The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Category: Behind the Scenes
When I started working with museums in 2005, the concept of crowdsourcing was in its infancy. That year, James Surowiecki ‘s book, “The Wisdom of Crowds,” was published and there were tiny experiments in crowdsourcing occurring in the cultural heritage sector. There were hesitations and objections about the whole concept within the GLAM (gallery, library, archive, museum) community, ranging from trepidation over quality of contributions to concern over the cost of managing everyone who was let in. We were cautiously peering into the future.
In 2009, the crowd broke through to the highest levels of government. In his remarks to his senior staff and cabinet secretaries, President Obama stated:
Our commitment to openness means more than simply informing the American people about how decisions are made. It means recognizing that government does not have all the answers, and that public officials need to draw on what citizens know. And that's why, as of today, I'm directing members of my administration to find new ways of tapping the knowledge and experience of ordinary Americans -- scientists and civic leaders, educators and entrepreneurs -- because the way to solve the problem of our time is -- the way to solve the problems of our time, as one nation, is by involving the American people in shaping the policies that affect their lives.
Our equivalent of ‘president’ in the archives world, David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States, took the President's statement to heart. Things were quickly changing and it was time to embrace the crowd or be left behind.
Fast forward to 2014 where crowd-sourcing projects are as ubiquitous as the crowds themselves. In the GLAM world, the crowd is tagging, transcribing, scanning, and writing Wikipedia articles. It has grown to the point that some in the GLAM community rely on the crowd to get their work done. Take the Library of Congress’ Prints and Photographs division. They became the founding member of the Flickr Commons in 2008. Since then, their staff was cut in half. They realized they had a marketing problem in that many people didn’t know about their photograph collections. After six years of participating in the Commons with a contribution of 20,000 “no known copyright restriction” images, they’ve received 60+million views, 45,000 comments, 40,000 fans, 190,000 tags, and most impressively, have updated 6000 catalog records with information from the crowd!
The results at the National Archives are no less impressive. As a result of their “scan-a-thons,” they have uploaded over 100,000 documents to the Wikimedia Commons. When they launched the transcription tool in their Citizen Archivist website, the public transcribed a staggering 20,000 pages in two weeks. They’ve noticed, as we at the Smithsonian have, that the public goes above and beyond what is asked, adding notes on page format and images they encounter in transcribing. This is a lot of volunteer hours, and it’s quality work.
We at the Smithsonian like to say that we have been crowdsourcing since 1849. Our most recent foray, the Transcription Center, quietly kicked off this year in June. With 15,242 pages available for transcription, 9,559 pages have been transcribed and reviewed (note we have included the extra step of crowd-review in our Transcription Center). An enormously dedicated group of 24 volunteers have completed between 1,035 and 6,188 transcriptions and reviews each! Our volunteers come from the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Kazakhstan, New Zealand, Australia, Netherlands, Philippines, France and Belgium; people who likely wouldn’t be able to volunteer in person. They are people with training in botany, anthropology, history, and linguistics, and their work is considerate and meticulous.
The tangible results of crowdsourcing are stunning. The intangible results are as rewarding. We get to know our audiences and they, in turn, become advocates for our organizations. It is exciting to think of how these relationships will grow.
Join us online on Tuesday, March 18th, from 3-6pm EST for our second Wikipedia edit-a-thon focused on women in science. Our goal is to increase the representation of women on Wikipedia. There are several important women scientists who to date have no Wikipedia page. Take for example, Dr. Christine Jones Forman, Senior Astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian's Center for Astrophysics whose research focuses on the structure and growth of clusters of galaxies and feedback from supermassive black holes in galaxies and clusters. She is the group leader for Chandra calibration, vice president of the American Astronomical Society and the president of Division XI Investigator for the Center for Astrophysics Research Experiences for Undergraduates. Incredible, right? But, no English Wikipedia page.
If you join us as an online participant, you will have access to a live stream of a behind-the-scenes tour of the Archives with Head Reference Archivist, Ellen Alers, as well as a discussion on the portrayal of women in the media by Archives' research fellow, Marcel LaFollette. LaFollette is the author of Science on the Air: Popularizers and Personalities on Radio and Television and Science on American Television: A History.Here is a WIKIPRES.pdf by LaFollette.
When it comes to digital preservation the work is never truly finished. As we have written before, our best practices with digital curation and preservation involve keeping the original file in its original format as well as creating a file in a preservation format when possible.
For instance if we have an older Microsoft Word document, we will keep it and also create a PDF version of that file as its preservation master. If a researcher is interested in the file, they will get a PDF copy since it is a standard format and easy to access.
Benefits of retaining the original version:
- It is good to have it in case the preserved copy becomes corrupted.
- If the file cannot be accessed now, software and/or emulators may be developed eventually that can read it. Emulators are used quite often with old video games.
- Better software can be developed that can render a “better” file that is more complete, such as displaying metadata or displaying at original size.
Kodak Photo CD (PCD) files are one such example of original files that have benefitted from being revisited. Developed film was scanned onto CDs that contained up to 100 images and saved as the proprietary PCD format rather than the more familiar JPEG or TIFF. Kodak no longer supports the product.
Offices across the Smithsonian have these CDs and the Archives is no exception. We have a manageable number from our collections that total approximately 1,000. Some of them were converted previously into TIFF preservation files, but we were not capturing the “entire” file with the software we were using. The file size was set to a smaller one during conversion to a TIFF from its original size on the CD. Meanwhile, other software that could convert the PCD files discontinued the plug-in that was needed in software upgrades.
A few years later there are now more software conversion options available to handle these obsolete files. You can find some by searching “PCD conversion” online. Our latest conversion to TIFF files has resulted in full-size files with higher resolution and metadata about the film and scanner that was not present with the other software. All our collections with PCD files have been converted to these “better” versions.
If you have older files that are in obsolete formats, here are some things to consider:
- Convert a copy of the file to a more sustainable format. Example: old word-processing file to a PDF.
- View the original (if you can) to compare the migrated file to it. Does the look and feel match? Is that important for the document to you? Is metadata present?
- Consider retaining the original file in case you can get a “better” version of it later.
- Don’t forget to monitor the preserved/converted file itself for obsolescence.
Time-based media art: artwork containing audiovisual components that rely on playback mechanisms or systems for decoding, and that are typically engaged with other elements as an installed, interactive and/or performed experience
In September 2013 I arrived at the Archives to commence the inaugural 9-month National Digital Stewardship Residency designed by the Library of Congress and funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). Directed at the curatorial and conservation obstacles time-based media art imposes on museum workflows, I was tasked with developing strategies for handling the digital assets that make up these kinds of works, with particular focus on how they might best be placed in a trustworthy digital repository environment.
Jenny Holzer’s For SAAM (Smithsonian American Art Museum), and Siebren Versteeg’s Neither There nor There (Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden) are just two examples of time-based media art that rely on digital assets to operate and that can be found in collections across the Smithsonian.
Through acquisition, installation, storage, and later re-installation, these works require technical evaluations and monitoring generally laid out in digital preservation strategies, which have not typically been cemented in museum procedures. At the same time, the variable, iterative, and subjective nature of these works necessitates the use of granular, yet scalable policies for describing, representing, and preserving their essential elements, behaviors, and variability. For these reasons, the standard assumptions surrounding documentation, authenticity, and custodial roles in the realm of digital preservation fall short of meeting the needs of time-based media art.
As part of my residency I am in conversation with curators, conservators, registrars, and gallery staff across the Smithsonian who have been participating in the Time-Based Media Art Working Group efforts. They have been looking internally and externally for resources and expertise in handling these types of works in order to fit the needs of their own collections. From these discussions I am developing higher-level procedures based upon preservation practices and current museum approaches.
It is important to note that the Smithsonian is particularly unique in this conversation, in that it represents a number of designated communities (units) with disparate collections, missions, and infrastructures.
With all of these things in mind, my ultimate goal is to produce baseline ingest, storage, and access policies for specific classes of time-based media artworks (web, video game, generative, etc.) with supplemental suggestions for the more granular, yet flexible guidelines based off variability and intended behaviors (installed, networked, performed, etc.). Through my deliverables I hope to add to the resources to be considered not only within the Smithsonian, but in other institutions collecting digital time-based media art as well.
Finally, since artists have and will continue to produce works using an assortment of both obsolete and emerging software, processes, and tools (whether intentional or not), it is necessary to remain flexible with regard to digital preservation approaches across museums. Priority should be placed on strategies that are adaptable, with the understanding that continued learning and collaboration will be essential in maintaining authenticity in the future re-creations of these works.
When asked what the Smithsonian Institution Archives collects, we say we hold records about the history of the Smithsonian and its people, programs, research, and activities. While accurate, this doesn’t really give anyone a clue about what is actually in those records.
The Smithsonian Institution Archives Reference Term handles an average of around 6,000 queries per year, and if you us what people have been researching at the Archives recently, you’ll get some pretty interesting responses. Although not comprehensive, here’s a snapshot of the diverse range of information encompassed by the history of the world’s largest museum complex!
Over the past three months, researcher projects have included:
- National Museum of American History’s upcoming 50th anniversary
- Theodore Roosevelt’s African expedition
- Post-Modern historicism in exhibits
- History of the American Society of Icthyologists and Herpetologists
- Plant geography
- The Paleontology Hall at the National Museum of Natural History, for renovations to the Dinosaur Hall
- Collecting & interpreting objects relating to George Washington
- William Healey Dall
- The history of tropical research in the US
- Zoological imagination in America
Upcoming publications using the Archives' photos or documents include:
- Wright Brothers National Memorial, State of the Park Report
- Leslie Bedford, The Art of Museum Exhibitions
- Ted Binnema, Enlightened Zeal: The Hudson’s Bay Co. and Scientific Networks
- The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, The Clark: the Institute and its Collections
- Robert Kett, "Ornithologists in Olman," The Museum Journal, April 2014
- Julian Zelizar, A Great Society: The Fight for Liberalism, 1963-1968
Annual List of Publications by Smithsonian Institution ArchivesFellows and Interns
- Gibson, Abraham H. 2013. "Edward O. Wilson and the Organicist Tradition," The Journal of the History of Biology, 46 (3)
- Gibson, Abraham H., Kwapich, Christina L. and Lang, Martha. 2013. "The Roots of Multilevel Selection: Concepts of Biological Individuality in the Early Twentieth Century." History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, 35 (4)
- Henson, Pamela M. 2013. "O Instituto Smithsonian: Arquivos e a Historia da Ciencia." Acervo, Revista Da Arquivo Nacional, 26 (1): 113-122.
- Leventhal, Richard M. and Daniels, Brian I. 2013. "'Orphaned Objects,' Ethical Standards, and the Acquisition of Antiquities." DePaul Journal of Art, Technology, and Intellectual Property Law, 23 (2): 339-361.
- Takarabe, Kae. 2013. "Bibliographical Essay on The History of Science and Technology at the Smithsonian Institution: Focusing on women in science and technology." The History of Science of Tokai, 5: 43-51.
- Takarabe, Kae. 2013. "Essay on B. S. Lyman's Collecting Ainu Objects: Focusing on General Instructions to the Assistants of the Geological Survey of Hokkaido." Bulletin of the Historical Museum of Hokkaido, 41: 147-152.
- Takarabe, Kae. 2013. "Research on Technological Innovation in Science Museums and the Use of its Results: A Case Study of the Smithsonian Institution." Lectures and Reports of 31th Symposium-Range and Scope of History of Technology in Japan: Learning about the History of Technology, and Technological, 3: 24-39.
- Takarabe, Kae. 2012. "Study on the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation: Science Communication at the Smithsonian Institution." Journal of the Museological Society of Japan, 37 (2): 135-159.
Most Unusual Reference Inquiry: Does the Smithsonian have Radar's teddy bear from the TV show, M*A*S*H?
Most people assume the teddy bear owned by Radar (actor Gary Burghoff) came to the Smithsonian when the program ended. After all, we received the donation of a large collection of M*A*S*H memorabilia that was displayed in a 1983 exhibit at the National Museum of American History.
A "Radar's Teddy bear" file in Record Unit 360 - National Museum of American History, Office of Public Affairs, Records, circa 1970-1985, contains several 1984 memos planning an event at the National Museum of American History for the proposed donation. However, there's nothing that indicates that such an event ever occurred. The registrar's office at the National Museum of American History confirmed that the teddy bear had not been accessioned. Something must have happened to prevent the teddy bear donation.
Online research revealed that the teddy was missing until 2005, when it brought $10,000 at auction. In a 2007 Orlando Sentinal interview, Burghoff confirmed that the bear was never at the Smithsonian, had disappeared 30 years earlier, and was purchased at the aforementioned auction by a medical student who then sold the bear to him.
Now where was that bear between 1984 and 2005?
- Reference Services, Smithsonian Institution Archives
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