The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Archive
As an archival student and volunteer, I have been very fortunate to be able to work with the collections at the Smithsonian Institution Archives. My favorite project so far has been the rehousing and cataloging of the Watson Davis Papers (Accession 13-197, Smithsonian Institution Archives). This collection serves as a fascinating kaleidoscope of scientific information as well as a window into the lives of his many friends and colleagues. I would like to share with you the story of one particular woman who corresponded a great deal with Watson Davis and his wife, Helen Miles Davis, as she journeyed into the wilds of Peru in pursuit of her scientific career.
Hilda Hempl Heller, being one of the few female scientists of the time, lived and worked with much enthusiasm and aplomb, characteristics she shared with the Davis’ and the Science Service community. Her story inspired me because despite the limited access women had to higher education and the scientific field at the time, Heller succeeded and excelled in both. She did not subscribe to the societal norms of what a woman's role should be, but rather forged her own path. Heller is an exceptional example of a person who did not merely see life as it should be, but instead was a person who saw that life held enormous possibilities so long as you were open to the challenge.
According to her unpublished autobiography found in the Watson Davis Papers, Hilda Hempl Heller was born in 1891 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to George Hempl, a professor of philosophy. She studied biology at Stanford University, with a focus on zoology and bacteriology. She went on to study at the University of Michigan, where she spent two years during World War I, traveling as a research fellow in Copenhagen, London, Algiers, and Paris, and finally got her doctorate in 1920 under Dr. Karl F. Meyer at the University of California.
In 1918, she married Edmund Heller, a prolific naturalist who was made famous working as the field scientist for Colonel Theodore Roosevelt on his hunting expeditions throughout Africa and various parts of the world. Between 1921 and 1926, Heller accompanied her husband three times on these expeditions where she participated in the study of the big game animals of Yellowstone Park, a mammal collecting expedition to central Peru, and down the Amazon River. After divorcing her husband in 1949, she went on to pursue her own career by conducting field research in anthropology and natural history by returning to the wilderness of Peru. Her fond letters to Davis and his wife, Helen, detail the triumphs and failures she experienced while on her adventures, including the life and death of a peculiar residential penguin by the name of Poncho.
Hilda Hempl Heller, a woman possessed of a charming, vivacious personality and intelligence, challenged the stereotypical idea of a woman’s role in society during her lifetime. However, the research and field books she may have kept are not at the Smithsonian alongside those created by her husband. It may be that they are being processed or stored at another location. At this time, it is difficult to find information on this amazing woman outside of the Watson Davis Papers. There is a photograph collection at The Field Museum in Chicago, which contains images from her fieldwork and her husband's expeditions. Regardless of whether or not she was formally recognized for her contributions to the scientific field in her lifetime, Heller was a unique character who refused to live by the social status quo, and serves as an inspiration for women today and for future generations.
- Women in Science, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- There Are Prizes . . . and There Are Winners, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Where are Heller's Field Books, Field Book Project blog, National Museum of Natural History/Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Record Unit 7179 - Edmund Heller Papers, circa 1898-1918, Smithsonian Institution Archives
What is a researcher to do when the historic caption contradicts the information in the historic photograph? Here at the Archives, we encounter this occasionally in our work and have to remember that sometimes people in the past made mistakes. Just because something is written in beautiful 19th century penmanship doesn’t mean it is always correct.
I encountered this issue recently when asked about the caption for an image of the Smithsonian Institution Building or Castle from the 1860s, probably taken by Mathew Brady's Studio. There are several versions of this picture from slightly different angles and the picture is held by the Smithsonian Institution, the Library of Congress, and the National Archives, among other repositories. In one of our two copies, there is a beautifully written caption, "Washington, D.C., April, 1865." This lovely picture, with a sweeping view of the National Mall, shows the Smithsonian Castle at the center. The view is looking east from what is now Independence Avenue, but was B Street at the time the photograph was taken. A few houses along B Street, SW, can be seen to the right. People are standing along B Street, with a fence between the street and the "Smithsonian Park," which had been landscaped according to a plan by landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing. The Castle is nestled among a stand of trees, far different than the stark flat Mall we know today. The Smithsonian’s Magnetic Observatory can been seen within the trees. The US Capitol is in the distance, with downtown Washington behind the Castle.
So what could be wrong with that caption? It looks like a Civil War era photograph? However, several things about the buildings tell us it could not have been taken in April 1865. The new dome is under construction on the Capitol – hard to see but just visible when enlarged. The dome was built from 1855 to 1866 and would have been further along in 1865. More important is the Castle itself.
In January of 1865, the Castle was damaged in a devastating fire and. We know from written reports that the roof over the center of the building collapsed, and the caps on the north towers were consumed in the flames. A photograph taken shortly after the fire captures the damage.
The fire pictures are also inaccurate. Photographer Alexander Gardner painted the flames into the photograph he took that day, and he put the flames in the wrong part of the building – set in the east wing, but the actual damage was more in the west wing and center of the building.
The Harper’s Weekly image has the entire building consumed in flames, again inaccurate since the east wing did not sustain much damage.
Going back to our original image, we now know that the Castle would not have had caps on the north towers in April of 1865, and the central roof was still under repair. So we know that this image was taken prior to the caption written on the image, probably 1863. Photo research requires us to compare and contrast the written with the image. A report on the fire detailed what parts of the building were damaged, refuting the fanciful images by Gardner and Harper’s Weekly. Visual information in the first image provides evidence that the image was not taken in April 1865, no matter how carefully written the caption is. While it may seem challenging, such detective work is often the most fun parts of our days, as we track down clues and convict the erroneous caption.
- Record Unit 95 - Photograph Collection, 1850s- , Smithsonian Institution Archives
As a contractor at the Smithsonian Insitution Archives, I work with the photographic collections stored in our cold vault. Among the various photographic formats found there are a particular type of glass plate negatives; gelatin dry plate negatives.
Invented by Richard Leach Maddox in 1871, gelatin dry plate negatives became the most popular form of negative in use from 1880 to 1900. Maddox developed a technique to fix a light-sensitive gelatin emulsion to a glass plate. Previously, photographers used the collodion negative process, which often required them to create portable dark rooms or prepare negatives on site. Gelatin dry plate negatives utilized different sensitizing, fixing, and development solutions that provided faster exposure times, less toxicity, and a significantly easier and less cumbersome production process. With the invention of lightweight flexible film, photographers stopped regularly using the gelatin dry plate negative process, although it is still sometimes used today for highly specialized photography , such as the creation of precise astronomical measurements.
A large number of the Smithsonian Institution Archives' holdings of glass plate negatives (which number circa 20,000) are kept in a special storage facility referred to as the cold vault. The temperature and humidity are controlled and kept low, so when working in the vault it is important to bundle up!
I have been working over the last year to improve the preservation of the glass plate negative collections in the cold vault. The glass plates have been rehoused in specially designed conservation boxes that provide essential support and padding.
While gelatin dry plate negatives tend to have an excellent shelf life, their glass composition makes them fragile. When I discover a broken negative, I piece it back together, digitize it, create metadata for the image and stabilize it in a sink mat.
The gelatin dry plate negatives in the Archives' collections are a rich historical resource and it is a privilege to know that the work I do to stabilize and rehouse them will preserve the negatives for future generations. Be on the look out for my upcoming post that will highlight another photographic format held in the cold vault: lantern slides.
- What Does a Photograph Archivist Do?, 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
- Unlocking the Vault, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Accession 11-006 - United States National Museum, Division of Graphic Arts, Photographic Collection, 1860-1960, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Among the photographic records (Record Unit 95 - Photographic Collection, 1850s- ) at the Smithsonian Institution Archives is a portrait of Charles Greeley Abbot, an American astrophysicist and the fifth secretary of the Smithsonian. The portrait is a photograph of a painting of Abbot, which in turn was painted in reference to an even earlier photograph of Abbot. The photograph is mounted onto a gray board and beneath it is a penciled inscription from the painter – Samantha G. Huntly – dedicating it to Mary Vaux Walcott, the wife of Charles Doolittle Walcott who was the fourth secretary of the Smithsonian.
At some point in the past the board broke in two places, creating a larger piece containing the photograph and two smaller pieces. Fortunately, the photograph itself survives in stable condition. Sometimes a conservator may consider unmounting the photograph, separating it from the broken board which is no longer offering it the physical support it needs. However, in this case the break runs through the artist's inscription. Separating the photographic portrait of Abbot from the inscription could potentially disassociate it with the inscription, which is what makes it a special and unique object.
All conservation treatments carry various levels of risk. Ultimately it was decided that unmounting the photograph and the facing paper, the frontmost layer of board, with the inscription on it was both a risky and time-consuming treatment in which the benefits did not necessarily outweight the risks at the time. Instead, I decided to create a new housing for the print that would hold it securely to help ensure that no further damage is inflicted on the print or its mount. This way the option to treat the object remains open, should the need ever arise.
The mat was constructed using museum-quality board and earth magnets. Earth magnets are very strong magnets made from rare earth metals, such as neodymium or samarium. They are much stronger than iron magnets, and even tiny earth magnets can have enough attraction to hold several layers of board together. I embedded small earth magnets into the boards in several places and secured them with adhesive. This way the photograph and its mount are held in place with gentle but firm, even pressure. Before the photograph went back into storage in its new housing, I locally consolidated the broken edges of the board with methyl cellulose using a small brush to keep the brittle edges from flaking.
One caution when working with these strong magnets is that they should not come close to electronic or magnetic media, such as cell phones, computers, or VHS tapes. To warn users about the placement of the magnets I pasted small caution signs on the outside of the mat.
So viewers can read the inscription on the board without removing it from its protective housing, I pasted a copy of the inscription on the inside flap of the window mat. The photograph is now in climate controlled storage at the Archives and in a more stable housing that will reduce further damage to the inscribed board.
- How the DAM (Denver Art Museum) Uses Rare-Earth Magents with Art Installations, Denver Art Museum blog
- Record Unit 95 - Photographic Collection, 1850s- , Smithsonian Institution Archives
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