The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Behind the Scenes
Blogs across the Smithsonian will give an inside look at the Institution’s archival collections and practices during a month long blogathon in celebration of October’s American Archives Month. See additional posts from our other participating blogs, as well as related events and resources, on the Smithsonian’s Archives Month website.
It's that most wonderful surprising time of the year again, when we open our doors and invite you behind the blue and yellow Smithsonian curtain. People often call us for advice about their personal archives, scrapbooks, letters from grandparents, signed memorabilia, mysterious photographs with possible family members in them, and whether we might be able to just take a peek at them.
Usually we have to say no, for we must attend to our own collections and those of our colleagues, and refer the person to our online resources. But during October's American Archives Month, we open our doors to help you discover a thing or two about your own archival treasures in person.
Pictured are some highlights from last year's 2011 Ask the Smithsonian event. A partenered team of an archives collection specialist and a conservator may help you by find clues to the origin of your works, suggest better housing, discuss how to safely access and preserve them for future generations, and more. We enjoy exercising our faculties with the challenge of rapid-fire response, and enjoy working with colleagues who we might not otherwise work with on a day-to-day basis.
You may still participate even if you are not local nor able to take the time off to visit us in person. We will also be answering inquiries in an Online Q & A: Ask-the-Smithsonian when we take over the Smithsonian Facebook page on Wednesday, October 17th . Since we started this annual event, the Smithsonian Magazine started an interactive column similarly called Ask Smithsonian. Why not submit a quick question there too and see your inquiry in print and eventually on the web? If you have a lengthier question, check our Collections Care Forum for previous topics, or submit your own if your question isn't covered. Do note that while we keep our focus on archival materials, for those with objects such as paintings, sculptures, or other artifacts, our colleages at the Lunder Conservation Center offer a monthly Conservation Clinic throughout the year.
It is with very mixed emotions (with a big sad-face part of the mix) that we say good-bye to Catherine Shteynberg, manager, editor, and regular contributor to The Bigger Picture, as well as the Archives’ social media outreach coordinator.
Catherine joined the Smithsonian Photography Initiative as an intern (!) in 2008 and worked her way into serving as the curatorial assistant for the project, click! photography changes everything, a project of the former Smithsonian Photography Initiative. Catherine then seamlessly moved into the role of keeping this blog humming with a lovely tune. She inspired many of us with meticulous research and ideas about how to keep the blog engaging and relevant. She encouraged many-a-new blog author. If you enjoyed her weekly Link Love (which I’m happy to say will continue with our own Mitch Toda), you know she was great at making fun lists of interesting projects. In fact two of her most popular posts were lists:
- The Smithsonian's Top 6 Archives Myths puts to rest all the intriguing, but unfortunately false, lore about the Smithsonian including the belief that there is a massive underground storage facility under the National Mall.
- Start the New Year Right with Tips from the Archives, a post summarizing all of the amazing advice our archivists and conservators have shared which includes tips on managing email, storing keepsakes, and much more.
These were only two of the nearly 200 posts she wrote for The Bigger Picture! It has personally been a pleasure to work with someone as whip-smart as Catherine, but more importantly, someone who does her work with integrity and joy. We are happy that Catherine will not be leaving the museum field – she will be the Assistant Curator/New Media Coordinator at the University of Tennessee’s McClung Museum. And never fear, The Bigger Picture will continue with our staff of amazing contributors.
The Smithsonian Institution Archives' Conservation Lab was pleased to host the first round of sessions during the summer of 2012 of the Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works-sponsored workshop, "Conservation of Transparent Papers." Created and taught by conservator Hildegard Homburger of Berlin, Germany, this recent two-day workshop offered an intensive and personalized introduction to the historic manufacturing processes for tracing papers and hands-on practice with mending of tears and losses, flattening, removal of tapes, dyeing of mending paper, and lining techniques. We put together a Flickr set of images, to share a behind-the-scenes look at the workshop.
The workshop was an excellent blend of theory and practice, provided by the very well-informed teacher, but also multiplied by the experience of the many paper conservators taking part in discussions. One of our own contributions was to discuss the difficulty of estimating and recovering the orginal size of another somewhat analogous thin, heavily processed paper—crêpe paper— a topic we’ve written about on this blog before. The participants, who reflected a diversity between university, museum, and private practice conservation, freely discussed aspects of aesthetics and difficulty of treatment versus expense for the client, be that measured in dollars or time expended in balance to the value of the collection or object.
With her background and expertise working in all types of practices, ranging from regional center to museum, individual or private art dealer and teacher, Homburger brought very sensible and literal weight to bear on approaches to treatment. She has continued to experiment with colleagues, students, and to dialog with manufacturers to promote improvement for current and new methods to treat this particularly challenging type of paper. Much of this is discussed in Homburger and Barbara Korbel’s joint article, "Architectural Drawings on Transparent Paper: Modifications of Conservation Treatments," but is no substitute for seeing best practice and results of the "hard-soft sandwich" performed live by the expert. I think you can tell by the look on everyone's faces in this image!
We are so glad to have been able to host the workshop on behalf of our colleagues who came from near and far, as part of their summer adventures. And you may look forward to further adventures in transparent paper by our library preservation colleagues, Beth Doyle and Melissa Tedone. They will be blogging their perspectives on the Iowa State University sessions of the workshop on their Preservation Underground and Parks Library Preservation blogs, respectively. They also will be sharing their own Flickr set with images from the workshop. We'll be sure to share the links to the specific blog posts and new Flickr set when they go live later in August.
As digital materials become more prolific in large institutions like the Smithsonian, one of the biggest challenges that archives face is figuring out how to preserve uncommon or obsolete computer files. One example is executable files. EXEs are, generally, programs. But it’s not quite that simple! They might be interactive games, video slideshows, or install drivers. As a result, they aren't as uniform as .doc or .jpg files. As part of my internship at the Smithsonian Institution Archives, I'm trying to figure out exactly what we should do with the executables in our collections, conducting research into the filetype and solutions for preservation, and examining the collections in order to create a plan.
As I went through them, I quickly learned that you never you know you're going to get! When I opened our executables, they ranged from databases to video games and, so far, from dates 1985–2006. That's precisely what makes these files difficult to preserve.
In that sense, it’s worth asking: do we want them?
They may or may not be worth keeping, depending on your institution's goals. (For instance, Library and Archives Canada doesn't keep executables in its trusted repository). At the Archives, I found slideshows that were once parts of exhibits—clearly important. I also found install files for programs for which we have updated versions—less important. Then there were files where we didn't even know what they were. Do we preserve them and hope that someday we will be able to figure it out? It seems to me that this has to be determined on a case-by-case judgment call, based on creation date, the files it came with, and if there is any metadata available.
How do we preserve them?
Executables are problematic. They're designed to work on a specific operating system with certain specifications.
A Quick tip: Many executable files will not run off of servers. If you're getting the error "The parameter is incorrect," copy the file onto a single machine and try from there. You'll get a much higher success rate!
So, now that we have the executables we want to keep, we have four options for executables that you can successfully open.
- Migrate: Migrating means that you update the information so that it runs on modern equipment. If you care about the content, but not about the original environment (processor speed, same operating system, etc.), this might be an option. You can update it so that it works for awhile, but computers aren’t static. They’re going to keep changing. In ten years from now, will your future-tablet-PC-holographic-super-machine run a Windows 7 executable? What about twenty, thirty, fourty years? It’s an issue archives are dealing with for all sorts of files, but with executables, the system specifications are so important that it is an even more pressing concern.
- Emulate: Emulating means that you create the proper environment for the file, and run it through there. As long as your emulation environment keeps working, you don’t have to worry about your executable becoming obsolete. But it takes a lot of computing power, time, and effort. And when you have 100 executables, most of which will need their own environments to run (especially in an archive that gets files from multiple institutions over a period of time), that might be beyond your resources.
- Extract Information: This is a great option if you don’t want to worry about the long term. If you can open the file, you might be able to extract all the content, assuming it isn’t too interactive. Moving images can become video files, sound can become audio files. Gain: drive space and preservation file format. Loss: functionality and interaction.
- Sit on It: If you cannot do what you want with the file, you can sit on it and hope that you find more metadata or figure out a way to get the information sometime in the future. However, you have to keep in mind that as technology develops, you move further away from the original environment. This is an option only if you think you’ll ultimately get more information about the file or figure out what you want to do fairly soon.
With the files I examined, we decided extracting the information might be the best option for the Archives at this point. Along with this plan, we document as much as we can about the EXE, including what it seems to be and the year it might have been created. Some of the information we are trying to keep doesn’t have to be in executable format. For instance, the slideshows can be turned into video fileswithout losing intellectual content or experience. Sitting on these files won’t help anything, and if we wait, we might lose information. One of the nice things about trying to preserve rather than altering or creating means that we don’t necessarily need the code of an executable; after all, we want to save the experience, not the programming.
- Smithsonian Office of Education, Smithsonian Online Records, 1991-1997, Accession 97-136, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- National Zoological Park, Office of Public Affairs, Subject Files, 1977-2003, Accession 07-023, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- National Museum of Natural History, Office of Education, Productions, 1996-2000, undated, Accession 11-014, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Virtualization for Preservation of Executable Art, Kam Woods, Indiana University, Department of Computer Science, 2008
Every once in a while, a curve ball gets thrown across conservation's home plate. In preparation for their exhibit, Native Olympians , my colleagues at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) asked if I could step in as a pinch hitter to assist on the extraction of the contents of a box . . . of Wheaties. This familiar iconic object of material culture, which features the equally iconic Jim Thorpe and autographs of his direct descendents, elicited so much interest that the Smithsonian Magazine chose it as a "National Treasure" and produced a conservation-focused video to accompany their story about the champion athlete's Olympian legacy. Because the short feature tells a great story, I'll expand below with some extra behind-the-scenes discussion that may be of interest to conservators and sports fans alike. Watch and see!
Ok, now that you’re back, I’ll get into the nitty-gritty. Like any athlete, a conservator practices and analyzes their efforts so they can make that game-winning touchdown when they really need to. In the video, I mentioned the "stunt boxes" that we used for trials, and photographed to communicate quickly our process with our NMAI colleagues (the handy notes feature on Flickr helps a picture speak 1,000 words with less! Be sure to mouseover them on the full Flickr site). Now that we're done, we thought it would make a neat show-and-tell.
Since the video went up, I've received lots of questions – here are some with responses:
Q: A little concerned that […] the replacement for the cereal would not have the same center of gravity as the original, thus imparting to the box an artificial slab-like appearance…
A: While we did contact General Mills to inquire about packaging technology (the closest one can get is the PR dept who will relay technical inquiries), information from the manufacturer is extremely closely guarded! Interestingly, one of the reasons for intervention is that due to the box having been carefully stored flat on its back, the cereal had shifted, settled and blocked up a bit and no longer had the same center of gravity that it did at origin, and so was toppling off its footing of its own accord. Happily I spoke with someone who indicated that center of gravity is VERY important to the manufacturer for a variety of reasons, and our solution of inserting an inert rigid block to fill the inside of the box more accurately reflects manufacturer's intent for the original presentation than the condition of the object as we observed it after ten years of natural aging. Also, the solid insert prevents further risk for dings to the box, some which are observed from its handling prior to its accession.
Q: So what happens to the cereal? Did you hold on to it? Will the cereal be preserved as well?
A: The decision was made to discard the cereal itself (after a few humorous "Guess which is the old Wheaties" blind taste tests). Generally, we try to limit easily available food sources as part of Integrated Pest Management practice. The internal packaging was also yellowed and oily, a sign of problematic plastics decay. While sometimes it is suitable to retain samples of historic food for analysis, it was deemed unnecessary in this case, and surely General Mills would be a better resource for preserved samples in the future. When asked if it is more important to save food packaging or the food itself (in a separate discussion about space food with my colleague Jennifer Levasseur), I replied that indeed sometimes we do save food. Think of the excitement when some ancient pot is discovered with intact residue of some food or drink. Analysis of those can tell us a lot about a people’s culture and their environment; saving a representative sample in smaller inert vial is a potential option, while that may introduce an additional item to catalog and track. This also comes up in intentional collections of realia such as food or cosmetics in packaging which may not be stable, although, interfering with the packaging to get a small sample may introduce another mechanism of decay. For an excellent example of why you might want to retain modern food, see this funny and thoughtful entry on the amazing Antarctic Heritage Trust (of explorer's huts) conservators' blog.
Do you have any further questions that I didn’t touch on? Please step up to the starting line and ask away in the comments!
- Best in the World: Native Athletes in the Olympics, National Museum of the American Indian
- Museum Conservation Institute, Smithsonian Institution