The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Category: Smithsonian History
While processing a recent acquisition of exhibition records from the Renwick Gallery, I came across a number of entries from artists, studios, schools and manufacturers for a national competition sponsored by the museum. Besides the actual entry itself for the competition, what I found most fascinating were the variety of letterhead designs present among the paper entries. While seemingly simple in the execution, their aesthetic and layout were carefully selected to provide a glimpse to their recipient of the design style and language of the sender.
The entries were for the exhibition, Craft Multiples, which was at the Renwick from July 4, 1975 to February 16, 1976. It was an exhibition of 133 production objects selected by jury that consisted of Lois Moran, Director of the Research and Education Department of the American Crafts Council; Hedy Backlin-Landman, Director of the Danforth Museum in Framingham, Massachusetts; and Lloyd E. Herman, Director, Renwick Gallery. There were a total of 2379 entries that were divided into the following categories: metal, wood, glass, clay, fiber and a miscellaneous other. After its time at the Renwick Craft Multiples went on a three-year tour around the country.
- Accession 10-128: Renwick Gallery, Departmental Records, 1957, 1961-1989, 1997-2003, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Lloyd E. Herman Papers, 1961-2002, Archives of American Art
- Hedy Backlin-Landman Papers, 1961-1977, Archives of American Art
- Beer Mug by William Bernstein, 1975.144.1, Smithsonian American Art Museum
- Music Rack by Richard R. John, 1975.171, Smithsonian American Art Museum
- Wastebasket by Marian John, 1975.140, Smithsonian American Art Museum
The first week of May marks the 93rd anniversary of the opening of the Freer Gallery of Art. Although the Freer is known as an art museum today, it once also sponsored archaeological field work. When the Freer Gallery’s building opened to the public on May 2, 1923, Carl Whiting Bishop, associate curator of archaeology, had already left for China on February 12 to lead a joint expedition with the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
The Freer’s field expeditions were intended to conduct archaeological excavations and to investigate Chinese history, as part of the Smithsonian Institution’s mission for “the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” Smithsonian Annual Reports from the 1920s and 1930s record the ups and downs of the field work in China, from the success of excavations under Chinese archaeologist Ci Li in Shanxi Province in 1927 to the end of field work in 1934 due to political unrest.
Documents in the Freer Field Expedition Records, part of the Smithsonian Institution Archives collections, record the Freer’s foray into archaeology. Correspondence between Bishop and John Ellerton Lodge, the first director of the Freer Gallery, discusses Bishop’s initial field expedition in 1923 and subsequent field work. Bishop stated in a letter dated September 5, 1923, that the primary purpose of the expedition was “the beginning of scientific excavation in China,” but in the unsettled political environment, he found it difficult to obtain the necessary permission for excavations. Instead, Bishop and his colleague Archibald Wenley (later director of the Freer) turned to other activities, such as exploring potential sites for future excavation and improving their knowledge of Chinese.
While in China, Bishop also looked for archaeological objects and artworks to add to the Freer Gallery’s collection. In a letter to Lodge dated December 21, 1923, he added a postscript about a recently acquired piece, “a very fine and unusual statue,” and promised to send Lodge photographs and a fuller description. Bishop later catalogued the expedition’s acquisitions between 1923 and 1925, including bronzes, pottery, paintings, and sculptures, in an unpublished manuscript. According to the catalogue, the statue mentioned in the letter was a headless stone Buddha purchased from Taku Shanfang in Peking (Beijing) on December 23, 1923, for 4,800 Mexican silver dollars. Bishop documented the statue in the catalogue with several photographs of the intricate carvings on the front and back.
In the same letter that mentioned the purchase of the Buddha, Bishop discussed his progress in obtaining an excavation permit. As part of an intellectual cooperation effort between the American and Chinese governments, Bishop became the Adviser to the Chinese Government in archaeology. This position allowed the Freer Gallery to sponsor archaeological excavations in China. The Freer Gallery funded several excavations in the following years, but the excavated material stayed with the Freer’s partner institutions in China.
Many objects that Bishop purchased in China, including the stone Buddha, are still in the collection of the Freer Gallery. The limestone sculpture’s official designation in the object record is “Buddha draped in robes portraying the Realms of Existence,” and it is nicknamed the “Cosmic Buddha.” The Buddha is currently on display in the Sackler Gallery’s exhibition, “Body of Devotion: The Cosmic Buddha in 3D.” Documentation of the Cosmic Buddha has certainly improved since Bishop’s black-and-white photographs. The Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office has created a 3D model of the statue, so anyone can access close-up views from the Internet or use a 3D printer to make their own Cosmic Buddha.
“A Quest for the First Asian Employee,” The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archvies
“The Cosmic Buddha,” Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
Accession 02-051, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Field Expedition Records, Smithsonian Institution Archives
The 1846 legislation that established the Smithsonian Institution provided for a Secretary, appointed by the Board of Regents, who would run the day-to-day affairs of the Institution. When David Skorton became Secretary last year, he was the thirteenth person to take on that responsibility. In our last blog, we discussed the first six and now we’ll look at seven through twelve.
Heading the Smithsonian from 1953 to 1964, Leonard Carmichael, was the first Secretary brought in from outside the Institution – he was president of Tufts University. An expert in primate psychology, he expanded the Smithsonian’s research centers, including the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. He also oversaw a complete overhaul of the Smithsonian’s exhibits, using innovative techniques and introducing evaluation procedures.
The eighth Secretary, S. Dillon Ripley, 1964 to 1984, oversaw tremendous growth. An enthusiastic and expansive figure, he regularly reminded Smithsonian staff they should be having fun at work every day. Ripley did. The change was rapid and sometimes dizzing, as employees gasped at a carousel on the Mall, and new programs in the arts, culture and history. Six new museum were established, as well as six research centers.
Ripley also created educational and outreach programs, Smithsonian magazine, and several television series. He expanded the Smithsonian’s role in conservation and dabbled in inventions – developing decals to put on windows to prevent bird strikes. Ripley encouraged diversity at the Institution, too, hiring the first female museum director and the first African American Assistant Secretary and museum director. Ripley was a towering force to be reckoned with who left a greatly expanded Institution, in terms of budgets, endowment, staff, research, museums, collections, public programs, and visitorship.
Robert McCormick Adams, ninth Secretary, from 1984-1994, was an archeologist and provost at the University of Chicago. A quiet, low-key man, he is devoted to scholarship, pioneering the use of satellite photography to locate dig sites in the Middle East. The National Museum of the American Indian became part of the Smithsonian under his guidance. Adams also put the Smithsonian on the road to digitization. He was the first Secretary to use a desktop computer, and set us on course to participate in a new phenomenon called the Internet.
Law professor I. Michael Heyman became the tenth Secretary in 1994, after serving on the Board of Regents. Heyman celebrated the past while pushing the Institution to look forward. He oversaw an amazing 150th anniversary of the Institution in 1996. But he also encouraged implementation of the Report of the Commission on the Future of the Smithsonian, which he had helped write.
Heyman continued Adams’ push into the digital future, launching the first Smithsonian website in Newt Gingrich’s office in 1995. While that first home page looks pretty basic today, it placed the Institution at the center of the modern increase and diffusion of knowledge.
Lawrence M. Small became the 11th Secretary at the turn of the century. A banker, he was the first non-academic to lead the Institution. He presided over the opening of the American Indian Museum and the signing of legislation for our new National Museum of African American History and Culture. With a very different perspective from the world of business, he had an uncanny ability to bring the Institution’s diverse staff together in opposition to his ideas. But he also brought staff together for an annual Staff Picnic on the Mall, with employees sharing their talents in sports, music and research.
The Institution returned to its academic roots when Wayne Clough became the twelfth Secretary in 2008. Clough visited the Institution’s far-flung facilities, nurturing a sense of connectedness that was celebrated in the staff photo at the 2010 Staff Picnic. Known for pioneering analytical techniques for civil engineering, his earthquake expertise proved handy when Washington experienced a quake in 2011. As the staff filed out and nervously watched the Washington Monument and Castle, the SI had an expert who played a major role in the capital’s recovery. Clough further encouraged digitization, even allowing a 3-D version of himself to be made, fondly known as Lil’ Wayne. And he brought Smithsonian research and researchers together in serious collaborations through the Four Grand Challenges.
The new Secretary, David Skorton, in some ways is very similar to earlier Secretaries. He is over 6’ tall, like all the Secretaries except Joseph Henry. Henry, Walcott, Ripley, Heyman, and Small were all born in New York. While Skorton was born in Wisconsin, he was president of Cornell in New York prior to coming to the Smithsonian. And he was a college administrator, as Carmichael, Ripley, Adams, Heyman and Clough were. But as a physician, medical researcher, and musician he brings a unique perspective and will leave his unique impress on the Institution.
The Smithsonian Secretaries: That Tall Man from New York, Part I, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Secretary David Skorton, Smithsonian Institution Archives