Tuesday, August 24, 2010

August 24, 2010: Washington - Endangered Plants, The Castle, African Art

I'd been waiting for the exhibition Losing Paradise?, illustrations of endangered plants, to open at the Natural History Museum. The illustrations were done by a variety of artists from the American Society of Botanical Artists. Most were quite good, although less scientific than I'd expected - few had indications of scale or close-up views of the various plant parts necessary for species identification. Still, there were some very skillful and beautiful paintings of the overall appearance of the plant. There was even one Carex species (dear to my heart, since I illustrated over 120 species as an undergraduate).

While I was there I also made a quick stop to visit the Hope diamond, which had been too crowded to see when I was there before. It's set up for maximum viewing: on an angled pedestal in a glass case in the middle of a room, rotating every few seconds and lighting up so that all can get a glimpse before it rotates to the next set of viewers.

Then I headed across the Mall to The Smithsonian Castle - the first Smithsonian building, which is now primarily a visitor's center. It did, however, have an exhibition of Madeleine Albright's pins ("Read My Pins") which I had a review of previously. It seemed like it might be dull (costume jewelry of a diplomat)but it was really fun and engaging. She had quite a sense of humour about what pins to wear (like a stinging insect when diplomatic negotiations were irritating her), and there were some very creative pieces (like a zebra that basically lounged across her shoulder, which she wore to meet Nelson Mandela).

My final stop for the day was the African Art Museum. The building is a mirror image of the Sackler Gallery, with just a small ground-level entry area, with the majority of the building going down three levels underground. There was an impressive exhibition of African and African American basket work, as well as an interesting array of permanent artifacts. The strangest was a statue of a man, said to be wearing "a prestige cap worn by men of high status". But the hat looked to me very much like a brain - two halves with curlicue patterns, and even a round knob in the back that could be the cerebellum. The idea of a man wearing his own (or someone else's) brain as a hat is pretty disturbing.

Photos: Carex pseudocyperus by Betsy Rogers-Knox; Pitcher's thistle by Derek Norman; crowds clustered around the 45.52 carat Hope Diamond; exterior of the Smithsonian Castle; interior of the Castle; interior of the African Art Museum; 20th century mask from Nigeria with horns; uncanny similarities between a crucifix (17th century, Congo) and a 19th/20th century iron staff figure from Mali; front view of the 19th/20th century Cameroon mask with possible brain motif; rear view of the mask - note the 'cerebellar' circle along the mid-line.

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