The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
- SPOILER ALERT! The Getty Museum is summarizing Game of Thrones episodes each Monday on Tumblr. (via Mental Floss)
- The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has openly released their patent and trademark datasets to developers. (via Info Docket)
- Daunting - "Archiving a Website for Ten Thousand Years." (via Atlantic)
- The Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery now has a choreographer-in-residence who will create new works based on the museum! (via Washington Post)
- A new project from Cornell seeks to aggregate all the runaway slave ads in North America online for researchers. (via Info Docket)
- Hear Robert Frost read some of his most famous poems. (via Open Culture)
It’s no secret that the Smithsonian’s first Secretary Joseph Henry was passionate about science and scientific research: from his own experiments, to the corps of meteorological observers he encouraged, to the young scientists who lived in residence in the Smithsonian Institution Building. Henry’s attitude towards collections was less enthusiastic, and perhaps influenced his decision to place the responsibility for the National Museum’s collections in the hands of his Assistant Secretary Spencer Fullerton Baird.
Baird describes the early vision for collections in a letter to Professor Alexander Winchell who, like many others, was excited by the prospect of contributing to the Smithsonian vision and hopeful that the specimen collections he sent in would help to make the Institution’s collections more comprehensive and complete.
“It is true Prof. Henry is opposed to indiscriminate collections; so’m I; but our idea is a complete North American at least.” Spencer Baird wrote to Professor Alexander Winchell on March 19, 1853.
The careful development of a national collection was a task Baird excelled in, and required a balance of seeking out new collections as well as sorting through and assessing the collections volunteered from across North America and overseas. After Baird was named the first curator in 1850, the scope quickly grew beyond his ability to handle singlehandedly. Additional curators were brought on board. The United States National Museum, Secretary Baird’s dream, opened in 1881.
A Deeper Dive
The Smithsonian Institution’s Annual Reports, like other organization’s annual reports, are a distillation of more detailed reports from within the Institution. The holdings in the Archives collection “Record Unit 158, United States National Museum, Curators’ Annual Reports, 1881 – 1964” is just that: direct reports from the curators of each year’s activities at the department, division and/or section level within the Museum. Coming straight from the curators, they offer up additional detail, insights and opinions about the development and stewardship of collections beyond that reflected in the Institution’s Annual Reports. What were the priorities for collecting different types of material? What expectations did the curators have of the usefulness of their collections? How did they manage the process of reviewing unsolicited specimens?
Enhancing Access with the Help of Digital Volunteers
In order to provide researchers online access to this collections, the Archives has embarked on an extended digitization project. This affords researchers around the world simultaneous access. However, our goal is to provide the ability to search across the full text of each report and across reports. These curators’ reports will be added to the Smithsonian Transcription Center beginning the first week of June where digital volunteers can help us to transcribe this valuable body of historical documents. The complete transcripts will then be made available fully accessible on the Archives website.
Record Unit 158, United States National Museum, Curators’ Annual Reports, 1881 – 1964, Smithsonian Institution Archives
SIA Acc. 12-492 - United States National Museum. Division of Graphic Arts. Section of Photography, Photographic Collection, 1933, Smithsonian Institution Archives
The Archives was recently gifted an 1860 letter from Spencer F. Baird, second Secretary of the Smithsonian, to George N. Lawrence, fellow naturalist. The donor requested that, along with a digital version, a transcription be provided, which I undertook alongside a simple treatment.
The letter was in overall excellent condition: the thin paper exhibited only a pair of small tears. These were mended from the reverse with heat-set tissue, prepared from Berlin tissue and Avanse MV-100 acrylic adhesive. The thinness of the tissue allowed for nearly invisible mends, which was especially desirable with such a thin, translucent paper.
I turned next to transcribing the letter. Unfortunately, due to the volume of Baird’s correspondence his letters—including this one—were often written in a hurried fashion, making them mildly illegible to modern readers. The immediately obvious presence of scientific names for the various animals discussed made this doubly challenging. With a bit of legwork, assistance from my Institutional History colleagues, and the help of several online resources (including the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website), I determined that the letter between Baird and Lawrence details various ornithological specimens being passed back and forth between the two colleagues, several of which appear to have been collected on an expedition to Cabo San Lucas in Baja California, Mexico.
One particular name proved simple to read and transcribe but difficult to verify—Demigretta rufa. Try as I might, I couldn’t find this species in modern resources. In the end I simply Googled the name as a last resort, and to my surprise a result appeared from the Smithsonian Transcription Center. The project in question was a set of bird head drawings from the personal papers of Smithsonian ornithologist Robert Ridgway. Within these drawings was the scientific name I’d had no luck finding elsewhere, and the image it was linked to helped me correctly connect the obsolete name with the modern Egretta rufescens, the reddish egret.
This was a fascinating opportunity to explore a side of the work of the Archives that I normally don’t see. It provided a chance to see the work of digitization and transcription at a closer view, and to make use of the full breadth of resources that the Smithsonian has to offer.
- Volunteer to transcribe primary source documents on the Smithsonian Transcription Center!