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There’s No Place Like Air and Space

While Dorothy’s ruby slippers may not have taken flight, they certainly did transport a young girl from Kansas to a faraway place called Oz and will be on display at the National Air and Space Museum while their permanent home at the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History undergoes extensive renovations. Some 150 objects make up the “Treasures of American History” exhibit, including Helen Keller’s Braille watch, Dizzy Gillespie’s trumpet and Star Wars characters R2-D2 and C-3PO. The exhibit will also feature a revolving collection of recent acquisitions, kicking off with artifacts and images relating to Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent recovery effort.

The $85 million restoration project is the largest in the museum’s 42-year history and will focus on three areas: enhancing the interior architecture, updating the infrastructure and building a state-of-the-art gallery for one of the museum’s most treasured artifacts—the Star-Spangled Banner that flew over Fort McHenry in 1814 and inspired Francis Scott Key to write what would become the national anthem. “Its new surroundings are part of a strategic plan to ensure the long-term preservation of the flag and to revitalize the entire museum to tell the story of America and help future generations understand what it means to be an American,” said Brent Glass, the museum’s director. The project is being funded by federal appropriations and by private donations.

Although most of the museum’s 3.5 million artifacts are in storage, several will be on display at other institutions. In addition to “Treasures of American History” at the Air and Space Museum, the Smithsonian Castle on the National Mall will host “Legendary Coins and Currency” through March 1. Traveling exhibits include the popular “First Ladies: Political Role and Public Image” (on the road through June 24) and “Sports: Breaking Records, Breaking Barriers” (on the road through December 31). The museum will also continue to produce online exhibits.

The Museum of American History is scheduled to reopen to the public in the summer of 2008.

USS Monitor Center to Open

The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia, opens the eagerly anticipated USS Monitor Center on March 9, the 145th anniversary of the first battle between ironclad warships. The 1862 battle between the Union Monitor and the Confederate ship Virginia marked the beginning of the iron age of naval warfare. Monitor sank in a storm off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, on New Year’s Eve 1862.

More than 30 years after Monitor’s discovery by a Duke University research vessel, the wreckage still offers up intriguing clues about life on a Civil War–era ship. In September, conservators retrieved four unfired .57-caliber rifle cartridges from Monitor’s revolving turret. The turret itself was an innovative piece of 19th-century technology that gave the two-gun Monitor a decided advantage over Virginia’s 10 stationary guns.

The 63,500-square-foot, $30 million USS Monitor Center will feature a full-scale replica of the ship and interactive exhibits on its social and technological history. Visitors will also be able to view conservation work on key components of the ship, including the turret, which was raised in 2002, and the 30-ton steam engine, raised in 2001. Conservation of these two objects alone is expected to take 15 years to complete.

Time Out of Mind

The Confederacy’s poet laureate lives on in the work of a modern-day troubadour. Scholars have noted striking similarities between the poetry of Henry Timrod and the lyrics of Bob Dylan’s latest album, Modern Times.

Timrod, a South Carolinian, could not serve in the Confederate Army because he had tuberculosis. But he documented the war in his poems, including “Ode Sung on the Occasion of Decorating the Graves of the Confederate Dead at Magnolia Cemetery, Charleston, South Carolina, 1866,” one of his best-known works. Timrod died in 1867.

Dylan is known to have an interest in Civil War history, and he wrote “Cross the Green Mountain” for the soundtrack to the 2003 film Gods and Generals. Dylan, like many other songwriters, has been criticized for not properly crediting his influences, but most of those familiar with Timrod’s work are glad that the obscure poet is getting some recognition. “He’s doing a great honor to Timrod,” University of Georgia English professor James Tiber told The New York Times. Tiber plans to reference the Dylan lyrics when he teaches Timrod’s poetry in his Southern literature courses.

U.S. Flag’s UK Roots?

Did a 14th-century stained-glass window in England inspire the design of the Stars and Stripes? The American Heraldry Society says no, but Selby Abbey in North Yorkshire displays an American flag just below the window donated to the church by the ancestors of George Washington.

The window, which dates to 1585, bears the de Wessington family’s coat of arms—a white shield with two horizontal red bars and three red mullets, or spiked spur wheels, that resemble five-pointed stars. Washington used this coat of arms on his personal seal and bookplate.

The story connecting the window and the flag has circulated since the 19th century, despite the lack of historical evidence that Washington had any involvement in the flag’s design. Still, Selby Abbey has successfully promoted its link to the Washington family in its appeal to raise money for restoration work on the abbey, which was founded by William the Conqueror in 1069. Three American donors contributed funds to have the Washington Window cleaned and re-leaded.

The window is believed to commemorate John Wessington, a 13th-century prior of Durham Cathedral. Washington was a direct descendant of Wessington.

Nomads No More

Archaeological digs near the Foxwoods Resort Casino in Mashantucket, Conn., shed new light on the area’s native inhabitants.The casino is owned and operated by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, which also manages the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center. It has long been believed that the people who lived in eastern Connecticut 9,000 years ago were nomadic hunters who did not build permanent quarters. But the digs have revealed dozens of pit houses, shelters with timber supports that were built into hillsides.

Dan Forrest, a senior archaeologist with the Public Archaeological Survey Team at the Mashantucket site, said that the pit houses were occupied for several months at a time and their occupants gathered food in the Great Cedar Swamp. “When they move off this site,” said Forrest, “it suggests they’re doing something different altogether, like fishing.”

Forrest is looking for links between the Mashantucket settlements and those found in northern New England. Similarities could indicate that the region was more densely populated and interconnected than previously thought.

A Yank Comes Home

The Pentagon’s Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, which was established in the 1960s, positively identified its first World War I casualty in September. The remains of Private Francis Lupo, of Cincinnati, were discovered by a French archaeologist in 2003. Lupo served in Company E, 18th Infantry of the 1st Infantry Division. He was killed near Soisson, France, on July 21, 1918, during the Second Battle of the Marne. The battle marked the Allies’ first offensive victory in 1918, but the 1st Division suffered a 68 percent casualty rate.

Private Lupo was buried with honors at Arlington National Cemetery.

Cuban Assistance

The 45-year-old trade embargo imposed on Cuba by the U.S. government prohibits American financial aid for a historic site that is rapidly deteriorating. For more than 20 years, Ernest Hemingway lived 12 miles outside Havana at Finca Vigia (Lookout Farm). It was there that he wrote some of his best-loved works, including The Old Man and the Sea, which helped win him the 1954 Nobel Prize for Literature.

Hemingway’s villa contains 9,000 books, many with handwritten notes in the margins, as well as thousands of personal letters and original drafts of book manuscripts. The site has long been a tourist attraction maintained by the cash-strapped Cuban government.

The nonprofit Hemingway Preservation Foundation in Winchester, Mass., and the National Trust for Historic Preservation have developed a conservation plan for Finca Vigia and its artifacts. In 2005 the U.S. Treasury Department, which enforces the embargo, granted travel licenses for representatives of the organizations to go to Cuba as an advisory body. In September 2006, Rosalba Diaz, a curator at the Hemingway Museum in Havana, received a rare visa from the Treasury Department to come to the United States to learn conservation techniques at the Northeast Document Conservation Center in Andover, Mass.

Once the conservation work has been completed, the original documents will remain in Cuba. Researchers will be able to view digitized copies at the John F. Kennedy Museum and Library in Boston.


Originally published in the February 2007 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here