The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Category: Smithsonian History
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
Three years ago, on August 22, 2011, Smithsonian staff members in buildings on the National Mall and the Museum Support Center stopped whatever they were doing and headed into doorways as they experienced a rare event in this region – a 5.8 magnitude earthquake. Next as we headed down the staircase to evacuate the Capital Gallery building, my colleague, Courtney Bellizzi, and I took comfort in knowing that Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough was an expert in earthquake engineering. While the damage was not devastating, facilities like the Museum Support Center did have significant damage as shelving vibrated away a foot or more from its normal location. Dr. Clough knew just what to do.
Clough is the third Secretary of the Smithsonian with seismological expertise. The first Secretary, Joseph Henry (1795-1878), a physicist, was very interested in documenting reports of earthquakes and developing measurement tools. After an April 1852 earthquake on the East Coast, Henry sent out a “circular,” asking his meteorological observers to describe its effects on their region.
Charles Doolittle Walcott (1850-1927), the fourth Secretary, was a paleontologist who had directed the US Geological Survey and is best known for discovering the bizarre Burgess Shale deposits in Canada. In 1906, the San Francisco earthquake, one of the worst in history, destroyed the city and took over 3,000 lives, galvanizing the scientific community into action. Walcott was a central figure in an effort to create a Seismological Institute to compile data and ensure long term documentation of these geological events to understand them better – and this effort was to be part of the Smithsonian.
Members of the US Congress knew the country needed to be better prepared for these events and were concerned that earthquake work was carried on by numerous government programs, with little coordination, creating duplicative work that wasted taxpayers’ resources. Walcott proposed that the Smithsonian serve as the central point for earthquake research – compiling scientific data, specimens, images, news reports, etc., in one place, and making these resources readily available to all government agencies involved in responding to earthquakes. This was similar to the role of the Smithsonian’s US National Museum which held the collections amassed by government scientists, so duplicate collections were not created, and made the collections available to all who needed to study them.
In Record Unit 45 - Records of the Office of the Secretary, are four folders documenting the plans for the Seismological Institute. Walcott had the support of the American Philosophical Society, Geological Society of America, National Academy of Sciences, and distinguished scholars, such as Harry F. Reid at The Johns Hopkins University. In 1907, the secretary of the Seismological Society of America, George D. Louderback, wrote to Walcott that the society had approved a proposal to create a Seismological Institute under Smithsonian aegis – with its headquarters in California. In 1910, the Seismological Society of America passed a resolution supporting the creation of a seismological institute which would:
- collect seismological data;
- establish observing stations;
- study special earthquake regions;
- cooperate with organizations and individuals to develop and disseminate seismological knowledge; and
- be placed under the Smithsonian’s aegis because of its tradition of active cooperation with government science units and other scientific organizations.
Initially Walcott worried about funding for the Institute but David Starr Jordan, president of Stanford University, A. C. Lawson of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, and other proponents lobbied the Congress and approached philanthropists for financial support. Walcott coordinated the effort to push for the Institute. Legislation was introduced every year between 1907 and 1913, with some congressional support, but the legislation never made it through to law. The National Weather Service objected, since they wanted to retain their appropriation for collecting seismological data, and the legislation languished in committee through 1913. But then the nation was confronted with an even bigger crisis – one that would take more lives and cause more destruction than the 1906 quake. As World War I broke out in 1914, plans for a new institute were lost amidst the need to prepare for war.
Archives do not just trace past accomplishments, they also show us the roads not taken.
- Record Unit 45 - Office of the Secretary, Records, 1890-1929, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Joseph Henry and the Origins of American Seismology, O say can you see? blog, NMAH
- The San Francisco Earthquake, 1906, in color, O say can you see? blog, NMAH
- Earthquake Shakes DC, Chronology of Smithsonian History
Giant pandas made their debut at the National Zoo in 1972 and have been a favorite ever since. Those first pandas, Hsing-Hsing (male) and Ling-Ling (female), were a state gift from the People’s Republic of China following President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to the country. Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing passed away in 1992 and 1999, respectively. In 2000, the National Zoo received another two pandas on loan from China, Tian Tian (male) and Mei Xiang (female). On July 9, 2005, Mei Xiang gave birth to Tai Shan (male), the first surviving panda cub to be born at the National Zoo. With Tai Shan, traffic on the Zoo's Panda Cam, where people can enjoy the daily activities of the pandas, from eating bamboo to rolling around and having fun, exploded.
The birth of Bao Bao represents the important research, conservation, and breeding program of the National Zoo that is designed to preserve this endangered species. For a look back at Bao Bao's first year, check out the video below.
- Giant Panda images, Smithsonian Institution Archives
On August 15, 1914, the cargo ship S.S. Ancon made the first official transit of the Panama Canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. The Ancon rose through the locks to Gatun Lake and then on through the Culebra Cut to the Pacific. Although a great celebration had been planned, the outbreak of war in Europe that same month made this first crossing a quiet and austere affair.
The Panama Canal was not just a great engineering feat or major event in the history of world commerce, it was also a major environmental disruption – potentially mixing the waters of the two oceans, allowing species to invade new regions, creating new lakes and waterways, and destroying human and natural environments. Panamanians were resettled from the Canal Zone, forests were felled as regions were flooded to create the canal watershed, and massive campaigns to destroy insect life were launched to limit the spread of insect-borne diseases.
Smithsonian naturalists at the U. S. National Museum (now the National Museum of Natural History), government scientists, and many of their colleagues at museums and colleges across the United States were concerned about the environmental impact of the canal construction. Thus the Smithsonian led the Biological Survey of the Panama Canal Zone from 1910 to 1912, to establish a baseline of what animals and plants were native to the region and to document environmental conditions, such as weather, soil types, etc. To secure funds for the survey, they turned to an old friend of the Smithsonian, President Teddy Roosevelt, who had started donating natural history specimens when he was a boy, had supported the construction of a new National Museum building, now known as the Natural History Museum, and encouraged the Smithsonian to acquire the Freer Gallery of Art. Roosevelt laid the groundwork for U. S. federal government support, although he had left office by the time the survey began. With federal and private funding, from 1910 to 1914, North American naturalists surveyed the natural world and collected specimens for the National Museum.
Although the original plan was to survey the Canal Zone, naturalists soon realized they needed to survey the entire region to determine the geographic distribution of plants and animals. Field naturalists such as Edward A. Goldman of the Bureau of Biological Survey and Albert S. Hitchcock of the Smithsonian’s National Museum explored swamps, cloud forests, bat-filled caves, arid mountainsides, rural farmlands – all of the diverse environments they found in the small nation. The explorers carefully documented the specimens they collected, noting soil conditions, the plants and animals a particular species interacted with, and the geographic range and density of populations. They began regular monitoring of weather and other physical conditions, a program that continues today.
When the Canal opened in August of 1914, the Smithsonian had created a baseline of written information and biological specimens that could be studied to determine the effects of this massive engineering project. Indeed, as the survey ended, the consortium of museums, colleges and research labs agreed to establish a permanent research station so they could continue to observe and learn from the changing dynamics of the region. They selected Barro Colorado Island, a small island that had been a mountaintop before the region had been flooded to create Gatun Lake. They watched as majestic trees turned into waterlogged stumps and large mammals disappeared from the new small island. At the close of World War II, the Barro Colorado Island laboratory was transferred to the Smithsonian’s aegis, known today as the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. As the large new locks are constructed today, once again STRI scientists are monitoring changes and conducting salvage field work as the excavations reveal evidence of ancient human, animal, and plant life.
- "1910-1912 Exploration of Panama," Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, Biodiversity Heritage Library
- 150 Years of Smithsonian Research in Latin America, online exhibition, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- 1910-1912 Biological Survey of the Panama Canal Zone, National Museum of Natural History
The Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, is the only museum in the nation devoted exclusively to historic and contemporary design. Originally established in 1896 as the Cooper Union Museum for the Arts of Decoration, the museum was formally transferred to the Smithsonian on July 1, 1968. The museum was renamed the Copper-Hewitt Museum of Design at the time of transfer, but was later known as the Cooper-Hewitt Museum of Decorative Arts and Design in 1969 and then in 1994 it became the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, with its current name being adopted in 2014.
The museum moved into its present home, the Carnegie Mansion in 1970, which was renovated and reopened to the public in 1976. Closed for renovations since 2011, the redesigned museum will open to the public on December 12, 2014.
- Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum history, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum collections
- Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum records, Smithsonian Institution Archives