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Image via the NRA Museums Facebook page.
One of the largest and most significant gun collections in the world is housed in Fairfax at the National Firearms Museum, in the same building as the NRA’s national headquarters. But don't look for a political agenda there, says Jim Supica, the museum's director: He says that the museum is strictly focused on “the education, history, technology and artistry of firearms.”

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Posted at 11:15 AM/ET, 10/09/2015 | Permalink | Comments ()
"Fresh sperm is better," says a zoo official. By Benjamin Freed
Mei Xiang and her splotchy, splayed-out cub. Image courtesy National Zoo.

The surviving specimen of the two giant panda cubs born last Saturday at the National Zoo is male, and was fathered by the zoo's resident adult male bear, Tian Tian. While zoo staffers are still elated to have another panda cub in their mix regardless of the parentage, the results of the paternity test reject the zoo's attempt earlier this year to increase the species's genetic diversity by inseminating the adult female panda, Mei Xiang, with sperm collected from a male bear living in China.

"We don't have enough background," said Pierre Comizzoli, a Smithsonian research biologist, to determine how Tian Tian's sample overcame the imported stuff. "But fresh sperm is better."

The cub that died Wednesday was also a male born of Tian Tian's semen, the zoo announced Friday. Zoo officials believe it succumbed to pneumonia developed after aspirating on formula that lodged in its respiratory system while on a feeding tube.

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Posted at 10:03 AM/ET, 08/28/2015 | Permalink | Comments ()
A close-up of the glass negative showing the Smithsonian Castle's construction. Image courtesy the Smithsonian Institution.

To commemorate the 169th anniversary of its founding today, the Smithsonian Institution is showing off a photograph of the construction of the Smithsonian Castle—dated 1850. The image, taken when only two of the castle's nine towers were finished, is believed to be the earliest photograph of the Smithsonian, the institution says in a press release.

The modern-day Smithsonian discovered the image in the possession of Arlington resident Tom Rall, who collects slides from the mid-19th century. The image of the Smithsonian was taken by Philadelphia photographers William and Frederick Langenheim using a process they developed called hyalotype, which produced glass negatives instead of the paper negatives that most photography until that point used. Glass negatives could be used to produce printed photos or a glass-lantern slide, which is what the Smithsonian collected from Rall.

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Posted at 10:16 AM/ET, 08/10/2015 | Permalink | Comments ()
But it did make a smart play with Google ads. By Benjamin Freed
Photograph by Flickr user Ron Cogswell.

What's the best museum in Washington? What's the worst? If you ask Google, the top, advertised result directs you to the Newseum, downtown DC's archive of newspaper front pages, Anchorman props, and famous people's hats.

The Fader's Myles Tanzer stumbled upon the "worst museum" answer when a Twitter pal of his asked for advice on spending a day in DC, and made clear her distaste for the Newseum:

This could be a clever act on the part of the Newseum's marketing department to troll its haters. More likely, it's a ploy to goose revenue. Even with a bustling events business, luxury apartments, and a Wolfgang Puck-branded restaurant, the Newseum is reeling financially, with debts totalling $307 million, according to the Washington Post. The organization is reportedly considering selling a stake in its Pennsylvania Avenue complex, which is appraised at $677 million.

But the Newseum didn't actually buy ads for the search term "worst museum in DC," says spokesman Jonathan Thompson. The Newseum also appears in Google's ad-supported result when you search for "best museum in DC," "pretty good museum in DC," or even "fairly average museum in DC." That's because the Newseum bought the results for "museum in DC."

In other words, however insulting a query you put into Google, if it has to do with DC museums, the Newseum will be first.

UPDATE, 1:01 PM: Actually, there's at least one variation on "museum in DC" that boinks the Newseum off the ad-supported result slot.

Makes sense, considering the Newseum's current financial outlook. Two-day passes are $22.95 for adults.

Posted at 12:05 PM/ET, 07/27/2015 | Permalink | Comments ()
Photograph via the Smithsonian Institution.

It's been 46 years since Apollo 11 landed on the moon, and while many artifacts of the historic space mission are on display at the National Air and Space Museum—including the command module, camera equipment, and even the urine hose the three-man crew used—the spacesuits worn by Neil Armstrong when he made his famous steps is locked up in a storage facility. The Smithsonian wants to put the outfit back on display in time for the 50th anniversary of the moon landing in 2019, and to raise the funds for the planned exhibit, it's turning to a funding source the government-backed museum has never tapped before: Kickstarter.

The Smithsonian on Monday launched a $500,000 "Reboot the Suit" campaign on the fundraising website to finance the restoration, digitization, and display of Armstrong's suit, marking the first effort in a year-long partnership in which the Smithsonian will use Kickstarter to finance exhibits. While the Smithsonian's institutional backbone is supported by the federal government, many exhibits and capital projects rely on private money.

But those private donations are often massive contributions from patrons who wind up with their names on building, as in the Steven F. Udvar-Házy Center or the David M. Rubenstein Family Giant Panda Habitat. For Armstrong's spacesuit, the Smithsonian is looking to a different breed of donors.

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Posted at 02:38 PM/ET, 07/20/2015 | Permalink | Comments ()
The sky parade is being called a "once in a lifetime opportunity." By Harrison Smith
A Curtiss SB2C-5 Helldiver, one of the planes scheduled to appear in the flyover. This one's in the Air and Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center, where some of the flyover's planes will be displayed on May 9. Image by Dane Penland, Smithsonian Institution.

On May 8, dozens of warbirds will buzz above the Capitol, marking 70 years since the victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. The vintage planes, which Air & Space Magazine editor Linda Shiner calls “the greatest aircraft in history,” will assemble in 15 different formations to commemorate battles like Pearl Harbor and D-Day. The flyover will be one of the largest gatherings of vintage warplanes since the end of World War II and one of the first major Capitol flyovers in decades. “Anyone who’s not in the vicinity of Washington, DC is going to miss out on a once in a lifetime opportunity,” said Peter Jakab, the Air and Space Museum’s chief curator.

The organizers of the Arsenal of Democracy: World War II Victory Capitol Flyover, joined by Shiner and veteran pilots who served in the war, gave details on the event this morning at the National Air and Space Museum. “We aren’t able to parade tanks down Independence Avenue or put ships in the Tidal Basin, but we can use to aircraft to represent how this nation came together during World War II,” said Jack Dailey, the museum’s director.

The “sky parade” is put on by a coalition that includes the General Aviation Manufacturers Association and the Commemorative Air Force, a vintage-airplane preservation group that’ll be providing about one-third of the planes. Former President George H. W. Bush and congressmen Bob Dole and John Dingell are serving as honorary co-chairs for the event. Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.), co-chair of the aviation caucus and founder of an annual aviation show called the Wingnuts Flying Circus, will pilot a TBM Avenger torpedo bomber that will head a “missing man” formation to close the ceremony. The group expects between 30 and 60 planes to fly, including a B-29 Superfortress—the plane that dropped the nuclear bomb 70 years ago this August.

Here's the itinerary: After a wreath-laying ceremony at the National World War II Memorial from 10:30 to 11:45 that Friday morning, the first planes will appear over the National Mall at 12:10 PM, with formations following for the next 40 minutes. The planes will fly from Virginia airports in Manassas and Culpepper, following the Potomac before heading east over the Lincoln Memorial and National Mall, then south along the Washington Channel. National Airport will be closed to flights from 12 to 1 PM to accommodate the planes, which had to receive special approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly just 1,000 feet over Independence Avenue and “the most sensitive airspace in the world,” as organizer John Cudahy put it.

The planes will be visible throughout DC, though the flyover is designed to be seen from the Mall. Air & Space Magazine has produced “spotter cards,” available in their May issue and on their website, to help people identify the aircraft.

On May 9, the museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly will have around 20 of the planes on display and will celebrate with performances from the Air Force’s Airmen of Note jazz band. For kids, there will be “nose art” decorating—the paintings that decorated the tip of war planes back in the day. Presumably, pinups like these won’t be part of the plan.

Posted at 02:00 PM/ET, 03/31/2015 | Permalink | Comments ()
It opens Saturday in a swanky new location. By Sherri Dalphonse
This intricate Daoist priest's robe dates as far back as late 18th-century China. Image courtesy of the Textile Museum.

The Textile Museum's vibrant collection—including centuries-old carpets, antique kimonos and sarongs, Egyptian mummy wraps, and even a black feather dress designed in the 1960s by Givenchy for socialite Betsy Bloomingdale—have been out of sight since the museum, formerly in Kalorama, closed in October 2013.

On Saturday, March 21, you can see part of the collection again, when the George Washington University Museum and the Textile Museum opens, in a new 53,000-square-foot LEED Gold-certified complex in Foggy Bottom.

With bigger spaces and higher ceilings than in its old roost, the 90-year-old Textile Museum can unfurl more of its collection—all told, 19,000 objects. The inaugural exhibit of 100 pieces—"Unraveling Identity: Our Textiles, Our Stories”—illustrates how the colors, materials, and patterns of everything from an intricately woven Peruvian wrap dating from the third century B.C., to a 20th-century Buddhist pilgrim’s jacket, help to identify the wearer's status and story. Don’t miss an early 19th-century Japanese fireman’s coat emblazoned with a hawk, two side-by-side Japanese wedding gowns made 60 years apart that show the change in bridal modesty, a gorgeous Daoist priest’s robe designed with celestial images and dating from the late 18th or early 19th century, and a pair of eight-inch-high gold platform heels made for a petite Mae West.

The Textile Museum is just part of the new museum, which also houses the Albert H. Small Washingtoniana Collection of 1,000 artifacts documenting the history of our capital city.

An interesting one-room exhibit, “Seat of Empire: Planning Washington, 1790-1801,” tells the story of the evolution of the "Federal City"—originally conceived as bigger than New York, Philadelphia, and Boston combined. Letters, maps, photographs, and documents trace the heated debate and the eventual plan by Peter L’Enfant (not Pierre, you learn—the Frenchman preferred being called Peter after he moved to America).

Another, three-room exhibit focuses on “The Civil War and the Making of Modern Washington,” and it, too, holds some fascinating reveals about how the capital changed during and after the war. By the end of 1862, Washington was home to nearly 60 hospitals to care for Civil War soldiers—the city would become a center of medical research on the treatment of gunshot wounds and war-related disease. Don’t miss a rare map that plotted all of the city’s forts in 1862 (much to the government's consternation), and a surprising map showing how evenly distributed residents of various races were in the 1880s city.

While the museum touts the housing of textile art and DC artifacts in one place as a marriage of art, history, and culture, there is a bit of a disconnect. Still, too much of any one thing—say, room after room of history or art—can be overwhelming. The new museum is a nice, manageable size. A few rooms filled with compelling but text-heavy DC maps and documents might be a good way to start a visit, followed by an easier-on-the-eyes stroll through the magnificent textiles.

Another highlight is the small but well-curated gift shop, with—naturally—lots of woven, embroidered, and textile-themed gifts.

The opening day—Saturday, March 21—will feature a handful of special events, including children’s activities such as origami-making, kimono- and Victorian-era dress-up stations, and dance and music performances.

The museum’s hours are Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m,; Saturday 10 to 5; Sunday 1 to 5. Admission is free for museum members, children, and current GW students, faculty, and staff. The suggested donation for all others is $8.

Posted at 08:30 AM/ET, 03/20/2015 | Permalink | Comments ()
The museum’s new director wants to build up its international reputation and bring in new technology. But first, she’s got to do something about the lobby. By Tyler Green
Modernist maturity: Melissa Chiu—with Ed Ruscha’s painting “Ace”—must guide the Smithsonian’s 40-year-old contemporary-art museum into middle age. Photograph by Jeff Elkins.

Over the past few years, the art world has watched as Washington’s two most august art institutions have struggled with their identities. The Corcoran Gallery of Art couldn’t survive a financial crisis caused in part by disagreements between staff and trustees about what kind of exhibits it should mount and whom its shows were for. Two years ago, at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum, director Richard Koshalek quit after the board abandoned his vision for the museum’s 1974 building by modernist Gordon Bunshaft.

In June, the Smithsonian hired Melissa Chiu, director of Manhattan’s Asia Society Museum, to take the helm at the Hirshhorn. An Australian whose previous job had her shuttling among New York, Houston, and Hong Kong, Chiu promises to extend the Hirshhorn’s global reach. But after the distractions of recent years, she’ll first have to tend to matters at home—reconnecting a world-class museum to a city and the trustees to its day-to-day leader. Here’s a conversation with Chiu about her plans for the Hirshhorn.

The last half decade has been a rough time at the Hirshhorn. An ill-conceived architectural folly went nowhere (see image below), and the importance and volume of the museum’s scholarship fell off as leadership was focused on other things. What will be your focus in turning the place around?

As I came onboard as director, the Hirshhorn was celebrating its 40th anniversary. So I’ve spent some time looking at the history of the Hirshhorn, and what I found is that the fundamentals are great—the collection is one of the best in the country of postwar American and European art—and the actual financial fundamentals, being part of the Smithsonian, make it an institution that is on very sound footing.

I’m focused on two main priorities. One is building up the Hirshhorn’s international standing through exhibitions and collection initiatives. There are a number of ways we’re working on that. There will be an emphasis on scholarship around the collection we have, but also on building in this idea of new scholarship, or new insights into contemporary art.

The other priority is technology. I’m looking at it in art-making itself—work made in new media, web-based work, or work made in new technology is something we’ll do. The show we have on at the moment, “Days of Endless Time,” is mostly video work. The second part of that is visitor experience. We know that new technology, especially mobile technology, can augment an active, interpretive visitor experience within the museum. We’ve already developed some innovations such as a virtual Hirshhorn, created by our ArtLab educational center, which we hope to introduce to a greater number of visitors through our website.

Former director Richard Koshalek envisioned the Hirshhorn as a public colloquy on culture. “The Bubble,” an inflatable event space that would fill the courtyard and ooze out the top and sides, was his metaphor. The board voted not to spend $15.5 million on a metaphor. Photograph courtesy of the Hirshhorn.

In recent years, museums like the Hirshhorn that have both modern and contemporary collections have emphasized the contemporary period. I’m thinking of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the Whitney in New York. But the Hirshhorn’s modernist holdings are among America’s—and really the world’s—best: Marsden Hartley, Willem de Kooning, Henri Matisse’s sculpture, and so on.

This intersection between modern and contemporary is interesting, because we think of modern as being early 20th century and contemporary as kind of postwar. And yes, the Hirshhorn has a foot in both camps. What I would say is that there’s been an enormous amount of scholarship already in the modern period. What interests me is looking for fresh insights into our modern collection, an exhibition program that teases out a new finding or a new thing that hasn’t been addressed before.

Or I’d ask if there are new connections between modern and contemporary that can be teased out in a new way. I’m interested in bridging what would ordinarily be considered a disjuncture between the two.

Your first hire wasn’t a chief curator but Gianni Jetzer as curator-at-large. Jetzer is a former director of the Swiss Institute in New York, and he lives there. The Hirshhorn has quite a strong in-house curatorial team—why do you need someone from the outside?

We have five permanent curators on staff, some of whom have been with the Hirshhorn for decades. So we have a whole lot of curatorial expertise based in Washington, people who do frequently go to New York. But Gianni Jetzer brings an expertise that will help us think globally. I come from a place where you identify the kind of shows you want to do, then look for the most talented people to do them. Sometimes that’s an internal candidate, and sometimes it’s external. I don’t really distinguish where they’re located.

Los Angeles is the other American city that’s one of the world’s art-making capitals. Will you be hiring a curator-at-large from there as well?

[Laughs.] Let’s see. In my previous job, I worked a lot with independent curators. It’s really about working out who the best curator for a particular show is.

In November, the Smithsonian announced a site plan for the area south of the Mall, by a Danish architectural firm led by Bjarke Ingels. Are you onboard with the plan?

I’m still learning about that architectural brief. The main aim of it, in terms of its goal for the Hirshhorn, is to physically open the Hirshhorn up to the Mall, which I’m fully in support of. Right now, there are structural issues that don’t encourage foot traffic to the museum off the Mall, so if anything can be done to encourage that, I’m all for it.

Does Ingels’s plan go far enough?

The physical experience of the Hirshhorn is unique. Gordon Bunshaft’s vision was a round building that’s now 40 years old. We just opened newly renovated third-floor galleries, which allow us to show sculpture, especially contemporary sculpture, in conversation with our paintings collection.

My priority is the lobby. I’m interested in how we can create a welcome, open environment to experience our art. I’m looking at considering artist commissions, or even additions to that lobby area. A number of my predecessors have been interested in expanding the physical footprint of the Hirshhorn, and I understand why, but my focus, at least in the short term, is really looking at that first encounter.

But if you want to encapsulate my approach, to the next few years at least, it would be to focus on software rather than hardware—I’m interested in the programs and the exhibitions and the collection right now.

Sensitive that the fortress-like Hirshhorn could be more inviting, the Smithsonian recently approved a makeover for the Mall that includes increasing foot traffic to the sculpture garden and connecting it to new, subterranean galleries flooded with natural light. Photographs courtesy of the Hirshhorn.

The Hirshhorn is a national museum, but it sits in one of America’s largest metropolitan areas. In recent years, its connection with Washington has all but evaporated. Do you have a sense of how frayed that relationship is and what you’ll do to address it?

Yes, I do. There are two main programs we have that have done a lot to build community relations—After Hours and ArtLab+. After Hours, my third week on the job, had [singer] Zola Jesus play in the plaza, and 1,800 people turned up! We had gallery tours and all those sorts of things. ArtLab is an educational program for teens that helps them use technology in different ways. They’re the main signature programs we have right now that are about the community.

There are many other things we do in terms of adult public programs. To some extent, we also have work to do in just building up public outreach for our Washington audiences, but we have a number of programs in place to build on.

How much do you think of the Hirshhorn as a Washington museum? And how do you plan on using the museum’s geography and community—from locals to the policy world to the international community—to your advantage?

Washington is a very international city. Many say the eyes of the world are on Washington because of its political importance. This attention coupled with the robust intellectual life provides an additional layer of complexity to thinking about exhibitions and collections.

Building on the Hirshhorn’s international presence doesn’t preclude us from having a vital engagement with our more immediate community. I’m very aware that we can create energy around our programming only from building a loyalty and interest in the museum. In the past, this has been done through exhibitions, lectures, artist talks, and films. After Hours performances on our plaza have been particularly successful in activating younger audiences, too.

It’s important to consider audiences in Washington while also raising an awareness of the Hirshhorn as the nation’s museum for modern and contemporary art.

Tyler Green, host of the Modern Art Notes podcast, is working on a book about the American photographer Carleton Watkins.

This article appears in the February 2015 issue of Washingtonian.

Posted at 04:15 PM/ET, 01/29/2015 | Permalink | Comments ()
As the holidays wind down, the nation's record keeper offers a crash course in thank-you notes. By Andrew Beaujon
Photograph by Flickr user by Ray Tsang.

The National Archives is the nation's record keeper, but it may also help keep the peace at your next family gathering. On December 30, the Archives plans to host a thank-you-note-writing contest where "Children will have the opportunity to learn and practice their thank you note writing skills."

Should this course lead to a new, e-mail-free regime of thanking in your household, you may also foil your more passive-aggressive relations, who will no longer be able to torment you with wide-eyed inquiries like, "Did my gift ever arrive?"

The Archives will exhibit some of the better thank-you notes from its collection, it says in a press release, and children who complete notes can enter them in a contest to win a fountain pen from Fahrney's, which sponsors the Archives's "Making Their Mark" exhibit, along with other prizes. Your little ingrates can learn about the finer points of note-writing from 10 AM to 4 PM in the Boeing Learning Center on the Archives's upper floor. Admission is free.

Find Andrew Beaujon on Twitter at @abeaujon.

Posted at 11:28 AM/ET, 12/22/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
The Mall could look drastically different in a few decades. By Benjamin Freed
The Smithsonian's south Mall campus will apparently look like a Victorian horror story at night. Images courtesy Smithsonian Institution.

Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough's term runs out in a month, but he's dropping at least one last major endeavor before he leaves with the release of a decade-spanning proposal to renovate several Smithsonian facilities along the south side of the National Mall, including a major overhaul of the vastly under-utilized castle.

The $2 billion project is designed by the Bjarke Ingels Group, the Danish firm behind last summer's National Building Museum maze, and includes significant changes to the Freer Gallery, the Enid A. Haupt Garden, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, and the Arts and Industries Building, which would finally reopen to the public after its 2004 shuttering. (The Smithsonian spent ten years and $55 million on renovating the building with the intention of opening it in September, but its rededication was snubbed earlier this year.)

The castle—which houses the Smithsonian's administrative offices—will undergo the most work, from restoring its Great Hall exhibition space to a two-level subterranean expansion that will contain a café, gift shop, restrooms, and underground passages to the National Museum of African Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. The quadrangle building under the Haupt Garden will get a new roof that lets in natural light to illuminate the Smithsonian's lower depths.

A new visitor center would be placed underground, but with natural light.

The Hirshhorn, which just underwent a makeover, will get a new courtyard anchored by an in-ground fountain and a reconfigured sculpture garden to make room for new, high-ceilinged galleries and a larger auditorium. The design also calls for lowing the concrete perimeter around the toric museum to better incorporate it with the rest of the Smithsonian campus and adjoining Mall.

"We believe this plan holds the potential to guide the Smithsonian South Mall campus into the future while remaining firmly rooted in its heritage," says Bjarke Ingels, the principal of his namesake architecture firm and the proposal's lead designer.

A new entrance to the Hirshhorn.

While the ambitious proposal contains several components for the Arts and Industries Building, it does not give the unused museum a long-term purpose. While the building would get expanded gardens and some traffic to its rotunda—from which visitors would be able to survey the surrounding campus—it will still be without a permanent function. The building is also still a candidate to house a proposed American Latino Museum.

The Smithsonian says the $2 billion plan will be paid for with a mix of public and private funds. Perhaps the largest component of the entire project is something that will go unseen by tourists—a new central utility plant the institution says will cut the south Mall campus's energy consumption by 34 percent and carbon dioxide emissions by 39 percent.

Don't expect any changes that soon, though. Construction is not intended to start until 2021, and all the renovations will take between ten and 20 years to complete.

Posted at 02:31 PM/ET, 11/13/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()