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A new exhibit showcases the largest predatory dinosaur ever discovered. By Michael Gaynor
A life-size Spinosaurus replica is on display outside the National Geographic Museum. Photograph by Mark Thiessen/National Geographic.

When the dinosaur hall at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum closed this April to undergo a $48 million renovation, Washingtonians lost a valuable provider of their Jurassic fix. That exhibit won’t be finished until 2019, but fear not, dinosaur obsessives—today the National Geographic Museum opens its own exhibit featuring a prehistoric carnivore so ferocious that scientists now say it could tear the Smithsonian’s puny Tyrannosaurus rex to pieces.

“Spinosaurus: Lost Giant of the Cretaceous” showcases a 50-foot-long skeletal model of its eponymous dinosaur, crafted after the discovery of new fossils found in the Moroccan desert and painstaking analysis of past remains and records. It’s the biggest known predatory dinosaur ever, nine feet longer than the largest T. rex on record. Sure, the two species were separated by about 35 million years—but that doesn’t mean we can’t fantasize about a good ol’ fashioned dino brawl, as the makers of 2001’s Jurassic Park III did when they had them square off in that oft-ignored sequel. (For the record, Spinosaurus won.)

But just as impressive as Spinosaurus’s power is how paleontologists found it. That story is also told in National Geographic’s exhibit, beginning with German paleontologist Ernst Freiherr Stromer von Reichenbach’s naming of the new species in 1915 after its fossils were uncovered in Egypt.

Stromer displayed the find in a Munich museum. An outspoken critic of Hitler, he tried to have his specimen moved to a safer place during World War II, but the museum’s Nazi director refused. The bones were destroyed in an Allied bombing raid in 1944, and Stromer, who also lost two sons in the war, sank into obscurity.

After that, the tale wends from a Milanese museum to the black market fossil bazaars of Morocco as paleontologist Nizar Ibrahim hunted for the most important cache of Spinosaurus fossils since Stromer’s time. “A dinosaur detective story,” Ibrahim called it. The National Geographic Museum’s skeleton is a composite based on the Moroccan bones uncovered last year, smaller remains scattered in museums around the globe, and records of the original Egyptian dig for Spinosaurus more than 100 years ago.

Photograph by Mark Thiessen/National Geographic.

Ibrahim’s discovery led to a number of revelations about the enigmatic creature that were published for the first time in the journal Science yesterday. The research team revealed that Spinosaurus is history’s only known semiaquatic dinosaur, adapted to spend a large amount of time in the water hunting.

They proved that Spinosaurus’s snout— long and narrow like a crocodile, not fat like a T. rex—had nostrils placed high up on the skull, so the dinosaur could breathe while its jaw was submerged underwater. And it had pressure sensors to detect the movement of nearby fish, just like a crocodile.

The team even solved “the riddle of the sail,” as University of Chicago paleontologist Paul Sereno put it. People have argued about the purpose of the “spine” part of Spinosaurus since its unearthing. Some said it was meant to trap or disperse heat, or was used for fat storage. But Ibrahim and Sereno now believe it was used as a display—as Spinosaurus swam looking for prey, the sail would stick out of the water as a warning to other predators to stay out of its hunting grounds.

It’s clear that National Geographic wants people to get excited about Spinosaurus—the story of the new findings is on the cover of its October issue, and a PBS special will air on November 5. You can also check out a life-size flesh replica of the dinosaur in the museum’s courtyard—and, yes, there are baskets upon baskets of Spinosaurus plush dolls in the gift shop.

“Spinosaurus: Lost Giant of the Cretaceous” runs until April 12. Admission to the National Geographic Museum is $11 for adults. Find dinosaur enthusiast Michael Gaynor on Twitter at @michael_gaynor.

Posted at 11:20 AM/ET, 09/12/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
Other memes the museum should turn into exhibits. By Benjamin Freed
Pharrell's phamous hat. Photograph by Benjamin Freed.

After a successful run from an exhibit full of props from Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, the Newseum is going back to the pop-culture well this week with the unveiling of the oversize hat that turned into a brief social-media trend thanks to Pharrell Williams sporting it at the Grammy Awards in January.

The Vivienne Westwood-designed headpiece was applauded Thursday night at a preview party—yes, a preview party for a hat—in the Newseum’s lobby, where the item will welcome visitors for the next two months. (Obviously, Williams’s frustratingly popular song “Happy” plays on a continuous loop in the accompanying video.)

How does the hat play into the Newsuem’s larger mission of, as the museum’s chief executive, Jim Duff, put it last night, “celebrating free expression”? We’re not totally sure. But in between nibbles of snacks provided by Arby’s, the exhibit’s sponsor (and donor, after buying the hat at auction), we thought of other exhibits the financially struggling Newseum could open next.

Great YOLO Moments in Journalism

From William Randolph Hearst’s Spanish-American War profiteering to Matt Lauer’s star turn in Sharknado 2: The Second One, a brief history of times people have thrown professional caution to the wind and said, “Heck, you only live once.”

Turn Down for What: A History of Radio News

Who wants to look at a bunch of lifeless plaques about David Sarnoff, Eric Sevareid, and Edward Murrow or listen to a bunch of static-filled tapes? Just install a #TDFW button next to every radio-related item in the building and watch the money roll in.

Kim and Kanye on the Cover of Vogue

In an age of “explanatory journalism,” show the kids how the #worldsmosttalkedaboutcouple explains more about celebrity, image management, and socioeconomic dynamics than Vox or the Upshot ever could.

#IceBucketChallenge Dunk Tank

Why make your own shaky Vine or Facebook video when you can buy professional-quality footage of yourself getting completely soaked? Souvenir towels available for $35 in the lobby, and proceeds go to the ALS Association (assuming the Newseum’s operating budget doesn’t need it more).

Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed

Posted at 11:54 AM/ET, 08/22/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
The internet’s most infamous piece of headwear comes to Washington. By Tanya Pai

Even if you didn’t watch the Grammys in January, if you were anywhere near a computer or television in the following weeks you heard about the hat Pharrell wore on the red carpet. The massive, butcher-paper-colored Vivienne Westwood creation spawned a flood of memes and mocking tweets—including by fast-food chain Arby’s, whose joke about the hat’s resemblance to its logo was retweeted more than 80,000 times.

Arby’s later bought the hat in a charity auction for $44,100—and is lending it to the Newseum, where it will be on display in the New York Times Great Hall of News until October 26. The accessory, according to the museum, serves as a symbol of how social media is instrumental in the spread and development of a story. 

“The stories visitors experience in the Newseum illustrate historic and contemporary moments as seen through the eyes of the media,’” Scott Williams, senior vice president of marketing at the Newseum, told the Washington Post. “Pharrell’s hat is a great addition to the Newseum and will serve as a great example of the impact of social media today.”

The hat will be “unveiled” during a VIP reception and preview on Thursday, complete with food, drinks, and deejay tunes—a fitting fete for such a famous piece of headwear.  

See the Vine Arby's created to announce the loan below. 

Find Tanya Pai on Twitter at @tanyapai.

Posted at 03:04 PM/ET, 08/18/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
Plus: Get in for free this weekend. By Tanya Pai
Photograph from “La Petite Mort” by Alex Prager, part of the museum’s “Total Art: Contemporary Video” exhibit.

With so many great free museums in Washington, the ones that charge an admission fee might sometimes fall under the radar. This August, the National Museum of Women in the Arts is providing a little extra incentive to visit, to the tune of $5 admission on Sundays—a 50-percent discount. Even better: This Sunday, August 3, is the museum’s monthly community day, which means you can get in free all day. 

Sunday hours are noon to 5, which gives you plenty of time to peruse the 4,500-plus works by more than 1,000 women artists, such as Mary Cassatt, Clara Peeters, and Chakaia Booker. Current exhibitions include “Total Art: Contemporary Video,” featuring video installations by Dara Birnbaum, Alex Prager, and others showcasing women’s contributions to the medium; and “Meret Oppenheim: Tender Friendships,” which looks at the Swiss surrealist’s diverse body of work. 

National Museum of Women in the Arts. 1250 New York Ave., NW; 202-783-5000.

Find Tanya Pai on Twitter at @tanyapai.

See also: Free Summer Saturdays Continue at the Corcoran

Posted at 11:30 AM/ET, 07/29/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
The gift will help fund the first major renovation of the building in more than four decades. By Tanya Pai
Photograph by Flickr user Valerie.

Art-loving Washingtonians now have one more reason to thank David Rubenstein: The billionaire businessman and philanthropist has donated $5.4 million to the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery, the museum announced Monday. 

The gallery has been closed since December 9 for a complete overhaul—the first in 45 years—that will upgrade electrical, plumbing, and heating/cooling systems, add wireless access throughout the building, and restore two vaulted ceilings in the second-level galleries, among other improvements. The $30 million project comprises 50 percent public funding and 50 percent private; Rubenstein’s gift completes the private fundraising goal. To honor the contribution, the museum’s Grand Salon will be named after Rubenstein. 

Rubenstein’s other recent contributions to local arts and historic facilities include a $4.5 million donation to the National Zoo’s giant panda program in 2011, a $7.5 million donation in 2012 to help repair the Washington Monument, and a $50 million gift last January to help the Kennedy Center fund a planned $100 million expansion

Posted at 04:33 PM/ET, 06/23/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
The works are from the collection of Paul and Bunny Mellon. By Tanya Pai
“Still Life with Oranges and Lemons with Blue Gloves” by Vincent van Gogh. Photograph via WikiArt.

Here’s a reason to make another trip to the National Gallery of Art: Soon you’ll be able to see rarely viewed works by such artists as Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet, and Edgar Degas, as the museum gains 62 pieces bequeathed by the estate of museum benefactor Paul Mellon after his death in 1999, according to the Associated Press. Among the works are van Gogh’s “Still Life of Oranges and Lemons With Blue Groves,” which goes on display June 7; “Still Life With Bottle, Carafe, Bread and Wine,” one of Monet’s earliest known paintings; and 12 oil sketches by 19th-century post-impressionist painter Georges Seurat, which, when combined with the gallery’s existing five Seurat works makes up one of the most significant collections of his works in the US.

The works were under the care of Mellon’s widow, Rachel “Bunny” Mellon until her death in March of this year. The Mellon family has donated nearly 1,200 works of art since 1964.

Posted at 10:17 AM/ET, 05/23/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
A new exhibition explores how the two painters and friends influenced each other. By Sophie Gilbert
The National Gallery explores Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt. Photograph of “Little Girl in a Blue Armchair” by Mary Cassatt courtesy of National Gallery of Art..

History hasn’t typically interpreted Edgar Degas as a feminist, but the French painter’s relationship with American artist Mary Cassatt—the subject of the show “Degas/Cassatt,” opening May 11 at the National Gallery of Art—reflected a true respect and kinship. “One thing that’s nice about him is that he never thought about her in terms of being a woman painter,” curator Kimberly Jones says. “I think he just thought of her as a painter.”

Although Degas was a decade older and of a different nationality, in many ways he identified with Cassatt—whom he knew well and worked with—more easily than he did with other Impressionists. Both came from wealthy families and were well educated, and they eschewed the landscapes many other Impressionists painted in favor of focusing on the human form. Says Jones: “The story is that when he saw her art for the first time, he said, ‘Here’s someone who feels as I do.’ Neither one was accustomed to compromising in their art or in their personal lives.”

Researching the two artists’ relationship was a challenge because Cassatt burned all her correspondence before she died and Degas never kept his. His influence on Cassatt is generally accepted, but Jones and conservator Ann Hoenigswald delved deeply into the works they left behind to look for evidence that she was similarly influential on him. “It was a back-and-forth, and she was certainly the much more experimental figure when it came to etching,” Jones says. “Often she was going into completely new territory and he was looking at what she was doing and emulating her. I hope that when people see the show they’ll understand that she was absolutely his equal.”

Photograph of “Two Studies of Mary Cassatt at the Louvre” by Edgar Degas courtesy of National Gallery of Art.

Through October 5;

This article appears in the May 2014 issue of Washingtonian.

Posted at 10:23 AM/ET, 05/09/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
It took six months of planning and ten hours of filming to produce a few seconds of footage for “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” By Vicky Gan
Photograph via Marvel Entertainment.

Washington has something of a starring role in the latest comic-book blockbuster to hit the big screen, Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Most of the action takes place in the nation’s capital, where S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters is located. Metro police officers engage in a shootout, Metrobuses turn up as collateral damage, and the Mall provides the backdrop for the film’s opening scene, in which Natasha Romanova (Scarlett Johansson) pulls up beside the cryogenically preserved super-soldier and quips, “Anyone know where I can find the Smithsonian? I’m looking for a fossil.”

Thanks in part to the challenges of shooting in DC—a maze of security regulations and no tax incentives—most of the exteriors in the movie were actually shot in Cleveland. But the real National Air and Space Museum appears in the film as the site of a Captain America exhibit: Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) checks out a gallery containing uniforms from his service during World War II. Though the exhibit was built elsewhere on a soundstage, the establishing shots of the Air and Space Museum were filmed on location last May—less than a minute of screentime that took months of planning. NASM communications director Claire Brown and pop-culture curator Margaret Weitekamp explain how the museum’s big-screen moment came together.

According to Brown, the process of coordinating the film shoot began in January 2013, when a location scout for Captain America sent a proposal to the museum’s communications office. Requests to film at the museum come in as much as six months in advance, she says. Staff members then review the proposal to determine whether the shoot is technically feasible and whether the project is consistent with the museum’s mission. NASM only considers films that are appropriate for family audiences, with MPAA ratings up to PG-13. (The last feature film to shoot in the space was 2009’s Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian. Before that, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen filmed at the museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia.) A curator checks the script for factual inaccuracies or concerns about the museum’s depiction, which can be grounds for denying a filming request. For Captain America, one of the year’s most highly anticipated films, NASM staffers were only permitted to see three pages of the script—the parts that involved the museum—and were required to sign confidentiality agreements. Once the museum signed off on the project, the filmmakers were cleared to shoot on May 16.

The film crew loaded some of their equipment into the space the night before and finished setting up on the afternoon of the 16th, a few hours before the museum closed at 5:30 PM. Parts of the central gallery, Milestones of Flight, closed early, while extras prepared in hair and makeup outside. A collections staffer and a curator were there to walk the film crew through the space, help them set up the shot, and—most important—make sure they didn’t bump into any artifacts.

The filmmakers wanted a shot that swooped across the entire gallery space, establishing that Steve Rogers was visiting the National Air and Space Museum. A camera, mounted on a crane in the museum’s main concourse, would make an arc from the Spirit of St. Louis to the center of the space. Weitekamp was with the camera operator the whole time to keep an eye on where the crane was swinging. “They were very cautious,” she says. “They made a point of saying [that] the camera itself is tremendously expensive, so they were equally invested in not banging it into anything.”

The scene was set during the day, so the crew had only a few hours of sunlight to get the shot. Once it was set up, Weitekamp recalls, “they were able to do the same arc over and over and over as they reset the extras to get different flavors of the shot that they wanted.” After less than three hours of filming, the crew wrapped around 8 PM and packed up for the next shoot of the night, in Dupont Circle. All told, the Smithsonian shoot took ten hours to produce a couple seconds of film.

Weitekamp didn’t get to meet any of the stars of the movie, but she did get a sneak peek at the fake Captain America exhibit. It contained approximately 35 objects, mostly memorabilia of Captain America’s World War II unit, and covered 12,000 square feet—more than double the size of NASM’s largest gallery. “The designer had the luxury of not being constrained by any of our physical space,” says Weitekamp.

Though the museum has curated pop-culture exhibits in the past, Weitekamp says it has no plans to produce any tie-in programs with the Avengers series. “Our focus is on spaceflight, and this is a very earthbound film,” she says.

Posted at 11:35 AM/ET, 04/21/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
The base jumper, who fell 24 miles to earth in 2012, told an audience about the time he became the first engineless human to break the sound barrier. By Sophie Gilbert
The exhibit “Red Bull Stratos: Mission to the Edge of Space” at the National Air and Space Museum. Photograph by Eric Long, courtesy of the National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution.

The biggest obstacle standing in the way of Felix Baumgartner’s record-smashing, 24-mile Red Bull Stratos skydive on October 14, 2012, was also the one thing keeping him alive: his suit. “It was like breathing through a pillow,” the 44-year-old Austrian told an audience at the National Air and Space Museum Tuesday. His claustrophobia inside the pressurized suit got so bad that he fled to an airport in 2010 before he was supposed to take an endurance test, and flew back to Austria. “That was probably the worst moment of my life,” he said. “I was always trying to find my limit, and at that moment, I found it.”

With the help of a psychiatrist he eventually triumphed, and the suit he wore when he broke the sound barrier goes on display Wednesday at the Smithsonian museum, alongside the balloon gondola that carried him above the earth. A panel including Baumgartner, Colonel Joe Kittinger (Baumgartner’s capsule communicator and the previous world-record holder for freefalling), and technical project director Art Thompson discussed the genesis of the project and its future legacy both for military servicemen and for civilians as commercial spaceflight becomes a reality.

Baumgartner’s parachute was the first parachute designed for supersonic freefall, and although his suit was a standard S1034 pressurized space suit, it had to be reconfigured at the hip and arm sockets to allow Baumgartner the posture he required for the jump. His mentor was Kittinger, now 85, who had previously managed a jump from 100,000 feet above the earth in 1960 without a pressurized cabin, meaning he was exposed to temperatures of -94 degrees Fahrenheit—“pretty cold for a redneck,” Kittinger said.

Unlike Kittinger, who only had 33 parachute jumps under his belt when he took his record-breaking jump, Baumgartner had thousands. But the Austrian daredevil initially struggled when it came to convincing his technical crew he was serious. “We had no respect from these guys, because we were an energy-drink company and a base jumper,” he said. “I don’t think in the beginning they really believed in what we wanted to do.”

Ultimately, though, the jump became entirely a team effort; Baumgartner described Kittinger’s voice in his ear on the way up as the thing that helped him the most. “We had his life in our hands, and we knew it,” said Kittinger. Baumgartner described how from the minute he opened the cabin door, he knew he was 50 percent less safe, thanks to his interior environment now being as dangerous as the environment outside it. “I took a last look at the beauty of the earth,” he said. “I could see the curve of the earth, and I looked up at the black sky, which was completely different from normal sky, and I took a jump into the unknown.”

After the panel discussion, the audience asked questions, including what Baumgartner did the night before he jumped. He laughed, then looked uncomfortable. “Are there kids in the audience?” he asked, before describing how he knew there was no way he was going to get any sleep. He was also asked what his thoughts were as he made the jump. “I was so disciplined, so focused, that there wasn’t a lot room left for emotions,” he said. “I was focused on what was coming.”

“Red Bull Stratos: Mission to the Edge of Space,” featuring Felix Baumgartner’s pressurized balloon gondola and suit, is on display at the National Air and Space Museum on the Mall until May 26, and will eventually be moved permanently to the museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles airport. For more information, visit the museum’s website.

Posted at 12:00 PM/ET, 04/02/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
Skorton is a cardiologist and a jazz musician who’s raised more than $5 billion for Cornell in the past eight years. By Sophie Gilbert

Dr. David Skorton, a cardiologist who’s been president of Cornell University since 2006, is the next secretary of the Smithsonian, the institution announced today. He takes over from G. Wayne Clough, who announced his retirement last year.

Like Clough, who was president of Georgia Tech from 1994 to 2008, Skorton hails from an academic background. He spent three years as president of the University of Iowa before taking the top post at Cornell in 2006. During his eight years at the Ivy League school, Skorton raised more than $5 billion for Cornell while also serving as a professor of internal medicine and pediatrics at Weill Cornell Medical College and a professor in biomedical engineering at Cornell’s College of Engineering.

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Posted at 01:29 PM/ET, 03/10/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()