City Paper is not for tourists
There’s a lot to see in the Smithsonian’s massive collection, which stretches across an array of museums in D.C. Inevitably, some pieces worth your time get lost in the shuffle—so here are five thought-provoking things we especially like.
“Figure of a rooster”
There is already a very well known rooster sculpture in the District—the blue one who stands watch over Pennsylvania Avenue NW on an exposed pavilion at the National Gallery of Art’s East Building. But another rooster deserves attention usually lavished on his much bigger and bluer brother: the National Museum of African Art’s “Figure of a rooster,” dated to the 18th century. The intricately detailed sculpture stands atop a large base decorated by more woven patterns, with three ram-like heads keeping careful watch on what’s ahead. It’s a great example of the lost-wax casting practiced in West Africa; this one is from the Kingdom of Benin, in what is today Nigeria. The art form was so valued that the court’s brass casters were some of the Kingdom’s most highly ranked visual artists. This sculpture would have begun as an intricately carved wax mold that was covered in clay, then heated. The wax would melt and drain, and casters would pour a molten copper alloy to harden in its place.
You can see “Figure of a rooster” in the National Museum of African Art’s Pavilion Gallery.
Owney the Postal Dog
Balto may have a statue in New York, but Owney the Postal Dog, loyal friend to late 19th-century postal workers, is preserved entirely in D.C. He looks a little apprehensive in his taxidermy, but from pictures of him in life, he had a fine-looking schnauzer-like face. (It’s not his fault it got a little messed up in death.) To make up for his expression, mail clerks decked Owney out in regalia, pooling money to preserve their mascot after his death in 1897 thanks to a bullet in Toledo—“the exact circumstances were not satisfactorily reported,” says the Postal Museum’s biography. He’s been in the Smithsonian’s collection since 1911, when the Post Office Department handed him over. For decades, Owney was on display in the National Museum of American History, but in 1993, he moved to the Postal Service’s new hall of fame. What did Owney do to win such recognition? In general, he was a good boy. He loved to hang around the Albany, New York, post office so much that he stayed when his first owner left town, and he followed his new work friends onto their mail wagons and trains, first across New York, then across the U.S., and in 1895 sailed across the world on a steamship. He was a good luck charm in an era when railway crashes were common, and none of Owney’s trains ever crashed. Those buttons and baubles on his back are souvenirs from his travels saved by his Albany friends.
You can see Owney the Postal Dog in the National Postal Museum’s atrium.
“Female Rappers, Class of ’88”
Some are laughing. Some are sitting, a few are crouching, and one is flexing her biceps. Some look bemused, some look a little bewildered. What’s most clear from the photo is how cool these women look—self-assured, funny, friendly, on top of their game—and how much fun they’re having together. The photo, titled “Female Rappers, Class of ’88,” was taken by Janette Beckman that year, close to a decade into her campaign of photographing soon-to-be hip-hop idols in New York when many other documentary photographers ignored the emerging artists. It features 11 black women on a wooden stage, in front of a brick wall, and 10 are identified in the Smithsonian record. (The one unnamed woman, who’s laughing the hardest, is wearing a ring and bracelet that say “PAM.”) They were all different ages when pictured together: MC Lyte was still a teenager; Millie Jackson was in her mid-40s. Sparky D and Roxanne Shante rose to prominence through a rivalry full of battle raps and diss tracks later dubbed “The Roxanne Wars.” Finesse and Synquis were two halves of a duo, as hinted by their matching jackets. They didn’t all go on to become stars the way other Beckman subjects did, but in this picture, they’re in their prime, and they know it.
You can see “Female Rappers, Class of ’88” on the National Museum of African American History and Culture’s second floor until Nov. 4, when its Represent: Hip-Hop Photography exhibition closes to make way for another showcase.
“Bureau of Bureaucracy”
When you approach Kim Schmahmann’s “Bureau of Bureaucracy” from behind, it looks like a typical cabinet. But on closer inspection, the walls begin to give way—literally. A small door in the back opens into what appears to be the cabinet’s inner workings, but approached from the other side, that door seems to have no logic. In fact, the interior of the cabinet works entirely on its own logic. There’s a small replica of the Library of Congress’ famous Reading Room, one with hallways that lead nowhere and windows that show nothing. Other drawers and compartments and extending tables curve in a way that looks antithetical to storing paper or pencils. It’s clear from the title that it’s a commentary on the stifling nature of bureaucracy, but South Africa-born Schmahmann is also known for engaging the ways documentation and information can be used as a cudgel against some groups more than others; at the bottom, next to slide-out drawers that contain the artists’ identifying documents, is a panel with barely legible writing, including “AS A WHITE PERSON”—a frank reminder of the way bureaucracies categorize groups and assign privileges based on those categorizations. On Schmahmann’s website, viewers can see interiors of some of the closed drawers, but museum visitors aren’t allowed to touch or open the cabinet: bureaucracy in action.
You can see “Bureau of Bureaucracy” on the Renwick Gallery’s second floor.
Mobile Quarantine Facility
When the first men to step foot on the moon returned from outer space, they were heroes. Those heroes were not, however, allowed to celebrate with the rest of us for three weeks—not even Michael Collins, the third astronaut on the mission, who didn’t actually walk on the moon. In fact, the astronauts were quarantined for three weeks before they left Earth, to minimize the chance that they’d catch a disease that could later be mistaken as lunar in origin. It was mostly done out of an abundance of caution. There was no serious worry around the idea of a lunar superbug coming back with the astronauts to kill all life on Earth, but going to the moon simply had no terrestrial precedent. No one could be sure what would happen. So Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, and Collins donned earthside spacesuits on the ship that rescued them from the ocean and strolled into this Mobile Quarantine Facility for 88 hours while it was toted by ship and by plane to the Johnson Space Center, where a much larger quarantine facility was waiting for them. Not every possibility was accounted for: In a 1999 interview, Charles Barry, who led Apollo’s medical operations, acknowledged that opening the Apollo 11 capsule’s hatch would have let space germs into the air. “If it had been lunar plague, I don’t know what would have happened,” he said. In 1974, five years after it was used, NASA gave the Mobile Quarantine Facility to the Smithsonian.
You can see the Mobile Quarantine Facility in the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center’s Human Spaceflight exhibition.