The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
The Mysterious Miscellaneous 37
"Miscellaneous," defined as a variety of items from different sources, is a pretty nondescript label, and though it may make some researchers weary, when I come across a miscellaneous folder in a finding aid to one of our collections, I become excited about what I may discover. Sure, it could be a bust and simply be a mostly blank piece of paper with only a number on it; on the other hand it could be a letter, document, or image that lends new insight into Smithsonian history.
Today we are opening up the collections and letting you join us on a miscellaneous adventure with the story of "Miscellaneous 37." This folder comes from Record Unit 32 - Smithsonian Institution, Office of the Secretary, Correspondence, 1865-1879. It is a full folder with a mix of printed and handwritten materials. While rifling through, a few things start to stick out that pique my interest. The first things I notice are the printed pamphlets written in different languages. Some are in French and others are in Italian, and for the first time I do not regret studying either one of these languages! I start to translate the first pages, and then see that many of the pamphlets have a corresponding handwritten translation. I start to read and realize that the pamphlets are from international learned societies asking for submissions for prizes. They date to the 1870s and cover a range of disciplines, from archaeology to medical science to art. The prize questions offer money and medals to the winners, but note that once an entry is submitted, it becomes the property of the archives of the society and entrants can only request copies for a fee. There is a long tradition of these types of prize questions, and they continue today, such as the Wolfson Economic Prize for 2014, that asks "How would you deliver a new Garden City which is visionary, economically viable, and popular?" Or the 2012 Royal Society of Chemistry Prize Question on the Mpemba Effect – why does hot water freeze faster than cold water? Here are two of my favorite questions from Miscellaneous 37:
Royal Academy of Sciences, Letters and Arts of Belgium Class of Sciences Prize Questions for 1874
2. Want a complete discussion of the questions as to the temperature of space, based upon experiments, observations and the calculus. Reasons have to be stated for the choice made from the different temperatures attributed to it…relate [the answer] to the knowledge of the absolute zero definitely fixed at –272° 85 C.
Royal Institute of Venetian Science Literature and the Arts competition for the 1877 prize:
Exhibit trading conditions to Venice from 1859 to nowadays, paying attention to changes in the political, legislative, economic. Suggest what the state and the municipalities and the private sector could do to improve.
Now why would this be in Smithsonian collections? In the mid to late 1870s, the Institution was in its thirties still trying to understand its role both locally and internationally. The Smithsonian's International Exchange Service began sending government documents abroad in October of 1874. The correspondence with these learned societies was another step in the growth of the Institution. Creating connections between scientists and sharing information helped the early Smithsonian achieve its mission for the increase and diffusion of knowledge. These types of questions are interesting as they usually are one that stump the experts and call on a broad range of people to think about them, often gathering insights from unexpected places. The prize also gets many people focused on one issue, in the hope that this focus will finally produce some answers.
Though I have not yet found out if any Smithsonian employee responded to the contests, nor why the folder had the number "37" in its title, I did uncover a mini trove of documents that lend insight into the questions that people wanted to ask and answer in the 1870s. And as the evidences shows that prize questions about temperature phenomena and urban issues hold relevance in both the 1870s and 2010s, it seems our past and present curiosities are interestingly closely aligned.
If you would like to keep uncovering the miscellaneous mysteries, chime in to our Facebook page or Twitter feed and let us know what folder we should open next. Vote Folder A to open "Miscellaneous Letters and Memoranda between Smithsonian Officials, 1863-1893" from Record Unit 64, Smithsonian Institution, Chief Clerk, Records, 1869-1905 or Folder B to open "Miscellaneous photos" from Record Unit 363, National Museum of Natural History, Office of Exhibits, Exhibition Records, circa 1955-1990 and undated.
- Record Unit 32 - Smithsonian Institution, Office of the Secretary, Correspondence, 1865-1879, Smithsonian Institution Archives