The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Category: Smithsonian History
Shortly after the Smithsonian was founded in August of 1846, one of its most talented and prolific staff members, William Henry Holmes, was born in Cadiz, Ohio, on December 1. The youngest of three boys, William displayed his artistic talents early, but his father saw no future in such pursuits and steered him into teaching. After a few years teaching geography, natural history, and art, his father gave him $200 to further pursue his teacher training, but in 1870 the young Holmes took the money and ran – heading instead to Washington, D.C., to study art under a well-known teacher, Theodore Kaufmann. A fellow student, Mary Anna Henry, daughter of the first Smithsonian Secretary, Joseph Henry, encouraged him to visit the Castle to sketch the birds and other specimens on display. His work attracted the attention of the scientists there and soon he was hired by the paleontologist Fielding B. Meek to produce scientific illustrations. He had to learn to harness his artistic imagination and focus on accuracy and details, but his work soon passed muster with the Assistant Secretary in charge of the National Museum, Spencer F. Baird.
In 1872, he joined the Ferdinand V. Hayden Expedition to survey the western territories, specifically the Yellowstone National Park area, to produce drawings of the geology of the region. His extraordinary works captured the depth and relationships between strata in a way that the new technology of photography could not. But he also quickly learned geology and advanced to the position of geologist on later expeditions. When the US Geological Survey was founded in 1879, he joined its staff as a geologist and chief of scientific illustration. He set professional standards for geological illustration while continuing field work. On his many trips to the West, he was intrigued by the visual patterns on wall art, pottery and other artifacts of ancient peoples. With his talents for visual observation and analysis, he began to see relationships and changes in design over time. So he next turned his attention to the new field of anthropology, specifically archaeological techniques for documenting the remains of past civilizations. He brought his knowledge of stratigraphic analysis to methods for excavating sites, and his visual analysis skills to tracing innovation, imitation and synthesis in object design. After a brief career in Chicago, in 1897 he returned to Washington and was made a curator in the National Museum’s Department of Anthropology. In 1902, was appointed director of the Bureau of American Ethnology at the Smithsonian, serving until 1909, then returning to the museum’s Department of Anthropology as its chair.
Holmes continued to refine his skills as an artist, sketching nearby and whenever he traveled. He joined art clubs and encouraged young artists. In 1920, he was named the inaugural director of the Smithsonian’s National Gallery of Art, getting the new museum up and running. Not a fan of modern art, he hoped the fad would soon pass in favor of styles like Thomas Moran and Frederick Church. After sixty years at the Smithsonian, he retired in 1932, and died the following year at his son’s home in Ohio.
Artist, scientific illustrator, geologist, archeologist, administrator, museum director – Holmes made a bewildering array of contributions to the early Smithsonian. He was born and grew with the Smithsonian. As new fields and opportunities appeared, his ever creative mind saw new possibilities and challenges, so he sought to meet them all. With his exceptional visual talents, Holmes was unique in the history of the Smithsonian in the breadth of his reach, spanning art, culture, and science but proving that one person can make contributions to them all.
Explore William Henry Holmes' field notes and sketches at the Smithsonian Transcription Center--and join other volunteers in transcribing!
Celebrating Our Man of Many Hats: William Henry Holmes, Smithsonian Libraries
Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow, SIRIS Blog
William Henry Holmes: Artist Biography, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Scientist of the Day: William Henry Holmes, Linda Hall Library
Charles Greeley Abbot, fifth Secretary of the Smithsonian, was fascinated by the sun and its power. His sense of wonder and ingenuity knew no bounds. Not only did he study it, but he used his scientific knowledge and skill as an instrument maker to harness the sun’s energy at remote observatories for cooking. He designed, built, and patented a small tabletop cooker for heating water for the Solar Shed in the South Yard behind the Smithsonian Castle building, as well as for generating electricity.
Although nowadays using solar energy to do all of these things is common, efficient and cost-effective, in the 1920 and 30s it was an “out there” concept--and generating electricity was the farthest “out there.” Nevertheless, Abbot made it happen when the first solar-powered radio broadcast was made by NBC’s WRC radio station from the South Yard.
On September 30, 1936 an array of curved mirrors were rolled out, focusing sunlight onto tubes filled with water. These water-filled tubes created steam that ran a generator, making enough electricity to power a short radio broadcast. A recording of this broadcast was not made, but no matter how brief it may have been, it proved that the sun’s energy could be harnessed to generate electricity powerful enough for communication.
You can learn more about the history of solar energy at an exhibit opening 11/28/2016 at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.
The Smithsonian Secretaries: That Tall Man from New York, Part I, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Keeping in Touch, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Accession 86-161, Charles Greeley Abbot Papers, c. 1891-1950s, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Doodles on the margin of a memo: stacks of triangles, intersecting boxes, staircases with no clear beginning or end that travel the length of the paper. What makes these quick sketches so unique is the letterhead at the top of the page—The White House—and the hand that drew them—John F. Kennedy.
Kennedy was known to sketch on pieces of paper while on the phone or in meetings. His boxy, lined designs would circle the address of the White House, the typewritten agenda for a cabinet meeting, or even his own notes in meetings on the Cuban Missile Crisis.Each doodle served as a brief window into the mind of a President, during both the mundane and the crucial moments of his short time in the Oval Office. After Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, the nation struggled to make sense of not just the tragedy, but the man himself—a President whose image had defined an era in American pop culture.
Cracking Kennedy’s inner workings was something that Washington, D.C. lawyer Mark Scher grappled with even before the President’s death. Through connections at the White House, Scher obtained copies of doodles drawn by Kennedy (now at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum) in 1961. According to Scher, “There is an enigma to greatness that the others of us attempt to resolve through perception,” and he wanted to help make the unconscious artistry of a great man into great art itself.
In 1965, Scher brought photos of the drawings to a local D.C. designer Ralph M. Tate, whose M Street studio was known for working on floats for the inaugural parades of a number of Presidents, including Kennedy. Scher commissioned Tate to transform these sketches into art, although for months he withheld identification of the original creator. “When he told me first whose they were, I was struck dumb,” Tate told the Washington Post. Tate later wrote, “To say that this [information] provided additional perspective and direction for the work ahead would be an extraordinary understatement.”
Tate’s goal was to replicate the exact details of Kennedy’s doodles—first enlarging Scher’s photographs, then welding brass, aluminum, and steel to create the tangle of intersecting lines President Kennedy had left on his cabinet meeting agendas. Work on the sculptures went from the fall of 1965 through the late summer of 1966, and cumulated in more than twenty pieces ranging in size from a few inches to more than twelve feet in length. In the summer of 1967, Tate connected with Anacostia Neighborhood Museum (now Anacostia Community Museum) Director John R. Kinard through a museum staff member, and the men worked together to get the exhibition together in the span of a few months.
Tate’s “humble tribute to the thirty-fifth President of the United States” titled "Doodles in Dimension," opened to the public on November 22, 1967 at the Anacostia Museum, marking the four-year anniversary of Kennedy’s death. The exhibition—which, according to Anacostia exhibit meeting minutes, received Jacqueline Kennedy’s blessing—was covered extensively by the local press.
Two years after the exhibit’s opening, Tate was also the subject of a feature and photospread in Ebony magazine. Pictured showing U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy his sculptures, Tate told Ebony: “Once I realized that this was the work of Kennedy, I felt an obligation to bring out the magnificence of each little curlicue and squiggle. It may sound silly, but from that point I felt that I could get some kind of guidance from the spirit of JFK—the same kind of spirit he brought to the Presidency and which he must have been expressing in his drawings.”
It wasn’t just Tate that connected with President Kennedy’s drawings. After an article in a January 1968 Scholastic classroom publication, News Explorer, showed photos of Tate’s sculptures and Kennedy’s doodles, kids were inspired, too. Letters came to the Anacostia Community Museum and U.S. Senator Robert Kennedy’s office from classrooms across the country, asking for more information about the sculptor and his lofty inspiration. For others, the sculptures served as their own inspiration. As one girl wrote, to the “Sirs” of the Anacostia Museum: “I don’t write well but I can doodle…I used this paper to do it on. I showed you mine. Now it is your turn.” The letter, signed off as “Your doodler,” is on a loose-leaf sheet of paper, adorned with intersecting circles and curling lines so exact that they could be befitting of a former president.
Record Unit 265, Anacostia Neighborhood Museum Office of the Director, Records, 1966-1975, Smithsonian Institution Archives.
Doodles series, Papers of John F. Kennedy, The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.
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