The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Archive
They contain the records of the first tree census of the Barro Colorado Island (BCI) Forest Dynamics Project, carried out between 1980 and 1982. Its task: to tag, identify, measure, and map every plant possessing a stem larger than one centimeter in diameter within the bounds of a 50-hectare plot of Panamanian forest. In 1979, when biologists Stephen Hubbell and Robin Foster imagined the project as a way to study tropical tree diversity, no one had attempted a forest census at this scale. The use of quadrats - small, square plots - for sampling species goes back to the 1890s in ecology. Sampling tree diversity in Panama, however, poses problems. Unlike temperate forests dominated by one or two species, in the tropics, tree diversity reigns supreme. In other words, to understand tropical tree diversity, you’re going to need a bigger plot.
The result of a bigger plot was bigger data. Within each archival box, folder after folder contains a series of 1,250 gridded maps, each representing a 20 by 20 meter subplot of the forest. The maps contained in these boxes record 208,400 individual trees and amount to an astounding 299 species.
In the archives, far from Panama, I flipped through page after page of these grids. Each was laboriously filled out by hand, crowded with the outlines of tree trunks, rocks, fallen logs, and tangles of lianas – every individual tree labeled with a number. This paper forest seems an extravagant attempt to capture a forest’s complexity – and they represent just the first census.
Yet, this is not a matter of missing the forest for the trees. By re-censusing the plot every five years since 1980, scientists have been revealing a forest in a state of constant change. This is significant – throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, most people imagined tropical forests as primeval and unchanging. But a combination of fine-scale mapping and long-term censusing showed that the 50-hectare plot on BCI was anything but stable. As trees lived and died, the composition of species in the plot shifted – changes tied to El Niño cycles and drought. Gradually, the BCI plot became the model for a global network of plots, and ecologists are beginning to appreciate both the individuality of different forests and their shared responses to global change.
Today, we have become used to large-scale, highly technical projects to monitor global environments – from GPS-tagged elephant herds to the satellite imaging of arctic ice. We are accustomed to the eye in the sky. For this reason, these five boxes are important to scientists, historians, and the public. The maps within them document not only the plot itself, but the hard, on-the-ground work it took to change long-held ideas about tropical forests. The maps were pencilled in by hand by a small team of scientists and technicians. Although gridded and sharing a standardized set of data, the personality of the researchers comes through in handwriting, drawing styles, and eclectic mixtures of Spanish and English in notations. The tropical forest leaves a literal mark in water stains and dirt. And the work of science did not end in the field; notes and corrections show how each map passed through multiple hands, undergoing repeated checks to identify and correct errors, and improve methods for the next census. The messy, iterative process of science, visible in these field maps, is obscured by entry into databases and the reproduction of neat, electronically-rendered maps (although surely painstaking work, especially using 1980s computers). Going back to the original maps brings the scientific process back to life.
The practices that shape our understanding of our environment have roots in particular times and places. At BCI, they have a much deeper history than one might expect – one illuminated by records at the Smithsonian Institution Archives. It is no coincidence that the first 50-hectare Forest Dynamics Plot started on BCI. Although the plot was not founded until 1980, ecological research on the island itself stretches back to the 1920s. Decades of baseline data and protection from development made such an ambitious long-term project possible. In my ongoing book project, I examine the roots of tropical biology and ideas about biodiversity, particularly as shaped by long-term, place-based research such as this.
- The History of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Smithsonian Institution Global Earth Observatories
- Accession 13-025 - Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Research Records, 1981-1983, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Two very different cases of unexpected discovery of photos: World War I negatives found in an attic and a camera caught by a fisherman in Lake Tahoe, California. [via PetaPixel]
- Excited about the Sochi Winter Olympics? Janes Rogers, curator at the National Museum of American History, gives you a tour of the museum's collection of Winter Olympic related items. [via O Say Can You See? blog, NMAH]
- Congratulations to Cornell University Library which recently acquired its 8 millionth volume! [via InfoDocket]
- Meet the real "Monuments Men" at the Archives of American Art's new exhibition, MONUMENTS MEN: On the Frontline to Save Europe’s Art, 1942-1946, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum [via The Torch, SI]
- A new updated version of the Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library was launched this week that has 10,000 newly uploaded images. [via Jennifer Wright, SIA]
- Stanford University Libraries and the Bibliothèque national de France partnered to create a French Revolution Digital Archives that includes more than 14,000 hi-res images. [via InfoDocket]
- Going it alone . . . Cezar Popescu's mission to save over 5000 portraits captured on deteriorating glass plate negatives and several hundred prints by digitizing them. See his process as he digitized each negative in the video below. [via PetaPixel]
In the late 1800s, Smithsonian ornithologist Robert Ridgway sat at his desk, surrounded by watercolors, papers, pens, crayons, and dead birds, carefully preparing the illustrations that would make it into the seminal multivolume History of North American Birds: Land Birds and its companion The Water Birds of North America: Memoirs of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard College
Ridgway spent countless hours bent over his drawings, agonizing over how to most realistically portray the birds. It was no easy feat trying to illustrate a waterfowl in the plushest, deepest shade of blue so that it exactly resembled the specimen on his desk or perfectly capture the subtle hue of a crow’s glossy black sheen. But Ridgway succeeded! And over a century later, his bird drawings are still life like, with colors so bright, feathers glistening and eyes shining, that it is hard not to be mesmerized by their brilliance. In fact, he was so meticulous with his colors and color theory that he spent years experimenting with pigments to create a color dictionary, testing for colors that would not fade over time. Which is why it was so very peculiar to stumble upon a few strange Ridgway illustrations with almost haunting, mysterious shadows obscuring the painstakingly colored birds…
You see, recently, I had the privilege of conserving a set of these beautiful and richly drawn bird illustrations in preparation for a rapid capture digitization project. This meant carefully mending tears and flattening folded corners so that the illustrations could be safely handled and photographed. But about half way through the treatments, I came across something unusual: a mysterious shadow covering some of the birds. Whatever, I wondered, could have happened to these particular illustrations? And stranger still, while some shadows were composed of sharp and defined lines, other shadows were more relaxed and loose, creating soft, abstract shapes over top of the birds.
Thinking it might be discoloration from mercury, we set about testing the darkened shadowy areas with X-ray diffraction technology at the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute (MCI) “open lab day”, but alas, this revealed nothing. Aside from slightly elevated levels of Ca (calcium) and Fe (iron) on the image, there appeared to be no discernible elemental difference between the background and the dark area of interest. Confusing us further, the darkened areas did not come off with mechanical cleaning, nor have they rubbed off on the papers lying over top of them for decades.
Perhaps you can help us figure out what happened to them. To assist you, here are a few background details and a slideshow of some of the shadowy illustrations. Ridgway’s illustrations were often re-engraved, electroplated, and hand colored, as detailed in Daniel Lewis’s wonderful biography of Ridgway The Feathery Tribe: Robert Ridgway and the Modern Study of Birds. While Ridgway drew birds on various types and sizes of paper, the “shadows” only appear on birds illustrated on lined notecards, some of which have the shadows only on the back. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Ridgway was also experimenting with color fastness and dye stability, testing the fading of hundreds of different types of pigments in order to standardize the color nomenclature of birds and produce a color dictionary. Do these markings have anything to do with his experimenting with color stability?
Or perhaps it occurred during the printing process? Ridgway’s son was an amateur photographer and often assisted his father. Did he experiment on these illustrations? Maybe these particular illustrations were discarded copies that Ridgway used as scrap paper . . . but what are the shadows? Any ideas are welcome!
- Meet Robert Ridgway - Ornithologist and Artist, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Rapidly Capturing Ridgway, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Record Unit 7167 - Robert Ridgway Papers, circa 1850s-1919, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- True history with a little dramatization thrown in: Abraham Lincoln, Thaddeus S. C. Lowe, and the Union Army's balloon corps in comic book form. [via AirSpace blog, National Air and Space Museum]
- In honor of Chinese New Year, which for 2014 is the year of the Horse, the Archives of American Art highlights some equine materials from their collections. [via Smithsonian Collections Blog]
- Getting an intimate look - British World War I diaries are being digitized and made available online. [via Parallels blog, NPR]
- Where were you when I was a undergraduate studying art history? The Getty has made available over 250 artbooks for free download from their virtual library. [via The Getty Iris]
- Coming soon, in March the National Air and Space Museum will be displaying its latest restored aircraft, a "Battling Beast," the Curstiss SB2C-5 Helldiver. [via AirSpace blog, National Air and Space Museum]
- A new tool to promote reading is available from the Library of Congress, "Readers to the Rescue" is an interactive game where readers are asked to help save book characters. [via InfoDocket]
- Currently in production is the first feature-length animated film made only through hand-painted canvases, Loving Vincent, explores the life of Vincent Van Gogh. [via Colossal]
Secretary S. Dillion Ripley commissioned Charles Eames to design a structure for the carousel located on the National Mall. The pavilion was intended to protect it from the elements and allow the carousel to be enjoyed year round. Although never realized, Eames did produce a sketch and a model of the structure.
- A Favorite - The Smithsonian Carousel, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives