The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
As a postdoctoral fellow at the National Museum of American History, I’ve spent months in the Smithsonian Institution Archives researching a book tentatively titled, Not Naturally a Grass Country: Environment, Plant Genetics, and the Quest for Agricultural Modernization in the Humid World. It’s largely a story about global attempts to replace one form of agriculture—the extensive open range husbandry of hot climates—with another—the intensive mixed husbandry of cool climates. Details of agricultural systems can get rarified, so let’s just say that the effort depended on finding cultivable grasses that would grow year-round in hot places. And, that mixed husbandry can be summed up thusly: Cows eat grass. Cows poop grass. Poop makes good fertilizer for other crops. And cows are also good to eat. I came to this project after running across several agricultural reformers who, after the Civil War, claimed that farmers in the American South couldn’t grow pasture grass even if they wanted to—the climate was simply too harsh. Those people were crazy, I initially thought. Lush green grasses are everywhere in the South today. Pastures, meadows, roadsides, parks, golf courses, sports fields, and residential lawns, harbor mats of sod lush enough to make an English husbandman weep. If southern farmers had wanted to grow grasses, they could’ve; they were just too devoted to plantation agriculture and open range grazing. Or so I thought. As it turns out, known forage grasses at the time were adapted to cool climates and were difficult to grow in the South. But the real problem wasn’t necessarily that grasses couldn’t grow in the South; it was that suitable grasses were not known due to the region’s long obsession with cotton. It would take a global network of botanists, grass explorers, and experimental field scientists to make the South a grass country. Which brings me to one document I ran across in the records of the Smithsonian’s US National Museum’s Division of Plants. Record Unit 220 consists mostly of the correspondence of George Vasey, a botanist with the US Department of Agriculture and curator of the Smithsonian’s National Herbarium from 1872 to 1893. Vasey, who specialized in grasses, devoted much of his career to bridging the academic field of systematic botany with the practical science of agriculture. This document is a questionnaire that Vasey sent to hundreds of farmers (and some botanists) in 1881 to get a sense of what grasses grew best in particular soils and climates. Vasey’s office received 350 initial responses, yet another example of the Smithsonian’s role in soliciting information from the public, what we now call crowdsourcing. (You can also read an earlier blog post about how Smithsonian scientists encouraged everyday citizens to gather and share scientific information about local places.) Farmers, seed salesmen, and university scientists not only wrote Vasey with information about local conditions; they also wanted help identifying grasses, finding seeds for the most promising species, and cultivating them. Vasey’s office did not have the resources to deal with such demands, so he started rounding up botanists in far-flung places to send him grasses to test; he worked out cooperative arrangements with university experiment stations to test both new and familiar grasses; and he petitioned Congress and his bosses for more departmental funds. These efforts endured long after Vasey’s death through the activities of the USDA’s Bureau of Plant Industry and the National Herbarium, which became the Western Hemisphere’s premiere clearinghouse for all things grass. One final note about unintended consequences: Vasey’s efforts eventually contributed to significant environmental change. Many of the highly praised forage plants he and others studied and promoted have since been reclassified as nonnative invasives. (Though a legume and not a grass, kudzu is the best known of this lot). In addition, Vasey’s efforts helped to stimulate interest in, and a market for the grasses that would ultimately reshape the American landscape, fueling America’s love affair with lawns and all of the chemical inputs they require. But perhaps that’s another story for another day.
Bert Way is a Postdoctoral Fellow of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.
Type “history of the telegraph” into a search engine and the results will point you to Samuel F. B. Morse. History largely credits him with the invention of both the electromagnetic telegraph and Morse code, which enabled people to send instant messages across long distances. With Morse’s successful test of the electromagnetic telegraph on May 24, 1844, the potential for worldwide communication changed forever. The message he sent, “What Hath God Wrought?” traveled via his electromagnetic telegraph from Washington, DC to Baltimore, MD. But who, you might wonder, was on the other end of the line? Alfred Vail, Morse’s colleague, received Morse’s message in Baltimore and then successfully returned the same message back to Morse in the national Capitol Building’s Rotunda. For Vail, this event was the culmination of years of his own labor and financial investment, yet his influence has largely been lost in the historical record.
Born to Bethiah and Stephan Vail on September 25, 1807 in Morristown, New Jersey, Vail’s father owned the Speedwell Iron Works where, after completing public school, Vail worked as a machinist. In 1832, he began coursework in theological studies at the University of the City of New York, now New York University, with the hope of becoming a Presbyterian minister. However, in 1837 Vail saw Morse demonstrate an early version of his electric telegraph at the university, and shortly after convinced Morse to take him on as a partner. The contract between the two, stated that Vail—for a share of interest in Morse’s rights to the telegraph—would work on constructing the telegraph machines and financing the American and foreign patents. Vail vastly improved Morse’s original design of the machine. Instead of using pendulums, Vail added weights to the machine’s turning key. He also substituted a steel pointed pen for the pencil Morse had employed, to indent the code into the paper tape the machine used and improved the mechanics of the register, the instrument that punched out the code via electric impulse, as well. Additionally, Vail developed a simpler alphabetic system of code to replace Morse’s original, but more complicated numerical code, in which dashes and dots were interpreted as numbers and then translated into words in a code book. Vail’s alpha code greatly sped up the process of deciphering messages. Though his contributions to the project were extremely significant, it was Morse’s name that appeared on the patents. Consequently, Morse is remembered, and Vail is often not. But, that is the great thing about archives: they save the history, and fortunately for me, the Smithsonian Institution Archives holds Vail’s papers in Record Unit 7055. His papers contain research notebooks, correspondence with Morse, letters to family, patent applications, journals and scrapbooks, all documenting the development of the telegraph and Vail’s personal and professional life in the 1800s. Needless to say I was fascinated by reading through Vail’s scientific journals and his correspondence with Morse. From these materials which shed light on the rapport that he and Morse had with one another, I learned about Vail’s impact on the project.
What is perhaps ironic about this, is that Vail’s papers eventually came to the Smithsonian. In 1845, Vail published a book about his experience working with Morse on the electric telegraph. Vail wrote about some of the previous work done by others on telegraphs that influenced his and Morse’s work. However, Vail’s account failed to give recognition to Joseph Henry, first Secretary of the Smithsonian, who met with Morse and had invented the high intensity magnet used in Morse’s electric telegraph. For several years, a controversy ensued over the degree of Henry’s contribution to the mechanism. (For more about the controversy read David Hochfelder’s article, Joseph Henry: Inventor of the Telegraph?). So, “What Hath God Wrought?” For Alfred Vail it would seem to have been a lack of notoriety. However, in reading his letters, it seems that fame was neither his motivation nor goal. Vail’s work on the electric telegraph provided him with a life’s work and sense of accomplishment. And maybe, for him, that was enough.
At THE BIGGER PICTURE, we often write about the challenges of maintaining the data in digital archives. But a recent article bundled in the informative daily arts newsletter compiled by Jeff Weiss—you can subscribe by sending a request to firstname.lastname@example.org—raises some issues we haven’t focused on yet: when and how we’re going to start dealing with digital artworks that have and will be produced, as both time and technology go by.
A piece by Vanessa Thorpe, first published in The Observer, sounds a warning alarm about the potential loss of a generation’s-worth of computer-based, digital art. A team of British experts, it turns out, are expressing concern that some contemporary artistic landmarks are in danger of disappearing within a decade, unless conservationists can figure out how to stop digitally born works or art from degrading.
"Past generations captured who they were and what they did via museums and books," said David Anderson who, along with Janet Delve at the School of Creative Technologies at the University of Portsmouth, is among those spearheading efforts preserve some complex artworks of the early digital age. The big problem, Anderson says, is that "the pace of technological development in the digital age has now outstripped our capacity for preservation."
In response, the first symposium of its kind, the Preservation of Complex Digital Objects is scheduled to take place in June at three locations in Great Britain and webcast in order to reach an even broader international community. Under examination will be the first generation of digital art works—as well as interactive works, 3D visualizations, and video games—that may soon become unreadable and are in danger of being lost. “In technology,” Anderson notes, “little things change all the time. Over the course of a 20– or 30– year working life, the software we use is updated or made obsolete all the time, but most of us aren't really bothered by the changes. But in terms of science and art, digital preservation is increasingly important."
In fact, preserving digitally constituted works of art is already a topic of interest and concern for artists, collectors, galleries, and museums as new digital formats are introduced and other become outdated. And while a growing number of artists are intrigued by and embrace the fact that their works will have a short lifespan, you can bet that there’ll be at least as many people out there working toward finding a way for digital artwork to remain accessible and retain its market value in the future.