The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Field Book Project
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
The Field Book Project, a joint project between the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian Institution Archives, aims to create one online location for scholars and others to visit when searching for field research materials. Many field books we include in the project reflect the effects of major world events, such as war. For example, the Archives’ Mann Family collection, documents military defenses in Dakar, Senegal during World War II, while the correspondence of botanist Mary Agnes Chase, sheds light on the struggles of many to reach a state of normalcy during post-World War I Europe. However, few field books document collectors in the midst of the turbulence, as do the two journals by Bohumil Shimek.
Bohumil Shimek was born in Shueyville, Iowa, 1861, the child of Czech (Bohemian) immigrants who came to the United States in the 1850s. He spent most of his life in Iowa, working through a variety of jobs as surveyor; high school teacher; zoology professor; curator of an herbarium; president of the Iowa State Academy of Sciences; geologist for the Iowa State Geological Survey; and director of the Lakeside Laboratory, Lake Okoboji, Iowa. He worked extensively in the United States, and had two major trips abroad—one to Nicaragua, and another in 1914 as an exchange professor at Charles University in Prague.
Shimek’s two journals describe his travels during the summer of 1914 across Germany and Austria-Hungary, where he collected and documented field work along the Danube and Rhine River. Most collectors who traveled in Europe wrote about visits to institutions, universities, existing collections, and colleagues.
However, Shimek’s journals include a great deal more than field work. This is due to two major points: Shimek’s heritage and his exposure to a culture different from his own. Shimek identified strongly with his Czech heritage, learning his parents’ native language though born in the United States, and working throughout his life for Czech immigration rights. Additionally, when outside his home territory, Shimek was prone to include observations of the people and places he was visiting, and recount stories he heard from local inhabitants. These characteristics made for riveting material.
[July 24] There is much comment everywhere on the possibility of general war. The general reports, however indicate that some settlement will be reached, an outcome for which the masses of the German people seem to hope. Everywhere Germans seem to be of the opinion that if a general war breaks out it will be a life and death struggle for Germany.
World War I began July 28th; Shimek left Europe August 25th. Though a short overlap, Shimek described the quickly ratcheting tension of communities, shifting demands for supplies and personnel as men began to take arms, and changes in police reactions to voiced opinions and the presence of foreigners. By the time he left, he recounted friends with family members drafted into service, seeing wounded soldiers, and the shortages of supplies in towns.
[July 29] The atmosphere was tense all evening yet it appears as if the ordinary people hoped there would be no war. We were told next morning that during the night 150,000 men had been sent from and through Freiburg to Mulhausen!
[August 1] At the hotel all the male help was called into military service and even the chef had to go.
[August 1] We have just learned of an order prohibiting the taking of automobiles, horses and mules across the border (i.e. out of the country) on account of the mobilization. Some Americans are caught with autos. One naturalized Swiss American from Nebraska is among them, and he has no passport!
[August 3] At Bern, and in fact all along the line, soldiers swarmed everywhere, and every bridge and railway station was under guard for the whole army had been called out to protect the border. We found the station at Bern crowded and guarded by soldiers. When I passed out to the toilet and tried to return I was stopped by the guard and only when I showed my passport and explained that Paul had our tickets was I permitted to go on.
[August 8] During these days as I write in my rooms ordinarily so quiet, I hear the clatter of hoofs, the measured tread of soldiers, and the rumble of wheels on the pavement below. The papers report that a retired railway employee (engineer?) offered his services because so many men were called to arms, and his offer was returned because it was a request (petition), and did not have the necessary stamp!!!
[August 11] We met with Miss B—and her old parents. Her two brothers and her prospective husband have all been called. We stopped at Grafa for ice cream and here the presence of a few and an incautious remark caused some fear of trouble.
Many times collectors in the field leave out personal reactions; Shimek increasingly seemed to feel the need to voice his. Several times he changed back from English to Czech and back again, sometimes in the midst of an entry. He described his visit to the site of Battle of White Mountain (Bila Hora) that occurred in 1620. This was particularly emotional for Shimek, who noted the construction of merry-go-round and fair-like facilities on the battle site.
Shimek described the struggle to travel by rail on to England to sail home. In the midst of travel by rail, he wrote:
[August 24] One can hardly meet a person who does not have someone in the army, and it is pathetic to me two or more women meet and with tears exchange their sorrows. General Sherman is right, 'war is hell!'
Field books, like field work, straddle the professional and personal. The materials we catalog cover the range of experiences and emotions. Often the revelations in field books are informative, humorous, and insightful; others like this inspire reflection. Field work has occurred in many places, times, and as seen here, conditions.
Record Unit 7082, Shimek, Bohumil 1861-1937, Bohumil Shimek Papers, 1878-1936, Smithsonian Institution Archives