The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Conservation
I was recently given the opportunity to work as a Collections Care Intern at the Smithsonian Institution Archives for the months of November and December 2015, under the supervision and partnership of the Archives’ Collections Care Team. During my short time here, I worked on two parallel projects focused on surveying, preserving, and treating oversized archival collections: one here at the Archives, and the other at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.
Smithsonian Institution Archives
The oversized collections that I worked with at the Archives mainly consisted of architectural drawings, reproductions, and photographs, though there were also panoramic photos, maps, and drawings present. The storage and conditions these objects are housed in are designed for long term storage, prioritizing preservation and stability. All are stored flat in archival folders within metal drawers. The standard drawer size for oversized materials is 1.75”h x 50”w x 38.5”d, although we have a limited number of larger drawers. There were relatively few preservation issues in this collection (or at least the small percentage of the collection that I saw). The most common ones I came across included documents sustaining damage from being stored in folders that were too small or being attached with staples, tape, or paperclips; as well as rips, tears, and varying levels of grime. These were flagged for future treatment, though I did get to perform some surface cleaning and mending on a few of them.
One of the main goals of the survey I performed was to find solutions to maximize the space within these metal drawers without compromising the quality of storage. This meant making sure that all of the objects were in the smallest size folder that could contain them, and arranging them in the drawers in a systematic manner. Proposed drawer divisions were drawn up to reflect this format using standard size folders, and during the survey, items that could be rehoused were noted. Though it may not seem like it, rehousing these documents in appropriately sized folders and reorganizing the drawers cuts the space needed to store them by a significant margin. When you are working on a collection as large in size as the one that is housed here, space is a precious commodity.
National Museum of Natural History
While I was working on the collections at the Archives, I also assisted with a similar project in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History’s maps collection. These are maps collected by Smithsonian researchers for planning and during their expeditions on behalf of the Institution, and are considered Associated Collection Assets. With a history of diverse storage and access among the many units at NMMH, recent efforts have made great progress to catalog, digitize, and provide unified storage locations for them. While great gains have been made by the collection manager and a team of dedicated volunteers to adopt flat files, locate and manage the maps in a consistent way, due to limited resources for this non-accessioned collection, there remains lots of room for improvement.
Proper storage is important to avoid inducing or worsening extant damage. Many of these drawers appeared to be overstuffed with little or no protective housing around any of the maps, and the usual vinyl dust covers found in standard flat files are degrading. Small but bulky items were bundled together in the drawer with elastic bands, which are not recommended for use in archival situations, as they degrade rapidly and pop off, causing disorder, and worse, stick to and stain adjacent objects.
Our main goal with these collections was to find storage solutions that were inexpensive and easy to incorporate. Introducing a variety of sizes of sturdy archival folders as a storage technique to group bundles of items, divided at sensible points by their catalog and/or size, for all of the items in a drawer was one such solution. It resulted in the items being protected within the drawers, and increased the ease of organization and handling of the oversized items. Elastic bands were replaced with cotton ties (loosely tied with the library knot, also known as an herbarium knot), and (similar to the storage solution at the Archives) drawer divisions were proposed using standard sized folders, and trays to hold the smaller and folded maps, which help to lift the smaller items at once to access folders beneath, increasing efficiency and reducing handling and loss to the back of the drawer.
Lastly, we held a mini-workshop on mending techniques for torn maps, improving technique which assists the volunteers to prepare vulnerable maps for safer scanning.
Maps Catalog, National Museum of Natural History
The Squeaky Wheel Gets the Grease: A Custom Storage Solution for an Unusual Collection, The Bigger Picture Blog, Smithosnian Institution Archives
Panoramic Panic Part III, The Bigger Picture Blog, Smithosnian Institution Archives
On Visit the Zoo Day, a look at a unique exhibition at the National Zoological Park, the National Museum of Natural History, and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden: “Animal In Art,” an exhibit and series of “sketch-ins,” that were part of an international campaign for the World Wildlife Fund in the late 1970s.
On afternoons in the winter of 1977-78, Alice the Spider Monkey was more than just an endangered animal living at the National Zoological Park. She was the playful muse to artists, professional and amateur alike. Armed with pads and pencils provided by the Zoo, adults and children in puffy winter coats, faces close to the glass, captured Alice’s likeness as she climbed the bars of her habitat. The artists sketched under the guidance of Zoo staff and local artists, on hand to provide help and critique as the pieces came together.
Alice and other endangered animals like her at the National Zoo were the live models during a series of “sketch-ins” as part of “Animal in Art,” a number of concurrent worldwide exhibitions supporting the World Wildlife Fund. These “sketch-ins” brought participants together to create their own unique pieces that would later be on display at the Zoo. The Zoo described this experience as getting to know Alice and the other animals in “one of the most intense ways there is—transferring its essence into art.”
Creating a connection between the public and endangered wildlife was at the heart of the “Animal in Art” exhibitions, which took place in over 30 museums in 10 countries, kicking off in the Fall of 1977. Internationally, visitors could see a unique “Animal in Art” exhibition at the Prado in Madrid, The British Museum in London, and the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul, alongside other museums in India, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa, Switzerland, Turkey, and (as it was known then) West Germany. While each exhibit showcased the individual museum’s collections, they all offered a historic look at mankind’s “perception of animals” in art, as well as highlighted the endangered species the WWF was working to save. It was an undertaking that had never been done by the cultural heritage community before on such an international scale.
The National Zoo was not the only participant from the Smithsonian Institution. Pictures taken by Kjell Sandved, a behavioral scientists and renowned nature photographer, were on display at the National Museum of Natural History. Sixty of Sandved’s color photos—with subjects ranging from beetles to piranhas to koala bears—were hung by the balcony around the Elephant Rotunda. The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden’s “Animal in Art” exhibit featured more than fifty paintings, some never before on display. Artists showcased included Alexander Calder, Alberto Giocometti, Albert Pinkham Ryder, Joseph Stella and Marsden Hartley.
The Smithsonian-wide events kicked off in October 1977, alongside exhibits in London and Zurich. Stateside, there were opening night events and a film series at the Hirshhorn, as well as a benefit concert by John Denver at the Kennedy Center. Other US museums, including the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and four museums at Yale University, also took part in the international exhibition.
In conjunction with the exhibitions, art historian Lord Kenneth Clark wrote a book about animals in art, the proceeds for which went to the WWF. Clark was an international symbol in his own right, famous for hosting the “Civilization” television series, and described as the “quintessential English gentleman…a picture of patrician grace, amiable, knowledgeable and ever so assured,” by People magazine in 1977.
As Clark wrote in another art history book, “Often in looking at the natural and animal world we joyfully identify ourselves with what we see and from this happy union create a work of art.” It’s that artistic exploration which defined the innovative “Animals in Art” exhibition and helped connect the public with endangered wildlife across the globe—whether it was a museum-goer, a professional artist, or a D.C. child sketching Alice the Spider Monkey.
SIA RU000326, National Zoological Park (U.S.) Office of the Director, Records, circa 1920-1984, Smithsonian Institution Archives.
SIA RU000613, Smithsonian Institution Office of the Secretary, Administrative Records, 1972-1984, Smithsonian Institution Archives.
SIA RU000481, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden Dept. of Painting and Sculpture, Exhibition Records, 1968-1993, Smithsonian Institution Archives.