The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Film/Video
I cannot, I feel, have any regrets about my accomplishments. What comes from art will just come. I don’t feel any need to strive. - John N. Robinson
One of my favorite parts of working in an archive is the opportunity to immerse myself in other people’s worlds, to learn more about their stories and experiences. One such person I encountered recently was John N. Robinson, a native Washingtonian and dedicated artist. Featured in Volume II, Edition 2 of the Here at the Smithsonian production series, Robinson’s artwork documents not only the regional history of Washington, D.C.'s Anacostia neighborhood’s growth and development, but also the personal history of his family, often featuring his wife, children, and grandparents. The episode features Robinson interacting with a group of fifth graders at the Anacostia Community Museum.
As I watched the video footage, I was struck by his dignity and gentle character, which is also conveyed to the viewer through his art. His style is one of celebration, encouraging the viewer to reflect on the beauty found in little things.
Born on February 18, 1912 in the Holy Hill community of Georgetown, Robinson was raised by his grandparents following his mother’s death when he was only eight years old, his father having abandoned him and his four siblings not long after. Their grandmother, Anna Barton, took in laundry to help support the family. Robinson and his siblings would assist her by delivering the clothes around Georgetown. Robinson remembered his grandmother as a “warm, lovely person.” Her husband, Ignatius Barton, was a U.S. Army veteran and had been a Buffalo Soldier in the Spanish-American war. Robinson described him as a kind man with a gruff exterior.
Robinson enjoyed doodling and sketching in his spare time - and sometimes while on the job. He had to leave junior high school to begin working, due to the family’s financial situation. His grandfather arranged a job for him, dusting automobiles at the garage where Barton was employed. It was while at this job that a chauffeur noticed Robinson’s sketches on a discarded time card and showed them to his sister, Elizabeth Thompson. She brought them to the attention of James Herring, art professor and founder of the Howard University art department. Recognizing Robinson’s talent, Herring arranged for Robinson to receive art instruction at Howard for a time, free of charge. Robinson studied under the tutelage of James Porter, though he wasn’t able to stay long-term, due to financial hardship.
When he was seventeen, Robinson’s grandparents moved to the Anacostia neighborhood of Garfield Park. His new next door neighbor was Gladys Washington, with whom he fell in love; they married in 1934. Together, they had seven children, six of whom lived to adulthood. It was also after moving to Garfield Park that Robinson began to devote more time to painting, including religious murals in community churches. Robinson went on to be employed in food service at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, eventually rising to management. He retired in 1970.
Outside of his family and community, Robinson didn’t gain much notoriety as an artist until later in life. In the 1940s, he displayed his work at Lafayette and Franklin Parks, through the Outdoor Art Fairs sponsored by the Times Herald. Later his work was featured at the Barnett-Aden Gallery, a haven for multicultural diversity and one of the first black-owned art galleries in America. He exhibited a one-man show at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1976, at a time when few blacks were welcomed there, through a partnership with the Anacostia Community Museum. Another one-man show followed at the Anacostia Community Museum in 1983. Other exhibitions included ones at Howard University, the National Museum of Natural History, St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, Atlanta University, Xavier University, Emmanuel Baptist Church, Oxon Hill Public Library, and the Washington Project for the Arts.
On October 17, 1994, John Robinson passed away. A family man, he mused that perhaps he could have been more ambitious in promoting his art earlier in life, but he also recognized success is not just in material things, but sometimes is seen best in “the happiness of those we love.”
- Accession 00-132 - Office of Telecommunications, Productions, 1982-1989, Smithsonian Institution Archives.
- “Here, Look at Mine!” exhibition records, Anacostia Community Museum Archives
- John N. Robinson artist file, Smithsonian Libraries
As a volunteer in the Digital Services Division of the Archives, I have the pleasure of digitizing archival materials ranging from field notes to videos. Not long ago, I digitized almost an hour and a half of unedited video of the 1940 Smithsonian-Firestone Expedition to Liberia. At the time, I didn’t know much about the expedition but I was intrigued by what I saw - Liberian towns, dense jungle, and exotic animals.
Having just returned from a trip to South America, National Zoological Park Director, Dr. William Mann, led an expedition to Liberia to obtain animals for the zoo in Washington, D.C. He sought several rare species including the pygmy hippopotamus, potto, okapi, and Jentik’s duiker, among others.
As the newly digitized video shows, the Manns travelled luxuriously in Liberia with an entourage of guides and assistants and they were treated to special receptions in several villages. Often, the Manns were carried in hammocks as they travelled. More information on the journey wasn’t hard to find thanks to Lucile Quarry Mann’s travel notes, which are housed here at the Archives. Lucile, the wife and frequent travel companion of Dr. Mann, left descriptive accounts of the people, places, and things that she and her husband saw while searching for animals and insects in Liberia.
Along with overseeing the addition of several animal enclosures, Dr. Mann’s specimen collecting left a lasting mark on the National Zoo. Knowing that collecting wild animals can be a very difficult task for a small party, the expedition leaders offered a reward to villagers who could capture and bring in live animals. The plan worked; Lucile wrote “as we retraced our steps, we found that in almost every village . . . one or two small animals were waiting for us.”
Though the Manns were known for raising baby animals in their Washington, D.C. apartment, Lucile’s account largely leaves out the time that she and her husband spent with animals in Liberia. Fortunately, the expedition video captures what Lucile chose not to dwell on in her writing. But, with a growing collection of animals as the expedition travelled through Liberia, we see her feeding and playing with a number of different animals they collected including chimpanzees, hornbills, and a baby pygmy hippo.
This newly digitized footage preserves both the institutional history of specimen collecting expeditions, but also the personalities of two of the National Zoo’s greatest proponents.
Check out the video below to see clips of William and Lucile Mann in Liberia.
- A World Apart: Smithsonian Expeditions to Alaska and Liberia, Field Book blog, Field Book Project, Smithsonian Institution Archives and National Museum of Natural History
- A Life on the Wild Side: Lucile Quarry Mann, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Record Unit 7293 - William M. Mann and Lucile Quarry Mann Papers, circa 1885-1981, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- William M. Mann related materials at the Smithsonian Institution Archives
- The Smithsonian's Folklife Festival this year featuring China and Kenya is over now, but you can relive some of the festival in the video below. [via Torch, SI]
- Every wonder what the work of a conservator looks like? Check out 5 Days of Preservation to see what conservators work on on a daily basis. [via Nora Lockshin, SIA]
- Some images from the Apollo 11 mission to the moon which celebrated its 45th anniversary last week. [via PetaPixel]
- Speaking of anniversaries, the NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory celebrated its 15th anniversary this week. [via Smithsonian Science]
- The University of California Libraries Digital Collection Project to create a shared system for managing and providing access to the digital content from the ten UC campus libraries celebrated its halfway point this month. [via InfoDocket]
- Web archivists and other digital sleuths are unraveling the mystery of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. [via Washington Post]
- Check out this video to learn more about the Europeana Newspapers project. [via InfoDocket]
Last week I caught an interesting and moving documentary on HBO, Remembering the Artist: Robert De Niro, Sr. By coincidence, just a few days earlier I was looking through our finding aid to the Joseph H. Hirshhorn Papers in the Smithsonian Archives collection. Hirshhorn had gained his fortune in the mining and oil industries, and also amassed a large art collection - the core of which became the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden that opened in 1974 as part of the Smithsonian Institution. The finding aid to Hirshhorn's papers listed a folder containing correspondence with Robert De Niro, and I wondered at the time, why would actor Robert De Niro be writing Joseph Hirshhorn?
As I started watching the documentary, it finally clicked that Hirshhorn's relationship was with Robert De Niro, Sr., part of the New York School of artists who had success in the 1940s and 1950s, but whose fortunes would soon fade in the 1960s and 1970s when Pop Art and Abstract Expressionism began to take center stage, and De Niro refused to change his artistic style and point of view.
The documentary is a son's tribute to his father and his father's art.
The De Niro/Hirshhorn correspondence echoes themes in the documentary and sheds additional light on De Niro Senior's financial struggles and his sometimes tumultuous relationship with art dealers and patrons.
- Record Unit 7449, Joseph H. Hirshhorn Papers, c. 1926-1982 and undated, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Robert De Niro, Sr., artwork at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
- True history with a little dramatization thrown in: Abraham Lincoln, Thaddeus S. C. Lowe, and the Union Army's balloon corps in comic book form. [via AirSpace blog, National Air and Space Museum]
- In honor of Chinese New Year, which for 2014 is the year of the Horse, the Archives of American Art highlights some equine materials from their collections. [via Smithsonian Collections Blog]
- Getting an intimate look - British World War I diaries are being digitized and made available online. [via Parallels blog, NPR]
- Where were you when I was a undergraduate studying art history? The Getty has made available over 250 artbooks for free download from their virtual library. [via The Getty Iris]
- Coming soon, in March the National Air and Space Museum will be displaying its latest restored aircraft, a "Battling Beast," the Curstiss SB2C-5 Helldiver. [via AirSpace blog, National Air and Space Museum]
- A new tool to promote reading is available from the Library of Congress, "Readers to the Rescue" is an interactive game where readers are asked to help save book characters. [via InfoDocket]
- Currently in production is the first feature-length animated film made only through hand-painted canvases, Loving Vincent, explores the life of Vincent Van Gogh. [via Colossal]