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10 Ways Art Museums Protect Their Masterpieces

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Each year, in America alone, millions of people visit art museums—bringing with them millions of opportunities to damage the masterpieces they’re there to see.  Whether intentional or not, caused by humans, forces of nature, or simply the passage of time, there’s always the chance that the world’s greatest masterpieces can be lost or damaged when put on view for all the world to see. Here is just a taste of the many ways art museums around the globe protect their priceless treasures.

1. FLOOD WALLS

When plans were announced for the multimillion dollar relocation and construction of New York City's Whitney Museum of American Art, courtesy of renowned architect Renzo Piano, mastery in design was to be expected. But then Superstorm Sandy hit in 2012, and while in the midst of construction, Piano was compelled to innovate even further. When the construction site was flooded with more than 5 million gallons of water, the building plans changed, adding a state-of-the-art flood wall to fend off future disasters and protect its works from potential water damage from flooding of the nearby Hudson River. Now, the museum boasts a fortification comprised of a 500-foot-long mobile wall and a 14-foot-tall by 27-foot-long flood door meant to withstand up to nearly 7000 pounds of impact, keeping the museum water-tight up to 16.5 feet (seven feet higher than before Sandy). With climate change making intense storms more common on the East Coast, these precautions make sure the Whitney’s masterpieces—which include more than 18,000 works in their permanent collection alone—stay high and dry against the forces of Mother Nature.

2. PROJECTIONS

In 1962, five murals by American master Mark Rothko were given to Harvard University as a gift from the artist himself. (Rothko refused to accept any payment, saying, “This is the first time I have been able to deliver commissioned work that I am satisfied with.”) The murals were to be hung in a dining hall, which underwent extensive preparation in order to fit Rothko’s specifications. New lighting was installed, the oak-paneled walls were covered in green material, and, in a retrospectively regrettable move, Rothko insisted that the public be allowed as much access to the art as possible. Somewhat predictably for a college dining hall, it didn't take long for the paintings to fall into disrepair: The curtains in the sunny hall were rarely closed, so the paintings’ colors faded rapidly. They were scratched and dented by years of rearranging furniture. College students spilled food and drinks on the paintings, sometimes even tagging them with small bits of graffiti, leading university officials to put the murals into storage in 1979. The damage would have been bad enough, but attempts to restore the paintings brought their own hurdles. Conventional restoration methods were a no-go due to Rothko’s trademark use of natural materials like eggs and animal glue mixed with pigment. Whereas conventional restoration would add layers of removable paint and varnish—removable so that they can be stripped and replaced with newer, better methods as they come along—any attempts to add paint to the Rothkos would be irreversible, as another one of the artist’s trademarks was to never use varnish. And so, restoration efforts followed the lead of Raymond Lafontaine, whose study "Seeing Through a Yellow Varnish: A Compensating Illumination System" described the use of slide projectors to illuminate paint in such a way as to offset discoloration in old paintings. Using both an undamaged Rothko and some restored 1960s photographs, MIT Media Lab associate professor Ramesh Raskar created an algorithm that allowed him to find the perfect color match to be projected digitally onto the paintings, pixel by pixel, while simultaneously restoring the murals to their former glory yet leaving them untouched.

3. SPECIAL GLASS


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Glass plays a huge role in protecting pieces of art: Not only does it ward off finger smudges from prying hands, but it also can protect pieces from harmful UV rays, which can cause fading in paintings as well as on furniture, sculptures, or manuscripts. While you may think protective glass lives only directly in front of a piece of art, a museum’s first line of defense against UV rays is often in its windows, which are treated with a special UV-blocking coating—though many museums opt to avoid having windows near their art at all. “The only windows we have near exhibition areas are in the clerestory overlooking the lobby, and those windows are UV-filtered,” Amie Geremia of the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville told Glass Magazine, adding, “You can see damage after a single day in the sun.”

4. VIBRATION SENSORS

Vibration sensors can detect even the lightest pressure from curious fingers. Once triggered, the sensor sends a message to a control room, alerting security where the damage is taking place, along with a picture of the art in danger. Such sensors are often placed in several areas around a piece and can be customized so that the alarm sounds after a single touch, or after several vibrations in a row. “This is particularly useful in a museum when a large number of people are around because frequent vibrations are coming from the floor or small children," Andy Moon, technical director of Advanced Perimeter Systems told a&s Magazine. "You do not want to set off an alarm when that happens." Vibration sensors, also known as seismic sensors, are usually attached to a painting’s frame—unless the frame is worth more than the painting itself, as is the case more often than you’d think. In these cases, “What the museum does is to make a false wall by putting some wood in front of the normal wall," Moon explained. "The painting is hung on the wall. Then, around the edge, we put a sensor cable. If someone touches the painting, it signals an alarm.”

5. INTERACTIVE EXHIBITS

For gallery guests who are just itching for physical contact with art, some museums provide a separate outlet. For example, the Bowes Museum in England's Barnard Castle offers an interactive exhibit where guests are actually encouraged to touch various materials and pieces. This allows guests the hands-on experience they crave, and provides a lesson in art’s fragility—provided, of course, that they remember that lesson after stepping into the more prohibitive exhibits. Sometimes interactive exhibits have the opposite of the intended effect: When the National Museum of Wales opened its Centre Court in 1993, it eschewed barriers entirely, intending to allow as much physical access to the art as possible. Alas, within just a few days, one of the largest pieces in the collection—Michael Andrews's The Cathedral, The Southern Faces/Uluru (Ayers Rock)—was so spotted with children’s fingerprints that it had to be completely sealed off from the public.

6. LED LIGHTS


By Diego Delso, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

When Vincent van Gogh painted his famous Sunflowers series in 1888/1889, viewers were awed by the bright yellow flowers produced by the artist's use of the pigment lead chromate, also known as chrome yellow. However, it was soon widely discovered that chrome yellow darkens significantly under light exposure—to such an extent that artists soon stopped painting with that particular pigment altogether. Fast forward a century or so, and art museums are still working to restore van Gogh's Sunflowers paintings to their original vibrancy. In general, the way a painting is lit can have a huge impact on the preservation of its colors. For example, UV lights are pretty much bad all-around for paintings. For years, museums have combated UV damage by putting filters over their regular incandescent bulbs so that the UV rays can’t reach paintings. In recent years, though, the push toward more energy-efficient LED lights has had a bonus benefit for the art it illuminates: LED lights give off hardly any UV rays at all, so the art is more protected from light damage. The only problem is that LED lights don’t light a painting as prettily as their incandescent predecessors, so the LEDs have to be specially engineered to give off the same type of light, just without the harmful UV rays. Basically, every single-color LED light comes with a layer of phosphors, or a collection of metals that absorb that color of light. So, by tinkering with the phosphors on LED lights, museum conservators are able to adjust the light’s tint to more closely resemble that of the old incandescent bulbs. While LEDs greatly reduce the damage done to paintings, enough of any lighting can be harmful to older art, which is why more and more museums are pushing toward dimmer galleries—allowing you to take in the art in front of you, but not so much the museum-goer next to you.

7. INVENTORY NUMBERS

Many museums keep an intricate catalog of inventory numbers that logs and identifies each piece in a collection, from its name, history, and location, all the way down to the thread count of its canvas. Not only does this aid in the organization of pieces, but it also helps track down art in the event of a burglary, according to Steven R. Keller, security consultant and former executive director of protection services at The Art Institute of Chicago. "In the event of a theft, you'll sometimes get 20 different calls from people claiming to have the piece and willing to return it for a price, “ Keller told security news site CSO. "In one case, we leaked the wrong numbers on purpose to sort out the phony extortionists from the real one. Finally, someone called and said, 'You've got the wrong serial number.' We knew we had our guy." 

8. DISPLAYING THE DAMAGE

Once damage has been done to a piece of art, it can sometimes be difficult to raise the funds necessary for restoration. The Leopold Museum in Vienna, Austria, found an unconventional solution to this problem when it created a collection exclusively for the display of damaged art. The collection, called "Hidden Treasures," debuted in early 2016 and provided a home for nearly 200 pieces of art that would have otherwise remained locked up in storage. “When I took on my role [in October 2015], one of the first things I did was to visit the museum’s storage,” museum director Hans-Peter Wipplinger told the AFP. "I discovered a number of works worthy of being exhibited, but that were too damaged.” The exhibition allowed visitors access to works like Robert Russ’s 1885 “Mill with Evening Sky,” a little worse for the wear with some tears in its canvas, though still of significant artistic and historical value. "Other museums often ask to borrow them, but they first have to be restored to survive the journey,” Wipplinger explained. The cost to restore such pieces is often thousands of dollars, so the Leopold displayed its damaged art with the hope that some especially generous art lovers would want to help pay the cost to repair them, and would receive an identifying plaque next to the piece of art they helped to restore as a thank you for their generosity. But "Hidden Treasures" was more than a fundraising effort. "It’s also about showing the public all the work and technical know-how required to present a piece in mint condition," added Wipplinger.

9. MOTION DETECTION


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“Thieves usually don’t slither past detectors during museum heists,” explains Museum Security: The Art of Alarms, dispelling the popular action movie myth. “They pay their six bucks, walk in as members of the public, stay behind after closing by hiding behind the draperies or under a bench, and smash the window to get out.” Many art heists might be fairly low-tech, but that doesn’t mean the protection against them has to be. Ever absentmindedly gotten a little too close to a painting and heard a loud chirping noise go off? That was a motion detector beamed directly over a painting. Such detection systems are also beamed over entrances and exits—even sneaky ones like windows and air ducts—to alert security personnel to after-hours intruders. But what about those aforementioned stragglers, who intentionally lag behind a group in the hopes of avoiding detection from sensors? That’s where saturation motion detection comes in. Rather than only watching spots in a room associated with ingress and egress, saturation motion detectors do exactly that: saturate a room with motion detection. This helps detect any thief or vandal trying to sidestep “dead zones,” or areas not covered by traditional detection systems, allowing security to keep tabs on anyone who steps into an art exhibit at any given time.

10. KID BANS

In January 2014, a photo surfaced of children climbing on Donald Judd's “stacks” sculptures at London’s Tate Modern as their parents looked on. Not to be outdone, in August 2015, a young boy tripped and tore a hole through a 17th-century Paolo Porpora painting called “Flowers” on display at an art exhibition in Taiwan, estimated to be worth about $1.5 million. In the case of the former incident, the stealthily-captured photo was tweeted by another patron alongside the caption: “Holy crap. Horrible kids, horrible parents.” “I was shocked," another passerby reported to the London Evening Standard. "I said to the parents I didn’t think their kids should be playing on a $10 million artwork. The woman turned around and told me I didn’t know anything about kids and said she was sorry if I ever had any." Such incidents shed light onto what many museum patrons think of the presence of children at museums that may be well above their sophistication level. In a 2014 point-counterpoint with The Telegraph, critic Ivan Hewitt blamed a misinterpreted Victorian ideal as the culprit for rampant children in gallery spaces: “Many people seriously hold the view that making children conform to the adult quiet of museums is a form of child abuse, which should be subverted at every turn ... The irony is that at the root of this solicitousness lies a very Victorian idea, which is that children must be initiated into the glories of high culture, and not kept away. The problem is that this good idea has become confused with a very bad one. This is the notion that high culture must be brought down to the kids’ level.” Dea Birkett, creative director of Kids in Museums, a London-based organization dedicated to making museums family-friendly places, countered that the condemnation of children in museums would be a condemnation of art in general—at least, the reaction that it’s meant to incite in humans, big and small. "It’s not really children that any of these finger-waggers want to ban. It's joy," Birkett said. "For it isn’t contempt (as Hewett claims) that early exposure to great art breeds, but passion. We should be thrilled when even young children respond so enthusiastically to a Rubens or a Richard Long. Isn’t this exactly what we want?”

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25 Things You Might Not Know About Home Alone
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On November 16, 1990, what appeared to be a fun-filled little family yarn about a kid left to his own devices at Christmastime and forced to fend off a couple of bungling burglars, became an instant classic. Today, no holiday movie marathon is complete without a viewing of Home Alone, the movie that turned Macaulay Culkin into one of the biggest kid stars of all time. And while you may be able to recite its dialogue line for line, here are 25 things you might not know about the John Hughes-penned picture. So settle in and enjoy, ya filthy animals. 

1. WITHOUT UNCLE BUCK, THERE’D BE NO HOME ALONE.

The idea for Home Alone occurred to John Hughes during the making of Uncle Buck, which also starred Macaulay Culkin. Always game to play the precocious one, there’s a scene in which Culkin’s character interrogates a potential babysitter through a mail slot. In Home Alone, Culkin has a similar confrontation with Daniel Stern, this time via a doggie door.

2. THE ROLE OF KEVIN WAS WRITTEN SPECIFICALLY FOR MACAULAY CULKIN.

But that didn't stop director Chris Columbus from auditioning more than 100 other rascally pre-teens for the part. Which really was all for naught, as Culkin nailed the role.

3. MACAULAY WASN’T THE ONLY CULKIN TO APPEAR IN THE FILM.


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Macaulay;'s younger brother Kieran also landed a part as Kevin’s bed-wetting cousin, Fuller. Though the film marked Kieran’s acting debut, he has since gone on to build an impressive career for himself in movies like The Cider House Rules, Igby Goes Down, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

4. CASTING CULKIN TAUGHT CHRIS COLUMBUS A VERY IMPORTANT LESSON.

Since Home Alone, Columbus (who also wrote the scripts for Gremlins and The Goonies) has gone on to become one of Hollywood’s premier family-friendly moviemakers as the director of Home Alone 2, Mrs. Doubtfire, and two movies in the Harry Potter franchise. But one lesson he learned from Home Alone is that when you agree to work with a kid actor, you’re also agreeing to work with his or her family.

“I was much younger and I was really too naive to think about the family environment as well,” Columbus told The Guardian in 2013. “We didn't know that much about the family at the beginning; as we were shooting, we learned a little more. The stories are hair-raising. I was casting a kid who truly had a troubled family life.” In 1995, Culkin’s parents, who were never married, engaged in a very public—and nasty—legal battle over his fortune. 

5. THE FILM IS A GUINNESS WORLD RECORD HOLDER.

In its opening weekend, Home Alone topped the box office, making $17,081,997 in 1202 theaters. The movie maintained its number one spot for a full 12 weeks and remained in the top 10 until June of the following year. It became the highest grossing film of 1990 and earned a Guinness World Record as the highest-grossing live-action comedy ever domestically.

6. THE MOVIE’S UNPRECEDENTED SUCCESS LED TO ITS TITLE BECOMING A VERB.


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In his book The Big Picture: Who Killed Hollywood? And Other Essays, two-time Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman admitted that the unexpected success of Home Alone contributed a new phrase to the Hollywood lexicon: to be Home Aloned, meaning that other films suffered at the box office because of Home Alone’s long and successful run. “More than one executive said to me, ‘My picture did 40, but it would have done 50 if it hadn’t been Home Aloned,’” wrote Goldman.

7. IT SPAWNED MORE THAN A SEQUEL.

While all of the main, original cast members reprised their roles for Home Alone 2: Lost In New York (with Columbus again directing a script by Hughes), the success of the original led to a full-on franchise, complete with four sequels, three video games, two board games, a novelization, and other kid-friendly merchandise (including the Talkboy). 

8. POLAND LOVES THE MCCALLISTERS.

Showings of Home Alone have become a Christmas tradition in Poland, where the film has aired on national television since the early 1990s. And its popularity has only increased. In 2011 more than five million people tuned in to watch it, making it the most watched show to air during the season. 

9. THE MCCALLISTER HOME HAS BECOME A MAJOR TOURIST ATTRACTION.


A Syn via Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Located at 671 Lincoln Avenue in Winnetka, Illinois, the kitchen, main staircase, and ground-floor landing seen in the film were all shot in this five-bedroom residence. (The dining room and all other first-floor rooms, with the exception of the kitchen, were shot on a soundstage.) In 2012, John and Cynthia Abendshien, who owned the home when it was used as one of the film’s locations, sold the property for $1.585 million.

10. KEVIN’S TREE HOUSE WAS NOT PART OF THE DEAL.

Kevin’s backyard tree house was not originally part of the property. It was constructed specifically for the movie and demolished once filming ended. 

11. ALL OF THE FILM WAS SHOT IN THE CHICAGO AREA.

Though the main plot point is that that McCallister family is in Paris while Kevin’s back home in Illinois, the production was shot entirely within the Chicago area. The scenes supposedly set at Paris-Orly Airport were shot at O’Hare International Airport. And those luxurious business class seats they’re taking to Paris? Those were built on the basketball court of a local high school—the same school where the scene in which Kevin is running through a flooded basement was filmed (the “basement” in question was actually the school’s swimming pool). 

12. ROBERT DE NIRO TURNED DOWN THE ROLE OF HARRY LIME.


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As did Jon Lovitz. Then Joe Pesci swept in and made the part his own. Bonus fun fact: The character is a slight homage to Orson Welles. (It was the name of Welles’ character in Carol Reed’s The Third Man.) 

13. JOE PESCI GOT ALL METHOD ON MACAULAY CULKIN.

In order to get the most authentic performance possible, Joe Pesci did his best to avoid Macaulay Culkin on the set so that the young actor would indeed be afraid of him. And no one would blame the young actor for being a bit petrified, as he still bears the physical scar from one accidental altercation. “In the first Home Alone, they hung me up on a coat hook, and Pesci says, ‘I’m gonna bite all your fingers off, one at a time,’” Culkin recalled to Rule Forty Two. “And during one of the rehearsals, he bit me, and it broke the skin.” 

14. PESCI WASN’T USED TO THE WHOLE “FAMILY-FRIENDLY” THING.

Considering that Pesci’s best known for playing the heavy in movies like Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and Casino, it’s understandable that he wasn’t quite used to the whole family-friendly atmosphere on the set of Home Alone—and dropped a few f-bombs as a result of that. Columbus tried to curb Pesci’s four-letter-word tendency by suggesting he use the word “fridge” instead. 

15. DANIEL STERN HAD A FOUR-LETTER WORD SLIP-UP, TOO.


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And it wasn’t cut out of the film. He utters the word “s***” when attempting to retrieve his shoe through the doggie door (look for it at the 55:27 mark on the DVD). 

16. IN REAL LIFE, HARRY AND MARV MAY NOT HAVE SURVIVED KEVIN’S ATTACK.

BB gun shots to the forehead and groin? A steaming hot iron and can of paint to the face? A flaming blowtorch to the scalp? The Wet Bandits endure an awful lot of violence at the hands of a single eight-year-old. So much so that neither one of them should have been walking—let alone conscious—by the end of the night. In 2012, Dr. Ryan St. Clair diagnosed the likely outcome of their injuries at The Week. While a read-through of the entire article is well worth your time, here are a few of the highlights: That iron should have caused a “blowout fracture,” leading to “serious disfigurement and debilitating double vision if not repaired properly.” And the blowtorch? According to Dr. St. Clair, “The skin and bone tissue on Harry's skull will be so damaged and rotted that his skull bone is essentially dying and will likely require a transplant.” 

17. THE ORNAMENTS THAT MARV STEPS ON WOULD CAUSE THE LEAST AMOUNT OF DAMAGE.

"Walking on ornaments seems pretty insignificant compared to everything else we've seen so far,” said Dr. St. Clair. “If I was Marv, I'd be more concerned about my facial fractures.” Fortunately, the "glass" ornaments in question were actually made of candy. (But just to be on the safe side, Stern wore rubber feet for his barefoot scenes.)

18. THE TARANTULA ON STERN’S FACE? YEP, THAT WAS REAL.


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At one point, Kevin places a tarantula on Marv’s face. And it was indeed a real spider (Daniel Stern agreed to let it happen—but he’d only allow for one take). What wasn’t real? That blood-curdling scream. In order to not frighten the spider, Stern had to mime the scream and have the sound dubbed in later.

19. JOHN CANDY WRAPPED IN ONE DAY.

But what a long day it was: Twenty-three hours to be exact. Candy was a regular in many of John Hughes’ movies, and Gus Polinski—the polka-playing nice guy he plays in Home Alone—was inspired by his character in Planes, Trains & Automobiles. 

20. KEVIN’S OLDER SISTER IS A JUDO CHAMP.

Two years after appearing in Home Alone, Hillary Wolf—who played Kevin’s older sister Megan—landed the lead in Joan Micklin Silver’s Big Girls Don’t Cry… They Get Even. She also appeared in Home Alone 2, but hasn’t been seen on the big screen since. But there’s a good reason for her absence: In 1996 and 2000, she was a member of the Summer Olympic Judo team for the U.S. 

21. DON’T BOTHER TRYING TO FIND ANGELS WITH FILTHY SOULS.

The Jimmy Cagney-like gangster movie that Kevin channels as his inspiration throughout Home Alone? Don’t bother searching for it on eBay. It’s not real. Nor is its sequel, Angels With Even Filthier Souls, which is featured in Home Alone 2. 

22. OLD MAN MARLEY WASN'T IN THE ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY.

Kevin’s allegedly scary neighbor, who eventually teaches him the importance of family, wasn’t a character in the original script. He was added at the suggestion of Columbus, who thought the film could do with a stronger dose of sentimentality.

23. THE LYRIC OPERA OF CHICAGO BENEFITED FROM THE MOVIE’S SNOWFALL.

When filming of Home Alone wrapped, the production donated some of the artificial snow they had created (the stuff made from wax and plastic) to the Lyric Opera of Chicago. It has since been used in a number of their productions.

24. MARV WAS SUPPOSED TO HAVE GOTTEN A SPINOFF.

Greg Beeman’s 1995 film Bushwhacked, which stars Daniel Stern as a delivery guy on the run after being framed for murder, was originally intended to be a spinoff of Home Alone. The storyline would have been essentially the same: after giving up a life of crime, Marv would have been framed for the same murder.

25. IF YOU BELIEVE THAT ELVIS IS STILL ALIVE, THEN YOU MIGHT BELIEVE THAT HE IS IN HOME ALONE.

No hit movie would be complete without a great little conspiracy theory. And in the case of Home Alone, it’s that Elvis Presley—who (allegedly?) died in 1977—makes a cameo in the film. Yes, that’s right. The King is alive and well. And making a living as a Hollywood extra.

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5 Things You Should Know About Chinua Achebe
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Often referred to as the “father of African literature,” author Chinua Achebe was born in Ogidi, Nigeria on this day in 1930. Though he passed away in 2013, Google is celebrating what would be his 87th birthday with a Google Doodle. Here are five things you should know about the award-winning writer.

1. HE HAD PLANNED TO BE A DOCTOR.

Though he was always an avid reader and began learning English at the age of eight, Chinua Achebe hadn’t always planned to become a beacon of the literary world. After studying at Nigeria’s prestigious Government College (poet Christopher Okigbo was one of his classmates), Achebe earned a scholarship to study medicine at University College in lbadan. One year into the program he realized that writing was his true calling and switched majors, which meant giving up his scholarship. With financial help from his brother, Achebe was able to complete his studies.

2. JOYCE CARY’S MISTER JOHNSON INSPIRED HIM TO WRITE, BUT NOT IN THE WAY YOU MIGHT THINK.

While storytelling had long been a part of Achebe’s Igbo upbringing in Nigeria, that was only part of what inspired him to write. While in college, he read Mister Johnson, Irish writer Joyce Cary’s tragicomic novel about a young Nigerian clerk whose happy-go-lucky demeanor infects everyone around him. While TIME Magazine declared it the “best book ever written about Africa,” Achebe disagreed.

“My problem with Joyce Cary’s book was not simply his infuriating principal character, Johnson,” Achebe wrote in Home and Exile. “More importantly, there is a certain undertow of uncharitableness just below the surface on which his narrative moves and from where, at the slightest chance, a contagion of distaste, hatred, and mockery breaks through to poison his tale.” The book led Achebe to realize that “there is such a thing as absolute power over narrative,” and he was inspired to take control of it to tell a more realistic tale of his home.

3. HE DIDN’T THINK THAT WRITING COULD BE TAUGHT.

Though he studied writing, Achebe wasn’t all too sure that he learned much about the art in college. In an interview with The Paris Review, he recalled how the best piece of advice he had ever gotten was from one of his professors, James Welch, who told him, “We may not be able to teach you what you need or what you want. We can only teach you what we know.”

I thought that was wonderful. That was really the best education I had. I didn’t learn anything there that I really needed, except this kind of attitude. I have had to go out on my own. The English department was a very good example of what I mean. The people there would have laughed at the idea that any of us would become a writer. That didn’t really cross their minds. I remember on one occasion a departmental prize was offered. They put up a notice—write a short story over the long vacation for the departmental prize. I’d never written a short story before, but when I got home, I thought, Well, why not. So I wrote one and submitted it. Months passed; then finally one day there was a notice on the board announcing the result. It said that no prize was awarded because no entry was up to the standard. They named me, said that my story deserved mention. Ibadan in those days was not a dance you danced with snuff in one palm. It was a dance you danced with all your body. So when Ibadan said you deserved mention, that was very high praise.

I went to the lecturer who had organized the prize and said, You said my story wasn’t really good enough but it was interesting. Now what was wrong with it? She said, Well, it’s the form. It’s the wrong form. So I said, Ah, can you tell me about this? She said, Yes, but not now. I’m going to play tennis; we’ll talk about it. Remind me later, and I’ll tell you. This went on for a whole term. Every day when I saw her, I’d say, Can we talk about form? She’d say, No, not now. We’ll talk about it later. Then at the very end she saw me and said, You know, I looked at your story again and actually there’s nothing wrong with it. So that was it! That was all I learned from the English department about writing short stories. You really have to go out on your own and do it.

4. HE WAS WARY OF MACHINES.

Though typewriters, followed by computers, were ubiquitous, Achebe preferred a “very primitive” approach. “I write with a pen,” he told The Paris Review. “A pen on paper is the ideal way for me. I am not really very comfortable with machines; I never learned to type very well. Whenever I try to do anything on a typewriter, it’s like having this machine between me and the words; what comes out is not quite what would come out if I were scribbling. For one thing, I don’t like to see mistakes on the typewriter. I like a perfect script. On the typewriter I will sometimes leave a phrase that is not right, not what I want, simply because to change it would be a bit messy. So when I look at all this … I am a preindustrial man.”

5. HIS DEBUT NOVEL REMAINS ONE OF THE MOST TAUGHT PIECES OF AFRICAN LITERATURE.

Achebe’s status as the “father of African literature” is no joke, and it’s largely due to his debut novel, Things Fall Apart. Published in 1958, the book—which follows the life of Okonkwo, an Igbo leader and wrestling champion—has gone on to sell more than 10 million copies and has been translated into 50 different languages. Even today, nearly 60 years after its original publication, it remains one of the most taught and dissected novels about Africa.

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