Safety plug for Nagasaki’s “Fat Man” atomic bomb

Where: Harry S. Truman Library and Museum, Independence, Missouri.


Photo: Truman Library

Almost 25 years ago, Clay Bauske of the Truman Library received the type of phone call that gives a museum curator pause. The caller said he was the electronics test officer aboard the airplane that dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan, on Aug. 9, 1945. Better still, he had one of the safety plugs from the bomb and wanted to donate it to the museum.

“I was, to say the least, skeptical of his claim,” Bauske says. “Rarely do you get cold calls from people who have in their possession significant artifacts from historical events that shaped world history.”

The story checked out, though, and in 1988, electronics test officer Philip Barnes visited Independence and presented the safety plug to the library.

The bomb dropped on Nagasaki that day was called Fat Man and was a plutonium bomb, unlike the uranium bomb Little Boy that had been dropped from the Enola Gay on Hiroshima three days earlier. Maj. Charles Sweeney piloted the aircraft that dropped Fat Man, a B-29 bomber named Bockscar. The tag on the plug attests to its provenance and is signed by Barnes and Navy Cmdr. Frederick Ashworth, the weaponeer responsible for arming the bomb.

“This is one of those rare artifacts that immediately creates strong and wide-ranging emotional reactions in everyone who sees it,” Bauske says. “The enormity of the consequences of the only two atomic bombs to be used in war can’t help but draw out deep emotions.”

A version of this story originally appeared in The Kansas City Star by the same author.

Piazzetta di San Marco

Piazzetta San Marco

Photo: S. Cole

Where: Venice, Italy.

The Piazzetta di San Marco is the little brother contiguous to and just south of one of the most-photographed, painted and selfied public spaces in the world – the Piazza San Marco, or St. Mark’s Square. Next to the lagoon for those familiar, the Piazzetta occupies an enviable space between the Doge’s Palace and the Biblioteca Marciana, or the National Library of St. Mark’s.

Photographed here from the balcony of St. Mark’s Basilica, we see the two columns that originally marked the entrance to Venice seaside. Erected around 1268, they honor the patron saints of Venice, St. Mark on the left (the winged lion is hard to miss) and St. Theodore on the right, patron saint to Venice before Mark and his lion rode metaphorically into town.

The magnificent, arcaded building on the left is the Doge’s Palace, or Palazzo Ducale. This was the principal residence for more than one thousand years of the senior-most elected official and chief magistrate of Venice. Built and rebuilt since 810, it has operated as a museum since 1923.

Young Hank Aaron


Photo: Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, courtesy Ed Scott

Where: Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, Kansas City, Missouri.

A young man – maybe 19 – stands in front of his local train depot in 1953.  He could be waiting for a favorite cousin to arrive, or he may be about to board the train that will deliver him to his destiny.

This photograph was taken of Henry “Hank” Aaron in Mobile, Alabama  just prior to his departure for the Negro Leagues.  Bunny Downs, team manager of the Indianapolis Clowns,  had just negotiated the deal with Aaron’s family that would allow the young recruit to leave home and join the team on the road.  It is presumed that Downs took this photo.

“This is not the largest or most well-known item we display, but it is by far one of my favorites,” says Dr. Raymond Doswell, vice president of curatorial services for the museum.  “This photograph denotes a moment in American history when greatness was discovered.”

Aaron played for the Clowns in 1953 and was then recruited by the Milwaukee Braves, who later moved to Atlanta.  The rest, they say, is history.  Aaron developed into one of the greatest baseball players of all time, breaking Babe Ruth’s long-standing career home run record of 715 before setting the new one at 755.

A version of this story originally appeared in The Kansas City Star on April 4, 2010.

“Bacco e Arianna” by Luca Giordano

Where: The Castelvecchio in Verona, Italy.

Bacco e Arianna

Photo: S. Cole

I found this painting hanging in the Castelvecchio in Verona, Italy, depicting the Greek myth of Bacchus and Ariadne. Luca Giordano (1632-1705) was a prolific Italian painter with a speedy hand, earning him the somewhat ungracious nickname of “Thunderbolt.”

The Castelvecchio is a beautifully preserved castle for touring with an interior art museum that surprises. Don’t miss its many artifacts of the age, including armor, spears and other implements of castle defense.

“Reclining Connected Form” by Henry Moore

Where: Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri.

Photo: Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Nestled on the south side of the Bloch Building, Henry Moore’s “Reclining Connected Form” explores the protective relationship between mother and child in this monumental bronze sculpture in the museum’s sculpture garden.

“The siting is so apropos,” says Jan Schall, Sanders Sosland curator of modern and contemporary art.  They actually created a bowl in the ground to create a womb-like experience.  It is almost like Mother Earth.”

Landscape architects Daniel Kiley and Jaquelin Robertson designed the outdoor space.  Though out of frame in this photo, there is a small stone wall in the bowl for sitting and contemplation.

“Visitors feel a sense of solace and solitude in the space,” says Schall.  “They love the idea of maternity and the magic of creation.  It is a universal experience – being born.”

The Henry Moore Sculpture Garden opened at the Nelson in 1989 but the name was changed to the Kansas City Sculpture Park in 1996 after the addition of Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s Shuttlecocks and other non-Moore sculptures.

There are 32 works in the Sculpture Park, including 13 bronze sculptures by Moore and the new, 56-foot, stainless steel, tree-like sculpture, Ferment, by Roxy Paine.

“Virgin and Child in a Domestic Interior” by Petrus Christus

Virgin And Child In A Domestic Interior

Photo: Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Where: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri.  

The setting is entirely domestic – not religious – and Joseph has assumed an uncommon position in this particular rendering of Madonna and Child.

“Joseph is subordinated in this painting and appears to be older than usual with a walking stick,” says Ian Kennedy, Louis L. and Adelaide C. Ward curator of European Painting and Sculpture for the Nelson.

Virgin and Child in a Domestic Interior was painted in the mid-fifteenth century by Flemish painter and Van Eyck student, Petrus Christus.  It’s more than 500 years old and  in excellent condition, making it one of the masterpieces of the Nelson-Atkins collection.

“The chandelier and very detailed interior are very characteristic of the Flemish and of Christus,” says Kennedy of Van Eyck’s star pupil.  “The painting is very geometric looking, and Christus is trying to get away from the influence of Van Eyck.”

The artist’s hometown of Brugges, Belgium is visible through the window and an apple on the ledge symbolizes the fall of man.  The colors are bright; the green in the bedspread is especially vibrant and Mary’s skirt is painted atypically turquoise.

“Everybody likes it,” says Kennedy.  ”It’s a picture you can keep looking at and find something new to admire each time.”

The painting — a favorite at Christmastime — can be viewed at the Nelson.

“Violet Persian Set with Red Lip Wraps” by Dale Chihuly

Photo: Spencer Museum of Contemporary Art

Where: Spencer Museum of Contemporary Art, Lawrence, Kansas

Its “exuberant extravagance” is why it’s so popular, says Susan Earle, Spencer curator of European and American art, and it would be difficult to disagree.

Dale Chihuly’s Violet Persian with Red Lip Wraps is composed of 20 individual pieces that have to be carefully set together each time the object is displayed.  It was crafted in Chihuly’s Seattle studio in 1990 by his regular team of glassblowers.  After its debut at the Leedy Voulkos Gallery in Kansas City, the Spencer Museum purchased it for its permanent collection – its first Chihuly.

“Violet” is part of the “Persian” series, which was inspired by a painting he had seen in Venice.  Chihuly has said that the Persian series was developed from Roman, Byzantine and Islamic glass-making traditions.  Design-wise, they are usually marked by stripes and a contrasting border the artist calls a “lip wrap.”

“It uses color in wonderful ways, drawing you in to the complexity of its form and ideas,” says Earle.  “I like the piece because it is so rich and exuberant.”

Chihuly was educated at the Rhode Island School of Design and was awarded a Fulbright grant to study glass in Venice.  A pioneer in the studio glass movement, he founded the Pilchuck School of Glassmaking near Seattle in 1970.

“The Sonata” by Childe Hassam

The Sonata by Childe Hassam

Photo: Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Where:  The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri.  

Exhausted, a young woman collapses into herself after performing Beethoven’s famously difficult and lengthy “Sonata Appassionata.” A delicate yellow rose lies atop the piano, its heady blossom also too heavy to support.

“This was a really important piece to Hassam,” says Stephanie Knappe, assistant curator of American Art for the Nelson.  “He was really attached to it, and it probably served as the model for the thirty other domestic interiors he painted with young women as subjects.”

Attached he was.  He withheld “The Sonata” when he otherwise sold virtually his entire collection, finally letting go 26 years after he painted it.  It eventually found its way into the hands of Washington D.C. collector and tastemaker Duncan Phillips of Phillips Collection fame, but a feud between the two prompted Hassam to reacquire it, anonymously, seven years later in 1928.

Hassam painted “The Sonata” in his New York studio in 1893 at a time when “art for art’s sake” was finding its way into the lexicon of art students, galleries and collectors alike.

“It celebrates beauty and calm,” says Knappe. “It imparts no moral lesson for us to follow and shows us how important the idea of beauty is to our lives.”

See here for more information on the Nelson-Atkins Museum.

The Flag Over Kon-Tiki

Where:  The Truman Library, Independence, Missouri.  

Kon Tiki flag

Photo: Truman Library

Sometimes the back story is as good as the one we know.

In 1947, Norwegian adventurer, ethnologist and future Academy Award-winning director Thor Heyerdahl set sail across the Pacific in a small, balsawood raft that carried with it the flags and support of several nations, including the United States.  He called the raft Kon-Tiki, after an Incan sun god, and set sail that spring from Peru to the Polynesian Islands, some 4,000 miles away.

He wanted to prove that a primitive raft such as his could make the journey, and that the islands of the South Pacific could have been settled by early South American Indians travelling on similar rafts.

Upon his successful return from the expedition, President Truman invited Heyerdahl tothe White House where he presented Truman with the American flag that had flown over Kon-Tiki.  Almost as an afterthought, Truman asked if he could have the Norwegian flag as well. Heyerdahl agreed and sent the Norwegian flag later.

Now for the back story.  A number of years ago, there was a movement afloat in Norway to have Kon-Tiki’s Norwegian flag returned to Norway so that it could be placed in the expedition’s official museum in Oslo.  Heyerdahl stepped in before his death in 2002 and personally stopped the movement, maintaining that he presented it to President Truman as a token of Norwegian-American cooperation and friendship, and that the flag should remain at the Truman Library.

Call the Truman Library for hours.

“Soundsuit” by Nick Cave

Nick Cave Soundsuit

Photo: Nerman Museum

Where: Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, Overland Park, Kansas.  

“I enjoy working with this sculpture because it challenges people’s preconceptions and stereotypes,” says Karen Gerety Folk, curator of education at the Nerman.  “It is a colorful, textile sculpture that has a human presence.”

Artist Nick Cave has created more than 100 “soundsuit” sculptures, so-named because of the rattles and other audible sounds they make when worn by a performer.  The multi-layered garments are uniquely individual and constructed of thousands of sequins, beads and other found materials.

The back of the soundsuit at the Nerman is mostly black and white with bold, geometric designs; the front of the sculpture is colorful and organic, all hand-sewn into fabric into a cape-like armature.  This soundsuit, like most of his works, is completely wearable.

“People have a strong, aesthetic attraction to it,” says Folk.  “This work definitely draws people into it.”

Nick Cave has Kansas City roots, having graduated from the Kansas City Art Institute in 1982.  He is currently the chairman of the Fashion Department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.  Soundsuit was a gift to the Nerman from Marti and Tony Oppenheimer and the Oppenheimer Brothers Foundation in 2006.

Contact the Nerman for more information.

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