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Posts Tagged ‘Washington’

The George Washington University has announced a major gift from Washingtoniana collector Albert Small. Small’s collection of rare books, maps, documents, and ephemera comes with a $5 million dollar fund that will be used to create a new museum of Washington history in the 19th-century Woodhull House on the GW campus.

In 2003 the Historical Society of Washington DC opened a new City Museum in the old Carnegie Library at Mount Vernon Square. Although there was considerable buzz when the museum first opened, it closed a year later due to lack of funds and poor attendance. It has since reopened with a smaller staff and a more limited range of programs and exhibitions. Local history can be complicated in Washington, where the Smithsonian museums, and the federal government in general, loom so large. The needs of tourists, as well as those of transient federal workers, often overshadow the needs of longtime locals. The new Small museum at GW seems to be a more focused project and it has the backing of a major university—hopefully it will fare better than the City Museum, and will provide some meaningful programming to help the residents of DC understand their city.

Meanwhile, I’ll take this opportunity to point out one thing I love from the DC urban history scene, something that does work for locals. It’s the Art on Call project, which restored police and fire call boxes throughout the city, and partnered with contemporary artists to fill them with interesting installations:

 

(Photos by Nick Eckert © 2009 via Cultural Tourism DC)

Each neighborhood chose its own theme for its call boxes, so they really do have a local, community feel. They often allude to nearby historic buildings, or to famous people who lived in the neighborhood. The Sheridan-Kalorama neighborhood even has a call box website with images of each box and a map of the box locations. So next time you are in DC put these call boxes at the top of your must-see list. Air & Space Museum can wait.

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When I was in China last month I spent a day in Hangzhou, a city of 7 million a few hours southwest of Shanghai. Like most Chinese cities, it has a temple for the god of the city. These gods serve as the spiritual counterpart to living local officials, protect their cities from all manor of problems (wars, natural disasters, crop failures), and also address the individual needs of residents.

Hangzhou’s current city god temple is not very old; it was built in the 1990s. But nonetheless it is beautiful, and well-sited. Surrounded by trees, it sits on Wu Hill, not far from the Hangzhou Museum, looking out at the entire city. Here’s the view from the temple toward West Lake:

And the view looking east, toward Hangzhou’s business district:

I’m not very religious, but the city god is a concept I can get behind. I’m thinking of America’s Rust Belt cities, struggling to reinvent themselves given new post-industrial realities. Or Washington, DC, which so often gets swallowed up by the federal government. Or New Orleans. These places could all use a god just for them, to give an extra push where us mere mortals fail.

Or a super-hero. Or a fairy god-mother. I’m not picky.

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In July of this year Asian Longhorned Beetles were found in six red maple trees in a wooded area about a mile from my house in Boston’s Roslindale neighborhood. Asian Longhorned Beetles bore into hardwood trees like birch, maple, and elm, eventually killing them if left untreated. Authorities consequently set up a quarantine area that includes my street. This means no one is allowed to transport firewood or yard waste out of the area, and an inspection is being conducted within the quarantine zone. There is a particular concern for the trees of Arnold Arboretum, which lies within the quarantine area.

In 2008 there was an Asian Longhorned Beetle outbreak in Worcester, Massachusetts. The city was forced to cut down 25,000 trees. Here’s a before and after comparison:

Worcester Street before, by Kenneth R. Law

Worcester Street before, by Kenneth R. Law

Worcester Street after, by Kenneth R. Law

Worcester Street after, by Kenneth R. Law

With old trees, as with historic buildings and artifacts, sometimes you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone. (more…)

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Forgive the recent silence; I have been preoccupied by a tough deadline. I was asked to write about my city museum research for a collection of essays on cities and memory, to be published (in Finnish) by the Finnish Literature Society. Now that I have sent my draft off to the editor, I can turn my attention back to you, dear reader.

One of the topics I discuss in my essay is historically-themed public art. I think it can be a particularly interesting way to interpret city history, and at the same time build meaningful urban spaces. Here are a few examples of particularly successful pieces:

First, there’s the sculpture pictured above, at the beginning of the post. It’s Balancing Act by Stephan Balkenhol, on Axel-Springer-Strasse in Berlin. It poignantly marks the borderland of the Berlin Wall with a larger-than-life figure of a man, perched on a section of the Wall as if it were a tightrope. The effect is iconographic: anyone who knows even a little bit about the history of Berlin immediately gets the message with no need for complicated interpretation. (more…)

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