The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: World History
In our modern world of Internet feeds, push notifications, and twenty-four-hour news coverage, it can be difficult to imagine relying not only on printed material for knowledge of world affairs but on time-delayed information - like this update on the progress of World War II from The Washington Star, dated August 30, 1942. The article was rediscovered on the back of another clipping which was being prepared for digitization from the papers of Samuel Pierpont Langley, third secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. It featured a detailed breakdown of the conflict across all relevant theaters from Europe to the Pacific, and supplemented by a map of Allied and Axis movements in northern France, this war update provides what may have been for many Washington, D.C. residents one of the only resources available to them for following the progress of a struggle that friends and family were directly or indirectly involved in, and that touched all aspects of their lives.
At this point in the war, the extent to which the conflict would continue was a subject of much debate and great concern; as the headline states, "Embattled World Starts Fourth Year of War With Turning Point Still Lying Ahead," highlighting the uncertain future of world affairs. While the article is positive about Allied victories, the pervading sense that the world is being beaten down by the conflict is clear from the author’s stark observation that “there is no end in sight,” and from the characterization of Russia's resistance to the German eastern line as "in an increasingly desperate condition." The article further touches on the German–Russian stalemate at Stalingrad and the Japanese defeat at Guadalcanal, foreshadows the Second Battle of El Alamein in Egypt, and celebrates the declaration of a previously neutral Brazil for the Allied side.
This update is also fascinating for the glimpse it offers of wartime censorship, both subtly through some sub-textual journalistic frustration at lack of information on recent American casualties in the Pacific, and less so courtesy of a second article below the war update specifically discussing the "Herculean task" of censoring news, an intriguing juxtaposition of the two contradictory wartime imperatives to spread and curtail information. The headline’s subtitle is of particular note - "Curbing of News Only Minor Part of Problem of Guarding War Information" - given the general perception of censorship as a negative process. In this case, censorship is functioning in part as a protective measure for the American forces serving overseas, lest sensitive information be acquired by the Axis powers.
The need to keep troop locations and movements under wraps even influenced those servicemen who volunteered to collect natural history specimens for the Smithsonian (when time permitted) to leave physical provenance information out of their reports home, as can be seen in a letter from Sergeant Raymond L. Baker to the Smithsonian. He informs the curators that "the exact geographical location will only be furnished when there is no longer need for censorship," presumably providing those details after the conflict ended. The instructions to keep geographical data out of reports likely came from A Field Collector’s Manual in Natural History, prepared by Smithsonian staff for these soldier-collectors.
As the United States celebrates Veterans Day in conjunction with Remembrance Days throughout the world, the rediscovery of this World War II era news update encourages reflection on the dedicated service of the men and women who fought for their countries and did their best to protect innocent lives.
- Record Unit 7003 - Samuel Pierpoint Langley Papers, 1867-1906, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- The Museum of New Zealand recently released over 30,000 downloadable images from its collections. [via Lynda Schmitz Fuhrig, SIA]
- This year marks the 25 anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Movement and the University Library at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis has made public 400 previously unseen black-and-white photographs from the movement. [via InfoDocket]
- In Star-Spangled Banner news - 7 things you didn't know about it and the story of the African American girl who helped make it. [via O Say Can You See? blog, NMAH]
- A discussion of criticism on Facebook and how to preserve it. [via Rhizome]
- Last week the National Archives shared with new Open Government Plan which lays out the Archives focus on egaging the public through more than 160 external projects on more than 15 social media platforms, as well as through public and education programs, Research Services, and the Presidential Libraries. [via AOTUS blog, NARA]
- No wonline - Audio interviews and transscripts from the Stanford University project, "Project South," which documented the Civil Rights Movement during the summer of 1965. [via InfoDocket]
- The Independent UK presents the history of World War I in 100 moments. [via The Independent]
- 100 years of change - Watch as historic photos from Antwerp during World War I fade into their 2014 equivalents. [via PetaPixel]
"Miscellaneous," defined as a variety of items from different sources, is a pretty nondescript label, and though it may make some researchers weary, when I come across a miscellaneous folder in a finding aid to one of our collections, I become excited about what I may discover. Sure, it could be a bust and simply be a mostly blank piece of paper with only a number on it; on the other hand it could be a letter, document, or image that lends new insight into Smithsonian history.
Today we are opening up the collections and letting you join us on a miscellaneous adventure with the story of "Miscellaneous 37." This folder comes from Record Unit 32 - Smithsonian Institution, Office of the Secretary, Correspondence, 1865-1879. It is a full folder with a mix of printed and handwritten materials. While rifling through, a few things start to stick out that pique my interest. The first things I notice are the printed pamphlets written in different languages. Some are in French and others are in Italian, and for the first time I do not regret studying either one of these languages! I start to translate the first pages, and then see that many of the pamphlets have a corresponding handwritten translation. I start to read and realize that the pamphlets are from international learned societies asking for submissions for prizes. They date to the 1870s and cover a range of disciplines, from archaeology to medical science to art. The prize questions offer money and medals to the winners, but note that once an entry is submitted, it becomes the property of the archives of the society and entrants can only request copies for a fee. There is a long tradition of these types of prize questions, and they continue today, such as the Wolfson Economic Prize for 2014, that asks "How would you deliver a new Garden City which is visionary, economically viable, and popular?" Or the 2012 Royal Society of Chemistry Prize Question on the Mpemba Effect – why does hot water freeze faster than cold water? Here are two of my favorite questions from Miscellaneous 37:
Royal Academy of Sciences, Letters and Arts of Belgium Class of Sciences Prize Questions for 1874
2. Want a complete discussion of the questions as to the temperature of space, based upon experiments, observations and the calculus. Reasons have to be stated for the choice made from the different temperatures attributed to it…relate [the answer] to the knowledge of the absolute zero definitely fixed at –272° 85 C.
Royal Institute of Venetian Science Literature and the Arts competition for the 1877 prize:
Exhibit trading conditions to Venice from 1859 to nowadays, paying attention to changes in the political, legislative, economic. Suggest what the state and the municipalities and the private sector could do to improve.
Now why would this be in Smithsonian collections? In the mid to late 1870s, the Institution was in its thirties still trying to understand its role both locally and internationally. The Smithsonian's International Exchange Service began sending government documents abroad in October of 1874. The correspondence with these learned societies was another step in the growth of the Institution. Creating connections between scientists and sharing information helped the early Smithsonian achieve its mission for the increase and diffusion of knowledge. These types of questions are interesting as they usually are one that stump the experts and call on a broad range of people to think about them, often gathering insights from unexpected places. The prize also gets many people focused on one issue, in the hope that this focus will finally produce some answers.
Though I have not yet found out if any Smithsonian employee responded to the contests, nor why the folder had the number "37" in its title, I did uncover a mini trove of documents that lend insight into the questions that people wanted to ask and answer in the 1870s. And as the evidences shows that prize questions about temperature phenomena and urban issues hold relevance in both the 1870s and 2010s, it seems our past and present curiosities are interestingly closely aligned.
If you would like to keep uncovering the miscellaneous mysteries, chime in to our Facebook page or Twitter feed and let us know what folder we should open next. Vote Folder A to open "Miscellaneous Letters and Memoranda between Smithsonian Officials, 1863-1893" from Record Unit 64, Smithsonian Institution, Chief Clerk, Records, 1869-1905 or Folder B to open "Miscellaneous photos" from Record Unit 363, National Museum of Natural History, Office of Exhibits, Exhibition Records, circa 1955-1990 and undated.
- Record Unit 32 - Smithsonian Institution, Office of the Secretary, Correspondence, 1865-1879, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- 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