The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Category: Collections in Focus
Last year, in the course of rehousing a collection alongside our then-intern Heather Weiss (now an aide in our Digital Services division), I came across a fascinating brochure for something I’d never heard of: Bicentennial Park, a combination Smithsonian museum and national park, planned to coincide with the two hundredth anniversary of the United States. The booklet details plans for two parcels of land, one in Alexandria and the other in Prince George’s County, connected by riverboat service, featuring recreated Revolutionary War encampments, a research institute, and other attractions. So why was this project never brought to fruition?
The answer lies in the park’s beginnings.
The Bicentennial Park was originally conceived as a national museum of the armed forces, given the working name of the National Armed Forces Historical Museum Park. Under President Truman in 1946 and then President Eisenhower in 1958, the concept was developed as an opportunity to present “the role of the armed forces in creating, developing, and maintaining the United States as a free, independent, and prosperous nation,” with attention given to conflicts as well as military peacetime contributions to fields such as medicine and engineering. Eisenhower convened a presidential committee to further the project, chaired by Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Earl Warren, which added to the concept a research institute focusing on military history. Public Law 87-186, passed August 30, 1961, provided for the establishment of an advisory board to work with the Smithsonian to create an armed forces museum and to survey and select an appropriate site. In addition to displays of military ordnance and paraphernalia from various periods and struggles, the museum park was planned to “incorporate numerous outdoor exhibits relating to significant periods of American history, including a ship basin in which to preserve and exhibit historic naval vessels.” (This last highlight ultimately proved a nonstarter and source of controversy, as the intended salvage of the sunk USS Tecumseh for a museum centerpiece never got off the ground and culminated in a lawsuit against the Smithsonian.)
Can We Build It Here?
Simply finding a site for the museum park proved difficult. The advisory board recommended Fort Washington, opposite Mount Vernon on the Maryland side of the Potomac, held by the National Park Service, who countered with Fort Foote closer to the District. Fort Foote had been rejected due to a proposed scenic parkway that would have bisected the site, but ultimately the board was persuaded to choose Fort Foote with the promise that the parkway would be relocated. (A previous proposal had seen land privately offered to the Smithsonian, situated between Quantico and Fredericksburg, Virginia, but was likely deemed too far from Washington to be a viable choice.) In January 1967, this choice was approved by the National Capital Planning Commission, though continuing difficulty in acquiring the full complement of necessary acreage resulted in making plans to use both the land around Fort Foote and additional government-held land at Jones Point, on the southernmost tip of Alexandria.
A Polarizing Concept
Given the political climate of the period as a result of the highly unpopular Vietnam War, it is not at all surprising that a museum or national park associated with the military should generate discussion. Mrs. T.C. Ishee (October 2, 1966) wrote to the Sunday Star, calling the proposed museum park a “Temple to the Gods of War,” and asserting that American soldiers then in Vietnam and in previous wars “paid the supreme price so that the very word ‘war’ might become … no more than a nightmare from a barbarous past.” Why, then, she asks, a museum centered on such an offensive theme? In contrast, F.B. Nihart of McLean, Virginia, wrote to the Washington Post (October 31, 1966) in support of the museum park, stating that “the museum will commemorate and honor the heroism, hardships, and sacrifices of each generation of Americans”; that rather than glorifying armed conflict, the recreation of World War I trenches or D-Day bulkheads would demonstrate “the grim but often necessary reality of war.” An internal Smithsonian memorandum acknowledged the difficulty of making progress on the museum park “in the midst of the most unpopular of all wars.”
Redirecting Focus to the Bicentennial
While it is not certain that controversy or criticism carried the day, in December 1969 the chairman of the advisory board, John Nicholas Brown, wrote to Chief Justice Warren suggesting that the museum park be renamed in keeping with the upcoming Bicentennial celebrations—and heavily reworked to fit the theme. Presented as the Bicentennial Park to the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission, it was heartily recommended to the President as “a new Smithsonian undertaking … where the life of the Revolutionary citizen soldier will be re-created.” Specific criticisms of the previous incarnation were refuted, stating that the theme of the museum park would not be war, but rather “the diligence, sacrifice, and courage of the American people against a background of authentic settings.” A detailed brochure was prepared, with maps and diagrams outlining the experience a visitor would enjoy. (You can see the whole brochure here.)
Ultimately, in the face of concerns over its suitability, and seen as a lower priority than other Bicentennial-associated plans—as well as the nascent National Air and Space Museum, to which Congress had already promised substantial funding—all plans for the Bicentennial Park came to a halt. Though we may never know exactly how the museum park would have turned out or what its reception would have been, this brochure gives a tantalizing glimpse into a national park that never was.
Record Unit 137, Smithsonian Institution Office of the Under Secretary, Records, 1958-1973, Smithsonian Institution Archives
100 Years: Let's celebrate!, The National Parks Service
Hearing the phrase “Now I feel that the space is organized” from a cataloger means a lot. For me, it means that there is an element of clarity in the surrounding reality. While I have worked as a librarian for about five years, I did not have a good understanding of what my colleagues in technical services do. I have a lot of respect for those who leave the path made of “bread crumbs”, an analogy my mentor, the Field Book Project’s Cataloging Coordinator Lesley Parilla, used when she explained how to create an abstract for a field book. As an Intern with the Field Book Project, I learned how to dispense the “bread crumbs” to help the user discover resources. I created item records using Metadata Object Description Schema (MODS), did biographical research for records in Encoded Archival Context - Corporate bodies, Persons, and Families (EAC-CPF), gained knowledge of new terminology specific to the areas of the field books, and did some translation work.
So, what is a field book? Oxford Dictionaries defines it as “a book in which surveyor or other technician, or scientist writes down measurements, and other technical notes taken in the field.” In addition to documenting the primary research, or presenting relevant scientific findings, field books can also offer valuable insights into the world of science. Sometimes, if you are lucky, you can read about their adventures in the field, or learn about scientists’ personal lives. This, in particular, allowed me to connect to the documents on a personal level. Field Book Project, in my opinion, carries an important mission of showing a person behind the data. An example of that is the field books of James Francis Luhr, an enthusiastic geologist who wanted to share his knowledge of volcanology with the wider public.
James Francis Luhr, also known as Jim, was a passionate geologist who would go the distance to gather resources needed for his research. Specimen gathering involved operating under dangerous conditions, like getting lava samples during volcanic eruptions. Volcanologists have to wear special gear, and use a hammer to gather lava samples. The sample goes into a bucket with cold water that instantly boils. This work is necessary to ensure accurate geological analysis. In general, volcanologists are not advised to spend more than 20 minutes scooping the lava samples with hammers, because the temperature of the flowing lava can reach 1000°F and higher. The scientists can get blisters even from a distance. Before I had a chance to work with field books, I definitely could not imagine that it was possible to extract lava samples, let alone have a camp at the foot of an active volcano. Jim Luhr was actively involved in similar projects throughout the world: “Took sample approximately in 350 m from west hook at toe” (Mexico, 1982). In addition to serving a noble cause of science, scientists like Jim put a lot at stake. According to U.S. Geological Survey, volcanic ashes, or tephra, cause more harm than the lava flows. Working under these conditions definitely required a lot of courage and dedication.
One of Jim’s companions in the field was his wife, Karen Prestegaard. They met at the University of California, Los Angeles, during their PhD studies. I often found Karen’s name mentioned in his field books. Not only would she go on a geological mission with her husband, but she also helped him to collect samples: “Karen climbed on roof & scrapped ash w/ computer card for Joop & Rasmussen to analyze leachates. Took photos of Karen.” (Chichon, 1982). Karen would also document some of these moments with the help of the camera: “Still further along a large 5 m. block, Karen took photo of me.” (Mexico, 1983). Somehow, I can imagine them walking together, hand in hand, figuring out the mysteries of the nature.
In addition to being a passionate scientist, Luhr was a musician by avocation. He was a fiddler in an Irish band in Maryland .During his trip to what was then the U.S.S.R, he brought along his violin. It seemed to be his first visit in the country, which he documented with great detail. For example, in the following excerpt Jim Luhr describes his interaction with the custom’s officer: “Customs was a ½ hour wait in long lines. The only thing that caused trouble was my violin. Custom inspector asked if it was Stradivarius. After I laughed, no, he saw the tag inside and went off to seek a higher authority. We finally agreed upon the term 'modern' & he let us go.” (USSR, 1987-1991).
This trip was organized in collaboration with U.S. Geological Survey and the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Department of Mineral Sciences. He would return back to Russia several times up until 1998 to carry out more research. Geologists usually revisit collection sites to track any longitudinal changes. In this case, specimens’ location identifier remains the same, but the year and number will change.
I hope I was able to give you a glimpse into Jim Luhr’s research and life. He wanted to share his research with people, and now with the help of Field Book Project, it is possible to read his first-hand research online.
I would like to express my gratitude to my mentors: Bianca Crowley, Digital Collections Manager at Biodiversity Heritage Library, and Lesley Parilla, Cataloging Coordinator of the Field Book Project, for their guidance and help. I would also like to thank MLIS Program Director at Syracuse University – Jill Hurst-Wahl, and my Academic Advisor – Barbara Stripling. I appreciate the assistance of Edmund S. Muskie Internship Program that made it possible for me to intern in Washington, D.C. during the summer of 2016. Being a part of the Smithsonian Institution was an unforgettable life experience for me!
James Luhr Field Books, Smithsonian Institution Archives
In memory of James F. Luhr, volcanologist, petrologist, and friend, Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research
Volcanic Ashfall Impacts Working Group, U.S. Geological Survey
Lava Sampling on Kilauea Volcano, Hawaii, WGBH, PBS Learning Media