ICYMI: Highlights from the week that was Jan. 26 – Jan. 31, 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 water cooler.

Amidst the dispiriting news of the impeachment hearings this week, at least we can celebrate research that shows our sloth bears are smarter than the average bear. Or Senator.

Clip art banner with ICYMI in black speech bibble

Art and Design

A peek into the process behind the popular Obama portraits

The Washington Post, January 30

Woman taking photo of Obama portrait

The National Portrait Gallery welcomed more than 2 million visitors in 2018, nearly doubling its annual attendance record. (Paul Morigi)

In the past two decades, it has become a rite of passage for soon-to-be-former presidents and first ladies to have their portraits commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery in Washington. Given the glamour of Barack and Michelle Obama and the historic nature of their tenure, gallery officials anticipated a healthy interest in their portraits. Little did they know. The two weeks after the paintings’ public unveiling in February 2018 saw more than 4,100 articles about them published in the domestic and international press. Annual attendance at the museum almost doubled over the next year. Read more.

The Smithsonian wanted a museum in London. Now it’ll be just a temporary exhibit.

The Washington Post, January 27

Upshot of SI Castle with sign in foreground

The Smithsonian’s Board of Regents voted Monday to pull back from a gallery agreement with the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

What began as a new Smithsonian museum in London has been downgraded again, this time from a permanent gallery to a two-year exhibition in the V&A East, the Victoria and Albert Museum’s satellite space. Read more.

Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum Plans ‘Contemporary Muslim Fashions’ Show

“Contemporary Muslim Fashions” will take the long view of areas where designers are creating and consumers are wearing highly fashionable garments.

WWD, January 27

Woman swimming in modest bathing suit

Shereen Sabet (b. Egypt, 1970) for Splashgear, LLC (est. United States, 2005), Ensemble (shirt, pants, and swimhood); Hawaiian Colorway Collection, 2006, Polyester knit; Courtesy of Splashgear, LLC

ON WITH THE SHOW: After runs at the de Young Museum in San Francisco and the Museum Angewandte Kunst in Frankfurt, “Contemporary Muslim Fashions” will be making its only East Coast stop at the Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York. Read more. 

A hugely popular hit returns to the Renwick

The Washington Post, January 31

Knotted fiber art installation

Janet Echelman, “1.8 Renwick”, 2015, knotted and braided fiber with programmable lighting and wind movement above printed textile flooring. (© 2015, Janet Echelman; Photo by Tony Powell/Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase made possible by the American Art Forum)

The Renwick Gallery — just steps from the White House — reopened in 2015 with an exhibit of nine large-scale artworks all aiming to induce oohs and aahs. The show was called, in fact, “Wonder,” and by the yardstick proclaimed in the title, its biggest success was Janet Echelman’s “1.8 Renwick,” a sculpture made from undulating colored fabric suspended from the ceiling. Read more. 

Will The Obama Portraits Be Coming To A City Near You?

Forbes, January 25

Visitor taking a photo of Obama portrait

A visitor photographs the official portrait of the former President Barack Obama, by Kehinde Wiley, on the first day of the exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery has announced that the official portraits of President Barack Obama and Mrs. Michelle Obama will be embarking on a one-year, five-city tour across the U.S.

Commencing in the summer of 2021, the Obama portraits will be displayed at museums in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Houston. The Washington Post reported that the cities were selected for a mix of reasons, both geographical and personal connections to the Obamas or the artists. Read more. 

History and Culture

The Smithsonian is already hunting for impeachment artifacts. Senators, please hand over your fidget spinners.

The Washington Post, January 31

Grinspan poses with artifacts

olitical History Curator Jon Grinspan with impeachment buttons from the Nixon years. (André Chung/for The Washington Post)

Years from now, when school groups visit the National Museum of American History, they might learn about the impeachment of a president through a fidget spinner. And they will have Jon Grinspan, the Smithsonian’s curator of political history, to thank.

Grinspan is a soft-spoken, academic version of Indiana Jones, on the hunt not for the Ark of the Covenant but for something perhaps more elusive: the exactly right objects to tell the story of the impeachment of President Donald J. Trump. Read more. 

Kobe Bryant

Black and white photo of Kobe Bryant

© 2007 Rick Chapman

Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery displays Kobe Bryant photo in special tribute

CNN, January 28

Lakers uniform

Kobe Bryant’s 2008 NBA Finals Los Angeles Lakers uniform is stored in the National Museum of African American History and Culture’s collection.

The African American History Museum Has Kobe Bryant’s Uniform. But It’s Not on Display.

Following the star’s death, that may change.

Washingtonian, January 28

10 Times Kobe Bryant Was A Star Off Of The Court

Essence, January 27

DC remembers Kobe Bryant: Fans gather downtown to remember his legacy

A generation of young men and women honored the 41-year-old NBA icon who died alongside eight other people in a helicopter crash Sunday.

WUSA-9, January 29

Science and Technology

Local Bears Much Smarter Than One Might Expect

Sloth bears at the National Zoo recognized two-dimensional images as representations of three-dimensional objects.

Washingtonian, January 29

Sloth bear chooses favorites from photo

Niko looks at photos of almonds and mango before indicating to keepers which food he would prefer to eat. Photograph by Stacey Tabellario, Smithsonian’s National Zoo

Two sloth bears at Smithsonian’s National Zoo were able to recognize photographs of food they prefer, the zoo announced Wednesday. Remi, a six-year-old female, and Niko, a five-year-old male, recognized photos of mealworms (their favorite food) in a study published in the journal Animal Cognition. Read more. 

Botanical illustration is becoming endangered, but the job is essential

The Washington Post, January 29

Tangerini at drafting table

Botanical illustrator Alice Tangerini at her drafting table at the National Museum of Natural History. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

From her fifth-floor office in the National Museum of Natural History, Alice Tangerini has a stellar view of Washington — to the right, Constitution Avenue runs in front of the Classical Revival facade of Federal Triangle. To the left, the Washington Monument rises from behind the National Museum of American History. Read more. 

‘Geriatric’ male harbor seal, 35, dies at National Zoo

The Washington Post via The Associated Press

A male harbor seal considered geriatric for his species has died at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo.

Luke, 35, was humanely euthanized last week, according to a statement from the zoo released Friday. The zoo said he outlived the median life expectancy for his species, which is 25 years in the wild and 30 years in human care. Read more.

RAW: Animal breeding at the Smithsonian National Zoo, two-toed sloths (Video)

WUSA-9, January 27

Various Subjects

Federal workers got back pay after the shutdown. But these low-wage contractors did not.

The Washington Post, January 30

Woman in coat and scarf

Julia Quintanilla, seen on her first day back to work after the partial government shutdown on Jan. 28, 2019. She has cleaned the Agriculture Department building and the Department of Housing and Urban Development building for 27 years. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

They are among the overlooked, the underappreciated and still, the unpaid.

They clean toilets, mop floors and maintain security.

They work in federal buildings but are not federal employees.

They are lower-wage government contractors. Read more. 

Posted: 3 February 2020
About the Author:

The editrix of the Torch is fired with a burning desire to ignite the flames of enthusiasm among her Smithsonian colleagues while brandishing the Torch of knowledge. She also likes puns.