The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
My internship with the Smithsonian Institution Archives has been largely concerned with the Field Book Project and as such, I have had the opportunity to view scientific field books from the last one hundred and fifty years. However, it is the work of David Crockett Graham that has intrigued me the most. He was, among many other things, a missionary and a field collector for the Smithsonian Institution during his various posts in China between the years 1919–1948. During this time, Graham conducted several expeditions in and around Suifu (Yibin) and Chengtu (Chengdu) in the province of Szechwan (Sichuan), as well as along the borders of Sichuan, Yunnan, and Tibet. One of my fellow interns has already written a short blog about David Crockett Graham, and while she focused on Chinese cultural history and biodiversity, I wanted to highlight the dangers that field collectors often faced in volatile situations.
Although the collection holds Graham's diaries from as early as 1924, I worked most closely with the diaries from 1929 to 1935 and was surprised by the breadth of information contained within. For instance, in his diary from August 16, 1929 to March 24, 1930, Graham recounts incidences of leopards terrorizing villagers and killing men, in the area of China where he was working to preserve ducks and rabbits and ship them overseas to Washington, DC for display and research. Successive diary entries discuss the pervasive influence of opium fields and opium smoking within the population, forty to sixty percent, and how this addiction afflicted some members of his collection crew, leading to poor preservation of certain specimens.
Not only did Graham include descriptive information regarding his natural history acquisitions, but there are also insightful glimpses of life in both rural and urban settings that changed as the country suffered during rebellion and war. The most notable change comes after his return to China with his new post to Chengdu in 1932. Here he was able to observe quite closely the impact that the Nationalist-Communist struggle was having on the people of China. His expeditions were hampered by rumors of, and actual battles between, the opposing sides and he wrote of the very real threat that this civil war posed to his crew and himself.
[November 17–19, 1932]: There has been civil war in Chengtu [sic] with heavy cannonading and machine gun and rifle firing . . . It is nearly impossible to get into or out of the city.
[June 30, 1933]: Civil war is going on all around us so that it is not safe to travel in any direction.
[April 9, 1935]: The Communist threat so very serious, we are living in hope.
[June 22, 1935] Some soldiers mistook Zen [crew member] for a communist spy and put him into prison where he remained for several days. It was with great difficulty that I got him free and the soldiers threatened to execute him as a spy.
[September 28, 1935]: The Aborigine [sic] who has collected . . . for me in the past is accused of being a Communist, and is now in prison at Kongshien [sic]. I am trying to get him out . . .
It is easy to understand how Graham’s work crosses disciplinary boundaries and can be useful beyond the natural history field because of his personal experiences in China. In particular, Graham's diaries serve as a significant primary source for historians and the general public. This valuable collection will be online in the near future, so please check back frequently, and immerse yourself in the rich reading of David Crockett Graham's diaries.
- Field Work and a World War, The Bigger Picture Blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- The Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum remembers Sally Ride, the first woman in space, who sadly passed away this week.
- Wired UK reports on how museums are a crucial aspect of preserving our digital heritage [via Lynda Schmitz Fuhrig, SIA].
- You can transcribe it! Explore the results of the US National Archives’ transcription pilot project, which has the public helping to transcribe documents in their collections in Wikisource. Perhaps you can help?
- Who knew one of my favorite sitcoms was hanging out at the Smithsonian this week?! Check out behind-the-scenes photos of Parks and Rec filming at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
- Olympics mania has begin. Read more about Olympics-related collections and programming across the Smithsonian.
- An animated TED talk I’ve enjoyed this week—a timeline of the history of electricity research [via Neatorama]:
I have delayed writing to you because I have been in combat. I was in the Palau operation. It was hell as far as I am concerned. During the 1st night and second morning, I thought that I had made my last bird skin. Mortar and artillery shells fell all around my hole. All night, I felt that the next one was coming in to my hole. I did little sleeping because snipers were moving around near my hole. I was plenty scared. I hope that I never have to go through another one like that. I paid little attention to the birds there. To move about more than duty called for was very unhealthy. Never has my interest in birds been as little as it was here.
Seventy years ago, rich correspondence such as this brought the reality of war to the home front. This passage, written by US Navy Pharmacists’ Mate 1st Class Sammy M. Ray on October 29, 1944, brings to life the stresses of World War II. Ray’s wartime experiences, preserved in the letters he wrote to Smithsonian Assistant Secretary Alexander Wetmore, are now on exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History as part of the Smithsonian Institution Libraries exhibit When Time and Duty Permit: Smithsonian Collecting During World War II.
In the early 1990s, I wrote an article about the Smithsonian's role in World War II, especially the technical advice given to American military and the collections sent to the Smithsonian by soldiers stationed in the Pacific. While conducting research for the article, I was struck by the extensive correspondence between Wetmore and numerous soldiers on the front lines. A warm and kind man, Wetmore wrote long letters to these young men, trying to lift their spirits under difficult circumstances and encouraging them to take a respite from the war by studying the natural world around them. The Smithsonian even published a small handbook, A Field Collectors Manual in Natural History for servicemen.
Among Wetmore's correspondents was Ray, a young man from Rosedale, Mississippi. As a recent graduate of Mississippi State College, Ray pursued his natural history studies with great enthusiasm while stationed abroad but only, as he noted "when time and duty permit." He sent specimens of many unusual and beautiful birds from remote islands in the Pacific, including the buttonquail, cardinal lory, and rainbow lorikeet. His long letters transported me to Pacific Islands with descriptions of birds on the wing. His letters also peppered Wetmore with questions and requests for collecting supplies, making clear that his happiest times were when he was able to borrow a pair of binoculars and shift his focus from the battlefield to the world of birds in the treetops.
But as he wrote above, there were difficult days, such as the fierce battle of Palau, when he thought he had "made his last bird skin," as bullets and bombs whizzed around his head. Wetmore listened to these difficult accounts and wrote back encouraging words to help young soldiers such as Sammy Ray cope. I marveled at the rich correspondence of writers in those days, handwritten letters on thin airmail paper that had survived almost seven decades, a far cry from our text messages and tweets today.
But the digital age does give us some advantages. When I began work on the exhibit last year, on a whim, I entered the names of some of Wetmore’s wartime correspondents into internet searches to see if I could learn anything of their post-war lives. When I entered Sammy Ray's name, I was astounded to find YouTube videos of one Dr. Sammy Ray teaching children how to shuck oysters. A World War II vet who makes YouTube videos!
I also found a faculty page at Texas A&M University at Galveston, where I confirmed this was the very same Sammy Ray who had graduated from Mississippi State. I quickly sent an email and received a reply within fifteen minutes. A World War II vet who answers email! In the past year I’ve gotten to know the energetic and resilient veteran who went on to a research career in oyster pathology and who, at 93 years, is still presenting papers at conferences. He came to visit the National Museum of Natural History last year to see the letters he wrote and collections he sent to the Smithsonian so long ago. He’ll return to see the new exhibit this summer, with family, students and colleagues. A small version of the exhibit is being put on display at his university library.
This project shows the strengths of both yesteryear and today. The Wetmore/Ray correspondence exemplifies a bygone era of long and thoughtful letters that transport us back in place, and time, and feelings. But even if our letters are not so long today, the digital age allows us to search for and communicate with people far removed in space and time, sharing memories and forging new relationships.
- United States National Museum, Permanent Administrative Files, 1877-1975, Record Unit 192, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- When Time and Duty Permit: Smithsonian Collecting During World War II, exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History
- WWII Navy Corpsman Collected Birds Between Pacific Theater Battles, Around the Mall blog, Smithsonian magazine
- Sea Aggie professor is recognized by the Smithsonian Institution, Texas A&M University
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