The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Category: Smithsonian History
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.
The Smithsonian Castle sits just over a mile away from Washington D.C.’s most notable address,1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. We are more than just a short walk away from the White House, however—we are directly tied to it and its occupants. Not only does the Smithsonian collect the history of United States Presidents (including, yes, Lincoln’s top hat and even the hair of a few Founding Fathers), it has historically interacted with the Oval Office. Here’s a look back at the Presidential connections to the Smithsonian—from scientific expeditions, military reconnaissance, to the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
The Smithsonian was founded in 1846, during eleventh President James K. Polk’s tenure in office. Prior to Polk, other Presidents had still supported the Smithsonian. During his time in office, Andrew Jackson sent a letter to Congress urging them to accept founding donor James Smithson’s bequest. The fledgling Smithsonian’s fiercest supporter, though, was former President John Quincy Adams. Adams served in Congress post-Presidency, and chaired the House Select Committee on the Smithson bequest in 1835. Adams was a strong supporter of science and the arts and saw a value and vision in Smithson’s gift. He described it as “one of the noblest benefactions ever made to the race of man,” and his dogged fight on behalf of the Smithson bequest helped turn the tide of opinion in Congress. Another notable supporter of the Smithsonian, about 100 years later, was Lyndon Baines Johnson, who worked as a school teacher before entering politics.
Many Presidents got their start working with the Smithsonian before they even took office—as Vice President. The Vice President of each administration serves on the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents, including the following later Presidents: Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, James Garfield, Chester Arthur, Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman, LBJ, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and George H.W. Bush. Twenty-seventh President William Howard Taft was also the tenth Chief Justice of the United States, meaning he also served on the Board of Regents. During Taft’s tenure, he was an incredibly active, hands-on Chancellor—he participated in the Smithsonian’s first Capital Campaign in 1925, the 1927 Future of the Smithsonian Institution conference, and even Smithsonian-wide staff-meetings.
Several other Presidents were hands-on with the Smithsonian during their terms in office. Abraham Lincoln worked closely with the Smithsonian’s first Secretary Joseph Henry during the Civil War. Henry collaborated with Lincoln in developing war reconnaissance methods for the Union army. He introduced Lincoln to balloonist Thaddeus Lowe, helping the Union develop a balloon corps that could observe enemy troop movement and telegraph locations down to Union soldiers on the ground. Lincoln also worked with Henry to test signal lights—Lincoln with a light in his D.C. summer cottage and Henry with another at the Smithsonian Castle. The Smithsonian, led by Henry, also advised Lincoln on evaluating a variety of scientific proposals for other projects, helping save the Union forces time and money.
Lincoln was far from the only President who participated in the scientific research side of the Smithsonian. Franklin Delano Roosevelt went on the Presidential Cruise of 1938 to the Galapagos Islands, alongside Waldo L. Schmitt, a curator at the US National Museum (now the National Museum of Natural History). A specimen in the NMNH Department of Invertebrate Zoology collection even has Roosevelt’s name on the label—taken back to the museum on that 1938 expedition. Aside from specimen collecting, FDR influenced the growth of the Smithsonian through his extensive New Deal programs. The National Zoological Park was one of the first institutions to make use of the Works Progress Administration’s federal art programs. Artists were employed to create mosaics and animal sculptures, and even paint the animals’ habitat backgrounds. Workers through other federal programs helped conduct surveys, translate articles, and do maintenance work on Smithsonian buildings.
In terms of Commander-in-Chiefs being active at the Smithsonian, there is no match for twenty-sixth President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt’s connection to the Smithsonian began when he was just a child, sending letters and even specimens to the Smithsonian’s second Secretary Spencer Baird. He continued donating items to the Smithsonian throughout his Presidency and beyond. This included an expedition trip that left the U.S. just three weeks after his successor’s inauguration. For Roosevelt, who was just 50 years old when he left office, it was a chance to indulge his passion as a naturalist, get away from politics, and work with an institution he deeply valued. The Smithsonian-Roosevelt African Expedition, which included Theodore and his son Kermit, traveled throughout what is now Kenya, the Congo, Uganda, and Sudan—collecting more than 23,000 specimens along the way (plus some animals for the National Zoo!).
Theodore Roosevelt wasn’t the only president who came face-to-face with nature at the Smithsonian—Nixon did, too, but at his inaugural party, held at what’s now the National Museum of American History. Presidents have held inaugural balls at the Smithsonian dating back to the administration of James Garfield. His party at the Arts and Industries Building in 1881 was the first, and was done while the building was still under construction—in fact, the floors hadn’t even been put in yet! Since then, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton have all held inaugural balls at the Smithsonian, while George W. Bush and Barack Obama held inaugural festivals on the National Mall organized by Smithsonian Folklife.
Richard Nixon remains the only President whose Smithsonian inaugural party included a chicken chase. The live chickens were in the museum as part of an exhibit on American farm life and one escaped during the party—flying into the VIP box and upsetting the guests. Luckily, Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley, an ornithologist, was in attendance and captured the rogue chicken.
Finally, as Presidents were important in helping establish the Smithsonian itself, it is worth noting how that tradition has continued through present day. The Smithsonian’s newest museum, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, was signed into law by George W. Bush in 2003. Our forty-fourth President Barack Obama helped break ground for NMAAHC in 2012, and formally opened it to the public on September 24, 2016.
Presidential Inaugural Balls at the Smithsonian, Smithsonian Institution Archives
The Presidents, The White House
The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden, National Museum of American History
This is a story of a forgotten document found. Was it Robert Kennicott who led me there?
In early August, Washington Post writer Sarah Kaplan contacted the Smithsonian Archives to use an image of the Megatherium Club. Kaplan’s article details the quest to solve the mystery surrounding the death of Robert Kennicott--Megatherium Club member, explorer, and founder of the Chicago Academy of Sciences.
Kennicott died in 1866, at the age of 30, while on the Western Union Telegraph Expedition. One theory that persisted about his early death was that he committed suicide (spoiler alert: he did not). Kaplan’s feature in the Post follows the work of Smithsonian scientists who used forensic evidence and archival documentation to determine the cause of Kennicott’s death. It was Kennicott’s words, and indeed his remains, that solved the mystery (his bones are housed in the National Museum of Natural History).
Cut back to the day the article was published....
I was reviewing and editing some finding aids to collections and found an anomaly in the list for Record Unit 32, so I went into collections storage and opened up the first folder in the first box. I was just checking the dates of records in a folder labeled “Miscellaneous Correspondence.” It was there I found a document titled “Plan of Kennicott’s Exploration, 1865.”
Kennicott is no stranger to most of us who work in the Smithsonian Archives; the Megatherium Club photo is on the wall of our elevator lobby, and the image of Kennicott in his field outfit is often shown during Archives tours given to interns and new employees. Still, his name doesn’t come up every day. But there I was looking at his signature on the day this article was published.
I took a closer look at the document. It is a fairly straightforward plan for a cooperative expedition between two scientific institutions--the Smithsonian and the Chicago Academy of Sciences--but the last paragraph is less common (at least for the kinds of expedition plans most of us have seen the Archives’ collections).
It states, “In the event of Mr. Kennicott’s death, before his return, Prof. [Spencer] Baird is to act for him, in carrying out the provisions of this agreement, as regards the interests of the Chicago Academy of Sciences [emphasis mine].” This was the very expedition during which Kennicott died.
Now, it could have been the colder temperature in our collections storage, but reading that last paragraph, I realized I had goosebumps. I showed the document to our historian and several of our reference staff, and no one recalled seeing the document before. Record Unit 32 is a somewhat odd collection. The provenance for the collection is simply, “These secretarial records apparently were separated from the main series before the latter were bound.” These were papers left on someone’s desk, or in someone’s filing cabinet, and stayed “orphaned” when the early records of the Smithsonian Secretary were assembled and bound. The folder reads, “Miscellaneous Correspondence,” and really the entire collection is comprised of miscellaneous items. The “Plan of Kennicott’s Exploration” was never called out in the finding aid, and no one would have known to look in this collection for such a plan.
I’m not sure I believe in ghosts, but somehow I do believe that Kennicott wanted me to find that document that day.
Record Unit 32, Office of the Secretary, Correspondence, 1843-1887, Smithsonian Institution Archives.
Record Unit 7213, Western Union Telegraph Expedition Collection, 1865-1867, Smithsonian Institution Archives.
Record Unit 7072, Robert Kennicott Papers, 1863-1865, Smithsonian Institution Archives.
This Smithsonian scientist’s death was a mystery; 150 years later, his skeleton helped solve it, Washington Post, August 3, 2016.