The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Archive
Today and Thursday in London, Sotheby's is holding an auction of exceptional "property and precious objects" from the estate of Mary, Duchess of Roxburghe, who died last year at the age of 99. In an effort to channel Downton Abbey, Sotheby's is calling the auction "The Duchess." Cue the lavish promo video with soundtrack and the requisite trawl through a dusty attic filled with vintage monogrammed trunks.
Mary, Duchess of Roxburghe had an incredibly colorful life, brought up in splendor at the ancestral home of Crewe Hall in Cheshire and Crewe House in Mayfair, one of the last great London mansions, today the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia. Her father was the first and only Marquess of Crewe, her mother was a Rothschild, and she was named after her godmother, Queen Mary. She was married in Westminster Abbey in 1935 to the 9th Duke of Roxburghe, and was back two years later at the coronation of King George VI to hold the new queen's train (the robes and ermine-trimmed coronet that she wore are part of the auction). She famously endured a six-week siege in 1953 at Floors Castle, her husband's 100-room Scottish seat, after he served her divorce papers on a silver breakfast tray; she barricaded herself in a wing of the house, and he cut off heat, electricity, telephone, and gas in an effort to oust her. He tried also to turn off the water, but a canny and sympathetic neighbor, the future Prime Minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home, who eventually helped broker a resolution, advised her to alert the insurance company to the fire threat. A divorce was granted later that year, and she spent much of the rest of her life in a stately apartment overlooking Hyde Park in London and at West Horsley Place, her mother’s family’s 16th-century brick mansion on 400 acres in Surrey. She never remarried, and she had no children.
After her death last year, her 80-year-old nephew Bamber Gascoigne - the original quizmaster for the BBC TV show University Challenge - unexpectedly discovered that he had inherited West Horsley Place, a place he had fond memories of visiting, but where he had never even seen the upstairs. The mansion, which is in a state of advanced decay, is full of centuries of family history. As Sotheby's says, these belongings represent a "portrait of an England that no longer exists but was preserved, untouched for almost half a century." That is an understatement. In nearly 700 lots, there is just a staggering range of objects from a vanished aristocratic world: 19th-century livery uniforms, Qing Dynasty vases, Art Deco jeweled and enameled gold cigarette cases, tortoise shell lorgnettes, a massive silver-gilt toilet service from 1934-1935 engraved with her initials MR under a Duchess' coronet, and so on. There is also a portrait of Carl Linnaeus smoking a pipe, and a set of 39 stereoview photographs of Native Americans and landscapes of the American West by T. H. O'Sullivan and W. H. Jackson, given to the Hon. Robert Crewe-Milnes (later 1st Marquess of Crewe) in 1875 by General William Tecumseh Sherman. To save the property and deal with the death duties, Gascoigne is putting many of the house's treasures up for sale. And the house keeps yielding surprises; a study for the famous Pre-Raphaelite painting Flaming June was discovered hanging behind a door in the Duchess' bedroom.
So, why write about this on a Smithsonian blog? Mary, Duchess of Roxburghe was one of the last of the Hungerfords, the family that James Smithson was so proud to claim - that which enabled him to boast that he was "related to kings." Her great-grandmother, Henrietta Maria Anne Hungerford, was Smithson's first cousin (Henrietta was the daughter of Smithson’s mother's sister, Henrietta Maria Keate).
I was fortunate to correspond with the Duchess back in 2003, when I was working on my biography of James Smithson. She shared with me a copy of a letter responding to one that Smithson had written to the family from Paris in the summer of 1820, after the death of his cousin Henrietta Maria, apparently trying to claim something of her estate. As I worked to reconstruct Smithson's social and scientific networks - after all his papers were lost in the Smithsonian fire of 1865 - this was one more very welcome clue to the importance that Smithson placed on his ancestry, and the tremendous efforts that he made to ensure that he received what he felt was due to him.
This letter and other Hungerford papers were promised to the Cheshire Record Office. They have not yet been deposited there, but I hope that Mr. Gascoigne, whenever he comes across Hungerford-related material, will follow through on the gift. It will be exciting to learn if there is other Smithson-related correspondence among the papers.
- James Smithson: Founder of the Smithsonian Institution, Smithsonian Institution Archives
A little under a year ago, we rolled out a new search for our site which is powered by the Google Search Appliance. The goal of implementing this new search was to make our content and collections more accessible, to make discovery easier, and to generally improve the user experience.
Work towards that goal didn't end a year ago.
Over the summer of 2014, work by our staff began on making PDFs of the Smithsonian staff newsletter, The Torch, text-searchable. Because these PDFs can be read by our Google Search Appliance's bots, their content can be indexed. This means that our site search will return any Torch issue that matches your search string.
Let's say you're doing some research on Smokey the Bear. So you head over to our website, and search for "Smokey." You'll be presented with a familiar search results screen (one of which is actually a link to a Torch PDF). But let's say you didn't want to see finding aids or collection items, just the PDFs. Don't worry, you can do that too.
You may have noticed there's a new link at the top of the content type filters, labeled "PDFs." In the above example, the site would return only PDFs that match the search string "Smokey," such as an article about if Smokey should be retired and the original Smoke's obituary.
- You Asked, We Listened: Introducing the Archives New Site Search, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Smithsonian Institution Archives Moves to Drupal 7, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- That thing must weigh a ton! A vault door will great visitors to the new Numismatics Gallery at the National Museum of American History. [via O Say Can You See? blog, NMAH]
- Putting the pieces together - A curator's journey to find pieces of the history of the Art and Technology Program of 1967-1971 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The program was an initiative that paired artists with corporations in the areas of aerospace, entertainment, scientific research, and other industries. [via Unframed blog, LACMA]
- Ever evolving - Lessons in research instruction from the Biodiversity Heritage Library. [via Unbound blog, SL]
- Bibliophiles rejoice - More than 100 lectures from the Rare Book School at the University of Virginia are now available online. [via InfoDocket]
- Between a microfibre cloth, lambs' wool duster and HEPA filter vacuum cleaner, the dust removal winner is . . . [via The National Archives UK blog]
- 5 things you probably didn't know about the 'ukulele. [via O Say Can You See? blog, NMAH]
- The British Library announced this week their plan to digitize and make available online 500,000 "at risk" rare and unique sound recordings. [via InfoDocket]
- Start your Memorial Day Weekend with the following video from the National Archives and Records Administration which tells viewers of the importance of the holiday. [via Prologue: Pieces of History, NARA]
In reaction to observing the logging of groves of redwood trees in California, paleontologist John Campbell Merriam (1869-1945), lawyer and conservationist Madison Grant (1865-1937), and geologist and paleontologist Henry Fairfield Osborn (1857-1935) established a "Save the Redwoods League." In 1917, the new organization joined forces with local residents, the Humboldt County Federation of Women's Clubs, and the Humboldt County Women's Save the Redwoods League and successfully lobbied California state officials to establish the Humboldt Redwoods State Park.
At the center of the preservation efforts was a magnificent stand of Sequoia sempervirens. In August 1921, this section of the new park was dedicated in honor of the World War I hero, Colonel Raynal C. Bolling (1877-1918).
The park now encompasses over 53,000 acres, including 17,000 acres of old-growth coast redwoods, the Bolling Memorial Grove, and the Rockefeller Forest, the largest remaining old-growth forest in the world.
- Science Service collections at the Smithsonian Institution Archives
Each Smithsonian Institution Archives collection has a life story. That narrative, much like the biography of a person, can explain how a collection's photographs, letters, and documents relate to each other. Closer inspection may also reveal hidden connections to other archival materials and can help in identifying photographers and writers. This new blog series will turn a lens on some of the Archives' largest, most eclectic, and interesting collections - the ones relating to the independent science news organization, Science Service.
Over the past decade, a host of surprising treats and treasures have been discovered in those records, from a long-forgotten trove of photographs of the 1925 Scopes anti-evolution trial to the “Cartoonograph” drawings of artist Elizabeth Sabin Goodwin.
But, wait, there is more!
For historians hunting for answers, joy springs eternal. Sometimes, we are lucky; sometimes it takes many eyes to spot the clue (as with identifying Elizabeth Goodwin). The goal of this new series will be to illuminate various overlooked nooks and crannies, to share hidden treasures, and perhaps thereby to encourage deeper research on the Science Service records (including Record Unit 7091, and Accessions 90-068, 90-105, 93-019, 97-020, 01-122, 01-243, 04-042, 06-134, 06-135, 13-034, 13-035, and T89059).
Unlocking the history of Science Service began for me in 2006 with research on its radio programs. That project was made easier once I understood how the staff organized their daily work. For example, the office maintained parallel filing systems: business and financial records; editorial correspondence; a biographical "morgue" of photographs and material about people; and another set of topical "morgues." Archival materials relating to a single radio broadcast might be filed in any (or all) of those groups.
Their topical morgues were arranged according to the same classification scheme used by the Library of Congress to catalog books, a fact that Science Service editor Watson Davis fortuitously mentioned in a letter in Record Unit 7091. Because of that choice, the file labels preserve for intellectual historians a snapshot of what these science journalists judged to be important and how scientific fields expanded over the decades. Look, for example, at the finding aid for Accession 06-134. You can observe the expansion of twentieth-century physics through the folder labels: from “QC Atoms” to “QC Accelerators - Mevatron 50.”
Although science, engineering, and medicine formed the core of the organization’s interests, the Science Service intellectual networks were extensive and eclectic. There are fascinating exchanges with artists and poets, novelists and museum curators, advertising and public relations specialists, military figures, and politicians. Bits of ephemera occasionally shed light on contemporary social mores and taste, and handwritten notes provide insight to an individual decision-making or impressions of a meeting. Group photographs prompt questions about what the people shown had in common. There are letters from or about celebrities of the day, and interesting ones from people who deserve to be better known.
From the onset, Science Service had a number of connections to the Smithsonian Institution. In January 1921, its founders tried to house the editorial offices at the Smithsonian, but the news service secured accommodation instead with the National Academy of Sciences. The Smithsonian Secretary always served as one of the group's trustees, and the Institution frequently used the news service to advise on publicity, to disseminate information about discoveries by Smithsonian scientists, and even to distribute data. During the winter of 1925-1926, for example, they received "daily values of the solar constant of radiation ... via mail, telephone, or messenger" from the Smithsonian for inclusion in bulletins to newspapers.
Science Service interpreted its name and mandate liberally. This series will range similarly wide, discussing cartoonists, "sleeplessness" studies, and river excursions as well as the choices and challenges of early twentieth-century science popularization. Join us along the way, as we turn a lens on the records of Science Service. We invite your help in understanding what we see.
- Scientists Arrive in Dayton...and Find a Mansion, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Finding Elizabeth, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Science Service collections at the Smithsonian Institution Archives
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