It has been a pleasure for me to observe the work of our outstanding curators and educators in the steady stream of exhibits they create that delight and inform our museum visitors. I particularly enjoy the gems that are found in our smaller museums, including two wonderful examples now on display at the Museum of African Art and the Postal Museum.
It is hard to ignore an elephant; according to one African proverb, “When an elephant is thin, its meat will still fill a hundred baskets.” But who would guess that a whimsical wooden coffin shaped like an elephant would welcome visitors to the new exhibition “Artful Animals,” at the Museum of African Art through Feb. 21, 2010.
The exhibition explores how African artists use animal images to expand our view of the world, as well as to make us laugh. “The exhibition will just tickle your heart,” museum Director Johnnetta Cole says.
The 125 artworks and Eliot Elisofon Archives photographs feature familiar, unusual and fantastical animals, including the Chi Wara, a mythological creature that is part antelope, part aardvark and part pangolin (scaly anteater). Animals become metaphors for human traits. A butterfly knows where nectar can be found, symbolizing knowledge; a crocodile eats the river’s fish, symbolizing power. The art offers insights into human relationships: with nature, with the spirit world, and with one another.
The exhibition includes a special room for children. Colorful labels provide fun facts, while a video pairs living creatures with the same animals featured on African country stamps. Young visitors can touch objects and participate in activities. Online, they can listen to an Asante folktale and Ugandan music.
The exhibition represents a creative model of pan-Institutional collaboration. The African Art Museum organized “Artful Animals” and partnered with the Discovery Theater and the education departments of the Postal Museum, National Zoo and Natural History Museum to develop complementary activities highlighted in a free Activity Guide.
An exhibition at the Postal Museum reminds us that U.S. presidents, like all of us, need a way to decompress and relax—shooting hoops, clearing brush, playing touch football. Franklin Delano Roosevelt once said he owed his life to his hobbies, “especially stamp collecting.” The Postal Museum’s “Delivering Hope: FDR & Stamps of the Great Depression”—on view through June 6, 2010—tells the moving story of FDR’s passion for stamps. Roosevelt began collecting stamps at the age of eight. The exhibition shows how stamps offered him a window to history and were a source of great solace during his long recovery from polio that he contracted at age 39. Stamps even gave him a strategy to help restore the nation’s confidence.
FDR helped transform the look of American postage stamps. Bright colors, modern fonts and uncluttered designs helped communicate progress and optimism to a demoralized nation. New stamps highlighted national parks, world’s fairs, and engineering feats like Boulder (Hoover) Dam.
President Roosevelt suggested themes, images, colors and even designs for new stamps. The exhibition includes six FDR stamp sketches—including a map tracing Richard Byrd’s Antarctic expedition, James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s famous painting of his mother for Mothers’ Day, and a bust of Susan B. Anthony for women’s suffrage.
I encourage the entire Smithsonian community to visit these compelling exhibition gems. They will enliven your mind and touch your heart.
Wayne Clough is the 12th Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.
Posted: 1 September 2009