The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Category: Behind the Scenes
Among the photographic records (Record Unit 95 - Photographic Collection, 1850s- ) at the Smithsonian Institution Archives is a portrait of Charles Greeley Abbot, an American astrophysicist and the fifth secretary of the Smithsonian. The portrait is a photograph of a painting of Abbot, which in turn was painted in reference to an even earlier photograph of Abbot. The photograph is mounted onto a gray board and beneath it is a penciled inscription from the painter – Samantha G. Huntly – dedicating it to Mary Vaux Walcott, the wife of Charles Doolittle Walcott who was the fourth secretary of the Smithsonian.
At some point in the past the board broke in two places, creating a larger piece containing the photograph and two smaller pieces. Fortunately, the photograph itself survives in stable condition. Sometimes a conservator may consider unmounting the photograph, separating it from the broken board which is no longer offering it the physical support it needs. However, in this case the break runs through the artist's inscription. Separating the photographic portrait of Abbot from the inscription could potentially disassociate it with the inscription, which is what makes it a special and unique object.
All conservation treatments carry various levels of risk. Ultimately it was decided that unmounting the photograph and the facing paper, the frontmost layer of board, with the inscription on it was both a risky and time-consuming treatment in which the benefits did not necessarily outweight the risks at the time. Instead, I decided to create a new housing for the print that would hold it securely to help ensure that no further damage is inflicted on the print or its mount. This way the option to treat the object remains open, should the need ever arise.
The mat was constructed using museum-quality board and earth magnets. Earth magnets are very strong magnets made from rare earth metals, such as neodymium or samarium. They are much stronger than iron magnets, and even tiny earth magnets can have enough attraction to hold several layers of board together. I embedded small earth magnets into the boards in several places and secured them with adhesive. This way the photograph and its mount are held in place with gentle but firm, even pressure. Before the photograph went back into storage in its new housing, I locally consolidated the broken edges of the board with methyl cellulose using a small brush to keep the brittle edges from flaking.
One caution when working with these strong magnets is that they should not come close to electronic or magnetic media, such as cell phones, computers, or VHS tapes. To warn users about the placement of the magnets I pasted small caution signs on the outside of the mat.
So viewers can read the inscription on the board without removing it from its protective housing, I pasted a copy of the inscription on the inside flap of the window mat. The photograph is now in climate controlled storage at the Archives and in a more stable housing that will reduce further damage to the inscribed board.
- How the DAM (Denver Art Museum) Uses Rare-Earth Magents with Art Installations, Denver Art Museum blog
- Record Unit 95 - Photographic Collection, 1850s- , Smithsonian Institution Archives
American photographer and environmentalist Ansel Adams once stated, "A photograph is usually looked at—seldom looked into." Though this may be true for most people, for sixteen years the Smithsonian Institution Archives has been fortunate to have one volunteer to look into, research, discover, and catalogue thousands of images.
Zoe Martindale first came to the Archives in 1997. Prior to retirement, Martindale read a Washington Post article about volunteer opportunities at the Smithsonian. She saved the article and when retirement came she promptly called the Smithsonian's volunteer office and applied for a position. The Smithsonian volunteer opportunities appealed to her because she thought it would give her a chance to "exercise her brain." Never one to stay idle, once accepted into the program Martindale scrolled through the hundreds of positions, looking for one that might be a good fit. She knew she did not want to be a docent, but was otherwise open to anything. When asked why the Archives position appealed to her, Martindale replied "I am not sure why the job stuck out to me, it just did."
Martindale came to the the Archives offices, then located in the Arts and Industries Building (a building which she loved to work in and explore), and interviewed for the position with Historian Pam Henson. Today she recalls with amusement that Henson told her she needed a volunteer who could stay at least a year or two, since the training was pretty involved. Over a decade later she is still at the Archives chipping away at her work.
As a historic image cataloguer, Martindale catalogs the images into a Smithsonian database, which allows them to be viewed on the Archives' website and the Smithsonian's Collection Search Center. For each image, Martindale enters the physical and digital descriptions and locations, along with a summary and index terms. She loves to "find out information about the image, and elaborate on the brief descriptions that she is given." She also works diligently to come up with index terms so that people can easily find the images in search engines.
When an image first comes across her desk, Martindale "always questions what the image is showing and always feels that there is more information to find and more context to add." Information is "not just about the image itself, but the people, places and topics, that the image touches on." She looks at the image from the point of view of the public, and asks, "why is it important and where does it fit into the Smithsonian story?"
For Martindale it is "important to notice the small things," to differentiate one image from another. In fact she has helped determine dates by finding small details that others have missed. Martindale can look at an image that looks similar to a different image, but find there are differences to tell them apart. When asked how she acquired this skill, she replied, "I am not sure why I can pick it out, it just comes to me." The other invaluable skill Martindale possesses is her ability to remember every image she has come across. She commented, "I don't necessarily remember the content information and details, but I can look at a picture and remember if I cataloged it or an image that is similar to it." This allows her to connect images to others found in different collections that might otherwise have remained separate.
Prior to working at the Archives, Martindale never worked with images before. She always loved looking at photographs, but never pursued photography herself. Martindale said, "I am bad at taking pictures because I cut people out of them accidently." However, she is always amazed to see what people can see in images. "I am always interested in what people see and pick out, because I can pick the picture apart."
And the more to pick out the better. When asked what her favorite images are, Martindale replied, "I really like researching the scenes of Washington, DC, love the images of the history of the buildings. People images are not always very interesting, but I really like the buildings, and the changing face of the National Mall." She loves "images with multiple elements in the foreground, background, sides, and pointing those out to the public." But it is the mystery of each picture that brings her back for more each week. She sometimes goes home and mulls over the wording of the descriptions to make sure her summaries come across clear, so that people not only find it, but find it interesting.
Martindale sometimes becomes overwhelmed with the amount of images there are to describe. She can spend hours on one picture to try and identify things about the image, but likes that she will never run out of work. Martindale stated, "I have seen how the cataloging standards have changed and wish I could go back and improve some of the others, but I have so many new entries to do." She is still amazed though at how much she has learned about the Smithsonian and that it is much more than just the museums.
Martindale has become a great asset not just to the staff but to the research fellows, interns, and fellow volunteers. She constantly helps others with the images that she has cataloged, and likes to share her knowledge. Even after thousands of images, Martindale still gets excited when her images go live online. She loves sharing the things she has uncovered. When asked about the job Martindale simply stated, "some people might look at it as a boring job, but I love it."
- Historic Pictures of the Smithsonian, Smithsonian Institution Archives
With the dry cold weather upon us, I thought it would be therapeutic to share with you some treatments from the lab showing a day at the spa, at least for our paper documents!
Recently, the conservation lab acquired some tightly rolled documents in dire need of flattening. Since it was hard to view them in their current rolled state, and we prefer to reduce risk by storing items flat when we can, we decided it was best to try and unroll them. Unfortunately, they were also quite brittle, so simply unrolling them by hand would have possibly induced damaging wrinkles and cracks. With these factors in mind, I chose to prepare them for a moisture rich “retreat”, otherwise known as humidification, to help open them up. This process involves carefully reintroducing moisture into the paper to relax the fibers, allowing the rolled paper to slowly open and expand, followed by controlled drying between absorbent blotter, felts, and weights. The result is a much happier, flatter and generally more flexible paper. You might remember this process nicely detailed in a past post, Halloween Humidification Horrors.
To prepare, I gently scrolled through the papers to examine for dust and dirt, and to look for any trouble spots such as adhesives, seals, or inks that might bleed or change under high humidity. As I did, I gently cleaned the documents’ surfaces with a soft cotton swab to remove as much dirt as possible, an important step as dirt can sink further into the paper during humidification making it much harder to remove afterwards. Once ready, I placed the rolled documents inside the closed humidity chamber, where the paper fibers could begin their “spa treatment”. The only thing missing was some ambient music! The chamber, as seen in the enclosed bubble above, reached a comfortable 80% relative humidity as observed on our humidity indicator card. Perfect for the fibers to become stress free and let go.
Generally, paper is naturally hygroscopic, meaning it readily absorbs and holds water vapor. However, depending on how it was made and the histories the individual documents have of use and storage, the moisture uptake of dissimilar papers will vary. While some may take a short time to relax, others may take longer, so I frequently checked and tested during their time in the chamber to see which of the documents had already begun to uncurl and could be opened even further. Once the documents did not resist opening and had lost all their prior stiffness, I carefully placed them in a sandwich of blotter papers and felts, selecting the surfaces of blotter to match the paper surface characteristics, while protecting raised embedded elements such as seals by building up a protective barrier. Lastly, I placed restraints and weight to flatten and let the drying happen in a controlled manner. Several days later, the documents were somewhat rejuvenated, being sufficiently dry and flat, as you can see in the before and after photographs below! I hope all of you get some much needed spa treatment soon to get through this dry cold winter as well!”
This is an exciting time for all of us here at the Smithsonian Institution Archives, and for me especially, as I am proud to announce that several of our online finding aids now contain links to our digitized material! Linking digital material to our finding aids allows us to provide greater access to our collections.
Among the materials available are video clips of a white tiger being presented to President Eisenhower in 1960 and a driving tour of the National Zoological Park from 1959. You can also peruse the transcript and listen to audio clips from an interview with Alexander Wetmore, the sixth Secretary of the Smithsonian.
In addition to the audio and video clips, we also have a number of finding aids with links to print materials. One of my favorites is a collection of Egyptian Bombyliids, or bee flies, which was recently digitized by my intern, Krista Anderson Peim. The collection is from the 1930s and consists of eighty-four beautifully executed watercolor paintings that represent the highly varied range of species that make up the Bombyliidae family. The paintings were originally created for inclusion in a manuscript about Egyptian Bombyliids by H.C. Efflatoun, a leading entymologist of the mid-twentieth century by three Russian artists, Roman Strekalovsky, Nicholas Strekalovsky, and E. Kassessinoff. A PDF copy of the manuscript, entitled “A Monograph of Egyptian Diptera. Part VII: Family Bombiliidae,” is included in the first folder of the collection (scroll down to the 'Container List').
Following the addition of detailed catalog records from the Field Book Project to the Smithsonian Collection Search Center, we have also added links to the PDFs of digitized field books to our finding aids. For example, it is now possible to view all three of Edward Chapin’s field books that are held here at SIA from the comfort of your very own home (or office)!
We will continue to update our finding aids with new material as it becomes available, so keep checking back for more!
- SIA RU000395, National Zoological Park (U.S.) Office of Education, Motion Pictures and Videotapes, circa 1938-1980 and undated
- SIA RU009504, Oral history interviews with Alexander Wetmore 1974
- SIA RU007468, Egyptian Bombyliids Collection, 1930s Watercolor
- SIA Acc. 11-085, Chapin, Edward Albert 1894-, Edward Albert Chapin Field Notebooks, 1937-1947
It is common to begin a new year with a pledge to better oneself. Many of us decide we will give more to worthy causes, but wonder how and when! We, at the Smithsonian Institution Archives (SIA), are excited by this season of inspired giving because we need you! Your time, talents, and treasure are so incredibly important.
- We ask for your time. We need your help reaching out into your community, building networks, and identifying other potential SIA friends. Help us expand our reach and impact by hosting an intimate social on our behalf, identifying individuals or organizations that can partner in moving our mission forward, or sharing your story with us about how SIA has benefited your work.
- We ask for your talents. We are always looking for volunteers with archival skills to help our archivists and conservators preserve our cherished collections. Your talent is a resource to making our collections available to the public.
- We ask for your treasures. Your fiscal support will allow us to continue preserving the legacy of the Smithsonian Institution and making its rich resources available to students, researchers, enthusiasts - everyone, everywhere. We are excited about our ability for you to support SIA via our website. Your support allows us to train the next generation of archivists and conservators through internships, maintain the latest technology to offer you a better experience, and preserve our one-of-a-kind collections.
We enthusiastically invite you to share our vision and combine your expertise with ours. Together we can make 2013 a landmark year in making the history and rich resources of our unique institution a benefit to everyone, everywhere.
To offer your time, talents and treasures – please contact Mamie Jackson Williams at the Smithsonian Institution Archives by phone (202) 633-5882 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Click here to make a quick, easy financial gift of any amount, on our NEW Online Donations page!
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