The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Cities/Places
When I began doing oral history interviews at the Smithsonian in 1974, I went to see Louise Daniel Hutchinson (1928-2014) of the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum, now the Anacostia Community Museum (ACM). She was a pioneer in community oral history and experimented with new media, such as video, that captured settings and body language. She maintained the highest standards of scholarship at the same time that she welcomed the inexperienced, those outside the ivy-covered walls of academe. Her dedication to African American history was infectious, and she had a major effect on the development of the Anacostia Museum.
Born in 1928 in Ridge, Maryland, Hutchinson’s parents were teachers and civil rights activists in the District of Columbia. As a college student, she sat-in at lunch counters and attended the arguments for Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. She received her B.A. from Howard University in 1951 and pursued graduate studies in sociology. She married Ellsworth W. Hutchinson, Jr., and worked as a substitute teacher as they raised six children. After the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Hutchinson reassessed her life and decided she had to make more major contributions to improve the world for her children. As she was looking for an outlet, she was asked to take on an education project at the National Portrait Gallery that would focus on working with the District of Columbia public schools. So in 1971 she became a researcher at the Portrait Gallery, working on the African American portraiture of William Harmon and Winold Reiss, with a goal of linking to the local community. She also contributed to the exhibit The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution while creating a solid program of educational activities.
By that time, the Smithsonian was beginning to change a bit. Secretary S. Dillon Ripley had created the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum in 1967 to reach out to the local African American communities that rarely visited the Mall museums. Community activist John Kinard was named director, and he brought Hutchinson to the Museum in 1974 to direct its Research Center. She quickly began a series of dynamic programs that engaged the community. The museum was housed in an old movie theater which a cadre of volunteers helped convert to a museum. The Anacostia Historical Society grew under her watchful eye, and she created a research center where locals brought their treasured bibles and photographs for preservation.
Hutchinson curated several ground-breaking exhibits, such as The Anacostia Story: 1608-1930, Out of Africa: From West African Kingdoms to Colonization, and Black Women: Achievements Against the Odds. Meticulously researched, they were accompanied by books that made this history available to a broader audience. Smithsonian administrators had viewed the Anacostia site as a temporary exhibit venue to attract visitors to the Mall, not an actual museum. Hutchinson worked hard to redefine the museum's mission and eventually succeeded "against the odds" in making it a full scale museum. But she and her colleagues had to overcome significant inertia and even opposition on the Mall. The museum's Research Center collected a wealth of materials on African American history, including interviews of community members. She ensured that the contributions of the Anacostia and wider African American community were recognized in the historical record, and then shared that information with K-12 teachers and their students, community members, scholars and college students alike. She also rewrote Smithsonian history with her book, Kind Regards of S. G. Brown, on Professor Solomon Brown, the first African American employee at the Smithsonian who spent 54 years at the Institution.
Hutchinson was always busy, but never too busy to mentor younger folks who needed guidance. Always generous with her time and expertise, Hutchinson placed the Anacostia Community Museum on a firm foundation and developed a cadre of young people to carry her work forward.
Please listen to the following audio clips from the oral history interviews with Louise Daniel Hutchinson:
- Louise Hutchinson on the impact of the Martin Luther King , Jr. assassination on her work.
- Louise Hutchinson on working against all odds.
- Solomon Brown: First African American Employee at the Smithsonian Institution, online exhibition, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Eminent scholar leaves lasting legacy, East of the River DC News
- Record Unit 9588: Oral history interviews with Louise Daniel Hutchinson, 1987, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- A wonderful graphic of the history of the National Mall using its museums, memorials, and significant events. [via Washington Post]
- This past week was #AskACurator day and the folks at the National Museum of American History shared some of their favorite questions they received. [O Say Can You See? blog, NMAH]
- As part of it celebration for Hispanic Heritage Month, the Library of Congress launched an online selection from its Archive of Hispanic Literature on Tape. [via InfoDocket]
- Connections between Herman Melville and the Smithsonian's first Secretary, Joseph Henry, found! [via Unbound blog, Smithsonian Libraries]
- A look at the steps involved in putting on an Archives of American Art exhibition. [via Archives of American Art blog]
- The National Archives and Records Administration recently released new guidance for metadata requirements for transferring electronic records. [via InfoDocket]
- Congrats to the Biodiversity Heritage Library for making Wired's list of 103 Must-Follow Feeds in Science, Culture, Design, and More. [via Wired]
As summer ends, you may be sorting (and labeling) hundreds of digital images from your holiday travels. Or perhaps you used the quiet time to organize family photos, especially those little black and white prints you inherited years ago and squirreled away in a box. Who were these people? Where were they standing? Is that Aunt Mabel? Is that the Grand Canyon in the background?
Archivists face similar problems when they encounter caches of unlabeled family or travel photographs amongst some scientist’s professional correspondence files.
Here is an example of how you might help in identifying one such set.
On August 13, 1925, Science Service managing director Watson Davis sailed to Europe on his first trip abroad. After debarking at Plymouth, England, on August 22, Davis headed to Southampton, where he attended the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. He then traveled to France (where he had an introduction to Marie Curie but did not apparently gain an audience) and to Germany (where he had a brief meeting with Albert Einstein). He returned to the United States on October 10 via the S.S. Republic.
Like tourists today, Davis snapped photographs of the countryside, famous cathedrals, and other sites. He most likely used the same German-made ICA Victrix folding camera he had purchased in May and had used during his western train trip in June and at the Scopes anti-evolution trial in July.
Among dozens of unlabeled photographs in Box 404 of Record Unit 7091 (the same box in which the Scopes photographs were found) are fourteen prints once inside a crumbling brown envelope labeled “England Miscellaneous Views Sept. 1925 W.D.”
We know the photographer and the date. Some of the subjects (e.g., the white cliffs of Dover) seem familiar; others are not so easily recognized.
Can you help the Smithsonian Institution Archives with definitive identification of the sights that Watson photographed in 1925?
- Science Service, Up Close blog post series, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Science Service collections at the Smithsonian Institution Archives
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