The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Cities/Places
Tom Rall, from Arlington, Virginia, is an avid collector of vintage photos, daguerreotypes and glass lantern slides. When he mentioned to his old friend Paula Richardson Fleming, a retired Smithsonian photo archivist, that he had among his collection a glass slide that might depict the Smithsonian Institution Building, she at first didn’t think much about it. After all, the Smithsonian “Castle” is an iconic building that has always been a favorite subject for photographers. It wasn’t until she got a close look at the undated glass plate at the annual D.C. Antique Photo and Postcard Show this past spring that she realized Rall might have something very special - a photo of the Smithsonian Castle taken while it was still under construction. They took the plate to Richard Stamm, curator of the Smithsonian Castle Collection.
“I was able to pin-point the year the photo was taken based on the progress of the building’s construction as reported yearly by the Building Committee in our early SI Annual Reports,” said Stamm. He and Fleming conducted more research at the Library of Congress and through other sources and were able to confirm the picture was taken in June or July of 1850 - the earliest known photograph of the Smithsonian Castle.
After President James K. Polk signed the legislation creating the Smithsonian on August 10, 1846, one of the first tasks facing its governing body, the Board of Regents, was to erect a building to house the new Institution. Architect James Renwick designed the Smithsonian Institution Building in an imposing Norman style meant to identify it immediately as an important educational institution. The day construction began was declared a holiday and on May 1, 1847, a mile-long parade made its way from City Hall to the White House, where President Polk joined the procession as it continued to the Smithsonian grounds. Once there, more than 6,000 people watched as the cornerstone was laid.
The photograph in Rall’s collection, taken three years later, shows the building’s two completed wings - the east wing housed the lecture hall, laboratories and apartments for the Secretary of the Smithsonian; the west wing contained the library and reading room. The central portion of the building, now called the Great Hall, was still empty and would remain so until 1855 when it began to be used as exhibition and collection space. At the time of this photograph, only two of the Castle’s nine towers were completed. The crane in the image rises over the North Tower, which would eventually rise 140 feet above the National Mall. The carriage porch at the front of the building would not be completed until late 1851.
The photograph also shows a small workman’s shed in front of the Castle, which was likely used by the stonemasons. The small trees and bushes in front of the Castle were planted by the Smithsonian and anticipated Andrew Jackson Downing’s landscaping plan.
“The Smithsonian has hundreds of photographs in its collections of the Castle, but none of the building under construction, which makes this image quite remarkable,” said Stamm. “The photograph is important because it verifies much of the written history we have about the odd way in which the Castle was built - the wings first and the main central section last. It greatly adds to the historical record we have for this national historic landmark.”
William and Frank Langenheim of Philadelphia took the photograph using a new process they developed in 1849 and called hyalotype (from the Greek hyalos, meaning glass and typos meaning image or impression). This process produced a highly detailed and accurate glass negative that could then be used to print either paper photographs or glass lantern slides. Since the exposure time for hyalotypes was about one minute, the process was well suited for architectural studies, but impractical for portraiture.
The image of the Castle was part of a set of 126 views of Washington, D.C. published by the Langenheim brothers in 1850, several of which were later exhibited at the 1851 Crystal Palace Exposition in London.
Tom Rall has made this rare hyalotype a gift to the Smithsonian Castle Collection. It will go on display in the Castle’s Great Hall today, August 10, on the 169th anniversary of the Smithsonian’s founding.
- Smithsonian Institution Building, The Castle, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Historic Pictures of the Smithsonian Institution Building, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- The Castle, A Tour of the Smithsonian Building in the 19th Century, Architectural History and Historic Preservation Division, Smithsonian Institution
- Stereoviews of the Smithsonian Institution Building, Richard E. Stamm, Curator, Smithsonian Institution Castle Collection
- Skeletons found at Jamestown have been identified as those of the colony leaders. [via Smithsonian Science News]
- The National Archives and Records Administrative published guidance this week to government agencies on managing electronic messages. [via InfoDocket]
- Just last week we announced that the National Air and Space Museum launched its first Kickstarter campaign to help conserve, digitize, and display Neil Armstrong’s Apollo 11 spacesuit, and lo and behold, it has already surpassed its fundraising goal and is currently at over $570,000! Now that its funded, this is what's next for the spacesuit. [via AirSpace blog, NASM]
- In conjunction with the exhibition: Artist Teacher Organizer: Yasuo Kuniyoshi in the Archives of American Art, fiber artist Aram Han Sifunetes hosted a workshop that that delved into explorations of American-ness. [via Archives of American Art Blog]
- Blast from the past - How press photos were transmitted in the 1970s. [via PetaPixel]
- What is that wonderful smell? Food Fridays is a new cooking demonstration series at the National Museum of American History's Wallace H. Coulter Performance Plaza. [via O Say Can You See? blog, NMAH]
- From VHS tape to your computer - Yale Library is digitizing and making available online thousands of mystery VHS tapes. [via WSHU Public Radio Group]
- For your viewing and educational pleasure: Video recording of the panel discussion at Wikimedia Foundation: “Copyright in the Era of Mass Digitization." [via InfoDocket]
- The video below gives you a glimpse of Iron Mountain where archival collections, photographs, motion picture films, data, and much more are stored. [via PetaPixel]
Recently, the Smithsonian Institution Archives acquired the papers of Dr. John H. Dearborn (1933-2010), a longtime professor and scientist associated with the University of Maine. As a researcher, Dearborn focused his attention on echinoderms (phylum Echinodermata), a taxonomic group including sea stars, brittle stars, sea cucumbers, and other organisms. Dearborn's research activities, which spanned several decades, led him to numerous locations around the world, including Antarctica, where he spent a great deal of time braving the elements to advance his field of study.
As an Archives intern, one of my projects this summer involved rehousing Dearborn's papers, and during this process, I came across an extensive series of diaries and field notes spanning the years between 1953 and 1982. While rehousing these materials I was fortunate enough to have the time to read some of Dearborn's entries in the years between 1953 and 1960, which offer an interesting lens through which to examine Dearborn's early life and accomplishments. Beginning during his time as an undergraduate student and continuing into his graduate years, Dearborn's early entries detail his observations and travel to places such as New England, Alaska, Hawaii, New Zealand, and Antarctica, to name a few. His early entries are simple in structure but very regimented and task-based; many entries consist almost entirely of lists of birds or other natural specimens that Dearborn happened to observe during his trips, particularly in the New England area.
However, as the 1950s continue, Dearborn's entries gradually become longer and more detailed, and slowly he begins to insert more personal details that shed light on who Dearborn was as a person. In my opinion, perhaps the most interesting period in these early years is his time in Antarctica in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Dearborn's entries from this period are interesting not only for the descriptions of his research activities, but also for the more human elements that slip out in his writings. Many of his entries detail activities that he and others used to pass the time while living in Antarctica's inhospitable environment. Movies were perhaps the most common form of entertainment for Dearborn, who often watched several films a day and then took the time to record his impressions. For example, in an entry from January 24, 1959, Dearborn describes the movie The Barefoot Contessa as "lousy," a word he uses again on numerous occasions. Choir practice, ping-pong, reading, writing, studying German, and playing chess were also common activities for Dearborn, as were "bull sessions" with fellow inhabitants and researchers living at McMurdo Station.
In his diary, Dearborn also spends a great deal of time discussing the downsides of life in Antarctica, including dental issues, infrequent showers, supply problems, blizzard conditions, and the difficulty of maintaining contact with people, including a love interest named Iris, in the outside world. What emerges from Dearborn's early diary entries is a picture of a burgeoning academic and biologist, as well as a much-needed human element that is often lost in the pages of journal articles and academic publications. Dearborn's diary is useful not only as a window into Dearborn's life and mind, but also as a study of human isolation and life at the margins of human existence.
- Smithsonian collections related to Antarctica
Geologist Hendrik Albertus Brouwer (1886-1973), on the left in the picture, was the head of the geology department at University of Amsterdam, where his research focused on structural geology and mineralogy. This photograph was taken while he was conducting research in Yellowstone National Park in the United States, most likely in 1935.
In 1936, Brouwer published two articles on the geology of Yellowstone National Park. In one of these ("On the Structure of the Rhyolites in Yellowstone Park," The Journal of Geology, November-December 1936), he stated that during July and August of 1935 he had joined up with researchers who had been conducting research in the Yellowstone-Beartooth-Bighorn region for several years. He mentioned Princeton University professor W. Taylor Thom and Yellowstone's chief naturalist Clyde Max Bauer, and also acknowledged assistance from three students - H. Jansen of the University of Amsterdam, W. H. Pecora of Princeton University, and A. Howard of Columbia University.
The other person shown in the photograph was not identified in any accompanying materials.
Can you help the Smithsonian Institution Archives identify the young man on the right? Was he perhaps one of the geology students?
- Science Service collections at the Smithsonian Institution Archives
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