The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Photo History
You voted, we listened. For the next installment of our adventures with miscellaneous archival folders we opened up Record Unit 363 - National Museum of Natural History, Office of Exhibition, Records, circa 1955-1990. The folder that you voted for after our last adventure, was “Miscellaneous Photographs,” and a more appropriate title for a folder never existed. When I first opened the file I was overwhelmed by the randomness of its contents, so much so, I was not even sure what to write about!
The photographs in this folder cover a wide range of events, objects, and people. Some of the images document the annual Regent’s Exhibit. The Regent’s Exhibit, was an exhibit created to showcase the different activities around the Smithsonian for the Board of Regent’s Annual Meeting. It appears that up until the early 1950s the exhibit was a small endeavor, cobbled together a few days before the meeting. However, in a memo from 1953, Smithsonian administrators discuss the possibility of increasing the time spent on the exhibit. “It is felt by most that previous exhibits have been too numerous, much too crowded, often confusing, and not well-attended by the Regents…We think it would be more effective to limit the exhibits to a few appropriate phases of the Institution’s activities.” It seems their plan worked. The images found in this folder document the exhibits from the 1960s and they are sleek, well organized, and even stayed up for public exhibit inside the Smithsonian Institution Building’s Great Hall.
Other images found in the folder are photographs of collections and buildings around the Smithsonian. These images include everything from a picture of an elephant at the National Zoo, to schematics showing fabric and wood veneered panels of a third floor corridor in the National Museum of American History. Many of these images are negatives placed in smaller envelopes within the folder. The outside of the folders often have notations indicating what a print of the negative might look like. For example, the image of the elephant’s envelope reads “1-12 HIGA matt.” One could venture a guess that these images were reprinted on larger scales to display in the various exhibits the office was producing.
The most interesting images included in this smorgasbord are the photographs that give a behind-the-scenes look at the exhibits staff and their work. These images capture the detailed work it took Smithsonian staff to create exhibits that not only labeled the objects, but placed them within a larger historical context. From climbing into an exhibit to carefully creating a floor that looks like sand, to painting the leaves to set the scene for collection items, the artistry and skill utilized by Smithsonian staff never ceases to amaze me. It is great that this work, sometimes overlooked because of its seamlessness, is captured in these images to show an interesting side of the Smithsonian.
If you would like to see inside more of our miscellaneous collections, let us know what you would like us to open next. Comment below, or message us on Facebook or Twitter with Folder A for a look at a miscellaneous folder from Record Unit 548 - National Museum of Natural History, Division of Meteorites, Correspondence, circa 1970-1988 or Folder B for a look into a folder from Record Unit 50 - Smithsonian Institution, Office of the Secretary, Records, 1949-1964.
- Record Unit 363 - National Museum of Natural History, Office of Exhibition Records, circa 1955-1990: Box 7, Folder: Miscellaneous Photographs, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Record Unit 50 - Smithsonian Institution, Office of the Secretary, Records, 1949-1964: Box 148, Folder: Regents Exhibit 1953, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Coming soon at the National Air and Space Museum - Hawaii by Air, an exhibition on history of air travel to Hawaii, one of the most isolated spots on Earth. [via AirSpace blog, NASM]
- Penn Museum’s Penn Cultural Heritage Center and the Smithsonian Institution partner together to offer emergency workshop, training, and support for Syrian museum collections. [via Penn Museum]
- The ephemeral meme and the work of internet librarian, Amanda Brennan, to catalog them. [via The Signal: Digital Preservation, LOC]
- The Museum of Modern Art in New York added its first downloadable app to its collection this month: Björk’s Biophilia, which the singer released in 2011 along with an album of the same name. [via Marketplace Tech]
- Who would have known . . . a recent visiting researcher to the Archives sent us a photograph of him as a little boy shooting a commercial for the Smithsonian. [via Effie Kapsalis, SIA]
- Four years ago Instagram came out, browse through some of the first photos posted. [via PetaPixel]
- The National Postal Museum luanched a new augmented reality app to use in two of its exhibitions, Pacific Exchange: China & U.S. Mail and Mail by Rail. [via InfoDocket]
- The beauty of analog photography is on diplay in this video on the process of large format photography. [via PetaPixel]
There is a remarkable figure in the Smithsonian’s history that doesn’t get much of the spotlight; Thomas W. Smillie. He served as the Smithsonian’s first official photographer from 1870 until his death in 1917, and additionally became the Smithsonian’s first photography curator in 1896. Smillie amassed a collection of photographic equipment starting with the purchase of the daguerreotype camera and photographic apparatus used by Samuel Morse for $23. He documented the Smithsonian’s collections and activities ranging from art to history to science. He was a skilled experimenter, and a successful one at that. In the spring of 1900, Smillie accompanied a team of scientists to document a solar eclipse in Wadesboro, North Carolina. The goal was to document the solar corona, so he mounted cameras to several telescopes and successfully took eight stunning glass plate negatives.
In a series of cyanotypes, he documented the Smithsonian’s collections, many still in the collection today (see slideshow below). Currently, Smillie's work is in the Cold Vault at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. Today, we are still documenting the incredible collection that Smillie created.
- The Smithsonian’s First Photographer, The Bigger Picture
- Smillie and the 1900 Solar Eclipse, The Bigger Picture
- This rooftop photo from the 1920s may be the first group selfie. [via PetaPixel]
- The life of Lucky Luciano and other prisoners in New York get illuminated as prison records are digitized and made available online. [via The New York Times]
- What happens after . . . The story of what happens to objects when a temporary exhibition is taken down. [via O Say Can You See? blog, NMAH]
- Software on floppy disks, videotapes, and other obsolete technology pose a risk to the history that is stored on them. [via Popular Mechanics]
- For your research pleasure - The full catalog of USGS topographic surveys is now all on one site and searchable by city. [via Citylab, The Atlantic]
- Museum's acquisitions of digital objects provides a discussion of what it means to have the "original" copy of that digital object and what should be done with it. [via The Signal: Digital Preservation, LOC]
- Smokey the Bear taught us that "Only YOU can prevent forest fires!" and it was in June 1950 that the cub known as Smokey Bear arrived at the National Zoo. [vis Smithsonian Collections Blog]
- A crowdfunded research project at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama seeks to study white band disease, which is responsible for destroying up to 95% of two threatened reef-building coral species in the Caribbean. [via Experiment]
- Raise a Glass to History with the Smithsonian Channel and the National Museum of American History as they celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Star-Spangled Banner with cocktails inspired by our past. [via Smithsonian Channel and NMAH]
In the summer of 2013, my family and I took a vacation that was decades in the making. I actually consider it a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. More than 20 years ago my father and I talked about going on a Route 66 road trip, but it did not happen as life got busier with careers, moves, children, and other daily routines. We decided that it was finally time to do it – even if it meant only part of the 2,400-plus-mile road would be traveled due to time, expenses, and other constraints. The Mother Road goes from Chicago to Los Angeles (or Santa Monica Pier, depending on whom you ask).
My husband and I previously had traveled the iconic road from Chicago to St. Louis in two trips. Of course, this was before the explosion of the Internet, GPS devices, digital cameras, and apps that can make traveling easier. The road was decommissioned in 1985 and had been on the decline for decades as interstates made travel faster.
The 10-day journey comprised three generations in a borrowed family vehicle. The starting point was San Bernardino, California, taking a pass on Los Angeles this time. We went about 800 miles into Arizona and New Mexico on the route most the time (a decommissioned road means some rough spots and mysterious or missing segments). There were side trips to the Grand Canyon and El Morro National Monument in New Mexico. We were treated to beautiful landscapes, wild burros in Oatman, Arizona, iconic Route 66 signage, and lots of old roadside lodging and diner options you won’t find near the interstates. My boys even got to enjoy a movie at drive-in theater for the first time.
Not only are vacations about places but people as well. My father and I had a nice conversation with Mauricio Perez of Seligman, Arizona. The family runs a popular gift shop, and his father-in-law is Angel Delgadillo, 87, who is considered one of Route 66’s biggest supporters through his efforts to revitalize the highway after its decommissioning. We even talked about how the Delgadillo family is featured in the America on the Move exhibition at the National Museum of American History. Perez said they needed to take a trip east to Washington, D.C., to see it.
The allure of Route 66 has grown in the decades since its closing and attracts visitors from all over the world. Delgadillo, who is a barber, was giving a haircut to a filmmaker from Spain working on a Route 66 special while we were there.
Of course, we tried to document as much as we could through our cameras, resulting in lots of digital photos (there were more cameras than travelers). I did upload the images to my computer as soon as I got home and also printed the ones that I considered special for display. But a year later I still need to finish the job of deleting some of the images that I don’t need to keep and were missed during a first review (blurry ones, duplicates taken from inside the car by the youngest passengers, etc.), as well as making sure metadata is there.
There also are steps you can take before and during the trip to get the most out of the memories you are making:
- Get to know your camera/s before the trip especially if it is new. Most digital cameras have multiple options these days that you might want to use, such as a timestamp on the image. Some cameras and smartphone cameras also have GPS capability, which will note in the metadata of where the image was taken as a geotag. Take the instruction manual along if you have space for it.
- Delete blurry photos when you have down time (waiting for lunch, waiting at the airport, waiting to go on an amusement park ride, etc). Digital cameras allow us to take more pictures than with film, which can be a mixed blessing.
- Try out apps that can track your trip to create a map of the route that can be saved, if you have a tablet or smart phone.
- Write or type up observations while they are fresh in a travel journal/blog.
- Collect impressions of others who travel with you either by video or audio recording or writing them down.
- Consider purchasing some old-fashioned postcards to round out the images especially if you forgot to take some at a particular spot.
Now we just need to complete a St. Louis, Missouri, to Gallup, New Mexico, leg.
- Route 66: The Road and The Romance, online exhibition, The Autry
- The Mystique of Route 66, by David Lamb, Smithsonian Magazine
- Smithsonian Secretary Charles D. Walcott at the Grand Canyon, Record Unit 95 - Photograph Collection, 1850s - , neg. no. 83-14116, Smithsonian Institution Archives