Special thanks for this guest post to Amy Henderson, National Portrait Gallery’s historian emerita. Amy is a cultural historian specializing in “the lively arts”—particularly media-generated celebrity culture. Her books and exhibitions run the gamut from the pioneers in early broadcasting to Elvis Presley, Katharine Hepburn and Katharine Graham.
In the late 1980s, I met writer-director Garson Kanin at a Washington dinner party, and he set the stage for one of my happiest adventures as a cultural historian at the National Portrait Gallery. When I discovered that Garson, who wrote and directed all of the Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy movies, lived next door to Herself in New York, I whined until he promised to give me her address. My excuse? The Portrait Gallery needed a fine portrait of the iconic actress!
Garson’s introduction worked, and I got to know Miss Hepburn in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. I would have coffee and cookies with her when I traveled to New York, and we always went on an exploration of all the portraits she kept in her townhouse; there were a lot, since she had known artists her entire life.
She mentioned “all the costumes” on the upper floor, but I never got a glimpse. Now, thanks to the Durham Museum in Omaha, the costumes are on full view. “Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen” is drawn from the Kent State Museum’s Hepburn Costume Collection, and features more than 35 costumes worn in 21 films and 6 stage productions—and some of her private life clothes.
Mick Hale, Director of Education at the Durham, heard that I had curated a 2007 Portrait Gallery exhibition celebrating Hepburn’s centennial, and invited me to speak about her life in conjunction with the Durham’s costume show. I eagerly accepted, and spoke at this Smithsonian Affiliate in April. Talking about her life, I focused mainly on Hepburn’s remarkable ability to fashion her own image, even in the heyday of the Hollywood studio system when studios configured their stars to reflect their own particular movie “brand.” E.g., Warner Bros. had a “Murderers’ Row” of gangsters, while MGM boasted “all the stars in the heavens.”
The Durham has been a Smithsonian Affiliate since 2002, and Mick Hale estimates that they have hosted 25 or so traveling exhibitions such as the Hepburn costumes. Other recent speakers have included Mike Neufeld from the National Air and Space Museum, who spoke about the Apollo 8 mission during the Durham’s “1968” exhibition; and Smithsonian Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture, Richard Kurin, who shared his stories about 101 Smithsonian artifacts last Fall when the Durham hosted the Franklin Institute’s traveling exhibit “Identity: An Exhibition of You.”
My visit was enormous fun. First, the museum itself is lodged in what had been a stunning Art Deco train station that opened in 1931; lofty ceilings and a sense of bustle create an instantly uplifting “wow” museum experience. Second, for me it was great to see the costumes Hepburn wore during her long stage and screen career. Her waist was TINY—20”—and it was fascinating to see costumes from such landmark performances as the Broadway version of the Philadelphia Story. I also lingered over the section that spotlighted her impeccably tailored tan slacks, of which she had dozens.
My visit came at the end of Mick Hale’s tenure as education director at the Durham. After ten years, he is heading toward new challenges, directing a leadership initiative in Lincoln. But his dynamic partnership with the Smithsonian will remain firmly rooted at the Durham. “The museum and I are very proud of what we have done with the Smithsonian,” he told me, “and I know the quality work and collaboration will continue for a long time.”
The National Museum of American Jewish History (NMAJH) will open the Richard Avedon: Family Affairs exhibition featuring reproductions of the photographer’s work from Smithsonian collections, 4.1 . The National Museum of American History will collaborate with NMAJH to host a Let’s Do History workshop for teachers in Philadelphia, 4.7.
The African American Museum in Philadelphia will co-sponsor the Emancipation 2015 Symposium, featuring a keynote by Nancy Bercaw, curator at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, in Philadelphia, 4.25.
The Heinz History Center will open You Can Do It! World War II exhibition, featuring six artifact loans from the National Museum of American History and the National Air and Space Museum, in Pittsburgh, 4.25.
VIRGINIA The Smithsonian Associates lead a tour on “Politics and Society in Civil War-era Richmond” featuring the American Civil War Center in Richmond, 4.4.
The Sullivan Museum and History Center will feature a lecture by Tom Crouch, senior curator at the National Air and Space Museum on Lincoln’s military aeronautics in the Civil War in Northfield, 4.8.
NEBRASKA The Durham Museum will host National Portrait Gallery curator Amy Henderson for a lecture on “Katharine Hepburn: Master of Her Own Image,” in Omaha, 4.9.
COLORADO History Colorado will feature a lecture by National Air and Space Museum curator Mike Neufeld on Apollo 8 as a complement to the 1968 exhibition in Denver, 4.21.
Even though the weather is turning chilly, Affiliates are keeping things hot with events from coast to coast.
General John Dailey, Director of the National Air and Space Museum, will be inducted into the International Air and Space Hall of Fame at the San Diego Air and Space Museum, 11.1.
Environmental pins on loan from the Smithsonian to an Affiliate in California
The Sonoma County Museum will present Hole in the Head: The Battle for Bodega Bay and the Birth of the Environmental Movement exhibition, featuring 13 protest buttons on loan from the National Museum of American History, in Santa Rosa, 11.2.
Organized by the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, an exhibition titled Rising Up: Hale Woodruff’s Murals at Talladega College opens at the Smithsonian, presented by the National Museum of African American History and Culture in their gallery at the National Museum of American History in Washington, 11.7.
The Heinz History Center presents jazz innovation as part of its Places of Invention ongoing project with the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center, in Pittsburgh, 11.1.
Undersecretary Richard Kurin presents a talk and booksigning on The Smithsonian’s History of America in 101 Objects at the Durham Museum in Omaha, 11.4.
Earth from Space exhibition in New Mexico
NEW MEXICO Dr. Andrew Johnston, geographer and curator at the National Air and Space Museum, presents a public talk at the New Mexico Museum of Space History in Alamogordo, 11.6.
VIRGINIA George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens presents The Face of the Nation: George Washington, Art, and America symposium, featuring National Portrait Gallery curator Wendy Wick Reaves and curator emerita Ellen Miles, at Mount Vernon, 11.7.
National Portrait Gallery researcher and author Warren Perry presents a public lecture on Guns, Horses, Uniforms, and More Guns: Themes of American Civil War Visual Culture at the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta, 11.13.
Jeff Post, Curator at the National Museum of Natural History will present a public lecture on the Hope Diamond at the Tellus Science Museum in Cartersville, 11.21.
25 Smithsonian artifacts from the film industry will be on view soon in North Carolina
The North Carolina Museum of History will present Starring North Carolina! an exhibition of the state’s role in the film industry featuring 25 artifacts on loan from the National Museum of American History, in Raleigh, 11.15.
Undersecretary Richard Kurin presents a talk and booksigning on The Smithsonian’s History of America in 101 Objects at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, 11.18.
On Saturday, August 30, the Smithsonian’s National Zoo will bring back the American bison in a new exhibit and habitat. Zora and Wilma are not only beautiful animals, but they also serve as an important reminder about conservation and the Zoo’s inception. In 1887, American bison wandered the National Mall, helping to bring awareness to the endangerment of the species. Two years later, Congress passed legislation to found the National Zoo, celebrating its 125th anniversary this year.
Bison roam around the Smithsonian Castle, 1887-89
At Affiliations, we are wallowing in the excitement of welcoming these magnificent animals to Washington. So we decided to scan our herd of partners, to see where else the mighty American bison are roaming among Affiliate plains. We found a virtual stampede of bison content in Affiliateland!
– It seems appropriate to start in Wyoming, at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. After all, it was “Buffalo Bill” Cody who offered the Smithsonian a herd of 18 bison in 1888. Painfully, the gift had to be refused for lack of space on the National Mall. But today, you can find plenty of bison material at the Buffalo Bill Center in Cody. The Center’s museums house an impressive collection of art depicting “Nature’s Cattle,” including beautiful Audubon prints as well as Native artifacts made from the bison, and natural history specimens.
“Scout” at the Durham Museum in Omaha
– It was a Nebraska rancher who donated the very first bison to the Smithsonian’s collection, so it seems natural to travel on to Omaha to visit “Scout,” the beloved bison on view at the Durham Museum. At 7 ½’ high and 10’ long, this magnificent specimen helps to tell the important story of the Midwest’s history with the bison. As part of their bison interpretation, the Durham Museum uses the online resource Tracking the Buffalo from the National Museum of American History. Go ahead – take the site’s interactive test to guess what you could make from all the parts of the animal.
– Some bison though, were revered beyond all that they could provide for Native people. A white bison is extremely rare, appearing once in approximately five million births. For this reason, these animals are considered sacred and possess great spiritual power to Native and non-Native people alike. Given this extreme rarity, where could you ever see one now?! The Montana Historical Society in Helena displays “Big Medicine,” a white buffalo who died in 1959. With blue eyes, tan hooves, and a brown topknot, there’s still plenty of reasons to revere the beauty of this extraordinary specimen today.
“Big Medicine” on view at the Montana Historical Society
– As rare as Big Medicine is, perhaps no bison has the hometown spirit of “On the Wind,” the massive bronze bison who greets visitors to the History Colorado Center in Denver. He’s been seen wearing bandannas when the stock show comes to town, a Broncos jersey during football season, and even a bike helmet during the recent Pro Challenge cycling race through the state. He’s also an important reminder of the stories told inside the Center about the historic relationship between bison and the peoples of the West.
– To travel even further back in time, check out the archeological remains of a gigantic Ice Age bison at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Excavated from the Colorado Rockies, this iconic specimen and its neighbors represent one of the most significant fossil discoveries ever made in Colorado. How gigantic was it? Twice the size of a modern bison! How do we know? It had a horn spread more than 7’ wide (compared with the 2 ½’ spread of the modern buffalo).
“On the Wind” in Denver reflects the community
– If you’re finding it hard to imagine the size of a modern bison without actually seeing one, the South Dakota State Historical Society can help you out. They’ve devised a fun 30-page coloring sheet called How Big is a Buffalo. Bison make quite an appearance in the Society’s education kits, which include objects, lesson plans, worksheets and ideas for additional activities. The Buffalo and Plains Indians, Lewis and Clark, and Archeology kits are just a few that explore all facets of this great American species.
– Lest you think the Affiliate bison only roam west of the Mississippi, think again. The Mashantucket Pequot Museum in Connecticut is currently displaying The Bison: American Icon exhibition, which explores “the dramatic changes that occurred to the bison and its habitat, and to the people who depended on it for their daily existence.” At the end of September, the Museum invites visitors to take the Bison Challenge – an outdoor activity that will test your speed, strength, and senses against the performance of a bison. Good luck!
The Bison: American Icon exhibit on view at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum
As the song goes, “oh give me a home… “ It’s gratifying to see how many Affiliate “homes” across America celebrate the iconic bison, and that the Smithsonian will soon provide two of them a home in the nation’s capital.
How does your museum interpret the mighty bison? (We’re looking at you Idaho and Oklahoma) Tell us your stories!
(Footnote: “bison” and “buffalo” are often used interchangeably. Culturally this is correct; scientifically it is not. Technically, bison and buffalo are not the same animal. Click here to compare their differences.)
The author is a National Outreach Manager in Smithsonian Affiliations, and a long-time buffalophile.
WASHINGTON The Northwest Museum of Arts in Culture hosts a talk and booksigning on the Smithsonian’s History of America in 101 Objects by Richard Kurin, Undersecretary for History, Art and Culture, in Spokane, 3.11-14.
NEBRASKA The Durham Museum hosts An Evening with the Smithsonian featuring Dr. Michael Neufeld, curator at the National Air and Space Museum, speaking about the Apollo 8 Mission, in Omaha, 3.13.
Twenty staff members from the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center will visit the National Museum of American History for a day-long visit to tour exhibitions, collections and to meet staff, coming from Carlisle, 3.3.
The Heinz History Center hosts a talk and booksigning on the Smithsonian’s History of America in 101 Objects by Richard Kurin, Undersecretary for History, Art and Culture, in Pittsburgh, 3.22.
The Hermitage Museum and Gardens will host their Affiliation Announcement, as well as a public lecture on Creating a Community of International Exchange by Jane Milosch, Smithsonian curator and Director of the Provence Research Initiative, in Norfolk, 3.27.
It may be chilly across the country, but the temperature is not stopping Affiliates from offering great programming in February!
To commemorate the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, 12 Affiliates will join the National Museum of American History to hold a National Youth Summit, linking high school students across the U.S. in an engaging program on the history and legacy of the 1964 youth-led effort for voting rights and education, 2.5.
The Smithsonian and the National Endowment for the Humanities examine the legacy of the Dust Bowl era through current issues of drought, agricultural sustainability and global food security during a live, interactive discussion with experts. The program will be webcast from the museum to Youth Town Halls at locations across the nation Oct. 17 at 1 p.m. EDT.
In the 1930s, severe drought and extensive farming caused widespread agricultural damage, crop failure and human misery across the Great Plains. Called the “Dust Bowl” because of the immense dust storms created as the dry soil blew away in large, dark clouds, it is considered one of the worst ecological disasters in American history. Millions of acres of farmland were damaged and hundreds of thousands of people were forced to leave their homes. Many migrated to California and other western states where the economic conditions during the Great Depression were often no better than those they had left.
The Oct. 17 discussion in Washington, D.C., taking place in the Warner Bros. Theater at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, will be joined by audiences at nine Smithsonian Affiliate museums and the National Steinbeck Center, which will also host regional Youth Town Halls. Participants at the regional Town Hall sites will prerecord questions on video to be played during the live National Youth Summit webcast. The Youth Town Halls will take place at:
The National Youth Summit brings middle and high school students together with scholars, teachers, policy experts, witnesses to history and activists in a national conversation about important events in America’s past that have relevance to the nation’s present and future. The program is an ongoing collaboration between the National Museum of American History, the National Endowment for the Humanities, PBS and museums across the United States in the Smithsonian Affiliations network.
The summit will include segments from award-winning documentary filmmaker Ken Burns’ forthcoming film The Dust Bowland a panel discussion, moderated by Huffington Post science editor Cara Santa Maria, and featuring: Ken Burns, Dust Bowl survivor Cal Crabill, U.S. Department of Agriculture ecologist Debra Peters, fifth-generation farmer Roy Bardole from Rippey, Iowa, and farmer and founder of Anson Mills, Glenn Roberts. U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack will welcome the audience through a video statement. Panelists will take questions from students participating in the summit, and offer their own perspectives on what history can teach people about their relationship with the environment.
Programming for the National Youth Summit on the Dust Bowl is produced by the National Museum of American History and the National Endowment for the Humanities in partnership with Smithsonian Affiliations and PBS/WETA.
Smithsonian Affiliations collaborates with museums and educational organizations to share the Smithsonian with people in their own communities and create lasting experiences that broaden perspectives on science, history, world cultures and the arts. More information about Smithsonian Affiliations is available here.
The National Endowment for the Humanities is an independent federal agency created in 1965. It is one of the largest funders of humanities programs in the United States. NEH grants typically go to cultural institutions, such as museums, archives, libraries, colleges, universities, public television and radio stations, and to individual scholars. For more information on the NEH, visit http://www.neh.gov/.
The National Museum of American History collects, preserves and displays American heritage in the areas of social, political, cultural, scientific and military history. To learn more about the museum, check americanhistory.si.edu. For Smithsonian information, the public may call (202) 633-1000.