Thursday, April 27, 2017

Grand Caverns of the Shenandoah Valley


Inside the Grand Caverns

    After examining eight brochures advertising caves in the Shenandoah Valley, I chose to tour the oldest show cave, the Grand Caverns, which is noted to have had guided tours led for more than 200 years.  One of the early visitors was Thomas Jefferson.

    The Grand  Caverns, near Staunton, Virginia, were rated by Parade magazine as the number two cave attraction in our country.

    The caverns was discovered in 1804 by a Bernard Weyers, and he opened it to tourists two years later making this the oldest operating show cave in the U.S.  It was declared a National Landmark in 1973.

    The caverns with 56 degree yearly temperature is  the perfect place to visit any time of the year.  It would cool you on a hot day and warm you up on a cold winter day.

    I came in on very hot day in a tee shirt but after walking a short distance in the cave,  I found a sweatshirt I was carrying felt good.   Mostly there were large rooms and high ceilings, but a few low ceilings, one on which I bumped by head.  On some tight places our group of 20 needed to walk single file, and some of the heavy among us just squeezed through.

     In places water dripped slowly from the roof creating over ages of time the stalactites and stalagmites. The most beautiful spot was created with the use of colored lights in the Rainbow Room that gave us a sense of seeing a beautiful city lit up at night.

The Rainbow Room of the Grand Caverns in Virginia

    In one of the large rooms dances had been held in the early days, and the rule according to the guide was that each man was to bring two women with him.  A stalagmite in the middle of the room was used by a woman when she wanted to dance by standing by it and passing her hand over it.

    The rocks in the cavern are constantly growing and we were warned not to touch anything because a single touch could possibly stop the growth process.  Regular tours were run on the hour, and our group of 20 passed the group before us coming out, but suddenly we found ourselves being passed by a large group of  children who were having a separate tour. 

    Near the exit our guide pointed out over 200 signatures of both Union and Confederate soldiers who had been in battles here during the Civil War.  We were warned not to touch since they are so fragile.

Signatures of Union and Confederate soldiers from the Civil War

    You can’t take a cave tour without your guide turning out all of the lights so we can experience complete darkness, a rarity.  The last cave we had visited the darkness wasn’t complete because of cell phones and watches.

    Here we experienced complete blackness along with a story of how early visitors using candles had hit a mystic area where the candles went out and they had to find their way out in complete blackness, a difficult task given the various byways.  

    Grand Caverns offers a breathtaking panorama of subterranean beauty! on various physical aspects, such as room size, paths, ratio of growing formations to dormant formations as well as overall beauty.   

    In addition the waiting area has a variety of educational displays that added to what our guide had told us.  There I learned more about bats, cave creatures, how limestone forms caves and the early uses of caves by humans.

George C. Marshall Museum


George C. Marshall


     Traveling to some museums broadens our minds as we learn how some of our leaders focused on making needed  changes.   

     At the George C. Marshall Museum in Lexington, Va., I gained some insight into the major contributions he made to history in the 20th century.  Marshall, a Secretary of Defense, Secretary of State, was the architect of victory in WWII and creator and implementer of the Marshall Plan,

     The museum tour started with a movie that viewed his life, starting with his childhood in Pennsylvania.  A graduate of the Virginia Military Institute, he was able to become the leader of the many great generals who had graduated from West Point, such as Dwight Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur, Omar Bradley, and George S. Patton.

     Besides not being a fellow West Point graduate, Marshall also did not have battle experience.  However, he seemed  always to be preparing men for battle, but instead of focusing mainly on mistakes on our last wars, he was different in that he was preparing men for modern wars based on what new equipment had appeared and better ways to handle problems that were apparent in some other countries.

     President Franklin Roosevelt appointed him as his deputy army chief of staff in 1938 to help prepare an army that was 17th in the world in terms of numbers and modernization to be able to fight in the coming war.

     One of Marshall’s strengths was his outspokenness that may have made Roosevelt cringe, but also brought him around to understanding what real needs of the military were. Marshall understood the need  to prepare men to use modern equipment.  Without his insights, we would have been totally unprepared for our entry into WWII. 

     After the war Marshall recognized that we had made many mistakes after WWI that had led to the rise of Hitler and continuing tension between the European countries.  He did not want this to happen again and pushed for the Marshall Plan that would help with the rehabilitation of all of the countries outside of the Iron Curtain. 

     This was endorsed by President Harry Truman and is considered by many as the salvation of Europe with provisions of equipment, machinery for rebuilding and food supplies to prevent starvation.  For this Marshall later was given the Nobel Peace Prize.

     Four rooms of exhibits and two long hallways have pictures, large posters, magazine covers and some equipment like small arms and a jeep from WWII, to give us a sense of his life. 

     The largest room covers his childhood and his time at college and in WWII.  Another room is on the Marshall Plan and the Nobel Peace Prize, and a third room has his office equipment and role as Chief of Staff. 

     In the lower gallery in the meeting room a continuous running film is part of the series that Marshall had professionally made on the reason we were fighting the war. 

     This was shown only to military personal to prepare them emotionally and mentally for the enemy they would encounter.  It shows the atrocities committed by our enemies upon the peoples they were dealing with.  It was somewhat like the pep talks coaches give their teams to get them ready for important games. 

     Marshall was one of the greats of history and it is possible that without his ability to anticipate what was needed to fight World War II and the help he provided for the opponents to recover, this would be a very different, and much more vicious and dangerous world.

Hatshepsut, the woman Pharaoh


The funerary temple of Hatshepsut, the woman Pharaoh

    I have been entertained recently with how modern science is changing what we know of history, even history from 3500 years ago.

    A case in point is what has been learned about Hatshepsut, the woman Pharaoh whose rule resulted in the construction of many major structures that I explored in a cruise along the Nile and in a visit to the Valley of the Kings in 2002 .

    At about 440-feet-long and 97-feet-high the most impressive is her funerary temple called "Djeser Djeseru" or "Holy of Holies." 

    Her reign had been a peaceful one of 22 years. Our guide pointed out that references and facial features of  Hatshepsut had been chiseled from the wall and statures by Thutmose III, who had hated her and wanted her eradicated from history.  After her death he seceded her, went to war and doubled the size of the kingdom.

    Her mummy had vanished from her tomb that was 35 stories deep in the Valley of the Kings, and that seemed to be the end of what we could know about her.

    A few days later when I visited the Cairo Museum, the most important mummies were being kept under ideal condition to avoid further decay, therefore  unavailable for public viewing.

    In 2007 Zahi Hawass, from the Cairo Museum, and his team undertook the task of finding Hatshepsut's mummy.  They found they had eight unidentified female mummies who might be Hatshepsut, one of whom had been found in her nurse's sarcophagus. 

    A number of approaches using modern techniques were used.  DNA failed making the identification for lack of enough material.  The bodies of known relatives were put through cat scans for clues.

    Three cat scans were borrowed from Germany that allowed the researchers to get 3D figures of her father, her brother and a stepson, that were then combined for a composite image.  That allowed them to discard some of the mummies.

    In 2010 I had been at the British Museum when they were exploring the first mummy to undergo the virtual unwrapping using a CT scanner.  In the display room the mummy's image was floating in the air in gross non-living color.  What was his age? How did he die? Had he any injuries?  A multitude of facts about the mummy were discovered.  Basically it was a learning experience about some new technology that were being used.

    Then recently I have found on YouTube and other computer sources a much fuller explanation of what happened to Hatshepsut.  Being able to tell how a person died turned out to be critical in identifying her body. 

    Of the two bodies that were still in question, one of them had died of a jaw infection that had made it impossible for her to eat.  Some dentistry had been performed, and a upper molar taken out leaving a root behind.

    When a person was made into a mummy, internal organs were taken out and placed in a separate small box, usually made of wood and ivory.  Such a box was found with Hatshepsut's name on it. 

    In the box were a liver, intestines and a upper molar with just one root.  The tooth had the same density, size and fit into the space in the mummy's jaw with the one root.   The team concluded that the forgotten mummy was Hatshepsut's.

    The research also meant that Thutmose III had not had her killed as originally thought.  In addition it was found that he had not destroyed her images until many years later.  It was believed that Thutmose did it to insure the smooth succession of his son Thutmose IV and to insure his family would take credit for the history she had left behind.

    Since my visit in 2002, other relics of Hatshepsut have been found including buried images and stories about her accomplishments.  She is no longer dead to history because of the advances that have been made in science.

A close up the funerary temple of Hatshepsut

 A box similar to the one where Hatshepsut's liver, intestines and a upper molar were found.

Natural Bridge, Lexington, Virginia


Natural Bridge, near Lexington, Virginia

    When I attended a Chautauqua Road Scholar program at the Natural Bridge Hotel in a rather isolated area about 20 miles from Lexington, Va., Jeffery Ruggles, program administrator for the Virginia Commonwealth University, was the outstanding lecturer who prepared us to explore the bridge.

     The Natural Bridge is  a landmark that in the 1700s was, along with Niagara-Falls, a major attraction to visitors from Europe.  It later made some of the lists of the seven natural wonders of the world.

     Ruggles showed us pictures of other natural bridges from around the world, some of them as striking as this one, but he said this one had had the advantage of location, timing and good public relations. 

    Thomas Jefferson, early in his career as a traveling lawyer, visited the area and was very impressed with the site.  With his connections in government he was able to get a grant of land that included the bridge in 1774.  He made eight visits to the area and on some occasions was in the saddle for six days when making the trip. 

    In 1750 at the age of 18 George Washington is said to have surveyed the area and the initials GW carved on the wall are claimed to be his.  (Later I learned this was carved by someone else.)

    A French army officer drew pictures of the arch that were widely distributed in France. It became so popular that it showed up as wallpaper designs.  One example we were shown had the local Indian Tribe in front of the arch.

    Jefferson kept a cabin in the area for visitors to stay in on their visits with a logbook for them to sign in on.  It is reported that many famous Americans, including his friends who were or had been president, signed in along with many famous international visitors, but the log has been lost.

    Lead dropped through a sieve from the top into the water below created perfectly round bullets.  After Jefferson’s death the bridge was sold in 1846, at which time a hotel for visitors was built.  Hot Springs in the area also attracted visitors and the Natural Bridge was on its way as a major international attraction. 

    An iron cage was put on ropes and visitors could pay to be lowered down the center as a violinist played.

    After the Civil War visitors came by train and for 50 years this was the main way of getting here.  Than after 1926 cars became the main form of travel.   For years it was privately owned, then bought by a non-profit that turned it over to the State of Virginia so it could become a State Park 2016.

   Our group enjoyed the bridge two ways, one by day and one by night.  We entered through a visitor's center and walked down 137 steps to Cedar Creek that passes under it and looked up at 20 stories of carved rock.  A highway passes over the 90 foot long arch. 

   Exploring the area was a charming experience.  Once we passed under it we were offered not only a beautiful nature trail with a falls at the end, but a reconstructed Monacan Indian Village from 300 years ago. 

    The interpreters were dressed in period Indian customs and performing daily tasks such as hide tanning, mat weaving and making pots and baskets.  The re-enactors were eager to share information about what they were doing. 

    Later we came down to the light-and-sound show that had been established in 1927 when President Calvin Coolidge had turned the first lights on.  A large audience sat on benches listening to the audio, a combination of classic music and readings from Genesis about creation.  I noted the colored lights lacked a bit of the excitement of modern lasers.

    However, the Natural Bridge is still a major attraction which I enjoyed exploring--and it is easier to travel to than many sites I have struggled to reach. Many of our group also visited the Natural Bridge Caverns in the area.

Friday, March 24, 2017



A reproduction of the Parthenon in Nashville, TN

World wonders like the Pompeii in Italy and the Parthenon in Greece make many people's bucket lists of what to explore before they die.  But are the original sites always the best or only way to experience the wonders?

I  thought about this question recently when I read about how the British Museum in London replicated one of the 15 Metopes which Lord Elgin had taken from the Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens.  Originally there had been 92 of these marble 5-feet-by-5-feet marble high relief figures in various battles circling the upper outside wall of the Parthenon. 

Depicted are the battle with the giants, battle with the Amazons, the Sack of Troy and the Battle of the Centaurs.  The front wall was of centaurs, half-horse-half man, battling Greeks after the centaurs tried to abduct Greek women.

This means to see the Parthenon you would really need to go to two places, Athens and London.  I visited Athens in 1972 with my wife and our two oldest teenage daughters. 

We admired the remnants of the building as the epitome of Greek culture, but in another way we found it a sad sight with rubble lying on all sides and most of the statuary destroyed, damaged or taken somewhere else.

Before 1687 the Parthenon had been in excellent condition because of its original masterful construction in 456B.C.  In 1687 during a war between Greeks and the Turks,  a gunpowder explosion did significant damage to the interior.  Even the sculptures transferred to the British Museum by Lord Elgin had missing pieces such as heads, arms, legs. 

Statues from the Greek Parthenon now housed in the British Museum in London

The British Museum picked one Metope to replicate, a centaur attacking a Greek who was on his back.  Both heads were missing, the centaur was missing parts of four legs and both arms, and the Greek was missing a leg and an arm.

A drawing from 1674 showed the Metope with both warriors in full body with heads.  The heads had been taken by a Danish naval officer and are now in the Danish National Museum, Copenhagen.

With this material available the British Museum was able to make a 3D picture of what the Metopes had looked like with all its parts, and by using a 3D printer had been able to make an exact copy of the physical object.  The copy allowed them to add other details, such as the Greek's sword, his head piece and cloak.  The Greeks painted their sculptures and this added drama and emotion to the completed Metope. 

When we visited Athens, the Greeks’ point of view was that Elgin had stolen their property and that the only honorable thing would be to return them.  With this breakthrough in recreating exact replicas that give a truer pictures of what the originals were like will make it possible for Greece to partially  recondition the Parthenon and restore it to some of its original glory.  

In the meantime if you don't want to wait, an excellent full-size reproduction is in Nashville, Tenn.  Nashville built a temporary replica of the Parthenon in 1897 for the Tennessee Centennial and International Exposition.

The builders got permission to make plaster replicas of the Elgin Marbles, which were displayed along the sides of the interior. The building was so popular, it was left standing. When it began to show its age, the city rebuilt a complete permanent replica that was opened in 1931. As marble is extremely expensive, it was built principally of reinforced concrete.

Later renovations included unveiling a nearly 43-foot statue in 1990 of Athena, a replica of the original statue inside the Parthenon.  Actually this copy gives you a fuller picture of the what original was like than the original in Athens does.

In Athens you are standing on the ground that the Greeks stood on, and you are in presence of real history.  In Nashville you are in the visual presence of what the Parthenon really looked like.

 Take your choice if you can't make all three spots--Athens, London, or Nashville.

The 45 foot tall reproduction of Athena in Nashville, Parthenon

A reproduction of a frieze off the wall of the Parthenon

A Metope in the British Museum showing the kind of objects that can now be reproduced on 3D printers

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Vice President's Museum

The Dan Quayle Vice Presidents Museum in Huntington, Indiana

            When we were near the Quayle Vice Presidential Learning Center in Huntington, IN., we decided to drop in, as we are fascinated by any "one of a kind" museum.  This is the only attraction that covers  the services of all of our 47 vice  presidents up to early 2017--many times involving acid-tongued comments and playful jokes.       

            James Danforth Quayle, Vice President for George Bush (1989-93),  made some attempt to continue in politics after his term, but soon fell from view.   

             Daniel Johns, the Executive Director, met us at the museum entrance.  Originally the Quayle Museum started  with a some of Quayle's personal items, but Johns decided to expand the museum into a place that included activities for  students in the surrounding school districts so they could learn about the constitution and presidential campaigns.

            To make it more interesting for students they often are put on scavenger hunts to find answers to questions such as: Who was the only Native American vice president?  How many vice presidents died in office? Which vice presidents became president of the United States? 

            The museum, that is on two floors, presents the story of the vice presidents with the memorabilia from their lives, in sequence from John Adams, George Washington's Vice President.

            The museum stresses that five vice presidents and three losing vice presidential candidates were from Indiana. Johns said this was because at one time Indiana had been a swing state.  Our most recent vice president, Mike Pence is from Columbus, IN.

            We were astonished to find how little was known about many of the 19th century vice presidents who seemed to be very mediocre people with little qualification to be president if the opportunity arose.

             Johns has had trouble finding anything to display about them, since many had no posters, no newspaper stories and few personal artifacts.  

            Qualifications of candidates for the office improved in the latter half the 20th century when out of the 13 vice presidents, four became president and two almost became president.  This may be because later presidents wanted vice presidents they could give more responsibilities to.

            Johns noted how Theodor Roosevelt had been made Vice President because it was a useless position with no power and the power men of the time feared what Roosevelt might do to the monopolies they controlled if he was given power.  

            When President William McKinley was assassinated, Roosevelt fulfilled their fears by putting limits on monopolies.  The powerful business leaders then attempted to control the situation after he was election to his own term by giving him Charles Warren Fairbank (who was from Indiana) as a vice president expecting that Fairbanks would control Roosevelt's progressive programs.  While the vice president failed to put controls on Roosevelt, congress did block many of his programs. 

            Later more newspapers and magazines gave more  coverage to vice presidents.  Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Vice President John Nance Garner said, "The Vice Presidency isn't worth a pitcher of warm spit."  Garner also called himself the president's "spare tire."     

            Roosevelt's next Vice President Henry Wallace, however, went on to be a globe-trotting ambassador for the wheelchair-bound President.

            At one display we were struck with how ridicule may have led to Vice President Hubert Humphrey defeat by Richard Nixon when he was shown in a poster on President Johnson's knee being used as a puppet.

            Life and status have improved markedly in recent years for the vice presidents.  They are now furnished fine housing, a large staff, big SUVs with drivers and a good salary.

            Johns also makes visits to schools, concentrating on fourth, fifth and eighth graders.  He began his career as an actor and enjoys developing programs that get students involved by using interactive activities.

            The second floor has a large conference room where Johns can have the students (who range from  first graders to sophomores in high school) re-enact a presidential primarily so they can learn how presidential candidates are chosen. 


Nelson-Atkins Art Museum

            The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City is at of the top of  U.S, art museums according the U.S. Today, based on the list of 20 museums on the "number of reviews  and overall star ratings."
            Every time we have entered the Nelson-Atkins, we have enjoyed piece by piece a different highlight tour. Recently after exploring two special traveling exhibits, we were fortunate to discover our docent that day was Lisa Curran, an interior  designer who had graduated from Stephens College. She was eager to highlight five galleries for us on what became a delightful interactive tour.
            We started  in the Bloch Building, the recent modern addition of five glass pavilions to the east of the original building.  The Bloch building houses the contemporary,  African,  photography and special exhibitions.
            Curran would pick out an object to concentrate our attention on, such as a king's throne in the African exhibition that was made from beads she explained were imported and very expensive.

A King's throne in the African exhibition made from beads

            One  gallery of modern art was created by artists disturbed by bouts of depression, who were working out some of their own problems on their canvases, for example Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock .   She noted that all the artists in this gallery had known and influenced each other.
            Visitors vary on what canvases they prefer; for example. to Wayne the work of Mark Rothko just looks to be patches of color on color.  Curran enjoyed and valued his work and like most docents we have met made an attempt to help Wayne see the deeper meaning in the work.
             At the Post-Impressionists  we concentrated on Van Gogh, Monet and Gauguin. Curran commented  on their use of light and color and how they were the first to work in outside light and use it differently than previous artists. 
            On a more modern note we saw a number of Thomas Hart Benton works. We are familiar with his art from the Truman Library and state Capital in Jefferson City.  We had previously written a story on the traveling exhibition that been at the Nelson several years ago, highlighting Benton as one of Missouri's greatest artists.
            The major contribution to build the collection at the Nelson-Atkins came in the form of money from William Nelson.  That allowed the curators to purchase the collection during the Great Depression when a vast market was available because there were so few buyers.
            The museum is widely known for its extensive Chinese art collection.  Again getting the pieces was a matter of luck in that the man who purchased the art works, Laurence Sickman was in China in the 1930's.  He spoke fluent Chinese and had studied Chinese history and art.  Nelson gave him 11 million dollars to build a collection of Chinese paintings, sculpture and furniture for the museum at a time when prices were low and the art could be taken out of the country. The museum claims 7,000 pieces spanning 5000 years.

A Chinese carving, Guanyin of the Southern Sea

            In the Chinese section Curran called our attention to a large figure carved from wood and beautifully painted called Guanyin of the Southern Sea that she said with the finest sculpture of its kind outside of China. She said the Chinese would like some of the Nelson-Atkins collection of Chinese art back.
            Waiting for the High Lights Tour we had watched a presentation on the 11 million dollar renovation of the Bloch Galleries of European art that will open March 11, 2017. For art lovers this will certainly be worth a trip.