The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Magical Mystery Tour
Recently, I read some interesting news about the National Public Radio blog, “The Picture Show,” that explores photographic images and issues. (If you look at some of their past posts, by the way, you’ll note that Shannon Thomas Perich, associate curator of the extraordinary Photographic History Collection at Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, is a regular contributor and writes about groups of photographs she comes across in the course of her work on the other side of the Mall.) What struck me in particular, though, was the announcement of a new monthly feature, “Found in the Archives,” written by Rich Remsberg, an archival image researcher for documentary films and TV shows who often comes across mysterious or curious things that won’t ever find a place in the final edit of shows he’s working on.
"Effects of Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD) on Troops Marching, Credit: National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Md., Courtesy NPR's The Picture Show blog.
In his first piece for “Found in the Archives,” Remsberg writes about a short and unintentionally hilarious film from the National Archives—"Effects of Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD) on Troops Marching"—that documents an experiment conducted by the United States Chemical and Biological Warfare Program. Shot in Maryland in the late 1950s, the film was part of a program designed to inform interested viewers in the role chemical incapacitants, delivered in aerosol form, might play in warfare. As it turns out, the weaponizing of LSD turned out to be problematic because it was nearly impossible to accurately predict which way the wind would blow. But one thing the film clip confirms without question, though, is how powerfully archival films and imagery enable us to revisit and reconsider the thinking and values of the past.
If this kind of film material interests you—if you’ve got a soft spot for films like the classic Cold War primer “Duck and Cover”—a great place to see more is on the website of the Prelinger Archives. Starting in the 1980s, Rick Prelinger’s goal was to collect, preserve, and facilitate access to films of historic significance that weren’t being collected elsewhere. Eventually, he stockpiled around 60,000 of what he called “ephemeral” films, the kinds that were produced by and for hundreds of US corporations, nonprofit organizations, trade associations, interest groups, and educational institutions. In 2002, the film collection became less ephemeral when it was acquired by the Library of Congress, Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division. To see a sampling of some of the fantastic films that were archived, roll up for the mystery tour, by clicking here.