Smithfield, North Carolina

I reckoned wrong about how traffic and time. Had I figured right, I would have gone all the way to Emporia. As it was, I stopped off at Smithfield, NC and saw the sights.

Smithfield is the home of the Ava Garner Museum and the Smithfield Ham shop. I visited both.

Ava Garner was a local girl born in nearby Grabtown. Yes, that was the name. Her father was a poor tobacco farmer. Ava get her break when a New York photographer took her picture & put it in the window of his shop. A producer saw it and set up a screen test. When Ava got there and started to talk, nobody could understand her thick accent, so they asked her to just do a silent one. That was the start of her successful career.

The museum has some sort of endowment, which is good since I don’t think that they could support the place based on the traffic. The docent told me that they get around 6000 visitors a year, but the numbers are dropping off, maybe because the people familiar with Ava Garner are dropping off, or maybe shuffling off the mortal coil.

The docent asked me why I came. I tried to imply more knowledge of Ava Garner than I had. I vaguely remembered her from movies I saw as a kid, like “On the Beach” or “55 Days at Peking.” The museum is worth seeing, if not necessarily worth going to see. Ava Garner was strikingly beautiful and seemed a nice person, but she was born the year before my mother and I think her fan base is dwindling.

The Smithfield Ham Store, as the name implies, sells locally produced ham. They also have a variety of jams and products like ginger ale. The woman at the counter told me that the ginger ale was spicy. I discounted this, but she was right. It was too spicy to enjoy, IMO.
I bought some jam and the local equivalent of Prosciutto ham. Alex likes this. He is coming home from his training in Alabama. He will now be Lieutenant Alex Matel, so I figure that he at least deserves some of the food he likes. We will also do a little more. Proud of my boy serving our country.  

La Jornada

You don’t have to go into the Albuquerque Art Museum to enjoy its holdings. A sculpture garden surrounds the building. Most interesting for me was La Jornada.

It depicts the journey of Spanish pioneers coming to New Mexico in 1598. It is very reminiscent of American pioneers moving west with a few big differences. The most obvious was the time. 1598 – that was nine years before Jamestown and twenty-two years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. Another difference was the organization of the colonization. The Spanish effort was centrally directed, although financed mostly privately, and it seemed to be well-equipped. American pioneers were usually people just moving on their own, sometimes in defiance of the central authorities.

You can see what the statues look like in the photos. It is big. In addition are plaques containing the names of the colonists and origins of the colonists. Most came directly from Spain or Portugal, but others came from Mexico. Many of their descendants still live in New Mexico.

I was broadly aware of this interesting history, but visiting New Mexico has given me a lot better appreciation for the extent of the settlement.

My first two picture show the sculpture. Next is the story of the jornada. The last two are unrelated. Number 4 is St Francis and the last one is Geoffrey and Rothco. I think Rothco is the dog, but the plaque did not specify.

Santa Fe

Santa Fe is quiet and quirky. Chrissy and I had lunch at Los Potrillos, a nice Mexican restaurant. The food was very good and the people very nice. The beer in the picture is Modelo Especial. It is not bad beer, but not great.

Chrissy got some locally made jewelry. It is okay to buy jewelry if it has if there is a back story. The guy in the picture, Calvin Lavato, was really nice. He made the jewelry himself; he lives in the area and he is a veteran of the USMC. And it was not very expensive anyway.

The last two pictures are from Museum Hill. Unfortunately, the museums were not open on Monday. The middle picture was a statue along the street in Santa Fe.

Eisenhower Library

Long drive today from Denver. Started at 5am after Alex left at the Denver Airport. Finished in Columbia, MO at around 7pm.

Stopped off to see the Eisenhower home and library in Abilene, Kansas. Eisenhower is the most familiar president in that he was an ordinary guy. His rural Midwestern background is not one I grew up with, but I knew lots of people who did. Guys like Ike probably could not have been my uncle, but they could have been Chrissy’s.

Eisenhower was president when I was born. While I do not have any memory of him, his America was the America of my childhood. The living room in my picture below, for example, is very familiar, right down to Walt Disney on the TV.

Eisenhower was thought to be just an amiable guy and not a very effective president when I was in college in the 1970s. Since that time, historians have come to appreciate his abilities. He was a guy who did not need to take personal credit, one who could work with and through others. He tried to head off and avoid problems, rather than ostentatiously solve them. This is a great leader, but when such leaders do their jobs very well, people think that stuff just happened.

As is written in the book of the Tao, when the best leaders accomplish their purpose, the people say, “we did it all ourselves.”

My pictures are from the Eisenhower Museum in Abilene. First is the Ike statue, followed by his boyhood home and a mural of him as a coalition commander. Next is a typical living room of the time. Last is a pair of boots the sort that German soldiers wore on the Russian Front to keep their feed warm. Not a pleasant experience in any way.

FDR – heroic age of conservation

The first half of the 20th Century was the heroic age of American conservation. The Forest Service was founded in 1905, the National Park Service in 1916. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and Works Progress Administration (WPA) came out of the New Deal. The 1940s brought the American Tree Farm System (ATFS) and Aldo Leopold’s land ethic described in the “Sand County Almanac.”

I chose to use the term heroic age specifically and not golden age. Heroic ages produce the good stories and the … heroes, but they are not pleasant for the people living through them. Heroic times require heroes and heroic effort precisely because time are so tough.
The push toward conservation was provoked by severe ecological disasters. A series of disastrous forest fires culminating in the Great Fire of 1910, called variously the “Big Burn” or the “Big Blow-up.” Call it what you will, it burned about three million acres and killed 87 people, mostly firefighters. Even w/o it burning up, experts predicted that we would run out of wood within a few decades. The horrors of the dust bowl, the worse hard time, have entered the mainstream American imagination, but we usually fair to understand the extent of the loss of soil and productivity. Yes, the heroic age of conservation was a dark, dusty and dangerous time and people who thought deeply about the environment probably thought it would only get worse.

We have come a long way, but some of the solutions from the heroic age have become burdens today. Conservation heroes such as both Roosevelts and Gifford Pinchot used warlike metaphors to describe the fight to improve the environment. I just did it too, since it is hard to get away from their formulation. But then the concept of struggle is big in any heroic narratives.

One of the things Pinchot did was to put fire in the role of enemy of the forest. It is easy to criticize this as a mistake but it made sense at the time. He was struggling to get acceptance for the Forest Service and for conservation more generally. America’s recent experience with fire made it easy to identify this destructive and deadly force as the enemy. Ordinary people could easily see the need to protect forests from the destruction. It worked too well and for more than a half century, we fought to keep fire out. This fundamentally changed the ecology of the ecosystems and built up excess fuel that fuel leading to even more disastrous fires.

There is no enemy and no struggle when you think systemically and ecologically. Factors are more or less appropriate contingent upon the situation at hand. Moreover, the situation is constantly changing, making the appropriate response different ever time. The thing you need to eradicate today may be the thing you propagate tomorrow. It is further complicated by the obvious fact that we alter the situation by working with it, even by just looking at it.

Anyway, these are some more of my thoughts from Hyde Park. You see what you look for. I could talk about FDR’s social or economic reforms, but I still see the conservationist.
My first picture is the Hudson Valley near Hyde Park. Next is a collection of New Deal posters about the National Parks. These posters were made as part of the Federal Arts Project, part of the WPA. After that is FDR talking to Gifford Pinchot and finally is me listening to a “fireside chat” in a reproduction of a 1930s kitchen.

Newburgh Conspiracy

I wanted to stop off at the place where Washington ended the Newburgh conspiracy, so I went to where I thought it was, i.e. Washington’s headquarters in Newburgh. I found a nice museum and a beautiful location, but not the site. Seems the actual conspiracy took place at New Windsor Cantonment, about five miles away. The woman at Washington’s HQ assured me that Washington had prepared his presentation in the building pictured. The building at the Cantonment has been reconstructed, but I figured that I got close enough.

I will attach background on Newburgh in the comments section. Please read it. It is one of the most important instances in American history. Washington’s action and his character turned the tide and prevented America debouching into the authoritarian dictatorship that usually follows successful revolution.

Washington was an extraordinarily disciplined man. Character to Washington was something to be build over a lifetime. He was very sensitive to this and played his role well. In the case of the Newburgh Conspiracy, Washington knew his speech alone would be insufficient. He needed to lean on his character and employ drama, which he did wonderfully. I will include a clip from a miniseries on Washington. It is worth watching in general, but go to 18 minutes and watch the Newburgh part.

My pictures are from Washington’s HQ and the museum. It was raining hard, so I didn’t my outside picture was a bit hasty. Notice the beautiful horse chestnut next to Washington’s HQ. The log is part of a boom that closed the Hudson so the British fleet could not divide the colonies.

Anacostia Community Museum

Taxi drivers don’t know how to get to the Anacostia Community Museum, so if you take a taxi be sure to take a printout of the maps and directions.  There is a shuttle that runs from the Smithsonian museums on the Mall. It is a distinct disadvantage to be so far from the main flagpole, but it was worth the trip.

The Anacostia museum was founded in 1967 as a way to reach out to Washington’s African-American community.  It remains an important priority to be more inclusive and get more people involved in museums.  A museum is not just a place that collects a lot of old stuff.  It is a cultural anchor for a community, a place for education and a place to make connections.   The Anacostia Museum is especially involved in this sort of outreach.

One of their interesting endeavors is the Urban Waterways Project, which aims to help involve communities in the renewal and cleanup of rivers that run through urban areas.  Challenges go beyond the the need to clean up.   The bigger challenge is to get people involved who have little experience with being involved.  An additional caveat is a anxiety that if they make the area too pleasant, it will attract developers who will build luxury apartments or rehab buildings to such an extent that they will become too expensive and drive out the local population.

The ostensible reason I went to Anacostia was to discuss the “Word, Shout, Song” exhibition, which we hope will go to Brazil.  It has been translated into Portuguese and is ready to go, but there are logistical and expense considerations.

What is interesting about the exhibition is not the stuff itself, but the research.  Lorenzo Dow Turner, a linguist who studied the Gullah language of the South Carolina lowlands.  At that time, most people thought Gullah was just bad English. Turner demonstrated the connections between Gullah and West African languages in some grammar and many words.  He then went to Brazil and found similar connections in the Brazilian Portuguese of the African diaspora in the Brazil, especially in Bahia and Pernambuco.  We hope that this common history can create sustainable connections in Brazil.  I am still working for my old post, but also for my assignment.

My picture at top is the Anacostia Community Museum.  Below that are some quilts as part of an exhibit.  The bottom picture shows motorcycles, part of a demonstration that included thousands of bikers showing solidarity on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.  Positive & peaceful demonstrations don’t get much media coverage.

Air & Space Museum

I am working to figure out where I might be most useful and it is interesting. I went to the Air & Space Museum. It is very popular with overseas audiences. It is very hard to send actual stuff to partner museums and that is a specialty beyond my skill set. But I do understand outreach and we talked about speaker programs along with poster shows. Smithsonian has recently done a poster show on space suits called Suited for Space, about an exhibit of the same name.

Space suits are interesting.  They are made of layers of different metals and plastics and they are bullet proof.  They need this because little pieced of stuff are flying around space at high speed, like bullets.

Another interesting thing about space suits is that they are disintegrating. They are produced of layers of plastics and metals. As the plastics decompose, they produce acid that corrodes the suits.

Early space suits were tailor made for the particular astronaut, but today’s space travelers get their suits off the rack.   We talked a little about the movie “Gravity.”  There are lots of things that are improbable, but one of the impossible things is that an individual cannot just put on or take off space suites.
Of course, there are many other things the museum can produce.  We just need to make the connections.  That is very simple in theory but not easy in practice.

My pictures are mostly self explanatory. You see the Spirit of St Louis.  Charles Lindbergh donated it to Smithsonian with the condition that it never leave.   Lindbergh was the world’s leading celebrity in 1927 after he flew alone in that little plane all the way to France.
Flying across the Atlantic was a really big deal that changed the course of history.  Before the flight, the U.S. was not a leader in aviation.  The Lindbergh flight caught the popular imagination. It is impossible to quantify the effect, but it was significant.
Others were trying to make the crossing.

Boa Vista 2: A day at a museum

My first day’s schedule was disrupted by a drastic change in government.   They got a new governor on Friday and he fired almost everybody on Monday, at least those appointed politically.   Well, not fired strictly speaking.  They had to come in and find out if they still had jobs.  At my first meeting at one of the planning offices, the guy told me that he could talk to me but that I might not be talking to a person actually employed there.  It was a good talk and I learned a lot about Roraima, but the situation was not normal.  I was supposed to have lunch with the governor, but he was gone.  The new governor found a few minutes to talk to me.  I was grateful for that, since he had a lot of other things to do.  But not much was said.

I had a better time at the Museum of Roraima. It is actually closed, closed for renovations.  People were still working there, however, and they were nice enough to show me around.

I met a woman there studies the indigenous people of Roraima and around.  She lived three years among the Yanomami. These people were made famous in the 1960s when an anthropologist wrote a book about them called “The Fierce People.”  I read it in college and I still recall the cover.  It was controversial among anthropologist because it painted the Yanomami is a negative way.  (It remains controversial today, BTW.  Anthropology steps on a lot of assumptions and one generation debunks the other, often with extreme prejudice.  I think that is because anthropology is the study of human societies and practitioners sometimes find what they are looking to find and then try to bring it back as a critique of their own societies.  The best example is Margaret Mead’s study of Samoa, which indicates another permutation, i.e. being wrong doesn’t always seriously harm your reputation.  Sometimes this is availability bias, i.e. they find what is easy to find, but often it is just ordinary unconscious bias of choosing what you think is important.  Anthropology has a kind of god-like view too.   How can one person judge a society or even hope to understand it.  But this digresses.) According to the book, as I recall, they were vicious, primitive and cruel.  The book was controversial because it went against the neo-Rousseau idea of the noble, or at least the not bad, savage. 

One of the assumptions among many modern anthropologists is that less developed cultures are relatively benign until polluted by contact with modern Western man.  Here was a story of wonderfully violent people who just got that way by themselves.   (BTW – there is another good book I read on a similar subject was “The Better Angels of Nature” by Steven Pinker. He says that, contrary to our assumptions, violence in human societies has been declining for centuries and the death rates from violence we see in modern wars were normal in pre-literate societies.)

Suffice it to say that the woman I spoke with did not agree with the “Fierce People” book and thought many of the ideas were wrong. She explained that there was a lot of variation among the peoples of the region and among individuals.This culture, like all cultures, was in a state of constant change. 

The lack of a strong material culture and absence of writing meant that this particular culture was more protean than many others, as virtually every bit of the culture is stored in mutable human memories and all those memories die with the individual.  If he fails to pass something along, it is gone forever.  There is no digging up the old manuscript and rediscovering the ancient texts.  This, coupled with very low populations, means observations are applicable only for short times and in specific places.Maybe the author of the Fierce People didn’t quite understand what he was observing and even if he did, maybe he just caught them at a bad time.  I suppose it might be like an anthropologist showing up in California in the 1960s, finding the Manson family and extrapolating that to the general population.  

I have thought about this regarding history in general, especially ancient history.   We find some artifacts and project it onto the larger society.  Maybe the community we found was just strange, unloved and rejected by the larger society?  Of course, even this assumes a high level of understanding.  We need a working theory of what the artifacts mean.   They showed me a long sock-like thing made of wicker.  It was flexible and could be pulled thinner and thicker.  I could have looked at the thing of 1000 years w/o figuring out its purpose.  It was used to make a kind of mush with manioc and other roots, some of which have harmful toxins.  Liquids, and evidently the toxics, are pushed through the slots and after a while only the good mush is left.

At another part of the museum, I met a guy who collected bees.  There are lots of different kinds of bees in Brazil and people who study these things not infrequently find new species.  The new species are usually specialists, i.e. they use one sort of plant or have a particular lifestyle.  I suppose it is not really all that different from the anthropology above, with the key difference that biological evolution takes longer than cultural evolution. 

In my experience, bees are yellow stripped.  I was surprised to find lots of brightly colored bees.  This explains a puzzle.  In my yard, I never see many bees, despite having lots of wild stuff and flowers.  I know understand that I have been seeing bees, but I thought they were just odd flies.

One more thing about the museum, it reminded me that I am getting old.   They had “artifacts” like the old phonograph pictured nearby that I recall from my childhood as being modern.   Unfortunate people of the past needed to contend with such things.

Museums for the 21st Century

A delegation from State and the Smithsonian were in Brazil to look at the Casa Thomas Jefferson as a “Model American Space” While in town, they also visited other important cultural spaces like Museu da Republica, Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil and SESC Ceilândia among others and Myles Gordon, the Smithsonian consultant gave a talk about how museums were changing.

Museums used to be about collecting & preserving stuff.  They were like temples of knowledge, where experts spoke to each other and decided what should be shown to the larger public.  They still collect and preserve stuff, but now they are much more outward oriented.  They have moved from preservation to study, from defined to interactive, and in many ways from emphasis on tangible things to a more intangible experience. 

You can see an example of the old version in my picture above.  You can almost smell the formaldehyde. Of course, not all museums are like this and not all parts of museums are equally affected.  Parts of the old model remain very useful.  You still need stuff and you still need to protect it. 

There has also been a change in how museums are managed and funded. In the classic model, museums were financed by some kind of patron.  It usually was some sort of institution like a government or a university, but it could be a private person or organization.   The key was that the patron paid. Today’s museums get their funding from a wider variety of sources. Many still have a patron that pays a lot of the bills, but they supplement with things like memberships, diverse donations, shops, merchandise etc.  They are much more entrepreneurial than they used to be.  This goes with the changes mentioned above, but the trends are part tied to the same changes in society; one does not cause the other.

The Smithsonian has had a mixed system from the beginning.  It is the only museum (actually museum complex) run by the Federal government, but it began with private money. James Smithson, a British subject, left his fortune “to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge ….” Smithson was an amateur scientist. He has never been to the United States.  We are not exactly sure what Smithson had in mind.  Some people think he intended a university. Congress argued about what to do with the money but finally decided to create the kind of museum cum research and knowledge disseminating organization we have today.  It has been a good model. 

Today the Smithsonian consists of nineteen museums, nine research centers, twenty libraries and the National Zoo.   It is affiliated with 170 institutions in a national network.  Most of the buildings are along or near the Capitol Mall in Washington.  About 65% of the funding comes from the Federal government, with private sources, NGOs etc. coming up with the rest.  The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court is the Chairman of the Smithsonian board; the Vice President is the Vice Chairman.  They have 6000 employees and an equal number of volunteers.   The museums are free and each year they get 30 million in person visits and 188 million unique visitors on their websites.  Only 2% of the collection is on display at any time, which is one reason they are digitizing the collections, so that scholars and ordinary viewers can use and enjoy more than can be put in display cases.

I have been enjoying Smithsonian for nearly thirty years.  Because it is free and accessible, you can wander in and out w/o feeling that you have to spend the whole day and see everything there is to see in each of the venues.  The only problem since 2001 has been that there are security lines and not all the doors are open.  I used to just cut through some of the buildings and look at whatever I came across.   That is no longer possible.   It is still nice to wander around.  The Mall is nice in general.  They hold lots of events there and you get Smithsonian Folk Life Festivals every summer.

I wrote a few posts about similar topics.  Milwaukee MuseumSmithsonian goes south & Science changes