The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
You voted, we listened. For the next installment of our adventures with miscellaneous archival folders we opened up Record Unit 363 - National Museum of Natural History, Office of Exhibition, Records, circa 1955-1990. The folder that you voted for after our last adventure, was “Miscellaneous Photographs,” and a more appropriate title for a folder never existed. When I first opened the file I was overwhelmed by the randomness of its contents, so much so, I was not even sure what to write about!
The photographs in this folder cover a wide range of events, objects, and people. Some of the images document the annual Regent’s Exhibit. The Regent’s Exhibit, was an exhibit created to showcase the different activities around the Smithsonian for the Board of Regent’s Annual Meeting. It appears that up until the early 1950s the exhibit was a small endeavor, cobbled together a few days before the meeting. However, in a memo from 1953, Smithsonian administrators discuss the possibility of increasing the time spent on the exhibit. “It is felt by most that previous exhibits have been too numerous, much too crowded, often confusing, and not well-attended by the Regents…We think it would be more effective to limit the exhibits to a few appropriate phases of the Institution’s activities.” It seems their plan worked. The images found in this folder document the exhibits from the 1960s and they are sleek, well organized, and even stayed up for public exhibit inside the Smithsonian Institution Building’s Great Hall.
Other images found in the folder are photographs of collections and buildings around the Smithsonian. These images include everything from a picture of an elephant at the National Zoo, to schematics showing fabric and wood veneered panels of a third floor corridor in the National Museum of American History. Many of these images are negatives placed in smaller envelopes within the folder. The outside of the folders often have notations indicating what a print of the negative might look like. For example, the image of the elephant’s envelope reads “1-12 HIGA matt.” One could venture a guess that these images were reprinted on larger scales to display in the various exhibits the office was producing.
The most interesting images included in this smorgasbord are the photographs that give a behind-the-scenes look at the exhibits staff and their work. These images capture the detailed work it took Smithsonian staff to create exhibits that not only labeled the objects, but placed them within a larger historical context. From climbing into an exhibit to carefully creating a floor that looks like sand, to painting the leaves to set the scene for collection items, the artistry and skill utilized by Smithsonian staff never ceases to amaze me. It is great that this work, sometimes overlooked because of its seamlessness, is captured in these images to show an interesting side of the Smithsonian.
If you would like to see inside more of our miscellaneous collections, let us know what you would like us to open next. Comment below, or message us on Facebook or Twitter with Folder A for a look at a miscellaneous folder from Record Unit 548 - National Museum of Natural History, Division of Meteorites, Correspondence, circa 1970-1988 or Folder B for a look into a folder from Record Unit 50 - Smithsonian Institution, Office of the Secretary, Records, 1949-1964.
- Record Unit 363 - National Museum of Natural History, Office of Exhibition Records, circa 1955-1990: Box 7, Folder: Miscellaneous Photographs, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Record Unit 50 - Smithsonian Institution, Office of the Secretary, Records, 1949-1964: Box 148, Folder: Regents Exhibit 1953, Smithsonian Institution Archives
As a volunteer in the Digital Services Division of the Archives, I have the pleasure of digitizing archival materials ranging from field notes to videos. Not long ago, I digitized almost an hour and a half of unedited video of the 1940 Smithsonian-Firestone Expedition to Liberia. At the time, I didn’t know much about the expedition but I was intrigued by what I saw - Liberian towns, dense jungle, and exotic animals.
Having just returned from a trip to South America, National Zoological Park Director, Dr. William Mann, led an expedition to Liberia to obtain animals for the zoo in Washington, D.C. He sought several rare species including the pygmy hippopotamus, potto, okapi, and Jentik’s duiker, among others.
As the newly digitized video shows, the Manns travelled luxuriously in Liberia with an entourage of guides and assistants and they were treated to special receptions in several villages. Often, the Manns were carried in hammocks as they travelled. More information on the journey wasn’t hard to find thanks to Lucile Quarry Mann’s travel notes, which are housed here at the Archives. Lucile, the wife and frequent travel companion of Dr. Mann, left descriptive accounts of the people, places, and things that she and her husband saw while searching for animals and insects in Liberia.
Along with overseeing the addition of several animal enclosures, Dr. Mann’s specimen collecting left a lasting mark on the National Zoo. Knowing that collecting wild animals can be a very difficult task for a small party, the expedition leaders offered a reward to villagers who could capture and bring in live animals. The plan worked; Lucile wrote “as we retraced our steps, we found that in almost every village . . . one or two small animals were waiting for us.”
Though the Manns were known for raising baby animals in their Washington, D.C. apartment, Lucile’s account largely leaves out the time that she and her husband spent with animals in Liberia. Fortunately, the expedition video captures what Lucile chose not to dwell on in her writing. But, with a growing collection of animals as the expedition travelled through Liberia, we see her feeding and playing with a number of different animals they collected including chimpanzees, hornbills, and a baby pygmy hippo.
This newly digitized footage preserves both the institutional history of specimen collecting expeditions, but also the personalities of two of the National Zoo’s greatest proponents.
Check out the video below to see clips of William and Lucile Mann in Liberia.
- A World Apart: Smithsonian Expeditions to Alaska and Liberia, Field Book blog, Field Book Project, Smithsonian Institution Archives and National Museum of Natural History
- A Life on the Wild Side: Lucile Quarry Mann, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Record Unit 7293 - William M. Mann and Lucile Quarry Mann Papers, circa 1885-1981, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- William M. Mann related materials at the Smithsonian Institution Archives
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