Giving, Hope, Joy, Love, and Peace at the Phillips Collection

At my Sunday Morning Activity, we have a holiday season tradition that entails celebrating the values of giving, hope, joy, love, and peace. A few months ago, I visited the Phillips Collection with friends and ran into three of the values point blank, then sought out the remaining two.

The Lou Stovall: The Museum Workshop exhibit showcased the work of the Dupont Center; according to the Phillips Collection’s website, “the Dupont Center advanced a new, innovative model for the museum as a place for exhibition, art-making, and community-building.” Lou Stovall was one of many artists who collaborated to create the work on display in the exhibit.

Peace was front and center in the exhibit, in giant letters by Lou Stovall himself. This five-part poster was designed for use in anti-war protests.

Giant posters artfully spelling out PEACE by Lou Stovall

Stovall’s wife, Di Bagley Stovall, created this smaller poster proclaiming the value of love. The wall text explained that “This artist poster parallels the protest poster but isn’t linked to a specific demonstration or event.”

Two small art pieces spelling out "LOVE"

In a corner of the exhibit, I found hope, or at least, I found a piece of art with the word hope. This is from a 1968 Peace Corps and Vista booklet.

Small art piece spelling "HOPE"

My friends and I continued to wander the museum beyond the Lou Stovall exhibit, and in one spot, my friend and I sat down at a table with a Phillips Collection card game that invites players to start conversations about works of art printed on the cards. I found a card with an Alma Thomas work printed on it, full of colors that symbolize joy to me.

Card with colorful image by Alma Thomas

One room at the Phillips featured “a conversation between Jacob Lawrence’s Hiroshima prints and selected drawings by the children of Hiroshima’s Honkawa Elementary School,” noting that in December 1947, All Souls Unitarian Church (it should be noted here that my Sunday Morning Activity is affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Association) donated school supplies to the elementary school, and the school showed their appreciation by sending back pictures made with the school supplies. These drawings made with gifted art supplies are an example of giving.

Two pieces of art by students at Honkawa Elementary School in Hiroshima, Japan

I wish everyone a holiday season full of giving, hope, joy, love, and peace!

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No Words in My Mouth at Capitol South

I have already written a lot about the places near the Capitol South Metro station. These include the Library of Congress-Madison Building (one of my Weekly Museum Visits) and the Library of Congress-Jefferson Building and Folger Shakespeare Library, which I wrote about together here. And then there’s the Capitol Visitor Center and United States Capitol where I worked many years ago, discussed in too many blog posts to count.

When I first got the idea to write about every Metro station, my thought for Capitol South was to write about some of the off-the-beaten-path objects and rooms in the Capitol and its office buildings (six of which are connected to the Capitol by underground tunnel): after all, interesting things are everywhere, and the Capitol complex is full of surprises just around the corner. Little did I know that there would be an attack on the Capitol during the counting of electoral votes on January 6, 2021 – an attack apparently aided by information garnered on tours with Congressional staffers prior to the insurrection.

We Visitor Assistants were trained to keep an eye out for visitors who took an unusual interest in things like entrances, exits, and stairs. It was normal to see guests who were especially focused on the history, or the art, or the architecture, but if they seemed to be on a recon mission to map out how to move through the space, that was considered suspicious behavior.

I wrote in June 2022, “I will probably write more about the events of January 6, 2021 when it comes time to write about the Capitol South Metro station in the every-Metro-station goal I created for myself, so this won’t be the last I say about the insurrection.” And on January 6, 2021, the day of the insurrection itself, I wrote a post entitled “No words…” in which I elaborated, “I don’t even know (yet) what to say about the surreal domestic terrorist attack on the United States Capitol today.”

So have I figured out what to say? Do I still have no words? I still find it surreal and awful that the attackers got so far, that so much harm was done, that seven lives were lost, all in an attempt to subvert the peaceful transfer of power that I had been admittedly taking for granted.

I’m obviously not going to write about the interesting nooks and crannies in such a way that anyone could use that information for nefarious purposes (not that I have the sense of direction or spatial awareness to be able to write something like that about a building I haven’t set foot in for a decade).

And yet there are such interesting things I want to tell you about! The bathtub! The coal chutes! The Brumidi Corridors! The crypt! I already told you about many of the statues that make up Statuary Hall, and women who are featured in art in the Capitol, and the pieces of artwork in the Cannon tunnel; and I’ve shown you many pictures of the Capitol rotunda. Here is a picture of a lesser, but still cool, rotunda, in the Cannon House Office Building.

Meanwhile, a midterm election is around the corner. The husband of the Speaker of the House was recently violently attacked by someone who was looking for the Speaker herself, looking to harm her. And the United States House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol continues to do its work as the nation watches and waits for the full explanation of what happened that day. We live in, to say the least, interesting – and frightening – times.

Capitol South is on the Orange, Blue, and Silver Lines.

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Objects’ Authenticity Put to the Test at Federal Center Southwest

Federal Center Southwest is the best Metro to use in order to visit the National Museum of the American Indian, the United States Botanic Garden, and Voice of America, which was one of my Weekly Museum Visits. It is also near the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial, which I have walked past but haven’t explored in-depth, and the Museum of the Bible, which I visited in 2019.

One of the most interesting objects I saw there was what has become known as the Slave Bible: a version of the Bible from 1807-1808 used in British Caribbean colonies. Containing only “select portions of Scripture,” this heavily abridged edition emphasizes duty and loyalty. Stories of liberation or fighting against oppression were omitted. In the exhibit, visitors were invited to write and display their answers to questions like, “Does the Bible have the same authority if portions are removed?”

Elsewhere in the museum, phrases from the Bible that have become common idioms were highlighted: skin of one’s teeth. How the mighty have fallen. An exhibit showed the ambience of biblical times, complete with images of a flock of sheep. And among my photos from the August 2019 visit is a Dead Sea Scroll fragment, marked as “Original” from Qumran, West Bank, ca. 30 BC-AD 30.

Common Biblical idioms, on display at the Museum of the Bible

But a March 2020 National Geographic article details a major revelation about MOB’s Dead Sea Scrolls: all 16 of the fragments in the museum’s collection, after undergoing thorough testing by experts in the field, turned out to be fake.

For its part, MOB (founded by Steve Green, whose family owns Hobby Lobby) cooperated with the process, according to National Geographic. Still, as one expert, Arstein Justnes, remarked, fake Dead Sea Scroll fragments were a better look for MOB than real fragments without provenance. “We should perhaps really hope that [the post-2002 fragments] are fakes … If they are fakes, we have been duped….But if they are authentic, unprovenanced artifacts, they must have been looted, they must have been smuggled—they were tied to criminal acts in some way.”

Indeed, looting has also been an issue at MOB. MOB has returned thousands of looted objects to Iraq, and a millennium-old Gospel manuscript to Greece. A July 2020 NPR article states of the museum: “It’s been going through its entire 40,000-piece collection with almost half of it now determined to either be potentially looted or fake.”

To be sure, MOB is not the only museum to find itself in hot water over the authenticity or provenance of objects in its collection. But it’s an interesting contrast with another museum at Federal Center Southwest, the National Museum of the American Indian, whose mission statement includes the words “[i]n partnership with Native peoples and their allies.”

In graduate school, I took a tour of the museum’s Cultural Resource Center in Suitland, Maryland, where a guide described the relationship as one in which the museum was entrusted by indigenous peoples with their objects. The CRC contains ceremonial spaces in which Native American communities can use objects stored at the site. NMAI’s website includes a section on repatriation and states that the process of repatriation of human remains and funerary items is “a high priority” and “a human rights issue.”

These are thorny issues with which many museums are grappling, particularly when it comes to objects considered sacred. The juxtaposition of the Museum of the Bible and the National Museum of the American Indian, located in close physical proximity to each other, serves as a pair of case studies around questions of ethics and cultural property.

Federal Center Southwest is on the Orange, Blue, and Silver Lines.

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National Book Festival 2022 Recap

In September, the National Book Festival (my beloved National Book Festival!) was back in person again after a year of being entirely virtual (2020) followed by a year of being virtually entirely virtual (2021). I saw a diverse array of #ownvoices authors discuss where stories and inspiration come from, what advice they would give aspiring writers, how they relate to their characters (real or fictional), and why we need diverse books.

The day began at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center with a virtual presentation, the Zoom-ness of which I realized only at the last minute, with some disappointment after the two years of NBF over Zoom. Jesmyn Ward accepted the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction remotely and was interviewed by Clay Smith. She spoke about her current project, a novel about an enslaved woman in New Orleans, where there are only two historical markers showing where slaves were present in the city. Ward said that this means history is being erased (slavery was huge in New Orleans) and asked, what if I write about it? in order to help make sure these important stories are told.

Next I saw Mitch Albom, who spoke mostly about his bestselling, non-fiction Tuesdays with Morrie in an interview with David M. Rubenstein. He talked about his career in journalism, writing Tuesdays with Morrie in order to pay for Morrie Schwartz’s medical bills, and the orphanage he runs in Haiti.

The next panel I watched featured Donna Barba Higuera, Darcie Little Badger, and Malinda Lo. Badger was noted as the first Native American writer to be recognized by the Newbery committee for a Newbery Honor, though her book was decidedly not the first book about Native Americans to receive a Newbery Medal or Honor.

Lo (whose book Last Night at the Telegraph Club I was reading at the time) answered an audience question about writing cross-culturally, advising that one should do your research from a place of respect. Read memoirs. Then, talk to people. Moderator Dhonielle Clayton suggested, interrogate “why” when you write outside of yourself.

I took a break from the freezing building to get a hot drink at a nearby Starbucks and then came back and had lunch on the lowest public level of the convention center. During my break outside, I found a second (I had found the first the day before near a giant turtle mural) secret stone garden courtyard in the area, which was kind of a fun find.

After lunch, I saw Kwame Alexander, interviewed by Nic Stone. Alexander told his audience that he writes books that he would have liked to read at age 10 or 11. He left this mantra with his listeners: I am the greatest, not because I am better than anyone, but because no one is better than me.

This year’s festival featured Literature to Life performances, and I watched a rendition of Black Boy in which actor Tarintino Smith played – and then discussed how he had to be able to relate to – 20 different characters. The one-man play, and indeed the book, was all about hunger, Smith said: for food, for identity, for your place in society.

At the last panel I watched, Stone and Clayton, whom I had seen earlier as interviewers, were now interviewees along with Tiffany D. Jackson, Ashley Woodfolk, and Nicola Yoon. Dr. Carla Hayden, Librarian of Congress, interviewed them about their novel Blackout (also written with Angie Thomas). Clayton spoke of being a librarian in Harlem and finding that kids asked her for books reflecting their own lives, books that didn’t exist: her impetus for becoming a writer. Yoon stated that everyone deserves the full measure of their humanity, and Stone said that not all black stories are about trauma….there are so many stories that are just living and breathing in reality.

Donna Barba Higuera, Darcie Little Badger, Malinda Lo, and Dhonielle Clayton at the 2022 National Book Festival

Blackout is not only a beacon of racial diversity, but also, as Hayden pointed out, you normalized therapy for young people. Woodfolk and her co-authors talked about the importance of addressing the mental health crisis that has worsened as a result of the pandemic and its accompanying isolation.

After such isolation, it was great to be back in person at the National Book Festival!

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One Woman Artist: Maya Lin

As mentioned in my last post, the National Museum of Women in the Arts asks if you can name five women artists. Can you? This post is a celebration of one woman artist in particular.

Three sites where I have seen Maya Lin’s work:

The most obvious and famous is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC. Like the Eisenhower Memorial I wrote about a few months ago, the design was controversial in the initial stages, described as “nihilistic” among other choice words. A compromise was reached in which statuary and the American flag were added to Lin’s stark Wall.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC

Lin’s Folding the Chesapeake was featured in the 2015 Wonder exhibit at the Renwick Gallery, also in DC. This piece was an installation made out of marbles shaped into the geographies and terrains one finds on a map: “rivers, fields, canyons, and mountains.”

Maya Lin’s work at the Renwick Gallery of Art in Washington, DC

Many years earlier, I had seen the Wave Field by Maya Lin at the University of Michigan. This is a scientifically-derived rendition of ocean waves in earth and grass, providing small crests for visitors to sit and walk on.

Me at the Wave Field at the University of Michigan, photo by one of the other people on that long-ago trip

What other woman artists come to mind when you are asked to name five?

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Art I’ve Seen Only in the Smithsonian

That was not my best rhyming ever, but “Smithsonian” is hard to rhyme with. It’s also a bit of a confusing Metro name, given that there are also Smithsonian visitor sites (museums or the zoo) near Federal Triangle, L’Enfant Plaza, Federal Center Southwest, Union Station, Galleryplace, Farragut West, and Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams Morgan.

But Smithsonian is the Metro station I would recommend using for the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries (which I have written about here), National Museum of African Art (discussed here), Castle (my post), Ripley Center (my post), and Arts and Industries Building. It is also near the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (which I wrote about in the same post as the NMAA post above), the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (one of my Weekly Museum Visits), ARTECHOUSE which I have recently visited, and the National Mall. If you were going to go visit “the monuments” (including the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, which was one of my Weekly Museum Visits) there’s not a Metro serving the whole of these popular visitor destinations in a great way, but Smithsonian might be your best bet.

I recently visited the Arts and Industries Building on the last day of its Futures exhibit. One thing I will say right off the bat: the exhibit did a good job fitting within the museum name, delving into the intersection between art(s) and industry(ies). It also dove into big, intersectional issues and addressed them on a note of hope, which was a nice contrast with some of the also very important, but more dismal, exhibits I’ve seen at other museums this spring and summer.

The #5WomenArtists campaign led by the National Museum of Women in the Arts asks if you can name 5 female artists. Futures included examples of female artists, authors, scientists, designers, and more. Who counts as an artist?

Featured in the exhibit is author Octavia E. Butler, and an interactive Butler-inspired sculpture by Stephanie Dinkins called Not the Only One (N’TOO) that may or may not talk when you talk to it. (It did not talk to me.) Artificial intelligence was a major thread running through the exhibit as a whole, and this piece was an artful take of the artificial, or in the artist’s words, “an ongoing experiment…an artificial intelligence (AI) of evolving intellect.”

Display on author Octavia E. Butler at the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building, 2022

Beatriz Cortez’s Chultún El Semillero (Seedbed Vault) is a structure based on ancient Mayan practices in which seeds and water can be stored underground. In the museum space, it appeared as a bright shiny purple vault with tiny capsules inside and a trove of plants behind it.

Other individuals featured included Helen Keller and Margaret Hamilton. Among the thinkers quoted on the walls were Amanda Gorman, Alice Walker, and Anne Frank. Although I saw no reference to that saying, “The future is female,” the section on inclusivity and the highlighting of women past and present pointed to hopes for a world that is better and more equitable on the basis of sex and gender.

Smithsonian is on the Orange, Blue, and Silver Lines.

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Coloring Page: York County History Center

From the Color Our Collections event, courtesy of York County History Center in Pennsylvania.

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Afro-Atlantic Histories

Last month, I visited the Afro-Atlantic Histories exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. There was a theme throughout of mixing: skin colors, flag colors, religious doctrine and motifs. Below are a few photos:

American flag in red, black, and green
African-American Flag by David Hammons (Afro-Atlantic Histories exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC)
Eshu Dambaiah by Abdias Nascimento (Afro-Atlantic Histories exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC)
Eshu Dambaiah by Abdias Nascimento (Afro-Atlantic Histories exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC)
sculpture of boy in dark tones pouring white paint on himself
Amnesia by Flávio Cerqueira (Afro-Atlantic Histories exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC)

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A Visit to Freedom House Museum

I recently wrote a post on the National Museum of African American History and Culture, in which the history of slavery fills a major part of the timeline in what appear to serve as the museum’s history galleries. The themes of forced migration (people stuffed like cargo in boats crossing the Atlantic, or made to march south or southwest in coffles during the country’s expansion and growing southern cotton empire in the first half of the 19th century) and separation from family via the slave trade were prominent threads in the exhibit. At my recent visit to Freedom House Museum in Alexandria, Virginia, these themes were echoed, but in this much smaller museum, the local connections were brought front and center.

Freedom House was once a major site in the slave trade, with enslaved people being held here – in pens – before being sold further south. Today, it operates as a museum with a focus on the local community of the past and present.

exhibit showing portraits and a typewriter
Freedom House Museum in Alexandria, Virginia

Individuals are highlighted, including people from Alexandria, who escaped slavery or fought for its abolition, as well as more recent and contemporary examples of Black Americans and Alexandrians working for racial equality. Visitors learn about Frederick Douglass and Arthur Asche, but a good number of the people featured were much less well-known. Some were people for whom no identifiable photos exist today.

For a class project, young people painted these lesser-known heroes, and their paintings are on display in the galleries next to signage providing more information, as well as, in some cases, historic objects like Annie B. Rose’s typewriter. On the day I visited, one of the young artists was showing her painting to a few of her friends. They read and critiqued her artist’s reflection statement (something included with each of these paintings) while I gawked at how cool it was to be in the museum at the same time as one of its artists.

The block on which this building sits has been built up with other houses where the pens holding enslaved people used to be, so the site has been a bit sanitized – we don’t see the full horror, or even the full structures that held the full horror – that went on here. But the museum does display a miniature version to show what the site looked like back in the day.

For a small museum with heavy content, the museum manages to build in opportunities for rest, reflection, and interaction. There are restrooms on each of the three floors and water fountains on two of them. The museum has spaces to reflect, and to write on an index card what visitors will be thinking about after visiting the museum, or to nominate an Alexandrian to be featured in the museum.

A basket of children’s books on the subject of movements for African American freedom, rights, and equality sits next to one bench amid the exhibits. Although this museum would not be my first choice for bringing young children, the picture books are a nod to inclusivity toward the youngest museum audiences even amid the solemn subject matter of the museum. I would recommend this museum for adults and older kids who are ready to confront difficult history.

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A Historic Angle at Federal Triangle

Federal Triangle is near several museums as well as several other Metro stations. With less than robust scientific accuracy, I think of Federal Triangle as the closest Metro stop to the National Museum of Natural History (which I have written about in posts such as this) and the National Museum of American History (which I wrote about, for example, here), the now-shuttered National Aquarium in DC which I wrote about here, the Old Post Office Pavilion (see my post here), the National Children’s Museum, and the exhibit spaces in the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center. It is also near the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in 2016, and which I recently visited for the first time.

I’ll get the details of my personal experience out of the way and then dig into the important content. I had been planning to visit “once things calm down a little,” once the buzz had abated a bit and the museum would be less crowded. I’m a local, I figured, I can visit anytime; I’m not on my once-in-a-decade trip to the east coast or anything like that.

Then, covid happened. As things began to reopen, it still didn’t appear the buzz about this new museum was abating. Finally, taking a day off work on my birthday, I visited (deliberately on a weekday) in spring 2022.

It was a Thursday, but the museum was crowded nonetheless. I arrived in the early afternoon with a ticket already reserved; the signs said that no more tickets were available for the day, suggesting that the maximum number of people who could visit that day were there.

Spending about three hours in the museum (some of this time was in the café), overwhelmed by the crowds and overstimulated by the museum itself, a bit distracted by some escalating personal health concerns, there was a lot of museum that I left unseen. Promising to go back (after all, I’m a local, I can visit anytime), I tried to make the most of my visit knowing that it was my first, but not my last, visit.

The content itself was sobering. Some sections of the museum were more joyous than others, but most of my visit was on the history-themed concourse levels, with a somber focus on slavery, Reconstruction, and inequality that continued (and continues) in various forms even after specific victories were won.

One thing I have heard before is, every nation has had slavery, all throughout history. Wall text toward the beginning of the history section at NMAAHC establishes some important reminders: around 1400, the nature of slavery changed. Only coinciding with exploration and conquering of the “New World” did slavery take on the race-based, lifelong, inherited characteristics of American enslavement. The exhibit text states that after 1400, “Enslaved people were considered property and dehumanized.”

This dehumanization is ever present in the details of the exhibit, just as it was present in the fictional The Underground Railroad (which I read several months ago) and the non-fiction The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (which I listened to a few months ago). As shown in the gallery, slavery wasn’t just its definitive property of being property, of being owned and made to work. It involved forced migration, separation of families, torture, rape, abuse, short life expectancy, and proximity to death.

James Baldwin quote on the wall: "“The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do."
National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC

A quote from William Cowper (a poet writing in sardonic protest of slavery) states in large letters at the beginning of the exhibit: “I admit I am sickened at the purchase of slaves…but I must be mumm, for how could we do without sugar or rum?” Later in the gallery, visitors read another quote, from Indiana Congressman George W. Julian in 1853: “The American people are emphatically a negro-hating people.”

The fact that few white Americans openly claim a hatred-based racism today shows how racism has changed over time but does not mean that racism is over. Visitors walking the gallery see how Reconstruction laws in many ways re-created conditions of slavery even after emancipation, walk through a segregation-era train car with separate (and unequal) seating and facilities for white and Black passengers, and end in a space devoted to the present: the not-so-long-ago historic election of Barack Obama as the first Black president; the Black Lives Matter movement; recent quotes about the forms racism takes today (such as colorblindness).

All of this is in one large section of the museum. (There’s more too. I technically walked through the whole of the gallery, but I missed a lot due to the crowds. I’ll be back!) The past is always present, as the saying goes; the exhibit connects the past to the present.

Other floors in the museum cover subjects like art, music, television, sports, community, and genealogy. These exhibits were certainly less dismal overall than the history area, but are nonetheless connected to, and informed by, the historical events explored on the lowest floors of the museum. After all, the era in which an artist, musician, television star, athlete, community, or family finds themselves is a large part of the context in which they work and live and create.

Regarding those who believe that Black history should be incorporated into the National Museum of American History rather than siphoned off as its own museum, I am in agreement with the first part of that sentiment. But especially after having been to NMAAHC and not viewed it all, I would argue that there is so much more in NMAAHC than can be realistically incorporated into NMAH at any time. These museums are large, but ultimately finite.

The content of NMAAHC is essential enough to warrant a museum dedicated to the subject, in addition to being woven into the narrative and exhibits at NMAH. NMAH and NMAAHC sit side by side not far from the Federal Triangle Metro – logistically easy enough to visit both in a day, but that’s perhaps a lot to try to take in at once.

Federal Triangle is on the Orange, Blue, and Silver Lines.

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