The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Answer me this?
I have one of the best jobs at the Smithsonian. Sure, there are others I honestly envy (mostly at the Zoo), but mine ranks really high because of the variety of questions I’m asked and mysteries I have to solve. That’s because I’m a reference archivist at the Smithsonian Institution Archives, where the history of the institution is collected and made accessible to staff (be they administrators, curators, or collections staff) and researchers, who range from elementary school kids and genealogists to scholars of the history of science and museum development. In fact, last year the reference staff (three of us) answered approximately 4,526 remote transactions (mostly e-mail) and served 924 visitors to our research room. Most of our contacts are from the US, but international contacts abound. So, what do people want to know? Just about everything. For instance: What was the name of Paul Bartsch’s (Curator of Snails) pet Carolina Parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis)? It turns out, Robert Ridgeway, Smithsonian ornithologist, hatched several parakeets and was raising them in captivity, but one was especially weak and in need of special attention, and this is where Paul Bartsch came in. Dr. Bartsch took on the “neglected mite,” and nursed it back to health on milk-soaked bread and meat. Soon he had a thriving and mischievous bird on his hands that he dubbed “Doodles.” Bartsch loved him and he wrote that Doodles would often crawl into bed with him and snuggle up to his neck and nap, and “woe betide anyone who would disturb us.” [Atlantic Naturalist Vol. 8, pp. 18-20] When Doodles died in 1914, his body was skinned, preserved in alcohol and donated to the museum (catalog # 288603 - the entry says that he was called Doodles), and Bartsch retained the skin in his private collection. Eventually Bartsch’s private collection came to the museum after his death and Doodle’s skin (catalog # 523868) and body are still available for study today. You can see images of one of Ridgeway's birds in the collections of the Division of Birds online. Is it true you have a stuffed Army sergeant at the Smithsonian? This is true. Sergeant Stubby was a distinguished hero of World War I who was informally inducted into the American Expeditionary Force while cruising the Yale campus and later smuggled aboard the troopship, SS Minnesota, with his adoptive fellow soldier, John Robert Conroy. Stubby fought alongside Conroy in France and distinguished himself through numerous acts of bravery—alerting his unit to gas attacks and incoming artillery; being solely responsible for capturing a German spy in the Argonne (holding on to the spy’s pants until help arrived); he was wounded in action, and was an ace morale booster in the hospital where he was sent to recover. He was honored with medals, a wound, stripe, and accolades from the American Legion and Humane Society. Upon returning to the States, he followed Conroy to Georgetown University Law School where he entertained the crowds during halftime at football games. Stubby (taxidermy) was donated to Smithsonian and was featured in exhibition, The Price of Freedom: Americans at War. Does the Smithsonian have Secretariat? No. Secretariat, a.k.a. Big Red (1970-1989), 1973 Triple Crown winner, is buried at Claiborne Farm in Paris, Kentucky. But other famous American war, race, and celebrity horses are either in the Smithsonian or have been on display here. Here’s a list with particulars on each horse. In short, I’m challenged and delighted everyday by folks out there who are just as curious as I am about what we have at the Smithsonian and the stories are endless. What’s not to like about that? Answer me that?