The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Photo History
When the Archives received a photograph of the Youngers, relatives of the first African American employee of the Smithsonian, Solomon Brown, time had taken its toll on the image. The early gelatin print is mounted on a friable board reminiscent of the material used by the Government Printing Office to create covers for its publications—a mid-gray paper sandwiched around an acidic core that has turned a straw color with acid deterioration. The brittle nature of the photograph and its support has allowed the image to crack completely in half, with small pieces flaking away from the breakage point. Handwritten notes on the back in permanent marker are mostly legible despite losses of the acidic backing. There is also damage evident on the lower portion of the photograph, possibly from another document becoming stuck to it in the presence of water, a phenomenon known as blocking. The top and bottom edges of the photograph and support are also curling upward as differences in expansion and contraction of the two materials have become evident. While we don’t know when exactly this photograph was taken, based on the style of clothing it can be tentatively dated to the early years of the twentieth century.
A fragile item such as this requires special care and handling to ensure that it endures as a part of our collections. In order to protect it both while it is in collections storage and being used by researchers, a custom housing was designed and created. The solution had to meet a few specific criteria: it needed to provide adequate support to the broken photograph; it needed to facilitate easy removal of the image from its housing without excessive abrasion to the fragile edges; and it needed to restrain the curling edges of the support.
The end result is a housing composed of three elements—a base in which the photograph sits, a magnetic over-mat that gently restrains the curling edges of the image, and a protective cover mat. The base is also composed of three layers, divided into two pieces that fit together like puzzle pieces with tongue-and-groove joints. This allows the photograph to be securely held in the housing or easily removed without abrading the edges, by sliding the pieces together or apart. The overall size of the housing was chosen to fit snugly inside one of our standard-size flat archival storage boxes for extra protection and safe handling.
Brief sidebar: A complex housing like this may seem difficult to justify for the average photograph in a collection. While this image is not average, in reality creating this housing was straightforward and relatively quick to execute. Most of the time and effort was spent prototyping different elements and testing components, particularly the strength of the magnetic attraction in the over-mat. Constructing another housing from this model would take much less time and could be completed in a regular work day.
Assembling the housing
The three layers of the base are made from E-flute corrugated board. The bottom layer is cut in two pieces so that approximately one-third of the board is above the cut and two-thirds are below, with the flutes of the corrugated board running horizontally. The middle layer is composed of six vertically-cut strips, the flutes running vertically. Each strip is cut in two to create the tongue-and-groove joints described above, alternating approximately one inch above or below the cut in the bottom layer. To facilitate easy joining of the two pieces, the teeth of each joint are slightly tapered. The top layer is cut in two, mirroring the bottom; the photograph sits in this layer, atop the other two, in a sort of tray. To accommodate the image, the mounted photograph was placed on a light table and the shape traced onto Mylar, then transferred to the top layer and cut out. All three layers are laminated together with ¾-inch double-sided adhesive tape. A miniature facsimile of the reverse of the photograph mount is included in the lower right corner of the base, to provide access to the information without necessitating the removal of the photo.
The next piece, the magnetic over-mat, is fashioned simply by cutting a window with a mat cutter from archival matboard of the same dimensions as the base. Rare-earth neodymium magnets are sunk into the top layer of the base, four each along the top and bottom edges of the photograph tray, and adhered with Jade R PVA, an acrylic adhesive. Space was created for the magnets using a Japanese screw punch. The magnets are set back from the edge to avoid contact with the photograph, and further isolated and secured with strips of gummed paper tape atop the magnets. Corresponding steel shim strips are recessed along the edges of the window on the reverse of the over-mat and adhered with the same acrylic adhesive. The mat is attached to the base with a V-shaped hinge made from gummed linen tape at the top edge.
Finally, a protective cover mat was created from blue corrugated board cut to the same dimensions as the other two components. This was attached with the same gummed linen tape used with the magnetic over-mat, with a difference: instead of a V-shaped hinge, the tape was applied to the exterior of the housing from the bottom of the base and wrapping around to the top of the cover mat. This left the edges free, allowing the cover mat to fold completely flat behind the base for display or consultation.
With the housing complete, the photograph is securely held and adequately protected. The blue cover mat prevents damage to the surface of the image; the magnetic over-mat gently restrains the curling edges of the image so that further distortion is discouraged; and the base provides stable support, even when sliding the pieces apart to remove the image when necessary. This important addition to the history of one of the Smithsonian’s earliest employees will be safely available for future researchers.
Solomon Brown: First African American Employee at the Smithsonian Institution, Smithsonian Institution Archives.
Preserve It While You Use It: Collections Care in Action, The Bigger Picture Blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives.
Mounting Photographs with Earth Magnets, The Bigger Picture Blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives.
Digitization of photographs serves an important and often overlooked purpose beyond image accessibility and preservation. Although a magnifying glass has long been the standard tool for photographic analysis, the ability to zoom in on a digital image makes the task of identifying people and objects within an image so much easier. Sometimes, for example, analysis of what a person is wearing (such as a conference badge) or holding (such as a book) can unlock additional meaning beneath the visual surface, that is, can help to assemble the “back story” to the photo session.
Several years ago, when first working on the Science Service collections, I came across a photograph of physicist Enrico Fermi (1901-1954) in which he was reading what appeared to be a scientific journal article. This was among a series that Science Service photographer Fremont Davis took in January 1939 at the Fifth Washington Conference on Theoretical Physics. To help in interpreting the image, I turned to an expert (and friend).
Historian of science Lawrence Badash (1934-2010) was known for his intellectual generosity and for his depth of knowledge about the birth of atomic and nuclear physics. Fortunately, he was not on one of his Himalayan treks and could take a closer look at the digitized image.
As Badash knew, Fermi had just learned that a German laboratory had successfully achieved nuclear fission. Badash and his colleagues Elizabeth Hodes and Adolph Tiddens have described the “shock” to the scientific community worldwide when Otto Hahn published his findings in the January 6, 1939, issue of Naturwissenschaften.
Badash looked at an original copy of that journal issue and determined that, yes, here was a photograph of Fermi reading Hahn’s paper, perhaps for the first time.
In a February 2, 1939, letter, Science Service chemistry editor Robert D. Potter recounted the excitement generated by the announcement:
“I learned of the Hahn experiments from attending the Conference on Theoretical Physics here in Washington at which [Niels] Bohr and Fermi were discussing the work. During the conference the men from Carnegie Institution went out and duplicated the results here as you have already probably seen in the papers. I was extremely fortunate to have a copy of the German publication here in the office and to make it available to the scientists who actually did the work. As a consequence I was able to be in on the very excellent story right from the beginning and Science Service has now issued three stories.” [Robert D. Potter to A.V. Grosse, February 2, 1939, RU7091, Box 209, Folder 1]
At first glance, the digital image appears to be simply a photograph of a handsome man reading a piece of paper. With trained eyes and a lifetime of knowledge, the late (and great) Larry Badash could see so much more: Fermi absorbing the proof that German scientists were on the track toward harnessing the atom.
Within five and a half years, the Manhattan Project physicists, including Fermi, would win that race and create what Badash called the “modern counterpart to Pandora’s box” -- an atomic bomb.
Guide to the Lawrence Badash Papers, Online Archives of California.
- Don't blink - The wet plate collodion process distilled down to six seconds! [via PetaPixel]
- Help bring the USS Enterprise back in time with your old photos! [via AirSpace blog, NASM]
- Get your submarine ready - This week the first digital geological map of the world’s ocean floor was released. [via InfoDocket]
- What's your story? Tales of first encounters with art in Southern California. [via The Getty Iris]
- National Geographic magazine, a nonprofit publication since its founding in 1888, will now shift to a for-profit status under a new partnership with 21st Century Fox. [via InfoDocket]
- Come celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month at the Smithsonian with a series of vibrant performances, lectures, family activities and exhibitions at various museums. [via SI Newsdesk]
- Check out DC Public Library's Fab Lab in the video below. [via InfoDocket]
- If you are looking for an exciting livestream, check out the University of Arizona, who's playing host to two baby hummingbirds. [via Wired]
- The world's oldest multicolored printed book has been opened and digitized for the first time. [via Colossal]
- The power of the user - Library users at the Los Altos main library in California rejected the new online catalog in favor of the old one. [via InfoDocket]
- For your viewing pleasure NASA is now on Tumblr. [via The Verge]
- The National Archives UK has redesigned the "Records" section of their website to help users find what they are looking for. [via The National Archives Blog]
- History in the making - The invention of digital photography at Kodak. [via Lens blog, NYT]
- Exactly how do you put on an Apollo spacesuit? The folks at the National Air and Space Museum explain. [via AirSpace blog, NASM]
- One step closer to Mars - Astronauts taste lettuce grown on the International Space Station. [via The Verge]
- 10 years in the making. Pictures of Pluto are stunning. [via PetaPixel]
- The fate of the Library of Congress' plan to archive Twitter is unknown at this time. [via InfoDocket]
- Thinking about doing some vertical gardening? The Smithsonian Gardens has some tips for you! [vis Smithsonian Gardens blog]
- More 3D digitization at the Smithsonian! - It is the Greek Slave by Hiram Powers at the Smithsonian American Art Museum that gets scanned this time. [via Smithsonian Science News]
- Home grown - An online archive of Leica Photography Magazine is now available. [via PetaPixel]
- Exhibitions for everyone - Tactile models help visually impaired museum goers experience collection objects and exhibitions. [via O Say Can You See? blog, NMAH]
- A conundrum - Why are giant freshwater fish so hard to find if they are so big? A glimpse into biologist Zeb Hogan's quest to save these colossal fish appears in the video below. [via Wired]
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