If you really want to be freaked out by the KGB Spy Museum that opened just a few months ago in Manhattan, do what I did: come directly from Spyscape, where you learn about the whole business of being a spy, and be in the middle of reading a book like “The Plot to Destroy Democracy: How Putin and His Spies Are Undermining America and Dismantling the West,” by Malcolm Vance.
The KGB Museum would be scarier if it were not laid out somewhat like an antique shop (but aren’t all spy centers sequestered behind something innocuous like a tailor shop?). Row by row, there are some 3500 artifacts, all of them real, many on view publicly for the first time. They date from 1910 until 1991, the collapse of the Soviet Union when the KGB was replaced by the FSB. But these mundane objects – a lipstick, an umbrella, a pen – were lethal weapons; a tie pin and belt buckle were cameras; a heart reader could seek out a live person hiding even in a refrigerator. Another important tool? A thermometer to determine if a person were truly dead. And if a master key couldn’t unlock an apartment to install a bug? No matter, a transmitter could be aimed at the window from a huge distance to decipher the sound vibrations and eavesdrop anyway. There is even a letter remover which could take out a letter from its envelope, read its contents and replace it back in the envelope, without leaving a mark.
And then there is the “patient chair,”
used in a psychiatric hospital, with scary restraints, that were used for
interrogations under truth serum or other means.
It turns out that those fantastical
gadgets from the James Bond movies, and even the Get Smart spy spoof, were
actually based on the real thing. It seems that there is nothing too absurd in
the spy world.
The KGB story is really scary
though. KGB (КГБ in Cyrillic) stands for “Komitet
Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti,” which can be translated as the Committee for
State Security. The KGB was the main security agency for the Soviet Union, and
during the Cold War the KGB was in direct competition with the CIA and other
state security agencies around the world for cultural, economic, and military
The KGB was born in the Russian Revolution – one of the artifacts is the carpet
memorializing Lenin (not his real last name, it turns out) and the beginning of
the Revolution in 1917 – and was initially designed to ferret out
counter-revolutionaries, or enemies of the Communist state.
One of the
world’s largest and most sophisticated intelligence operations, the KGB served
a multifaceted role as both a spy agency outside of Soviet Union and a force of
secret police within it.
You realize how pervasive and
ruthless the KGB was (is), and sense the constant terror that the people must
have lived under, as that term “enemies of the state” was broadened to mean any
one who criticized or opposed the ruling party, the leadership or policies.
There are real doors from jail cells,
and you look through at real video of real prisoners. Those who were placed in solitary
were allowed nothing to wear but their underwear; they could sleep only four
hours, when the bed would be closed up, and fed only bread and water for 5 to
One of the
world’s largest and most sophisticated intelligence operations, the KGB served
a multifaceted role as both a spy agency outside of Soviet Union and a force of
secret police within it.
Some of the best engineering and
scientific minds were employed to devise gadgets and gizmos – miniaturizing cameras,
maximizing surveillance and detection, inventing new ways of transmitting.
undetectable, the agency used its state-of-the-art tools and ruthless methods
to seamlessly monitor the citizens’ lives and keep them in constant fear of
repercussions for any subversive behavior. The investment in the spy technology
had a devastating toll on the country’s economy yet it was deemed the most
effective and necessary way to keep the state isolated from the rest of the
world and keep the Western world out.”
operating in countries all over the world, the KGB had a vast influence on world
affairs, which reached its peak during the Cold War. KGB Spy Museum presents a
never-before-seen collection of items used in the missions of prominent KGB
agents, illuminating the strategies and methods that underlay many of history’s
top-secret espionage operations.
to perusing artifacts and learning about the history of the notorious agency, you
can read and listen to real stories from spies, witnesses and journalists as
well as explore and interact with authentic objects, such as telephone
switchboards (most of the operators who connected the calls and then listened
in on conversations were KGB), encryption machines, an interrogation chair,
designed to extract information from suspects and enemies.
One of the most interesting stories surrounds a wooden Great Seal in one of the cabinets, that was also one of the KGB’s greatest triumphs, that arose out of the famous summit in the Crimea of Stalin, Churchill and FDR. The head of the KGB, Lavrenty Beria, had a replica of the Great Seal made as a gift for Ambassador Averell Harriman, presented most charmingly by cherubic Young Pioneers (like boy scouts) as a “gesture of friendship.” But inside was an ingenious bug that used electromagnetic energy instead of an external power supply. It hung above the Ambassador’s desk in Moscow for seven years before it was exposed in 1952. “The Americans couldn’t figure out how it worked for a year and a half,” my guide, Sergey, says. (The original is in the NSA’s Cryptology Museum in Washington.)
The inventor of the Zlatoust/Receiver
LOSS, Lev Sergeyevich Termen, was a physicist
and a musician, who began his career by developing previously unseen electronic
musical instruments. In 1947 he won the Stalin Prize for Inventions of Listening
One of the objects that is literally
one-of-a-kind, is a record player made expressly for
Stalin; there is also a safe, made by the Bernstein company in Berlin, that
came from KGB HQ, still containing the currency that would have been enough to buy
30 cars. Both indications of the privilege along with the power amassed by the
Communist leadership despite their calls for a equal society.
Among the rarest objects, which are
a point of pride, also seem mundane but were “mechanical masterpieces”:
Tool set КАРОЕД/KAROED (Bark beetle): This is a manual
set of special drills and instruments for drilling very narrow holes less than
0.04 inches without any sound in the tree or plastic. Holes were needed to
listen to secret conversations with a help of secret microphones. These sharp
and pointed drills are specially machined from the very hard metal. The set
includes drill extensions, which can be used to drill holes in 3.3 ft and even
thicker walls or wooden floors. A special hand-held drill holder had a stopper to
drill holes of a certain depth to protect the drill from coming out across the
wall by making only a small, hardly visible hole. A special container collects
shavings in order not to leave any suspicious marks.
very rare: KGB secret drill ИГЛА/IGLA (needle): “It is a unique mechanical
masterpiece – the drill IGLA. This very complicated drill reflects the name
‘needle’, because it drills a very thin hole through the concrete. It drills
with the help of air compressor with abrasive dust to avoid the sound and
vibration. Even the drilling sound was designed by the constructors to simulate
that era washing machine Малютка/Maliutka. The person at home thought that a
neighbor was probably doing the laundry. The Igla drill had a hole through
which the air pressure was inflated according to the manometer readings, and
when the drill approached the outside of concrete wall, the air pressure
dropped in the drill as the air went out and the drill automatically shut off.
The hole was 0.04 inches in size. If the walls were painted or lined with
ceramic tiles, the eye did not even see the hole or dust outside. With this
drill, the abrasive powder and concrete dust were absorbed by air. Agents who
were very patient, slow and responsible were chosen to drill such a hole. In
order to drill a 4 inches concrete wall took about 4 hours, and with the
preparation – the whole day. Agents, through drilled miniature holes, installed
listening or photo devices. After the operation, they applied a hole with the
cement mixture and no suspicious marks were left.”
There’s an old fashioned
phone where you can “dial” a selection of officials. My guide, Sergey, dials
Putin and hands me the phone so I can hear Putin talking (it’s like listening
to the LBJ telephone tapes at the LBJ Presidential Museum in Austin). There are
also actual phones on display from KGB offices that would have features to
disguise the voice at the push of a button.
The two spy experiences – Spyscape and
the KGB Museum – have completely different approaches and perspectives, but they
complement each other so well, especially when visited one after the other.
Spyscape is modern, state of the art, interactive, pulse-pounding, engaging, immersive experience. KGB is old-school but so relevant today, with the Russian actively hacking elections and using social media to impact US and other elections, policy, and political discourse.
“The KGB Spy
Museum aims to present espionage and intelligence operations in an educational
and interesting way, emphasizing the importance of human intelligence and
setting out a frame of reference for the public to appreciate the great extent
to which spies have always influenced world events. The Museum has a policy of
presenting the history of espionage without political bias, thus offering
visitors a factual and balanced view of the subject. “
The Museum is open daily 10 a.m. to 8
available online or in the museum. You need about 1 ½ hours to visit. Tickets
are adults (18-64)/$25; Children 7-17, seniors, students, $20; a guided visit,
minimum 3 people is $43.99.
Are you Bond or Bourne? Once
you leave Spyscape, you will learn there are many more roles to play in the
complex and ever more ubiquitous world of intelligence. After going through
eight “tests” and many stations which do their best to insert you into the
realm of espionage and profile you to figure out what job you are best suited
to, I would make a
sorry spy. I knew from the start I wasn’t either Bond or Bourne. But I
found a new calling.
I was expecting a museum, even as
museums have become more interactive and engaging and multimedia. But Spyscape,
one of the newest attractions in New York City, is not a museum. It is an
interactive experience more than anything else, designed to inform you, yes,
about the world of espionage and surveillance which, it turns out, is ubiquitous
today, but put you in the picture so that you see yourself in the complex
enterprise that is intelligence.
Spyscape is modern, state of the
art, interactive, pulse-pounding, engaging, immersive experience that lets you
peek into the world of espionage, spycraft, intelligence and
counterintelligence today from the inside.
don’t just get taken on a journey through the history of espionage from World
War II and on, but become immersed in up-to-the-minute, ripped from the
headlines events. Edward Snowdon. Wikileaks. Stuxnet. Black hat hackers. Anonymous. “You might be persuaded not to vote.”
has truly been let out of her box.
There is a feeling of intensity from the moment you arrive – intended to give you that sense of tension and excitement that must be omnipresent in espionage, and visitors will enjoy as much as the adrenaline rush of skiing down a double-black trail. But is there a place for me?
I am risk adverse. I’m not a gamer.
I don’t do puzzles. I’m frightened of going into small dark rooms when I don’t
know what is there. I frighten easily.
As you arrive, you are given a
bracelet that identifies you at scanning machines that basically track your
progress as you go about the exhibit – you complete a series of tasks and
quizzes and at the end, are assessed as to what role you might play in the spy
apparatus – it turns out there are many, many different functions.
entrée into the world of spycraft is the largest passenger elevator in New York
City, escorted by a very professional person with a
clipboard – it turns out that the ride up is also a multi-media orientation
(think “Mission Impossible”).
mission: What kind of spy will you be? Or put another way: Where do you fit in
the pantheon that is the world of espionage.
experience is constructed as if a job interview, to immerse you and personalize
what would otherwise be technical machines and bios. But it turns out that not
all spies work for governments – corporations engage in some of the same
techniques, so do journalists, and so do hackers and criminals. And it turns out that the profile you wind up with at the
end of all the tasks and quizzes is authentic and serious – not tongue-in-cheek
or hokey. I can see some young people seeing new career paths in intelligence
(most of the CIA are analysts, not cloak-and-dagger operatives) or even
outside, since, as is noted, the skills of a spy are broadly applicable.
The layout (Spyscape takes up a
massive amount of space) is purposefully cold, grey, institutional, with
constant pulsing sounds – sometimes electronic music, sometimes sound effects,
I am quite unprepared for the experience, expecting a more conventional exhibit, so am put off stride when all of a sudden confronted with quizzes and tasks. It would have been completely different if I were primed and in a game mode.
One of the tasks I find more engaging (once I got the hang of it), was in the room about coding/decoding, the German’s Enigma machine and the Bombe that British mathematician Alan Turing and colleagues at Benchley developed to break the Enigma code. Here the task is to organize a spy’s escape, but you only have 3 minutes before the Germans will cut off communication to her, and you have to convert a message to code and then decode the response. I do this for the “Limping Lady”, who turns out to be a real person (I later realize she is the spy Virginia Hall) and this was a real scenario.
get personal insights into Alan Turing, the mathematician who developed a
program to break the German “Enigma” machine code. (A fascinating artifact is a
copy of Turing’s notes, as a teenager, summarizing Einstein’s Theory of
Relativity as a gift for his mother). There is also a brief bio of Joan Clark, one
of the Enigma codebreakers who rose to become Deputy Head of the Hut eight. You
get to type code on a replica Enigma machine.
After one “test”, in which I fail to figure out patterns, I am given these words of encouragement: “You didn’t do too well today, but you are obviously better in other things.”
Another that is sure to delight is a
room of laser beams where the timed task is to shut off lights without piercing
the beams – very Oceans 11. (This task gauges your agility.)
All through, the exhibits personalize
the serious issue being raised – the history, technology, impact on society – with
real people, real events and real artifacts. This is serious business after all
with real life and death consequences. Double agents have been exposed and
executed; moles have exposed agents who were executed. Wars declared or
averted, extended or curtailed, won or lost.
you weave through, taking your own quizzes and tasks, the exhibits tell stories
about real spies, double agents, like Robert Hansen and how he was discovered.
Hansen’s treachery led to the unmasking of three soviets who spied for the US,
two of whom were executed. – how he was discovered and trapped. Would you have
detected Hansen’s deceit?
I have all sorts of trepidation about going into a small dark room which turned out to be the test of how well I could detect Deception (I think I do well at that one, probably by accident).
“Gadgets of defiance” describes the
devices that British and American operatives used to carry out perilous
missions in Nazi-occupied Europe – forged documents to support their cover
identifies; one-time encryption pads and miniature radios to communicate with
handlers. They supplied downed Allied pilots with escape maps and compasses and
targeted the enemy with weapons and explosives.
I learn about Virginia Hall, an
American special operations officer who, as a girl, had dreamed of joining the
US foreign service and became fluent in foreign languages, but after she lost
part of her left leg in an accident, her dream was cut off as well. When Hitler
invaded Paris in 1940, Hall was working for a French ambulance service. She
made her way to Britain and joined British special operations. She worked
as a journalist for the New York Post in occupied France, and the Germans
nicknamed Artemis;the Gestapo considered her “the most
dangerous of all Allied spies”. Virginia Hall was the “Limping Lady” of
the code scenario.
about Oleg Penkovsky, known as “HERO” who was a Soviet military intelligence
(GRU) colonel who was responsible for informing the United Kingdom about Soviet
installing missiles in Cuba. The information he provided helped Kennedy through
the Cuban Missile Crisis because he realized that a naval blockade could force
the Soviet Union to stand down. Penkovsky, the highest ranking Soviet official
to provide intelligence for the UK up until that time, is credited with
altering the course of the Cold War. He was executed six months after being
I learn about the British couple, Ruari and Janet
Chisholm, who were his handlers in Moscow. Ruari was Moscow Station Chief for
M16, the British secret intelligence service. Janet collected much of
Pankovsky’s intelligence. During one “brush contact” he walked casually over to
her in a park and offered her children a tin of Vitamin C pills. Janet quickly
swapped the tin which contained military secrets for another identical one
hidden in her baby stroller. The thought of exposing children like that was
chilling. (There’s a photo of Janet with her children on a park bench.)
We meet the real life “Q” gadget wizard,
Charles Fraser Smith, who was Ian Fleming’s inspiration for the character he
used in James Bond. The
new multi-sensory James Bond experience explores the creative process behind
the 007 movies while revealing the secrets of James Bond’s iconic Aston Martin
DB5. You get to peek at gadgets in Q’s lab, examine original concept art in
Oscar®-winning Production Designer Sir Ken Adam’s studio and look behind the
scenes of Skyfall’s explosive finale.
At another section, you go through a
dark curtain and find yourself in this dark round room, illuminated only by
giant screens,that give you some sense of the state of surveillance (it is all
area showcases whistleblower Edward Snowden who exposed the NSA’s surveillance
programs and the reporters who have unmasked government secrets – Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald, the
journalists who exposed modern day slavery(old
school pad and pen, videocamera and computer are the weapons of choice).
This is where you see the message
blazing out of a giant screen: “You might be persuaded not to vote.” This is
the brave new world of intelligence – not extracting secrets, but in distorting
and implanting messages to shape, disrupt or derail society.
One of the last stations is actually
the most chilling: Hacktivism discusses hacking, hackers – by anarchists,
profiteers as well as nation states. Stuxnet, which was used to disrupt Iran’s
nuclear program (a centrifuge is on view). After Iran realized
what had been done, it called for the hackers to join in an army.
We learn that Stuxnet is now open
source, sold on the blck market, and could be used by any number of actors to
shut down electric grids, water systems or air traffic control or remotely give
instructions to launch a nuclear attack. And no one knows who has it.
And now, I am really to go into my “debrief –
encryption, deception, surveillance, special ops, brainpower (7/18), which
comes up with my spy role: Agent Handler (I suspect they give that one to all
those who don’t measure up as real spies).
But it isn’t done flippantly or
tongue-in-cheek. The authentic personal spy profile is based on psychologists
and a former Head of Training at British Intelligence, and sounds pretty
authentic (as were the short tests for which I was totally unprepared):
“Your Spy Profile is your unique (and
ever evolving) combination of attributes. When compared to others, it allows us
to determine the Spy Role you are best suited to.”
My profile – “empathetic, inquisitive, composed” – turns out
to be fairly accurate and also serious, developed with real psychologists.
Later in the day, I am sent a comprehensive
profile to my email and a
Welcome letter. “Your Spy Skills can be valuable in everyday life. We’ve evaluated
your Core Attributes and Spy Skills to determine your Spy Profile. Top
psychologists and spymasters helped us build our Spy Profile system. We hope
the self-knowledge in your Spy Profile will empower you, and inspire you to
further develop your Spy Skills.”
The missive gives me more detail about my role as Agent
manager of agents who provide secret intelligence or operational support, and
an insider view from General David Petreus.
In the real life example, I am given the bio of
the agent handler for my new spy hero, Oleg Penkovsky (his code name was Hero)
and the background that I found so compelling in the exhibit, about his
handler, Ruari Chisholm, and an example of a typical operation, procuring cover
material for an agent in the Iranian government who wants to provide info on
Iran’s potential to develop nuclear weapons.
(This makes me think of important omissions in
Spyscape: Valerie Plame, the CIA undercover agent who was infiltrating the Iran
nuclear program until Plame’s
identity as covert officer of the CIA working in counter proliferation was leaked to the press by members of George W Bush administration and
subsequently made public as
retribution for her husband, Ambassador Joseph Wilson’s reveal about the false
information that led to the US invasion of Iraq; she also had knowledge to
disprove Bush’s contention that the aluminum tubes that Iraq had could be used
as centrifuges for nuclear material. Also, how Andrew McCabe, the foremost
counter-intelligence expert on Russia, was drummed out of the FBI by Trump to
short-circuit the investigation into Russian collusion with the Trump campaign
and the 2016 election).
Spyscape will excite and thrill as
it informs and intrigues. It helps to be prepared in advance for what you will
encounter – I think I would have done considerably better and had better
And like skiing, it is an experience
that adults and older children will relish doing together.
There is a continuing relationship – they send you the profile, and follow up with articles, stories, spy challenges, sharing news about factual and fictional worlds of spying and hacking “and helping you develop your own spy skills. We will be adding content from top hackers and spies to spyscape.com/academy so check in regularly to see what’s new.”
I think I’m being groomed. I’m
From Spyscape, I walk down to the KGB Museum in
Chelsea. It is an interesting Spy v Spy counterpoint that enhances the
experience of each one separately.
is optimized for adults and teens, but children are welcome. Bringing
pre-school-age kids is not recommended. You
need about two hours. There is a pleasant café and the gift shop is loaded with
spy-related merch. Open Monday-Friday,
10 am-9 pm and Saturday-Sunday, 9am-9 pm, last entry at 7:30 pm. (Adult, $39;
child 3-12 $32).
We have become well aware how terrifying Tyrannosaurus rex was, but who knew that T. rex hatchlings were fluffy and gangly, more like turkeys than the massive killing machines they grow to be? Or that the mega-predator had the rare ability to pulverize and digest bones and re-grow its teeth? Or that it grew at the rate of 140 lbs. a month, weighing 6 to 9 tons when fully grown and lived no more than 28 years? That it had excellent vision and sense of smell, but puny hands that probably were vestigial? T. rex: The Ultimate Predator, the first major exhibition of the American Museum of Natural History’s 150th anniversary celebration, brings us face to face with the most iconic dinosaur in the world through life-sized models—including the most scientifically accurate representation of T. rex to date–fossils and casts, engaging interactives, and the Museum’s first multiplayer virtual reality experience.
T. rex: The Ultimate
Predator opens Monday,
March 11, 2019 and will be on view through August 9, 2020, when the exhibit
will likely go on tour.
Founded in 1869, the Museum has a long and celebrated history of international exploration and research in paleontology dating back to the 1890s, with an outsized influence in a field that sits at the intersection of cutting-edge science and the popular imagination. The Museum has a particularly special relationship to T. rex: its famous paleontologist, Barnum Brown, was the first to discover T. rex – in 1902 in Montana – and the first T. rex on display anywhere was here at the museum. This makes the new blockbuster exhibit, T. rex: The Ultimate Predator, inspired by a legacy of scientific exploration and bringing the latest science to the public, a natural launching point for the museum’s 150th anniversary programming.
more than 120 years of dinosaur research and discovery, the Museum continues to
be a leader in this field. Its paleontology collection is one of the largest
and most diverse in the world, with specimens that have led to amazing
discoveries, including the identification of the first dinosaur eggs and early
evidence of dinosaur feathers. A number of recent discoveries about the
tyrannosaur group are highlighted in this exhibition.
and Tyrannosaurus rex in particular,
are such an important and iconic part of the Museum and have been throughout
our history,” said Ellen V. Futter, President of the American Museum of Natural
History. “So it seems fitting to launch the Museum’s 150th Anniversary
celebrations with a major new exhibition on the ever-intriguing King of
Dinosaurs. This exciting and fascinating exhibition will do what the
Museum has done throughout its history and continues to do today: share the
latest scientific breakthroughs with the public, introduce visitors to the
researchers on the cutting-edge of discovery, shed new light on the great story
of life on Earth, and inspire wonder and curiosity in visitors of all ages.”
Indeed, while Barnum assembled the most complete collection of dinosaur fossils in the world for the museum, the museum has some 34 million specimens and artifacts – one of the most important collections of natural history anywhere. Its library and archives of research documents – like Barnum’s own field notes and letters which show how painstaking and difficult the expeditions were – are the most complete and extensive in the world.
fossils, like other echoes of ancient life, are discoveries of the science of
paleontology. But dinosaurs have a special status that transcends their
importance to science—they fascinate and inspire the masses like few other
animals—living or extinct—can,” said Michael Novacek, the Museum’s senior vice
president and provost for science. “Chief among them is T. rex, perhaps the most famous and celebrated dinosaur that ever
rex: The Ultimate Predator encounter a massive life-sized model of a T.
rex with patches of feathers—the
definitive representation of this prehistoric predator. The exhibition includes
reconstructions of several T. rex hatchlings and a four-year-old
juvenile T. rex; a “roar mixer” where visitors can imagine
what T. rex may have sounded like by
blending sounds from other animals; a shadow theater featuring a floor projection
of an adult T. rex skeleton coming to
life; and a life-sized
animation of T. rex in a Cretaceous
environment that responds to visitors’ movements. At a tabletop “Investigation Station,” visitors can explore a variety of
fossil casts ranging from coprolite (fossilized feces) to a gigantic femur,
with virtual tools including a CT scanner, measuring tape, and a microscope to
learn more about what such specimens can reveal to scientists about the biology
and behavior of T. rex.
rex: The Ultimate Predator is curated by Mark Norell, who joined
the Museum in 1989. Norell, who is the Macaulay Curator in the Museum’s
Division of Paleontology and its chair, has led and participated in a number of
scientific investigations into the biology and evolutionary history of
tyrannosaurs and other theropods—the group of dinosaurs most closely related to
modern birds. His work includes the first discovery of a feathered tyrannosaur,
Dilong paradoxus, in China in 2004. In
addition to Dilong, many of the
species studied by Norell and his colleagues and former students, and recent
research findings, are featured in the new exhibition.
“In the last 30 years, we’ve seen a huge
increase in both the number of tyrannosaur fossil discoveries as well as the
availability of technology that lets us explore complex questions about these
charismatic animals,” Norell said. “I never would have imagined that one day
we’d be able to look at the shape of T.
rex’s brain, analyze the tiny daily growth lines on their massive teeth to
determine how quickly they put on weight, or use advanced biomechanical
modeling to figure out the force of its bite.”
T. rex may have been a mega-predator, but it evolved from humble origins. The full tyrannosaur family includes more than two dozen different species and spans more than 100 million years of evolution, with T. rex appearing only at the very end of that period, between 66 and 68 million years ago. Most dinosaurs in the superfamily Tyrannosauroidea were not giants like T. rex, which, fully grown, weighed between 6 and 9 tons. Early species were small and fast, likely avoiding confrontations with larger dinosaurs.
the exhibit, we come face to face with life-size
models of a number of tyrannosaurs, including: Proceratosaurus bradleyi, the earliest known tyrannosaur that
lived about 167 million years ago and was about the size of a wolf with a crest
on its snout; Dilong paradoxus, which like many early tyrannosaurs, had arms
that were relatively long and capable of seizing small prey, and was the first
tyrannosaur found with fossilized feathers (discovered by exhibition curator
Mark Norell and his colleagues in China); and Xiongguanlong baimoensis,
a mid-sized tyrannosaur that, when it was discovered in 2009, offered a rare
glimpse of a transitional species between the smaller early tyrannosaurs and
the later giants.
The exhibit features interactive elements: visitors are tasked with placing various tyrannosaur family members in the correct time period on a magnetic wall and can experiment with a praxinoscope that animates the difference between walking and running—T. rex could only truly run when it was young. A hands-on interactive lets visitors attach the right size tail to a T. rex torso to create a balanced posture.
How did T. rex get so big when its ancestors were so small? And how did a young T. rex, the size of a turkey grow to the size of a truck? The simple answer: by growing very quickly. T. rex reached full size by its early 20s—about as fast as a human does—but it put on much more weight in that time, gaining up to 140 pounds (65 kg) per month. The exhibition shows T. rex in early developmental stages, showing how the dinosaur transformed from a vulnerable hatchling with a more than 60 percent chance of succumbing to predators, accidents, disease, and failure to find food in its first year of life, to a gargantuan predator at the top of the food chain. No T. rex has been found that has been identified as being older than 28 years.
“T. rex was the ‘James Dean’ of dinosaurs; he would have been very beat up,” said Gregory Erickson, paleobiologist from Florida State University.
of what we see in the exhibit is the result of a new approach to studying
dinosaurs – integrating other scientific disciplines, such as molecular biology
and chemistry, and comparative techniques to contemporary animals such as
crocodiles and birds, as well as new technologies like 3D scanning.
latest understanding also presents T. rex’s “arms” as even tinier than before,
suggesting that they had no function and were vestigial in the course of
evolution. Also, the “hands” have two fingers instead of three.
So far, though, the scientists have been unable to determine a dinosaur’s sex from the skeleton. “It would be nice to know the sex ratio to understand population biology, how bodies changed over their lifespan,” Erickson said. “You have to appreciate just how rare these specimens are – just 1,000 dinosaurs have been named.”
Erickson explains that though scientists know what strata to search, it has to be relatively close to the surface for paleontologists to safely extract the bones without damaging them; also, many of the sites where dinosaurs might be found are in very remote, difficult places. And it may well be true that there were relatively few of the largest dinosaurs, because of the supply of resources available.
exhibits display T. rex at various stages of its development.
We see a life-size
model of a four-year-old T. rex,
which although not yet the “king” it would become in adulthood, would have
weighed about five times more than a four-year-old boy and was as large as any
other predatory dinosaur in its habitat. Fully covered in feathers for warmth
and camouflage, this juvenile T. rex
had relatively long arms (unlike its adult counterparts), a slim body, and
bladelike teeth that could cut through flesh but were not yet capable of
encounter a real fossil of a T. rex toe bone and a touchable cast of a T. rex thigh bone to gain a sense of scale for the fully grown
giant, which stood about 12 to 13 feet high at the hip and was about 40 to 43
feet long. Fossil casts from a close relative to T. rex, Tarbosaurus bataar, illustrate that T. rex wasn’t the only tyrannosaur that looked and behaved
dramatically differently throughout its life. A cast of the youngest and most complete juvenile tyrannosaur fossil
found to date, a two-year-old Tarbosaurus,
has a delicate skull with thin bladelike teeth it likely used to catch small
vertebrates and insects, while the cast
of the huge adult Tarbosaurus skull
indicates that when fully grown, it used its heavy, bone-crushing teeth and
jaws to eat large animals.
All tyrannosaurs were built to kill,
but the biggest and baddest of them all was T. rex. With its huge size,
sharp claws, and teeth that could bite through bone, it dominated the
competition. New research shows that a T.
rex could bite with about 7,800 pounds of force—equivalent to the weight of
three cars – compared to 3,700 pounds of force of a modern crocodile.
We see a fossil of one of these huge, banana-shaped teeth, which relied on
deep roots to withstand the immense forces during a bite, as well as a cast of a fossilized T. rex lower jaw demonstrating the constant replacement cycle
of its fearsome teeth. A full-scale
reproduction of the T. rex fossil
skeleton on display in the Museum’s Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs—in a
different pose—is the subject of the exhibition’s “shadow theater,” in which the skeleton’s 40-foot shadow (somewhat
jarringly) “comes to life” and demonstrate to visitors how the animal moved and
interacted with prey and its own kind.
Scientists long suspected T. rex could bite through bone, thanks to fossils of its powerful skull and teeth. But now there’s proof in fossilized feces, or coprolites, which contain many tiny chunks of bones eroded by stomach acid. High-tech imaging tools like CT scanners, X-ray fluorescence, and microprobe analysis reveal that T. rex was one of the rare species on Earth that could pulverize and digest solid bone. In fact, some T. rex coprolites are 30-50 percent crushed bone. The exhibition features a cast of one of these telltale coprolites as well as a cast of a tail bone from a duck-bill dinosaur with an embedded T. rex tooth surrounded by new bone growth, indicating that T. rex was not just a scavenger but also attacked live prey.
We learn about the fierceness of two
other top predators in the tyrannosaur subfamily, which lived side by side in
Asia about 70 million years ago: Alioramus
and Tarbosaurus. Bulky Tarbosaurus and nimble Alioramus likely specialized in
different prey, much like lions and leopards do today.
Keen Senses of Sight, Smell
We know T. rex from fossils—but what was it like in the flesh? The exhibition’s massive life-size adult T. rex model is based on the most
up-to-date findings and represents the most scientifically accurate
representation of this pop culture icon to date. New research on this powerful
hunter’s senses show that keen vision, smell, and hearing made it very hard for
this predator’s prey to avoid detection.
casts indicate that T. rex had
excellent vision. Its eyes, the size of oranges—some of the largest eyes of any
land animal—faced forward like a hawk and were set wider apart than most other
dinosaurs, giving it superior depth perception.
can you tell the shape of an extinct animal’s brain? Soft tissues such as
brains rarely fossilize. But fossilized skulls often contain a space where the
brain used to be, revealing its precise shape. Scientists use these fossilized
brain cases to make a model, or endocast, of the missing brain. They also use
CT scanning to make a 3D printout of the brain. The exhibition includes a fossilized partial brain case of a T. rex as well as the endocast
scientists created from it for study.
By comparing the areas of the
brain that are responsible for scent, vision, and hearing in tyrannosaurs’
closest living relatives, birds and crocodilians, researchers have determined
that the T. rex brain had similar
regions. For instance, T. rex had an
unusually large olfactory region for a dinosaur, indicating it had a very good
sense of smell. Also like their alligator and crocodile cousins, tyrannosaurs would
likely have had highly sensitive faces. Visitors
can inspect the series of tiny holes on a fossilized skull of Daspletosaurus torosus, a tyrannosaur
that lived between 77 and 74 million years ago. The holes are nearly
identical in number and location to those on an alligator, which have jaws so
sensitive to touch that they can gently pick up an egg or tiny hatchling
without harming it. Fossils of T. rex
show similar rough, pitted surfaces, suggesting it also had similar sense
Technology has allowed scientists
to uncover a great deal about the inner workings of these gigantic predators,
but a number of mysteries remain. For one, what did a T. rex sound like? No one knows. But a logical place to start is to
study their closest living relatives. In the exhibition, a“roar mixer” enables visitors
to combine the calls of birds and crocodilians with the sounds of contemporary
large animals such as elephants, whales, and bison to create a customized roar
that accompanies an animated T. rex.
And what about its outward appearance? Feathers are very delicate and are rarely preserved, and they haven’t been found yet on T. rex. But many other dinosaur fossils, including those from other tyrannosaurs and their relatives, preserved feathers, suggesting that T. rex had at least some feathers. Many scientists think that T. rex hatchlings were probably covered in fuzz like a duckling—but adults were mostly covered in scales, likely with patches of display feathers concentrated on attention-getting areas such as the head and tail. Nobody knows what color T. rex was, and it is often depicted as drab, like a crocodile. But reptiles come in every color of the rainbow, so T. rex could have been brightly colored. Exhibition visitors get to choose from a wide palette of colors, stripes, and spots to imagine what T. rex may have looked like in an engaging interactive experience.
the high level of scientific research that has gone into T. rex: The Ultimate
Predator, the notes that accompany the displays are designed to be accessible
especially for young people who will be enthralled.
At the end of the exhibition, there is a 32-foot long animated projection of a T. rex and its offspring in a Cretaceous-age setting. The huge dinosaur seems to react to visitors, leaving you wondering, “Did that T. rex see me?”
Engaging with T. rex in Virtual Reality
Museum’s science visualization group renders the latest scientific discoveries
in paleontology and other fields through the visualization of big
data. Using digital technologies, scientists today observe, measure, and reproduce
hidden dimensions of the natural world. From the edges of the observable
universe to the evolution of life on Earth, researchers are developing a
radically new understanding of nature that the Museum strives to communicate to
visitors in highly authentic, intuitive, and novel ways. One of these is
virtual reality: an experiential tool that uses objects, models, photos, video
footage, and other types of physical evidence of life history to engage and
part of T. rex: The Ultimate Predator, the Museum will present T.
rex: Skeleton Crew, its first
interactive, multi-player virtual reality experience, created in
collaboration with HTC VIVE. The five-minute
experience will be offered to visitors ages 12 and up within the exhibition.
reality is a magical realm in which our perceptions of time and space are
suspended,” said Vivian Trakinski, the Museum’s director of science
visualization. “In virtual reality, nothing is too small, too big, too fast,
too slow, too distant, or too long ago to be appreciated. We hope this
technology will let our visitors experience the most fantastic and inaccessible
realms of nature.”
“Through VR, visitors can engage with the subject of the exhibition in an exciting, in-depth way that enriches their knowledge and leaves a lasting memory for years to come,” said Victoria Chang, director of HTC VIVE Arts. “This remarkably engaging VR project harnesses the power of premium VR, bringing visitors closer to the anatomy, scale, and majesty of T. rex like never before.”
The facilitated experience “transports” as many as three players at a time to a space similar to the Museum’s Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs, where they team up to build a T. rex skeleton bone by bone. Once all of the bones are in place, the players watch as the T. rex comes to life in marshland that is now Montana, its home 66 million years ago.
A home version of T. rex: Skeleton Crew will launch on VIVEPORT, HTC VIVE’s global platform and app store, for VIVE owners in summer 2019.
American Museum of Natural History, founded in 1869, is one of the world’s
preeminent scientific, educational, and cultural institutions. The Museum
encompasses 45 permanent exhibition halls, including those in the Rose Center
for Earth and Space and the Hayden Planetarium, as well as galleries for
temporary exhibitions. It is home to the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial, New York
State’s official memorial to its 33rd governor and the nation’s 26th president,
and a tribute to Roosevelt’s enduring legacy of conservation.
The Museum’s five active research divisions and three cross-disciplinary centers support approximately 200 scientists, whose work draws on a world-class permanent collection of more than 34 million specimens and artifacts, as well as on specialized collections for frozen tissue and genomic and astrophysical data and on one of the largest natural history libraries in the world. The museum is the launchpad for some 100 expeditions a year. Through its Richard Gilder Graduate School, it is the only American museum authorized to grant the Ph.D. degree and also to grant the Master of Arts in Teaching degree.
Visits to the museum have grown to 5 million, and the Museum’s exhibitions and Space Shows are seen by millions more in venues on six continents. The Museum’s website, mobile apps, and massive open online courses (MOOCs) extend its scientific research and collections, exhibitions, and educational programs to additional audiences around the globe.
Open daily from 10 am – 5:45 pm except on
Thanksgiving and Christmas.
American Museum of Natural History, Central Park West at 79th Street, New York, NY 10024-5192, 212-769-5100, amnh.org.
Gold Coast Arts Center, Great Neck, Long Island presents an exhibition of “Chinese
Artists in America.” The works by eight contemporary Chinese-American artists
is on view through March 20.
exhibition reflects the creative vitality of Chinese and American cultural interaction
and growth through the arts and its historical and aesthetic links to other
communities,” Gallery Curator Jude Amsel writes.
artists created a new visual language that embodies aspects of traditional
Chinese art while responding to a time of great transition. Their artworks
express personal beliefs, national pride, and international awareness.”
Gold Coast Arts Center is dedicated to promoting awareness and understanding
through the arts and through public events that bring people together,” stated
Regina Gil, founder and Executive Director of the Gold Coast Arts Center. “We
are proud to have enabled artists from around the world to share their vision
and craft with our audiences. The exhibition of art by Chinese-American artists
weaves the heritage, experience and craft that has emerged from each artist’s
personal exposure to Chinese and American culture and education.”
opening reception for the art exhibition was accompanied by a cultural
performance, music and dance presented under the aegis of the Great Neck
are highlights, with the artists’ own statements.
Zhen Guo: “With ‘Muted Landscape; I present a view of the world, and we who live on its surface, that is at once expansive and frightening. The images, created (I do not say painted because there is no obvious brush work in the ink on rice paper creation) present a landscape as if from 36,000 feet, muted by both the gray color and by the distance. Mountains, lakes, a sheer rock face wall, caldera, fields of snow, high and pointed peaks and rivers are joined and blended but not necessarily in the places or ways we expect. It is as if the vision of Ansel Adams has been stirred shaken and kneaded merged a late Autumn vision of the natural world. As our eyes travel over the painting the view changes and rivers become shadows, mountains become fields, and lakes become snow covered peaks. We are entranced and at the same time afraid that, if we landed, there we could not find our way out. Perhaps this is a place for own internal search for a perch for our soul or to find our way forward.”
Xiangdong Shi: ““Food: Chinese beauty, taste and auspicious meaning. Chinese cuisine is not only delicious, but also the pursuit of form and color, such as Sweet Dumplings, put in a few red medlar, and immediately look happy, and eat the Sweet Dumplings at the Lantern Festival, so the Sweet Dumplings are also called Yuan Xiao, means the first full moon night of the year. Chinese cuisine is rich and auspicious Meaning, such as birthday, Chinese people often cook a bowl of noodles, called longevity noodles, meaning healthy longevity. Another example is the Traditional Chinese Rice-Pudding, is the exclusive food of the Dragon Boat Festival, it is to commemorate the ancient Chinese famous poet Qu Yuan, in addition, often in the Traditional Chinese Rice-Pudding have any jujubes, white rice and red jujubes are put together, the color contrast is strong. Red has a special meaning in Chinese culture, and represents good luck. Therefore, the food series I painted not only expresses the taste of food, but also the sense of form and meaning of food. This is the true essence of Chinese culture.”
Arthur B. Liu is President of Queens Art Education Center, New York, visiting professor of the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, member of the Watercolor Society of USA, artist of the National Art League of USA, director of the Chinese Culture Art Association of New York, USA. He is the Educator, Artist and Inventor. He is the only one Chinese American artist who has been granted patents for inventions. He is showing “The flowing colors Chinese painting series” in this exhibition.
Ping Wang: “The initial idea of my “In and Out” series were body parts extended from a “Square”(space ) merged into a background. The background scenes are from Chinese illusional landscapes to recent New York City landmarks and daily life. After a year or two reminiscing in depth I subconsciously escaped in the collision between China and American culture. I was enormously inspired by traditional Chinese composition and techniques. In the ‘Fight Club; series, I tried to combine some oriental perspectives and compositions into a Western story. Now living in New York for several years, I can see the integration of eastern and western cultures.”
Yulin Huang: “In the face of the canvas, I have never forgotten all the so-called knowledge, just by intuition, in a simple, primitive, child-like way, straightforward and quick to smear. “Sacrifice the Body to Feeding the Tiger” (2018) is a “Dunhuang” mural from the ancient East, painted on the walls of the grotto 2000 years ago. It tells a Buddhist story. A prince, giving up his life and helping his hunger with his own flesh The hungry tiger mother and son are born into Buddha after death. Like the cross that Jesus passed. In “Chinese New Year,” red lanterns, dragon dances, lion dances, firecrackers, fireworks, spring couplets, red envelopes… The people celebrate the biggest festivals, joyous and lively. But I feel a very loneliness.”
Hai Wei: “Even though we all advocate tolerance, different habits and beliefs sometimes constitute an offense. Each different culture and art is connected of each other while learning from each other and integrating with each other. When the plane flies over the Arctic Circle, across the window, the outside is a mountain like a scarf, inside is a scarf like a mountain… All things connected, miraculous conversion. Similarly, in the body, the blood, the fresh life, can also be converted and reincarnation? We have been watching ourselves for too long and rarely look at them. Most people think the sheep is weak ,ordinary, silent. In fact, they still have power and charm of wildness. The art created by nature is life, the beauty of life, and it does not depend on us. It is a kind of dignity.”
Yafu Wang: Yafu’s works are varied and diverse. Those selected art pieces cover his early works in road, shadows, posters, and temples etc. Yafu always states that his work expresses his deep love and awe for the mighty God. It fulfills all the missing parts in his life.
Being here at Washington Crossing State Park on the Pennsylvania shore of the Delaware River, hearing the story of General George Washington crossing icy water on that fateful Christmas night, I realize that all I knew of that scene was the image from the painting so indelibly impressed on every school child’s brain. The actual events are much, much more dramatic, as the 300 Sojourners, cyclists who have come down the Delaware-Lehigh Trail, learn on our guided tour.
This opportunity to tour Washington Crossing Historical Park is built into the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy Sojourn, one of several options for our layover day on the fourth day of the five-day biking-and-camping trip.
The Sojourn rides- usually five or six days of supported camping and biking – are typically constructed with a layover day where you get to choose from activities and excursions that exemplify the area or just hang out on your own. Other options include a kayak tour on the Delaware Canal; a visit to the Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve, a tour of the Old Barracks Museum in Trenton, NJ, or just exploring New Hope, PA on our own to take in attractions, dining and art galleries.
I realize I had no clue of just how heroic, indeed, how much of a Mission Impossible this feat was, and how many were involved, nor how significant this relatively small battle of was for the ultimate success of the revolution that founded our nation.
The visit to the Washington Crossing Historical Park starts with an excellent 14-minute video introduction that lays out why Washington said of this desperate mission ““Dire necessity will, nay must, justify the attack.”
It was winter of 1776. The Continental Army had suffered terrible defeats on Long Island and New York. Washington was forced to retreat across New Jersey to Pennsylvania on December 7 and 8.
The British were on the march to Philadelphia, plundering and ravishing homesteads as they went. They were waiting for the Delaware River to freeze so they could march across. That gave Washington some time to regroup.
Morale of the American troops was low. The soldiers lacked food and warm clothing, even boots. Washington watched his army shrink due to desertions and expiring enlistments. Now, more than ever, a victory was desperately needed.
Washington hatched a daring plan to cross the Delaware River under the cover of darkness, march to Trenton and unleash a surprise attack on the Hessian outposts in and around Trenton.
He ordered every boat that could be found to be at the ready. Among the various types of boats gathered, most notable were the large, heavy Durham boats that were used to carry pig iron down the Delaware.
His plan was for a Pincer-style attack, with two divisions attacking from the south of Trenton.
We walk into a historic village – and come to McConkey’s Ferry Inn, which was the only building here at the time of Washington’s Crossing – the other buildings were constructed 40 years or more after.
Walking through it, it is an amazing feeling to sense Washington sitting here, plotting what could have been a suicide mission, making such decisions.
The inn was built on the major thoroughfare between Philadelphia and New York City to accommodate the ferry, one of many along the river.
We go into the boathouse – which was built in 1977 to house re-creations of the Durham boats that Washington would have used.
These are all re-creations, and smaller (40 feet long) and lighter and more nimble than the ones Washington would have used. By the 1830s, these boats, built to carry cargo, were obsolete – indeed, even in their day, they were often used for one-way trips and discarded.
Washington’s boats were 65 feet long, weighing 7,000 pounds, 50 percent heavier that these re-creation. As it is, it takes a day to put four boats in the water for the annual Christmas re-enactment.
In Washington’s time, the boats would have been kept in the water, not a boat barn, which was built in the 1950s when they started doing the reenactments.
There were no seats in the boats – everyone stood up, but no one was as high up as Washington is depicted in the famous painting.
The painting shows 13 people – 12 in the boat and one standing up; for the reenactments, they use 11 crew, four oars each 15 feet long and 50 lbs, with two people per oar at shoulder level. One of the oars is 22 ft, weighing 100 lb,that is used like a rudder to steer the boat.
“We do it in one hour. It took 11 hours to transport Washington’s troops during the night, going back and forth.” Once, he recalled, it was snowing heavily during reenactment which was most like the actual conditions.
Each boat made five trips both ways, carrying 45 soldiers plus the boat crew (imagine what that would have been like for the boat crews). It took a half-hour or longer for each trip. One man fell off the boat, but was saved.
The river was fast, but 45 feet wider than normal, and with ice blocks as big as six feet wide, would come suddenly with speed, joggle the boat and knock it off course. It was difficult to see.
Over the course of the 11 hours, Washington’s 2,400 soldiers were shuttled across. But then, these soldiers, some of whom were dressed in rags and barely had shoes, had to wait for hours as they were pounded by a Nor’easter that set in at 11 pm, for the rest to arrive, and then march 9 miles over mud paths to fight the same Hessian troops who had beaten them five times before.
“The odds were not in their favor. It shows the fortitude of the men.”
Because surprise was his key weapon, Washington kept the mission a secret until the last minute.
“Washington didn’t tell the men the attack was underway until 1 pm. That was not enough time for the men to prepare supplies and march. So a lot of the men were late,” he tells us, standing in front of a map that illustrates the battle plan.
Washington assembled his own troops near McConkey’s Ferry in preparation for the crossing. By 6 pm, 2,400 troops had begun crossing the ice-choked river. The operation was slow and difficult due to the condition of the river. There was an abrupt change in the weather forcing the men to fight their way through sleet and a blinding snowstorm. These obstacles proved to be too much for the supporting divisions led by colonels Cadwalader and Ewing, ultimately preventing their crossing at southern points along the Delaware.
Washington had planned for a Pincer-style attack. He had them synchronize their watches. He had already started sending the men across when he learned that the other two generals were not able to send their men. He decided to continue anyway.
In this ferry building, Washington writes to Colonel Cadwalader, “’Dear Sir. Notwithstanding the discouraging accounts I have received from Colonel Reed of what might be expected from the operations below, I am determined, as the night is favorable, to cross the river and make the attack upon Trenton in the morning. If you can do nothing real, at least create as great a diversion as possible. I am, Sir, your most obedient servant.’”.
“Now the weather works to the Americans’ advantage,” our guide relates, standing in front of a battlefield map. “Hessian guards (pickets) are in houses. Washington sneaks through perimeter undetected. But one rogue group launches a raid, which undermines the crucial element of surprise. The Hessian guards run into city to warn the commander, Colonel Johann Gottlieb Riall, but Riall thinks it is just a raid. He musters half to guard two main roads, but doesn’t meet Washington head on. Washington tries to retain initiative.”
The First Battle of Trenton takes only an hour. Of the 1,500 Hessians, 100 killed or wounded. Rall is fatally wounded.
Washington informed Congress of victory but neglected to mention how many men were lost (the Hessians lost about 100).
It was a relatively small battle but the victory elevated the American cause in eye of world. Then, within 10 days, Washington chalked up victories at Trenton and Princeton.
There were still 5 more years of war, until 1781, to come, but this was the turning point in revolution.
“The 3 victories are huge for Continental Army. France and Spain began to pay attention. If Washington had lost, Continental army would have disbanded.”
The Hessian prisoners were paraded through Philadelphia to Lancaster where they worked on farms, were paid and given free room and board. A quarter of the Hessian prisoners wound up staying or returning to the area after the war (the Pennsylvania Dutch were already here.) But American prisoners were badly treated.
The single biggest fact we don’t know about Washington’s crossing of the Delaware? Who crossed.
Each December, thousands of people gather on the banks of the Delaware River to watch the reenactment of George Washington’s daring 1776 Christmas night river crossing. During the event, several hundred reenactors in Continental military dress row across the river in replica Durham boats.
This year, there are two opportunities to view the reenactment at Washington Crossing Historic Park, on December 9 (10 am to 4 pm, the crossing is at 1 pm, $8/adult, $4/child 5-11; in addition to the crossing reenactment, special colonial-era activities and demonstrations in the Historic Village will offer a full day of family fun and learning) and Christmas Day, December 25 (noon to 3 pm, crossing is at 1 pm; free. The event draws thousands of people; arrive well before 1 pm for a good place to view (see www.WashingtonCrossingPark.org).
The Historic Village
The McConkey Ferry Inn which we get to visit was the only building here at the time of Washington’s Crossing of the Delaware; the other structures came later.
The first ferry building was built in 1752, but only the basement kitchen remains. The current inn was built in several stages; the west side, the one farthest from the river, was built around 1790 and includes the original basement. The building represents a typical country inn or tavern of the Revolutionary era and suggests the variety of amenities that would have been available to the traveler at that time.
Mahlon K. Taylor House: Born in 1791, Mahlon K. Taylor became the wealthiest and most influential member of the Taylor family, a fixture of Taylorsville’s commercial success until his death in 1870.The stately home, built 1816-17, illustrates Taylor’s successful career as a merchant and entrepreneur. The house is an example of the degree to which the fashions and refinement of upper-class Philadelphians were beginning to influence rural Pennsylvania.
Taylorsville Houses: These 19th century buildings were built by different members of the Taylor family as their own residences or to rent to trades and craftsmen. Many 19th-century country villages and towns also had general stores that sold a wide array of merchandise. Mahlon Taylor opened the Taylorsville store around 1828 shortly before the Delaware Canal was constructed, and served as postmaster there for 40 years.
Hibbs House: Built in 1828, this building was one of several tenant houses the Taylor family constructed to attract artisans to Taylorsville. It served as the home and workshop of a shoemaker, then a cooper, a wheelwright, and finally a carpenter, Abdon Hibbs. A typical two-room over two-room stone structure, it housed a worker, his family, and his apprentice, as well as his shop.
Frye House and Blacksmith Shop: Bernard Taylor built the Frye House in 1828 as a tenant property. It housed Taylorsville’s blacksmith and his family, as well as an apprentice. The blacksmith was indispensable, fashioned iron tools and implements essential to work and to family life in the preindustrial era. The current shop was built in 1990. Living-history demonstrations are conducted during special events.
Revolutionary War Memorial Cemetery
Our afternoon tour begins with a visit to a memorial cemetery where an unknown number of Continental soldiers who died during the December 1776 encampment in Bucks County are buried.
Although no Americans were killed during the Crossing and the First Battle of Trenton, these soldiers would have died due to exposure, disease or previous injuries. James Moore, a 24-year-old artillery captain from Alexander Hamilton’s New York company, is the only veteran buried in this plot whose identity is known.
I love visiting the Thompson-Neely House, on Bowman’s Hill, just across a road from where we camp at the Washington Crossing State Park, and on the other side of the canal.
The house is presently interpreted as it would have been when it served as a temporary regimental army hospital during Washington’s winter campaign of 1776/1777. Ill and injured soldiers were brought to this home of the Thompson and Neely families for medical treatment and recovery. A young officer from Virginia named James Monroe, who was seriously injured during the First Battle of Trenton, convalesced here. In 1817, he became the fifth president of the United States. William Washington, a distant cousin of the commander-in-chief, was also wounded and he too recovered. This is where Captain James Moore of the New York Artillery died of camp fever on Christmas day and is buried on the property (in what is now the Soldiers’ Graves area).
The Thompson-Neely House, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is an example of vernacular 18th-century architecture. Originally a low, one-room dwelling, it was expanded over time to a two-story, multi-roomed farmhouse reflecting the growth of colonial Pennsylvania’s agricultural economy and the prosperity of the Thompson family, who milled grain into flour for export.
Several hundred years ago, the area occupied by the Thompson-Neely House and Farmstead and the nearby mill were inhabited by natives of the Lenni Lenape village of Winnehawcnunick. Around 1684, a runaway indentured servant, John Pidcock, fled his master and took possession of the property, establishing a fur trading station there around 1701.
The next owner of the property, Quaker miller John Simpson, constructed the original central section of this house about 1740, as well as a gristmill along Pidcock Creek. At the time of his death in 1747, Simpson was a prosperous farmer with an interest in a sawmill besides his other holdings. His widow, Hannah, married Scots-Irish miller Robert Thompson in 1748, whose farming and milling businesses on the property made him one of the wealthiest men in Solebury Township by 1761.
In 1757, owner Robert Thompson built a two-story addition on the west end (away from the river) of the house.
Nine years later, Thompson’s daughter, Elizabeth, married her father’s apprentice William Neely, an Irish immigrant, and Thompson added a second story above the old first section.
Neely, who was in the militia in 1775 with Washington’s troops. Neely brought the army here to camp out. There would have been some 500 Continental army troops camped here (7400 in the area), among them James Monroe (the future president), and William Washington, a cousin to General Washington.
Robert Thompson enlarged the house once again by constructing the two-story east wing in 1788 to accommodate the Neely’s growing family. Taller ceilings gave this newest portion a higher roofline than the existing structure.
When he died in 1804, Robert Thompson left his large estate to his grandson, Robert Thompson Neely, including the main farmhouse with outbuildings, two mills, a cooper’s shop, and a distillery. Although Robert Thompson Neely continued to expand his family business and real estate holdings, he died in debt in 1848. Succeeding generations of the Neely family continued to own the farmhouse. When the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania acquired it in 1926, the building had been little changed since the early 19th -century.
Once the centerpiece of a working farm and milling complex, the Thompson-Neely House is surrounded by the numerous outbuildings needed for farmlife in the 18th-century, such as the restored smokehouse, chicken coop and privy. Washington Crossing Historic Park’s flock of sheep may be visited at the restored barn.
Thompson-Neely Grist Mill
The Thompson-Neely grist mill, built in 1875, is actually the third grist mill to be built on the property.
The grist mill figured into the prosperity of the families who lived here, first Englishman John Simpson who acquired the property around 1740 and built the first grist and saw mill. After he died, in 1747, the mill passed to his journeyman, Robert Thompson, who married Simpson’s widow, Hannah. The couple farmed and ran the mill at a time when Philadelphia was the largest city in British North America and had a thriving flour market, exporting five million pounds in 1771. By 1782, Thompson had become one of the wealthier men in Solebury Township.
William Neely, Thompson’s apprentice, married Thompson’s daughter in 1766, and ran the mill for more than 40 years before his death in 1804. Thompson’s daughter and grandson, Robert T. Neely, inherited the mill.
The Thompsons and the Neelys built up an estate that included the grist mill, a saw mill, cooper’s shop, distillery, store, sawyer’s house, miller’s house, and assorted barns and outbuildings on 500 acres of land.
The Second Mill, 1829-1873: The Pennsylvania Canal Commission built the Delaware Canal through Neely’s property, along the original creek bed that powered the mill’s water wheel which put Neely’s mill out of business. He received $8,000 from the state for damages and built a new mill further upstream on the site of the present grist mill.
The Third Mill, 1875-1910: Robert’s Neely’s son John owned the mill when it caught fire in August 1873. The mill was rebuilt in the same place and reopened in 1875 and operated until 1910, after being purchased by the State of Pennsylvania.
The mill was closed for 50 years, until the state renewed interest in it as a historical site.
Restoration: During the 1970s, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission carried out archaeological research and restoration of the site. A new water wheel was installed in its original location, and the mill was restored to a state resembling that of a grist mill of the late 1820s. But the mill was again shuttered 20 years later.
Restoration work began in late 2016. And after two decades shuttered to the public, the Thompson-Neely Grist Mill’s doors reopened on March 17, 2018, just a couple of months before we Sojourners arrive. In-depth programming including live demonstrations of the milling process, field trips for area students and a special program for children during the park’s annual Sheep-to-Shawl Day are planned.
Bowman’s Hill Tower
Bowman’s Hill Tower, we discover on the tour the Sojourn has arranged for us, is just about the only place in Bucks County to get an above-the-trees, bird’s-eye view of the surrounding countryside and Delaware River. The Tower, which was built between 1929-31 as a Depression-era project, rises 125 feet high atop Bowman’s Hill; on a clear day, you can see 14 miles away.
We hike up the 124 steps (an elevator installed during the 1980s restoration can take you up three-quarters of the way, to the last 23 narrow steps).
Soon after the tower’s construction, workers planted 28,300 seedlings in the area to reforest the hill like people thought it would have been in Washington’s time. Some of those seedlings have become today’s towering trees on Bowman’s Hill.
Walking up from the Thompson-Neely House, passed the Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve (so many wonderful, themed trails to explore! Next time!), proves to be quite a hike, because it is about 1.5 miles up on a winding road before you even get to the staircase.
The Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor, 2750 Hugh Moore Park Road, Easton, PA 18042, http://delawareandlehigh.org/ (It also has a description of the bike trail.)
Rails-to-Trails Conservancy is a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating a nationwide network of trails from former rail lines and connecting corridors; it advocates for its 160,000 members and supporters, 31,000 miles of rail-trails and multi-use trails, and more than 8,000 miles of potential trails waiting to be built, with a goal of creating more walkable, bikeable communities in America. RTC offers TrailLink, a free service that lets you access RTC’s 30,000 miles of trail maps and itineraries and downloadable mobile app.
This wonderful celebration, led by the local bike club, gets the 300 Sojourners in gear for our longest ride, 48 miles, of our five-day, 160-mile Rails-to-Trails Conservancy Sojourn on the Delaware-Lehigh Trail through the picturesque Pennsylvania wilderness to Hugh Moore Park in Easton where we will camp for the night.
We follow after the Jim Thorpe Bike Club as the first across the bridge, an achievement 25 years in the making.
Around midday, we navigate a complex gap in the D&L Trail onto city streets. Indeed, drawing attention to such gaps, and the coalition working to improve them, has been one of the objectives of these annual Rails-to-Trails Conservancy Sojourn supported biketours. To date, an impressive 92 percent of the D&L Trail has been built—most of which we ride during this Sojourn—and the goal is to connect all 165 miles by 2022.
The trail condition has been surprisingly good considering yesterday’s drenching rain and even yesterday, the trail had enough hard-pack that our tires didn’t sink into mud.
Yesterday, as we rode downhill from the highest point, deep in Pennsylvania’s coal mining country, the beauty of the wilderness section of the trail was hard to appreciate through the rain (though nothing could mar the exquisite beauty of Buttermilk Falls).
But on this June day, the weather is sunny with a cool breeze, just perfect for biking.
We get to see just how beautiful the trail is – much of it following a narrow canal on one side or the other. The trail is built on the original towpath, which is essentially a built-up berm. We see rock walls, lily pads. The scenery and joy of biking produce a feeling of euphoria.
We come to the Lehigh Gap Nature Center, a non-profit conservation organization at the foot of the Kittatinny Ridge, which is like an oasis to us. The center is dedicated to preserving wildlife and habitat through conservation programs such as the Lehigh Gap Wildlife Refuge, educational programs such as the Kittatiny Raptor Corridor Project as well as research. I linger in the butterfly garden before setting out again. (8844 Paint Mill Rd, Slatington, PA 18080, 610-760-8889, http://lgnc.org/)
Just beyond, we Sojourners are treated to a catered lunch in a park, where we can sit comfortably under a pavilion.
Riding on, we come to an island that consists of a shuttered steel mill that today stands somewhat surreally like an abstract sculpture.
Along the way, we come upon what is left of the original canal locks – stone walls, wooden gates with metal latches and gears, remnants from the mid-1800s.
At Freemansburg, we find a lockmasters house, the remains of the locks and a mill, and I am delighted to find the site manned by interpreters in period dress. I ask if the village was settled by freemen and am told that it was named for one of the original settlers, Richard Freeman.
Freemansburg is a classic example of a canal town with houses and structures built up against the waterway that was the village’s lifeblood in the 1800s. Members of the Old Freemansburg Association (OFA) reclaimed a 1.5 mile section of the Lehigh Canal the Borough owns from overgrowth and debris and restored the towpath which became the D&L Trail. The OFA spearheaded efforts to protect and restore the 1829 Locktender’s House, mule barn, Lock No. 44, gristmill, and coal yard. Volunteers also reconstructed the barn using canal era tools and equipment, a project that took 10 years to complete. The multi-functional building now hosts weddings, educational sessions and interpretative demonstrations. (http://lehighvalleyhistory.com/history-of-the-borough-of-freemansburg)
This proves a warm-up for what we will see during our overnight stay at the Hugh Moore Park and its major attractions, the National Canal Museum and the ride on a mule-drawn canal boat that has been arranged for us.
National Canal Museum, Hugh Moore Park.
Our 48-mile ride today ends at the home base in the 520-acre Hugh Moore Park, where we began and will end. With the Lehigh River, Lehigh Canal, the old Lehigh Valley Railroad, National Canal Museum, remnants of the oldest industrial park in the region, a Locktender’s House and one of only three mule-drawn canal boats still operating in America, the park offers a microcosm of the D&L story, and an absolutely delightful place for our second-night campout.
The Sojourn planners have specially arranged for us to have free cruise on the historic Josiah White II canal boat, all the more exciting because it is pulled by two mules and manned by a crew in period dress along this portion of the restored canal. You really get to appreciate what it was like for these families who operated the canal boats that carried the anthracite coal from the mountains to Philadelphia. At one time mules pulling canal boats on narrow towpaths would have been a common sight in much of the United States east of the Mississippi River.
We board the Josiah White II canal boat to cruise on the restored Section 8 of the Lehigh Coal & Navigation canal. Captain Susan is at the tiller. The boat is 50 feet long – when it turns, it has mere inches to spare.
Two mules, Hank and George, pull the boat, led by Steve and Doug. You would think it is a strain, but the boat slides easily. “Benjamin Franklin worked out the mathematics, that two mules can pull 235 tons on water. He saw the method in Europe and Britain. George Washington also was a proponent of canals. – though neither one lived to see beginning of canal era.”
Captain Susan is just finishing saying how Hank and George are the luckiest mules in the land, when they both bolt and start running toward the campsite, chased by Steve and Doug who bring them back.
The boats were designed to carry 80 to 90 tons of coal, which meant the canal had to have six feet of draft.
They needed eight feet high walls – so they dug out four feet by hand and piled on the four-feet of soil to create the eight-foot high walls.
They knew the limestone couldn’t contain the water, so they lined the canal with clay, using the same method of road building in Ireland – sheep tamp down the bottom and the clay is left to dry in the sun. (The clay enclosure is why you can’t have any sharp implements on the boats).
It took 2 ½ years to build the canal which extends 46 miles from Jim Thorpe and consists of 9 dams and 51 locks. It cost $1 million (actually under budget). These canals were the first million dollar civil projects in the United States, she says.
When they started to mine the anthracite coal, this whole region of northeast Pennsylvania was uninhabited. To make money, they had to move the coal to the population center in Philadelphia. The Lehigh River was not suitable for transportation – it was too shallow, rocky.
The Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company (we saw their building in Jim Thorpe) owned the river, built the canal, and furnace and brought an iron maker from Wales who knew how to make iron with anthracite coal (the secret was high-pressure blast of air).
Pennsylvania is one of the few places where anthracite – hard coal – is known to exist. It was discovered sporadically during the 18th century, when people would literally stumble on it on the surface. “No one cared. It looked like stone. You couldn’t light it.”
What is more, there were still trees to provide fuel. But by the early 1800s, the mid-Atlantic was virtually clear cut of wood sparking an energy crisis.
They experimented with soft coal, but the supply was cut off in 1812 by blockade during the War with Britain.
Around then, Josiah White and Erskine Hazard, who manufactured wire and nails from iron, needed coal.
They learned of the success of a Welshman who developed hot-blast iron making. They traveled to Wales to sign David Thomas to a five-year contract, and brought him to Pennsylvania to oversee the construction of an anthracite furnace.
In 1818, they bought the Summit Hill quarry. But the problem still was how to get the coal to market.
They founded the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company and created one of America’s first industrial and transportation networks, which led to an industrial boom across Pennsylvania and the Northeastern United States.
We see a lock tender’s house that was built in 1928 to replace one that burned – the new house was the only lock tender’s house with indoor plumbing and electricity.
This lock had a new gear system that even a young person could operate, so the father (who would have earned $8/month, low even for those times) could take a cash job in one of the many mills or furnaces in the area. The lock had to be manned from 3 am to 11 pm, so this was a family enterprise. The mother could sell or barter with the canal boat families – at this lock, known as a “laundry lock” the woman would do the canal boat family’s laundry. She would also keep chickens and vegetables.
“There was an economy of people who lived and worked on the canal, separate from anthracite. Boats were crewed by families.
“Sailors had poor reputation and White was Quaker and wanted ethical people, sober and honest. So he recruited married men. They didn’t want to be away from their families from March to November, so they brought them on the boat. Whether provided own or leased from Lehigh Coal & Navigation – were families.
“The father of the family (the only one who legally could sign a lease) was the captain, kept records, leased the boat, bought the mules ($20) on time; the wife helped with steering and homemaking. Kids as young as six would be responsible for caring for the mules. Younger children were tied to the boat so they couldn’t fall over.”
She demonstrates how they would blow a conch shell to alert the lockmaster, who would have been on duty 18 hours a day.
“It’s easy to romanticize life on the canals, but it was difficult, uncomfortable.”
This canal was operated until 1942; the Delaware until 1932; there were sons, grandsons and great grandsons of canal boat captains.
“It was a way of life. People stuck with it.”
Here at Hugh Moore Park was the site of an industrial furnace. By the time of the Civil War, half of iron in the United States came from Lehigh Valley.
Hugh Moore made his fortune manufacturing Dixie Cups. He bought this property and found out it came with the disused canal.
I get to tour the National Canal Museum, which has stayed open late for us.
The National Canal Museum was originally housed in a Crayola factory building; it was relocated to the Hugh Moore Park in 2006 with a National Science Foundation mission to provide a STEM curriculum to school children – the museum is loaded with interactive exhibits and experiments.
“Canals are perfect for these lessons – it’s the last transportation system using simple machines and human and animal power (mules).”
The Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor interprets this fascinating period of American history in the park through tours of the National Canal Museum and rides on the 110-passenger Josiah White II canal boat. The National Canal Museum is open seasonally, from June until October. Hands-on exhibits highlight 19th century canal life and technology. During our visit, we saw its special exhibition, Powering America: Pennsylvania’s Anthracite Railroads.
The Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor, 2750 Hugh Moore Park Road, Easton, PA 18042, http://delawareandlehigh.org/ (It also has a description of the bike trail.)
Day 3: To New Hope
As spartan as our first night’s campsite was on a baseball field in Jim Thorpe, Hugh Moore Park in contrast feels luxurious, especially with access to the facilities in the museum (in addition to actual bathroom rooms) and one of the workers, has offered to stay inside and open it up for us during the night .
We also have a delicious catered dinner and breakfast around the museum before setting out on our third day’s ride, which will take us 38 miles but 242 years back in time to Washington Crossing State Park, where we will camp for two nights, and find ourselves immersed in the story of the American Revolution.
Just before we cross the Delaware to Frenchtown on the New Jersey side, we see a picturesque red wooden bridge over the canal. Frenchtown, where they have arranged for a bike corral while we enjoy the restaurants and shops, is very charming. I munch on the artisanal cheese and bread I purchased beside the water before setting out for the rest of the ride.
This part of the ride is along the sensational Delaware-Raritan Canal trail (one of my favorite trails, a particularly gorgeous section is from Princeton University north). We cross back to Pennsylvania at Lambertville into New Hope, another picturesque village. We are on our own for dinner tonight and many will bike back into New Hope from our campground at Washington State Crossing Park.
During the ride, I rehash what I learned at the National Canal Museum and wonder, “What did these families do for the rest of the year when the canals were closed? It bothers me that these families made so little money ($8/month) for such long days, they had to work extra jobs, even after all the members of the family also worked, when owners became richest people in the world.
How did Benjamin Franklin calculate that mules could pull a floating barge carrying 235 tons? How did they calculate the 6 foot draft for the canal boats to carry 90 tons? By formula or by trial & error? What if a boat had different dimensions? I wonder if the STEM curriculum at the National Canal Museum would answer these questions.
Here’s another important lesson from our immersion into this National Heritage Corridor: The change in ecology necessitated changes in the economy and technology (an example of how history matters.) Americans were always moving, migrating to take advantage of new industry, new technology, new economy, new opportunities, sometimes forced by changes in the environment. These canal towns, factory towns, mill towns arose because of coal and steel and many were ruined with the change in fortunes. Today, climate change, global warming is changing ecology again, forcing new changes in the economy, in technology, in society and in where and how we organize our communities. It’s very much how the canal towpath, originally devised to transport the coal which replaced wood, is repurposed for recreation and wellness, revitalizing the local economy.
Rails-to-Trails Conservancy is a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating a nationwide network of trails from former rail lines and connecting corridors; it advocates for its 160,000 members and supporters, 31,000 miles of rail-trails and multi-use trails, and more than 8,000 miles of potential trails waiting to be built, with a goal of creating more walkable, bikeable communities in America. RTC offers TrailLink, a free service that lets you access RTC’s 30,000 miles of trail maps and itineraries and downloadable mobile app.
“Harry Potter: A History of Magic”, the newly opened exhibit at the New-York Historical Society Museum & Library only on view until January 27, is a must-see on so many levels. It isn’t just for fans of J.K. Rowling’s phenomenal series, where you get extraordinary insights into her creative process through glimpses at original hand-written drafts and drawings, but insights into the history of magic – the centuries of folklore, myth and legend – that provided the foundation for her stories. Here you see the original documents and artifacts which make you realize (for the first time), how Rowling drew on history and tradition, and how magic and witchcraft actually provided the foundation of science and discovery.
“Abracadabra,” we learn, is an incantation believed to have healing powers, first recorded by Quintus Serenus Sammanicus, physician to the Roman Emperor Caracalla. He prescribed that the word be repeatedly written out, each time leaving off one letter. The charm was then worn as an amulet around the neck to drive out fever. We see it described in “Liber Medicinalis,” a 13th century book from Canterbury.
The invisibility cloak that Harry Potter wore? There actually was an incantation for invisibility that we can see in a mid-17th century spell book owned by a contemporary of Shakespeare. A 4th century papyrus scroll turns out to be an ancient Greek handbook of magic that contains a love charm.
Mandrake roots really do look like men (or women) and the legend of them screaming when pulled out by the roots, causing insanity, was documented across cultures. We get to see a mandrake root, which looks like a shriveled old man in anguish.
The Philosopher’s Stone that plays such a key role for Harry Potter (it was renamed the Sorcerer’s Stone for American readers)? This was the quest of alchemists, who sought to create the elixir of immortal life and turn ordinary metal into gold – in essence, harnessing the energy of the universe and its power. The “recipe” for the Philosopher’s Stone was believed to be prescribed in The Ripley Scroll. We get to see an actual Ripley Scroll, from around 1570 England, exquisite in its color, unfurled over 20 feet, one of only 22 known to still exist. This one is on loan from the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University.
The scroll takes its name from George Ripley, a canon at Bridlington Priory in northern England and author of “The Compound of Alchymy.” The scroll, full of mystical symbolism, supposedly gives clues to how to make the key red, white and black stones that together would form the Philosopher’s Stone. Rowling wove these symbols into her characters: Rubeus Hagrid (rubeus is Latin for “red); Albus Dumbledore (albus is Latin for “white”) and Sirius Black, Harry’s three father figures.
We get to see a copy of Culpepper’s Herbal, describing the medicinal properties of herbs, the first medical text to be published in English (instead of Latin), so as to break the monopoly of wealthy, educated in having this knowledge. Culpepper was accused of witchcraft in 1642, but acquitted. The book is still in print and we learn from Rowling that she possesses two copies.
We get to see the actual tombstone of Nicolas Flamel, an actual person! who a landlord and bookseller in medieval Paris who married a rich woman and became a philanthropist. His interest in alchemy, according to Pottermore, was apparently sparked after he obtained a mystical book was written by a man called Abraham the Jew in Greek, Hebrew and other languages. Following his death in 1418, rumors began to circulate that Flamel was an alchemist who had discovered how to make the Philosopher’s Stone, and turn metal into gold. He was buried in the church of Saint-Jacques-de-la Boucherie in Paris, his grave marked by this tombstone. But years later, when the body was exhumed, there was no body. Some believe he escaped to India, and with the elixir, still lives.
The exhibition, a cerebral celebration marking the 20th anniversary of the US publication of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, captures the traditions of folklore and magic at the heart of the Harry Potter stories. Based on Harry Potter: A History of Magic, a British Library exhibition, with some special New York twists, it combines century-old treasures—including rare books, manuscripts, and magical objects from the British Library, New-York Historical Society, and other collections—with original material from Harry Potter’s U.S. publisher Scholastic and J.K. Rowling’s own archives, never before collected in one place, and items that have never been shown before. And this exhibit is the only other place where it will be shown, before the items go back to their respective museums, which include the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, in Cornwall.
The entertaining aspect is in the exhibition’s presentation, as if you are wandering through Hogwarts, with the galleries organized around the Hogwarts’ curriculum for witches: Potions, Alchemy, Herbology, Charms, Astronomy, Divination, Defense Against the Dark Arts, Care of Magical Creatures – each one showing the historical and cultural traditions that underlie Rowling’s fantastical world and her creative process.
It is as if instead of J.K. Rowling inventing the Hogwarts curriculum, she graduated from it. It also means that all of us, children and adults, who were so enrapt in the Harry Potter saga of witchcraft and magic 20 years ago, have a whole new dimension for appreciating Rowling’s masterpiece from a mature perspective.
The exhibit is captivating on so many levels – Rowling’s personality and creative process, you get so many insights into her as a person, and the connection to history and tradition at the heart of mythology. Also, we get to see the evolution of science from magic and spiritualism.
Rowling faithfully represented these traditions – even the names she chose for her characters relate back to these traditions, symbolically or literally.
In Potions & Alchemy, we see a copy of Jacob Meydenbach’s 1491 edition of Hartus Sanitatis (Latin for “The Garden of Health”), the first printed cyclopedia of natural history, which actually includes a hand-colored woodcut illustration of a potions class.
One of the plants described, blue hellebore, was the plant Harry Potter forgot to add in his Draught of Peace.
We see an actual bezoar stone, which was believed to be an antidote to poison, first introduced into medieval Europe by Arab physicians. They were expensive to buy and owners often kept their stones in elaborate cases. Here we see a bezoar stone in a gold filigree case from the 17th century.
The Herbology section is particularly fascinating: Here we see an illustration from a 15th century illustrated herbal by Giovanni Cadamasto that describes mandrakes (mandragara) that could cure headaches, earache, gout and insanity. Just as Rowling depicted, the plant was said to be particularly hazardous to harvest because the shrieks from the roots cause madness. “The best way to obtain it safely was to unearth its roots with an ivory stake, attaching the plant to a dog with a card. A horn would sound, drowning out the shrieking, startling the dog and causing it to drag out the mandrake.” We actually get to see a mandrake root and how much it resembles a prone shriveled man who appears anguished. The description of mandrake is also from a 14th century Arabic text, originally in Ancient Greek by Pedanius Dioscorides, a botanist.
We see implements of “magical gardening” of bone and antler, on loan from the Museum of Watchcraft & Magic, Boscastle, Cornwall.
There is an original copy of a book by Elizabeth Blackwell (one of the first women physicians), “A Curious Herbal,” published in London in 1737-38. She was desperate to raise money to spring her husband Alexander from debtor prison, so made drawings that she took to Alexander to identify, which she then published weekly, eventually detailing 500 plants.
An 1807 edition of Robert John Thornton’s “The Temple of Flora,” an elaborate botany book that nearly bankrupted Thornton to produce (it was originally titled, “The New Illustration of the Sexual System of Linnaeus”). There is an illustration of Dragon arum (Dracunculus vulgaris), also known as stink lily, which reproduces the smell of putrefying meat to attract flies for pollination.
In Charms, we see a copy of Cotton Mather’s “The Wonders of the Invisible World,” published in London in 1693 (from the New-York Historical Society Library), in which he justified the Salem witchcraft trials.
This is the area which gives some attention to the way witches were depicted, when in essence, they were shaman, healers, who were extraordinarily connected to the natural world, and in fact, the first scientists and doctors.
We see the earliest printed illustration of a witch, from 1489, depicting witches as powerful and dangerous. “The Iconography went on to influence image of witches for centuries. The printing press was new – like video of the time.”
Here we see a colorful broomstick belonging to Olga Hunt, a 20th century witch of Manatan, Devon (from the Museum of Witchcraft, Boscastle). The broomstick is closely associated with the Western image of witches, but has roots in pagan fertility rites. The connection with witchcraft and broomsticks developed during the witch hysteria of 16th and 17th century Europe. Olga was supposed to have used it to leap around Dartmoor on a full moon.
We also see Rowling’s original, handwritten draft of the Sorting Hat Song, sung at Harry’s sorting ceremony in his first year, with some crossings out and additions, and her sketch of Argus Filch, the Hogwarts caretaker (Argus is a name from Greek Mythology of a man-eyed giant who is “all seeing.”)
In Divination, there is a major archaeological find on view: oracle bones some 3,000 years old from China that proved the existence of the Shang Dynasty, which had only been known in legend. The bones offered not only the earliest examples of Chinese writing, but showed that the culture worshipped ancestors – the Oracle Bones were a means of communicating with ancestors, who could send back messages.
We see a black moon crystal ball used by “Smelly Nelly,” a 20th-century British witch who used strong perfume to attract the spirits she believed helped her to see the future (on loan from Museum of Witchcraft & Magic, Cornwall). Nelly is reflected in Rowling’s character of Sybill Trelawney, Hogwarts Divination professor.
There is also a 19th century fortune-telling doll from New-York Historical’s collection.
Astronomy features a 1699 celestial globe by famed cartographer Vincenzo Coronelli, pages from a notebook compiled by the artist and inventor Leonardo da Vinci that show the sun and moon revolving around the Earth, and a 13th century astrolabe thought to be one of the oldest geared instruments in existence, from the American Museum of Natural History Library.
Defense Against the Dark Arts features an actual wand, in the shape of a snake (snakes were magical because they were thought to have the ability to regenerate, and a wand in the shape of a snake would have been very powerful), and we learn that there are still wandmakers today who go to the woods where trees speak to them to be selected. There is also a magic staff (1998) carved from timber.
The basilisk in mythology didn’t look like the snake-like creature in Harry Potter but was depicted as a strange chicken, the size of palm, but its stare would kill you, and the way to defeat it was not by sword but by weasels.Care of Magical Creatures features a 13th-century bestiary manuscript depicting a phoenix rising from the ashes, a narwhal tusk, and John James Audubon’s original watercolor of snowy owls, just like the snowy owl that Hagrid gave to Harry Potter.
We see the oldest description of a Hippogriff: 16th century book on vellum paper given to George III –a magical creature that has the front legs, wings, and head of a giant eagle and the body, hind legs and tail of a horse. It is very similar to another mythical creature, the Griffin, with the horse rear replacing the lion rear.
We see examples of unicorn (loaned from the Explorer’s Club), as well as an actual merman – a Japanese creation made by combining two fish with wire and cloth (worthy of P.T. Barnum). This is the first time it has been displayed outside the United Kingdom.
This fascination with these strange new creatures reflects the era of exploration into strange new lands and discovery of new creatures.
This section features Rowling’s hand-written draft of “Deathly Hallows”, with her crossings out, notes to self and ”x” where she needed to add more providing this amazing insight into Rowling’s creative process. There is also her own illustration of Harry and Hagrid going to Gringots and Jim Kay’s drawing of Hagrid.
These items were collected for the exhibition, basically tracing and providing original artifacts that underlie Rowling’s Harry Potter narrative, but it seems as if Rowling had already undertaken the Hogwarts curriculum herself. The exhibit brings together the source material that informed her inspiration.
In the section, Past, Present and Future, one of the most fascinating items is Rowling’s own draft for the “Order of Phoenix” and her meticulous outline of plot and where the characters are, what they are doing. You see original cover art by Brian Selnick for the 2018 (20th anniversary) series, in which he unifies the seven covers as a single image that tells the story of the Boy Who Lived, which had never been displayed before, and models of set designs for the “Cursed Child” on Broadway, as well as an autographed screenplay of “Fantastic Beasts,” and an edition of “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” (as “Sorcerer’s Stone” was titled in United Kingdom).
The New York presentation of the British Library’s Harry Potter: A History of Magic exhibition is special because it features Mary GrandPré’s pastel illustrations for the cover artwork of Scholastic’s original editions of the novels; Brian Selznick’s newly created artwork for the covers of the 20th anniversary edition of the Harry Potter series published by Scholastic; cover art by Kazu Kibuishi featured in Scholastic’s 15th anniversary box set; and the enormous steamer trunk used to transport a signed copy of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince on the Queen Mary to the U.S. The exhibition also includes costumes and set models from the award-winning play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.
Also on display for the first time in the U.S. are Rowling’s handwritten first drafts of The Philosopher’s Stone and Deathly Hallows, her hand-drawn sketch of the Hogwarts grounds, and portraits and sketches of some of the Hogwarts’s professors and magical creatures created by British illustrator Jim Kay. John James Audubon’s watercolor of Snowy Owls, a 1693 publication defending the Salem witch trials, a study of the Woolworth Building—the landmark New York location featured in the film Fantastic Beasts—and other artifacts from New-York Historical’s collection.
I love the origination story – worthy of fiction – how in 1990, J.K. Rowling was sitting on a delayed train from Manchester to London when an idea popped into her head fully formed: the character of Harry Pottery, a boy wizard with messy black hair, glasses and a lightning shaped scar on his forehead. Over the next five years, she planned out seven books, writing mostly in longhand and amassing a mountain of notes, many on scraps of paper (some we get to see).
She presented a scroll of the draft of “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” (as it was titled in the United Kingdom), to Nigel Newton of Bloomsbury, who handed it to his eight year old daughter, Alice, to read. His daughter’s review, “‘it’s probably one of the best books for 8 or 9 year old could read,” encouraged him to publish. The initial print run was just 500 copies, typical for a children’s book by a first-time author. The book turned into a worldwide phenomenon – over 500 million books sold, printed in 80 languages. We see various editions lining the corridor.
There’s so much to absorb – I went through the exhibit twice, and used the Audible guide they make available for free, and after three hours, could have spent considerably more time there.
There is a superb Family Guide for “A History of Magic” that turns the exhibit into an interactive activity.
New-York Historical is also presenting a wide variety of exhibition-related events for grown-up Harry Potter fans throughout the run of the exhibition, including trivia nights, art workshops, creative writing classes, social meet-ups, open mics, book clubs, and engaging courses that explore the Hogwarts curriculum. Programs include an onstage conversation with illustrators Mary GrandPré and Brian Selznick, and a special evening with actor Jim Dale, known for his narration of all seven Harry Potter U.S. audiobooks. Family activities feature History of Magic family days with hands-on activities and crafts, a Harry Potter family book club, historical Hallowe’en celebration, and trivia for families. Additional programming information is available at harrypotter.nyhistory.org.
Harry Potter: A History of Magic is sponsored by Audible and a special audio tour to accompany the Harry Potter: A History of Magic exhibition at New-York Historical, featuring Natalie Dormer, will be available to ticketholders as a free Audible download, offering in-depth content on fascinating objects throughout the exhibition galleries.
This is the only other exhibition of this collection outside of the British Library. After finishing here on January 27, the artifacts will be returned to the museums and institutions to which they belong. Poof, it’s vanished.
Timed-entry tickets for the exhibition Harry Potter: A History of Magic are $21 for adults, $16 for seniors (65+), $13 for students, $6 for kids ages 5–13, and free for children ages 0–4; tickets include admission to the rest of the Museum. Harry Potter: A History of Magic is on view through January 27, 2019, on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday 10 am–6 pm; Friday 10 am–9 pm; and Sunday 10 am–5 pm. The last entry is 45 minutes before closing.
“History Matters,” is the New-York Historical Society’s motto, and that is clearly on view.
There is so much to see at the New-York Historical Society – it never fails to offer fascinating and provocative exhibits – you need a couple of extra hours beyond the time visiting “Harry Potter.” I went through “Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow” exhibit which is hard-hitting and in your face discussion of how the Emancipation Proclamation, Civil War, and most significantly, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, led to an institutionalized system of terror and subjugation of African Americans, including a series of Supreme Court decisions dating back to Dred Scott, that perpetuated subjugation (on view through March 3).
Also, the relatively new “Gallery of Tiffany Lamps” is not to be missed – this permanent display of 100 illuminated lamps is breathtaking for its beauty and exquisite presentation (by architect Eva Jiricna), and you even get the opportunity to design your own Tiffany lamp shade. You also learn the “hidden history” behind the lamps: about Clara Driscoll, the woman who up until now was virtually unknown and unheralded but was the artistic genius behind many of his designs, who headed the “Women’s Glass Cutting Department.”
There are also two films that are shown in a fantastic theater, each shorter than 20 minutes: “We Rise” about women and social movements that were incubated, flourished and pollinated from New York City (narrated by Meryl Street) and “New York Story,” how and why it grew to be the commercial and cultural capital of the world and remains inextricably connected to the world.
There is a lovely café at the Society.
New-York Historical Society, 170 Central Park West (at 77th Street), 212-873-3400, nyhistory.org.
Nantucket, a porkchop-shaped island just 14 by 3½-miles with just a few thousand inhabitants, hangs 30 miles out to sea off Massachusetts’ mainland. That creates a special kind of isolation and 350 years ago, made for a special incubator for culture and industry.
“Nantucket has been a microcosm of America for 350 years, a magnet and unique laboratory for some of our most powerful impulses…People around the globe knew of Nantucket whalers,” says the narrator of a documentary, “Nantucket” by Ric Burns. Nantucket, he says, has a history of reinventing itself.
“Nantucket was created by sea. In as little as 400 years, it will be taken by the sea. We are on borrowed time.”
That alone sets up the drama before our visit to Nantucket. The documentary is an evening’s activity aboard Blount Small Ship Adventures’ Grand Caribe, and now, we sail into Nantucket’s harbor in a dense fog, on the last day of our week-long voyage that has taken us to the New England islands.
This tiny place, we learn, became a global powerhouse because of whaling, which itself required technological innovations and produced a revolution in the way people lived: “Nantucket was the first global economic engine America would know.”
Indeed, here in Nantucket, we realize how revolutionary candlelight was, extending people’s days into the darkness of night. “Nantucket sperm oil made the Industrial Revolution happen.”
It also proves to be a lesson in the importance of globalization and immigration.
“In 1820, Nantucket entered its golden age. The entire Pacific its backyard, America as world power.” The square-rigged whaling ships we think of as quaint today “were state of art, decades into development, a perfect factory ship to render oil. They could go anywhere, withstand horrible conditions, serve as the home for dozens of men for three to four years at a time. They were vessels of exploration, the space ships of their day, they could travel to unknown worlds…Nantucketers were astronauts of their day.”
But here on Nantucket, we are introduced to another aspect of the story: Quakerism and feminism.
Whaling, it turns out, became a thriving industry because of the Quakers who settled Nantucket, peacefully coexisting with the Wampanoags who had lived here for thousands of years (their numbers were decimated, though, by the diseases the Europeans brought). The Wampanoags knew how to harpoon whales that were beached and introduced the English to whaling.
But it was the Quakers’ open-mindedness, their values of modest living, hard work and practice of reinvesting money into the industry rather than on lavish living that produced the innovations. Even more significantly, Nantucket could become so successful in whaling because of the Quaker sense of egalitarianism, seeing women as having equal ability. How else could Nantucket men go off for years at a time, leaving their home, business and community to be run by the women they left behind (one street is known as Petticoat Row because of all the women-owned businesses)? Quaker women, including Lucretia Coffin Mott (who was from Nantucket) became leaders of the Woman’s Suffrage Movement.
So it is no wonder that Nantucket enabled a woman, Maria Mitchell, to thrive.
Born in 1818 on Nantucket, Maria Mitchell became America’s first woman astronomer (famous for discovering a comet in 1847, which was named “Miss Mitchell’s Comet”), the first woman elected Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1848) and of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1850). She was Vassar’s first professor of astronomy, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Women, and active in the Women’s Suffrage movement.
We first are introduced to her on “Gail’s Tours” of the island, then when we visit the Whaling Museum which has a whole gallery devoted to her, and after, I am so fascinated with her, I follow a self-guided “Walking in the Footsteps of Maria Mitchell” which takes me to the Quaker Meeting House. (Ironically, Mitchell was too skeptical and outspoken for the Quakers and “written out” so she joined the Unitarian Church instead, which today shares its building with the Congregation Shirat Ha Yam, “a pluralistic Jewish congregation”).
Nantucket has a land area of about 45 square miles (about half the size of Martha’s Vineyard), yet seems larger, somehow, to get around. The best way to experience Nantucket when you only have a day and when mobility may be somewhat limited, is to take an island tour.
So we take the launch boat into Straight Wharf (this is the only stop on the New England Islands cruise where we anchor instead of dock), and walk along the cobblestone streets about half-mile to where Gail Nickerson Johnson has her van parked in front of the Visitor Center.
The first impression of Nantucket is how much it looks like a movie set with its quaint shops and cobblestone streets. Indeed, the one square-mile National Historic District is the largest concentration of antebellum structures in the United States. I take note of a mural on the side of a building that shows how many miles from places like Iceland, Pitcairn and Cape Town are from Nantucket, as if the center of the world.
We have been recommended to Gail’s Tours, and what a find this is. Gail, it turns out, is a 6th generation Nantucket native, descended from the Nickersons (her family line includes the Gardners, Coffins, Foulgers), was raised here, and knows just about everybody and every house we pass. She took over the tour business from her mother, who, she says, used to summer here before marrying her father. Her mother used to take visiting friends and relatives around in a woodie, and then got the idea to turn it into a tourist business, which she ran for 40 years.
Gail points out all the local sights:” I remember when….” “We used to ….,” “When we were kids….” “That used to be ….”
She notes that some 10,000 to 15,000 people live on Nantucket year-round, quite a jump from the 3,000 people who lived here year-round when she was growing up.
Gail jokes that Nantucket is on shaky ground – it is predicted to be under water in 400 years time. “In 300, I’m outta here.”
We pass all the important sights: the island’s oldest house, built as a wedding present for Jethro Coffin and Mary Gardner Coffin in 1686. It has been restored after lightening struck the house, splitting it in two; the Old Windmill (1746); the Quaker cemetery where there some 5,000 people are buried but few headstones, so it looks more like a rolling field; the Maria Mitchell Observatory; cranberry bogs; the Life Saving Museum.
She points to the house that Frank Bunker Gilbreth owned – the efficiency expert depicted in his son’s book, “Cheaper by the Dozen.” “They found among his papers Morse code for how to take bath in 1 ½ minutes.” The family still owns the house. She points to where Peter Benchley (“Jaws”) lived, the house where John Steinbeck stayed when he wrote “East of Eden.”
We stop at Sankaty Head Lighthouse so we can get out for a closer look. The 70-foot tall lighthouse was built of brick in 1850 and automated in 1965; its beacon can be seen 26 miles away. It had to be moved and was re-lighted in its new location, just next to the fifth hole of the Sankaty Head Golf Course in November 2007.
The tour finishes just around the corner from the Nantucket Whaling Museum. We pick up phenomenal sandwiches from Walter’s, have lunch on benches outside the museum.
We had been to the excellent New Bedford Whaling Museum and now come to the renowned Nantucket Whaling Museum. Interestingly, the presentations and focus are very different – so the two are like bookends that add to the telling of this dramatic story.
We arrive as a historian is describing the hunt for whales, and then join the docent-led highlights tour, which is sensational.
The sperm whale oil, she says, “is a light source, power source and lubricant and could be used in winter. Artificial light in winter revolutionized life for 3 to 4 months of the year. It was used throughout the United States and Europe, prized the world over.”
The earliest whaling industry was created by Quakers, who were austere, not vain, and reinvested income into growing the industry. Portraits were not permitted (the portraits that decorate the entire wall are made later), but by the 19th century, they were not practicing Quakerism. She points to one of the earliest portraits which, without a tradition of art education in colonial America, was probably made by a housepainter, and probably an authentic representation of her likeness without artifice. She has one blue and one brown eye, which was a genetic trait among some of the earliest Nantucket settlers.
She points to a portrait of Susan Veeder, one of the women who accompanied their husbands on a whaling voyage. She kept records of the day-to-day life. “Her journals are anthropological, whereas the men’s journals were mainly about weather, tides and number of whales caught. She is the reason we know so much about life on whaling ship.” The docent adds that Veeder delivered a baby daughter while on board, but it died. “While British whalers had to have a surgeon on board, American whalers were not required to. The ship had a medical kit with numbered vials and instructions. But if they ran out of #11 vial, a captain might just add #5 and #6 together.”
Another painting shows a wife standing beside her husband seated at a desk. “It’s a rare image. Women had roles in Nantucket – they ran the town, home and business. Her husband was a whaling captain who brought back artifacts; she set up a display in house and charged admission fee and told stories. This was the first museum on the island. The contents went to the Atheneum and now are part of the Historical society collection.”
She points to a jaw bone that is the height of the room. It would have come from 80-ft whale such as rammed the Essex (the event that inspired the story of “Moby Dick”).”For people of Nantucket (most of whom had never seen a whale) would have been seen as a sea monster. For the captain to make the decision to keep this onboard for two years or so of the journey, taking up precious space on ship, speaks to how important it was.”
We go into the part of the museum that was originally a candle factory, built by the Mitchell family immediately following the Great Fire of 1846, where there is the only surviving spermaceti lever press left in the world.
She explains, “When the ship returned to Nantucket harbor, filled with as many as 2000 barrels of oil, each holding 31.5 gallons apiece, the oil would be put in storage.
“They would wait for winter to begin processing because only highest quality oil would remain liquid in winter; then process the lowest quality in spring and summer. They kept the lowest quality in Nantucket and sold first and second pressings.
“The best oil was used for lighthouses. What was left was used for spermaceti candles.These were the best candles – they burned with no odor, no smoke, no drip. They were prized throughout US and Europe. They changed the quality of life because of having a reliable light source.”
At its height, there were 36 candle factories in Nantucket.
You become aware of hearing sea chanties in the background.
She leads us up to the second-floor Scrimshaw gallery (those who have difficulty with steps can ask to use an elevator). “It was a way for captains to keep their sailors entertained and occupied (so they didn’t get into fights). They would soak whale teeth, burnish with shark skin (like sandpaper); sharks would be attracted to ship when processed whale – and they would kill sharks for food and use the skin.
“Sailors may be illiterate. They would trace designs from newspaper images and advertising. Victorian woman a common subject for scrimshaw because they were commonly used in fashion ads they traced.”
Some scrimshaw was functional – like pie crimpers. The men would fashion corset stays as tokens of love (they were worn close to heart). Only captains would have the space to make swifts – tools to wind skein of yarn.
Today, she says, the scrimshaw is priceless.
She notes that the Essex was not the only ship that was sunk by a whale: the Ann Alexander also was sunk by whale, but the sailors were rescued the next day and returned home.
“Another ship in the Pacific found a whale with a harpoon from the Ann Alexander in it – killed the whale and made scrimshaw out of its teeth, known as the Ann Alexander teeth” that we see here in the gallery.
There is a small room devoted to Essex story, and we come upon a storyteller retelling the story of the Essex, sunk by a whale – the event that inspired Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” – from the point of view of the actual events as documented in Nathaniel Philbrick’s book, “In the Heart of the Sea” which ended with the men so desperate, they committed cannibalism.
The cabin boy on the Essex who 30 years later wrote his memoir, was Thomas Nickerson (one of Gail’s ancestors? I wonder).
This was the first known incident of an unprovoked whale ramming a ship. But, he says, they now believe that it was hammering to quickly repair one of the chase boats used when they go after the whale, that caused the whale to charge.
Melville, it turns out, only visited Nantucket for the first time in 1852, after he wrote Moby Dick.
Most interesting is the room devoted to Maria Mitchell’s Legacy, where we are introduced to her biography and achievements.
The Nantucket Historical Association which operates the museum also operates several other attractions which are included on an “all access ticket”($20/adult, $18/senior/student, $5/youth 6-17): the Oldest House & Kitchen Garden (the 1686 Coffin House); the 1746 Old Mill (you go inside and meet the miller); the Old Gaol (1806), the Quaker Meeting House (1836), the Fire Hose Cart House (1886, the last remaining 19th century fire hose cart on the island); and Greater Light.
Nantucket is dramatic, of course, because of the whaling industry – an invention that revolutionized life by bringing light into winter’s darkness and what the oil meant to enabling the Industrial Revolution.
But for me, the most fascinating thing is being introduced to Maria Mitchell – we are shown important sites associated with her on the island tour and at the museum. I am so inspired that I follow a self-guided walking tour that is delightful to give structure to exploring the town.
I meet her again in a storefront display dedicated to her, and then follow the Maria Mitchell Foundation sites: the Nantucket Atheneum (she became the first librarian, at age 18); the Pacific Bank where her father was president; the Unitarian Universalist Church which she joined after leaving the Quakers; Mitchell’s House where she was born, the Observatory built after her death in 1908 and the natural history museum operated by the Maria Mitchell Foundation (mariamitchell.org).
This leads me to the Quaker Meeting House where I have a most unexpected – and fascinating – discussion of Quaker religion sitting in a pew.
“Quakers were the social cement of the community.” You couldn’t do business without being Quaker, but you could pretend to be Quaker.
“Quakers were seen as activists, the hippies of their day,” because they were free thinking and were egalitarian in their treatment of women and people of other races.
The Quakers were considered heretics and banned by the Puritans because they believed in an “inner light”. They refused to pay taxes to the church or accept authority, or take oaths (for this reason, they couldn’t become doctors or lawyers). It went counter to the control mandated by the Puritans, Anglicans.
“They would show up naked at an Anglican Church,” she tells me which sparks a thought: why isn’t Quakerism being revived today? It seems more consistent with modern-day approaches to organized religion.
Most heretical of all: they did not require those they sought to convert to accept Jesus. “They did not require personal knowledge or acceptance of Jesus, just to find God through Inner Light.”
“The Quakers were hanged, branded, their noses split.”
But they found safe haven in Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, because in 1661, Charles II ordered that all trials of Quakers had to take place in England. “They were safe in America since they wouldn’t be shipped back to England.”
And over time, the Quakers toned down the “dangerous” rhetoric.
“They were excellent businessmen. They valued education (to this day): boys were educated to 13 or 14 when they were expected to join the whaling ships; but girls were educated to 17 or 18, so they had more formalized education than men.”
The women, therefore, were left in charge of home, businesses and community when the men left for their whaling voyages. Centre Street was nicknamed Petticoat Row because women owned all the businesses.
On the other hand, Maria Mitchell must have stepped over the line, because in 1843, even though her father was an elder, her “skepticism and outspokenness resulted in her leaving Quaker Meeting and being ‘written out’ by the Society.”
The decline of Quakers in Nantucket followed the decline of the whaling business. A great fire in 1846 destroyed much of Nantucket’s infrastructure and the livelihoods of 8 out of 10 Nantucketers. When gold was found in California, in 1849, scores of whaling ships sailed for San Francisco and were sunk in the harbor there rather than return; when petroleum was discovered in Pennsylvania in 1859 as a cheaper, easier fuel, scores of Nantucketers went there. The ships, which had to be built bigger and bigger for the longer journeys, had trouble coming into Nantucket’s harbor because of a build-up of silt. Then the Civil War came – more than 300 Nantucket men joined the Union and 73 were killed; the whaling ships were easy targets for the Confederates. The last whaling ship sailed from Nantucket in 1869.
“By that point, Nantucket well out of picture,” the “Nantucket” documentary notes. “The city in the middle of the ocean was evacuated. It went from a population of 10,000 to 3000 in a matter of decades, like a sleeping beauty castle, waiting 100 years with only the memories of whaling.”
Now, the docent says, there is only one full-time Nantucket resident who is Quaker. “We get 5 to 8 people for Sunday meeting.” During that time, people sit and meditate; they do not even read a Bible.
I stop in at the Research Library where there is a stunning exhibition of needlepoint on display.
There is so much more to see; I make notes for my return visit:
Cisco Brewers (5 Bartlett Farm Road, 508-325-5929, http://ciscobrewers.com/ . The brewery operates its own free shuttle, noon to 6:30 pm daily on the half-hour, from Visitor Services at 25 Federal Street downtown.)
Bartlett’s Farm (33 Bartlett’s Farm Road, 508-228-9403, https://bartlettsfarm.com/; located about 10-minute walk from Cisco Brewers.)
The ever-shifting sandbars lurking beneath the waters around Nantucket have caused between 700 and 800 shipwrecks, making lighthouses necessary navigational aids. Besides the Sankaty Head Lighthouse which we have seen there are two others that are worthwhile visiting:
Brant Point Lighthouse, standing at the entrance to Nantucket harbor, is the second oldest lighthouse in North America, first built in 1746 (the oldest is Boston Harbor Light c. 1716). Over the years, it has been moved and rebuilt more times than any other lighthouse in the country. The present lighthouse is the ninth one built on Brant Point. It is 26 feet tall wooden tower topped with a fifth-order Fresnel lens that was built in 1901. Still in active use, it is owned by the US Coast Guard and closed to the public, but you can visit the grounds (www.nps.gov/nr/travel/maritime).
Great Point Lighthouse (also called Nantucket Lighthouse), New England’s most powerful lighthouse, sits at the extreme northeast end of the island. A wooden tower was quickly built and the station with a light was activated in October 1784 (and destroyed by fire in 1816). The following year a stone tower was erected which stood until toppled in a storm in March 1984. The Lighthouse was rebuilt again in 1986, the stone tower was built to replicate the old one, and still remains in operation today. Modern additions include solar panels to recharge the light’s batteries, and a sheet pile foundation and 5-foot thick concrete mat to help withstand erosion.
Nantucket also offers miles upon miles of beach open to all. And thanks in large part to the early efforts of the Nantucket Conservation Foundation, nearly half of the island’s 30,000 acres are protected. A network of beautiful cycling paths wind through the island.
Contact the Nantucket Chamber of Commerce, Zero Main Street, Nantucket, MA 02554, 508-228-3643.
Now it is time to return to the Grand Caribe. (they make it very easy to step from the launch boat onto the stern of the ship through an open bay).
I’m back in time for the farewell cocktail reception, an open bar with delicious hors d’oeuvres. Dinner is lobster tail or prime rib (both fantastic); vanilla gelato or crème brule.
We are eating dinner when the fog starts rolling in most dramatically. Within minutes, it is difficult to see even the boats anchored nearby. The foghorn blasts every few minutes – which is funny as we sit in the lounge watching the movie, “Overboard,” when the blasts seem coordinated. (Jasmine, the cruise director, has opted for this romantic comedy instead of the movie “Perfect Storm.”)
It will be a nine-hour sail back to Warren, Rhode Island where the Blount Small Ship Adventures is based. Captain Patrick Moynihan tells us to anticipate three to four foot seats for about an hour when we reach Rhode Island waters.
Each time I visit Newport, Rhode Island, the guided tours of these Gilded Age mansions get better and better, more immersive into the lives upstairs and downstairs, more intriguing, and the relevance to society today more apparent. The gap between rich and poor hasn’t been this great since Cornelius Vanderbilt II built his palatial summer “cottage,” The Breakers.
Newport is still a playground for the rich – it is the reason it is the home to the International Tennis Hall of Fame and considered the sailing capital of the country, why it is so associated with classic cars – but the interesting thing is you don’t have to be rich to play, too.
This most recent visit to Newport comes as a port of call on the second day of Blount Small Ship Adventures’ week-long voyage to New England islands. We have a full day to explore, and sailing in gives a very different perspective.
We also are able to experience Newport from the perspective of how well the destination accommodates visitors with mobility issues.
Our ship, Grand Caribe, docks at Fort Adams State Park, “America’s largest coastal fortification,” a short stroll to a launch or a water taxi to the “downtown”.
Many of our fellow passengers are taking the island tour that the ship offers, which will include a stop at The Breakers, and the cruiseline had also arranged a 2-hour sail aboard an America’s Cup classic yacht (which had to be canceled because of weather). But I have some particular goals for our day in Newport.
We are met by Andrea McHugh from Discover Newport who has organized an itinerary to maximize our time gives us our own island tour (as well as the gossip of which tech billionaire has just bought which house, and how Jay Leno, who visited and attended events at the new Audrain Automobile Museum (which we will visit), passed an oceanfront mansion he liked and bought it on the spot, and now is seen regularly tooling around).
We drive along the magnificent 10-mile long Ocean Drive with its scenic views and rocky shore, and pass the driveway into Hammersmith Farm, the Auchincloss estate where Jackie married John Kennedy. It used to be open to the public with a fantastic exhibit of the Kennedys but was acquired by Peter Kiernan (notable for the Robin Hood Foundation, funded by John Jr.), and is no longer open.
We pass Beechwood, a mansion once owned by the Astors and for many years, where actors played their parts in period dress. It is now owned by Larry Elllison (Oracle), who, we are told, is planning to open part of the mansion as an art museum.
We pass Belcourt, once owned by Oliver H. P. Belmont (who became the second husband of Alva Vanderbilt), which was purchased in 2012, by Carolyn Rafaelian, who has spent a considerable sum on a multi-year restoration and has reopened it for public tours.
We arrive at The Breakers, probably the most famous (and emblematic) of the Newport Gilded Age mansions that line Bellevue Avenue. It has a new visitor center which is really well done – barely visible from the street, it blends in wonderfully architecturally while affording a very comfortable (air conditioned) place to pick up tickets (take advantage of the multi-ticket options offered by The Preservation Society, which operates 10 of these glittering Newport Mansions, each with special exhibitions and presentations (see NewportMansions.org), refresh at a delightful café (sandwiches, $9.95), and utilize accessible restrooms (before, it was difficult for people with mobility issues to access a bathroom on property).
Each time I visit, I find new things to appreciate and understand– audio-guides, for example, which replace the scheduled docent-led tours so let you tour at your own pace, are endlessly fascinating with opportunities to click on specialized topics. (A free app, Newport Mansions, let you download the commentary on a smart phone even when you aren’t touring the property.)
(The audio-guide lets you know that people who can’t climb the stairs can ask a docent to escort them upstairs in an elevator.)
Built by Cornelius Vanderbilt II (the grandson of “The Commodore,” the founder of the fortune, who turned a ferry boat into a shipping empire into a railroad empire), this breathtakingly grand, eye-popping, 70-room Italian Renaissance “cottage,” designed by Richard Morris Hunt, replaced a wooden structure that burned down. This was 1895, and the United States was jockeying for a position as an industrial power on the global stage. Hunt, the commentary relates, had a vision for an architecture expressing an American Renaissance, one that was classic, grand in scale, but that which reflected the hope and optimism of America.
It is mind-boggling to recall when you see the gilding, the carefully carved wood, the marble, the artwork, that this palace (they called it a “cottage”) was only used about eight weeks of the year, during “the season.” The Breakers would have had 40 staff in summer (Newport had 2,000 servants, mostly immigrants).
The Breakers is as much an architectural and artistic treasure as a touchstone to social, cultural and political currents of the Gilded Age.
We learn about the family and the social structure of Newport: Mrs. Alice Claypoole Gwynne Vanderbilt’s bedroom, for example, also functioned as an office from which she ran the home.
Newport was actually run by women, we learn. These grand homes were designed to present their wealthy daughters (heiresses) to be snapped up for a favorable marriage.
Dressing was important. Women would have to change something like seven times a day (a riding habit, tea gown, bathing outfit, tennis, golf, sailing). Newport was the first place women played outdoor sports; whole new fashions were created.
The Breakers had 15 bedrooms and 20 bathrooms (we see one bathtub, carved from a single block of marble that was so cold, it had to be fully filled and drained several times before it would be warm enough to bathe in.)
We see the servants corridors, hidden closets and back stairs. “Female servants were invisible.”
When we arrive in daughter Gertrude Vanderbilt’s bedroom, we learn that she was upset to learn she was an heiress. She preferred to be an artist, and became a sculptor, an art collector and patron and, in 1931, founded the Whitney Museum. (Here, I click the audio guide for more detail on specific things: Gertrude was on the forefront of the New Woman, an educated girl. The idea to become an artist came to her in a dream.)
We come to the mezzanine overlooking the grand staircase. (People who cannot climb stairs can ask to be escorted to an elevator.) “Gilded Age Newport was built, managed, and maintained by women. It was the backdrop for the presentation of women” at a time when a woman’s fortune depended upon making a favorable marriage.
We learn that the grand staircase stairs were built (and even rebuilt) to be two inches shorter, so the young debutantes could be presented in their gowns without fear of tripping.
At this portion of the tour, you can click on the audio guide to hear more detail about how the Vanderbilt’s attained such wealth and privilege (but it is really, really hard to keep the players straight without a scorecard – so many have the same name like British royalty).
The Commodore left the vast majority of his enormous fortune to his eldest son, William Henry Vanderbilt (“Any fool can make a fortune; it takes a man of brains to hold onto it,” Cornelius Vanderbilt said.) Though he outlived his father by just eight years, in that time William doubled the Vanderbilt wealth from $100 million to $200 million.
In the oddest quote on the audio-guide, William Henry Vanderbilt explains why he sold controlling stock of the Vanderbilt empire to a syndicate headed by JP Morgan: “The care of $200 million is too great a load for any brain or back to bear. It is enough to kill a man. I have no son whom I am willing to afflict with the terrible burden.” The commentary adds, “Without a single visionary leader like the Commodore, there was no one to invest in the next new technology. Automobiles and airplanes replaced the railroads, the once vast fortune was split and shared among generations of descendants.”
When we visit the kitchen, we get to appreciate some of the modern innovations of the house. The first Breakers burned down so when Cornelius II rebuilt it, he had the kitchen separated from house and no burners. Zinc, the stainless steel of its day, covered the worktable. There was a separate, smaller room which could be kept cool, for preparing pastry.
It is worthwhile to appreciate that as we see the trappings of obscene wealth, privilege and power, we also get to appreciate that the servants – who were mainly immigrants – saw their position in these mansions as improvements, and many were able to embrace the American Dream and move up in station and class. The Breakers’ chef, we learn, started as a kitchen boy and became known as the Omelette King.
The Butler’s pantry, a two-story affair, had a safe for the butler to lock the silver away. The butler, we are told, was like the captain of ship.
Leaving The Breakers, we walk down to the Cliff Walk, the most visited attraction in Rhode Island, and for good reason. This is a delightful walkway along the cliffs (mostly paved and accessible for someone who uses a cane or, as I urge instead, hiking sticks), behind the grand mansions such as The Breakers, and free to enjoy. It extends 3.5 miles all the way to Doris Duke’s Rough Point (where the walkway becomes more scrappy). Today, we only get a taste of it, in order to conserve time and energy.
If The Breakers is about patriarchal wealth, power and privilege, Marble House, built before The Breakers by Cornelius II’s sister-in-law, Alva Erskine Smith Vanderbilt, tells the story of burgeoning feminism and what happens when a smart, ambitious woman has few outlets for her vast talents beyond making an advantageous marriage.
Marble House (which we reach by hopping Newport’s delightful trolley-style bus) was designed by the architect Richard Morris Hunt (who also designed The Breakers). Inspired by the Petit Trianon at Versailles, Marble House was built between 1888-1892 at a cost of $11 million of which $7 million was spent on 500,000 cubic feet of marble. When it was finished, William Kissam Vanderbilt, the Commodore’s grandson, gave the house to his wife as a 39th birthday present.
Alva built Marble House to be “a cottage like nothing Newport had ever seen.” As it turns out, Alva Vanderbilt was also like nothing Newport had never seen.
The Gothic Room featured an important Gothic collection from Europe, which Alva purchased “en bloc” – the whole caboodle. “She considered herself equal to European collectors but didn’t want to collect over generations.” The room was designed and executed in Paris – then reassembled here piece by piece.
At a time before there were public museums, this room became a private museum.
The most revealing room into Alva’s soul is the library (the “morning room”), where you see photos of Alva’s children and a portrait of Harold, born when her oldest, Consuelo was 7, who came back one day to find she had a baby brother and was told “God had sent him to us.”
The room is Alva’s feminist declaration, decorated with images of goddesses representing beauty, wealth and power. She wove into the frame and the fabric of the room images of women’s accomplishment – women holding a quill pen, Cleo, the Greek muse of history, female images of learning and the arts – the four corners showing (mythical) women in chemistry, botany, astronomy.
“In education, women have made tremendous strides,” she said. “It is not so long since women freed themselves from their man-made belief that it was unwomanly for a woman to have an idea of her own.”
She also said, “A man’s brain is not half a brain and we are the other half. Blending of the two will make a better whole.”
Her bedroom also was a display of the power she coveted – a bed on a throne-like platform, and images of Athena – goddess of wisdom and war.In this period, though, she saw social standing – that is, marriage to wealth – as a woman’s only means to power and independence. She applied this to her daughter, Consuelo, and raised the child to marry royalty.
Consuelo seems to have been Alva’s obsessive focus. You hear how she was groomed to be married off to European royalty – from childhood forced to wear a steel rod from her neck to waist with a strap around her shoulders, to force her to sit up straight.
From her quotes, Consuelo seems to be fully aware of how she was being dominated by her mother, yet was a dutiful daughter, very close to her mother and understanding. We visit her austere room decorated by her mother which, she says, “reflected in my mother’s love of me.”
We see the guest room – the only one in this fabulous mansion – decorated in rose silk, with an 18th century bed. The most famous guest was, of course, the 9th Duke of Marlborough, Consuelo’s intended. We learn there is only one guest room in the house because people who would visit the house either had their own “cottage,” rented for the season or stayed in a hotel. “Marble House is built for the family.”
Consuelo “reluctantly accepted a proposal from the Duke of Marlborough.” She was one of the “Dollar Princesses,” American heiresses who married foreign royalty.”Consuelo Vanderbilt not the first or the last, but she was the best known.”
These marriages, “were a melding of the old world and the new world. They enabled royalty to maintain property and palaces for another generation.”
Indeed, the Gilded Salon – literally painted in 22 carat gold, the very epitome of Gilded Age – had a featured role in Duke’s marriage proposal.
But after Consuelo was married off to British royalty, Alva acted for herself, divorcing William K in 1895.
My favorite quote from the audio guide, “I was the first of my set to marry a Vanderbilt and the first to get divorced – but not the last.” Alva Erskine Smith of Alabama felt herself a pioneer for her class, a female knight reassuring others. “Mine was the first, but the first of many.”
She ditched William K. Vanderbilt to marry her husband’s best friend, Oliver H.P. Belmont, moving down the street to Belcourt.
After Belmont’s death, Alva reopened Marble House and had a Chinese Tea House built on the seaside cliffs. She became active and a major donor to the Women’s Suffrage Movement, holding rallies in 1909 at Marble House.
She raised money for the cause by opening Marble House to the public: “Shop girls could mingle with socialites” for the price of a $5 ticket (which would have been equivalent to $500 in today’s money).
Alva insisted, “Women shouldn’t marry until we get vote,” a pronouncement considered hypocritical for a twice-married woman.
Following her mother’s example, after 26 years as Duchess of Marlborough living in Blenheim Palace, Consuelo ended her loveless marriage in 1921, giving him $2.5 million a year, and married “for love” a French aviator, Jacques Balsan. (More about these personal relationships in a fantastic photo gallery in the basement.)
In stark contrast to the grand (albeit austere) bedroom that Consuelo occupied, her brothers’ rooms were tiny and spartan; Willy K Jr.’s room was occupied by Marble House superintendent, William Gilmour, who joined the household when he was 16 to be Willy K’s companion.
We visit a trophy room (that had been converted from two dressing rooms that were between Alva’s bedroom and Consuelo’s), that recognizes sons William K., Jr.’s role in pioneering the sport of auto racing in America (he created the Vanderbilt Cup auto races and built the Vanderbilt Parkway which starts across from where he had a home in Lake Success); and Harold Stirling, one of the finest yachtsmen of his era who successfully defended the America’s Cup three times and invented the game of contract bridge. Notably, as chairman of the board of Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Harold supported integration.”He wanted to be associated with positive, progressive thinking.”
In the basement kitchen (capable of feeding 100), we see yet another side of Alva in a quoted segment complaining “how the rich are exploited. When a shopkeeper learned my address, he said he made mistake of the price and added 50%.” This at a time when she paid a French chef (after all, you had to have a French chef), the massive sum of $10,000 (equivalent to $250,000 today).
We see in the cupboard silver trays etched with the children’s names and china made with “Vote for Women.”
In Marble House, too, people who have difficulty climbing stairs can ask to use an elevator, and the docents will find a place to sit and rest, as necessary.
In summer, the Preservation Society has 10 properties open, all with distinctive presentations and exhibits.
Rosecliff, the 1902 “fantasy in terra-cotta”, is presenting “Bohemian Beauty” celebrating the ideals of the Aesthetic Movement, personified by Oscar Wilde who visited Newport twice, with furniture, ceramics, wallpaper, glass, silver, paintings and clothing (thru Nov 4).
In addition, there are the homes and heritage sites operated by Newport Restoration Foundation including Rough Point and Whitehorne Museum (51 Touro St., Newport, RI 02840, 401–849–7300, newportrestoration.org).
Tennis, Classic Cars
Between The Breakers and Marble House, we take in some of Newport’s other distinctive attractions:
The International Tennis Hall of Fame, which features the original grass court where American tennis began. The museum features 2,000 artifacts spanning hundreds of years of tennis history (such as the patent for the game of tennis signed by Queen Victoria in 1874), displayed in redesigned galleries with some interactive exhibits. One of the newest, most novel exhibits features a hologram of tennis legend Roger Federer who offers the top 10 reason why he loves tennis. The Hall of Fame honors hundreds of the most accomplished champions, inducted since 1954. After touring the museum, you can explore the seven-acre historic grounds of what the Vanderbilts’ would have known as the Newport Casino (the Tiffany clocktower and Shingle style building was originally developed by architects McKim, Mead & White in 1880), grass courts of the Bill Talbert Stadium and newly built indoor courts (you can even rent time to play on its grass courts). Here, too, we are able to request the use of an elevator to get up to the exhibits on the second floor. (194 Bellevue Avenue, www.tennisfame.com).
Audrain Automobile Museum offers regularly changing exhibits based on its private collection of 250 cars (every one in working condition), from 1899 to modern day, as well as special events. Ever changing exhibits display 15 to 20 cars at a time around a theme. We had just missed the “Muscle Car Madness” exhibit featuring cars of the 1950s and 1970s, accompanied with surf boards and original art.) On view now are some intriguing cars I had never seen before: Messerschmidt, which after World War II when Germans were no longer allowed to build airplanes, used airplane parts to create a micro-car that basically looks like a cockpit with wheels. A French version is also on view. “They aren’t great to drive,” says the young docent who drove it and says all the cars on display have to be in working condition. (Audrain Automobile Museum, 222 Bellevue Avenue, 401-856-4420, audrainautomuseum.org)
We enjoy a marvelous lunch at Annie’s bistro café (176 Bellevue Ave., anniesnewport.com) – elegant dining in a casual atmosphere and the best New England clam chowder anywhere –before hopping a trolley-style bus for a short ride to Marble House (you can see the schedule on googlemaps.com on your smartphone).
Andrea returns us to the Grande Caribe, where it is too late to explore inside the fort, but I walk along the Bay Walk (a 2.5 mile loop with gorgeous views of Narrangansett Bay and Newport Harbor) before returning to the ship for the cocktail hour and dinner. (Blount Small Ship Adventures, 800-556-7450, www.blountsmallshipadventures.com).
This was what you could do with one full day in Newport. There is so much more to do, and so deserving of a return multi-day visit. Top on my list: Doris Duke’s Rough Point (newportrestoration.org); Touro Synagogue and Loeb Visitors Center (tourosynagogue.org), Redwood Library and Athenaeum (opened in 1750 and has a collection of more than 200,000 titles, www.redwoodlibrary.org), and The National Museum of American Illustration (americanillustration.org), to list but a few.
See more and plan your visit: Discover Newport, 23 America’s Cup Avenue, Newport, RI 02840, 800-326-6030, 401-849-8048, www.discovernewport.org.
The New Bedford Whaling Museum calls its special exhibition a “A Spectacle in Motion” – a title that proves to be anything but hyperbole. Imagine before documentary, before moving pictures, before photography, where the only way people could see images of places beyond their own experience was through painting, etched drawings in newspapers, or scrimshaw. Now imagine a whaling voyage that starts in New Bedford and travels thousands of miles to Fiji, painted on one mural, nearly one-quarter mile long – the longest painting in America. I can only imagine the sensation “The Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage ‘Round the World,” caused when it was first exhibited in 1849.
“Purrington & Russell’s Original Panorama: Whaling Voyage Round the World. Three Miles of Canvas” a poster from the Boston showing in 1849 proclaims. “Tickets 25 cents, half-price for children” (at a time when the sailors themselves earned $1 a day).
The mural, which is only rarely displayed in its entirety, has not been seen since the 1960s and is only on public view through October 8 by the New Bedford Whaling Museum, in New Bedford, Massachusetts (and very possibly never again), is a documentary of the whaling voyage, and while it stays still, it is you that gives it motion as you walk down the long, long stretch of each of the four panels – altogether nearly one-quarter mile long. But in its day, it was designed to be rolled so that it did in fact create a moving picture.
Coming upon this spectacle was one of the highlights of the Blount Small Ship Adventure cruise of New England Islands, all the more thrilling because it was completely unexpected, as most highlights and adventures are. As I was leaving the New Bedford Whaling Museum, I spotted a flyer saying that there was a free shuttle to “the mural.” I took a leap of faith and within moments, was traveling in the van for the five-minute, two-mile drive to the historic Kilburn Mills,as the van driver (a 47-year veteran of the museum who had a hand in moving it and laying it out to be photographed for the digitized exhibit) explained. Even after he gave me some sense of what the mural was about and why it needed to be housed in such a sprawling building, I was completely unprepared for what I would encounter. Indeed, seeing the Grand Panorama proved to be a thrilling experience and not a mere ‘viewing”. But as I climbed the flights of stairs to the fourth floor and got my first glimpse, it was, OMG. It took my breath away. Titling the exhibit “A Spectacle in Motion” was not over-selling.
The mural, in four panels each that stretches the entire length of the mill, is as long as the Empire State Building is tall; it is the longest painting in America.
Painted in 1848 by two New Bedford artists, Caleb Purrington and Benjamin Russell based on Russell’s actual around-the-world whaling journey, the mural documents every aspect of the places visited as well as key events. You see Pitcairn, settled by the Mutineers of the Bounty wound up; the scene as the whale rammed the Essex, the 1820 event that inspired Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick”; the island of Juan Fernandez off Chile, the temporary home of castaway Alexander Selkirk who was the model for Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe.” It shows in gory detail the harpooning of a whale, blood spewing into the water; the danger as whalers are thrown into the churning sea; the 1847 eruption of the volcano at Fogo, Cape Verde, spewing its orange-red lava; sailing through a dark furious storm.
The voyage starts in New Bedford, with the first section looking so much as it does from the water as we have seen, coming into port on Blount Small Ship Adventures’ Grande Caribe.
The last scene is in Fiji and the last panel is curious: it seems to depict two women, one giving birth and the other a midwife.
I can only imagine the sensation that The Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage ‘Round the World caused when it was first exhibited in 1849 – before documentary, before moving pictures, before photography, when the only way to get a visual impression of some place beyond your own experience was through painted or drawn images. But this goes so far beyond. Over the course of 1,275 feet, the mural documents the entire whaling voyage, from its departure from New Bedford, to Fiji Islands. Along the way, it shows the blood, gore, the dangers and hardships of whaling. And because you move, it is the closest thing to a “moving” picture documentary they would have had.
But where the mural transported these 19th century viewers to places on the globe they had never been – it was the 3D Imax, the Virtual Reality of its day- it transports us back in time. And in its day, it was designed to actually move. Before moving pictures, the scrolls were cranked on either side like reels of film, and displayed on a theater stage.
The New Bedford Whaling Museum calls the exhibit “Spectacle: A Voyage in Motion” in appropriate typeface that shouts its excitement. It is astonishing, captivating, awesome – on so many levels – the sheer size and ambition, the quality of the art – the delicacy and fine line of scrimshaw, stunning use of colors – the insights into the events – the importance of the subject, and on top of that, the achievement of restoring the painting – and finally, the enormity and rarity of the work being displayed at all – just the process of unrolling it and hanging it for display damages the painting.
The museum spent two years restoring the mural, which originally was shown by rolling it so that the images actually did move – and important details of that conservation process, along with historical notes, are provided that are fascinating.
The mural is displayed in four sections that each cover the entire length of an historic textile mill (textile manufacturing displaced whaling when that industry collapsed, and then was replaced itself in the 1950s when climate controls made it possible to manufacture more cheaply in the South, which was then replaced by tourism).
Given the extraordinary length, the fragility of the painting, the sheer cost of moving it, setting it up, and finding a room big enough to display it, this is the first time in generations that the entire Panorama can be seen by the public.
From where it is unfurled in the building two miles from the Whaling Museum, you travel around the world and back in time with the whalers without ever leaving the city. The exhibition’s interpretive panels and kiosks are fascinating to enrich the context and content of the Panorama, as well as to give a fuller appreciation of what went into the two-year restoration project.
The notes from the museum describe the Panorama as “a maritime artwork of national historical importance, authentically depicting a whaling voyage originating from the port of New Bedford in the mid-19th century. It was painted in 1848, by New Bedford artists Caleb Purrington and Benjamin Russell, who traveled it around the country as a commercial enterprise.”
The panorama as a form of public entertainment was developed in Europe in the late 18th century and subsequently made its way to the United States after demonstrating its commercial potential to an armchair traveler audience. Robert Barker, who patented this exhibition style, defined a “panorama” as “all view.”
He felt that spectators should feel like they were “really on the very spot,” that they should feel as if they were part of the scene in a surrogate reality, an imaginary “Grand Tour” of the world.
This is precisely what visitors will experience. It was the Virtual Reality of its day.
In the late 1840’s and early 1850’s, well before the age of cinema, the Panorama was designed and performed as a moving panorama, a form of entertainment where multiple scrolls moved across a stage similar to how a reel-to-reel film would later be shown.
But, “after years on display, the wear and tear on the 170-year old painting was so extensive that it was deemed worthless and impossible to conserve. After decades of conservation planning and method strategy research, the Museum brought this national treasure back to life and is proud to share it with the public. However, due to the extensive conservation efforts that have been invested into the painting, it will no longer be shown in its original format – as a moving panorama – as this would undo the extensive work recently completed.”
The Panorama drew crowds in the era of public entertainment before moving pictures and films. To celebrate this origin, the exhibition is coupled with dynamic and engaging programming all summer long. Live performances, contemporary artistic presentations, and other unique interpretations accompany educational programs and cultural celebrations.
Plan on being dazzled for at least one to two hours.
The exhibit is billed as a “once-in-a-lifetime experience” and is free and open to the public, through Columbus Day, October 8, 9 am to 5 pm at Kilburn Mill (the museum provides a free shuttle service every half hour from 10 am to 5 pm through Labor Day).
The Grand Panorama: The Experience
As the Panorama was being conserved, it was photographed at high resolution to produce this fully digitized recreation of the entire painting for the first time, allowing the Museum to create a exhibition of The Grand Panorama it calls “The Experience” – recreating the same experience the 19th century audiences had of seeing the original Panorama on a theatrical stage, with music and narration.
You stand on the bow of the world’s largest model whaleship, the Lagoda, and watch the Panorama scroll by in a life-sized digital format projected in a full theatrical setting, and experience what Benjamin Russell and other whalers saw as they left the port of New Bedford and traveled the sea in search of whales. This re-creates the experience that the 19th century viewers would have had, since the mural was originally rolled.
The stage set is based on drawings and prints from the period and is installed off the Lagoda’s bow so visitors can experience the performance from the deck, from theater seating on the floor level, or from vantage points to the port and starboard of the iconic whaleship.
Since the original score and narrative have been lost over time, they have been recreated and remastered for the new installation, and includes new research and points of interest.
Visitors are able to dive deeper into the specifics of the Panorama story on a large, touch-screen, interactive kiosk. The kiosk will have thematic tabs on various subjects, including a map of the voyage, related Museum artifacts and paintings, and the Panorama’s conservation history. You will be able to zoom in close to any scene or detail that interests you and get rich context for each section.
Enhancing the experience, artifacts from the Museum’s permanent collections further illustrate Russell’s own global travels and connect locations represented in the Panorama with relevant ethnographic material and objects. Exhibitions that tell the stories of Yankee Whaling, the connections with the Azores and Cabo Verde, as well as the many stories told in the existing Whaling Voyage ‘Round the World exhibition help amplify the content of the Panorama. The Panorama in the context of its own time – the era of the “public spectacle” is explored in the exhibition, and includes complementing pieces from the Museum’s permanent Collection.
While I strongly recommend the incomparable experience of seeing the mural first-hand and this Virtual Reality experience, the museum will also have an online digital version, an interactive designed to expand access to the Panorama and to supplement both the Spectacle in Motion exhibitions, the Original at the Kilburn Mill and The Experience at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. While it will work on a phone or tablet it has been optimized for desktop viewing.
The quality of the collection at New Bedford Whaling Museum – consisting of the merger of two private collections of whaling artifacts – is not to be believed, including what is claimed to be the largest collection of scrimshaw. I love the way the gallery rooms are like a warren – you come upon them.
I love the theming of the rooms: From Pursuit to Preservation: The History of Human Interaction with Whales; Energy and Enterprise: Industry an d the City of New Bedford; Enlightened Counters: the Two Nations of Manjiro Nakahama (about a 16-year old Japanese sailor who was rescued and spent eight years in New Bedford, the first Japanese person to live here, then went back to become a major counselor to the Emperor negotiating with the US and England) and The East Unlocks its Gates: American Whalers and Trade in Asia.
There is (of course) a Herman Melville room (while Melville never actually visited Nantucket before writing “Moby Dick,” he sailed from New Bedford on his whaling voyage), artifacts collected from around the world brought back by the whalers and opened the New Bedford people to the cultures of the world. There are sections dedicated to the Portuguese from the Azores and the sailors recruited from Costa Verde and how they impacted the diverse community in New Bedford. I am introduced for the first time to Captain Joshua Slocum, the first to solo circumnavigate the world.
An astonishing sight is the skeleton of a whale that is suspended from the ceiling as you enter the Museum, its bones with oily brown patches. It turns out that the bones still have oil which drips out and is collected in a jar below.
There is the world’s largest model whaleship, the Lagoda, at half-scale that takes up the entirety of the Bourne building, that you can climb aboard. In addition, there is the Mariner’s Home that is used for exhibit, and the Seaman’s Bethel which offers a superb video about whaling.
It drives home the theme that is so pressing today: “Trade: Expand American Ideas” (but also bring ideas back).
New Bedford Whaling Museum, 16 Johnny Cake Hill, New Bedford MA 02740, 508-997-0046, www.whalingmuseum.org.
They are contained within the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, a 13-block historic district of cobblestone streets, historic, stately buildings now juxtaposed with contemporary art galleries and funky restaurants and shops (my favorite: Sanctum – Folklorica: Apothecary and Witchwares, Tarot Reading). At the visitors Center, you can watch a 20-minute orientation movie and take in exhibits about whaling and New Bedford, “The City That Lit the World.” (www.nps.gov/nebe/planyourvisit).
This was one of the incredible highlights of our own voyage aboard Blount Small Ship Adventures’ Grande Caribe, on the third day of a seven-day New England Islands cruise. We docked in the port along with the largest fishing fleet on the East Coast, and could look through etched glass of the same port in 1914 of our ship. Arriving by ship – we had come from Warren, Rhode Island to Bristol and had come this morning from Newport and will be going on to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket – made this experience even more tangible.