The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Category: Smithsonian History
Managing a special public trust
In 1846, when the United States Congress had finally settled on what to do with James Smithson’s generous bequest, the Smithsonian Institution was established and a board of regents vested to administrate that public trust in keeping with Smithson’s desire for “an establishment for the increase and diffusion on knowledge.” Composed of government leaders and private citizens, the Board of Regents has guided the Smithsonian from a single building and a nascent national collection to today’s nineteen national museums and galleries, the National Zoological Park and nine research facilities working around the globe. Can you imagine the issues this body had to consider along the way?
Making this public record accessible
Since the Smithsonian is an organization in the public trust, the meeting minutes of its Board of Regents are a matter of public record. For a long time, accessing these records meant a trip to Washington, D.C. to the Smithsonian Institution Archives to review a physical copy of the minutes.
However, today we live in a digital world. The Meeting Minutes from this past decade are posted on the Smithsonian website for anyone to review. Not only can someone read the Board’s Meeting Minutes, but finding the references to the Giant Magellan Telescope over the years can be as easy as a Google search.
What about the previous century’s Smithsonian Board of Regents Meeting Minutes? The Archives has tackled that challenge. Those Minutes have been digitized and are being prepared to go up on the web.
With the help of digital volunteers, we will make over a century’s worth of these important historical records just as searchable as the Meeting Minutes from 2006 on. These recently digitized Board of Regents Meeting Minutes are being launched in the Smithsonian Transcription Center so digital volunteers can read and transcribe these records. Once completely transcribed, that meeting’s minutes becomes immediately fully searchable. Over time, anyone will be able to search online for telescopes and the Smithsonian Board of Regents and find all of the references across the whole range of Meeting Minutes from 1846 on. Did you know the first Smithsonian astrophysical observatory was located right behind the original building in Washington, D.C.? With volunteers’ help, people will be able to discover what considerations the Board of Regents gave to these developments across the decades.
Board of Regents Records, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Board of Regents Bibliography, Smithsonian Institution Research Information System
Images of the Board of Regents, Smithsonian Institution Research Information System
About The Board of Regents, Smithsonian
Today is Giant Panda cub Bao Bao’s third birthday, and yesterday her little brother, Bei Bei, turned one. This marks the first time in the forty-four years of panda conservation at the National Zoo that there have been two healthy cubs in residence at the zoo at the same time, but that’s not for lack of trying.
In 1972, Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling arrived at the National Zoo as gifts from China to the United States. That same year, Dr. Devra Kleiman, a conservation zoologist, began working at the zoo, focusing mainly on species conservation of Giant Pandas and Golden Lion Tamarins. At the time, very little was known about the social and reproductive habits of the Giant Panda. With the help of a team of volunteers, Kleiman began conducting around-the-clock observations and keeping very detailed notes on the pandas’ behaviors. She noticed that, despite popular belief, pandas in captivity were not solitary creatures, and keeping them apart made for unsuccessful mating attempts during the very narrow female fertile period. This observation resulted in a change to the panda enclosure that allowed Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing to interact more frequently.
In 1983, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing successfully mated for the first time, and the first pregnancy watch began. On July 20, 1983, observers noticed signs of nest building and a general sense of discomfort from Ling-Ling. They were even able to observe a few contractions. She gave birth to her first panda cub in the early morning hours of July 21st, but unfortunately, the joy over the birth of the newborn would be short lived. The cub succumbed to pneumonia about three hours later. Over the next seven years, Ling-Ling gave birth three more times, once to twins, but none of the cubs survived more than four days. While mourning these losses, Kleiman and her team tried to learn from them in order to encourage successful births in the future. By 1988, the birth management plan included steps to treat the cub with antibodies derived from Hsing-Hsing shortly after birth, since it was determined that the cubs were not getting sufficient antibodies from Ling-Ling during nursing.
In 2000, the National Zoo received two more pandas, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, following the deaths of Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing in 1992 and 1999, respectively. Although hopes for a baby panda were high with this new pair, the first several mating and artificial insemination attempts were once again unsuccessful. Finally, in 2005, all of the efforts paid off and Mei Xiang gave birth to a giant panda cub on July 9th, and this one survived. The cub was a boy named Tai Shan, and he was the first giant panda cub born at the National Zoo who thrived. In fact, per the agreement with China, Tai Shan was sent to the Wolong Nature Reserve in 2010, shortly after his fifth birthday, where he is participating in the reserve’s breeding program.
Despite all that researchers at the National Zoo had learned from Ling-Ling and Mei Xiang’s pregnancies, it would be seven years before Mei Xiang gave birth again, and another year after that before she produced a cub that survived long term. That cub was named Bao Bao, and just two years later, her brother Bei Bei was born, marking the first time at the National Zoo that back-to-back pregnancies resulted in healty giant panda cubs. Since Giant Panda mothers typically do not have a fertile period during the first year of their cub’s life, the earliest we could expect to see another baby panda born at the National Zoo is next summer. So hopefully this trend of success will continue, and this time next year we will be in the throes of another panda pregnancy watch!
Giant Pandas at the Smithsonian's National Zoo, Smithsonian National Zoological Park
Panda-monium!, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
The Archival Legacy of Devra Kleiman, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives