Published: October 11, 2011
America’s temple of iconic historical artifacts, the Smithsonian, has long been revered for its landmark collections and innovative exhibitions. With untold numbers of items in its collections that document all facets of America’s past, it is perhaps best known for preserving history-making moments †especially through its collected works relating to groundbreaking inventions.
From the first propelled human flying machine to the light bulb, the uniquely American collections are vast with artifacts and inventions extending back through the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries.
Nineteenth Century Americans believed that the people of the United States shared a special genius for innovation, one that set them apart from the rest of the world. American ingenuity represented an idea that craftsmanship, scientific innovation and creativity were synonymous with world leadership and American pride.
“The Great American Hall of Wonders,” an exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, explores this belief through works of art, mechanical inventions and scientific discoveries. “It captures the excitement of citizens who defined their nation as a ‘Great Experiment’ sustained by the inventive energies of Americans in every walk of life,” according to the museum. The Smithsonian is the only venue for the exhibition, on view through January 8. It is organized by Claire Perry, the former curator of American art at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University, and now an independent curator who specializes in Nineteenth Century American cultural history.
“The exhibition examines the belief in American ingenuity that energized all aspects of Nineteenth Century society, from the planning of scientific expeditions and the development of new mechanical devices to the painting of landscapes and scenes of everyday life,” said Elizabeth Broun, the Margaret and Terry Stent director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. “The museum now occupies the noble historic building that was the Patent Office’s home during the Industrial Revolution, so it is a fitting place to display this exhibition about the innovative character of Americans.”
Investigating questions that are still relevant today, the exhibition documents “successful experiments of the past, as well as the ones that went awry, and invites today’s citizens to explore a valuable legacy left by the founding fathers: a belief in the transformative power of American inventiveness,” say the curators.
Featuring 160 objects from the Smithsonian’s collections, objects include paintings and drawings by preeminent artists of the period, such as John James Audubon, Albert Bierstadt, George Catlin, Frederic Edwin Church, Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, Thomas Moran, Samuel F.B. Morse and Charles Willson Peale.
Sculptures, prints, survey photographs, zoological and botanical illustrations, patent models and engineering diagrams are also included as the exhibition documents six subjects that helped shape America. “The buffalo, giant sequoia and Niagara Falls represent American beliefs about abundant natural resources for fueling the nation’s progress, while inventions such as the clock, the gun and the railroad linked improvements in technology with the purposeful use of time,” state the curators in the book that accompanies the exhibition, The Great American Hall of Wonders: Art, Science, and Invention in the Nineteenth Century.
“The United States began with an act of imagination,” writes Perry. “The topic of the exhibition is not science, art or mechanical innovation per se, but rather what Americans of the Nineteenth Century believed about those endeavors and how they deployed them to direct their lives and the nation. They considered ingenuity to be their most important asset.”
The exhibition was organized in conjunction with the US Patent and Trademark Office, which first occupied the National Historic Landmark building, beginning in 1840. President Andrew Jackson had authorized the construction of a fireproof patent office building on July 4, 1836. Designed to celebrate American invention, technical ingenuity and the scientific advancements that the patent process represents, the building was always intended for public display of patent models that were submitted by inventors. By the 1850s, more than 100,000 people each year visited the building, which became known as the “temple of invention,” to see the designs that filled display cabinets in the exhibition galleries.
Appropriately, Peale’s iconic self-portrait “The Artist in His Museum,” 1822, greets visitors at the entrance to the exhibition. The painting “embodies the ideas set forth in the exhibition,” says Perry. In the painting, Peale †museum founder, artist, scientist and inventor †depicts himself at the threshold of his museum, founded in 1784, a democratic reinterpretation of an Old World “wunderkammer” or cabinet of curiosities. Its galleries were filled with portraits of the founding fathers, natural history specimens, mechanical inventions and a massive mastodon skeleton.
At a time when many Americans feared that the country would not survive the passing of the founders’ generation, Peale insisted that it was not the revolutionary generation, but rather invention itself that lay at the heart of the national project. The next generation began to define what its democratic nation would be in its scientific and artistic descriptions of America’s bounteous nature and in mechanical inventions aimed at improving their lives, Perry notes.
The museum that Peale founded, which would later become the Philadelphia Museum and the Peale Museum, is considered the first. The trustees of his Philadelphia museum commissioned him to paint the full-length self-portrait to honor his “great contributions to science, art and mechanical improvements in the United States.” Peale took advantage of the commission to portray himself as a guide ready to embark on a tour of the museum’s scientific specimens, fine paintings and mechanical marvels.
Peale’s museum would eventually fail, and after his death it was sold to †and split up by †showmen P.T. Barnum and Moses Kimball.
Another celebrated work by Peale on view is “Exhumation of the Mastodon,” an oil on canvas executed circa 1806. The painting was executed to celebrate the discovery of two nearly complete mastodon skeletons in a New York bog. It depicts more than 70 figures, a sky filled with darkening clouds and a lightning bolt †to set the stage for a climactic moment when a worker arises from a watery pit holding a prodigious bone †the “first find.” Peale painted himself standing near the wheel of an enormous pump that he had devised for the excavation, clutching a drawing of an ancient bone and gesturing in jubilation.
Other paintings of note include “Buffalo Bull, Grazing on the Prairie,” an oil on canvas by George Catlin, circa 1832. The painting was executed by the artist-explorer after he envisioned that America’s native people and its great herds of buffalo would soon melt away in the face of advancing civilization.
As Albert Bierstadt put the finishing touches on “The Last of the Buffalo,” circa 1880, the people of the United States learned that the last of the great buffalo herds had indeed been nearly extinguished. Hunters still wandered the plains; however, it was soon confirmed by the US Army that the great herds that had once covered the prairie had all but vanished.
Another celebrated Bierstadt painting in the exhibition is “Giant Redwood Trees of California,” circa 1874. Once again recognizing a natural phenomenon, the artist recorded the wondrous trees before they, too, vanished.
Thomas Alva Edison is celebrated in a 1907 gelatin silver print by Pach Brothers Studio. Edison is considered one of the most prolific and celebrated Nineteenth Century American inventors. He developed a collaborative system of invention at his laboratory in Menlo Park, N.J., where scores of scientists, electricians and mechanics worked together under his direction to create new devices. Edison proved the practicality of an innovative work system as the laboratory filed an average of one patent application every nine days, accounting for more than 40 per year.
Patent models are included in the exhibition, and one of the more unusual examples is an extremely intricate model of a machine for making paper bags, US Patent No. 220925, from 1879. The model represents a historical moment in time not only for the invention itself, but the fact that it among the earliest submissions of a patent application by a woman, Margaret E. Knight, who was born in York, Maine, in 1838.
In 1840, Captain Frederick Marryat stated, “The Americans are a restless, locomotive people.” Nowhere is this depicted more accurately than in Andrew Joseph Russell’s ambrotype “East and West Shaking Hands at Laying of the Last Rail.” The early photographic image depicts the completion of the East/West corridor with railroad and state officials shaking hands and raising a champagne bottle as the workers who built the line gather around, perched on locomotives that faced each other †cow-catcher to cow-catcher.
During the Civil War, Congress passed the Pacific Railroad Act to lay out the terms of what The New York Times called the “greatest undertaking of western civilization,” the building of the transcontinental railroad. Included in the exhibition is the Last Spike, an oversized gold alloyed with copper railroad spike commemorating the one that Central Pacific Railroad director Leland Stanford drove into the final railroad tie of the transcontinental line 1869. It is said that Stanford missed the spike with his sledgehammer strike †one that was to mark the nation’s crowning moment, but workers came to the rescue and the spike was promptly hammered home. A telegraph was sent out to crowds waiting across the United States, sparking three days of national festivities.
An illustrated companion book accompanies the exhibition, written by Perry and co-published by the museum and London-based publisher D Giles Limited. It is available in the museum store and online (hardcover, $65; softcover, $45).
Smithsonian American Art Museum is at Eighth and F Streets NW. For information, 202-633-7970 or www.americanart.si.edu .
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