The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Category: Collections in Focus
As a volunteer in the Digital Services Division of the Archives, I have the pleasure of digitizing archival materials ranging from field notes to videos. Not long ago, I digitized almost an hour and a half of unedited video of the 1940 Smithsonian-Firestone Expedition to Liberia. At the time, I didn’t know much about the expedition but I was intrigued by what I saw - Liberian towns, dense jungle, and exotic animals.
Having just returned from a trip to South America, National Zoological Park Director, Dr. William Mann, led an expedition to Liberia to obtain animals for the zoo in Washington, D.C. He sought several rare species including the pygmy hippopotamus, potto, okapi, and Jentik’s duiker, among others.
As the newly digitized video shows, the Manns travelled luxuriously in Liberia with an entourage of guides and assistants and they were treated to special receptions in several villages. Often, the Manns were carried in hammocks as they travelled. More information on the journey wasn’t hard to find thanks to Lucile Quarry Mann’s travel notes, which are housed here at the Archives. Lucile, the wife and frequent travel companion of Dr. Mann, left descriptive accounts of the people, places, and things that she and her husband saw while searching for animals and insects in Liberia.
Along with overseeing the addition of several animal enclosures, Dr. Mann’s specimen collecting left a lasting mark on the National Zoo. Knowing that collecting wild animals can be a very difficult task for a small party, the expedition leaders offered a reward to villagers who could capture and bring in live animals. The plan worked; Lucile wrote “as we retraced our steps, we found that in almost every village . . . one or two small animals were waiting for us.”
Though the Manns were known for raising baby animals in their Washington, D.C. apartment, Lucile’s account largely leaves out the time that she and her husband spent with animals in Liberia. Fortunately, the expedition video captures what Lucile chose not to dwell on in her writing. But, with a growing collection of animals as the expedition travelled through Liberia, we see her feeding and playing with a number of different animals they collected including chimpanzees, hornbills, and a baby pygmy hippo.
This newly digitized footage preserves both the institutional history of specimen collecting expeditions, but also the personalities of two of the National Zoo’s greatest proponents.
Check out the video below to see clips of William and Lucile Mann in Liberia.
- A World Apart: Smithsonian Expeditions to Alaska and Liberia, Field Book blog, Field Book Project, Smithsonian Institution Archives and National Museum of Natural History
- A Life on the Wild Side: Lucile Quarry Mann, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Record Unit 7293 - William M. Mann and Lucile Quarry Mann Papers, circa 1885-1981, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- William M. Mann related materials at the Smithsonian Institution Archives
Have you ever come across a photograph of an event which appears to be a unique and memorable experience, but which isn’t found in any of your record books? Here at the Archives we process a great number of images which lend themselves easily to research and investigation, but every so often we are just plain stumped. Here’s our latest case:
This photograph was taken by Ruel P.Tolman, former Director of Smithsonian National Collection of Fine Arts [now the Smithsonian American Art Museum], and is included in a scrapbook of photographs of Smithsonian staff, grounds and buildings, exhibitions, and Washington D.C. scenes. We’ve asked for your help identifying individuals in Tolman’s scrapbooks before, and now we’re coming to you for help identifying this event.
This is a photograph of a pressurized gondola sitting on display in the streets of D.C. (we don’t know exactly where, but we would like to!). This gondola appears to be one of the two Explorer vessels operated by the National Geographic Society and the U.S. Army Air Corps. These gondolas were used to study radiation and cosmic rays in the atmosphere at altitudes of 50,000 to 63,000 feet. Auguste Piccard launched the first study using a pressurized aluminum gondola in 1931, and by 1936 the Army Air Corps had developed and launched stratosphere expeditions, Explorer on July 27, 1934 and Explorer II on November 11, 1935.
On the body of the vessel, we can see a partial marking of ‘PHIC SOCIETY,’ which in full probably read ‘NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC SOCIETY.’ In the photo directly below this marking is an illustrated panel which appears to depict the vessel in use, hanging on long lead lines which would have been attached to a gigantic balloon. There are two other photographs on this page of Tolman’s scrapbook. They are both of the interior of Constitution Hall, owned and operated by the Daughters of the American Revolution. Pencil inscriptions in the full scrapbook page read "Lincoln Ellsworth Lecture April 15, 1936" and "National Geographic."
On April 15, 1936, the Antarctic explorer Lincoln Ellsworth was awarded the National Geographic Hubbard Medal, presented by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Following the presentation of the medal, Ellsworth delivered a lecture on April 15, 1936 in Constitution Hall. The content of the lecture was published under Ellsworth’s name as "My Flight Across the Antarctic," in the July 1936 issue of National Geographic Magazine.
The thing of it is, Lincoln Ellsworth explored the Antarctic by plane, not by balloon. In his 1939 account, “My Four Antarctic Expeditions,” Ellsworth makes no mention of experience with either of these gondolas. So what’s the connection?
Here are the questions you can help us with in uncovering the context of the photo:
Do you (or someone you know) remember an exhibition of either Explorer or Explorer II in Washington? Does this street look familiar to you? Locations can tell us a lot about an event.
Thank you for any help you provide and we wish you the best of luck in solving this mystery!
- Ruel P. Tolman’s Images: Who Are You?, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Record Unit 7433 - Ruel P. Tolman Collection, 1909-1964, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- National Geographic Society Hubbard Medal - Lincoln Ellsworth medal, National Air and Space Museum
- LTA, Balloons, USA, "Explorer II" (Nov 1935); Stevens, Albert William (Capt); Anderson, Orvil A. (Lt), by Rise Studio photographer, 1935, Archives Division, National Air and Space Museum