The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Profile
I will begin by saying that this is a bittersweet post to write. Marvin Heiferman—creative consultant, editor, and contributor to The Bigger Picture blog—will be moving on from the Archives to do independent curatorial projects. Marvin (who has his own Wikipedia entry, by the way!) has been with the Smithsonian for some time now: first as a creative consultant for the Smithsonian Photography Initiative (which is now a part of the Archives); and then as a guest curator for click! photography changes everything, a web-based project that was created by the Photography Initiative and ran from 2007–2010, that invited both experts in their fields, and the public at large, to explore the power and impact of photography on history, culture, and everyday life.
Marvin also helped found The Bigger Picture back in 2009, when the blog was still a part of the Smithsonian Photography Initiative, writing about contemporary issues in visual culture and photography. When the Photography Initiative joined the Smithsonian Institution Archives in the spring of 2009, it was Marvin who helped move our blog content from being primarily photography-focused to embrace a broader umbrella of archives-related, history, and visual culture content. Marvin was also the primary editor for blog content—guiding editorial decisions, and always bringing his careful readings and skillful suggestions to everyone’s writing. And of course, many of you have read his weekly “What Gets Saved” pieces: Marvin’s acute observations about archives news, and examinations of the various challenges and issues that shape archives, history, and memory.click! photography changes everything introduction, featuring Merry A. Foresta, former Director of the Smithsonian Photography Initiative, and Marvin Heiferman, curator of click! photography changes everything.
In his time here, Marvin has written over 120 blog posts for The Bigger Picture that covered topics as wide-ranging as the politics of photography bans and public surveillance to the role of image archives in fashion design. He has made sharp observations about how archives are being used in the digital humanities; by the important writers of our time; scientists; and of course, by everyday folks—as well as how our digital age is changing the very nature of archives. As our head of Web and New Media, Effie Kapsalis, notes, Marvin also has the very best blog titles (point in case, Murder, She Wrote fans: “Illegible, She Wrote”).
I’ve worked in many museums in my career thus far, and I can genuinely say that I’ve rarely worked with a curator and creative spirit with more breadth of knowledge and genuine curiosity about the world than Marvin. It’s easy to get tied up in, or be precious about one’s approach to an area of expertise, and Marvin is one of those rare Renaissance men who are interested and able to absorb almost any subject matter. So, big cheers to Marvin from everyone at the Archives—we will truly miss you here!
Alright, I admit it. I often write about the Walcott family and why not? They are the best documented family of a Smithsonian Secretary in our collection—there are family letters to and from his children (Charles Doolittle, Jr., Sidney Stevens, Helen Breese, and Benjamin Stuart), formal and informal family photographs and, best of all, small, red leather-bound diaries kept Charles D. Walcott (fourth Secretary of the Smithsonian) that document his daily life as a scientist, administrator, father, and husband.
Pat Breen, a beloved volunteer with the Archives, brought these diaries and many other treasures to my attention years ago when she was helping to rehouse and preserve Walcott’s papers (read more about them here: Record Unit 7004). When she got to the diaries, she scanned through them to see what was entered on important dates—when he married, when his children were born, and on special holidays.
Entries on Christmas Eves, for example, suggest that the Walcotts decorated their tree, hung stockings, and set out packages the night before Christmas and not sooner. And then on the 25th….
Sun., Dec. 25, 1892 Christmas at 7 a.m. Helena (wife), Chas.Jr., Sidney—Mother and Josie (sister) all met in the sitting room and opened the Christmas pkgs.
Christmas 1894 A happy day at home with our children. At dinner—Mother Walcott, Josie, Helena, Chas. Jr. 5 yr 7 mos, Sidney 2 yr 2 mos, Helen Breese 4 mos 5 days. All happy and well.
Wed., Dec. 25, 1895 A happy Christmas Day. The Children enjoyed the tree & gifts. At 2 p.m. we dined. Mother, sister Josie, Charles, Sidney and Helen all well. Took a walk with Helena 4 to 5 & spent the evening quietly at home.
Christmas 1898 Stockings at 6 a.m., Tree 9 a.m., Church 11 a.m., Dinner 2 p.m. Telegram notifying us of the death of Helena’s father. She left with Mrs. Stevens at 7:20 for “Scaradoa” (illegible). Returned home from R.R. station tired and sleepy.
And this entry answers the question posed by the above photo of the family on Christmas Day, “where’s Charlie?” It is annotated on the back as “1907 or 1908?”:
Christmas 1907 Wish Charlie was here instead of Chicago. Stockings at 7:30 a.m. Christmas tree 10 a.m. Breese and Ethel Stevens & Ella came in… With Stuart called on several friends at eggnog party of Judge Maury.
Interestingly, after reading many entries a trend emerged indicating that as the children grew older the time for stockings and packages got later. One, and only one, entry records, “Boys up at 5” Later ones mark 7:30 and 9. Sound familiar?
Thank you, Pat Breen for telling me about the diaries. I had a jolly time reading them.
On April 16, 1972, two celebrities arrived at the National Zoological Park to throngs of adoring fans. Panda pair Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing were a gift to the United States from China. The arrival of biologist Devra Kleiman at the zoo the same year was much quieter, but marked the beginning of a new era in conservation and reproductive biology. Devra, who passed away last month, was well known for her research on panda behavior and reproduction. Based on her own observations, she questioned the conventional practice of keeping the pandas separate except to mate. At a time when successful captive breeding of pandas was rare, Ling-Ling gave birth five times (none of the cubs survived). Devra was equally well known for her golden lion tamarin (GLT) research. For almost 30 years, Devra coordinated the Golden Lion Tamarin Conservation Program. At the time it was created in 1972, GLTs were facing extinction. In 1984, the Program successfully reintroduced the first of many GLTs into the wild. Devra didn’t just “do” science—she documented it as well. Just before her retirement in 2001, she sent approximately twenty cubic feet of her research records and subject files to the Smithsonian Institution Archives. Having been hired by the Archives that same year, one of my earliest projects was to process Devra’s records. And what a perfect project for me! I have always been a frequent visitor of zoos. As a child, I always loved the energetic little monkeys with hair the same color as mine and had even once “adopted” a golden lion tamarin from the Philadelphia Zoo. As an adult, I was swept up in the second wave of panda fever that flooded DC with the arrival of Mei Xiang and Tian Tian in December 2000. Devra’s research records also provided me with the opportunity to learn a new skill set. She often used videotape instead of, or in addition to, a pen to record her observations and she was involved in the production of (at least) two documentaries recorded on 16 mm film. Much of what she transferred to the Archives was these audiovisual materials. I found myself learning the basics of how to identify and properly store videotapes, including formats I had never seen before, as well as how to use a hand-wind and to fix film splices. These are skills I never thought I would need to know, but they proved to be useful in many processing projects and I have even passed them along to several other staff and interns. It was not until 2007 that I finally met Devra. She was serving as a scientist emeritus at the zoo and the building in which she had spent much of her career was slated to undergo some renovations. She volunteered to assist in cleaning out some storage spaces. For years, scientists and other staff had been placing research materials and administrative records in these spaces and no one remembered what was in them. Devra was vital to the project in that she was one of the few people who could identify (or at least make an educated guess) various groups of files and their creators. In our conversations, she showed a great interest in ensuring that records of potential research value made their way to the Archives while not burdening the collections with duplicate materials. Devra’s work will live on, not only at the National Zoological Park and in the greater conservation community, but also in her records at the Smithsonian Institution Archives where they will be available for generations to come. Devra’s work is well represented throughout the records of the National Zoological Park, Dept. of Zoological Research. A full list of these collections in the Archives can be found via the Smithsonian Institution Collections Search Center. More information about the National Zoological Park’s conservation efforts related to pandas, golden lion tamarins, and other animals can be found on the their website and in the historic issues of the Friends of the National Zoo’s publication, Smithsonian Zoogoer.
One thing has changed drastically since John Dillaber started working as a museum technician in the Smithsonian Photographic Services twenty-five years ago, giving both staff and the public access to prints made from the Institution’s vast photographic archives. Whereas John’s work was initially in the dark room, he now spends his days at a computer, Photoshopping scans that have been made of older, original photographs in the collections, as well as working on more recent digital images. This switch from “wet side” of the dark room to the “dry side” of digital photography cuts the amount of time John spends on processing photos, and enables him to more effectively enhance photographs so that the greatest possible amount of data can be gleaned from them. In the course of traditional photographic printing, each print used to require careful dodging and burning to bring out details, and then needed to be retouched by hand as well. In that sense, every photograph printed from a negative or glass plate in the photo archives was unique. Today, Photoshop software allows John to easily highlight details in an old photograph, and to repair or restore damaged photographs. And when he does, he keeps a raw scan of the original photographic negative or print while creating a new digital file that reveals details in a photograph that might never have been visible or noticed before. “Sometimes when you scan an old image,” John explained, “it reveals a lot. People who have never seen the [original] film, have never held it in their hands, only get to see an image as it was printed in the old days. They may be looking at a photograph that wasn’t printed well . . . there may be an area in the orginal image that needs some [enhancing]. With digital I can see all the information in an image more easily, and right away.” The results of John’s work can be striking. And, it’s important to remember that in addition to new digital rendition of the image, the original photograph, with all its physical traces of use—dirt, tears, crop marks, and any captions or notes that appear on the front or back of the photograph (all of which are crucial pieces of the photograph’s history)—is still preserved in the archive for future study and use. Stay tuned next week for a look at one of John’s recent scanning projects with the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives, which revealed some secrets about China’s last and most famous empress, Cixi, Empress Dowager. As an ongoing feature on THE BIGGER PICTURE, we will be highlighting the work of Smithsonian Institution Archives staff that digitizes, archives, and preserves the photographic collections at the Archives. John Dillaber works at the Smithsonian Institution Archives in the Digital Services Division.
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