The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Cities/Places
What's in a word? It is hard to know without knowing what that word is. Here at the Archives we are surrounded by words. Words on documents, in field books, diaries and more; however, it is rare that we know what those words are. With a countless number of words, it seems an insurmountable feat to transcribe - that is, read documents and then keyboard them so that they can be searched and made available digitally - even a quarter of our collections to discover the great stories about history that lie within our holdings.
For instance, 150 years ago today, Mary Henry, daughter of first Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry, visited Washington, DC's Navy Yard. Upon reaching her destination, Mary saw an ironclad, a steam-propelled warship covered by iron or steel plates, resting in the water awaiting repairs. How do we know this? Mary, an avid diarist, detailed her excursion in an entry which was transcribed several years ago. She wrote, "She [the ironclad] is a flat boat only a few inches above the water with nothing to be seen upon her iron plated deck but a steam pipe a tall pipe for ventilation a few little holes here & there for the same purpose which are tightly closed however when the boat is at sea, and a round turret." Mary not only admired the ship from ashore, but climbed into the turret "through a small opening & saw her great guns. One of them is a monster the other some what [sic] smaller but large enough to make me shiver at the thought of the damage she might do." Mary's powerful words about the ironclad act as a microcosm for the profound impact historians have noted that these ships had on naval warfare during the Civil War. Without this transcription, an interesting note in Smithsonian history would be much more difficult to find.
With all these words and not enough time to transcribe how can we uncover these stories? Here is where you can come in. The Smithsonian's new Transcription Center has opened for business and needs volunteers to dive into our collections and help us discover new and interesting information about the Smithsonian, its history and its people. So please go check it out and help with transcribing so we can find out what is in our collections' words.
- Mary Henry Diary, 1858-1863 - Transcription Center, Smithsonian Institution
- Mary Henry: Eyewitness to the Civil War, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Record Unit 7001 - Joseph Henry Collection, 1796-1951, c. 1974, 1981-1983 - Series 18 contains Mary Henry’s Diaries, Smithsonian Institution Archives
It's hard to imagine the National Museum of American History, entrenched as it is on the National Mall, situated anywhere else in Washington, DC. However, did you know that the museum could have been located in Southwest Washington? While researching the museum's early history, I stumbled upon this anecdote in former Museum of History and Technology (now known as the National Museum of American History) director Frank A. Taylor’s oral history interviews.
Mid-century real estate mogul William Zeckendorf, through his company Webb and Knapp, set his sights on redeveloping Southwest Washington in the early 1950s. Webb and Knapp encouraged the federal government to build there, as they believed a government investment in the area would ease their own economic burden. The government would pay for the infrastructure of road, water, power, sewer lines, and other utilities. Around this time, the Smithsonian Institution was trying to get legislation passed to create the future National Museum of American History. Webb and Knapp learned about this legislation, which placed the museum at its current Constitution Avenue site, and tried to move it to Southwest Washington.
In his interview, Taylor revealed that then-Smithsonian Secretary Leonard Carmichael wished to compromise, believing that a new Smithsonian museum established in Southwest Washington was better than no new museum at all. Assistant Secretaries John L. Keddy and John E. Graf disagreed with Carmichael, creating tension amongst the staff. Frank Taylor also argued in favor of the Mall location, stating in his oral history interview that he felt "if we were going to serve the public, this is where we ought to be." At the time, all of the Smithsonian Institution buildings - the Freer Gallery of Art, the National Museum of Natural History, the Arts and Industries Building, and the Smithsonian Castle - were located on the Mall. According to Taylor's interviews, staff worried that a museum located in Southwest Washington would have lost a lot of traffic generated by those museums, the National Gallery of Art, Capitol Hill, and the nearby monuments.
Webb and Knapp had some powerful allies in Congress. Congressman James C. Auchincloss, prominent member of the House Public Works Committee responsible for the museum's future, pushed for the Southwest Washington location. While the amended bill giving the National Capital Planning Commission control over the museum's location was brought forth in 1954, Auchincloss' sole objection defeated this bill, as he wanted an explicitly stated Southwest Washington location for the museum. Ultimately, this was the best decision for advocates of the Mall location, as the National Capital Planning Commission could have been pressured to put the new museum in Southwest Washington. A new bill authorizing the creation and construction of the Museum of History and Technology was passed in 1957, again specifying its Constitution Avenue location. We do not know why Auchincloss did not object to that plan, as Webb and Knapp still had a presence in Southwest Washington. Taylor speculated that Zeckendorf's declining fortunes led to decreased influence in Congress. The museum later opened in January 1964.
Had Zeckendorf's Plan succeeded, it would have had a significant impact on the Smithsonian's future development. As Taylor remarked, "I'm not sure that we had any great dedication to a master plan, but it probably did influence the future decisions as to where to put the Air and Space Museum and the Hirshhorn [Museum and Sculpture Garden]." We can only guess how a Southwest location would have changed the National Museum of American History, but it would have permanently altered the National Mall's cultural landscape.
- History of the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Record Unit 9512 - Oral history interviews with Frank A. Taylor 1974, 1979-1980, 1982, 2005, Smithsonian Institution Archives
While researching my last blog post on the "mad wolf" who escaped from the National Zoo, I came across an old black-and-white photograph in the Smithsonian Institution Archives that caught my eye. The image is grainy, but appears to show a man and a wolf, separated by a chain-link fence, holding each other's rapt attention while the man operates some sort of recorder. Unable to shake the curious image from my mind, I decided to dig through the city's various archives to see if I could learn more.
It turns out the photograph was taken at the National Zoo around mid-afternoon on Wednesday, September 22, 1908. The man in the photograph was an employee at Droop & Sons, a musical supply store on Pennsylvania Avenue. Several representatives from Belasco's Theater stood nearby, just outside the frame, impatiently puffing cigars. A reporter in attendance explained that they had all come "to collect sundry the howls of timber wolves on a phonograph record" (Record Unit 74, Box 287 - National Zoological Park, Records, 1887-1966)
The managers of the Belasco planned to use the recorded howls in their production of "The Wolf," a new melodrama scheduled to open in less than a week. Set in the remote Canadian frontier, the play had just completed a successful run at the Lyric Theater in New York City, where the show's creator, Eugene Walter, had devised an ingenious gimmick. He carried a phonograph machine to the Bronx Zoo, where he recorded the cries of seven hungry wolves, and then replayed the "blood-curdling wolf howls" during the most dramatic moment of the third act. By all accounts, the howls struck a chilling cord. "The effect is so realistic that the audience are said to hold their breath, expecting the animals to rush upon the stage," the trade literature gushed ("Real Wolf Howls," Edison Phonograph Monthly, June 1908, p. 11).
Now that "The Wolf" was scheduled to play the Belasco in Washington, DC, Walter sought to repeat the same gimmick using wolves from the National Zoo. Although it required several trips to the Zoo's home at Rock Creek Park, managers from the Belasco eventually got a "true record of the howling of timber wolves." Local critics were suitably impressed, marveling that "audiences witnessing 'The Wolf' will have the satisfaction of knowing that the atmosphere of the Canadian backwoods is really something more than mechanical, and that the blood-curdling howls emanate from the throat of real wolves, transported to the stage via the record of the talking machine" ("Howl of Wolves via Phonograph," Washington Times, September 27, 1908, p. 2). Audiences ate it up, and so the same gimmick was repeated each time the production traveled to a new city.
Although it might not seem like it, the play's use of cutting-edge technology to augment the American theatergoing experience places "The Wolf" in the same grand tradition as other cultural milestones, like The Jazz Singer, The Wizard of Oz, and Toy Story. In the case of "The Wolf," however, it wasn't just the technology that was significant. After all, the Edison Phonograph Machine had been around for more than 30 years, and had already reached millions of Americans thanks to the increasingly ubiquitous nickelodeon theater.
Instead, "The Wolf" signaled change of a different sort. For the first time in human history, hearing the wolf's howl did not portend immediate danger. Although wolves had once roamed all of North America, they had been largely extirpated from the eastern half of the United States by the time Walter's play debuted, and were quickly disappearing from the western half as well. Humanity might have lost the wolf's howl altogether had technology not intervened at just the right moment. The phonograph allowed us to salvage the animal's haunting lamentation, if not the animal itself, and redistribute its disembodied wail across its former range.
More than a century has passed since Eugene Walter's special effects first echoed through the Belasco Theater, and the wolf's howl is now more remote than ever. Speaking from my own experience, I've heard wolves howl in countless movies, but never in real life, never with my own two ears. Determined to change this fact, I recently paid several visits to the National Zoo in search of the genuine article. For weeks, my efforts proved futile. It turns out wolves are no more willing to howl on command today than they were in 1908.
I had almost decided to give up when one of the zookeepers informed me that the wolves sometimes howl when they hear police sirens in the distance. I decided to give it one last shot. With the zookeepers' assistance (thanks Rebecca Miller and Christina Castiglioni!), I played recorded police sirens over the park's public address system early one morning, and documented the wolves' reactions on my own piece of cutting-edge technology (an iPhone 4). One of the wolves on the Zoo's American Trail paid us no mind, but the other, a nine-year-old female named Crystal, was immediately curious.
The quality is not great, but if you ignore the ambient static and the canned sirens, you can clearly discern the same sonorous howl that first thrilled theatergoers more than a century ago (particularly around the 0:50 mark). What's less clear is whether a howl that emanates from a hand-raised wolf behind a chain-link fence in a concrete jungle still counts as the "call of the wild" in any sense of the phrase. But that's for another blog post.
- Since 1887, the Smithsonian has hosted more than a hundred gray wolves, including the two currently on display at the Rock Creek Campus.
- Check out Luis Jiménez's beautiful painting, Howl, in the collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which captures the wolf's emotive cry better than most photographs.
- Biologist Gudrun Pflueger has spent a lifetime studying gray wolves and is now among the world's foremost authorities. Later this month, the Smithsonian Channel will air a new documentary about her remarkable life. If you can't wait that long, you can always head over to the Smithsonian's YouTube channel, where Dr. Pflueger will teach you how to howl like a wolf.
- Some of you may have noticed that the title of my blog is drawn from Jack London's remarkable classic, The Call of the Wild (1903). Fans of the author can check out this portrait held at the National Portrait Gallery to see what he looked like just before he made it big.
- Record Unit 7267 - Vernon Orlando Bailey Papers, 1889-1941 and undated, Smithsonian Institution Archives – Bailey was the Chief Field Naturalist for the U. S. Biological Survey, the organization charged with eradicating wolves from the United States
- Record Unit 7174 - Stanley Paul Young Papers, 1921-1965, Smithsonian Institution Archives – During his lifetime, Young was the nation's foremost expert on the history and biology of North American wolves
- Richard Lynch Garner Papers, 1891-1941, National Anthropological Archives – Garner was one of the first people to view the phonograph machine as a scientific instrument. His recordings of primate vocalizations were groundbreaking.
This post was originally meant to be published on October 9, 2013, but due to the federal government shutdown was delayed until now.
Just like the Capitol Building and the White House, the Washington Monument is instantly recognizable thanks to countless images both from the ground and air. Viewers are familiar with TV shows and films that feature a shot of the monument that reveals the location as Washington, D.C.
The 555-foot tall structure that honors George Washington's leadership during the American Revolution marks its 125th anniversary today as it officially opened in 1888.
Building of the monument started in 1848 and continued until 1884, with construction breaks due to funding challenges, political issues, and the Civil War. The monument even came up during a Board of Regents meeting in 1846 - the year the Smithsonian was established - during a discussion of land for the Institution:
Resolved, That the Regents of the Smithsonian Institution do select and adopt, as the site for their buildings, so much of the Mall, in the city of Washington, as lies between Seventh street and the river Potomac, subject to the power of Congress to grant any portion of the same west of Fourteenth street to the Washington Monument Society, for the purpose of erecting a monument thereon, if the consent of the persons named in the fourth section of the act to establish the Smithsonian Institution for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men be obtained thereto; and that, upon such consent being obtained in due form, the Secretary is hereby instructed to cause the said ground so selected to be set out by proper metes and bounds.
The monument was dedicated February 21, 1885, and the iron staircase inside was publicly accessible in 1886, according to the National Park Service. The monument though was closed to the public for most of 1887 because of vandalism by visitors. The Los Angeles Times reported in May 1887 that marble was chipped throughout the monument and bronze letters on a memorial stone were missing, in addition to scratches and names being etched onto the stones. These stones embedded in the walls were from individuals, societies, states, and nations.
The 1888 opening we celebrate today was the start of the public elevator service. The Washington Post reported that 32 people made that inaugural trip on October 9 after a few test runs by the crew. The elevator made it all the way up without any problems, but the reporter pointed out that a worker had climbed up some steps within the monument, got on top of the elevator, and actually rode on it to monitor the cables on the trip up. The article reported the view was amazing but the air was cold.
The monument now is covered in scaffolding and is closed while repairs are being done because of damage sustained during an August 23, 2011 5.8 magnitude earthquake in Mineral, Virginia. This event though was not unprecedented because in 1884 workers on top of the monument felt the effects of an earthquake in Ohio. No damage was reported then. Restoration work also was done from 1996-2000.
The monument is expected to reopen in 2014.
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