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September 11, 2012

What I did on my summer vacation – American history through her Ships

This summer I had an opportunity to experience American history from an interesting perspective – on the water.  My travels took me to three Affiliates whose ships – actual, life-size, working ships – punctuate important moments in our history.   The Mayflower II, the USS Constitution, and the Charles W. Morgan all illustrate the crucial contributions of “sailors” (of all types) to our nation’s success.  

“Being thus arrived in a good harbor and brought safe to land, [we] fell upon [our] knees and blessed the God of Heaven who had brought [us] over the vast and furious ocean.”   Especially today, a visitor to the Mayflower II can still deeply appreciate these words by the Plymouth colony’s first governor, William Bradford.  The magnitude of this bravery is inspiring to imagine.    

On one of the upper decks of the Mayflower II, in Plymouth harbor.

The Mayflower II is a faithful reproduction of the original, historic ship that brought the Pilgrims to the coast of Massachusetts in November 1620 (and was given to the United States by the British in 1957).  Exploring the decks of the ship and its cramped quarters, it’s easy to imagine the fears and anxieties of its 102 passengers, including 3 pregnant women, who lived there for over ten weeks.  Also on board were all the food, clothing, furniture, tools and other items they would need to start a life in a foreign land.

The travails of such a voyage and the biographies of its passengers are fascinating.  But the interpreters’ discussion of the Mayflower Compact is equally inspirational.  After the tumultuous voyage and a protracted start to finding an anchoring spot on Cape Cod, the community on board collectively decided to delay disembarking until they had a self-governing treaty in place.  That act, and their subsequent diplomacy with the indigenous Wampanoag, reveal the very early beginnings of what American democracy would look like, both in its best and worst incarnations. 

Plimoth Plantation, Smithsonian Affiliate, does a great job of telling both sides of this story in all of its sites – from the ship to the Wampanoag Homesite and the English Village.  What I quickly realized is that the Pilgrim story is much more complex than the one we celebrate at Thanksgiving, and well worth delving in deeper to appreciate. 

“Huzzah! her sides are made of iron!”  Up north in Boston, I toured the USS Constitution.  Most know her by her nickname, Old Ironsides, based on this exclamation by one of her sailors.  The ship sits in the Charlestown Navy Yard next door to Smithsonian Affiliate, the USS Constitution Museum.

I learned that it was George Washington himself who commissioned the building of the USS Constitution  in the Naval Armament Act of 1794.  And today, the USS Constitution is the oldest commissioned warship in the world; it’s still an active duty vessel in the U.S. Navy. 

Ready to go onboard the USS Constitution, in Boston’s Charlestown Navy Yard

Most importantly, she is undefeated.  The USS Constitution fought in several wars, most famously in the War of 1812.  That war, often called the Second War of Independence, definitively established the power and resolve of our new nation.  The celebrated victories of the USS Constitution incarnated that resolve.  She is most famous for her victory over the HMS Guerriere in July 1812, when the British ship’s 18-pound iron cannonballs, shot at close range, “bounced” off her sides.  (Her hull is not, in fact, made of iron, but of oak.)  The battle was over in 35 minutes. 

Touring the ship is amazing, but it’s in the museum where the story gets really unpacked.  Here, you come to understand what life was like on the ship – how much sailors were paid, what they ate and wore.  You can even try out how they slept, on hammocks only inches apart from one another.  Being there this summer as the museum commemorates the 200th anniversary of that fateful victory was especially moving, another reminder of the bravery and sacrifice of our military that solidified the foundation of our nation.

“The story of the American whaling industry… is a rousing chapter in American history…emblematic of a vastly larger story.”  So Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough describes the iconic Charles W. Morgan ship, docked at Smithsonian Affiliate Mystic Seaport in southern Connecticut.

The Morgan is the crown jewel of the Seaport’s collection, America’s last surviving wooden whaleship, and a designated National Historic Landmark since 1966.  Built in 1841, she made 37 voyages in her 80 years of service, surviving countless hazards of the sea such as ocean storms, Arctic ice, and even, a cannibal attack.

But why is a whaleship so important to American history?  Before kerosene and petroleum were discovered later in the 19th century, whale oil (and other byproducts) were  the primary commodity used for illumination and lubrication.  Think about that – American lighthouses, lamps, candles, street lights, and industry machines were all powered by whale oil, and kept our economy moving forward.  As Herman Melville said in the great whaling novel Moby Dick, it was considered “as rare as the milk of queens.” 

Checking out the Morgan’s blubber room.

Her effect on our economy is not the only important story.  The Morgan literally sailed all over the world, and attracted an incredibly diverse global crew who eventually became U.S. citizens.  The ship is the last surviving reminder of a major international economic force, but also, a living piece of history that tells great stories of adventure, hardship and immigration. 

All three of these amazing ships still sail.  All three have been, or will be, on the water again – the Mayflower II at its 50th anniversary in 2007, the USS Constitution this summer to commemorate its 200th anniversary victory, and next summer, the Morgan will embark on her 38th voyage to the New England ports she visited decades ago.

So here’s to the ships, their passengers and crews, that so bravely shaped our history.  Huzzah!

 

October 27, 2011

Remembering America’s Real War of Independence

Most of us know little about the War of 1812.  What were its causes, when did it start, who were its heroes and how did it end?  If we remember anything at all, it may be the burning of Washington, D.C., the bombardment of Baltimore’s Fort McHenry – the event that inspired Francis Scott Key to pen our national anthem – and perhaps Andrew Jackson’s victory at the Battle of New Orleans (fought two weeks after the signing of the treaty that ended the war).  For most of us the rest is a long-forgotten chapter in dusty old textbooks.  An upcoming exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery will assemble a remarkable number of paintings and artifacts from the War of 1812 in an effort to remind us that it was this war that completed the unfinished business of the American Revolution and secured our true independence from the British, once and for all. 

The Star Spangled Banner at the National Museum of American History. Photo courtesy National Museum of American History.

As the 200th Anniversary of the War of 1812 approaches, two artifacts stand out as enduring symbols of this era:  the original Star Spangled Banner, on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, and the USS Constitution, the victorious naval vessel, still commissioned and now docked at the Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston. 

The USS Constitution near the USS Constitution Museum in Boston. Photo by Smithsonian Affiliations.

On October 20, I had the honor of announcing our new Affiliation with the USS Constitution Museum, thus symbolically joining these two great artifacts into one family.  Both tell us much about the sacrifices of prior generations and the many hardships endured along the road to freedom. Both are also amazing examples of the combined efforts of generations of concerned citizens, public officials, historians and museum professionals to preserve these precious legacies  of our nation’s early and fragile years. 

We hope that the upcoming Bicentennial of the War of 1812 will draw further attention to the work that museums are doing to preserve our nation’s past and draw lessons for our future.  Are there any War of 1812 stories, artifacts, or historic landmarks in your communities?  Let us hear from you so that we can work together to present the fullest picture of this critical part of our history. 

Harold A. Closter
See more photos from Harold’s visit to the museum here.

Smithsonian Affiliations Director, Harold Closter, with USS Constitution commanding officers. Photo by Smithsonian Affiliations.

May 4, 2011

50th Anniversary of the Freedom Rides

Special thanks for this guest post to Allyson Nakamoto, Teacher Programs Manager at the Japanese American National Museum (Los Angeles, California).

Panelists (L to R): Robert Singleton, Helen Singleton, Sybil Jordan Hampton (moderator), Tamio Wakayama

I often take for granted how easy it is to follow breaking news. To find out what happened during a raid on a compound in Pakistan, I can turn on a 24-hours news channel or click on a few links to get caught up.

Student with his artwork inspired by the Freedom Rides

But 50 years ago the medium of television was new.  And 50 years ago today, the first buses of Freedom Riders (and three reporters) left Washington, D.C. and headed South to test Boynton v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that had desegregated interstate travel. What followed changed the course of the United States history.

The Freedom Rides have been on our minds a lot this year.  On February 9, 2011 the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History organized a Web cast and National Youth Summit that brought together Freedom Riders in D.C. and engaged five Smithsonian Affiliates from across the nation to discuss the meaning of the Freedom Rides and the role of young people in shaping America’s past and future.

JANM was honored to have been selected as the West Coast venue for this program and streamed the Webcast to a live audience of students from LAUSD’s Civitas School of Leadership and Ribet Academy. Following the Webcast, Dr. Robert and Mrs. Helen Singleton, two Los Angeles-based Freedom Riders, and Mr. Tamio Wakayama, a Japanese Canadian member of SNCC, were on a panel moderated by Dr. Sybil Jordan Hampton, a member of JANM’s Board of Trustees and herself an important figure in the Civil Rights Movement. We were star struck!!!

This has gotten us thinking about how the Freedom Rides impacted Japanese Americans, and especially how it may have emboldened those in the Redress Movement. What were the Issei, Nisei, and Sansei who watched these images broadcast on national television (just as that medium was becoming commonplace) thinking and feeling as they watched the buses burning, the cruel racism, and brave individuals standing up for what was right?

What would you have been thinking if you had been watching those Freedom Riders make their way South under the “protection” of Boynton v. Virginia?

P.S. To learn more about the Freedom Rides, tune into your PBS station on May 16 and also we highly recommend The Children by David Halberstam. Learn more about new generation of young people who are about to retrace the path of the Freedom Riders. And, maybe you can catch a glimpse of the Singletons when Oprah Winfrey reunites the Freedom Riders on May 4.

Photographer: Tracy Kumono

January 3, 2011

Sonoma County Museum shares local bracero stories through SITES exhibition

Juan Villa and friend performing Corridos at the "Free Family Day" at the Sonoma County Museum.

This past November, Sonoma County Museum opened the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service’s (SITES) Bittersweet Harvest: The Bracero Program, 1942-1964 and they hoped that their local community would help bring the exhibition alive.  The museum was not disappointed.  Through a busy schedule of public events at the museum, visitors responded to the exhibition in a very personal way.  

When the National Museum of American History (NMAH) began researching the Leonard Nadel photographs that were taken to document the lives of the migrant farm workers, curators realized that they had an enormous asset to learn more about the images: the people who were there.  Many braceros are alive today, never having shared their past stories with anyone other than their immediate families.  In some cases, their children are not even aware of their pasts.  Research focused on collecting oral histories and documenting experiences of the thousands of workers that participated in this government program.  When the traveling exhibition was organized, curators hoped that each stop on its tour would yield more stories from this important chapter in American history.  Sonoma County Museum’s programs did just that.  

Oral history screen in the "Bittersweet Harvest" exhibition.

Eric Stanley, Exhibitions and Collections Curator at the Sonoma County Museum told us how they approached the programming that complemented the exhibition so well.  The museum began with video oral histories of local braceros, filmed several months before the opening.  “The oral history project was sponsored in part by a programming grant from SITES, which helped facilitate the project,” said Eric.  Eric also had the opportunity to see the NMAH installation of the exhibition, while in Washington, D.C. as a Smithsonian Affiliations Visiting Professional.  He was able to meet with staff who had planned programming for the original show, which inspired some facets of the installation at the Sonoma County Museum, including a hands on table at which visitors could try out some of the tools braceros used.  

The video oral histories became the centerpiece of the opening reception, which drew many of the interviewed braceros and their families.  One guest, Cruz Leon Martinez, worked as a bracero before settling in Sonoma County- where he found work in a winery.  Mr. Martinez attended with several generations of his family and guests, proud to share the video oral history with them. 

Former bracero Cruz Leon Martinez (seated with hat) and his family at the opening reception.

Sonoma County Museum also hosted a “Free Family Day” which featured live performances of corridos and other songs about labor and migration.  The standing-room only event featured a recent documentary on the Bracero Program and was well covered in the media.   Eric told us that the exhibit has been very popular with tour groups and that he has received many thank you’s from students who have visited the exhibition.  One such note says, “I want to thank you because you gave us the opportunity to go see the museum. I learned about how people were living in their past … I’m going to ask my mom to go to the museum with my sister, because I would like to see my little sister learning about our past.”  

Bittersweet Harvest: The Bracero Program, 1942-1964 is on view at the Sonoma County Museum until January 30, 2011.

All photographs courtesy Sonoma County Museum.

November 19, 2010

affiliates in the news

Congratulations to these Affiliate making headlines!

Frost Art Museum at Florida International University (Miami, Florida)
Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough to speak at FIU Nov. 19READ MORE 

Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico (San Juan, Puerto Rico)
Art Museum of Puerto Rico will host the most complete collection of works by José CampecheENGLISH VERSION / SPANISH VERSION 

Plimoth Plantation (Plymouth, Massachusetts)
Plimoth Plantation to show History Channel Thanksgiving filmREAD MORE 

The Air Zoo (Portage, Michigan)
Air Zoo plans 50,000-square-foot addition for exhibits, aircraft and libraryREAD MORE 

Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art (Biloxi, Mississippi)
Frank Gehry-Designed Mississippi Museum Highlights Sculptor George E. OhrREAD MORE 

Conner Prairie (Fishers, Indiana)
History Park Receives National HonorREAD MORE
Agency names Conner Prairie one of top U.S. museumsREAD MORE 

Poverty Point SHS (Pioneer, Louisiana)
Poverty Point recognition well deservedREAD MORE
Poverty Point gains attention…READ MORE
Poverty Point now a Smithsonian affiliateREAD MORE
Poverty Point Now a Smithsonian AffiliateREAD MORE 

Japanese American National Museum (Los Angeles, CA)
“American Tapestry” Exhibition Tells 25 Stories through Collected Objects, ArtREAD MORE
L.A.’s Japanese American National Museum wins federal medal for excellence, and $10,000READ MORE 

National Museum of American Jewish History (Philadelphia, PA)National Museum of American Jewish History OpeningREAD MORE
Jewish Museum Opens Its Doors to History: Past, Present, FutureREAD MORE
Philly home to one-of-a-kind museum of Jewish historyREAD MORE
National Museum of American Jewish History galaREAD MOREWATCH VIDEO
National Museum of American Jewish History tells ‘story of America through Jewish eyes’READ MORE
Biden attends museum openingWATCH VIDEO
Jewish History Museum GalaVIEW PHOTO GALLERY
A look inside the new museumVIEW PHOTO GALLERY
An overview of the new museumWATCH VIDEO
Stories of a people: Star-studded festivities herald a Phila. museum focused on the Jewish role in American cultureREAD MORE
Starry night for museum’s debutREAD MORE
Chronicling lives more than religionREAD MORE
Building and message at odds: While the museum’s exhibits tell of Jews’ success in America, the architecture is decidedly downbeatREAD MORE
New museum offers 4 floors of perspectivesREAD MORE
Docents train hard and proudREAD MORE
Vice President Attends Jewish Museum OpeningREAD MORE
Biden Attends Museum Opening On Independence MallREAD MORE
Biden among notables attending opening ceremony of National Museum of American Jewish HistoryREAD MORE
Daily Grinder: National Museum of American Jewish History Opens, Biden Is ThereREAD MORE
Jerry Seinfeld, Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler unite to honour their Jewish heritageREAD MORE
Expansion of National Museum of American Jewish History to openREAD MORE
Philly museum opens with stars, speeches and plenty of American nostalgiaREAD MORE
Stu Bykofsky: New Jewish history museum is ‘uniquely American‘…READ MORE
American Jewish History Celebrated in the City of Brotherly LoveREAD MORE
Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg On The New National Jewish MuseumREAD MORE
Mazel Tov! National Museum of American Jewish History Opens Its DoorsREAD MORE
Discovering American Jewish history at new museum (VIDEO)READ/WATCH MORE

November 12, 2010

affiliates in the news

Congratulations to these Affiliates making headlines!

National Museum of American Jewish History (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)
Jewish history museum set to open near historic Philadelphia sitesREAD MORE
New National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia Celebrates Jewish LifeREAD MORE 
New Philadelphia museum celebrates Jewish lifeREAD MORE
New museum traces accomplishments of American JewsREAD MORE 
Jewish Museum Completes New Home in PhiladelphiaREAD MORE
American Jewish History Museum To OpenWATCH VIDEO
Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of IdentityREAD MORE
Museum shows view of American history through Jewish lensREAD MORE
A Walking Tour Through TimeREAD MORE
Jews You Can UseREAD MORE
A People’s HistoryREAD MORE

Museum of American Finance (New York, New York)
Monopoly’s diamond yearREAD MORE 

Poverty Point State Historic Site (Louisiana)
Poverty Point accepted as Smithsonian AffiliateREAD MORE 

Rubin Museum of Art (New York, New York)
Buddhism’s Influence on Contemporary Artists Explored by the Rubin Museum of ArtREAD MORE
The Rich, Detailed Fullness Found in Empty
READ MORE 

Historical cottage at Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden.

Snug Harbor Cultural Center (Staten Island, New York)
Staten Island gem: A guide to the new Snug Harbor Cultural CenterREAD MORE

The Museum of Flight (Seattle, Washington)
Museum Of Flight Names New President And CEOREAD MORE 

Heard Museum (Phoenix, Arizona)
Heard Museum receives grant from local tribeREAD MORE
Grant allows more students to visit Heard MuseumREAD MORE 

Plimoth Plantation

Plimoth Plantation (Plymouth, Massachusetts)
Thanksgiving Virtual Field Trip Brings More than a Million Students Nationwide to Plimoth Plantation on November 16, 2010READ MORE  
Debunking Thanksgiving Myths at Plimoth PlantationREAD MORE
Plimoth Plantation: A step back in timeREAD MORE

October 26, 2010

coming up in affiliateland in november 2010

November is another busy month in Affiliateland!

ILLINOIS
Sousa and His League of Players: America’s Music and the Golden Age of Baseball opens at the Sousa Archives at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in Champaign, 11.1.

NEW YORK:
The Smithsonian American Art Museum loans a 1966 Charmion von Wiegand painting to the Rubin Museum of Art, in New York, 11.5. 

WASHINGTON:
The Museum of History and Industry will announce their Affiliation at an event with Smithsonian Regent Patty Stonesifer, in Seattle, 11.5. 

NORTH CAROLINA:
David Bohaska, collections manager in the Department of Paleobiology at the National Museum of Natural History will participate in the annual Fossil Festival at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, in Raleigh, 11.6. 

MISSISSIPPI:
The Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art will host a Grand Opening of their new museum  and will unveil “Blackberry Woman,” a Richmond Barthe bronze sculpture, on loan from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, in Biloxi, 11.6.

PENNSYLVANIA:
The National Museum of American Jewish History hosts a Grand Opening Weekend showcasing several Smithsonian loans, in Philadelphia, 11.12-14. 

PUERTO RICO
Three José Campeche paintings travel for the first time from the Smithsonian American Art Museum to the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico, in San Juan, 11.18. 

FLORIDA:
Smithsonian Secretary, G. Wayne Clough, will give a public lecture at the Patricia & Phillip Frost Art Museum at Florida International University, in Miami, 11.19. 

CALIFORNIA:
The SITES’ exhibition, Bittersweet Harvest: The Bracero Program, 1942-1964 will open at the Sonoma County Museum, in Santa Rosa, 11.20. 

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