The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: American History
- This week billions of people around the world celebrated the Lunar New Year on February 19. For the Chinese, 2015 is the year of the Ram and one of the traditions that go along with celebrating the New Year is the lion dance. Photographer Jason Lam's project, "Inside the Lion," captures the people behind the lion costume. [via Lens blog, NYT]
- Here is a list of children's books about Chinese New Year from the New York Public Library. [via New York Public Library blog]
- A peak at an interesting portrait of Dr. George Washington Carver at the National Museum of American History. [via O Say Can You See? blog, NMAH]
- Chicken wire, a seemingly common place material, is transformed by artist, Kendra Haste, into remarkably real sculptures of animals. [via Colossal]
- With 20 percent of entries disqualified from the World Press Photo competition for excessive post-processing, a debate about the rules and ethics in digital photojournalism. [via Lens blog, NYT]
- Technology and art meet in the attempt to identify a portrait as that of Anne Boleyn, queen to King Henry VIII, through the use of facial recognition software. [via The Guardian]
- The British Library's Endangered Archives Program released more than 500,000 additonal images online this week, adding to those already online for a total of more than 4 million images available from a variety of collections. [via InfoDocket]
- Archives, libraries, and museums are fighting to prevent the kinds of loss from the "Digital Dark Age" as discussed by internet pioneer, Vint Cerf, at the recent conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, by developing tools to preserve and make accessible our digital history. [via BBC News]
I was intrigued to receive a tweet from a digital colleague over at the NY Times pertaining to a family story that could very well be solved at the Archives. I’m continuously surprised at the variety of papers we hold here, but by now, I shouldn’t be given how far-reaching and varied the scope of the Smithsonian has been through history.
Back to the story.
THE elephant that looms large for every visitor to the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH)? Of course it has a personal connection to someone in the world! What visitors don’t realize is that there is a whole set of circumstances that brought Henry* to sit in his place of prominence in the rotunda of NMNH. The history of how our objects came to the Smithsonian is sometimes thoroughly, and other times, sparsely documented in our accession records. And since the Smithsonian rarely has had the funds to purchase collections, the stories are diverse and fascinating.
This tweet prompted a dive into Record Unit 305, Accession Records, 1834-1958 (accretions to 1976) that holds the primary documentation of the Smithsonian’s collections as well as information on collecting expeditions, Western U.S. exploration, and Smithsonian history. When reference archivist, Ellen Alers, brought the records to my office, she mentioned the State Department's involvement in this transaction, as well as other of our acquisitions. Sure enough, I found a letter from the American Consulate to Angola, Albert A. Rabida, to the State Department in Washington D.C. It reports that J.J. Fénykövi had visited the consulate and reported on the large bull elephant he hunted and shot in southeast Angola. The December 12, 1955 letter includes details on the size of the elephant, some biographical details on Fénykövi, as well as some insight into Fénykövi’s thoughts on what he intended to do with the specimen:
“Mr. Fenykovi said that he had furnished a giant sable antelope to the British Museum sometime ago and that he had never received any thanks or acknowledgement for his efforts. Accordingly, it is his intention to furnish the skin of this world record elephant to the Smithsonian Institution or to some other leading American museum of natural history…”
Now THIS is museum gossip at its best! We didn’t waste much time, and on January 6, 1956, United States National Museum (now National Museum of Natural History) Director, Remington Kellogg, cabled Fénykövi expressing our interest in acquiring the large bull elephant. Kellogg graciously offered to cover the shipping from Madrid to D.C.
I relayed these details to Jacob Harris via Twitter which is no small feat. Harris went off to confer with his father, Joseph Harris. The Harris family luckily had done an oral history with Maurice Fogler before he died, and even better, a transcript (a tip to those who looking to preserve their family’s history.) In the transcript, Fogler talks about his friend, a Hungarian engineer (Fénykövi), with whom he used to go partridge hunting in Spain. He also relays details about Fénykövi’s feelings towards the British Museum. These details were too similar to deny a likely connection between Fogler and Fénykövi.
Once the introduction between Fénykövi and the Smithsonian was made, a completely new tale begins which includes discoveries about the bull elephant based on a bullet found in its leg, the gigantic task of shipping and mounting it, a fabulous unveiling at the Natural History building, and a long-term relationship between Fénykövi and the Smithsonian. But, that is for another post.
I loved learning these details about an elephant that is beloved by many D.C. residents and Smithsonian visitors. I also was happy to help add a little evidence to family lore that will last generations.
*Henry is what some children have affectionately come to call the bull elephant. No doubt after the Smithsonian's first Secretary, Joseph Henry.
- Record Unit 305, Accession Records, 1834-1958 (accretions to 1976)
- How Uncle Maurice Saved the Smithsonian Elephant, Bigger Picture Blog
- Collections in Context, Bigger Picture Blog
On February 11, 1927, the Smithsonian held the "Conference on the Future of the Smithsonian." Its purpose was "to advise with reference to the future policy and field of service of the Smithsonian Institution." Held in the Smithsonian Institution Building (or "Castle"), scientists, politicians and prominent individuals from across the country were invited to learn about what the Smithsonian was doing and to assist in determining a strategy for the Institution going forward. Staff were asked to prepare exhibits that illustrated their current research and information about the Smithsonian's history was shared followed by a luncheon. As a result of the conference, a new strategic plan was created for the Smithsonian.
It was a great endeavor to bring people from across the country to join in learning about the Smithsonian and to help guide its future to be sure. However there was another purpose of the conference; to increase the Smithsonian's endownment. In 1925, the Smithsonian engaged the firm, Tamblyn and Brown to help it with a capital campaign whose goal was to raise $10 million for the Institution. To this end, the individuals were invited based upon not only their interest in science and friendliness to the Smithsonian, but also based upon their ability to give. Additionally exhibits were meant to "illustrate present and prosed researches of the Institution" as well as to stress "wherever possible the ultimate economic significance" of the Smithsonian's research work. Attendees were meant to be informed of the important scientific research being conducted at the Smithsonian, but also be made aware of the impact that its research had in contributing to the economy.
Unfortunately two days before the conference was to take place Secretary Charles Doolittle Walcott passed away. Assistant Secretary, Charles Greeley Abbot, hosted the conference in his stead, but timing was not on the side of the fund raising effort. With the strategic plan finalized and preparing to launch the capital campaign, the stock market crashed in 1929.
- Record Unit 46 - Office of the Secretary, Records, 1925-1949, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Proceedings of Conference on the Future of the Smithsonian Institution, February 11, 1927
- The Smithsonian, A Revelation, 1926, Smithsonian Libraries
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