The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
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Many people think of the National Mall in Washington, DC, as one long undifferentiated stretch of green from the base of Capitol Hill to the Washington Monument. In times past, however, parts of the Mall not only had specific names but were covered by structures unimaginable today, including a railroad station and train tracks. The plot bounded by Constitution Avenue on the north, Independence Avenue on the south, Sixth Street on the east and Seventh Street on the west is a good example.
Beginning in 1855, the Armory Building, built to store arms for the city's volunteer militia companies, occupied the southeastern corner of this twenty-two-acre area, which then became known as Armory Park or Armory Square. During the Civil War, the building anchored a hospital complex with multiple temporary structures. After the close of the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876, the Armory Building was used as temporary storage for exhibit materials transferred to the United States National Museum. It was later used by the US Fish and Fisheries Commission (1881-1932). The building stood on the site until 1964. The west end of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum (built 1972-1976) occupies the site today.
In 1887, the head of the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds wrote Spencer F. Baird, secretary of the Smithsonian as well as head of the Fish Commission, to suggest renaming Armory Park in honor of Joseph Henry: "Among the eminent scientists of the present century, no man stood higher in every possible way, than your distinguished predecessor, Prof. Henry." Joseph Henry, a prominent physicist, had been elected in 1846 as the first secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and continued until his death in 1878.
Despite the renaming, the old name persisted. In 1913, fourth Smithsonian Secretary Charles Doolittle Walcott described the site as Armory Square in reference to the proposed (but never built) George Washington Memorial Building, which was to border Constitution Avenue and be administered by the Smithsonian. Four years later, however, when temporary buildings for use of the army and navy departments began to cover the site, official documents referred to the location as Henry Park.
At the time of the renaming in 1887, the northern end of the site was dominated by the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station, which had been built in the mid-1870s, and a 510-ft.-long train shed that extended partway across the Mall. Tracks continued south across the Mall along Sixth Street. The station and tracks were abandoned in 1907 when Union Station was opened; the old station was demolished the following year. Clay tennis courts that had been installed beginning in 1916 were removed in 1936 to make way for the construction of the West Building of the National Gallery of Art (built 1937-1941). Complaints following the demolition of the tennis courts included one from E. Claude Babcock, president of the American Federation of Government Employees and also secretary of the Smithsonian Tennis Association.
A search of old issues of The Washington Post might lead one to conclude that the name "Henry Park" went out of existence with the tennis courts in the mid-1930s. But recently it seems to have resurfaced. A muggle Quidditch tournament was to be held in Henry Park in April 2011, before muddy conditions forced it to relocate. Those planning to attend comedian Jon Stewart's 2010 Rally to Restore Sanity were directed to "an area known (to someone, at least) as East Seaton Park and Henry Park, between 3rd and 7th streets NW on the Mall." In response, a commenter complained, "There is no East Seaton Park, and there is no Henry Park. In fact, people keep moving those labels around the Mall on the Google Maps. It's all the National Mall."
Despite that claim, Henry Park has appeared in the very official Geographic Names Information System, maintained by the United States Geological Survey, since 1991. The entry lists "Armory Grounds" as a variant name. If you follow the link under Mapping Services to "GNIS in Google Map," you will see a red balloon in the correct section of the Mall. But if you click the red balloon to see "feature detail," you are taken to a tiny Henry Park designated by an icon just southwest of the intersection of Constitution and Pennsylvania avenues near the West Wing of the National Gallery of Art. Might the wizards of Hogwarts have something to do with this transformation?
- Record Unit 7471 - George Washington Memorial Association, Records, 1890-1922, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Dian Olson Belanger, "The Railroad in the Park: Washington's Baltimore & Potomac Station, 1872-1907," Washington History, vol. 2, no. 1 (spring 1990), pp. 4-27.
- For information on Henry Park, see Kay Fanning, Cultural Landscape Inventory (Inventory Number 600213), 2006, pp. 12-20 (chronology), and 48 [graphic], and Historic American Buildings Survey No. DC-678, pp. 15, 18, 20, 36-38.
- For additional information on E. Claude Babcock, see Morgan Baker, "The Federal Diary," Washington Post, April 7, 1935.
- World Cup VII, International Quidditch Association
- For all you birders out there - Bowerbirds and their elaborate nests. [via Core77]
- Making collections accessible - The Collections Program Technicians at the National Museum of Natural History. (via Unearthed, NMNH]
- The term "Archive" in a digital context - Different meanings to different people. [via The Signal: Digital Preservation, LOC]
- And the Award goes to . . . University of Southern California Digital Repository, who will manage and preserve a 320-terabyte collection of audiovisual materials created by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences over the last 50 years. [via InfoDocket]
- Whale graveyard mystery solved, it was the algae! [via Ocean Portal, NMNH]
- Digital movies and the difficulties in their preservation versus their film counterparts. [via Lynda Schmitz Fuhrig, SIA]
- With hints of spring coming, it is not early to start thinking about what to plant in your garden this year. The Smithsonian's own Janet Draper offers some advice on what you could do for a 10 x 10 foot bit of land. [via Marcel LaFollette, SIA]
- Go behind the scenes at the Smithsonian-Gale Project. [via Unbound, SIL]
- As the cost of 3D printers continues to go down, their use will most definitely become more commonplace. Premiering at South by Southwest is Print the Legend, the first full length documentary about 3D printing. [via Core77]
When asked what the Smithsonian Institution Archives collects, we say we hold records about the history of the Smithsonian and its people, programs, research, and activities. While accurate, this doesn’t really give anyone a clue about what is actually in those records.
The Smithsonian Institution Archives Reference Term handles an average of around 6,000 queries per year, and if you us what people have been researching at the Archives recently, you’ll get some pretty interesting responses. Although not comprehensive, here’s a snapshot of the diverse range of information encompassed by the history of the world’s largest museum complex!
Over the past three months, researcher projects have included:
- National Museum of American History’s upcoming 50th anniversary
- Theodore Roosevelt’s African expedition
- Post-Modern historicism in exhibits
- History of the American Society of Icthyologists and Herpetologists
- Plant geography
- The Paleontology Hall at the National Museum of Natural History, for renovations to the Dinosaur Hall
- Collecting & interpreting objects relating to George Washington
- William Healey Dall
- The history of tropical research in the US
- Zoological imagination in America
Upcoming publications using the Archives' photos or documents include:
- Wright Brothers National Memorial, State of the Park Report
- Leslie Bedford, The Art of Museum Exhibitions
- Ted Binnema, Enlightened Zeal: The Hudson’s Bay Co. and Scientific Networks
- The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, The Clark: the Institute and its Collections
- Robert Kett, "Ornithologists in Olman," The Museum Journal, April 2014
- Julian Zelizar, A Great Society: The Fight for Liberalism, 1963-1968
Annual List of Publications by Smithsonian Institution ArchivesFellows and Interns
- Gibson, Abraham H. 2013. "Edward O. Wilson and the Organicist Tradition," The Journal of the History of Biology, 46 (3)
- Gibson, Abraham H., Kwapich, Christina L. and Lang, Martha. 2013. "The Roots of Multilevel Selection: Concepts of Biological Individuality in the Early Twentieth Century." History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, 35 (4)
- Henson, Pamela M. 2013. "O Instituto Smithsonian: Arquivos e a Historia da Ciencia." Acervo, Revista Da Arquivo Nacional, 26 (1): 113-122.
- Leventhal, Richard M. and Daniels, Brian I. 2013. "'Orphaned Objects,' Ethical Standards, and the Acquisition of Antiquities." DePaul Journal of Art, Technology, and Intellectual Property Law, 23 (2): 339-361.
- Takarabe, Kae. 2013. "Bibliographical Essay on The History of Science and Technology at the Smithsonian Institution: Focusing on women in science and technology." The History of Science of Tokai, 5: 43-51.
- Takarabe, Kae. 2013. "Essay on B. S. Lyman's Collecting Ainu Objects: Focusing on General Instructions to the Assistants of the Geological Survey of Hokkaido." Bulletin of the Historical Museum of Hokkaido, 41: 147-152.
- Takarabe, Kae. 2013. "Research on Technological Innovation in Science Museums and the Use of its Results: A Case Study of the Smithsonian Institution." Lectures and Reports of 31th Symposium-Range and Scope of History of Technology in Japan: Learning about the History of Technology, and Technological, 3: 24-39.
- Takarabe, Kae. 2012. "Study on the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation: Science Communication at the Smithsonian Institution." Journal of the Museological Society of Japan, 37 (2): 135-159.
Most Unusual Reference Inquiry: Does the Smithsonian have Radar's teddy bear from the TV show, M*A*S*H?
Most people assume the teddy bear owned by Radar (actor Gary Burghoff) came to the Smithsonian when the program ended. After all, we received the donation of a large collection of M*A*S*H memorabilia that was displayed in a 1983 exhibit at the National Museum of American History.
A "Radar's Teddy bear" file in Record Unit 360 - National Museum of American History, Office of Public Affairs, Records, circa 1970-1985, contains several 1984 memos planning an event at the National Museum of American History for the proposed donation. However, there's nothing that indicates that such an event ever occurred. The registrar's office at the National Museum of American History confirmed that the teddy bear had not been accessioned. Something must have happened to prevent the teddy bear donation.
Online research revealed that the teddy was missing until 2005, when it brought $10,000 at auction. In a 2007 Orlando Sentinal interview, Burghoff confirmed that the bear was never at the Smithsonian, had disappeared 30 years earlier, and was purchased at the aforementioned auction by a medical student who then sold the bear to him.
Now where was that bear between 1984 and 2005?
- Reference Services, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Have you ever noticed that the Smithsonian was mentioned in a novel, TV series or film? Do you have a favorite book about the Smithsonian? Are you partial to The Simpsons couch gags about the Smithsonian? Are Smithsonian forensic anthropologists really like Bones? What actually happens in Smithsonian museums when the public leaves, the curators finally go home, and the collections have the museums to themselves? Did that curator really commit the murder in the conservation lab with the acid-free cloth tape?
We’ve been looking at how the Smithsonian, with its museums full of specimens and research labs full of scientists, is portrayed by popular media such as movies, television and books. Public perceptions of museums and researchers can be very different from how Smithsonian staff think about themselves. Over the years, Smithsonian staff have been portrayed in mysteries, romances, dramas, comedies, and science fiction. What does this tell us about what the public thinks goes on behind the scenes? Spy novels have their protagonists disappear into the dark halls at the Natural History Museum. Movies portray secret collection storage areas under the National Mall. How have these ideas about the Smithsonian developed and changed over time?
The Smithsonian Institution, perhaps more than any other museum, has been the setting for fiction writing ranging from work by Gore Vidal to the TV series Bones to films including Night at the Museum. Its buildings, iconic American landmarks, often set the scene for books, television and films, while characters with ties to the Smithsonian appear in many genres. There are some subtle differences in the portrayal of science, art, anthropology, and history. But, anthropology has been perhaps the most popular topic for fiction writers. On our new website The Smithsonian in Popular Culture you can explore the different novels, episodes and movies that involve the Insituttion. You can even ask, the question, "Did the Curator Really Do It?" and discover how popular writers construct the characters of museum workers and research scientists and what they think of the Smithsonian's world.
What is your favorite book, TV program or film about the Smithsonian? We would like to continue to expand the website and are looking for input from you. We invite you to send information about your favorite program or book, movie or film to us at SIHistory@si.edu, or leave a comment below.
- The Smithsonian in Popular Culture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
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