The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
- Marines are investigating a possible case of mistaken identity in the iconic WWII Iwo Jima photo. [via NPR]
- The little known history behind Cinco de Mayo. [via Smithsonian Magazine]
- A short film on the Smithsonian's incredible whale skeleton collection. [via Hakai Magazine]
- The Prelinger Archives has published 6600 public domain films to the Internet Archive! [via Open Culture]
- A newly released report on collections management policy across the Smithsonian's 19 museums, 9 research centers, libraries, archives, and the zoo.
- NOAA's Okeanos Explorer has stumbled on these glowing jellyfish in Mariana Trench 2.3 miles beneath the surface. [via Scientific American]
The first week of May marks the 93rd anniversary of the opening of the Freer Gallery of Art. Although the Freer is known as an art museum today, it once also sponsored archaeological field work. When the Freer Gallery’s building opened to the public on May 2, 1923, Carl Whiting Bishop, associate curator of archaeology, had already left for China on February 12 to lead a joint expedition with the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
The Freer’s field expeditions were intended to conduct archaeological excavations and to investigate Chinese history, as part of the Smithsonian Institution’s mission for “the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” Smithsonian Annual Reports from the 1920s and 1930s record the ups and downs of the field work in China, from the success of excavations under Chinese archaeologist Ci Li in Shanxi Province in 1927 to the end of field work in 1934 due to political unrest.
Documents in the Freer Field Expedition Records, part of the Smithsonian Institution Archives collections, record the Freer’s foray into archaeology. Correspondence between Bishop and John Ellerton Lodge, the first director of the Freer Gallery, discusses Bishop’s initial field expedition in 1923 and subsequent field work. Bishop stated in a letter dated September 5, 1923, that the primary purpose of the expedition was “the beginning of scientific excavation in China,” but in the unsettled political environment, he found it difficult to obtain the necessary permission for excavations. Instead, Bishop and his colleague Archibald Wenley (later director of the Freer) turned to other activities, such as exploring potential sites for future excavation and improving their knowledge of Chinese.
While in China, Bishop also looked for archaeological objects and artworks to add to the Freer Gallery’s collection. In a letter to Lodge dated December 21, 1923, he added a postscript about a recently acquired piece, “a very fine and unusual statue,” and promised to send Lodge photographs and a fuller description. Bishop later catalogued the expedition’s acquisitions between 1923 and 1925, including bronzes, pottery, paintings, and sculptures, in an unpublished manuscript. According to the catalogue, the statue mentioned in the letter was a headless stone Buddha purchased from Taku Shanfang in Peking (Beijing) on December 23, 1923, for 4,800 Mexican silver dollars. Bishop documented the statue in the catalogue with several photographs of the intricate carvings on the front and back.
In the same letter that mentioned the purchase of the Buddha, Bishop discussed his progress in obtaining an excavation permit. As part of an intellectual cooperation effort between the American and Chinese governments, Bishop became the Adviser to the Chinese Government in archaeology. This position allowed the Freer Gallery to sponsor archaeological excavations in China. The Freer Gallery funded several excavations in the following years, but the excavated material stayed with the Freer’s partner institutions in China.
Many objects that Bishop purchased in China, including the stone Buddha, are still in the collection of the Freer Gallery. The limestone sculpture’s official designation in the object record is “Buddha draped in robes portraying the Realms of Existence,” and it is nicknamed the “Cosmic Buddha.” The Buddha is currently on display in the Sackler Gallery’s exhibition, “Body of Devotion: The Cosmic Buddha in 3D.” Documentation of the Cosmic Buddha has certainly improved since Bishop’s black-and-white photographs. The Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office has created a 3D model of the statue, so anyone can access close-up views from the Internet or use a 3D printer to make their own Cosmic Buddha.
“A Quest for the First Asian Employee,” The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archvies
“The Cosmic Buddha,” Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
Accession 02-051, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Field Expedition Records, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Riding in on the coattails of Preservation Week, MayDay is an annual tradition where libraries, museums, archives, historical societies, and preservation organizations set aside May 1 to participate in preparation activities for potential collections emergencies and disasters. First established by the Society of American Archivists and Heritage Preservation, and now taken on by the Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation, MayDay can be observed in several ways:
- Revisit your emergency preparedness plan. If you already have one in place, take time to reexamine elements that may have changed in the last year – contact information, emergency team roles, salvage priorities, etc. If you don’t have a plan quite yet, sit down and make a realistic timeline for its development.
- Participate in workshops and lectures covering emergency response and recovery. Having a written response plan is important, but understanding the hands-on salvage and recovery process can be invaluable if/when you find yourself in the situation. Sign up for local workshops to hone your skills, or, if you have the expertise, run your own workshop for local organizations!
- Inventory and replenish your emergency supplies. You may have used up some of your supplies over the last year for small emergencies or other collection activities. Take the time to inventory and replenish any supplies that may be missing from your kits.
- Don’t forget about the safety of your staff and volunteers! The safety of people always comes first. Lead a building evacuation and identify areas for improvement. Conduct a walkthrough of collection and office spaces and remove any potential hazards, such as boxes blocking a hallway, improper storage of chemicals (including cleaning supplies), and office ergonomics. Make sure that emergency exits, shelter-in-place locations, and evacuation routes are all clearly labeled.
The idea of creating an emergency preparedness and response plan, or simply revisiting an existing one, may be a bit daunting and tough to know where to start. Luckily, there are lots of resources out there that can help you in the initial planning phase. Here are a few key elements that I think are vital to include in, and tailor to, your unique plan.
- Clearly-defined staff roles – Each organization is unique not only in terms of their collections, but also in staff size and expertise. Identify who will be responsible for what during an emergency, and write it down in position descriptions. Here at SIA, the four roles we’ve identified for our emergency response team are: Emergency Coordinator, Assistant Emergency Coordinator, Emergency Recovery Coordinator, and Emergency Registrar.
- Salvage priorities – Get to know your collection well. Meet with other staff members and identify the highest priority collection materials based on factors such as: intellectual value, instability of materials, overall preservation concerns, use by researchers and scholars, and appraised value. Include dimensions and locations in your list to aid in the recovery process.
- Local emergency suppliers and contacts – When disaster strikes, you will need to know what companies are in your local geographic region that have the expertise to aid emergency activities such as moving collections, freezing and freeze-drying, mold remediation, digital data recovery, and dehumidification. Create and maintain a list of these vendors so that if you find yourself in the midst of a disaster, you know who to contact for help.
No matter how you choose to celebrate MayDay, just make sure you do ONE thing. Dust off those plans and make sure you’re ready! Additionally, if you report your fun and innovative emergency preparation activities to Gaylord Archival, you’ll be entered for a chance to win emergency supplies, including spill pillows, weatherproof paper, and a water detector.
Additional Resources for your consideration:
- The Getty Conservation Institute’s Building An Emergency Plan: A Guide for Museums and Other Cultural Institutions
- The American Alliance of Museum’s Alliance Reference Guide to Developing a Disaster Preparedness/Emergency Response Plan
- The International Council of Museums’ Guidelines for Disaster Preparedness in Museums
- The National Park Service’s Museum Handbook, Part 1, Chapter 10: Emergency Planning
Talking and Doing About Emergency Preparation, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
May Day Motto: Be Prepared, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
What to Do When More Than a Few Papers Get Wet, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
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