The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
When you’re all gathered together, sometimes there are just too many cooks in the kitchen, or younger siblings underfoot. Not everyone is into football or jigsaw puzzles, so why not gather together a couple of people from separate generations and branches of the family tree and do some photo identification and preservation? Set aside an hour between or after the meal to pull out a photo album, scrapbook, slides, family film and video, or those love letters in shoeboxes tied-up with string. You might already do this as a ritual, but this time you might consider the following questions:
- How are the objects doing? Are they in good condition? Are they in a particular order?
- Would you know who all those people are if an elder parent or cousin wasn’t there to tell you?
- For photographs and film, do you know where the negatives are and if they can be associated with those pictures?
- Is there information such as names, dates, or places that can be read off of their envelopes or cans and transcribed in pencil to an album page or added onto a new label?
- For albums, do the album pages seem stable or are they crumbling or showing obvious deterioration? Are photo corners holding or coming loose and causing photos to slip around and into the margins? If so, do you have an opportunity to house them in a new acid-free album that is more appropriate for permanent storage?
- Might you think about selecting some of these to digitize so that everyone can have a copy?
Over the past few months, we’ve been putting more and more tips up to address all of the above. Simply click here or on our “conservation” tag to pull up all our posts on this topic. You can also watch some clips we’ve released on our YouTube channel, follow our tips on our Facebook page, or check out the Archives Month lectures we’ve webcast that include tips on video and digital archives. Outside our pages, you can also follow the preservation of one family’s archive of love letters being treated at the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts where the one of the family members works. Our colleagues at the National Archives and Records Administration have some great tips on preserving family archives, and here’s one specifically on scrapbooks by the Florida State Archives (with great pictures). As an example, my mom who is retired and has a bit more free time than I do, came into work with me on the day after Thanksgiving in order to do a long-desired project—preservation rehousing of her own childhood photos. So I invited her to bring the most important album (a traditional black-page album with side-ties and small black and white photos) with her to my lab where I could show her how to use simple tools, such as a microspatula, gloves, and photo corners, but she could do the bulk of the work herself, while I took advantage of the quiet to close out some files and projects. In under an hour, she became confident in handling, removing, and placing the vulnerable photos in new pages with Mylar photo pockets, and adding a place to transcribe and add descriptive information so that someday I can better remember these people and places. I rarely suggest taking apart an original album, especially if it has original handwriting and/or the photos or clippings are glued overall to a page. But in our case, the album was in very poor shape, and undistinctive. If it had been printed with names or dates, perhaps we would have saved at least the original covers. In contrast, see a discussion about another family’s album over on the Smithsonian Magazine blog, Around the Mall. Happy gatherings, everyone.
What better time to capture family memories and stories than when you and your relatives gather to celebrate Thanksgiving? For the past several years, several organizations have encouraged families to listen to one another and record family history over the Thanksgiving weekend. StoryCorps, for example, has launched The National Day of Listening. So put down that pumpkin pie and forget about the mad dash to the mall. When the parade is over, sit down with an older family member and ask them about their lives, their memories, their stories. Many families have started to ask older family members to tell stories at the Thanksgiving dinner table—memories that provoke more memories and stories. It’s a wonderful way to connect older generations with newer ones, and to create a shared family tradition.
Also, think about preserving those memories for generations to come, away from the hubbub of the dinner table. Sometime over the weekend, before the family disperses, try to find a quiet place with phones and football games off, to record those memories in audio or video format. If done in digital audio or video, you can then easily share those recordings with other family members or post them to a family web page. You might also involve children in the family, helping them to prepare questions and conduct the actual interview, and really making this a family project.
Begin the recording with an introduction that states who is being interviewed, by whom, when, where, and why. This creates a permanent record of what the interview is.
Where to start? You might ask some basic biographical questions about where and when they were born, grew up, went to school, and how holidays were celebrated when they were young. Ask them to tell their favorite story—perhaps about a vacation or family event. The Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage has an Interviewing Guide online that can be very helpful. Or take out an old photograph album and ask grandpa or grandma to tell you who the people in those old pictures are and what they remember about them. You might show some old home movies and then record the stories they bring to mind. Try to be sure you get names of people that they are talking about—is that Uncle Al Henson or Uncle Al McDonough? Ask grandpa or grandma to clarify the names at the end of the interview, because that information will be very helpful down the road. You might end the interview asking them for reflections on their life and family, or what advice they would have for the newborns in the family.
When I do interviews like these, I like to take a picture of the person at the start of the interview, to capture their image at that point in time. I also try to scan any photographs we talk about. After the interview is done, be sure to preserve the recording and photographs by copying them to a good quality CD or DVD. (I actually make two copies in case one should fail.) Label the recording carefully, writing down again who was interviewed by whom, when, where and why, and also note what kind of recording this is—an mp3 file from an iPod recorder or a Windows Movie file from a Canon movie camera. Years from now it will be important to know what type of file this is. Then you can copy the CD/DVD and share the memories with brothers, sisters, cousins, and grandchildren.
So sit back and listen this holiday weekend, sharing stories, connecting generations and preserving memories.