The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Hot Topics in Archival Research
Will our photos help researchers authenticate the Kensington Runestone, or prove once and for all that it is a fake? The investigation is ongoing.
When asked what the Smithsonian Institution Archives collects, we say we hold records about the history of the Smithsonian and its people, programs, research, and activities. While accurate, this doesn’t really give anyone a clue about what is actually in those records.
The Smithsonian Institution Archives Reference Term handles an average of around 6,000 queries per year, and if you ask us what people have been researching at the Archives recently, you’ll get some pretty interesting responses. Although not comprehensive, here’s a snapshot of the diverse range of information encompassed by the history of the world’s largest museum complex!
Over the past three months, researcher projects have included:
- History of the American Society of Herpetologists and Ichthyologists
- History of the Waterbird Society
- Plant Geography
- History of botany
- George Washington University's Methods in Museum Anthropology class made its annual visit to use the microfilm of the Smithsonian's accession files
- Postmodern historicism on exhibit
- Early 20th century museum pedagogy
- Smithsonian educational initiatives
- The Kensington runestone
In addition, the movie, The Galapagos Affair, brought renewed interest in our records of 1930s Galapagos colonists and explorations.
Upcoming publications using our photos or documents include:
The Department of State used numerous Smithsonian Institution Archives images in their American Spaces Program, including the Richard M. Nixon Inaugural Ball, January 20, 1969 at the National Museum of History and Technology (now the National Museum of American History)
- Mary Bird, “Experience Civil War Photography”, Government Executive magazine
- Julian Zelizer, A Great Society: the Fight for Liberalsim 1963-1968
- Robert Kett, Ornithologists in Olman: Ecological Knowledge and the Field Museum
Most Unusual reference Inquiry:
Question: We recently came across an article published in the Evening Star January 19, 1863. A similar article appeared in the paper the day before. We were curious if there were any records about this in the Archives, and if any more information was available about this case. The article reads:
It should be known that Mrs. Wren, by hand magnetism, has caused eight living reptiles to be expelled from a boy named Williams, living on 23rd street, between G and H, where the boy may be seen. He had been treated by the faculty without success for four months previous. At the request of Prof. Henry the reptiles have been presented to the Smithsonian Institute by Mrs. Wren. Her residence is No. 445 K street, between 6th and 7th streets.
Answer: A search of 1863 Smithsonian records didn’t turn up any reference to Mrs. Wren’s eight expelled reptiles. I fear that she was indulging a practice similar to the the sleight of hand tricks common to Brazilian psychic surgeons and other disreputable fortune tellers. . For what it’s worth, 19th century flim-flam artists loved to give their “discoveries” credence by stating that someone from the Smithsonian had shown interest.
- American Society of Herpetologists and Ichthyologists records at the Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Waterbird Society records at the Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Record Unit 285 - National Museum of History and Technology, Office of the Director, Photographs, 1920s-1970s, Smithsonian Institution Archives