The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Exhibitions and Weather Conditions at an Exposition
While you read this, I will be driving from Yosemite National Park to San Francisco, California (barring any unforeseen car troubles or navigational errors). In preparation for my trip, I decided to take a quick look into our collections to see if I could find anything interesting and related to my destination. Knowing the extent of our collections, and having happened upon a number of treasures before, I was not surprised to find nearly one hundred beautiful postcards that had been saved from the Panama-Pacific International Exposition held in San Francisco in 1915.
The Exposition celebrated of the completion of the Panama Canal in 1914 and commemorated the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the Pacific Ocean by the explorer Vasco Núñez de Balboa. The Exposition also helped boost the economy and morale of the city of San Francisco, which had been devastated by an earthquake and fire in 1906. Many beautiful "palaces" and exhibition spaces covered the 635 acre fair grounds, which held displays from government agencies and departments. The Exposition illustrated "the broad function and administrative faculty of the government of the United States" and demonstrated "the nature and growth of its institutions, their adaptation to the wants of the people, and the progress of the nation in the arts of peace and war."
The Smithsonian Institution was one of the government agencies featured at the Exposition. Smithsonian displays contained examples from the Institution’s collections, publications, and many branches: pictures, publications, charts, photographs, instruments, a reproduction of the Langley experimental aeroplane, a group of taxidermy elk, four life-size ethnological models of family groups from around the world, and an immense exhibit of the stages of the "physical history of man." Samuel P. Langley, the Smithsonian’s third Secretary and the astrophysicist who designed the experimental aeroplane that was on display, was honored at the Exposition with a dedication on a statue base that read, "To commemorate science's gift of aviation to the world through Samuel Pierpont Langley, an American." The statue was something of a consolation prize, since the Wright Brothers had succeeded at flight before Langley.
When I arrive in San Francisco, there won't be many remnants of the Panama-Pacific Exposition for me to see. The Palace of Fine Arts, modeled on Roman ruins, is one of the only structures from the Exposition that survives today (it was torn down and rebuilt in its original form in 1965) as the Exploratorium, Museum of Science, Art and Human Perception. But I did find some useful advice in a brochure for the Exposition: "Do not come clad for a hot Eastern summer. Light overcoats and wraps are always in demand in the evening. From April to November umbrellas may safely be left at home." Hope you’ll get to enjoy equally nice weather today!
Learn about early color photographs from the Panama-Pacific International Exposition at the National Museum of American History’s blog.