The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Category: Smithsonian History
As an intern in the Institutional History Division of the Smithsonian Institution Archives, I have had the pleasure of listening to the oral history interviews of Dr. Theodore Reed, Smithsonian National Zoological Park director from 1958-1984. Just like at the Smithsonian Museums, the National Zoo has always prided itself in its collections, particularly since the direction of Dr. Reed began.
Dr. Reed was a veterinarian first, a forerunner in the field, and procurer of some of the most unique animals from around the world, including endangered species. But these animals weren’t just for show. In 1975 Dr. Reed created the Conservation and Research Center (now Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute), a facility designed to study, breed and protect endangered animals, some of which hopefully will be released back in to the wild.
Some rare animals have lived at the National Zoo including giant pandas, black footed ferrets, clouded leopards, golden lion tamarins, Bactrian camels, and maned wolves. But one of the rarest animals ever to join the National Zoo collection was the white tiger. During a 1989 interview, Dr. Reed discussed the somewhat difficult procurement of the first white tiger in America. This magnificent animal was aptly named Mohini after the only female embodiment of the Hindu God Vishnu. Goddess Mohini was known to be an enchantress and sometimes even femme fatale. Mohini was among the first litter of white tigers in the world ever to be born in captivity. In 1960, Dr. Reed purchased Mohini in India for the sum of $10,000. Today, that would be around $80,000.
Contrary to popular belief, white tigers are not albino. Their very rare white fur color occurs when both parents contain a recessive gene that controls fur pigment (or the lack thereof). White tiger cubs can be born from two orange parents, one white and one orange parent, or two white parents. Because obtaining tigers with this recessive gene has proven to be so expensive and difficult, most of the captive white tigers in America today are direct descendants of Mohini. Mohini had only one white cub who survived, a male named Moni. But her orange cubs would have also possessed the white pigment gene, so they were bred to other tigers in hopes of producing white tiger offspring.
Eventually, the inbreeding of white tigers became problematic. Many of them had severe defects including shortened legs, kidney problems, crossed eyes, and psychological issues. Most white tigers didn’t survive past infancy. When the last white tiger at the National Zoo Panghur Ban (great grandson of Mohini) died in 2002, the National Zoo ceased the collection of white tigers.
Several zoos around the country continue to keep and breed white tigers in captivity, but due to ethical standards, the National Zoo will no longer do so. Current curator of Great Cats at the National Zoo Craig Saffoe explains, “We no longer house, manage or breed white tigers because it is not responsible (in terms of conservation) to do so.” Saffoe went on to say that the white fur gene might actually need to be bred out of tigers as it does not help them evolutionarily. White tigers are easily spotted by predators in the wild. In addition, white tigers tend to have genetic defects and die young, even if they are not inbred. While visitors to the National Zoo are no longer able to view white tigers, they can take pride in the fact that the Zoo strives to adhere to the highest ethical standards of animal care and will continue to keep the best interests of the animals and their conservation at the forefront of its work.
- Historic Images of the National Zoo, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- History of the National Zoo, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Record Unit 9568 - Oral history interviews with Theodore H. Reed 1989-1994, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Tom Rall, from Arlington, Virginia, is an avid collector of vintage photos, daguerreotypes and glass lantern slides. When he mentioned to his old friend Paula Richardson Fleming, a retired Smithsonian photo archivist, that he had among his collection a glass slide that might depict the Smithsonian Institution Building, she at first didn’t think much about it. After all, the Smithsonian “Castle” is an iconic building that has always been a favorite subject for photographers. It wasn’t until she got a close look at the undated glass plate at the annual D.C. Antique Photo and Postcard Show this past spring that she realized Rall might have something very special - a photo of the Smithsonian Castle taken while it was still under construction. They took the plate to Richard Stamm, curator of the Smithsonian Castle Collection.
“I was able to pin-point the year the photo was taken based on the progress of the building’s construction as reported yearly by the Building Committee in our early SI Annual Reports,” said Stamm. He and Fleming conducted more research at the Library of Congress and through other sources and were able to confirm the picture was taken in June or July of 1850 - the earliest known photograph of the Smithsonian Castle.
After President James K. Polk signed the legislation creating the Smithsonian on August 10, 1846, one of the first tasks facing its governing body, the Board of Regents, was to erect a building to house the new Institution. Architect James Renwick designed the Smithsonian Institution Building in an imposing Norman style meant to identify it immediately as an important educational institution. The day construction began was declared a holiday and on May 1, 1847, a mile-long parade made its way from City Hall to the White House, where President Polk joined the procession as it continued to the Smithsonian grounds. Once there, more than 6,000 people watched as the cornerstone was laid.
The photograph in Rall’s collection, taken three years later, shows the building’s two completed wings - the east wing housed the lecture hall, laboratories and apartments for the Secretary of the Smithsonian; the west wing contained the library and reading room. The central portion of the building, now called the Great Hall, was still empty and would remain so until 1855 when it began to be used as exhibition and collection space. At the time of this photograph, only two of the Castle’s nine towers were completed. The crane in the image rises over the North Tower, which would eventually rise 140 feet above the National Mall. The carriage porch at the front of the building would not be completed until late 1851.
The photograph also shows a small workman’s shed in front of the Castle, which was likely used by the stonemasons. The small trees and bushes in front of the Castle were planted by the Smithsonian and anticipated Andrew Jackson Downing’s landscaping plan.
“The Smithsonian has hundreds of photographs in its collections of the Castle, but none of the building under construction, which makes this image quite remarkable,” said Stamm. “The photograph is important because it verifies much of the written history we have about the odd way in which the Castle was built - the wings first and the main central section last. It greatly adds to the historical record we have for this national historic landmark.”
William and Frank Langenheim of Philadelphia took the photograph using a new process they developed in 1849 and called hyalotype (from the Greek hyalos, meaning glass and typos meaning image or impression). This process produced a highly detailed and accurate glass negative that could then be used to print either paper photographs or glass lantern slides. Since the exposure time for hyalotypes was about one minute, the process was well suited for architectural studies, but impractical for portraiture.
The image of the Castle was part of a set of 126 views of Washington, D.C. published by the Langenheim brothers in 1850, several of which were later exhibited at the 1851 Crystal Palace Exposition in London.
Tom Rall has made this rare hyalotype a gift to the Smithsonian Castle Collection. It will go on display in the Castle’s Great Hall today, August 10, on the 169th anniversary of the Smithsonian’s founding.
- Smithsonian Institution Building, The Castle, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Historic Pictures of the Smithsonian Institution Building, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- The Castle, A Tour of the Smithsonian Building in the 19th Century, Architectural History and Historic Preservation Division, Smithsonian Institution
- Stereoviews of the Smithsonian Institution Building, Richard E. Stamm, Curator, Smithsonian Institution Castle Collection