The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Category: Smithsonian History
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
One of the best things about working in any archive is finding all sorts of things you weren’t looking for. Finding that letter or memo that you didn’t know about but gives you a new understanding of what was happening is one of the many reasons why people continue to go back to original documents time and time again.
I was lucky enough to have this happen to me just the other day. I’m working on a project around the Smithsonian’s activities during the world wars and as I was reading correspondence between the curators and the administration of the United States National Museum, I found a sheaf of documents that led me to new people and a new way World War I had an impact on the Smithsonian Institution and its staff. I found a stack of pledge sheets where Smithsonian employees were signing up to support the initiatives of the U. S. Food Administration. The U. S. Food Administration was a government agency set up during World War I to promote the conservation of foods that were in short supply and needed for soldiers abroad. Their efforts included the invention of meatless Mondays, which many of us may now recognize from current healthy eating initiatives. Meatless Mondays were accompanied by wheatless Wednesdays and efforts to reduce the consumption of dairy and fats.
Employees from across all branches of the Smithsonian pledged to follow the U. S. Food Administration recommendations. The most exciting part of finding these pledge sheets are the less visible Smithsonian employees they capture. Hidden among the curators, aids, and administrators who pledged are the charwomen and laborers of the Smithsonian. Often unrecorded in documents that have survived the test of time, these few pages show that everyone at the Smithsonian was doing their part for the war effort. They also are one of the few places we can learn more about the employees of the Smithsonian who are often forgotten. Looking at their signatures, you can not only get a sense of their personality, but see a place where they wrote themselves into the historical record with their own hand.
With a little sleuthing, these signatures can even tell us a little bit more about them. By looking for these men and women in the U. S. Census records and old Washington City Directories, I was able to find who some of these people were. Joseph N. Samuels, a laborer in the Natural History Building, would have been 30 at the time he signed this pledge. The 1915 Boyd’s City Directory for Washington, D.C., identifies him as a Laborer at the National Museum and tells us he lives in a house at 4432 Kane Place, NE, in Anacostia. Alberta Jackson, a charwoman in the Natural History Building, is recorded in the 1920 census as a ‘roomer,’ just three years after she signed her pledge. Forty four years old, black, and widowed at the time of the census, she was born in D.C. Her coworker Marie Donaldson signed the pledge just after Alberta and probably lived a similar life. In a 1924 City Directory she is recorded as a renter at 630 Morton Place, NE. This directory lists her as a forewoman at the National Museum, likely a promotion from her position as a charwoman in 1917.
While these may only be bits and pieces of a few peoples’ lives, they are clues to who these often forgotten employees were and how they contributed to the nation’s war effort and to the Smithsonian, making it what it is today.
- Record Unit 45 - Office of the Secretary, Records, 1890-1929, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Census Records, National Archives and Records Administration
- U. S. Food Administration, Wikipedia
July is birthday celebration month for my family. There is at least one birthday every week, mine so happens to be today, my son’s next week, my daughters the following week, and of course we can’t forget Americas birthday on the 4th of July. So to say the least I have been making check lists non-stop making sure everything is in place. While doing this I thought I would draw on some inspiration through some of our photos we have at the Archives. Below is my part of my “To Do” party checklist, accompanied with photos I found in our collections.
1. Theme of the Party: I personally don’t do a theme type party because with my kids being so close in birthdays we have joint parties, and getting a boy and girl to agree on something at their age is about pointless. However here at the Smithsonian the birthday parties’ range from Smithsonian wide birthday parties to parties for exhibits and right on down to personal birthday parties for employees. To say the least the Smithsonian loves to celebrate birthdays.
2. Guest List: Having a soon to be 6 and 7 year old I find this one of the hardest parts for planning a party because I never know how small or big to have it. If you are like my daughter a small simple tea party birthday party would be perfectly fine. However if you are like my son, inviting everyone under the sun like the Smithsonian did during its 150th Birthday Celebration is more the way to go.
3. Cards: This is always one of my kid’s favorite things to do when it comes to birthdays. Standing in the card aisle playing every singing birthday card they can put their hands on is almost like Christmas for my kids. But I don’t think there is anything more personal and fun then creating your own card like the one that was presented to Helena Weiss for her birthday.
4. Cake: In my opinion, my kids would argue otherwise, the birthday cake is what makes or breaks a birthday party. I would have to say the cake from the Smithsonian’s 150th birthday and the cake from Mickey Mouse’s 60th birthday celebration are definitely crowd pleasers.
5. Activities: My kid’s favorite part of a party. Simple games such as pin the tail on the donkey or water balloon toss is sufficient enough for my kids now, but at the Smithsonian, we really like to throw a celebration. Native American ritual dancing and fireworks were just a few of the many activities that happened during the Smithsonian 150th birthday celebration.
Last insight on birthday parties, no matter how big or small the best thing to remember when celebrating a birthday is to have fun!
- Images from the Smithsonian's 150th birthday celebration, Smithsonian Institution Archives
In the fall of 1914, a three hundred pound block of ice was shipped from the Cincinnati Zoo to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. It held the remains of the last of a species that had once turned the skies of North America dark when its enormous flocks were in migration. The cold and lonely final migration was made by Martha, the last known passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius), who had resided at the Cincinnati Zoo since 1902. Estimated to be twenty-nine years old, she was named in honor of George Washington’s wife, Martha.
Passenger pigeons were more brightly-colored than the related Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura). They were also larger than other species of pigeons that we are used to seeing today, some 14-16 inches long, with long wings, and a long, pointed tail. They had particularly large breast muscles that enabled them to fly for long distances. The male passenger pigeon had an olive-gray back, rusty breast, slate-blue head, and iridescent neck. Female passenger pigeons were similar to males, but were somewhat duller and browner. It is estimated that the passenger pigeon was once the most numerous species of bird in North America, if not the world, and had lived there for over 100,000 years. Between three and five billion passenger pigeons once inhabited the deciduous forest region of the eastern United States and from southern Canada to Kansas, Oklahoma, Mississippi, and Georgia. During the breeding season, massive flocks gathered to mate in New England, the Mid-Atlantic region, the Ohio River valley, and the lower Great Lakes, but they wintered in the southeastern US. These social birds lived in enormous colonies, with up to 100 nests in a single tree. When flocks migrated overhead, their formations were a mile wide, went on for days, and turned the skies dark.
The noted 19th century bird painter, John James Audubon, watched flocks of passenger pigeons migrate overhead on his way to Louisville, Kentucky, in 1813. All he could hear was a continuous “buzz of wings,” and said “the air was literally filled with pigeons; the light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse…” When he reached his destination, fifty-five miles away, the birds were still passing overhead, and “continued to do so for three days in succession.” No one could imagine they could so quickly go extinct, but uncontrolled hunting, loss of habitat by logging and farming, and perhaps disease conspired to wipe this species off the face of the earth. After the last confirmed sighting of a wild passenger pigeon in 1900, surveys in 1910-1911 failed to record any wild birds. A few survived in captivity, and the Cincinnati Zoo’s Martha was the last.
After Martha arrived at the US National Museum, she was studied by ornithologist Robert Shufeldt and her skin was prepared for display by taxidermists William Palmer and Nelson Wood. She was on display in the Natural History Building’s Bird Hall in the 1920s through the early 1950s, and in the Birds of the World exhibit that ran from 1956 until 1999. She also had four flights to break the monotony, winging her way first class, escorted by a flight attendant, to the San Diego Zoological Society’s Golden Jubilee Conservation Conference in 1966, and in June 1974 returning to the Cincinnati Zoological Gardens for the dedication of a new building named in her honor. She will return to public display on June 24, 2014, in the Smithsonian Institution Libraries exhibit Once There Were Billions: Vanished Birds of North America on the ground floor of the National Museum of Natural History. Be sure to stop by to see her!
- Once There Were Billions: Vanished Birds of North America exhibition, Smithsonian Institution Libraries
- "Martha," The Last Passenger Pigeon, National Museum of Natural History Centennial website
- Passenger Pigeons, Encylopedia of Life
- Project Passenger Pigeon