Smithsonian Magazine January/February 2021

Smithsonian Magazine takes you on a journey through history, science, world culture and technology with breathtaking images from around the world.

United States
Smithsonian Institute
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5 min
“nailed all the elements we revere about da vinci’s mona lisa.”

Dog Days I enjoyed the article about canine cognition (“Evolution of a Friendship”). When I got to the sentence about half of all the spending on pets being embezzled and gambled away by cats, I roared with laughter. My cat, sitting next to me, chuckled and demanded to know why I was reading instead of making her dinner. Perhaps cats really are smarter than dogs. — Don Bonney | Discovery Bay, California I was charmed by the December cover photo by Shaina Fishman of Oakley, the Australian shepherd puppy. Oakley has a slight turn of the head, a coy sideways glance and just a hint of a smile: nailed all the elements we revere about da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. — George Hiner | Nevada City, California Every dog has its own personality and motivation. Certainly…

2 min
in museums, we trust

AS MUCH AS THE NEW YEAR is a time for new hopes and new resolutions, it also invites us to reflect. With the Smithsonian planning for the busy year ahead, I find myself looking back over my years at this institution, at the moments that have shaped my professional and personal life. Two decades have passed since my team raced to finish the exhibition “The American Presidency,” opening just ahead of the inauguration of President George W. Bush. This February marks the fourth Black History Month since the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, for which I proudly served as founding director. And the year I’ve spent as Smithsonian Secretary has been one of striving and sprinting to respond to seismic shifts that have shaken…

5 min
going nuts

NORTH AMERICANS WEREN’T THE FIRST to grind peanuts—the Inca beat us to it by a few thousand years—but peanut butter reappeared in the modern world because of an American, the doctor, nutritionist and cereal pioneer John Harvey Kellogg, who filed a patent for a proto-peanut butter in 1895. Kellogg’s “food compound” involved boiling nuts and grinding them into an easily digestible paste for patients at the Battle Creek Sanitarium, a spa for all kinds of ailments. The original patent didn’t specify what type of nut to use, and Kellogg experimented with almonds as well as peanuts, which had the virtue of being cheaper. While modern peanut butter enthusiasts would likely find Kellogg’s compound bland, Kellogg called it “the most delicious nut butter you ever tasted in your life.” A Seventh-Day Adventist,…

1 min

NO AMERICAN IS MORE closely associated with peanuts than George Washington Carver, who developed hundreds of uses for them, from Worcestershire sauce to shaving cream to paper. But our insatiable curiosity for peanuts, scholars say, has obscured Carver’s greatest agricultural achievement: helping black farmers prosper, free of the tyranny of cotton Born enslaved in Missouri around 1864 and trained in Iowa as a botanist, Carver took over the agriculture department at the Tuskegee Institute, in Alabama, in 1896. His hope was to aid black farmers, most of whom were cotton sharecroppers trapped in perpetual debt to white plantation owners. “I came here solely for the benefit of my people,” he wrote to colleagues on his arrival. He found that cotton had stripped the region’s soil of its nutrients, and yet landowners were…

1 min
master pieces

AS A LEADING SCHOLAR and curator of African American art, David Driskell, who died of Covid-19 last April at 88, worked to carve a place in the mainstream for generations of artists who, he said, “wanted to prove to a skeptical world that they were as good as anybody.” As an artist himself, Driskell created exuberant paintings and richly detailed collages steeped in black art history. In February, some 60 of his works will go on view in his first posthumous retrospective, at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art. Driskell’s seven-decade career stretched from the dawn of the civil rights movement to our current era of political polarization, and social justice themes, perhaps inevitably, run through his canvases. Still, says Julie McGee, the show’s guest curator, Driskell understood the importance of…

8 min
coda for the kid

IF YOU WERE SAUNTERING through the packed-dirt streets of back-of-town New Orleans in the 1910s, anywhere between Storyville and Gert Town, chances are you would have encountered several brass bands blowing a new flavor of music from wagons that promoted upcoming performances. But none of them blew like Kid Ory’s band. Ory wowed onlookers by stretching his trombone slide over the tailgate and blasting competing groups with his signature goodbye tune, “Do What Ory Say,” as the crowd cheered. “Kid Ory’s band would cut all of the bands during his tailgate advertising,” Louis Armstrong marveled in a 1970 interview. The origins of jazz have always been murky. While the early 1900s bandleader and cornetist Buddy Bolden is often credited with pioneering the “hot” improvisational brass music that became jazz, Ory is…