The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Category: Smithsonian History
How we share information and spread knowledge has changed drastically from when the Smithsonian Institution unveiled its first homepage in May 1995. The official debut of "America's Treasure House for Learning" took place in House Speaker Newt Gingrich's office with Smithsonian Secretary I. Michael Heyman on Capitol Hill. The site linked to video, images, pages, maps and audio clips from across the Institution. Other Smithsonian homepages went online as well.
Secretary Heyman reported in his annual statement for 1995 that as of September 30, the site had more than 8.5 million visits. To put this in perspective, Smithsonian websites combined had more than 99 million visits in fiscal year 2014.
Prior to this the National Museum of Natural History was using Gopher technology in 1993 on the Internet. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory also launched its Telescope Data Center website in 1993, which was one of the first 250 websites on the Internet and is still active today.
While the Archives has been preserving Smithsonian websites since the late 1990s, we do not have the electronic files preserved from this first Smithsonian homepage. Multiple attempts to retrieve files off a data tape have been unsuccessful. We do have the press kit, a printout of the top part of the site, and other related files. We continue to hope someone out there might have another copy of the digital files from 1995.
The earliest captures of the homepage at the Wayback Machine from the Internet Archive only go back to 1997 and are missing some items.
Anyone who has done complex searches on the web knows they can be challenging, especially with digital information that is nearly 20 years old. Using a standard search engine does not always deliver the desired results.
This is where Memento comes in. With funding from the Library and Congress and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, it was developed by Los Alamos National Laboratory and Old Dominion University. Dubbed as "Time Travel for the Web," the Chrome extension works by supplying the URI (uniform resource identifier of a web resource) and selecting a date in the past that it may have been on the web. I entered www.si.edu in my browser and selected "get neared save date" of January 1, 1996, (the earliest available with the plugin) and found a web capture from the Portuguese Web Archive. This display of the homepage from October 13, 1996, has more details than what was found previously, as these results did not display from regular queries to search engines. I also recently found that Indiana University has a capture as well.
Memento uses a protocol to search archived websites from the Internet Archive, Archive-It (where you can find archived Smithsonian websites), the UK Web Archive, the Icelandic Archive, and other sites. It also works with Wikipedia, and other tools are being developed. Obviously, it only works if the website was captured in the past and available on a server.
It is rewarding to see a few more pieces come together from the early days of the web and the Smithsonian's role in it.
- Home Page of the Smithsonian's First Website, Historic Images of the Smithsonian, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Web Archiving Update, October 2014, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Smithsonian Institution websites, Archive-It
As the saying goes, "Time flies when you're having a good time," and indeed it seems like yesterday that we met the new Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough at the Staff Picnic in July of 2008. In some ways, he appeared to fit the mold of the typical Smithsonian Secretary: a very tall man with a Ph.D. But in other ways, he broke the mold – a Southerner? – an engineer? How would someone like that lead the quirky Smithsonian? Hints of what the future had in store for us could be seen that first day, as he walked around the music and research tents, engaging staff in discussions about what they did at the Institution. His positive energy and smile were infectious, and I remember thinking, well, maybe he can liven this place up again . . .
Dr. Clough turned out to be a quick study as he surveyed the Institution and the people who make it tick – our strengths and weaknesses – and he formulated a plan that moved forward simultaneously on several tracks. The first task was daunting – to turn around a negative attitude that had crept across the Smithsonian in the last decade. He visited units, demonstrated to staff that he genuinely valued the work being done here, and publicly rewarded those with creativity and dedication. He dug up fossils, learned to work a snow blower, snorkeled in the Caribbean and hiked around the South Pole. He got to know the Smithsonian in-depth. And he challenged all of the staff to think positively about the future of the Smithsonian, rather than dwell upon the past.
For someone who was a graduate student at Berkeley in the 1970s when the computer revolution was taking off and Silicon Valley was coming into existence, the Smithsonian seemed behind the curve in the information technology Dr. Clough was immersed in for his engineering work. So, his second front was to encourage the expansion of the digitization of our collections, use of digital communications to reach new audiences, and support projects that used information technology in new and creative ways for Smithsonian web 2.0. Before long, Dr. Clough had the staff digitizing everything in 3D – even mini-Wayne himself! Today we reach millions of people across the globe and thousands of online volunteers have become part of the Smithsonian family.
So what does an engineer do at the Smithsonian? We quickly took solace in his expertise in earthquake engineering when a quake hit the mid-Atlantic region in 2011, damaging Smithsonian buildings. A lot of environmental research is conducted across the Smithsonian, but putting that research into practice in our own facilities had not been a priority. Dr. Clough challenged the facilities staff and they substantially reduced the amount of fossil fuels used and increased the amount of renewable fuel sources.
The Smithsonian is a large and complex organization – so Dr. Clough looked for ways to increase interactions across diverse units. He brought together a group who distilled Smithsonian interests into the four "Grand Challenges" of Unlocking the Mysteries of the Universe, Understanding and Sustaining a Biodiverse Planet, Valuing World Cultures, and Understanding the American Experience. And then he actually found funding for collaborative grants! "The Anthropocene" challenged astrophysicists, anthropologists, art historians, cultural historians, botanists, and paleontologists to actually work together on a coherent project. Could they do it? Yes, they did and got us all thinking in new ways, at the same time we got to know coworkers whose work was very different than our own.
So it is now time to bid farewell to Dr. Clough, as he returns to his beloved Georgia. I'll be busy for the next couple of years ensuring all his positive accomplishments are properly documented in our historical record. We'll miss the smile, enthusiasm, and challenges to reach higher every day, but we can build on his legacy to create a truly 21st century Smithsonian!
This fall I have been working on cleaning, organizing, and creating catalog records for the Smithsonian Institution’s Board of Regents Meeting Minutes (you can see the beautiful, new, clean records here). While I know this doesn't sound like particularly exciting work, the minutes hold plenty of drama. Let me make my case before you stop reading.
The Regents are the group of people, designated by Congress, who are responsible for administration of the Smithsonian. In the early years I’ve been working on there were a lot of strong, differing opinions about what the institution should be – no surprise when you get the Vice-President, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Mayor of Washington, three Senators and three Representatives together in one room. There were arguments over building the Smithsonian Institution Building, more commonly known as the Castle; whether to accept government collections (without which we might not have a museum, let alone nineteen); an embezzlement case; a resignation that sets off an investigation by Congress, lawsuits; firings; and contract disputes. It's safe to say that the first few years weren't dull.
The other day I came across yet another controversy that was new to me. On March 3, 1857, Joseph Henry, the first Secretary of the Smithsonian, mentions an article published by Prof. S. F. B. Morse, "containing charges against his moral character and his scientific reputation." While not knowing what to make of this, I knew it must be serious because a committee formed to examine the issue. It turns out that Morse made some pretty serious claims: that Joseph Henry had lied under oath while giving testimony in a telegraph patent dispute. How did Joseph Henry get mixed up in this? Well, he specialized in electromagnetics and invented the type of magnet used in Morse's telegraph. He was subpoenaed to testify for defendants in several patent infringement cases brought by Morse. (You can read more about it here) This made Morse so angry, that he attacked Henry's research and reputation in an article that took up over ninety pages and entire edition of a magazine. The Board surveys the evidence – letters between Joseph Henry and Samuel Morse, from lawyers involved in the court case, and from other scientists involved in electromagnetism and telegraphy – and concludes that "Mr. Henry's deposition of 1849, which evidently furnished the motive for Mr. Morse's attack upon him, is strictly correct in all the historical details." They further concluded "that Mr. Morse has failed to substantiate any one of the charges he has made against Professor Henry, although the burden of proof lay upon him; and that all the evidence, including the unbiased admissions of Mr. Morse himself, is on the other side. Mr. Morse's charges not only remain unproved but they are positively disproved." Good news for Joseph Henry, but a sad end to a professional relationship that began in friendly collaboration.
- Board of Regents Minutes, online resource, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- A Forgotten History: Alfred Vail and Samuel Morse, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Record Unit 1 - Smithsonian Institution Board of Regents, Minutes, 1846- , Smithsonian Institution Archives