The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Category: Smithsonian History
Today is Giant Panda cub Bao Bao’s third birthday, and yesterday her little brother, Bei Bei, turned one. This marks the first time in the forty-four years of panda conservation at the National Zoo that there have been two healthy cubs in residence at the zoo at the same time, but that’s not for lack of trying.
In 1972, Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling arrived at the National Zoo as gifts from China to the United States. That same year, Dr. Devra Kleiman, a conservation zoologist, began working at the zoo, focusing mainly on species conservation of Giant Pandas and Golden Lion Tamarins. At the time, very little was known about the social and reproductive habits of the Giant Panda. With the help of a team of volunteers, Kleiman began conducting around-the-clock observations and keeping very detailed notes on the pandas’ behaviors. She noticed that, despite popular belief, pandas in captivity were not solitary creatures, and keeping them apart made for unsuccessful mating attempts during the very narrow female fertile period. This observation resulted in a change to the panda enclosure that allowed Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing to interact more frequently.
In 1983, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing successfully mated for the first time, and the first pregnancy watch began. On July 20, 1983, observers noticed signs of nest building and a general sense of discomfort from Ling-Ling. They were even able to observe a few contractions. She gave birth to her first panda cub in the early morning hours of July 21st, but unfortunately, the joy over the birth of the newborn would be short lived. The cub succumbed to pneumonia about three hours later. Over the next seven years, Ling-Ling gave birth three more times, once to twins, but none of the cubs survived more than four days. While mourning these losses, Kleiman and her team tried to learn from them in order to encourage successful births in the future. By 1988, the birth management plan included steps to treat the cub with antibodies derived from Hsing-Hsing shortly after birth, since it was determined that the cubs were not getting sufficient antibodies from Ling-Ling during nursing.
In 2000, the National Zoo received two more pandas, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, following the deaths of Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing in 1992 and 1999, respectively. Although hopes for a baby panda were high with this new pair, the first several mating and artificial insemination attempts were once again unsuccessful. Finally, in 2005, all of the efforts paid off and Mei Xiang gave birth to a giant panda cub on July 9th, and this one survived. The cub was a boy named Tai Shan, and he was the first giant panda cub born at the National Zoo who thrived. In fact, per the agreement with China, Tai Shan was sent to the Wolong Nature Reserve in 2010, shortly after his fifth birthday, where he is participating in the reserve’s breeding program.
Despite all that researchers at the National Zoo had learned from Ling-Ling and Mei Xiang’s pregnancies, it would be seven years before Mei Xiang gave birth again, and another year after that before she produced a cub that survived long term. That cub was named Bao Bao, and just two years later, her brother Bei Bei was born, marking the first time at the National Zoo that back-to-back pregnancies resulted in healty giant panda cubs. Since Giant Panda mothers typically do not have a fertile period during the first year of their cub’s life, the earliest we could expect to see another baby panda born at the National Zoo is next summer. So hopefully this trend of success will continue, and this time next year we will be in the throes of another panda pregnancy watch!
Giant Pandas at the Smithsonian's National Zoo, Smithsonian National Zoological Park
Panda-monium!, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
The Archival Legacy of Devra Kleiman, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
On September 24, 2016, the long awaited National Museum of African American History and Culture will open its doors to the public. The museum will join the ranks of 18 others that bear the name of the Smithsonian Institution. Folks around the country have been eagerly anticipating the opening, and Smithsonian employees are no exception. Some, like the National Museum of American History, have opened temporary exhibits highlighting achievements of African Americans throughout history. The Smithsonian Institution Archives Institutional History program has been collecting oral histories of African Americans who have worked at the Smithsonian. In our collections, we have interviews of Louis Purnell, the first African American curator at the National Air and Space Museum. There are interviews of Lonnie G. Bunch, the current Director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. We have the interviews of Jeannine Smith Clark, a Smithsonian docent and Emeritus Regent, Shireen Dodson, the former Smithsonian Comptroller, and Annie Sullivan, a Smithsonian worker in the Building Management Division at the National Air and Space Museum. There are many more interviews that have been and are still being conducted and planned to add to the rich variety of experiences at the Smithsonian.
Part of my internship duties was to process these interviews, either to get them ready to be sent to transcription services or to do final edits and formatting for the transcripts. I had the opportunity to listen to stories and experiences of people that before coming to the Smithsonian I had no knowledge of. I was able to gain a better understanding of what it is like working at an institution like the Smithsonian, whether it is with museum collections, finances, or administration. Through reading these interviews and listening to the stories that have been told, I have gained an invaluable understanding of what people have had to go through as African American workers in the United States. Louis Purnell expressed it best when he said “you have to be twice as good to appear equal” to the white employees at the Smithsonian. Though they faced discrimination and a difficult journey, they persevered and, whether behind the scenes or out in front, helped the Smithsonian grow and become the world famous institution it is today.
The men and women in these interviews spoke not only of hardship, but of the wonderful experiences they had working at the Smithsonian. They told of opportunities they would not have had anywhere else, and of times when they got to say “I did that, I contributed to some of the greatest museums in the world.” The men and women interviewed impacted the Smithsonian in various ways, but all of their stories help contribute to the assurance that their history will not be swept under the rug anymore, and that their stories will be heard. Having the opportunity to be a part of a story that is so much bigger than just the Smithsonian, and spans the entire history of the United States, for even just two months is an experience that cannot be repeated. This project has allowed me to grow scholastically and to think even more critically of the opportunities I have had and will continue to have and will serve as a constant reminder never to take for granted what I and others have been able to accomplish because of the work of those who have come before.
Jeannine Smith Clark and the Increase and Diffusion of Cultural Education, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Record Unit 009578, Oral History Interview with Louis Purnell, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Record Unit 009620, Lonnie Bunch Interview as American Association of Museums Centennial Honoree, Smithsonian Institution Archives
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