The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Behind the Scenes
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
In celebration of Archives Month, join us Thursday, October 22nd
27th, 11am to 3pm ET, where archivists and a conservator specializing in documents, books, audio/visual material, photos, and digital records (or electronic records) will be on the Smithsonian's Facebook page to answer questions about your own archival collections. Questions from our readers in the past have ranged from storing letter and diaries, to digitizing cassette tapes, to organizing digital photo archives.
Here are the folks who will be on-hand to answer your questions:
Nora Lockshin is Senior Conservator at the Smithsonian Institution Archives, and conserves physical objects and consults on preservation goals with archivists, collection managers, and curators at the Archives and throughout the larger Smithsonian archival and museum community. She leads the Smithsonian Institution Archives Collections Care team, and the Smithsonian Center for Archives Conservation, a service, research, and teaching treatment laboratory for archival collections.
Eden Orelove is a Photograph Archivist at the Smithsonian National Anthropological Archives. She holds an MLIS from the University of Pittsburgh and an MA in art history, with a specialization in the history of photography, from the George Washington University. Her work includes processing and inventorying photos and assisting with reference.
Michael Pahn is Head Archivist at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian Archive Center located in the museum’s Cultural Resources Center. Michael began at NMAI in 2003 as its Media Archivist, and has overseen preservation projects funded by the National Film Preservation Foundation, Save America’s Treasures, and the Smithsonian Collections Care and Preservation Fund. His prior experiences include Save Our Sounds Project Librarian at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, and Librarian at The Nature Conservancy. Michael is a member of the Society of American Archivists’ Native American Archives Roundtable Steering Committee. He has a BA in Anthropology from the University of Pittsburgh and an MLS from the University of Maryland
Lynda Schmitz Fuhrig, Electronic Records Archivist at the Smithsonian Institution Archives since 2005, specializes in preserving born-digital materials that include images, audio, video, websites, and email from across the Smithsonian. Her work involves using tools and creating methods that help digital objects remain accessible in the future.
What do you do when you need information about a business? Check the website? Send an email? Compose a Tweet? There was a time in the not-so-distant past when the answer was to pull out a pen or sit in front of a typewriter and write a letter.
The Smithsonian Institution once had a very large snail mail operation (previously referred to simply as "mail"). All mail that was not specifically addressed to a specific individual was delivered to the Public Inquiry Mail Service (PIMS), a division of the Visitor Information and Associates' Reception Center. In approximately 1982, PIMS produced a brochure for staff advertising the services they provided. It notes that they received over 28,000 pieces of mail during the previous year. That's over 75 letters a day (not taking into account Sundays or holidays) that either needed to be rerouted or contained routine questions that needed to be answered.
As a fun side note, one of the services advertised in this brochure was the writing and editing of preprinted materials using a word processor, "a marvelous tool for keeping information up to date." Staff from across the Smithsonian could send draft texts for bibliographies, fact sheets, and other preprinted reference materials to PIMS. The PIMS staff would "put the text into the machine's memory," edit it according The Chicago Manual of Style, and return it for final approval. If there were additions or corrections to be made, "the changes can be printed out within moments."
Almost two decades later, email had become a common form of communication. An article in the Winter 1999 issue of "The Info Special: A Newsletter of the Smithsonian Visitor Information and Associates' Reception Center," an article noted that email traffic from the public had increased 89% from the previous year. In August 1999 alone, PIMS received 1,375 inbound emails.
Today, the Smithsonian continues to receive emails and even letters from the public, but also conveys information to the public via its websites and social media accounts.
- Contact Us, Smithsonian Institution
- Where is the Smithsonian?, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Accession 14-034 - Smithsonian Institution, Office of Visitor Services, Publications, 1959, 1973-2013, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Typewriters at the Smithsonian
This year, the United States team is sending 230 athletes to Sochi, Russia, the most any nation has ever sent to a winter Olympics. Some of the most promising American athletes are the ice dancing team of Meryl Davis and Charlie White. Though traditionally the other divisions of skating are more talked about in the United States, it seems that the Smithsonian has a strong history in the sport.
In the early eighties the Smithsonian had several skate “clubs.” One of the clubs was a competitive group who practiced two to three times a week throughout the year. The group included Lydia Paley, a museum technician in the National Museum of Natural History’s (NMNH) Discovery Room; Bette Walker, a secretary at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden; Martha Goodway, a metallurgist for the Conservation Analytical Lab (now Museum Conservation Institute); Christine Smith, a paper conservator at the National Portrait Gallery; and Gary Sturm, a specialist in the National Museum of American History’s Division of Musical Instruments. For the club, winter practices got much easier when they met at the National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden outdoor rink where the skaters would learn the twenty defined ice dancing routines required by the United States Figure Skating Association. For this group, practice made perfect, and Smith and Strum were awarded the Walter C. Sheen and Sidney Asher trophies Ice Club of Washington for Male and Female Skaters of 1980 for their ice dancing achievements throughout the year.
While some Smithsonian skaters competed, others simply used the activity to clear their mind during the work day. Almost every day during the winter of 1980 a crowd of Smithsonian staff glided over to the rink on the National Mall to take a break and skate up a sweat. One pair, Phyllis Spangler, a Museum Technician for the Medical Entomology Project of the NMNH’s Department of Entomology, and her husband Paul Spangler, an Associate Curator in the NMNH’s Department of Entomology, put their work on ice, and strapped on their skates to perfect a pair’s routine.
The frigid temperatures this year ensure that you’ll have good ice conditions, if you want to take up a new activity, and the National Gallery ice skating rink could not be more convenient. So whether you are a competitor, amateur, or just someone who wants to get into the Olympic spirit, check out the history of the featured sports and you might be surprised how popular they are!
- Record Unit 371 - Smithsonian Institution Office of Public Affairs, The Torch, 1955-1960, 1965-1988, Smithsonian Insttution Archives
Here at the Smithsonian Institution Archives, our website is built on top of a content management system (or CMS) called Drupal. For those of our readers unfamiliar with Drupal, it's an open source project that started its life as a message board system originally intended to help keep some University of Antwerp alumni in touch. The creator of the system, Dries Buytaert, wanted to call the site Dorp.org, dorp meaning "village" in Dutch. However, when seeing if dorp.org was available, he accidentally typed drop.org, and liking the sound better, saved the domain. Once he decided to release the site's code, he decided to name it Drupal, which is the English phonetic spelling of Druppel, the Dutch word for drop.
Currently, the Drupal community maintains a policy of only supporting two versions of the CMS. Currently, those two versions are Drupal 6, and Drupal 7. Our site was running on the former. However, Drupal 8 recently went into alpha testing, which means its release isn't too far off. So soon Drupal 6 will no longer be supported by the community.
To be proactive, I started on a 6-month project to upgrade our site to Drupal 7 before support disappeared. On August 28th, that project was complete and our new Drupal 7 website was rolled out.
Don't worry if you didn't notice it.
Aside from allowing the site's theme to respond to the browser's width (for those who are in modern, standards compliant browsers), the vast majority of the work was all on the back end. The functionality in Drupal is provided by modules, which are little add-ons that extend Drupal's functionality. Module developers tap into functions called "hook functions." These functions are fired off by Drupal whenever it performs a given task, and allows the developers to modify processes or data, or even piggyback off of it and provide their own tasks for the site to run. The premise is similar to one individual saying to another "Let me know when your going out for milk, 'cus I have some mail I would like you to drop off while your out." Drupal 6 contained 83 hook functions for developers to use. Drupal 7 has around 403.
Further complicating the issue, some of the hook functions had been changed, renamed, split into multiple functions, etc. All of these changed hook functions in the modules needed to be updated.
Luckily, I didn't have to upgrade all of the 170 or so modules used by our site. Some modules are in the "Core," or modules that Drupal comes with. Others are contributed modules, which are created by other Drupal developers and released to the community. These modules were updated by their maintainers. What were left were 14 completely custom modules that needed upgrading.
Another large part of the upgrade was coming up with the exact step-by-step process I needed to go through to get the site upgraded without any issues. This included duplicating the site on a localized server. Then the theme, contributed modules, and custom modules needed to be switched off. This would keep the site from crashing when the code base changed.
Then, Drupal 7 was downloaded, the database updated. After the database had been updated, the new versions of the modules had to be downloaded and re-installed. Luckily, I was able to create a command line script that ran on the server to do much of the heavy lifting. This scrip contained over 330 commands sent to the server in order to run the full update. The process took about 6 hours to complete. Once that was done, the code and database was uploaded to our new server, and the domain address was switch so the whole process was seamless.
Other Smithsonian websites using Drupal: