Found 22 Resources containing: triumph and tragedy
For the past two years Smithsonian Learning Lab has been a tool for curating topic ideas for students participating in National History Day (NHD) research projects. The Learning Lab team, along with educators from NHD and the National Endowment for the Humanities, will hold an online session on Thursday, August 9 at 4 pm ET […]
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Light filters in from an open window over mounds of dough resting in Rima Timbaryan’s kitchen. Kindling crackles as it turns to ash in the tonir, and the sounds of women singing drift into the room.
Rima, Arev Yenokyan, and Gema Simonyan have been awake for hours, mixing dough forlavash, the fire-baked flatbread that is a staple of life in Armenia. They combine the dough, prep the oven, and prepare their workspace for the day’s work, occasionally breaking into songs like “Im Anoush Mayrig” (“my sweet mother”). They come together a few times each month to bake the bread, a slow and deliberate process that involves at least two bakers.
This scene takes place in Rind village, Vayots Dzor province, sixty miles south of the Armenian capital, Yerevan. Rima, Arev, and Gema are part of a centuries-old tradition led by women that has evolved and sustained itself through loss and joy, historical triumphs and tragedies. Around the hearths of Armenian homes from Yerevan to Los Angeles, women preserve and celebrate Armenian culture, memory, and identity through the production and sharing of lavash.
As in many cultures of the Caucasus and Middle East, bread and wheat are important elements of Armenian lifecycle events and festivals. Families offer bread and salt to their houseguests to welcome them. Hosts of births and weddings serve or display wheat kernels and special stews and breads. A new bride has a piece of lavash placed on her shoulders, signifying luck, wealth, and the new life she will bring into the family.
To break bread with someone is to share a common experience, and to experience Armenia you have to witness the baking and enjoy the simple pleasures of lavash. Many Armenian words and expressions derive from the simple, yet significant, act of breaking bread. For instance, the word for a gathering or party, utel-khmel, literally translates to “eat-drink.” The word for friend, enker, means “eating together.” Foods create and mark relationships and identity—wife and husband, family, community, nation.
Making lavash requires flour, water, sometimes yeast, the wood-fired tonir oven, and time, but preparations differ almost from village to village. Just as Armenia’s mountainous South Caucasus terrain creates multiple distinct microclimates that nurture diverse plant and animal species, so too did the mountains create a historic diversity in cultures and foods. Neighboring villages were isolated by cliffs and gorges, so each developed different ways of baking this seemingly simplest of foods.Arev Yenokyan displays the fruits of her labor: freshly baked lavash hot from the tonir. (Sossi Madzounian, Smithsonian)
This culinary range traveled with Armenians around the world. Armenian American writer Doug Kalajian recalls of his mother’s variation: “Her lavash was tremendously different from other lavash, even from the lavash baked in the next village where my father’s family was from. Hers was rich, buttery, and flaky.” Doug and his co-author Robyn Kalajian write the blog The Armenian Kitchen, chronicling food and memory through Armenian recipes from around the world.
In the United States, preparing and enjoying lavash was one of the most important ways Doug and his family expressed their Armenian identity. He remembers an aunt who refused to compromise her lavash with a modern oven:
My mother’s aunt lived in Massachusetts, where she baked her lavash in the traditional way, baking bubbly, white lavash in a wood stove. Her stove looked like a locomotive engine, it was huge. She would bake her lavash in that oven and it was fabulous. When she was older, her son and daughter-in-law surprised her with a new kitchen and an electric stove. They congratulated her that she didn’t need to build the fire anymore, just use the electric oven. She was furious. They had put the old wood stove in storage in the basement, and she went down to that basement every day to bake lavash with the traditional wood-fired stove, because that was the only way to get the same flavors and textures, the real lavash.
For the sourdough version of lavash that Rima and her friends prepare back in Rind, each batch is produced from a fermented remnant of the previous batch called ttkhmor. This yeasty starter lends lavash a slightly tart flavor and a charred, bubbly appearance.
The ttkhmor, the fuel used to feed the fire, and the methods of the baker all lend unique flavors to each batch. Each piece represents a present-day connection to the past; without the remnant from the previous baking, today’s lavash would not taste quite the same.Rima prepares dough for baking. (Sossi Madzounian, Smithsonian)
Once the dough is ready, they roll it thin and lay it across the batat or rabata, a wool- or hay-filled cushion used to stretch the dough and quickly transfer it to the smoldering oven.In many parts of Armenia, the oven is still stoked with bricks of cow dung and straw, which has the added benefit of repelling insects.
The baker plunges her torso and the batat with the rolled dough into the oven, smacking the dough against the hot oven wall. The lavash immediately begins to bake and bubble, puffing into its final shape. She removes it with an iron rod, then enjoys it hot and fresh or, more commonly, stacks and stores it to be eaten in the next few weeks.
Lavash is wrapped around khorovats (barbecued meats) and spicy peppers for lunch, filled with salty cheese for a snack, or topped with fresh cheese curds and sweet rosehip jam for breakfast. In a pinch, it doubles as a spoon, a napkin, a plate, or a serving bowl. Above all, it is a part of Armenian memory, identity, and culture.Baked lavash rests next to mounds of dough ready for baking. (Sossi Madzounian, Smithsonian)
Mom’s Lavash Recipe
In case your kitchen didn’t come with a wood-fired oven, you can also produce a passable version of lavash in a standard home oven. Here is a soft and buttery version from Doug Kalajian’s mother. Adapted from The Armenian Kitchen by permission of the authors.
- 8 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 tbsp salt
- 1 heaping tbsp baking powder
- 2 tbsp sugar
- 1/2 lb (2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted
- 3 cups warm water
- 1 egg mixed with a little water for egg wash
- Preheat the oven to 425°F.
- Place the flour in a large mixing bowl. Sift the salt, baking powder, and sugar into the flour. Stir well.
- Add the melted butter and most of the water.
- Mix well until dough forms. If the dough seems too dry, add some of the remaining water and continue to mix.
- Knead the dough on a lightly floured surface until smooth. Divide the dough into 5 or 6 balls.
- Working with one ball at a time, roll dough into a rectangle shape that will fit on a 16”x12” baking sheet.
- Fold the rectangle-shaped dough into thirds, then in thirds again, creating a little bundle.
- Roll this bundle into a large rectangle a second time (this will create flaky layers). Place rolled dough on an ungreased 16”x12” baking sheet.
- Brush the surface with egg wash.
- Bake on the lower oven rack for 15 minutes, or until bottom starts to brown.
- Move the tray to the upper oven rack for another 5 to 10 minutes, until the top becomes a golden brown.
- Remove from oven. Cool completely. Cut into 12 or 16 pieces.
- Repeat this process until all balls of dough have been shaped and baked.
- Store in an airtight container for two weeks or serve immediately with cheese and fruit.
This article originally appeared on the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage's "Talk Story: Culture in Motion" blog. For further reading on Armenia, check out the "My Armenia" project.
Most great men have one. Malcolm X has one. Gandhi has one. Mandela got one last year. And now, Cesar Chavez has his.
The biographical film or “biopic”—like Cesar Chavez, which came out this past weekend—lends itself to the creation of legends. In the case of Chavez, the legend is complicated by the fact that his story did not exactly lead to the liberation of the people he represented. Great strides were made during the heyday of the farm workers movement—namely the first contracts for farm workers and a California law that recognized their right to unionize. But field workers today suffer indignities familiar to those who worked in rural California prior to Chavez starting a union in 1962.
These facts are not the concern of Diego Luna, the Mexican niño prodigio turned director of the new film. In a recent appearance at UCLA, Luna told his audience, "We have to send a message to the [film] industry that our stories have to be represented. And with the depth and the complexity they deserve."
Fair enough. As a Mexican American and a historian, I too long for dignified cinematic portrayals of Latinos—if for no other reason than to impart histories to my students that convey the struggles for equality our people have initiated. College professors can only show John Sayles’ terrific 1996 film Lone Star, about a Texas border town, so many times. 2011’s A Better Life, about an undocumented gardener in Los Angeles, is a welcome but all too rare addition to the genre.
Farm workers cheering in the new film about the life of Cesar Chavez. (Photo: © Copyright Pantelion Films 2013)
My yearnings, however, should not come at the expense of historical accuracy, as they do in Cesar Chavez. Having recently published a book on the United Farm Workers and Chavez, I could easily get very particular about the details. (Pointing out, for example, that Luna situates the 1973 picket-line murder of farm worker Juan de la Cruz prior to 1970.)
But in the new film, Luna’s omissions and alterations are really historical subversions and go well beyond the poetic license we should permit filmmakers. His interpretation, I suspect, is a product of his unsophisticated handling of U.S. identity politics. He rejects the multiethnic community that made up the farm workers movement in favor of a simplistic notion that Mexicans did all the work. Creating a hero comes at the expense of depicting an entire social movement.
The Filipino American National Historical Society has rightly come out against the film’s misrepresentation of labor leader Larry Itliong, and the erasure of others such as Philip Vera Cruz and Pete Velasco. They’ve also questioned Luna’s failure to acknowledge the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee--an organization made up largely of Filipinos--which initiated the 1965 grape strike. The strike functions as a turning point for the union’s formation in the film.
Similarly, any mention of white volunteers and organizers beyond Fred Ross, Cesar’s mentor, and Jerry Cohen, the talented leader of the UFW legal team, is absent. Several white ministers and students played a critical role in launching and sustaining the movement, including Reverend Jim Drake, who came up with the winning strategy of the boycott, not Chavez. As the film lumbers toward the epic signing of the first contracts in 1970, Luna’s most egregious distortion of history comes when he shows Chavez boarding a ship to London. In the film, the labor leader walks the wharf on the Thames River, lobbies dockworkers not to unload grapes, and appeals to consumers not to buy the fruit. Although this work actually happened, it was a young Jewish American volunteer, Elaine Elinson, who almost singlehandedly convinced the British and Scandinavian unions to keep the grapes out of Europe.
The film even fails to represent accurately the supporting cast of Mexican American activists in Cesar’s orbit. Gilbert Padilla, played by Yancey Arias, and Dolores Huerta, played by Rosario Dawson, come off as nothing more than a yes-man and yes-woman to Chavez when, in fact, they were distinguished organizers in their own right and effective innovators of new strategies, including the boycott. Only Helen Chavez, Cesar’s wife, is presented as a character with her own mind and story, a tribute to America Ferrera’s standout performance.
Leader of the Migrant Workers Union, Cesar Chavez speaking in 1970. (Photo: National Archives/Cornelius Keyes)
But the film probably does the greatest disservice to Cesar Chavez himself. The director opts out of the 1970s altogether, a period in which Chavez struggled with personal and professional demons, lost interest in organizing farm workers, and became invested in creating a community rather than solidifying gains made in the previous decade. Such a storyline would have done little to burnish his credentials as a civil and labor rights leader, but it would have made for a more dramatic and compelling film. More importantly, it would have made for a much more accurate portrait of the depth and complexity of the real man.These omissions reflect the limitations of the genre and the hero-making project of this film in particular. With rare exception, biopics elide complexity and avoid overt criticism of their subjects. This is why the most extraordinary and entertaining renditions of historical figures have often come via fictionalized characters, whether it be Orson Welles’ Charles Foster Kane based on William Randolph Hearst (Citizen Kane), Roman Polanski’s Noah Cross based on William Mulholland (Chinatown), or P. T. Anderson’s Daniel Plainview based on Edward Doheny (There Will Be Blood).
In fairness to Luna, Chavez was delivered to him with decades of historical baggage, thanks to hagiography and political stamps of approval from Robert Kennedy, Jerry Brown, and most recently, Barack Obama. Although new histories are now being written, including Miriam Pawel’s impressive biography, The Crusades of Cesar Chavez, it will take time for the public’s perception of the hero to catch up with the all-too-human Chavez. Sadly, Luna’s film does almost nothing to assist this move toward a new understanding of Cesar Chavez’s life and the successes and failures of the movement he led.
Matt Garcia is the director of the School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies at Arizona State University. His most recent book, From the Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement (University of California Press), won the Philip Taft Award for the Best Book in Labor History, 2013. He wrote this for Zocalo Public Square.
Watching figure skater Adam Rippon compete, it’s easy to forget that he’s on skates. His dramatic, sharp movements – and facial expressions to match–emulate those of a professional dancer, at once complementing and contradicting his smooth, unfettered movement along the ice. He hides the technical difficulty of every jump and spin with head-flips and a commanding gaze, a performer as well as an athlete. But there’s one thing Rippon won’t be hiding – this year, he and freestyle skier Gus Kenworthy will become the first openly gay American men to ever compete in the Winter Olympics.
“The atmosphere in the country has changed dramatically,” says Cyd Zeigler, who co-founded Outsports, a news website that highlights the stories of LGBT athletes, in 1999. “Two men getting married wasn’t even a possibility when we started Outsports. Now it’s a reality in Birmingham, Alabama. There are gay role models at every turn – on television, on local sports, and in our communities.”
Even so, the last time that the United States sent an openly gay man to any Olympic Games was in 2004, when equestrians Guenter Seidel and Robert Dover won bronze in team dressage. It was Dover’s sixth time representing the United States at the Olympics; during his second Games, in 1988, Dover came out, becoming the first openly gay athlete to compete in the modern Olympics.
"I wish that all gay athletes would come out in all disciplines – football, baseball, the Olympics, whatever," Dover has said. "After six Olympics, I know they're in every sport. You just have to spend one day in the housing, the gyms, or at dinner to realize we're all over."
Indeed, by the time Dover came out on the international stage, it was clear that gay athletes were competing and winning in all levels of professional sports. Seven years earlier, tennis star Billie Jean King was famously outed when a lawsuit filed by a former lover led her to publicly admit to having a lesbian affair. (King promptly lost her all her professional endorsements, but later said she only wished that she had come out sooner.) And in 1982, former Olympian Tom Waddell – who would die from AIDS at the height of the epidemic five years later – helped found the first Gay Games for LGBT athletes. 1,350 athletes competed.
But it was more than a decade earlier when an openly gay athlete first performed in the Olympic Games. Just not exactly during competition.
English figure skater John Curry had barely come off the high of winning gold at the 1976 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, when reporters caught wind of his sexuality from an article published in the International Herald Tribune. They cornered the skater in a press conference to grill him on matters most personal, according to Bill Jones’s Alone: The Triumph and Tragedy of John Curry. Curry acknowledged that the rumors about his sexuality were true, but when journalists asked prurient questions betraying the era’s misconceptions about homosexuality and masculinity, Curry fought back: “I don’t think I lack virility, and what other people think of me doesn’t matter,” he said. “Do you think that what I did yesterday was not athletic?” (It should be noted as well that homosexual acts were outlawed in the U.K. at the time.)
But even though the competition was over for Curry, custom had it that medal winners were expected to appear in exhibition performances. There, in a fiery, unflinching athletic spectacle, Curry abandoned his usual lively routine of skips and hops for a stern technical masterpiece, making him the first openly gay athlete to perform on the Olympic stage.
“When everyone had telephoned their story and discussions broke out in many languages around the bar, opinion began to emerge that it was [Curry] who was normal and that it was we who were abnormal,” wrote Christopher Brasher, a reporter for The Observer, in his coverage that year.
LGBT journalists and historians, including Zeigler and Tony Scupham-Bilton, have catalogued the many Olympians who were homosexual but competed in a time before being “out” was safe and acceptable. German runner Otto Peltzer, for instance, competed in the 1928 and 1932 Olympics, but was arrested by the Nazis in 1934 for his homosexuality and was later sent to the concentration camps. In more recent years, athletes have waited to come out until after their time in competition was over, including figure skaters Johnny Weir and Brian Boitano and American diver Greg Louganis. Louganis was long rumored to be gay, but didn’t come out publicly until the opening ceremonies of the 1994 Gay Games: "Welcome to the Gay Games,” Louganis said to the crowd. “It's great to be out and proud."
Though the early history of openly gay Olympians is dotted with male athletes, openly gay women have quietly gained prevalence in recent competitions. French tennis player Amélie Mauresmo is among the first women to come out publicly prior to an Olympic appearance – though, Zeigler added, whether an athlete comes out publicly is based in part on the prominence of their sport outside the Olympics. In 1999, a year before her first Olympic competition, reporters questioned her sexuality after an opponent called her “half a man” for showing up to a match with her girlfriend. Mauresmo’s casual discussion of her sexuality as an integral part of her life and dismissal of concerns that she would lose sponsorship represented a shift in the stigma surrounding coming out as an athlete. Fear of commercial failure still underpinned many athletes’ decisions not to come out, but Mauresmo was undaunted.
“No matter what I do, there will always be people against me,” Mauresmo has said. “With that in mind, I decided to make my sexuality clear… I wanted to say it once and for all. And now I want us to talk about tennis.” Mauresmo still faced criticism for her “masculinity.” But her sponsor, Nike, embraced her muscular look by designing clothes that would display her strength, according to the 2016 book Out in Sport. Mauresmo went on to win silver in women’s singles in 2004.
At the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, 11 openly gay athletes competed, only one of whom – Australian diver Matthew Mitcham, who won gold and is a vocal LGBT activist – was a man. All six openly gay athletes at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver were women, as were all seven of the openly gay athletes at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Both of the intervening Summer Olympics saw a greater turnout of openly gay athletes, but women still held the large majority. In 2016, four of the players on the U.S. women’s basketball team – Delle Donne, Brittney Griner, Seimone Augustus and Angel McCoughtry––were openly gay.
This accounting of course elides that sexual orientation is a spectrum. Olympians who openly identify as bisexual, for instance, are growing in number as well. Additionally, the International Olympic Committee, and the many governing bodies within, have made some strides when it comes to recognizing that gender is not binary, though policies for transgender athletes remain a thorny debate among officials and athletes. That being said, the IOC allowed pre-surgery transgender athletes to take part in the 2016 Rio Games.
With this year’s Winter Games in Pyeongchang, Rippon and Kenworthy are the first openly gay American men to compete in the Olympics since the legality of same-sex marriage was established throughout the United States in 2015, and the cultural shift is apparent. While American tennis legend Martina Navratilova, who came out in 1981 but competed as an Olympian for the first time in 2004, has said that coming out in 1981 cost her $10 million in sponsorships, Kenworthy boasts sponsorships with Visa, Toyota and Ralph Lauren, to name a few. The skier also recently appeared in an ad for Head & Shoulders, with a rainbow pride flag waving behind him.
“The atmosphere for LGBT athletes has changed quicker in past decade,” says Scupham-Bilton, LGBT and Olympic historian. “In the 20th century there was more homophobia in sport and society in general. As the increase in LGBT equality has progressed, so has acceptance of LGBT athletes.”
There’s one notable exception: Sochi 2014. The summer before hosting the Winter Olympics, in what many saw as an affront to gay rights activism, the Russian government passed a law prohibiting the promotion of “nontraditional” sexual relationships to minors. The United States used the Olympic platform as an opportunity for subtle protest, including prominent gay athletes Brian Boitano, Billie Jean King and Caitlin Cahow in its Olympic delegation, and protests were staged across the world. Despite the outpouring of international support, Canadian figure skater Eric Radford opted to wait until after Sochi to come out, citing his desire to be recognized for his skill, rather than his sexuality. He’s already made his mark at the Pyeongchang Games, where his performance with skating partner Meagan Duhamel vaulted Canada to the top of the team figure skating competition.
Rippon and Kenworthy have used their newfound platforms to make statements on political issues. Rippon recently made headlines when he refused an offer to meet with Vice President Mike Pence due to disagreements with his stances on LGBT rights – which include past statements that appear to support funding gay conversion therapy. Pence’s former press secretary denied his support for gay conversion therapy during the 2016 presidential campaign. Kenworthy also criticized the Vice President as a “bad fit” to lead the United States' delegation at the Opening Ceremony in Pyeongchang on Friday.
Political platforms and sponsorships aside, Rippon and Kenworthy ultimately hoped that by coming out they could live as freer, more authentic versions of themselves – and empower others to do the same.
“There is pressure that comes with this responsibility and I feel I have a responsibility to the LGBT community now,” Kenworthy has said. “I want to be a positive example and an inspiration for any kids that I can.”
In Boston, March means St. Patrick’s Day, an occasion that obligates convenience stores and supermarkets to stock up on green plastic party supplies. It’s a cultural quirk that worked out well for South Korean artist Han Seok Hyun, who arrived from Seoul in mid-March to find that curators at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts had procured a sizeable stash of emerald bric-a-brac. The raw material would supply the latest iteration of his series Super-Natural, a commission for the 146-year-old museum’s largest ever exhibition of contemporary art, “Megacities Asia.”
With two weeks left before opening day, Han quickly got to work, building a fanciful landscape out of green plastic bowler hats and sunglasses, green party cups, empty beer bottles and shimmering tinsel shamrocks. The American greenery supplemented crates of green products sourced in Korea: fake plants, pool floats, cans of aloe vera drink and packages of squid chips—all a testament to the universality of cheap consumer culture.
“In Seoul, most people live in apartments and survive through supermarkets,” said Han, whose work is a send-up of the idea that the color green means something is healthy and natural. “I see children say to their mother, ‘It’s Sunday! I want to go to the supermarket!’ I feel that’s weird! They should want to go to the playground.”
Watch this video in the original article
Han was born in 1975, in a South Korea that was emerging from post-war poverty to become one of the richest, most technologically advanced countries on Earth. He is part of a generation of Asian artists responding to massive changes that continue to transform the continent. “Megacities Asia,” which runs through July 17, features 19 installations by 11 of these artists, including Choi Jeong Hwa, also from South Korea, and the Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei. They live and work in Seoul, Beijing, Shanghai, Delhi and Mumbai, each city with a population of more than 10 million people. These are places where forces like rural-to-urban migration, consumerism, technological development, pollution and climate change are dizzyingly apparent—and they may offer a glimpse into our global future.
A little more than a week before previews for the press and museum members were to begin, art handlers, translators and several recently-arrived artists were hard at work throughout the MFA’s sprawling complex. “It really is an all-hands-on-deck project,” said curator Al Miner, showing off an intricate spreadsheet the museum was using to keep track of who was supposed to be where, and when.
Delhi-based artist Asim Waqif was setting up his installation Venu (2012), which takes its title from the Hindi word for “bamboo,” a once common Indian building material that is falling victim to the vogue for steel, bricks and concrete. A network of bamboo and rope rigged with sensors that trigger sound and vibrations when a viewer approaches, Venu is an unlikely combination of traditional and high tech. “The viewer is not going to be able to tell whether it’s natural or artificial,” Waqif said. A former architect who decided he wanted to be more intimately involved with his materials, he confessed to finding “most museums really boring—it’s like there’s a barrier between the viewer and the art. But here, if somebody comes and explores, he’ll find many surprising things.”
In a corridor, visitors were already passing beneath Ai Weiwei’s Snake Ceiling (2009), an enormous serpent built from children’s backpacks to protest the Chinese government’s inaction after poorly-constructed schools collapsed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, killing more than 5,000 schoolchildren. In the museum’s atrium, they stopped to study Ai’s sculpture Forever (2003), an elegant wreath of 64 interconnected bicycles, like those that once clogged China’s streets and are now being replaced by cars.
Upstairs, in an airy gallery normally dedicated to Buddhist funerary sculpture, a team of art handlers under the watchful eye of Chinese artist Song Dong assembled his Wisdom of the Poor: Living with Pigeons (2005-6). It’s a two-story house made up of old windows, bits of wood and other architectural detritus scavenged from Beijing’s traditional courtyard houses, whole neighborhoods of which are being erased as the Chinese capital becomes a modern metropolis.
Placing a contemporary installation in a room full of traditional artwork is an unusual move, but curators realized it felt right in the context of Song’s work, which is about Chinese history as much as the ancient stone steles and seated Buddhas that surround it. And it’s not the only part of the exhibition housed outside the white-walled basement gallery that the museum usually uses for special shows.
Image by Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Delhi-based artist Asim Waqif sets up his installation Venu, a network of bamboo and rope rigged with sensors that trigger sound and vibrations when a viewer approaches. (original image)
Image by Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Mountmaker Brett Angell installs Hema Upadhyay's Build me a nest so I can rest. (original image)
Image by Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Aaditi Joshi's new piece, Untitled, asks viewers to think about the effect waste has on cities. (original image)
Image by Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Seoul-based artist Han Seok Hyun in front of Super-Natural. (original image)
Image by Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Han built Super-Natural from empty beer bottles, party cups and and other green products. (original image)
Image by Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Choi Jeong Hwa sits in an armchair positioned in the center of his Chaosmos Mandala. (original image)
“Megacities” rewards exploration, just as cities themselves do. Poking around a quiet gallery of Korean decorative art, for example, the lucky visitor will stumble across a doorway leading to Seoul-based Choi Jeong Hwa’s Chaosmos Mandala. It’s a delightful space, with reflective Mylar-covered walls, ceiling and floor. An enormous chandelier, assembled from the cheap and ubiquitous candy-colored plastic that is Choi’s signature material, spins hypnotically overhead. Discovering it evokes the serendipity of wandering a city’s back alleys and finding an underground dance club, or a perfect hole-in-the-wall noodle shop.
“Almost everything in this exhibition encourages some kind of physical interaction,” noted Miner. Visitors can climb inside Song’s house, for example, and walk through Shanghai-based Hu Xiangcheng’s Doors Away from Home—Doors Back Home (2016), which combines scavenged architectural elements and video projection. “That interactivity reflects the pace and texture of city life,” Miner said. Of course, some of the best spots in a city are quiet corners where one can pause and take everything in. So in Chaosmos Mandala, visitors are invited to relax in a cream and gold armchair at the room’s center. (The museum accepts the inevitability of selfies.)
Other works offer a different sort of immersive experience. Hema Upadhyay’s 8’x12’ (2009) is a lovingly detailed model of Dharavi, one of Mumbai’s oldest and largest slums, which covers the ceiling and walls of a walk-in metal container. It is scaled to the average size of a home in this squatter’s community, where one million people live and work within less than a square mile. “You get a sense of what it’s like to be in a city like this,” Miner said. “You feel like you’re in this vast space, but you’re also physically constricted. It’s almost unsettling.”
Over the three years Miner and fellow curator Laura Weinstein were organizing the show, they visited the artists in their homes and studios and experienced firsthand the cities the exhibition explores. They toured Dharavi, visiting residents at home. It felt voyeuristic, Miner admitted, “but I also felt it was important to be there—to see it, to smell it.” In Seoul, the curators visited bustling market stalls where their artists scored raw material for found-art installations, and in a high-rise housing block outside Delhi, Miner marveled that “everything was bright and gleaming and new, as if it had sprung up out of nothing.” Each of the megacities was a web of contradictions—both teeming and lonely, chaotic and efficient, places of vast wealth and extreme poverty, where skyscrapers tower over sprawling shantytowns. It would take a lifetime to truly understand these places, but the exhibition’s artists make a valiant effort to evoke what it feels like to walk their streets.
Upadhyay was murdered by an associate in December, either because of a financial dispute or on the alleged orders of her ex-husband. One of her last works of art is a poignant installation commissioned specifically for “Megacities Asia.” Build me a nest so I can rest (2015) consists of 300 painted clay birds, each holding a scrap of paper with a quotation from literature. The birds represent migrants, who are moving to cities in increasing numbers, carrying with them their hopes and dreams for a better life. It’s a reminder that even cities with enormous populations are home to individual people, with their own private tragedies and triumphs—all affected, for good or ill, by the relentless tide of human history.
Music works like a fountain of youth for the residents of Casa Verdi, a home for retired singers, musicians and conductors in Milan. The Venetian-style palazzo was built by Giuseppe Verdi, the great 19th-century Italian composer, who said he wanted a beautiful place "for musicians less fortunate than I" to spend their last days. But Casa Verdi is a rest home where the residents are much too busy to rest, a retirement haven where hardly anyone is retiring. The themes of great opera flourish at Casa Verdi love, death, passion, jealousy, betrayal, more jealousy, tragedy, tears and triumph. Verdi, composer of Aida, La Traviata, Il Trovatore and Rigoletto, would be pleased.
Over the course of 3,000 years, Tunisia has been home to many civilizations, and there's no better place to encounter them than at the National Bardo Museum. Housed in a former Beylic palace near the old city of Carthage, the museum is Tunisia's oldest and most important. Within its lavish halls, visitors find artifacts belonging to every era of Tunisian history, from a prehistoric altar to Hellenistic sculptures and Carthaginian jewelry.
While the Bardo Museum as a whole is impressive, one of the its main attractions is the staggering number of ancient mosaics that grace its walls and floors. Collected from Roman and Byzantine sites in Tunisia, the exceptionally well preserved mosaics occupy more than half of the museum’s display space and encompass the world’s largest collection of Roman mosaics.
Set in motion by the dissolution of Carthage, the era of Roman Africa was one of remarkable prosperity. After a century of Punic Wars, the Romans laid siege to Carthage beginning in 149 B.C., destroying the city and sowing its fields with salt. However, in 44 B.C., Julius Caesar reestablished Carthage as a Roman city. Soon, the fertile regions of northern Tunisia were responsible for much of empire’s grain production, and the region began to supply luxury items such as olive oil, gold, and even wild animals for colosseum shows to the empire. Having established its value as a territory, Roman Africa prospered through the turn of the fifth century. Cities were Romanized, monuments built and mosaics commissioned by wealthy families seeking status.
The J. Paul Getty Museum, which works to preserve mosaics abroad, notes that many North African Roman mosaics exhibit more vibrant colors than their Italian counterparts, a detail that has been attributed to the abundant supply of colored limestone and marble in the region. A shift in favor towards large-scale figural compositions, such as amphitheaters and hunt scenes, beginning in the third century A.D. has also been observed.
According to curator Aziza Mraihi, the Bardo Museum is "the major place to visit, to learn about the huge and rich history of Tunisia," and the mosaics offer a "unique" glimpse of life in Roman Africa. Depicting everything from mythological events to famous figures and day-to-day scenes, they function both as individual works of art and parts of a greater storyline.
The crown jewel of the mosaic and museum collection is the only known mosaic of the Roman poet Virgil. Dating to the third century, the mosaic was discovered in a villa at Sousse and depicts the poet writing his famous epic, The Aeneid, flanked by the muses of tragedy and history. Also from Sousse is the Triumph of Neptune depicting the god of the sea surrounded by the four seasons. Measuring over 100 square meters, it is one the largest preserved mosaics from the ancient world and hangs in the museum's entrance hall.
Other significant mosaics include a unique character portrayal of Diana the Huntress shooting a gazelle as well as a rare illustration of an Odyssey scene in which Ulysses resists the lure of Sirens. Explore these mosaics and more in the slideshow below, and head to the Bardo Museum's website to take a virtual tour.
Image by Boyd Dwyer / Wikicommons. The “Seignior Julius” mosaic was discovered at Carthage and dates to the beginning of the fifth century. Composed in registers, the centerpiece of this mosaic is a seigniorial domain in the Carthage suburbs. In the bottom right and left and hand corners, the seignior Julius and his lady reap the wealth of their estate. (original image)
Image by Public Domain via Wikicommons. This colorful mosaic panel represents Diane the Huntress. Wearing short clothes, boots and her hair held in a bun, she appears poised to shoot a gazelle that is quietly grazing acacia leaves. (original image)
Image by Shakko via Wikicommons. The Bardo Museum's crown jewel is this mosaic of the Roman poet Virgil writing the eighth verse of the epic the Aeneid. Clio, the muse of tragedy, and Melpomene, the muse of history, look on. Discovered in a private residence in Sousse, it is the only known mosaic of Virgil. (original image)
Image by Dennis Jarvis / Flickr Creative Commons. This third-century mosaic discovered at Dougga depicts a scene from Homer's epic poem The Odyssey in which Ulysses and his crew avoid the lure of Sirens. It is significant for being among the few ancient illustrations of the passage. (original image)
Image by Tony Hisgett / Flickr Creative Commons. One of the largest preserved ancient mosaics in the world, the Triumph of Neptune hangs in the Bardo Museum's entrance hall. Originally from Sousse, it dates somewhere between the end of the 2nd century and beginning of the third. Surrounding the god of the sea are the four seasons in figural form as well as agricultural scenes and decorative flora. (original image)
Image by Konstantin Aksenov / iStock. A blue door marks the entrance to the Bardo Museum. (original image)
April 15 marks the 150th anniversary of the death of Abraham Lincoln. Across the country, there will be numerous remembrances and celebrations of his leadership during the Civil War, recognition of his role in ending slavery, and tributes to his ability to capture and define the nation's aspirations and dreams. His life and legacy are entwined with the history and culture of the nation. Lincoln's rise from poverty to the presidency continues to inspire others to believe in the promise of the nation; his triumph in preserving a democratic nation is one of our greatest triumphs; and his death is our American tragedy.
Among the museum's most treasured objects in the Lincoln collection, and certainly its most iconic, is his silk hat. At six feet four inches tall, Lincoln towered over most of his contemporaries. He chose to stand out even more by regularly wearing high top hats.
Lincoln famously stored papers inside the crowns of his hats, removed them humbly when speaking to constituents, and threw them down in front of generals to emphasize his anger. On April 4, 1865, Lincoln toured the fallen Confederate capital, Richmond, Virginia. A writer for the Atlantic Monthly recorded that Lincoln was approached by an elderly African American man who removed his hat and bowed before the President. Lincoln in turn, "removed his own hat, and bowed in silence; but it was a bow which upset the forms, laws, customs, and ceremonies of centuries. It was a death-shock to chivalry, and a mortal wound to caste."
Lincoln acquired this silk hat from J. Y. Davis, a Washington hat maker, whose label appears inside the crown. The hat, approximately a modern size 7 1/8, is trimmed with two bands, a thin 3/8" ribbon with a small metal buckle and a 3" grosgrain black mourning band. The stitching on the second band indicates that it had been added after the hat had been purchased and signaled Lincoln's ongoing mourning for his son Willie, who died of typhoid fever on February 20, 1862. In a very public way, Lincoln was linking his loss with the losses of so many during the war. We do not know when he purchased the hat, or how often he wore it. We do know that the last time he put it on was to attend the play, Our American Cousin, at Ford's Theatre on April 14, 1865.
The Lincolns and their two guests, Clara Harris and Major Henry Rathbone, arrived late. When the party took their seats in the presidential box, the crowd wildly cheered and the orchestra played "Hail to the Chief." Lincoln removed his hat and the actors resumed the play where they had left off.
At about 10:15 p.m., John Wilkes Booth entered the box, pointed a derringer pistol at the back of the president's head, and fired. Fatally wounded, Lincoln was carried across the street to the home of William Petersen where he would die at 7:22 the next morning. The hat was left behind in the presidential box. The War Department that guarded the theatre recovered the hat, along with the chair used by Lincoln, and took the items back to its offices.
Once the trial of Booth's co-conspirators had concluded, the two items were no longer held as evidence, and the War Department transferred the hat and chair to the Interior Department to be safely stored with other national relics that the department maintained at the U.S. Patent Office. The hat was briefly exhibited next to a case with George Washington relics. In 1867, the Smithsonian Institution received the delivery from the Patent Office of Lincoln’s hat and chair. No one at the Smithsonian recorded the actual date.
Upon its arrival, Secretary Joseph Henry, who had served as one of Lincoln's science advisors, ordered that it be immediately crated and placed in the private storage room in the basement of the Smithsonian building. He cautioned the staff "not to mention the matter to any one, on account of there being so much excitement at the time." Although Henry did not further explain his decision, it appears that he shared the belief that displaying items so closely associated with Lincoln's assassination was offensive, and that in his mind, pandering to curiosity seekers would only disrupt the more important scientific work of the Institution.
The hat remained in storage and would not be seen by the public for the next 26 years until the Institution loaned it to the Lincoln Memorial Association for an exhibition in 1893. The chair would eventually be returned to the descendants of the owners of Ford's Theatre in 1929. Once made public, of all the personal Lincoln items in the collections, the hat became the symbolic emblem of the martyred 16th president. Because the hat was so much a part of Lincoln's persona, and Lincoln is so much a part of the nation, this revered object, which the Smithsonian first hid away, is now one of its greatest treasures.
Harry R. Rubenstein is chair and curator of the Division of Political History. The carriage in which the Lincolns and their guests rode to Ford's Theatre on April 14, 1865, is on display in the museum's lobby. Visit Ford's Theatre to see the exhibition Silent Witnesses: Artifacts of the Lincoln Assassination.
Soon after I enrolled as a graduate student at Cambridge University in 1964, I encountered a fellow student, two years ahead of me in his studies, who was unsteady on his feet and spoke with great difficulty. This was Stephen Hawking. He had recently been diagnosed with a degenerative disease, and it was thought that he might not survive long enough even to finish his PhD. But he lived to the age of 76, passing away on March 14, 2018.
It really was astonishing. Astronomers are used to large numbers. But few numbers could be as large as the odds I’d have given against witnessing this lifetime of achievement back then. Even mere survival would have been a medical marvel, but of course he didn’t just survive. He became one of the most famous scientists in the world—acclaimed as a world-leading researcher in mathematical physics, for his best-selling books and for his astonishing triumph over adversity.
Perhaps surprisingly, Hawking was rather laid back as an undergraduate student at Oxford University. Yet his brilliance earned him a first class degree in physics, and he went on to pursue a research career at the University of Cambridge. Within a few years of the onset of his disease, he was wheelchair-bound, and his speech was an indistinct croak that could only be interpreted by those who knew him. In other respects, fortune had favored him. He married a family friend, Jane Wilde, who provided a supportive home life for him and their three children.
The 1960s were an exciting period in astronomy and cosmology. This was the decade when evidence began to emerge for black holes and the Big Bang. In Cambridge, Hawking focused on the new mathematical concepts being developed by the mathematical physicist Roger Penrose, then at University College London, which were initiating a renaissance in the study of Einstein’s theory of general relativity.
Using these techniques, Hawking worked out that the universe must have emerged from a “singularity”—a point in which all laws of physics break down. He also realised that the area of a black hole’s event horizon—a point from which nothing can escape—could never decrease. In the subsequent decades, the observational support for these ideas has strengthened—most spectacularly with the 2016 announcement of the detection of gravitational waves from colliding black holes.Hawking at the University of Cambridge (Lwp Kommunikáció/Flickr, CC BY-SA)
Hawking was elected to the Royal Society, Britain’s main scientific academy, at the exceptionally early age of 32. He was by then so frail that most of us suspected that he could scale no further heights. But, for Hawking, this was still just the beginning.
He worked in the same building as I did. I would often push his wheelchair into his office, and he would ask me to open an abstruse book on quantum theory—the science of atoms, not a subject that had hitherto much interested him. He would sit hunched motionless for hours—he couldn’t even to turn the pages without help. I remember wondering what was going through his mind, and if his powers were failing. But within a year, he came up with his best ever idea—encapsulated in an equation that he said he wanted on his memorial stone.
The great advances in science generally involve discovering a link between phenomena that seemed hitherto conceptually unconnected. Hawking’s “eureka moment” revealed a profound and unexpected link between gravity and quantum theory: he predicted that black holes would not be completely black, but would radiate energy in a characteristic way.
This radiation is only significant for black holes that are much less massive than stars—and none of these have been found. However, “Hawking radiation” had very deep implications for mathematical physics—indeed one of the main achievements of a theoretical framework for particle physics called string theory has been to corroborate his idea.
Indeed, the string theorist Andrew Strominger from Harvard University (with whom Hawking recently collaborated) said that this paper had caused “more sleepless nights among theoretical physicists than any paper in history.” The key issue is whether information that is seemingly lost when objects fall into a black hole is in principle recoverable from the radiation when it evaporates. If it is not, this violates a deeply believed principle of general physics. Hawking initially thought such information was lost, but later changed his mind.
Hawking continued to seek new links between the very large (the cosmos) and the very small (atoms and quantum theory) and to gain deeper insights into the very beginning of our universe—addressing questions like “was our big bang the only one?” He had a remarkable ability to figure things out in his head. But he also worked with students and colleagues who would write formulas on a blackboard—he would stare at it, say whether he agreed and perhaps suggest what should come next.
He was specially influential in his contributions to “cosmic inflation”—a theory that many believe describes the ultra-early phases of our expanding universe. A key issue is to understand the primordial seeds which eventually develop into galaxies. Hawking proposed (as, independently, did the Russian theorist Viatcheslav Mukhanov) that these were “quantum fluctuations” (temporary changes in the amount of energy in a point in space)—somewhat analogous to those involved in “Hawking radiation” from black holes.
He also made further steps towards linking the two great theories of 20th century physics: the quantum theory of the microworld and Einstein’s theory of gravity and space-time.
In 1987, Hawking contracted pneumonia. He had to undergo a tracheotomy, which removed even the limited powers of speech he then possessed. It had been more than ten years since he could write, or even use a keyboard. Without speech, the only way he could communicate was by directing his eye towards one of the letters of the alphabet on a big board in front of him.
But he was saved by technology. He still had the use of one hand; and a computer, controlled by a single lever, allowed him to spell out sentences. These were then declaimed by a speech synthesiser, with the androidal American accent that thereafter became his trademark.
His lectures were, of course, pre-prepared, but conversation remained a struggle. Each word involved several presses of the lever, so even a sentence took several minutes to construct. He learnt to economize with words. His comments were aphoristic or oracular, but often infused with wit. In his later years, he became too weak to control this machine effectively, even via facial muscles or eye movements, and his communication—to his immense frustration—became even slower.Hawking in zero gravity (NASA)
At the time of his tracheotomy operation, he had a rough draft of a book, which he’d hoped would describe his ideas to a wide readership and earn something for his two eldest children, who were then of college age. On his recovery from pneumonia, he resumed work with the help of an editor. When the U.S. edition of A Brief History of Time appeared, the printers made some errors (a picture was upside down), and the publishers tried to recall the stock. To their amazement, all copies had already been sold. This was the first inkling that the book was destined for runaway success, reaching millions of people worldwide.
And he quickly became somewhat of a cult figure, featuring on popular TV shows ranging from the Simpsons to The Big Bang Theory. This was probably because the concept of an imprisoned mind roaming the cosmos plainly grabbed people’s imagination. If he had achieved equal distinction in, say, genetics rather than cosmology, his triumph probably wouldn’t have achieved the same resonance with a worldwide public.
As shown in the feature film The Theory of Everything, which tells the human story behind his struggle, Hawking was far from being the archetype unworldy or nerdish scientist. His personality remained amazingly unwarped by his frustrations and handicaps. He had robust common sense, and was ready to express forceful political opinions.
However, a downside of his iconic status was that that his comments attracted exaggerated attention even on topics where he had no special expertise—for instance, philosophy, or the dangers from aliens or from intelligent machines. And he was sometimes involved in media events where his “script” was written by the promoters of causes about which he may have been ambivalent.
Ultimately, Hawking’s life was shaped by the tragedy that struck him when he was only 22. He himself said that everything that happened since then was a bonus. And what a triumph his life has been. His name will live in the annals of science and millions have had their cosmic horizons widened by his best-selling books. He has also inspired millions by a unique example of achievement against all the odds—a manifestation of amazing willpower and determination.
This week marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. On November 22, 1963, a pall was cast over the country that some people say we’ve never emerged from. It is thought to represent a loss of innocence, or at the very least, a loss of naiveté that forever changed the country in a profound way. But on a more local level, it also also changed Dallas’s Dealey Plaza – not physically, but symbolically and emotionally. It changed the meaning of the urban park.
Dealey Plaza wasn’t always a symbol of loss or a sight of conspiracy. It was built in the late 1930s as a symbol of optimism, an Art Deco, automotive gateway into Dallas that was part of a larger, only partially realized Civic Center Plan designed by city engineers. Though parts of Dealey Plaza (named after an early publisher of the Dallas Morning News) are still quite beautiful, especially after a recent renovation by architects Good Fulton & Farrell, the area is forever marred by Kennedy’s assassination and visited by thousands of curious tourists each year hoping to get some insight into this particularly dark point in American history. Perhaps no other place in America has been as thoroughly documented, as exhaustively measured, mapped, modeled, photographed, and even acoustically tested.
A long time ago, on my own first trip to Dallas I was shocked to see a small ‘X’ painted in the road, marking the precise spot where Kennedy was sitting at the moment he was shot. At the time I thought it was an official monument but I’ve since learned that it is maintained by one of the conspiracy theorists who holds court near the assassination site. From the grassy knoll, you can see the X, the permanently open window on the sixth floor of the former Texas School Book Depository building from where Lee Harvey Oswald fired the shot that killed the President. Along the perimeter of the plaza were vendors selling books, magazines and DVDs describing myriad conspiracy theories, some of which were elaborated on in posters and flyers. It seemed to me that Dealey Plaza had become a built manifestation of one of those obsessively assembled conspiracy maps that TV detectives inevitably find in the apartments of psychopaths. The only thing missing was string connecting everything together.
Every visitor to the plaza is drawn to the former Book Depository, a building that came close to becoming another casualty of Dealey Plaza. Originally erected in 1901 as a warehouse for the Chicago-based Rock island Plow Company, the seven-story brick building was built on the foundations of a previous structure that burned earlier that year. Its architect is unknown, but the masonry-constructed Romanesque building appropriately bears some resemblance to very early Chicago skyscrapers, exemplified by H.H. Richardson’s Marshall Field’s Wholesale Store and the work of Adler and Sullivan (which, though visually similar, was pioneering in its use of steel-frame construction). Rock Island owned the building until 1937, after which time it was sold and changed hands, housing a variety of tenants. By 1963 a tenant was in place in that would forever be associated with the building: the Texas School Book Depository.
The Texas School Book Depository operated in the building for 7 years after the assassination, and after they moved out the building gradually fell into disrepair. For years after the assassination, there were those people who believed that the building should be razed, but the city wouldn’t grant demolition permits even as local politicians were doing everything they could to discourage further associations between the city and the assassination. Their efforts were, of course, in vain. The site was heavily visited throughout the 70s and there was intense curiosity about the building and the assassin’s perch.
In 1977 the building at 411 Elm Street was bought by Dallas County, renovated, and reopened in 1981 as the Dallas County Administration Building. But the sixth floor remained unoccupied. According to the National Register of Historic Places (pdf), which recognized the Dealey Plaza district in 1978, “it’s strong negative historical associates made it unsuitable for use as County offices.” Plus, there was already talk of opening some sort of museum to answer the questions of the many visitors while also preventing “the proliferation of private ventures” looking to capitalize on the area’s historic significance.
That wouldn’t happen until 1989 when The Sixth Floor Museum finally opened, restored and adapted under the general supervision of architects Eugene George and James Hendricks. A collaboration between Dallas County and the non-profit Dallas County Historical Foundation, the Sixth Floor Museum “chronicles the assassination and legacy of President John F. Kennedy; interprets the Dealey Plaza National Historic Landmark District and the John F. Kennedy Memorial Plaza; and presents contemporary culture within the context of presidential history.”
It is a way to partially transform the building from a place imbued with malice, regret and morbid curiosity, to a place of education, understanding… and morbid curiosity. The museum has been designed to maintain the integrity of the building and the feeling of the warehouse space, as well as the views out onto Dealey Plaza. Though no original evidence is on display, two areas–the sniper’s perch in the far southeast corner and the spot where the rifle was found–have been authentically restored to almost exactly the way they looked on November 22, 1963 using original photos and duplicate book boxes. These two areas are protected by glass walls, preserved as a piece of American history.
The assassination of President Kennedy charged the area with new meaning. Once nothing more than an ambitious piece of urban planning, Dealey Plaza and the former Book Depository building now make up the most famous crime scene in America. 50 years later it remains a symbol of a national tragedy and the failure of one of the world s greatest powers to to protect its leader. To close, this excerpt from the National Register of Historic Places seemed quite apt.
“Dictators and emperors have leveled cities and sown their ground with salt for acts of regicide. But a democracy may a harder test. It may encourage the preservation of sites of pain and horror, as well as triumph and grandeur. Dealey Plaza’s sad fate is to have the former far outweigh the latter.”
Just as the National Portrait Gallery last year commissioned its first piece of earth art, a six-acre portrait in sand on the National Mall, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of Art is breaking new ground, presenting a radical contemporary work of art inspired by the Freer Gallery’s most iconic treasure: the Peacock Room by artist James McNeill Whistler.
Steps away from Whistler’s room, which is considered a masterpiece of the Aesthetic Movement, California painter Darren Waterston has created a life-size deconstruction of it in the adjacent Sackler Gallery. But Waterston reimagined the period room in a very 2015 way: appropriation with a tortured point of view. As if Mad Max had rampaged through it, the room is in a state of decay, its famous pottery smashed, shelves fractured and its gold paint oozing on to the floor. The Smithsonian has titled it “Peacock Room Remix: Darren Waterston’s Filthy Lucre.”
“This is a completely new form for us,” says Julian Raby, the director of the Sackler and Freer Galleries.
One that takes some explanation.
In 1876 Whistler created Harmony in Blue and Gold: the Peacock Room for the London home of the British shipping magnate Frederick R. Leyland. After Leyland commissioned the architect Thomas Jeckyll to design a dining room in the house where he could display his collection of Chinese porcelain, Leyland asked his friend Whistler to consult on the color scheme, probably because he had commissioned two Whistler canvases for the same room.
Whistler instead transformed the entire decor. With no one around (Jeckyll had taken ill and Leyland had left London after the summer social season), Whistler went wild. He covered nearly every square inch of the room—including its fine leather-covered walls, wooden shutters, wainscoting and ceiling—in teal blue. Over the blue he painted gold feathers, wave patterns and pairs of magnificent peacocks.
In Waterston’s version, the room is a decomposing still life. The paint has formed stalactites. The gilded spindles of the shelves are smashed. There are lichen-like growths under the mantle. The porcelain has been replaced with pottery from junk shops. Some pieces are on the floor, shattered; others sit on precarious perches. Instead of daylight, an ominous red glow peaks through the shutters.
In the background one hears muffled, whispering voices and a cello playing mournful, dissonant notes.
“This project is the perfect confluence of art, architecture and design,” says Lee Glazer, associate curator of American art at the Freer and Sackler galleries. “It’s a whole new way to present new and old together, taking the Peacock Room and putting it in conversation, even confrontation, with a major endeavor by a living artist.”
But what does “Filthy Lucre” mean?
“It is the story of the Peacock Room reimagined in three-dimensional form by Darren, who has taken animosity and turned it into a three-dimensional experience,” Raby says.
He is referring to the famous falling out between patron and artist. When Whistler demanded payment for his many months of work, Leyland refused, stating quite correctly that he had not commissioned it. Famously combative, Whistler was incensed and turned his ire on his patron. “Once friends, forever enemies,” he declared.The Gold Scab: Eruption in Filthy (or Frithy) Lucre by James McNeill Whistler, 1879 (The Fine Art Museums of San Francisco)
Art historian John Ott tells the tale in the excellent exhibition catalog: “Unable to secure his desired fee of two thousand pounds from Leyland, the artist’s only recourse was a pair of acidic visual satires: the sparring peacocks he added to the room’s south wall and titled Art and Money; or, the Story of the Room and a painted caricature of Leyland, The Gold Scab: Eruption in Frilthy Lucre (the Creditor).”
The fighting peacocks represent artist and patron. Whistler’s can be identified by a tuft of white hair, which the artist had. The puffed-up Leyland peacock has “feathers” in the form of gold coins.
Whistler’s caricature, a large canvas painted in 1879 that is also on view at the Sackler, depicts Leyland as demonic peacock man covered in scales of gold with talons for hands and feet. He plays a piano that has sacks of money piled on top. His piano seat is a white house, representing Whistler’s beloved studio, lost when Whistler was forced to declare bankruptcy soon after the affair.
Darren Waterston knew the caricature well. The Bay Area artist had seen it many times at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. He was also a student of Whistler’s painting techniques.Artist Darren Waterston (Art Evans)
In 2012, Susan Cross, curator of Visual Arts at MASS MoCA in North Adams, Mass. commissioned Waterston to do a 100-foot-long mural in a public space outside the museum’s theater. He accepted the challenge with dedication and enthusiasm. His research on great painted interiors from the past led him to the Freer and Whistler’s Peacock Room, which Freer donated to the Smithsonian in 1906 with his collection of Asian art.
“My work for the last two decades is about volatility and the underbelly of beauty,” Waterston explains. “Beauty is an unstable concept. The Peacock Room felt like so much tragedy. It kind of functions as a memento mori. It demands our scrutiny.”
Waterston went back to Cross with a new vision. As Cross writes in the catalog, “Much like Whistler, he had moved far beyond the task first put before him and found his own vision.” Waterston wrote her: “My proposal of Filthy Lucre, a painterly, sculptural subversion of Whistler’s Peacock Room, is truly what I feel most moved to create….”
MASS MoCA gave its approval and Waterston spent a year in residence at the museum, working with a large team of fabricators (carpenters, painters, glass artists, ceramicists) to build the installation in the old textile mill. He painted the walls, reinterpreted the peacocks as far more aggressive (they are disemboweling each other), and over-painted the pottery with rough brushstrokes. He also commissioned the rock group Betty to play the dissonant soundscape that accompanies the work.
What was he trying to show?
“It’s about the complex relationship between art, money and the artist,” Waterston says. "It’s about the commodification of art, the collision of enormous wealth and extraordinary deprivation.”
The work is intentionally beautiful and ugly.
“The room is reeling with beauty but has an over-the-top-ness that isn’t so beautiful,” Glazer says. “When I walked in for the first time, I saw within its perfection violence. It has a sense of decadence that almost becomes grotesque.”
Cross further adds, in the catalog, “A portrait of both desire and disgust, Filthy Lucre, like Waterston’s paintings, expresses emotional and psychological states as well as the physical. Articulating the inextricable link between creative and destructive forces, the installation continues Waterston’s investigations of the duality—the multiplicity—of all that we know. Never quite one thing or another, his works constantly move between darkness and light, past and future, abstraction and representation, liquid and solid.”
Filthy Lucre of course could not be timelier, in an age where the relationship between artists and wealthy patron/collectors has never been more fraught, nor the art market more volatile. As Cross writes, “Waterston felt a personal connection to the story of the Peacock Room in terms of an artist’s labor and relationship to capital. Every artist knows the pressure of making a living. The need for ‘lucre.’”
But the triumph of the installation in the Sackler, accompanied by other works by Whistler and Waterston’s concept drawings, is its proximity to the original.
As Raby writes in the catalog, “Significant in its own right, Waterston’s work represents an opportunity to better understand the Peacock Room’s multifaceted history and enduring influence—and to do so in the only museum in the world where it is possible to compare it with the original source of inspiration.”
"Peacock Room REMIX: Darren Waterston's Filthy Lucre" is on view at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, adjacent to the Freer Gallery (home of the James McNeill Whistler famed Peacock Room), in Washington, D.C. through January 2, 2017.
The Reverend Harold Mose Anderson was always fascinated by the movies. Anderson saved his money and bought a home movie camera from a catalog. Once he had it, he was seldom without it as he wandered the streets of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Much like a seasoned reporter, wherever he went, he always took time to load up the camera and check his film and equipment. He never knew when he might get a good shot of his community in action. The resulting motion picture, Reverend Harold Anderson's Black Wall Street Film, captured from 1948 through 1952, has been preserved and made available for use by the National Museum of American History's Archives Center.
Anderson's community was the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, an area of such significance that it is featured in the Power of Place exhibition of the new National Museum of African American History and Culture. Often referred to as "Little Africa" in the early years of the 20th century, it later became popularly known as "Black Wall Street." At a time when segregation limited African American housing options and prevented black customers from patronizing businesses that catered to white customers only, it had one of the largest concentrations of black-owned businesses in the country. Black Wall Street was a vibrant African American neighborhood with a thriving middle class and well-established institutions such as schools, churches, and civic associations.
However, in 1921 Black Wall Street was the scene of a massive race riot during which hundreds of African American residents were killed and the neighborhood was burned to the ground. Born in 1922, Harold Anderson grew up hearing the stories and watching the neighborhood's rebirth. He was both a witness to and participant in the rebuilding and revival of the community. And, he documented the renewal with his 16mm motion picture camera.
Anderson himself played a major role in the neighborhood's resurgence. A successful businessman, Anderson managed and then owned two neighborhood movie theaters, a skating rink, a bowling alley, and a shopping strip, among other enterprises. He also brought the Golden Gloves boxing tournament to the area, making it accessible to African American fans. Anderson was committed to the belief that, like in other majority African American communities during the Jim Crow era, it was critical that Black Wall Street sustain independent African American businesses to ensure resident dollars would stay in the community and guarantee its future.
Almost lost in a devastating house fire, Anderson's film recognizes the efforts and successes of the community. With his camera he showed that by the 1940s Black Wall Street once again was home to active African American-owned businesses. He made a special effort to document the neighborhood’s barber shops, groceries, taxi companies, jewelers, and other enterprises. He also captured its citizens in church, at school, participating in parades, and on the streets of the area. The film includes footage of Richard and Pat Nixon as they campaigned in Black Wall Street, the first time a vice presidential candidate visited the African American neighborhood. As a historic document the film provides a record of a significant time and place in African American history. It allows the viewer to "feel" the vibrancy of a community that triumphed over tragedy.
This is a sample of the film. You can also view the sample on Vimeo.
Patricia Sanders donated the film to the Archives Center in 2010. The Archives Center was able to secure grant funding to preserve the 16mm black-and-white reversal film. As a result, a new negative and print, as well as digital copies, ensure that the film can be studied and enjoyed far into the future.
For more information about the film, contact email@example.com.
Wendy Shay is an audiovisual archivist at the Archives Center, National Museum of American History.
When we think about pigs today, most of us likely imagine the Wilbur or Babe-type variety: pink and more or less hairless. Mention pig farming and images of hundreds upon hundreds of animals crammed into indoor cages may come to mind, too. But it wasn’t always like this. Prior to the industrial revolution, pigs came in an astounding variety of shapes, sizes, colors and personalities. And the ham made from their cured meat was just as diverse.
“The tale of ham’s innovation began around 200 years ago, and it paved the way for how ham is produced today,” said Nicola Swift, the creative food director of the Ginger Pig, a company of butchers and farmers that specializes in rare breeds of livestock reared in England’s North York Moors. Swift presented a talk on the history of ham at the BACON conference in London last weekend, which sadly was not devoted to bacon but to “things developers love.”
One family in particular, the Harrises, almost single-handily changed the way England turned pigs into ham, she explained, and in doing so, they inadvertently laid the foundations for large-scale, homogenized pig farming.
Mary and John Harris were pig folk. Their family hailed from Calne, a quiet town in Southwest England. In the early and mid-1800s, they played a small but important role in providing London with pork. At the time, much of London’s pork arrived by way of Ireland. But without refrigeration, transporting large amounts of meat was impossible. Instead, pig handlers would literally walk the animals to the Irish coast, corral them onto boats destined for Bristol, and then continue to trek to London by foot.
But a deliciously fat pig forced to trot more than 100 miles would soon turn into a lean, tough mass of muscle. To make sure the ham, chops and bacon that those animals were destined to become remained fatty, tender and flavorful, pig herders would make pit stops along the way to give the animals a rest and fatten them up. The Harris farm was one such destination. The family also supplied Calne with meat from their small shop on Butcher’s Row, founded in 1770.
The Harrises were by no means well off. If they butchered 6 or 8 pigs in a week they wrote it off as a success. Still, they got by all right. That is, until tragedy struck. In 1837, John Harris, the relatively young head of the household, died suddenly, leaving his wife, Mary, to manage the business and look after the couple’s 12 children. A few years later, just as the family was getting back on its feet, hard times fell upon them once again. It was 1847, and the Irish potato famine arrived.
In Ireland, potatoes fed not only people but their pigs, too. As season after season of potato crops failed, the Irish could not feed themselves, much less their animals. The supply of pork to the Harris’ farm and butcher shop stopped arriving. In desperation, Mary and her son, George, hatched a scheme to send George to America by ship. The idea, they decided, was for George to strike up a pig business deal with American farmers and figure out a way to transport their slaughtered animals across the Atlantic in boxes packed with salt to ward off spoilage during the long journey. On its way to England, that meat would cure into ham and George’s entrepreneurial venture would save the family.
Not surprisingly, George failed in his mission. But while in the States, he did learn of a remarkable new practice the Americans were pursuing called ice houses. In the U.S., this method allowed farmers to slaughter pigs not only in months ending in an ‘r’ (or those cold enough for the meat not to rot before it could be cured and preserved), but during any time of year – even in steamy July or August. Curing, or the process of preventing decomposition-causing bacteria from setting in by packing the meat in salt, was then the only way to preserve pork for periods of time longer than 36 hours. Such horrendously salty meat was eaten out of necessity rather than enjoyment, however, and it often required sitting in a bucket of water for days at time before it could be rinsed of its saltiness to the point that it would even be palatable. ”This all harks back to the day when people had to preserve something when they had lots of it because there were other times when they didn’t have much,” Swift said. “This type of preserving goes back hundreds and hundreds of years.”
Ice houses, specially constructed sheds with packed ice blocks either collected locally or imported from Norway, offered partial relief from that practice, however. Charcoal acted as an insulator, preventing the ice from melting quickly and trapping the cool air within the small room.
When George returned home, curly tail between legs, he immediately got busy earning back his family’s trust by experimenting with ice house design. By 1856, he had succeeded in constructing what was likely the first ice house in England. The ham that resulted from slaughtering pigs in that cool confine was more tender and tasty since it didn’t have to be aggressively cured with large amounts of salt. Eventually, the Harrises shifted to brining techniques, or curing in liquid, which led to the creation of the massively popular Wiltshire ham.
The family patented George’s creation, and it soon began spreading to other farmers and ham producers who licensed the technology around the country. The Harris’ wealth increased so quickly and so dramatically that they partly financed the construction of a branch of the Great Western Railway to their village in 1863. Several decades after that, they helped bring electricity to Calne.
While the Harris’ tale is one of personal triumph, their mark on England’s ham production did not come without cultural costs. Prior to the ice house, each region in the UK and Ireland enjoyed their own specific breed of pig. In Lincolnshire, for example, Lincolnshire ham originated from the Lincolnshire curly coat, an enormous beast of a pig that was around twice the size of the animals typically bred today. It’s long, thick curly white coat kept the hardy animal warm throughout the damp winters, and its high fat content provided plenty of energy for the farm laborers that relied upon its exceptionally salty ham for sustenance. After a long decline, that breed finally went extinct in the 1970s thanks to industrialized farming.
Other regions once boasted their own breeds and unique ham brews. In Shropshire, people made “black ham,” which they cured along with molasses, beer and spices. This created an exceptional mix of salty sweetness, with a tinge of sourness from the beer. In Yorkshire, a breed called the large white – which is still around today – inspired a method of steaming cured ham in order to more efficiently remove the salt, while in Gloucestershire people preferred to add apples to their ham cures. But after the Harris’ ham empire took off, a massive advertising campaign that followed painted a picture of what ham and bacon should look and taste like, largely removing these traditions from kitchens around the country. “Most of the regional variances are sadly not known any more except to ham geeks,” Swift said.
In addition to stamping out ham variety, the Harris’ factory – which soon employed hundreds of staff and processed thousands of pigs each week – and others like it began favoring homogenized mass-production methods of indoor pig rearing. Older residents in Calne recall the factory’s unmistakable reek in the 1930s. Eventually, public protests caused its closure and demolition in the 1960s, but for local pigs and ham, the damage was already done. Between 1900 to 1973, 26 of the unique regional breeds of pigs and other livestock went extinct, with others surviving only in very small numbers.
To try and preserve pig and other livestock heritage, concerned citizens formed the non-profit Rare Breeds Survival Trust in 1973, which maintains a sort of endangered species list and conservation group for farm animals on the fringe. In addition, farms such as Swift’s Ginger Pig specialize in breeding and reintroducing some of these lines into restaurants and local butcher shops in London and beyond, and in introducing traditional curing techniques through their upcoming book, the Farmhouse Cook Book. “Innovation is awesome and brilliant, but there’s also a dark side,” Swift said. “That’s the history of ham.”
It used to be difficult for Bobbi Thomason to explain where her grandmother comes from. Relatives used all sorts of names to describe it: Austria, Yugoslavia, Slovenia, the Hapsburg Empire. “It was really quite confusing to me,” says Bobbi, who stands a few inches taller than her grandmother and squints warmly when she smiles. All those place names were accurate at one time. But the name that lasted longest was Gottschee.
Her grandmother goes by a few names, too: Oma, Grandma, and her full name Helen Meisl. She left Gottschee in 1941, and didn't go back for 63 years.
When she finally did, it was 2004 and she was 74 years old. Her hair had turned white and her husband had died, but she laughed a lot and was close to the women in her family. Helen boarded a plane from New York to Vienna. Then she drove with two daughters and Bobbi to the village where she'd grown up. It was evening, and dark patches of forest flickered past the windows.
When the sun rose over the county of Kočevje, in southern Slovenia, Helen saw that her hometown looked only vaguely familiar. Most of the roads were still made of dirt, but electricity and television had been added since she'd left. The white stucco walls of squat houses had cracked and discolored. Old street signs, once written in German, had been discarded and replaced with Slovene signs.
Helen reached the house that her husband had grown up in. She and Bobbi stood at the threshold but didn't enter, because the floorboards looked too flimsy to support their weight. Holes in the roof let the rain in; holes in the floor showed through to the earth basement. It was comforting to know the building still existed, but sad to see just how modest its existence was.
* * *
Gottschee was once a settlement of Austrians in what's now Slovenia, which was itself once Yugoslavia. It was called a Deutsche Sprachinsel—a linguistic island of German speakers, surrounded by a sea of Slavic speakers. The Gottscheers arrived in the 1300s, when much of the area was untamed forest. Over the course of 600 years, they developed their own customs and a dialect of Old German called Gottscheerish. The dialect is as old as Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Germans only vaguely understand it, the way an American would only vaguely understand Middle English.
For centuries, European empires came and went like the tides. But when World War II came, Gottschee abruptly vanished from the map. Today, there are hardly any traces of a German community there. In what remains of Helen's childhood home today, saplings are pushing their way through the floorboards.
“Gottschee will always be my home,” says Helen, who's now 85 and lives in the Berkshires. She and her husband moved later in life, because the green fields and leafy forests of Massachusetts reminded them of their birthplace. “I was born in Gottschee, I will always speak my mother language.”
Only a few hundred people speak the Gottscheerish dialect today, and almost all of them left Gottschee long ago. Yet a proud and thriving community of Gottscheers still exists—in Queens, New York.
In fact, Helen first met her husband in Queens—at Gottscheer Hall, which hosts traditional Austrian meals and choir performances in the Gottscheerish dialect. The hall is an anchor for the community. It's decorated with dozens of portraits of young women who served as “Miss Gottschee,” chosen each year to represent the Gottscheers at events. So complete was the Gottscheer transplantation that by the 1950s, it was possible to meet someone from your birthplace, even at a New York polka dance thousands of miles from home.
The journey back to Kočevje helped Helen accept how much had changed. But for Bobbi, it was more transformative: It helped her understand just how much she didn't know about her roots. During the trip, she heard stories her grandmother had never told before. She started to wonder about her late grandfather, who had been conscripted into the German army at 13 years old, and who had to wander through Austria in search of his family when the war ended in 1945.
Bobbi started to understand just how unlikely her grandparents' migration had been. Family traditions took on new meaning. As a child, she sometimes baked apple strudel with her grandmother. “It requires her pulling out the whole dining room table, to roll the dough,” Bobbi remembers. “The saying is that you should be able to read a newspaper through it.” Her grandfather—a thin, stoic man who liked to read the New York Daily News in a lawn chair—would critique their work when the layers were too thick.
When Bobbi stood in the doorway of her grandfather's childhood home in Kočevje, she wished she could step inside and look around. Peering into the house was a way of peering into the past. A looking glass. Bobbi wanted to know what might be waiting inside, just out of view.
* * *
In 2005, after returning from the trip, Bobbi started contacting Gottscheer organizations in New York. She was considering graduate school in European history and wanted to interview a few older Gottscheers.
To Bobbi, research seemed like a solemn intellectual undertaking. It was too late to interview her grandfather, but in Queens, there were hundreds of men and women who had made the same journey that he had. And she knew that soon enough, no one living would remember Gottschee. Her task was to capture the stories of a community that was quickly dying out.
Her research couldn't have come soon enough. Every year, the group of Gottscheers who remember their birthplace shrinks. In 2005, she attended a meeting of the Gottscheer Relief Association that around 60 people attended. Four years later, when her research was complete, she attended another meeting and only 25 people showed up. Many Gottscheers had died in the interim.
But there are still a few old-timers left to ask about Gottschee. “My youth was beautiful,” says Albert Belay, a 90-year-old who left Gottschee as a teenager. He grew up in one of the dozens of small towns that surrounded the city of Gottschee. Most towns had a vivid German name, like Kaltenbrunn (“cold spring”), Deutschdorf (“German village”), and Hohenberg (“high mountain”).
“We were neighbors of the school building, and across the street was the church,” Belay remembers, with a warmth in his voice. Belay's childhood world was small and familiar. “8 o'clock in the morning, five minutes before, I left the kitchen table and ran over to school.”
In school, Belay had to learn three alphabets: Cyrillic, Roman, and Old German—a sign of the many cultures that shared the lands around Gottschee. In high school, he had to learn Slovenian in just one year, because it became the language of instruction.
Edward Eppich lived on his father's farm in Gottschee until he was 11. His memories of his birthplace aren't particularly warm. “You had only maybe one or two horses and a pig, and that's what you live on,” Eppich recalls. When Austrians first settled Gottschee in the 1300s, they found the land rocky and difficult to sow. “It was not that easy,” he says.
These stories, and many more like them, helped add color to Bobbi's sketchy knowledge of her grandfather's generation. Her curiosity deepened. She learned German and decided to continue her interviews in Austria.
Image by A camp for displaced Gottcheers in Austria after World War II (original image)
Image by The teaching staff of the Gottschee region photographed in 1905. (original image)
Image by (original image)
Image by Compass Cultura/Wikicommons. Current-day Gottschee lies in southern Slovenia (original image)
Bobbi's research told her that for hundreds of years, despite loose ties to central European empires, Gottschee was largely independent. For most of its history, it was officially a settlement of the Hapsburg Empire. But because it was on the frontier of central Europe, locals lived in relative poverty as farmers and carpenters.
In the 20th century, European borders were drawn and redrawn like letters on a chalkboard. In 1918, after World War I, Gottschee was incorporated into Yugoslavia. Locals complained, even proposing an American protectorate because many Gottscheer immigrants already lived in the US. But the area was insulated enough by geography and culture that none of these changes significantly affected Gottschee—until Hitler came to power in 1933.
At the time, pockets of German speakers were scattered across Europe, in countries like Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Yugoslavia. Some of those people wanted nothing to do with the Reich. Yet Hitler sought a homeland unified by the German language, and he expected far-flung communities like the Gottscheers to help build it.
There were undoubtedly supporters of Hitler in Gottschee. In the local newspaper, one local leader insisted that the rise of Germany would be good for Gottschee. “Wir wollen ein Heim ins Reich!” read a headline. We want a home in the Reich!
Still, many Gottscheers were illiterate—and thanks to a long history of isolation, they didn't easily identify with a nation that was hundreds of miles away. It's likely that, as in so much of Europe, many Gottscheers passively accepted Hitler's rule out of fear or indifference.
It's difficult to know what ordinary Gottscheers believed. Hindsight deforms the telling of history. Countless German historians have struggled to explain how World War II and the Holocaust happened at all. Lasting answers have been hard to come by—in part because In the wake of such vast atrocity, participants fall silent and bystanders belatedly take sides.
What Bobbi knew was that the horrors of World War II hung like a shadow in the minds of older Gottscheers. In Austria, a man invited Bobbi for an interview over lunch. The conversation was friendly until she asked, in imperfect German, about Hitler. His eyes grew dark and he started shouting. “To experience this, to live through this, you can never understand!” he said. “It's so easy to say 'Nazi' when you weren't there!”
As an American and a descendant of Gottscheers, Bobbi remains troubled by the connections between Gottschee and Nazi Germany. Even after years of research, she isn't sure what they deserve blame for. “There are pieces that they don't know, and also pieces that look different with the knowledge of hindsight,” Bobbi says. “And it's scary to wonder what they were a part of, without knowing it, or knowing incompletely.”
* * *
For the Gottscheers, life was better during the war than in the years that followed.
Gottschee was located in Yugoslavia when war broke out, but in 1941 the country was invaded by Italy and Germany. Gottschee ended up in Italian territory—and as such, residents were expected simply to give up the keys to their homes and resettle. They weren't told where they were going, or whether they would one day come back.
“You can't talk about Gottschee without the Resettlement,” one Austrian woman told Bobbi. “It is just like with the birth of Jesus Christ—there are years B.C. and A.D. You simply can't talk about before and after without it.”
“Everything came to an end in 1941,” says Albert Belay. “There was no way out. Europe was fenced in. Where to go? There was no place to go.”
Helen adds: “When Hitler lost the war, we also lost our home. We were homeless, we were refugees.”
Most Gottscheers were sent to farms in what was then Untersteirmark, Austria. Only upon arrival did they discover rooms full of personal belongings and meals left haphazardly on the table—signs that whole towns had been forcibly emptied by the German army. They had no choice but to live in those homes for the rest of the war.
When Germany surrendered in 1945, the Gottscheers lost their old home and their new one. Yugoslavia was seized by Josip Broz Tito and the Partisans, a resistance group had doggedly fought the Germans during the war. Both Gottschee and Untersteirmark were within the country's new borders, and the Gottscheers weren't welcome there.
Herb Morscher was just a toddler when he left Gottschee, but he remembers the years after resettlement. “We were 'displaced persons,'” Morscher says bitterly. His family lived in a camp in Austria that had been designed to house soldiers. “We had to go and eat in a kitchen. We had no plates, no knives. We had nothing. They gave us soup, and you had to look for a couple of beans in there.”
By moving to Austrian territory, Gottscheers had technically rejoined the culture they had originally stemmed from. But Belay and Morscher say that Gottschee was the only homeland they really had. When Morscher attended school in Austria, he was labeled an Ausländer, or “foreigner.” By joining the Reich, says Belay, “we left the homeland.”
Perhaps it makes sense, then, that so many Gottscheers decided to leave Europe entirely. Family connections in the United States made emigration possible for a few thousand. Others gained refugee status or applied for residency.
Morscher moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where a cousin helped him integrate into Grover Cleveland High School. It was a painful transition. He had to wake up at 5 a.m. to practice the English alphabet. While Austrians had called him a foreigner, American schoolchildren heard his accent and called him 'Nazi.'
John Gellan, who grew up in Gottschee and recently turned 80, remembers the day he arrived in New York by ship. (His family was allowed to immigrate on the condition that Gellan join the U.S. military, which posted him on bases in Germany.) “We were parked outside the harbor of New York,” he says. “Our big impression was the higher buildings, and the many cars.”
He still remembers the exact stretch of New York's Belt Parkway that he could see from the ship. “All the traffic. It was like another world,” he says, and pauses. “Another world opened up, yes.”
* * *
Bobbi, for her part, discovered another world as she investigated her family's story. As she contacted Gottscheer organizations in New York in 2005, she thought of herself as a scholar helping preserve a disappearing culture. But her involvement soon became deeply personal. Just after Bobbi started her research in 2005, Helen got a phone call with good news.
Helen passed it down through the women of her family, first calling her daughter, Bobbi's mother. Bobbi's mother called Bobbi and explained, “The Miss Gottschee Committee wanted to ask if you would be Miss Gottschee,” she said.
It wasn't quite what Bobbi had bargained for. She was hoping to become a serious young researcher. Miss Gottschee, by contrast, is expected to deliver speeches at polka dances and march in parades wearing a banner and tiara. The two identities didn't seem particularly compatible.
But she had to admit that she was a descendant of Gottscheers, baking strudel with her grandmother, long before she was an aspiring graduate student. “They were both so excited that I would have this honor and this special role in the community,” Bobbi says. “At that moment, as a daughter and a granddaughter, there was no question that I was going to do this.”
More importantly, the yearly tradition of Miss Gottschee—along with the dances and parades and choir performances—were themselves proof that the Gottscheers were not a dying community at all. Every year, in a tradition that dates to 1947, over a thousand Gottscheers gather at a festival on Long Island. A Gottscheer cookbook frequently sells out at events, and orders have come in from Japan and Bermuda. And a second Gottscheer community in Klagenfurt, Austria passes down a different flavor of the group's heritage.
Bobbi had gone searching for a cultural graveyard, and found it overflowing with life.
* * *
The festival on Long Island—the Volksfest—is an odd and heartening sight. Just blocks away from suburban homes with broad driveways and carefully trimmed hedges, a huge crowd gathers around a long line of picnic tables. Boys and girls in traditional overalls and dresses run through crowds of Gottscheer descendants, while elderly men start sipping beer before noon.
At this year's Volksfest, women sold strudel and cake at an outdoor booth. At another, children and their grandparents paid a quarter to play a game that looked a little like roulette. The prize was sausage.
There was even a woman from Kočevje, Slovenia, in attendance. Anja Moric unearthed the Gottscheer story when, as a kid, she discovered an old Gottscheer business card in her parents' home. Eventually she discovered that Gottscheer communities still exist, and she connected with researchers like Bobbi to share what she'd found. It was as if, while digging a tunnel from one community to another, she had run headlong into someone digging a tunnel from the other end.
In the afternoon, Bobbi marched in a long procession of women who had once served as Miss Gottschee. She's becoming a regular at the festival—though it will take a few more years to rival the older Gottscheers who have attended more than 50 times.
Image by Daniel A. Gross. Gottscheers gather at Volksfest on Long Island. (original image)
Image by Daniel A. Gross. Previous Miss Gottschees gather at Volksfest. (original image)
Bobbi admits that there's a vast difference between being a Gottscheer and being a Gottscheer-American. When a few women gave speeches at the Volksfest, they stumbled over snippets of German. And it's easy to mistake the whole thing for a German-American gathering. Many Americans see sausage and beer and don't know the difference. Only small signs suggest otherwise, and they are easy to miss: the choir performances, the older couples speaking Gottscheerish, the reproduced maps of Gottschee and its villages.
Gottscheers could see Americanization as a small tragedy. But Bobbi thinks it's a triumph, too. “After centuries of struggling to have a space that was their space, they have it,” says Bobbi. “In this form that probably they could never have guessed would happen, centuries ago.”
There are echoes of the broader immigrant experience in the Gottscheer story. Egyptian restaurants opening in Queens sometimes remind Bobbi, unexpectedly, of the Gottscheers. But the Gottscheers also stand out in a few ways. There's an irony to their journey during World War II. During the war, they briefly became German—yet thousands of them ended up becoming American.
“What's really unique about the Gottscheers is the fact that the homeland that they had doesn't exist anymore,” Bobbi says. Their immigration story, which may seem familiar to many Americans, is more extreme than most because going home was never an option.
At times, Gottscheers wished it was. Bobbi's grandfather was told in Europe that the streets of America were paved with gold. The streets of New York were dirty and crowded. “He arrived in Brooklyn and said: If I had anything I could have sold for a ticket back, I would have,” Bobbi says.
On the whole, though, descendants of the Gottscheers looked forward. They took factory jobs or started pork stores or left home for college. Many encouraged their children to speak English.
In short, they integrated successfully—and that's exactly why Gottschee culture can't last. The blessing of the American mixing pot is that it can accommodate a staggering variety of cultural groups. The curse is that, in a mixing pot, cultures eventually dissolve. Integrating into a new place also means disintegrating as a culture.
Gottsheerish is going the way of the hundreds of regional dialects that fall into disuse each year. And Albert Belay says that's only one measure of what's lost. “It is not only the language,” he says. “It's a way of life in the language! That makes the bond between the people so strong. The language, and the habits—the past.”
Still, accidents can preserve culture for a time. Remnants persist in the fine print of a business card, the tiara on a teenager's head, the layers of an apple strudel.
Or in the sound of a violin. More than 70 years ago, Albert Belay brought one with him from Gottschee. His uncles played the instrument in Austria, and it's the only keepsake he has left. “They wanted me to learn,” he says. “The violin I kept, and I still have it here.”
Belay is 90, but the instrument brings back memories of childhood. “I'm back home, like. Every time I pick up the violin, I have a good feeling,” he says. “I'm well protected, like I was as a kid.”
This story was published in partnership with Compass Cultura.
"Anything, everything, is possible." —Thomas Edison, 1908
The year 1908 began at midnight when a 700-pound "electric ball" fell from the flagpole atop the New York Times building—the first-ever ball-drop in Times Square. It ended 366 days later (1908 was a leap year) with a nearly two-and-a-half-hour flight by Wilbur Wright, the longest ever made in an airplane. In the days between, the U.S. Navy's Great White Fleet sailed around the world, Adm. Robert Peary began his conquest of the North Pole, Dr. Frederick Cook reached the North Pole (or claimed to), six automobiles set out on a 20,000-mile race from New York City to Paris, and the Model T went into production at Henry Ford's plant in Detroit, Michigan.
The events and innovations that occurred within that 12-month frame a century ago marked, in many ways, America's entry into the modern world. In some cases, they quite literally put modern America in motion. Whether practically significant or, like the automobile race around the world, essentially frivolous—a "splendid folly," one contestant called it—all reflected, and expanded, Americans' sense of what was possible. Buoyed by achievements, the country was more confident in its genius and resourcefulness—not to mention its military might—and more comfortable playing a dominant role in global affairs.
Nineteen hundred eight was an election year, and the parallels between it and 2008 are interesting. Americans of 1908 were coming off two terms of a Republican president who had abruptly set their country on a new course. He was a wealthy Ivy League-educated Easterner who had gone west as a young man and made himself into a cowboy. Like George Walker Bush, Theodore Roosevelt had entered the White House without winning the popular vote (an assassination put TR into office), then conducted himself with unapologetic force. And it was clear then, as it is now, that the country was heading into a new world defined by as yet unwritten rules, and that the man about to exit office bore not a little responsibility for this.
Americans of 1908 knew they lived in unusual times. And lest they forget, the newspapers reminded them almost daily. According to the press, everything that happened that year was bigger, better, faster and stranger than anything that had happened before. In part, this was typical newspaper hyperbole; in part, it was simply true.
An essay in the New York World on New Year's Day of 1908 articulated the wonderment shared by many. The article, titled "1808-1908-2008," noted how far the country had progressed over the previous century. In 1808, five years after the Louisiana Purchase and two years after Lewis and Clark returned from their transcontinental journey, the population had been a mere seven million souls. The federal government had been underfunded and ineffectual. Technology—transportation, communication, medicine, agriculture, manufacturing—had been barely more advanced than during the Middle Ages of Europe. Now, in 1908, with the U.S. population at almost 90 million, the federal revenue was 40 times greater than it had been a century earlier, and America was on a par with Britain and Germany as a global power. U.S. citizens enjoyed the highest per capita income in the world and were blessed with railroads and automobiles, telegraph and telephone, electricity and gas. Men shaved their whiskers with disposable razor blades and women tidied their homes with remarkable new devices called vacuum cleaners. Couples danced to the Victrola in their living rooms and snuggled in dark theaters to watch the flickering images of the Vitagraph. Invisible words volleyed across the oceans between the giant antennas of Marconi's wireless telegraph, while American engineers cut a 50-mile canal through the Isthmus of Panama.
From the glories of the present the World turned to the question of the future: "What will the year 2008 bring us? What marvels of development await the youth of tomorrow?" The U.S. population of 2008, the newspaper predicted, would be 472 million (it's 300 million). "We may have gyroscopic trains as broad as houses swinging at 200 miles an hour up steep grades and around dizzying curves. We may have aeroplanes winging the once inconquerable air. The tides that ebb and flow to waste may take the place of our spent coal and flash their strength by wire to every point of need. Who can say?"
Not a day passed without new discoveries achieved or promised. That same New Year's Day, Dr. Simon Flexner of the Rockefeller Institute declared in a medical paper that human organ transplants would soon be common. Meanwhile, the very air seemed charged with the possibilities of the infant wireless technology. "When the expectations of wireless experts are realized everyone will have his own pocket telephone and may be called wherever he happens to be," Hampton's Magazine daringly predicted in 1908. "The citizen of the wireless age will walk abroad with a receiving apparatus compactly arranged in his hat and tuned to that one of myriad vibrations by which he has chosen to be called....When that invention is perfected, we shall have a new series of daily miracles."
A few weeks before the year began, on the bright windless morning of December 16, 1907, thousands of spectators went to Hampton Roads, Virginia, to hail the departure of the Great White Fleet on its 43,000-mile voyage around the world. Roosevelt steamed in from the Chesapeake Bay aboard the presidential yacht, the Mayflower, to give a few last-minute instructions to fleet commanders and to add his considerable heft to the pomp and circumstance. As sailors in dress uniform stood at the rails and brass bands played on the vessels, the president watched. "Did you ever see such a fleet and such a day?" he shouted to his guests aboard the Mayflower. "Isn't it magnificent? Oughtn't we all to feel proud?" It was, he concluded, "perfectly bully."
For sheer majesty, the armada was impressive. "The greatest fleet of war vessels ever assembled under one flag," the New York Times reported. The 16 battleships were worth $100 million and comprised nearly 250,000 tons of armament. The Mayflower led the ships to the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, and as the ships' bands played "The Girl I Left Behind Me," Roosevelt gave a last wave of his top hat.
Loaded to the gunwales and painted bright white, the ships steamed away, stretching out into a three-mile column. Not everyone understood exactly why Roosevelt sent those battleships around the world. Even now, it's difficult to give a simple answer. At the time, some Americans worried that the voyage was extravagant, rash and likely to provoke a war, most likely with Japan. Indeed, Roosevelt harbored real concerns that Japan, newly emboldened by a recent naval victory over Russia and angered by the mistreatment of Japanese immigrants in America, might pose a threat to the Philippines and other U.S. interests. "I had been doing my best to be polite to the Japanese and had finally become uncomfortably conscious of a very, very slight undertone of veiled truculence," he would write a few years later of his decision to send out the fleet. "[I]t was time for a showdown."
But Roosevelt also filled those 16 ships with friendly greetings and U.S. dollars. Among his instructions to commanders were firm words on preserving decorum among the ships' 13,000 sailors. Throughout 1908, as the battleships steamed port to port, from Rio de Janeiro to Sydney, they were greeted with adulation and American flags. When the fleet finally reached Japan in October of 1908, tens of thousands of schoolchildren greeted it by singing "The Star-Spangled Banner." Tensions between the two countries evaporated, and the voyage, once belittled by many as a dangerous stunt, was now applauded as a stunning success. Seldom has a president combined so deftly a message of power with offerings of peace.
To Americans, who were treated to endless stories about the 14-month voyage in newspapers and magazines, the Great White Fleet was a show of strength. The U.S. Navy was now on a par with Germany's navy and second only to Great Britain's. And America, with its capacity to produce more steel than Britain and Germany combined, could build ships faster than any country on earth.
The sky was full of miracles. In New York City, stupendous new buildings pointed upward to where the future seemed to beckon. The Singer Building, headquarters of the Singer Sewing Machine Company, was completed in the spring of 1908. At 612 feet, the "Singerhorn" (as wits soon began to call it, after the Matterhorn) was the highest inhabited building in the world. A few months later, the steel frame of the Metropolitan Life Building leapt over the Singer to 700 feet.
Illustrators imagined a future city of golden towers connected by slender suspension bridges and great masonry arches. Moses King, in a 1908 illustration, imagined dirigibles and other flying craft floating over vaulting towers and bridges in New York City, bound for destinations such as the Panama Canal and the North Pole. A caption referred to "possibilities of aerial and interterrestrial construction, when the wonders of 1908...will be far outdone."
No aerial wonder topped the Wright brothers' feats that year. Absent from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, since their first brief flights there in 1903—and not having flown a lick since 1905—they returned to nearby Kill Devil Hills in April to dig out their old shed and dust off their piloting skills. The Wrights' ability to fly had advanced beyond their first thrilling seconds in the air—but their competitors had also advanced, and the Wrights felt the pressure. A coterie of bright and ambitious young men had joined Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, to form the Aerial Experiment Association (AEA). On March 12, 1908, in Hammondsport, New York, Casey Baldwin, an AEA member, had flown above an icy lake for a distance of almost 320 feet. Four months later, on the Fourth of July, Glenn Hammond Curtiss flew an AEA craft nearly a mile over Hammondsport.
For the previous three years, as the Wrights had dallied with possible buyers of their aircraft, critics and competitors increasingly construed their reticence to fly as evidence of failure or, worse, of fraud. Now, in the spring of 1908, they had two offers of purchase—from the U.S. Army and a private French syndicate. Both offers depended on public demonstrations of the aircraft. After a few weeks of practice in Kitty Hawk, Wilbur sailed to France to demonstrate the Wright Flyer. Orville undertook his own flight trial at Fort Myer, near Washington, D.C. The time had come to put up or shut up.
It was 6:30 on the evening of August 8 when Wilbur climbed into the seat of his Wright Flyer at a horse track near Le Mans. He wore his usual gray suit, starched white collar and green cap, turned backward so it would not blow off in flight. The evening was calm, and so, outwardly, was he. This would be the first public demonstration of a Wright plane. Much, possibly everything, was riding on it. The last time he had flown—a private practice flight at Kitty Hawk in May—he had crashed and destroyed the plane. If he did so now, the French trials would be over before they had begun, and the name Veelbur Reet, as they pronounced it in Le Mans, would be the punch-line of a French joke.
Spectators watched from the grandstand as the twin propellers behind Wilbur started to spin. All at once, the plane shot forward on its track. Four seconds later, it was airborne, rising quickly to 30 feet, higher than most of the French aviators had flown but low enough to give the audience a view of Wilbur as he made a slight adjustment to the control levers. The plane instantly responded, one wing dipping, the other lifting, and banked to the left in a tight, smooth half circle. Coming out of the turn, the plane made a straight run down the length of the track, about 875 yards, then banked and turned into another half circle. Wilbur Wright looped the field once more, then brought the plane down almost exactly where he had taken off less than two minutes earlier.
The flight had been brief, but those 100 or so seconds were arguably the most important Wilbur had spent in the air since 1903. Spectators ran across the field to shake his hand, including the same French aviators who had only recently dismissed him as a charlatan. LŽon Delagrange was beside himself. "Magnificent! Magnificent!" he cried out. "We're beaten! We don't exist!" Overnight, Wilbur was transformed from le bluffeur, as the French press had tagged him, to the "Bird Man," the most celebrated American in France since Benjamin Franklin. "You never saw anything like the complete reversal of position that took place," he wrote to Orville. "The French have simply become wild."
Yet a few weeks later, Delagrange momentarily overshadowed Wilbur's achievement by flying for 31 minutes and thereby setting a new record in the air. Now, it was Orville's turn. On September 9, he took off from Fort Myer, Virginia. He'd already made a few brief desultory hops, but now he flew for family honor and national pride. The plane shot up and began soaring around the parade ground. After 11 minutes, it was clear Orville intended to beat Delagrange's record. The spectators watched him circle the field, taking about a minute per circuit, the engine of the plane crescendoing, fading, then crescendoing again. He had flown about 30 circuits when somebody called out, "By Jings, he's broken Delagrange's record!" According to the New York Herald reporter C. H. Claudy, everybody grabbed one another's hands, each man aware, according to Claudy, that he "had actually been present while aerial history was being reeled hot from the spinning wheel which made that awkward, delicate, sturdy and perfect wonder above their heads go round and round the field."
Orville had no idea he'd broken Delagrange's record. He was lost in flying. He canted into sharp corners and dipped low, skimming over the parade ground, then suddenly rose to 150 feet, higher than anything visible but the needle of the Washington Monument and the dome of the U.S. Capitol rising to the east, backlit by morning sun. "I wanted several times today to fly right across the fields and over the river to Washington," Orville later confessed, "but my better judgment held me back." After 58 circuits of the parade ground, he landed. He had flown 57 minutes and 31 seconds, nearly double Delagrange's record.
The Wrights held the attention of the world, and over the next week or so, as Wilbur flew above adoring crowds in France, Orville set ever longer endurance records at Fort Myer. On September 10, he flew more than 65 minutes; on the 11th, more than 70; on the 12th, almost 75. That same day he set a new endurance record with a passenger— 9 minutes—and an altitude record, 250 feet.
Then, tragedy: on September 17, while flying over Fort Myer with an Army lieutenant named Thomas Selfridge, Orville crashed. He was badly injured. Selfridge was killed.
It appeared as if the crash might end the Wrights' career and set American aeronautics back years. Wilbur ceased flying in France, as Orville lay recuperating in the hospital, attended by his sister. But on September 21, Wilbur lifted off from Le Mans and began circling the artillery ground at Camp d'Auvours above his largest crowd ever, 10,000 spectators.When Wilbur surpassed Orville's flight of nearly 75 minutes, "a yell went up which defies description," according to the Herald. Still, he flew. The drone of the motor came and went, and the sky grew darker and the air cooler. At last, the plane descended and settled on the ground. Wilbur had flown for 91 minutes and 31 seconds, covering 61 miles—a new record. He had banished any conjecture that the Wrights were finished. "I thought of Orville all the time," he told reporters.
Wilbur saved his greatest triumph for the last day of the year. On December 31, 1908, he flew 2 hours and 20 minutes over Le Mans, winning the Coupe de Michelin and affirming the Wrights' place in history. "In tracing the development of aeronautics, the historian of the future will point to the year 1908 as that in which the problem of mechanical flight was first mastered," Scientific American stated, "and it must always be a matter of patriotic pride to know that it was two typical American inventors who gave to the world its first practical flying machine."
In October, during the climax of one of the most thrilling seasons in baseball history (the Chicago Cubs would snatch the National League pennant from the New York Giants, then defeat the Detroit Tigers in the World Series—which they haven't won since.), Henry Ford introduced his oddly shaped new automobile, the Model T. At 45, Henry Ford had been in the automobile business a dozen years, since building his first horseless carriage in a brick shed behind his Detroit home in 1896. Still, everything he had done was a warm-up to what he hoped to accomplish—"a motor car for the great multitude," he said.
Since most automobiles of the day cost between $2,000 and $4,000, only the well-off could afford them, and the machines were still largely for sport. An advertisement of the time, printed in Harper's Weekly, shows an automobile soaring over a hill as a gleeful mŽnage frolics inside. One passenger reaches into a basket. "There is no more exhilarating sport or recreation than automobiling," the ad says. "The pleasure of a spin over country roads or through city parks is greatly enhanced if the basket is well stocked with Dewar's Scotch 'White Label.' "
The fact that automobiles brought out the worst excesses of the rich, confirming what many Americans already believed about them—they were callous, selfish and ridiculous—added to the resentment of those who could not afford the machines. "Nothing has spread socialistic feeling in this country more than the use of the automobile, a picture of the arrogance of wealth," Princeton University president Woodrow Wilson had said in 1906. Yet by the time he became president of the United States six years later, even socialists would be driving Model T's.
The automobile that rolled out of Ford's Piquette Avenue plant that fall did not look like a machine of destiny. It was boxy and top-heavy. The automobile writer Floyd Clymer would later call it "unquestionably ugly, funereally drab." The hard-sprung, church-pew seats made no concession to elegance or comfort. Rather, every aspect of the car was considered with an eye to lightness, economy, strength and simplicity. The simpler a piece of machinery, Ford understood, the lower the cost, and the easier it would be to maintain. Equipped with a manual and a few basic tools, a Model T owner could carry out most repairs himself. The new car's transmission would be smoother and longer lasting than any that had ever been designed. The small magnetized generator that provided a steady flash of voltage to ignite the automobile's fuel would be more dependable. The Model T was designed to ride high off the ground to give it plenty of clearance over America's infamously bumpy roadways, while the car's suspension system allowed it to handle the roads without tossing out occupants. Ford had also foreseen a day when the ditch at the side of the road would be less of a concern to motorists than oncoming traffic: he had moved the steering wheel to the left side, to improve the driver's perspective of approaching vehicles.
Ford Motor Company launched a national advertising campaign, with ads appearing in the Saturday Evening Post, Harper's Weekly and other magazines. For an "unheard of" price of $850, the ads promised "a 4-cylinder, 20 h.p., five passenger family car—powerful, speedy and enduring." An extra $100 would buy such amenities as a windshield, speedometer and headlights.
Ford manufactured just 309 Model T's in 1908. But his new automobile was destined to be one of the most successful ever made. In 1913, Ford would institute the assembly line at his Highland Park, Michigan, plant. In its first year, the company more than doubled its output of Model T's, to 189,000, or about half the automobiles manufactured in America that year. By 1916, Ford would be making almost 600,000 cars a year and could lower the price of the Model T to $360, which produced more demand, to which Ford responded with more supply.
Henry Ford was superb at anticipating the future, but not even he could have predicted the popularity of the Model T and the effects it would have for years to come on how Americans lived and worked, on the landscape surrounding them and the air they breathed—on nearly every aspect of American life. The United States would become, in large part thanks to the Model T, an automobile nation.
It would be wrong to leave the impression that life was a frolic for most Americans. Vast numbers lived in poverty or near poverty. The working class, including some two million children who joined adults in steel mills and coal mines, labored long hours at occupations that were grueling and often dangerous. Tens of thousands of Americans died on the job in 1908.
In the fall of that year, the term "melting pot" entered the American lexicon, coined by playwright Israel Zangwill to denote the nation's capacity to absorb and assimilate different ethnicities and cultures. To our ears, the words may sound warm and delicious, like a pot of stew, but to Zangwill the melting pot was a caldron, "roaring and bubbling," as he wrote, "stirring and seething." And so it was. Violence erupted frequently. Anarchists ignited bombs. Gangs of loosely organized extortionists known as the Black Hand dynamited tenements in New York's Little Italy. Armies of disgruntled tobacco farmers, called Night Riders, galloped through Kentucky and Tennessee, spreading terror. Violence against African-Americans persisted, with dozens of lynchings in 1908. That August, whites in Springfield, Illinois—ironically, the hometown and resting place of Abraham Lincoln—tried to drive black citizens from the city, burning black businesses and homes and lynching two black men. (Like many events of 1908, even Springfield had a far-ranging impact: the riot led to the founding of the NAACP the next year.)
On the other side of the world, there was a breakthrough of sorts: on December 26, 1908, in Sydney, Australia, a 30-year-old African-American boxer from Galveston, Texas, named Jack Johnson stepped into the ring to fight Tommy Burns, the heavyweight champion of the world. Like every titleholder before him, Burns had refused to compete against a black man. But Johnson pursued Burns, badgering him until even whites began to suspect the Canadian was hiding beneath his white skin. Burns finally agreed to a match, but only with a deal that guaranteed him $30,000 of a $35,000 purse.
Johnson destroyed Burns before 25,000 spectators. Blood was pouring from Burns when police stopped the fight in the 14th round. The referee declared Johnson the victor. "Though he beat me, and beat me badly, I still believe I am his master," said Burns after the fight, already calling for a rematch.
Johnson laughed. "Now that the shoe is on the other foot, I just want to hear that white man come around whining for another chance." Eventually, Burns decided he did not want another chance after all.
Johnson would remain the heavyweight champion for seven years, fending off a series of "Great White Hopes." He would be sent to jail in 1920 after federal prosecutors, misapplying a statute meant to discourage prostitution, charged him with illegally transporting a woman across state lines for immoral purposes after he'd sent a train ticket to one of his white girlfriends. That was later, though. Now was Christmas, and Jack Johnson's victory was a gift for African-Americans to savor in the closing moments of 1908.
For all the problems, perhaps the most impressive trait Americans shared in 1908 was hope. They fiercely believed, not always with good reason, that the future would be better than the present. This faith was represented in the aspirations of the hardworking immigrants, in the dreams of architects and inventors and in the assurances of the rich. "Any man who is a bear on the future of this country," J. P. Morgan famously declared in December of 1908, "will go broke."
It's striking, in fact, how much more hopeful Americans were then than we are today. We live in a nation that is safer, healthier, richer, easier and more egalitarian than it was in 1908, but a recent Pew Research Center poll found that barely one-third of us feel optimistic about the future.
Of course, we are wiser now to the downsides of the technologies that were only just emerging in 1908. We cannot look at an airplane without knowing the death and destruction, from World War I to 9/11, that airplanes have wrought. Automobiles may have once promised exhilarating freedoms, but they also deliver thousands of deaths every year and horrendous traffic jams, and they addict us to foreign oil (1908 was the year, coincidentally, that oil was discovered in Iran) and pollute the atmosphere with, among other things, carbon dioxide, which will alter the earth in ways few of us dare imagine. The American military pride that sailed with the Great White Fleet on its voyage around the world in 1908 and was met with adoration at every port, is now tempered by the knowledge that much of the world despises us. We are left with the disquieting thought that the next 100 years may bear a price for the conveniences and conquests of the last 100.