The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Facing Adverse Conditions While Collecting in the Field
My internship with the Smithsonian Institution Archives has been largely concerned with the Field Book Project and as such, I have had the opportunity to view scientific field books from the last one hundred and fifty years. However, it is the work of David Crockett Graham that has intrigued me the most. He was, among many other things, a missionary and a field collector for the Smithsonian Institution during his various posts in China between the years 1919–1948. During this time, Graham conducted several expeditions in and around Suifu (Yibin) and Chengtu (Chengdu) in the province of Szechwan (Sichuan), as well as along the borders of Sichuan, Yunnan, and Tibet. One of my fellow interns has already written a short blog about David Crockett Graham, and while she focused on Chinese cultural history and biodiversity, I wanted to highlight the dangers that field collectors often faced in volatile situations.
Although the collection holds Graham's diaries from as early as 1924, I worked most closely with the diaries from 1929 to 1935 and was surprised by the breadth of information contained within. For instance, in his diary from August 16, 1929 to March 24, 1930, Graham recounts incidences of leopards terrorizing villagers and killing men, in the area of China where he was working to preserve ducks and rabbits and ship them overseas to Washington, DC for display and research. Successive diary entries discuss the pervasive influence of opium fields and opium smoking within the population, forty to sixty percent, and how this addiction afflicted some members of his collection crew, leading to poor preservation of certain specimens.
Not only did Graham include descriptive information regarding his natural history acquisitions, but there are also insightful glimpses of life in both rural and urban settings that changed as the country suffered during rebellion and war. The most notable change comes after his return to China with his new post to Chengdu in 1932. Here he was able to observe quite closely the impact that the Nationalist-Communist struggle was having on the people of China. His expeditions were hampered by rumors of, and actual battles between, the opposing sides and he wrote of the very real threat that this civil war posed to his crew and himself.
[November 17–19, 1932]: There has been civil war in Chengtu [sic] with heavy cannonading and machine gun and rifle firing . . . It is nearly impossible to get into or out of the city.
[June 30, 1933]: Civil war is going on all around us so that it is not safe to travel in any direction.
[April 9, 1935]: The Communist threat so very serious, we are living in hope.
[June 22, 1935] Some soldiers mistook Zen [crew member] for a communist spy and put him into prison where he remained for several days. It was with great difficulty that I got him free and the soldiers threatened to execute him as a spy.
[September 28, 1935]: The Aborigine [sic] who has collected . . . for me in the past is accused of being a Communist, and is now in prison at Kongshien [sic]. I am trying to get him out . . .
It is easy to understand how Graham’s work crosses disciplinary boundaries and can be useful beyond the natural history field because of his personal experiences in China. In particular, Graham's diaries serve as a significant primary source for historians and the general public. This valuable collection will be online in the near future, so please check back frequently, and immerse yourself in the rich reading of David Crockett Graham's diaries.
- Field Work and a World War, The Bigger Picture Blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives