The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Archive
- A video conversation 'Thank You" from Lesley Parilla and the Field Book Project for its Digital Volunteers who helped transcribe a field book on Honeycreepers by Martin Moynihan. [via Field Book Project blog, NMNH]
- In time for World AIDS day on December 1, a massive online archive of AIDS posters is now available. [via InfoDocket]
- This past week people around the country celebrated Thanksgiving with their friends and family. Find out how the holiday was celebrated from a soldier during the Civil War to those serving in the military away from home, as well look at the strangeness of the presidential turkey. [ via The Torch, SI; O Say Can You See?, NMAH; and Raw File, Wired]
- Europeana celebrated its 5th anniversary and the arrival of its 30 millionth cultural object, two years ahead of schedule! [via InfoDocket]
- In a remarkable coindicence, a new book of self-portraits by Vivian Maier comes out the same year that "selfie" was named the word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries. [via Colossal]
- Instant access! Check out the National Museum of American History's Founding Fragments - a new series of short videos that delves into the storage cabinets and drawers to find an interesting object that illuminates a small piece of the American story. [via O Say Can You See?, NMAH]
I would like to introduce you to: Design + Archives, a new monthly series that identifies interesting examples of design found here in the Archives collections. Materials will range in content from exhibition posters and brochures, to letterhead and architectural drawings. Examples of design, both good, bad, and mediocore, abound in the collections of the Archives. The Smithsonian must constantly communicate with its staff, visitors, and supporters, and in doing so must be able to efficiently and effectively convey information and concepts. This series will present without comment, samples of design that I've found visually interesting, while perusing the Archives collections. To start off the series I would like to present the invitation to opening of one of my favorite museums, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. I hope you enjoy the series!
What's in a word? It is hard to know without knowing what that word is. Here at the Archives we are surrounded by words. Words on documents, in field books, diaries and more; however, it is rare that we know what those words are. With a countless number of words, it seems an insurmountable feat to transcribe - that is, read documents and then keyboard them so that they can be searched and made available digitally - even a quarter of our collections to discover the great stories about history that lie within our holdings.
For instance, 150 years ago today, Mary Henry, daughter of first Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry, visited Washington, DC's Navy Yard. Upon reaching her destination, Mary saw an ironclad, a steam-propelled warship covered by iron or steel plates, resting in the water awaiting repairs. How do we know this? Mary, an avid diarist, detailed her excursion in an entry which was transcribed several years ago. She wrote, "She [the ironclad] is a flat boat only a few inches above the water with nothing to be seen upon her iron plated deck but a steam pipe a tall pipe for ventilation a few little holes here & there for the same purpose which are tightly closed however when the boat is at sea, and a round turret." Mary not only admired the ship from ashore, but climbed into the turret "through a small opening & saw her great guns. One of them is a monster the other some what [sic] smaller but large enough to make me shiver at the thought of the damage she might do." Mary's powerful words about the ironclad act as a microcosm for the profound impact historians have noted that these ships had on naval warfare during the Civil War. Without this transcription, an interesting note in Smithsonian history would be much more difficult to find.
With all these words and not enough time to transcribe how can we uncover these stories? Here is where you can come in. The Smithsonian's new Transcription Center has opened for business and needs volunteers to dive into our collections and help us discover new and interesting information about the Smithsonian, its history and its people. So please go check it out and help with transcribing so we can find out what is in our collections' words.
- Mary Henry Diary, 1858-1863 - Transcription Center, Smithsonian Institution
- Mary Henry: Eyewitness to the Civil War, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Record Unit 7001 - Joseph Henry Collection, 1796-1951, c. 1974, 1981-1983 - Series 18 contains Mary Henry’s Diaries, Smithsonian Institution Archives
It's hard to imagine the National Museum of American History, entrenched as it is on the National Mall, situated anywhere else in Washington, DC. However, did you know that the museum could have been located in Southwest Washington? While researching the museum's early history, I stumbled upon this anecdote in former Museum of History and Technology (now known as the National Museum of American History) director Frank A. Taylor’s oral history interviews.
Mid-century real estate mogul William Zeckendorf, through his company Webb and Knapp, set his sights on redeveloping Southwest Washington in the early 1950s. Webb and Knapp encouraged the federal government to build there, as they believed a government investment in the area would ease their own economic burden. The government would pay for the infrastructure of road, water, power, sewer lines, and other utilities. Around this time, the Smithsonian Institution was trying to get legislation passed to create the future National Museum of American History. Webb and Knapp learned about this legislation, which placed the museum at its current Constitution Avenue site, and tried to move it to Southwest Washington.
In his interview, Taylor revealed that then-Smithsonian Secretary Leonard Carmichael wished to compromise, believing that a new Smithsonian museum established in Southwest Washington was better than no new museum at all. Assistant Secretaries John L. Keddy and John E. Graf disagreed with Carmichael, creating tension amongst the staff. Frank Taylor also argued in favor of the Mall location, stating in his oral history interview that he felt "if we were going to serve the public, this is where we ought to be." At the time, all of the Smithsonian Institution buildings - the Freer Gallery of Art, the National Museum of Natural History, the Arts and Industries Building, and the Smithsonian Castle - were located on the Mall. According to Taylor's interviews, staff worried that a museum located in Southwest Washington would have lost a lot of traffic generated by those museums, the National Gallery of Art, Capitol Hill, and the nearby monuments.
Webb and Knapp had some powerful allies in Congress. Congressman James C. Auchincloss, prominent member of the House Public Works Committee responsible for the museum's future, pushed for the Southwest Washington location. While the amended bill giving the National Capital Planning Commission control over the museum's location was brought forth in 1954, Auchincloss' sole objection defeated this bill, as he wanted an explicitly stated Southwest Washington location for the museum. Ultimately, this was the best decision for advocates of the Mall location, as the National Capital Planning Commission could have been pressured to put the new museum in Southwest Washington. A new bill authorizing the creation and construction of the Museum of History and Technology was passed in 1957, again specifying its Constitution Avenue location. We do not know why Auchincloss did not object to that plan, as Webb and Knapp still had a presence in Southwest Washington. Taylor speculated that Zeckendorf's declining fortunes led to decreased influence in Congress. The museum later opened in January 1964.
Had Zeckendorf's Plan succeeded, it would have had a significant impact on the Smithsonian's future development. As Taylor remarked, "I'm not sure that we had any great dedication to a master plan, but it probably did influence the future decisions as to where to put the Air and Space Museum and the Hirshhorn [Museum and Sculpture Garden]." We can only guess how a Southwest location would have changed the National Museum of American History, but it would have permanently altered the National Mall's cultural landscape.
- History of the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Record Unit 9512 - Oral history interviews with Frank A. Taylor 1974, 1979-1980, 1982, 2005, Smithsonian Institution Archives