The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Come Fly With Me
When I was growing up in Brooklyn, New York, and air travel still had the aura of luxury surrounding it, it was a treat to get in the car and go to Idelwild Airport (renamed John F. Kennedy Airport in 1963). There, we’d walk through startlingly modern buildings, like Eero Saarinen’s TWA Building, and through big plate glass windows or from up on an observatory deck, watch planes take off and land and the pageant of passengers boarding and deplaning. As a kid, I was fascinated and awed by the scale, power, and beauty of airplanes and as an adult, despite how frustrating air travel has become, I still am. That’s why I was interested to come across a piece about the Boeing Corporation’s vast archives, written by David Parker Brown, on the Seattle Post-Intelligencer website. While many public institutions, like the Smithsonian, are required by law, or elect to, maintain massive archives of materials to document their actions and history, privately and publicly held corporations are often less meticulous or reverential in collecting and maintaining the documents and artifacts that tell the story of their genesis and growth. It costs time and money to do that, and for those focused on short term goals and the bottom line, that doesn’t make much sense. Many corporations maintain only the records they are legally required to, and get rid of the rest as fast as they can. Sometimes that practice backfires on them. Movie studios, for example, spend huge amounts of money to produce films and the massive publicity and marketing campaigns that preceded their commercial release. But in the past, once a film was out the door and out of the theaters, the films themselves were stored poorly and collateral materials—like film stills and marketing images, for example—were often trashed. Interestingly, years later, as older movies found second lives when they were re-issued in VHS tape or DVD formats, the studios who failed to archive their own materials were forced to seek out compulsive collectors and private archives (such as Photofest in New York) to license back the visuals they’d produced and threw away, long ago. In his Boeing piece, Brown, an aviation industry reporter, was clearly awe struck by what he saw archived. In the earthquake-proofed, underground facility he visited in Bellevue, Washington, and in a number of other locations around the country, Boeing, which was established in 1916, stores what it considers to be importance, including meeting agendas, models of planes, gifts to company officials from foreign leaders, and even vintage ashtrays. Brown’s descriptions of the audio-visual materials Boeing’s archives holds—including 16 and 35mm motion picture film, microfilm, VHS tapes, Betamax, DAT, CD, DVD and laser disc recordings, documenting everything from test flights to television commercials—are one more reminder of the commitment, resources, and work force it takes to keep history accessible and alive.
If you’re curious to see how other corporations deal with the record-keeping and management challenges they face, take a look at an agenda from the 2009 meeting of the Corporate Archives Forum, where about a dozen corporate archivists gathered to discuss issues of mutual concern. And to see how Boeing is represented in Smithsonian collections—including some great pictures of planes under construction and inflight, boxes full of marketing materials, and stylish vintage lapel pins, click here.