Monday, February 21, 2011

A Gateway to the 19th Century: The William Steinway Diary, 1861--1896

Where: National Museum of American History

When: through April 8, 2011

This exhibit, in the Small Documents Gallery, is part of an enormous project to digitize the diary of William Steinway - of piano fame. Over 100 volunteers have worked to create an online searchable diary. The exhibit itself features music from Steinway pianos playing in the background - it makes for a lovely atmosphere. The actual diaries are on display; a few slim volumes that give a window into the late 1800s.

Steinway was a German-American patriot. It's rather hard to take pride in one's German ancestry now (being of German descent myself, I know), but for Steinway, being German was very important, and he was involved in German-American societies in New York City.

Celebrating his ethnic background was not the only thing that kept Steinway busy, however. He was also a civic leader who laid the blueprint for the New York City subway. His diary begins with a description of the draft riots held in New York to protest conscription into the Union army - just showing that wars are never universally popular.

Steinway pianos are still made in Steinway, NY, a company town advertised as "country homes with city comforts." They were also located away from the influences of unions, anarchists and socialists!

This is a small exhibit (no pun intended), and easy to see in a lunchtime. If you have any interest in 19th century history or the process of digitizing information to make it accessible to large numbers of people, don't miss this.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Risking my life to save the Hirshhorn?

A break from our regularly scheduled blog about museum exhibits to reflect on current events...

I was watching the recent happenings in Cairo, and one of the images that stuck with me is that of people standing in front of the museum containing Egyptian antiquities, linking arms and preventing looters from destroying the artifacts. I admire those people, who were willing to put their lives on the line to save these treasures.

It made me wonder: would I be willing to do the same? If people were rioting on the Mall, would I rush to the Freer to link arms with other art lovers to save the Peacock Room? I'd like to think that I would, that I would rate concern for my own safety below concern for the objects that have given me so many wonderful experiences over the lunchtimes of the past year, and that enrich the lives of others when they come to visit. Easy for me to say (or blog) of course; it's not terribly likely that I'll be called upon to make the supreme sacrifice to save our nation's collection of priceless objects from wild bands of looters, and that's a good thing. Still, I stand ready to offer my assistance.

As for the Hirshhorn, well, maybe you're on your own...

Celebrating 100 Years at the National Museum of Natural History

Where: National Museum of Natural History

When: through March 20, 2011

This exhibit is a lot of fun and very interesting. It's an exhibit about the museum itself, which I've not seen before - a self-referential exhibit, I guess you'd call it. It features great factoids; did you know that the museum used 7,200 rolls of toilet paper on Inauguration Day 2009? You do now.

In addition to a history of the museum, they have several great photos:
  • a stegosaurus from the "Hall of Extinct Monsters," - you really have to love that name
  • Theodore Roosevelt from 1909, collecting specimens for display
  • Agnes Chase, an expert on grasses who had to finance her own expeditions, as it was considered inappropriate for women to do field work
Again, I was reminded of the common work of artists and scientists, as there was a display on illustrators traveling with scientists to record findings.

There are millions of objects that the museum owns that are not on display, and there are several photos of rooms full of the drawers that hold all of these items, and the people who care for them. The museum owns everything from a collection of meteorites to the last known passenger pigeon.

Something I had been curious about for some time is how the museum is able to take such an obviously pro-evolution stand, and not face constant criticism from those who believe the bible to be the literal truth. Turns out in 1979 they had their first exhibit on evolution (the first in any American museum), and faced a legal challenge. The museum won the court case and they've been putting evolution on display ever since.

I was quite interested to discover that at one time, fine art and history collections were also housed in the Natural History museum, until the American Art and American History collections were established in separate buildings.

Verdict: Don't miss this display. If you have any interest in museums as institutions, this is great stuff.