The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Behind the Scenes
In November, Smithsonian Institution Archives successfully moved over 3 million photographic negatives from a cold storage unit that had reached end of life to a new state of the art facility at the Smithsonian Institution Support Center (SISC) in Hyattsville, Maryland. The new space consists of two climate and humidity controlled rooms, a large staging area, and a large processing and digitization lab. Of the new cold rooms, one is kept at 52 degrees Farenheit and accommodates glass negatives, color photographic prints, CDs, and videotape materials, while the other is kept at 26 degrees Farenheit and is for storage of film materials.
We inherited both the old space and the glass negatives in 2008, when the Archives took over all of the historic images pertaining to the Smithsonian Institution’s history from Smithsonian Photographic Services (SPS). Located in the basement of the National Museum of American History (NMAH), the old cold vault, which had prevented the deterioration of film material for over thirty years, was on the verge of expiration.
For years we have been preparing the contents kept in cold storage for the move, which not only included the design and build out of a new space, but also some huge rehousing efforts. Over one thousand broken glass negatives were stabilized, housing was provided for oversized glass and acetate negatives, and 30,000 glass negatives were separated from the acetate negatives they were originally stored in boxes with. Once the build out was nearing completion, new locations for the materials were mapped and labeled.
The actual move took place over five days. Four Archives staff members were at each location with a move crew of about six to ten, and three refrigerated trucks shuttled material from NMAH to SISC. The move “choreography” consisted of 38 main steps, each divided into numerous sub-steps. In addition to the Archives’ collections, we also moved collections for other units with whom we share the space and whose collections we will continue to store.
Our new space affords us some room to grow. Though we cannot accommodate all of the Smithsonian Institution’s film preservation needs, we are able to bring on new partners and collaborators from units across the institution to provide preventive care for collections at risk. We look forward to working more closely with our historic collections and have plans to systematically digitize materials so that we can share and provide access to the Smithsonian Institution’s fascinating and abundant photographic history.
Cabinet of Curiosities, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Unlocking the Vault, The Bigger Picture Blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Walking on Broken Glass, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Highlight from the Photo Cold Vault: Gelatin Dry Plate Negatives, The Bigger Picture Blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Putting It All Together: The Assembly and Rehousing of Glass Plate Negatives, The Bigger Picture Blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Care, Handling and Storage of Photographs, Library of Congress
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
When the Archives received a photograph of the Youngers, relatives of the first African American employee of the Smithsonian, Solomon Brown, time had taken its toll on the image. The early gelatin print is mounted on a friable board reminiscent of the material used by the Government Printing Office to create covers for its publications—a mid-gray paper sandwiched around an acidic core that has turned a straw color with acid deterioration. The brittle nature of the photograph and its support has allowed the image to crack completely in half, with small pieces flaking away from the breakage point. Handwritten notes on the back in permanent marker are mostly legible despite losses of the acidic backing. There is also damage evident on the lower portion of the photograph, possibly from another document becoming stuck to it in the presence of water, a phenomenon known as blocking. The top and bottom edges of the photograph and support are also curling upward as differences in expansion and contraction of the two materials have become evident. While we don’t know when exactly this photograph was taken, based on the style of clothing it can be tentatively dated to the early years of the twentieth century.
A fragile item such as this requires special care and handling to ensure that it endures as a part of our collections. In order to protect it both while it is in collections storage and being used by researchers, a custom housing was designed and created. The solution had to meet a few specific criteria: it needed to provide adequate support to the broken photograph; it needed to facilitate easy removal of the image from its housing without excessive abrasion to the fragile edges; and it needed to restrain the curling edges of the support.
The end result is a housing composed of three elements—a base in which the photograph sits, a magnetic over-mat that gently restrains the curling edges of the image, and a protective cover mat. The base is also composed of three layers, divided into two pieces that fit together like puzzle pieces with tongue-and-groove joints. This allows the photograph to be securely held in the housing or easily removed without abrading the edges, by sliding the pieces together or apart. The overall size of the housing was chosen to fit snugly inside one of our standard-size flat archival storage boxes for extra protection and safe handling.
Brief sidebar: A complex housing like this may seem difficult to justify for the average photograph in a collection. While this image is not average, in reality creating this housing was straightforward and relatively quick to execute. Most of the time and effort was spent prototyping different elements and testing components, particularly the strength of the magnetic attraction in the over-mat. Constructing another housing from this model would take much less time and could be completed in a regular work day.
Assembling the housing
The three layers of the base are made from E-flute corrugated board. The bottom layer is cut in two pieces so that approximately one-third of the board is above the cut and two-thirds are below, with the flutes of the corrugated board running horizontally. The middle layer is composed of six vertically-cut strips, the flutes running vertically. Each strip is cut in two to create the tongue-and-groove joints described above, alternating approximately one inch above or below the cut in the bottom layer. To facilitate easy joining of the two pieces, the teeth of each joint are slightly tapered. The top layer is cut in two, mirroring the bottom; the photograph sits in this layer, atop the other two, in a sort of tray. To accommodate the image, the mounted photograph was placed on a light table and the shape traced onto Mylar, then transferred to the top layer and cut out. All three layers are laminated together with ¾-inch double-sided adhesive tape. A miniature facsimile of the reverse of the photograph mount is included in the lower right corner of the base, to provide access to the information without necessitating the removal of the photo.
The next piece, the magnetic over-mat, is fashioned simply by cutting a window with a mat cutter from archival matboard of the same dimensions as the base. Rare-earth neodymium magnets are sunk into the top layer of the base, four each along the top and bottom edges of the photograph tray, and adhered with Jade R PVA, an acrylic adhesive. Space was created for the magnets using a Japanese screw punch. The magnets are set back from the edge to avoid contact with the photograph, and further isolated and secured with strips of gummed paper tape atop the magnets. Corresponding steel shim strips are recessed along the edges of the window on the reverse of the over-mat and adhered with the same acrylic adhesive. The mat is attached to the base with a V-shaped hinge made from gummed linen tape at the top edge.
Finally, a protective cover mat was created from blue corrugated board cut to the same dimensions as the other two components. This was attached with the same gummed linen tape used with the magnetic over-mat, with a difference: instead of a V-shaped hinge, the tape was applied to the exterior of the housing from the bottom of the base and wrapping around to the top of the cover mat. This left the edges free, allowing the cover mat to fold completely flat behind the base for display or consultation.
With the housing complete, the photograph is securely held and adequately protected. The blue cover mat prevents damage to the surface of the image; the magnetic over-mat gently restrains the curling edges of the image so that further distortion is discouraged; and the base provides stable support, even when sliding the pieces apart to remove the image when necessary. This important addition to the history of one of the Smithsonian’s earliest employees will be safely available for future researchers.
Solomon Brown: First African American Employee at the Smithsonian Institution, Smithsonian Institution Archives.
Preserve It While You Use It: Collections Care in Action, The Bigger Picture Blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives.
Mounting Photographs with Earth Magnets, The Bigger Picture Blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives.
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
Yesterday we here at the Smithsonian celebrated the installation of our thirteenth Secretary, David J. Skorton. Festivities were lively as staff, volunteers, fellows, and interns gathered in the Arts & Industries Building to see members of the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents, including U.S. Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Roberts, induct the Smithsonian’s 13th Secretary, Dr. David Skorton, with the mace and key to the Castle.
The key is one of the original keys to the Smithsonian Institution Building and is presented to the incoming Secretary as a symbol of knowledge and guardianship. The Smithsonian mace was commissioned by Secretary Ripley in anticipation of the bicentennial of James Smithson’s birth. Traditionally a symbol of authority, the Smithsonian mace symbolizes knowledge, freedom, and progress: a reminder of the Smithsonian’s role in research and education.
Along with an academic procession, these symbols of office and authority gave the ceremony a serious tone that was balanced by a joyful performance by Wynton Marsalis and the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra. Marsalis performed a musical interlude on a trumpet owned and used by Louis Armstrong. Engraved with Armstrong’s name, this trumpet was made for him in Paris in 1946 by Henri Selmer. Adding to the moment, Secretary Skorton talked about the magic that the Smithsonian can inspire, made possible by a love of learning and sense of wonder.
These festivities were the result of many people’s hard work. Here at the archives, we were called on for information about past installation ceremonies and Smithsonian traditions. Event planners wanted to know about previous installation ceremonies. We went through old photos and files from the Secretary’s Office to get an idea of what installation ceremonies looked like.
Leonard Carmichael, our seventh Secretary, was the first to have a formal installation ceremony as he took office. He was also the first secretary to come from outside the Institution. The tradition of the Chief Justice transferring the key to the Castle to the incoming Secretary began with the installation of the eight Secretary, S. Dillion Ripley. He had a public ceremony held in the Great Hall of the Castle where all Smithsonian employees were invited to come and celebrate his installation. Though today’s ceremony will be held inside the Arts & Industries building, Secretaries Adams, Heyman, and Small held their installation ceremonies outside in front of the Statue of Joseph Henry and the Castle. Details like these held in the Archives were critical for the Special Events staff planning yesterday’s event.
We also watched yesterday’s ceremony with interest, collecting information about it for our research files so that we are ready next time someone asks about installation ceremonies. We are saving things like the invitation email that went out to staff, a copy of the program handed out at the ceremony, and any news articles that are written about it. We took note of things like the order of ceremonies, who presided, and where the ceremony was held. While the materials we collect won’t be accessioned into the collection, they will serve as reference materials we can use the next time we are asked about the installation of Smithsonian Secretaries.
Office of the Secretary, Records 1964-1971 Record Unit 99, Smithsonian Institution Archvies
The Torch, November 1994, Accession No. 01-081, Smithsonian Institution Archvies
The Torch, February 2000, Accession No. 05-298, Smithsonian Institution Archvies