The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Archive: 03/2009 - Page 1
In celebration of Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day, this is the fourth in a series of installments from Smithsonian Institution Archives staff highlighting women in science photographs. We will post portraits of women science here throughout the month.
In 1990, the Smithsonian Institution Archives (SIA) acquired part of the Science Service morgue file (SIA Accession 90-105). This collection contains biographical information, images, and subject files on scientific topics ranging from atomic energy to vitamins. During the first fourteen years we had custody of Accession 90-105, it didn't get much play, and that's not surprising, because there was no information out there advertising it. In recent years, however, it has become increasingly popular and a "go-to" collection for finding images of scientists. When I started at the Archives, I was on the team that brought in all new accessions and maintained Archives collections. One of our "other duties as assigned" was to go to our off-site storage facility to retrieve boxes requested by researchers. It's funny how one learns where certain collections live without looking up a location, even in a warehouse that stored over 12,000 boxes. We all knew where 90-105 was, 1) because it was large (68 cubic feet) and 2) because we started getting requests for 2-3 boxes a month. When one of these requests came in, the first question was not, "Where is it?" but "How high will we have to climb?" Sometimes the boxes were on the highest of 12 shelves. Roll out the ladder! The most popular part of this morgue is the biographical section. Because of this popularity, we started digitizing the thousands of images contained in 90-105. To date, we have scanned over 5,400 photographs (about one half of the images). As one of our intern scanners said, many of the portraits are of "dead white guys," but there are also a good number of women scientists represented in the collection. We are showcasing just a few of those this month. However, there's still work to do after digitization. For many images (some are posted here) there are no captions or other information indicating exactly who these people were. This week we are posting several photographs for which we have no description other than the woman's name (and sometimes only the husband's name). We invite you to contribute your research to our project.
Looking at this photo of artist Elizabeth Tashjian in our new set of portraits of women artists at the Smithsonian Commons on Flickr, it seemed obvious to me that I was looking at a professionally-trained artist, who in fact, won prizes for her artwork while at the National Academy of Art in New York City during the 1930s. So, I was intrigued that the caption included with the photo by the American Art Museum and its Renwick Gallery, called Tashjian "The Nut Lady," and decided to learn more about this curious nickname.
As evidenced by this photograph of Tashjian standing next to a large paneled painting of hands holding a nut and a nutcracker, the artist considered the nut to be very beautiful and constantly used it as subject in her artwork. In 1972, she opened a nut museum in Old Lyme, Connecticut to display her work and champion the nut.
By the early 1980s Ms. Tashjian became a minor celebrity, demonstrating her passion for nuts and her quirky sense of humor in appearances on The Johnny Carson Show and other TV and radio talk shows, and garnering the support of a Roadside America fan club website that features some of her nut-themed anthems. However, the kitsch appeal of The Nut Museum and the somewhat eccentric approach that Ms. Tashjian took to her subject matter meant that the public was often disinterested in her artwork, focusing more on the unconventional nature of the artist herself.
Nevertheless, Tashjian left a powerful legacy of social commentary with her art when she died in 2007. She did not enjoy being called “The Nut Lady,” but Tashjian embraced the nickname, claiming that by owning it, she was removing “the demerit marks from the word ‘nut.’” If the nut were a much-maligned fruit also representative of the underdog status of some individuals in society, her artwork and The Nut Museum created a universe where the nut and its enemy, the nutcracker, could live together in peace. As she so astutely observed in a July 10, 1978 interview with the Chicago Tribune, “I have set free ten million people who thought they were nuts. We all came from the same shell.”
In celebration of Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day, this is the third in a series of installments from Smithsonian Institution Archives staff highlighting women in science photographs. We will post portraits of women science here throughout the month. This week's installment of images focuses on “Science and the Family.” This group of photographs initially reminded me of a quote by Edith Wharton; “I don't know if I should care for a man who made life easy; I should want someone who made it interesting.” These images capture several women who refused to be limited to traditional female roles. Driven by intellectual curiosity and determination, their contributions in the sciences made them pioneers during a period of history when few colleges and universities would admit women into their institutions. I am the newest addition to the SIA reference team. My responsibilities as a reference archivist grant me the privilege and access to the variety of collections held by SIA which document the history of the Smithsonian and its scientific endeavors. A recent inquiry, one of more than 5,000 we receive annually, concerned the 1940 Smithsonian Institution-Firestone Expedition to Liberia (a live animal collecting expedition) and the work of William and Lucile Mann. It seemed natural that William M. Mann, Director of the National Zoological Park (1925-1956) would lead the expedition I was not, however, familiar with the work of Lucile Quarry Mann. I discovered that this was not Lucile’s first zoological expedition; she was the only woman to participate in the 1937 National Geographic Society-Smithsonian Institution to the East Indies. Further study into the life of Ms. Mann revealed that she came to Washington D.C. in 1918 to work in military intelligence for the War Department. A gifted writer, she served as Editor with Women’s Home Companion from 1922-1926, was Editor of the Annual Report of the National Zoological Park from 1951-1971, and author of several books on animals. Another image in our collections which I find interesting depicts Charles Doolittle Walcott, the fourth Secretary of the Smithsonian institution (1907-1927,) his son Sidney Stevens Walcott, and his daughter Helen Breese Walcott. This image shows the Walcott’s on “vacation” in the Canadian Rockies. Paleontology was a family affair for the Walcott’s, and many summers were spent assisting father Charles in the field. This experience living minimally in rugged conditions almost certainly contributed to Helen Breese Walcott’s ability to travel across war-torn France, alone, in search of her fallen brother’s grave (Benjamin Stuart Walcott, a member of the Lafayette Flying Corps during WWI, was shot down over France in 1917.) Helen, in a letter to her father, describes her journey, which included enduring the weight of her soaken fur coat while pedaling an old rusty bicycle through streets of mud, spending evenings in makeshift beds of straw, and often relying on the kindness of strangers for food and shelter. Undeterred, Helen Walcott closes her letter stating, “I have done what I tho’t impossible so many times – what everyone en route doubted I could do.” Perhaps the women depicted in the “Science and the Family” images could have resigned themselves to a life of leisure or assumed traditional gender roles. Fortunately, their curiosities and family influences led them to pursue a career in the sciences, paving the way for future generations and the advancement of mankind.
In Kodak and the Lens of Nostalgia (2000), Nancy Martha West describes how the company—marketing the first box cameras in the 1890s—aggressively targeted female consumers, hoping they’d “see photography not only as a necessary component of domestic life but as an integral part of the world of fashion and feminine beauty.” Starting in 1892, advertisements featuring a striking and adventurous “Kodak Girl” were widely seen and wildly successful; soon large numbers of women were taking pictures as well as posing for them. Questions about how, when and why women make photographs and appear in them are at the heart of a number of stories featured in click! photography changes everything, a program looking at how photography shapes our culture and our lives. Jacqueline Serwer, Chief Curator at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, writes about how Edmonia Lewis, an African American sculptor living in Rome in the 1870s, returned to the States and marketed carte-de-visite photographs of herself to draw attention to unusual professional status, and to find funding for her art work. Amy Henderson, Cultural Historian at the National Portrait Gallery, looks at an in-store display that features 1940s movie star Veronica Lake endorsing Woodbury cosmetics and sees evidence of Hollywood’s shrewd and seductive construction of glamour at work. Share your own stories and photos exploring how photography not only documents, but actively shapes women’s lives and experiences. click! photography changes everything is an ongoing program examining how photography shapes our culture and our lives.
I was intrigued by a recent post on the National Museum of American History’s (NMAH) blog about the portrayal of women in the Science Service records. Arthur Molella director of the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, writes:
“… women are invariably passive or admiring observers. In other words, females are shown dominated by rather than in charge of technology… On the contrary, at the Lemelson Center we have uncovered ample evidence of significant female contributions. But, given the skewed nature of the visual record, we have had to work very hard to find this evidence.” These couldn't be the same women I’d begun to know and love through the photos the Smithsonian Institution Archives (SIA) posted to the SI Flickr Commons. And it certainly wasn't the women SIA archivists, Ellen Alers and Mary Markey, described in their posts. After giving a call over to SIA, I found out that when the Science Service records were transferred to the Smithsonian during the 1970s (over 500 boxes!), records were distributed throughout SI depending on their relevancy to a museum’s expertise and mission. So, for example, any material dealing with the history electrical innovation and invention went to the Division of Electricity and Modern Physics at what was then named the National Museum of History and Technology (now NMAH). Other parts of the Science Service records followed, going to other NMAH curatorial divisions, the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, National Museum of Natural History, National Portrait Gallery, and the Smithsonian Institution Archives. The women in the photos at the Lemelson Center indeed look more like early 20th century Vanna White's then the women in the SIA records. Once again, I’m reminded never to take any picture, or collection for that matter, at face value!
- 1 of 2
- next ›