The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Event
January 24, 1865, was designated “an epoch in the history of the [Smithsonian] Inst[itution]” by Joseph Henry, first Secretary of the Smithsonian. On that afternoon, one hundred and forty-seven years ago today, a large fire erupted in the Smithsonian Institution Building, or “Castle,” destroying multiple sections of the building and their collections. Though Henry had chosen to keep costs down during the Castle’s initial construction from 1847–1855 by only fire-proofing some areas, he did enforce some precautions to prevent a fire: he prohibited smoking and the carrying of exposed flames, maintained a night watch, and stationed buckets of water around the building. Despite these safeguards, a fire started between the ceiling and roof of the main hall when workmen in the second floor Picture Gallery accidentally inserted a stove pipe into the brick lining of the building instead of into a flue.
The fire kindled for some days and grew too large to stop before it was discovered. Henry was writing in his office on the second floor when he heard “an unusual noise about my head […] in the form of crackling,” and he quickly realized that the building was on fire. William DeBeust, a maintenance worker in the Castle, sounded the fire alarm and rushed to save some of the portraits in the Picture Gallery. The fire drew many spectators, who watched as it rapidly engulfed the building, caving in the roof of the main hall and destroying much of the second floor and south tower. The lecture hall, apparatus room, Board of Regent’s room, Secretary’s office, and Picture Gallery burned, along with much of their contents: all but seven Native American portraits by John Mix Stanley were lost in the Picture Gallery, most of the official Institutional papers burned in Henry’s office, and the personal effects of founder James Smithson burned in the Regent’s room.
Mary Henry, the eldest daughter of Joseph Henry who lived in the Castle with her family at the time, described the ferocity of the fire in her diary and regretted that “in the space of an hour was thus destroyed the labor of years.” Joseph Henry appraised the damage and mourned the great losses, but was thankful that due “to the fire-proofing the Museum and Library have been saved.” Henry recognized a silver-lining in the midst of the disaster: “The accident though much to be lamented will I think in the end be of advantage to the Institution. So long as the building was covered with a wooden roof and the wings liable to destruction from fire the property contained in it was not safe.” A temporary roof was fitted over the building by the military on January 28 until reconstruction began in the spring of 1867, when a new permanent roof was raised, this time built from fire-proof materials.
The 1865 disaster was not the only fire in the Smithsonian’s history. Look out for another post in a few weeks that will highlight another fire and how the Smithsonian and other institutions can work to prevent such accidents.
The air is crisp, and the leaves have almost all fallen. Winter is just around the corner, and nature has started to wind down and begin its annual hibernation. It's hard not to be at least a bit reflective this time of year.
As many of us gather to eat and celebrate with family and loved ones, we want to thank you for your support and readership. It has been a great year for us at the Archives: we have a new website, and we're excited to see more and more of you exploring our rich collections and subscribing to our blog. I just wanted to take the time to tell you that your comments (over 1,000 of them, as of just recently) and your visits mean a lot to us. The Smithsonian is all about "the increase and diffusion of knowledge" and we are excited to share our stories with you, but also to hear your stories and learn from you as well. We are thankful for you!
Just this past week Effie Kapsalis, the Archives’ own Head of Web, New Media, & Outreach, won the Smithsonian Secretary’s Innovative Spirit Award at the third annual Secretary’s Awards for Excellence.
Secretary Clough and a pan-Institutional committee recognized Effie for all of her incredible work at the Archives. From spearheading the Archives’ recent involvement with Historypin, a website that allows institutions and individual to geo-tag and pin historic photos on Google maps; to managing the Smithsonian Flickr Commons, Effie is at the center of efforts at the Archives and the broader Smithsonian to get our resources, stories, and collections online.
Her projects have always yielded surprising and wonderful results. Recent efforts at the Archives to crowdsource the identities of people and places on the Flickr Commons led to really meaningful relationships with you, our readers and visitors, as well as:
- multiple identifications of photograph locations,
- wonderful stories about mysteries solved and relatives found in images on the Commons,
- a deeper understanding of historical events (like the famous Scopes Monkey trial) from our audiences' firsthand accounts of these events,
- and even a donation of new photographs to the Archives from someone who appreciated the fact that the Archives was making our collections available to all online.
In addition to these projects, Effie has been involved in multiple pan-Smithsonian web efforts to increase engagement with online visitors and to make our data more open. She has been recognized for her efforts both inside and outside (for example, in a recent New York Times article) of the Smithsonian.
Of course, none of this would be possible without the Archives’ incredible staff, who tease out the narratives behind our collections in their day to day work, and tell these stories both here on The Bigger Picture, and in their daily interactions with the public; and without our director, Anne Van Camp, who supports all of the efforts of the Web and New Media team. Congratulations to everyone at the Archives, and congratulations to you, Effie—we’re so proud of you!