Storytelling Thrives at Smithsonian Affiliate

Mary B. Martin Storytelling Hall at the International Storytelling Center in Jonesborough, Tennessee

Has anyone proclaimed October “National Storytelling Month?”  I’m sure this would find great favor among the more than 10,000 people who attended this year’s 38th annual National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee.  Organized by Smithsonian Affiliate, the International Storytelling Center, the festival gives ample evidence that the spoken word has not yet succumbed to the abbreviated argot of tweets, instant messaging, acronyms, and emoticons.  In Jonesborough, the world’s oldest art form is flourishing. 

Begun in 1973 by Jimmy Neil Smith, a former journalism teacher and mayor of this picturesque, historic East Tennessee town, the festival has justifiably earned Jonesborough the title of “Storytelling Capital of the World.”  As Smith recalls, “thirty eight years ago, when 50 or so people gathered around a hay wagon in the center of my home town to tell and listen to stories, something magical happened.  The National Storytelling Festival was created, basically, to inspire ordinary people to share stories.” 

Niall de Búrca, of Ireland, performs during the 2009 National Storytelling Festival. Photo courtesy Fresh Air Photo.

Inspire it does.  The storytelling usually begins at 10:00 am and lasts well past midnight.  Veteran attendees meticulously scope out the schedule and find their seats long before starting time.  Audiences remain attentive and appreciative throughout, absorbed in each session, hanging on every word, eagerly awaiting the ever-unpredictable plot twist or punch line.  Stories range from traditional to personal and from serious to surreal.  In all their shapes and styles, the stories embrace the glorious diversity of the oral tradition, while underscoring what must be a universal human impulse to create narrative out of everyday life. 

Chuna McIntyre presents a Yup’ik Eskimo story at the 2009 Festival. Photo courtesy Fresh Air Photo.

Many Jonesborough storytellers have shared their skills on Smithsonian stages. Ray Hicks, Donald Davis, Jay O’Callahan, John McCutcheon, Bill Lepp, Syd Lieberman, and Kathryn Windham, to name a few have performed at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, the Discovery Theater, and at various SI museums and workshops.  Smithsonian staff have, in a similar manner, given their time and talents back to Jonesborough:  Rex Ellis, master storyteller and Associate Director for Curatorial Affairs at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, has been a mainstay in Jonesborough since 1990;  Stephanie Norby, Smithsonian Center for Education and Museum Studies and Clare Cuddy, National Museum of the American Indian have also advised on educational strategies and programming at the International Storytelling Center. 

(L to R) Affiliations Director, Harold Closter, and Storytelling Center President, Jimmy Neil Smith

The work of all these accomplished folk demonstrates the truth behind poet Muriel Rukeyser’s observation that “the universe is made of stories, not of atoms.”  One trip to Jonesborough and you’ll have no doubts.  Just remember to make your reservations early!

coming up in affiliateland in november 2010

November is another busy month in Affiliateland!

Sousa and His League of Players: America’s Music and the Golden Age of Baseball opens at the Sousa Archives at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in Champaign, 11.1.

The Smithsonian American Art Museum loans a 1966 Charmion von Wiegand painting to the Rubin Museum of Art, in New York, 11.5. 

The Museum of History and Industry will announce their Affiliation at an event with Smithsonian Regent Patty Stonesifer, in Seattle, 11.5. 

David Bohaska, collections manager in the Department of Paleobiology at the National Museum of Natural History will participate in the annual Fossil Festival at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, in Raleigh, 11.6. 

The Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art will host a Grand Opening of their new museum  and will unveil “Blackberry Woman,” a Richmond Barthe bronze sculpture, on loan from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, in Biloxi, 11.6.

The National Museum of American Jewish History hosts a Grand Opening Weekend showcasing several Smithsonian loans, in Philadelphia, 11.12-14. 

Three José Campeche paintings travel for the first time from the Smithsonian American Art Museum to the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico, in San Juan, 11.18. 

Smithsonian Secretary, G. Wayne Clough, will give a public lecture at the Patricia & Phillip Frost Art Museum at Florida International University, in Miami, 11.19. 

The SITES’ exhibition, Bittersweet Harvest: The Bracero Program, 1942-1964 will open at the Sonoma County Museum, in Santa Rosa, 11.20. 

*amazing* loans at Affiliates this fall

More than 25 amazing and unique artifacts are on the move from the Smithsonian to Affiliates in six states,  from September to November this year.  This concentration of extraordinary activity gives testament to months (and sometimes years!) of hard work and planning by Smithsonian and Affiliate staffs alike. 

“Americans unable to visit the Smithsonian in Washington now have an opportunity to see some amazing Smithsonian artifacts from our collections in their own communities,” said Harold Closter, Affiliations Director.  “Something special happens when an artifact returns to its location of origin or joins an exhibit where it can be seen in a new context. Thanks to our Affiliates, the Smithsonian has a strong, visible presence in every part of our country.”


Lexington's skeletal head, next to its image while alive.

The fall season kicked off in Kentucky, site of the 2010 World Equestrian Games.  The International Museum of the Horse borrowed the complete skeleton of Lexington, the most famous 19th-century American racehorse, returning him to his birthplace 160 years later.   Read more about this amazing loan in the upcoming Fall 2010 edition of The Affiliate newsletter. 

Isn’t Monopoly the way most of us learned about finance and economics?  A solid gold, jewel-encrusted Monopoly game from the Museum’s gem collection was unveiled with great fanfare in October at the Museum of American Finance on Wall Street in New York City.  While students competed in a Monopoly tournament, the artifact’s creator, jeweler Sidney Mobell, spoke about this one-of-a-kind artwork.   


Barthe's almost 3' Blackberry Woman

Artist Richmond Barthe’s bronze sculpture Blackberry Woman will soon be on view at the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum in Biloxi, Mississippi for the inaugural exhibition in its new African American gallery.  Barthe grew up in Mississippi, and was inspired by the women he encountered there in his childhood.  How elegantly appropriate for this sculpture to return to the genesis of its inspiration!

In November, the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico will display three paintings from SAAM’s Vidal Collection by legendary 18- 19th-century Puerto Rican Old Master, José Campeche.  These inclusions in a definitive retrospective of Campeche’s work represent the first loans ever between these two important art museums, a signficiant accomplishment.

Likewise, SAAM’s painting by Charmion von Wiegand “Nothing that is wrong in principle can be right in practice” will be part of the Rubin Museum’s Grain of Emptiness: Buddhism-inspired Contemporary Art exhibition, the Museum’s first loan to this NYC Affiliate.

 From the ARCHIVES CENTER at the National Museum of American History:  

Detail from the illustrated sheet music, Oh! You Babe Ruth

The Archives Center is making a significant contribution to the Sousa Archives and Center for American Music’s Sousa and His League of Players: America’s Music and the Golden Age of Baseball exhibition, marking the 100th anniversary of the Sousa Band’s World Tour.  With 11 baseball cards (including Ty Cobb’s) and several examples of illustrated sheet music (including Oh! You Babe Ruth and Stars of the National Game music), this exhibition will be the core of the University’s 2010 American Music Month Celebration.


In an unexpected request, the Museum has loaned a 19th-century Sioux flute and hide scraper from the Dakota Territory to the National Museum of American Jewish History.  What’s the connection?  When NMAJH opens its brand new building on Independence Mall this November, part of the history it will tell is the western expansion of Jewish Americans, and the kinds of peoples and objects they encountered along the way.   


Within the Emperor's Garden - on view at Flushing Town Hall

MCI’s extraordinary object, the Ten Thousand Springs Pavilion, made its way between two Affiliates this fall, from Texas to Flushing, New York.  Flushing Town Hall is located in one of New York City’s largest Asian communities, a perfect context for this 1:5 scale model replica from the Imperial Garden in the Forbidden City in Bejing.  Read more about the deinstallation and NYC installation of this object.

THANK YOU to all of our Smithsonian colleagues for their work on these loans, and for our Affiliate friends who so consistently collaborate with us to bring the Smithsonian to their neighborhoods.

kudos, Affiliates! for november 2010

Always nice to see bright spots around the network – great job and congratulations to all!

The Kresge Foundation of Troy, Michigan, recently awarded the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium (Dubuque, Iowa) a $1 million challenge grant for the construction of the Diamond Jo National River Center. The challenge was contingent on the museum raising the remaining $4 million of its $12 million in private donations toward the $40 million project.

Richard Willich, chairman and CEO of MDI Holdings, has pledged a $50,000 gift to the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Museum (St. Augustine, Florida) to upport maritime education for the maritime archaeology internship program.

The Oracle Education Foundation (OEF) has partnered with The Mary Brogan Museum of Art and Science (Tallahassee, Florida) to launch an innovative online learning initiative for students and teachers. The initiative will leverage ThinkQuest, OEF’s online learning platform, to create three online projects focused on museum exhibits. In addition, OEF and The Brogan Museum will work together to train 1,000 teachers on how to integrate ThinkQuest and project learning into their curricula.

Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan approved a $100,000 grant for the Arab American National Museum over two years for programming to support an exhibition about Arab American contributions in civilian and military service from the Revolutionary War to the present. Patriots and Peacemakers: Arab Americans in Service to Their Country will travel to museums, military academies and bases throughout the country.

The Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience was honored by First Lady Michelle Obama in a recent White House ceremony.  “The Wing” was one of just 15 programs across the country to receive the 2010 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award, the highest honor for afterschool arts and humanities programs.

goodbye Texas…hello New York: the 10,000 Springs Pavilion lands at a third Affiliate venue

This is a follow-up to our July 2010 post  in which the pavilion was dismantled at Irving Arts Center and begin its journey to New York. Special thanks again to Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute Conservator Don Williams for writing this guest post. All photos courtesy of the author.

The fourth stop of the Ten Thousand Springs Pavilion on its trek to infinity and beyond was at the historic Flushing Town Hall, a Smithsonian Affiliate in Queens, New York.  Our adventure began as Bob Klein, my treasured volunteer and indispensable right hand since the beginning of this traveling road show three years ago, headed north from Maryland Sunday, October 10.  Since we were parting company afterwards, Bob drove as far as Metropark in New Jersey and we took the train into the city.  The schedule was for the trucks to arrive with the crates early Columbus Day morning, and early they did arrive. 

Just before dawn I got a call indicating that they had arrived and I needed to cross the street to join them a little earlier than I expected.  I guess in New York when they say “Seven o’clock” they really mean “6:30.”  With a large crew of movers, the crates were unpacked under my watchful and sometimes anxious eyes, and by 8:30 everything was safely inside.  The challenge for this venue is that the building is ancient and the access is too narrow for the three largest crates, so we literally unpacked the largest elements of the pavilion on the sidewalk and hand-carried them inside.  Yikes.  Fortunately the weather was beautiful.  I shudder to think what we would have done if it had been raining, which it did with a vengeance that night.

Shortly afterwards we were joined by fellow Groopsters Mike Mascelli and Jim Young, part of the noble cadre of three dozen volunteers (over the past four years) from the Professional Refinishers Group International whose generosity have made this project possible. 

As always, the first thing was to open the crates and examine the contents and scope-out the logistics for getting everything from the crates onto the exhibit platform in the right order and arrangement.  We had been plagued by complicated and nettlesome assemblies in the past, and we decided that for this venue we would go back to the original Chinese markings on each of the elements and put it together EXACTLY as was intended when it was first fabricated at the Red Sandalwood Museum.  Although this process meant the installation took a half day longer than before, it was well worth it as the pieces now fit together so precisely we found ourselves smacking our foreheads.  Every venue from now on will benefit from the pains we took at this one, and next year when we dismantle the pavilion we will mark each and every single piece of the 800 with English notations and Western numerals to make reassembly a piece of cake even if Bob and I are not involved.

The pavilion base was placed on the exhibit platform and the columns and beams for the lower structure were put in place.  Once we all knew the Chinese symbols for the compass points (and fortunately these elements were mostly marked with Arabic numerals) the work for this aspect moved smoothly but slowly as the pieces are intricately interlocked and installed precisely in a particular order.  We followed this with the installation of the mid-roof frame, again making sure to align everything according to the compass point symbols.  Ditto the cupola.  It went so well we were smacking each others’ foreheads. 

At the end of the first day we happened to have a critical mass of bodies on hand, so we installed the conical roof, which weighs about 600 pounds.  Hence the need for bodies.

Since there is not another chance to interact directly and safely with the conical roof after this point, it was time to dust and polish it.  A fabulous Japanese lacquering brush from the next door paint shop was a perfect tool for the dusting portion, and clean cheesecloth did the task for buffing up the surface.  We liked the lacquering brush so much we each bought one to try varnishing and glazing with it.  Actually, I bought four.

At the start of Day 2, Jim Young was selected for the honor of placing the finial at the crown of the roof.  This is a fairly delicate operation, as it requires standing stocking footed half on a ladder and half on the mid-roof frame carefully, then extending one hand holding and placing the heavy ornately carved finial sections.

The mirror and lighting for the inside, to illuminate and showcase the amazing carved dragon on the underside of the roof, completed our “inside” work for the most part.

At this point the pace of work slowed down.  When there are a few pieces with Chinese characters, placing them is fairly uncomplicated.  The same cannot be said when you have dozens of “identical” elements with near-identical markings.  After a bit of struggling with this we called on the maitre-de at the nearby Chinese restaurant, William Cheng, to assist us by decoding the nomenclature.  His help was a vital contribution to our success in this enterprise.  Even so it took us a lot of time to get everything in its correct place according to the compass point print-outs Bob had prepared in advance.

Soon the substructures started to take shape under the observing gaze of a reporter and photographer from the Daily News, who found the artifact fascinating.  How could they not?  As we began to work more intimately with the lower structure, we removed our shoes so as not to accidentally scuff the wood.  We got a good chuckle by the reporter’s quizzical observation and query, “What’s with you old guys and gray thermal socks?  Was there some sort of unwritten code about woodworkers’ uniforms?”  We are thinking of naming ourselves the Grey Sock Pavilionistas.

Before long the pavilion began to take shape fully.  Jim and Mike had to depart after the second day, and by that point we were well on the way to completion.  The mid-roof sections and their carved peaks were installed, as were all the frames and pierced grills over the window openings and frames for the entry doors. 

On day three the crates were removed at 7 AM and we finished installing all the alcove doors and conduct the final dusting and polishing of every area we could safely reach.   We were reminded again at this point of the truly magnificent nature of this architectural model.

I was particularly pleased with a couple of decisions late in the process to include the 1:2 scale model I had built of a portion of the timber post and the roof structure, which gives the visitors a little better sense of the complexity of Chinese traditional roof structures, but especially in the inclusion in the exhibit space of one of Rick Yamada’s exquisite packing crates for the artifact.  The presence of the elegant crate in the exhibit will re-emphasize the special-ness of the Pavilion and the care that has gone into safeguarding it for transport and installation, and to remind visitors that caring for their treasured keepsakes is itself a special undertaking.

We will return in September 2011 to dismantle and pack the Pavilion for its next stop, and hope you can get a chance to see it in Flushing or wherever it goes next.

on the road in New York

It’s a chilly, rainy, autumn day along the east coast, but that’s not stopping Smithsonian Affiliations National Outreach Manager Jennifer Brundage!  She’s on her way to visit our Affiliates in the New York- New Jersey area and participate in some really exciting events this weekend.  A golden Monopoly set, a Chinese pavilion, and a Tibetan Shrine Room are among the fascinating things she’ll be reporting on as she travels. You can follow her journey on Twitter at @SIAffiliates. Here’s a look at some highlights along the way:

Tomorrow, Jennifer will be on-hand when the Museum of American Finance in New York City unveils the display of an 18-karat solid gold Monopoly set covered with hundreds of precious gemstones, on loan from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. In the afternoon, the museum will host Monopoly tournaments for children and adults to go along with the unveiling! Look for #Monopoly posts as Jennifer tweets during the day.

While she’s in the city, Jennifer will visit the Tibetan Shrine Room currently on view at the Rubin Museum of Art. On loan from the Alice S. Kandell Collection and organized by the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, the Shrine Room provides visitors an extraordinary opportunity to experience Tibetan Buddhist art in context. 

On Saturday, Jennifer will close her journey with the opening reception for the Within the Emperor’s Garden: Ten Thousand Springs Pavilion exhibition at Flushing Town Hall in Flushing, New York. Based on the original Wan Chun Ting pavilion that stands in the Imperial Garden of the Forbidden City in China, this highly detailed 1:5 scale replica is made of red sandalwood and constructed using mortise-and-tenon joinery. The exhibition was organized by the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute, with assistance of the China Red Sandalwood Museum and the Savannah College of Art and Design.

Also on her road trip, she’ll be stopping-by these Affiliates too:

Known for their rich history of African American jazz and pop music, the Lincoln Park Coast Cultural District /Museum of African American Music in Newark, New Jersey, captures the energy, spontaneity, and spirit of African American music through a combination of live performance, physical artifacts, audio-visual media, interactive exhibits and educational programs.

Most recently hosting the SITES exhibition Legacy of Lincoln, Snug Harbor Cultural Center in Staten Island is one of New York City’s most unexpected and extraordinary destinations. Set within an 83- acre National Historic Landmark district, the center is a place where history, architecture, the visual and performing arts, and environmental science all come together to provide a rich and powerful learning experience.

Don’t forget you can follow Jennifer’s journey on Twitter at @SIAffiliates and look for #Monopoly posts tomorrow during the Monopoly tournaments! And keep checking the Smithsonian Affiliates Flickr photostream in the next week for photos from the road.