The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Field Book Project
Last June, I joined the Smithsonian Center for Archives Conservation at the Smithsonian Institution Archives as a pre-Master's program art conservation summer intern. My focus was on the preservation and rehousing of scientist’s exploration journals that are part of the Field Book Project. In September, I was fortunate to remain at the Archives as the conservation technician for the Field Book Project. Over the past year I've flipped through hundreds of field books containing fascinating information that detail collected field data, as well as the author's experiences with indigenous cultures from around the world. Surprisingly, I've even come across an endearing poem or two nestled amongst daily diary entries or numbered lists of technical field data. It's been a pleasure to discover that the scientists who authored these books were quite creative in how they depicted their observations and gathered scientific information while in the field. At the time in which many of these explorations took place (often pre-photography), the noted interactions and observations of the author best depicted life in exotic and foreign locations.
My involvement and contribution to this project wraps up in a couple of months, but I wanted to share some of the more fascinating items I've found pressed between the pages of the field books I've come across; items that are great descriptors of life while away on an exploration.
During the holidays, it is a tradition in my family for everyone to get together and go see a movie in the theaters. While the action and the company are nice, what I really love is the popcorn! There are many different flavors of popcorn out there, but the flavors are usually determined by what is put on the popped kernels, such as chocolate or caramel, and not on the natural flavor of the popcorn itself. With all the different varieties of corn you can buy at the grocery store, have you ever wondered which one would make the best popcorn? Well, while digitizing the field books of American botanist Paul Allen, I discovered that he pondered the answer to that very question, and decided to do some testing of his own.
Paul Hamilton Allen was born in Oklahoma in 1911. After high school, he joined the Missouri Botanical Garden as a student apprentice, where he got his start as a botanist. He went on to manage the Missouri Botanical Garden’s field station in Panama from 1936 to 1939, allowing him to be one of a handful of American botanists with experience in the tropics by the time World War II started. Allen used this tropical experience to support the war effort by joining the United States Rubber Development Corporation where he helped obtain rubber from trees in Columbia.
After the war was over, he resumed his overseas work on orchids. It was during one of his collecting trips to Panama in 1947 that Allen came across a spot in the Darien Province that contained numerous varieties of corn. Being the good scientist that he was, Allen decided to try popping different types and tasting them to determine the best variety for consumption. Of the nineteen different varieties of corn Allen described in his notes from that area, he only chose to test six of them. Allen achieved success with three of the corns he popped, writing for the other entries "will not pop" or "would not pop." He then ranked the three varieties of "popped" corn in order by taste. Allen noted that the least appealing popcorn came from a variety of corn that is used to make chicha, a Central American drink that is usually made from germinated corn. He describes the winning corn as being "dwarf yellow – with scattered purple and black grains," which is certainly a change from the white or yellow color of modern day popcorn.
After his experimentation with popcorn, it seems Allen fell for another type of food. In 1959, he went on to work for the United Fruit Company on a major banana breeding project, where he collected specimens from around the world until his death in 1963.
So the next time you are watching a movie and enjoying a bowl of popcorn, thank scientists like Paul Allen for their taste-testing efforts!
- Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation, Paul Hamilton Allen Records
- Field Book Project, Smithsonian Institution Archives/National Museum of Natural History
- Accession 11-101 - Paul Hamilton Allen Field Books, 1936-1961, Smithsonian Institution Archives
There is a dedicated team of people at the Smithsonian's Archives and the National Museum of Natural history who are digitizing and describing field books which document the collecting of biological specimens. As they are creating descriptions and images in order to make these fieldbooks more widely available, they are also shedding light on the personal stories of the people behind the research. These are some stories you can read about in our most recent set of Flickr Commons images.
Through the field notes of mammalogist Vernon Orlando Bailey, we learn about a biologist who balanced his desire to study the natural world with a dedication to the humane treatment of his animal subjects which is sweetly illustrated in his poem about an encounter with a Bobbity mouse.
We peek into the fascinating life of Lucile Mann, wife of former Smithsonian National Zoo Director William Mann, who sometimes accompanied her husband on collecting expeditions. Lucile Mann had a background in military intelligence and writing and her skills (and sense of humor) are apparent in this scrapbook of a collecting expedition to Argentina.
If you’re simply in search of something pleasing to the eye, then check out the beautiful drawings of fish specimen from the United States Exploring Expedition (1838-1842), and these jade samples from a survey of jade conducted in Central America, circa 1949.
What do cocktails, lion cubs, and costinika have in common? These are all things that can be found in the latest batch of images contributed to Flickr Commons from Field Books held in our collections. There’s also an itinerary from an F.D.R. presidential cruise in 1938, and an overly adorable primate cuddling a tiger cub.
There are always wonderful surprises to be had in these diaries that document scientific expeditions, and the project team writes about the gems on their blog. And in case you didn’t know (I didn’t), costinika is a plant that apparently makes a fine jelly.
My internship with the Smithsonian Institution Archives has been largely concerned with the Field Book Project and as such, I have had the opportunity to view scientific field books from the last one hundred and fifty years. However, it is the work of David Crockett Graham that has intrigued me the most. He was, among many other things, a missionary and a field collector for the Smithsonian Institution during his various posts in China between the years 1919–1948. During this time, Graham conducted several expeditions in and around Suifu (Yibin) and Chengtu (Chengdu) in the province of Szechwan (Sichuan), as well as along the borders of Sichuan, Yunnan, and Tibet. One of my fellow interns has already written a short blog about David Crockett Graham, and while she focused on Chinese cultural history and biodiversity, I wanted to highlight the dangers that field collectors often faced in volatile situations.
Although the collection holds Graham's diaries from as early as 1924, I worked most closely with the diaries from 1929 to 1935 and was surprised by the breadth of information contained within. For instance, in his diary from August 16, 1929 to March 24, 1930, Graham recounts incidences of leopards terrorizing villagers and killing men, in the area of China where he was working to preserve ducks and rabbits and ship them overseas to Washington, DC for display and research. Successive diary entries discuss the pervasive influence of opium fields and opium smoking within the population, forty to sixty percent, and how this addiction afflicted some members of his collection crew, leading to poor preservation of certain specimens.
Not only did Graham include descriptive information regarding his natural history acquisitions, but there are also insightful glimpses of life in both rural and urban settings that changed as the country suffered during rebellion and war. The most notable change comes after his return to China with his new post to Chengdu in 1932. Here he was able to observe quite closely the impact that the Nationalist-Communist struggle was having on the people of China. His expeditions were hampered by rumors of, and actual battles between, the opposing sides and he wrote of the very real threat that this civil war posed to his crew and himself.
[November 17–19, 1932]: There has been civil war in Chengtu [sic] with heavy cannonading and machine gun and rifle firing . . . It is nearly impossible to get into or out of the city.
[June 30, 1933]: Civil war is going on all around us so that it is not safe to travel in any direction.
[April 9, 1935]: The Communist threat so very serious, we are living in hope.
[June 22, 1935] Some soldiers mistook Zen [crew member] for a communist spy and put him into prison where he remained for several days. It was with great difficulty that I got him free and the soldiers threatened to execute him as a spy.
[September 28, 1935]: The Aborigine [sic] who has collected . . . for me in the past is accused of being a Communist, and is now in prison at Kongshien [sic]. I am trying to get him out . . .
It is easy to understand how Graham’s work crosses disciplinary boundaries and can be useful beyond the natural history field because of his personal experiences in China. In particular, Graham's diaries serve as a significant primary source for historians and the general public. This valuable collection will be online in the near future, so please check back frequently, and immerse yourself in the rich reading of David Crockett Graham's diaries.
- Field Work and a World War, The Bigger Picture Blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives