The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
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The first time I was introduced to Mary Agnes Chase was in her 1922 letters, and she was boarding a ship to Europe. This was post-World War I, and she was heading to Vienna, Austria to conduct work for the Unites States National Herbarium. My first impression was that she was rather blunt, and not afraid of speaking her mind. She is equally taken aback by the mostly German crew, the unabashed drinking on board the American ship, and the women smoking. Her blunt observations in her correspondence throughout the 1920s and 1930s show a woman who was disgusted with the way things were, and felt that some things needed to be changed.
Born in Illinois in 1869, Mary Agnes Chase was raised in Chicago where in 1888 she married William Ingraham Chase. Sadly William died from tuberculosis within the first year of their marriage. Mary started working for the United States Department of Agriculture in 1903, and over the years worked her way up from botanist illustrator to senior botanist. For most of her career, Chase worked closely with Albert Spear Hitchcock building the collection of grasses for the United States National Museum (now National Museum of Natural History). This work often required her to travel abroad, and she spent a fair amount of time in Europe and Brazil.
She had a keen eye that brought the countries she visited to light, both culturally and politically. Reading her letters is as much a history lesson as it is a botany lesson. She spent a great deal of time describing her daily routine, and not always in a flattering way. She was disappointed with the European train system, and her choice of words in 1922 is almost verbatim with what she says about it in 1935 in regards to how terrible she thought the porters were. Clearly the system had not improved enough to meet Mary's standards. She also had a bit of difficulty with relaxing and "letting her hair down." For example in 1935, she was upset that Easter was a week long holiday in France, and that she was not allowed to have a personal key to the museum.
Her letters from Brazil are lighter, and while she still was rather annoyed when distracted from her work, it seems there is a marked difference. In one instance she complains about her ankle holding her up having sprained it in the field, but her complaints have a laughter about them as if she is chiding herself for getting into that situation more than being completely incensed about it. I got the impression that it was the people of Brazil that warmed her up. Mary seemed to bond with them far more that she did with the Europeans. Some part of it could be attributed to post war prejudices, but I also get the impression that her work in Brazil suited her more. In Brazil she was doing field work on American grasses, her specialty, and she seemed to thrive in this environment.
From her letters you get a good sense of the woman who championed the causes of the working classes and suffragettes. But what struck me the most are the parts of Mary's life that we don't know about. Most of what we know conclusively about her started after Mary was well into middle age. Where is the young Mary Agnes Chase? Who was this woman other than a world class botanist? There are a few details in her letters about grandchildren, sisters, and family; however most of her private life is shrouded in mystery, and if you do research on her, you find few answers. How did Mary juggle her private and professional lives? Did she hand a child or children perhaps off to a sibling while she traipsed around the world in search of grasses the way so many male scientists did in her day? Did she promise to write to them when there was a spare moment?
The biographies that mention her marriage never speak of children. However, in a letter from July 5, 1935, Mary gushes over the birth of a new granddaughter. She was in a hotel room with Bob, apparently her grandson, who was visiting her in Paris, and older brother of the new granddaughter. She goes on to say how her child begged her to come to Geneva to see her new grandbaby. She goes on in an August letter to inform Hitchcock that she is extending her stay to go to Geneva to see the new baby. We now know that she has two grandchildren, but what about her children? Why is there so little discussion of them? Perhaps one day someone will discover a scrap of paper or a photograph of a young Mary Agnes Chase holding the hand of a small child. Her child. Until then we can only speculate.
- Formidable: Women in Science, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- New Flickr Commons Set: Mary Agnes Chase Field Books, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Record Unit 229: United States National Museum Division of Grasses, Records, 1884, 1888, 1899-1965, Smithsonian Institution Archives
On February 11, 1927, the Smithsonian held the "Conference on the Future of the Smithsonian." Its purpose was "to advise with reference to the future policy and field of service of the Smithsonian Institution." Held in the Smithsonian Institution Building (or "Castle"), scientists, politicians and prominent individuals from across the country were invited to learn about what the Smithsonian was doing and to assist in determining a strategy for the Institution going forward. Staff were asked to prepare exhibits that illustrated their current research and information about the Smithsonian's history was shared followed by a luncheon. As a result of the conference, a new strategic plan was created for the Smithsonian.
It was a great endeavor to bring people from across the country to join in learning about the Smithsonian and to help guide its future to be sure. However there was another purpose of the conference; to increase the Smithsonian's endownment. In 1925, the Smithsonian engaged the firm, Tamblyn and Brown to help it with a capital campaign whose goal was to raise $10 million for the Institution. To this end, the individuals were invited based upon not only their interest in science and friendliness to the Smithsonian, but also based upon their ability to give. Additionally exhibits were meant to "illustrate present and prosed researches of the Institution" as well as to stress "wherever possible the ultimate economic significance" of the Smithsonian's research work. Attendees were meant to be informed of the important scientific research being conducted at the Smithsonian, but also be made aware of the impact that its research had in contributing to the economy.
Unfortunately two days before the conference was to take place Secretary Charles Doolittle Walcott passed away. Assistant Secretary, Charles Greeley Abbot, hosted the conference in his stead, but timing was not on the side of the fund raising effort. With the strategic plan finalized and preparing to launch the capital campaign, the stock market crashed in 1929.
- Record Unit 46 - Office of the Secretary, Records, 1925-1949, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Proceedings of Conference on the Future of the Smithsonian Institution, February 11, 1927
- The Smithsonian, A Revelation, 1926, Smithsonian Libraries
On this day in 1972, the Renwick Gallery opened to the public. The Renwick serves as the home of the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s craft and decorative art program. The collections, exhibition programs and publications put forth by the Renwick highlight the best craft objects and decorative arts from the 19th century to the present. Presently closed for renovations, the Renwick will get a completely renewed infrastructure, enhanced historic features, and other upgrades such as an all LED lighting system. For now, until it reopens, here is a look at some historic images of the Renwick.
- James Renwick, Jr., Architect of Smithsonian Buildings, Stories from the Smithsonian, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Before the Grand Canyon was made a National Park (1919) and before President Theodore Roosevelt placed the Grand Canyon under public protection by declaring it a national monument on January 11, 1908, the Smithsonian was interested in this natural wonder. In fact the first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, Joseph Henry wrote to Representative, later President of the United States, James A. Garfield in 1870 to urge that Congress fund John Wesley Powell's continued exploration of the Grand Canyon. Which they did with Congress appropriating $12,000 for Powell's expedition. Additionally in 1903 the fourth Smithsonian Secretary Charles Doolittle Walcott and his family traveled to the Grand Canyon. In honor of this UNESCO World Heirtage Site are some images of the visits to the canyon by Powell and the Walcotts.
- Record Unit 7004 - Charles D. Walcott Collection, 1851-1940 and undated, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Record Unit 7177 - George P. Merrill Collection, circa 1800-1930 and undated, Smithsonian Institution Archives
On December 5, 1961 the Smithsonian announced that Alice Pike Barney's Studio House was donated to the Smithsonian by her daughters Natalie and Laura Barney. Alice Pike Barney was an American painter born in 1857 in Ohio. During the late 1800s, she spent time in Paris where she studied painting and began a salon in the home she rented there. When Barney returned to her home in Washington, D.C., she put a lot of effort into turning the city into a center for the arts. She had solo shows at the Corcoran Gallery of Art and other major galleries. After her death in 1931, the Studio House became the property of her two daughters, who donated it to the Smithsonian in 1961. In 1976, the house was opened as part of the National Museum of American Art, now the Smithsonian American Art Museum. In April 1995 the Alice Pike Barney Studio House was placed on the National Registry of Historic Places. The house remained in the possession of the Smithsonian until 1999, and it now serves as the Embassy of Latvia in Washington, D.C.
- Barney House given to the Smithsonian, Chronology of Smithsonian History, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Summer Wind to Ban-y-Bryn, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Accession 96-153 - Alice Pike Barney Papers, 1861-1965, Smithsonian Institution Archives
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