Museums

Once Upon A Time. . .

This was one of the first hintsandechoes posts, published on June 15, 2012.

2500 years ago to be more or less exact, a Babylonian princess named Ennigaldi lived in the ancient city-state of Ur in what is modern day Iraq. I ran across Ennigaldi in one of those endless meanderings on the internet that lead you further and further astray from where you started out and seems to have no possibility of getting you where you want to go, although the journey turns out to be very interesting. Ennigaldi, by virtue of her station as princess, was the high priestess of the moon god—Nanna—and ran a school to train high priestesses.

The ruins of Ur

Fast forward to 1921. Leonard Woolley, archeologist of the Ashmolean Museum, was excavating the palace grounds at Ur. All was going as one would expect—until Woolley and his team began turning up startling inconsistencies, uncovering objects that predated the site by many centuries. Among them were a boundary marker, a carefully trimmed fragment of a statue, and a stone mace-head. Woolley was puzzled. Why were there so many of these objects and why did they come from such different geographical origins? In his book, Ur of the Chaldees: A Record of Seven Years of Excavation, Woolley wrote, “What were we to think? Here were half a dozen diverse objects found lying on an unbroken pavement of the sixth century B.C., yet the newest of them was seven hundred years older that the pavement and the earliest perhaps sixteen hundred.”

Clay drum excavated at Ur, one of the first museum labels.

The mystery was solved when Woolley discovered clay drums with inscriptions describing the objects in three languages. Woolley realized then that the drums were museum labels and that he had just discovered the oldest museum known to man, a museum that it was determined later had been organized by Ennigaldi herself.

That a Babylonian princess and those of her time were even then looking backward over millenia, collecting and studying objects in order to connect with their ancient history suggests that the impulse is deeply rooted in our nature.  Like Ennigaldi and her students, we want to learn where we came from and how we got here. An object from the past helps us do that.  Today some of those objects can be found behind glass in art museums; some can be seen in context in an historic house museum, but perhaps the object that can be found right in our own homes and connects us immediately to our personal history means the most. What’s in your house?

Holidays

Now Maybe We Can All Get Back To Normal

This Month and next I am republishing former posts as I contemplate a refocusing of Hints and Echoes. This one was published on January 6, 2016.

 Last night—January 5—marked the evening before Epiphany when the Biblical Kings reached the newborn Christ Child.

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In medieval and Tudor England, Twelfth night marked the end of a winter festival that started on All Hallows Eve or as we know it, Halloween. Now we don’t exactly celebrate a winter festival, but that period between Halloween and tonight is generally referred to as “the holidays.”

There’s a lot to love about “the holidays” : It’s a time of parties, parades, and family get togethers and gifting and big meals on fine china— a time of spiritual renewal, of counting our blessings, of communicating with old friends, of charitable impulse.But let’s face it; in many ways it is exhausting.

They used to indulge in raucous merrymaking on Twelfth Night. Most of us don’t feel quite up to that. But  if you had a Christmas tree and haven’t already done so, now’s the time to take it down.

Holidays · New York City

Tonight’s the Night! Time Again for the Times Square Time Ball

The 2016 Time Ball
The Times Square Time Ball. 

For the first two months of 2020, I will be republishing some of the posts from past years as I consider a refocusing of Hints and Echoes. This post was first published on New Year’s Eve, 2015. My best wishes to all for a healthy, happy New Year!

Tonight a million people will squeeze themselves into Times Square  to celebrate the arrival of the New Year, and a billion more around the globe are expected to watch the event on television.  The focus of their merriment will be an 11,785 pound  ball of iron sheathed in Waterford Crystal mounted on a pole at the top of the building at 1 Times Square.   A million voices in unison will count down the seconds before midnight as the ball descends the pole. Hopefully I will be sound asleep, although I can’t count on it.

For years I wondered how this custom ever got started. So last year, I looked it up and posted the history of the time ball. For those of you who missed it or want to read it again, here it is:

Once upon a time, time balls were prosaic navigational tools:  wooden balls mounted on poles sitting atop a high point observable by ship captains peering through their telescopes.

The time ball at the Greenwich Observatory, London. Established 1833
The time ball at the Greenwich Observatory, London. Established 1833

Their purpose—to notify seamen of the exact time so that they could set their chronometers. At first, time balls were located on top of observatories where exact time was determined by celestial observation.

Here’s how it worked: A few minutes before one o’clock in the afternoon (12 noon in the United States), the ball was raised halfway up the pole. Then two or three minutes later the ball was raised all the way to the top. On the exact hour, the ball started its descent. The beginning of the drop signaled that it was now 1 p.m. (or noon). After the invention of the telegraph, a time signal could be sent to points distant and time balls were installed on the highest building in many cities and towns to enable people to set their watches. After the introduction of the radio, of course, time balls were no longer necessary.

So How Did a Time Ball Get to Times Square?

In 1904, Adolph Ochs , publisher of The New York Times, bought the building at what is now 1 Times Square. (At the time it was called Longacre Square, but Ochs convinced the City to rename it.) And to celebrate the New Year, he decided to have a fireworks display launched from the top of the building. That went on for three  years, and a good time was had by all, but in 1907 the City banned the fireworks. Rather than give up the celebration, Ochs had the brilliant idea of installing a time ball that would designate exactly when the New Year arrived, and give revelers a reason to continue to celebrate in front of his building.

To maximize the merriment, the customary procedure of designating the time from the beginning of the descent was turned on its head. Now revelers began the countdown to midnight as the ball dropped. When it reached the bottom—the midnight hour had arrived and the New Year was born.

The 1955 Time Ball had 180 lights
The 1955 Time Ball had 180 lights.

That first Times time ball was studded with 100 incandescent light bulbs. When the magic hour arrived, four electric signs—one on each side of the building—flashed “1908” in numerals six feet high. Since then, the ball has been modified many times. In 2000, to mark the millennnium, the Waterford Crystal ball was introduced. Today LED lighting technology makes possible a wide variety of spectacular effects.

Few time balls still exist; two of them are in the U.S.: one at the Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C and the other at the Titanic Memorial Lighthouse at the South Street Seaport in New York City.

The Greenwich observatory time ball in London and the one at the Naval  Observatory are operational; they still drop at the designated hour every day. The Times Square ball, on the other hand, has never served as a daily indicator of the time. It drops only once a year.

Tonight’s the night!

Culture · Holidays

Why Christmas Cards Matter

Christmases Past: Some cards Herb and I have sent over the years

An old friend sent an email yesterday asking for my address. We moved last year and she had forgotten to enter our new address in her address book. She wanted to send me a Christmas card. That got me to thinking about Christmas cards and why they matter. She could have easily wished me a Merry Christmas in her email, but I am so glad she didn’t and I look forward to receiving her card.

Why, I wondered, do I care? Why is it that Christmas cards are really my favorite Christmas custom?

Here, I think, is the answer: Who we are, after all, depends on all the experiences we have ever had in life and that includes the interactions we have with our friends. Old or new or ongoing, our friends matter—a lot.

In fact we may not see them often; realistically we may know that we will never see many of them again. But we have not forgotten them, and when an envelope with a familiar handwriting appears in our mailbox, we know they have not forgotten us.

There may be a short note—or even a letter, though that is not often the case. But there will certainly be a signature .and we will have the opportunity of holding the hand of a friend in our hand and reflecting on our friendship and the times we have spent together. You can’t hold an email in your hand.

And that’s why Christmas cards matter.

Technology

Where Have All the Horses Gone?

The building on 89th Street, New York City, that once housed the Claremont Stables

When we lived in Manhattan we were just two blocks from the Claremont Stables.  In 2007 the stables closed its doors—to horses, that is. Today the yellow brick building with its large rounded entrances houses a private school.

At the time it closed, the Claremont was the oldest continuing operating stable in New York City. It was built in 1892 as a livery stable where wealthy folks could board their horse and store their carriage between outings. Other not-so-wealthy folks could rent a horse and carriage by the hour. In 1928, because of its proximity to the bridle path in Central Park and the fact that the introduction of the automobile had meant the reduction in the need for horses, the Claremont Stables became the Claremont Riding Academy where you could rent a horse for a ride in Central Park for $55 an hour or board your own horse if you happened to own one. Continue reading “Where Have All the Horses Gone?”