The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Category: Smithsonian History
Founded just a few years before the start of the Civil War, wartime quickly made an impact on the Smithsonian. Though not every conflict could be seen from the Castle towers, the Smithsonian’s location in our nation’s capital has guaranteed that wartime concerns have been a part of life at the Smithsonian. Smithsonian staff have contributed scientific expertise and critical knowledge to the war effort. As a Washington, D.C. institution, our buildings and collections have also had to respond to the threat of wartime danger. To explore the various wartime roles the Smithsonian has played, we have created a new web exhibit, Smithsonian in Wartime, where you can learn more about the Smithsonian during the Civil War, World War I and World War II. Here’s a quick look at what you can find.
During the Civil War, the Smithsonian was close enough to the front lines to see fighting from the Castle towers. The Henry family lived in the Castle and watched the war’s progress with interest as they felt the danger and isolation that the nearby battlefront brought. Secretary Joseph Henry also advised President Abraham Lincoln. He brought balloonist Thaddeus Lowe to the attention of Lincoln and the Secretary of War, Simon Cameron, suggesting that he would be useful for military reconnaissance. Playing to our scientific strengths, the Smithsonian also produced disinfectant for local hospitals treating wounded soldiers. In just two months, the laboratory prepared over a thousand bottles.
As the United States watched World War I unfold and the nation entered the fray, the Smithsonian paid careful attention to the war as it developed. Even before the United States entered the war, men and women at the Smithsonian left their positions to volunteer for military service. While men joined the armed services or transferred to the War Department, Florence A. Graves, an employee of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, left her position to work as a nurse in France. At home, staff created a Red Cross Auxiliary that sponsored an ambulance and sent innumerable mittens, scarves, sweaters, and other knit and sewn items to those who desperately needed them on the front lines.
However, the biggest impact World War I had on the Smithsonian was the War Risk Insurance Bureau moving into the Natural History Building. Set up to provide life insurance for soldiers and sailors shipping out to the front, it grew exponentially along with the armed forces. The Smithsonian closed exhibits and turned the building over to this critical service. Yet just as their exhibit space was shrinking, curators were busy reaching out to those on the front lines to document what was sure to go down in history.
During World War II, the Smithsonian was one of few places in the country that had a long history of research in the Pacific. In addition to the staff who enlisted and volunteered on the home front, the natural history expertise of Smithsonian scientists was put to use creating guides for armed forces sent to the Pacific. This effort culminated in Survival on Land and Sea, a booklet summarizing survival skills and other necessary information. Many servicemen in turn gave back to the Smithsonian. During their travels, servicemen like Sammy Ray, a pharmacist’s mate in the Navy, collected specimens and sent them to the Smithsonian. Even future Secretary S. Dillon Ripley collected for the museum while stationed in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).
Smithsonian involvement in the war effort was as varied as the Smithsonian’s many areas of expertise. You can learn more about what you’ve read here in the full exhibit. From its pages you can find links to the documents and photos that trace the Smithsonian’s involvement in the United States’ war efforts. So explore and learn!
Record Unit 298, Smithsonian Institution, Local Notes Newsletter, 1916-1933, Smithsonian Institution Archives
A Field Collector’s Manual in Natural History, Smithsonian institution, 1944, Smithsonian Libraries
The Smithsonian Survival Guide, Smithsonian Air and Space Magazine
The Smithsonian Institution has been collecting “specimens” related to the history of photography since photography was still considered a new technology. Thomas William Smillie, the Smithsonian’s first and chief photographer from 1871 to 1917, began collecting materials relevant to photography (both examples of photographic processes as well as photographic equipment) in 1888. His first documented purchase was of a daguerreotype apparatus used by Samuel F. B. Morse. Smillie recognized early on that photographic technology was advancing rapidly and had the foresight to begin creating a record of the history of photography lest it be lost to future generations.
Smillie’s collection first started gaining traction when it was exhibited at the Centennial Exposition of the Ohio Valley and Central States, in Cincinnati, 1888. However, it wasn’t until the purchase of fifty photographs from the Capital Camera Club of the Capital Bicycle Club’s 1896 exhibition (regarded as the first recorded purchase of photographs as works of art by a museum) that the quite significant collection consisting of 1284 specimens gained official status. On July 15, 1896 , the Section of Photography, Division of Graphic Arts, United States National Museum was created. In addition to his duties as the Smithsonian’s chief photographer, Thomas Smillie was appointed Custodian of the Section of Photography.
With formal status and administrative support for the historical photography collection, Smillie began to articulate a framework for his vision. Acknowledging that the collection was lacking in contemporary photography, he set out to “complete the series so that it will be a worthy representation of the progress of the art from the beginning until now.” (Record Unit 158, United States National Museum, Curators' Annual Reports, 1881-1964, Smithsonian Institution Archives) Due in large part to the fact that Smillie’s attention was divided between his duties in the photographic laboratory and his new custodial position, there was not an onsite photography exhibit at the Smithsonian until 1913.
Occupying the northwest court of the Arts and Industries Building, the exhibit of historical photographs and equipment meticulously collected by Smillie over the course of several decades were arranged chronologically—illustrating, from Camera Obscura to newer technologies in color, x-ray, spectrum, solar, and moving picture, a thorough and comprehensive history of photography.
In the century since his death, the historic photography collection that was so thoughtfully composed by Thomas W. Smillie has grown considerably, and is now called the Photographic History Collection, Division of Culture and the Arts, National Museum of American History. The tradition of having the collections maintained and added to by the chief photographer acting as custodian continued until 1943, when the functions of the photographic laboratory and the Section of Photography were finally divided. This allowed for greater curatorial instruction and focus on the growth of the collection, not to mention a new emphasis on photographic preservation in the 1960s.
Today, the Photographic History Collection has over 200,000 images and 12,000 pieces of equipment. Over the span of 120 years and numerous administrative reorganizations, the Photographic History Collection continues to reflect on all aspects of photography, with representative specimens illustrating an in depth regard for the breadth of photographic processes, genres, and concepts. The collection serves to realize Smillie’s vision that “an effort will be made hereafter, especially in connection with the future expositions of amateur photography, to secure such works as are necessary to make the collection in the National Museum a reference and record collection, which shall not only be a matter of interest and pleasure to the public, but of practical value to the photographers themselves."
Record Unit 158, United States National Museum, Curators' Annual Reports, 1881-1964, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Record Unit 529, National Museum of American History (U.S.) Division of Photographic History, Records, circa 1883-1984, Smithsonian Institution Archives
David E. Haberstitch, Photographs at the Smithsonian Institution. Picturescope 32 (1): 4-20 (Summer 1985), p. 7.
Hidden Treasures: The Photographic History Collection at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, Teaching Photography