Curators' Favorites: No Cookie-Cutter Ideas Here

"This one was climbing up some tree 20 million years ago," says Ted Schultz of an amber-encased ant. (By Ted R. Schultz -- Smithsonian National Museum Of Natural History)
By Jessica Dawson
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 7, 2007

The Post asked some Washington curators to tell us about some of their favorite objects in their museums.

Kristen Hileman, assistant curator, Hirshhorn Museum

On John Baldessari's "Cremation Project, Corpus Wafers (With Text, Recipe and Documentation),"a 1970 work in which the artist burned some of his unsold paintings and then baked those ashes into cookies. The piece includes a jar of the cookies, documentation of the project and a recipe.

"It's an artwork about creation and destruction. Here it's expressed in a very irreverent, almost subversive way.

"The story behind the artwork is that at a certain moment in John's early career he looked into his studio and he saw this growing backlog of paintings.

"He had a friend who knew someone who worked at a funeral home, a crematorium. He arranged to go in at night and cremate all those paintings and then took the ashes and placed them in a smaller box -- this is sort of morbid -- that would be used if someone wanted to cremate a child or a limb. He documented it in color photography, which is part of this artwork.

"Interestingly, from that destruction of a body of work, he decided to make cookies -- the second part of the piece. John talked about the cookies as something that would be ingested and then digested, so you continue the cycle one step further. But only one person was brave enough to taste a cookie, so it didn't actually play out that far.

"The work signals a shift in terms of thinking of what art can be. Moving from a traditional understanding of art as painting to art as something that's more about the process and the concept and idea. That breakthrough has been incredibly influential in the intervening decades."

Nancy Pope, historian at the National Postal Museum,

On the "Regulus Mailbox," one of two made in 1959 to fit in the nose of the Regulus 1 missile, which usually held thermonuclear warheads. The Navy fired the mailbox once, on June 8, 1959.

"The Regulus Mailbox fit into the Regulus I guided missile and no place else. It was created for one event -- and such a goofy event -- but then it was completely serious. The Post Office Department and the Defense Department teamed in this incredible goal to scare the Russians a little bit.

"They put the mail on the USS Barbero -- this is the first nuclear submarine with thermonuclear warhead capacity. About 100 miles off Florida, it fires off the Regulus missile. The missile lands in the Naval Auxiliary Air Station at Mayport, near Jacksonville. Then they opened it up, took the mail out, and delivered the mail.

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