The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Look at enough photographs and it’s inevitable that, at some point, you’ll find yourself pondering mortality and photography’s relationship to death. Because the medium so effectively captures fragments of lives, events, and data that have come and gone, you’re always looking at and trying to make sense of something that’s over, finished, part of the past.
Writers—particularly those fascinated by the power of photographic imagery—tend to dwell on the theme. “All those young photographers who are at work in the world,” Roland Barthes reminds us in his classic book, Camera Lucida (1981), “determined upon the capture of actuality, do not know that they are agents of death.”
“In front of the photograph of my mother as a child,” he goes on to write, “I tell myself: she is going to die: I shudder…over a catastrophe which has already occurred. Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is a catastrophe.”
Susan Sontag, too, in her seminal 1973 book, On Photography, saw clear connections between photography and death. “At the very beginning of photography, the late 1830s,” she wrote, “William H. Fox Talbot noted the camera’s special aptitude for recording ‘the injuries of Time’ . . . . Photography is the inventory of mortality . . . . Photographs state the innocence, the vulnerability of lives heading toward their own destruction, and this link between photography and death haunts all photographs of people.”
Humbly acknowledging photography’s utility in assessing “the injuries of Time,” we asked Douglas Ubelaker—curator and senior scientist at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, who has published extensively on forensic anthropology—to write about the pivotal role photography plays in identifying human remains and providing invaluable courtroom evidence.
Fascinated as we are with images of our lives, we’re equally and understandably obsessed with images about death, as the continued popularity of the darkly comedic TV show Bones, about a forensic anthropologist, attests. As Ubelaker reminds us, images that are made and used by forensic anthropologists have radically transformed science and the legal system. To get a sense of how and why that’s happened, click here.
Did you know that April is Records and Information Management Month? What is records and information management? Glad you asked!
Information is collected data, thoughts, ideas, or memories. Records are documents that contain information in a structured format. Managing these records and information involves maintaining, storing, and preserving the records and information in such a way that they can be easily found for as long as they are useful for historical, administrative, or legal purposes. Like the characters of a Dan Brown novel, records and information managers are often the keepers and protectors of potential knowledge (without the secret rituals and sacred symbols).
The Smithsonian Institution, like many museums, has a long history of information management. Responsibility for maintaining information about the museum collections may have been assigned to Correspondence Clerk Daniel Leech as early as 1869. In 1880, the Registrar’s Office was established and Stephen C. Brown became the Smithsonian’s first registrar. For almost a century, one office served the registrarial needs of the entire Smithsonian Institution. Beginning in the 1970s, many of the museums created their own registrar’s offices, but it was not until 1993 that the central Office of the Registrar was abolished.
The earliest registrars recorded details about incoming objects, known as “accessions,” with pen and paper or a typewriter. An object (or group of objects) was assigned a number and information about the object’s physical characteristics and provenance (the “life history” of the object) were detailed. Over time, registrarial methods became more sophisticated, capturing additional information about the objects and often photographing them. Today, most information about a museum’s objects is maintained in a database, but paper records are often kept as a backup and to record information that does not easily translate into a database. Separate registrar’s offices at each of the museums and the National Zoological Park allow for the databases to be customized to fit the needs of the collection—vital information about a painting is very different from vital information about a live animal.
According to Bill Allen, in his remarks to the Registrars Committee of the American Association of Museums in 2006, “…a Registrar is the person in a museum whose job it is to know at any given moment the location of every object in the collections and the security surrounding that object.” That’s a tall order considering that the Smithsonian has 137 million artifacts, works of art, and specimens. The registrars are the go-to people for identifying, locating, and loaning individual pieces of the collections.
The information maintained by the registrar is essential to knowing the who, what, where, why, and how of the museum’s collections. Without it, we may not know that a World War II bomber is the Enola Gay, that a big blue stone is the Hope Diamond, or that a green puppet is Kermit the Frog, and these icons might just be a paragraph in a history book. Instead, we can connect these items to their stories and inspire wonder and curiosity for generations to come.
For more information on the registrarial profession, visit the website of the Registrars Committee of the American Association of Museums.
This is part of a series of posts giving a behind-the-scenes look at the jobs involved in managing the visual and textual materials of an archive. Also see a post describing the work of a Photo Archivist, an Archivist, and a Librarian.