The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
A Tale of Coffee and Collecting
Archives are often used by genealogists to create their family histories. Often it's a tedious process that can involve many repositories throughout the country or even the world, but the final product can be fascinating. Take, for instance, Melbourne ("Mel") Romaine Carriker's Vista Nieve: The Remarkable True Adventures of an Early Twentieth Century Naturalist and His Family in Colombia, South America, a tale of two coffee plantations and careers that would greatly contribute to the breadth of the Smithsonian's specimen collections.
Orlando and Eva Flye, Mel's grandparents, settled in Colombia in 1890 where Orlando, an engineer, had been offered a temporary position with the Colombia Telephone and Telegraph Company. Once there, they discovered the fledgling coffee industry. Orlando soon changed careers, and the Flyes eventually established Hacienda Cincinnati, which became one of the largest coffee plantations in the Sierra Nevada mountains.
Melbourne ("Meb") Amstrong Carriker, Jr., Mel's father, was a bird collector who would become a renowned ornithologist and entomologist specializing in bird lice. Much of his collecting was done in Central and South America and in 1911, Meb made his first trip to Santa Marta, Colombia where he met Myrtle Carmelita Flye, daughter of Orlando and Eva. They soon married and established their own coffee plantation, Hacienda Vista Nieve, adjacent to Hacienda Cincinnati.
Their son Mel, a future marine malacologist (the branch of invertebrate zoology dealing with the study of mollusks) and professor, was born in 1915 and spent much of his childhood on the two plantations. At age 10, he joined his first field expedition, accompanying his father on a collecting trip on the Eastern slope of the Andes. Two years later, the Carriker family sold Vista Nieve (recently acquired by a wildlife preserve) and returned to the United States in search of better educational opportunities for the children.
Mel continued to accompany his father on expeditions to South America and planned to become an ornithologist as well. In 1935, he entered Rutgers University, majoring in agriculture and minoring in zoology. It was there that he was convinced by a professor to study oyster larvae. It was a decision that changed the course of Mel's career. His research specialties grew to include mollusks, marine mariculture, and estuarine ecology.
Mel may have traded birds for bivalves, but he never abandoned his roots. Much of his research, like his father's, was performed in Central and South America. He was also involved in many professional organizations devoted to Latin America and the Caribbean.
Meb collected neotropical birds for the United States National Museum from 1940 through 1952 and was awarded an honorary post in the Department of Entomology in 1953. After his death in 1965, his personal collection of bird lice specimens were integrated into the Smithsonian collections.
The first phone call I received from Mel in 2003 left me confused. Meb's personal papers had been previously donated to the Archives, but we had apparently signed a deed of gift 16 years earlier for Mel's papers as well. Mel had no direct connection to the Smithsonian. Why hadn't we directed Mel to a more appropriate repository for his own papers?
While I'll never know why the decision was made to obtain Mel's papers, I discovered after his death in 2007 that they were not just relevant, but valuable to our collections. In addition to the materials documenting his career, there is a large amount of original photographs and correspondence that he had collected from family members while writing his book. These materials provide the context for Meb's papers and allow for the entire story of this Smithsonian collector (and his family) to be told.