The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Archive
It’s been an exciting year at the Smithsonian Institution Archives. Reference and Photo Fulfillment merged to form an expanded Reference Team, streamlining the process of ordering photos and obtaining permission to publish them.
In addition, the photo collections housed at the former Smithsonian Photographic Services spaces in the National Museum of American History have been moved to a newly completed Cold Vault storage facility at the Smithsonian Institution Support Center in Landover, Maryland. This is the culmination of six years of planning, building and moving.
Researchers will have access to these images through our website. This quarter’s Hot Topics illustrations are examples of seasonal photographs currently available online.
When asked what the Smithsonian Institution Archives collects, we say we hold records about the history of the Smithsonian and its people, programs, research, and activities. While accurate, this doesn’t really give anyone a clue about what is actually in those records.
The SIA Reference Term handles an average of around 6,000 queries per year, and if you ask us what people have been researching at the Archives recently, you’ll get some pretty interesting responses. Although not comprehensive, here’s a snapshot of the diverse range of information encompassed by the history of the world’s largest museum complex!
Over the past three months, researcher projects have included:
- The Smithsonian’s SITES program
- Smithsonian Castle façade
- Handbook of the North American Indian
- Scopes Trial
- The Curies
- History of computers at the Smithsonian Institution
- The Fines Arts Commission and the National Gallery
- Data collection practices at the Smithsonian
- Egg collecting in the nineteenth century
- Weather observations
- Museum dioramas
- George Gibbs
- Smithsonian expeditions
- The Roosevelt expedition
- Marine research
- The Smithsonian’s railroad locomotive collection
- Atomic testing sites
Upcoming publications using our photos or documents include:
- Anthony Burton, The Locomotive Pioneers 1801-1851
- Xiaofei Kang & Donald Sutton, Contesting the Yellow Dragon: Ethnicity, religion and the State in the Sino-Tibetan Borderland
- Andrew Kirk and Kristian Purcell, Doom Towns: The Contested Landscapes of Atomic Testing
- Michael Glazer, Crystallography: A Very Short Introduction
- Richard H. Robbins, Mark Nathan Cohen, Darwin and the Bible: The Cultural Confrontation
- The Liberty Science Center, "Beyond Rubik's Cube" exhibit
Reference services at the Smithsonian Institution Archives
With Thanksgiving turkey and stuffing a recent memory, and with the recent opening of the Renwick Gallery, here is a look back at an exhibition that was at the Renwick from February 9-April 29, 1973, titled: Objects for Preparing Food.
From the Introduction:
Almost as basic as food itself are the objects used for the preparation of food. Man's [sic] ingenuity and culture are reflected and expressed in the great variety of forms of food utensils.
The objects in the exhibition were grouped by processes (heating, cutting, etc.) to show basic functions common to all food preparation and to make visual comparisons between the varied utensils, regardless of their geographic or chronological occurrence.
- Record Unit 333 - National Museum of American Art and Portrait Gallery Library, Exhibition Records, circa 1910-1986, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Renwick Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
It was recounted as a “soul-depressing” sound, a monotonous wail, a “dolorous note” in the night. Residents took up arms against the apparition in a “tragic” appeal to put an end to the noise—for a watchman, a gun, for a boy, a slingshot. The phantom noise lingered on. The only explanation? This bird with the “weird” cry terrorizing the town was the disturbed spirit of another winged creature who had given up its life “for the sake of science and now fill[s] the cases of the Smithsonian.”
The Smithsonian was full of things that went bump in the night, according to one vivid 1900 Washington Post article, which detailed DC residents’ desperate attempts to quiet this bird’s wail. Though the spirt of the bird on display was thought to have flown the coop, the story also details other strange and spooky happenings within the museum’s halls itself. In 1900, those apparitions would have been located in what is now known as the Arts and Industries Building, then called the US National Museum. Museum watchmen told the Post that they had seen all sorts of disquieting sights after the museum’s doors had shut to visitors: Haunted bronze animals that “assume a livelier air by night,” joining the screeching bird in making the night “hideous” for those they encountered. The scrape of formless feet, or voices calling out. Masks that moved about in their cases.
Staff at the museum after-hours also claimed to be working alongside the ghosts of past Smithsonian scientists who incorporeally supervised the collections they had once been so devoted to. The most active ghost, the Post reported, was that of the Smithsonian’s first curator and its second Secretary, Spencer Fullerton Baird. Nearly all the Smithsonian’s night watchmen had reported spotting Baird, though his figure disappeared if a passersby tried to chat with him. The spirt of Baird’s predecessor, Secretary Joseph Henry, was a frequent visitor too, according to the watchmen. Henry was often spotted, “fully clothed in the garments he wore in life,” walking through the exhibits before returning to his post—the museum’s statue in his likeness.
Some other popular stories ended up being less about haunted spirits and more about human error. A night watchman, for example, once fled the building, thinking he had witnessed a suicide in the building’s central fountain. The body he saw turned out to be a diving suit. There is also the tale of the evening guard who thought a Japanese warrior mannequin had come to life, sending him hurrying up the stairs “for a safer vantage ground.” The mannequin, though, had just been moved out of its case to be photographed.
The incident with Jesse Beach, a spirited Museum Aide in the Department of Geology, became another Smithsonian tall tale. In her later years Beach actually moved into the Museum of Natural History, where she liked to wander through the halls at night. Beach, with her long white hair and nightgown, was often mistaken as a ghost by new evening guards. Or things got a little more awkward, as was the case with one guard who accidentally walked in on her taking a bath in the geology lab. Thanks to Beach’s nighttime wanderings, Smithsonian Secretary Alexander Wetmore required museum staff to start going home by midnight—aside from his ghostly predecessors, of course.
Stories from the Museum of Natural History, Unearthed, The National Museum of Natural History Unearthed
Urban Legends About the Smithsonian, Smithsonian Magazine
Phantoms of Museum, The Washington Post, May 13, 1900.
It's October and another fiscal year has ended here in the federal government. For collecting units across the Smithsonian, it's time to begin calculating statistics.
In fiscal year (FY) 2015, the Smithsonian Archives added 352 new accessions to our archival collections, equaling approximately 901.68 cubic feet of physical materials and 915.4 GB of born-digital materials, like word-processing documents, spreadsheets, PowerPoint presentations, pdfs, CAD drawings, email, websites, and digital photographs, video, and audio (I say "approximately" because we are still tying up loose ends).
So, what do these numbers tell us? It turns out, when looking at the numbers from the last couple of years, there is no such thing as a typical year. From year to year, our numbers may vary, up or down, by as much as 300 accessions, 1,000 cubic feet, or 1,700 GB. This is due to any number of factors previously discussed in "How the Archives Gets its Records (or, Golden Lion Tamarins Galore)", such as retirements, office moves, and renovations to storage spaces. To examine trends, it's helpful to look at blocks of time.
Between FY 2011 and FY 2015, the Archives added 1,918 accessions to its collections, including 5,445.21 cubic feet of physical materials and 5,157.4 GB of born-digital materials. Of these accessions, 12 percent contained a mix of physical and born-digital materials and 25 percent consisted solely of born-digital materials.
Between FY 2006 and FY 2010, the Archives added 1,223 accessions to its collections, including 4,101.15 cubic feet of physical materials, and 1980.2 GB of born-digital materials. Of these accessions, 12 percent contained a mix of physical and born-digital materials, and 4 percent consisted solely of born-digital materials.
Clearly, both the Archives and the offices throughout the Smithsonian have begun placing a greater emphasis on the long-term business and research value of electronic files. Much larger quantities of born-digital material are being transferred to or captured by the Archives. This is also likely a reflection on a greater reliance on servers, hard drives, and removable media to maintain files (as opposed to filing cabinets) over the last 5-15 years, the period during which most of the materials that we are currently receiving were created.
These numbers also show a significant increase in the amount of physical material (aka "paper files") transferred to the Archives over the last 5 years. This may seem counterintuitive, but it is not uncommon for an office or individual to transfer several decades of files to the Archives at one time. The older the files, the more likely it is that they were printed and filed, or created on a typewriter or by hand. It remains to be seen whether those offices will begin filling the recently-emptied file cabinets with new paper files, or will begin maintaining their new files electronically.
Paper vs. Electronic: The Not-So-Final Battle, The Bigger Picture Blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Yes, We're Still Talking about Email, The Bigger Picture Blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
How the Archives Gets its Records (or, Golden Lion Tamarins Galore), The Bigger Picture Blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Digitization of photographs serves an important and often overlooked purpose beyond image accessibility and preservation. Although a magnifying glass has long been the standard tool for photographic analysis, the ability to zoom in on a digital image makes the task of identifying people and objects within an image so much easier. Sometimes, for example, analysis of what a person is wearing (such as a conference badge) or holding (such as a book) can unlock additional meaning beneath the visual surface, that is, can help to assemble the “back story” to the photo session.
Several years ago, when first working on the Science Service collections, I came across a photograph of physicist Enrico Fermi (1901-1954) in which he was reading what appeared to be a scientific journal article. This was among a series that Science Service photographer Fremont Davis took in January 1939 at the Fifth Washington Conference on Theoretical Physics. To help in interpreting the image, I turned to an expert (and friend).
Historian of science Lawrence Badash (1934-2010) was known for his intellectual generosity and for his depth of knowledge about the birth of atomic and nuclear physics. Fortunately, he was not on one of his Himalayan treks and could take a closer look at the digitized image.
As Badash knew, Fermi had just learned that a German laboratory had successfully achieved nuclear fission. Badash and his colleagues Elizabeth Hodes and Adolph Tiddens have described the “shock” to the scientific community worldwide when Otto Hahn published his findings in the January 6, 1939, issue of Naturwissenschaften.
Badash looked at an original copy of that journal issue and determined that, yes, here was a photograph of Fermi reading Hahn’s paper, perhaps for the first time.
In a February 2, 1939, letter, Science Service chemistry editor Robert D. Potter recounted the excitement generated by the announcement:
“I learned of the Hahn experiments from attending the Conference on Theoretical Physics here in Washington at which [Niels] Bohr and Fermi were discussing the work. During the conference the men from Carnegie Institution went out and duplicated the results here as you have already probably seen in the papers. I was extremely fortunate to have a copy of the German publication here in the office and to make it available to the scientists who actually did the work. As a consequence I was able to be in on the very excellent story right from the beginning and Science Service has now issued three stories.” [Robert D. Potter to A.V. Grosse, February 2, 1939, RU7091, Box 209, Folder 1]
At first glance, the digital image appears to be simply a photograph of a handsome man reading a piece of paper. With trained eyes and a lifetime of knowledge, the late (and great) Larry Badash could see so much more: Fermi absorbing the proof that German scientists were on the track toward harnessing the atom.
Within five and a half years, the Manhattan Project physicists, including Fermi, would win that race and create what Badash called the “modern counterpart to Pandora’s box” -- an atomic bomb.
Guide to the Lawrence Badash Papers, Online Archives of California.