The Torch

The Torch News by, for, and about the Smithsonian community. The Smithsonian Institution is the world's largest museum, research and education complex with 19 museums and galleries and the National Zoological Park, as well as research facilities around the world.

Museums include: Anacostia Community Museum Arts and Industries Building Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum (New York City) Freer Gallery of Art Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden National Air and Space Museum National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center (Chantilly, Va.) National Museum of African American History and Culture National Museum of African Art National Museum of American History National Museum of the American Indian National Museum of the American Indian’s George Gustav Heye Center (New York City) National Museum of Natural History National Portrait Gallery National Postal Museum Renwick Gallery Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Smithsonian American Art Museum Smithsonian Institution Building (“Castle”)

Mission: Established with funds from James Smithson (1765-1829), a British scientist who left his estate to the United States to found “at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.”

Operating as usual

A long-lost photograph helps us see an abolitionist icon as young woman just beginning the hard journey to freedom.
05/28/2020
Torch | Sidedoor: Young Harriet

A long-lost photograph helps us see an abolitionist icon as young woman just beginning the hard journey to freedom.

May 27 Sidedoor: Young Harriet A long-lost photograph helps us see an abolitionist icon as young woman just beginning the hard journey to freedom. In 2017, a photograph of the famed abolitionist Harriet Tubman surfaced that had been lost to history for more than a century. In this episode of Sidedoo...

In the midst of an alarming plummet in migratory bird populations, how do we keep common songbirds common?
05/27/2020
Torch | The silence of the birds: How can we make sure common songbirds stay common?

In the midst of an alarming plummet in migratory bird populations, how do we keep common songbirds common?

May 22 The silence of the birds: How can we make sure common songbirds stay common?   Ironically, a Zoo exhibition of common migratory songbirds may help ensure these backyard birds never become exotic rarities found only in zoos. The reason many people visit zoos is to marvel at exotic animals fro...

Due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Smithsonian museums and the National Zoo are closed to the public. We will upda...
05/26/2020

Due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Smithsonian museums and the National Zoo are closed to the public. We will update our operating status as events warrant. Stay tuned and stay safe! We'll get through this.

Today in Smithsonian History: January 17, 1883. The Board of Regents asks Congress for more money for the U.S. National ...
01/17/2020

Today in Smithsonian History: January 17, 1883. The Board of Regents asks Congress for more money for the U.S. National Museum. They don't get it.

The Board of Regents presented a resolution to Congress requesting an appropriation of $300,000 to enlarge the National Museum by erecting a new building on the southwest corner of the Smithsonian Reservation in order to house the U.S. Geological Survey--at the time occupying 20 rooms in the National Museum building (now known as the Arts and Industries Building.) The request, coming just two years after the National Museum Building opened, is denied.

It was not until 1902 that Congress appropriated funding for a new U.S. National Museum, now the National Museum of Natural History.

Image: The workroom for for Indian ethnology located on the second floor, West Tower of the United States National Museum, now known as the the Arts and Industries Building, ca. 1890s. Via Smithsonian Institution Archives

Today in Smithsonian History: January 16, 1978. The Chase Manhattan Money Collection of more than 24,000 pieces is given...
01/16/2020

Today in Smithsonian History: January 16, 1978. The Chase Manhattan Money Collection of more than 24,000 pieces is given to the Smithsonian. If you're going to collect something, it might as well be money, right?

The National Numismatic Collection of the Smithsonian Institution is the largest such collection in North America and one of the largest in the world, comprising approximately 1.6 million objects. There are over 450,000 coins, medals and decorations and 1.1 million pieces of paper money, including many great rarities in coins and currency, from the earliest coins created 2,700 years ago up to the latest innovations in electronic monetary exchange, as well as fascinating objects such as beads, wampum, dentalia, and other commodities once used as money.

Image: United States One Dollar, Pattern, 1877, United States Mint, Philadelphia. Obverse: Liberty head with coronet facing left, date below. Reverse: Denomination in a cereal wreath. William Barber designed this pattern. Only a half-dozen,including this one, are known to exist. Via Smithsonian Institution Archives

Today in Smithsonian History: January 15, 1924. A special exhibition of James Whistler's etchings opens at the Freer Gal...
01/15/2020

Today in Smithsonian History: January 15, 1924. A special exhibition of James Whistler's etchings opens at the Freer Gallery of Art. We do not know how many young ladies were invited to view them by Lotharios with impure motives.

Whistler (1834-1903) was a leading proponent of "art for art's sake." His best known painting is the iconic and often parodied "Whistler's Mother." Whistler had great influence on the art world and broader culture of his time with his artistic theories and his friendships with leading artists and writers.

Image: "The Balcony" by James McNeill Whistler (1834 - 1903), etching on paper 1879 - 1880. Gift of Charles Lang Freer.

Today in Smithsonian History: January 14, 1967. Nearly 600 children attend a talk by Dr. William Melson of the Departmen...
01/14/2020

Today in Smithsonian History: January 14, 1967. Nearly 600 children attend a talk by Dr. William Melson of the Department of Mineral Sciences, are mildly disappointed not to receive actual gems as lovely parting gifts.

Image: A large pear-cut ametrine from the National Gem Collection. Ametrine is a naturally occurring variety of quartz. It is a mixture of amethyst and citrine with zones of purple and yellow or orange. Almost all commercially available ametrine is mined in Bolivia. (Photo by Chip Clark)

Last week we learned of an enormous structure of hot gas in the middle of the Milky Way. We’re fairly certain it did not...
01/13/2020
Torch | ICYMI: Highlights from the week than was January 3 – January 10, 2020

Last week we learned of an enormous structure of hot gas in the middle of the Milky Way. We’re fairly certain it did not originate on Earth. But then again…

Jan 13 ICYMI: Highlights from the week than was January 3 – January 10, 2020 No one can keep up with everything, so let us do it for you. We’ll gather the top Smithsonian stories from across the country and around the world each week so you’ll never be at a loss for conversation around the wat...

For a quarter of a century, the Museum on Main Street [MoMS] program has brought the Smithsonian to small-town audiences...
01/13/2020
Torch | Sharing the stories of America

For a quarter of a century, the Museum on Main Street [MoMS] program has brought the Smithsonian to small-town audiences and rural communities with exhibitions that focus on storytelling and celebration of each community’s heritage.
Amy Rogers Nazarov shows how the history and heritage weaves a larger story.

Jan 13 Sharing the stories of America For a quarter of a century, the Museum on Main Street [MoMS] program has brought the Smithsonian to small-town audiences and rural communities with exhibitions that focus on storytelling and celebration of each community’s heritage. Since 1994, MoMs exhibition...

Today in Smithsonian History: January 13, 1982. The crash of Air Florida Flight 90 into the Potomac river takes 78 lives...
01/13/2020

Today in Smithsonian History: January 13, 1982. The crash of Air Florida Flight 90 into the Potomac river takes 78 lives, including that of Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute scientist Robert Elliot Silberglied.

Smithsonian staff, dismissed from work early because of a snow storm, are caught between two terrible accidents: a Metro derailment just north of the Smithsonian station and the tragic crash of Air Florida Flight 90 into the 14th Street Bridge that took the lives of 78 people, including Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute scientist Robert Elliot Silberglied. Most staff are given administrative leave on Thursday, Jan. 14, as well. The National Zoo is closed from the 13th through the 15th. Phone traffic is so heavy on the main telephone switchboard that the mechanical answering machine breaks down on Wednesday evening at about 6:30 p.m.

Image: The tail of Air Florida Flight 90 is visible during the recovery effort after the jet crashed into the Potomac River during a snowstorm on January 13, 1982. This photo was taken January 19, 1982. Source: Washington Weather

Today in Smithsonian History: January 12, 1945. Ornithologist Alexander Wetmore is elected sixth Secretary of the Smiths...
01/12/2020

Today in Smithsonian History: January 12, 1945. Ornithologist Alexander Wetmore is elected sixth Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.

A noted ornithologist, Wetmore had been associated with the Institution since 1924, when he served for a short time as director of the National Zoological Park. He had also served as Assistant Secretary in charge of the United States National Museum. He served as Secretary from 1944 to 1952.

Image: This is a portrait photograph of Wetmore taken on April 10, 1944. (Photographer unknown, via Smithsonian Institution Archives)

Today in Smithsonian History: January 11, 1994. "Workers at the White House" opens as a traveling exhibition.The exhibit...
01/11/2020
Hear From the Real Butler of the White House, Eugene Allen

Today in Smithsonian History: January 11, 1994. "Workers at the White House" opens as a traveling exhibition.

The exhibition was produced by the Traveling Exhibition Service and the Center for Folklife Programs and Cultural Studies in cooperation with the White House Historical Association and the National Archives in celebration of the 200th anniversary of the White House. It is based on a program presented during the 1992 Festival of American Folklife and gives an intimate, behind-the scenes portrait of “the people's house.”

Learn more from Smithsonian magazine:

Smithsonian Folkways interviewed the man who inspired the new film starring Forest Whitaker

Today in Smithsonian History: January 10, 1928. Charles Greeley Abbot becomes the fifth Secretary of the Smithsonian Ins...
01/10/2020

Today in Smithsonian History: January 10, 1928. Charles Greeley Abbot becomes the fifth Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Surprisingly, his impressive mustache was not a deciding factor in his appointment.

Abbot first came to the Institution in 1895 as an aide at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory after receiving his master's degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Upon Secretary Samuel P. Langley's death in 1908, Abbot succeeded him as director of the Astrophysical Observatory and in 1918, was named Assistant Secretary. He served 16 years as Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.

Image: Dr. Charles G. Abbot, fifth Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, 1928 - 1944. (Photographer unknown. Via Smithsonian Institution Archives

Manly men with hipster hair.
01/09/2020

Manly men with hipster hair.

It may be cold outside but it's warm in Smithsonian Institution Archives. This portrait of a Smithsonian staff member/undiscovered model is from the 1880s.

Today in Smithsonian History: January 9, 1969. An exhibition of Winslow Homer's graphic art opens at the American Art Mu...
01/09/2020

Today in Smithsonian History: January 9, 1969. An exhibition of Winslow Homer's graphic art opens at the American Art Museum.

Homer is recognized as one of the leading figures in American art, known especially for his dramatic marine scenes and realistic depictions of American life. This illustration, "The Skating Season," appeared in the Jan. 18, 1862 issue of Harper's Weekly.

The Smithsonian Castle after the first of two snowstorms in February 2010 that came to be known as "Snowmageddon." (Phot...
01/09/2020

The Smithsonian Castle after the first of two snowstorms in February 2010 that came to be known as "Snowmageddon." (Photo by James Di Loreto)

Today in Smithsonian History: November 30, 1846. The Board of Regents chooses James Renwick to design what will become k...
11/30/2019

Today in Smithsonian History: November 30, 1846. The Board of Regents chooses James Renwick to design what will become known as the Smithsonian "Castle."

The Building Committee of the Board of Regents reports on their efforts to select an appropriate plan for a building to accommodate the functions of the newly established Smithsonian. After visiting buildings in a number of cities and reviewing plans submitted by various architects, the committee selected a plan submitted by James Renwick, Jr., in the later Norman, or more strictly Lombard style, as it prevailed in Germany, Normandy, and Southern Europe in the 12th century.

Today in Smithsonian History: November 29, 1972. "Modern American Art" opens, featuring 50 works of um, modern American ...
11/29/2019

Today in Smithsonian History: November 29, 1972. "Modern American Art" opens, featuring 50 works of um, modern American art.

he special installation contains some 50 contemporary paintings and sculptures, including part of the S. C. Johnson collection.

Image: n Edward Hopper's "People in the Sun" (1960), from the S.C. Johnson collection, five men and women sit on a terrace beneath a vast blue sky. Stark contrasts and cool light emphasize the eerie expressions, frozen poses, and formal attire of the visitors. Hopper distilled his memories of tourist destinations in the American West to create a scene that is strangely familiar but nowhere in particular. The precisely staggered deck chairs and bands of color indicating mountains, sky, and grass create an abstracted environment that veers between a real view and a stage set, as if Hopper were replaying a silent film of a family vacation. People in the Sun suggests a crowd of tourists who feel obliged to take in a famous scenic view, but do so with little pleasure. The canvas may reflect Hopper's discomfort in the West, where he found himself unable to paint with his usual enthusiasm when confronted by the harsh light and monumental landscapes.

Today in Smithsonian History: November 28, 1989. Legislation is signed creating the Smithsonian's National Museum of the...
11/28/2019

Today in Smithsonian History: November 28, 1989. Legislation is signed creating the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian.

The Museum is scheduled to open in the mid- to late 1990s. The legislation also describes Smithsonian policy on the repatriation of American Indian human remains and associated funerary objects. The legislation also establishes the George Gustav Heye Center in the Alexander Hamilton Customs House in New York City and provides for a storage, conservation, and research facility at the Museum Support Center in Suitland, Maryland.

Today in Smithsonian History: November 27, 1989. Smithsonian Associates from around the country gather for "Update: East...
11/27/2019

Today in Smithsonian History: November 27, 1989. Smithsonian Associates from around the country gather for "Update: Eastern Europe and the U.S.S.R."

Journalists Hedrick Smith and Peter Jennings, Assistant Secretary for Research Robert Hoffmann, Kennan Institute staff, and visiting scholars provide background and varied opinions on the dramatic changes taking place in these nations.

Image: Germans stand atop the Berlin Wall at the Brandenberg Gate in the days before the wall was dismantled in November 1989. (Photographer unknown, via Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0)

Today in Smithsonian History: November 26, 1940. Alexander Wetmore visits some Mayan mounds, does not take a very intere...
11/26/2019

Today in Smithsonian History: November 26, 1940. Alexander Wetmore visits some Mayan mounds, does not take a very interesting picture.

Wetmore, ornithologist and sixth secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, visited Costa Rica to collect bird specimens for the United States National Museum, traveled to examine the biological laboratory on Barro Colorado Island in Panama, and visited these Mayan mounds at an an archaeological site in in Quirigua, Guatemala on Nov. 26, 1940.

Today in Smithsonian History: November 25, 1974. The Smithsonian-produced "MONSTERS! Mysteries or Myth" debuts on CBS. S...
11/25/2019

Today in Smithsonian History: November 25, 1974. The Smithsonian-produced "MONSTERS! Mysteries or Myth" debuts on CBS.
Spoiler alert: They are myths.

The first in a series of television specials produced by the David L. Wolper Organization in association with the Smithsonian, "MONSTERS! Mysteries or Myth" covers the Abominable Snowman, the Loch Ness Monster and Bigfoot. It is narrated by The Twilight Zone's Rod Serling. The program draws a national rating of 31.8 (45% share of the market), approximately 50 million people.

Image:A still image from the Patterson–Gimlin film purported to be a "Bigfoot" that was supposedly filmed on October 20, 1967, by Roger Patterson and Robert "Bob" Gimlin on Bluff Creek, a tributary of the Klamath River about 25 road miles north-west of Orleans, Calif.

Today in Smithsonian history: November 24, 1987. A baby orangutan is born at the National Zoo.Bonnie, one of the Nationa...
11/24/2019

Today in Smithsonian history: November 24, 1987. A baby orangutan is born at the National Zoo.

Bonnie, one of the National Zoological Park's eight orangutans, gives birth to Kiko, her first infant.

Today, Kiko weighs 230 pounds and is easily recognizable by his big cheekpads and long hair. Kiko is the star of the O Line (the Zoo's unique Orangutan Transport System) because of his impressive display of arboreal skill when he brachiates (swings hand over hand) on the cables. He likes to sleep late and do what he wants, and he gets impatient when his keepers are not moving quickly enough (to his liking).

Bonnie, born in 1976, still resides at the National Zoo. She is a particularly intelligent orangutan, constantly observing her environment and the orangutans and keepers around her. She made national news in 2008 for teaching herself how to whistle, without any human coaching.

The Great Ape House and Think Tank are home to six orangutans: Kiko, Kyle, Bonnie, Iris, Batang and Lucy, and baby Redd. Redd is the first Bornean orangutan born at the Smithsonian's National Zoo in 25 years. He was born Sept. 12, 2016 to mother Batang and father Kyle. Zoo staff selected the name “Redd” for the male infant; orangutans are known as the “red ape.”

Today in Smithsonian History: November 23, 1959. "The World of Mammals" opens at Natural History as part of the Exhibits...
11/23/2019

Today in Smithsonian History: November 23, 1959. "The World of Mammals" opens at Natural History as part of the Exhibits Modernization Program. We wonder what the exhibits looked like before they were modernized.

Henry W. Setzer was the curator in charge of the hall, Rolland Hower supervised the exhibits staff of the Natural History Laboratory, and Thomas Baker was the designer. The taxidermy work was supervised by Watson M. Perrygo, the mural was painted by Art Smith, and Robert C. Hogue painted the backgrounds of the habitat groups.

Image: Exhibit case displays rare, unusual and popular mammals of the world such as the giant panda, aardvark, kangaroo and giant fruit bat. These animals are not known to pal around together.

Today in Smithsonian History: November 22, 1986. The erstwhile Radiation Biology Laboratory closes. It was originally es...
11/22/2019

Today in Smithsonian History: November 22, 1986. The erstwhile Radiation Biology Laboratory closes. It was originally established to determine the effect of sunlight on living organisms.

Some of the Lab's functions will continue at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center facility in Edgewater, Maryland.

The history of the Radiation Biology Laboratory can be traced to May 1, 1929, when the Division of Radiation and Organisms was established by Secretary Charles G. Abbot to undertake investigations of the effect of solar radiation on living organisms. In 1941, the Division was administratively placed under the Smithsonian's Astrophysical Observatory.On February 16, 1965, the Division of Radiation and Organisms was abolished. Its work was continued by the newly established Radiation Biology Laboratory. The research program at RBL was three-pronged: regulatory biology, or how sunlight regulates growth and development of biological organisms; solar radiation measurements; and carbon dating. In 1970, RBL relocated to Rockville, Maryland.

Image: The Radiation Biology Laboratory in Rockville, Md., ca. 1975

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