The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Are You Arty or Hearty?
“Are you arty or hearty?” As family legend has it, this hilarious question was asked of one of our family’s old friends upon his arrival at Jesus College, Oxford University in 1932 as a Rhodes Scholar. Well, as the story goes, it turns out that he was hearty and intellectually gifted (physics). And, the same can be said of lots of Smithsonian employees. I’m always fascinated to learn about the outside interests of Smithsonian employees, and glimpses into their personal lives sometimes come to my attention through passing references I come across in obituaries or memorial tributes that are published in professional journals. Although these publications rightly focus on an individual’s contribution to art or science, these tiny, tantalizing tidbits pique my interest. Luckily, the Smithsonian Institution Archives has the resources to fill in the gaps that crop up in the “official” records. Over the years, for example, I’ve come across numerous images and references that show a long history of Smithsonian employees engaging in all manner of athletic pursuits—tennis, rifle team, bowling, ping pong, basketball, football, rugby, and even ice dancing. Now is my chance to share some of what I’ve found in an occasional series of blog posts on Smithsonian athletics and athletes. One of my favorite sets of records is Local Notes, in our Record Unit 298. It was published from 1916 to 1933 as a weekly and, later, bi-weekly newsletter, “for the information of the employees of the Smithsonian Institution and its branches.” This newsletter is a treasure trove of information about the comings and goings of staff, meetings, exhibitions, accessions, staff publications, and social activities. Sports coverage, usually included at the very end, is always fun to check. In fact, Local Notes helped me make sense of some images I’d come across and that seemed a little mysterious or odd to me. For instance, here’s an image of former Smithsonian Secretary Abbott (astrophysicist and astronomer) playing tennis. OK. And here’s another one showing a doubles match in progress. Nearby buildings place that tennis court in the South Yard next to the old Astrophysical Observatory behind the Castle. It became a parking lot by the 1960s (see above), and it is the Haupt Garden today (see below). But what was a tennis court doing there in the first place? Well, according to Rick Stamm, Keeper of the Castle Collection, the court was constructed in 1915 for the Smithsonian tennis team and remained in use at least until 1935, which overlaps the period tennis historians often call the “golden age” of American tennis. Dr. Charles G. Abbot (later, fifth Smithsonian Secretary) and others on the senior administrative and curatorial staff were avid tennis players. Local Notes reports that they played not only against each other but also in inter-departmental matches against teams from other federal agencies—Navy, Commerce, Agriculture (Aggies were a tennis juggernaut), Labor, State, Justice, and so on. So, I’ve got to start looking into the records documenting the origins, placement, and construction of the tennis court. Man, I love my job! Coming soon…the Rifle Club.