The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: World History
- Two very different cases of unexpected discovery of photos: World War I negatives found in an attic and a camera caught by a fisherman in Lake Tahoe, California. [via PetaPixel]
- Excited about the Sochi Winter Olympics? Janes Rogers, curator at the National Museum of American History, gives you a tour of the museum's collection of Winter Olympic related items. [via O Say Can You See? blog, NMAH]
- Congratulations to Cornell University Library which recently acquired its 8 millionth volume! [via InfoDocket]
- Meet the real "Monuments Men" at the Archives of American Art's new exhibition, MONUMENTS MEN: On the Frontline to Save Europe’s Art, 1942-1946, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum [via The Torch, SI]
- A new updated version of the Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library was launched this week that has 10,000 newly uploaded images. [via Jennifer Wright, SIA]
- Stanford University Libraries and the Bibliothèque national de France partnered to create a French Revolution Digital Archives that includes more than 14,000 hi-res images. [via InfoDocket]
- Going it alone . . . Cezar Popescu's mission to save over 5000 portraits captured on deteriorating glass plate negatives and several hundred prints by digitizing them. See his process as he digitized each negative in the video below. [via PetaPixel]
This week starts the beginning of Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15 through October 15) and the Smithsonian is celebrating with a series of vibrant performances, lectures, exhibitions, family activities and tours at various museums around the Institution. September 15th is siginificant because it marks the anniversary of independence for the Latin American countries of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatamala, Honduras and Nicaragua. Also, Mexico and Chile celebrate their indepdence days on September 16 and 18, respectively.
The Smithsonian Collections Search Center has highlighted some sets of collections at the Smithsonian that document Latino and Mexican histories, cultures and contributions of American citizens whose ancestors come from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America.
- Hispanic Heritage Month, Smithsonian Institution
- Hispanic Heritage Month, Library of Congress
- 150 Years of Smithsonian Research in Latin America, online exhibition, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Smithsonian Latino Center records, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Summertime in Washington, DC usually brings a few things to mind for me: the United States Department of Agriculture farmer's market, tourists, buses, Jazz in the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden, and the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. First started in 1967, this year's festival focuses on the following:
- Hungarian Heritage: Roots to Revival
- One World, Many Voices: Endangered Languages and Cultural Heritage
- The Will to Adorn: African American Diversity, Style, and Identity
Running from June 24-26 and July 3-7, the schedule of activities, programs, and performances is incredible. So if you'll be in Washington, DC during this time or live nearby, please come out to learn from and experience the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.
This is the third and final part of a three-part series on George C. Wheeler and the relationship of science and tourism in the Caribbean by the Archives' former Research Fellow, Blake Scott.
Equally important is the educational backstory leading up to Wheeler's Caribbean trip in 1924. How did he become interested in traveling to the American Tropics to study insects?
The line distinguishing culture from science is often nebulous. Every scientist (there are no exceptions) learned to value science and nature in culturally specific ways before he or she became a scientist. "All of culture and all of nature," as the sociologist Bruno Latour reminds us, "get churned up every day" [Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993)]. From the SI Archives, for example, we know that Dr. Alexander Wetmore, the sixth Secretary of the Smithsonian (1945-1952), came to appreciate ornithology as a young boy after visiting his local library and after a particularly memorable family vacation to Florida in 1894. The birds and the places he came to value emerged from personal experience. How might the epistemological path—from youth to scientific professional—influence the ecological and social values of travel?
At the time George Wheeler left for the Tropics, he was a recently graduated Ph.D. in Biology from Harvard. At the University's Bussey Institution, he specialized in the morphology and taxonomy of ants, under the guidance of the famed entomologist William Morton Wheeler (of no familial relation). W. M. Wheeler's work has been fundamental to the development of tropical biology. His theorizing of how individual organisms can live and function collectively as a single "superorganism," such as in an ant colony or on a coral reef, is key to our contemporary understanding of biodiversity.
As a professor and scientist, W. M. Wheeler also embraced and spread the concept of "organicism," which he believed to be nature's principle of organization. Each living organism had a specific role in the organic world. Natural scientists and big game hunters, some of whom studied under W. M. Wheeler, used this concept to justify their collecting habits. Historian and biologist Donna Haraway explains, "there was a hierarchy of game according to species: lions, elephants, and giraffes far outranked wild asses or antelope. The gorilla was the supreme achievement, almost a definition of perfection in the heart of the garden at the moment of origin" [Donna Haraway, "Teddy Bear Patriarchy: Taxidermy in the Garden of Eden, New York City, 1908-36." Social Text, no. 11 (Winter 1984/85), p. 19-64.]. This naturalized hierarchy, which also applied to the flora and fauna of the American tropics, not only structured how scientists understood non-human "nature," but also the way they interacted with the human world. The organization of society, they believed, followed the same principles. Race, gender, and class distinctions—defining social roles and privileges—were often understood in similar organicist terms in the first decades of the twentieth century.
George Wheeler, for example, would not have had the opportunity to study biology at Harvard and travel to the Caribbean as a scientific guest of the United Fruit Company and the Barro Colorado Island Laboratory, if he hadn't been a white man of particular social standing. At scientific clubs like the Cosmos and Explorer's Club if a woman or a man of color entered the organization's doors it was most likely as a servant, like the famous African-American author Zora Neale Hurston in the 1920s. "I learned things from holding the hands of men like that," Hurston would later comment [Zora Neale Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1942)].
George Wheeler benefited greatly from his association with W. M. Wheeler. When George started his graduate career at Harvard, he conferred with Dr. Wheeler about what to study. Initially he was unsure of what to do for his dissertation. Although W. M. Wheeler never explicitly suggested ants, their close relationship and the elder Wheeler's reputation in myrmecology, undoubtedly influenced the younger man's decision. George explains:
After I'd been there a few months, he [W. M. Wheeler] made me his graduate assistant and paid me $50 a month, which was in 1919 or 1920, which was big pay in those days … I worked in his office, did drawing, photography, all sorts of work on ants for him, in addition to research.
After George graduated from Harvard and became a young professor at Syracuse University, W. M. Wheeler continued to support his studies:
I'd never been to the Tropics, and he [W. M. Wheeler] wanted to give me a chance to go there, so he arranged for a fellowship with the United Fruit Company. I worked up the literature on cacao insects to pay for my expenses to Central America, which the United Fruit Company paid.
Dr. Wheeler made sure his student protégé could afford school. He also introduced him to fieldwork in the Tropics, arranging a deal with the Fruit Company.
Jungle Laboratory, Barro Colorado Island
W. M. Wheeler had his reasons for sending students to the American Tropics. The year before George's trip, Dr. Wheeler, along with a group of elite scientists and wealthy patrons, opened the Barro Colorado Island (BCI) Laboratory in Panama. Dr. Wheeler and his colleagues believed that the future of biology in the U.S. depended on having an accessible research station in Tropical, Latin America. They wanted to make it possible, as fellow BCI founder and Harvard Professor Dr. Thomas Barbour explains:
For the teacher of biology with a small salary to have the thrill of Wallace, Bates, and Spruce when they first set foot in the Amazon Jungle… To see these trees (the great espave trees) and to walk our carefully marked trails provide all the illusion of exploration, but with this great difference: we have pure drinking water. [Thomas Barbour, Naturalist at Large (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1943)]
The same year BCI was established, 1923, W. M. Wheeler wrote a biting article, "The Dry-Rot of Our Academic Biology." In it, Wheeler expressed his disgust with the conservatism of some U.S. academics:
Not only do many of us wear out our most valuable tissues converting the graduate students into mere vehicles of our own interests, prepossessions and specialties but nearly all of us fail to excite in them that spirit of adventure which has in the past yielded such remarkable results in the development of our science. The finest example of this lack of vision is seen in the stolid indifference, especially in our eastern universities, to exploration and research in the remote portions of our own country, in foreign lands and especially in the tropics. We have in the Philippines and at our very doors in the West Indies, Mexico, Central and South America the most marvelous faunas and floras in the world, but we still persuade our traveling fellows to cut more sections in the laboratories of Professor Rindskopf of Berlin or Professor Himmelschwanz of Leipzig, because thirty or forty years ago we were sent to the same bemooste Haupter. [William Morton Wheeler, "The Dry-Rot of Our Academic Biology," Bulletin of the American Association of University Professors, Vol. 9, No. 3 (March 1923), p. 8-10.]
Wheeler not only envisioned, but helped to enact his own dream for the future of biology. The Barro Colorado Island Laboratory—a man-made island in the middle of the Panama Canal—has had a huge role in how scientists, students, and the U.S. public understand the tropical environment. From museum exhibits at the Smithsonian Institution and the American Museum of Natural History in New York to popular books, BCI has been a vital source for the production and diffusion of knowledge (The Barro Colorado Island Laboratory has had a prominent place in travel literature throughout the twentieth century. There have also been thousands of scientific publications generated from research on BCI. The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute lists 461 publications in their formal bibliography. It does not include a full listing, however.).
This spread of knowledge is an important task, but we must ask ourselves 'whose' knowledge did scientists diffuse? How did they obtain and organize their information? What do those processes, in turn, reflect about society? Who decided what was most important to study and exhibit? And consequently, how might the character of this diffusion influence the way U.S. Americans think about and travel to the American Tropics?
During a recent visit to the American Museum of Natural History in New York, I was surprised to see that Asian Peoples, African peoples, South American Peoples, Northwest Coast Indians, and almost everyone else except for "white" people, were seamlessly mixed with non-human exhibits. White Europeans and Euro-Americans were presented as ostensibly apart from the natural world.
George C. Wheeler in Texas
Returning to Wheeler's education, we should also note that before BCI or even Harvard, he studied biology as an undergraduate student. At the Rice Institute in Texas (1915-1918):
I had my beginning course in biology with [Julian Huxley] … I used to go on field trips with a biology club. Then some of the advanced students had a conference with him an hour a week, to talk about anything we wanted to. This was the course.
Huxley was responsible for my going into biology … My German professor at Rice was urging me to go into German. I went to Huxley and told him, and he said, 'I think you’ll do all right in biology.' So that was the deciding factor, Julian Huxley's statement.
That "statement" meant a lot to an impressionable undergraduate. Julian Huxley was an evolutionary biologist and eugenicist, who came from a distinguished family of British intellectuals. Julian's brother was the author, Aldous Huxley, and their grandfather, Thomas Huxley, famously defended the theory of evolution in the 1860s. He was known as "Darwin's Bulldog." Julian Huxley's own scientific contributions shaped the "evolutionary synthesis" of Mendelian genetics and the evolutionary theory of natural selection. The organizations he supported have also been extremely important to the modern development of cultural and eco-tourism. He was the first Director of UNESCO (1946), and a founding member of the World Wildlife Fund (1961). Huxley introduced young George Wheeler to the field of biology.
From the Caribbean Tropics to U.S. classrooms
By bringing the material practice of George Wheeler's 1924 trip to the Caribbean (Part I and II) into dialogue with his formal education (Part III), we can begin to trace the long genealogy of thought and action that shaped "Western" perceptions of tropical nature. There were myriad people and places—from the ships, and cities and forests of the Caribbean to the scientific labs and classrooms of Great Britain, Texas, and Harvard—that helped to produce U.S. traveler experiences. Through George Wheeler's story, for example, we can imagine how the ideas of scientists like Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley passed from professors like William Morton Wheeler and Julian Huxley to the next generation of students and travelers. As one of his former students reminisced, "for me, a myrmecologist at heart since childhood, George Wheeler is a living and personal link to the 'Classical Period' of North American myrmecology" [James C. Trager, "George C. Wheeler – An Appreciation," Advances in Myrmecology (New York: E. J. Brill, 1988): p. xvii-xxvii].
Wheeler was a living point of connection between a scientific establishment of professors and museum researchers and an American public eager to learn about and experience seemingly exotic locales. He lived "in-the-middle" between science and tourism. But of course he wasn't alone in this role. The Smithsonian Institution organized dozens of expeditions to Central America and the Caribbean during the first half of the twentieth century. As part of the Smithsonian's mission to increase and diffuse knowledge, scientists and collectors traveled south and returned home to tell their stories. They became admired experts sought after by museums, classrooms, popular magazines like National Geographic, and news and radio programs like "The World is Yours." Their travel stories became part of a modern age of exotic parables.
Yet in their retelling, many of their social dependencies and everyday interactions disappeared from the narrative. Far from entering a 'pristine' tropical nature, natural scientists depended on a highly-mitigated and hierarchical network of social and ecological relationships to create their travel experiences. George Wheeler's trip, instead of being a unique adventure, is exemplary of a complex and interconnected history linking imperialism, science and tourism in the Caribbean.
How many students and future travelers did scientists like George Wheeler influence during their long careers as scientists, community leaders, and teachers? With what hopes and expectations did tourists travel to the Caribbean?
- The Tropical Travels of George C. Wheeler - Part I, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- From Plantations to Islands of Science: Travels in Costa Rica and Panama - Part II, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- The History of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute
- Record Unit 9560 - Oral history interview with George C. Wheeler, 1989, Smithsonian Institution Archives
This is the second part of a three-part series on George C. Wheeler and the relationship of science and tourism in the Caribbean by the Archives' former Research Fellow, Blake Scott.
After visiting Cuba, Wheeler sailed to Costa Rica. As soon as his ship docked in Puerto Limón, on June 12, 1924, he became a visiting employee of the United Fruit Company (UFCO). He would live and work with the company's white community of managers and 'skilled' workers. At the time, UFCO controlled vast tracts of land on the Caribbean coast of Central America, inspiring the now infamous phrase "banana republic." The circum-Caribbean, as historian John Soluri documents, had become synonymous with bananas in the minds of U.S. consumers. By the 1920s, the only fresh fruit eaten in greater quantities in the U.S. than the banana was the American apple. [John Soluri, Banana Cultures: Agriculture, Consumption, and Environmental Change in Honduras and the United States (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005)]
Each morning Wheeler set out with his guide and colleague, Siggers, to collect termites and other "pests." UFCO depended on a legion of full-time and visiting scientists to protect its agricultural investments. Plant diseases and insects constantly threatened the Company's monoculture plantations. It was Wheeler's job, in particular, to study insects that damaged cacao trees and their fruit.
When Wheeler wasn't working in the field, however, he found time for recreation in Costa Rica's urban and rural environment:
June 22, Afternoon: Siggers, three Costa Ricans, and I tried digging into Indian graves – little success. Found a few fragments of pottery – one the head of a parrot, which I have kept. Later – Siggers and I collected in a cacao plantation behind the house.
June 26, Left Siguirres [Plantation] at 11:55 for San José. Beautiful ride. Railroad follows the Reventazón River. San José an attractive city. Cool. Stayed at Hotel Francés – very good, $5.00 per day including meals. Evening – Teatro América (2 colones) – Compania Cómica de Argentina – 'Mustafá' and 'Los Dientes del Perro.' The actors talk too fast; I could understand very little.
Although Wheeler was officially in Costa Rica as a scientist specializing in entomology, leisure activities were still part of his experience. He found time to rob Indian graves and attend risqué vaudeville shows. Depending on the moment, he could wear the hat of natural scientist, agronomist, tourist or adventurer.
Just shy of a month after leaving New York, Wheeler boarded another UFCO ship. He was headed for the main and final destination of his trip, the Barro Colorado Island Laboratory (BCI) in the Panama Canal Zone. The BCI Lab, built in the middle of the man-made Gatun Lake, was and still remains one the most important biological research stations in the Americas. When U.S. engineers flooded the lands, which would become the main waterway of the Panama Canal (1914), a small mountain of 476 ft. became an island sanctuary for nearby flora and fauna. The "natural" environment that Wheeler and hundreds of other scientists would study at BCI was the product of human engineering. The U.S. government's intervention on the Isthmus of Panama, beginning in 1903, created an outpost in Latin America not only for U.S. military and business interests, but also for U.S. scientists and leisure travelers.
In 1923, the governor of the Panama Canal Zone, Jay Johnson Morrow, evicted the few remaining Panamanian residents from the island-hill and decreed Barro Colorado a biological reserve for U.S. scientists. Wheeler visited the island the following year:
June 29, The Calimares [UFCO ship] docked early at Cristóbal [the Caribbean port of the Panama Canal Zone]. I went to the United Fruit Company office and tried to get Mr. Zetek on the telephone [BCI's manager]. He was in New York. Nor could I get Mr. Molino, his assistant. I took the [Panama Railroad] train to Cristóbal at 9:10, reached Frijoles at 9:54. Fare (first class) $1.05 - 21 miles - five cents per mile. Found John English the factotum of Frijoles, a very intelligent and friendly negro. He got a big cayuco (canoe hollowed out of log) for me with two men (Lindo, a negro, and Ernesto, a Panamanian) to row me with my baggage (two small trunks and a suitcase) across to the island for $1.50.
All the scientists were away, the laboratory in charge of an Indian (Leonardo or 'Chico' [boy]) of the Chiriqui tribe - friendly, intelligent, exceedingly strong. The laboratory is in a clearing some distance above the landing. It is reached by a long flight of 186 steps (wooden). The house is screened. Rain water to drink. Shower under the house. From the rear of the house, a trail leads back into a forest. I followed it for some distance in the afternoon. Captured a monstrous spider wasp (Pepsis).
As Wheeler points out, it was men of color who looked after U.S. visitors. They rowed the boats, constructed the houses, cut the trails, cooked the meals, and built and fixed the machines that allowed scientists and tourists to visit the island. This of course was the natural order of things according to most white-male scientists and colonial officials in the first decades of the twentieth century. The organization of the Barro Colorado Island Lab was predicated on a naturalized social hierarchy of race, class, and gender distinctions. Women were not allowed to spend the night on the island. Workers of color were assigned the most rigorous manual labor and segregated to the "Boy’s House," apart from the main sleeping and dining quarters. Educated white men, like Wheeler, sat on top of this social order. Leonardo, for example, the friendly and intelligent Chiriqui Indian he mentions in his journal, is repeatedly described as "chico," that is boy, in need of specific direction. "Since he speaks no English, I had to tell him in Spanish what to cook and how to cook it."
But workers often saw the situation differently. Fausto Bocanegra, a BCI employee in the 1940s and 1950s, explains that "when they got here, because of my knowledge, I was their teacher." Bocanegra and his "unskilled" colleagues, who lived in the island’s "Boy’s House," sometimes knew more about the tropical environment than their scientific guests. He remembered, one time, collecting specimens with a U.S. scientist. "I worked here almost a month with a hunter... [but] I was the hunter and he was my helper, because I caught the animals and he took what he wanted, with… permission from the Smithsonian."
Despite claims of racial, national, and educational superiority, U.S. scientists depended on local expertise. When we read about the history of U.S. scientists or explorers abroad, however, we normally learn about "Indiana Jones" or Roosevelt-type individuals roughing it in the jungles of Latin America to seek truth and knowledge. Rarely do we hear about these people's ordinary attributes and social dependencies. We learn even less about the social and ecological context that made the adventures of these white-male Americans possible.
Without UFCO transportation and funding, U.S. military intervention and engineering, and local knowledge and labor, George Wheeler would not have been able to reach his destinations and conduct scientific research. How – in light of those historical realities – do we make sense of the long-held claim that the Tropics were somehow more "natural" or "pristine" than other environments, or in the context of so much local knowledge, awaiting discovery? From Cuba to Panama, George Wheeler depended on a diverse group of people to produce his travel experience. Tourists, tour guides, steamship workers, UFCO plantation managers and workers, "unskilled" laborers, research assistants, and U.S. army personnel were part of an elaborate and asymmetrical social network connecting the U.S.-Caribbean world.
Retracing the journey of a scientist like Wheeler is crucial to understanding how future travelers would also navigate the region. How many of Wheeler's students, colleagues, and friends followed his footsteps and went on their own Caribbean adventure, depending on the same social and environmental order?
To learn about the educational experiences influencing Wheeler's tropical travels, see Part III of this article, "The Education of George C. Wheeler."
- Record Unit 9560 - Oral history interview with George C. Wheeler, 1989, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- The Tropical Travels of George C. Wheeler - Part I, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives