The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Archive
On August 15, 1914, the cargo ship S.S. Ancon made the first official transit of the Panama Canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. The Ancon rose through the locks to Gatun Lake and then on through the Culebra Cut to the Pacific. Although a great celebration had been planned, the outbreak of war in Europe that same month made this first crossing a quiet and austere affair.
The Panama Canal was not just a great engineering feat or major event in the history of world commerce, it was also a major environmental disruption – potentially mixing the waters of the two oceans, allowing species to invade new regions, creating new lakes and waterways, and destroying human and natural environments. Panamanians were resettled from the Canal Zone, forests were felled as regions were flooded to create the canal watershed, and massive campaigns to destroy insect life were launched to limit the spread of insect-borne diseases.
Smithsonian naturalists at the U. S. National Museum (now the National Museum of Natural History), government scientists, and many of their colleagues at museums and colleges across the United States were concerned about the environmental impact of the canal construction. Thus the Smithsonian led the Biological Survey of the Panama Canal Zone from 1910 to 1912, to establish a baseline of what animals and plants were native to the region and to document environmental conditions, such as weather, soil types, etc. To secure funds for the survey, they turned to an old friend of the Smithsonian, President Teddy Roosevelt, who had started donating natural history specimens when he was a boy, had supported the construction of a new National Museum building, now known as the Natural History Museum, and encouraged the Smithsonian to acquire the Freer Gallery of Art. Roosevelt laid the groundwork for U. S. federal government support, although he had left office by the time the survey began. With federal and private funding, from 1910 to 1914, North American naturalists surveyed the natural world and collected specimens for the National Museum.
Although the original plan was to survey the Canal Zone, naturalists soon realized they needed to survey the entire region to determine the geographic distribution of plants and animals. Field naturalists such as Edward A. Goldman of the Bureau of Biological Survey and Albert S. Hitchcock of the Smithsonian’s National Museum explored swamps, cloud forests, bat-filled caves, arid mountainsides, rural farmlands – all of the diverse environments they found in the small nation. The explorers carefully documented the specimens they collected, noting soil conditions, the plants and animals a particular species interacted with, and the geographic range and density of populations. They began regular monitoring of weather and other physical conditions, a program that continues today.
When the Canal opened in August of 1914, the Smithsonian had created a baseline of written information and biological specimens that could be studied to determine the effects of this massive engineering project. Indeed, as the survey ended, the consortium of museums, colleges and research labs agreed to establish a permanent research station so they could continue to observe and learn from the changing dynamics of the region. They selected Barro Colorado Island, a small island that had been a mountaintop before the region had been flooded to create Gatun Lake. They watched as majestic trees turned into waterlogged stumps and large mammals disappeared from the new small island. At the close of World War II, the Barro Colorado Island laboratory was transferred to the Smithsonian’s aegis, known today as the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. As the large new locks are constructed today, once again STRI scientists are monitoring changes and conducting salvage field work as the excavations reveal evidence of ancient human, animal, and plant life.
- "1910-1912 Exploration of Panama," Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, Biodiversity Heritage Library
- 150 Years of Smithsonian Research in Latin America, online exhibition, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- 1910-1912 Biological Survey of the Panama Canal Zone, National Museum of Natural History
Websites are important records of institutional history, but they are also always being updated, redesigned, or taken down. How do we access important information from outdated versions of websites? The Archives is currently using Archive-It, a tool created by the Internet Archive, to capture Smithsonian websites and social media accounts for future use. Archive-It uses a crawler - a program that browses the Internet like Google - to replicate a website at that specific moment. These “crawls” are later accessible using the Wayback tool. While the research potential for these crawls is enormous, two areas stand out in particular; to document the evolution of website features and to capture public participation during a specific event or program through social media.
Crawls show the progress of how technology is used and how websites have evolved over time. Above and below, we have two examples from the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH). This is the Virtual Echinoderm Newsletter, which was last updated in 2002. Though it may seem simplistic to us today, this is very representative of a typical website from the early 2000s.
Fast-forward to 2014: With the new Human Origins Initiative website. We have a slideshow of features, live updates from Facebook and Twitter, and a text box that allows visitors to participate in the project - all located on the first page. While both of these sites are pretty typical for the respective years they were created in, they also are demonstrative of how much websites have changed in just over a decade.
The Archive-It tool is also being used to capture certain programs and events using social media. A great example of this is the crawl of the National Museum of American History’s #HistoryTalkBack Tumblr page. This site documented an ongoing project at the museum where curators invited visitors to respond to a question every day and to post their answers on a wall at the museum. The Tumblr page broadcasts some of the favorite posts and then invites commenters to respond to the question as well. We were pleased with the amount of public participation captured in our crawl - not only do we have the visitors’ comments, but because the site is Tumblr-based, we also captured the number of likes and re-blogs. Now that this site is defunct, this crawl becomes important for documenting the scope and impact of this project.
I especially like these social media crawls. Social media - instantaneous, constantly updated, and therefore often thought of as transient - is transformed into something more lasting. By looking at crawls from blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and Flickr, we can examine the public’s response to a project and the strategies museums use to engage with their audiences. The #HistoryTalkBack crawl shows this. Tumblr users spread these images, sharing the posts to express their own love of history to friends and followers, while the National Museum of American History used this platform to engage both their real-life and virtual visitors. Capturing these moments using social media gives us a greater understanding of how the public participates in museum programs, and also how museums reach out to people.
The Archive-It tool promises incredible potential in the coming years, especially as the Archives continue to grow. If you’d like to learn more, you can check out the Archives’ Archive-It crawls.
- Smithsonian Now Using Archive-It to Crawl Websites, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Connecting the Dots: Issues with Preserving Complex Websites, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Saving the Smithsonian’s Web, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Instituion Archives
- Accession 14-039 - National Museum of American History, Website Records, 2011-2013, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Accession 14-079 - National Museum of Natural History, Website Records, 2013, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Thank you for your votes! The Will of James Smithson has made it into the second round of the Smithsonian Summer Showdown! The competition is tighter now and we need your votes!
- Hold on to your hats . . . Archivists are coming to town next week to attend the Society of American Archivists Annual Meeting in Washington, DC. It will officially have the highest attendance ever!
- Institutions' ability to digitize their collections is greatly outpacing their ability to describe the materials in a meaningful way to make them searchable. OCR (opitcal character recognition) and full-text search, while not perfect, offers a quick solution to making digitized content accessible. [via The Signal: Digital Preservation, LOC]
- Programming 101 - Celebrating 50 years of the BASIC programming language. [via O Say Can You See?, NMAH]
- Archivist, Alfred Marks, of the Het Nieuwe Instituut in The Netherlands, makes his curatorial debut with the exhibtion, Summer Dreams, which uses drawings, models, photographs and other documents for the archives and library to show how the Dutch spent their leisure time in the last century. [via Cool Hunting]
- A pair of videos - One looking at the last year The Polaroid Corporation was in business and the other a brief history of George Eastman and his impact on photography. [via PetaPixel]
- Ever wonder how to take aaprt a dinosaur skeleton? Well wonder no more and watch this. [via Smithsonian Science]
The Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, is the only museum in the nation devoted exclusively to historic and contemporary design. Originally established in 1896 as the Cooper Union Museum for the Arts of Decoration, the museum was formally transferred to the Smithsonian on July 1, 1968. The museum was renamed the Copper-Hewitt Museum of Design at the time of transfer, but was later known as the Cooper-Hewitt Museum of Decorative Arts and Design in 1969 and then in 1994 it became the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, with its current name being adopted in 2014.
The museum moved into its present home, the Carnegie Mansion in 1970, which was renovated and reopened to the public in 1976. Closed for renovations since 2011, the redesigned museum will open to the public on December 12, 2014.
- Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum history, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum collections
- Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum records, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Please helps us move on to the next round of the Smithsonian Summer Showdown, by voting for the icon, the will of our founder, James Smithson!
- Where does metadata fit in, the quantity vs. quality quandry of digitized material. [via American Libraries Magazine]
- At the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, the "stud book" plays a key role in the conservation effort of rare animal species. [via Washington Post]
- The DC Public Library recently established the DC Punk Archive to document the history and culture of DC music. [via Marguerite Roby, SIA]
- A look back at what is was like for photographers at the very beginnings of the digital photography revolution. [via Lens, The New York Times]
- President Warren G. Harding's love letters to his mistress, Carrie Fulton Phillips, are now open to the public at the Library of Congress. [via The Library of Congress blog]
- Information about the private lives of early Americans are being discovered in the church records stored in basements and attics, file cabinets, safes and even coat closets. [via The New York Times]