biddle: Recent Paintings, January 19th through February 12, 1966," New York: Cober Gallery, 1966, cat. 28.

Black-and-white study print (8x10).

Orig. negative: 8x10, Safety, BW.

"Unbroken"'s Louis Zamperini Crashed Into the Pacific on May 27, 1943. Here is the Missing Air Crew Report

Smithsonian Magazine

It is a good thing that Louis Zamperini was a runner. And not just any runner, but a 4-minute miler and an eighth place finisher in the 5,000-meter event at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Because the endurance the bombadier needed in order to make it home from the Pacific theater was unfathomable.

On May 27, 1943, Zamperini and ten crewmates were searching for a downed aircraft south of Hawaii when they themselves crashed. Two of the engines in their plane, a beat-up B-24 called Green Hornet, had failed. Miraculously, Russell Phillips, the pilot; Zamperini, the co-pilot; and Francis McNamara, the tail gunner survived. The three drifted on rafts, living on albatrosses they killed and feeling sharks rubbing just underneath them. McNamara died on the 33rd day at sea, but, on day 47, Zamperini and Phillips were found and captured in the Marshall Islands, some 2,000 miles from the crash site, by the Japanese. They were taken as prisoners of war and were tortured in a string of camps until being freed at the end of the war.

Zamperini went on to live a long life. His story was told in Laura Hillenbrand's 2010 bestseller Unbroken, and the 97-year-old passed away this July at his home in Los Angeles, before he could see Unbroken, the major motion picture directed and produced by Angelina Jolie that is opening nationwide this week.

The National Archives has in its collection the Missing Air Crew Report detailing the disappearance of the Green Hornet. I recently interviewed Eric Van Slander, an archivist who specializes in World War II era records at the National Archives II facility in College Park, Maryland, about the record. Click on the highlighted portions of the document to learn more.

"What is Identity?" at APA Heritage Month Family Day 2012

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
During the 2012 Asian Pacific American Heritage Month Family Day, held at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, a team of ARTLAB+ teens filmed video interviews, asking festival goers what "identity" means to them. To learn more about ARTLAB+ Production Teams and other programs, visit artlabplus.si.edu.
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