As part of our continuing partnership with Google Arts & Culture, we are excited to announce the September 13, 2016, launch of “Natural History,” our third themed release on the platform! This is an interactive, dynamic and immersive discovery experience covering the diversity and fragility of nature, featuring over 170 online exhibits and 300,000 artifacts from dozens of cultural heritage institutions. You might wonder why The Henry Ford is included in this release, alongside some of the world’s most esteemed natural history museums. The answer is that though natural history is not a collecting focus for us, the stories we tell of American innovation, ingenuity, and resourcefulness often intertwine with the flora and fauna around us—in fact, many of our stories cannot be told without careful consideration of the environment in which they transpired.
Our participation in the release includes three online exhibits telling such stories. “The Many Facets of John Burroughs” tells the story of the famed naturalist and author who became close friends with Henry Ford in his later life. The challenges faced by Henry Ford’s rubber-growing venture along the Amazon River in Brazil from the 1920s through the 1940s are explored in “Fordlandia.” And last, “Yellowstone, America’s First National Park” chronicles the development of this attempt to share America’s natural wonders with the masses—even before the birth of the National Park Service.
Our presence also includes close to 300 individual artifacts from our collections. These include objects related to each of our exhibit themes, but also significant individual artifacts such as John Muir’s pocket compass, two science texts used by the Wright Brothers and their family, and George Washington Carver’s microscope. In addition, we were very pleased to discover during our research for this project three shadowboxes of seashells collected by legendary innovator Thomas Edison in Fort Myers, Florida, an unexpected find we documented earlier this year on our blog. Prints (including several each by John James Audubon and Alexander Wilson), photographs, and other items highlighting the natural world round out our participation.
Visit g.co/naturalhistory to check out all the exhibits and artifacts within this brand new Natural History experience.
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.
What did you do this summer? Earlier this summer, winners of our 2015-16 Building Stories student creative contest visited Henry Ford Museum to tour the exhibit With Liberty and Justice for All. They had photos taken on the Rosa Parks Bus, a fitting memento of their hard work writing poignant stories on Rosa Parks, one of our nation’s most impactful social innovators. Please enjoy the story written by our grand prize winner, Yani Li, here.
From left: Teacher Dr. Melissa Collins, Elementary First Prize Winner Isaiah Watkins, Middle School First Prize Winner Sarah Ellis, High School First Prize and Overall Winner Yani Li, and teacher Julie Ellis.
While the Building Stories contest has been cancelled moving forward so that The Henry Ford can reconsider its contest offerings, we encourage teachers to make use of the primary source “foundational materials” developed for Building Stories.
Catherine Tuczek is Curator of School & Public Learning at The Henry Ford.
Maureen Foelkl is one of this year's Teacher Innovator Award winners. She shared her thoughts about her experience here at The Henry Ford; take a look here to see the rest of this year's winners.
From the moment I spied the entrance gates to Th Henry Ford it reminded me of Disneyland as a child. The anticipation of the innovative educators’ experience was coming to fruition. The Henry Fod's Frederick Rubin and Phil Grumm greeted the innovative teacher group with a warm welcome and an introduction to our week.
Our days were thoughtfully planned. We began the experience interacting with modern day creators at Maker Faire Detroit. We were given the privilege of awarding blue ribbons to makers we believe captured the true innovative spirit. There were many creative ideas that it made it virtually impossible to isolate just two blue ribbon winners.
I was personally inspired by a 12-year-old maker that had taken used clothing and converted the rags into costumes that young adults stylishly wore. He started his own YouTube channel to show others how they could create their own woven masterpieces. The maker ribbon was his true inspiration to continue his own innovative creations. As an educator, this is what I value. An avenue to make students feel valued and successful.
The team from The Henry Ford is a phenomenal group of leaders that made the Teacher Innovator award meaningful. Cynthia Jones, Marc Greuther, Catherine Tuczek, Ben Seymour, Ryan Spencer, along with the most pleasant and helpful group of employees contributed to the positive experience at the museum. I now have nine additional educators I feel connected to for future inspirational teaching lessons.
I am creating an E-STEM unit of study for outdoor school. The Henry Ford's website will be invaluable as I begin to generate meaningful lessons. One of my lessons, on John Muir the expert navigator will expose students to the history of direction. Young navigators will learn to use a compass. I will have students take a brief overview from and research the history of the compass. For me, the lesson comes to life because I was fortunate to have a behind the scenes tour of the archives. Standing inches away from this compass allows me to tell a story behind the piece. I will share the knowledge to the next generation of learners in hope that they too will become explorers of their world.
The 2016 Teacher Innovator Award Winners: Far Back: Scott Weiler. From Left to right: Fabian Reid, Catherine Turso, George Hademenos, Jill Badalamenti, Cindy Lewis, Leon Tynes, Tracie Adams, Maureen Foelkl. (Unable to attend: Jessica Klass)
I highly encourage teachers to visit Henry Ford Museum and take time to introduce your students to the world of innovation via their website to inspire the creativity in teaching and learning.
Maureen Foelkl is a Teacher Innovator Award Winner at The Henry Ford and is a teacher at Chapman Hill Elementary in Salem, Oregon.
Greenfield Village and you can’t help but notice the clothing. From the colonialera linen garments worn by the Daggett Farmhouse staff as they go about their daily chores to the 1920s flapperstyle dresses donned by the village singers, or even the protective clothing worn by the pottery shop staff in the Liberty Craftworks district — all outfits in Greenfield Village are designed to add to the guest experience. In many cases, these tangible elements help accurately showcase the time period being interpreted.
“Clothing is such a big part of history,” said Tracy Donohue, general manager of The Henry Ford’s Clothing Studio, which creates most of The Henry Ford’s reproduction apparel and textiles for daily programs as well as seasonal events. “It’s a huge part of how we live even today. The period clothing we provide helps bring to life the stories we tell in the village and enhances the experience for our visitors.”
The Clothing Studio is tucked away on the second floor of Lovett Hall. It provides clothing for nearly 800 people a year in accurate period garments, costumes and uniforms, and covers more than 250 years of fashion — from 1760 to the present day — making the studio one of the premier museum period clothing and costume shops in the country.
The scope and flow of work in the studio is immense, from outfitting staff and presenters for the everyday to clothing hundreds for extra seasonal programs such as Historic Base Ball, Hallowe’en and Holiday Nights. Work on the April opening of Greenfield Village, for example, begins before the Holiday Nights program ends in December, with the sewing of hundreds of stock garments and accessories in preparation for hundreds of fitting sessions for new and current employees.
“When it comes to historic clothing, our goal is to create garments accurate to the period — what our research indicates people in that time and place wore,” said Donohue. “For our group, planning for Hallowe’en is an especially fun challenge. We have more creative license with costumes for this event than we typically do with our daily period clothing.”
For Hallowe’en in Greenfield Village, the studio staff researches new characters and can work on the design and development for more elaborate wearables for months. In addition to new costume creation, each year existing outfits are refreshed and/or reinvented. Last year, for example, the studio added the Queen of Hearts, Opera Clown and a number of other new characters to the Hallowe’en catalog. Plus, they freshened the look of the beloved dancing skeletons and the popular pirates.
Historic clothing, period photographs, prints, trade catalogs and magazines from the Archive of American Innovation provide a wealth of on-site resources to explore the styles, clothing construction and fabrics worn by people decades or centuries ago. Each year, Jeanine Head Miller, curator of domestic life, and Fran Faile, textile conservator, host the studio’s talented staff for a field trip to the collections storage area for an up-close look at original clothing from a variety of time periods.
“Getting the details right really matters,” Miller said. “Clothing is part of the powerful immersive experience we provide in Greenfield Village. Having people in accurate period clothing in the homes and the buildings helps our visitors understand and immerse themselves in the past, and think about how it connects to their own lives today.”
Did You Know? The Clothing Studio has a comprehensive computerized inventory management system, which tracks close to 50,000 items.
During each night of Hallowe’en, Clothing Studio staff are on call, checking on costumed presenters throughout the evening to ensure they look their best.
What They're Wearing Under There At Greenfield Village, costume accuracy goes well beyond what’s on the surface. Depending on the time period they’re interpreting, women may also wear chemises, corsets and stays.
“Our presenters have a lot of pride in wearing the clothing and wearing it correctly,” said Donohue.
While the undergarments function in the service of historic accuracy, corsets also provide back support and chemises help absorb sweat. Natural fibers in cotton fabrics breathe, so they’re often cooler to wear than modern-day synthetic fabrics. And when the weather runs to extreme cold conditions, layers of period-appropriate outerwear help keep village staff warm. The staff at the Clothing Studio also sometimes turns to a few of today’s tricks to keep staff comfortable. Wind- and water-resistant performance fabrications are often built into Hallowe’en costumes to offer a level of protection from outdoor elements.
“It can be 100 degrees in the summer and 10 degrees on a cold Holiday Night,” Donohue said. “Our staff is out in the elements, and they still have to look amazing. We care about the look and overall visual appearance of the outfit, of course, but we also care about the person wearing it.”
From The Henry Ford Magazine. This story originally ran in the June-December 2016 issue.
Seventeen Ford GT cars pose for a group portrait on Pebble Beach’s 18th fairway. P/1046, which finished first at Le Mans 50 years ago, leads the pack.
It’s a big year for Ford Motor Company’s iconic GT40 race car. Fifty years ago, New Zealander drivers Chris Amon and Bruce McLaren realized Henry Ford II’s ambitious goal to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race, while two other GT40s took second and third place. This year, in a bold move, Ford returned to Le Mans with the all-new GT and, in fairy tale fashion, won its class 50 years to the day after the Amon/McLaren victory. Meanwhile, demand for the forthcoming street version of the new GT is so great that Ford just announced it’ll be adding two more production years to the supercar’s limited run. What better time, then, to celebrate the GT40 at the prestigious Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance?
Three cars representing four years of consecutive Le Mans victories: Our Mark IV J-5 (1967), P/1075 (1968-69), and P/1046 (1966). Private owners and museums around the world answered the call from Pebble Beach organizers. On August 21, they filled the 18th fairway with what might have been the most impressive collection of Ford GT cars ever assembled outside of the Circuit de la Sarthe. No fewer than 17 GT40s and GT40 variants made the trip to California, and it seemed that every important car was there. There was chassis P/1046, the GT40 Mark II that Amon and McLaren drove to victory in 1966. Freshly – and brilliantly – restored to its race day appearance, the car took “Best in Class” honors from the Pebble Beach judges. Alongside it were 1966’s second and third place cars driven by Ken Miles and Denny Hulme, and Ronnie Bucknam and Dick Hutcherson, respectively.
GT40 P/1015 won the 1966 24 Hours of Daytona with Ken Miles and Lloyd Ruby. Four months later, it finished second at Le Mans with Miles and Denny Hulme.
Le Mans winners from other years were present, too. Our Mark IV chassis J-5, of course, won in 1967 with Dan Gurney and A.J. Foyt sharing the driver duties. Then there was chassis P/1075, the GT40 Mark I that won Le Mans twice in a row, with drivers Lucien Bianchi and Pedro Rodriguez in 1968, and with Jacky Ickx and Jackie Oliver in 1969. Ford Motor Company itself pulled out of Le Mans after 1967, but privateer John Wyer did the GT40 proud with those back-to-back victories.
From Switzerland came this replica of GT/101, the very first GT40, which turned heads at the 1964 New York Auto Show.
Le Mans wasn’t the only race represented at Pebble Beach. Mark IV chassis J-4, which won the 1967 12 Hours of Sebring with Bruce McLaren and Mario Andretti at the wheel, was there on the fairway. So was GT40 P/1074, the Mirage variant which took first place at Belgium’s Spa 1000-kilometer race in 1968 with Jacky Ickx and Dick Thompson. The collection was rounded out with a replica of GT/101, the first-ever GT40, and the prototype 1967 GT40 Mark III that modified the track racer into a more civilized street machine.
The rare GT40 Mark III. Just seven of these refined road cars were ever built. To put the icing on the cake, the GT40 also featured on this year’s official concours poster. The painting, by noted automotive artist Ken Eberts, features the 1966 trio of 1-2-3 finish cars posed in front of the Lodge at Pebble Beach. Behind the cars stand Carroll Shelby, Henry Ford II and Edsel Ford II. (The younger Mr. Ford not only witnessed the 1966 victory with his father, he was also at Le Mans this year for the 2016 win.)
This year’s Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for fans of the GT40. We were honored to participate with the Mark IV, and we look forward to watching the next chapter of GT history unfold with Ford Performance’s new generation of cars.
Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.
More often than not, these two disciplines and the artists that practice them go hand in hand
When the founders of Kate Spade decided in 2015 that they wanted to once again make a go of the accessories business, they decided that their new label, called Frances Valentine, would consist primarily of shoes instead of handbags (which was the thing they originally became famous for in the early 1990s).
The handbag market is crowded enough, they said, so rather than offer dozens of pocketbooks, they whipped up just a few easy-to-carry totes and a broad range of footwear, including everything from casual sneakers to sky-high stilettos.
No matter what category they’re chasing, designers Andy Spade and Kate Valentine — who changed her surname in order to create a delineation between the real person and the still-active brand — will always favor clean lines mixed with artful graphic flourishes. That’s why the collection’s pièce de résistance is a chunky geodesic heel that makes an appearance in the designer’s spring collection under a strappy sandal and, in the fall, a sharp Chelsea boot. The heel was inspired by American architect R. Buckminster Fuller, whose futuristic domes can be found everywhere from Russell Township, Ohio, to Montreal, Québec.
It’s a novel interpretation, but hardly an unexpected one. “Fashion is architecture,” Coco Chanel once said. “It is a matter of proportions.”
BODY OR BUILDING Indeed, fashion and accessories designers have long applied the principles of architecture to their chosen medium. There are endless examples of the two intermingling. What they have in common is functionality. Unlike art, which often has no end use other than contemplation, architecture and fashion both serve a purpose. The precision required to erect a building or some other sort of edifice is an inspiration for designers, who must often bring structure to a material that lacks form.
It’s no surprise that several of fashion history’s greatest practiced or at least studied architecture before learning to drape a dress. Tom Ford was an undergrad at Parsons Paris (a branch campus of New York’s esteemed The New School) when his eye began to stray from the monumental toward the sartorial. Legendary Italian designer Gianni Versace studied architectural drafting while moonlighting as a buyer for his mother’s clothing store in southern Italy. Italian designer Gianfranco Ferre, who earned a degree in architecture from the Milan Polytechnic Institute, began his fashion career designing accessories, a process that is often more in line with that of his intended profession — perhaps because it requires the eye of an industrial designer.
Dubbed “the architect of fashion,” Ferre went on to lead the House of Dior from 1989 to 1996. His most notable contribution to fashion, however, is his white shirt iterations. (A garment that requires plenty of engineering to get right.)
Becca McCharen, the Brooklynbased designer behind Chromat, has used the foundations of her architecture degree from the University of Virginia to build an unorthodox fashion label. “Architecture school taught me how to approach a design project,” she said. “It is my full reference on how to design.”
Without any formal fashion training, McCharen treats each garment as if it’s a building. “I think of the body as a building site,” she continued. “Just as you’d be looking at materials and the map of a site before you start plans, we’re looking at context, too. Joints and the movement of the joints all around the place we’re designing for.”
The designer, best known for the cage-like structures she molds to the body, also uses her electrical engineering know-how to wire garments so that they are illuminated in an enticing, not hokey, way.
A MUTUAL ADMIRATION It might be the minimalists, many of whom are not trained architects, who take the practice’s theories most wholeheartedly.
Cuban-born American designer Narciso Rodriguez wanted to be an architect before he became a fashion designer, and the exacting lines of his clothing reflect that. “Architecture is always one of the foundations for me,” he once told The New York Times. The New York-based designer’s favorite buildings include resident treasures such as the Seagram, Empire State and Chrysler buildings.
The Turkish-born, London-based designer Hussein Chalayan has been known to draw more directly from the well of home design, crafting a skirt out of a coffee table and creating a dress that functions as a chair. Or there is Los Angeles-based designer (and former architect) Airi Isoda, whose company is called wrk-shp. She has taken to dipping clutches in latex house paint and coats in concrete.
Isoda, who studied architecture at the University of Southern California, has said the exhibit Skin & Bones: Parallel Practices in Fashion & Architecture at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles was a lightbulb moment. “It was the first time I saw fashion in a new light — conceptual and architecture for the body,” Isoda told the website Archinect. “Viewing an elaborately draped dress with folds similar to a façade of a building I studied in school … it was just an eye-opening experience because I saw intellectual fashion, past its somewhat superficial and superfluous nature.”
Isoda went on to study fashion design; wrk-shp is a culmination of her multiple disciplines. The company designs clothing and accessories, lighting, objects and buildings in Los Angeles and beyond. In fact, the buildings of Japanese architect Toyo Ito inspired Isoda’s latest apparel collection. In particular, his “lily pad” columns have informed her silhouettes and pocket details.
It’s important to note that the relationship between fashion and architecture is one of mutual admiration. “Starchitects” are often commissioned to design clothing and accessories. For instance, architect Zaha Hadid was almost as well known for her honeycomb-lattice jewelry as she was for erecting the Guangzhou Opera House. Before her death in 2016, she had also collaborated with the shoe label United Nude, as has Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas.
But many of the most important fashion and architecture collaborations have nothing to do with actual clothes. Consider the ongoing partnership between Koolhaas and Prada. He has designed several retail stores for the Italian brand and also collaborates with its leader, Miuccia Prada, on collection visuals. The relationship between these two — underscored in the skate-park-like Prada store in New York’s SoHo neighborhood, which still impresses 15 years after it opened — has served as an example for many. Like Prada’s clothes, Koolhaas’ concepts remain interesting years, and even decades, after they are conceived.
Making things that last, not just structurally but also intellectually, is the greatest challenge for both architects and fashion designers. Perhaps the fact that clothing and buildings are both rooted in need first and desire second best explains why these two worlds cannot be uncoupled from one another.
Every year staff members from The Henry Ford present Maker Faire Detroit makers, who's projects embodies the innovative spirit of the event, the coveted Editor's Choice blue ribbons. We're excited to share this year's winners. Take a look at the list and get to know more about these outstanding makers.
We are happy to announce the launch of our second themed release on Google Arts & Culture! GCI’s “American Democracy” release launched July 13, 2016.
The American Democracy collection allows anyone with an Internet connection to explore over 60 exhibits and 2500+ artifacts from 44 institutions including the Constitutional Rights Foundation, Monticello, and the National Archives. The Henry Ford’s presence includes just over 200 artifacts from our collections covering our country’s history from the early 19th century through the 2012 presidential campaign, and consisting of campaign buttons, ballots, lanterns, bumper stickers, and prints, as well as many quirkier items, like campaign-themed bubble gum, cigarettes, top hats, capes, and razors. We are also featuring three online exhibits as part of the collection: Electing Lincoln, on the presidential campaigns of Abraham Lincoln; Bright Past, Fragile Future, on the conservation of our fragile paper political lanterns; and Bottles, Bobbleheads, and Bubblegum, highlighting some of the most interesting and unique presidential campaign items we hold.
Earlier this year, The Henry Ford launched a brand-new, award-winning institutional website. Part of this project—but a big part!—is a completely reimagined Digital Collections. The Henry Ford has been scaling up its collections digitization efforts since 2010, and you’ll find tens of thousands of artifacts available online (some of the most recent additions here), with many new and enhanced features on the new site. Though we hope the new Digital Collections experience is intuitive and easy to use, we wanted to highlight some of the features for those who might not yet have had a chance to dig in and explore.
One of the best things about our Digital Collections is that they are now fully integrated with the rest of our website. This means that any search you try on our website will return results from our educational resources, our Digital Collections, and the rest of the site, in convenient tabbed format.
Digital Collections artifact results from a site search on thehenryford.org.
If you’re specifically interested in our artifacts, you can easily perform collections-specific searches from the homepage of our Digital Collections. By entering a word or phrase in the single box, you will search three kinds of records—individual artifacts, archival collections, and expert sets, with each group of results returning in its own tab. For artifacts, you can limit your search results by date, the type of artifact (objects, photos, documents, videos/film, or audio), the location of the artifact (Henry Ford Museum, Greenfield Village, the Benson Ford Research Center, or not on exhibit), the special multimedia types available for that artifact (360-degree views, audio, or video), and whether there are high-resolution images available for automated download for a service fee. Search results can be sorted by relevance, title, or date.
Search results from a search from the homepage of our Digital Collections. If you need to get even more detailed, you can, with one of my favorite new features on the Digital Collections site, Advanced Search. While the Digital Collections homepage search features a single box and returns results based on relevance, the more sophisticated advanced search lets you combine any of 20 different parameters, such as collection title, color, material, or creator name. Want to find orange automobiles? Or velvet dresses? Or photographs from the Fair Lane Papers collection? With Advanced Search, you can! An online help guide explains the many different fields and provides sample values for each to assist you in constructing your search.
Once you’ve found an artifact you want to check out, you’ll notice that the look of each artifact record has changed. You will now see more information about each object, and it is easier and faster to flip through the images of each object—or zoom in to see fine details. Some objects may include 360-degree views, audio, and/or video. Each record features a “contact us about this artifact” button, through which you can e-mail our collections experts in the Benson Ford Research Center to ask questions or provide additional information or corrections to our data.
The look of an artifact record in our new Digital Collections.
Many Digital Collections records now display related artifacts, so while viewing something like the record for a historic photo of the Autogiro, you’ll be able to easily jump to the Autogiro itself. “Related content,” such as a story or video we’ve created including that object or other objects from our collection, will also appear where appropriate (see the record for our Apple 1 for examples). Artifacts may be shared via Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, or as “artifact cards,” short, portable versions of collections records that you can embed on your blog or website. Social sharing links and instructions for using artifact cards are available via a link on every collections record.
Archival collection records are brand-new to our Digital Collections. Previously, you needed to use our library catalog in order to find broad information about specific archival collections. Our new site allows us to include information from archival finding aids alongside the records that represent individual items from those collections. We will continue to add these archival records as collections are acquired and processed.
A record for one of our many archival collections.
Expert sets have been totally overhauled. They still collect groups of artifacts selected by our collections experts on specific themes, but are much more robust and visually appealing. As noted above, they are also searchable directly from the Digital Collections homepage. But you don’t have to be an expert to create your own set… Anyone can! Just click the “Add to Set” button on any artifact record and log in or create an account. It is also easy to share both expert sets and user sets via Facebook, Twitter, or e-mail.
One of hundreds of artifact Expert Sets created by our collections staff.
Another notable new feature of the site is that many of our collections images are available for immediate high-resolution download for a service fee. Anywhere you see the BUY icon on an image (or use the relevant search limiter), you can purchase that image for personal or educational use in accordance with the terms of service listed on the site. We will continue to add more purchasable images to our Digital Collections over time. Lower-res images may be downloaded without a fee.
Lastly, if you ever tried to use our old Digital Collections site on a smartphone or tablet, you might have found it a frustrating experience. The new Digital Collections site is completely responsive, and all features will work equally well on your phone, tablet, or desktop computer.
Please try out our Digital Collections, if you haven't already, and feel free to contact us if you have any questions or comments about your experience. Our hope is that our new Digital Collections makes it easier and more fun for you to find, enjoy, and share the many treasures of The Henry Ford!
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.
Strange sounds will soon float through the air at The Henry Ford. Ghostly, warbling, hypnotic sounds. Reverberations that might be described as pure science fiction—as seeming “out-of-this-world.” These provocative sounds will rise out of an instrument called the theremin, developed in 1920 by Russian and Soviet inventor Léon Theremin. Famously, it is one of the only instruments that is played without physically touching it, and is considered to be the world’s first practical, mass-produced, and portable electronic instrument. These instruments offer a deep range of sonic possibility; learning to play one is a stirring experience.
At Maker Faire Detroit, July 30-31, 2016, Dorit Chrysler will provide several theremin workshops with KidCoolThereminSchool, a workshop program “dedicated to inspire and nurture creative learning and expression through innovative music education, art and science.” On Saturday, youth workshops (ages 4-13) will be held on a first come-first served basis at 11am and 1pm, followed by an adult workshop (ages 14 and above) at 4pm. On Sunday, youth workshops will be held at 1pm, followed by an adult workshop at 4pm. Maker Faire attendees are encouraged to arrive early to guarantee a place in the workshop, as each session is limited to ten participants. Additional guests are welcome to observe the workshop and test a theremin afterwards. Workshops typically run 45mins to 1hour, and will be held in the upper mezzanine area in the Heroes of the Sky exhibit.
Dorit Chrysler is rarity in the realm of musical performance: she is one of the few theremin players in the world who is considered to be a virtuoso of the instrument. She has accompanied an impressive list of bands including The Strokes, and Blonde Redhead, Swans, Cluster, ADULT., Dinosaur Jr., and Mercury Rev. Additionally, as part of her visit to Maker Faire, Dorit will give a performance each day at 3:15pm in The Henry Ford’s Drive-In Theatre, followed by a short Q&A session.
Kristen Gallerneaux, our Curator of Communications and Information Technology, had the opportunity to speak with Dorit Chysler about theremins, her music career, and the importance of collaboration.
Can you explain, using a few key words or phrases—as fanciful as you want them to be—how the theremin sounds? The granddaughter of the Lev Termen, the theremin's inventor once told me, you have to play the theremin with your soul - to me the sound at its best translates your slightest physical motions into a haunting & delicate soundscape, like weaving winds, tickled butterflies or howls to the moon, and yes, a theremin can sound exquisitely lyrical, but—at its worst, it can also sound like stepping on a cats tail.
How did your introduction to and love of the theremin as an instrument begin? What was your creative background before committing to the theremin? Having studied musicology in Vienna, I had been an active composer and also played guitar and sang in a rock band - when encountering the theremin at a friend’s house, I was instantly touched by its unusual interface, dynamic potential, the quixotic efforts necessary in controlling its pitch -why had the theremin not been more popular? It clearly deserved more attention.
How can the presence of a theremin influence the structure of a song? A theremin is surprisingly versatile - it can be applied in solo voicing (just like violin or guitar) or looping monophonic voices atop of each other, which creates a very unique weaving effect or dynamically in swoops and other gestural movements generated through its unique interface of motion translating into sound.
Are there any “quirks” to playing this instrument live? Playing a theremin live can be a challenge, as circuitry, wind (outdoors) or Hearing Aid ‘Loop’ T-coil Technology in concert halls, just to name a few, can interfere with the instrument. In addition, if you don't hear yourself well onstage, it is impossible to play in tune—so if playing with other instruments, such as an orchestra or a band with drummers, it is a challenge that can only be mastered with your own mixer and an in ear mic. Needless to say, all of this does not contribute in making the theremin a more popular instrument, the technical challenge playing live is real but can be mastered.
While commercial theremins are available via Moog Music, Inc., the theremin you sometimes play in your live shows doesn’t look like a commercial model. Is there a story behind who built it? Any special skills that creator may have had to work hard to learn in order to make the instrument a reality? I own several different theremin models and sometimes play a Hobbs Theremin, created by Charlie Hobbs. This prototypes has hand-wound coils and a very responsive volume antenna which permits very dynamic playing.
What is the strangest setting in which you have played the theremin? Many diverse settings seem to offer themselves to a thereminist. Some of my favorite ones have been: playing in front of Nikola Tesla's ashes, resting inside a gold ball sitting on a red velvet pillow at the Tesla Museum in Belgrade, or inside an ancient stone castle ruin, atop a mountain in Sweden, or on a wobbly boat off Venice during sunset and with creaming ducks, at the Carnival in Brazil on a busy street filled with dancing people, and finally, a market place in a small town in Serbia, when an orthodox priest held his cross against the theremin to protect his people from "the work of the devil."
Could you talk a little about the importance of collaboration, and perhaps talk about a project that you are especially fond of where collaboration had a key role? I strongly believe in collaboration—its challenges and the new and unforeseen places it may take you. My biggest challenge this year has been playing with the San Francisco Symphony orchestra, to be surrounded by a sea of acoustic instruments sounded incredible and was a great sonic inspiration. We all had to trust each other and some of the traditional classical musicians of the ensemble eyed the electric theremin with great suspicion! Also I enjoyed playing with Cluster, stone cold improvising together onstage, or with a loud rock ensemble, filling the main stage at Roskilde festival with Trentemoeller, looking at a sea of thousands of people. This Fall I am committed to projects in collaboration with a project in Detroit with the band ADULT., a French band called Infecticide (they remind me of a political French version of Devo), a children’s theremin orchestra, and a theremin musical production for Broadway. Stylistically a theremin can fit in nowhere or anywhere, which opens many doors of collaboration
Can you tell us a little bit about how KidCoolTheremin school began? What other sorts of venues have you travelled this program to? KidCoolThereminSchool began very organically, when children and adults were so eager to try the theremin themselves after concerts. I developed a curriculum and started classes at Pioneerworks, a center for art and science in Red Hook, NY. We were supported by Moog Music in Asheville, NC, where I had been teaching students over the course of six months. KidCoolThereminSchool has been going global ever since, we have had sold out classes in Sweden, Switzerland, Detroit's MOCAD, Houston, NYC, Moogfest, Vienna, and Copenhagen. This fall, KidCoolThereminSchool will go to Paris and Berlin as well as free classes in Manhattan as part of the "Dame Electric" festival in NY, Sept. 13-18th.
Why is it important for young people and new adult audiences to have the chance to try a theremin? Ever since its inception, the theremin as a musical instrument has been underestimated—it merely hasn’t found its true sound as of yet. In this age of technology, a theremin's unique interface of motion to sound, seems contemporary and accessible. Amidst a sea of information, the very physical and innovative approach to different playing techniques can allow each player to find their own voice of expression, learning to listen and experiment, to train motorics and musical skills in a playful and creative way.
What can people expect to learn at the KidCool workshops at Maker Faire? Due to time restrictions, we will offer introductory classes on the theremin. We will go through the basics of sound generation—and ensemble playing is sometimes all it takes for someone to get inspired in wanting to dive further into the sonic world of the theremin.
Is there anything you are particularly excited to see at the museum? Yes, the collection apparently holds two RCA theremins. They are currently not on display but we (the NY Theremin Society, which I cofounded) would very much like to help examine and determine what it would take to operate these instruments one day, and to even play them in concert at the museum in the future. For a long time now I wanted to see the permanent collection of The Henry Ford!
The Theremin, Model AR-1264, Made and Marketed by the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) from 1929-1935.