Category Archives: Smithsonian

Washington DC

Wandering around The Mall during the same daytrip I saw Ragnar Kjartansson, Horace Poolaw, and Nation to Nation. Kind of a surreal time to visit because Trump Inauguration infrastructure was being built while holiday infrastructure was still in place.

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National Zoo

A trip to the National Zoo. Between the subway trip to the zoo, walking from the station to the zoo entrance, and making sure the kids had enough gas left in the tank to get back to the subway afterwards we maybe got through half the zoo. It’s nice though, where the Los Angeles Zoo is spread out in a way which feels discouraging because the exhibits are smallish and far apart, the DC zoo feels like it just has enormous animal enclosures. This might be the first zoo I’ve been to where most of the enclosures feel like they have multiple viewing areas. And it’s great because this means that the animals are always within view.

Seeing the Giant Pandas was a particular thrill. I remember waiting forever to “see” them when they visited San Francisco back in the mid-1980s. What a disappointment. After waiting in the line the pandas were hiding behind the bamboo and I maybe saw a paw. In DC though, the enclosure is fantastic and the pandas are happy to just hang out and chew on bamboo out in the open.

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Udvar-Hazy Center

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In October we took a trip to the Udvar-Hazy wing of the National Air and Space Museum. Since I was with the kids I didn’t get a chance to properly explore it. But it’s a great museum for kids since it’s full of big things which they understand. And concepts like “fastest plane ever” or “space travel” are things that impress them. The hanger is huge and it’s indeed a lot of fun to see so many of these iconic aircraft in the flesh.

While some of the important smaller artifacts are in the DC museum—Mercury 7, Apollo 11,* Spirit of St. Louis, and the Wright Flyer—there’s not enough room to house the larger aircraft. And it’s fantastic to be able to see things like a Blackbird, the Enola Gay, the Space Shuttle Discovery, or a Concorde. In the same way the you can only really grok the insanity/bravery of the early astronauts by looking at how small the capsules they were in, you have to also see how huge things like the Space Shuttle are.

*Actually, when I wandered through there in December after seeing Ragnar Kjartansson, Nation to Nation, and Horace Poolaw shows, Apollo 11 was not on display and is supposedly being shipped to Udvar Hazy. I’m curious what’s going to become of the DC museum as more and more iconic planes end up in Virginia. I didn’t write about the December visit because it was mainly just seeing the highlights of the collection. But I can say that the New Moon Rises exhibition was kind of neat.

I particularly like being able to see the textures and details of the aircrafts from how the Space Shuttle is so many different colors of white to all the different panels and things on all the airplanes’ surfaces. When I imagine airplanes I imagine them with sleek seamless surfaces even though I know better.

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Horace Poolaw

Gus Palmer (Kiowa, at left), side gunner, and Horace Poolaw (Kiowa), aerial photographer, in front of a B-17 Flying Fortress. MacDill Field, Tampa, Florida, ca. 1944. 45UFL14 © 2014 Estate of Horace Poolaw

Gus Palmer (Kiowa, at left), side gunner, and Horace Poolaw (Kiowa), aerial photographer, in front of a B-17 Flying Fortress. MacDill Field, Tampa, Florida, ca. 1944.

Robert “Corky” and Linda Poolaw (Kiowa/Delaware), dressed up and posed for the photo by their father, Horace. Anadarko, Oklahoma, ca. 1947. © 2014 Estate of Horace Poolaw

Robert “Corky” and Linda Poolaw (Kiowa/Delaware), dressed up and posed for the photo by their father, Horace. Anadarko, Oklahoma, ca. 1947.

Horace Poolaw, “Sindy Libby Keahbone (Kiowa) and Hannah Keahbone (Kiowa),” Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, 1930.

“Sindy Libby Keahbone (Kiowa) and Hannah Keahbone (Kiowa),” Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, 1930.

Left to right: Juanita Daugomah Ahtone (Kiowa), Evalou Ware Russell (center), Kiowa Tribal Princess, and Augustine Campbell Barsh (Kiowa) in the American Indian Exposition parade. Anadarko, Oklahoma, 1941. © 2014 Estate of Horace Poolaw

The American Indian Exposition parade. Anadarko, Oklahoma, 1941.

After seeing Nation to Nation, I checked out the Horace Poolaw show. Poolaw photographed his Oklahoma community for about five decades in the mid-20th century. While he operated a bit as a professional photographer doing weddings and funerals and other big events his photographs are all effectively insider images. They’re both of his community and for consumption by that community alone.

The community is one which most of us typically see only through the white gaze. The photos aren’t actively dealing with self-representation issues. They document and are an archive of people who society tends to ignore.

We rarely get to see Indians as regular people. This allows and encourages society to think of them as no longer existing in today’s world. A lot of this caused by the way that the concept of “authenticity” is linked with Indian regalia and appearances. Being Indian is either a very specific physical stereotype of dark skin and sharp features or it’s a costume which can be appropriated by anyone.

It’s weird and unexpected to see Indian clothing mixed with western clothing or settings. So seeing Indians dressed in regalia while driving or posing by modern cars just like any other mid-century American would pose is striking. The same goes with seeing soldiers wearing war bonnets with their military uniforms. Poolaw’s photos though are full of this kind of thing and we get used to seeing the mixing and matching. Even in what seems to be a straight photograph of two women in their regalia standing in front of a teepee we notice how the younger one has a modern haircut and makeup.

All too often museums present Indian culture* as a stagnant craft which exists outside of the influence of other cultures. In Poolaw’s photos we see how his culture is changing over the decades, especially with how opening up the Kiowa reservation to non-Kiowa settlers resulted in a culture where everyone is blending their heritages together. There are different Indian Nations intermarrying. There’s the whole Indians serving in the US Armed Forces and celebrating homecomings and departures with traditional ceremonies. It’s a lot of fun to see and is a necessary reminder of how all of cultures are living and growing things.

*Or any non-white culture really.

Historically, the photos are also very interesting because they cover the time from the Indian Citizenship Act to the Indian Civil Rights Act. This is a time period in which Indian Nations gain both more autonomy for themselves to eventually practice their religions and traditions as well as more rights within the United States as US citizens with protected rights.

Poolaw specifically covers the development of Indian autonomy with his photos of the events which eventually developed into the what we now know of as American Indian Pow Wows. These photos work as a celebration of being Indian, archive of how the growth of acceptance of celebrating that by general American culture, and an uneasy critique of how the growing acceptance of powwow events has also lead them to be commodities.

His photos of the participants are wonderful relaxed photos of people who are at ease with the photographer and trust that their image won’t be exploited. His photos of the increased acceptance of these events are similarly fun to see as the people are increasingly able to operate in a mixed culture. His photos of the crowds and photographers who are watching the events though demonstrate his unease with how, as the culture is able to express itself more, it’s also increasingly accessible for consumption.*

*As someone who attends and photographs these events these photos also serve as a warning to me about how I should respect the space and the participants.

While it’s good that these cultural events no longer have to be practiced in a small private setting, the big events risk taking them from being for the participants and centering the audience instead. Poolaw, by being both an Indian and a photographer is able to straddle those worlds.

Nation to Nation

“The Great Smoke” case features a series of pipes and pipe bags as part of The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian’s latest exhibition, Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations, on Tuesday, September 16, 2014 in Washington, DC. Smoking played an important role at the Horse Creek Treaty gathering. The exhibition opens to the public at the National Museum of the American Indian on September 21, 2014. (Paul Morigi/AP Images for The Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian)

Since the National Museum of the American Indian has the best food of the Smithsonian institutions, it’s easy to find an excuse to visit it should I be museuming on The Mall. And once I’m inside it’s easy to stay and wander around. So after having lunch after visiting the Hirshhorn, I ended up exploring a number of the exhibits in the Museum of the American Indian.

Nation to Nation looks at the history of treaties between Indian nations and the United States, or colonies which would become the United States. I was curious and apprehensive walking in to this show since that history isn’t one which covers the United States in a lot of glory. My biggest hope was that I wouldn’t get too pissed off—whether in the brutality of the history covered or, even worse, by letting that history off the hook.

Thankfully I didn’t get too upset either way. The show is very good. It covers a whole range of treaties starting with those between the Colonies and various Indian Nations and it gets into what worked, what didn’t, and how even when things worked they only worked for maybe a generation.* It went into communication issues both in terms of how the different parties value written versus oral commitments** and how certain concepts were untranslatable.*** It covered the points of view and goals that the negotiating parties were coming from and how those points of views changed during negotiation.

*Best example here is William Penn’s treaty with the Lenape. 

**Both in the initial agreement and in how it’s remembered for the future.

***From concrete concepts like reservations to more abstract ones like who has the authority to make decisions on behalf of an entire group.

And it didn’t shy away from the repeated displacement of Indian Nations as settlers kept moving west. It details the brutality and death toll of the forced marches. It laments the loss of botanical and medicinal knowledge which accompanied moving away from native lands. It poses the difficult choice many Indians faced about staying with—and as part of—the tribe by selling their land and moving west as well or by taking that money and trying to stay “at home” even if it meant being detribalized.*

*The legacy of that choice is still complicating things today.

Nor did it ignore how the treaties often put the US Government at odds with what the local authorities wanted. In many cases, the US Government was negotiating treaties to protect the Indians from hostile states and settlers. Sometimes this worked out and prevented—or at least delayed—conflicts such as the one between Georgia and the Creek Nation. Other times, such as in California, the state was able to successfully lobby Congress to not ratify the treaty—resulting in an extermination campaign becoming part of the gold rush.

I appreciated how throughout the timeline, while centering Indian priorities, the exhibit also managed to tell the history of the United States in how its priorities changed as it matured as a country. Where the early treaties are chiefly concerned with keeping the peace and avoiding any armed conflicts that the newly-formed country couldn’t afford, later treaties become more and more explicitly about taking land and, effectively, building empire across the continent.

By the middle of the 19th century, as the military might of the US has increased to where it doesn’t have to worry about armed conflict as much, the treaty negotiations become more one-sided and the US demands become more complicated. It’s no longer just about displacing people so you can live on their land, it’s about land as an exploitable resource for mining, commercial agriculture, or transportation right of ways.

But what I appreciated most is how the exhibit follows the history all the way through to the present day. It’s very clear that, despite the history of broken promises, the fact that there were agreements between the US and Indian Nations remains an important precedent to remember. It’s why the Haudenosaunee insist on receiving the cloth from the Treaty of Canandaigua rather than accepting a monetary payment. The symbolism of the agreement and the recognition by the US Government matters more than the payment now. It’s how the preservation of fishing grounds in the Medicine Creek Treaty are still legally valid today. It’s the way that native children have to be treated as the citizens of those Indian Nations which they are.

I only wish that in the current-day sections of this show, in addition to the political/legal movements in gaining and maintaining increased Indian sovereignty, there was also information about things like the Dakota Access Pipeline. There’s a real sense that most of the conflict and negotiation regarding these treaties has moved to Washington DC or is taking place inside courtrooms. That there are also conflicts on the ground is important to remember. Especially when one of the most-visible conflicts is currently occurring in territory which is covered in one of the treaties which is on display. It shouldn’t be up to the audience to make those connections.

Ragnar Kjartansson

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Performance Art is always a weird thing to experience in a museum setting. Most of the time, instead of observing the performance, the museum describes the concept and displays the evidence left behind—leaving it up the the viewer to imagine the experience itself. The Ragnar Kjartansson retrospective at the Hirshhorn is a bit different in this case. While there are still lots of notes and maquettes on display,* many of the pieces on in the exhibition feel like the performances were just part of the process for creating the artwork itself.

*I particularly liked the set models for his opera without any performers.

What I saw when looking at things like The End—Venezia, God, or The Visitors, wasn’t evidence or notes. While it was important to know how the pieces on display were created, they stood on their own as objects in and of themselves.

The End—Venezia is superficially funny but the longer you look at it and walk around all the different paintings, the more it sucks you in and becomes about the paintings rather than the performance as you start treating it as a puzzle to putting everything in order. As you look more and more at how the paintings reference each other you’re also thinking about time and how things change over a summer.

God is very similar in that it’s superficially funny while it draws you into paying attention to something completely different and unexpected. Kjartansson’s singing isn’t the part that you end up paying attention to* as your attention slowly moves to the other musicians in the performance. Whether it’s the small tempo changes from the drummer or waiting until one of the idle musicians finally joins in you’re much more aware of how the entire musical piece is constructed here.

*Though there was something about it which reminded me of Thom Yorke and Radiohead.

The Visitors is a multi-channel installation in which it’s as interesting to watch how other museum goers navigate the space as it is to watch the piece itself. How everyone picks what screen, or screens, to pay attention to as the music shifts. How, as the piece ends, everyone figures out which screens the performers are moving to  and gravitates to those screens. This isn’t evidence which encourages passive viewing, it’s been thought out and the result is a surprisingly-interactive multimedia presentation.

In all these cases, it doesn’t really matter that the original performance was a piece of Performance Art. It’s a nice touch, but for me they could just as well have been created without an audience since that aspect isn’t present in any of the installations. The results are for the museumgoing audience.

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It is nice though that there is one performance piece on display. Woman in E reminds us of how different the performance part of Performance Art is. And there is a difference. More cameras came out for this piece than any other. There’s a weird energy around staring at the performer. There’s a weird energy around not paying attention to the performer. Everyone’s conscious about how there’s a person on display.*

*I can’t help but compare the way everyone is aware of the performer with the way that they ignore the security guards but that’s a completely different blog post.

And while reacting to the piece and the gold and the weirdness of treating a young woman in strapless gown as literally an object on a pedestal is a huge part of the experience. I also wanted to know about how long the performance lasted* and whether the guitar had been modified so that she didn’t have to actually hold the chord for the entire time.

*2 and a half hours per performer, 3 performers a day according to the security guard.

Cooper Hewitt

Lou Romano, colorscript, "The Incredibles," 2004. Digital painting.

Lou Romano, colorscript, “The Incredibles,” 2004. Digital painting.

My son had a random midweek day off in November so we took a day trip to New York. The main draw was the Pixar show at the Cooper Hewitt Museum. I was hoping it would be something like the huge show at the Oakland Museum but even if it wasn’t, I was looking forward to both comparing and seeing new items from the 5 years of movies released since the Oakland show.

It wasn’t as good. But it was still fun. Whereas the Oakland show was about the artifacts and explaining the whole process of making the movie, the Cooper Hewitt show was much more interested in being interactive and getting visitors involved in the process of designing the movie. I actually prefer the Cooper Hewitt approach except the room was very small and relied on a lot of digital artifacts rather than letting us see all the sketches and maquettes and things.

My son though loved doing the sketch activities and playing with the giant interactive tables. And he enjoyed seeing the few artifacts they did have on display. A little bit of wonder goes an amazingly long way with kids and he was very happy to see is “friends” in a museum.

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We also wandered—sorta quickly—through the rest of the museum. There was a fantastic exhibition on Heatherwick Studio which, even if I didn’t have a hungry first grader in tow, I probably wouldn’t have as much time as I wanted to really study everything. A lot of the things here looked like crazy pipe-dream architectural concepts* except that low and behold many of them have actually been built.

*Similar in wonder and the apparent impossibility of execution as Lebbeus Woods’s mind-blowing stuff.

I particularly like the experiments into expandable furniture as well as the way they use multiple repeated small structures to create a cohesive object. But everything feels like playing with materials, manufacturing, and space in ways that aren’t just “hey look what I can do” but are really thinking and exploring how these materials and methods can inform the way we interact with buildings.

There was also a poster exhibition which worked as a great primer on graphic design fundamentals. The print nerd in me really liked it too since it went into some of the nitty gritty of manufacturing in addition to covering a number of the basic design principles that designers return to.

After the museum we wandered back to the subway through Central Park. It was a wonderfully nice fall day so it was good to just be outside in the last of the fall color.

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