The Ship of State

Reading this week:

  • Brazzaville Charms by Cassie Knight
  • Pastoral Song by James Rebanks

A matter of weeks ago now I started a job with the US Department of State. Pretty neat! This explains why these posts haven’t been going up at their normally appointed hour. The working life is tough! This is why I avoided it for a little over four years. But a strong desire to have a salary once again has driven me towards the 9-5 life. Oh, capitalism.

At any rate working for the State Department has been pretty interesting so far. Over the course of my grad school experience I spent a large chunk of time thinking about how things actually get done, and the thing that was usually getting done in this thinking was US engagement in Africa. There are a lot of people who are very passionate about international development and international engagement one way or another, and as a former Peace Corps volunteer and a grad student in a Global Affairs program I know a sizeable chunk of them. These people, and remember I am one of them, have a lot of strong opinions about what should happen and their zeal is focused of course on the delta between what they think should happen and what does happen.

I want to caveat that it is far from universal, but I think a lot of the time this delta is attributed to something along the lines of a lack of vision of the people doing the work. They don’t quite share the same passion for involving the people they’re trying to help in their development projects, or they don’t quite understand a cultural nuance on the ground. What I have generally discovered is that the people doing the work got into the work because they in fact hold all the same passions and zeals as my strawmanned critics. Unfortunately, this makes the delta between the should and the is more complicated to explain, but now I am perched in the perfect spot to figure out what that is.

One thing I haven’t quite fully figured out is who actually makes policy happen around here. More caveats! So far, for me, the State Department is very small. I talk to a handful of people at the embassy, and I have one or two counterparts in different bureaus and divisions. Relatively speaking, my sense is that there aren’t a lot of people in the Africa space. I hear in other bureaus multiple people will cover a single country, instead of a single person covering multiple countries, but those other countries are outside my purview so I’m not very sure. The caveat I’m building up to here is that I don’t really know how things work, and in fact I just don’t know a lot of things. I’m pretty new. But there do seem to be a lot of people at the State Department who talk to other people in the State Department, and who monitor things and who write reports and who tell those things to other people, but who actually makes US policy happen in, to, or around a foreign country?

Stunningly, I’m starting to think that person might be me. I’ve sent emails and made phone calls to counterparts in foreign countries and, stunningly, things happen? Nothing earth-shaking yet. I haven’t sent enough emails to get world peace yet, though by golly if my sent folder is anything to go by I am trying. Still, I feel like there must be something more.

One model I have of the State Department is that there is in fact a very small number of people who have the ability to affect anything. The rest of the State Department is therefore geared towards getting a certain concept across their eyeballs as often as possible. If you want to affect policy in so and so country, you try to make a lot of noise about so and so country, so that the people who can affect things read reports and the like about so and so country pretty often. Then, when it comes time for some event, or they have to decide something about policy, since they have thought about so and so country so often that they default to that course of action.

I don’t know if that model is accurate but I’m excited to refine my theories as time goes by. One thing I hope to avoid is losing any zeal I have. One unfortunate part about knowing how the system works is that while you learn why things are the way they are, that might convince you that things are the way they are for a good reason. You gotta keep a keen eye out for where things can change. I don’t know if I’ll pull that off, but I’ll let you know how it goes.

National Museum of Asian Art

I just like this cow. State of Tamil Nadu, Chola dynasty, 12th century

Today my super amazing girlfriend and I went to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art! Look, there is a very good chance that this blog will now become just a series of descriptions of adventures to various Smithsonian museums. The National Museum of Asian Art may very well come up again because the Sackler gallery was closed and so we didn’t go there of course, but the Freer gallery was already so emotionally overwhelming I don’t know if I could have handled a whole extra gallery.

One big advantage of visiting this museum over visiting the National Museum of African Art for me, personally, is that now I got to go with my super amazing girlfriend. In the last blog post I mentioned she had not yet arrived but that is no longer true because we have moved down here and live in the DC area now! Very exciting! So on a weekend when we were otherwise trying to organize our new apartment into something resembling a calm and soothing place to live, we decided to spend the time to go out and do something.

The Freer gallery is a very nice size for an afternoon’s outing. They are particularly proud of their Hokusai collection, as they should be. When we visited it took up a notable proportion of their gallery space, and more is coming because they had one gallery closed for an exhibition of his work they are still putting together. Everyone knows Hokusai, so I know Hokusai, and I was excited to see his stuff. But man. Look I dunno. When I turned and saw the above piece, titled Portrait of a Courtesan Walking and photographed so shittily on my phone that it is a travesty, my heart leapt. I mean, Christ, look at those lines, look at her outfit, look how he has captured her poise. How was I supposed to move on from that? Luckily they also had a cute birb done by him:

After recovering from Hokusai, I was surprised to discover that they also had a collection of works done by Thomas Dewing, and again there is just some stuff I couldn’t believe. Look I shouldn’t be an art critic. Plus it is late at night when I am writing this and I had to wrestle with my insurance company just now. I didn’t know Thomas Dewing before this, and my surprise came from the fact that he was not Asian, so I was a little confused about why I was seeing his works in the National Museum of Asian Art, but I am glad I did. Below is “Study of a Head,” and man just look at it. First off, look how finely her features are rendered. That’s phenomenal in and of itself. Second, it’s done in silverpoint, which lends the work a ghostly quality, like she is just appearing fully formed on the page from some other realm. I think I already said “phenomenal” but I’ll say it again: phenomenal.

We had proceed through the museum counter-clockwise, but I think next time we go through it’ll be clockwise. The China stuff is off to the left when you come in from the mall entrance. My super amazing girlfriend is a China specialist, and so that is her jam, but by the time we came to the China section our emotional fortitude was already sapped by the beauty we had witnessed. But one especially interesting part of the China section is their Neolithic stuff. The museum had a number of jade pieces from the Liangzhu culture, and again wow the stuff was amazing. I mean I suppose Neolithic people are gonna be know for their stone but these peeps took it to another level. The pieces in the below photo are up to 5,000 years old. As I have discussed before I just like being the presence of things shaped by human hands from such an ancient era, but these are gorgeous and translucent and yet again phenomenal to boot!

Emotionally drained, culturally bombarded, and artistically wrecked my super amazing girlfriend and I stumbled out of the museum and onto the national mall where we looked to the symbols of democracy sprinkled about until we regained enough adventurous fervor to get back on the metro. We went off to look for pillows. We didn’t buy any. But how could any pillow even come close to the art we had just witnessed? You should go see it yourself.

National Museum of African Art

“Wind Sculpture VII” by Yinka Shonibare MBE, 2016

We have moved to DC!!!! Well sorta. So my super amazing girlfriend and I have graduated from graduate school and we have both got pretty outstanding jobs in Washington DC. I feel like we have become in many facets a very certain type of person/couple, and I think for now at least we are both pretty okay with that because DC has some excellent museums we are both very excited to go to. We’re in blog time, so by the time you (“you” here being most likely my super amazing girlfriend, so hi! I love you ❤) read this we will both actually physically be in DC, but while I was experiencing these events she was in MA working remotely and I was in DC crashing in my cousin’s basement.

While here in DC I had a weekend free and had recently found out that the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art existed and I wanted to go. Besides the museums, one of the reasons that my super amazing girlfriend and I are excited to be in DC is because we have a bunch of friends here. So I rounded up my friend Alison and off we went to the museum. It was pretty great!

“Wedding Souvenirs” by Njideka Akunyili Crosby, 2016

One of the first and most surprising things I learned about the museum is that it bills itself as “the only museum in the United States solely dedicated to the dynamic and diverse arts of Africa.” It is pretty stunning that it is the only one, though maybe in retrospect that isn’t so weird. The Yale University Art Gallery has a section dedicated to African Art, so the Smithsonian clearly isn’t the only place in the US you can see African art, but maybe it is reasonable that it is the only place dedicated to African art.

Since I had been to the Yale University Art Gallery I was actually a bit worried about this museum. I might be talking out of my ass here, but one thing that made me uncomfortable about that gallery is as you walk around the Africa wing it seemed to me that the concentration of art mirrored very closely the harshness and length of colonial rule. Plus, thinking back, I don’t think I remember any particularly contemporary African artists. That experience had me apprehensive about what I would find at this museum.

“Contact” by Nandipha Mntambo, 2010

I was pleasantly surprised to discover, therefore, that the National Museum of African Art has a much wider range of African art on display, ranging from the more ancient to the contemporary, and in many different styles. It was fantastic! The place is also quite large. The ground footprint is not very large, so I thought it wouldn’t take very long to get through the museum, but it just keeps going down farther and farther into the ground so there is a lot more to see there than you would initially suspect. Below you can see the second sub-basement as viewed from the first sub-basement, and it goes down for another sub-basement after that.

Center: “Rainbow Serpent” by Romuald Hazoumè, 2007

All the pictures so far have been some of the more contemporary pieces that I enjoyed. A couple of them I took pictures of before I realized they had nautical themes, which is I suppose why I was attracted to them. At the very top is “Wind Sculpture VII,” which evokes a ship’s sail, according to the plaque. “Contact,” the piece made of cowhide, was inspired by a ship’s figurehead that “comes towards us but is always just beyond reach.” It was cast from the artist’s own body and made of cowhide as a tribute to her cattle-raising Swazi heritage. The most impressive part of the ouroboros right above is, in my opinion, is that it is made of jerry cans, and man that is a lot of jerry cans.

Benin bronzes, Mid-16th to 17th century

Colonialism did manage to rear its head, however. I was a little stunned, probably naively so, that the museum had some of the Benin bronzes on display. The plaque next to them did talk about the museum’s “longstanding collaboration with Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments,” so maybe there isn’t so much tension there, but still, how haven’t we returned these things? They are, like all the rest of the art on display, beautiful and intricate and detailed, and I am glad I got to see them, but the fact of their presence puts them in a pretty intense conversation with every other exhibit.

Astrolabe constructed by Muhammad ibn al-Fattuh al-Khama’iri, 1236-37

I don’t have anything much to say about the above astrolabe, except maybe wow. That thing is phenomenal. It was in the third sub-level, and so near the very end of the museum experience. I am excited to go back! But having wandered through the whole museum, Alison and I packed up and ascended the stairs to re-emerge into the daylight. She hopped on her bike and head home and I wandered about the courtyard a bit before heading next door to the Castle, which I had passed many times but had never been in. This explains why I was stunned that Jimmy Smithson’s crypt is right inside the front door? This is probably my second-favorite crypt now, after John Paul Jones. Look, my first choice is to live forever, but on the off chance I fail to do that, I would very much like to be interred in an ornate crypt that is trafficked by thousands of visitors. If it is very nearby to an excellent art museum you should very much visit, all the better!

American Victory Ship

As one of the last trips I took as part of our Florida vacation, I went and visited the American Victory Ship in Tampa. You see, what had happened was that my parents recently retired and in a classic move went on down to Florida. Figuring my dad would need some hobbies, I got him a membership to this boat. Victory Ships are apparently like Liberty Ships except I guess just the next class down the line. The SS American Victory is in Tampa and I figured he could help out onboard or something. It’s apparently too far away for him to do that, but since I had gotten him the membership he decided to take me to see it.

The ship itself is pretty good! I mean look, I’ve seen a cargo ship before. I get it. The bunkrooms like, you know, exist or whatever. You can climb on up and get a pretty good look at the harbor, and admire the cranes and whatnot. As these sorts of places are wont to do, the boat had a bit of a museum right when you walked in and that was pretty nice. The neatest part was a full-scale replica of a German mini-sub, which reminded me of a North Korean mini-sub I saw once in South Korea. They also had other, smaller ship models, including one of the USS Saucy, which is a fantastic name for a ship.

One thing I appreciated about the ship is that they have tried hard to think through giving you a good tour. There is a proscribed path that walks you around, and they had a few regularly-spaced air-conditioned rooms to give you a break from the heat. This being COVID times, they also had handwashing stations, which more often than not were just the regular sinks that the ship had anyways, and I found that amusing.

The most exciting part of any given ship is of course the engineroom, but unfortunately you could only really glimpse this one. Since the ship is a working ship in that it goes out every once in a while, I guess the Coast Guard forbids them from letting the riff raff into the engineroom. You could walk across the top though and peer down and get a bit of vertigo from the fear of dropping one’s phone right into the bowels of the bilge. For those interested, however, they do have a video of an engineroom walkthrough, and that’s pretty neat!

After taking a lap around the boat and seeing the sights we had to kill some time, so we hung out for a bit with the volunteer running the booth. He was pretty nice! We all swapped stories the way that disparate Navy veterans typically do, which is tell various stories unrelated to each other (except that they happened on boats) because we don’t really have a solid clue what the other one is talking about (I can’t tell if the guy we hung out with is the same guy from the engineroom walkthrough video, or whether all these veteran volunteer types just start to look alike). Then, you know, we left. So yeah a good time. Anyways, if you’re in Tampa, it might be worth checking the ship out, especially if you’ve never seen one before. Just remember to hydrate! And also please enjoy this picture of a nautical steering wheel lock:

Savannah Part 2

Reading this week:

  • I Saw Congo by E.R. Moon

The first place we went to on our second full day in Savannah was the Pin Point Heritage Museum. The Pin Point Museum was fantastic and I’m gonna say it is a gold standard for cultural heritage museums. It is housed in the former A.S. Varn & Son Oyster and Crab Factory, which was for many years the major employer of the Pin Point community. The community of Pin Point was founded by freedmen after the Civil War, and became part of the Gullah/Geechee culture in the coastal region. One of the big claims to fame of Pin Point is being the original home of Justice Clarence Thomas.

The museum was founded and run in a close cooperation with the actual community. Our guide was Herman “Hanif” Haynes, who grew up and lives in the community and told us about his mother and grandmother working in the factory. He brought us through the story of the founding of the community and where the people came from. Then we learned about the fishing culture of the community and the history of the factory. They have a fantastic documentary to watch, and displays talking about how through its exports Pin Point was connected to the surrounding area. I’m going to say the museum is an absolute must-see if you are in Savannah. I always enjoy boats and crabs and the like but what really made the museum great is how it worked to serve the community it was based in.

Heading back into town, the next place we went was the Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum. I really liked this museum mostly because it is filled with ship models and that’s great! The museum focuses on the maritime history of Savannah. It’s housed in the William Scarborough house, who made his money as a maritime trader, and besides ship models in general it houses specifically a huge number of models of ships named Savannah, including one of my favorite ships ever the NSS Savannah, pictured above. That sucker was nuclear powered, and although all ships are beautiful, and nuclear-powered ships especially so, the NSS Savannah was meant to be beautiful and I think they pulled it off. Though, on that note, I noticed this time around the model features a tiny Confederate battle flag, which unfortunately does a lot to mar its appearance.

Knowing my boat obsession, my super amazing girlfriend gamely looked at all the models with me. The house itself is pretty neat too. Although it’s one of the historic houses of Savannah, and there are many, it’s not really presented as a house because it’s gone through so many changes throughout the years. One of those changes was serving as a school for Black children. It was, as a sign in the stairway notes, very inadequate, but it existed and at least that was something until Brown vs. Board of Education. After this museum we were pooped, and headed back to the hotel for the night.

Our third and final full day in Savannah was all about the Telfair Museums. This is a group of three museums and we bought the pass to go to all three. There are various different museum groupings in Savannah and I wonder what kind of inter-museum politickings there are. At any rate, we started off at the Owens-Thomas House and Slave Quarters. This used to just be the Owens-Thomas House, but a little bit ago they decided they needed to Do Better and made sure to incorporate the history of the enslaved persons that lived there. Overall I think the museum did a pretty good job at this, though my one criticism is that they were a bit self-congratulatory about it. Maybe it’s necessary to hype it up to get other museums to follow their lead, but it’s really sort of the bare minimum for a space like this. The above picture is the slave quarters themselves.

The rest of the tour is a fairly standard house tour, and this was the first house tour we went on to like, see the house instead of learn about the people or see a bunch of ship models. I guess the house tour was pretty standard overall, but in the basement they have preserved and put on display more of the infrastructure than usual. They have the ice well and cisterns on display, along with a shower room. They also have on display the kitchen, and put a lot of effort into further documenting the lives of enslaved persons here because it is in the basement that a lot of them would worked. This makes it a lot more interesting than the average house tour and I do recommend going.

After the house we went to lunch, and then after lunch we went to the Telfair Academy. We didn’t get a lot of time here because of how late our lunch reservation was, but it was a great museum and apparently one of the oldest in the United States. The above picture is of their very very large octagon room, full of both large pictures and tiny little ones. My super amazing girlfriend particularly admired a picture of a lady with a goldfish bowl, and since the gift shop conveniently had a print for sale I went ahead and bought it. Although I liked that one a lot as well, the below picture was one of my favorites because it displayed what is nearly my ideal future lifestyle:

Titled “Le déjeuner sous les bois,” the one thing it is lacking lifestyle-wise is of course my super-amazing girlfriend.

Upstairs in the museum they suddenly veered into fossils and some of the more old-timey stuff they had. By “old-timey” here I meant the sorts of things popular in old-timey museums, i.e. random collections of interesting things, which I think would make for excellent modern museums, but there are disagreements on this point. They also have some more sculptures upstairs, and although last week I accused my super amazing girlfriend of plotting to steal a spinning wheel, I too am a fan of textiles, specifically old ones, which I mention because they had a small collection that I found cool:

Also, the below statue was outside, but I took a picture specifically to make a joke about sandwiches:

After the Telfair Academy, we did run over to duck into the Jepson Center, but only got a few minutes in there because our day was running out. We were pretty pooped already, but decided to take one last walk along the waterfront to admire the sights. This was a Friday, and by this time the revelers were coming out in full force. It’s a very nice thing to look out over the river and just enjoy being in the place you with absolutely fantastic company. We had a great time in Savannah and hope to be back soon.