The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Archive
You voted, we listened. For the next installment of our adventures with miscellaneous archival folders we opened up Record Unit 363 - National Museum of Natural History, Office of Exhibition, Records, circa 1955-1990. The folder that you voted for after our last adventure, was “Miscellaneous Photographs,” and a more appropriate title for a folder never existed. When I first opened the file I was overwhelmed by the randomness of its contents, so much so, I was not even sure what to write about!
The photographs in this folder cover a wide range of events, objects, and people. Some of the images document the annual Regent’s Exhibit. The Regent’s Exhibit, was an exhibit created to showcase the different activities around the Smithsonian for the Board of Regent’s Annual Meeting. It appears that up until the early 1950s the exhibit was a small endeavor, cobbled together a few days before the meeting. However, in a memo from 1953, Smithsonian administrators discuss the possibility of increasing the time spent on the exhibit. “It is felt by most that previous exhibits have been too numerous, much too crowded, often confusing, and not well-attended by the Regents…We think it would be more effective to limit the exhibits to a few appropriate phases of the Institution’s activities.” It seems their plan worked. The images found in this folder document the exhibits from the 1960s and they are sleek, well organized, and even stayed up for public exhibit inside the Smithsonian Institution Building’s Great Hall.
Other images found in the folder are photographs of collections and buildings around the Smithsonian. These images include everything from a picture of an elephant at the National Zoo, to schematics showing fabric and wood veneered panels of a third floor corridor in the National Museum of American History. Many of these images are negatives placed in smaller envelopes within the folder. The outside of the folders often have notations indicating what a print of the negative might look like. For example, the image of the elephant’s envelope reads “1-12 HIGA matt.” One could venture a guess that these images were reprinted on larger scales to display in the various exhibits the office was producing.
The most interesting images included in this smorgasbord are the photographs that give a behind-the-scenes look at the exhibits staff and their work. These images capture the detailed work it took Smithsonian staff to create exhibits that not only labeled the objects, but placed them within a larger historical context. From climbing into an exhibit to carefully creating a floor that looks like sand, to painting the leaves to set the scene for collection items, the artistry and skill utilized by Smithsonian staff never ceases to amaze me. It is great that this work, sometimes overlooked because of its seamlessness, is captured in these images to show an interesting side of the Smithsonian.
If you would like to see inside more of our miscellaneous collections, let us know what you would like us to open next. Comment below, or message us on Facebook or Twitter with Folder A for a look at a miscellaneous folder from Record Unit 548 - National Museum of Natural History, Division of Meteorites, Correspondence, circa 1970-1988 or Folder B for a look into a folder from Record Unit 50 - Smithsonian Institution, Office of the Secretary, Records, 1949-1964.
- Record Unit 363 - National Museum of Natural History, Office of Exhibition Records, circa 1955-1990: Box 7, Folder: Miscellaneous Photographs, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Record Unit 50 - Smithsonian Institution, Office of the Secretary, Records, 1949-1964: Box 148, Folder: Regents Exhibit 1953, Smithsonian Institution Archives
As a volunteer in the Digital Services Division of the Archives, I have the pleasure of digitizing archival materials ranging from field notes to videos. Not long ago, I digitized almost an hour and a half of unedited video of the 1940 Smithsonian-Firestone Expedition to Liberia. At the time, I didn’t know much about the expedition but I was intrigued by what I saw - Liberian towns, dense jungle, and exotic animals.
Having just returned from a trip to South America, National Zoological Park Director, Dr. William Mann, led an expedition to Liberia to obtain animals for the zoo in Washington, D.C. He sought several rare species including the pygmy hippopotamus, potto, okapi, and Jentik’s duiker, among others.
As the newly digitized video shows, the Manns travelled luxuriously in Liberia with an entourage of guides and assistants and they were treated to special receptions in several villages. Often, the Manns were carried in hammocks as they travelled. More information on the journey wasn’t hard to find thanks to Lucile Quarry Mann’s travel notes, which are housed here at the Archives. Lucile, the wife and frequent travel companion of Dr. Mann, left descriptive accounts of the people, places, and things that she and her husband saw while searching for animals and insects in Liberia.
Along with overseeing the addition of several animal enclosures, Dr. Mann’s specimen collecting left a lasting mark on the National Zoo. Knowing that collecting wild animals can be a very difficult task for a small party, the expedition leaders offered a reward to villagers who could capture and bring in live animals. The plan worked; Lucile wrote “as we retraced our steps, we found that in almost every village . . . one or two small animals were waiting for us.”
Though the Manns were known for raising baby animals in their Washington, D.C. apartment, Lucile’s account largely leaves out the time that she and her husband spent with animals in Liberia. Fortunately, the expedition video captures what Lucile chose not to dwell on in her writing. But, with a growing collection of animals as the expedition travelled through Liberia, we see her feeding and playing with a number of different animals they collected including chimpanzees, hornbills, and a baby pygmy hippo.
This newly digitized footage preserves both the institutional history of specimen collecting expeditions, but also the personalities of two of the National Zoo’s greatest proponents.
Check out the video below to see clips of William and Lucile Mann in Liberia.
- A World Apart: Smithsonian Expeditions to Alaska and Liberia, Field Book blog, Field Book Project, Smithsonian Institution Archives and National Museum of Natural History
- A Life on the Wild Side: Lucile Quarry Mann, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Record Unit 7293 - William M. Mann and Lucile Quarry Mann Papers, circa 1885-1981, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- William M. Mann related materials at the Smithsonian Institution Archives
One of the best things about working in any archive is finding all sorts of things you weren’t looking for. Finding that letter or memo that you didn’t know about but gives you a new understanding of what was happening is one of the many reasons why people continue to go back to original documents time and time again.
I was lucky enough to have this happen to me just the other day. I’m working on a project around the Smithsonian’s activities during the world wars and as I was reading correspondence between the curators and the administration of the United States National Museum, I found a sheaf of documents that led me to new people and a new way World War I had an impact on the Smithsonian Institution and its staff. I found a stack of pledge sheets where Smithsonian employees were signing up to support the initiatives of the U. S. Food Administration. The U. S. Food Administration was a government agency set up during World War I to promote the conservation of foods that were in short supply and needed for soldiers abroad. Their efforts included the invention of meatless Mondays, which many of us may now recognize from current healthy eating initiatives. Meatless Mondays were accompanied by wheatless Wednesdays and efforts to reduce the consumption of dairy and fats.
Employees from across all branches of the Smithsonian pledged to follow the U. S. Food Administration recommendations. The most exciting part of finding these pledge sheets are the less visible Smithsonian employees they capture. Hidden among the curators, aids, and administrators who pledged are the charwomen and laborers of the Smithsonian. Often unrecorded in documents that have survived the test of time, these few pages show that everyone at the Smithsonian was doing their part for the war effort. They also are one of the few places we can learn more about the employees of the Smithsonian who are often forgotten. Looking at their signatures, you can not only get a sense of their personality, but see a place where they wrote themselves into the historical record with their own hand.
With a little sleuthing, these signatures can even tell us a little bit more about them. By looking for these men and women in the U. S. Census records and old Washington City Directories, I was able to find who some of these people were. Joseph N. Samuels, a laborer in the Natural History Building, would have been 30 at the time he signed this pledge. The 1915 Boyd’s City Directory for Washington, D.C., identifies him as a Laborer at the National Museum and tells us he lives in a house at 4432 Kane Place, NE, in Anacostia. Alberta Jackson, a charwoman in the Natural History Building, is recorded in the 1920 census as a ‘roomer,’ just three years after she signed her pledge. Forty four years old, black, and widowed at the time of the census, she was born in D.C. Her coworker Marie Donaldson signed the pledge just after Alberta and probably lived a similar life. In a 1924 City Directory she is recorded as a renter at 630 Morton Place, NE. This directory lists her as a forewoman at the National Museum, likely a promotion from her position as a charwoman in 1917.
While these may only be bits and pieces of a few peoples’ lives, they are clues to who these often forgotten employees were and how they contributed to the nation’s war effort and to the Smithsonian, making it what it is today.
- Record Unit 45 - Office of the Secretary, Records, 1890-1929, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Census Records, National Archives and Records Administration
- U. S. Food Administration, Wikipedia
July is birthday celebration month for my family. There is at least one birthday every week, mine so happens to be today, my son’s next week, my daughters the following week, and of course we can’t forget Americas birthday on the 4th of July. So to say the least I have been making check lists non-stop making sure everything is in place. While doing this I thought I would draw on some inspiration through some of our photos we have at the Archives. Below is my part of my “To Do” party checklist, accompanied with photos I found in our collections.
1. Theme of the Party: I personally don’t do a theme type party because with my kids being so close in birthdays we have joint parties, and getting a boy and girl to agree on something at their age is about pointless. However here at the Smithsonian the birthday parties’ range from Smithsonian wide birthday parties to parties for exhibits and right on down to personal birthday parties for employees. To say the least the Smithsonian loves to celebrate birthdays.
2. Guest List: Having a soon to be 6 and 7 year old I find this one of the hardest parts for planning a party because I never know how small or big to have it. If you are like my daughter a small simple tea party birthday party would be perfectly fine. However if you are like my son, inviting everyone under the sun like the Smithsonian did during its 150th Birthday Celebration is more the way to go.
3. Cards: This is always one of my kid’s favorite things to do when it comes to birthdays. Standing in the card aisle playing every singing birthday card they can put their hands on is almost like Christmas for my kids. But I don’t think there is anything more personal and fun then creating your own card like the one that was presented to Helena Weiss for her birthday.
4. Cake: In my opinion, my kids would argue otherwise, the birthday cake is what makes or breaks a birthday party. I would have to say the cake from the Smithsonian’s 150th birthday and the cake from Mickey Mouse’s 60th birthday celebration are definitely crowd pleasers.
5. Activities: My kid’s favorite part of a party. Simple games such as pin the tail on the donkey or water balloon toss is sufficient enough for my kids now, but at the Smithsonian, we really like to throw a celebration. Native American ritual dancing and fireworks were just a few of the many activities that happened during the Smithsonian 150th birthday celebration.
Last insight on birthday parties, no matter how big or small the best thing to remember when celebrating a birthday is to have fun!
- Images from the Smithsonian's 150th birthday celebration, Smithsonian Institution Archives
What do you do when you need information about a business? Check the website? Send an email? Compose a Tweet? There was a time in the not-so-distant past when the answer was to pull out a pen or sit in front of a typewriter and write a letter.
The Smithsonian Institution once had a very large snail mail operation (previously referred to simply as "mail"). All mail that was not specifically addressed to a specific individual was delivered to the Public Inquiry Mail Service (PIMS), a division of the Visitor Information and Associates' Reception Center. In approximately 1982, PIMS produced a brochure for staff advertising the services they provided. It notes that they received over 28,000 pieces of mail during the previous year. That's over 75 letters a day (not taking into account Sundays or holidays) that either needed to be rerouted or contained routine questions that needed to be answered.
As a fun side note, one of the services advertised in this brochure was the writing and editing of preprinted materials using a word processor, "a marvelous tool for keeping information up to date." Staff from across the Smithsonian could send draft texts for bibliographies, fact sheets, and other preprinted reference materials to PIMS. The PIMS staff would "put the text into the machine's memory," edit it according The Chicago Manual of Style, and return it for final approval. If there were additions or corrections to be made, "the changes can be printed out within moments."
Almost two decades later, email had become a common form of communication. An article in the Winter 1999 issue of "The Info Special: A Newsletter of the Smithsonian Visitor Information and Associates' Reception Center," an article noted that email traffic from the public had increased 89% from the previous year. In August 1999 alone, PIMS received 1,375 inbound emails.
Today, the Smithsonian continues to receive emails and even letters from the public, but also conveys information to the public via its websites and social media accounts.
- Contact Us, Smithsonian Institution
- Where is the Smithsonian?, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Accession 14-034 - Smithsonian Institution, Office of Visitor Services, Publications, 1959, 1973-2013, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Typewriters at the Smithsonian
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