The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Archive
- Skeletons found at Jamestown have been identified as those of the colony leaders. [via Smithsonian Science News]
- The National Archives and Records Administrative published guidance this week to government agencies on managing electronic messages. [via InfoDocket]
- Just last week we announced that the National Air and Space Museum launched its first Kickstarter campaign to help conserve, digitize, and display Neil Armstrong’s Apollo 11 spacesuit, and lo and behold, it has already surpassed its fundraising goal and is currently at over $570,000! Now that its funded, this is what's next for the spacesuit. [via AirSpace blog, NASM]
- In conjunction with the exhibition: Artist Teacher Organizer: Yasuo Kuniyoshi in the Archives of American Art, fiber artist Aram Han Sifunetes hosted a workshop that that delved into explorations of American-ness. [via Archives of American Art Blog]
- Blast from the past - How press photos were transmitted in the 1970s. [via PetaPixel]
- What is that wonderful smell? Food Fridays is a new cooking demonstration series at the National Museum of American History's Wallace H. Coulter Performance Plaza. [via O Say Can You See? blog, NMAH]
- From VHS tape to your computer - Yale Library is digitizing and making available online thousands of mystery VHS tapes. [via WSHU Public Radio Group]
- For your viewing and educational pleasure: Video recording of the panel discussion at Wikimedia Foundation: “Copyright in the Era of Mass Digitization." [via InfoDocket]
- The video below gives you a glimpse of Iron Mountain where archival collections, photographs, motion picture films, data, and much more are stored. [via PetaPixel]
Recently, the Smithsonian Institution Archives acquired the papers of Dr. John H. Dearborn (1933-2010), a longtime professor and scientist associated with the University of Maine. As a researcher, Dearborn focused his attention on echinoderms (phylum Echinodermata), a taxonomic group including sea stars, brittle stars, sea cucumbers, and other organisms. Dearborn's research activities, which spanned several decades, led him to numerous locations around the world, including Antarctica, where he spent a great deal of time braving the elements to advance his field of study.
As an Archives intern, one of my projects this summer involved rehousing Dearborn's papers, and during this process, I came across an extensive series of diaries and field notes spanning the years between 1953 and 1982. While rehousing these materials I was fortunate enough to have the time to read some of Dearborn's entries in the years between 1953 and 1960, which offer an interesting lens through which to examine Dearborn's early life and accomplishments. Beginning during his time as an undergraduate student and continuing into his graduate years, Dearborn's early entries detail his observations and travel to places such as New England, Alaska, Hawaii, New Zealand, and Antarctica, to name a few. His early entries are simple in structure but very regimented and task-based; many entries consist almost entirely of lists of birds or other natural specimens that Dearborn happened to observe during his trips, particularly in the New England area.
However, as the 1950s continue, Dearborn's entries gradually become longer and more detailed, and slowly he begins to insert more personal details that shed light on who Dearborn was as a person. In my opinion, perhaps the most interesting period in these early years is his time in Antarctica in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Dearborn's entries from this period are interesting not only for the descriptions of his research activities, but also for the more human elements that slip out in his writings. Many of his entries detail activities that he and others used to pass the time while living in Antarctica's inhospitable environment. Movies were perhaps the most common form of entertainment for Dearborn, who often watched several films a day and then took the time to record his impressions. For example, in an entry from January 24, 1959, Dearborn describes the movie The Barefoot Contessa as "lousy," a word he uses again on numerous occasions. Choir practice, ping-pong, reading, writing, studying German, and playing chess were also common activities for Dearborn, as were "bull sessions" with fellow inhabitants and researchers living at McMurdo Station.
In his diary, Dearborn also spends a great deal of time discussing the downsides of life in Antarctica, including dental issues, infrequent showers, supply problems, blizzard conditions, and the difficulty of maintaining contact with people, including a love interest named Iris, in the outside world. What emerges from Dearborn's early diary entries is a picture of a burgeoning academic and biologist, as well as a much-needed human element that is often lost in the pages of journal articles and academic publications. Dearborn's diary is useful not only as a window into Dearborn's life and mind, but also as a study of human isolation and life at the margins of human existence.
- Smithsonian collections related to Antarctica
Many of us read, write and send emails every day, but when did it all start at the Smithsonian?
In 1980 Smithsonian staff had typewriters and telephones on their desk, with one or two FAX machines per office. The Smithsonian operated a single general purpose computer, the Honeywell mainframe, for all Smithsonian data processing applications and which did not include an email application. Desktop computers were nowhere to be found.
When the Museum Support Center (MSC) was under construction in 1982, the Smithsonian was also researching an interactive computer system for the new facility to document and manage the movement of tens of millions of specimens and objects to the new Suitland, Maryland, storage facility. One of the secondary requirements was a "mail message system." Six of the seven responding vendors offered an electronic mail system. A VAX-11/750 from Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) was selected, and was operational in April 1983.
Email was used by the MSC software development team before the end of 1983, and its use was greatly expanded the following year, 1984. The period of 1985-1988 saw rapid technological advances in networking, minicomputers, personal computers, and Local Area Network (LAN) systems. Many different Smithsonian offices and bureaus (including National Museum of American History, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Libraries, and the Office of Protection Services) acquired computer systems during this period which included email software. However at this time, most computer networks were proprietary networks. Initially a person could only exchange email with other people on the same email system. The development of standards, the adoption of standards, and inter-operability between different systems would arrive later.
The BITNET (Because It’s There Network) network supported both email and batch file transfer. This network linking more than 3,000 computers, principally in academic institutions, demonstrated to the Smithsonian community the speed and power of international email communications. The Smithsonian applied for membership in BITNET on August 15, 1986, and the IBM-4381 mainframe was connected later that year with a node name of SIVM.
Later, within the SI, the BITNET network was extended to two additional nodes: SIMSC and SIMNH. SIVM and SIMSC were still active BITNET nodes in March 1994, but probably disconnected soon after that. Listserv software was developed for BITNET, and mailing lists such as, MUSEUM-L (with 5,184 subscribers today) became very popular. However, with the rapid growth of the Internet, BITNET’s limitations became apparent, and its popularity and the use of BITNET diminished quickly.
In July 1992 the Smithsonian network was connected to the Internet and many internal email systems achieved greater interoperability as well as external connectivity, through the adoption of the SMTP Internet email standard. Smithsonian staff could communicate with colleagues globally, without waiting for a snail-mail reply.
I published the first Smithsonian Email Directory (March 1994) which listed ten different computer email systems (Internet hosts) and 4,846 email addresses. An unknown number of staff had email addresses on different computer systems, such as my own in both the SIMSC and SIMNH systems. This Directory made the following observation:
Electronic mail has evolved from many local e-mail applications to a state where most e-mail applications can now exchange messages freely with each other. Sometimes additional software, hardware, and/or network connections maybe required. However, there are still a few isolated islands in the archipelago, cut off from the rest of the Smithsonian and the rest of the world!
The largest email system at the Smithsonian, PROFS, was operated by OIRM (Office of Information Resource Management), and ran on an IBM-9121 mainframe, with 2,398 email addresses. PROFS supported both email as well as calendaring; the PROFS user manual was prepared in August 1990. This suggests that perhaps only 50-60% of the staff had email in 1994. GroupWise became the dominant email system in the late 1990’s, while competing with some offices using Lotus Notes and Microsoft Exchange email systems.
Initially most people treated email as very informal communication, not worthy of being saved or archived. However, as email usage spread and it became the common method of conducting business, this attitude changed. The possibility that email correspondence could be historically valuable or an official record was recognized in an informative 1997 pamphlet distributed to Smithsonian staff. More recent guidance is available to the Smithsonian community and the general public on the Archives website.
Eventually a decision was made to have one centrally supported email system for the Smithsonian. A single unified Smithsonian-wide email system was achieved when the last office was converted to Microsoft Exchange in 2005, more than twenty years after the first email was sent.
- Electronic Records - Responsible Recordkeeping; Email Records, 2007, Smtihsonian Institution Archives
- You've Still Got Mail, The Bigger Picture blog, Smtihsonian Institution Archives
The Archives is made up of wonderful, helpful, and hard working individuals who strive to acquire, preserve, and make accessible records that document the history of the Smithsonian Institution. Some of our staff have been at the Smithsonian for 30 plus years, while others are just beginning their tenure here. There will be some changes in the office as we welcome new staff members coming on board this summer who bring their expertise and new ideas to the Archives.
Continuing our series on introducing new staff, I'd like to welcome our new Program Assistant for our Institutional History Division, Lisa Fthenakis.
What's your educational background?
I have a Masters degree in History with a concentration in Public History, and a BA in History as well.
What do you do at SIA?
I am the Institutional History Program Assistant, so I work with Pam Henson, the Smithsonian Historian, to share the history of the Smithsonian Institution. I work with our oral history collection, conduct research, and share information about the history of the Smithsonian.
What is the strangest/most interesting thing you have discovered at SIA so far?
Perhaps the most interesting thing I have encountered so far are stories told by Sammy Ray in his oral history, RU 9628. He collected birds in the Pacific for the Smithsonian during WWII and you can really hear his personality as he tells stories about chasing rare birds and how much fun he had collecting them.
What is the most unexpected thing you have learned about working here?
The incredibly wide variety of things I get to research. The Smithsonian does so many things, from the hard sciences to the arts and seemingly everything in between, and I get to learn about all of it. So far I’ve researched things as diverse as natural history collecting, women in science, WWI history and the military history collections, and the men and women of the early support staff.
Favorite spot in DC to recommend to visitors?
My favorite spot to recommend is the National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden. It’s a beautiful garden, and on a hot summer day, the fountain helps keep things cooler.
Fish bowls had been known in ancient Rome and medieval China, but aquariums did not come into being until the mid-nineteenth century, and when they did, they proved amazingly popular. Two aquariums opened to the American public in the fall of 1857. The first was at the American Museum, the New York attraction organized by the showman, P. T. Barnum. The second was at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. An important Washington newspaper, the Daily National Intelligencer, mentioned the Smithsonian's display on November 2, 1857: "Another and no doubt a successful effort is making for an Aquarium, which failed before for want of a supply of sea water. Living beings drawn from a hundred fathoms depth of ocean may be kept in this way even through the severest winter, and in perfect health and vigor." According to a subsequent notice, this aquarium was "renewed and inhabited by at least a part of the numerous little marine animals intended for it" and they appear "very lively and self-enjoying."
In a similar vein, the Washington Union reported that "A fine 'marine aquavivarium' or 'aquarium' has been prepared at the Smithsonian Institute, where the public can now inspect its curious contents." This went on to say that "an eminent French zoologist, in order to prosecute his studies on marine animals of the Mediterranean, provided himself with a water-dress, glass helmet and breathing tubes, that he might walk about under water and mark the habits of the various creatures pursuing their avocations. Anyone who will visit the Smithsonian aquarium will enjoy the same opportunities, and become acquainted with the strange animals and plants of the sea without diving to gaze on them." The Smithsonian tank contained "about three hundred specimens of animal vitality, belonging to some thirty-eight species of fishes, Molluscae, Crustacea, and Polypes." This article was picked up by the Daily Cleveland Herald and by Scientific American.
Further information comes from Simon Brown, the editor of The New England Farmer who attended a United States Agricultural Society meeting in the East Room of the Smithsonian Institution Building (commonly known as the "Castle") in early 1858. This, he said, was "the room in which the philosophical instruments are deposited," adding that it contained "maps, and drawings of fishes and animals, and among the rest what is called 'A Marine Aquarium.'" The aquarium was "about five feet long by eighteen inches high, and three feet wide" and contained 38 kinds of animals. Attuned to natural theology, as were so many Americans at the time, Brown concluded with: "Here we have, in miniature, some of the wonderful operations of the great sea, and find opened to our eyes a new world of animal and vegetable life, all expressing with new force the wisdom and power of Him who made them all."
Additonal clues appear in the lists of donations in the Smithsonian's Annual Reports: "Two kegs and numerous jars of marine invertebrates and fishes from Massachusetts; living marine animals for aquarium" from William Stimpson, and "Living actinia and other marine animals for aquarium" from Mr. Tufts, in 1857; and "Living marine animals from Massachusetts, for the aquarium" from Mr. Tufts in 1858. Stimpson was a marine zoologist and was associated with the Smithsonian. Samuel Tufts, Jr., was a shoemaker, naturalist, and aquarium stocker in Swampscott.
In January 1858, in a brief account of a report of a new mollusk captured off the coast of North Carolina, the New-York Daily Tribune mentioned "Mr. William Stimson (who has charge of the aquarium which attracts so many visitors to the Smithsonian)." Later that year, the American Journal of Science ran a critical but well-informed review of A. M. Edwards, Life Beneath the Waters, or, the Aquarium in America. It explained that Edwards's text was derived, in large part, from British sources, and noted many instances in which American aquatic animals, both fresh water and marine, differed from European ones. And it mentioned in passing that "self-supporting aqua-vivaria were used here [in America] before their invention in Europe." W. S., the author of the review, in all likelihood was William Stimpson.
Stimpson was surely also responsible for the unsigned but lengthy review of two British aquarium books that appeared in the North American Review. This stated, in part, that in 1849, while still a student at the Latin School in Cambridge Massachusetts, Stimpson had made "seven or eight small aquaria" that "were perfectly successful; inasmuch as he kept some of them in a healthy condition for several months without change of water." Stimpson, the review went on to say, "published no account of his success, not knowing that it was a subject which was just beginning to awaken attention in England, and fated eventually to excite such universal interest." Nevertheless, "To him may safely be assigned the credit of having made the first systematic attempt of constructing an aqua-vivarium, although in all the works before us that honor is given" to others.
Family money supported Stimpson's scientific habit, and his energy and talent attracted the attention of Louis Agassiz, the Swiss naturalist who had arrived in the United States in 1846 and landed a berth at Harvard. According to one account, Stimpson served Agassiz "more as a collaborator than an assistant or pupil." We don’t know if the two men ever talked about aquariums but, given Agassiz's long-standing interest in aquatic creatures, we can be sure that he would have been fascinated by the form. Indeed, Agassiz's wife Elizabeth, an educator in her own right, was responsible for A First Lesson in Natural History (Boston, 1859), a book written for children and parents who "share the general juvenile delight in Aquariums."
Stimpson became a naturalist with the North Pacific Exploring Expedition in 1852. Four years later, when the Expedition's marine specimens were deposited at the Smithsonian, he moved to Washington to work with this material. While his aquarium at the Smithsonian was established in 1857, it is not clear how long it was there. Stimpson went on to receive an honorary Doctorate of Medicine from the Columbian University in 1860, became Director of the Chicago Academy of Sciences in 1865, and was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1868. He died in 1872, shortly after his papers and collections were destroyed in the great Chicago fire.
- William Stimpson related materials at the Smithsonian Institution Archives.
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