The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
The Good Wife
If you do some exploring on the Smithsonian Institution Archives newly designed website, you’ll see that the Archives' collections house a number of oral histories. Some document the careers and experiences of Smithsonian employees, while others cover more specific and quirky subjects, like the history of Acuson Ultrasound Machines, the work of the Nepal Tiger Project, and the experiences of African-American Aviators in the 1930s.
As advances in audio technology have made the collecting, archiving, and accessing of oral histories possible and practical, the public’s appreciation of them and interest in making and listening to them continues to grow. The success of Story Corps—which encourages Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs to record, share, and preserve the stories of their lives—is one example. Since 2003, Story Corps has created the largest oral history project of its kind, an archive of 35,000 interviews that’s preserved at the Library of Congress. The kinds of oral histories that make news, on the other hand, are generally not of the everyday variety though, as was revealed in the flurry of recent reporting that announced the release of a book and audio recordings extracted from 8 ½ hours of interviews that the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger conducted with Jacqueline Kennedy in 1964.
Often seen and much photographed, the former First Lady was not so often heard from, particularly in the years after Kennedy’s assassination. The interviews, kept private at Mrs. Kennedy’s request, have been released now by her daughter, Caroline Kennedy, on the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s presidency. The material covered in them includes reminiscences about the Kennedy’s marriage, Mrs. Kennedy’s role in her husband’s political life, and revealing stories about major, minor, and revealing events during their White House years.
For a public obsessed with following and/or deconstructing the roles political wives choose, are able, or are forced to play—and that watches television shows like The Good Wife in large numbers—this Kennedy project is destined to attract interest up and down the media food chain. Stories about what Mrs. Kennedy, whose public persona was Sphinx-like, really thought about world leaders (such as Charles DeGaulle, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Indira Gandhi, and Lyndon Johnson); political aides; women reporters; and her mother-in-law, are attracting the first rounds of publicity for this newly-released cache of material. But if the continued popularity of exhibits about First Ladies at the Smithsonian are any indication, this latest archival surprise seems destined to give political junkies, feminists, cultural critics, and historians plenty of new material to mull over and for quite some time.