Archive for the ‘Richard Kurin’ Category

Quickly Exploring Katmandu: Around the World with Dr. Richard Kurin

Monday, April 1st, 2013

richard-kurinDr. Richard Kurin serves as the Smithsonian Institution’s Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture with responsibility for most of its museums including the National Museum of American History, the National Museum of the American Indian, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the Freer and Sackler Galleries, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, the Anacostia Community Museum, the National Museum of African Art, the National Postal Museum, and others including the soon to be built National Museum of African American History and Culture. He also oversees research and outreach programs, including the Smithsonian’s Traveling Exhibition Service, The Smithsonian Associates, the Smithsonian Channel, and the Smithsonian Affiliates—a network of 168 museums across the U.S. Read More»

Dr. Kurin is currently leading a group on an around-the-world tour of some of the world’s extraordinary cultures and will be sending regular updates from abroad. Come back regularly to follow along!

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Dispatch #5: Quickly Exploring Katmandu

Katmandu’s growth has exploded over the four decades since I first visited Nepal in 1970. Tourists, trekkers and migrants from villages across the nation have made the valley a populous place. Houses made of its characteristic red brick look like Legos sprouting up everywhere. Smokestacks of the brick-making kilns are ubiquitous, and the smoke makes for a hazy sky, obscuring the surrounding Himalayan mountain ranges.

Much has changed in Nepal with its bursting population, new businesses and communications technologies that connect what was once a distant mountain kingdom to an interconnected global system. Nepal too has suffered political instability with the ending of its monarchy and the failure to draft a new constitution and develop a workable national government. And while the capital city has many conveniences, rural areas face high unemployment, lack of education, few decent roads, poor health care and few other civic services.

A Pagoda in Bhaktapur

A pagoda in Bhaktapur

Amidst this change and its challenges, visits by our group to the Valley’s old sections of Katmandu, Patan, and Bhaktapur are instructive. The Katmandu Valley has, since ancient times, been the home of Newars who defined its language, cuisine, and customs. But added to this native base, the valley became a meeting and even melding point of sorts in the Himalayas for Buddhists, Hindus and those practicing an indigenous animism. People came up from India’s Gangetic Plain, and down from Tibet’s high plateau. Elements of a cultural potpourri in art, music, dance, food, craft, and architecture were woven together by Newars over the centuries. In the 18th century, the valley was conquered by Gorkhas, and their kingdom unified disparate smaller kingdoms of Katmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur—all within a few miles of each other. The architectural archaeology of this cultural history is  particularly rich and is evidenced by the exquisite durbars or courtly public squares of these three capitals in the valley.

Durbar Square in Bhaktapur

Durbar Square in Bhaktapur

The characteristic local architectural innovation was the use of intricately carved wood incorporated into brick structures as windows, walls, roofs, doors and decorative features. It’s a juxtaposition that was practically successful and aesthetically pleasing. We marvel at the Buddhist temple pagodas, the kingly residences, and other public buildings conceived of in this style.

Yet Another Pagoda in Bhaktapur

Another pagoda in Bhaktapur

We stay at Dwarika’s hotel—conceived of by its founder in the same way. So the legend goes, as a young man Dwarika Das Shrestha, born of a relatively wealthy Nepali family and trained in law and business, saw some carpenters sawing up pieces of carved wood retrieved from a historic Nepali structure. They were trying to salvage reusable wood, and intended to use the historic carvings for firewood. Retrieving the piece kindled a lifelong quest in Dwarika, and he became a collector of Nepali antiquities, particularly carved wood. Having started a guest house for pilgrims in the early 1950s, this expanded into a hotel that incorporated the wood carved doors, walls, and windows into its design. This project grew into a hotel of exquisite character and proportion employing and training hundreds of carpenters and artisans and helping revive this important Nepali crafts.  Now the hotel is widely recognized as an exemplary “heritage hotel.” All its features, from the courtyards, sculptures and water fountain, to the lobby, hallway and room furnishing and decorations are in local style. The hotel not only provides us a hospitable and engaging stay, but is itself a living, functioning, three-dimensional textbook about the preservation of Nepal’s cultural heritage.

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Find more information about our Around the World Private Jet trips here.

Read Dr. Kurin’s previous dispatch from Vietnam: “Ha Long Bay and Hanoi: Around the World with Dr. Richard Kurin”

Ha Long Bay and Hanoi: Around the World with Dr. Richard Kurin

Friday, March 29th, 2013

richard-kurinDr. Richard Kurin serves as the Smithsonian Institution’s Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture with responsibility for most of its museums including the National Museum of American History, the National Museum of the American Indian, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the Freer and Sackler Galleries, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, the Anacostia Community Museum, the National Museum of African Art, the National Postal Museum, and others including the soon to be built National Museum of African American History and Culture. He also oversees research and outreach programs, including the Smithsonian’s Traveling Exhibition Service, The Smithsonian Associates, the Smithsonian Channel, and the Smithsonian Affiliates—a network of 168 museums across the U.S. Read More»

Dr. Kurin is currently leading a group on an around-the-world tour of some of the world’s extraordinary cultures and will be sending regular updates from abroad. Come back regularly to follow along!

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Dispatch #4: Ha Long Bay and Hanoi

“Long” is the Vietnamese word for dragon, and the limestone outcroppings, resembling the curved undulations of the mythical creature give this amazing bay its name. Indeed, cruising around Ha Long Bay takes on the character of a legendary odyssey, as peaks and caves, sometimes shrouded by fog and revealed by the lifting mist suggest a primeval time and place. Yet, here and there, are small floating villages, with one-room schools, and even wi-fi, people catching fish for market, and serving a burgeoning tourist industry of cruise boats—or “junks” as they are called.

Rowing along the Ha Long River

Rowing along the Ha Long River

Members of our group watched the scenery unfold aboard our comfortable ships—nice cabins, dining rooms and decks, and ever polite staff. Every few hours we were off to another section of this immense waterway. Some ventured on kayaks, others in row boats to go exploring inlets and geological features. Most went exploring into the marvelous caves, carved out of the limestone. “Surprise Cave” was indeed stunning, a massive network of three caves now joined together with cathedral-like splendor and an awe-inspiring nature. Its designation as part of a World Heritage Site and as one of the seven wonders of the natural world is well-deserved.  The shapes and natural tableaux, the muted though fascinating colors of the cave—and its sheer size—all entranced our travelers.

"Surprise Cave"

“Surprise Cave,” a World Heritage Site

Our two days on the bay included hosting a group of bay-resident school kids, who were adorable and gave us a sampling of their singing. One of our groups returned the favor with “I’m a Little Teapot,” another with “Old MacDonald Had a Farm,” and still another with “Goodbye, Farewell.” If our performance faltered it was not from lack of trying and the feelings were heartfelt. Later, some of us got into a discussion of what best constitutes America’s “national song,” with the “Star-Spangled Banner,” “America the Beautiful,” and “This Land is Your Land” the favorite nominees. One wonders whether these perennials will endure in ensuing generations.

The travelers' buffet on their ship.

The travelers’ buffet on their ship

We enjoyed the delicious Vietnamese food aboard the ship—the nation’s mainstay Pho (pronounced fuh) a soup broth with rice noodles and choices of beef, chicken, onions, chilies with an optional squeeze of lemon proved popular. But so did tiger prawns, various rice and noodle combinations, and local vegetables. Dragon fruit, papaya and regionally grown apples made for tasty fresh desserts. We even learned to make fresh and fried spring rolls, and had a nighttime toast of rice wine.  The ubiquity of rice on the menu mirrors the landscape of Vietnam’s plains in the north and the Mekong Delta in the south—green rice fields for as far as the eye can see. The warmer south sustains three rice crops annually—the colder north two, we are told.

Evening Entertainment

Evening entertainment

In the evening, we entered another decorated cave for a sumptuous dinner featuring local sea food, with clams, oysters, crabs, prawns and other delights. A young and energetic women’s band entertained with a selection of contemporary Vietnamese, American and Karaoke. The xylophonist was really talented, and I thought of her performing with Mickey Hart—she was that good.

A Tai Chi class marked our final morning in the bay. A waitress on board was our instructor, and her grace was astounding as she put us through our stretching paces. This was calisthenics artfully done. Cousin to forms of martial art, and originally, I believe, derived from the yogic practices of Buddhist monks, the movements could just as well be dance steps and poses. At breakfast, as I saw my instructor serve coffee and clean tables I smiled at two things; one, registering how in her seemingly utilitarian tasks she mirrored the Tai Chi movements, and two, how you never know who can teach you something new.

Off to Hanoi, our travelers split up—seeing museums, visiting the market, and among other sites the “Hanoi Hilton” which housed captured American GIs during the Vietnam War. Some visited with heavy hearts, either having served in the war, or having friends and relatives who did.

The changes in Vietnam since that time are huge. While perhaps officially a socialist country, shops, markets, entrepreneurship, business competition, and the building of private homes abound. Foreign owned factories along the main highway proliferate. While flags proclaiming communist rule still flutter in the wind, the place, at least at the level of individual thought, talk and action seems quite open and free.

An evening at the Museum of Ethnology ends our visit. We enjoy a performance of traditional water puppetry with musical and pyrotechnical accompaniment. We are joined by the U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam David Shear who clearly explains our nation’s current relationship with Vietnam and provides insight as to his mission here. The Smithsonian has worked closely with the museum over the past decades, and I miss the founding director Dr. Huy who had been called out of town unexpectedly. I’d worked with Huy on programs for the Smithsonian Foklife Festival and on researching the regions culture and traditions.  Fortunately I also worked with his successor, director Trong, and he gives a nice introduction to the group about the museum, which is translated from the Vietnamese to English. A Vietnamese meal accompanied by a musical serenade and a cool breeze makes our gathering even more memorable.

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Find more information about our Around the World Private Jet trips here.

Read Dr. Kurin’s previous dispatch from Bali: Bali High: Around the World with Dr. Richard Kurin”

Connecting in Kyoto: Around the World with Dr. Richard Kurin

Tuesday, March 26th, 2013

richard-kurinDr. Richard Kurin serves as the Smithsonian Institution’s Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture with responsibility for most of its museums including the National Museum of American History, the National Museum of the American Indian, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the Freer and Sackler Galleries, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, the Anacostia Community Museum, the National Museum of African Art, the National Postal Museum, and others including the soon to be built National Museum of African American History and Culture. He also oversees research and outreach programs, including the Smithsonian’s Traveling Exhibition Service, The Smithsonian Associates, the Smithsonian Channel, and the Smithsonian Affiliates—a network of 168 museums across the U.S. Read More»

Dr. Kurin is currently leading a group on an around-the-world tour of some of the world’s extraordinary cultures and will be sending regular updates from abroad. Come back regularly to follow along!

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Dispatch #2: Connecting in Kyoto

Arriving in Osaka, you quickly get a sense of the huge and quick growth of this port-city metropolis. As we made our way toward Kyoto, the factories, houses, and office buildings seemed to go on forever across the landscape. We arrived in Kyoto on the spring equinox, just ahead of the cherry blossoms—though some were just blossoming.

The group heads to the Todaji Temple

The group heads to the Todaji Temple

It was a holiday in Japan, a time when families visit Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, honor ancestors, and make their wishes for a good year ahead. Japan combines Buddhist tradition—derived from Indian origins and Chinese versions, with indigenous Shinto beliefs about nature—that trees, rivers and streams, and mountains are alive with their own spirits. The Japanese have formed a variety of philosophies in a quest for harmony, order, and connection—with the universe and to each other. This was apparent in places we visited—like roadside and garden shrines, in a meditative Zen Buddhist rock garden, and at the Todaji temple of the great Buddha in Nara. Rather than doctrinaire belief, we saw ritual eclecticism in action, with people making offerings, lighting incense, contemplating the landscape—and also taking delight on temple grounds.

The Golden Pavilion

The Golden Pavilion

Visiting Kyoto’s Kinkakuji Temple or the renowned Golden Pavilion was a treat and one of the places that makes the city’s temples and shrines a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is the former retreat of a Shogun ruler, and its gold façade reflected in a moat-like pond set within a lovely landscaped garden is impressive to behold. Several of our group became more than tourists as they were surrounded by Japanese students who apparently had the task of interviewing Americans as a school assignment over the holiday to practice their English. Kindheartedly, our folks responded, tutoring the students as they filled out their interview questionnaires.

Smithsonian travelers get interviewed by Japanese students.

Japanese students interview Smithsonian travelers

The visit to Nara’s Gate and Todaji Temple—also a World Heritage Site, was particularly poignant to me, as I’d done a good deal of work with musician Yo-Yo Ma, designer Rajeev Sethi, scholars Ted Levin, Henry Glassie and many others in putting together a program on the Silk Road in 2002.  We brought more than 500 artists from 28 countries to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall that summer—and their performances and artistry was witnessed by almost 1.5 million people over a two-week period. We’d built a replica of the Nara Gate on the Mall, as Nara represented the eastern terminus of the Silk Road—a vast network of trade routes and relationships joining East and West. Items from Central Asia have been found at Nara, indicating the flow of goods and a connection thousands of miles long stretching back to the 8th century A.D. Now, standing at the Nara Gate, I had to take a breath in the shadow of this magnificent, awesome structure. The temple itself is amongst the largest wooden structures in the world, and houses a Buddha 80 feet high. While a religious site, this was also a shrine to the movement of ideas and goods across geographic and cultural boundaries.

Smithsonian Travelers try Bunraku

Smithsonian travelers try Bunraku

Our group crossed more boundaries at a superb evening performance. Gregory Kay from the U.S. Consulate provided a warm welcome. I had asked Noriko Aikawa, a Japanese heritage specialist now retired from her position as a director of UNESCO’s cultural program, to arrange for a bunraku demonstration. Bunraku is a narrative, story telling and puppetry tradition centered in Kyoto and Osaka. It grew in the 1600s, and its plays are essentially morality tales, with drama provided by puppets portraying townspeople, samurai, lovers and so on. The puppets are four to six feet tall and elaborately decorated. Made of hollowed out cypress, they are operated by an articulated system of levers and internal strings—and so great is the sophistication of their movement and expression of emotion that it takes three puppeteers to operate one puppet. The puppeteers showed us the ins and outs of the artistry and engineering, and then had three members of our group come up and learn from them. It was a beautiful moment; the Japanese artists were excellent teachers—every one of us got a sense of the skill and training needed to perfect this long-lived art. And our Smithsonian Journeys folks did well—to the acclaim of their fellow travelers!

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Find more information about our Around the World Private Jet trips here.

Read Dr. Kurin’s previous dispatch from Seattle: “Beginning with a Big Bang: Around the World with Dr. Richard Kurin”

Beginning with a Big Bang: Around the World with Dr. Richard Kurin

Thursday, March 21st, 2013

richard-kurin

Dr. Richard Kurin serves as the Smithsonian Institution’s Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture with responsibility for most of its museums including the National Museum of American History, the National Museum of the American Indian, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the Freer and Sackler Galleries, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, the Anacostia Community Museum, the National Museum of African Art, the National Postal Museum, and others including the soon to be built National Museum of African American History and Culture. He also oversees research and outreach programs, including the Smithsonian’s Traveling Exhibition Service, The Smithsonian Associates, the Smithsonian Channel, and the Smithsonian Affiliates—a network of 168 museums across the U.S. Read More»

Dr. Kurin is currently leading a group on an around-the-world tour of some of the world’s extraordinary cultures and will be sending regular updates from abroad. Come back regularly to follow along! 

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Day 1, Seattle: Beginning with a Big Bang

Our adventurous and intrepid group of some 70 travelers and staff gathered at the Four Seasons Hotel in a breezy and surprisingly sunny Seattle to start our journey. We made all the final preparations for our 22-day cultural expedition around the planet—getting passports and inoculation forms in order, tying on baggage tags, receiving friendly briefings and useful instructions—like how to use our TCS & Starquest provided iPads to access maps, information on destinations, and Powerpoints for in-flight lectures. In between, some of us were able to explore downtown Seattle, visiting a wonderful show of Rembrandt and old masters at the Seattle Art Museum and watching the “fish tossers” at the Public Market on the shore of the Puget Sound.Unknown-7-515

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Our official program began with what only could be described as, well, the Big Bang—orchestrated by a long time personal friend, and friend of the Smithsonian, Mickey Hart.

Mickey is perhaps best known as the drummer for the Grateful Dead, the world renowned rock band. He’s a multiple Grammy Award-winning artist who has also authored several books, produced numerous world music albums, and played a major role in understanding the effects and impacts of music on healing. Mickey has helped the Smithsonian with numerous projects over decades.

Mickey, aided by producer Ben Yonas, and friends John Hayden, Tor Dietrichson, and Jim Boneau, brought about 100 drums and other percussion instruments into the hotel ballroom for a very special event before our first dinner. Jamtown—a Seattle music education organization, provided the drums and also put together a wonderful display of the world’s instruments—many of which we will see on our journey.Unknown-3-515

We arranged seating in an elliptical circle and for about half-an-hour I interviewed Mickey about his start in the Air Force, his career with a legendary rock band, how he acquired his interest in the world’s music, and his research in Bali—one of our destinations. We spoke of how he helped save the sounds of America’s and the world’s heritage in the recording collections of the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress. He spoke of his work with Oliver Sachs and Walter Cronkite — how music is being used therapeutically as medicine to help people heal. In the last few years, he’s teamed up with Smithsonian astrophysicists and other scholars, and recently with Nobel laureate George Smoot, to explore the sonic universe—the “music of the spheres.” For Mickey, the Big Bang produced the beat of the universe and that beat is apparent in the pulses of each and every stellar and celestial body, as well as in every living thing — such as the heartbeat and pulses of human beings and the social rhythms of every community. For Mickey, health is being in tune with that beat.Unknown515

To get us in rhythmic synch, Mickey then led the group in a drumming circle. All of us started out drumming drums, rattling rattles, shaking shakeries. You would have thought given the differences in the group — from all over the U.S., of varied background, men and women, older and younger, we’d be all over the sonic map, but amazingly everyone came into harmony. Mickey had us beat to the pulses of the sun and to the Big Bang itself. We sped up, slowed down; we sent waves of percussion around the room to everyone’s delight. It was almost tribal. We didn’t put on face paint or work ourselves into some frenzy of whooping war calls or anything. But we all smiled, and relished a very special time, and discovered that even before speaking a word with one another, we had become an instant community — quite apropos if you are going to share an airplane, an experience, and a trip around the planet with people you didn’t know before.Unknown-515

So, Mickey energized the group and got our trip off on the right foot, or beat; we learned a lot, got to drum with a legendary musician, and after a nice dinner and good night’s sleep, we were off to Japan!

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Find more information about our Around the World Private Jet trips here.

Around the World by Private Jet – Your Life List in 21 Days

Thursday, January 27th, 2011

Moai with concrete eyes. Photo: Richard Kurin

 

What’s on your life list? A safari in the Serengeti? The Sphinx in Egypt? Easter Island? The Great Barrier Reef? What if you could explore all of this (and much, much more) in three weeks? Now you can make it happen, and make it happen in style on our one-of-a-kind journey, Around the World by Private Jet.

What really happens on this kind of journey? Is there really time to learn anything? Is there time to meet any of the local people, to really connect? There sure is.

In 2009, Richard Kurin, Smithsonian’s Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture, led our journey and wrote seventeen blog posts about it. Click here to to read them.

In 2011, we’re offering Around the World by Private Jet on Oct 28 – Nov 18, or Nov 1 – 22.

Where would you like to go most in the world? What’s on your lifelist? Please share.