The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Category: Smithsonian History
The Smithsonian’s museums, libraries, archives and research centers produce incredible work every day, from groundbreaking scientific research, to documenting the history of beer, to sharing the hidden histories of African American women. This work would not be possible, however, without the help of the Smithsonian’s incredible volunteers!
Each year, more than 6,000 volunteers lend their time and talent to projects in Smithsonian facilities worldwide, and thousands more pitch in on the web in crowdsourcing projects at the Smithsonian Transcription Center. That spirit of public engagement has been true at the Smithsonian since its earliest days—our first Secretary, Joseph Henry, enlisted the help of volunteers across the U.S. in 1849 for his weather tracking network, a precursor to the National Weather Service. Henry's successor, naturalist Spencer Fullerton Baird, built off that network to crowdsource the Smithsonian's collections. The Smithsonian did not (and does not today) have a budget for acquiring collections. So, Baird relied on a network of collecting volunteers from across the country to send specimen to the United States National Museum—collection items that are still used today!
Since then, volunteers have taken part a little bit of everything going on at the Smithsonian, spanning exhibit installation, specimen tagging, and even satellite tracking. In celebration of over a century of volunteer contributions at the Smithsonian, explore the work of some stellar volunteers from our collection (and learn how how to volunteer yourself!).
When sculptor and New York City-native George Segal was in high school, after classes were done for the day, it was time for art. He’d hop on the subway—grab a slice of pizza, a milkshake—then “gallop around the city,” to an art museum. As he describes in a 1973 oral history interview, being surrounded by art was “being in a magic space.”
It was that same idea that brought aspiring poets to the George Segal retrospective at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in the spring of 1998, paper and pencils in hand. The Hirshhorn’s poetry workshop, led by Maryland’s Poet-in-Residence Roseann Singer, started with a docent-led tour through the exhibition. The participants got to view the sixty-two works on display, spanning Segal’s early pastels from the 1950s, through his well-known, gray-toned sculptures of the 1980s and 1990s. After some time to reflect and rewrite, the poets returned later on in the exhibition run to read their poems aloud in the galleries.
A compilation of their work, put together by the Hirshhorn’s education team, includes poems inspired by specific works, like Segal’s The Subway or Girl Behind Chair and Bedpost. Other poets wrote about the feeling they got from the magic space of the Hirshhorn galleries themselves, or how Segal’s work helped them reflect on their own lives.
The poetry program was revived a year later, with the Regarding Beauty exhibit, which ran from October 1999 through January 2000. The show, celebrating the Hirshhorn’s twenty-fifth anniversary, was described in The New Yorker as reflecting “a growing, wonderfully confusing debate in the art world about the value of aesthetic pleasure.” As the Hirshhorn’s director James T. Demetrion put it, each work posed the question, “What is beauty?”
That question was at the heart of the two “Bards on Beauty” poetry workshops the Hirshhorn held in conjunction with the exhibition. Led by Singer, alongside Henry Taylor, a Pulitzer Prize winning poet and professor at American University, the workshop’s poets wrote and recited pieces that grappled with the idea of beauty.
The poets had eighty-eight artworks, representing over thirty artists, to respond to as part of Regarding Beauty. Pieces by Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol and Agnes Martin were part of the exhibition, along with light installations, like “Milk Run” by James Turrell, and a video installation by Pipilotti Rist.
As its curator intended, the exhibition provoked some creative responses. As one poet lamented, “Pure Beauty /Is often difficult to behold at first sight as art waters/ the gardens of the mind.” You can read a sampling of other work from the Hirshhorn’s two poetry workshops below.
- Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Accession 07-186, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden Dept. of Education, Program Files, 1982, 1995-2000, and undated, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- George Segal, A Retrospective: Sculptures, Paintings, Drawings, February 19, 1998 – May 17, 1998, Smithsonian
- Beauty Contest, The New Yorker
On March 1, 2017, the first clouded leopard was born as the result of an artificial insemination procedure using frozen/thawed semen. Born at the Nashville Zoo, this cub represents decades of collaboration between the Nashville Zoo and the Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute. The first successful artificial insemination of a clouded leopard was also performed at the Nashville Zoo, in 1992, by National Zoo theriogenologist JoGayle Howard.
Dr. Howard (whose research records are part of the Archives’ collections) dedicated her career to breeding endangered species in captivity by adapting techniques commonly used for human infertility treatment. Much of her research focused on felines - clouded leopards, cheetahs, fishing cats, Florida panthers, and even domestic cats - and she frequently collaborated with zoos and wildlife conservation organizations throughout the United States, Africa, and Asia.
Howard also oversaw the black footed ferret breeding program at the National Zoo. In the 1980s, there were only 18 individuals left. Under her supervision, more than 500 kits were born, including more than 100 by artificial insemination. Many of these animals have been reintroduced into the wild. For her leadership in the effort, Howard was named "Recovery Champion" by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service in 2009.
The most famous result of her work was the birth of giant panda Tai Shan in 2005. Reproduction rates for giant pandas were low at zoos and breeding centers worldwide and the National Zoo had not produced a healthy panda cub after almost three decades of attempts. Howard worked with Chinese colleagues to develop new protocols for sperm cryopreservation and artificial insemination which contributed to a sharp increase in panda births. Howard was personally responsible for the artificial insemination of Mei Xiang, the National Zoo's female panda, that resulted in the birth of its first surviving cub.
Howard's success in the field of assisted reproduction earned her the nickname "Sperm Queen." In fact, her research records include thousands of images of both sperm and ova, as well as thousands of pages of sperm and ova data and data analysis. She was also a tireless and passionate champion for endangered species, who looked beyond biology to animal behavior and diet in order to understand the bigger picture. She also readily shared her knowledge, expertise, and skills with hundreds of fellows, interns, veterinarians, and wildlife specialists, and even the general public through interviews and television programs.
Howard died of cancer in 2011 at the age of 59, but left behind new clouded leopard facilities at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, reams of reproductive data, new protocols for breeding, a generation of veterinarians building upon her work, and healthier populations of several endangered species.
- Leopard Lifesaver: Smithsonian Scientist JoGayle Howard, SmithsonianScience YouTube
- The Smithsonian Mourns: Dr. JoGayle Howard, Wildlife Biologist (1951-2011), Smithsonian Magazine
- Accession 17-101, National Zoological Park, Department of Reproductive Sciences, Animal Research Records, 1980-2010, Smithsonian Institution Archives