The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
It was brilliant to work at the Smithsonian Institution Archives (SIA) this past summer as a conservation intern helping to restore damaged books from SIA’s Reference Room. This primary research library includes many histories and annals published by the Smithsonian from the 1880s through the 20th century, and in the process of learning different ways to conserve some of them, the summer just whirled by. This book is one of the Archive’s original research volumes, containing 19th century scientific reports, gathered from national exploration projects. Unfortunately, it was in shoddy shape: a combination of heavy use and poor construction caused both covers and the spine cloth to fall away. The inside was left to fend for itself until the spine cracked, the sewing thread tore, and the brittle paper cracked away from the spine, leaving many little pieces behind. This book was just crumbling away. We wanted to conserve it because of its historic and research value, and because of its potentially gorgeous appearance; fortunately, we could. To repair the book, the pages needed to be mended first. Here, they are shown under a weight which was used to flatten them and straighten their edges before they could be mended with a Japanese paper called Tengujo (which has very thin and strong properties) and suitable adhesive. After drying, the pages were re-folded, and then resewn together to form the textblock; it’s a book again! Here is the book, fixed. It has been resewn and re-inserted back into its case, the spine of which was restored with new, stronger cloth, as the old was too frail to actually support the book anymore. The original spine pieces were pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle and mounted on another slightly thicker Japanese paper. This strengthened piece was glued to the spine and then areas of missing original spine fragments were carefully colored in with chalk pastels to make the bright new repair material not stand out from the old (a process we call visual or aesthetic integration). It was a big challenge; due to light exposure, the green dyed cloth had faded to gold and brown on the spine, turning color matching into a smeary challenge. But, it came out well. This book is a classic example of why we’re conserving the books for the reading room; while it could be looked at carefully before, if it were damaged, its information would have become inaccessible for SIA researchers. Though it is still fragile, now the book’s contents are better protected, it looks much better and, most importantly, it is available for use again by researchers who no longer need to feel nervous about handling it.
Michal Long is the Conservation Intern of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.
This month students head back to school ready for another year of learning. And though the summer crowds may have gone home, staff around the Smithsonian are now preparing for the many field trips headed their way. One of my favorite things about school was the special field trips my class got to take. You would hear the year before about going on this boat or heading to this museum and then it was your turn. Field trips meant leaving the classroom behind and immersing yourself in a topic, or in the place where some important piece of history happened (or was still happening). Over the years the Smithsonian has opened its doors to students around the world. Here is a slide show to reminisce about some of the trips you have experienced!
For two days in mid-September, Smithsonian Institution employees gathered for a digitization fair to share ideas and hear about some neat projects. Even those who work here are impressed by research initiatives and everyday work being conducted by our colleagues. The Smithsonian is home to 137 million objects, 100,000 cubic feet of archival material, and 1.8 million library volumes. Digitization efforts are just one way we can deliver these valuable resources to numerous audiences. At the Smithsonian, digitization means both the conversion of an item such as a photographic print that is scanned and saved to a digital format or the creation of a born-digital item such as a word-processing document. The last digitization fair was held in 2006, and the Smithsonian has come a long way in its digitization efforts, including establishing a formal digitization strategic plan; forming working groups to deal with retention, repositories, counting, and standards; and creating a central digitization program office. Smithsonian Secretary Dr. Wayne Clough kicked off the fair by stating this is an exciting time but did urge the attendees to think about what technology will be like in five to ten years from now. Some highlights from the fair included tools staff can use for showcasing images in different ways on their websites (see The Train from Tupelo from the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden; work being done for creating and applying metadata (data about data) recommendations across the Institution; projects featuring the digitization of video and audio oral history collections; and digitization of full sheets of certified stamps. In particular, there was lots of buzz over some of the 3D digitization projects being done at the Smithsonian. Specialized printers, cameras, and other equipment can create 3D images, as well as physical replicas of objects.
- Check out the video of this cool blue beetle (click to see video on Facebook) from the National Museum of Natural History’s entomology collection, which is part of 3D imaging research being done by the Office of Exhibits Central:
- The National Museum of Natural History presented information about the Human Origins website that includes an interactive 3D collection of fossils and artifacts.
- The Office of Exhibits Central also talked about items they have been able to CT or laser scan noninvasively and “print” as 3D objects. By using the information from the digital scans, a 3D printer with a data cartridge filled with powder is able to create physical objects such as skulls, hands, prehistoric tools, and other items. What makes this exciting is one can actually handle the 3D print and still get the full experience as if touching the real item.
As the presenter from the Smithsonian Institution Archives, I discussed what we do with the born-digital materials in our collections. Not only do we have born-digital images and text documents, but we have video, audio, websites, drawings, and email collections, that we deal with day-to-day in the archives, as we’ve written about in older blog posts. As the keeper of the Smithsonian’s institutional memory, our role is to ensure that we consider preservation, conditions, storage, hardware, and software for these digital materials. It was rewarding to show and play for attendees collections items that included a video of the planning of National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, a music clip of the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra performing, and to talk about our Smithsonian website archiving efforts. The next fair is in a few years, and it will be exciting to see how the Smithsonian integrates these technologies into exhibitions and behind-the-scenes work, and how new technologies change our work over the coming years.
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