Joining the Boys Club: Cindy Whitehead and Skateboarding

Editor’s note: This post is by Natalie Scavuzzo, an intern in the National Museum of American History’s Office of Public Affairs. Natalie is a junior at the College of William and Mary majoring in Film and Media Studies.

One of the highlights of my time interning at the National Museum of American History was the opportunity to help work on the Lemelson Center’s Innoskate event, where I met Cindy Whitehead. Cindy hails from southern California and has been active in the male-dominated pro vert skateboarding circuit since the 1970s. Cindy is one of the only women ever to be featured riding vert in the centerfold of a skateboarding magazine and, following her skateboarding career, has been working professionally as a self-proclaimed “Sports Stylist.”

Cindy Whitehead skating vert in the 1970s.

Photo courtesy of Cindy Whitehead.

Cindy Whitehead speaks at Innoskate.

Cindy speaks at Innoskate about skate fashion. Smithsonian photo by Tyrone Clemons.

After meeting Cindy in person at Innoskate 2013, I asked her about her unique skateboarding and career experience.

How did you get into skating?
I grew up in a beach community in southern California. A lot of people surfed and, eventually, skateboarding became popular. I’d go to the beach with friends to hang out and cruise and do tricks. My favorite parts of skateboarding were being with my friends, being outside, and enjoying that freedom. Just being able to push off and seeing where you end up.

Did you ever feel like the skating scene you joined in on was a “boys club”?
Well, we were always jumping in and joining the boys club whether or not we were invited or not! The boys were always welcoming and couldn’t have been nicer or more excited for us to participate. More girls should join up!

There are people out there in the world that sometimes do not believe that girls belong in certain things, like sports or upper level management. That is just a very, very antiquated way of thinking.

Are there any organizations pushing for girls to get out there and skate?
Yes. There’s plenty—my own Girl is Not a 4 Letter Word, Skateistan, Long Boarding for Peace, there’s so many out there. More girls skate abroad than skate here. Skateboarding gives skaters a lot of freedom and girls are finding out what boys have known all along. Skateboarding gives them somewhere to go, to hang out, to do a sport, and go outside.

Do you have any words of wisdom for girls looking to start skating?
Some people don’t think you belong, but the majority of people think you do. Believe. Go out there and do what you want do and push ahead. It’s fine, there will always be a few naysayers in anything you decide to do.

What does it mean to be included in the Smithsonian?
We’re all still talking about it, still amazed that we’ve been embraced—it’s an honor. To be honored here alongside the guys, it’s an amazing thing.

Skateboarding clothes donated to the national sports collection.

Objects donated from Cindy to the national sports collection. Photo from Cindy’s Instagram (@SportsStylist).

I believe Cindy is a great example of a woman who proves that you don’t need permission from “the guys” to achieve success. By staying true to herself, Cindy is a trailblazer for female skateboarders and women in general.

Interning at Innoskate

Editor’s Note: This post is by Joel Pelovitz, an intern working on the Innoskate and Places of Invention projects. Joel is a recent graduate from Muhlenberg College with a degree in history and business. 

As a returning intern this summer, I had the pleasure of aiding in the preparation and materialization of the museum’s first ever Innoskate event, which occurred Friday, June 21, and Saturday, June 22. By gathering together some of the world’s most pivotal and influential skateboarding icons—both riders and industry gurus—the Center hoped to gain valuable insight into key innovative strides in technology, skating technique, and cultural impact/adaptations since the sport’s inception. What resulted was a captivating and thought-provoking experience that drew crowds of all generations and backgrounds. The participants—a group consisting of skaters, including famed skaters Tony Hawk and Rodney Mullen; designers; media personalities; and engineers—donated their skateboarding history to the National Museum of American History’s collections, held discussion panels on invention, and gave skateboarding demonstrations on a ramp built specifically for the event!

Donors to the national collections included Robin Logan, Mimi Knoop, Laura Thornhill Caswell, Patti McGee, Di Dootson Rose, and Cindy Whitehead.

Donors to the national collections included Robin Logan, Mimi Knoop, Laura Thornhill Caswell, Patti McGee, Di Dootson Rose, and Cindy Whitehead.

Rodney Mullen and Tony Hawk talk about their inventive process during one of our panels.

Rodney Mullen and Tony Hawk talk about their inventive process during one of our panels.

Chris Haslam was one of the many pro skateboarders who showed off their skills on the ramp we constructed outside of the Museum.

Chris Haslam was one of the many pro skateboarders who showed off their skills on the ramp we constructed outside of the Museum.

Traditionally, skateboarding has not been considered academic and is often negatively represented in conservative culture as a result of its association to punk movements. The nature of the event—a supercharged fusion between scholarly inquiry and heart-pounding visual display—allowed for the participants to be accurately represented as inventive minds by sharing their collective knowledge and experiences. As a former skateboarder, Innoskate intertwined my interests for history and skateboarding, creating new perspectives that I had never before considered! My involvement has also evoked further interest into the themes of progress and ingenuity that skateboarding embodies. As for the participants, I have never met a more compassionate, down-to-earth, and appreciative group of people. For the future, I hope that this event not only helped the public reevaluate skateboarding as a constructive endeavor, but also compels us to recognize and appreciate the creative qualities that exist everywhere, especially those beyond our conventional perceptions.

Intern Perspective: A Summer of Real Work

Kevin Borow spent the summer as a Lemelson Center video intern. He is currently a junior at American University.

Kevin behind the camera.

The Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation: “Such a long name,” I thought, when reading the list of internships offered through American University’s School of Communication’s Dean’s internship program. Little did I know, such a big name translates into big things going on here at the National Museum of American History. For an office that is planning its own exhibition in the Museum (set to open in 2015), runs a program inspiring young people to invent and innovate, and has published several books (look for another to be published in September), all the while coordinating interns and fellows to conduct research, one would never fathom this office consists of about 15 people.

The employees of the Lemelson Center are a unique group. Educated in fields from history to new media, they are a huge contributor to the Smithsonian and the National Museum of American History. And for the summer of 2012, I was able to count myself as one of them.

Kevin mans the camera at the Rodney Mullen interview. Photo by Laurel Fritzsch.

As a junior at American University studying film and business, I was humbled by the opportunity to intern at the Smithsonian during my first summer staying in D.C. I was treated as an employee, given responsibilities that actually held weight in the office, a rare occurrence in the life of the unpaid intern. I learned motion graphics and edited promo videos to be shown to other museums. I filmed Rodney Mullen, a pro skateboarder on the same level, if not above that of Tony Hawk and Stacy Peralta. Actual employees of other institutions don’t even get to have this much fun!

On the more serious side, I am truly grateful to the Lemelson Center and the Smithsonian to affording me this fantastic opportunity. I learned so much and worked with some of the most intelligent and passionate people I’ve ever met. I made it through the heat, the humidity, the tourists, and the metro system, all to come out on the other side richer for the experience. (And the networking opportunities were a plus…)

Words from a Lemelson Center Intern

Joel Pelovitz spent the summer of 2012 as a Lemelson Center intern. He is currently a senior at Muhlenberg College.

Joel Pelovitz

It is hard to believe that the summer has already come and gone right before my eyes. Over the last two months, I have had the pleasure of interning with the Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Center, located within the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. The primary concern of the center itself is the conveyance of information regarding innovation and invention, while also sharing the story of inventor and co-founder Jerome Lemelson. As I stepped onto a busy metro car on June 4th (my first day), I was not sure what to expect upon my arrival. As this was my first professional experience within a museum, I was not entirely aware of what my role would be or what impact it would have. On top of it all, I was scheduled to start right after my orientation. Talk about jumping right in!

Once I had attended a brief yet informative orientation, I made my way to the Lemelson office located on the first floor of the museum. No sooner had I walked through the door then was I greeted by a team of friendly and accommodating co-workers. It was immediately apparent to me that the office space was a direct reflection of what the Lemelson Center stands for, that is it was an ideal representation of innovative and collaborative qualities at work. It is no wonder that all of my best ideas and contributions have taken place in this very office, amongst this dedicated group of individuals. What’s more, I found it gratifying that my ideas were given due consideration. I felt especially privileged by this because it showed me that the team really wanted me to feel and be treated as a professional.

It was not long before I started work on the Places of Invention project. POI, for short, is an exhibit set to debut in 2015, which will incorporate six different case studies. Each case study is representative of a time and place, either past or present, in which invention and creativity were prevalent. The objective of the exhibition is to instill in the minds of visitors that place matters in terms of invention and that individuals, in accordance with their communities, are usually responsible for technological breakthroughs. When I was brought on as a researcher, I knew I would be assisting in the collection of information, yet I never could have guessed how much more involved I was going to be in other aspects of the center/exhibition.

Not only was I reading through certain texts indicated by the curators, but I was actually making important connections within the readings, for which the curators expressed appreciation. I was also, on multiple occasions, able to locate new textual and visual media representations. I was glad that the information I provided was useful to the curators. Working alongside them really opened my eyes to thinking about invention in new ways, from Albert Pope and Samuel Colt in Hartford to Grandmaster Flash and DJ Kool Herc in the Bronx. After only a week of being there I was able to attend the POI Affiliates Project Workshop at which representatives from all museums involved in the project were present. I participated in two of the floor design meetings with Roto (the exhibition design firm hired on to build the space) and contributed three different potential interactive ideas. I could literally see the design phase progressing and materializing before me!

One of the interactive ideas that I designed was a simplified version of a talk box. What a talk box does is channel sound frequencies from an electronic source such as a musical keyboard, guitar amplifier, or a computer into a tube which is then placed in the user’s mouth. The mouth then acts as an acoustic prism, which by changing its shape effectively achieves sound modulation by manipulating wavelengths. What this means in English is that by connecting a sealed-off apparatus equipped with a tube to the top of a speaker, it leaves nowhere for the sound to exit but through the tube. One then simulates forming words with their mouth and the speaker talks! I was personally able to prototype a working model in the office with Steve Madewell (the Interpretive Exhibits Coordinator), who expressed great interest in potentially using it for the center’s acclaimed Spark!Lab. The Spark!Lab is a hands-on workshop where children can put their creativity to work in designing their own inventions.

Aspiring curator, inventor and guitarist at work

The experience I had while interning at the Smithsonian was better than I ever could have imagined. As museum curation has been a strong consideration of mine for a career path, my time here has given me true insight into the behind the scenes operations within a museum setting. It has perfectly aligned my interests in both history and technology. My father is an engineer and I had also considered engineering in the past. My father’s work connected him with long-time family friend and business associate, Ralph Baer, inventor of the original “Brown Box” videogame console, the Simon light game and other commercial products. Having been raised in such a creative environment — in which even my childhood toys could be inspiration to Ralph and my father — I developed a fascination with technology. Memories of my childhood exposure to their collaboration have resurfaced and in working with the Lemelson team I have only reinvigorated that fascination. Thank you to all in the Lemelson office for making me feel like a true member of the team!