The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Category: Smithsonian History
On Visit the Zoo Day, a look at a unique exhibition at the National Zoological Park, the National Museum of Natural History, and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden: “Animal In Art,” an exhibit and series of “sketch-ins,” that were part of an international campaign for the World Wildlife Fund in the late 1970s.
On afternoons in the winter of 1977-78, Alice the Spider Monkey was more than just an endangered animal living at the National Zoological Park. She was the playful muse to artists, professional and amateur alike. Armed with pads and pencils provided by the Zoo, adults and children in puffy winter coats, faces close to the glass, captured Alice’s likeness as she climbed the bars of her habitat. The artists sketched under the guidance of Zoo staff and local artists, on hand to provide help and critique as the pieces came together.
Alice and other endangered animals like her at the National Zoo were the live models during a series of “sketch-ins” as part of “Animal in Art,” a number of concurrent worldwide exhibitions supporting the World Wildlife Fund. These “sketch-ins” brought participants together to create their own unique pieces that would later be on display at the Zoo. The Zoo described this experience as getting to know Alice and the other animals in “one of the most intense ways there is—transferring its essence into art.”
Creating a connection between the public and endangered wildlife was at the heart of the “Animal in Art” exhibitions, which took place in over 30 museums in 10 countries, kicking off in the Fall of 1977. Internationally, visitors could see a unique “Animal in Art” exhibition at the Prado in Madrid, The British Museum in London, and the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul, alongside other museums in India, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa, Switzerland, Turkey, and (as it was known then) West Germany. While each exhibit showcased the individual museum’s collections, they all offered a historic look at mankind’s “perception of animals” in art, as well as highlighted the endangered species the WWF was working to save. It was an undertaking that had never been done by the cultural heritage community before on such an international scale.
The National Zoo was not the only participant from the Smithsonian Institution. Pictures taken by Kjell Sandved, a behavioral scientists and renowned nature photographer, were on display at the National Museum of Natural History. Sixty of Sandved’s color photos—with subjects ranging from beetles to piranhas to koala bears—were hung by the balcony around the Elephant Rotunda. The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden’s “Animal in Art” exhibit featured more than fifty paintings, some never before on display. Artists showcased included Alexander Calder, Alberto Giocometti, Albert Pinkham Ryder, Joseph Stella and Marsden Hartley.
The Smithsonian-wide events kicked off in October 1977, alongside exhibits in London and Zurich. Stateside, there were opening night events and a film series at the Hirshhorn, as well as a benefit concert by John Denver at the Kennedy Center. Other US museums, including the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and four museums at Yale University, also took part in the international exhibition.
In conjunction with the exhibitions, art historian Lord Kenneth Clark wrote a book about animals in art, the proceeds for which went to the WWF. Clark was an international symbol in his own right, famous for hosting the “Civilization” television series, and described as the “quintessential English gentleman…a picture of patrician grace, amiable, knowledgeable and ever so assured,” by People magazine in 1977.
As Clark wrote in another art history book, “Often in looking at the natural and animal world we joyfully identify ourselves with what we see and from this happy union create a work of art.” It’s that artistic exploration which defined the innovative “Animals in Art” exhibition and helped connect the public with endangered wildlife across the globe—whether it was a museum-goer, a professional artist, or a D.C. child sketching Alice the Spider Monkey.
SIA RU000326, National Zoological Park (U.S.) Office of the Director, Records, circa 1920-1984, Smithsonian Institution Archives.
SIA RU000613, Smithsonian Institution Office of the Secretary, Administrative Records, 1972-1984, Smithsonian Institution Archives.
SIA RU000481, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden Dept. of Painting and Sculpture, Exhibition Records, 1968-1993, Smithsonian Institution Archives.
December 17th marks the 112th anniversary of the Wright brothers’ first flight in 1903, a relatively recent innovation in the scale of human history, but one that has so changed our world and cultural landscape.
It is probably not surprising that the largely self-taught Wright brothers would have reached out to the Smithsonian Institution as they researched ways to achieve human flight, especially considering then-Secretary Samuel P. Langley’s own interests in aviation—and ultimately abortive attempts to achieve manned flight himself with his Aerodrome. Wilbur’s first letter to the Smithsonian, dated May 30, 1899, respectfully requests information about Smithsonian publications on aviation and the possibility of human flight, which must have attracted Secretary Langley’s notice. A correspondence developed between them as both parties worked to build the first successful flying machine.
As their letters continued and it became clear they were competing to achieve the same goal, the Wrights became cagier—though ever cordial—about their developments. Letters from October 20 and November 7, 1902, make it clear they were wary of sharing information with Secretary Langley, dissuading him from visiting them at Kitty Hawk and making excuses to avoid paying a call to him in Washington on their way back to Ohio. Langley’s responses largely survive in letterpress copies, which I glimpsed during a recent digitization project focusing on his records related to aviation.
All came to a head when the Wrights announced their success. Langley was bitterly disappointed to have been beaten, and matters did not improve when the Smithsonian displayed one of Langley’s aircraft as having been capable of flight before the Wright brothers’ achievement. Eventually a reconciliation took place, and the 1903 Wright Flyer today features prominently at the National Air and Space Museum. More details on the dispute can be found on our website.
"The Wright Brothers: The Invention of the Aerial Age," National Air and Space Museum
"1903 Wright Flyer," National Air and Space Museum
Record Unit 7003, Samuel P. Langley Papers (1866-1906, 1909, 1914, 1942), Smithsonian Institution Archives.