The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Category: Smithsonian History
Beards seem to get all the attention these days. So in honor of Bald and Free Day and to all of those of you who are hair impared, we present to you a Bald and Free Smithsonian.
- Record Unit 7433 - Ruel P. Tolman Collection, 1909-1964, Smithsonian Institution Archive
- Accession 11-008 - Office of Public Affairs, Photographic Collection, 1960-1970, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Beer is almost like a universal language. Most places you go to in the world will have a national beer and plenty of people willing to drink it with you. This is even truer when Oktoberfest comes around. From Oktoberfest flavored brews to the countless festivals held throughout late September and early October, people take the time to drink and be merry!
In honor of Oktoberfest, and in the spirit of beer, we thought we would share one of our beer stories from the Archives Oral History Collection. Beer is one of the best ways to sit and relax and socialize after a long hard day of work. Even when Smithsonian staff goes into the field in search of collections and knowledge, they find time to take a break from collecting to unwind with a cold one. But sometimes in these often remote locations, getting your favorite brew is a challenge.
Smithsonian researchers from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Center (STRI) came up with an ingenious way to overcome this problem. STRI began on Barro Colorado Island (BCI), an island found in the man-made Gatun Lake in the Panama Canal watershed. Smithsonian staff have traveled there for biodiversity research since the early 1900s. The research station officially joined the Smithsonian in 1946 and has served as a home to staff and their families ever since.
In the 1960s-1970s a group of BCI inhabitants found a way to make their time on the island even more comfortable. They created a beer machine. In an oral history interview A. Stanley Rand, a STRI herpetologist, discussed how they accomplished this feat:
The original beer machine was in the bunker at Naos, and it was discovered that the [Panama Canal] Company apparently had forgotten about it, because nobody ever came to fill it. So they decided they didn't need it. It was a Coke machine in those days, and was moved to BCI, and people used to sneak in and buy cases of beer and bring [them] out and put [them] in the machine. It didn't work very well, but people were afraid to tell the Company, complain to the Company . . . It later turned out that, in fact, the Company was delighted to have a beer machine, and not only that, but they would deliver beer to Gamboa once a week if you got around to calling in in due time.
The person who handled the beer machine key thus became one of the most important people on the island. In fact, when Brian C. Bock, a herpetologist who was a visiting scientist in STRI's Biology Program, split his ear on a ceiling fan, his first act was to not think of medical attention, but the beer key. Bock recalled that he was:
. . . bleeding all over and feeling rather stupid. I managed to get . . . to the top of the front porch where everyone was having Happy Hour. I was the beer hefter at the time, so my first act, of course, was to surrender my flag. I took the keys off and passed them, because it was like capital punishment to leave the island with the keys to the beer machine, because that would bring things to a halt.
This small luxury helped Smithsonian staff deal with life in the field. The beer machine helped STRI staff bond and add enjoyment to the hard work of collecting in the steamy tropics. However, a beer machine is not the only way Smithsonian staff brought beer into the field – check out the Field Book Project Blog to learn how beer became a collection in and of itself, and remember to enjoy this year's Oktoberfest celebrations safely!
- Record Unit 9579 - Oral history interviews with A. Stanley Rand, 1986, 1989-1990, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Record Unit 9580 - Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute Oral History Collection, 1990, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Every year the Archives receives a variety of digital video for its permanent collections. Contents include Smithsonian Channel programming, museum events, and special ceremonies. The timing of one such video from Accession 13-266, Smithsonian Institution, Video Recordings, c. 2001-2009 was a nice surprise, as it is the 2-hour video of the opening ceremony of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) from September 21, 2004, in Washington, D.C.
President George H. W. Bush signed legislation in 1989 creating the National Museum of the American Indian as part of the Smithsonian. The National Museum of the American Indian Act (NMAIA) allowed for a museum in New York, a storage facility in Maryland, and a flagship museum in Washington, D.C. The New York museum opened as the George Gustav Heye Center in 1994, which is named after the founder of the Museum of the American Indian in New York City in 1916. The Cultural Resources Center in Suitland, Maryland, which opened in 1999, serves conservation and collection storage needs.
Opening day of the Washington, D.C., museum featured a Native Nations Procession along the National Mall with thousands of indigenous peoples participating from all over the Western Hemisphere. There also were special remarks by Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo, U.S. lawmakers, and Smithsonian officials. The First Americans Festival also featured various musicians and entertainers. The opening brought together the largest known gathering of Native American communities in history.
U.S. Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell said at the opening, “Senator Dan Inouye, my friend and colleague, to whom we owe so much, often says that Washington is a city of monuments and yet, there is not one monument to the native people of this land. This magnificent structure, which we are going to open today, is that monument and in it we will tell our story.”
The limestone building itself is curvilinear and was the initial design of GBQC and Douglas Cardinal Limited. The project was further developed by Jones, House, and Sakiestewa, along with the architecture firms Jones & Jones, SmithGroup in collaboration with Lou Weller (Caddo) and the Native American Design Collaborative, and Polshek Partnership Architects. There also was input from Native American communities. Important requirements were that it be a “living museum,” resulting in an east-facing main entrance, a dome that opens to the sky, and a 4.25-acre landscape that includes many plants and trees, as well as some ducks.
The cost of the museum was $199 million and it had 1.4 million visitors in 2013. The three facilities have the world’s largest collection of Native American art and artifacts from North, South, and Central America.
Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations launches on the anniversary of the museum’s opening on September 21.
Enjoy some of the highlights from the procession. Please note that some of the clips have some glitches in playback.
- National Museum of the American Indian history, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- National Museum of the American Indian opening, September 21, 2004, C-Span
- National Museum of the American Indian website from the Grand Opening Celebration, October 12, 2004, Internet Archive
Some of the arthropods are obtained from museum professionals and biological supply companies, while others are collected in the wild by staff and amateur arthropod hunters.
During a scanning project in our cold vault, I came across a collection of images from the early years of the Insect Zoo, August 1972 to be exact. The collection shows Smithsonian staff members, volunteers and their families venturing out to local fields, woods, and even monuments to gather specimens for the exhibit; from turning over leaves, digging in fallen logs, filtering out water in streams, and even at the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool. This collection shows how determined these people were on providing an exceptional learning experience at the museum.
- A History of Celebrating the Insect Zoo, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Recently, we asked digital volunteers in the Smithsonian’s Transcription Center to transcribe Spencer Fullerton Baird’s Index of Correspondence, 1850s-1870s, and they delivered in a mere two weeks! The reward, which was likely motivation for finishing so quickly, was a behind-the-scenes chat with our own, Pamela Henson, Historian of the Smithsonian. She gave a fascinating perspective on the life of Spencer F. Baird, the Smithsonian's second Secretary and its first curator.
As a child in Reading, Pennsylvania, Baird and his brother, William took long walks in the countryside exploring nature. A fan of walking, Baird once competed in a 40-mile race in a day, and won! By age 15, Baird was corresponding with ornithologist, John James Audubon, to ask for help identifying birds he collected on his walks. He attended and taught at Carlyle College where he began to correspond with the Smithsonian. In 1850, he was named first curator and Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian.
He served under then Secretary, Joseph Henry, who was a physicist and had no interest in developing the Smithsonian into a museum. Rather, he preferred scientific research labs and felt that collections were a burden. In the meantime, Baird dreamed of becoming director of a national museum and he arrived at the doors of the Smithsonian with two boxcars full of bird specimens, including ones donated from Audubon.
While at the Smithsonian, Baird collected much more. From the outset, the Smithsonian had no standing budget for acquiring collections, which continues today. As Henson likes to say, we have always relied on the kindness of strangers.
Working off Joseph Henry’s Meteorological Network of citizen weather observers, Baird developed a network of collecting volunteers from across North and Central America (trappers, farmers, doctors, military people stationed out west). Baird wrote approximately 5000+ letters per year encouraging contributors, much as Audubon had encouraged Baird in his young years.
The core organizing mechanism in Baird’s Index is an atlas. Baird followed Darwinian theory and was interested in biogeographical coverage of specimens. Hence, Baird organized contributors in the atlas to ensure a broad range of coverage across the Americas.
Since the Board of Regents supported the development of a natural history museum, his work continued. His letters and kind attitude engendered many people to the Smithsonian. He hired the first African American and female employee of the Smithsonian. And eventually, upon Henry’s death and his appointment as Secretary, his dream of a great national museum was realized.
- Official Records of Spencer Fullerton Baird, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Smithsonian Crowdsourcing Since 1849, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Transcription of Spencer Fullerton Baird’s Index of Correspondence, 1850s-1870s
- Spencer F. Baird’s Vision for a National Museum
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