The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Category: Smithsonian History
On October 23, 1826, James Smithson, a wealthy Englishman, sat down and wrote the final version of his will. Smithson, who was 61 years old and had suffered various ailments, was clearly thinking about his legacy. After establishing his pedigree and naming his executors, his first bequest was:
To John Fitall, formerly my Servant, but now employed in the London Docks, and residing at No. 27, Jubilee Place, North Mile End, old town, in consideration of his attachment & fidelity to me, & the long & great care he has taken of my effects, & my having done but very little for him, I give and bequeath the Annuity or annual sum of one hundred pounds sterling for his life, to be paid to him quarterly, free of legacy duty & all other deductions, the first payment to be made to him at the expiration of three months after my death.
Fitall had been his servant for a number of years, and Smithson seems to have held him in high esteem. There is no indication of the circumstances under which Fitall left Smithson’s employ, but it does seem that a job at the London Docks must have been a step down from his role as a man-servant to a wealthy gentleman. Fitall’s home on Jubilee Place, North Mile End, old town, was part of what is known as the East End of London. The area was not yet as notorious as during the Victorian era, when street gangs, prostitutes and Jack the Ripper kept the penny press headlines focused on the docklands area, but it was already a crowded, gritty neighborhood rife with crime. The East End was the section east of the Roman and medieval walled city of London, north of the River Thames, and bordered by the the River Lea. Many residents worked at the nearby docks, which were growing rapidly, with the St. Katharine Docks opening in 1827. Overcrowded and unsanitary, with transients arriving at the docks daily, cholera and other epidemics were a regular occurrence. This was also the home of the Cockney barrow boys and flower girls, competing for sales with their patter of rhyming slang.
Smithson seems to express regret that he has not done more for Mr. Fitall in the past and thus wishes to provide for him for the remainder of his life. His bequest of £100 sterling annually is not a paltry sum. It is difficult to really calculate what that would mean in today's dollars, but the Old Bailey Online website suggests:
By the middle of the nineteenth century, a skilled engineer could command 7s. 6d. a day, or around £110 per year, if fully employed, but this was not significantly more than their eighteenth-century predecessors. In the last decades of the nineteenth century William Booth estimated that a working family needed an income of at least 18s. to 21s. a week, or around £50 a year, just to get by, and 22s. to 30s. a week (£57-£78 per annum) to be "comfortable".
So it would seem that Smithson provided a decent income for his faithful servant for the remainder of his life. I don't know if Mr. Fitall and his wife remained in the East End or if he continued to work at the London docks, but the Fitalls would have had a comfortable life. Life in the East End continued to deteriorate through the remainder of the nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth century – the era portrayed in the current BBC series Call the Midwife. Many residents lived in extreme poverty and deprivation, often consigned to work houses for the indigent. Smithson's first bequest ensured that his faithful servant lived out his days in far greater comfort than his neighbors.
The annuity ceased when Mr. Fitall died with the principal reverting to the bequest to the people of the United States. The Minutes of the Smithsonian Board of Regents for January 11, 1850, reported that Mrs. Fitall, the widow of a former servant of Mr. Smithson, through a Mr. H. P. Bohn, had offered for sale a small portrait of James Smithson which was in her possession for the price of thirty guineas. The portrait by James Roberts (1753-c. 1809) is of a young Smithson as a student at Pembroke College, Oxford University, in 1786, attired in his academic robes and already committed to a life devoted to scientific research. The board resolved that Secretary Joseph Henry be authorized to purchase the portrait of Mr. Smithson which Honorable Abbott Lawrence, United States Ambassador to Great Britain, spoke of in his letter of the 10th of December, 1849. The oil on canvas painting soon arrived at the Smithsonian and is in the collections of the National Portrait Gallery today, allowing the Fitalls to give back to the Institution founded by the man who held their service in the highest regard.
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