The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
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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
Secretary S. Dillion Ripley commissioned Charles Eames to design a structure for the carousel located on the National Mall. The pavilion was intended to protect it from the elements and allow the carousel to be enjoyed year round. Although never realized, Eames did produce a sketch and a model of the structure.
- A Favorite - The Smithsonian Carousel, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Happy 2014, everyone! New beginnings go hand-in-hand with a new year, and we are excited to announce that our Greetings from the Smithsonian postcard exhibit has received its own new beginning! The exhibit now has an updated look, and we added a lot of new content and over 100 new postcards to the postcard image galleries.
In preparing to revamp the exhibit, we first had to go through the Archives' collections and find all of the postcards from the old version, as well as locate new postcards to put in the exhibit. Luckily we found hundreds of postcards in our collections, and most of them were not on the old site. Consequently, some of our image galleries are brand-new, like the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden Gallery and National Zoo Gallery. Some of my favorite postcards are in the National Zoo image gallery - many of them are richly colored linen postcards with amazingly detailed images of the animals at the zoo. These linen postcards can be found in several other image galleries as well, and each one is striking in its complexity and beauty.
After locating all of the postcards for the exhibit, I had to digitize and catalog most of them. This task was not particularly tricky, until it came to determining the date of our postcards, because many of them are unused. Some of you may remember my blog post from last summer about dating unused postcards - the new postcard exhibit has an even more thorough guide for dating postcards! The Dating Guide contains detailed information about postcard size and postage, as well as references to other resources, including our guide to Postcard History. The history guide in the new exhibit contains information about the styles and trends of the postcard industry. Particularly fascinating to me are the early stages of postcard development, and how different some of these postcards are from those that we use today. For example, during the Private Mailing Card and Post Card periods (collectively 1898-1907), most postcards did not have space for a message! One side of the card was designated as exclusively for the recipient's address, and the other side typically contained an image, leaving no room for a message from the sender. There were exceptions to this seemingly strange feature of postcards, but you will have to read the Postcard History to find out about them!
Now, you may be wondering, where does the Smithsonian fit into all of this, besides the fact that we have postcards? What makes our postcards so special from the millions of others in the world and throughout history? Well, just like how the postcard industry went through an evolution of style and design, the postcards from the Smithsonian underwent their own unique evolution. Our History of Postcards at the Smithsonian is a completely new feature and traces the evolution of the Smithsonian postcard.
We are excited to have the new version of the exhibit up, and we hope that you will enjoy the additions and improvements that we made - let us know what you think!
- Greetings from the Smithsonian: A Postcard History of the Smithsonian, online exhibition, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- The Mystery of the Undated Postcards, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
On the evening of January 22, 1964, the Smithsonian hosted an A-List party to dedicate its newest museum, the Museum of History and Technology, now the National Museum of American History. The building was the dream of its first director, Frank A. Taylor, who had joined the National Museum staff after high school, and after graduate school, advanced to Curator, Director, and Director General of all Smithsonian museums. When Taylor returned from World War II, he recalled in an oral history interview, the exhibits in the old National Museum buildings looked shabby and out of date. He first led an Exhibits Modernization Program, which oversaw the renovation of all the National Museum's exhibits from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s. The new exhibits attracted new interest in the Institution among the U. S. Congress and donors. The Smithsonian had been attempting to establish a separate history museum since the 1920s, but had met with little support. Taylor initially sought to build a museum of technology, like the Deutsches Museum in Germany, but was convinced to include plans for a museum of American history. With the support of the new Secretary, Leonard Carmichael, legislation was signed into law on June 31, 1956, creating the new museum. The first modern building on the National Mall, the new museum opened with ten exhibit halls completed, with an additional fifty opening in the following years.
Former history teacher and Smithsonian supporter President Lyndon Johnson dedicated the building on January 22, at a black tie party attended by Members of Congress, philanthropists, Smithsonian Regents, and many other distinguished guests. The party was not without its hiccups, Taylor recalled. The U. S. Secret Service was present since the President was speaking, and they sprang into action when someone accidently bumped against the stage light switch and turned it off. Shortly thereafter, the wife of a member of the Smithsonian Board of Regents could no longer see her husband on stage. He was recovering from a serious heart attack, so she alerted the Secret Service, who once again sprang into action, only to find he had moved his seat a bit and was hidden behind another person. But overall the party was a great success, setting the stage for the Secretary-elect S. Dillon Ripley, who assumed office that week and oversaw the Institution's great period of growth from 1964 to 1984.
The Museum opened to the public on January 23rd, and in the first weekend, 54,000 people visited the new Museum. The new halls included the Flag Hall, First Ladies' Hall, and the halls of Everyday Life in the American Past, American Costume, Farm Machinery, Light Machinery, Tools, Vehicles, Railroads, as well as a temporary exhibition presenting examples of exhibits to be installed in other halls of the building.
So we send out congratulations for a happy 50th anniversary to the National Museum of American History and all the staff and volunteers who have made it a success in the past five decades!
- National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Record Unit 285 - National Museum of History and Technology, Office of the Director, Photographs, 1920s-1970s, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Record Unit 9512 - Oral history interviews with Frank A. Taylor 1974, 1979-1980, 1982, 2005, Smithsonian Institution Archives
One of the questions most frequently asked of anyone with a badge on the National Mall is "Where is the Smithsonian?" Many visitors assume that the Smithsonian is a single building where they can see the 1903 Wright Flyer, the Ruby Slippers, and the Hope Diamond all under one roof.
The often confusing reality is that the Smithsonian is actually made up of 19 museums, the National Zoo, and 9 research centers. Many of the museums are along the National Mall, but others are scattered around Washington, DC and the surrounding region. There are even two Smithsonian museums in New York City and research facilities in locations as diverse as Massachusetts, Florida, Arizona, Panama, and Belize.
To address the question at the beginning of this post, the Visitor Information and Associates' Reception Center (now the Office of Visitor Services) published a flyer in March 1985 encouraging visitors to stop by the Smithsonian Institution Building (better known as "The Castle") for an orientation. The flyer – appropriately titled "Where is the Smithsonian?" – is illustrated with a frazzled woman attempting to find her way while dealing with two impatient children. On the back is a map of the museums along or near the National Mall.
The flyer was updated several times during the 1980s. Today, the Castle is still the place to go for an in-person orientation, but many visitors go to the Smithsonian's website to plan their trips. And for those who want that modern equivalent to carrying around a map, there's an app for that.
- Accession 14-034 - Office of Visitor Services, Publications, 1959, 1973-2013, Smithsonian Institution Archives