The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Every once in a while, a curve ball gets thrown across conservation's home plate. In preparation for their exhibit, Native Olympians , my colleagues at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) asked if I could step in as a pinch hitter to assist on the extraction of the contents of a box . . . of Wheaties. This familiar iconic object of material culture, which features the equally iconic Jim Thorpe and autographs of his direct descendents, elicited so much interest that the Smithsonian Magazine chose it as a "National Treasure" and produced a conservation-focused video to accompany their story about the champion athlete's Olympian legacy. Because the short feature tells a great story, I'll expand below with some extra behind-the-scenes discussion that may be of interest to conservators and sports fans alike. Watch and see!
Ok, now that you’re back, I’ll get into the nitty-gritty. Like any athlete, a conservator practices and analyzes their efforts so they can make that game-winning touchdown when they really need to. In the video, I mentioned the "stunt boxes" that we used for trials, and photographed to communicate quickly our process with our NMAI colleagues (the handy notes feature on Flickr helps a picture speak 1,000 words with less! Be sure to mouseover them on the full Flickr site). Now that we're done, we thought it would make a neat show-and-tell.
Since the video went up, I've received lots of questions – here are some with responses:
Q: A little concerned that […] the replacement for the cereal would not have the same center of gravity as the original, thus imparting to the box an artificial slab-like appearance…
A: While we did contact General Mills to inquire about packaging technology (the closest one can get is the PR dept who will relay technical inquiries), information from the manufacturer is extremely closely guarded! Interestingly, one of the reasons for intervention is that due to the box having been carefully stored flat on its back, the cereal had shifted, settled and blocked up a bit and no longer had the same center of gravity that it did at origin, and so was toppling off its footing of its own accord. Happily I spoke with someone who indicated that center of gravity is VERY important to the manufacturer for a variety of reasons, and our solution of inserting an inert rigid block to fill the inside of the box more accurately reflects manufacturer's intent for the original presentation than the condition of the object as we observed it after ten years of natural aging. Also, the solid insert prevents further risk for dings to the box, some which are observed from its handling prior to its accession.
Q: So what happens to the cereal? Did you hold on to it? Will the cereal be preserved as well?
A: The decision was made to discard the cereal itself (after a few humorous "Guess which is the old Wheaties" blind taste tests). Generally, we try to limit easily available food sources as part of Integrated Pest Management practice. The internal packaging was also yellowed and oily, a sign of problematic plastics decay. While sometimes it is suitable to retain samples of historic food for analysis, it was deemed unnecessary in this case, and surely General Mills would be a better resource for preserved samples in the future. When asked if it is more important to save food packaging or the food itself (in a separate discussion about space food with my colleague Jennifer Levasseur), I replied that indeed sometimes we do save food. Think of the excitement when some ancient pot is discovered with intact residue of some food or drink. Analysis of those can tell us a lot about a people’s culture and their environment; saving a representative sample in smaller inert vial is a potential option, while that may introduce an additional item to catalog and track. This also comes up in intentional collections of realia such as food or cosmetics in packaging which may not be stable, although, interfering with the packaging to get a small sample may introduce another mechanism of decay. For an excellent example of why you might want to retain modern food, see this funny and thoughtful entry on the amazing Antarctic Heritage Trust (of explorer's huts) conservators' blog.
Do you have any further questions that I didn’t touch on? Please step up to the starting line and ask away in the comments!
- Best in the World: Native Athletes in the Olympics, National Museum of the American Indian
- Museum Conservation Institute, Smithsonian Institution
While interning at the Smithsonian Institution Archives this summer, I have had the opportunity to participate in archiving and preserving the Smithsonian's web presence. As a current Master's student specializing in Archives and Record management and Preservation of Information, I could not resist the prospect of learning an area of archiving completely foreign to me—web archiving. This endeavor has been both educational and challenging, and I would like to share some of the issues with web archiving that I have encountered.
In previous blog posts, we shared how websites are preserved in much greater detail than I will discuss here, but it is important to recount some of the information. We utilize an open-source software program called Heritrix to "crawl" websites, and what this means is that we capture how the site looks and functions on the day that we perform a crawl. After the capture is complete, we view the files on the Wayback machine in order to make sure that we have: A) captured an accurate visual representation of the actual "live" website and B) we can navigate the crawled site in the same way that we would the live site. This all seems easy enough, right? I thought so until I began viewing some of the captured websites on the Wayback machine. Heritrix and the Wayback machine capture and display most of our sites wonderfully, but as I began to crawl and assess more sites I noticed patterns of missing content on websites that contained a lot of interactive features and complex design layouts.
An example of a problematic site is the Smithsonian's Mobile website:
- Saving the Smithsonian’s Web, The Bigger Picture Blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Archiving the Smithsonian’s Presence on the Internet, The Bigger Picture Blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- 14 Fun Facts about Fireflies from the Smithsonian’s Surprising Science blog—just in time for summer evening jaunts.
- This is what a scientist looks like.
- Crowdsourcing gone viral—when the Museum of the Confederacy located in Richmond, Virginia asked for the public’s help in identifying individuals in Civil War-era photos in their collections in order to return them to their rightful family owners, little did they know that the response would be tremendous [via Center for the Future of Museums].
- Great idea for an exhibit based on an art archive; Six Degrees of Peggy Bacon [via Archives of American Art].
- The Library of Congress has acquired the personal papers of Carl Sagan (1934-1996)—American astronomer, astrobiologist, and science communicator.
- The Scottish Council on Archives has come up with a learning strategy to help raise awareness of the vast collection of archives in Scotland, and look at how they might be used more often and more effectively by schools—a great model for archives here in the US [via Bill Boyd].
- This is what the digital future looks like (well, at least in 1961). From the AT&T Archives: