The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Category: Smithsonian History
We are excited to announce that the C. Malcom Watkins oral history interviews are newly available for research. Watkins (1911-2001) was known for his assertion that he could tell the history of American culture using an earthenware teacup. He was a cultural historian who developed an early interest in American material culture through his parents, Charles H. and Lura Woodside Watkins, who collected glass and pottery.
Watkins received the B.S. from Harvard College in 1934 and began his museum career as Curator for the Wells Historical Museum, predecessor of Old Sturbridge Village, in Massachusetts. In 1949, he was appointed Associate Curator in the Division of Ethnology, in the Smithsonian’s United States National Museum (USNM), where he was responsible for the collections documenting American technology and decorative arts. When a separate National Museum of History and Technology (NMHT), now the National Museum of American History, was created in 1958, Watkins assumed responsibility for a new Division of Cultural History in the Department of Civil History. In 1969, a separate Department of Cultural History was established, with Watkins as Chairman. In 1973, he was named Senior Curator in the Department, a position he held until his retirement in 1980. He continued his research as Curator Emeritus until 1984.
During his career at the USNM and NMHT, Watkins worked on numerous exhibits, including the Hall of Everyday Life in the American Past, Growth of the United States, and A Nation of Nations. His exhibitions were innovative in their recreations of everyday life and in the range of cultural groups portrayed, including African American material culture. During his early years in the Department of Anthropology, he learned the archeological and material culture analysis techniques used by anthropologists and adapted these to the study of American culture. Watkins was a pioneer in the fields of material culture studies and historical archeology through his collecting, writings, exhibitions, and mentoring of younger scholars. An inveterate collector, he was also responsible for the acquisition of many significant collections, including the Arthur and Edna Greenwood Collection of Americana, the Remensnyder Collection of American Stoneware, and the Morgenstern Collection of early American material culture. His major research projects included the Marlborough and Jamestown, Virginia, archeological sites, North Devon pottery export to America, and early California history.
One of Watkins’ colleagues and mentees, Susan H. Myers, began to record oral history interviews of him in 1992 and she donated these to the Oral History Collection. Archives Historian Pam Henson continued the interview series, recording 14.5 hours of reminiscences of this important Smithsonian figure. These interviews discuss his family, youth, education, and first job at Wells Historical Museum. They also cover his curatorial career in the Division of Ethnology and Department of Cultural History, work on exhibits, research interests, role in the development of the fields of material culture studies and historical archeology, and reminiscences of such colleagues as Edna Greenwood, Herbert W. Krieger, Frank A. Taylor, George H. Watson, and Albert Wells.
However, Watkins had never returned the deed of gift forms – a common problem in oral history – limiting their use. The executor of his estate recently deeded them to us and we are delighted to announce that we are now preparing final transcripts and the interviews will soon be available for research use.
Kindred Spirits: A.B. Wells, Malcolm Watkins, and the Origins of Old Sturbridge Village, Old Sturbridge Village
C. Malcolm Watkins Papers, Smithsonian Institution Archives
C. Malcolm Watkins Oral History Interviews, Smithsonian Institution Archives
We are pleased to announce a new mobile experience produced by the Archives, Castle of Curiosities.
The Smithsonian's first building, the Castle, opened its doors in 1855. While the Norman architectural style evoked "learned university," it was bordered by fetid canals and rather isolated from the rest of Washington D.C. However, it did not disappoint visitors with all it had to offer: an "apparatus room" with live demonstations of electrical machines, a lecture room with thought-leaders of the day, a library, a picture gallery with paintings and sculpture, and exhibits of varied natural history specimen. It also was home to the Smithsonian's first leader, Joseph Henry, and his family.
Today people are still drawn to the Castle. It stands out amongst the white buildings surrounding it as it is distinctly of another era. With Castle of Curiosities, we hope you get a sense of some of the things that happened there which signify moments in American and scientific history. The 11 featured stories are accompanied by music from the Portland group, Black Prairie (they coincidently wrote a song about a letter we have in the Archives!).
You can listen from the comfort of your home by downloading the Smithsonian Mobile app or accessing the mobile website. You can also listen on-site if you are enjoying the Smithsonian history exhibit at the Castle, Welcome to Your Smithsonian.
- History of the Smithsonian Castle
- "What Did the Smithsonian Exhibit When It First Opened?," The Bigger Picture
On National Bird Day, a look at the long and illustrious ornithology career of Smithsonian Secretary Alexander Wetmore.
On an October day in Wisconsin, 1899, a young boy heard the call of a Red-headed Woodpecker. The boy laid down in the bank of a ravine to watch as the bird flitted through a tree, searching for acorns. He took note of the bird’s call, its behavior, the way the bird responded to its human observer. When night fell, the boy had to go home—but he returned the next Sunday (and for another several Sundays, months after) to dutifully take notes in his “usual place of study” as the bird gathered acorns and drank water, its plumage turning darker as the season changed.
This curious, thirteen-year-old boy with a notebook and a love of birds grew up to be Smithsonian Secretary Alexander Wetmore (1886-1978). Wetmore, a renowned ornithologist, spent his long and successful scientific career studying birds across the globe—but he started with the birds he found in his own childhood backyard in North Freedom, Wisconsin.
Though his first field observation was recorded at age eight, in Florida (where he wrote about seeing a pelican during a family vacation in 1894), a majority of Wetmore’s early bird watching took place as he watched the sky from local plum orchards, marshes, and forests. His experience with the Red-headed Woodpecker marks his first published scientific paper, printed in the “For Young Observers” column in a 1900 issue of Bird-Lore magazine. For the next several years, young “Alick” Wetmore would take detailed notes of bird observations. Kept in neat columns, written in painstakingly careful beginners’ cursive, Wetmore wrote about the birds he saw—if he watched them “singing” or “calling” or “feeding,” their common names, and the dates, sometimes marked daily.
By 1901, Wetmore was filling out records to send to the US Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Biological Survey (succeeded by the US Fish and Wildlife Service). Nine years later, Wetmore got a job with the same department. While still in college at the University of Kansas, Wetmore spent his summer breaks assisting Biological Survey field investigations in Wyoming and Alaska. After graduation, Wetmore was promoted to assistant biologist, where he began studying the eating habits of North American birds. He traveled across the United States observing birds, taking notes with the same practiced skill he exhibited as a boy. Wetmore’s passion for ornithology ultimately took him on field trips across the world—through Europe, to South America and the Pacific Islands, studying everything from bird migration to the agricultural impact of bird life.
During his time with the USDA, Wetmore began his relationship with the Smithsonian. He worked directly with the Division of Birds at the then the US National Museum (now the National Museum for Natural History). He studied the Smithsonian collections so often as a field researcher, he even had his own desk in the museum. In 1924, Wetmore’s affiliation with the Smithsonian became official. He served a short term as superintendent of the National Zoological Park, then became the Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian in charge of the US National Museum. Wetmore held that position for another twenty years, until he was elected the sixth Secretary of the Smithsonian in 1945.
Wetmore’s rising administrative ranks at the Smithsonian did not stop him from doing what he loved most—field research. Wetmore continued his expedition trips and research abroad, particularly to Panama. His years of research resulted in the publication of his book The Birds of the Republic of Panama. This book on birding—at over 600 pages—comes a long way from Wetmore’s first published set of observations, looking carefully at a woodpecker in the Wisconsin trees. But for Wetmore, that same curiosity and passion at the heart of all of his research, always stayed the same.
Explore Alexander Wetmore’s early field work and help transcribe it for researchers—both present and aspiring!—at the Smithsonian Transcription Center.
Alexander Wetmore, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Wetmore Panama Expeditions Overview, Smithsonian Institution Archives, YouTube
On Visit the Zoo Day, a look at a unique exhibition at the National Zoological Park, the National Museum of Natural History, and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden: “Animal In Art,” an exhibit and series of “sketch-ins,” that were part of an international campaign for the World Wildlife Fund in the late 1970s.
On afternoons in the winter of 1977-78, Alice the Spider Monkey was more than just an endangered animal living at the National Zoological Park. She was the playful muse to artists, professional and amateur alike. Armed with pads and pencils provided by the Zoo, adults and children in puffy winter coats, faces close to the glass, captured Alice’s likeness as she climbed the bars of her habitat. The artists sketched under the guidance of Zoo staff and local artists, on hand to provide help and critique as the pieces came together.
Alice and other endangered animals like her at the National Zoo were the live models during a series of “sketch-ins” as part of “Animal in Art,” a number of concurrent worldwide exhibitions supporting the World Wildlife Fund. These “sketch-ins” brought participants together to create their own unique pieces that would later be on display at the Zoo. The Zoo described this experience as getting to know Alice and the other animals in “one of the most intense ways there is—transferring its essence into art.”
Creating a connection between the public and endangered wildlife was at the heart of the “Animal in Art” exhibitions, which took place in over 30 museums in 10 countries, kicking off in the Fall of 1977. Internationally, visitors could see a unique “Animal in Art” exhibition at the Prado in Madrid, The British Museum in London, and the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul, alongside other museums in India, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa, Switzerland, Turkey, and (as it was known then) West Germany. While each exhibit showcased the individual museum’s collections, they all offered a historic look at mankind’s “perception of animals” in art, as well as highlighted the endangered species the WWF was working to save. It was an undertaking that had never been done by the cultural heritage community before on such an international scale.
The National Zoo was not the only participant from the Smithsonian Institution. Pictures taken by Kjell Sandved, a behavioral scientists and renowned nature photographer, were on display at the National Museum of Natural History. Sixty of Sandved’s color photos—with subjects ranging from beetles to piranhas to koala bears—were hung by the balcony around the Elephant Rotunda. The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden’s “Animal in Art” exhibit featured more than fifty paintings, some never before on display. Artists showcased included Alexander Calder, Alberto Giocometti, Albert Pinkham Ryder, Joseph Stella and Marsden Hartley.
The Smithsonian-wide events kicked off in October 1977, alongside exhibits in London and Zurich. Stateside, there were opening night events and a film series at the Hirshhorn, as well as a benefit concert by John Denver at the Kennedy Center. Other US museums, including the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and four museums at Yale University, also took part in the international exhibition.
In conjunction with the exhibitions, art historian Lord Kenneth Clark wrote a book about animals in art, the proceeds for which went to the WWF. Clark was an international symbol in his own right, famous for hosting the “Civilization” television series, and described as the “quintessential English gentleman…a picture of patrician grace, amiable, knowledgeable and ever so assured,” by People magazine in 1977.
As Clark wrote in another art history book, “Often in looking at the natural and animal world we joyfully identify ourselves with what we see and from this happy union create a work of art.” It’s that artistic exploration which defined the innovative “Animals in Art” exhibition and helped connect the public with endangered wildlife across the globe—whether it was a museum-goer, a professional artist, or a D.C. child sketching Alice the Spider Monkey.
SIA RU000326, National Zoological Park (U.S.) Office of the Director, Records, circa 1920-1984, Smithsonian Institution Archives.
SIA RU000613, Smithsonian Institution Office of the Secretary, Administrative Records, 1972-1984, Smithsonian Institution Archives.
SIA RU000481, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden Dept. of Painting and Sculpture, Exhibition Records, 1968-1993, Smithsonian Institution Archives.