Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Isabella Stewart Gardner Paintings Still Missing After 25 Years

by Kyle Amato
Fall 2015 Intern

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum theft is the stuff of legends around Boston, but I only learned the full story when I visited the museum a couple months ago. On March 18, 1990, two thieves disguised as Boston police officers entered the museum and stole 13 priceless works of art. They managed it by tricking the security guards into moving away from any alarms, and then duct taped them to pipes in the basement! Fortunately, no one was injured, but the thieves disappeared without a trace. However, as stipulated in Gardner’s will, the museum is to remain forever unchanged, so the empty frames still hang on the walls.

The stolen works include Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee, Johannes Vermeer’s The Concert and Govaert Flinck’s Landscape with an Obelisk. It is considered the greatest art theft in American history. The FBI currently values the thieves’ plunder at $500 million. However, this price may have been exaggerated in an attempt to get the thieves to expose themselves when attempting to sell the art. They are also offering a $5 million reward for any information regarding the missing pieces.

The case’s most recent update came in 2013. The FBI claimed to have identified the thieves, after determining that the art had been transported to Connecticut and Philadelphia. They have not revealed the names of the thieves, but have stated that they are “members of a criminal organization with a base in the mid-Atlantic states and New England.” Theories abound, and some once even believed that the infamous James “Whitey” Bulger was involved in some capacity!

Today, over 25 years since the theft, the paintings are still missing. No arrests have been made, and there don’t appear to be any new leads as to their whereabouts. Lead investigator Geoff Kelly rejects the theory that the thieves destroyed the paintings soon after the crime, as “most criminals are savvy enough to know such valuable paintings are their ace in the hole.” The museum’s chief of security, Anthony M. Amore, adds, “Mrs. Gardner would have expected us to battle every day to get back her art.” The search will continue, and hopefully the pieces will be recovered undamaged.

Did You Know?

If your name is Isabella, you get free admission to the museum forever! Isabellas simply need to register through the museum’s website, and they’ll receive a printable card through email to use for any visits. However, be sure to also bring a valid ID to prove that your moniker does, in fact, match Gardner’s—no variations are allowed.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Don’t Thank Farmers for Summer Vacation

by Chelsea Wilson
Fall 2015 Intern

At some point, someone told me the schedule for summer vacation in schools was because the farmers had needed their kids home to help with planting and harvesting crops. It wasn’t until I was older that the northern Minnesota tradition of garden planting over Memorial Day weekend began to poke little seed-sized holes in that “fact.” We planted in the spring and harvested in the fall. A lot of things have changed since the 1800s, but I don’t think basic rules of farming have changed that much.

As Kenneth Gold, associate professor and interim dean of the School of Education at CUNY’s College of Staten Island, explains in his book School’s In: Summer Education and American Public Schools 1840–2000, the agrarian school calendar that was in use in rural America had short summer and winter terms, when the farmwork was comparatively light. In contrast, the schools in urban areas were open essentially all year. In 1842, schools in New York City were open 248 days per year, compared to today’s 180 days.

It will come as no surprise to anyone living in temperate or tropical zones that summers can be hot. Cities, thanks to the heat island effect, tend to be warmer than nearby rural areas, and there was no air conditioning to keep buildings cool in the 1800s. With tall buildings blocking breezes and insects and horses all around, summers in cities could be smelly and miserable. They were the perfect time for the upper and middle classes to leave, creating an early version of summer vacations.

According to Gold, the push for a standard school year came from the school reformers of the 19th century. To ensure equal schooling, reformers wanted all schools in the country to run on the same schedule, so either the agrarian calendar or the urban calendar would have to change. Year-round schooling was not an option, as doctors were concerned that taxing young minds was unhealthy and could lead to nervous disorders.

Taking summers off so students can help on the farm seems like a perfectly reasonable explanation for those three free months most students now experience, but once you take a second look, questions start to arise. A variety of conditions, including the combination of school reform and urbanization, led to summer break and summer vacations, but working on the farm just wasn’t one of them.

Did You Know?
Amariah Brigham, a nineteenth-century psychiatrist, recommended fewer hours of school because too much “cultivation of the mind” led to “insanity and nervous affections” among students.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Mobile Literacy: Chicago’s L Train-Turned-Library

by Tess Renault
Fall 2015 Intern

Whenever I took the T (the subway system in Boston), I always tried to sneak a peek at what other commuters were reading. I’d try to read the books’ spines without the other passengers catching me. However, I’ve come to notice that more and more commuters (myself included) are on their phones these days, whether they’re listening to music, texting or updating social media. Or maybe they’re even using their phones to read. Whatever the reason, I’m finding that physical books are becoming more of an infrequent sight.

However, bibliophiles would have been pleased with Chicago’s subway this past October. During Chicago Ideas Week, which ran from October 12–18 this year, the city’s train system (the CTA, more commonly known as the “L”) participated in an initiative called Books on the L. With the goal of encouraging reading, hundreds of books (some of which were donated by Open Books, a nonprofit that promotes literacy in the Chicago area) were placed on the city’s trains for commuters to enjoy.

All that week, the L turned into a library of sorts, emphasized with the slogan, “Take it. Read it. Return it.” Each book was also marked with a bright yellow Books on the L sticker, making it easy for commuters to locate the books. Passengers could enjoy them as long as they were on the train, but were expected to leave the books behind at their final stop for the next readers. The books were selected from all sorts of genres and many were authored by individuals who appeared as guest speakers during Chicago Ideas Week, such as Martine Rothblatt, Scott Shane, Michael Strahan and Senator Claire McCaskill. The train’s transformation certainly caught the attention of social media—the hashtag #BooksOnTheL was used to spread the word about the initiative and to allow commuters to share what they read.

This was not the first year that the L train turned into a temporary library—Books on the L first debuted in 2014 during last year’s Chicago Ideas Week, which happens annually in October. So if you missed out on Books on the L this year, there is a chance it will be happening again during Chicago Ideas Week 2016 (which, by the way, will be occurring from October 17–23). Other subway systems have also taken part in similar initiatives, such as the London Underground and the New York City subway system. Perhaps, then, a mobile library will be coming to a transit system near you. I’ll personally be hoping that Boston will be the next city to take on this trend.

Did You Know?

The CTA is typically referred to as the “L,” which is short for elevated (even though only parts of the train system are elevated today). However, there is often the debate over which way to spell this abbreviation: the “L” or the “El”? It appears to be a matter of preference, but as of 2012, the Chicago Tribune’s stylebook deemed the “L” to be the acceptable spelling. 

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Underground and Underwater: A River Runs Through It

by Kyle Amato
Fall 2015 Intern

Caves around the world hold untold secrets, and there is much we still do not know. However, intrepid spelunkers, divers and scientists are making great strides in exploring these dark depths, yielding fascinating results. Underwater and underground rivers have been found in caves and beneath the deep, and more information is being found every day.

In 2007, British diver Stephen Bogaerts and German partner Robbie Schmittner made an amazing discovery of a submerged cave system underneath Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. After more than 500 dives, they concluded it is the world’s largest submerged cave system, and that the network of caves are connected and form a single system that is 95 miles long—essentially creating an underground river.

Also in the Yucatán Peninsula is the underwater river known as Cenote Angelita (Spanish for “Little Angel”). A three-foot thick layer of hydrogen sulfide separates the freshwater from the saltwater on the bottom. There are trees and branches strewn about just like a normal river, except this one is completely submerged! Many divers explore this river, and the pictures from diver Anatoly Beloshchin are absolutely stunning. He and his crew even brought poles for some underwater fishing! 

On the other side of the world, researchers from the University of Leeds discovered an underwater river flowing at the bottom of the Black Sea. The highly salty water is creating riverbanks and flood plains as if it were on the surface. This channel flows for about 37 miles, and is one of the only underwater channels to be found still flowing. Scientists theorize that these kinds of underwater rivers are essential in delivering nutrients to the deepest parts of the ocean.  

Underwater exploration is endlessly fascinating, as is the information it consistently yields. The pictures and stories almost make me want to drop everything and take a scuba diving trip! Almost.


The Quintana Roo Speleological Survey website is a massive database full of information concerning the underwater cave systems of Quintana Roo, Mexico. They have lists of the longest and deepest caves in the area, as well as information about cave life and proper conservation.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

"New York City, One Story at a Time" Goes Worldwide

by Chelsea Wilson
Fall 2015 Intern

In 2010, Brandon Stanton decided to create a map of New York neighborhoods by photographing 10,000 people and plotting their locations. This project became Humans of New York (HONY). Stanton began to collect quotes and stories from the people he photographed and included them with the pictures. It took HONY eight months to get its first 1,000 likes on Facebook, but by 2012 it was getting about 1,000 likes a day. HONY now has nearly 20 million followers across various social media sites and has inspired three books, the first of which was a New York Times best seller.

Since his initial project, imitations have sprung up throughout the world, and Stanton doesn’t seem to mind. He doesn’t charge anyone who would like to try, and he even offers recommendations for those interested in trying their own version of the project. Stanton addresses some fears a photographer might have, including what happens if someone refuses to have their picture taken (accept that some people will say no), how to deal with nerves (act calm so the subject will not also be nervous), what to do when the unexpected occurs (let it happen) and how to talk to the subjects (be natural—it’s not 60 Minutes).

Whether they’ve seen Stanton’s helpful hints or not, college campuses all over the world have their own versions of HONY. Humans of George Mason University was started by a freshman trying to adjust to college life. Similarly, Humans of New York University created a sense of community on its campus and is now a way for the creator to stay connected to the university.

These “Humans of” on college campuses are extremely popular. The Facebook pages of Humans of University of Florida and Humans of William and Mary both received 1,000 likes on their first day. Humans of the University of Toronto is a Canadian university’s version of the same project.

College campuses aren’t the only ones to make their own “Humans of” spin-offs. With varying levels of activity and numbers of followers, San Francisco, Seattle, Minneapolis, Rome and Copenhagen are among the numerous cities that have their own versions.

In the five years since it started, Humans of New York has grown to more than 5,000 pictures, has gained an impressive social media following and has spawned copies in cities and college campuses all over the world. With one project, Stanton launched a global phenomenon.

Did You Know?
There are a number of Humans of New York parodies, including Felines of New York, Orcs of New York, Boring Humans of New York, Goats of Bangladesh and Pigeons of Boston.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

TV’s Time Capsules: The Growing Popularity of Period Pieces

by Tess Renault
Fall 2015 Intern

For the past few years, my Sunday nights have been dedicated to catching up with my favorite characters on television. Beginning in early January, there is a pretty good chance that I will be spending my Sunday nights watching the final season of Downton Abbey. Earlier this year, I had to say good-bye to Don Draper and the rest of the complicated characters on Mad Men. Period pieces and historical dramas are some of my favorite shows to watch, and, according to the influx of these shows on TV, I am not alone.

These shows seem to be popular with audiences largely due to their ability to transport viewers to another time. For instance, the success of Mad Men can be partly attributed to how it captured the essence of the ’60s. Through its characters, sets, costuming, music, etc., the series was able to show viewers what it was like to live at that time. Period pieces can also be appealing for nostalgic purposes—I’ve heard from several relatives that Mad Men reminded them of their childhood and allowed them to relive certain moments from their past.

For those of you who are already having Mad Men withdrawals, BBC America’s The Hour is a great alternative—it centers on a team of broadcast news reporters in Cold War–era London. While it only aired for two seasons, it is well worth checking out. Similarly, Downton fans may be interested in the new PBS Masterpiece series Indian Summers, which is set in India in 1932, 15 years prior to India’s independence from England.    

In addition to being engaging, these series are often educational. AMC’s historical drama, Turn: Washington’s Spies is all about Abraham Woodhull and the Culper Ring, a spy group that aided George Washington during the American Revolution. Manhattan, which is on WGN America, is about the Manhattan Project and its scientists during WWII. Cinemax’s The Knick is a medical drama beginning at the cusp of the twentieth century, with a main character based on the real Dr. William Halsted. Of course all of these shows will have a varying degree of fictionalization for dramatic purposes, but there is also a lot of historical context to be gained from them.

With the increasing popularity of these shows, there are so many different periods of history that are being explored on TV—it’s a great time to be a history buff.   

Did You Know?

The accuracy of set props is key to a successful historical drama or period piece. On the set of Mad Men, there were many historical experts on call to make sure everything looked the way it should have. For instance, one expert made sure that even the ballpoint pens used in the advertising office were the right style and from the correct year.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

A Glimpse into the Future Library

by Annette Cinelli Trossello
Project Manager & Senior Editor

With the vast strides we have made in technology, it’s hard to imagine what reading a book will look like in the year 2114. It’s also seemingly impossible to predict what the content of these novels will be. I’m sure Jane Austen never saw Pride and Prejudice and Zombies coming. However, thanks to Scottish artist Katie Paterson, one book slated for publishing in 2114 is already complete.

Paterson is a visual artist whose latest work, Future Library, is perhaps her most ambitious project to date. It is a one-hundred-year-long project that began in the spring of 2014 with the planting of one thousand fir sprigs and will grow to the publication of 100 works. The forest has been planted just outside of Oslo, Norway, and the trees will be used to print an anthology of books in 2114.

Between 2014 and 2114, one author will be invited each year to contribute to the anthology. The authors’ manuscripts will be housed in the New Deichmanske Public Library in a special room designed by Paterson along with the architecture practices of Lund Hagem and Atelier Oslo. The room will be lined with wood from the forest, and the names of the authors as well as the titles of their works will be on display. The room will also include a printing press to ensure that paper printing will be possible.

The Future Library Trust, a committee that will be updated every 10 years, is tasked with inviting the authors as well as preserving the forest and manuscripts. Work submitted to the project will not be seen by publishers, critics or readers until the anthology is released.

The inaugural author is Margaret Atwood, an award-winning Canadian novelist and poet best known for The Handmaid’s Tale. Atwood was honored to be asked to participate and says [PDF link], “Future Library isn’t just a visual art project. It’s a literary art project. Katie is the form, and I’m the content.” Atwood’s piece is entitled Scribbler Moon, and that is all that is known about it—and all that will ever be known by anyone reading this blog post today!

Paterson describes her inspiration for the project, “I had the idea for Future Library quite a while ago. . . . I had a vision of tree rings as chapters in a book, growing imperceptibly over time, with tree trunks pulped into paper that would compress these years of growth into material stories. Written now, but for an entirely future time and place. . . . Perhaps when the authors start writing for Future Library, by some strange osmosis their ideas are going to find themselves growing through the trees, like the air or water that feeds them.”

For 2015, the Trust chose David Mitchell, a bestselling British author, as the second writer to contribute to Future Library. Future readers will likely enjoy the work of a man that Esquire describes as a “genre-bending, time-leaping, world-traveling, puzzle-making, literary magician.” Mitchell will hand over his manuscript in 2016 at a ceremony in Norway.

Did You Know?

Though the anthology will not be published in most of our lifetimes, 1,000 certificates are available for purchase, costing $1,000 or £625 a piece. Each one entitles the bearer to a complete set of the texts printed on paper made from the trees in 2114. The price may seem steep, but the certificate itself is a piece of art, and it comes down to $10 for each author’s work—a bargain even in 2015!