The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Miscellaneous Adventures: Exhibit Photographs
You voted, we listened. For the next installment of our adventures with miscellaneous archival folders we opened up Record Unit 363 - National Museum of Natural History, Office of Exhibition, Records, circa 1955-1990. The folder that you voted for after our last adventure, was “Miscellaneous Photographs,” and a more appropriate title for a folder never existed. When I first opened the file I was overwhelmed by the randomness of its contents, so much so, I was not even sure what to write about!
The photographs in this folder cover a wide range of events, objects, and people. Some of the images document the annual Regent’s Exhibit. The Regent’s Exhibit, was an exhibit created to showcase the different activities around the Smithsonian for the Board of Regent’s Annual Meeting. It appears that up until the early 1950s the exhibit was a small endeavor, cobbled together a few days before the meeting. However, in a memo from 1953, Smithsonian administrators discuss the possibility of increasing the time spent on the exhibit. “It is felt by most that previous exhibits have been too numerous, much too crowded, often confusing, and not well-attended by the Regents…We think it would be more effective to limit the exhibits to a few appropriate phases of the Institution’s activities.” It seems their plan worked. The images found in this folder document the exhibits from the 1960s and they are sleek, well organized, and even stayed up for public exhibit inside the Smithsonian Institution Building’s Great Hall.
Other images found in the folder are photographs of collections and buildings around the Smithsonian. These images include everything from a picture of an elephant at the National Zoo, to schematics showing fabric and wood veneered panels of a third floor corridor in the National Museum of American History. Many of these images are negatives placed in smaller envelopes within the folder. The outside of the folders often have notations indicating what a print of the negative might look like. For example, the image of the elephant’s envelope reads “1-12 HIGA matt.” One could venture a guess that these images were reprinted on larger scales to display in the various exhibits the office was producing.
The most interesting images included in this smorgasbord are the photographs that give a behind-the-scenes look at the exhibits staff and their work. These images capture the detailed work it took Smithsonian staff to create exhibits that not only labeled the objects, but placed them within a larger historical context. From climbing into an exhibit to carefully creating a floor that looks like sand, to painting the leaves to set the scene for collection items, the artistry and skill utilized by Smithsonian staff never ceases to amaze me. It is great that this work, sometimes overlooked because of its seamlessness, is captured in these images to show an interesting side of the Smithsonian.
If you would like to see inside more of our miscellaneous collections, let us know what you would like us to open next. Comment below, or message us on Facebook or Twitter with Folder A for a look at a miscellaneous folder from Record Unit 548 - National Museum of Natural History, Division of Meteorites, Correspondence, circa 1970-1988 or Folder B for a look into a folder from Record Unit 50 - Smithsonian Institution, Office of the Secretary, Records, 1949-1964.
- Record Unit 363 - National Museum of Natural History, Office of Exhibition Records, circa 1955-1990: Box 7, Folder: Miscellaneous Photographs, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Record Unit 50 - Smithsonian Institution, Office of the Secretary, Records, 1949-1964: Box 148, Folder: Regents Exhibit 1953, Smithsonian Institution Archives