The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
- In Part 1 of a series on preserving your family history, Bertram Lyons, an archivist at the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress, answers questions about preserving audio. [via New York Times]
- Emulation has come a long way in helping preserve the look, feel, and funcationality of software from the past, but there is still a need to preserve the hardware as well. [via The Signal: Digital Preservation, LOC]
- Available for free download for archivists: Describing Archives: A Content Standard, Second Edition. [via InfoDocket]
- The National Archives as well as other federal agencies have been working to implement the Digital Government Strategy by improving digital services to better serve people though mobile apps and web APIs. [via NARAations, NARA]
- Smithsonian Magazine and Air & Space Magazine are now available in their entirety from Gale Cengage. [via InfoDocket]
- The people and places across America have so many stories to tell and Smithsonian Magazine offers two: Shane Confectionery in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and coffin maker Marcus Daly. [via Smithsonian Magazine]
This post was written with the help of researcher Sakae Kuniyoshi, who teaches at Syrayuri College in Japan. Ms. Kuniyoshi first brought Mori’s relationship with Henry to our attention and provided us with valuable research for the post.
In 1868, the Meiji government came into power in Japan with promises to modernize Japan politically, socially, culturally, technologically, and educationally. One of its efforts to push modernization included the establishment of an international relationship with the United States. Thus, in 1871, at the young age of twenty-five, Mori Arinori (1847-1889) traveled to America as the first Charge d'Affaires from the Meiji government. His trip included a visit to the Smithsonian where he established a close relationship with Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry.
Born in Kagoshima, Japan, in 1847, Mori was the son of a samurai. As a boy, he studied at both the samurai clan school and at Kaiseijo, a western studies school. Later, the clan sent him, along with eleven other students, to Great Britain to study at the University College London. While studying English and western ideologies in London, Mori became acquainted with Laurence Oliphant, a member of parliament who spent time in Japan. Oliphant also belonged to Thomas Lake Harris' utopian religious community and convinced Mori and several of his fellow Japanese students to travel to America to study at Lake's spiritualist commune in Amenia, New York. The students abandoned their studies and traveled to America, where they stayed for about ten months. However, when Mori received news of the Meiji revolution, he returned to Japan to fulfill his obligations to his country. He wrote that he "should be exceedingly glad and fully satisfied if we could be worthy to become even the very smallest prey for the sake of the restoration of the kingdom." (Harris-Oliphant Papers, Butler Library, Columbia University)
Mori rose in the Meiji government, where his ideals of secular education, broader international relations, and religious freedoms were embraced by Meiji Enlightenment thinkers. When he traveled to the United States in 1872, he became the first Japanese diplomat in residence in the country and set out to learn about American institutions to help Japan develop a western-style educational system. While in America, Mori met with government officials, advocates, and businessmen. Traveling to San Francisco, New York, Boston, and Washington, DC, he quickly became engaged in influential circles around the country.
In DC, Mori met such noted figures as Charles Sumner and Dorothea Dix. Through these meetings, Mori met the first Smithsonian Secretary, Joseph Henry, and the two established a close relationship. Through their letters, the two discuss many issues that Mori hoped to work on for Japan. They discuss issues surrounding the implementation of a new educational system in Japan, as well as Mori's desire to promote English as a primary language in Japan. The most important topic the two discussed was the issue of the Japanese Shimonoseki Indemnity. The indemnity, paid by Japan in 1864 for damages done to an American steamer during the military engagements at Shimonoseki, was seen as inflated and unpopular by some Americans. Many believed a portion of the payment should be returned to Japan. Henry thought that the money the United States paid back to the Japanese government could be used to help Mori’s goal to establish an educational institution in Japan. He proposed this to Congress in an 1872 letter. However, the notion was set aside and the money was not repaid until 1883. Mori and Henry continued their relationship over the years, and Henry even proofread a chapter in one of Mori's publications.
In 1873, Mori left the United States and returned to Japan after visiting Europe. Fueled by his experiences abroad, Mori began establishing Japan's first commercial college, Shoho Koshujo (now known as Hitotsubashi University). He continued to serve the Meiji government as an ambassador, Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, and eventually an official in the Education Ministry. With the Education Ministry, Mori helped enact changes to the Japanese educational system, including co-educational schooling. However, as with all change, Mori's ideologies were not always popular. Some thought his push for English language education was an attempt to undermine Japanese dialects. Others found his religious ideas to be an assault on Shintoism. Henry warned him about such change "No change of such magnitude as that in which you are engaged however, can ever be accomplished without the exercise of much sagacity, prudence and labor..." Sadly, in 1889, an ultranationalist stabbed Mori, because he felt Mori desecrated a Shrine when he allegedly did not take his shoes off upon entering. Mori succumbed to the stab wound a day after the incident. Although not all of his programs were popular, Mori's work helped usher in modernism to Japan and established lasting ties between that nation and the Smithsonian Institution.
- Record Unit 7001 - Joseph Henry Collection, 1808, 1825-1878, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Record Unit 7081 - William Jones Rhees Collection, circa 1878-1907, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Record Unit 33 - Office of the Secretary Outgoing Correspondence, 1865-1891, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Even though I work at the Smithsonian Institution there are quite a few exhibitions throughout the museums and galleries that I don’t get around to visiting because there are not enough hours in the day. This includes the monster snake Titanoboa. Luckily my children did get to view it up close in all its frightening glory at the National Museum of Natural History last year. Nevertheless, I do get to work with the planning records of some of the Smithsonian exhibitions in my job. These records deal with the design, execution, and installation of exhibitions.
Digital files in these collections can include correspondence, memoranda, concepts, proposals, scripts, label texts, catalogs, promotional materials, clippings, installation photographs, floor plans, drawings, graphics, checklists, schedules, visitor comment books, notes, and other related materials. Going though these records gives me a real appreciation for all the work that goes into planning and opening an exhibition, which can take years and many phases. Multiple offices and contractors also can be part of the process.
Exhibition space has to be carefully laid out. The Office of Exhibit Central’s floor plans for the Smithsonian 2008 Artists at Work offer great details of where each object would go in the juried exhibition that featured 70 works created by Smithsonian staff, fellows, interns, and volunteers. This work was done using CAD (computer-assisted design) software.
Many exhibitions also have an online presence now either through websites or social media. Not only did the Piano 300 website serve as a companion piece for more than a decade to the Piano 300 exhibition that ran from 2000-2001, it also demonstrates how website design has changed since 2000. The website was recently removed but has been archived.
Some exhibitions also travel to other institutions after being on view at the Smithsonian in coordination with the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service. American Sabor: Latinos in U.S. Popular Music was one of those, which is now on exhibit at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Some of these records include educational materials for classroom use.
The Smithsonian also maintains a wonderful database of past (starting from the 1980s), current, and upcoming exhibitions as well. For instance, American Art at the 1893 World's Fair was held at the National Portrait Museum in 1993 to mark the 100th anniversary of World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. This database serves as another tool that notes the history of the various museums, galleries, and research centers at the Smithsonian and their role in telling many stories.
Exhibition records are a rich resource that can document how museum exhibitions have evolved over time or how a specific object was described and used within an exhibition. These records offer a deeper understanding of all the hard work that was needed to make an exhibition a reality.
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