The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Category: Behind the Scenes
The Archives is made up of wonderful, helpful, and hard working individuals who strive to acquire, preserve, and make accessible records that document the history of the Smithsonian Institution. Some of our staff have been at the Smithsonian for 30 plus years, while others are just beginning their tenure here. There will be some changes in the office as we welcome new staff members coming on board this summer and fall who bring their expertise and new ideas to the Archives.
Continuing our series on introducing new staff, I'd like to welcome our new Archives Technician for our Archives and Information Management Team, Patrick Milhoan.
What do you do?
I am currently an archives technician responsible for processing incoming collections and creating finding aids for user access.
Favorite spot in Washington, DC to recommend:
While not actually located in DC, one of my favorite spots in the area is Mount Vernon in Alexandria, Virginia. The grounds of the President's estate, as well as the spectacular views of the Potomac River, make for a great escape from the hustle and bustle of the District.
So far, my favorite items are the Mary Henry Diaries contained within Record Unit 7001. Mary Henry was the daughter of the first Secretary of the Smithsonian and these diaries offer an intriguing look into the many different aspects of Washington D.C. during the era of the Civil War, such as the Battle of Gettysburg and the assassination of President Lincoln.
Next up is Miguel Argueta, our new Finance and Administration Assistant.
What’s your educational background?
I have a BFA in Studio Arts from the University of Arizona and an MBA from Florida International University.
What do you do at SIA?
I’m the Finance and Administrative Assistant, I collaborate with our Finance Director to ensuring that we have an effective and efficient processes that allows our SIA team to perform at their optimal level.
What is the strangest/most interesting thing you have discovered at SIA so far?
The most interesting thing I have discovered is how much historical documentation we hold about the Smithsonian Institution itself.
What is the most unexpected thing you have learned about working here?
The most unexpected thing I have learned is the openness of the resources we provide to the public and to the researchers that come through SIA.
Favorite spot in DC to recommend to visitors?
As an admirer of art my I would recommend National Gallery of Art, they have an array of artwork and artists to discover.
One hundred sixty-eight years ago, on the first Monday in September, the Vice President of the United States George M. Dallas convened the first meeting of the Smithsonian Institution's Board of Regents. Congress entrusted the governance of an unprecedented public trust, "an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge," as stipulated in James Smithson's bequest, to this group that also included the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, the mayor of the city of Washington, three members of the U.S. Senate, three members of the House of Representatives, and six citizens. The Board of Regents has since worked to guide the growth and development of the Smithsonian into a largest complex of museums and cultural heritage and scientific research centers unlike any other in the world today. Their input and oversight has seen the Smithsonian expand from a single research institution, to the first United States National Museum, and eventually to the 19 museums and galleries, the National Zoological Park, and nine research facilities centered in Washington, D.C. with locations around the world.
The Archives has launched a rapid capture digitization project to make the whole of Record Unit 1 - Smithsonian Institution, Board of Regents, Minutes, 1846- , available online by early 2016. Normally a labor-intensive four stage process - preparation, scanning, metadata generation, and online publication, the Archives' rapid capture digitization workflow consolidates several steps and enables us to cut the time from scanning to online publication by an estimated 80%.
When digitization of this collection is completed and the Minutes are accessible online, digital volunteers in the Smithsonian Transcription Center will be invited to transcribe these historic documents so that scholars of American science, museology, and other disciplines will be able to use advanced research techniques with these important primary source materials.
In the months to come, we will share details about different parts of this project and tell you about what happens behind the scenes to make this project a success. Our first in depth post will come from conservator William Bennett who is preserving and preparing the oldest material in this collection for rapid capture digitization.
- Board of Regents Records at the Smithsonian Institution Archives
This summer, Sarah Casto and I interned through a partnership of the Archives of American Art (AAA) and Smithsonian Institution Archives (SIA). Our project to stabilize the Macbeth Gallery Scrapbooks, a collection of twenty scrapbooks in the collection of AAA, was generously funded by The Smithsonian Women’s Committee. More can be read about the history of the scrapbooks and the valuable information they contain here. Under the supervision of SIA’s senior conservator Nora Lockshin and AAA registrar Susan Cary, Sarah and I were presented with the unique challenge of working primarily in an office at AAA rather than in a conservation lab. We employed our ingenuity to make the simple office into a functioning pop-up lab, our "conservation station."
Scrapbooks are known within archives and libraries for the range of challenges they present as objects, and the American Institute of Conservation (AIC) Book and Paper Group has assembled reference materials about the conservation of scrapbooks in a wiki. The Macbeth Gallery Scrapbooks are a series of commercially produced scrapbooks of varying type and condition, and they primarily contain newspaper clippings and other items related to the gallery. Our initial survey of the scrapbooks revealed inherently brittle wood-pulp paper pages, many of which cracked at our touch, as well as failed adhesives, leaving loose clippings and gallery catalogs.
With the conditions of the scrapbooks ranging from fully intact to entirely disbound (with all pages separated from the book's original binding), we found that some books remained only tenuously intact. Simply turning pages resulted in pages cracking away from the binding, so laying the book flat to image the pages for digitization would have been impossible. We determined with our supervisors that the best thing for five of the scrapbooks was to purposefully disbind them, storing the loose pages in folders with buffered interleaving papers. To stabilize the scrapbooks, Sarah and I needed to clean the pages, readhere all loose items, reinforce and repair torn pages with adhesive and paper, consolidate covers, collate pages, and rehouse the collection.
Before we could begin treatment, we had to carefully select the best combinations of adhesive and paper to use for repairing the scrapbooks. The traditional method of paper repair - Japanese paper applied with wheat starch paste and dried under weight - was not feasible for this project for a large percentage of the albums due to their extremely brittle state and time constraints. These weakened papers do not always respond well to the stresses of mending even with extremely careful application, wetting and drying – new breaks can result at repair boundaries where the binding is restrained, or where pages are turned at corners, as example. Sarah and I were faced with twenty scrapbooks, and our ultimate goal was stabilization for digitization, not full conservation treatment, so we needed a more efficient method for mending. Thus, we turned to solvent-set and heat-set tissues. Sarah and I made our own mending tissues, turning to shared and tested methods within the conservation community. We spent several days experimenting with different adhesives and application methods, adapting as needed based on trial and error. We found the most satisfaction with a variety of weights of handmade papers, prepared with Avanse MV 100 and Plextol B 500, a mixture formulated and tested by conservators at the National Archives and Records Administration because it is heat-set and it requires no drying time when applied. This allowed us to rapidly increase the pace of our work. For loose items, where original placement was verifiable, we applied wheat starch paste where possible and dried the items under weight. We were able to stabilize all twenty scrapbooks during our ten-week summer internship.
For our final task, we rehoused the books in their original boxes with the addition of custom inserts to fill out excess space in the box, securing the books in place which serves to reduce shifting and thus breakage and further losses. Our work ensures that these books will withstand the handling required in the process of digitization which will ultimately provide the Archives of American Art and their researchers with high resolution images of the scrapbooks. This will reduce the future handling of the actual books, and ensure the long term preservation of their content and original physical material.
- Macbeth Gallery scrapbooks, 1892-1952, Archives of American Art
- Accession 96-012: Smithsonian Institution, Office of Development, Smithsonian Women's Committee, Records, 1971-1993, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Record Unit 267: Cooper-Hewitt Museum, Records, 1881, 1895-1976, Smithsonian Institution Archives
It is that scrappy time of year where we ask you to nominate your favorite Smithsonian collection, experience, or in the Archives' case, people. We typcially refer to them as groundbreakers. We have some stiff competition in the science category with the Hope Diamond and the 3D Lincoln Life Mask, however, we feel Smithsonian female scientists have made such a significant contribution to scientific knowledge that they deserve your vote.
Need we say more? Vote now.
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