The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Cities/Places
One of the best things about my internship this summer is the interaction between archival research and the living world beyond the walls of the Smithsonian.
Step outside any of the Smithsonian buildings around the National Mall and you’ll be sure to hear a symphony of cheeps, chirps, and coos from the birds who call the Mall home. Each day I make it a priority to spend time in one of the beautiful spaces created and maintained through the hard work of Smithsonian Gardens. The Fountain Garden in the Enid A. Haupt Garden and the curvilinear windings of the Mary Livingston Ripley Garden are quickly becoming personal favorites. Amidst the serenity of these thoughtfully cultivated landscapes, the lively abundance of passerines (also known as perching birds, or songbirds) never ceases to delight and amuse me.
Inside the walls of the Smithsonian there is a long-standing tradition of ornithology. As part of my internship, I’ve been working on the oral history interviews of Roxie Collie Laybourne, or “Roxie” as she is simply and affectionately called. Roxie worked in the Smithsonian’s Division of Birds from 1944 until 1988, and remained active as a research associate until her death in 2003. While her greatest achievement is the establishment of the field of forensic ornithology, Roxie is fondly remembered in the hearts of many for her weekly bird-skinning classes, hosted on Thursday evenings in the basement of the Natural History Building. The class was offered free of charge, and was open to any person who expressed an interest in attending.
The birds most commonly used in class were those collected around the National Mall, including common starlings, house sparrows, and brown-headed cowbirds. In a 2001 interview, Roxie commented that the equally abundant doves were less desirable because “doves lose their feathers very easily, they are usually fat, and most of the time you skin one and [laughter] you may not have much left but the head!” At the heart of the class was the desire for a fuller appreciation of the beauty of natural history, and of birds in particular. Listen to Roxie talk about her work at the Smithsonian in the audio clip below.
Roxie Collie Laybourne talking about her work at the Smithsonian.
Today there are new opportunities for learning about birds and their lives. On July 25, 2012, Smithsonian Gardens established the Urban Bird Habitat Garden outside of the Natural History Museum. The garden has been planted with native trees, shrubs, and perennials to provide food, shelter, and nesting areas for local birds. Today, the habitat garden even boasts its own snag, providing a home for cavity-nesters such as woodpeckers, bluebirds, and chickadees!
Unfortunately a new teacher has yet to take up the challenge of weekly bird-skinning tutorials. But you can see mounts of all of our local birds in the Birds of D.C. exhibit on the ground floor of the Natural History Museum.
- Video of Gray Catbird Singing at the Castle, Gabrielle F. Graham
- Video of Birds Bathing in National Botanic Garden, Gabrielle F. Graham
- The Smithsonian Urban Bird Habitat, Smithsonian Gardens
- Birds seen around the National Museum of Natural History, Encyclopedia of Life
- Record Unit 9610 - Oral history interviews with Roxie Collie S. Laybourne, 2001, Smithsonian Institution Archives
In the summer of 2013, my family and I took a vacation that was decades in the making. I actually consider it a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. More than 20 years ago my father and I talked about going on a Route 66 road trip, but it did not happen as life got busier with careers, moves, children, and other daily routines. We decided that it was finally time to do it – even if it meant only part of the 2,400-plus-mile road would be traveled due to time, expenses, and other constraints. The Mother Road goes from Chicago to Los Angeles (or Santa Monica Pier, depending on whom you ask).
My husband and I previously had traveled the iconic road from Chicago to St. Louis in two trips. Of course, this was before the explosion of the Internet, GPS devices, digital cameras, and apps that can make traveling easier. The road was decommissioned in 1985 and had been on the decline for decades as interstates made travel faster.
The 10-day journey comprised three generations in a borrowed family vehicle. The starting point was San Bernardino, California, taking a pass on Los Angeles this time. We went about 800 miles into Arizona and New Mexico on the route most the time (a decommissioned road means some rough spots and mysterious or missing segments). There were side trips to the Grand Canyon and El Morro National Monument in New Mexico. We were treated to beautiful landscapes, wild burros in Oatman, Arizona, iconic Route 66 signage, and lots of old roadside lodging and diner options you won’t find near the interstates. My boys even got to enjoy a movie at drive-in theater for the first time.
Not only are vacations about places but people as well. My father and I had a nice conversation with Mauricio Perez of Seligman, Arizona. The family runs a popular gift shop, and his father-in-law is Angel Delgadillo, 87, who is considered one of Route 66’s biggest supporters through his efforts to revitalize the highway after its decommissioning. We even talked about how the Delgadillo family is featured in the America on the Move exhibition at the National Museum of American History. Perez said they needed to take a trip east to Washington, D.C., to see it.
The allure of Route 66 has grown in the decades since its closing and attracts visitors from all over the world. Delgadillo, who is a barber, was giving a haircut to a filmmaker from Spain working on a Route 66 special while we were there.
Of course, we tried to document as much as we could through our cameras, resulting in lots of digital photos (there were more cameras than travelers). I did upload the images to my computer as soon as I got home and also printed the ones that I considered special for display. But a year later I still need to finish the job of deleting some of the images that I don’t need to keep and were missed during a first review (blurry ones, duplicates taken from inside the car by the youngest passengers, etc.), as well as making sure metadata is there.
There also are steps you can take before and during the trip to get the most out of the memories you are making:
- Get to know your camera/s before the trip especially if it is new. Most digital cameras have multiple options these days that you might want to use, such as a timestamp on the image. Some cameras and smartphone cameras also have GPS capability, which will note in the metadata of where the image was taken as a geotag. Take the instruction manual along if you have space for it.
- Delete blurry photos when you have down time (waiting for lunch, waiting at the airport, waiting to go on an amusement park ride, etc). Digital cameras allow us to take more pictures than with film, which can be a mixed blessing.
- Try out apps that can track your trip to create a map of the route that can be saved, if you have a tablet or smart phone.
- Write or type up observations while they are fresh in a travel journal/blog.
- Collect impressions of others who travel with you either by video or audio recording or writing them down.
- Consider purchasing some old-fashioned postcards to round out the images especially if you forgot to take some at a particular spot.
Now we just need to complete a St. Louis, Missouri, to Gallup, New Mexico, leg.
- Route 66: The Road and The Romance, online exhibition, The Autry
- The Mystique of Route 66, by David Lamb, Smithsonian Magazine
- Smithsonian Secretary Charles D. Walcott at the Grand Canyon, Record Unit 95 - Photograph Collection, 1850s - , neg. no. 83-14116, Smithsonian Institution Archives