Museums and the Women’s March

The Women’s March on Washington on January 21, one month ago to this day, was incredible. It was the biggest protest in US history; it spanned cities around the country and countries around the world and all seven continents; more than 1 in 100 Americans participated. I attended in DC with a contingent from my congregation, and there was no marching to be done while I was there, because the march route, and the surrounding blocks and nearby Mall, quickly filled up with people, with no room to move. (I heard that after I left in the early afternoon, there was eventually some marching from Independence Avenue to the White House.)

One of the prettiest signs I saw at the Women's March ("We March for All People")

One of the prettiest signs I saw at the Women’s March

My group stood on the Mall, part of a formidable sea of pink. One young woman in our group had been knitting extra pussyhats, and gave one to me. Some members of our chorus led us in songs. At one point, a nine-year-old in our group started singing “This Little Light of Mine,” and it caught on all around us. (I’m sure there’s a metaphor in there.) Other times, we picked up the chants we heard around us: This is what democracy looks like. Misogyny has got to go. Black lives matter. When they go low, we go high.

None of us could see or hear any of the speakers. We understood there was a stage, but we wouldn’t have been able to tell you anything about it. Crowds were overwhelming, socks were wet, shoes were muddy, stomachs were growling, cell phone networks were spotty, and one tablet had to keep six or seven children entertained. If we had been paying concertgoers or sports spectators, we probably would have felt we didn’t get our money’s worth. But here we were part of a historic moment, making our voices heard and getting galvanized for what would prove to be a very trying month to come. And the signs alone made it all worth it.

What role did museums play in this occasion?

Before the march. To prepare for the march, knitting artists got busy and made what would become an ocean of pussyhats – so many hats that yarn stores experienced pink-yarn-shortages. In many cases, knitting became a social event, with knitting parties popping up like the one held at KMAC Museum in Kentucky.

During the march. On the National Mall, we were surrounded by museums. A few museums, such as the National Air and Space Museum, Sewall-Belmont House, National Museum of the American Indian, and National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA), joined restaurants, non-profits, and houses of worship to serve as official welcome centers during the event. NMWA also offered free admission for the weekend.

Women's March on Washington, with National Museum of the American Indian in the background

Women’s March on Washington, with National Museum of the American Indian in the background

After the march. Museums around the world, including the National Museum of American History and the Virginia Historical Society, are collecting signs from the march. The Fuller Craft Museum in Massachusetts and the Michigan State University Museum are asking for examples of pussyhats. Who knows what exhibits we will see commemorating the march 25 years from now?

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Ollie and Olivia

Ollie is the National Zoo’s bobcat who recently made headlines by escaping her enclosure, possibly by crawling through a hole in the mesh fence, and disappearing for about three days until she was found back on the zoo’s campus near the Bird House. After she was spotted on zoo grounds, zoo staff set up a crate “trap” with “goodies” – and she walked into the trap and gobbled up some of the treats. Typical cat probably decided she was hungry and secretly missed her caretakers. Of course, then she had to go to the vet (where she was declared to be in good health after her adventures), which she probably hated like a typical cat would.

Olivia is one of my family’s housecats, or as she would have you believe, the empress of the world and queen of the jungle. Since her official first name is Olivia, it would be perfectly logical if, like the bobcat, she also went by Ollie, but instead we call her things like Moo Moo and Pretty Pretty Princess. She too has been known to escape, sometimes in the split second that the front door is open for a human to pass through, once by crawling under the cat fence. She always comes back a few hours later, when she decides she’s hungry and secretly misses her family. This all happens when she isn’t getting stuck in the ductwork in the ceiling, stealing her brothers’ food, or hissing at someone for existing in the same universe as her.

On the National Zoo’s website, I learned that Olivia is around the weight of the smallest bobcats, and the Zoo’s bobcat photos show a resemblance between Olivia and her bobcat relatives. (Olivia, being the prettiest girl in the universe, is of course more beautiful.) However, the Zoo states that bobcats “stalk their prey with unparalleled patience,” while Olivia is known to be quite impatient when she is ready for her breakfast or dinner.

In reading the articles on Ollie’s escape and return, it was clear how relieved and overjoyed zoo staff felt when she came back safe and sound. We humans who love our Olivia to the moon and back feel just as overjoyed to have her around.

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Recent Resistance Reads

First, here is the text of the White House’s statement on the firing of Sally Yates, the “weak” and “very weak” acting Attorney General who “betrayed” the Department of Justice after she instructed its attorneys not to defend the executive order banning travel and immigration to the United States from seven majority-Muslim countries and suspending the admission of refugees.

Second, here is a portion of the transcript of Yates’s confirmation hearing as Deputy Attorney General in 2015, in which Senator Jeff Sessions (Donald Trump’s nominee for Attorney General) grilled her on whether she would defend the Constitution and the law in the face of an unlawful order from the president, “no matter how headstrong they might be.” Yates assured Sessions of her belief that the Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General must give impartial legal advice, and must not follow unlawful orders from above.

Moving on to the museum world, the American Alliance of Museums issued a statement in response to the executive order, saying in tempered terms that it is “gravely concerned” while emphasizing the importance of “welcoming international perspectives” in the museum world.

A more forcefully worded petition opposing the travel ban has garnered the signatures of over 8,000 academics and counting, including Nobel laureates and other major award winners. Among the signers’ affiliations are museums, including the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), the Museum of Modern Art, and the American Museum of Natural History.

USHMM today published these words on the restrictions, reminding readers that the United States largely turned away European Jews because of “antisemitic and xenophobic attitudes, harsh economic conditions, and national security fears” even as these refugees were fleeing the Holocaust.

This article reports on the Peace Ball held on the eve of the inauguration, hosted by Busboys and Poets (a coffeeshop/restaurant/bar/bookstore/event venue) at a larger venue, the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Busboys and Poets stage, 14th and V location, photographed in 2012. A bigger space was needed to stage the 2017 Peace Ball, which was held at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Busboys and Poets stage, 14th and V location, photographed in 2012. A bigger space was needed to stage the 2017 Peace Ball, which was held at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

There are memes going around social media expressing a sort of endeared surprise at the role that employees of the National Park Service have taken in support of the environment, free expression, and striving for impartial science. I am not surprised, though – not if these park rangers were trained in the traditions of being a change agent and embracing the lofty and saving the planet. Not when NPS’s mission is to be “unimpaired” in preserving parks for the “enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.” Jonathan Jarvis may not have had a spotless tenure as former director of NPS, but his praise for the resistance within NPS gets to the heart of what rangers and educators do – and it’s more than just telling visitors what time the site closes.

Many, many religious communities and organizations have risen to the occasion in denouncing the executive order on immigration and travel, and affirming their commitment to helping refugees and welcoming people of all faiths. Over 250 Jewish congregations (including Sixth and I Historic Synagogue in DC, which I visited as a Weekly Museum Visit) have signed onto the Welcome Campaign.

Foundry United Methodist Church, where I have spent time as a volunteer packing donated books to send to prisoners, has a Sacred Resistance section on its website. This page is updated with statements and suggested actions in response to governmental decisions that are fundamentally incompatible with the church’s values.

Peace Pole outside Foundry United Methodist Church, Washington, DC

Peace Pole outside Foundry United Methodist Church, Washington, DC. The church’s website offers concrete suggestions for “Sacred Resistance.”

My own congregation is one of many signers to this statement by the Know Your Neighbor: Multifatih Encounters campaign, composed of a variety of religious and humanistic traditions.

And finally, for a longer read, George Orwell’s novel 1984 rose to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list since the current presidential administration started. Here, the New York Times reviews 1984 in the context of 2017.

I welcome additions to this list in the comments!

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A Visit to Gateway to NOAA

I had been meaning to visit Gateway to NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) for a while. Small, nearby, and open only during normal business hours, it seemed like the perfect lunch break activity on a teleworking day.

Never did I imagine that I would be visiting at a time when all federal government hiring was frozen, let alone the other eerie reports I am hearing. (The following list is not meant to be definitive reporting of events, as there is a lot of uncertainty as to exactly what is going on, and sifting through all the news and unofficial reports is beyond the scope of this post. But it’s hard not to be chilled by stories of all Environmental Protection Agency grants being frozen; all EPA studies being subject to review by the presidential administration going forward; agencies and national parks receiving orders to cease all communications with the public, including posting social media updates; and intimations that federal workers themselves are being censored in their work and non-work communications.)

Gateway to NOAA museum in Silver Spring, Maryland

Gateway to NOAA museum in Silver Spring, Maryland

Both the official NOAA Twitter account (@NOAA) and its rogue version (@altNOAA) have been tweeting this week. @altNOAA is one of many unofficial Twitter accounts that sprang up in the last few days so that federal employee scientists could have an anonymous, unofficial vehicle for communicating with the public in the actual or possible case that the official account is censored.

With all the current fogginess around the science-based government agencies, it felt especially important to pay a visit to Gateway to NOAA today during my lunch break, so I finally went inside the building that I had walked past countless times before.

At the museum, one of the first interactive screens allows the visitor to explore the variety of jobs that make up the agency. I read about an educator at a marine sanctuary, who says that career opportunities at NOAA are “as deep as the ocean itself.” (Make NOAA hire again…)

The small exhibit space includes information on the science behind weather prediction and ocean protection, a timeline highlighting the 200-some year history of NOAA, and a running theme of focusing on the future in matters like climate change and the depletion of fish populations. There is also art: photography inside the single room, and Ray Kaskey’s The Hand sculpture outside the building.

The Hand by Ray Kaskey, outside NOAA building in Silver Spring, MD

The Hand by Ray Kaskey, outside NOAA building in Silver Spring, MD

This little, free admission museum is one example of how NOAA disseminates information to the public – an example I am lucky to live near. Their many marine sanctuaries serve as additional informal learning sites. But not everyone can visit these places in person, and NOAA’s other avenues of education and outreach – including its online resources for virtual audiences – are a crucial chunk of its work.

I’ll end this post by quoting words of inspiration from one of @altNOAA’s tweets: “Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. Resist.”

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Hands-On Learning at Children’s Museums

Hands-on, please touch. Busy brains, curious minds. Sandbox, playhouse, stepping stones. These words – along with the often-used word discovery – are some of the terms found in the names of children’s museums listed on the website of the Association of Children’s Museums (ACM).

Behind the fun and the play, children’s museums are actually engaging in a serious endeavor – educating the youngest generation. As Jean Piaget put it, “play is the work of childhood.”

I remember visiting the Capital Children’s Museum, at the time located near Union Station in Washington, DC. As a kid, my favorite parts were the caves and the giant bubbles. Especially the caves.

The Capital Children’s Museum later rebranded itself as the National Children’s Museum and opened its Launch Zone at National Harbor in Maryland. Unfortunately, I never made it to the Launch Zone during its run from 2009 through 2012. (Today, the website hints at a future DC location for the museum.) I have briefly visited National Harbor, which currently has other offerings that may appeal to children, including rides like a carousel and the Capital Wheel, and the Awakening sculpture-cum-climbing structure.

The hand of the Awakening is trying to lift the National Harbor Christmas tree off the ground.

The hand of the Awakening is trying to lift the National Harbor Christmas tree off the ground (2011)

One children’s museum I did visit as an adult was the Hands-On Museum in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Among the interactive installations, children could build an arch, see themselves on screen in the MediaWorks gallery, and learn about that beloved subject among youngsters: toilets.

Toilet exhibit at the Hands-On Museum in Ann Arbor, Michigan (2005)

Toilet exhibit at the Hands-On Museum in Ann Arbor, Michigan (2005)

ACM’s website points out, “Many children’s museums are located in major travel and tourism destinations,” and emphasizes that a trip to a museum designed especially for children can be an important and memorable part of a vacation. For families with little ones, visiting a children’s museum should perhaps be right on that checklist along with the destination’s art museums, historic buildings, and national parks.

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John Canoe Jubilee

I first visited the Anacostia Community Museum in the summer of 2009, when this off-the-Mall Smithsonian put on the Jubilee: African American Celebration exhibit. As someone who loves holidays, I naturally wanted to see this exhibit all about holidays and other celebratory occasions.

The exhibit wound around the small museum, providing a glimpse into a calendar year of observances from January through December. It may have been summer when I visited, but I best remember the events that take place during the so-called holiday season: Christmas, Kwanzaa, Watch Night (New Year’s Eve), and John Canoe.

In a booklet from the exhibit, the page on John Canoe notes that this historical holiday in North Carolina is celebrated in modern times outside the United States: “It is similar in form and practice to a celebration found in the Caribbean, also called Junkanoo, which survived long after the U.S. version of the holiday ended.”

Anacostia Community Museum, summer 2009

Anacostia Community Museum, summer 2009

The particular object on display to represent John Canoe was a full-size lithograph from 1837 by Isaac Mendes Belisario, entitled “Jaw-bone, or House John Canoe,” showing a person dressed in bright colors and holding a house replica on top of the head. This house character is one of several that would be featured in the John Canoe parades. Others, also drawn by Belisario and seen illustrating this article by M.E. Lasseter on the University of North Carolina’s website, include Actor-Boy, Set Girls, and Jack in the Green.

Lasseter writes, “The bulk of scholarship about the practice comes from the Caribbean, and presents the practice itself as a Caribbean phenomenon, deriving from masking traditions in both European colonizing powers (primarily England and France) and in West Africa” and notes that these Caribbean celebrations take place between Christmas and New Year’s. Similarly, the Anacostia Community Museum’s exhibit brochure states that the “songs and music, danc[ing] and parad[ing]” in North Carolina lasted “sometimes from Christmas Eve until New Year’s Day.” Although the exhibit is no longer on display, those interested in learning more can begin with Lasseter’s article.

With 2016 almost behind us (good riddance!), happy New Year however you are celebrating!

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The Trains of Christmas

Train gardens are everywhere at this time of year: the Ellipse as mentioned in a previous post, the United States Botanic Garden, Brookside Gardens, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Museum in Baltimore and its smaller site in Ellicott City, Union Station, various local fire stations, and private homes.

Several years ago, amid visiting all these miniature train displays, I wondered, What do trains have to do with Christmas? When I searched the Internet, I learned that Paul D. Race must have wondered the same thing, leading him to write an article called “What Do Trains Have to Do with Christmas?”

Here are the three main reasons he concluded:

  • Trains as a symbol of the traveling of people, and mailing of gifts, that happen during the holidays. “Let’s face it,” writes Rice, “more people and stuff move at Christmas than any other time of year, and for over a century, more people and stuff moved by trains than any other way. So for many people, Christmas seemed to involve trains.”
  • The giving of model and toy trains as Christmas gifts.
  • The nostalgia evoked by trains, or “memories of simpler times.”

Race writes of the term “train garden” as particular to the Baltimore/DC region. In another article, the writer elaborates on the putzen in Pennsylvania, which may start with a Nativity scene and grow to include a whole town or village complete with railroads.

Miniature holiday train display at the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum in Baltimore, MD, 2005

Miniature holiday train display at the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum in Baltimore, MD, 2005

In December 2005, I visited the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore with family members, including my late grandfather who loved trains. We saw what are considered by some to be “the finest examples of railroad scale models ever produced” from the Smithsonian collection, climbed aboard real-life full-size railcars in the Roundhouse, and trained our eyes on the tiny details of a whimsical holiday miniature train display, including a carousel, a Starbucks, a diner, and Thomas the Tank Engine.

The exhibits at the museum showed big trains that people might have taken to visit loved ones for the holidays, and small trains that people may have given to loved ones as holiday gifts. As for the “memories of simpler times,” as a museum of railroad history, the B&O Railroad Museum is tasked with presenting not just the stories of the past that seem simple and happy, but also the complexities and the struggles. Among the museum’s educational offerings are lesson plans on topics such as slavery, the Civil War, and labor strikes, all in the context of the world of trains.

We may not have, or have ever had, simple times, yet trains are one of the many symbols of Christmas that add a little sense of magic to the world. Happy holidays, whatever you are celebrating and however you are getting there!

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