The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
We are in the throes of summer here in Washington DC, and that means three things: heat, more heat, and interns. Interns not only allow us to share expertise and experience with newcomers to the field, but also allow us to address projects that we may not have the time to see to ourselves. One project I have had a few of our interns working on this summer is the inventorying and stabilization of broken glass plate negatives.
For a brief description of glass plate negatives, check out Merry Foresta’s post “There will always be a photography”. A large portion of the collection I work with consists of glass plate negatives, and unfortunately, a number of those are broken.
With the aid of two fantastic interns, Rachel Midura and Shereen Choudhury, I now have a comprehensive inventory of all the broken glass, detailing any information that was written on their housing, as well as the level of distress on the glass. Inventorying is about as exciting as it sounds (not very), but the second part of the project is to stabilize the plates, which also probably does not sound very interesting, but I assure you is barrels of fun.
The first step in this process is to put the plates back together. This can be as simple as refitting two pieces of a clean break back together, or may involve a more elaborate reassembly of dozens of shards of shattered glass. Like putting together puzzles? Well, I have upwards of eight hundred of them to solve. I like to think of it as extreme puzzle making because of the element of danger involved in working with a medium with sharp edges. I would also like to note that safety procedures are strictly adhered to and that every precaution is taken to ensure that no injuries occur.
After the plates are reassembled, they are scanned so that we have a visual record of what is on these plates. What we have discovered is a diverse cross section of the Smithsonian Institution’s history, including manuscripts, plant and animal specimens, exhibits, people of note, and anthropological studies. What is interesting to me, as an archivist, is that the glass plates that were once used as a method of documenting artifacts have become artifacts themselves.
Now, onto the actual stabilization bit. After the glass is scanned, the pieces are placed in sink mats (strips of board adhered to the edges of a backboard to make a recess, or sink, for the object to be placed). Cardboard “bumpers” are placed between the pieces of glass so the edges don’t touch. This process keeps the glass from moving and greatly reduces the chance of further breakage. The result of this looks kind of like a deconstructed puzzle, and to me has an artistic element about it, an artifact of an artifact of an artifact if you will.
The work completed by our interns this summer has revealed many riches in this collection, and I look forward to approaching the next piece to the greater puzzle, which is doing a little investigative work on the origins of the glass plates themselves.
While in graduate school, I read that museum professionals wear many hats in one day. This could not be truer at the Smithsonian Institution Archives.
I’ve worn many hats working in the Institutional History Division including historian, construction worker, and even blogger. The most interesting hat I have worn recently is that of mountain climber. That’s right, mountain climber.
One afternoon, as I re-shelved boxes, a research associate, Heather Ewing, said she was taking her intern, Lauren Dare, on a rare climb to the top of the National Museum of Natural History’s Rotunda. So, off I went across the Mall to the Museum to meet with Jerry Conlon who knows the building’s ins and outs. From the top floor, we entered a side door, leaving the white marble Rotunda for the sparse interior spaces between the Museum’s walls. I had stepped back to 1911, when the building was completed. After climbing industrial and brick staircases, we arrived to what I thought was the Rotunda’s top.
We climbed the last few steps and stood inside the domes. The Rotunda is topped off by an exterior dome, the one you see from the Mall, and an interior dome that you see looking up while standing next to the Elephant inside. The two domes do not rest on top of one another—a walking space separates them and allows your average historian to explore in between.
While we circled the walking space, Jerry noted that Secretary Samuel P. Langley withheld approval of the original ornate design by architects Hornblower and Marshall. A redesign by architects Daniel Burnham and Charles McKim substituted a simpler Roman Rotunda. The Rotunda domes are in the style of architect Rafael Guastavino, constructed by using interlocking terracotta tiles and layers of mortar to create self supporting arches and vaults. These are supported by a brickwork drum and beautiful tiled buttresses. The domes are massive—the inner dome is 71’ 6” wide and exterior dome is 73’ 11”.
Halfway around, we came to a metal ladder running up the side of the interior dome. Jerry explained how the ladder was built and discussed his experiences climbing up to the top. The top of the interior dome rises 121’ 2 ¼” above the first floor of the building and 144’ 2 ¼” from the Mall. (The exterior dome rises 165’ 2 ¼” above the Mall.) As my palms started to sweat, I thought to myself, “there is no way we are climbing; there is no rope to strap on or a helmet to wear.” Oh, how I was soooo wrong. Jerry told us to climb away and hold on tight. So the three of us, in skirts and dress, heels, flip-flops, and ballet flats, inched our way up.
At the summit, when I regained some, and I mean only some, composure, I held on white-knuckled and looked up and down. Above, the sun streaming into the exterior dome skylight was beautiful. The top of the interior dome was dirty, so dirty you couldnt see the Elephant, but amazingly not enough to keep the sunlight out. It was a spectacular view of the inner workings of a building that I had researched. It really brought it to life.
After this exhilarating experience, covered in dirt and sweat from climbing around the innards of the Museum, I crossed the Mall and went back to work. And though I may not have climbed a real mountain, I think I have earned that hat. As for now, off with my mountain climber’s hat and onto the next adventure . . . whatever that might be.