The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
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It was recounted as a “soul-depressing” sound, a monotonous wail, a “dolorous note” in the night. Residents took up arms against the apparition in a “tragic” appeal to put an end to the noise—for a watchman, a gun, for a boy, a slingshot. The phantom noise lingered on. The only explanation? This bird with the “weird” cry terrorizing the town was the disturbed spirit of another winged creature who had given up its life “for the sake of science and now fill[s] the cases of the Smithsonian.”
The Smithsonian was full of things that went bump in the night, according to one vivid 1900 Washington Post article, which detailed DC residents’ desperate attempts to quiet this bird’s wail. Though the spirt of the bird on display was thought to have flown the coop, the story also details other strange and spooky happenings within the museum’s halls itself. In 1900, those apparitions would have been located in what is now known as the Arts and Industries Building, then called the US National Museum. Museum watchmen told the Post that they had seen all sorts of disquieting sights after the museum’s doors had shut to visitors: Haunted bronze animals that “assume a livelier air by night,” joining the screeching bird in making the night “hideous” for those they encountered. The scrape of formless feet, or voices calling out. Masks that moved about in their cases.
Staff at the museum after-hours also claimed to be working alongside the ghosts of past Smithsonian scientists who incorporeally supervised the collections they had once been so devoted to. The most active ghost, the Post reported, was that of the Smithsonian’s first curator and its second Secretary, Spencer Fullerton Baird. Nearly all the Smithsonian’s night watchmen had reported spotting Baird, though his figure disappeared if a passersby tried to chat with him. The spirt of Baird’s predecessor, Secretary Joseph Henry, was a frequent visitor too, according to the watchmen. Henry was often spotted, “fully clothed in the garments he wore in life,” walking through the exhibits before returning to his post—the museum’s statue in his likeness.
Some other popular stories ended up being less about haunted spirits and more about human error. A night watchman, for example, once fled the building, thinking he had witnessed a suicide in the building’s central fountain. The body he saw turned out to be a diving suit. There is also the tale of the evening guard who thought a Japanese warrior mannequin had come to life, sending him hurrying up the stairs “for a safer vantage ground.” The mannequin, though, had just been moved out of its case to be photographed.
The incident with Jesse Beach, a spirited Museum Aide in the Department of Geology, became another Smithsonian tall tale. In her later years Beach actually moved into the Museum of Natural History, where she liked to wander through the halls at night. Beach, with her long white hair and nightgown, was often mistaken as a ghost by new evening guards. Or things got a little more awkward, as was the case with one guard who accidentally walked in on her taking a bath in the geology lab. Thanks to Beach’s nighttime wanderings, Smithsonian Secretary Alexander Wetmore required museum staff to start going home by midnight—aside from his ghostly predecessors, of course.
Stories from the Museum of Natural History, Unearthed, The National Museum of Natural History Unearthed
Urban Legends About the Smithsonian, Smithsonian Magazine
Phantoms of Museum, The Washington Post, May 13, 1900.
It's October and another fiscal year has ended here in the federal government. For collecting units across the Smithsonian, it's time to begin calculating statistics.
In fiscal year (FY) 2015, the Smithsonian Archives added 352 new accessions to our archival collections, equaling approximately 901.68 cubic feet of physical materials and 915.4 GB of born-digital materials, like word-processing documents, spreadsheets, PowerPoint presentations, pdfs, CAD drawings, email, websites, and digital photographs, video, and audio (I say "approximately" because we are still tying up loose ends).
So, what do these numbers tell us? It turns out, when looking at the numbers from the last couple of years, there is no such thing as a typical year. From year to year, our numbers may vary, up or down, by as much as 300 accessions, 1,000 cubic feet, or 1,700 GB. This is due to any number of factors previously discussed in "How the Archives Gets its Records (or, Golden Lion Tamarins Galore)", such as retirements, office moves, and renovations to storage spaces. To examine trends, it's helpful to look at blocks of time.
Between FY 2011 and FY 2015, the Archives added 1,918 accessions to its collections, including 5,445.21 cubic feet of physical materials and 5,157.4 GB of born-digital materials. Of these accessions, 12 percent contained a mix of physical and born-digital materials and 25 percent consisted solely of born-digital materials.
Between FY 2006 and FY 2010, the Archives added 1,223 accessions to its collections, including 4,101.15 cubic feet of physical materials, and 1980.2 GB of born-digital materials. Of these accessions, 12 percent contained a mix of physical and born-digital materials, and 4 percent consisted solely of born-digital materials.
Clearly, both the Archives and the offices throughout the Smithsonian have begun placing a greater emphasis on the long-term business and research value of electronic files. Much larger quantities of born-digital material are being transferred to or captured by the Archives. This is also likely a reflection on a greater reliance on servers, hard drives, and removable media to maintain files (as opposed to filing cabinets) over the last 5-15 years, the period during which most of the materials that we are currently receiving were created.
These numbers also show a significant increase in the amount of physical material (aka "paper files") transferred to the Archives over the last 5 years. This may seem counterintuitive, but it is not uncommon for an office or individual to transfer several decades of files to the Archives at one time. The older the files, the more likely it is that they were printed and filed, or created on a typewriter or by hand. It remains to be seen whether those offices will begin filling the recently-emptied file cabinets with new paper files, or will begin maintaining their new files electronically.
Paper vs. Electronic: The Not-So-Final Battle, The Bigger Picture Blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Yes, We're Still Talking about Email, The Bigger Picture Blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
How the Archives Gets its Records (or, Golden Lion Tamarins Galore), The Bigger Picture Blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Digitization of photographs serves an important and often overlooked purpose beyond image accessibility and preservation. Although a magnifying glass has long been the standard tool for photographic analysis, the ability to zoom in on a digital image makes the task of identifying people and objects within an image so much easier. Sometimes, for example, analysis of what a person is wearing (such as a conference badge) or holding (such as a book) can unlock additional meaning beneath the visual surface, that is, can help to assemble the “back story” to the photo session.
Several years ago, when first working on the Science Service collections, I came across a photograph of physicist Enrico Fermi (1901-1954) in which he was reading what appeared to be a scientific journal article. This was among a series that Science Service photographer Fremont Davis took in January 1939 at the Fifth Washington Conference on Theoretical Physics. To help in interpreting the image, I turned to an expert (and friend).
Historian of science Lawrence Badash (1934-2010) was known for his intellectual generosity and for his depth of knowledge about the birth of atomic and nuclear physics. Fortunately, he was not on one of his Himalayan treks and could take a closer look at the digitized image.
As Badash knew, Fermi had just learned that a German laboratory had successfully achieved nuclear fission. Badash and his colleagues Elizabeth Hodes and Adolph Tiddens have described the “shock” to the scientific community worldwide when Otto Hahn published his findings in the January 6, 1939, issue of Naturwissenschaften.
Badash looked at an original copy of that journal issue and determined that, yes, here was a photograph of Fermi reading Hahn’s paper, perhaps for the first time.
In a February 2, 1939, letter, Science Service chemistry editor Robert D. Potter recounted the excitement generated by the announcement:
“I learned of the Hahn experiments from attending the Conference on Theoretical Physics here in Washington at which [Niels] Bohr and Fermi were discussing the work. During the conference the men from Carnegie Institution went out and duplicated the results here as you have already probably seen in the papers. I was extremely fortunate to have a copy of the German publication here in the office and to make it available to the scientists who actually did the work. As a consequence I was able to be in on the very excellent story right from the beginning and Science Service has now issued three stories.” [Robert D. Potter to A.V. Grosse, February 2, 1939, RU7091, Box 209, Folder 1]
At first glance, the digital image appears to be simply a photograph of a handsome man reading a piece of paper. With trained eyes and a lifetime of knowledge, the late (and great) Larry Badash could see so much more: Fermi absorbing the proof that German scientists were on the track toward harnessing the atom.
Within five and a half years, the Manhattan Project physicists, including Fermi, would win that race and create what Badash called the “modern counterpart to Pandora’s box” -- an atomic bomb.
Guide to the Lawrence Badash Papers, Online Archives of California.
- Ask Skorton Anything - Smithsonian Secretary David Skorton took questions from Smithsonian.com readers last week. [via Smithsonian Magazine]
- Congratulations to the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage as their Moses and Frances Asch Collection has been inscribed to UNESCO’s Memory of the World International Register. [via SI Newsdesk]
- This past Wednesday was National Fossil Day and this is what some Smithsonian scientists had to say about the importance of fossils. [via Smithsonian Science News]
- Close call at The New York Times photo morgue where a broken water pipe sent water rushing into their collection space. [via The New York Times]
- Stay tuned - DRM (digital rights management) may be coming to the JPEG image format. [via PetaPixel]
- Please welcome SOVA! - the Smithsonian Online Virtual Archive - which provides access to some 137,000 cubic feet of archival materials held across fourteen repositories at the Smithsonian. [via Smithsonian Collections Blog]
- Now open to visitors in Los Angeles is The Broad Museum. Designed by the architecture firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro, it houses the 2,000-piece collection of Eli and Edythe Broad of postwar and contemporary art, featuring works by Jeff Koons, Barbara Kruger, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Roy Lichtentstein and Cindy Sherman amongst others. [via Cool Hunting]
After successfully completing his 1925 European business trip, 29-year-old Watson Davis headed home on the S.S. Republic, boarding at Cherbourg, France, on October 2. The science journalist had covered the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science and discussed with Sir Richard Gregory (Editor of the journal Nature) the plausibility of establishing a “British Science Service” modeled on the American venture. Davis had met with scientists in Berlin and Geneva and arrived in Paris on September 22. Along the way, he gathered science news, solidified valuable contacts for future news, and hired new correspondents. He even found time to fire the current British stringer for Science Service because he was “full of whisky most of the time and ... not at all in favor with the scientists.”
In September 2015, the Archives invited readers of The Bigger Picture to help in identifying newly digitized photographs that Davis took during his 1925 European travels. Like many a tourist before and since, Davis also kept a few paper mementos to supplement his snapshots.
Davis's table partners for the special Captain's Dinner on Saturday, October 10, 1925, included Detroit businessman Jefferson T. Wing, and two sisters from Webster Grove, Missouri, Dorothy and Bessie Young. The menu was sprinkled with cultural references (“Canapé, Fin-de-siècle,” “Braised Duckling à la Marc Twain,” and “Washington Tart”) and what may have been celebrations of popular crew members or passengers (“Potage à la Liliencron” and “Salad Emma”).
It was the evening’s entertainment, however, that capped the voyage. Two amateur acts were cancelled because of exceptionally rough seas. The Swiss accordionist bowed out, and ten-year-old Eleanor Katherine Roosevelt, a relative of Franklin’s, did not perform her “Baby Pavlova” dance. Nevertheless, the audience enjoyed two special treats by professional entertainers returning home to the United States. The Lorraine Sisters (Edna and Della) had just kicked, shimmied, twisted, and twirled in the “Piccadilly Revels” at the Kit Kat Club in London. Vaudeville actors Leon Kimberly and his wife Helen Page had completed a successful European tour.
Davis wrote a typically pleonastic account of the evening, which he titled “ON THE BOARDS ABOARD, or BARNSTORMING DURING A STORM” (Record Unit 7091: Science Service, Records, c. 1910-1963, Box 78, Folder 2):
The place was the social hall of the United States Lines S.S. Republic at sea some 600 miles from New York. The time was Saturday evening, Oct. 10. The occasion was the grand concert of the Republic’s voyage from Europe to America held for the entertainment of the passengers and the benefit of seaman’s charities at the ports of call of the vessel and the Actors Fund of the United States.
Outside the night was dark and stormy and a gale raged seemingly determined to keep the ship at sea. Inside the salon gales of laughter and applause raged determined to prolong the performance. ...
Headlining the bill were two teams well-known to vaudeville on both sides of the Atlantic: Leon Kimberly and Helen Page, and the Lorraine Sisters. These artists were returning to America for the winter season after playing Great Britain and Ireland and spending some holiday weeks on the Continent.
When Edna and Della Lorraine flashed on the dance floor surrounded by eager and lucky first row seat holders and tickled noses with toes and willowy plume fans, even the sea seemed for a time to bring itself into the rhythm of their dance. Hero medals of the first class have been awarded to both of them for endangering life and limb in providing entertainment at sea, for acrobatic dancing on a ship riding a severe gale is not a performance without risks. Yet the sea seemed to appreciate their efforts and applause showed plainly that the passengers of the Republic were fully as enthusiastic as dry land audiences can be. Two numbers, ‘The Fan Dance’ and ‘The Charleston,’ in spite of difficulties caused by the sea, were danced with complete success and approval.
Kimberly and Page, accompanied by the ship’s orchestra, performed one of their most popular skits, “The Heart Broker,” a satire about letters to the lovelorn.
Helen Page ... played opposite her husband in a portion of the sketch that has entertained both the American and British public in the last few months. They literally glided through their act, due to the motion of the ship, and the waves often reinforced Helen’s comedy punches. Leon’s songs and lovesickness for his wife and team-mate cured numerous cases of seasickness; in fact, after the concert the chief surgeon took his first breathing spell since the beginning of the storm two days before. Leon chose this occasion for the debut of a new song that he will introduce to the public in his coming tour in America. Under the influence of the sentiment of the concluding ‘I Love You’ of the song, it is understood that several couples on board will announce their engagement as soon as the ship lands in New York.
- The Lorraine Sisters, Jazz Age Club
- Information about the S.S. Republic
- On the Water - Ocean Crossings, online exhibition, National Museum of American History
- Science Service collections at the Smithsonian Institution Archives
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