The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
This is the second of two posts on our conservators’ work with the Smithsonian’s Haiti Cultural Recovery project. This post is an excerpt from the forthcoming publication by Dr. Richard Kurin, Saving Haiti’s Heritage: Cultural Recovery After the Earthquake. Translated as: Sovtaj Patrimwàn Kiltirèl Ayiti: Prezève kilti aprè tranblemann tè a (Haitian Kreyol) and Sauvetage du Patrimoine d’Haïti: préservation de la Culture après le séisme (French) Smithsonian Institution: 2011. (ISBN-13 9780966552003)
In June 2011, I was in Haiti as part of the Smithsonian Institution’s Cultural Recovery activities, to talk to broadcasters and audiovisual librarians about their collections in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake. Haiti is not alone in having a preservation crisis when it comes to audio-visual heritage. Archives and libraries throughout the world have declared that film, video, and audio collections are deteriorating so rapidly that a vast record of human experience from the 20th century is disappearing. The question for me as I toured television and radio stations in Port-au-Prince was how much remained after the earthquake.
The good news is that many historic recordings are kept by the broadcasters; the bad news is that circumstances keep these recordings from being used and preserved. In cramped air-conditioned studios, producers are creating content on contemporary broadcast formats; but on the shelves in small side offices there are thousands of rare LP records and analog audio and videotape recordings waiting to be resurrected.
At Radio Lumiere a friendly electronics engineer showed me audio decks that he had fixed in his immaculate workshop, using his special skills and almost-obsolete parts specially secured from the United States. In another corner, there was a pile of equipment that were still awaiting parts.
In the TV control room at Radio Métropole the staff held a lively conversation about how more and more broadcast technology is digital, and the old equipment that they use is being slowly replaced. Being behind the technology curve is not always a bad thing when trendy technologies decline in price over the course of a year, but the cost of even five year old technology is often beyond the capability of poor broadcasting stations. The result is that the overall media content for these broadcasters is stuck in the 1990s and earlier.
On the staff patio at Radio Antilles Internationale with a mango tree dropping its ripe fruit just a few feet away, we delved into the concerns of cataloguing the sounds and sights contained on fragile magnetic media. Access to expertise in the library and archives field is infrequent, so some of the most cost-effective and efficient means of capturing data and making it accessible via the web has not come to Haiti.
On my second to last day in Haiti I led a group of broadcast professionals in a custodial exercise at the National Television of Haiti (TNH). The TNH library contains over ten thousand hours of political talk-shows and newscasts that cover the tumultuous years of the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. These tapes are all on a now-obsolete format called ¾”-U-matic, and I did not see one working U-matic deck in Haiti. The tapes—censored by technology—may be the documentation that propels democratization in a country that has seen so much manmade and natural disaster.
Twenty colleagues and I spent an afternoon wiping off dust and grime from over five hundred vintage political tapes and removing the red “record buttons” from the tapes that will prevent them from being accidentally erased when they are placed into a playback deck. Afterwards, we celebrated a worthwhile accomplishment in the television’s canteen with delicious Haitian coffee and Prestige beer. One thing that Haiti does not have a shortage of, it seems, is collegiality and good will among professionals.
It's always fun to blog about the unexpected finds in our collections so when I came across a whole series of craft activities, I felt like I had just found some buried treasure. The activities are features in Paw Prints which ran from approximately 1975 through at least 1984.
Paw Prints (Accession 12-090) was published bimonthly by the Friends of the National Zoo (FONZ) as an educational publication for junior members, schools, and libraries. FONZ is the dedicated non-profit partner of the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park and helps the Zoo fulfill its goal of excellence in animal care, science, sustainability, and education. The Zoo also reprints articles and activities from Paw Prints upon occasion in its Smithsonian Zoogoer publication. Instructions for fingerprint animals (Volume 4, Issue 1) caught my attention as I had recently seen something similar at a festival. The artwork was selling for $35–$40, more if framed. Yet the instructions in Paw Prints seemed amazingly simple:
Use your "paws" and your imagination to make all sorts of interesting animals.
You will need:
- a stamp pad or watercolor marker
- a pencil or pen
- your fingers
- Cover your finger tip with stamp pad or marker ink.
- Press your inky finger on the paper to make a finger print.
- Draw legs, eyes, a head, or fins to make your own zoo animal.
Your zoo animals can decorate stationary, wrapping paper, teeshirts [sic], and greeting cards. Can you think of other places to use your zoo animals?
Five of our staff got together on a recent morning to try our hand at the activity. We used colored index cards instead of paper, and supplemented the materials listed above with crayons and colored pencils. A wide variety of colored stamp pads were gathered from scrapbooking supplies. In about half an hour, we created thirteen unique designs, ranging from insects to large mammals, real to imaginary, and lone animals to entire menageries full of creatures.
So from the Archives to you—the gift of creative inspiration from our collections (and staff) for a rainy day activity, some new refrigerator art, or a last minute holiday gift for the grandparents. Happy holidays!
Special thanks to Digitization Specialist Kira Cherrix, Field Book Project Cataloger Lesley Parilla, Photo Archivist Marguerite Roby, and Assistant Archivist Mitch Toda for their creativity and artistic skills.
- Cambridge University opens a digital archive of Newton’s personal papers [Effie Kapsalis, SIA].
- Ever wondered what it’s like behind the scenes, designing an exhibition at the Smithsonian? Find out in this intern’s post at the National Museum of American History’s blog.
- The Smithsonian’s Secretary, Wayne Clough, shares his travel journal (and photos) of recent travels to Machu Picchu and the rest of Peru.
- Remember CD-ROMs? The Library of Congress’ digital preservation blog, which has been exploring the preservation of obsolete technologies, looks into why people and organizations are interested in accessing the information from these outdated discs.
- The Smithsonian’s Human Studies Film Archives talks about a recent surprising and delightful find of an avant-garde director Jorge Prelorán's short experimental film, Claudia (Version I) (1972), in their collections. Read more.
- What did the first seismograph look like?
- The very interesting WordSeer project: a text analysis tool that includes visualizations and works on the grammatical structure of text. Still confused about its use? For example, scholars studying concepts of beauty in Shakespeare’s writing may be surprised to find that the writer didn’t use the word “beautiful” in his texts very often. WordSeer would help you find the beautiful synonyms the author did use. Watch more below: