The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
- Check out some of our wonderful and wacky collections highlighted over at Around the Mall blog (for example, the world's longest beard, at right) in honor of American Archives Month.
- The wisdom of crowds: two George Mason University professors are assembling a team on the Internet of more than five hundred forecasters who will make educated guesses about a series of world events in order to study crowdsourcing [via Liza O’Leary, SIA].
- “I love mistakes in photos.” Emily Moazami of the Smithsonian American Art Museum waxes poetic about her favorite things about being a photo archivist.
- You think digitizing a book is as simple as slapping a book on a scanner? Not so fast—here’s a broad overview from the Library of Congress’ The Signal blog.
- It’s a big freebie: Smithsonian Folkways offers up ten free tracks for you to download from the new Mickey Hart Collection, which highlights musical traditions at risk.
- Powerhouse Museum talks about the changes in their digital strategy over the years, and highlights some very interesting digital projects taking place at museums, libraries, and archives.
- The Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art highlights the Emmet family artists found in their collections in the newest installment of their “I Found it in the Archives” series:
Eighty-six years have passed since John Scopes was put on trial in Dayton, Tennessee, for violating the statewide ban on teaching the theory of evolution. But a few weeks ago we heard the voice of someone who witnessed the outdoor trial proceedings on July 20, 1925. This was not a recording or an actor reading from a transcript of an oral history. It was the witness, HERSELF!
Back in July, we asked the public if they could help us identify some of the people depicted in photos in our collection of the Scopes trial. So, we were delighted when we were contacted by Martha Seeley recently. Martha Seeley, 94 (nee Cunnyngham – yes, with a “Y”), was eight years old when her hometown, Dayton, Tennessee, was transformed from a quiet southern town into the stage for the “Trial of the Century”; pitting two legal giants (Clarence Darrow—defense and William Jennings Bryan—prosecution) against one another. Initially, Martha wrote to the Archives in response to an article in the Chattanooga Times Free Press for help in identifying images from the trial in our collection (Science Service Records, Record Unit 7091), she helped note a misidentification on one (this photo on the Flickr Commons and pictured to the right, is actually Gordon McKenzie on right, not Arthur Garfield Hays), but there was more.
Her letter went on to recount how she’d been told by her mother not to leave the house because of all the strangers in town. And how her father snuck her out and she sat atop his shoulders, on the north lawn outside the courthouse, and listened to Darrow and Bryan spar on the platform. He instructed her, to “pay real close attention because you are witnessing history.” And she must have, because the account she wrote to the Archives leapt off the page.
She also enclosed a picture, taken by her sister Melrose, of herself in July of 1925 standing with her sister’s boyfriend (Steve), a telegrapher who was in town to help with the extra workload. By the way, Steve gave her a pack of gum, which she was not allowed to have, so it’s hidden behind her back (check out her right hand).
The letter and picture absolutely made our week and we really wanted to call her and express our thanks and ask for permission to write about her, but we weren’t sure she’d want to hear from us. We needn’t have worried. Thank you, Martha for including your contact information because, as you the reader may have guessed, there was more.
Over the phone, Martha continued to tell us how her mother, because of a family connection, took a “dim view” of the trial and called it a “publicity stunt”, while on the other hand, her father counseled Scopes, who was initially reluctant to participate in the test trial. She doesn’t know if her mother ever found out that her father snuck her out to witness the trial.
Just when we thought the story ended, our Research Associate, Marcel LaFollette, told us that there is a scrapbook at the National Museum of American History, compiled by Scopes’ wife, Mildred Walker Scopes in the 1960s and donated in 2008. In it are letters from Martha’s brothers, Ross and Phillip “Punk,” who played football for Scopes. Each wrote Scopes after the publication of his autobiography in 1967. “Punk” Cunnyngham wrote on April 8, 1967, “As a kid running around the court house yard with Carmack Waterhouse we tried to keep up with the WGN [Chicago radio] announcer Quin Ryan. We were fascinated by this new medium that had invaded our city. I actually felt for Mr. Bryan when Darrow began to pick him to pieces during the out-door session. Boy that Darrow was smart.” Ross Cunnyngham also recounted memories of the trial and gave updates on people Scopes would have known. He closes his March 29, 1967, letter with, “I saw you on the TODAY show from N.Y. You did well and wished you could have stayed the entire show.”
In the end, after all that, we sat back a little dazed and thought . . . without snail mail and the telephone we would never have heard Martha’s story—can’t tweet that. Connecting through letters (both Martha’s and her brothers’) and hearing voices (on the page and in the flesh) is a VERY good thing, indeed.
The Smithsonian Institution Archives has just launched our new website with a new look and navigation, as well as expanded pages on the history of the Smithsonian. If you’re interested in the history of the Smithsonian, what can you find? The History of the Smithsonian section has an array of resources and exhibits to answer your questions, from when individual Smithsonian museums were founded, to the laws that govern the Smithsonian, to images of the Smithsonian during the Civil War.
To explore the history of the Smithsonian on the new site, simply click on the “Smithsonian History” link at the top of the new homepage. From there you can investigate what happened on your birthday or a specific date in the past by visiting our “This Day in Smithsonian History” page. Here you can learn about interesting events that occurred at the Smithsonian on every day of the year, from 1846 to the present, from expeditions to exhibits, and from acquisition of objects to natural disasters.
Under our Resources tab, we have sections on General Smithsonian History, which includes an introduction to the legal documents—from public laws to deeds of gift, to court cases—that govern the Smithsonian. Get to know our enigmatic founding donor James Smithson, and read a blog post about what kind of student he was. Learn about the twelve Smithsonian Secretaries who served as our CEOs, as well as the Board of Regents who oversee the Smithsonian. You can also follow the development of our nineteen Museums, and our varied Research Centers.
For each of the museums and research centers, you can view a page with historical background information, images, a chronology of its history, an annotated bibliography, a search of all our archival records for the museum or center, as well as links to a variety of web resources. You can even check out the “Did You Know?” section on each page to learn some little known facts about that museum, and impress visitors from out of town with your insider knowledge. Soon we will add audio and video excerpts of oral history interviews that document the lives of the people who have made the Institution what it is.
We still have a variety of exhibits on Smithsonian history in an older format that will be migrated later this year. And we will be greatly expanding our pages for students and teachers in the Smithsonian Stories section, and our page on Joseph Henry, the first Smithsonian Secretary. Our Historic Pictures image gallery has already been expanded and transferred over so be sure to check out the wonderful images it has to share.
Additionally, the hundreds of historic images on all these pages will take you back to a time when the Smithsonian consisted of a single building set next to a swamp, cut off from downtown by a fetid canal. They illustrate interesting people and times during the Institution’s history: beer drinking young explorers who lived in the Smithsonian’s Castle towers and serenaded Secretary Henry’s daughters; the first animals that came to the National Zoo; watchmen who guarded the National Museum in its first years; to Smithsonian scientists raising a family on Barro Colorado Island in Panama in the 1960s. We’ve even begun geo-tagging these images so you can create your own Google map mash-ups. We’re especially interested in any additional identification you can provide us about these images.
It’s been a lot of work to expand and reorganize our web materials, but very exciting to see our history pages in a fresh new format that is easy to navigate. We hope you’ll take time to explore Smithsonian History on the web and check back periodically for the new content we’ll be adding. Just email us as SIHistory@si.edu with new information or questions on the history of the Smithsonian. We hope you enjoy traveling back in time with us!