The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Anthropology
On this day in 1829, James Smithson passed away in Genoa, Italy. His remains were originally buried there, about a mile west of Genoa, on a high elevation overlooking the town of Sampierdarena. In January 1904, Alexander Graham Bell headed the team that brought back Smithson's remains to the United States.
A simple mortuary chapel was created in a room to the left of the north entrance of the Smithsonian Institution Building by the Washington architectural firm of Hornblower & Marshall. Within the chapel there were stained-glass windows, a plaster ceiling, and a floor of dark Tennessee marble. The entrance to the room was sealed off by a heavy iron gate created from pieces of the fence that had surrounded the Italian grave site.
In 1974 the crypt room was renovated and the gates removed so that people could now enter the room to see the crypt of James Smithson. During the renovation, Smithson's coffin was removed from the tomb and scientific study conducted on Smithson's skeleton by Dr. J. Lawrence Angel, Curator of Physical Anthropology, National Museum of Natural History. Among their various findings, Dr. Angel determined that Smithson was 5 feet 6 inches tall; that he died of natural causes; that he had an extra vertebrae; that he smoked a pipe; and that he was probably an avid fencer based upon the development of his shoulders. After a 48-hour period, his remains were resealed in the coffin and replaced in the tomb.
Smithson's gift to the United States lead to the founding of the Smithsonian Institution we see today, with its 19 museums, the National Zoo, and multiple research centers. With its collections numbering 137 million, and with 30 million visitors per year, the Smithsonian strives to continue its mission towards the "increase and diffusion of knowledge."
Mr. Smithson Goes to Washington And the Search for a Proper Memorial, The Smithsonian’s Architectural History & Historic Preservation Division
Fun Facts: The Surprises You Find When Writing Wikipedia With the Archives, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
For the past few months, I have had the unique experience of digitizing the David Crockett Graham Field Book Collection which is part of the Field Book Project, a collaborative effort between the Archives and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History which aims to create one online location for scholars and others to visit when searching for field books and other field research materials. Though many individuals may be unaware of how intrinsically useful Graham's work is to natural history, anthropology, and Chinese cultural studies, the collection is evidence that David Crockett Graham was dedicated to preserving Chinese cultural history and biodiversity. Comprised of diaries (field books), photographs, negatives, lantern slides, hand-drawn maps, an account book, general correspondence, and other miscellaneous material, this collection is a portal for those who seek a better understanding of the biological and cultural landscapes of the Szechwan Province in early-20th-century China. Moreover, it showcases how studies in global biodiversity fit into the multifaceted history of the Smithsonian Institution.
David Crockett Graham (1884-1961) attended many educational institutions in his lifetime. In 1908, he first received a B.A. degree from Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. Then, in 1916, he received his B.D. from Rochester Theological Seminary (now Colgate Rochester Divinity School). Later, he would go on to attend the Divinity School at the University of Chicago for postgraduate and doctoral studies. The Smithsonian Institution published Graham's Ph.D. dissertation "Religion in Szechwan Province, China" in 1928. Just a few years later, in 1931, they appointed him with the honorary title of Collaborator in Biology.
Graham began collecting specimens of natural history from Szechwan Province in 1919 for the United States National Museum (now the National Museum of Natural History) during his breaks from missionary work. These specimens included mammals, birds, insects, and snakes. He also sent the museum anthropological data of Chinese cultural groups common in Szechwan Province, such as the Ch'uan Miao, Ch'iang, Lolo, and the Bolstoi people, as well as their representations of folk life and folk art. The diversity of the geographic areas of Szechuan that Graham visited, including the vicinity of Suifu, the Min River Valley, Mount Omei, the Szechuan-Yunnan border, and the Szechuan-Tibetan border regions, is portrayed in his numerous field book entries. Further, with over 600 images in the collection, there is no shortage of visual accounts of Graham’s work as a Smithsonian scientist. The photographs of Chinese indigenous people are fascinating images that truly represent Graham’s multicultural experience.
His field book collection provides international researchers and scholars with incredible insight into some of the cultural communities and physical settings of early-20th-century China. Digitizing his work has taught me more about the diversity of the Szechwan Province. Through reading Graham's field books and closely examining his photo collection, I have become well-associated with his first-hand account of cultural groups, animals and plants. The collection has significantly expanded my knowledge of 20th-century-Chinese history. Even if you have very little interest in biological or anthropological studies, this collection is worth perusing through for a closer examination of a unique historical period and cultural landscape. It will not be long before this collection is fully accessible online, so be sure to check it out!
- I’ve really been enjoying this collection of 1940s photographs and footage of Tibet profiled on the Smithsonian Collections blog, and hailing from the Smithsonian’s Human Studies Film Archives.
- Folklorist and ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax’s dream of a “global jukebox” for his incredible music collections comes true: his vast archive is now available online [via Marvin Heiferman].
- How you can turn 19th century photos into animated GIFs [via Lynda Schmitz Fuhrig, SIA].
- Registration is now open for a Smithsonian Tweetup featuring a behind the scenes tour of some of the Smithsonian’s collections storage on Wednesday, February 15 at 12:30 to 4:30 pm in honor of Social Media Week.
- One of our favorite Commons Members, Penny, has recommendations for using Flickr Commons images for Valentine’s Day crafts.
- A little bit of found Smithsonian history: original 1966 newsreel footage of President LBJ accepting the Joseph H. Hirshhorn donation of his art collection, which now forms the cornerstone of the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden collections:
In December, I shared the story of how Harry Houdini escaped the Smithsonian—or at least prevented his brain from being collected by the Institution’s physical anthropologist Aleš Hrdlička. Houdini did allow himself to be measured by Hrdlička in 1926, however, and one reader asked for the resulting chart. We checked with the National Anthropological Archives, got the thumbs-up, and we’re happy to deliver it to you today.
It’s an interesting document. You’ll see that Hrdlička wrote “Mr. Houdini” in the field marked ‘tribe,’ which the anthropologist crossed out. Hrdlička had developed the form for measuring the indigenous peoples of North America. Its use for Houdini reflects the other side of anthropology in that era—the collection and study of data from members of anthropologists’ own society, or their society’s outskirts. Although Hrdlička was interested in Houdini as a fascinatingly accomplished American hero, other anthropologists used similar measurements to detail how generations of immigrants and Americans changed physically over time.
Next, you’ll see his age given as “52 (in April next).”
The measurements in centimeters follow. The left column is blurry, save for the numbers, so I’ll “translate”:
- Stature … 165.8
- Max. finger reach … 172.8
- Height Sitting … 91.7
- Length … 19.2
- Breadth … 16.8 … c.d. = 87.5
- Height … 13.6 … M-H d. = 75.6 / ceph. Md = 16.53
- Length to nasion … 11. 4
- Length to crinion … (some hair lost)
- Breadth, bizygom … 14. 8 Fac d.= 77.-
- Diam. Front min … 10.6
- Diam. Bigonial … 11.-
- Length to nasion … 5.7
- Breadth … 3.6 … Nas. D = 63.2
Breadth … 6. –
- Length … 6.8
- Breadth … 4.- Ear d. = 58.8
- Breadth at nipple height … 32.1
- Depth at nipple height … 23.3. … Chest d. = 72.6
- Length … 19.4
- Breadth … 9.6 … Hand d. 49.5
- Length … 25.7
- Breadth … 9.2 Foot d. = 35.8
- Girth, max. … 38.3
Weight of Body (with shoes, but without outer garments): … [Left blank].
The right-hand column should be clear enough for everyone to read, and is just as interesting for what Hrdlička didn’t include about Houdini as what he did. His blue-brown eyes, his thinning hairline, the poor condition of his rear teeth, and the facts that his left hand was wounded and his toes were prehensile—these all made the cut. He made no comment, however, on Houdini’s “Eye-slits,” “Lips,” the “Angle of l[ower] jaw,” or “Body and limbs.” The latter were physiological observables that the racially minded Hrdlička thought were germane for labeling peoples of indigenous descent—but not for Houdini, whose wear and tear as an escape artist made him interesting to Hrdlička.
What I’m getting at, is that this document reveals as much about Hrdlička as it does Houdini—what interested the anthropologist, when he cared to write about race, and when he cared to ignore it. It’s also worth noting that Hrdlička had initially planned to publish his measurements, but never did. Remember that Hrdlička had “determined” that there was nothing physically unusual about Houdini—he was just a disciplined and trained practitioner of his art. And if he wasn’t physically “unique,” then what was the point of measurement? Was it to slot Houdini into Hrdlicka’s collections of measurements of national or ethnic groups—or, as actually happened, to have the paper collected in his archives?
This isn’t to undercut this fascinating document, even as we share it. As a narrative historian, these sort of physical details have helped me bring past figures to life.
But let’s put it to the web: today, what do these measurements tell us about Houdini that we don’t already know? Had we not known that this was Houdini being measured, how useful would it be?