The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
- Earth Island Journal on why fifty years after its publication, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring is still so relevant (featuring one of the Archives’ photos of Carson).
- An archivist’s nightmare . . . How much data is created every minute [via Effie Kapsalis, SIA].
- In recognition of the 25th Anniversary of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, the quilt will be displayed as a part of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival June 27 to July 4 and after that, it will blanket the National Mall as Washington hosts this year's international AIDS conference. A slideshow, and more on the history of the quilt on CNN.
- Britain From Above—a collection of aerial images of Great Britain—is launched. Many of the shots were taken in the early days of aviation by ex-First World War pilots, from extremely low altitudes, a technique which was very dangerous [via INFOdocket].
- The Smithsonian Collections Blog profiles the very hand-written check that enabled George Gustav Heye to start the foundational collection of what is now the National American Indian Museum.
- And from Smithsonian Magazine, a little something to scratch your travel bug itch. Ten Natural Wonders You’ve Never Heard of:
This post was co-written by Lynda Schmitz Fuhrig, Electronic Records Archivist, Digital Services Division and Rich Saal, Photography Editor, The State Journal-Register in Springfield, Illinois.
Photography plays a crucial role in our lives and communities by documenting both grand moments and everyday routines.
Though digital photography is the norm today, large collections of film and glass plate negatives still can be found throughout the Smithsonian Institution and other organizations, including local and national newspapers.
Some newspapers still have archives of negatives, images, and clippings, known as the "morgue", or morgue files. These archives tell lively and sometimes ordinary 19th and 20th century American stories, but many of these collections are in trouble as media companies search for ways to stay afloat. Preservation of these resources is not typically a top priority at many news organizations, and the easy availability of images on the Internet has devalued photo archives as a media asset.
The New York Times launched the popular blog The Lively Morgue earlier this year, which features a few digitized images every week from its collections. In the video below, New York Times employees talk about both the importance of the newspaper morgue, and the uncertainty of this archive's future.
The Smithsonian Institution Archives also has digitized images from Science Service—a news service morgue we have in our collections.
Another newspaper photography digitization project called Springfield Photographs is a collection of glass plate negatives from the Illinois State Journal—a predecessor to The State Journal-Register in Springfield, Illinois. I previously worked at The State Journal-Register and appreciated the value of historic images and clippings as both a journalist researching stories, and later, as the newsroom librarian pursuing preservation efforts.
I spoke with my former colleague, Photo Editor Rich Saal from The State Journal-Register, about this digitization project recently. Even as institutions and organizations struggle to figure out how to allocate limited resources, our conversation illuminated precisely why morgue files continue to be such an important part of our history. Rich offers his thoughts on the project and the state of newspaper photography archives below:
When a photographer for the Illinois State Journal raised his Speed Graphic [camera] in October 1929 and snapped a picture of 18-year-old Elizabeth Skadden standing on the wing of a biplane, he captured the spirit of a young woman with big dreams.
Just a high school student, Skadden was inspired by the heroic flight made just two years earlier by Charles Lindbergh. She wanted badly to be an endurance flyer. Just 95 pounds and, 'pretty,' the newspaper felt obliged to point out, she was undeniably strong-willed and focused.
'Just as soon as I get my chance, I hope to set a new endurance record for women flyers which will stand for a long, long time,' she told the newspaper.
Elizabeth's story is a tiny part of the vast historical and descriptive visual record created by American newspapers that is unparalleled in its depth and scale. Every community in the country went through urban expansion, Prohibition and its repeal, the Great Depression, both World Wars, and the period of cultural and commercial vitality in their downtown business districts. And in these communities, there was a newspaper recording it all.
When I digitized a collection of glass plate negatives taken between 1929 and 1935 for our predecessor newspaper, the Illinois State Journal, a portrait of Springfield emerged that I barely recognized. Not a portrait found in a single image, but one that was revealed by pictures taken over time of its cultural and built environment, the people walking its streets and in their daily routines, the lively public square in its role as the heart of the city, and the personality of a place that came through in the interaction of all these things.
The concern for newspaper photography collections is made all the more urgent by the turbulent and uncertain future of newspapers. As the industry looks forward, will it leave behind the visual legacy it created? I’ve heard the horror stories of collections being discarded because there was no room, no interest, no time, or money to digitize them.
There are options. Organizations and individuals that support preservation of historical documents are out there. Grant money for digitization projects can be found if a solid proposal is presented. Community volunteers can be trained to work gradually through a collection. Newspapers should be encouraged to work with local or state historical organizations to find solutions for preservation of their photographic archives.
A newspaper’s visual legacy is unique, interesting to the community it covers, and important to researchers and historians. And it is irreplaceable.
Rich Saal is photography editor at The State Journal-Register in Springfield, Ill. and has a Master’s in History. He writes regularly about images from his newspaper’s collection and can be reached at email@example.com.
Lynda Schmitz Fuhrig worked with Rich Saal at The State Journal-Register from 1993–2001.
SIA RU007091, Science Service, Records, circa 1910–1963, Smithsonian Institution Archives
On this day in 1829, James Smithson passed away in Genoa, Italy. His remains were originally buried there, about a mile west of Genoa, on a high elevation overlooking the town of Sampierdarena. In January 1904, Alexander Graham Bell headed the team that brought back Smithson's remains to the United States.
A simple mortuary chapel was created in a room to the left of the north entrance of the Smithsonian Institution Building by the Washington architectural firm of Hornblower & Marshall. Within the chapel there were stained-glass windows, a plaster ceiling, and a floor of dark Tennessee marble. The entrance to the room was sealed off by a heavy iron gate created from pieces of the fence that had surrounded the Italian grave site.
In 1974 the crypt room was renovated and the gates removed so that people could now enter the room to see the crypt of James Smithson. During the renovation, Smithson's coffin was removed from the tomb and scientific study conducted on Smithson's skeleton by Dr. J. Lawrence Angel, Curator of Physical Anthropology, National Museum of Natural History. Among their various findings, Dr. Angel determined that Smithson was 5 feet 6 inches tall; that he died of natural causes; that he had an extra vertebrae; that he smoked a pipe; and that he was probably an avid fencer based upon the development of his shoulders. After a 48-hour period, his remains were resealed in the coffin and replaced in the tomb.
Smithson's gift to the United States lead to the founding of the Smithsonian Institution we see today, with its 19 museums, the National Zoo, and multiple research centers. With its collections numbering 137 million, and with 30 million visitors per year, the Smithsonian strives to continue its mission towards the "increase and diffusion of knowledge."
Mr. Smithson Goes to Washington And the Search for a Proper Memorial, The Smithsonian’s Architectural History & Historic Preservation Division
Fun Facts: The Surprises You Find When Writing Wikipedia With the Archives, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
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