The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Film/Video
When I first applied for an internship at the Smithsonian Institution Archives, I admittedly did not know much about it. For my internship, I was asked to make a video that would explain to the general public what the Archives was, as well as what resources it could offer them. On my first day here I was told that the Archives held the records and history of the Smithsonian Institution. I thought this sounded straightforward enough, but as I began to work on the video I realized there was more to it than that. With each new interview, with each day of shooting B-roll footage, or simply being around the office I heard new stories and learned new things about the Archives. I learned that there was everything here from correspondence, books, and architecture plans to photographs, negatives, and film reels. The subjects of these items range from science and history to art and literature. They cover a large span and scope of American History and give unique insight into it. There really is something to interest everyone here.
What I also discovered is that this information is available to the public. While I grew up in the Washington, DC area and have always enjoyed going to the Smithsonian museums and the National Zoo, I never knew that the Archives were also there as a public resource. Visitors can request specific information from the reference archivists, explore the collections online through the Archives’ website, or get helpful advice on preservation through the forums. These resources are valuable for everyone from researchers, to archivists, or anyone simply interested in the history of just about any subject.
I quickly realized that covering the broad scope of the Archives would be difficult to do in one video. I felt that any one area of the Smithsonian could easily fill its own video, and I had to consolidate all of these into one. I decided to try to touch on every area or subject that was in the Archives, rather than trying to cover any one in depth. I felt that this would give people an idea of what was at the Archives and allow them explore more about whatever area interested them most on their own. In the end there was too much information, footage, and too many good interviews to fit into just one video. So we split the video in two: one to explain what the Archives is and one to tell people about the resources it can provide. I hope these videos will help people discover the Archives and all that it has to offer, as I have over the course of this summer.
- For your use: a new guide to archiving digital video. [via The Signal: Digital Preservation, LOC]
- An interesting intersection between artists, museums, and digital records: The XFR STN at the New Museum will be used to preserve audiovisual materials from the New Museum’s archive as well as be open for use by any artist to preserve their moving image or born-digital materials whose formats have become obsolete. [via Lynda Schmitz Fuhrig, SIA]
- Just a little stale: Folks at the National Museum of American History open up a can of fortune cookies from the 1930s for the first time. [via O Say Can You See?, NMAH]
- The Smithsonian's Transcription Center is continuing to evolve and engage with users in order to make collections more accessible. [via Smithsonian Collections Blog, SI]
- The Smithsonian American Art Museum recently acquired 100 photographs by legendary photographer Irving Penn. [via The Torch, SI]
- Free for use: The Getty has just made available 4,600 high-resolution images of the Museum's collection free to use, modify, and publish for any purpose. [via InfoDocket]
- Out of this world: NASA's efforts to digitize lunar film are hightlighted in this video. [via PetaPixel]
The Smithsonian Channel collection of videos that the Smithsonian Institution Archives is preserving is so varied and, at times, so out of the ordinary, that many times per week I’m asked, "What are you watching?" Topics include: the use of insects in forensic science; (too many) airplane crashes that shaped modern-day aviation safety; the real story behind Hollywood blockbuster films, such as The Silence of the Lambs; and, of course, TITANOBOA!, the approximately 2,500-pound Paleocene-era snake discovered in Columbia. . The Smithsonian Channel’s productions draw from the Smithsonian's museums, collections, and professional expertise to explore the history of our planet, life and culture.
A major part of my internship at the Archives involved the preservation of Smithsonian Channel digital content. Though we've received video material from other Smithsonian entities, such as the National Museum of Natural History and the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, digital material submitted in obsolete formats will prove a trickier challenge. Starting with the still-playable Smithsonian Channel DVDs is a good test case to develop this new workflow.
It’s been a unique opportunity to participate in the praxis, or ideas becoming practice, necessary to preserving and making accessible the wealth of digital materials people are generating. With the proliferation of smartphones and the means to share video through such venues as YouTube, Vimeo, Vine, Instagram, or Snapchat, there has been an explosion in the amount of content to watch, but also an increase in the number of video formats that archives need to manage and preserve. Not an easy task for sure, but the Archives has been tackling the problems associated with digital video for quite some time now.
At the start of the summer, I had one personal archival project on my to-do list: organize and sort the many Spotify playlists I amassed but didn't alphabetize when I was busy with coursework. However, if we add VHS and digital recording to the mix, I'll return home with a new digital archives preservation agenda. Personal archiving methods are a super-hot topic right now, so the most important thing that I’ve learned about preserving video from my time here at the Archives is the importance of collaboration in the form of open-source software development. Cultural heritage organizations, such as the Library of Congress and the National Archives, and academic institutions are developing programs collaboratively, as well as relying on users for feedback and/or improvements to the software. For example, a consortium of Illinois universities developed a project, "Preserving (Digital) Objects with Restricted Resources," to suggest sustainable digital preservation solutions. The outcome was a directory of preservation tools—a mix of open source and commercial—recommended by the preservation community.
It's been great to see how the digital preservation community rises to the challenge of creating software programs that pay attention to preservation needs. Have you ever tried to simply copy an audio or video file from one location to another, but found that the video won't play? Preserving all the files that accompany a video are key to making sure the video plays properly. The Library of Congress' creation of the BagIt specification helps solve this problem by creating a "bag" that captures and contains all the related elements of a transferred video file. Being able to "bag" a set of files ensures full file transfer and future playability with the right tools.
What we've found with developing a workflow for the Smithsonian Channel programs is that no one tool covers all of the necessary steps for preserving video. Some of the steps include ingesting or transferring of the video for preservation work, running a checksum, bulk renaming the files to follow standards, and embedding metadata.
In assessing your video preservation needs, have a look around at some of the digital preservation tools available, bearing in mind that some are recommended for institutional use. Jumping in and spending hundreds of dollars for fancy software that doesn't always do what it says on the package isn't something that institutions can afford to do and, likely, neither can you.
I'm returning to my archives program with a new sense of the cooperation and flexibility required to create from scratch a process for keeping up with our evolving digital preservation needs. And, thanks to the Smithsonian Channel's vivid creations, I now have a reservoir of weird and wonderful information for a winning bar trivia strategy.
- Digital Video Preservation: Identifying Containers and Codecs, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Digital Video Preservation: Further Challenges for Preserving Digital Video and Beyond, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Digital Video Preservation: Continuing the Conversation, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Smithsonian Channel on YouTube
- Accession 12-610, Smithsonian Channel, Productions, 2011, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Have you ever noticed that the Smithsonian was mentioned in a novel, TV series or film? Do you have a favorite book about the Smithsonian? Are you partial to The Simpsons couch gags about the Smithsonian? Are Smithsonian forensic anthropologists really like Bones? What actually happens in Smithsonian museums when the public leaves, the curators finally go home, and the collections have the museums to themselves? Did that curator really commit the murder in the conservation lab with the acid-free cloth tape?
We’ve been looking at how the Smithsonian, with its museums full of specimens and research labs full of scientists, is portrayed by popular media such as movies, television and books. Public perceptions of museums and researchers can be very different from how Smithsonian staff think about themselves. Over the years, Smithsonian staff have been portrayed in mysteries, romances, dramas, comedies, and science fiction. What does this tell us about what the public thinks goes on behind the scenes? Spy novels have their protagonists disappear into the dark halls at the Natural History Museum. Movies portray secret collection storage areas under the National Mall. How have these ideas about the Smithsonian developed and changed over time?
The Smithsonian Institution, perhaps more than any other museum, has been the setting for fiction writing ranging from work by Gore Vidal to the TV series Bones to films including Night at the Museum. Its buildings, iconic American landmarks, often set the scene for books, television and films, while characters with ties to the Smithsonian appear in many genres. There are some subtle differences in the portrayal of science, art, anthropology, and history. But, anthropology has been perhaps the most popular topic for fiction writers. On our new website The Smithsonian in Popular Culture you can explore the different novels, episodes and movies that involve the Insituttion. You can even ask, the question, "Did the Curator Really Do It?" and discover how popular writers construct the characters of museum workers and research scientists and what they think of the Smithsonian's world.
What is your favorite book, TV program or film about the Smithsonian? We would like to continue to expand the website and are looking for input from you. We invite you to send information about your favorite program or book, movie or film to us at SIHistory@si.edu, or leave a comment below.
- The Smithsonian in Popular Culture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Digital photography has dramatically increased our ability to document our lives through images. Photographer Rob Gibson takes a different approach to documenting the people who come to his studio by using wet plate collodion photography. [via PetaPixel]
- Not just about the outdoors, staff from the National Park Service talk about their digital collection and preservation. [via The Signal: Digital Preservation, LOC]
- Formats from the recent past, VHS and quad videotapes, document televsion from the 1950s to 1970s and the Library of Congress is in a race to preserve them before the can't be played anymore. [via The Washington Post]
- Another format from the recent past is 16mm film. When Director and Producer William Lorton and Jason Savage stumbled upon World War II Flight Surgeon Jim Savage’s (Lorton’s great-uncle and Savage’s great-grandfather) store of 16mm footage taken during the war and they decided to make the following documentary. [via PetaPixel]
- When digitizing materials, how much DPI/PPI is too much? [via The Signal: Digital Preservation, LOC]
- This past week the National Archives released more records related to Watergate. [via InfoDocket]
- For a blast from the past from the Museum Conservation Institution see the video below: Rescuing Records: Recognizing the Problems of Preserving Documents in Research Collections. [via Museum Conservation Institute]