The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Ethics
As an intern at the Archives, I have spent a good portion of this summer with headphones over my ears, listening to other people’s conversations. It's work-related, though. I promise.
What I have really been doing is listening to interviews from the Archives' Oral History Collection. Oral history, though subject to certain technicalities, is essentially what it sounds like: information of historical significance that is received orally through a recorded interview. Interviewers march out into the world, armed with recorders to interview subjects on their experiences, and archivists — or in this case, I — then process the recording and the transcript so that researchers can access the imparted information. My entry into this operation is most often at the stage of listening to the recording, where I check it against the transcript that I have received, and edit the transcript as necessary. Hence the headphones. Yet, while on first glance this task may seem rather passive and simple, it is at this stage that I often come up against the most difficult questions in my processing work.
The transcript is a hybrid document, taking the spoken word of the interview and representing it in written form. Yet, as any linguist will tell you, how we speak is very different from how we write. If someone were to create an exact transcript of my speech, it would be full of "um's" and "like's" and long, awkward pauses. More significantly, I rarely speak using complete, grammatical sentences, apparently preferring to use sentence fragments and run-on sentences. It’s not just me, though. I have found that often, even those who seem incredibly articulate in their recordings have speech that is very difficult to convey in grammatical — or even readable — written sentences in the transcript.
So, as the editor of the transcript, what do I do? It is my job to convey the essence of the interview and of the interviewee as clearly and completely as possible — but the question, I suppose, is what is this essence? I could edit the transcript to be perfectly grammatically correct and effortlessly readable, but in doing so, would I be editing out the flowing, trembling, stuttering humanity of the interviewee whose knowledge and wisdom seems much messier and grander than standard written English can convey? Or, if I kept these moments that our reading eyes judge as mistakes, would I be falsely presenting the speakers as uneducated or inarticulate, and misleading future researchers who study the transcript?
What about accents and dialect? Is representing them faithfully through phonetic spellings or by word order a way of preserving the voice and essence of the speaker and more than that, of affirming him or her? — Or does it make the speaker seem quaint and dismissible? Even more so, what about accents and dialects that have historically been marginalizing? As a literature student and a writer, I have had to grapple with these questions in my own reading and writing, but now, dealing with the speech of real people in real society, the stakes become much higher. Each choice becomes political, and each choice becomes personal.
Perhaps this is a good thing, though. I have yet to come to a balance in editing that I am fully satisfied with, and from what I read, neither has the discipline of oral history as a whole. Yet, somehow, it seems fitting that this medium of history and the process of producing it mirrors the delicate intertwining of historical knowledge and historical events with human experience and the human soul. I am grateful that my job does not allow me to forget this intertwining, and I hope that my transcripts do the same for the researchers who will study them.
- Record Unit 9622 - National Museum of Natural History, Oral history Interviews, 2009-2011, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- A Photographer's Passion - An Interview with the Late Chip Clark, video, National Museum of Natural History
*In July of 1925, the infamous "Scopes Monkey" trial occurred in Tennesee. See more of our photos of the trial, which debated the legaility of teaching evolution in public schools, on the Smithsonian Flickr Commons.
With the soon-to-be-dedicated Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial along Washington, DC’s Tidal Basin, and the scheduled opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2015, some of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dreams are becoming a reality. Let’s take a look back at the impact of this influential man and his ideas on the Smithsonian.
Smithsonian staff members, working in in the heart of the nation’s capital, witnessed the civil rights demonstrations of the 1960s, and were inspired by King’s vision for a more just America. In 1967, King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) planned a “Poor People’s Campaign” to fight racism and poverty (see records about the "Porr People's Campaign from the Smithsonian). After King’s assassination in April of 1968, the SCLC decided to go forward with the campaign, and soon a village of tents and make-shift shelters, called Resurrection City, was set up near the Lincoln Memorial to house those people who came to Washington to demonstrate for social justice.
As Dr. Keith Melder, then curator of political history in the National Museum of History and Technology (now the National Museum of American History), recalled in an oral history interview conducted in 2006, “It rained and rained and rained. It rained, I think, almost every day for something like forty days. It rained, and the landscapes turned into mud and mire. And these poor people, they lived out here in the Resurrection City shelters. Somebody had designed a cheap shelter, not tents exactly, but plywood, tent-like structures, and they bedded down in these things, and they never got dry.” Smithsonian museums—their restrooms and restaurants, as well as exhibits—helped shelter Resurrection City residents from the wet spring and poor conditions. While there was debate within the Institution as to how the Smithsonian should respond—limit access to ensure no damage to the museums, or welcome a new audience—Secretary S. Dillon Ripley insisted that the doors stay open and trained the guard force to deal with demonstrators calmly, avoiding confrontation.
When Resurrection City residents were evicted from the outdoor site in mid-June by the National Park Service, Melder remembered, “We were able to salvage pieces of several of the shelters. I can remember going down. We got a Smithsonian truck, and I managed to corral some laborers from the labor force, and we simply went down and loaded the truck up with pieces of some of these shelters, and that was our collections for the Resurrection City. And those turned out to be valuable. They’re still occasionally displayed, and they’ve been on exhibition a number of times, and I don’t think anyone else preserved any residue of Resurrection City.”
Inspired by King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, Melder began to collect King memorabilia after his assasination and prepared a small display at the Smithsonian. But not all visitors accepted the new materials; Melder noted, “…some unknown person, visitor, came in and torched one of the objects on exhibition, a memorial banner to Martin Luther King, a handmade banner, and apparently lit a match to it. We didn’t have the kind of protection and security that we would do today, and they burned it up. I was . . . well, we were all, stunned….”
Melder’s reminiscences remind us of the struggles of that era and the deep emotions on both sides of the racial divide. At the same time, the Institution itself was grappling with how to become a more representative and diverse place, appointing its first African American museum director, John Kinard of Anacostia Neighborhood Museum in 1967; first African American curator, Louis Purnell of National Air and Space Museum in 1968; first African American member of the Board of Regents, A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr., in 1971; and first African American Assistant Secretary, Julian Euell in 1974. As we pause to honor Dr. King, it is important to acknowledge and think about the ways his vision changed the Smithsonian, as well as the nation.
August is National Parks Month, a time to celebrate the resources that have been preserved across the country for the public. In August of 1916, the US Congress created the National Park Service which today provides access to unparalleled natural beauty and treasured sites in American history. The first national park, Yellowstone National Park, was created in 1872 as “a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” In 1890 Yosemite, General Grant, and Sequoia National Parks were established in California, and Mount Rainier National Park was set aside in the State of Washington in 1899. But, it was often difficult to protect these treasures in their early years. In 1906, Congress passed the Antiquities Act, giving the President new authority "to declare by public proclamation historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of scientific interest that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States to be national monuments." Ten years later, the network of individual natural parks was merged under the new National Park Service.
Smithsonian staff were strong advocates for the parks and for the Antiquities Act of 1906. One individual who called attention to the condition of the first park, Yellowstone was William Temple Hornaday. In 1886, Hornaday, a taxidermist for the Smithsonian’s US National Museum, traveled west to collect bison for an exhibit. An avid hunter and naturalist, Hornaday had traveled the globe, collecting exotic animals. In earlier visits to the Great Plains, Hornaday had been awestruck by the herds of millions of bison. But in 1886, he was stunned to find that the herds had vanished, the victims of over-hunting and settlement of the prairies. Hornaday, the hunter, had a conversion experience to Hornaday, the conservationist.
He traveled to Yellowstone National Park, which was now fourteen years old, since he had been told that a herd still existed there, but found that no more than twenty remained. He wrote to Smithsonian Assistant Secretary, George Brown Goode, that “a number of hunters, some of whom distinguished themselves in past years in the slaughter of buffalo, have been, and are now living along the Park boundaries on the East and South for the purpose of killing buffaloes and other game that wanders out of the reservation, or can be safely frightened out.” He sympathized with the plight of the few park employees: “The fact that the game in the Park is not adequately protected, is notorious. While there is no doubt that the troop charged with police duty is vigilant and active, and well directed, the force is entirely too small, and not sufficiently provided with posts of rendezvous to cover the ground which should be covered.”
Hornaday’s shock at the loss of the American bison or buffalo in the West led him to take action. He asked Smithsonian management to urge the Congress to establish a fence around Yellowstone Park and staff the park adequately. He proposed that the bison exhibit be supplemented with a small herd of live bison to preserve for posterity, and bison were soon grazing in the South Yard behind the Smithsonian Castle. This popular display led to the creation of the National Zoological Park at the Smithsonian, with Hornaday its first director. And he became a leader in the American conservation movement with his 1889 book, The Extermination of the American Bison, a call to arms to protect this iconic American animal. As we celebrate National Parks Month, it is important to remember the important role national parks have played in Smithsonian research, and the support the Smithsonian has had for our national parks.
The archive of Rosa Parks (1913-2005)—the civil rights activist who made history when she refused to relinquish her seat on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955—is up for sale. The 8,000 or so items in the archive include a wide assortment of documents and artifacts—correspondence; books inscribed to Parks by Dr. Martin Luther King and President Clinton; tributes from school children; as well as personal items like Parks’ eyeglasses, driver’s license, address book, and even the hat she wore on the day of her historic bus ride.
The Associated Press article that caught my eye and alerted me to the archive’s availability and content was not, however, so much of an announcement of the archive’s pending disposition by Guernsey’s Auctioneers in New York, as it was a report about a six-page document in the archive—a first-person essay in which Parks describes the experience of a young African American housekeeper who was sexually assaulted by a white neighbor who employed her in 1931. The question the document has raised is whether its content is autobiographical or a piece of fiction, as some people close to Parks’ estate maintain. No matter which it is, what struck me was that when it comes to news about archives, it’s the provocative or controversial angles that insure a story will get picked up widely by the media.
As it turns out, there’s even more controversy and another, more complicated story to be told. According to an article in the Detroit Free Press, six years after her death, the Rosa Parks archive is being sold by order of the Michigan courts as part of a resolution to end an ongoing dispute between Parks’ surviving relatives and the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development in Detroit, which Parks established and gifted the bulk of her property to so it could help teach young people about the civil rights struggle, and continue her work.
Legal costs to win control over both the archive and rights to use Parks’ name have, as you might imagine, run through most of the cash assets of Parks’ estate, estimated at $372,000 at the time of her death. It’s believed that the sale of the archives, which Guernsey’s estimates may generate as much as an $8–10 million sales price, will insure a good home for the unique trove of historic materials and move the parties in question toward a settlement.
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