The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
It Pays to Be Free
I took a stroll at lunch today since it’s that time of year again when the magnolia trees bloom in the Smithsonian Castle’s Enid Haupt Garden. It’s important to catch it before a rain or a big breeze snatches them away. A lot of things are popping out this time of year, from trees to tour buses. As I noticed the growing number of visitors, wondering if they were on vacation or like me, on a lunch break, I was struck by how much I’ve become accustomed to free. The free museums at the Smithsonian, the free concerts at the Kennedy Center, the free outdoor Shakespeare at Carter Barron… there’s even a blog dedicated to free in D.C. We here at the Smithsonian are all about free; from the film series at the Freer Sackler to the lecture series at the Hirshhorn. We also rely heavily on ‘free’ to get things done, including at THE BIGGER PICTURE. When we need an image to illustrate an idea and we don’t have it in our collections or it isn’t yet digitized, we turn to Flickr and Wikimedia and search out photos designated in the Creative Commons or public domain. Many of our posts, especially the News in the Visual posts, just wouldn’t be the same without it. (Note to reader: the "News in the Visual" posts referenced here have been moved to the "What Gets Saved" category.) I can't help but think about what the Smithsonian's first photographer, Thomas Smillie, would think of all of the online photo sharing. I would like to think he'd be excited that some of his early work is in the Flickr Commons. This quote, which he made around the opening of his exhibit on photography and photographic technology, makes me think he would want to get the word out by sharing some of his photos online: About thirty-five years ago, in the midst of the struggle to keep up with the times, or if possible to get in advance of them, I paused to look backward, and only then realized that many of the remarkable things which had been done in photography were already forgotten, and worse still, the material evidence of them were fast passing away, so I at once gathered such representative specimens as were within my reach and put them away, thus forming the nucleus of the present museum exhibit. Here’s to free!