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25 of History's Greatest Moms

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With their words, actions, and unconditional love, mothers have a profound influence on their children. Our mothers give us life, nurture us, and support us as we grow from babies to adults. They teach us, take care of us, and give us advice (wanted or unwanted!), and often provide this sort of motherly presence for many others in their lives as well. To celebrate Mother’s Day, here are 25 of history’s greatest moms.

1. MARIE CURIE

Although scientist Marie Curie (1867—1934) is best known for being the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, she also raised her two young daughters alone after her husband died in an accident in 1906. One of their daughters, Irène Joliot-Curie, went on to co-win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry with her husband for their own work with radioactivity. Joliot-Curie said her mother instilled hard work and flexibility in her children: “That one must do some work seriously and must be independent and not merely amuse oneself in life—this our mother has told us always, but never that science was the only career worth following.”

2. SOJOURNER TRUTH

In 1826, Sojourner Truth (circa 1797—1883) and her baby daughter escaped slavery in Ulster County, New York. Soon after her escape, she heard that her 5-year-old son, Peter, was illegally sold to a man in Alabama. Truth raised money for a lawyer, filed a complaint in court, and successfully got Peter out of slavery—a landmark case in which a black woman successfully sued a white man in court. Truth went on to become a Christian preacher in New York City and toured the northeast, speaking about the Bible, abolition, and women’s suffrage.

3. ABIGAIL ADAMS

As the wife of President John Adams, Abigail Adams (1744 —1818) was the second First Lady of the United States. Because her husband was often away from home for work, she often single-handedly ran their farm, wrote letters supporting equal rights for women and the abolition of slavery, and educated their five kids who survived into childhood—including future president John Quincy Adams. Quincy Adams wrote: "My mother was an angel upon earth. She was a minister of blessing to all human beings within her sphere of action. Her heart was the abode of heavenly purity… She was the real personification of female virtue, of piety, of charity, of ever active and never intermitting benevolence."

4. IRENA SENDLER

Irena Sendler (1910—2008) was a Polish employee at the Warsaw Social Welfare Department who smuggled almost 2500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto during the Holocaust, saving their lives. Using the code name Jolanta, she gave these children false identification documents, established temporary (non-Jewish) identities for them, and placed them in convents, orphanages, and Christian homes. Although the Nazis arrested her, tortured her, and sentenced her to execution (she survived because the Gestapo was bribed), she didn’t give them any information about the whereabouts of the children or the inner workings of her smuggling operation. A mother of three kids herself, Sendler received Poland’s Order of the White Eagle award in 2003.

5. KATHY HEADLEE

Kathy Headlee, a mother of seven (the youngest of whom she adopted from Romania), started Mothers Without Borders to help orphaned children around the world. Beginning in 1992, she led a group of volunteers to distribute relief supplies to orphanages and train caregivers in Romania. Since then, Mothers Without Borders has sent volunteers to help children in Bolivia, Bosnia, Guatemala, India, Mexico, Zimbabwe, Uganda, and Nepal.

6. J.K. ROWLING

J.K. Rowling wrote the first four Harry Potter books as a single mother (while briefly receiving state benefits to get by), and she now serves as the president of Gingerbread, an organization that works with single parents and their children find resources and programs to help them succeed. “I am prouder of my years as a single mother than of any other part of my life,” Rowling said of that time and the work she put in. For Mother’s Day 2016 in the UK (which occurs in March), she tweeted: “Today's Mother's Day in the UK. If your mum isn't here to treat, do something nice for yourself, because she's part of you. Take a hug, too.”

7. HOELUN

Famous as the mother of Genghis Khan, she survived getting kidnapped, widowhood, and being an outcast, to becoming the mother and advisor to one of the largest empires the world has ever known (as well as being one of the few people who could yell at Genghis and get away with it). Around the time of her first marriage, she was kidnapped by Yesukhei, the chief of a minor clan (legend has it she took off her shirt, threw it to her husband, and shouted “Fly for your life, and while you live remember my fragrance”), and was forced to marry her captor. Several years (and children) later, Yesukhei was killed and Hoelun and her young children were kicked out of the clan, forced to barely survive on whatever they could forage on the Mongolian steppes. Eventually, one of her children with Yesukhei, Genghis Khan, would become a great conqueror—but his mother could still put him in his place. According to Frank McLynn in Genghis Khan: His Conquests, His Empire, His Legacy, Genghis was planning to execute his brother for treason when Hoelun found out, traveled to Genghis’s headquarters, and begged Genghis to be merciful. When that didn’t work, “Hoelun grew angry, got to her feet and roundly rebuked the khan for thinking to execute his brother … Genghis raised her up and said he would grant the boon because of his love and deference for his mother.”

8. CANDY LIGHTNER

In 1980, a hit-and-run drunk driver killed one of Candy Lightner’s 13-year-old twin daughters, Cari. The driver had had three prior convictions for drunk driving, and had been arrested two days prior for a different hit-and-run. Within a few months, Lightner founded Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) to try to end drunk driving, pass tougher legislation, and help the victims of drunk drivers. Through its work to raise awareness and get legislation passed, MADD has helped save hundreds of thousands of lives.

9. WARIS DIRIE

In 1970 when she was 5 years old, Waris Dirie was a victim of female genital mutilation in her home of Somalia. Then, when was 13, her parents arranged for her to marry a man in his sixties; she ran away from home and eventually arrived in London. Although she became a successful model (and even appeared in a 1987 James Bond film), she retired from modeling in 1997 to devote her time to combating female genital mutilation, partially through her work as a UN Special Ambassador. She founded an organization called Desert Flower that combats female genital mutilation around the world. As the mother of four children, she told Harper’s Bazaar that female genital mutilation isn’t just a women’s issue: “Every education begins with Mama. We have to rethink what we teach our sons. That's the most important thing."

10. INDIRA GANDHI

As India’s first female Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi (1917—1984) worked to institute democracy and create jobs to combat food shortages—she was responsible for India's green revolution, which made the country self-sufficient and no longer reliant on imported grains. “Education is a liberating force, and in our age it is also a democratizing force, cutting across the barriers of caste and class, smoothing out inequalities imposed by birth and other circumstances,” she famously stated. She also entrusted a sense of duty in her two sons, Rajiv and Sanjay Gandhi, who both grew up to become politicians; Rajiv became Prime Minister of India after his mother was assassinated in 1984.

11. ANNE-MARIE SLAUGHTER

After working as a law professor and academic dean, Anne-Marie Slaughter (born 1958) was the first woman to serve as director of Policy Planning for the U.S. State Department. In 2012, she wrote a massively popular article for The Atlantic, called “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” She discussed her decision to leave her high-stress government job so she could be closer to home and take better care of her two teenage sons. Her article sparked a national discussion about how mothers balance work and home life, and how society and the workplace need to change to better facilitate mothers who work.

12. ELIZABETH CADY STANTON

Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815—1902) was a leader in the women’s suffrage and abolitionist movements, all while raising her seven children. She worked with Susan B. Anthony to establish the National Woman Suffrage Association, successfully helping to get women the right to vote via the 19th Amendment. In addition to writing articles and giving speeches on the topic of universal suffrage, Stanton supported education for girls, and her own daughters went to college at Vassar and Columbia.

13. DANA SUSKIND

Dr. Dana Suskind, a widowed mother of three, is a pediatric surgeon at the University of Chicago who founded the Thirty Million Words Initiative to encourage parents to talk frequently to their babies. Based on her research, she focuses on educating parents on the importance that speaking and interacting in the first three years of a child’s life has on that child's brain growth and development.

14. NANCY EDISON

The youngest of Nancy Edison’s seven kids was Thomas Alva Edison. Although some stories about his mother’s virtues were most likely exaggerated, we do know that rather than give up on his education, Nancy Edison decided to homeschool her son after his teacher deemed him "addled" (i.e. mentally ill or incompetent). Edison, who may just have been dyslexic in a time before that learning disorder was studied or understood, said of her: “My mother was the making of me. She was so true, so sure of me; and I felt I had something to live for, someone I must not disappoint.”

15. JULIE ANDREWS

Although you may know Dame Julie Andrews (born 1935) for her film roles as Mary Poppins and Maria Von Trapp (two surrogate-mothers of sorts for generations of children), she’s also an author. Andrews writes The Very Fairy Princess children’s book series with her daughter, Emma Walton Hamilton. Hamilton told Today that her mom was firm, protective, and despite her busy schedule, “very hands-on, always there making eggs at 5 o’ clock in the morning before we went to school.” Practically perfect in every way.

16. LOU XIAOYING

Lou Xioaying was a poor, uneducated woman who supported herself by scavenging through the trash in Jinhua, China, but starting in 1972, she adopted or rescued 30 babies she found in the trash. The chaos of the Cultural Revolution (and later China’s one-child policy), and extreme poverty, especially in rural areas, meant that some parents dumped their unwanted babies in the garbage. “These children need love and care. They are all precious human lives," Xioaying, who had one biological daughter at the time she began rescuing infants, told the press in 2012. "I do not understand how people can leave such a vulnerable baby on the streets.”

17. PRINCESS DIANA

Diana, Princess of Wales (1961—1997) used her status as a royal figure to work with charities that supported children’s hospitals and to raise awareness and combat landmines, which were a significant problem in the '90s. Years after her death in 1997—her sons were 15 and 12 years old when she died—her legacy remains one of humanitarianism. Her oldest, Prince William, notably became a royal patron of a Child Bereavement charity. Speaking about Mother’s Day, he said: “I too have felt and still feel the emptiness on such a day as Mother's Day.”

18. ERMA BOMBECK

Humor writer Erma Bombeck (1927—1996) wrote books and syndicated newspaper columns about life as a suburban housewife in the Midwest. Taking inspiration from her experiences with her adopted daughter and two biological sons, she told stories and made quips about housework that helped a generation of stay-at-home and newly working mothers find humor in the messiness of their lives. And as one might assume from her sharp-witted jokes, she brought her children up to be independent and passionate. “She liked people who were strong and held their own—she was a very big presence,” her daughter Betsy told People. "If you couldn't hold your own, she could roll over you."

19. THERESA KACHINDAMOTO

As a Malawi chieftain, Theresa Kachindamoto presides over nearly 900,000 Malawians. Because poor parents struggle to feed their children, Malawi has a high child marriage rate—one in two girls is married before age 18. Kachindamoto, who has put laws in place to break up approximately 850 child marriages, organizes meetings to speak to Malawians about the dangers of child marriages (including HIV) and the benefits of education for girls and boys. And although she's received backlash for telling families how to raise girls when she herself has five boys, she also works to end cultural sexual initiation rituals, in which a young girl’s parents pay an older man to “teach” her how to have sex, and she's trying to raise the legal age of marriage in the Dedza district of Malawi to 21.

20. ANGELINA JOLIE

Because of her humanitarian work supporting refugees and education, Oscar-winning actress Angelina Jolie has become as well-known for her charity work as she has for her film roles. Jolie first got involved with humanitarian work for refugees and people displaced because of conflict when she was filming Lara Croft: Tomb Raider in Cambodia in 2000. She adopted a son from the country, and eventually adopted children from Ethiopia and Vietnam as well (in addition to her three biological children with husband Brad Pitt). And though she has traveled to more than 30 countries in her role as a UN Goodwill Ambassador, Brad Pitt told The Wall Street Journal that when she has a day off, “the first thing she does is get up and take the kids out. This is the most important ‘to do’ of the day. No matter how tired she might be, she plans outings for each and all.”

21. MARY KAY ASH

Mary Kay Ash (1918—2001) was 45 years old when she founded Mary Kay Cosmetics in 1963, and it has since become a billion-dollar cosmetics company. As a single mom, she was working in sales at a home products company to support her three children, but she was repeatedly passed over for promotions, despite her being one of the top sales directors. Ash took those skills with her when she launched her namesake company, and she worked to give hundreds of thousands of women the opportunity to work as sales consultants on their own time, effectively becoming their own bosses.

22. MARY MAXWELL GATES

The mother of Bill Gates, Mary Maxwell Gates (1929—1994) served on the board of directors for corporations and nonprofit organizations in Seattle. She helped convince leaders at I.B.M. to hire Microsoft to create an operating system, and following that contract, Microsoft went on to achieve massive success. But more importantly, Gates encouraged her son to focus on philanthropy, and the effects of his success are now contributing to worldwide causes because of it. As of 2015, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has given billions of dollars to fight malaria, HIV, polio, and poor sanitation, and to improve opportunities for education.

23. ALBERTA KING

The mother of Martin Luther King, Jr., Alberta Williams King (1904—1974) played the organ and founded the choir at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, and she was also involved with women’s groups, the NAACP, and the YWCA. She set about to raise her three children with a healthy sense of self-respect and taught them that the segregation they saw every day was simply "a social condition rather than a natural order," as MLK Jr. wrote in his autobiography. "She made it clear that she opposed this system and that I must never allow it to make me feel inferior. … At this time Mother had no idea that the little boy in her arms would years later be involved in a struggle against the system she was speaking of." In 1974, six years after her son was assassinated in Memphis, Alberta King was shot and killed at her organ at her church.

24. JULIA WARD HOWE

In 1870, writer Julia Ward Howe (1819—1910, who is best known for writing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic") merged her interests in suffrage and pacifism by writing an “Appeal to Womanhood throughout the World.” Also called the “Mother’s Day Proclamation,” the appeal urged women to come together to support peace. Howe viewed women, who were the ones losing husbands and sons to war, as responsible for stopping war. Although she had six children, Howe made time to write essays and organize rallies for an annual Mother’s Day for Peace, planting the seeds of what would eventually become Mother’s Day.

25. ANN JARVIS

Ann Jarvis (1832—1905) inspired the movement that eventually made Mother’s Day into a national holiday. After most of her babies died of diseases—only four of her possibly 13 children survived to adulthood—she wanted to help other mothers. She organized Mother's Day Work Clubs in what is now West Virginia to help provide medical care, raise money for medicines, and improve sanitary conditions for poor mothers.

After her death, Jarvis’s daughter Anna Jarvis built off of the work of her mother by writing letters and giving speeches in support of Mother’s Day, and President Woodrow Wilson designated Mother’s Day as a national holiday in 1914. Ironically, Jarvis never became a mother herself, and she became horrified by how flower, chocolate, and greeting card companies exploited Mother’s Day for their own financial gain. Jarvis advocated boycotts of Mother’s Day and tried to sue companies that were commercializing the holiday. But the sentiment of appreciating mothers and all the work they do remained, even if the commercial aspect never disappeared.

All images courtesy of Getty Images unless noted otherwise.

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The Plucky Teenage Stowaway Aboard the First American Expedition to Antarctica
The Ohio State University Archives
The Ohio State University Archives

Documentary filmmaker and journalist Laurie Gwen Shapiro came across the name "William Gawronski" in 2013 while researching a story about Manhattan's St. Stanislaus, the oldest Polish Catholic church in the U.S. In 1930, more than 500 kids from the church had held a parade in honor of Billy Gawronski, who had just returned from two years aboard the first American expedition to Antarctica, helmed by naval officer Richard E. Byrd.

The teenager had joined the expedition in a most unusual way: by stowing aboard Byrd's ships the City of New York and the Eleanor Bolling not once, not twice, but four times total. He swam across the Hudson River to sneak onto the City of New York and hitchhiked all the way to Virginia to hide on the Eleanor Bolling.

"I thought, 'Wait, what?" Shapiro tells Mental Floss.

Intrigued by Billy's persistence and pluck, Shapiro dove into the public records and newspaper archives to learn more about him. She created an Excel spreadsheet of Gawronskis all along the East Coast and began cold-calling them.

"Imagine saying, 'Did you have an ancestor that jumped in the Hudson and stowed away to the Antarctic in 1928?'" Shapiro says. She got "a lot of hang-ups."

On the 19th call, to a Gawronski in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, an elderly woman with a Polish accent answered the phone. "That boy was my husband," Gizela Gawronski told her. Billy had died in 1981, leaving behind a treasure trove of mementos, including scrapbooks, notebooks, yearbooks, and hundreds of photos.

"I have everything," Gizela told Shapiro. "I was hoping someone would find me one day."

Three days later, Shapiro was in Maine poring over Billy's papers with Gizela, tears in her eyes.

These materials became the basis of Shapiro's new book The Stowaway: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica. It's a rollicking good read full of fascinating history and bold characters that takes readers from New York to Tahiti, New Zealand to Antarctica, and back to New York again. It's brimming with the snappy energy and open-minded optimism of the Jazz Age.

Shapiro spent six weeks in Antarctica herself to get a feel for Billy's experiences. "I wanted to reach the Ross Ice barrier like Billy did," she says.

Read on for an excerpt from chapter four.

***

As night dropped on September 15, Billy jumped out of his second-floor window and onto the garden, a fall softened by potatoes and cabbage plants and proudly photographed sunflowers. You would think that the boy had learned from his previous stowaway attempt to bring more food or a change of dry clothes. Not the case.

An overnight subway crossing into Brooklyn took him to the Tebo Yacht Basin in Gowanus. He made for the location he'd written down in his notes: Third Avenue and Twenty-Third Street.

In 1928 William Todd's Tebo Yacht Basin was a resting spot— the spot—for the yachts of the Atlantic seaboard's most aristocratic and prosperous residents. The swanky yard berthed more than fifty staggering prizes of the filthy rich. Railroad executive Cornelius Vanderbilt kept his yacht O-We-Ra here; John Vanneck, his Amphitrite. Here was also where to find Warrior, the largest private yacht afloat, owned by the wealthiest man in America, public utilities baron Harrison Williams; yeast king (and former mayor of Cincinnati) Julian Fleischman's $625,000 twin-screw diesel yacht, the Carmago; General Motors president Alfred P. Sloan's Rene; shoe scion H. W. Hanan's Dauntless; and J. P. Morgan's Corsair III. The Tebo Yacht Basin's clubroom served fish chowder luncheons to millionaires in leather-backed mission chairs.

Todd, a great friend of Byrd's, lavished attention on his super-connected pal with more contacts than dollars. He had provided major funding for Byrd's 1926 flight over the North Pole, and helped the commander locate and refit two of the four Antarctic expedition ships for $285,900, done at cost. Todd loved puffy articles about him as much as the next man, and press would help extract cash from the millionaires he actively pursued as new clients; helping out a famous friend might prove cheaper than the advertisements he placed in upmarket magazines. Throughout that summer, Byrd mentioned Todd's generous support frequently.

Two weeks after the City of New York set sail, the Chelsea, the supply ship of the expedition, was still docked at the Tebo workyard and not scheduled to depart until the middle of September. Smith's Dock Company in England had built the refurbished 170-foot, 800-ton iron freighter for the British Royal Navy at the tail end of the Great War. First christened patrol gunboat HMS Kilmarnock, her name was changed to the Chelsea during her post–Royal Navy rumrunning days.

Not long before she was scheduled to depart, Byrd announced via a press release that he was renaming this auxiliary ship, too, after his mother, Eleanor Bolling. But the name painted on the transom was Eleanor Boling, with one l—the painter's mistake. As distressing as this was (the name was his mother's, after all), Byrd felt a redo would be too expensive and a silly use of precious funds. Reporters and PR staff were simply instructed to always spell the name with two ls.

As Billy eyed the ship in dock days after his humiliation on board the New York, he realized here was another way to get to Antarctica. The old, rusty-sided cargo ship would likely be less guarded than the flagship had been.

As September dragged on, Billy, back in Bayside, stiffened his resolve. No one would think he'd try again! On September 15, once more he swam out during the night to board a vessel bound for Antarctica.

Since his visit two weeks prior, Billy had studied his news clippings and knew that the Bolling was captained by thirty-six-year-old Gustav L. Brown, who'd been promoted weeks earlier from first mate of the New York when Byrd added the fourth ship to his fleet. Billy liked what he read. According to those who sailed under Brown's command, this tall and slender veteran of the Great War was above all genteel, and far less crotchety than the New York's Captain Melville. Captain Brown's education went only as far as high school, and while he wasn't against college, he admired honest, down-to-earth workers. Like his colleague Captain Melville, Brown had begun a seafaring life at fourteen. He seemed just the sort of man to take a liking to a teenage stowaway with big dreams.

Alas, the crew of the second ship headed to Antarctica now knew to look for stowaways. In a less dramatic repeat of what had happened in Hoboken, an Eleanor Bolling seaman ousted Billy in the earliest hours of the morning. The kid had (unimaginatively) hidden for a second time in a locker under the lower forecastle filled with mops and bolts and plumbing supplies. The sailor brought him to Captain Brown, who was well named, as he was a man with a mass of brown hair and warm brown eyes. The kind captain smiled at Billy and praised the cheeky boy's gumption—his Swedish accent still heavy even though he'd made Philadelphia his home since 1920—yet Billy was escorted off to the dock and told to scram.

A few hours later, still under the cover of night, Billy stole back on board and was routed out a third time, again from the “paint locker.”

A third time? The Bolling's third in command, Lieutenant Harry Adams, took notes on the gutsy kid who had to be good material for the lucrative book he secretly hoped to pen. Most of the major players would score book deals after the expedition; the public was eager for adventure, or at least so publishers thought. The catch was that any deal had to be approved by Byrd: to expose any discord was to risk powerful support. Adams's book, Beyond the Barrier with Byrd: An Authentic Story of the Byrd Antarctic Exploring Expedition, was among the best: more character study than thriller, his grand sense of humor evident in his selection of anecdotes that the others deemed too lightweight to include.

Billy was not the only stowaway that September day. Also aboard was a girl Adams called Sunshine, the "darling of the expedition," a flirt who offered to anyone who asked that she wanted to be the first lady in Antarctica. (In the restless era between world wars, when movies gave everyone big dreams, even girl stowaways were not uncommon.) Brown told a reporter that Sunshine had less noble aspirations, and soon she, too, was removed from the Bolling, but not before she gave each crew member a theatrical kiss.

As the early sun rose, Captain Brown called Billy over to him from the yacht yard's holding area where he had been asked to wait with the giggling Sunshine until his father arrived. The captain admired Billy's gumption, but it was time for the seventeen-year-old to go now and not waste any more of anyone's time.

As Lieutenant Adams recorded later, "Perhaps this matter of getting rid of Bill was entered up in the Eleanor Bolling log as the first scientific achievement of the Byrd Antarctic expedition."

*** 

From THE STOWAWAY: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Copyright © 2018 by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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Art Lovers in England, Rejoice: France's Famous Bayeux Tapestry is Coming to the UK
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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One of France’s most prized national treasures, the Bayeux Tapestry, is officially heading to England for exhibition. The loan will mark the first time the fragile 11th century work has left France in nearly 1000 years, according to The Washington Post.

French president Emmanuel Macron announced news of the loan in mid-January, viewed by some as a gesture to smooth post-Brexit relations with Britain, ABC reports. The tapestry depicts the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, a historically important event replete with guts and glory.

Stretching for 210 feet, the Bayeux Tapestry’s nine embroidered panels tell the tale of Harold, Earl of Wessex, who swore an oath to support the right of William, Duke of Normandy, to the English throne once King Edward (a.k.a. Edward the Confessor) died without an heir. But after Edward's funeral at Westminster Abbey, Harold breaks his oath to William so he could be crowned king instead. Believing he was the rightful ruler, William—today remembered as William the Conqueror—decides to wage war and ultimately defeats Harold at the Battle of Hastings.

The historical narrative has endured for centuries, but the tapestry's provenance has been lost to time. Experts think that the artwork may have been created in England, shortly after the Battle of Hastings, although it’s unclear who designed and embroidered the scenes. Its original owner, Bishop Odo of Bayeux, the half-brother of William the Conqueror, may have commissioned the Bayeux Tapestry. He became Earl of Kent after the Battle of Hastings, and this new title would have afforded him access to skilled artisans, The Guardian explains.

The Bayeux Tapestry is currently on display in the town of Bayeux in Normandy. It likely won’t leave France until 2020, after conservators ensure that it’s safe to move the artwork. According to The Telegraph, the tapestry might be be displayed at the British Museum in 2022.

[h/t The Washington Post]

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