The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Archive
How did a woman become a curator of Crustacea at the Smithsonian's National Museum in the 19th century? Historian Sally Kohlstedt wrote a ground-breaking article "In from the Periphery," in Signs in 1978 that identified the circuitous ways women entered science in those years. Since it was unlikely for women to be able to get Ph.D's in this line of work from prestigious universities, family connections, traditional female work roles, and volunteering were some of the ways women broke in to scientific careers. The Smithsonian's first full time female curator, Mary Jane Rathbun (1860-1943), used them all! The diminutive young lady from Buffalo, New York, lost her mother when she was only a year old and learned to make her way through life quite independently.
Mary Jane was not educated beyond high school, but had been interested in fossils since childhood. She first saw the ocean in 1881 when she accompanied her brother, Richard Rathbun, a biologist, to Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and then to the Smithsonian's National Museum. For three years, she helped label, sort and record specimens, before being appointed a Smithsonian clerk. While Richard traveled frequently, Mary Jane took over the day‑to‑day duties of his office and set out to learn all there was to know about marine biology. She focused on the classification of decapod Crustacea, that is, shrimps, crabs and their near relatives, and soon amassed a large collection.
As her brother moved into Smithsonian administration, Mary Jane continued to work at the museum, largely unaided. She was appointed second assistant curator of marine invertebrates in 1894 and after a mere 28 years she advanced to assistant curator in charge of the division in 1907! Appointment to a professional position was no small feat for a woman in the 1890s; it would be two more years before the United States Geological Survey appointed its first woman scientist. The fact that her brother was now Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian probably helped her cause. As historian Margaret Rossiter has shown, in the 19th century civil service jobs were classified by sex, that is, when announcing a vacancy, the supervisor had to indicate whether a man or woman was wanted for the job. Thus, most professional jobs were not open to women unless they were specifically announced with the woman in mind.
Before the Natural History Museum opened in 1910, Mary Jane worked in the Castle, often needing to go to the basement to work with specimens. The 4' 6" scientist would open the door to the winding staircase to the dark basement and stomp her feet repeatedly to scare away the rats, and descend carrying large trays of specimens. She was rarely daunted; indeed, she was so devoted to her work that, during a flood, she commuted to work via a rowboat. She reportedly brought her lunch to work every day so as not to lose time for research, and by the end of her career, had written an impressive 166 articles and books.
Even though she was the Smithsonian's first paid fulltime woman scientist, in 1914, Rathbun resigned her hard‑won position so the salary could be given to her protégé, Waldo LaSalle Schmitt. She was named honorary curator and continued her research at the museum for another twenty‑five years, completing her monumental four volume series on the crabs of America. These volumes were even used by Emperor Hirohito (1901-1989) of Japan, a skilled collector and an avid and lifelong marine biologist, to identify his collections. In her last years, Mary Jane's memory began to fail her, but she still enjoyed working with her crabs. Schmitt would pick up his mentor in the morning, bring her to the museum and set a tray of unsorted crab specimens in front of her which she would happily work on all day. She'd return the next day and start work on the same tray again. The diminutive but determined carcinologist worked daily in the museum until five years before her death at the age of 82, leaving a well-curated collection, her extensive carcinological library, a bequest of $10,000 for further work on decapod Crustacea, as well as an impressive list of published contributions to science.
- A Brief History of the Invertebrate Zoology Department, by Dr. Fenner A. Chace Jr., National Museum of Natural History
- Richard Rathbun: The Smithsonian's Renaissance Man, by Amy Ballard, Unearthed blog, National Museum of Natural History
- Record Unit 7256 - Mary Jane Rathbun Papers, 1886, 1886-1938, 1886-1938 and undated, Smithsonian Institution Archives
When it comes to digital preservation the work is never truly finished. As we have written before, our best practices with digital curation and preservation involve keeping the original file in its original format as well as creating a file in a preservation format when possible.
For instance if we have an older Microsoft Word document, we will keep it and also create a PDF version of that file as its preservation master. If a researcher is interested in the file, they will get a PDF copy since it is a standard format and easy to access.
Benefits of retaining the original version:
- It is good to have it in case the preserved copy becomes corrupted.
- If the file cannot be accessed now, software and/or emulators may be developed eventually that can read it. Emulators are used quite often with old video games.
- Better software can be developed that can render a “better” file that is more complete, such as displaying metadata or displaying at original size.
Kodak Photo CD (PCD) files are one such example of original files that have benefitted from being revisited. Developed film was scanned onto CDs that contained up to 100 images and saved as the proprietary PCD format rather than the more familiar JPEG or TIFF. Kodak no longer supports the product.
Offices across the Smithsonian have these CDs and the Archives is no exception. We have a manageable number from our collections that total approximately 1,000. Some of them were converted previously into TIFF preservation files, but we were not capturing the “entire” file with the software we were using. The file size was set to a smaller one during conversion to a TIFF from its original size on the CD. Meanwhile, other software that could convert the PCD files discontinued the plug-in that was needed in software upgrades.
A few years later there are now more software conversion options available to handle these obsolete files. You can find some by searching “PCD conversion” online. Our latest conversion to TIFF files has resulted in full-size files with higher resolution and metadata about the film and scanner that was not present with the other software. All our collections with PCD files have been converted to these “better” versions.
If you have older files that are in obsolete formats, here are some things to consider:
- Convert a copy of the file to a more sustainable format. Example: old word-processing file to a PDF.
- View the original (if you can) to compare the migrated file to it. Does the look and feel match? Is that important for the document to you? Is metadata present?
- Consider retaining the original file in case you can get a “better” version of it later.
- Don’t forget to monitor the preserved/converted file itself for obsolescence.
- For all you parents of toddlers out there - A 19th century lithographer's alphabet made up of sweeping landscapes is available from the British Museum. [via Colossal]
- Breaking stereotypes, photographer Matika Wilbur, is on a journey to document people from the more than 560 federally recognized Native American tribes in the United States by photographing them as they want to be depicted. [via Lens, New York Times]
- When it comes to remembering, there is a marked difference between a physical object and a digital one. [via The Signal: Digital Preservation, LOC]
- Coming to you from WCAI Cape and Island NPR Station, an interview with Research Associate, Marcel LaFollette!
- To the surprise of some, librarians are a diverse group of people and photographer Kyle Cassidy proved just that after spending some time taking portraits of librarians at the American Library Association's midwinter meeting in Philadelphia. [via Behold, Slate]
- Talk about institutional knowledge, Bill Bonner, archivist at National Geographic, is responsible for the 8 million photographs in their vintage collection and has personally handled each and every one. [via PetaPixel]
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 Smithsonian Institution Archives Reference Term handles an average of around 6,000 queries per year, and if you 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:
- National Museum of American History’s upcoming 50th anniversary
- Theodore Roosevelt’s African expedition
- Post-Modern historicism in exhibits
- History of the American Society of Icthyologists and Herpetologists
- Plant geography
- The Paleontology Hall at the National Museum of Natural History, for renovations to the Dinosaur Hall
- Collecting & interpreting objects relating to George Washington
- William Healey Dall
- The history of tropical research in the US
- Zoological imagination in America
Upcoming publications using the Archives' photos or documents include:
- Wright Brothers National Memorial, State of the Park Report
- Leslie Bedford, The Art of Museum Exhibitions
- Ted Binnema, Enlightened Zeal: The Hudson’s Bay Co. and Scientific Networks
- The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, The Clark: the Institute and its Collections
- Robert Kett, "Ornithologists in Olman," The Museum Journal, April 2014
- Julian Zelizar, A Great Society: The Fight for Liberalism, 1963-1968
Annual List of Publications by Smithsonian Institution ArchivesFellows and Interns
- Gibson, Abraham H. 2013. "Edward O. Wilson and the Organicist Tradition," The Journal of the History of Biology, 46 (3)
- Gibson, Abraham H., Kwapich, Christina L. and Lang, Martha. 2013. "The Roots of Multilevel Selection: Concepts of Biological Individuality in the Early Twentieth Century." History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, 35 (4)
- Henson, Pamela M. 2013. "O Instituto Smithsonian: Arquivos e a Historia da Ciencia." Acervo, Revista Da Arquivo Nacional, 26 (1): 113-122.
- Leventhal, Richard M. and Daniels, Brian I. 2013. "'Orphaned Objects,' Ethical Standards, and the Acquisition of Antiquities." DePaul Journal of Art, Technology, and Intellectual Property Law, 23 (2): 339-361.
- Takarabe, Kae. 2013. "Bibliographical Essay on The History of Science and Technology at the Smithsonian Institution: Focusing on women in science and technology." The History of Science of Tokai, 5: 43-51.
- Takarabe, Kae. 2013. "Essay on B. S. Lyman's Collecting Ainu Objects: Focusing on General Instructions to the Assistants of the Geological Survey of Hokkaido." Bulletin of the Historical Museum of Hokkaido, 41: 147-152.
- Takarabe, Kae. 2013. "Research on Technological Innovation in Science Museums and the Use of its Results: A Case Study of the Smithsonian Institution." Lectures and Reports of 31th Symposium-Range and Scope of History of Technology in Japan: Learning about the History of Technology, and Technological, 3: 24-39.
- Takarabe, Kae. 2012. "Study on the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation: Science Communication at the Smithsonian Institution." Journal of the Museological Society of Japan, 37 (2): 135-159.
Most Unusual Reference Inquiry: Does the Smithsonian have Radar's teddy bear from the TV show, M*A*S*H?
Most people assume the teddy bear owned by Radar (actor Gary Burghoff) came to the Smithsonian when the program ended. After all, we received the donation of a large collection of M*A*S*H memorabilia that was displayed in a 1983 exhibit at the National Museum of American History.
A "Radar's Teddy bear" file in Record Unit 360 - National Museum of American History, Office of Public Affairs, Records, circa 1970-1985, contains several 1984 memos planning an event at the National Museum of American History for the proposed donation. However, there's nothing that indicates that such an event ever occurred. The registrar's office at the National Museum of American History confirmed that the teddy bear had not been accessioned. Something must have happened to prevent the teddy bear donation.
Online research revealed that the teddy was missing until 2005, when it brought $10,000 at auction. In a 2007 Orlando Sentinal interview, Burghoff confirmed that the bear was never at the Smithsonian, had disappeared 30 years earlier, and was purchased at the aforementioned auction by a medical student who then sold the bear to him.
Now where was that bear between 1984 and 2005?
- Reference Services, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Being an avid reader, every once in a while an item comes across my desk for digitization with such an intriguing story that I can’t help but get sucked into it. That’s what happened when I first saw one of James Eike’s field books. Now I know what you are thinking, “how does one get sucked into a field book?” Often times, field books are filled with lists of specimens or observations from the field, and those created by James Eike, an avid bird watcher and citizen scientist, are no exception. However, among the almost daily counts of birds observed by Eike are glimpses into his personal life, where, according to him, just about every day was glorious.
James Eike was born in Woodbridge, Virginia on September 29, 1911 to Carl and Sarah Eike. Shortly after starting at Georgetown University in 1928, he began recording his observations about the wildlife he saw around northern Virginia, especially birds and snakes. Unlike the lists of bird counts found in his later field books, Eike’s first few journals are more narrative in form. By 1930, he was keeping lists of the numbers and types of birds seen, as well as the date and location where he saw them. Eike graduated from Georgetown in 1932 and started working for the U.S. Public Health Service in 1934.
On April 6, 1940, James Eike married the love of his life, Claire. Their daughter, Susan, was born almost six years later on January 31, 1946. At that point, spotting and counting birds seemed to become somewhat of a family affair for the Eikes. Occasionally, James Eike would take his young daughter with him when he went to the nearby woods to count the birds, and on the weekends, sometimes the whole family would go together. Additionally, one page of Eike’s field book from “3-20-57 to 7-20-57” includes a list of birds that Claire saw while on a trip to Michigan in July while her husband stayed in Virginia. Claire and Susan also became members of the Virginia Society of Ornithology (VSO), a group which James Eike had actively participated in since 1933.
Sept. 8, 1951 – Sat: To woods with Susan 10:30-12:30. Wonderful weather…
Sept. 9, 1951 – Sun: Another wonderful day – brisk in morning. To woods with Claire and Susan, 11:00-12:30. Saw and/or heard Swifts, Hummingbird…
In addition to the lists of birds, Eike’s entries and field books started to include notes about his personal life. Starting in 1957, in the back of just about every field book that spanned Christmas, he would record the list of gifts he, Claire, and Susan received that year. He also included little notes about their birthdays and his anniversary at the top of his entries for those days. Eike would even make notations about trips the family was taking, and after Susan left for college, his entries about her return home and departure back to school usually include a happy and sad face, respectively.
4-6-67 Thurs: 3 real gold ones [goldfinches] greeted me first thing – on my 27th anniv. with you, dear.
On February 8, 1983, James Eike died of cancer. Starting on January 21, 1983, Susan and Claire took over recording the daily bird counts for James, and even after his death, Claire continued to record the counts in the field book that James had started. She even noted their 43rd wedding anniversary on April 6, 1983. In her last entry in the book, Claire writes “My dearly beloved – I’ll keep trying to get a good list. I am feeding our birds well. I miss you.”
In 1984, the VSO created the James Eike Service Award in honor of the time and dedication James put into the society. The first recipient of the award was Claire Eike, in honor of her late husband. Eike’s love of both birds and family make his field books a joy to explore. The personal stories and reflections add to the layers of valuable information captured in his notes, making me fall in love with field books and the insight they can bring about both science and life.
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