The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Category: Collections in Focus
Recently, the Smithsonian Institution Archives acquired the papers of Dr. John H. Dearborn (1933-2010), a longtime professor and scientist associated with the University of Maine. As a researcher, Dearborn focused his attention on echinoderms (phylum Echinodermata), a taxonomic group including sea stars, brittle stars, sea cucumbers, and other organisms. Dearborn's research activities, which spanned several decades, led him to numerous locations around the world, including Antarctica, where he spent a great deal of time braving the elements to advance his field of study.
As an Archives intern, one of my projects this summer involved rehousing Dearborn's papers, and during this process, I came across an extensive series of diaries and field notes spanning the years between 1953 and 1982. While rehousing these materials I was fortunate enough to have the time to read some of Dearborn's entries in the years between 1953 and 1960, which offer an interesting lens through which to examine Dearborn's early life and accomplishments. Beginning during his time as an undergraduate student and continuing into his graduate years, Dearborn's early entries detail his observations and travel to places such as New England, Alaska, Hawaii, New Zealand, and Antarctica, to name a few. His early entries are simple in structure but very regimented and task-based; many entries consist almost entirely of lists of birds or other natural specimens that Dearborn happened to observe during his trips, particularly in the New England area.
However, as the 1950s continue, Dearborn's entries gradually become longer and more detailed, and slowly he begins to insert more personal details that shed light on who Dearborn was as a person. In my opinion, perhaps the most interesting period in these early years is his time in Antarctica in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Dearborn's entries from this period are interesting not only for the descriptions of his research activities, but also for the more human elements that slip out in his writings. Many of his entries detail activities that he and others used to pass the time while living in Antarctica's inhospitable environment. Movies were perhaps the most common form of entertainment for Dearborn, who often watched several films a day and then took the time to record his impressions. For example, in an entry from January 24, 1959, Dearborn describes the movie The Barefoot Contessa as "lousy," a word he uses again on numerous occasions. Choir practice, ping-pong, reading, writing, studying German, and playing chess were also common activities for Dearborn, as were "bull sessions" with fellow inhabitants and researchers living at McMurdo Station.
In his diary, Dearborn also spends a great deal of time discussing the downsides of life in Antarctica, including dental issues, infrequent showers, supply problems, blizzard conditions, and the difficulty of maintaining contact with people, including a love interest named Iris, in the outside world. What emerges from Dearborn's early diary entries is a picture of a burgeoning academic and biologist, as well as a much-needed human element that is often lost in the pages of journal articles and academic publications. Dearborn's diary is useful not only as a window into Dearborn's life and mind, but also as a study of human isolation and life at the margins of human existence.
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