The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Category: Smithsonian History
The Smithsonian Institution Archives makes thousands of historic images of the exhibits, events, and happenings at the Smithsonian available online and, as the year comes to a close, we thought this would be a good time to take a look at some of the year’s most popular Smithsonian History images. You can search the History of the Smithsonian catalog at siris.si.edu to find your own favorites. Though we have images from the 1840s to the 21st century, from zoology to technology to history, there’s a clear theme to this year’s favorites.
- The Star Spangled Banner: This photo of the Star Spangled Banner is consistently our most popular photo. Not surprising, given that this is one of the most popular artifacts in the National Museum of American History. It was the Garrison flag of Fort McHenry in Baltimore, MD, when Francis Scott Key watched the bombardment of the fort during the Battle of Baltimore in 1814. Though we don’t know when this was taken, our best guess is sometime around the 1940s.
- Foucault Pendulum and the Star-Spangled Banner: Despite being black and white, this photo of the Center Hall of the National Museum of American History was taken in 1993. If you look carefully, the clothes are often the giveaway. It shows the Center Hall as it was prior to its 2008 renovation. Right next to each other, you can see that the Foucault Pendulum was just as popular as the Star-Spangled Banner.
- Star-Spangled Banner, NMAH: Can you sense a theme? This 1964 photo of the Star Spangled Banner is a bright and colorful close up of the flag itself. You can see the detail that makes the flag unique – the added “A” and the holes where people cut away souvenirs, for example.
- Nixon Inaugural Ball, NMHT: This photo of President Nixon’s 1969 Inaugural Ball at the National Museum of History and Technology (now NMAH) shows just one of the many Inaugural Balls that have taken place at the Smithsonian over the years. The main podium was set up right in front of the Star Spangled Banner. Where better to celebrate a President? You can see First Lady Pat Nixon and President Richard Nixon standing to the left of the speaker.
- Star-Spangled Banner in West Wing of Smithsonian Institution Building: Taken in the “Castle” Building, this photo shows the 1914 restoration of the Star Spangled Banner. Laid out on tables, seamstresses added an Irish linen backing to the flag for added stability. The exhibit cases that normally would have filled this room have been removed for the restoration work; however, you can see the model of giant squid still hanging from the ceiling.
- Star-Spangled Banner in A&I: After it’s restoration in 1914 The Star Spangled Banner moved from the Smithsonian Institution Building to the Arts and Industries Building where it was put on exhibit. We know this photo was taken after 1927 because the Spirit of St. Louis, a part of which is just visible in the upper right hand corner, arrived at the museum in that year.
- Nixon Inaugural Ball, NMHT: Taken the same night as #4, this photo’s striking view of the Star Spangled Banner through the Foucault Pendulum highlights the beauty of National Museum of American History’s architecture. In 1969, the Museum was named the National Museum of History and Technology. The museum only became the National Museum of American History in 1980.
- Conserving Star-Spangled Banner: In 1982, more work was done on the Star Spangled Banner. After a long life on display, Conservator Paul Jetta and intern Rosemary Connolly give the flag a thorough, yet gentle, vacuuming.
- Wright Flyer in A&I Building: Though its flight was a major milestone in both American and Aviation History, the Wright Flyer did not arrive at the Smithsonian until December 1948, when this photo was taken. From 1925 to 1948 the plane was on display at the London Science Museum, on loan from Orville Wright after a feud between Secretary Langley and the Wright Brothers. But you can’t entirely get away from the Star Spangled Banner; it’s visible in the background along with the Spirit of St. Louis.
- Star-Spangled Banner, NMHT: The final photo on our top ten list is of, yet again, the Star Spangled Banner. In this 1964 photo you can see some of the structures that kept it safe on exhibit: tapes attached to a supporting backing that secure the topmost portions and a gently sloping rest that bears the weight of the flag.
And my favorite of our most popular photos? You’d probably have to venture a bit further down the list to number fourteen, where you’ll find Secretary Ripley and Uncle Beazley. They are at the opening of the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum on September 15, 1967. The energy and sense of fun that comes through is just what a trip to the Smithsonian should be!
In many families, prepping for the winter holidays starts as soon as the Thanksgiving table is cleared. Whether it’s finding the perfect spot on the tree for your favorite Christmas ornament, stocking up on Hanukkah gelt, or traveling to see far-flung relatives, it’s a time for traditions. So, what were the Smithsonian’s winter traditions nearly forty years ago? The Torch, the Smithsonian’s employee newsletter, covered all the 1977 holiday happenings:
If you stopped by the Museum of History and Technology—now known as the National Museum of American History—you’d be treated to “An Old-Fashioned Christmas” celebration. Music filled the museum halls, complete with Renaissance-era samplings, chamber music, and barbershop quartets. Docents led visitors through exhibits of interior rooms (designed to reflect different American historical periods) for discussions on holiday celebrations of decades past. You could even see crafters working on holiday designs: casting lead soldiers, decorating gingerbread houses, or sewing ragdolls.
Children might have enjoyed demonstrations by dancers, jugglers, and mimes. Or, the whole family could stop in on the museum’s holiday film festival, featuring “The Wizard of Oz” (Dorothy’s ruby slippers were donated to the Smithsonian just two years later). Christmas music boxes and phonographic records in the museum’s collection were also brought out and displayed for the holiday visitors.
The celebrations extended to the other Smithsonian museums, too. At the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, kids could view a Picasso-inspired puppet program, or take in “The Animal in Art” exhibit, showcasing art inspired by the creatures at the National Zoo. If you stopped by the National Air and Space Museum or the National Museum of Natural History, you were likely to hear some holiday tunes performed by carolers, or a “strolling accordionist.”
The holiday spirit made its way to New York City as well at the Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. Their exhibit “To Celebrate the Moment” looked at objects designed to celebrate holidays. These included Hanukkah menorahs, Christmas stockings, decorative dishes, and even commemorative wallpaper patterns.
No matter where you went at the Smithsonian, however, you’d find the hard work of the Smithsonian Gardens on full display! Then called the Office of Horticulture, the staff began growing four hundred poinsettias for December display as far back as July. Altogether, eight hundred poinsettia plants decorated the Smithsonian museums and galleries, in addition to numerous Christmas trees. At “The Trees of Christmas” exhibit at the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian staff decorated twelve live trees with different history themes like a pioneer tree, or a Victorian tree. Trees decorated to reflect other countries’ histories were on display, too—with paper flowers on the Brazil tree, and gilt fans on the tree of Japan.
Decorating for the holidays is a tradition that still exists at the Smithsonian! Now, nearly forty years later, the Smithsonian Gardens decorates our museums for the holidays and special programming continues to entertain and educate visitors at Smithsonian museums and research centers.
Record Unit 371, Smithsonian Institution Office of Public Affairs, The Torch, 1955-1960, 1965-1988Smithsonian Institution Archives
Archiving Family Traditions, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Holidays at the Smithsonian, Smithsonian Gardens Blog
You never know what you will be asked when you open up a reference request at the Smithsonian. With specialists on anything from astronomy to botany to history and everything in between, I’ve received questions about baseball, computers, naval history, and artic expeditions, just to name a few. One recent reference request asked about the U.S. National Museum’s Hall of Health in 1960.
The Hall of Health was a section in the Arts and Industries Building curated by the Division of Medical Sciences. It explored the human body and how medical technology allows us to understand how our bodies work. It featured a video presentation and a “Transparent Woman” who demonstrated the major organs and systems of the human body through electronics, sound and light.
The hall opened on November 3, 1957, one of the many exhibits reimagined as part of the Exhibits Modernization Program. Spearheaded by Frank Taylor, then Assistant Director of the US National Museum, the Exhibits Modernization Program updated nearly all the exhibits in theNational Museum buildings. Though the glass and mahogany cases that were installed in 1881 were cutting edge in their day, by the 1940s they felt rather old fashioned. When Taylor returned from World War II, he was determined to revitalize the exhibits. The new exhibits were conceptual and thematic, with educational graphics and an engaging, modern look.
The original exhibit cases showed objects grouped and classified in sets.
After the Exhibits Modernization Program exhibits focused on communicating ideas and using a few objects to illustrate concepts.
Division of Medical Sciences staff completely reworked all aspects of their exhibit. After four years of planning and development, what used to be the Public Health Gallery became the Hall of Health. It was all hands on deck to rethink what should be said and how to say it. Among the staff who contributed to this effort was Dr. John B. Blake. The task of revitalizing the exhibits was so all consuming that two years after the Hall of Health opens he wrote, “Unfortunately our overburdened exhibit staff has not yet had a chance to mount the eyeball exhibit yet in one of the panels we use in our Hall, so it is not yet installed. However, I fully expect it to be an attractive and instructive feature for our visitors.”
These new exhibits didn’t have long in the Arts & Industries Building. The National Museum of History and Technology, now the National Museum of American History, was created the same year the Hall of Health opened, and moved to a new, state-of-the-art building just seven years later in 1964.
Baird’s Dream, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Health & Medicine, National Museum of American History