Visiting the Space Shuttle FFT & touring a B-17 at the Museum of Flight

A couple weeks ago, I watched NASA’s Super Guppy flying in the crew compartment section of the Space Shuttle Full Fuselage Trainer (FFT). Today, I checked it out while it was being reassembled at the Museum of Flight here in Seattle.

Space Shuttle trainer assembly (1)

Yes, it’s made of wood, but every shuttle astronaut was trained in the FFT, and the last crew even signed their names under the nose — it’s an important part of NASA history. One of the wonderful things about Seattle getting the FFT rather than one of the actual shuttles is that visitors to the museum will be able to go through it, as we can do today aboard the first jet-powered Air Force One, a Concorde, and one of the last B-17 bombers still in flying condition.

As much as I’m anticipating a tour of the FFT, I was most inspired today by a walk-through — more of a crawl-through, really — of that Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress. The “Boeing Bee” is one of only a handful of B-17’s still capable of taking to the skies. The bomber was manufactured just up the road from the Museum of Flight, and our docent was a retired Boeing engineer, able to rattle off both technical details and war stories with equal panache.

B-17 cockpit (1)

After squeezing around the ball turret, through the radio room, across the bomb bay, and into the cockpit, it wasn’t difficult to imagine how hellish it must have been for the ten-man crew, flying into German flak and fighters. But with thousands of pounds of bombs and eleven .50-caliber machine guns sprouting from just about every surface, the B-17 dealt death to the world below in equal measure.

Standing there in the July sun outside the Museum of Flight, I thought back to a quote I’d just read inside, from James Smith McDonnell, founder of the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation — builder of both fighter planes like the F-4 Phantom II and space capsules for the Mercury and Gemini programs:

“The creative conquest of space will serve as a wonderful substitute for war.”

Perhaps there’ll be a day when we pour as much technology and passion into the conquest of space as we do into conquering each other.

My Fellow Americans [Part II]

Continued from Part I.

1983

But then, my fellow Americans had dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. I sometimes forgot that, but then I’d remember the mannequins at the Peace Museum. By the time we were visiting Yokosuka on weekends, that mother and her son had been lurching toward me each night for years.

Just before we moved to Yokohama, my father’s parents visited us in Himeji. We climbed the Castle of the White Heron and ate handmade noodles at the counter of the noodle shop on the first floor of the building where my father had his church.

One trip I took alone with Grandpa Becraft. We were going to see pearl divers, robots that made cars for Toyota, and the Peace Museum in Hiroshima. I was seven, and he needed my Japanese skills to make sure he didn’t get lost. By age 10, I would be giving tours of Tokyo landmarks to visiting church dignitaries, for a small fee.

The oysters were gross, as were the black-and-white pictures of the ladies who used to dive for pearls without wearing any shirts. How long they could hold their breath did impress me. The robots were amazing, dipping and bobbing with shiny car parts clasped in their claws.

When we got to Hiroshima, we went to the Peace Park.

I gawked at the skeletal dome of the Industrial Promotion Hall. I wanted to become an archaeologist and I loved ruins. We listened to someone ring the bell. And then I noticed a two-story building across the plaza – the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.

Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum

I also loved museums. The first one I remember visiting was full of strange animals and scenes of Ainu men with beards and women with markings around their mouths that made them look like they had enormous blue grins. I wrapped my arms around my mother’s leg. She picked me up and carried me outside to look at a stone wall where someone had painted hundreds of handprints. But I wanted to go back inside with Father and look at those terrifying people behind the red ropes. I wanted to see the elephant with the brown hair again. I wanted to learn the names of each labeled artifact lying under glass and dim lights.

And so I pulled Grandpa past the Cenotaph and the thousand cranes, through school groups and old people following a lady with a yellow flag. Grandpa paid the admission fee and we entered. Immediately, I saw that this was like no other museum I’d been in. I took Grandpa’s hand as we stepped back forty years, to August 7, 1945.

The artifacts under the glass and dim lights in this museum were like nothing I’d ever seen before. Watches and clocks with their hands frozen at a quarter past eight. Melted bottles. Fused lumps of stone, metal, and glass. A hollow Buddha. A tricycle.

Pictures covered the walls. Grinning Americans stood under the nose of an airplane.

Enola Gay crew

A tall cloud climbed from the earth to the sky. Women bare-chested like the pearl divers, patterns from their cotton robes burned into their skin. Men with sores all over their bodies. Children my age balding in patches as their hair fell out.

There were diagrams with red and orange and yellow sections on a map. There were movies of houses blowing down in a great wind. There were drawings of a woman carrying a burned-black baby and a person with blue flames coming from their fingers.

We looked at the stone steps where a woman waiting for the bank to open had burned into thin air, leaving behind only her shadow.

Hiroshima bomb bank steps shadow

And then my grandfather and I were standing in front of those mannequins. Painted in the distance, a river I knew now was full of people whose thirst drove them down the banks to their death. Above the mother and her son, I knew clouds hung waiting to let fall black rain no better for drinking than the poisoned river. Their mouths hung open. Their hair stood up in bomb-blast afros. In my dreams, they would howl and moan. Skin dangled from their hands in strips.

I took Grandpa’s hand — a hand that learned to fire a rifle in 1944 as he trained in Hawaii for the invasion of mainland Japan, an invasion made unnecessary by the horror documented so meticulously all around us. Would he, and therefore I, be alive today if that bomb had never fallen?

Whether logic or rationalization, such thoughts did not enter my mind until many years later.

In that moment, aged 7, I’d never felt more ashamed to be an American.

1985

On the bridge of USS Midway, I thought of what this great machine was capable of, said “Thank you,” and climbed down from the captain’s chair.

March 2007

Nathan and I followed the man in the yellow CV-41 hat down the ladders and back into the glaring sun. We followed the exit signs, walked down the gangplank, and stepped onto the pier again.

Continued in Part III

In the footsteps of James Joyce and Leopold Bloom

Bloomsday week in DublinMy favorites of Dublin’s many layers are those that bring to life its rich literary history. Today is Bloomsday, when the strata laid down by James Joyce come to light all across the city (in the photo on the right, banners for Bloomsday on O’Connell Street).

A full day at work followed by dinner with business partners from New Zealand precluded any participation in Bloomsday — a genuine disappointment, so perhaps I can embrace Philip Larkin’s source of inspiration.

Nevertheless, I’ve found myself following Joyce and Bloom all week long, and indeed earlier during my two previous visits in August 2008 and February this year.

My flight arrived early enough that my hotel room wasn’t ready, so I headed north on Grafton Street (“gay with housed awnings”), across the O’Connell Bridge, briefly into the General Post Office, then onto the James Joyce Centre. The museum preserves the front door of Number 7 Eccles Street, where Joyce’s friend J.F. Byrne lived in 1904 and which Joyce used as the home of Leopold and Molly Bloom in the novel.

Leopold Bloom's front door

Jetlag began to catch up with me as I finished the exhibits, so I took the offer of a free lecture at the Joyce Centre to hear a great deal about Phoenix Park that I’d never have learned otherwise. It’s now on my list of places to visit next time I’m in Dublin.

South on O’Connell Street, past Trinity College and the old Irish Houses of Parliament (already the Bank of Ireland in 1904), and back toward the hotel on aching feet…

The next afternoon, I headed north on Grafton Street again, but turned right onto Duke Street, where Davy Byrnes Pub exists in all its nonfictional glory.

Davy Byrnes - "Moral pub."

He entered Davy Byrne’s. Moral pub. He doesn’t chat. Stands a drink now and then. But in leapyear once in four. Cashed a cheque for me once.

There were far more mouthwatering options on the contemporary menu, but I set aside my disdain for tourist behavior and ordered the gorgonzola sandwich.

Leopold Bloom's gorgonzola sandwich

Mr Bloom ate his strips of sandwich, fresh clean bread, with relish of disgust, pungent mustard, the feety savour of green cheese.

As much as I missed doing something symbolically Joycean on Bloomsday itself, I realized that Ulysses is everywhere, all the time in modern Dublin, and the real Dublin suffuses Ulysses on every page. An evening in a Dublin restaurant with Antipodean colleagues may have been no less “Joycean” than turning the rusty knob of Leopold Bloom’s front door or eating bread topped with overwhelmingly green cheese.

You can see a more complete photo tour of Joyce and Bloom’s Dublin by Tony Thwaites of the University of Queensland, to whom I’m indebted for some of my own after-the-fact details and choice Ulysses quotes.

Lessons from the Burke Museum of Natural History & Culture

With a list of favorite museums that spans the British Museum, MFA in Boston, and Cairo Museum, it hardly seems fair for me to hold museums here in Seattle to the same standards. After all, Seattle isn’t a national capitol like Dublin, nor a major metropolis like New York City. Nevertheless, it’s hard for me to set aside certain expectations I’ve developed over the decades for “what a museum should be.”

Burke Museum totem poles 01So far, the only museum in Seattle that hasn’t disappointed on some level is the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, on the University of Washington campus. The Burke isn’t perfect, but there’s a lot to learn among its exhibits.

We arrived shortly after the museum opened at 10:00 and parked for free ($9.50 Mon-Sat) behind the museum. Even the Burke’s first impression is more “museum-like” than MOHAI or SAM, with large fossils lining the walkway and replicas of Northwest Coast totem poles (19th-century originals long-since decayed or rightfully returned to their tribal owners) standing amid the nearby trees. My wife was enchanted by the well-tended landscaping, and it was all I could do to drag her indoors.

In the museum foyer, a long glass case contains the museum’s most treasured artifacts and specimens. They were all lovely, but the only one that left a lasting impression was the skull of an orangutan donated by the Woodland Park Zoo, which sort of just made me sad thinking about the orang who must have died in the zoo and ended up here (don’t get me wrong; I do think zoos have an important role to play in conservation and education). We pressed on.

I was most interested in the museum’s collections of Washington State archaeological artifacts, and assumed that they would be displayed in the “cultural exhibits” that the man behind the front desk (with an impressive mustache) pointed us to downstairs.

The “Pacific Voices” exhibit appears to suggest that there is some sort of unifying culture that spans the Pacific Rim, from the Northwest Coast Indians to the distant Maori, Lao, Koreans, and other peoples who share access to this ocean. Some ethnologists have begun making tentative connections between Native American tribes here in the Pacific Northwest and the Ainu of Hokkaido, but an overarching Pacific culture seems as anthropologically unsound as a single Asian culture.

Taken individually, most of the exhibits in “Pacific Voices” were fascinating — a combination of intriguing artifacts from all over the Pacific and excellent contemporary art with a few models thrown in for interpretive purposes, but several of the sections lacked any meaningful artifacts (the Korean mannequins having a wedding and the abandoned Chinese New Year meal), and it was hard to buy the unifying theme beyond a common body of water. Perhaps I missed a placard clarifying the nuance the curators intended.

As it turns out, what I was really looking for in the museum was all upstairs, in the “Life and Times of Washington State” exhibit. Starting in the Cambrian and Ordovician with trilobites and crinoids, the exhibit walks visitors through the natural and early human history of Washington State, ending with the paleontology and archaeology of the state when it was first populated by the Clovis people.

Along the way, there’s a digression for dinosaurs — required to attract the critical museum demographic of 9-year-olds — even though Washington was mostly underwater at the time. In addition to the usual casts one might expect at a small museum, the Burke has an excellent mesosaurus plate from Brazil (Mesosaurus tenuidens) and complete, articulated mosasaur (Platecarpus tympaniticus).

Platecarpus tympaniticus 01

Perhaps most exciting is an as-yet-unpublished holotype fossil of a new genus of early baleen whale. Other notable fossils include gorgeous crabs from the Lincoln Creek Formation in Grays Harbor County and “stone rose” from Republic.

But it’s ultimately the material culture of my fellow humans that I look for in natural history museums — along with the flora and fauna in their environments — and I wasn’t disappointed. Rounding a corner, a complete mastodon skeleton looms over a low ramp. On the left, Ice Age fossils from mammoth tusks to bison horns. An unexpected find at the Burke: The skeleton of a giant ground sloth excavated while building Sea-Tac Airport in 1961. On the right, a display case contains the East Wenatchee Clovis Cache.

Between sentences as I type this, I’m feeling the weight of my newly rediscovered paleolithic blades in my left hand. On the opposite arm of the chair, I’ve lined up my neolithic blades.

The contrast between the people who made the crude paleolithic blades and the near-modern (on evolutionary time scales) first people of the Americas couldn’t be more clear. (Update: See why my assessment of paleolithic tools as “crude” may be wrong: “Industrial design of the paleolithic“.)

And there’s a clear connection between the smooth, clean lines of my neolithic blades from ‘Ain Ghazhal and these stunning Clovis blades from Wenatchee, Washington. Both the blades and their very presence in America represent the inevitable progress we make as a species.

This brings us full circle to the “Pacific Voices” exhibit I criticized earlier.

Even if human culture of the last thousand years can’t be summarized so simplistically with an idea like “Pacific Rim culture,” there is deep truth to the idea that we really are all one people, with shared history and a shared future. The neolithic blades in my right hand and the Clovis blades at the Burke are proof of our shared history. The diversity on display in the “Pacific Voices” exhibit reflects how far we’ve come as a species since then, but it also reflects the deep divisions between us — especially as illustrated by the religious practices Burke curators have chosen to focus on.

As we look to our future, perhaps there are more lessons about our similarities to be learned from the people of Clovis and ‘Ain Ghazal than from “Pacific Voices.”

My 10 favorite museums in the whole world

Mark Twain wrote in 1869, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” Truer words could not be said today. For me, a nation’s museums encapsulate its own culture but also take visitors beyond the country’s borders, helping one understand the shared connections and fascinating differences between all people. In museums, I feel connected not only with people living today, but also with all those people who came and went hundreds or thousands of years before. Museums make me proud to be a human.

Gates of Nimrud - British MuseumBritish Museum, London
http://www.britishmuseum.org/

Empire has its benefits — the systematic pillaging of world cultural heritage and its subsequent preservation. Where might key pieces of the Parthenon have ended up if Lord Elgin hadn’t carted off the best pieces? Similarly, the wholesale looting of Iraqi museums in 2003 makes Sumerian and Babylonian collections in The British Museum that much more important.

And yet, “That’s here?!” kept running through my head as I walked through the crowded galleries last August. The archaeology books I grew up reading were filled with pictures of the very objects I found myself standing next to that day.

Mixed emotions aside, The British Museum remains the favorite museum I’ve ever visited, from the stone age atlatl carved like a mammoth to the handwritten letters between residents of Roman Britain. The modest exhibit of Japanese items took me back nearly 20 years to my childhood. An amazing day only got better when I connected with a friend for the 2008 edition of the Non-Smoking Vegetarian Teatotallers’ Pub Crawl.

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
http://www.mfa.org/

My favorite museum in the States, the MFA’s collection includes important early American art, key pieces of European art (the usual Monets, Renoirs, and Van Goghs), and a surprisingly excellent collection of Egyptian and Asian antiquities.

National Gallery & St. Martin-in-the-FieldsThe National Gallery, London
http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/

I never intended to visit The National Gallery, but after wandering alone from Russell Square through Covent Garden on my first afternoon in London and allowing myself to get lost, I emerged onto Trafalgar Square. To my left, St. Martin-in-the-Fields. On my right, the steps leading up to The National Gallery.

I switched my iPod from The Clash to Mozart’s Requiem (as performed by the Academy and Chorus from the aforementioned church). With an hour before the museum closed for the evening, I blew through the Impressionists (“Yup, I’ve seen a picture of that.”) and the stifling religious iconography of the Medieval period.

Instead, I lingered among the Dutch Masters until the docents began herding visitors to the exits. It was dark outside when I walked down the steps and looked up at Nelson’s Column. In the distance, the moon rose over Big Ben.

Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, Cairo

What wasn’t hauled off to the British Museum, the MFA, or the Louvre sits crammed into the echoing halls of the Cairo Museum. In August 1994, I’d just wrapped up a dig in Jordan, and was touring key sites in Israel and Egypt with archaeology professors and students. I hadn’t visited the British Museum or the MFA yet, and my first exposure to important pieces of Egyptian archaeology happened right there in Egypt.

From King Tut’s treasures and the strange art of Akhenaten’s rule to the famous mummies in their climate-controlled room (a brief respite from the 113-degree heat outside), there was more than I could possibly take in in a day.

Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum, Washington, D.C.
http://www.si.edu/

Sure, the other museums that make up the Smithsonian have important works of art and fascinating displays about history and science, but nothing so elegantly summarizes the American spirit for me than the Air & Space Museum. The Wright Flyer, Apollo 11 command capsule, and Spirit of St. Louis symbolize the spirit of exploration and progress that emerge now and then from behind the darker spirit symbolized by the hulking nose of the Enola Gay…

Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum
http://www.pcf.city.hiroshima.jp

…which brings me to the Hiroshima Peace Museum. My grandparents visited us in Japan in 1981/1982, and I took a multi-city train trip with my Grandpa B. The apocalyptic diorama full of bomb-blasted mannequins in the museum gave me nightmares for years. “Favorite” is perhaps not the right word for this museum, but the horrors of that museum made me an unreserved pacifist for life.

National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology, Dublin
http://www.museum.ie/

Two days after visiting the British Museum, I spent a rainy day in Dublin at the National Museum of Ireland, where I learned that Dublin was founded by Vikings. Who knew? The gold hoards were certainly spectacular (with many a missing item noted as “in the collection of the British Museum), but I particularly enjoyed seeing the bog people.

Trinity College - DublinTrinity College Library, Dublin
http://www.tcd.ie/Library/

The Dublin Writers Museum north of the Liffey held my hopes for finding literary inspiration while in Dublin, but instead the tourist-thronged Book of Kells and medieval manuscript exhibits at Trinity College’s library were much more intriguing. Beyond the spectacular illuminated Bibles, the exhibits included day-to-day books from medieval Europe.

The Long Room in the Old Library building itself is a place of beauty, scented with the leather of books older than most cities in America. The room is lined with marble busts of writers dating back to the 18th century. The oldest harp in Ireland (the very harp depicted on its coins) stands to one side, along with a copy of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic from the Easter Rising of 1916.

Auckland War Memorial MuseumAuckland War Memorial Museum
http://www.aucklandmuseum.com/

Without much time to leave Auckland during my free time on a business trip last December (or to learn much beforehand — I left on 24 hours’ notice), the Auckland Museum served as my crash course in New Zealand’s natural and human history.

The dramatic effect of human migration was evident on the natural history floor, where it felt like the exhibits included mostly extinct or near-extinct species (including a cast of the famous Sue from Chicago, though humans had little to do with the extinction of the T. Rex).

Growing up as an American in Japan, my perspective and understanding of the Pacific War were dominated by those two countries. Seeing exhibits about World War II from the point of view of a third Pacific island country was fascinating.

National Archaeological Museum, Amman

A lot less shiny (and biblical) than the Israel Museum less than 50 miles across the Jordan Rift Valley, the National Archaeological Museum in Amman, Jordan nevertheless has an amazing collection spanning essentially the entirety of human civilization, from the paleolithic to the Islamic era. Jordan controlled what is today the West Bank in the early days of excavations at Jericho, and key sites in the country also include well-preserved Roman cities and the rock-hewn Nabataean capital of Petra (you know, from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade).

Standing face to face with a skull on which someone nine thousand years ago carefully recreated the features of the deceased was one of those moments I’ll never forget.

Bonus: 5 more museums to visit before I die

  • Musee d’Orsay, Paris
  • The Louvre, Paris
  • Prado Museum, Madrid
  • The State Hermitage, St. Petersburg
  • Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York