Best Gifts of 2015 for Museum Lovers

A host of gifts inspired by the Smithsonian collections, its scientists, curators, historians, photographers and gardeners

Rare. Unique. Unusual. There is no other museum complex as diverse as the Smithsonian Institution. It boasts not only 19 museums in Washington, D.C. and New York City, but also partners with affiliated cultural institutions across the U.S. and abroad. It also supports its public-facing endeavors with a broad-based research complex of historians, scientists, researchers and educators. A gift in 1826 from James Smithson, a British subject who had never set foot in the United States, endowed the Institution with a vast fortune held in gold sovereigns to be used for the noble cause to increase and diffuse knowledge. That gift today draws, families, school groups, rising scientists and educators, as well as the curious and inquisitive of mind from all over the world. As we approach the holidays and a time for giving, in honor of James Smithson’s original gift, we offer ideas that inspire and provoke the ongoing pursuit of knowledge in all its forms.

Fish Design Pattern Journals $13.99

(Cooper-Hewitt Shop)

In 1914, while sailing aboard the scientific vessel the Thomas Barrera to Cuba, zoologist Paul Bartsch kept meticulous notes in his field journal, now housed in the collections of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Bartsch’s notes describe the thrill of seeing a flock of 500 white ibis take flight from a grove of mangrove trees. But perhaps his most elegiac entry was the cook’s recipe for the stiff cocktail concocted to stave off the cold. Made of gin and vermouth, nectar cabana and eggs, he warned it should be “consumed with a receptive mind,” adding that “a bandage for the head in the morning wouldn’t be out of place.” For all the cerebral trail warriors, sky watchers and bird lovers in your life craving the desire to put ink to paper, in the tradition of the scientific field note, we suggest checking out the delightful journals at the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, inspired by patterns and designs from the collections.

M Train by Patti Smith $13.75 (hard cover)

(Amazon.com)

In her affecting new book M Train, writes senior historian David C. Ward of the National Portrait Gallery, Patti Smith “helpfully provides a list of M words that trip delightfully from the tongue: “Madrigal minuet master monster maestro mayhem mercy mother marshmallow . . .mind.” The rock ‘n’ roll legend’s pilgrimage across a landscape of memories from New York to Michigan in the states to an infamous prison in French Guiana to Frida Kahlo’s famous Casa Azul in Mexico City to gravesites in Japan to finally her own beachfront bungalow in Far Rockaway, New Jersey, makes for a terrific read in this second of her highly acclaimed memoirs. Ward, himself a poet, who writes frequently on the subject, recalls John Ashbery’s commanding line, which uses another M word: “The mooring of starting out.” Ward sees Smith’s restless journeying in search of a place as one that will forever elude her. “Her life is in searching,” he writes of the musician whose recently acquired self-portrait is on view on the museum’s first floor. Patti Smith’s new book should be on every gift givers list this year—a meditation for our times.

Red Classic Viewmaster $19.95

Before the invention of photography in 1838, Charles Wheatstone developed the stereoscope to view drawings and illustrations in three dimensions. By 1859, the fad had taken off and major publishers and photographers were mass marketing the low-priced viewers and cards to middle and upper class families. In 1939, stereoscopes had morphed into the ever-so playful classic Viewmaster, which was introduced at the New York Worlds Fair. (The National Museum of American History conducts demonstrations of the stereoscope on its interactive carts throughout the day from 10:30 to 3.) For those nostalgic for 3D proto-technology tools, we suggest you celebrate their inner childhood with the gift of a classic Viewmaster in your choice of colors.

And to complement it, we suggest you check out these vintage reels and booklets, featuring the Smithsonian Castle, the Wright Flyer and other Smithsonian attractions.

Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty by Merry Foresta $32.27 (Hardcover)

(Amazon.com)

One of this year’s must-see exhibitions is a major retrospective of the work of photographer Irving Penn on view through March 2016 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, before traveling to Texas, Massachusetts, Tennessee and Kansas. Curator Merry Foresta selects more than 100 of Penn’s iconic haute couture images, but also includes works never before published or exhibited. Says Foresta of the Penn’s prodigious output: “For 70 years, he put forth extraordinary pictures. If you were building a pyramid, he would be at the base of our whole visual culture.” For arts lovers on your list, especially those unable to see the show, this sumptuous catalog drawn from the vast holdings of the museum, more richly endowed in 2013 by a major gift of works from the Irving Penn Foundation, is a coffee table book sure to be enjoyed.

Succulent Living Wall Planter Kit $110

When Smithsonian horticulturalist Janet Draper wanted to build a green wall in the garden adjacent to the Hirshhorn musem, she selected the heat-seeking, water-retaining succulents. Starting in March, she planted the fleshy, thick leaf plants into a well-drained potting mixture. “I really was looking for dramatic color and texture,” she wrote, “so I tried to ‘paint’ with the plants by creating patterns through my placement choices.” The result was an eye-catching display that won enthusiastic admiration from visitors enjoying the garden’s meandering pathways. Try Draper’s method using her tips—start four months ahead of growing season under lights, and start them first flat on a table to establish the roots, watering must be closely monitored—employing this artful wall planter kit designed by Heather Auchter out of reclaimed woods at Uncommon Goods.

Electronic Digital Calipers $14.89

(Amazon.com)

Smithsonian ecologist Geoffrey Parker knows how fast a tree grows. In fact for more than 25 years, the denim-clad, bespectacled researcher has walked the understory of several hardwood forests, tracking their rate of growth. Parker has found that these forests near the Chesapeake Bay at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, Maryland, have been growing faster in the last quarter century than they have over the past 225 years. To better understand how these ecosystems are responding to climate change, Parker welcomes citizen scientists throughout the year to help with the tagging and the measurements of his trees; contact Alison Cawood at [email protected] to sign on for the next one this winter. (Other citizen science projects at the Smithsonian include archaeology, archival research and backyard bird watching, among others.)

One trusty inexpensive tool that Parker carries in his back pocket, his electronic digital caliper, might be just the thing for all your science geek friends. Calipers are used to measure opposite sides of an object and the mechanical kind have long been used for wood and metal working and other engineering and scientific projects, but now the highly precise—accurate to the hundredths of an inch—measuring device lends new opportunity to anyone with a yen for cool tools.

Hallmark Keepsake Star Trek Ornament $23.99

(Amazon.com)

This year when the National Air and Space Museum decided that the model for the TV show “Star Trek” should be removed from display and sent for conservation, actor William Shatner who played Capt. James T. Kirk on the 1960s popular show weighed in. “Did you break my ship?” he tweeted at the museum. Curators assured him Starship Enterprise was in good hands and indeed, the good ship is docking right now at the Udvar Hazy Center’s conservation laboratory before it is scheduled to go back on view in May 2016. Curators have even asked for some help with the project. They sought and received images from the public of the original studio model as it appeared prior to 1976. Trekkies might appreciate this rare vintage Hallmark Keepsake Star Trek ornament to boldly go with their holiday décor.

Art of the Airport by Carolyn Russo $29.61 (Hardcover)

(Smithsonian Books)

One of the most underappreciated architectural wonders, the airport tower, takes center stage under the photographic eye of the National Air and Space Museum’s Carolyn Russo, who visited 23 countries and took hundreds of pictures of these towering structures. Some of them built by renowned architects such as Eero Saarinen, César Pelli and Gert Wingårdh, the towers Russo photographed are collected in a new book and on view in a new exhibition at the Air and Space Museum, which features more than 100 of her images. Each tower she visited with her 35 mm digital camera, Russo began to view she says as “an omniscient, intelligent structure keeping humans safe.” The book and its images capture an alluring beauty and would thrill any lover of flight and its vast global aircraft system.

Wonder by Nicholas R. Bell and Lawrence Weschler $40.62 (Hardcover)

(Amazon.com)

What is wonder? According to art curator Nicholas R. Bell of the Renwick Gallery, which recently reopened after a two-year, $30 million renovation, it is often mistaken as something childlike. “Museums serve many public functions,” writes Bell in this marvelous catalog to accompany the inaugural exhibition at the museum. “Yet I would argue that their most critical task is to trigger our startle reflex by placing before us things that fall outside the range of everyday experience.”

Bell invited nine contemporary artists, Maya Lin, Jennifer Angus, Chakaia Booker, Gabriel Dawe and Patrick Dougherty among them, to explore the concept of wonder. Their critically acclaimed installations trigger curiosity and cause otherwise uptight adults to bend closer to see a large bug, or sniff deeply the edge of recycled tire or simply smile at the idea of an indoor rainbow. Wonder, says Bell, is something we’ve lost in this age of information and he aims to makes us find it again. Bring out the true essence of wonder among family and friends with this exquisitely crafted volume dedicated to things beyond the everyday experience.

Jacques Pépin Heart & Soul in the Kitchen $21.00 (Hardcover)

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(Amazon.com)

The food world often seems as crazily polarized as so much else in our lives, says Smithsonian writer Anne Glusker, who recently spoke with the master chef Jacques Pépin on the occasion of a recent donation he made to the National Museum of American History—a menu that Pépin created many years ago when he celebrated his friend and colleague Julia Child at a dinner in her famous kitchen on the old Garland stove she loved. The menu becomes part of growing food collection at the museum centered around Child’s kitchen, which was packed up lock, stock and barrel from her Cambridge, Massachusetts home and delivered to the Smithsonian and has been thrilling visitors who love to peek in and enjoy the comfortable kitchen table and the walls covered in the delightful anachronistic pegboards. Pepin’s recent cookbook published on the occasion of the chef’s 80th birthday, writes Glusker, presents simple, easy-to-understand recipes for such classics as salmon rillettes, duck liver mousse and cheese gourgéres, hallmarks of French cuisine. Pay homage to this master chef and bring sanity back to the kitchen with this wonderful valedictory tome to his long career.

Electric Objects and Digital Art Display $499.00

(Amazon.com)

On January 1, 2015, the Smithsonian Freer and Sackler Galleries completed a monumental task. On that date, the museum made ever single last item in its collections, some 40,000 artworks, available to the public in high resolution digitized formats that can be used for noncommercial purposes without copyright restrictions. The museum is one of only a handful of worldwide cultural institutions offering this phenomenal access. "The nature of what it means to be a museum is changing," said the director Julian Raby at the time. The museum's unprecedented offering of masterpieces dating from the neolithic to the present day are now available for download. Special friends on your list might enjoy this novel approach for capturing and displaying free digital content, which comes complete with hardware to install on the wall or a custom stand. Never again wonder what you'll hang on the wall, change it up daily with digital downloads from the Freer and Sackler Galleries.