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'Hall Of Wonders' Explores U.S. Innovation

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host: The Great American Hall of Wonders is a new exhibit at the Smithsonian's Museum of American Art. The rest of its title is "Art, Science and Invention in the Nineteenth Century." That was a period of enormous energy in this country, when boundaries were pushed west and the young nation took stock of itself, in the years after the Founding Fathers died.

The exhibit begins with a huge self-portrait of the American painter Charles Wilson Peale, who stands before us almost life-size, holding back a crimson curtain so that we can see into his hall of wonders - the natural history museum he built in Philadelphia, a collection that included the enormous skeleton of a mastodon.

The curator of the exhibit, Claire Perry, explains why Peale welcomes us.

Dr. CLAIRE PERRY (Curator): The idea that Peale had, as a member of the Revolutionary generation, they believed that the United States was a great experiment in democratic government. And that it wasn't certain that it would be something that would continue, and that each generation would have to take up the work of experimenting and inventing the United States.

And part of the purpose of Peale's Museum - and part of what we're copying here - is this the work of educating ourselves, of coming to inspire ourselves about learning about science and the arts. Because we need a wide range of knowledge to undertake the work of democracy, because we all have to be inventors.

WERTHEIMER: Claire Perry intended this show to resemble the kinds of exuberant exhibits that Americans of the 1800s went to see - in a kind of compressed form, of course, showing off both the natural wonders and the wonders produced by the newly celebrated American ingenuity. The first room of the Smithsonian show is devoted to the buffalo, a series of paintings of an essentially American creature.

PERRY: Well, to have a hall of wonders, I looked back to the 19th century to see what the people of the United States thought were wonderful things. And the buffalo was one of the natural wonders that Americans talked about most often. And the number and the size of these animals was overwhelming, and Americans liked to think of the buffalo as a symbol of the nation's natural plentitude and the robust energy of its citizens.

WERTHEIMER: Looking around the room at pictures of Indians hunting buffalo, of men shooting at herds from a train, there is one solemn portrait of a single, enormous buffalo bull, painted by George Catlin.

PERRY: He was inspired to take these western voyages because he believed that the original inhabitants of the West - vast buffalo herds and native people - would cease to exist when Easterners went west to settle in those lands. And so he made this study of this buffalo bull as part of those explorations.

And I like this one because most of his buffalo pictures show buffaloes stampeding and fighting, and wallowing in the mud. But this seems to be kind of a polite introduction to the buffalo. He singles out one member of the herd who looks back at us and switches his tail, curious as if asking who we are. And his lack of fear seems to allude to the fact that in this period of time - the early 1830s - herds of buffalo were still mostly unafraid of humans. That would change.

WERTHEIMER: In another room, there are a dozen paintings and prints of Niagara Falls, which was already a huge tourist attraction.

PERRY: Niagara was the jewel in the crown of America's natural beauties, and a place that poets and sweethearts and scientists and innovators wanted to go to make a pilgrimage at least once in their lifetime, because it was thought to be so spectacular and awe-inspiring that even these hasty, busy people of the United States wanted to come to Niagara, to take time to contemplate beautiful things.

WERTHEIMER: There's a large George Innes painting of Niagara Falls, showing it as a symbol of American power and industry. It was painted in 1893 as building began of huge turbines, which would drive massive electrical generation plants, far bigger than anything previously imagined. There are all sorts of tributes to invention in this exhibit. There's a gadget that looks like a giant golden beetle in a glass case.

PERRY: The gold beetle is William Weaver's cherry stone - improved cherry stone.

WERTHEIMER: There's also a prototype of Samuel Morse's electromagnetic telegraph. Claire Perry told us that Morse turned from painting to invention.

PERRY: He had the dream of being an artist. Went to London to study art, painted the most famous personages of the day in the United States; grand landscapes; but just wasn't able to secure a reliable patronage.

So between a few painting assignment, he took his canvas stretcher and some wires, and started to see this assembly of parts. And he, with this prototype of a telegraph, came up with the first economical and easily usable model of a working telegraph, and became one of the greatest of America's inventor-heroes.

WERTHEIMER: Another extraordinary souvenir of the century is the golden spike that connected the Transcontinental Railroad - Union Pacific, coming from the west, Central Pacific coming from the east.

PERRY: This is a railroad spike. It's a cast, in gold, of the original metal spike that joined the east and the west at Promontory Point, Utah; a hot, dust-blown day in 1869. And the event was actually quite an embarrassment for Leland Stanford, who was the former governor of California - one of the big fours of the Central Pacific Railroad - who was chosen to actually drive the last spike. And he picked up the sledgehammer and missed.

And I guess people pulled the train whistles, and the Chinese laborers jeered. And great hilarity ensued. But someone took mercy on him and came ove,r and helped him hammer in the spike. It was connected to a telegraph line that rang out across the country. Bells peeled and the United States, at last, was bound by rails of steel.

WERTHEIMER: So here it is, about a gold - it looks like a big, golden nail about six or eight inches long, sitting on a red-velvet cushion.

PERRY: Yes, it's a sacred object so we wanted to give it a very - sort of hallowed space in the installation. And I know there are a lot of - what shall I call them? - railroad nuts out there. And we're hoping that they'll come and see this last spike 'cause it doesn't get to Washington, D.C. - hardly ever. It usually lives at the Stanford Museum in California. And it's a pretty amazing object.

WERTHEIMER: The Great American Hall of Wonders can be seen at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art until January of next year. Our thanks to Claire Perry, who showed us around. She is the curator of the exhibit.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.