The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Archive
In November, Smithsonian Institution Archives successfully moved over 3 million photographic negatives from a cold storage unit that had reached end of life to a new state of the art facility at the Smithsonian Institution Support Center (SISC) in Hyattsville, Maryland. The new space consists of two climate and humidity controlled rooms, a large staging area, and a large processing and digitization lab. Of the new cold rooms, one is kept at 52 degrees Farenheit and accommodates glass negatives, color photographic prints, CDs, and videotape materials, while the other is kept at 26 degrees Farenheit and is for storage of film materials.
We inherited both the old space and the glass negatives in 2008, when the Archives took over all of the historic images pertaining to the Smithsonian Institution’s history from Smithsonian Photographic Services (SPS). Located in the basement of the National Museum of American History (NMAH), the old cold vault, which had prevented the deterioration of film material for over thirty years, was on the verge of expiration.
For years we have been preparing the contents kept in cold storage for the move, which not only included the design and build out of a new space, but also some huge rehousing efforts. Over one thousand broken glass negatives were stabilized, housing was provided for oversized glass and acetate negatives, and 30,000 glass negatives were separated from the acetate negatives they were originally stored in boxes with. Once the build out was nearing completion, new locations for the materials were mapped and labeled.
The actual move took place over five days. Four Archives staff members were at each location with a move crew of about six to ten, and three refrigerated trucks shuttled material from NMAH to SISC. The move “choreography” consisted of 38 main steps, each divided into numerous sub-steps. In addition to the Archives’ collections, we also moved collections for other units with whom we share the space and whose collections we will continue to store.
Our new space affords us some room to grow. Though we cannot accommodate all of the Smithsonian Institution’s film preservation needs, we are able to bring on new partners and collaborators from units across the institution to provide preventive care for collections at risk. We look forward to working more closely with our historic collections and have plans to systematically digitize materials so that we can share and provide access to the Smithsonian Institution’s fascinating and abundant photographic history.
Cabinet of Curiosities, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Unlocking the Vault, The Bigger Picture Blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Walking on Broken Glass, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Highlight from the Photo Cold Vault: Gelatin Dry Plate Negatives, The Bigger Picture Blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Putting It All Together: The Assembly and Rehousing of Glass Plate Negatives, The Bigger Picture Blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Care, Handling and Storage of Photographs, Library of Congress
Tomorrow, on December 18, a little movie you may have heard about called, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, comes out. In the spirit of the occasion, we thought we'd take a look at what Star Wars related materials we have here at the Archives.
First we have a page from the exhibition concept for "Star Wars: The Magic of Myth" which was on view at the National Air and Space Museum from 1997-1998.
Next a floor plan for "Star Wars: The Magic of Myth."
We also have some images of models used in the exhibition.
- Accession 11-072: National Air and Space Museum, Exhibits Design Division, Exhibition Records, 1991-1999, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Accession 03-059: Smithsonian Productions, Productions, 1987-2001, Smithsonian Institution Archives
It’s been an exciting year at the Smithsonian Institution Archives. Reference and Photo Fulfillment merged to form an expanded Reference Team, streamlining the process of ordering photos and obtaining permission to publish them.
In addition, the photo collections housed at the former Smithsonian Photographic Services spaces in the National Museum of American History have been moved to a newly completed Cold Vault storage facility at the Smithsonian Institution Support Center in Landover, Maryland. This is the culmination of six years of planning, building and moving.
Researchers will have access to these images through our website. This quarter’s Hot Topics illustrations are examples of seasonal photographs currently available online.
When asked what the Smithsonian Institution Archives collects, we say we hold records about the history of the Smithsonian and its people, programs, research, and activities. While accurate, this doesn’t really give anyone a clue about what is actually in those records.
The SIA Reference Term handles an average of around 6,000 queries per year, and if you ask us what people have been researching at the Archives recently, you’ll get some pretty interesting responses. Although not comprehensive, here’s a snapshot of the diverse range of information encompassed by the history of the world’s largest museum complex!
Over the past three months, researcher projects have included:
- The Smithsonian’s SITES program
- Smithsonian Castle façade
- Handbook of the North American Indian
- Scopes Trial
- The Curies
- History of computers at the Smithsonian Institution
- The Fines Arts Commission and the National Gallery
- Data collection practices at the Smithsonian
- Egg collecting in the nineteenth century
- Weather observations
- Museum dioramas
- George Gibbs
- Smithsonian expeditions
- The Roosevelt expedition
- Marine research
- The Smithsonian’s railroad locomotive collection
- Atomic testing sites
Upcoming publications using our photos or documents include:
- Anthony Burton, The Locomotive Pioneers 1801-1851
- Xiaofei Kang & Donald Sutton, Contesting the Yellow Dragon: Ethnicity, religion and the State in the Sino-Tibetan Borderland
- Andrew Kirk and Kristian Purcell, Doom Towns: The Contested Landscapes of Atomic Testing
- Michael Glazer, Crystallography: A Very Short Introduction
- Richard H. Robbins, Mark Nathan Cohen, Darwin and the Bible: The Cultural Confrontation
- The Liberty Science Center, "Beyond Rubik's Cube" exhibit
Reference services at the Smithsonian Institution Archives
With Thanksgiving turkey and stuffing a recent memory, and with the recent opening of the Renwick Gallery, here is a look back at an exhibition that was at the Renwick from February 9-April 29, 1973, titled: Objects for Preparing Food.
From the Introduction:
Almost as basic as food itself are the objects used for the preparation of food. Man's [sic] ingenuity and culture are reflected and expressed in the great variety of forms of food utensils.
The objects in the exhibition were grouped by processes (heating, cutting, etc.) to show basic functions common to all food preparation and to make visual comparisons between the varied utensils, regardless of their geographic or chronological occurrence.
- Record Unit 333 - National Museum of American Art and Portrait Gallery Library, Exhibition Records, circa 1910-1986, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Renwick Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
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.
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