Happy 100th Birthday, Cherry Blossoms!

A forest of pink blossoms along the Tidal Basin.

This weekend marks the annual Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C. Alas, the blossoms have come and gone already, but they were so beautiful while they lasted. These fluffy pink trees are such a great urban natural wonder. I’m so glad I made it downtown while they were still at their peak.

The MLK Memorial at sunset.

On our cherry blossom adventure, my friends and I met up at the new memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The King Memorial is an easy-to-find landmark when approaching the Tidal Basin from the National Mall, and does a good job of ushering visitors into its expansive space. Whereas the FDR Memorial blends into the landscape, you can’t help noticing the massive mountains of stone that form the entrance and statue. Every time I have visited, crowds diverse in age and ethnicity have been streaming into the courtyard.

I’m not sure how I feel about the irony of Dr. King’s statue being completely white, but I am amused how he is facing the Jefferson Memorial, glaring at our racially-conflicted 3rd President. My only real criticism of the MLK Memorial is about its logistics.

While the courtyard is wide and expansive, the statue is poorly placed. There is plenty of room for visitors to mill about reading the quotations on black granite walls, but only a small area actually offers a view of Dr. King’s face. On a typical afternoon, the crowd is concentrated in a smaller triangle of space. Everyone and their mother/brother/friend/middle school class is packed into about twenty percent of the floor plan, angling for that crucial statue photo-op. This layout leads to crowded conditions that often block the path to the Tidal Basin.

Compare this to the Lincoln Memorial, where the 16th President is clearly visible from a variety of angles and distances. Good photos can be taken on the steps or inside the structure itself. This encourages an efficient flow of visitors, rather than a concentrated bottleneck. I hope Frank Gehry is considering such things in his controversial design for the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial.


Internet Curation 3.16.12

Oh dear. In a facepalming example of ignoring historical context, Nike has offended Irish people with a St. Patrick’s Day release of¬†a shoe called the “Black and Tan.”¬†Why don’t you just name one for the¬†Ustasha¬†while you’re at it?

Speaking of context, the V&A is using technology to tell the stories of clothes in the new Hollywood Costumes exhibit.

Everyday Carry, or EDC, great examples of real-life material culture.

Sotheby’s employee Alice Gregory dishes about¬†life in New York’s premier auction house¬†– art, its owners, auction protocol, the clothes, the Sotheby’s girl stereotype, and the Teamsters strike. She reminds me of the time I ate lunch in their cafe, dodging black-clad girls who looked like extras from¬†The Devil Wears Prada.

What could a deaf and blind person say about material culture? Quite a lot, as Helen Keller’s reflection on¬†visiting the top of the Empire State building¬†shows.

You may have heard how¬†Encyclopedia¬†Britannica¬†will no longer be producing print editions, thereby joining the planet Pluto and VHS tapes among “Things schoolchildren of the future will have no clue about.” The living room encyclopedia set now seems like a quaint relic of the 20th century. Clearly the internet has made information ubiquitous, not a status symbol. Or are smartphones and tablets the new Brittanica of middle-class aspiration?

I hope you have a great weekend with some St. Patrick’s day revelry! If you need ideas, here are the¬†10 Best Museums to have a party in.

Wedding Material Culture

I had a great President’s Day post planned. There were going to be artsy photos of monuments and some deep reflections on American memory and our relationship to our heroes. But then I went to visit my historian boyfriend over the long weekend, and … we got engaged! So I was a little distracted, to say the least.

Now I have plunged headlong into wedding planning, which is basically one giant decorative arts research project culminating in an exhibition and opening party.¬†Wedding dresses are, obviously, some of the most fun details and more curious pieces of wedding material culture. White gowns are inherently eye-catching and crowd-pleasing, but not that historically significant. For every Diana Spencer or Kate Middleton there are several curators wondering what on earth to do with the vintage gowns cluttering their storage areas. I always chuckle at that¬†Sleepless in Seattle¬†scene where Meg Ryan’s mother says the historical society has begged for the¬†grandmother’s wedding dress.

Not only are wedding dresses prolific, they are now ubiquitous. Thanks to television shows like Say Yes to the Dress and the abundance of wedding blogs,¬†gown shopping is no longer a rare and mysterious event. On a single Friday evening you can watch eight strangers go through the most personal fashion moment of their lives. Going into the dress process,¬†I had a world-weary attitude of “I’ve seen it all before.” The textile nerd in me was so bored with polyester satin.

Luckily, the advertising in magazines Bridal magazines are an exercise in fashion connoisseurship. I have learned to read the style clues in the¬†aesthetic¬†of a magazine spread. As I explained to my 12-year old brother, “The more the models look like ghosts or zombies, the more expensive the clothes are.”

Not surprisingly, I’ve also discovered that I am a sucker for certain styling. If you want to catch my notice, reference the past. Put the zombie models among interesting decorative arts, and I will pay attention.

Lazaro 2012. The skirt is not my style, but oh, that iron railing.

Classic Hollywood is always effective, too. For instance, the¬†Demetrios Ilissa 526 gown¬†would fulfill my childhood dream of having a tulle train like Vera Ellen’s in White Christmas.

So listen Mandy…

White Christmas (1954)

Matthew Christopher is more deliberate in his Hollywood homages, naming dress models “Vertigo,” “Bardot,” and “Liz Taylor.” Jagstudio’s ad campaign for his 2012 dresses references classic films, including Singin’ in the Rain.

Matthew Christopher 2012


Singin’ In the Rain (1952)

But please, let’s leave Catherine Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge alone. No more lazy knock-offs of her Sarah Burton for McQueen gown. You are not the Royal School of Needlework. Do something actually creative with sleeves instead.

Thanks, but no thanks.

Internet Curation 2.16.12 – Literary Edition

I just discovered the awesome literature site BookRiot, and have been enjoying their series on contributors’¬†Genre Kryptonite. I’m indeed a sucker for “Girls in Crumbing Estates.

Speaking of manor houses, blogger¬†Hipster Dad’s review¬†of Brideshead Revisited hilariously dismisses it as “a book when you spend pretty much the entirety of the narrative wanting to punch at least one of the major characters in the snoot.” Obviously, I don’t agree, but I like his American Southerner take on English country estates:¬†“an awful lot of great freaking big, ungainly houses in an awfully small area. In the same sized area here [in the US], we’ve got Biltmore and the RJ Reynolds Estate, I think, and that’s it.”

No American McMansion, or any house for that matter, is complete without granite counter tops. The Washington Post examines how this aspirational feature took over kitchen design.

The Association of Black Women Historians lambasted novel and Oscar-nominated movie¬†The Help¬†for its unrealistic rose-colored portrayal of the domestic workers in America’s mid-century kitchens. I enjoyed the movie as a chick-flick, but the ABWH points out some troubling historical discrepancies. Happily, they also provided a¬†reading list¬†of alternative sources.

This excerpt from Simon Doonan’s new book reveals some¬†juicy¬†secrets about Christie’s sale of Marilyn Monroe’s estate, but it also reflects on deeper issues about memory, icons, and how photography has altered modern Americans’ relationships with their bodies. Marilyn wasn’t as chubby as we think.¬†

William Pannapacker talks about how “We’re still in love with books.” Judging from the sheer amount of bookshelf photos on Tumblr and Pinterest, this is very true.

Historical fiction is a book genre that can be either marvelous or dreadful.¬†Roger Sutton, chair of the Scott O’Dell award committee, discusses its stylistic perils. Tanita Davis thinks the genre name can be off-putting to some kids, while Gail Gauthier emphasises good storytelling over an annoying staccato of historic factoids. (H/T to YA author Annie Cardi for sharing all these historical fiction links.)

Colonial Revival Real Estate

Living in the suburban sprawl of northern Virginia, I see a lot of loosely interpreted “colonial” architecture. My parents’ neighborhood was built in 1976, and the builders decided to add some Bicentennial pride to their split levels with eagles over the front door pediments. Today I passed a BB&T bank with a cupola. But the building that takes the cake by far is the Long & Foster Building on Route 28 near the McLearen Road exit.

If there were a Colonial Williamsburg edition of Power Rangers, this would be the mega-zord. It’s like the Governor’s Palace on both steroids and HGH.

There is every possible window concept here – Palladian, round, rubbed brick lintels – but it’s those squished dormers on the side wings that kill me.

I took these photos when the building was completed in 2008. The “For rent” sign suggests that L&F may have overestimated the Hampton Court – like dimensions of their office.

It’s clear that Long & Foster likes this Georgian-inspired look. Further down 28, just past the junction with I-66, is a similar building on a smaller scale.

What do you think about these buildings? Do they say “You can trust us to find your own Virginia estate,” or “We are trying too hard”?

St. Monica Church, NYC

Whenever I’m traveling, I enjoy the chance to check out churches I’ve never seen before.


During my Upper East Side adventure last weekend, I stopped by a a parish¬†conveniently located literally around the corner. St. Monica’s church building was begun in the 1880s and completed in 1906. It’s in a pretty standard Gothic revival style, but the decorative elements are exceptionally good.

Thanks to recent renovations, the interior really sparkles. The freestanding altar is obviously a post-Vatican II addition, but it complements the original nicely.

The stained glass windows were one of my favorite parts. They seemed very L. C. Tiffany-esque, with their intricate detailing and the soft edges of the pictures. I wish I had had time to photograph all of them.


Field Trip: Americana Week 2012

If I could open my arms
And span the length of the isle of Manhattan,
I’d bring it to where you are
Making a lake of the East River and Hudson
If I could open my mouth
Wide enough for a marching band to march out
They would make your name sing
And bend through alleys and bounce off all the buildings.

– “The Marching Bands of Manhattan”, Deathcab for Cutie

A few weeks ago I met up with grad school classmates in New York to hit up the Winter Antiques Show and other such nerdy material culture events. Despite the sudden weekend snowstorm, we marched all over the Upper East Side on our mission to gawk at old things. It was great. This was my sixth trip to Manhattan in the past few years, and I still feel every cliche song lyric come true the minute I step off my train.

What greeted us Saturday morning

 Here are some highlights and observations from the weekend.

  • The preview of Betty Ring’s needlework collection at Sotheby’swas pretty incredible. Dozens of samplers might sound dull, but the foremost expert on needlework has collected some fascinating and unique pieces. Besides excellent examples of patriotic and memorial artwork, there were fun whimsical touches like this girl skipping rope.

    Detail of LOT 651 Needlework sampler by Jane Catherine Esser, The Mason School, Kutztown, PA, Dated 1841. Pardon the glare.
  • On our way into Sotheby’s, we passed the picket line of Teamsters art handlers. (Does that make us scabs?) Their strike was not on my radar, but it appears the auction house has been disputing contract details for months. Since I don’t know all the facts of the debate, I’ll just say that art handlers are invaluable but often unappreciated parts of exhibition planning.
  • The Winter Antiques Show at the Armory was full of all kinds of things, as usual. I’m always drawn to the ornate European furniture and stark modernist pieces. Maybe I just need a palate cleanser from too much Americana?
  • The American paintings wing at The Met is finally open, and George Washington is crossing the Delaware in style. Curator Carrie Barratt went on the Colbert Report to talk about the painting, and managed to hold her own against Stephen’s ridiculous comments. “You mean this was painted by a Kraut and that’s not even Washington? THIS PAINTING IS A LIE.”¬†
  • The New York Historical Societyhas also reopened after renovations. The lobby galleries are fun and interactive, even if the giant touchscreens distract from the actual displays. I really liked the portholes in the floor showcasing¬†archaeological¬†finds. The swanky cafe is a creative display location for ceramics. And in the basement children’s section you can pretend to be a newsie or pose in the inauguration of GDubs himself.
    New York Historical Society cafe - with tea, coffee, and a full bar

    Of course, for every Manhattan gallery I’ve walked through, there are many more I need to see. One of these days I’ll make it to MOMA and the Frick. What are your favorite exhibition spaces in New York?