A Lap Around The USA – Day 10 – Washington DC & Baltimore - Sandpit

A Lap Around The USA – Day 10 – Washington DC & Baltimore

Inspiration / 13 May 2017

by Dan Koerner

Back in St Louis, Missouri I spoke on a panel at the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) annual conference about the work I’ve done with the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. The panel was convened by Elizabeth Merritt who is the founding director of the Center for the Future of Museums, part of AAM. Elizabeth, who has encyclopaedic knowledge of museums around the US was kind enough to offer me a drive around DC and Maryland to take in a couple of her favourite institutions. She picked me up in the morning in her tiny car and we jumped on the freeway and back to Baltimore to visit…

The American Visionary Art Museum


This dazzlingly mosaiced multi-story building in the redeveloped, previously industrial area of Federal Hill opened its bejewelled doors in 1995. Sanctioned by congress, it is the offical home of American “visionary” art, probably known better in Australia as outsider art. Basically it is a home and legitimising institution for self-taught artists whose unbridled passion and emotion has added to this institution’s over 4000 collected items. The items in the collection vary wildly between painting, sculpture, video and unnamable hybrid forms.

The American Visionary Art Museum – interior (click to explore)

The reception to the museum’s opening its doors, apparently was a little frosty from the art establishment however gallery director and founder Rebecca Hoffberger has made it abundantly clear that the intention of the museum is not to declare war on “academic or institutionalised learning” rather than to celebrate the rare and raw sparks of brilliance that emerge from self-taught artists globally. Elizabeth informs me that Hoffberger’s role as founder and director, in a addition to her self-selected board affords her an unusual level of control over the museum which is evident in its fun, irreverent style. The building itself, however is highly traditional and leads visitors up three levels of adjunct galleries via a spiral staircase. A current exhibition on food is proclaimed in the entry foyer with a self curated bunch of foodie contributions by PostSecret founder Frank Warren. Further in, a cornucopia of outsider art works veer wildly from the downright hilarious, ponderous to the powerfully political. A bunch of wood carved sculptures by Sulton Rogers catches my eye on the bottom floor.


Sulton Rogers – Untitled {3 heads}

Born in Mississipi, Rogers was taught by his father to carve wood and eventually came to be a worker in a chemical plant in New York state. It was at this time that he began carving the strange figures that came to him in dreams. Rogers referred to these figures as ‘haints’ and often were strange, human like creatures with oversized features or animal parts. He eventually moved on to creating ‘paint houses’ for his creations to populate. He returned to Mississippi in later life where he died in 2003.


A 'haint'.

Upstairs in the food-themed exhibition I spend time with some works by Ruby Williams. Originally from Florida, Williams grew up poor and although her parents recognised her creativity, they didn’t have the means to send her to art school. Williams eventually became a minister and eventually also married one who apparently inevitably betrayed her for her best friend. Destitute, she eventually returned to Florida where she made ends meet by selling fruit roadside on the interstate. She created bright, loud wooden signs to advertise her fruit and eventually customers started buying her art in addition to her produce. Her work has now been exhibited worldwide however she continues to grow and sell fruit in Florida.

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Fruits signs by Ruby Williams.

Much like any gallery, when visiting the American Visionary Art Museum you are drawn to particular artworks more than others. For me the works that feel like they’re edging on the side of being exhibited in regular galleries are the less interesting.

One of the big events in the jam packed community calendar for the American Visionary Art Museum is an annual “kinetic sculpture race” where large parts of the community get together to create bedazzled cars and different forms of road transportation and parade around Baltimore. This is evident with the disco ball of a school bus that is parked right out the front of the main entrance.

Another cool thing about this museum is the gift shop where you can actually buy the works of the artists who are on exhibit. That in combination with a whole bunch of weird crap.

Admission: $15.95 but feels like a good cause

Digital engagement: Outsider designed, crap-tastic, unresponsive website feels totally apt. A digital layer could really help the thesis-length didactic panels visitors are supposed to read through the museum.

National Cryptologic Museum


Elizabeth and I jump back in the tiny car and head back towards DC. Just off the highway is the National Security Agency’s infamous headquarters. This is the well publicised, gleaming dark pair of cubes where phones are tapped, computers are hacked and Edward Snowden spent a lot of his time when not in exile. It’s a scary looking building in real life, surrounded by razor wire and unmarked vans. They also happen to have a super cute museum onsite! The National Cryptologic Museum celebrates the history of cryptology in the USA, largely focussed on code breaking and eavesdropping during a series of wars. On this day it also doubles as a military graduation ceremony which we dodge on the way in the front door of this fairly unattractive building.

The entry area discusses code more generally along with a miniature village and train set which introduces the ‘hobo code’ – a series of pictograms used by hobos since the 1920s in America to inform other vagrants of the properties of specific locations. Symbols meaning “religious talk gets free meal” or “kind woman, tell pitiful story” are placed surreptitiously near landmarks to help hobos make ends meet. The code allegedly exists today and many are still indecipherable by the regular Joe.

The National Cryptologic Museum – interior (click to explore)

We jump on the back of a tour led by a docent who formerly worked for the NSA. He take introduces us to the US military’s code breaking success with a telegram from the then foreign minister in Germany before the beginning of WW2 to the president of Mexico. Recognising the encoded message as being suspect, the military cracked the it to reveal a memo suggesting that if Mexico chose to invade the southern United States, Germany would happily grant them the states of California, Nevada, Utah, most of Arizona, half of New Mexico, a quarter of Colorado and a small section of Wyoming – all lost to the USA in the Mexican-American war. Mexico thankfully politely declined. Germany was held to account however Japan denied any knowledge until the subsequent bombing of Pearl Harbour.

There was also a fairly large room dedicated to the Enigma Machine, once an adapted typewriter used for encoding commercial communications and bank transactions, it became the favoured cipher machine of Nazi Germany during the war. The device itself was said to be uncrackable yet, thanks to that good ol’ American ingenuity again was masterfully solved by a replica machine that was produced in the USA without ever seeing the original. In fact, a genuine Enigma Machine was only seen by US forces at the end of the war once Germany had been invaded.


The Enigma Machine.

The kitchy Cold War exhibit, replete with machines that buzz and whizz also contains a small exhibit on Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, an American Jewish couple who were sent to the chair my divulging secrets to the Soviet Union. The Venona project was a counter-intelligence pusch by the then US Army’s Signal Intelligence Service (which later became the NSA) which helped to prosecute the Rosenbergs. It was later revealed that their prosecution was likely a result of Soviet paranoia and that Ethel herself had little knowledge of the charges put before her. All of this was largely due to lawyer Roy Cohn, in life a good pal of the current President of the United States of America. So it goes.

Admission: Free, although our calls may have been tapped. This may be the price you have to pay.

Digital engagement: Website is piggy-backed off the NSA’s official site and is appropriately bureaucratic. There’s a kinda cool rotating globe thingy in the contemporary cryptology exhibit that responds to a touch screen with different crypto-content with a global focus.


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