Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Pocahontas Portrait

Painting of Pocahontas, after a Dutch engraving, National Portrait Gallery. Known by many names, this Native American woman supposedly saved the life of English colonist John Smith; she later converted to Christianity and moved to England, assuming the name Rebecca Rolfe. The inscription states this is how she appeared at age 21 in the year 1616, and the Latin inscription around the border reads "MATOAKA ALS REBECCA FILIA POTENTISS. PRINC. POWHATANI IMP. VIRGINIAE ("Matoaka, alias Rebecca, daughter of the most powerful prince of the Powhatan Empire of Virginia"). 

To find out more about Pocahontas and this painting, see this US Senate website. For more on the original 1616 engraving upon which this painting is based, see this Smithsonian site. For more on Pocahontas and her perception on both sides of the Atlantic, see here.

For more about iconic Native Americans with multiple names, see here and here.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Translating Names (National Statuary Hall Collection)

One of the most interesting features of the US Capitol is the National Statuary Hall Collection, which consists of 100 statues (2 from each state in the union). A particularly diverse group of statues populates the Capitol Visitor Center, reflecting the multicultural heritage of the nation.

On the left (above) is King Kamehameha, who (according to this official description) "united all the inhabited islands of Hawai'i under his rule." The pedestal of the statue reads KAMEHAMEHA I (i.e., King Kamehameha the First), but his full Hawaiian name is apparently much longer. On the right (above) is the Native American woman most commonly known as Sakagawea (or Sacajawea). In selecting this statue, the North Dakota legislature honored the woman they called Sakakawea as a "traveler and guide, translator, a diplomat, and a wife of mother" who was so crucial in the expeditions of Lewis and Clark.

Another figure worth mentioning here is Sequoyah, a Native American who represents the state of Oklahoma. The official description refers to him the "inventor of the Cherokee alphabet," but the writing system he developed is technically a syllabary.

(For more on Sequoyah, see my previous posting.)

Other statues in the collection depict figures from far-flung points of origin: e.g., Spanish missionaries Eusebio Francisco Kino (AZ) and Junipero Serra (CA); Quebec-born settlers Jean-Baptiste McLoughlin (OR), Jason Lee (OR), and Mother Joseph, née Esther Pariseau (WA); a French missionary, Father Jacques Marquette (WI); a Dutch-speaking Belgian known as Father Damien, born Joseph de Veuster (HI); and more Native Americans: Sarah Winnemucca (NV-Paiute), Po'pay (NM-Tiwa), and Washakie (WY-Shoshone).

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Sequoyah, Inventor of Cherokee Writing System

This painting by Henry Inman at the National Portrait Gallery depicts the Sequoyah (d. 1843), the inventor of the Cherokee writing system. The script in Inman's painting doesn't look as well-executed as it could be; perhaps this is because Inman's work based upon a lost painting by Charles Bird King (King's painting was destroyed in a fire at the Smithsonian Castle).

This engraving, also based upon the lost King painting, seems to do a better job re-creating the Cherokee script. Sequoyah himself signed his name as ᏍᏏᏉᏯ (Ssiquoya), but you can see here that he was also known by the English name of George Giss or Guess.

This postcard, which erroneously calls the syllabic writing system an "alphabet," at least gives you a good sense of the sounds that the signs represent. For more about the Cherokee syllabary and language, see this page.

To read (or hear) more about this painting, see this NPG blog posting. You can also read about the statue of Sequoyah in the National Statuary Hall Collection (see the next posting for more).

Friday, November 12, 2010

FDR's Minimalist Monument (National Archives)

It's very easy to miss this simple monument on the north side of the National Archives. This memorial is dedicated to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and for a presidential monument this one is not very grand or informative.

As it turns out, that's exactly what FDR wanted. Note the second "explanatory" plaque that has been erected in front of this memorial (click to enlarge and read the text).
It seems funny that this plaque both honors and disrespects his wishes. FDR did get his modest form of commemoration - but the plaque itself goes beyond FDR's instructions, turning the president's humility into something worth of commemoration in its own right.

There is, of course, a huge and complex FDR Memorial on the National Mall - which, I suppose, adds to the irony (see here and here for more).

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Obamamania (DC Flashback)

It has now been two years since Obama was elected the 44th President of the United States. There was much euphoria in DC at the time: above, international newspapers (from Brazil and Saudi Arabia) announce Obama's victory in the election (Newseum, the day after Election Day, November 5, 2009). You can view front pages from newspapers around the world on this day at this Newseum website.

Other museums around DC fed into "Obamamania" in their own ways. Above, "Hongera Barack Obama," a kanga (dyed cotton cloth, used for many purposes), produced in east Africa in 2008, hangs on display at the National Museum of African Art. Obama's father was from Kenya, and the Swahili inscription expresses the hope many felt upon Obama's election: Upendo Na Amani Ametujalia Mungu ("God has blessed us with peace and love").

At the gift shop of the National Museum of American History, this children's book recognizes Obama's connections to Hawaii, the state where he was born. Note the use of the backwards apostrophe [ʻ] in the word Hawaiʻi. This punctuation mark, called the ʻokina, represents the glottal stop, a sound that does not exist in English.

The National Museum of the American Indian also got involved in the celebrations. Here, dancers perform a traditional Hawaiian mele inoa (name chant) for Obama as part of the Smithsonian's "Out of Many" Festival, January 17, 2009. You can read the Hawaiian text (with English translation) and even watch a recording of the performance on this website.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Native Boats, Indigenous Languages

November is officially Native American Heritage Month - so I'll be including a few postings throughout the month to honor this.

The National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) employs "American" in the broadest sense, encompassing in its scope diverse indigenous cultures across the Americas. Prominently displayed on the entrance level are 3 boats representing different cultures: a Hawaiian boat, an Inuit kayak, and a reed canoe constructed by Aymara people (see this website and gallery for more). Above, descriptions of the boats in the Inuit language (which uses a syllabary) and the Hawaiian language (which uses Roman letters). [Click the image to see a larger version.]

Note the use of the backwards apostrophe [ʻ] in the word Hawaiʻi. This punctuation mark, called the ʻokina, represents the glottal stop, a sound that does not exist in English.

The description of the reed canoe is written in Aymara, an indigenous (and co-official) language of Bolivia and Peru.

The English translations of these texts are written on the reverse of these signs - sorry I didn't include them here!

GOTV (Get Out The Vote) Posters [Election 2008 Flashback]

These election posters (placed in spots were windows once were) encourage people to get out and vote in the 2008 elections. These were on the wall of an abandoned school building in the SE Quadrant, Inauguration Day 2009. Above (center), a poster featuring an adorable little girl encourages Spanish-speaking voters to take part in the election: Ella confia en ti para tomar la decisión correcta ... Tu país también. ¡Voto! ("She trusts you to make the right choices...so does your country.") On the left, a week-long pill box organizer has 4 compartments raised to read VOTE (a plea to elderly voters perhaps?).

Above, posters targeting African Americans (right) and Asian Americans (left). The whole "Wok + Dutch Oven = Asian American" thing is a bit silly, but it's an attractive poster nonetheless.

Saturday, October 30, 2010


Despite what they're reporting in the news these days, hope is not dead. Reverse side of a tombstone, Arlington National Cemetery, July 2009. (For more Arlington tombstones, click the "Arlington" tag below or on the right side of this page.)

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Dry Cleaning Sign

Sigh. Someone told me about this sign before, but I didn't actually believe it existed before I saw it in person last night. Dupont Circle.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Justice Inscription

"LEGE ATQVE ORDINE OMNIA FIVNT" (Let all things be done according to law and order). Latin inscription above entrance, Department of Justice.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Disorienting Braille Maps

Braille maps feature prominently in "America on the Move," an ongoing exhibition at the National Museum of American History). This map depicting streetcar paths in DC circa 1900 provides inscriptions in raised letters along with Braille dots. You can also use your fingers to trace the contours of the city and discern the routes streetcars could take as they moved people about the city. Note the standard map orientation here, with north as as "up."

This map depicting harbor travel in New York City in the 1920s is a little more complicated. It includes inscriptions and Braille dots on either side of the map, so that side that is "up" is not based on absolute cardinal directions - instead, what is "up" depends on how you are positioned in relation to the map.

(For related posts, click the "Braille" tag below or on the right hand side of this page.)

Monday, October 18, 2010

Art of the Parking Garage (National Building Museum ad)

This exhibition at the National Building Museum has now come and gone, but this ad was so clever I thought I should add it to this blog. I love the implied mathematical equation here: snail shell + parking sign = [implied result: spiral parking garage]. Read more about the photography exhibition here. Ad seen somewhere on the metro, May 2010.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Inuit Writing System (Canadian Embassy)

Last month I spotted these signs at the Canadian Embassy advertising an exhibition of Inuit prints. According to the press release, this exhibit offers "a distinctive portrait of Inuit life and culture in the Canadian Arctic." As usual, the Canadian Embassy poster is in English and French, but it also includes some text in the Inuit language (i.e., the names of the artists). One distinctive feature of the Inuktitut syllabary is its method for representing vowels; the vowel sounds are indicated by the orientation of the symbols (it's easier to see how this works by looking at the chart on this page).

Here's another sign nearby. I don't know what the text actually means here, but the photo at least gives you a better sense of what the script looks like.

For more about this exhibition, see this NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) blog posting.

P.S. I took this photo nearly two years ago (!) but somehow never got around to blogging about it. The poster below (also taken at the Canadian Embassy) advertises "Champlain's Dream" (in French: "Le rêve de Champlain"). This exhibit focused on French exploration of North America, revealing the intertwined histories of present-day New England and Quebec:

In case you're interested, you can see the Washington Post's excellent review (with online gallery).

P.S. For earlier postings about the Canadian Embassy, see here and here.

Monday, October 11, 2010

New Car Rental Sign (Chinatown)

The "Thrifty Car Rental" sign I posted about last year (see here) has since been replaced by a new one! This space is now a Hertz Rental Car, and the writing looks much better. Here, "Hertz" = 赫兹 (Hè zī), conveniently borrowing the standard transliteration of the unit of measurement (Hz) named after German scientist Heinrich Hertz. "Rental car" = 租车. This sign uses the simplified form of car (车) while the previous one used the traditional form 車. Photo taken in early 2010.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Sign(s) for Pork - Asian Supermarket

Today I noticed this character 豚 indicating the pork section at an Asian supermarket in Fairfax, VA. Although it features the "pig" radical (豕), this character is actually different from what I'm accustomed to seeing in Mandarin Chinese (where "pork" is written 豬肉 - literally, "pig meat"). In Japanese, pork is written 豚肉(ぶたにく = butaniku). Evidently the same characters 豚肉 can be used in Korean too, although I don't know what the pronunciation would be.

P.S. In Chinese 豬 can mean either "pig" or "boar" (hence when you see 豬年 on one of those Chinese Zodiac charts it's sometimes translated as "Year of the Pig" or "Year of the Boar"). In Japanese, the character 豚 is reserved only for "pig" while 豬 means "boar."

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Language of Flags (Navy Memorial)

Signal flags adorning a ship mast at the US Navy Memorial (across from the National Archives), September 2010. The International Code of Signals designates a flag for each letter in the Roman alphabet, plus each Arabic numeral (see here for more). Ships use such flags to communicate important messages to one another on the sea.

P.S. You can see some earlier posts for other takes on "the language of flags" - i.e., the special language that is used in order to describe flags, and the ways flags themselves can communicate symbolic meanings.

P.P.S. No, I don't know what these flags say! If anyone knows the code, let me know...

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Obsolete Library Catalog Cards (Library of Congress)

The emergence of the online public-access catalog has largely rendered the traditional library card catalog obsolete. At the Library of Congress, which has a searchable online catalog, this point is made especially clear: old paper catalog cards are unceremoniously stacked among blank pieces of scrap paper. Above is a sampling of old cards I picked up this afternoon (click to enlarge). Counter-clockwise from top left: records for 2 films in English, then other items in German, Spanish, Danish, Russian, and 2 in Hungarian.

For an engaging history of the library card catalog, see here. To see some creative ways of using "retired" library catalog cards, see here.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Library of Congress Logo (Banner)

Just noticed today that the Library of Congress logo looks like a waving American flag, as well as an open book. Very cool.

(For more on different adaptations of the American flag, see this recent posting.)

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Embrace Your Inner Geek! (Library Ad Campaign)

Geeky swag from the 2010 National Book Festival. These materials are part of a promotional campaign to increase the profile of public libraries. The ads use "geek" as a verb, reminding us of the important role that libraries can play in shaping our individual desires, hobbies, goals, and obsessions. For more, see the excellent "Geek The Library" website.

(For more from the 2010 National Book Festival, see here and here. For more on the related "I [HEART] WHATEVER" construction, see my postings here and here.)

P.S. It seems to me that the lower-case font in the library campaign invokes (intentionally or not) another cultural phenomenon: the TV show "Glee." It's common for a fan of the show to identify as a "gLeek," a portmanteau combining the words "glee" and "geek." In the promotional poster (above), the "L" finger sign -- which, as all high school students know, signifies "loser" -- becomes a badge of pride. (Incidentally, that hand formation is also the ASL sign for the letter "L.") Publicity material related to the show actively encourages fans to "gleeK out," embracing their obsession with the show.

The Language of Flags (Star-Spangled Banners)

The huge, tattered flag that inspired the lyrics of "The Star Spangled Banner" (the US National Anthem) is indeed a "star attraction" at the National Museum of American History (the screenshot above is a detail from a page on the online "Star Spangled Banner" exhibition). The huge flag on display was flown over Fort McHenry and survived the War of 1812, and it bears 15 stars and 15 stripes - representing the 13 original colonies, plus the 2 additional states (Kentucky and Vermont) that had joined the Union by that time. (The original plan was to keep adding 1 star and stripe for each new state that was admitted, but at some point this became too unwieldy and the number of stripes was "fixed" at 13.)

This website (as of September 2010) indicates that there's a Spanish translation of the anthem lyrics on display alongside the flag. (Note that this is NOT the same as the Spanish version that made the news back in 2006 - listen to the story here.)

Another intriguing version of the US flag in the NMAH is this Civil War era banner: the regimental colors of the 84th Infantry, 1866. This regiment was formed from the Corps d'Afrique of Louisiana, comprising of free black soldiers who fought for the Union. Note the French-derived place names on the red stripes (you can read more about this flag here and here). Interestingly, the writing in this flag is "backwards" - it reads left to right with the blue part (canton) on the right. As I understand it, the flag is typically flown facing the other direction (with canton on left).

A more stylized version of the "backwards" flag can be seen on this sign outside Newseum during Obama's inauguration in January 2009. (The number refers to Obama as the 44th President of the US.)

These versions of the US flag were displayed on the east façade of the Capitol when Obama was inaugurated in January 2009. The flags on the outside are the original stars and stripes (13 stars in a ring). The flag in the center is the current flag (50 stars). The other flags have 21 stars: this what the US flag looked like just after Illinois (Obama's home state) entered the Union in 1818.

As is the case with other flags, the "Star-Spangled Banner" is sometimes modified in order to make a political message. See, for instance, the protest flags here and here.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Nevada: "Official" or "Spanish" Pronunciation?

One of the items I brought back from the 2010 National Book Festival (see related post here) was this tourist map of Nevada. On its front and back flaps, it features a very curious mark over the first letter "a" in the word "Nevada." The mark directs its readers to pronounce the name of the state as "Nevada," using this [æ] sound, rather than "Ne-VAH-da," using this [ɑː] sound. Earlier this summer, some Nevada legislators discussed the idea of declaring the [æ] sound as the "official" pronunciation of the state's name. The implication here is that the "other" pronunciation of the state name, using the [ɑː] sound, is perceived as the "Spanish" pronunciation. (For a more detailed discussion of this issue, see here.)

In the context of this pronunciation debate, I find it curious that this tourist map readily acknowledges that the name of the state is Spanish in origin - it flatly states that "Nevada means 'snow-capped' in Spanish." So why would you go out of your way to discourage people from pronouncing it the "Spanish" way?

National Book Festival Bookmarks

Last weekend I checked out the National Book Festival (annual event on the Mall organized by the Library of Congress) and brought back some great bookmarks. On the right, a bookmark publicizing the World Digital Library, an international archive of cultural treasures maintained by UNESCO and the Library of Congress; its mission is to disseminate knowledge and increase cross-cultural understanding. The bookmark uses 5 languages: English, Arabic, Russian, French, (Mandarin) Chinese, and Spanish - these are, fittingly enough, the 5 official languages of the UN. To access this amazing digital library, go here.

My favorite bookmark is on the bottom left; the slogan states "Reading is for everyone," and superimposed on this is the equivalent text in raised Braille dots. These materials promote the National Library Service's resources for the blind.

"One Nation" Logo

A timely follow-up to yesterday's posting about flags: this sign for the "One Nation Working Together" March on DC. Today, October 2, 2010, marks the progressive, social justice answer to the Glenn Beck/FOX News rally that was in town a few weeks ago. Appropriately, the logo features a stylized American flag with the numeral "1" as the basis for a stylized "N" (for "nation").

(You can learn more about the march and the coalition of groups that make up the organization at this website).

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Language of Flags - US States etc.

This city abounds with flags - and not just in government buildings. In front of Union Station you can see the flags of all 50 states in the order they were admitted into the Union. Above (from L to R), the most recent states (Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, Alaska, and Hawaii), then DC, and finally all the other US territories and commonwealths (Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, US Virgin Islands, and Northern Mariana Islands).

Vexillology, the study of flags, employs an arcane lexicon that ultimately derives from medieval heraldry (see this website for some of this vocabulary). I would describe the Hawaiian flag (just right of center in the photo above) as something like "the British flag in the top-left corner with stripes on the rest of it" but the flag is officially described in these terms:

(3) A red cross bordered with white is charged (placed) over all.
[From The Hawaii Revised Statues, Vol. 1, Ch. 5, Sec. 19 - see here]

The DC flag, above (center), is commonly understood to have heraldic origins (see my earlier posting for a fuller description).

I think that the most attractive use of flags as a decorative motif in a building is in the Kennedy Center. In the grand Hall of Nations, flags appear in alphabetical order by country name. Above, we see Australia (top left) followed by A's and B's.

In the equally-grand Hall of States, the flags are arranged chronologically according to date they were admitted into the Union. The flags begin with Delaware (in the back right) and proceed toward the front of the right-hand wall; they they start up again on the left-hand wall (front left of this photo) and proceed to the end, followed by the US "non-states."

For more on each of the 50 state flags, see this website.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Language of Flags - DC

Above, the distinctive flag of the District of Columbia. Its stars and stripes evoke the US (federal) flag, but most descriptions say the DC flag design derives from the coat of arms of George Washington's family (see here for more on the flag's origins).

Here's the Washington family shield as it appears in 14th-century stained glass on a window in Selby Abbey, Yorkshire (England). In proper heraldic vocabulary, these design motifs should be designated as "mullets and bars" and not "stars and stripes" (see the last section of this page). For more about the Washington Window at Selby Abbey, see here. For an extensive website exploring the rich legacy of Washington's arms in American culture, see here.

I was trying to find out more about the symbolism of the DC flag but the website on DC symbols wasn't that informative. For what it's worth, I have heard somewhere (was it on a Capitol tour?) that the three stars represent the branches of government (executive, legislative, and judicial) and bars symbolize equality. This could be an urban legend or even some sort of ironic political commentary - since DC residents lack equal legislative representation in Congress (i.e., DC has no voting representative). For more on the DC voting rights issue and how the flag is used on both sides of the issue, see this alternate version of the DC flag and this DC license plate).

Creative Logo (Department of Transportation)

Today I spotted this logo on a construction vehicle as workers were repaving part of the street. The logo bears the DC flag, and below a lower-case "d" and a punctuation mark (period). District Department of Transportation = D-DOT. Get it? (This logo also appears on the D-DOT website.) Capitol Hill.

(For another use of the DC flag, see this license plate.)
[Added Oct 1, 2010] Just noticed this brand new solar trash compactor (yes, this is what DC tax dollars pay for!) at Eastern Market. A snazzier version of the D-DOT logo superimposed upon a DC flag (colors reversed) and a map indicating the shape of the District.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

As the Old Sing, So the Young Twitter

I was mildly disappointed when I walked into the Library of Congress to discover that this exhibition is NOT about social media. Instead, "As the Old Sing, So the Young Twitter" explores the long-standing relationship between human music-making (via flute instruments) and birdsong. If you happen to be walking by the LOC Madison Building, it's worth a look. Exhibition ends October 30, 2010.

German, American, and Chinese Poems (Community)

I've walked passed the Goethe-Institut in Chinatown many times (see an earlier post), but usually I keep on walking. A few days ago, something caught my eye: these posters displaying German, American, and Chinese poems. These posters are part of "Time Shadows," an annual competition that features poems from each culture. The theme for 2010 is "Community."

This Chinese poem by a poet from Taiwan is entitled 望夫石 ("Husband-Gazing Stone"). The German translation states that this poem concerns "die Legende von der Ehefrau, die so lange nach ihrem verschollenen Ehemann Ausschau hielt, bis sie sich in einen Stein verwandelte" [the legend of a wife who kept watch for her missing husband for so long that she transformed into a stone]. You can read the poem and its English and German translations at this website.

I found this excerpt from the work of an American poet particularly interesting. This poem, entitled "Locals," reminds us that all of our ancestors ultimately come from "somewhere else," displacing whoever was there before. The poem offers an insightful commentary on the ever-shifting nature of  community and the constant migration of people over time and space. The final 2 stanzas in the original English text read as follows:

Bedouin-Brython-Algonquins; always there
before you; the original prior claim
that made your being anywhere intrusive.
There, doubtless, in Eden before Adam
wiped them out and settled in with Eve.

Whether at home or away, whether kids
playing or saying what they wanted,
or adults chatting, waiting for a bus,
or, in their well-tended graves, the contented dead,
there were always locals, and they were never us.

See this website for the entire poem in English, plus translations in Chinese and German.

For a poem from the "Time Shadows 2009" competition (the theme was "City Life"), see this earlier post or this website.