Sunday, January 19, 2014

Genome: Unlocking Life's Code

Where: Natural History Museum

When: through Setpember 1, 2014

The scientists are out in force, and they've been let loose on visitors to this exhibit on the human genome.  Part of the gallery is set up to allow you to talk to the scientists on duty, but they're also walking about the part of the gallery that's set up with interactive displays, engaging people in conversation and further explaining the information available.

Although this isn't a very large display, it's full of information, only some of which I was intelligent enough to absorb.  In order to really get the full experience, you'd need to spend more than a lunch hour using the many hands-on features.  I skimmed this exhibit, although I did spend a good 40 minutes or so there.  The genome (human or other) is a complex topic, so there's a lot to show.

Scientists can now sequence the complete genome of every living thing on earth, so not just humans, but animals and bacteria - you name it.  In the process of doing this, they've discovered many more species than were known to exist before, and there might be as many as 10 million new species out there that we've yet to find.  It's a dizzying concept.  Humans are more closely related to a variety of other species than you'd think.  I realize we're quite similar to apes, but mice?  jellyfish?  Could have fooled me.  The Smithsonian is involved in genome sequencing; it launched the Global Genome Initiative to coordinate a worldwide network of research organizations working on this massive task.  Makes you realize that the museums on the Mall are just the tip of the Smithsonian iceberg.

Sequencing a human's genome is relatively cheap, about $1,000.  Evaluating the sequence, that's a more expensive proposition - around $10,000.  They're working on bringing the price down as it's not just a sop to idle curiosity.  The genome provides information on the best drugs, and how to evaluate an individual's cancer cells, so as to provide better treatment.

There's one part of the display that I did take time to click through - you choose a family, and decide for each person if they'll have their genome sequenced or not.  Then, you see the consequences of that decision.  It doesn't seem to make a lot of difference whether you do it or not, unless you have a particular disease.  I think we're not at the point where we can make definitive predictions about exactly what conditions a person will face in 10 or 20 years.

A fascinating fact that I learned in this exhibit is that 99.9% of each person's genome is exactly alike.  I try to remember that when I'm watching people on the Metro - as different as they look, we're almost entirely the same.

Verdict: Worth a visit, but probably more satisfying if you have more than a lunch hour. 

Africa ReViewed: The Photographic Legacy of Eliot Elisofon

Where: African Art Museum

When: through August 24, 2014

It's been a while since my last trip to African Art, and since I was a bit disappointed in what I saw then (the Roger Ballen show), I was hoping for something to restore my faith in the place.  Enter Eliot Elisofon, a very interesting person, of whom I had never heard before, to help me wile away a very pleasant hour.

Eliot Elisofon was a photographer for Life who was sent to Africa.  While there, he fell in love with the continent, and made a practice of photographing African craftspersons at their work.  In 1947, he made a trek from Capetown to Cairo, photographing all the way.  In 1973, he donated his collection of African art and photographs to the museum, which has a photographic archives named for him.  I'm sure it must be a treasure trove for scholars, as he made many trips and visited a variety of different countries.

One of his best known photographs is of a Kuba king in fantastic regalia - covered with shells.  There's something captivating about this photograph; I found myself looking at it for some time.  Perhaps it's the air of leadership about him.  In another photograph, you see a chief's wife holding a cloth that she presented to Elisofon - it is on display as well.  There should be a name for that phenomenon - when you see a photograph or painting of an object, along with the object itself.  There probably is, and I just don't know it.

Elisofon was the first person to photograph African leaders in color, so he had no fear of new technology.  That is clear from his abstract photographs, which he made as the first staff photographer of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.  He also directed and produced educational films about African arts and crafts, and was the photographer on the production of The African Queen.  Not to mention that he was friends with Gypsy Rose Lee - there's a photo of them cooking together, which I only saw on my way to the women's restroom.  Clearly, a man who lived life to the fullest.

Verdict: Well worth a trip to African Art.  A fine show about a very interesting person.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

LEGO Model of the Smithsonian Castle

Where: Smithsonian Castle

When: through August 5, 2014

Two displays at the Castle simultaneously!  A great treat for those of us who like the building. 

This Lego model is next to the guard station by the exit that leads to the Haupt Garden.  It's just what you think it is - a model of the Castle made out of over 45,000 Lego bricks.  It's quite good, and done to scale.  Decorating the outside of the Castle are toy animals (not done to scale) that are a reminder of the original location of the National Zoo.  The Haupt Garden has not always been the peaceful retreat from the hustle and bustle of the Mall that it is today!  At that point, what is now the Zoo was called the Department of Living Animals, and this was where they lived.

Originally, the model was set up as part of the 2012 Zoolights display.  I'm not sure where it will find a permanent home, but one hopes they won't dismantle it.

Verdict: Have a glance as you head to the Sackler or African Art, or combine this with a trip to see Souvenir Nation.  Really, who doesn't like Lego?

Souvenir Nation: Relics, Keepsakes, and Curios

Where: Smithsonian Castle

When: through August 17, 2014

It's not very often that I get to see an exhibit at the Castle, as they have very little in the way of space, so it's always a treat to wander through.  Of course, it's frustrating as well, as there's so much of the building that's closed to visitors.  To increase my sense of being denied a treat, there were photographs of the views from the tower on display in the hallway you pass through to get to Schermer Hall.  Seems a bit mean to show us the lovely vistas, but not allow us to see them for ourselves.  Oh well, maybe one day...

But enough of what you can't see at the Castle - let's talk about what is on display.  This exhibit is small, but chock full of wild and weird things.  It's composed of stuff people have collected that are connected with events in American (or other countries') history.  Many of the items would be discarded as trash, except for the descriptions that accompany them.  The items were donated to the Smithsonian by those who collected them, and they're an interesting assortment.  They are part of the collection of the American History Museum, which made me wonder why this wasn't on display there?  Perhaps it's because of the renovations going on?  Perhaps they just didn't have a good space for this?  Whatever the reason, it's in the Castle.

There's a fragment of Plymouth Rock; apparently at one time, people were given hammers when they visited in order to pick off a piece for themselves.  Since 1880, it's been fenced off, so that most of it remains.  Souvenirs from other countries include Napoleon's napkin, a beam from Newgate Prison and a stone from Joan of Arc's dungeon.  Next to that is a fragment of the Washington Monument cornerstone, a model of the Statue of Liberty, a fence rail split by none other than Abraham Lincoln and, my personal favorite, a collection of locks of Presidential hair (Washington - Pierce) amassed by John Varden, who set up a museum in his own home.  Eventually, he worked for the Smithsonian.

Verdict: Where else will you see a collection of the hair of early U.S. Presidents?  Stop by for a look on your way to another show nearby.

Dancing the Dream

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through July 13, 2014

The Portrait Gallery has really been on a roll lately.  After the tremendously good Portrait Competition winners and the very interesting Yousuf Karsh shows, I would have been satisfied if this show on dancers was just okay.  No such thing - it's very good.  Dance your way on over to see this pronto!

I wasn't certain how much I would get out of an exhibit on dance, as it's not the fine art with which I am the most familiar.  Truth be told, I'm a bit intimidated by dance; I have no talent for it myself, and I haven't been to enough dance recitals to be able to appreciate other people doing it.  Happily, you can come with two left feet and little knowledge of dance and still enjoy yourself at this show.

The display is divided into sections on Broadway, Hollywood, choreography, ballet and modern pop music.  They feature enough well known dancers that even people with a casual interest in dance won't feel out of their depth.   If you went to see the National Gallery exhibit on the Ballets Russes, you'll feel right at home, as that company is mentioned several times.  In fact, the company's Rite of Spring is listed on the wall notes as the birth of modernism in dance.  "Where were the tutus of tradition?"  remarked the audience members.  Gone forever, is the short answer.  The wall notes continue, "Dance is American culture in motion.  The American spirit combines a wonderful sense of experiment and a lack of truck with the past."

Depending on which types of dance most suit your fancy, you'll like some sections better than others.  I was delighted with the Art Nouveau posters in the Broadway section, including a large one of Loie Fuller.  I was also taken with the portrait of Shirley MacLaine, who started her performing life as a dancer.  The wall notes mention her role on Downton Abbey - the role for which she's probably most famous at the moment.  I noticed that they had a Boris Chaliapin portrait of Katherine Dunham - I think that show has closed now, but it's a nice reminder.  I also saw a bit on Merce Cunningham, a partner of John Cage.  Yeesh, you'd think you'd be safe from him at a show on dance, but he intrudes here.  Apparently, Cunningham believed in dance as randomness; he would only tell his performers the sequence of dances right before they were due to go on stage.  What nonsense! If I'm going to pay top dollar to see a show (and I'm sure they do charge top dollar), I expect some rehearsing to have gone on beforehand.

The best part of this show for me were the videos.  They run the gamut from Baryshnikov in Swan Lake, to Rita Moreno in West Side Story, to John Travolta in Saturday Night Live and several music videos.  If you go to this show, make sure to allow time to watch those.  The only difficulty with them, is that they point up the problem with portraits of dancers.  Dance is inherently movement-oriented, and a painting or photograph is static.

Verdict: A very fine show that's manageable in a lunch hour, although you might want to spend more time.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

One Life: Martin Luther King Jr.

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through June 1, 2014

I'm sure I've praised the Portrait Gallery's One Life series before, but I'm going to do it again.  It's a one-room show that focuses entirely on one person, prominent in American life.  I've seen shows on Thomas Paine, Elvis Presley, Ronald Reagan, Katharine Graham and now, Martin Luther King.

Obviously, you can't have an in-depth display of someone in only one room, but they do an admirable job of covering the highlights of each person's life, from childhood through death.  It really is very well done, and I look forward to many more of these exhibits in the years to come.

There's very little that I can say about Martin Luther King that's terribly new or interesting, but I was struck while at the show by how easily the civil rights movement could have turned into a violent conflict.  Thanks to King, that didn't happen.  Surely, the temptation must have been great at times, but throughout, the protesters held the high ground, while those opposing them behaved in very low fashion.  King said that his inspiration for non-violence came from the Bible and the life of Jesus, but the execution of the civil rights movement came from Gandhi.

I was also struck by how young King was when he became such an important figure; he was only 28 at the time of the Montgomery bus boycott.  He wasn't even 40 when he was murdered.  He lived only a short time, but he made the most of the years he had.  A timely reflection for the beginning of a new year.  That's another point the exhibit makes: that King wasn't just a dreamer, making great speeches.  He was a doer, even in the face of defeats and the prospect of complete failure.

I saw a Boris Chaliapin TIME cover and a Yousuf Karsh portrait in the display - nicely tying into two others shows now at the Portrait Gallery.

Verdict: Well worth some time, and easily managed in a lunch hour.  This could be combined with the Meade Brothers display or the holiday cards show.

Meade Brothers: Pioneers in American Photography

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through June 1, 2014

A very happy 2014 to all reading this blog.  I hope the year brings you many good things, and many opportunities to see great museum exhibits.

I started the year off by going to the Portrait Gallery to see two small shows, the first of which is this survey of the work of the Meade Brothers.  The Meades were leading members of the first generation of American photographers.  Born in London, they set up their first photography studio in Albany, NY in 1842.  They garnered an international reputation by traveling to Europe to display their works and obtain further commissions. In 1850, they opened a gallery in New York City, where they attracted famous clients and won several awards for excellence.  They were so successful that they purchased a stone for the Washington Monument, when it was under construction.  When the renovations are complete and the monument is open again, I'm going to make a trip over there to see their stone.

Sadly, they had tragic ends: Charles, the younger brother, died of tuberculosis in 1858, when he was only in his 30s.  Henry, the older brother, carried on the business, with the help of their sister, Mary Ann, who became the director in 1862, but eventually, new technology caused the business to go into decline and he committed suicide in 1865.

Verdict: A small show in the low-light niche were they often display old photographs (I'm guessing due to concerns about damage from bright lighting).  Easily manageable in a lunch hour, and it's easy to combine this with either the One Life exhibit on Martin Luther King, or the Archives of American Art show on holiday cards.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Changing displays in the History Highlights Cases

Where: American History Museum

When: through April 20, 2014

Just inside the Constitution Avenue entrance (tip: if you're visiting Natural History or American History, enter from this side; it's much less crowded than the Mall entrances) to the American History Museum are several large display cases lining the walls.  They have changing exhibits that are meant to provide a taste of what's on display throughout the museum.  They can be interesting, but the cases themselves are not very eye-catching, so it's quite easy to just pass by them without seeing what's inside.

There are three of the displays which are currently scheduled to change in April.  I'd seen the one on the Girl Scouts some time ago (when it had an earlier closing date), but the display on the "Birth of Biotech" and "Invention and the Patent Model" were new to me.   Neither of these are must see displays, but they are informative.  The one on biotechnology focuses largely on the development of human insulin, which has made the lives of diabetics much easier.  The sponsor is Genentech, and they get a lot of attention in this case.  Something about that didn't sit well with me; it seemed as if they were paying for product placement.

No such worries with the patent model displays.  The inventors are not household names, and I'm guessing most of them (if not all) are no longer with us on the earthly plane.  I was strongly reminded of the patent model display at the Portrait Gallery/Museum of American Art, but I couldn't recall if I'd seen any of these specific patent models in that show.

Verdict: Have a look at the display cases the next time you're at American History - there's some good stuff there, even if it is hidden in plain sight.

Nature's Best 2012 Photography Awards: Windland Smith Rice International Awards

Where: Natural History Museum

When: through March 4, 2014

The Natural History Museum displays the winners of this competition every year.  If you like nature photography, this is a must see exhibit.  I always look forward to seeing this - it never gets old.

I think what makes it so appealing, in addition to the fantastic photography, is the display itself.  All the pictures are in large format, so you feel as if you're drawn into the picture.  They also use top-quality paper and printing, so these are the best photos you can see.  The colors are just spectacular, and there's a wide range of subject matter.

It's hard to pick a favorite photo, but I think mine was the one of the gorilla mother and baby.  The mother was looking at a magazine, with a photo of her baby.  A great moment, captured beautifully.

I looked up some information on Windland Smith Rice.  She was a nature photographer, as well as a mentor to others in the field.  Sadly, she died at age 35, of a disease that affects athletes (she ran triathlons).  This competition is held in her name to honor her memory.  I'm very sorry for her family's loss, and this is a wonderful way to remember her.

Verdict: Don't miss this display - easily managed in a lunch hour.