ICYMI: Highlights from the week that was July 9 – July 15, 2017

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 water cooler.

During a week of grim news about extinction, survival and the effects of climate change, we also celebrated the boundless creativity of art. Even though we were disappointed that the latest Amelia Earhart mystery was debunked.


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The Novelty and Excess of American Design During the Jazz Age

Through over 400 objects, the Cooper Hewitt’s dynamic Jazz Age exhibition highlights 1920s American design.

Hyperallergic, July 10

Art Deco design of woman on enameled screen

“Muse with Violin Screen” (detail) (1930) from Rose Iron Works, Inc., designed by Paul Fehér, wrought iron, brass, silver and gold plating (courtesy the Cleveland Museum of Art, on Loan from the Rose Iron Works Collections, © Rose Iron Works Collections, photo by Howard Agriesti)

The Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum’s The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s is billed as the “first major museum exhibition to focus on American taste in design during the exhilarating years of the 1920s.” Rather than narrow the lens on this era of rapid cultural and technological change, this concentration on the post-World War I United States is a lively, international showcase of design. “We felt very much that European exhibitions of Art Deco had tried to cover a broad swath of things, but definitely from a European point of view, and either left out what was going on in America entirely, or dumped everything in but the kitchen sink,” Sarah Coffin, Cooper Hewitt’s curator and head of product design and decorative arts, told Hyperallergic. Read more from Allison Meier for Hyperallergic.

Tiny fossil reveals what happened to birds after dinosaurs went extinct

Science, July 10

Painting of crested birds with blue feathers

An artist’s conception of the mousebird. Image courtesy of Sean Murtha

The fossils of a tiny bird found on Native American land in New Mexico are giving scientists big new ideas about what happened after most dinosaurs went extinct. The 62-million-year-old mousebird suggests that, after the great dino die-off, birds rebounded and diversified rapidly, setting the stage for today’s dizzying variety of feathery forms.

“This find may well be the best example of how an unremarkable fossil of an unremarkable species can have enormously remarkable implications,” says Larry Witmer, a paleontologist at Ohio University in Athens who was not involved in the research. Read more from Carolyn Gramling for Science.

It’s a Mistake to Focus Just on Animal Extinctions

Population declines tell a much scarier story.

The Atlantic, July 10

Cub approaches camera

Lion cubs in Kenya. (Photo by Radu Sigheti / Reuters)

Imagine if every animal and plant on the planet collapsed into a single population each, says ecologist Gerardo Ceballos. If lions disappeared except from one small corner of Kenya, the prey they keep in check would run amok everywhere else. If sparrows were no more except in one Dutch forest, the seeds that sparrows disperse would stay in place everywhere else. If honeybees became isolated to one American meadow, the flowers that they pollinate would fail to reproduce everywhere else. None of those species would be extinct per se, “but we’d still be in very bad shape,” says Ceballos. Read more from Ed Yong for the Atlantic.

Amelia Earhart Photo Disproven? Japanese Blogger Discovers Book Published It Years Before She Disappeared

Newsweek, July 11

History photo of pier with boats, people in distance

photograph from the National Archives could show Amelia Earhart seated with her back to the camera and Fred Noonan, her navigator, on the Jaluit Atoll in the Marshall Islands after their disappearance on July 2, 1937. Credit Les Kinney/U.S. National Archives

An 80-year-old mystery seemed to get a new development last week when experts released a photo they alleged showed Amelia Earhart alive in the Marshall Islands after her plane vanished on an around-the-world trip. But now a Japanese blogger is debunking the discovery.

Producers with a History Channel documentary recently found the picture in the National Archives and promoted it as new evidence indicating Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, survived a plane crash after they disappeared on July 2, 1937. The photo, they alleged, proved a long-held theory that the duo wrecked their aircraft and were subsequently captured by the Japanese. Read more from Julia Glum for Newsweek.

Did a Glowing Sea Creature Help Push the U.S. Into the Vietnam War?

A marine biologist might have a clue to who—or what—was responsible for one of America’s most infamous war mysteries.

The Atlantic, July 11

Aircraft carrier at sea

U.S. Navy planes on the USS Ticonderoga during the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964. (Photo by Beltmann / Getty)

On a gray summer day in 1966, Todd Newberry was watching seabirds squabble above the kelp forests of California’s Monterey Bay, when a sailor struck up a conversation that changed his understanding of the Vietnam War. The stranger turned out to be a Navy sonar engineer assigned to the destroyer USS Turner Joy. Just two years prior, Turner Joy, along with USS Maddox, had reportedly been attacked by Vietnamese boats in a mysterious battle known as the Gulf of Tonkin incident. This encounter was pivotal in plunging the United States into the decade-long war that killed 58,000 Americans along with 2.5 million Vietnamese and Southeast Asians. But even today, it’s still not clear whether the Turner Joy and Maddox had actually been under fire. Read more from Chris Reeves for The Atlantic.

Arks of the Apocalypse

All around the world, scientists are building repositories of everything from seeds to ice to mammal milk — racing to preserve a natural order that is fast disappearing.

The New York Times magazine, July 13

Ice covered island seen from above

Spitsbergen is the largest island in the Svalbard archipelago, halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole. Credit Spencer Lowell for The New York Times

It was a freakishly warm evening last October when a maintenance worker first discovered the water — torrents of it, rushing into the entrance tunnel of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a storage facility dug some 400 feet into the side of a mountain on a Norwegian island near the North Pole. A storm was dumping rain at a time of year when the temperature was usually well below freezing; because the water had short-circuited the electrical system, the electric pumps on site were useless. This subterranean safe house holds more than 5,000 species of essential food crops, including hundreds of thousands of varieties of wheat and rice. It was supposed to be an impenetrable, modern-day Noah’s ark for plants, a life raft against climate change and catastrophe. Local firefighters helped pump out the tunnel until the temperature dropped and the water froze. Townspeople from the village at the mountain’s base then brought their own shovels and axes and broke apart the ice sheet by hand. Read more from Malia Wollan for the New York Times magazine.

What the V&A’s director actually said about digitisation

Contrary to media reports, Tristram Hunt says museum is “very passionate” about unlocking its collections online

The Art Newspaper, July 13

Man working qwith documents amid shelves of collection boxes

The V&A has a good track record of digitising its vast collection, pictured here in storage at Blythe House in west London (Photo: Jeff Gilbert/Alamy)

Tristram Hunt, the new director of the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London, recently appeared to take an unlikely stand against the digitisation of museum collections. “Museums are rethinking the rush to digitise their collections amid concerns that such projects are costly and of little value,” wrote the Times newspaper, in a report on Hunt’s comments at the Hay Festival in Wales. Some may have assumed that Hunt, a historian specialised in 19th-century Britain and a former politician who had never before worked in a museum, had turned his back on 21st-century technology.

Responding to a question from the audience about the V&A’s use of digital technology to widen access in the regions, Hunt actually said that the museum is “involved in a massive programme of digitising [its] collections” and is “very passionate about it”. However, he added: “There’s a very big debate in the museum world about the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the amount of investment they put into digitising their collection, which means that you’re taking it away from other areas.” Read more from Martin Bailey for The Art Museum.

Disaster was his message, but then catastrophes became commonplace

The Washington Post, July 13

cropped version of impressionistic painting

Donald Sultan, “Early Morning May 20 1986,” 1986, latex and tar on tile over Masonite. (Donald Sultan/Private collection, New York)

In the 1970s, disaster was repackaged as mass entertainment. Movies dealt with towering infernos, cataclysmic earthquakes, chaos at the airport, hijackings, crashes and the Hindenburg, and television settled into its still ardent affair with the lives of cops, firefighters and other first responders. Donald Sultan began making his large, brooding, wall-commanding “Disaster” paintings about a decade later, in the early Reagan years, which to many seemed just as bleak and anxious, though with a thin veneer of buoyant patriotism and nostalgia papering over things like the AIDS crisis and the growing confrontation with the Soviet east. Reagan is remembered, today, as a genial figure who ended the Cold War; but visit Sultan’s paintings, on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and you will reexperience all the gritty terror of those years, when the leader of the Free World indulged a flippant bellicosity that unnerved allies and enemies alike (“We begin bombing in five minutes,” Reagan joked on an open microphone in 1984). Read more of Philip Kennicott’s review for the Washington Post.

Climate Change Is Creating an Entirely New Kind of Refugee

Island communities will soon be forced to flee their watery homes. But will they be offered the legal rights of refugees?

Motherboard, July 14

Fishing boat approaches village

Boats facilitate everyday Kuna life, from fishing to trips to the mainland to moving between islands. Image: Emma Sarappo

Diwigdi Valiente has spent his whole life balancing two worlds within a very small isthmus.

Valiente’s mother is Panamanian, but his father is Kuna, an autonomous people with origins in present-day Colombia who live in an archipelago of over 300 islands off of Panama’s Caribbean coast. Growing up, Valiente, now 27, would spend about three months a year living with his father’s parents on their native island—a world he describes as deeply “communal”—and the rest of his time on the mainland.

The region, known as Kuna Yala to residents, and as the San Blas Islands to the thousands of tourists who visit each year, looks like paradise. But the islands have a creeping expiration date. By 2050, the 50,000 people currently living in the archipelago could be counted among the millions of “climate refugees” expected to surge across the globe. Read more from Darby Hopper for Motherboard.

Hirshhorn Gala to Honor 31 Women Artists, Including Yoko Ono, Lorna Simpson, Jenny Holzer, Njideka Akunyili Crosby

ARTNews, July 14

Museum exterior with abstract sculpture in foreground

The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. (Photo by Christopher Smith)

On November 6, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., will honor 31 female artists at its annual gala. The artists, who range from Njideka Akunyili Crosby to Yayoi Kusama, whose mirror rooms were the subject of a recent blockbuster exhibition at the Hirshhorn, span three generations and many different movements. Read more from Alex Greenberger for ARTNews.


Posted: 25 July 2017
About the Author:

Alex di Giovanni has been editing The Torch since August 2006. Prior to joining the Smithsonian, she worked as a writer and editor for the National Geographic Society, Plexus Scientific, The Nature Conservancy, The National Foreign Language Center and St. Martin’s Press, among others. She has the best job in the world.