The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Behind the Scenes
I recently had the opportunity to travel to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to meet with Ursula B. Marvin, a retired geologist at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory who has studied meteorites around the world and lunar samples collected during the Apollo missions.
Dr. Marvin received a history degree from Tufts College in 1943. In numerous lectures she has spoken about the path that led to her becoming a geologist. Tufts required two years of science courses for liberal arts degrees. Originally not enthused by this idea, Dr. Marvin was surprised by what happened next. She states in a 1997 Adventurous Women Lecture Series, "Geology lit a fire. I fell in love with it the first week." Considered an unacceptable profession for women, when Dr. Marvin approached her geology professor indicating that she wanted to change her major, he said, "You should be learning to cook." Undeterred, she took the "sneaky stratagem" of continuing to pursue history while also taking all the geology classes she could; enough to gain a minor in geology that led to a full-tuition scholarship to study geology at the Harvard-Radcliffe graduate school. At Harvard she became the first woman research assistant in the geology department and received her Master's in 1946.
When her husband Tom, an economic geologist, was approached by Union Carbide to search for mineral deposits in Brazil, Ursula accompanied him and the company paid her expenses. As she describes it, their first years of marriage were a great adventure. They worked in Brazil from 1952 to 1953, Angola from 1953 to 1954, returned briefly to Cambridge, and then returned to Brazil from 1956 to 1958.
With the launch of Sputnik in 1957, the Space Age had begun, and meteoritics opened up as a cutting-edge discipline. Back in Cambridge, Dr. Marvin was presented with the opportunity to study meteorites with Edward L. Fireman of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO), and was officially hired in 1961. In 1969, the same year Dr. Marvin completed her Ph.D., she became co-investigator with her SAO colleague, John A. Wood, to study lunar samples collected during the Apollo missions. She continued to study lunar samples until 1996.
In 1973, Japanese scientists published a discovery that nine meteorites collected in Antarctica were four completely different kinds of meteorites, not nine pieces of the same meteor shower. The implications were quite significant; this meant that meteorites landing on the ice cap may be frozen in and concentrated together during ice motion, making the Antarctic a rich location for study. Dr. Marvin became the first woman on the American Antarctic research team, traveling three times: during 1978-1979, 1981-1982 and again in 1985.
Dr. Marvin has, from the beginning of her career, been a champion for women in science. She has given numerous lectures at professional meetings and universities, not only about her research, but on her experiences as a woman in a male-dominated profession. She was first in line to submit her $2.00 membership fee in 1946 when women were finally allowed into the Harvard Geology Club, she was the first woman to hold various positions in the geology discipline, and she served as the first Federal Women's Program Coordinator at SAO from 1974-1977.
Among her many accomplishments, Dr. Marvin has published on the Continental Drift, received the Geological Society of America History Award (1986), and has both an asteroid (Asteroid Marvin) and Marvin Nunutak (a mountain peeking through the Antarctic ice) named after her. Dr. Marvin retired in 1998 but continues to publish.
During my collecting trip to Cambridge, I worked with Dr. Marvin at her office and at her home to identify personal papers for transfer to the Archives. The materials shipped from Massachusetts include highlights of Dr. Marvin's work in the form of correspondence, lectures, professional activity records, reports, and images of her research activities. This new accession also includes documentation of Dr. Marvin's personal life, adding context to her professional papers. Dr. Marvin kept detailed journals, scrapbooks, family photographs, her original art work, and school coursework--all showing another view of her journey. As we looked through her personal papers and discussed her various activities, I learned a great deal about her life and career, and continue to be impressed with her work as I process this new collection.
The finding aid to the Ursula Marvin Papers, Accession 13-060, will be available in the next few months, and will be of particular interest to those studying meteoritics, geology and the history of women in science.
Marvin, Ursula. Continental drift : The Evolution of a Concept, Washington [D.C.] : Smithsonian Institution Press, 1973.
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics - Geologist Emeritas: Dr. Ursula Marvin
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