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tv   American Artifacts Alexander von Humboldt the United States Exhibit...  CSPAN  January 2, 2021 10:00am-10:46am EST

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gwendolyn shah on the gallery's new exhibit. first ladies of the united states. exploring the american story. watch american history tv tv tonight on c-span three. >> previously on "american artifacts," smithsonian american art museum curator eleanor harvey introduced us to alexander von humboldt, a german naturalist who earned worldwide fame in the 19th century and visited the united states for six weeks in 1804. next, in the second of a two-part visit to the exhibit "alexander von humboldt and the united states: art, nature, and culture," she shifts from describing him as a naturalist to his experience as a humanitarian. eleanor: when humboldt arrived, he wrote a letter to thomas jefferson hoping to secure a visit.
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he also wrote a letter to secretary of state james madison in which he said, "i intended to enjoy the spectacle of a free people worthy of a great destiny." he is beginning to nudge that he has more at stake here than just will jefferson meet him and will he get information from the lewis and clark expedition? he wants to have an effect on our politics. while he is in washington, charles willson peale will take him to mount vernon. there are two reasons for that really. george washington has died five years earlier, so this is now a shrine to america's first president, the man who refused to become a monarch, who chose to resign rather than take on the trappings of a perpetual president. so humboldt wants to see this place, but the people he wants to talk to are the people who were former slaves. we chose this painting of mount
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vernon because it does not focus on the portico looking out over the potomac river, which is always where you see portraits of washington standing with lafayette or others, contemplating the vastness of nature. he wanted the slave quarters. every single person who shows up in this painting is black. for humboldt, what he wanted to understand was how we could sanction slavery, how we could not understand that this could be the fatal flaw in our makeup. as early as 1825, he will write in despair to one of his friends in germany that if we cannot get this figured out, if we cannot become a truly free nation, it will probably tear us apart from within. he is a little ahead of his time, but kicking the can down the road on this is something humboldt feels does not have a happy outcome. so, this painting and this visit i think are disproportionately important to our understanding of humboldt's position on
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abolition. so, what happens after that? well, what happens is in an intersection of exploration and politics and abolition, we have john c. fremont. fremont is the american pathfinder. he is also called the american humboldt in an exploratory context. he takes four expeditions out west. he is looking for exploratory routes for railroads before we get to the trans continental railroad after the civil war. what fremont does when he is out in the american wilderness, he is naming everything he can after humboldt. he is the reason we have the humboldt basin, the humboldt river, the humboldt mountains. he is the reason we have humboldt county, california. if you want to go to the second degree of separation, he is the reason for the naming of humboldt cheese. everything around the world that is named for humboldt is named for our boy alex.
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that means 80 features in the united states from towns to streets to monuments to geographical features, all named for humboldt, all during his lifetime. humboldt takes notice, and he will fold fremont's information into his books because fremont is out there again channeling his inner humboldt, taking the same kinds of measurements, exposing himself to the same dangers, reveling in the fact that he is nearly killing himself on a regular basis in emulation of his idol. when fremont runs for president in 1856 on an abolitionist platform when the republicans split from the whig party, humboldt will write a letter supporting fremont's candidacy. he will get involved in american politics. it is interesting to even think about the fact that when fremont loses to buchanan, the
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third-party vote when millard filmore is conscripted to run as the middle candidate peels off just enough votes to ensure that fremont will lose. it will be lincoln in the next cycle who will become the first republican president, but it is fremont who will lay the groundwork for that. and it is deliberately on an abolitionist platform that humboldt ends up sanctioning. the brains behind the fremont operation is really his wife, jessie benton fremont, the daughter of the eminent missouri senator thomas art benton. he is not crazy about his daughter's choice in a husband, but she will write most of his exploratory narrative. he will pace the floor and tell his stories, and she will transcribe them and publish them. she will do the same thing for his political speeches. during the civil war, she will become involved with the new york sanitary fair, the great metropolitan fair that will
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eventually give us the metropolitan museum of art, and she makes sure this painting is included. it is sold to james lennox of the lennox library, which becomes the new york public library, for the largest sum paid to benefit the union troops. why yosemite? the fremonts live in california. they live not far from yosemite. they are good friends with the photographer carlton watkins. california, and specifically yosemite, are starting to be perceived very much the way niagara and natural bridge were earlier in the century, which is as a landscape untainted by slavery, a landscape that is construed as having no north and no south. it is the west. it is a new eden. it is a new chance to start over again in a post-emancipation america. in the fremont's home in new york, there are paintings of california, there are photographs of california by carleton watkins, there are books by humboldt, and there are these three abolitionist
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sculptures. there are john rogers terra-cottas of a friend in the swamp, an escaped enslaved man who was helping a union soldier to safety at risk of his own safety, and the slave auction, the most incendiary thing he did, watching a family be separated at an option that also includes horses and cattle. and it is these things that become political statements in new york and within the abolitionist community. they also own a casting of the freedmen by john quincy adams' ward, which i find the most riveting sculpture on the subject of abolition done in the united states. the interesting thing about the fremont casting, jessie has a fragment of one of the canons from fort wagoner where robert gould shaw and his black troops in the massachusetts 54th,
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commemorated in the movie "glory," where they met their end. she takes that cannon fragment and sends it to the sculptor, and it is melted down as part of the sculpture. there is this deliberate, constructed effort to create this abolitionist shrine in their homes as a way of understanding the life they want to live, the principles they will live for. it is little wonder that humboldt thought so highly of fremont. this is the guy he has been waiting for, and it is killing him that he does not win the presidency because it is like, you were so close. but humboldt never gives up on us, and i think that is really important because certainly he got frustrated. he kept talking about the fact that i feel like i am half an american, but the half i am withholding has to do with the fact that i really don't like your politics. so he is hoping to win full americanness, if you will, by
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encouraging, goading, pushing, prodding us to be our better selves. humboldt's souvenirs are really important, too. because what you have here is one of john c. fremont's campaign pieces with his slogan, fremont and freedom, down underneath his likeness. william cullum bryant, who takes over as editor of the new york post newspaper, which is alexander hamilton's old abolitionist newspaper, his committee of birthday he is elevated as a landscape poet and a father figure for the landscape painters. but he is also celebrated for being an abolitionist. someone gives him an inscribed photograph from humboldt for his 70th birthday, knowing how much he will cherish that. i mentioned the sanitary fair in 1864.
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humboldt had written letters excoriating daniel webster for his support of the slave act. how can he do this? how can you do this? one of those letters was sent to a businessman by john matthews, who did us a courtesy of translating it because humboldt's handwriting is terrible in every language, and making it into a large-scale playing card that has the original letter on one side and the transcription on the other. and they are handed out to union soldiers for inspiration. this particular one was sent to abraham lincoln with a letter that says i know you are familiar with humboldt's words. i'm sure they give you comfort in times like this. humboldt is still part of the conversation. three of the six members of john brown's secret six are diehard humboldt fans. as john brown is planning harpers ferry, is he reading humboldt's words? we believe in the unity of all races. and maybe the better question
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is, if not, why not? how could he have avoided it at the time? this case is to try to talk a little bit about saturation. it is permeating everything we do, that humboldt is an absent mentor for the united states. but i mentioned, it is not just the issue of slavery, and it is not just racial politics between blacks and whites in the united states that keeps humboldt up at night. humboldt believes in racial equality for everyone. he believes that slavery is bad universally. he believes colonialism can only end up badly and that independence and opportunity are what makes the difference, not the color of your skin. he carries that forward into his belief about indigenous peoples. when he is in south america, he is hiring indigenous guides because he believes they know more about the land and the cycles of nature than their colonial overlords do. the spaniards in the new world
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are like, why are you hiring these people to take you through? they have no standing. because they know more about this than you do. there is always that sense of privileging local knowledge. he wants to understand what has changed. when he is in lake valencia in modern venezuela, the village elders come to him and say, the lake is drying up, the crops are failing, we don't understand what is happening. and he talks to the village elders and says, 25 years ago, you cut down your mature trees. you changed your climate. we are talking about human-induced climate change in 1799 and 1800 in venezuela, because he is canvassing the locals to understand what could create those consequences. when he comes to north america, he does not meet any indigenous people when he is here in philadelphia and washington, but what does happen is he will cultivate friendships with people who do.
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and so, his protege, prince maximilian an energetic, effervescent, swiss born naturalist who worships the ground humboldt walks on, spends three years in brazil where humboldt could not go for politics between portugal and spain and comes back with this amazing information about the indigenous peoples there. but he is not a really great artist. humboldt says, if you are going to go to the united states, if you are going to redo lewis and clark and compile natural history and bring back information on these indigenous cultures, for god's sake, take a real artist with you. let me show you why. this is max's journal. it is in sutherland german, which has been translated. this is his original journal, and he is recording the native ponies here. his natural history is amazing. his indian vocabularies are
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still considered some of the finest that have been compiled. but this is what happens when he starts painting the people. this is one of the leading members of the tribe. that is his artist, his version of the same portrait. needless to say, max is really good with inanimate objects. he is not really good about people. having bodmer with him really matters. those ponies are wonderful in their goofiness. that is the same pony with the same markings on its back as rendered by the artist. we begin to understand why humboldt wants a visual record and why he wants a competent artist along with him. in fact, every expedition in the united states, whether it is undertaken by fremont or the long expedition or max, is going to bring an artist or a photographer along. that visual record will be a very important part of those expeditions.
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what we have here are a group of the engravings that were done after max's two-year trip to the united states 1833-1835. they go out to st. louis, where they become friends with william clark of the lewis and clark expedition. they go up the missouri river. they spend the winter with the mandan indians, who are presented here. what they come back with is an unparalleled history of the mandan's cultural lifeways. but also natural history of the midwest of the united states. max is always comparing it to brazil because brazil is this lush rainforest. he cannot get over how barren and sear and dry and scary the great plains seemed to be, particularly when it is not high summer. he will look up the missouri river coast and see castles, but for him, they are gothic and brooding. he is not 100% sure he likes
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this. the notion of the badlands, he actually embraces that. i miss the palm trees. i am kind of missing brazil. this is a little bit wacky, this is a little bit weird. if you have ever been to south dakota and the black hills, it is a fabulously alien looking landscape. the fact that he is picking up on this is really helpful, too. he takes bodmer's prints and puts them with a text in an album that is similar in scale and impressiveness to the one that humboldt did. it will nearly bankrupt him in the same way it nearly bankrupted humboldt. you have indian cultures, grizzly bears, niagara falls. you have a buffalo hunt in the middle distance. it is an encapsulation of what america means to max based on this trip. it is the cliff's notes version of what you are going to get in the narrative. but what is also really great is
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just as humboldt's generosity in lending us his map reset the way we construe geopolitics after the louisiana purchase, william clark will give max copies of his turn by turn route maps up the mississippi and missouri rivers as a gift. in order to help speed him on his way. what i love about this is it has got the same indicators, all of the little notes that lewis and clark made, the point of which captain lewis made celestial observations on the 26th of april with the latitude and longitude on the river. max will add his own notes to this, and there are vocabulary sheets in the back for some of the indigenous people that he met along the way. that act of friendship, that act
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of reciprocity, of let me make your journey easier because we are all going to learn from what you learned, is something humboldt really does instill in that kind of exploration ethos. there is another artist out west, and that is the american artist george catlin. george catlin will go up the missouri river the year before max and bodmer will. they will meet a lot of the same people. they will stay in the same villages. they will paint the same people. it is interesting and instructive to compare those things. the chief of the indians, this is george catlin's portrait of him from 1832. it is very clear from catlin's diary and max and bodmer's diaries that he decided what kind of access you got to his people and his life. he was a little annoyed by catlin, thought the gifts were kind of bogus, rolled his eyes and put up with it, but he really liked max. and as a result, when bodmer
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paints him also in that very same sort of stance that you expect, it is an imperial stance. if you go back through european art, the idea of a monarch standing with a full-length spear or holding a flag or a command and control gesture, it is designed to convey that sense of power and privilege and access. but he will also use bodmer's paints and paint a watercolor of himself defeating a cheyenne indian chief. and it is a drawing he will give to max. and he will also paint that vignette right here on the robe that outlines his exploits that he will give to max that is now in the collection in germany. and he well invite them to stay for the winter and give them access to the interior of the lodges and to the people who hold the history.
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max and bodmer's access is unparalleled in its depth and duration. and we are indebted to him in particular and catlin as well because by 1837, the tribe is nearly wiped out by smallpox. it comes up on a steamboat from st. louis that they had used to get up to south dakota in the first place. and without their recordings and without their images, we would be much poorer in understanding how important this tribe was to the fur trade, to the negotiations between the french, the british, and the americans, and the other indian tribes along the upper missouri river. george catlin pops up again with our friend, mr. humboldt, because what he will do is after 1830 when andrew jackson puts out the indian removal act, catlin is livid. he feels this will create the wholesale destruction of american indian culture.
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in 1832, he will suggest that the entire western third of the country should be set aside as a national park where the indians and the bison who sustained them will be left to their own devices. that does not get traction, and in fact, catlin will get thrown out of the white house for protesting the indian removal act. so he is also shooting himself in the foot when it comes time to having a voice in american politics. what he does instead is he paints over 500 portraits of american indians. he pulls together artifacts and creates an indian gallery. the portraits that you see here are part of that indian gallery, but they play an important role in this exhibition because these are iowa indians who sailed to europe, brought there by one of pt barnum's lieutenants specifically to dance for catlin
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as part of his indian gallery performances. these portraits are made in london in 1844, then transported to paris. in paris, catlin will present his indian gallery, and these indians will dance for the king of france and his queen. this is catlin's indian gallery as it is presented in paris. painted by the french court painter carl girarde. there is catlin on the far right speaking to the queen. there is the monarch himself in the white waistcoat. each of the men and women who show up here are in these portraits. we can identify each one of them. at these performances, which take place in the louvre after they finish dancing for the king, they moved the whole entourage to a salon in the louvre, and that is where it is set up for public performances.
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victor hugo, eugene delacroix, and alexander von humboldt witness those performances. at the end of one of those performances, the director of the louvre, catlin, the iowa indians, and humboldt tour the museum together. there is presumably a diary kept by one of these gentlemen. this one here, walking rain. we don't know where that diary is right now. i would love to have it pop up because right now all we have is catlin's notes on what that encounter was like. it would be really nice to have their perspective on what was going on there. the interesting thing is these are the only indigenous people from the united states that humboldt will ever meet and converse with. he and catlin become friends, and despite the fact that catlin can be as tone deaf as the next person about taking advantage of the situation in order to try to
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make money off of the indian gallery, they stay in touch. when catlin comes to berlin the next decade in the 1850's, humboldt will set him up with a commission to paint copies of some of his paintings for the king of prussia. these two paintings belong to us, but there are copies of these in the royal collection in berlin as part of that commission. when catlin writes up his european exploits, these books are here, he uses as his piece humboldt shaking hands with an iowa indian. in case you miss the subtlety of that, he embosses it on the cover. what he is essentially saying is you may not like me very much, but this guy and i are friends.
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it is that sense of wanting to trade in on that friendship. for humboldt, this is an unparalleled opportunity to speak to the iowa using a translator in order to communicate with them and ask them questions. and the question we are all begging is, what were those questions? what is the conversation? i am hoping there will be more we can learn in the future. i mentioned before that humboldt considered himself half an american. in fact, the "i am practically an american myself" comes from a letter he wrote to metternich, introducing him to edward everett, the american orator and teacher at harvard who helped inspire emerson to become a humboldtian. emerson will then inspire thoreau. no one needs to inspire whitman. i think he managed to pull that off himself. but there is a lot of saturation in that americans view humboldt as a magnet, first in paris and
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then when he moves to berlin in 1829, we flocked to go see him. and he welcomes us with open arms. you usually have to have an apartment to see humboldt. if you are a visiting american, he will usually make an exception and invite you in. and this is what you get invited into. this is humboldt's library. here he is in 1856 surrounded by his travel diaries and art and books and stuffed critters and his scientific equipment, and there is a globe. what you see is north america and the countries in south america that really put humboldt on the map. i don't think that is an accident that the globe is positioned that way. this was a souvenir that was brought back by former president millard fillmore, who mayday -- who made a call in 1856. they went to go see him.
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this was the souvenir that you would bring back. this is the memory that you have from this. this picture of humboldt in his study was inscribed to alexander dallas bach, the head of the u.s. coast guard and benjamin franklin's grandson. he admired people who expanded on his own work. you do for the coasts in the oceans what i do for the mountains. the pathfinder of the seas, his wind and wave charts on the atlantic ocean, humboldt encouraged them to call it the physical geography of the sea as a complement to humboldt's physical geography of plants. it is that idea of endorsing the work of people who build on what humboldt has already done. and humboldt is the ultimate networker. he is the guy who never throws out the baby with the bathwater, or at least not very often. you can be his rival. he may not like you personally,
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but if he respects what you are doing, he will want to collaborate, he will want to extend information, he will want to use your information because he understands that for him it is the data. he will try to set aside the egregious personalities and really focus on the data, and he just wants the data. this is a guy who would be google and wikipedia all rolled into one if he were alive today. i think he would love the internet, which is what gets us into the final gallery here because this is really about humboldt's impact in its lasting sense in the form of the smithsonian institution. this is a watercolor of the museum done in preparation for the portrait of peale that you can now see through this cut through. we wanted to set it up so you could stand here and understand how that painting was composed. peale wanted his museum to be
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purchased by jefferson, moved to washington to become the national institute. jefferson is a good democratic republican. he is not going to spend public money buying somebody's museum and setting it up as a federal entity. that is just not going to happen, which is probably why peale had both jefferson and alexander hamilton on his board, hoping at some point to be able to orchestrate this so they would buy him out and make this federal. that doesn't happen. that is going to take the smithson bequest in order to create the smithsonian, which becomes what the peale wanted to be, which is a humboldtian networked enterprise that encompasses art, literature, music, politics, exploration, all in the same place. i mentioned that humboldt was a magnet. when he is in paris, that
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magnetism attracts authors james fennimore cooper and washington irving, both of whom will write their books on the american west while they are reading the long expedition reports, while they are hanging around with humboldt in paris. the other person they are hanging around with is samuel morse, who is painting the studies for this magnificent painting called the gallery of the louvre. not all of these paintings are in the salon. they are scattered all over the museum. what morse is doing is setting up scaffolding, climbing up on it, and a sketching what he needs and moving it around. humboldt will come to the louvre and according to fennimore cooper's diary, he well climb up and say, you look tired. let's go walk the galleries. then he would say, tell me about the telegraph. what humboldt wants is secure, immediate networked information. he is tired of letters that are censored, lost at sea, where it takes two years to get a reply from somebody, and he envisions in his mind that the telegraph is going to fix this.
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that he can get his answers just like this. so he is excited when morse abandons art in order to pursue the telegraph. in fact, he is so excited that in 1838 when morse demonstrates the telegraph in a france, humboldt is there helping to translate and congratulating morse on being a master in two worlds, in art and in science. so, you've got this connection that is diving deeper and deeper into american ingenuity, american exploration, american literature, american art. in fact, the portrait done of humboldt at this time is this one by rembrandt peale, alexander von humboldt, in 1809. what is interesting about this is when humboldt first gets back to europe, he is carrying a letter from jefferson to the marquis de lafayette.
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jefferson gives him the letter because they both know that napoleon is opening the marquis de lafayette's mail and censoring it. so they know this is a letter that is going to get to him unencumbered. what it does is it creates a friendship between humboldt and lafayette. two years later, humboldt will write to jefferson and say, thank you for introducing us. the third person they are hanging around with his simon bolivar, who encourages him to go back to his home country and free them from spanish rule. we have these three revolutionaries who are hanging out, driving napoleon crazy. he thinks they are all spies. he wants them expelled from the country. they are all writing letters to each other. they skip his coronation because they really don't want to be part of that, and they set up this pro-american enclave in paris that becomes really important during the war of 1812 when humboldt will actually be part of the treaty proceedings for the treaty of ghent to
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settle the war of 1812. he is arguing on our behalf even though they are in ghent and then london. he will meet john quincy adams and henry clay. john quincy adams will come to paris with him, and they will both go to science lectures in paris and hang around together. literally, there is a sense that going to europe means paying a call to humboldt. charles willson peale, as he gets to the end of his life, i love this late self portrait him because to me it introduces one of his closest friends. it is like they are drinking buddies. what i like about this is it is a nod to the thing that put peale's museum on the map. it is the thing that drew humboldt into their orbit. it is the thing that encapsulates the thing that peale is most proud of. from father to son, that
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humboldtian experience seemed important to bring into focus. of course, with the mastodon itself right here, where you can literally see across it and through it and get yourself from peale's museum to the smithsonian. that is why the bust of humboldt is here. this is a bust that came to the smithsonian in 1860, the year after humboldt dies. it has been with us ever since. it normally resides in the botany department library at natural history, kind of an avatar for humboldt's plant geography map, for his contributions to science. it just seemed to be the appropriate thing to have as the anchor here. so, we go from the telegraph, which is local and overland, to the transatlantic cable, which allows you to network the whole globe. it is morse going into business with frederick church's patron, cyrus field, the guy who went to
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south america with him and paid for those trips. they create the transatlantic cable. this case really gets you from the telegraph to the cable. this is morse's passport, with washington irving's signature in the lower right-hand corner because he is a diplomat in london at the time. eight to 10 pages of stamped information. it is really an amazing document. some of morse's earliest telegraph equipment and a facsimile of the first message sent, "what hath god wrought," between morse and his assistant albert vale in baltimore, vale acknowledges he received it by sending the same message back to confirm that they are not making it up. then the transatlantic cable. that is a snippet of the cable packaged as a souvenir by tiffany and company. humboldt had one of those segments on his desk when he died. so we go from morse's gallery at the louvre to the cable cabinet. this is the atlantic cable projectors. it is the group that made it
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happen. cyrus field in the red outlined jacket pointing on the map. this is his globe. there is his snippet of the cable. morse has gotten cranky in his old age, is the white-haired gentleman looking in the other direction. but the sheaf of papers, the hands as they transfer information, it is almost like a simulacrum of information going from one place to another. what i love about this frame is it shows britannica and america talking to each other with a cable that stretches from one to the other around the globe. if you look at the reading on the frame, it is about the same scale and has the same configuration as the snippet of the cable itself. so you literally have a cable that connects the two sides to one another. what you have here is the idea of an entirely networked world
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from a natural history standpoint, and an entirely networked human society electronically. that is really the epitome of what humboldt was after, everything is interconnected. when the smithsonian is founded in the 1840's, it is by the good graces of one british chemist, james smithson. james smithson knew humboldt. they met first in 1790 when smithson was a young chemist in henry cavendish's lab in london, then they met again in 1814, when smithson spends about a year in paris. they are having boozy dinners with the french scientific community, they are making fun of the british for losing the war of 1812, and they are talking about how any right minded person with money would live anywhere in europe except england and invest in america. so, smithson becomes close friends with humboldt's best
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friend, francois arago, who is an astronomer. by proxy, they are all spending time together. when smithson makes the decision to change his will, he does so because he has fallen out with the royal society. he is a colossally bad gambler. arago holds an intervention to explain to him why he is losing $10,000 a night, and smithson says, now i know i am losing, and he bounced back out to the tables. when smithson changes his will, he is 85 years old, he has a 56-year-old nephew and he is like, fine, i am leaving everything to my nephew. but if he dies with no children, legitimate or illegitimate, the whole kit and caboodle goes to the city of washington to found an institution bearing my name
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for the increase and diffusion of knowledge. well, smithson dies, his nephew inherits the estate, then he dies with no kids. we spent seven years in the british courts proving he has no kids before william rush, the grandson of benjamin rush, the medical doctor who instructed lewis and clark, brings the gold back to the united states to found the smithsonian. the smithsonian is literally built in humboldt's image. we are like the bricks and mortar version of his brain. in the 1850's when there is a congressional hearing on is the smithsonian actually being well-managed, should we have better oversight -- nothing much changes in the way that goes -- it is louis agassi, the prominent scientist at harvard, who was also someone humboldt admired for his work on glaciation and who helped get him his job at harvard, says it is a humboldtian institution.
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it is an international institution. if you don't believe me, the good news is he is still alive, you can go ask him. he is suggesting that congress subpoena him about the validity of the smithsonian. that is how deeply enmeshed we are. in 1859, three weeks after humboldt dies, his manservant inherits everything. humboldt never marries, and so everything goes to his valet. think about that chroma lithograph again, the books, the journals, the stuff. he's going to figure out what to do with all of this. humboldt hasn't been paying him regularly, so he needs money. he has his son in law write three letters. one to joseph henry, the secretary of the smithsonian. one to our collector, and one to the lennox library in new york, saying humboldt always wanted his stuff to be in america. he always thought of himself as an american. this is your golden opportunity.
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$100,000, you can have the whole thing. that is a sixth of the smithson bequest, a lot of money in 1859. henry knows there is no way congress is going to approve this. we are tipping into civil war. we are only months away from harpers ferry at this point. so, they discuss amongst themselves in letters that are in the papers at the library of congress that maybe lennox gets the books and the smithsonian gets the stuff. but nothing ever comes of it. in a colossal moment of what if, it is actually a good thing that everything stays in germany because in january of 1865, there is a catastrophic fire in the castle at the smithsonian, and we lose a lot of written material. and my fear is we would have lost almost everything that makes humboldt who he is today. instead, what we have is an institution that really stands for everything humboldt did.
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we talk about the unity of nature. we talk about the equality of peoples. we talk about the need for us to be good stewards of our planet. everything humboldt cared about is in some way instituted in one part of this vast organization that is 19 museums and 30 plus research centers that spans the globe from panama to the harvard astrophysical observatory to the museums and zoos here. all of that is like an expansion of what humboldt cared about. what we wanted to do was end with the painting that seemed to encapsulate humboldt's cosmos. who better to go back to than frederick church? we have the aurora borealis. this is the northern lights corruscading across the
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atlantic. this is presumed to be labrador. ireland, one assumes, is just off outside of the picture on the right. that is the path of the transatlantic cable. if this ship has gotten itself trapped in the ice, frozen, unable to move, unable to convey its information, it is in the electromagnetics, whether it is overhead or channeled through that undersea cable that is actually going to make it possible to bridge those vast distances. this is a picture about humboldt's interest in everything from the outer atmosphere to the bottom of the oceans, and about the need for the use of electricity and human ingenuity in order to span those distances and bring us all into conversation. i cannot think of a better way to leave this exhibition than a meditation on what it means to take care of this planet, to take care of each other, and to find that humboldtian joy and curiosity in everything we do.
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>> you can learn more about the exhibit "alexander von humboldt and the united states: art, nature, and culture" at and you can view part one and all other american history tv programs online at ♪ you are watching american history tv, every weekend on c-span three. american history tv on c-span 3, credited by america's cable television companies. these cable television companies provide american history tv as a public service. american history tv is on social media. follow us at c-span history -- a@cspanhistory. >> next on american history tv,
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historian garrett peck talks about his book "the great war in america: world war i and its aftermath." he chronicles the war's effect on americans, as well as societal issues such as prohibition, women's suffrage, and race riots. the smithsonian associates hosted this event. it is about one hour and 20 minutes. lauren: we are thrilled to welcome back smithsonian associates speaker garrett peck. an author, historian, and tour guide, he is the author of a new book, "the great war in america: world war i and its aftermath." which just came out today. it is available for purchase and signing following his presentation. [applause] in addition to the tour, his temperance tour of prohibition related sites has been featured on c-span, book tv, and the history channel. he has lectured at the library


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