Archive for the ‘Multimedia’ Category

Van Gogh Museum’s exceptional French print collection online

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2016

The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam first got into the French turn-of-the-century prints when it bought 800 exceptional examples from a German private collection in 2000. Since then the museum has made a point of acquiring more outstanding pieces. There are just under 1,800 French prints from 1890-1905 in the Van Gogh Museum now, but they are almost never displayed because light exposure is so dangerous to them. As of today, 1,739 French fin de siècle prints from the Van Gogh Museum’s collection have been uploaded to a dedicated website where we can see them but light cannot harm them.

The reason the Van Gogh Museum has made a point of collecting French prints is that they’re very relevant to Vincent Van Gogh’s aesthetic, artistic interests and the milieu in which his art evolved. Printmaking really took off in France in the second half of the 19th century. Before then, prints were copies of well-known artworks, an inexpensive way to for the general public to have a faithful rendition of the Mona Lisa or Venus de Milo in their homes. Printmaking evolved into a valid artistic medium in its own right when French artists explored the possibilities of the form in a creative and engaging way. The Japonisme trend played a significant role in this shift, because the Japanese had such a rich tradition of artistic woodblock printing as evinced in the work of masters like Hokusai and Suzuki Harunobu.

Many of the greatest artists of the second half of the 19th century had print collections and experimented with lithography and printmaking in their own work. Prints appeared in the public and private spaces of Paris as posters, magazines covers, menus, theater programs, sheet music and books. The medium allowed artists to get their work out there on a large scale, to cross-pollinate with other art forms and even to control the supply and demand of their own output by deliberately creating limited editions coveted by the buying public.

Vincent Van Gogh died in 1890, so most of the prints in the collection were made after his death when the rage for printmaking in France reached its apex, but he and his brother Theo followed closely the explosion of printmaking in the fin de siècle. Both collected prints from their friends and contemporaries. The Van Gogh Museum’s print collection begins where Vincent’s collection began and then moves forward connecting the next generation of artists to those who influenced them.

Those connections are at the core of the Van Gogh Museum’s new online exhibition of the print collection. The French Printmaking homepage opens with a group of thumbnails. Click on one and take the plunge, or if you click on “Discover the prints” on the left side to get to a larger assembly of tiled prints. Those tiles of print thumbnails hover behind any individual print you chose to click on as well. Once you’ve clicked on one print, four themes appear at each corner that connect this print to others in the collection. Themes include the publisher, medium, technique, salient features of the print, subject, pattern, and on and on. The Van Gogh staff have assigned an astonishing 1,300 themes to the print collection, which makes it a browser’s paradise.

This approach gives a unique glimpse into the richness of the printmaking community of fin de siècle Paris. You can get an instant understanding of how artists shared the same printers, influenced each other in everything from the paper used to the visual motifs. When click on a print, you can see it’s stats, but there is no detailed paragraph or two explaining the setting, author, etc. that you might expect to find. Instead, the print and its contents are described by keywords, each of them hotlinks to more works in the collection that can also be described by those keywords.

I like me some words, so I was glad to see more than a group of descriptors when I clicked on individual themes. They’re full of information, links to more information, even a list of resources for further reading on your own. It’s a marvelously flexible and user-friendly system and so very highly conducive to lost weekending. And oh, the resolution. The beautiful, perfect, gloriously high resolution. It makes me feel kinda funny, like when we used to climb the rope in gym class.

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Browse 18,000 historic menus in the New York Public Library

Thursday, January 28th, 2016

The New York Public Library has a collection of more than 45,000 historical restaurant menus from the 1840s to the present. It’s one of the largest menu collections in the world and it’s still growing, with Culinary Collections librarian (such a great job title) Rebecca Federman at the helm. She is the latest in a line descending from a formidable visionary named Miss Frank E. Buttolph who began collecting every menu she could get her hands on, mainly by writing with unstinting dedication to restaurants, palaces, banquet halls, whoever had the goods all over the world.

It wasn’t a hobby or even about the food for her. Miss Buttolph dedicated her life to collecting menus because she believed they had genuine historical value. She made a point of seeking out menus used by notable personages or that were on the table when momentous events took place around them. Events include the coronation of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandria, the Prussian Siege of Paris in 1870, the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo where President McKinley was assassinated and a banquet thrown by Emperor of Japan for William Howard Taft, then Secretary of War, during the 1905 Taft–Katsura discussion.

An article published in the June 3rd, 1906, issue of the New York Times (pdf) acknowledged the drive for historic preservation underpinning her collection in amusing terms.

Miss Buttolph is making history for the year 2,000 which, should our present carnivorous natures by that time merge into a diet mild and milky, will hold this generation up as an example of brute force that should annihilate all our virtues and leave us in the eyes of our descendants a race of horror and greed, a pack of flesh-eating outcasts remarkable only for our gastronomic endurance.

While there are certainly a great many more calves heads, tongues, mutton and brain aspic than one commonly sees on menus today, there are also a surprising number of plain raw vegetable appetizers like celery or radishes. Just like a plate of celery. Coffee and tea appear the most frequently in the collection. Celery takes third place. The real stand-out to me, now that the year 2,000 has come and gone, is how lacking in variety so many of these menus are. Basically, if it’s fine dining, it has to be French or French-adjacent. There is little distinction between an 1843 breakfast menu in New York and a dinner menu from 1857 in Mobile, Alabama. It’s a lot of meat with French-like preparations, although at least the Battle House in Mobile had very respectable pie options. It’s all nuts and fruit in New York. Even the menu from the Streets of Mexico Restaurant at the Pan-American Exposition had far more ragout of beef, boiled trout with hollandaise and roast lamb with mint sauce than food remotely related to Mexico. The tamales and enchiladas (25 cents apiece), chili con carne, salsa and frijoles (15 cents apiece) at the very top of the menu were forced to carry the full burden of Mexicanness.

In 1899 Miss Frank E. Buttolph offered her collection of menus, already in the thousands, to the New York Public Library and offered to continue adding to the collection. NYPL director Dr. John Shaw Billings accepted both generous offers and Miss Frank collected menus for the library the next 25 years until her death in 1924. The Buttolph Collection of Menus had 25,000 menus in it at the time of her death.

Now it’s 20,000 items larger and close to 19,000 bills of fare have been digitized and are available to peruse online in the New York Public Library’s extensive digital collections. The digitization project is ongoing, but it’s not an easy job. Some of the menus are in very delicate condition and require conservation before they can be scanned. Meanwhile, the collection is only searchable at a very basic level. Information that was in the catalogue description — location, date range, name of hostelry — is the only data that can be searched digitally. The menu items themselves are not.

To remedy this, the NYPL started an open transcription project where volunteers can hand-enter all the details on the menu from food to wine list to prices. The power of the crowd is more effective in this case than OCR scanning because a lot of the menus have condition issues that make the letters less clear, crooked layouts or handwritten entries. A person would have to edit every OCRd page anyway, so best to cut the middleman.

It seems like the project is just about caught up right now. Every decade I clicked on showed the menu transcriptions as done, but bookmark this page and check it out once in a while for a new influx of digitized menus. There are a lot of treasures mentioned in several turn-of-the-century NYT articles that have yet to be digitized. I’d love to catch one of those fresh off the presses.

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George III’s huge map collection digitized

Wednesday, January 6th, 2016

The British Library has begun a massive project to digitize all of King George III’s 50,000-piece map collection. George III was an avid collector, not just of things he personally loved but in true Enlightenment style, of things he thought would be of intellectual value to the nation. He added significantly to the royal art collection, dedicated a lifetime to collecting books that he made available to all scholars (not even John Adams was barred) and put together an extensive collection of mathematical and scientific instruments.

Maps and topography were a genuine passion of the king’s and had been since he was a young boy. There’s a well-known portrait of George III when he was Prince of Wales with his younger brother Edward Augustus at their lessons with tutor Francis Ayscough. Next to the future king is a globe, a book with an imprint of the Prince of Wales’ feathers leaning against it. It’s a prescient image. Once he was king, his love of geography became professionally important as well, and there are accounts of his dedication to learning every detail about the topographical details of ports, fortresses and cities.

While British monarchs before him had squirreled away maps and atlases in various nooks of royal palaces, it was George III who brought them all together into a single collection that he then added to extensively. He had agents scouring Europe to acquire important pieces and even whole collections. He incorporated all gifts of maps and atlases to the monarch from his subjects into the collection. He even straight-up stole from royal engineers, military and colonial mapmakers who sent drawings, prints and watercolors for his inspection. Late 18th century land surveys done by British military surveyors for the American Board of Trade, for example, never made it to their commissioner. George was so enthralled with the series, which included a map of the Florida coast more than 22 feet long, that he just kept them all, bless his heart, and added them to the ever-expanding collection kept in a room next to his sleeping chamber in Buckingham House, then not yet an official palace.

By the time of King George III’s death in 1820, the Topographical Collection included 60,000 drawings, watercolors, manuscripts, prints, letters, reports and atlases dating from 1500 to the then-present. Half of the material covers Britain and its colonies (or former colonies after the American Revolution) while about 30% covers European countries like Italy and France that were popular Grand Tour destinations. The map collection was gifted to the nation by his son, George IV, along with the late king’s book collection. (He kept all the military maps for national security purposes.)

Originally dispatched to the British Museum, George III’s Topographical Collection was moved to the British Library. Despite its royal pedigree and historical significance, the full collection was never thoroughly catalogued. The British Library moved to remedy that in 2013, raising funds from private donors to catalogue, conserve and digitize George’s beloved maps. It’s a massive job, expensive in time and money, and the library still doesn’t have the funds needed to complete it. They’ve started piecemeal using the donations they have. So far they have conserved, catalogued and digitized all color views, the maps and atlases of South and North America, China, Scotland, southwest England, Spain and 30% of London and southeast England. As of last month, about 25% of the collection has been digitized.

Right now the project is working on the gem of the collection, the gigantic The Klencke Atlas which was the world’s largest atlas until the publication of the Earth Platinum atlas in 2012 which is new so as far as I’m concerned it doesn’t count. At 5’9″ by 6’3″ when open, the atlas is literally man-sized. It wasn’t actually one of George III’s acquisitions. The atlas was given to King Charles II, a known map aficionado, in 1660 by a group of Dutch merchants led by sugar merchant Johannes Klencke as a gift celebrating the king’s restoration to the throne. On its huge pages are 41 walls maps of Europe, Britain, Latin America, Asia and the Middle East. Charles II liked it so much he put it with his most prized objects in his cabinet of curiosities at Whitehall Palace.

The Klencke Atlas has long been a favorite with British Library staff — there are photographs of curators being dwarfed by it going back to the 19th century — but photographing the giant pages themselves in any kind of quality was all but impossible until recently. The technology now makes it possible to capture high resolution images of sections of every page and digitally knit them together into a single image. This will give viewers the chance to the see both the big picture, as it were, of each page and to zoom in on the tiny details — names, labels, etc. — that would have been too blurred out to read a decade ago.

The digitization of the Klencke Atlas and 80 other pieces was funded by a donation from rare book seller Daniel Crouch who has a lovely outlook on the matter.

Crouch admits that it is “an unsexy cause — it’s not like naming a gallery. It is the digitisation of a lot of old stuff.” He stresses that, although “it doesn’t sound important or life-saving, it actually is. It’s the kind of resource that will be used in years to come and will make the holdings of the British Library accessible to all.”

The digitization of the Klencke Atlas is scheduled to be complete by the end of 2016. Meanwhile, there’s the other 75% of the Topographical Collection that still needs love and attention before we can spend entire weekends on a nerd bender of George III’s maps. The British Library needs another £500,000 ($730,000) to finish the job. To donate to the digitization project, go here and select “Unlock London maps” from the dropdown (it should be selected by default) once you’ve chosen an amount and clicked through.

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Speaking of the Rijksmuseum…

Saturday, November 21st, 2015

Some of you might remember the greatest of all flashmobs that was created to celebrate the reopening of the museum and the return of Rembrandt’s The Night Watch to its original location. It’s been more than two years since I posted it, and I still regularly rewatch the video. It’s just so, so good. A quick refresher for those of you not as obsessed as I or for anyone who may have missed it the first time:

The only bad thing about that sublime video is that it’s too short. I said at the time that I wished there were a director’s cut so we could see more of the story as it unfolds. Well, there isn’t a director’s cut, but there’s a making of video! It was uploaded a week after the first one and since I watched the embed on the blog entry rather than going to the YouTube channel, despite my repeated viewings I didn’t realize the second one was there. I’m making up for it now, though. I’ve already watched it three times. I love the curator puttering around like a kid at Christmas fixing people’s costumes and props. Click the CC icon for English subtitles.

There’s one thing I wish they’d addressed that has niggled at me all these years: why did they cast the taller man as Willem van Ruytenburch (in the fabulous yellow outfit) and the shorter man as Frans Banninck Cocq (in the center with the red sash)? In the painting van Ruytenburch’s shortness is very noticeable, and since he was Banninck Cocq’s lieutenant, their comparative height was a meaningful distinction that communicated their difference in status. The curator sniffed about the purple outfit one of the guards was wearing as inaccurate. Surely he had something to say about the choice to make van Ruytenburch so tall.

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The Great Thanksgiving Listen

Wednesday, November 18th, 2015

If like me you’ve wept openly at StoryCorpsFriday broadcasts on NPR’s Morning Edition for the past decade, or at their beautiful animated shorts on PBS, you may have wondered how to go about recording the oral histories of your own loved ones. StoryCorps uses professional radio equipment to record and has a platoon of trained volunteers to facilitate the interviews. Interviews are recorded one at a time in the StoryCorps MobileBooth that travels the United States or in one of the permanent StoryBooths in New York, Chicago, San Francisco or Atlanta.

Despite its limited geographical reach, StoryCorps has been able to record thousands of stories a year and now have more than 65,000 recordings from 100,000 participants. This Thanksgiving, they hope to at least double that figure in just one long weekend. Obviously they don’t have 65,000 sets of radio equipment and facilitators. This goal can only be achieved with new technology, and that’s what StoryCorps has created.

Every year the TED conference awards a $1 million prize to someone with “a creative, bold vision to spark global change.” StoryCorps’ founder Dave Isay was the winner of the 2015 Ted prize and his bold vision was the StoryCorps.me app, a smartphone app that anyone anywhere in the world with an Android and iOS device could download and use to record high-quality audio.

That vision has now become a reality. More than $400,000 of the prize money went to the development of the app; the rest was spent creating a dedicated website and adding server capacity so that interviews can be uploaded directly to the site. The free app extends StoryCorps’ range to the entire world.

Armed with a working beta of the StoryCorps.me app, anyone can participate in the Great Thanksgiving Listen. The project seeks to take advantage of a holiday where multiple generations of family and friends are locked together in a house with no way easy way out. The focus of the initiative is on working with high school teachers to encourage their students to record a grandparent or other senior family member during Thanksgiving weekend as part of their social studies, history, civics, journalism and political science classes. There’s a teacher toolkit (pdf) with instructions for students on how to plan and conduct the interview as well as the mechanics of recording and uploading the result. All interviews recorded this weekend will be uploaded not just to the StoryCorps website, but also the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.

It’s not just for students, however. Anybody with a compatible device can take their shot at capturing the invaluable oral histories of a whole generation of elders. The app helps users prepare questions, find the best location for the interview, record the conversation on a mobile device, take a photograph to accompany the interview, share the completed recording with friends and family celebrating the holiday and finally upload the interview. It also provides editing tools. All recordings uploaded in the first year will be archived at the Library of Congress as well as on the StoryCorps.me website.

“In this time of great disconnect and division, we hope the Great Thanksgiving Listen will prove a unifying moment for the nation,” said Dave Isay, StoryCorps’ Founder and President​. “We are excited to use the new StoryCorps app to bring the country together in a project of listening, connection and generosity. Together we will collect the wisdom of a generation and archive it for the future, while at the same time reminding our grandparents how much their lives and stories matter.”

Download the StoryCorps.me app here and start planning your interview now. If you haven’t watched or heard any of StoryCorps’ interviews, please check them out on StoryCorps’ website. The animations are here, the audio interviews here.

Here’s one example of the kind of profoundly meaningful oral history these conversations record:

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Tour the British Museum online with Google

Saturday, November 14th, 2015

The Google Cultural Institute (GCI) and the British Museum have worked together to make it possible people all over the world to enjoy the museum’s many offerings from the comfort of their homes. So far 4,654 objects and artworks have been made available for our perusal. Google’s Street View cameras have trundled through the museum’s vast halls, so you can virtually walk through them from the second basement to the fifth floor, the largest indoor space yet captured on Street View. They’ve even captured the outdoors so you have a stroll around the beautiful museum building itself.

The British Museum has an excellent website with more than 3.5 million objects in its searchable database, 920,000 of them with one of more photographs attached. Many of the pictures are very good, but even the largest of them are modestly sized (the usual caveat regarding my obsession with high resolution photography applies, of course) and there are a significant number that look dated or are in black and white. It’s a wonderful thing, therefore, to have fresh images of thousands of objects in ultra high resolution courtesy of Google’s gigapixel cameras.

For example, the museum’s entry for the Admonitions Scroll, a Chinese painted silk handscroll more than 11 feet long from the 5th to the 8th century that depicts scenes from a 3rd century court poem, has 247 images. If you want to explore the details, you can go through the pictures one by one, but it’s tedious to have to go back and forth and the photo quality is less than satisfying. There are duplicates, old black and white shots and none of the pics I clicked on are more than 750 pixels wide. The scroll looks dingy, the painting dim.

Contrast that with the version on the Google Cultural Institute’s British Museum page. It’s a whole different viewing experience, like someone turned the light on in the room. You can see the whole thing in front of you at once. You can view the work in a depth of detail that you couldn’t possibly achieve in person unless your name is Steve Austin and they’ve made your other eye bionic too. You can see the weave of the silk, the individual hairs in the brushstrokes. It’s stupefying.

In addition to the objects from the permanent collection, there are also online versions of the museum’s temporary exhibitions, six of them right now with more to come. I’ve been pining to see Celtic Life in Iron Age Britain since it opened at the end of September. Gorgeous examples of Celtic metalwork, jewelry, objects of daily use and more are now viewable in detail online. It’s a curated online exhibit, not just a list of objects, arranged in a logical progression accompanied by explanatory notes. No Gundestrup Cauldron, though, sadly. It’s on the National Museum of Denmark’s GCI page, but not in gigapixel fun.

The collaboration between Google and the British Museum has also paved new territory for digital museum offerings. The Museum of the World microsite allows viewers to explore a timeline of artifacts divided into their continents of origin but then linked together by thematic connections. You swoop through time to a sparkly wind chimes sound effect while the objects load as polka dots, different colors for each part of the world — Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe and Oceania. When you click on one of the dots, you see a small thumbnail and the title of the object and lines radiate outwards connecting it to other objects. If you want to learn more, click again. The detail view has a text explanation of the piece, an audio description introduced by a narrator and expanded on by a relevant curator. Click on the picture to see it in high resolution. On the right side under the audio there’s a map so you can see where the piece came from and then a few thumbnails of related works if you’d like to skip directly their detail views.

I found it thoroughly engrossing. I scrolled all the way to the back of the timeline to the oldest artifact in the museum: a 1.8 million-year-old basalt chopping tool from the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. It has only one connected piece — an 800,000-year-old Olduvai handaxe — by the related objects thumbnails take you far afield to an archaic Native American birdstone (1,000-1,500 B.C.) and an early 19th century Inuit ulu (a crescent-shaped knife). Once you get to the handaxe, the radiating lines proliferate.

You can browse by continent — just click the name and all the other dots will disappear, click it again for them to return — or by the themes listed in the menu to the right. Click the three squares in the upper left corner to cut the scrolling and jump to specific times.

Seriously this feature is the rabbit hole of all rabbit holes. I would strongly recommend you only click on the first link when you have a nice chunk of time available, because there is no way in hell you’ll be able to stop once you get started. This is ideal lost weekend material.

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Lost Oswald the Lucky Rabbit film found in BFI archive

Wednesday, November 4th, 2015

Not one to be outdone by the National Library of Norway, the British Film Institute has discovered a lost Walt Disney film starring Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Unlike Empty Socks, the short found last year in NLN’s subarctic bunker archive of nitrate films, there wasn’t even a 25-clip of Sleigh Bells known to survive. No part of Sleigh Bells has been seen since it made its original release in 1928.

The six-minute animation was found in the BFI National Archive in Berkhamsted by a researcher searching the online catalogue. He recognized the name of the film as one thought lost. The print entered the BFI archive in 1981 as part of a collection of movies from a recently shuttered Soho film studio. It was titled and dated 1931, but had no references to Disney or Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. The title was generic enough to not ring any bells (pun intended) and the BFI doesn’t have the manpower to watch every one of the one million films in its archive, so it was just duly catalogued and socked away in storage.

In the movie Oswald skates and plays ice hockey on a lake accompanied by his interspecies lady friend, a cat named Ortensia who looks a little like Felix the Cat in a hat and skirt. It was drawn and animated by Ub Iwerks (Ub did all of the drawing for Disney’s early characters; Walt had limited artistic talent) and Walt Disney under contract with Universal Studios which had hired the pair to get a piece of the lucrative cartoon pie. The Oswald films were Universal’s first animated pictures and while Disney had had some success with the combination of live action and animation in the Alice Comedies series, Oswald was his first big hit.

Unfortunately for Disney, Oswald wasn’t really his, not by law. He belonged to Universal and once the character proved to be a success, Charles Mintz, the producer of the Oswald pictures, wasted no time in planning Disney’s ouster. He stealthily poached all of Disney’s employees except for Ub Iwerks who was loyal to Walt and refused the job offer. Iwerks warned Disney of Mintz’s machinations but Disney handwaved away his concerns. It was only in the spring of 1928 when Disney went to New York to renegotiate his contract that he finally realized Iwerks was right. Not only was Mintz not offering to increase Disney’s take on the popular cartoons, he told him he had to make more films for 20% less money. Mintz had no need to accommodate him since he had an experienced Oswald team ready to go without Disney.

Walt and Ub walked away and were all the better for it since the next idea they came up with was Mickey Mouse. Mintz’s production company took over making Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons for Universal until karma struck. The next year, Universal president Carl Laemmle fired the Mintz-Winkler studio and handed Oswald to Walter Lantz, a director Mintz had hired. Lantz produced Oswald cartoons until 1943 when the character was all but retired. He would go on to invent Woody Woodpecker.

In 2006, the Walt Disney company reacquired the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit property from NBC Universal. They were delighted, therefore, at the rediscovery of Sleigh Bells. Walt Disney Animation Studios restored the print and made a new film print of it as well as digital copies. The restored cartoon will be screened for the first time at BFI Southbank on December 12th, 2015, as part of It’s A Disney Christmas: Seasonal Shorts, a program of holiday-themed films from the late 1920s to the present.

Here’s a brief preview of Sleigh Bells released by the BFI:

Here’s a news story about the find that has some views of the film and its canister which look to be in surprisingly good condition.

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Don’t panic! It’s just The War of the Worlds.

Thursday, October 29th, 2015

Seventy-seven years ago, Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater broadcast a radio play of H.G. Wells’ alien invasion classic The War of the Worlds. The next day was Halloween and the newspapers dutifully scaremongered, splashing sensationalized headlines on their front pages about the mass hysteria the radio program had provoked in the listening audience. There were reports of suicides, people being hospitalized for shock, heart attacks and thousands of terrified callers clogging the radio station’s phone lines. Almost all of those reports have proven unfounded, although it is true that more people than usual called the station, some complaining about the show being too scary, others complimenting the show for being so scary, still others wanting to know how they could help the victims of Martian violence.

One of the frightened listeners sued CBS for “nervous shock”, but the suit was dismissed. One man wrote to CBS claiming he had spent $3.25 of his savings for a bus ticket to flee the Martians and only heard it was play 60 miles later. He was saving up to buy a new pair of shoes, so he asked CBS to send him a pair of black men’s shoes, size 9-B. Welles sent him his new shoes, against the advice of CBS’ lawyer.

Orson Welles had already had success on radio in 1937 as the voice of The Shadow and on the stage with his innovative Mercury Theater company when CBS offered him a one-hour anthology series debuting in July 1938. This was prestige listening, adaptations of the great works of literature written and performed by a professional troupe of the New York theater. The introduction emphasized this pedigree, noting it was radio’s “first presentation of a complete theatrical producing company.” Welles and his Mercury Theater cast and crew put on the works of William Shakespeare (Julius Caesar), Alexandre Dumas (The Count of Monte Cristo), Charles Dickens (Pickwick Papers) and Robert Louis Stevenson (Treasure Island), among many others.

It is true that Welles deliberately set out to give his version of The War of the Worlds a realistic news story staging complete with expert commentary, witness interviews and fake reports from military honchos. It wasn’t a hoax, though; just a way of giving the show a fresh, dynamic immediacy and give the audience a nice little scare for Halloween. Still, CBS was concerned that people might confuse it with real news, so they made sure there were disclaimers not just before the opening of the program, but also at the 40 and 55 minute marks.

The show opened with what sounded like standard radio programming — a weather report followed by an orchestra playing music in a hotel ballroom — that was suddenly interrupted by a special new bulletin reporting explosions of hydrogen gas on Mars. Then it was back to the sleepy dance music, then another special bulletin, then back to the orchestra, then another break away to an astronomer describing what he saw on Mars. The tension grew from there as reports got more and more dramatic and the regular programming of music kept getting cut off after a few bars.

The other Mercury Theater broadcasts were more traditional radio plays. Welles’ twist for The War of the Worlds was to use radio conventions to convey the confusion and terror of the original story. He had the cast listen to WLS radio reporter Herbert Morrison’s real-time description of the Hindenburg disaster, still famous today for its “Oh the humanity!” anguish, to get that genuine feeling of a newsman’s increasing horror as tragedy unfolds before him. Cast member Frank Readick played that role to perfection.

The Halloween headlines condemned Orson Welles as a hoaxster and instigator of widespread panic. It was enough to scare CBS into calling a hasty press conference at which Welles expressed his deep regret, insisting he had no idea anybody would take it seriously.

He may or may not have been genuinely contrite (his expression around the 5:35 mark reminds me of Puss in Boots’ big-eyed hat-in-hand look from Shrek), but the story vaulted him to national fame, secured a sponsor (Campbell’s Soup) and another two years of the radio show. It’s also the reason RKO Studios gave Orson Welles an unprecedented two-movie contract granting him complete artistic control of his pictures. Without The War of the Worlds, there would have been no Citizen Kane.

The broadcast still holds up, even though reporters don’t talk like that anymore. The sound effects — especially the panicked crowd noises — are great and the adaptation remains one of exceptional dexterity and verve. Listen for yourself and see what you think. Would have spent all your shoe money on a ticket out of town if you had heard this 77 years ago?

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NOVA’s version of the round ark documentary

Friday, October 9th, 2015

The documentary on the reconstruction of the Atra-Hasis ark that aired on Channel 4 in the UK and NatGeo is now on PBS. It’s an episode of the long-running NOVA series entitled Secrets of Noah’s Ark.

(I need to just take a moment to express how I have had it, OFFICIALLY, with purported documentaries entitled “The Secrets of” or “The Mystery of” whatever historical person, place or thing. Someday I would like see a realistic title like “Things We Pretty Much Know about …” and “A Thoroughly Researched and Well Documented Exploration of …” I’m annoyed that a program like NOVA resort to that kind of cliché.)

There are some differences in the programs. The plot is the same — Dr. Irving Finkel and the Atra-Hasis tablet in the British Museum to the attempted ancient boat reconstruction in India — and most of the interview segments are the same with a few additional talking heads of the American persuasion. The narration is different. The British original is gone in favor of a deep-voiced American and the narrated segments have been rewritten. There are some slight changes in thematic emphasis and editing order, but nothing major.

For those of you who weren’t able to see the original, check your local PBS station to see when this NOVA episode re-airs or check On Demand. You can always watch the episode on the PBS website. If you’ve already seen the Channel 4 version, you might enjoy comparing the two.

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Striking photographs of immigrants on Ellis Island

Wednesday, September 16th, 2015

The New York Public Library’s digital collection continues to grow as they digitize their huge collections of photographs, manuscripts, maps. They’re up to 838,384 individual items from The New York Public Library’s collections digitized and uploaded to its website. Many of the scans are in high resolution and while the interface can be a bit clunky (no easy mechanism to move from page to page, for example, in some of the books and pamphlets), they make for riveting browsing.

Arranged in subcollections, there are groups with thousands of items — 2,027 turn of the century posters, 64,243 portraits culled from the library’s Print Collection, 8,915 documents from the Emmet Collection of manuscripts focused on the lead-up and aftermath of the Revolutionary War — and single items like book covers or individual pages.

One striking group of photographs that has recently been uploaded is the William Williams collection. Williams was Commissioner of Immigration for the Port of New York at Ellis Island from 1902-5 and 1909-13, some of the busiest years of immigration to the United States. He left his papers, including the pictures he collected from his days at Ellis Island, to the New York Public Library and now the photographs are online. There are an eminently browsable 100 or so pictures and article clippings in the Williams collection, 41 portraits of immigrants going through the process of being allowed into the United States, 49 focused on Ellis Island itself.

Most of the latter were shot by Edwin Levick, a professional photographer with a particular focus on maritime views, which explains why many of his pictures of Ellis Island are taken from the water. The portraits of the immigrants were mostly taken by an amateur, Augustus Frederick Sherman, Chief Clerk of Ellis Island. In sheer fascination and impact, the amateur puts the professional to shame.

Sherman was born in Pennsylvania and moved to New York City in 1889. In 1892, he got a job as a clerk at Ellis Island. He was competent and dedicated and came up through the ranks, ultimately getting promoted to Chief Clerk in 1905. Part of his job was to deal with appeals by detained immigrants who had been blocked from entering the mainland by one of the Boards of Special Inquiry because of illness, crime, suspect associations, etc. The Ellis Island Commissioner of Immigration adjudicated the appeals and determined whether an immigrant could enter the country or was deported. As Sherman had access to detained immigrants as well as immigrants passing through with comparatively few difficulties, he was able to take about 250 photographs of them between 1905 and 1925.

With his eye for the striking image, Sherman was selective about his subjects. He often asked them to pose in their native costumes and he loved a nice, big family line-up. (The National Parks Service has my favorite photograph along those lines: Mrs. Johanna Dykhof and her 11 children on their way to Minnesota from Holland.) Incidentally, the handsome woman from the French territory of Guadeloupe pictured left was not actually an immigrant to the United States. She was part of a group of Guadeloupean women on their way to Montreal, Canada, where jobs as domestic servants awaited them. They spent one night in Ellis Island — April 6th, 1911 — which was long enough for Sherman to capture beautiful pictures of them.

There are more photographs of people at Ellis Island in this NYPL collection. They were taken by Lewis Hine who was very famous in his day for his compelling images of the working poor. Click on his name in the sidebar to see all of photographs capturing labourers, tenements and a variety of social ills in the NYPL. The Library of Congress has thousands of pictures of poverty-stricken children working in dreadful conditions taken by Hines for the National Child Labor Committee. They will haunt you.

Today Ellis Island is a National Park and has been extensively restored. The main building opened as the Ellis Island Immigration Museum in 1990. In May of this year, the Peopling of America Center® (note to self: trademark the Verbing of Museum Names before someone else beats me to it) opened, expanding the scope of the museum to cover the whole history of immigration before and after Ellis Island was in operation.

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