The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Science
Like thousands of other aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents, my husband and I recently wandered through Smithsonian museums as we photographed a paper cutout. In our case, "Flat John" had traveled from a second-grade classroom in Missouri and is now back home with many tales of an "adventure" in Washington, D.C.
Although poor Flat John could not pull or push the mechanical and electronic devices in the exhibitions he visited, his fellow (human) visitors, large and small, could – and did – with gusto. A century ago, Smithsonian exhibitions featured passive displays. Now, in every museum along the National Mall, adults and children watch videos, listen to exhibition narration on their smartphones, and touch screens in order to "interact" with the artifacts.
One of the pioneers in introducing such action to science museums was George Roemmert (1892-1952). His most famous development, the "Microvivarium," projected images of amoebas, infusoria, and other animalcules placed underneath a special microscope. In 1933 and 1934, Roemmert's display became such a hit at the Century of Progress International Exposition in Chicago that local newspapers recommended that visitors skip the more commercial displays and head first to the Hall of Science.
The public's newfound fascination with motion pictures undoubtedly contributed to the popularity of the Microvivarium. Here, as in the films of Jean Painlevé, one could watch and wonder at a world in miniature. Worms, larvae, and water-fleas swirled, swam, and swallowed each other within the huge circles of light created by six projectors.
To this raw display of nature, Roemmert added a dramatic narrative. "The part of the show that gets the most fascinated attention from the audience," Science Service biology editor Frank Thone observed, "is a display of fierceness and flesh-hunger on the part of invisibly small one-celled creatures that is as awesome as though they were tigers or leopards. First, Dr. Roemmert shows you his little beasts of prey ... then he displays the animals that are to be the victims ... slipper animalcules ... pushes the two together ... and, with a ferocity which makes you shudder, each beastlet selects its victim, seizes it with unshakeable grip, and proceeds to devour it alive."
Roemmert's Microvivarium exemplified the excitement that Science Service wanted to associate with popularization of science. Thone therefore became caught up in the inventor's search for a permanent installation – no small task in the midst of an economic depression. Thone brokered a demonstration at the Cosmos Club in Washington, D.C., and he introduced Roemmert to William Mann, Director of the National Zoological Park, and other Smithsonian Institution scientists. Discouraged by his failure to interest any Chicago museum in offering a permanent home, in 1935 Roemmert returned to New York, where he continued negotiations with the American Museum of Natural History. Its offer, however, did not include more than nominal salary for Roemmert and the museum never had sufficient funds to support installation.
Roemmert's struggle to find a home for an acknowledged success mirrored the dilemma long faced by popular science projects. "Public institutions everywhere, however great their interest," he acknowledged to Thone, "are hampered by a lack of funds."
Such setbacks left Roemmert amenable to a pragmatic decision in December 1937. The Westinghouse Electric Company wanted the Microvivarium as the main feature of their hall in the 1939 New York World's Fair. Abandoning his dream of a non-commercial venue, Roemmert agreed to the company's terms, which allowed him to retain freedom in the laboratory and in how the Microvivarium was exhibited.
And so, when you next enjoy a lively science exhibition (perhaps accompanied by your own "flat" tourist), take a moment to remember George Roemmert, whose vision of popularization added a new dramatic dimension to biology. In the Microvivarium, Thone wrote, "single cells loom big as bushel baskets, [and] microscopic animalcule are as large and as lively as jackrabbits."
- Record Unit 7091 - Science Service, Records, circa 1910-1963, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Accession 90-105 - Science Service, Records, 1920s-1970s, Smithsonian Institution Archives
To celebrate International Migratory Bird Day on May 9th, we will be releasing recently digitized specimen drawings by ornithologist Robert Ridgway (1850-1929.) Ridgway's career with the Smithsonian began in 1864 when he wrote asking for help identifying a bird. As they say, the rest is history. Starting in 1869, Ridgway became curator at the Smithsonian's United States National Museum and remained in that job until his death in 1929 (more about Ridgway's life here.)
Ridgway's work is still significant today. He is considered one of the iconic figures in color dictionaries that gave people studying the natural world a common vocabulary for describing the color of flora and fauna. This was very important work prior to photographic technology, and looks remarkably similar to the Pantone books graphic designers use today! Ridgway wrote a short color dictionary in 1886 at the same time as he completed work on a set of rules and guidelines for naming birds. In 1912, he self-published "Color Standards and Color Nomenclature," a compilation of 1,115 colors.
Throughout May, we will release 509 newly digitized scans of his incredibly rich specimen drawings of North American birds to the Flickr Commons. There are even more on this website. We will also be asking for your help in transcribing some of the notes found on his drawings so we can make all the information contained in these works useful and findable to admirers and researchers today.
- Record Unit 7167: Robert Ridgway Papers, circa 1850s-1919, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- We have a date - The Renwick Gallery will be reopening on November 13, 2015! [via EyeLevel blog, SAAM]
- Years in the making - Sir Arthur C. Clarke's personal papers are acquired by the National Air and Space Museum Archives. [via AirSpace blog, NASM]
- Revolutionary war veterans - These are the few that lived long enough to have their portraits taken. [via PetaPixel]
- Your questions are answered about nests and their avian architects. [via Smithsonian Science News]
- Now online from Louisiana State University's Libraries, Special Collections is the collaborative digital collection: Free People of Color in Louisiana: Revealing an Unknown Past, a project "to digitize, index, and provide free access to family papers, business records, and public documents pertaining to free people of color in Louisiana and the lower Mississippi Valley." [via Jennifer Wright, SIA]
- Digital preservation - A sneek peak inside the Digital Art Vault at the Museum of Modern Art. [via Inside/Out blog, MOMA]
- Vindication at last - John Harrison, one of the world's greatest clockmakers, invented what he claimed to be the perfect pendulum clock in the mid-18th century. His peers at the time chastised and ridiculed Harrison's plan. At the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, Clock B as it's known - was recently constructed to Harrison's specifications - and has vindicated him by losing only five-eighths of a second over a period of 100 days setting a Guinness World Record. [via The Verge]