The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Category: Smithsonian History
With its home on the National Mall, the Smithsonian has had a front-row seat to some of the largest and most important protests and demonstrations in the nation’s history. Many of these events last only a few hours or a few days at most. The Poor People’s Campaign, also known as the Poor People’s March on Washington, was unique in that it lasted almost six weeks.
The Poor People’s Campaign was organized by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference under the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr. It was intended, in part, as a non-violent response to the perceived failure of the War on Poverty. Unlike most previous demonstrations, it defined poverty as an issue that cut across race and gender lines. After King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, there was some debate about the future of the Campaign, but it was ultimately held as planned under the leadership of Ralph Abernathy.
Coretta Scott King began a two-week protest to demand an Economic Bill of Rights on Mother’s Day, May 12, 1968. Over the next few weeks, caravans of protestors began arriving on the National Mall. On May 21, they began constructing shelters on the Mall. A loosely organized community of thousands of poor people, known as “Resurrection City,” took root. Although demoralized by the weather, political events, and personal conflicts, many demonstrators remained on the Mall until they were evicted on June 20.
The length of the demonstrations provided the Smithsonian with a unique opportunity to serve as a neighbor. Initially, staff wanted to bar the protesters from the Smithsonian museums due to concerns about civil unrest and possible damage to the collections. Secretary S. Dillon Ripley overrode those concerns, however, and not only welcomed the protesters into the museums, but ordered the bathrooms to be amply supplied to provide sanitary facilities for the residents of Resurrection City.
Particular efforts were made by the Smithsonian to assist families living in Resurrection City. Ralph Rinzler, Director of the Division of Performing Arts, secured a grant to provide childcare so that parents could participate in protest and lobbying efforts. The Smithsonian Education Volunteers Advisory Board asked local political activist (and future docent and Regent) Jeannine Smith Clark to coordinate a tour for the children of Resurrection City. Unfortunately, an agreement could not be reached between the docents and the mothers, but Clark took the opportunity to arrange a program for inner-city schoolchildren instead.
Evidence of the Poor People's Campaign can still be found throughout the Smithsonian. From December 2015 through October 2016, it was featured in the exhibition "Twelve Years That Shook and Shaped Washington: 1963-1975" at the Anacostia Community Museum. In the National Museum of African American History and Culture, there is a plywood mural from Resurrection City as well as several related smaller items. And the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections, part of the Center for Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, holds many images of the Poor People's Campaign as part of the Diana Davies Photograph Collection.
- Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr., The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Grounds for Solidarity: Mural from Resurrection City, USA, National Museum of African American History and Culture
- Diana Davies and the Poor People's Campaign, Smithsonian Collection's Blog, Smithsonian Institution
- A Place for the Poor: Resurrection City, Boundary Stones: WETA's Local History Blog, WETA Public Television and Classical Music for Greater Washington
On this day, 72 years ago, ornithologist Alexander Wetmore became Smithsonian Secretary, the foremost leader of the Institution’s museums, research centers, and National Zoo. For Wetmore, that capped off a long career affiliated with the Smithsonian.
After college graduation, Alexander Wetmore took a job with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Biological Survey. While working as an assistant biologist with the USDA, he frequently worked with the collections at the Smithsonian's U.S. National Museum (now the National Museum of Natural History). In 1924—at not yet 40 years old—Wetmore was appointed the superintendent of the National Zoological Park. A year later, he became Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian, a position he would hold for another twenty years.
Wetmore’s work as an ornithologist did not stop when he took on more administrative roles at the Smithsonian. He conducted field research for the entirety of his life (nearly—he published his first ornithology article at thirteen years old!).
He was not the only secretary with extensive experience in scientific research, however. Other Smithsonian Secretaries studied ornithology, too, like S. Dillon Ripley and Spencer Baird (who was also an ichthyologist). The Smithsonian’s first Secretary, Joseph Henry, studied physics and electromagnetism. Samuel Pierpont Langley is well known for studying astrophysics and flight (Charles Greenley Abbott also studied astrophysics and solar radiation). The Smithsonian has had paleontologists (Charles Doolittle Walcott), archaeologists (Robert McCormick Adams) and even one expert in engineering and earthquake studies (G. Wayne Clough, who put his skills to use while in office!). The Smithsonian’s current Secretary, David Skorton, is a cardiologist—the first physician to hold the positon.
The decades-worth of research that Wetmore contributed to the Smithsonian and the field of ornithology, is part of the Archives’ collection—and a portion of it has been transcribed thanks to the hard work of the volunteers at the Smithsonian Transcription Center! Fifty projects have been completed so far—from field notes to photo albums documenting Wetmore’s research around the globe.
We are happy to announce that more of Wetmore’s research material has been digitized and is ready for another wonderful #WinterofWetmore! Head over to the Transcription Center and help make Wetmore’s extensive research available for a new generation of field scientists!
Alexander Wetmore: Observing the Making of a Scientist, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
A Wonderful Wetmore Adventure, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Secretaries of the Smithsonian, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Though Roxie Laybourne may be a well-known topic here in the Smithsonian Institution Archives, there is a good reason she is so popular. From good advice to her pioneering career to modern day inspiration, her work offers new insight each time we turn to it.
Laybourne’s interest in natural history began long before she began her career: rather than join her siblings’ games, she preferred to be outdoors as a child. From this early beginning, she continued to Meredith College, nurturing an independent streak, studying math and general science. After working at the North Carolina State Museum of Natural Sciences, the National Fisheries Laboratory, and earning a Master’s degree at George Washington University on mosses, Laybourne began a sixty-year career at the National Museum of Natural History with a short-term appointment in the Division of Birds. Working at different times for both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Museum’s Division of Birds, she pioneered the new field of forensic ornithology.
Over a six-decade career, anyone would make a mark at the Smithsonian, but her sharp mind, energy level and determination ensured she had a large impact. Over those years, she lived by a few simple rules that guided her career: 1. Share your knowledge. 2. Keep your mouth shut. 3. Keep an open mind. Keep it your whole life. 4. Take care of your body.
Though each rule is important, the first set her apart. Though she worked hard – through evenings and weekends, and without vacations – she always had time to share what she knew with others. Roxie mentored graduate students, taught classes at George Mason University, and evening classes for the public at the Smithsonian. Her willingness to share her hard-earned knowledge inspired her students to careers in ornithology and beyond. If you had a sincere interest and were willing to work hard, she would help you.
Even as early as the 1930s and 1940s, when jobs were scarce and Laybourne was just starting in her career, this commitment was already in full force. Working at the North Carolina State Museum of Natural History as a taxidermist and a collector, she served as a bird study counselor for Boy Scouts working on their Eagle Award. They became her first generation of students. While working towards their Eagle Award, the scouts had to pass a test on bird identification. To help the boys pass the test, Laybourne offered Sunday afternoon bird walks to teach them how to recognize different species. Wartime fuel restrictions meant they didn’t ride anywhere. She met the boys at the local country club and hiked the edge of the golf course. All that walking must have done a lot of good – the boys who came for that study group passed their requirements, and most of them became Eagle Scouts. And Laybourne had hooked them on natural history – many kept it up for the rest of their lives, bringing their own children up to be interested in birds.
For Roxie, this was all a part of her work, and part of the Smithsonian mission to increase and diffuse knowledge. She explained, “To me, I feel, when you are given the opportunity to learn, why then you have a responsibility to share it with someone else so that you can have them build on your knowledge and go farther forward than you could by yourself.”
- Roxie Laybourne In Memoriam
- Roxie Laybourne: A Bird of Many Feathers, Bigger Picture Blog
- Roxie Laybourne: Remembering a Groundbreaker, Bigger Picture Blog
- Women in Science Wikipedia Edit-a-thon, Bigger Picture Blog
- Meet the Birds of the National Mall, Bigger Picture Blog
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