The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Category: Smithsonian History
The Smithsonian Institution has been collecting “specimens” related to the history of photography since photography was still considered a new technology. Thomas William Smillie, the Smithsonian’s first and chief photographer from 1871 to 1917, began collecting materials relevant to photography (both examples of photographic processes as well as photographic equipment) in 1888. His first documented purchase was of a daguerreotype apparatus used by Samuel F. B. Morse. Smillie recognized early on that photographic technology was advancing rapidly and had the foresight to begin creating a record of the history of photography lest it be lost to future generations.
Smillie’s collection first started gaining traction when it was exhibited at the Centennial Exposition of the Ohio Valley and Central States, in Cincinnati, 1888. However, it wasn’t until the purchase of fifty photographs from the Capital Camera Club of the Capital Bicycle Club’s 1896 exhibition (regarded as the first recorded purchase of photographs as works of art by a museum) that the quite significant collection consisting of 1284 specimens gained official status. On July 15, 1896 , the Section of Photography, Division of Graphic Arts, United States National Museum was created. In addition to his duties as the Smithsonian’s chief photographer, Thomas Smillie was appointed Custodian of the Section of Photography.
With formal status and administrative support for the historical photography collection, Smillie began to articulate a framework for his vision. Acknowledging that the collection was lacking in contemporary photography, he set out to “complete the series so that it will be a worthy representation of the progress of the art from the beginning until now.” (Record Unit 158, United States National Museum, Curators' Annual Reports, 1881-1964, Smithsonian Institution Archives) Due in large part to the fact that Smillie’s attention was divided between his duties in the photographic laboratory and his new custodial position, there was not an onsite photography exhibit at the Smithsonian until 1913.
Occupying the northwest court of the Arts and Industries Building, the exhibit of historical photographs and equipment meticulously collected by Smillie over the course of several decades were arranged chronologically—illustrating, from Camera Obscura to newer technologies in color, x-ray, spectrum, solar, and moving picture, a thorough and comprehensive history of photography.
In the century since his death, the historic photography collection that was so thoughtfully composed by Thomas W. Smillie has grown considerably, and is now called the Photographic History Collection, Division of Culture and the Arts, National Museum of American History. The tradition of having the collections maintained and added to by the chief photographer acting as custodian continued until 1943, when the functions of the photographic laboratory and the Section of Photography were finally divided. This allowed for greater curatorial instruction and focus on the growth of the collection, not to mention a new emphasis on photographic preservation in the 1960s.
Today, the Photographic History Collection has over 200,000 images and 12,000 pieces of equipment. Over the span of 120 years and numerous administrative reorganizations, the Photographic History Collection continues to reflect on all aspects of photography, with representative specimens illustrating an in depth regard for the breadth of photographic processes, genres, and concepts. The collection serves to realize Smillie’s vision that “an effort will be made hereafter, especially in connection with the future expositions of amateur photography, to secure such works as are necessary to make the collection in the National Museum a reference and record collection, which shall not only be a matter of interest and pleasure to the public, but of practical value to the photographers themselves."
Record Unit 158, United States National Museum, Curators' Annual Reports, 1881-1964, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Record Unit 529, National Museum of American History (U.S.) Division of Photographic History, Records, circa 1883-1984, Smithsonian Institution Archives
David E. Haberstitch, Photographs at the Smithsonian Institution. Picturescope 32 (1): 4-20 (Summer 1985), p. 7.
Hidden Treasures: The Photographic History Collection at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, Teaching Photography
Forty years ago tomorrow, July 8th, 1976, Queen Elizabeth II visited the Smithsonian as part of her Bicentennial visit to the U.S. She was welcomed by Smithsonian Secretary, S. Dillon Ripley, Chief Justice Warren Burger, Chancellor of the Smithsonian, Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, and public well-wishers while a group of costumed musicians played flourishes and fanfares from atop the portico of the Castle. This was her Smithsonian itineray:
- Tour of the Castle (she was the first member of the British royal family to view the room containing the remains of James Smithson, Englishman who left his fortune to found the Smithsonian.)
- A ceremony in the Associates' Lounge thanking Her Majesty for Smithson's bequest with a presentation of the Smithson Medal
- Tour of exhibits "Federal City: Plans and Realities," "Treasures of London," and the Hope Diamond.
- Ceremony where Queen Elizabeth presented Secretary Ripley a leather-bound volume, "Leonardo da Vinci Anatomical Drawings."
- Queen Elizabeth to Visit SI, Smithsonian Newsletter, The Torch, July 1976
- "Crowned Heads," Bigger Picture Blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
As thousands of people exited the Smithsonian Metro station this July 4th to attend the Folklife Festival or watch the fireworks, they might have taken for granted that such a heavily trafficked location would have a subway stop. But the Mall entrance came very close to not being built, and it took an extraordinary appropriation to ensure it was part of the system. Early plans for Washington DC’s Metro system included a station entrance on the National Mall near the Smithsonian’s museums, but in 1971 that entrance was eliminated. There would still be a station at 12th Street and Independence Avenue, near the US Department of Agriculture building, but tourists using it would have to cross that very busy intersection to get to the Smithsonian. The National Capital Planning Commission had rejected plans for a north Mall entrance to the Independence Avenue Station because they felt it would impinge upon the Mall view. The Smithsonian and National Park Service expected them to offer alternatives, but without notifying anyone outside of the core Metro planning group, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) eliminated the Mall entrance and used that money for stations further down the line.
When they finally heard the bad news, the Smithsonian leaped into action filing a protest. But WMATA replied that no one had commented on the change, so it had been eliminated. The Smithsonian was joined by the National Park Service and Bicentennial of the American Revolution Commission in arguing that no one had been notified of a change to comment on. The three organizations pointed out that studies predicted some 15 million visitors per year to the Smithsonian’s museums on the Mall and the crucial role mass transit would play in moving tourists safely to and from their museum visits. The Park Service wished to reduce or eliminate automobile traffic on the Mall, so Metro access was necessary. They also wished to add a station at Arlington Cemetery. A strong coalition formed, and WMATA relented but said that the organizations would have to secure the funding for the station – a daunting task.
Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley worked to garner support for the station in the US Congress, arguing that all the Senators and Representatives had constituents who visited Washington DC and would benefit from efficient, safe, and cost-effective transit. He testified at Congressional hearings and wrote to numerous key members of Congress. The Bicentennial Commission also lobbied hard, predicting increased tourism for the 1976 Bicentennial and afterwards. On October 21, 1972, the 92nd Congress passed Public Law 92-517 which, among other things, provided $7,865,000 for “an additional entrance in the vicinity of the northeast end of the Smithsonian Station surfacing on the Mall south of Adams Drive,” as well as the Arlington Cemetery Station.
The station formally opened on July 4, 1977. Metro General Manager Theodore Lutz presented Smithsonian Assistant Secretary Charles Blitzer with a "farecard" for inclusion in the National Museum of History and Technology (now National Museum of American History) transportation collection. The station’s opening coincided with the completion of 11.8 miles of rail between National Airport and the Stadium/Armory Station and the opening of the Arlington Cemetery, Capitol South, and other stations along the “Blue” line. Although the Smithsonian had noted that “timing is of the essence, if this station is to be opened in time to receive the onrush of visitors expected for the Bicentennial,” it was not completed in time for the celebration in 1976. However, it has served the Smithsonian and its many visitors well in the forty years since it opened, during national marches, presidential inaugurations, and the Smithsonian Birthday Party on the Mall in 1996.
Smithsonian Birthday Party on the National Mall, 1996, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Roderick Terry images of the 1995 Million Man March on the National Mall, 1995, National Museum of African American History and Culture