Monthly Archives: October 2014

Seattle’s Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture




It just happened again!   The hardest attractions to write about are 3 compass places that mildly please and show promise but are, currently, tired and don’t excite.  Invariably, when I decide to write about one of these I learn that it’s about to get a major facelift.  burke reports that “The Burke is engaged in a multi-year transformation project that will culminate in a new museum facility.”  It promises to become a flagship natural history museum that inspires.  Madeline McKenzie of the Seattle Times called the current Burke eclectic and enticing.  For me, the transformation project can’t happen soon enough.

The Burke Museum is at NE 45th Street on the campus of the University of Washington.   It looks like it has been around, if not in its present location, for more than a century and that would be accurate.  It’s the oldest public museum in the State of Washington.  In fact, you’re invited to its 125th birthday party on Thursday, November 6, 2014, for games, cake, and “apples for everyone”.  This is, after all, Washington.

The original local natural history museum came about in 1885 to provide a place for the Young Naturalists’ Society’s collection.  Within 19 years that grew to 50,000+ specimens, and the forerunner of The Burke, Washington State Museum, came about.  Its current building is named for civil leader Thomas Burke, who died in 1925.  It was new in 1962 and is now dated, and the collection has grown to an impressive 15, 639, 001 objects.  Someone in charge is certainly an accurate counter, and I’ll be interested to see what he or she chooses to display in the new Burke.

The objects now out do get somewhat more interesting if you take your time.  Few do.  While I was seriously looking for reasons to rate Burke higher than 3 Compass, about 6 people breezed by the displays and left.   The current permanents included the predictable (Northwest native culture), the unusual (lots about New Zealand’s Maoris), the dated (Korean weddings) and the strange (the Lao Fire Rocket Festival).   In less-culture-more-science areas I learned about the mosasaur, a distant ancestor of the Komodo Dragon, that Mount Adams is the least likely Cascade peak to erupt, and that understanding evolution can be easy.

I’ll check back to see if The Burke’s plans are theoretical and long-range or concrete and imminent.  In the meantime, the 3 compass holds.




Is Paraguay Really That Weird?


When I see a book about a place I’m unlikely to travel to for sale, I usually buy it.   I’m far more likely to read one about Madagascar than a book about Spain.  A really good writer like Paul Theroux makes me feel like I’ve been where he has.  In his 2013 travel book The Last Train to Zona Verde, for example, he painted an often horrifying picture of his visit to South Africa, Namibia, and Angola.   John Gimlette, another fine travel writer, wrote Wild Coast:  Travels on South America’s Untamed Edge about his courageous exploration of Surinam, French Guiana, and Guyana.  I loved it and now I don’t have to go to Jonestown, Paramaribo, etc.

Recently I came across another book by John Gimlette.  I looked through At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig, copyright 2003, read a bit, and put it back on the store’s shelf.  It was just too weird.  A bit later I wandered back, picked it up again, and a small, undated, personal card fell out.  It read, “Hope to see you in South America!  This book is kind of the National Inquirer version of Paraguayan history, but I though it might ignite your curiosity about Paraguay.”  I was hooked.  I’m just about to finish it.   The book is without a doubt the strangest, most gasp-inducing book about a country I’ve ever read.

Just how weird is it?  Coming back from errands today, Ruth asked me what I was writing about today and I said I was considering the book on Paraguay that I’ve been reading.  I told her how bizarre it was and she asked for an example.  I told her about the photo of the Aché woman beast-feeding a monkey.  She said she had to see that.  When I showed it to her, she gasped and said, “The woman is smiling!”

Here are a trio of things I learned about Paraguay as Gimlette told me about his journey to every part of this surreal country.  The planned Dutch-style town of Puerto Casado was the capital of the world’s largest private property at one time.  The Casados lived in Buenos Aires but owned 19,200 square miles of Paraguay.  Gimlette explains that this is 3 times the size of Switzerland.  Logs were pulped into tannin in the town’s quebracho factory, but in 1996 the Casados shut it down.  When Gimlette visited Puerto Casado, “In the fountain were feral children, paddling in grey slime”.  You would think the principal language of Paraguay would be Spanish. It’s not. It’s Guaraní.  During one period of fascism, the chief of police of its capital city, Asunción, named his son Adolfo Hirohito.

John Gimlette seems like a rational man not given to exaggeration.  There’s a considerable shock on every page of  At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig.  I’m looking for someone who knows Paraguay and has read it to tell me if it’s closer to fantasy or reality.


Chicago’s Greek Community


“Bold slugger set vivid against the little soft cities,” is just one of the many ways that poet Carl Sandberg described Chicago, my favorite place to learn about other cultures because it has so many ethnic communities.

Trip before last at the beginning of major trouble in Ukraine, Ruth and I visited Chicago’s Ukrainian National Museum (Sad Times for the UNM, April 1, 2014’s blog) and learned about this city’s 100,000 citizens of Ukrainian descent and their successful efforts to keep their culture alive.

There are just under 2,000,000 people of Hispanic background in the Windy City. According to Theresa Puente, Chicago has the 5th largest Hispanic community in the United States and roughly 79% are Mexican. I suppose that’s why the free and excellent National Museum of Mexican Art is here.

This past time Ruth & I focused on Chicago’s Greeks.  We wanted to begin at the National Hellenic Museum.  However, big exhibit changes were underway and only 2 small areas, dolls in native dresses and the Acropolis, were opened.  Perhaps in compensation, the guy at the reception desk gave me a book.  A History of the Greeks in the Americas is scholarly and very informative, so I was able to learn a lot before our next visit.

According to the 1880 census, there were only 776 Greeks in the U.S. However, a big migration movement began in 1882 for economic reasons. Deplorable conditions in Greece were caused by “territorial controversies with Turkey” according to Paul Koken, one of A History of the Greeks in the Americas authors.  By 1895 there were about 2,000 Greeks in the Chicago area.  The 1st wave largely became street peddlers with pushcarts, but it wasn’t long before Greeks were running candy and flower shops, fruit stores, shoe repair shops, restaurants, etc.  By 1908 there were about 10,000 Greeks in Chicago, which is today #2.  Only New York City has more residents of Greek descent.

The National Hellenic Museum at 333 South Halsted Street is practically in the shadow of the Willis Tower, which can be splendidly seen and photographed from NHM’s roof.   The only disadvantage to visiting it is that there is only street parking available in a neighborhood where it’s tough to find a spot and many get towed.  There are some Greek restaurants in the neighborhood but only one original Greektown business still in operation, the wonderful Athenian Candle Company.  One block from NHM on the corner of Halsted and Jackson, it has been around since 1920.

I have to go back to the Bold Slugger and the National Hellenic Museum to continue, so it won’t be soon.





Panhandle-Plains, from 80 to 10


Before we even saw icy Palo Duro Canyon during a couple of very unpredictable days, Ruth and I knew a lot about it thanks to the town of Canyon’s Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum (PPHM).

On our way north from Lubbock last March, the temperature was 80 something degrees.  We had spent far too much time at Silver Wings and were anxious to get to Canyon quickly because it was nearing 3 pm and PPHM closed at 5.  Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum is not easy to summarize.  After reading several descriptions, I finally found one that comes close to nailing it, “The Smithsonian with a Texas accent”.

PPHM opened during the worst of the Great Depression and has never stopped growing.  A major addition doubling its size opened in 1967, the local university donated its former library to it in 1973, etc.  Now on the campus of West Texas A&M, it began its existence in a brand new art deco building in 1933.  The local college was not Texas A&M yet.  Over time, people were generous and donated paintings, vehicles, prized possessions, etc.  For example, legendary Texan Charles Goodnight, who sometimes smoked 50 cigars a day, gave Reeta Carter his treasured silver-mounted saddle when Reeta married his foster son Cleo. It’s in PPHM’s collection.   Panhandle-Plains now has more than 3 million artifacts and is the largest history museum in the Lone Star State.

By 4: 30 I was in despair.  We had only 30 minutes left.  We had been through the Oil Patch and all the displays about petroleum with names like Down Hole Tools,  seen a very impressive weapons collection, looked at windmills, dinosaurs, and the massive Palo Duro Canyon exhibit, checked out historic cars including an accidental oil magnet’s 1930 V-16 Cadillac, etc. But we still hadn’t seen PPHM’s art, several galleries, the complete pioneer town, etc.  I was clutching a map of the place which said, “…you’ll find…guards who are willing to help…” as we just happened to pass one sitting on a chair outside an art exhibit.  I explained our dilemma and he said, “Wait here.”  Minutes later he was back with an invitation.

We were, quite accidentally, in PPHM on the day the Panhandle Plains Invitational Art Show and Sale opened.  Guests were pouring in from all over the country to see the latest in museum-quality Western Art and talk to others who shared their enthusiasm for it.  The painting, sculptures, etc. not bought that evening would be offered to the public for the remainder of the exhibition, about another 3 weeks.  PPHM would remain opened for guests until the reception ended, and we were suddenly among them meeting Associate Director Michael Grauer, Marketing Manager Stephanie Price, etc.

The next morning the temperature outside Canyon’s Holiday Inn Express was 10º, which turned out to be the high temperature for the day, and an ice storm was occurring.  Palo Duro Canyon was close but unapproachable.   The 2015 Panhandle Plains Invitational Art Show and Sale is not.  It will begin with a reception on March 7.  If you like Western Art and comprehensive museums, the show and Panhandle-Plains are both 5 compass experiences.



Darwin Heritage Walk


Charles Darwin visited Sydney in the 1830s, but he never saw the city named for him because there was no Darwin until 1869.  Historically, the town that almost disappeared twice due to war and cyclone is not all that old.  Original buildings that have survived, therefore, are kind of heroic.

There are only about half a dozen of them, and they’re all on the 18 stop Darwin City Heritage Walk.  16 of the 18 are clustered is a relatively small area between Knuckey Street and The Esplanade.  My advice would be to take the walk in the morning since this city’s average maximum annual temperature is just under 90° Fahrenheit.  Avoid Sunday too if getting into every place is a priority.  There’s a really good Heritage Walk map to follow in the official visitor guide Destination Darwin available at the Visitor Centre on Bennett Street.  I tried but could not find it on I highly recommended this walk.

Ruth and I left the NOT recommended Value Inn on Mitchell Street to take it and started at the Old Admiralty House, an elegant white-shuttered colonial cypress pine building surrounded by trees and tropical plants that seemed like shady guards.  One of the few buildings in Darwin to survive Cyclone Tracy, OAH is now Char Restaurant, which promises the best steak in the Northern Territory.  Being Sunday morning, it was closed.

So was #10, Lyons Cottage, actual Tracy survivor and the best example of the style of architecture common to old Darwin, India, Malaysia, etc. but not seen elsewhere in Australia.  The cottage itself was home to the managers of the telegraph company that linked Australia to Great Britain.

I had 5 favorite stops, all opened and busy.  The Cenotaph/War Memorial is in Bicentennial Park, which is favored by runners and tropical birds and overlooks Port Darwin, a calm aqua bay.  Vets of both World Wars are honored, and one plaque says that this Park was the site of the first unfurling of the Northern Territory flag when the NT achieved self-government in 1978.

Since it was Sunday, there was a service underway and fine singing emerging from Christ Church Cathedral.  The original church dating from 1902 was heavily damaged by Tracy, but the surviving parts were cleverly incorporated into the Cathedral’s 1975 design.

The Chinese Temple was completely destroyed by Tracy.  A Buddhist-Tao-Confucian Temple has attracted Darwin’s Chinese community to Woods Street since 1887.  While the rebuilt temple is opened daily year-round, an on-site museum closes during The Wet from October to February.   We were personally welcomed by a smiling Chinese man who was so friendly that I wondered if his objective was to secure a donation or make sure I didn’t take photos of worshippers.

The Victoria Hotel has been absorbed into the Smith Street Mall, but it’s still a fine stop on the Heritage Walk, as is The Mall.   Many famous Australians, especially early aviators, have stayed here.  There are memorial pictures, mostly of men like Hudson Fysh and Paul McGinness, World War I buddies who went on to found Qantas, said to be the world’s oldest continuously operating airline.

Civic Square, basically another park, contains an ancient banyan, considered to be the Tree of Knowledge by Buddhists, a brass replica of the HMS Beagle’s bell, and some fine local bird sculptures on pedestals.   Charles Darwin was on the Beagle’s 2nd voyage from 1831 to 1836.  It circumnavigated the globe, sailing south of Australia.  As soon as The Beagle left Plymouth, England, Darwin became seasick and had 2nd thoughts.  That must have been 5 loooonnnnggg years for him.