The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Category: Smithsonian History
As the Smithsonian's William Henry Holmes notes in the introduction to his Random Records of a Lifetime: "I was born on the same day with the Institution and have been associated more or less closely with all its people from Professor Henry down, and have come to regard myself as an original predestined member of the family. These imperfectly edited volumes of fragments, together with a number of paintings, are all that I have to contribute personally and unofficially to the Institution's diversified and fast multiplying heritage."
And what a contribution—much of which is now transcribed, thanks to the hard work of the volunteers at the Smithsonian Transcription Center! Holmes spent his decades-long career with the Smithsonian as an artist, archaeologist, and anthropologist, merging a scientific mind and an artist's eye. There is no better example of this unique blend than Holmes' field notes, peppered throughout with detailed sketches of Mayan ruins, artifacts, and other sights from his travels. Holmes, who began his career as an artist, also went on to serve as curator of the Smithsonian's National Gallery of Art (now the Smithsonian American Art Museum).
What better way to honor Holmes' legacy than by trying your hand at some scientific sketching? We have created coloring pages from drawings in his field notes. Download the PDF, add your own colorful details, and tag us on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram to share your #ManyHatsOfHolmes creation!
William Henry Holmes, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
William Henry Holmes and the Early Days of His National Gallery of Art, Unbound, Smithsonian Libraries
Celebrating Our Man of Many Hats: William Henry Holmes, Unbound, Smithsonian Libraries
Shortly after the Smithsonian was founded in August of 1846, one of its most talented and prolific staff members, William Henry Holmes, was born in Cadiz, Ohio, on December 1. The youngest of three boys, William displayed his artistic talents early, but his father saw no future in such pursuits and steered him into teaching. After a few years teaching geography, natural history, and art, his father gave him $200 to further pursue his teacher training, but in 1870 the young Holmes took the money and ran – heading instead to Washington, D.C., to study art under a well-known teacher, Theodore Kaufmann. A fellow student, Mary Anna Henry, daughter of the first Smithsonian Secretary, Joseph Henry, encouraged him to visit the Castle to sketch the birds and other specimens on display. His work attracted the attention of the scientists there and soon he was hired by the paleontologist Fielding B. Meek to produce scientific illustrations. He had to learn to harness his artistic imagination and focus on accuracy and details, but his work soon passed muster with the Assistant Secretary in charge of the National Museum, Spencer F. Baird.
In 1872, he joined the Ferdinand V. Hayden Expedition to survey the western territories, specifically the Yellowstone National Park area, to produce drawings of the geology of the region. His extraordinary works captured the depth and relationships between strata in a way that the new technology of photography could not. But he also quickly learned geology and advanced to the position of geologist on later expeditions. When the US Geological Survey was founded in 1879, he joined its staff as a geologist and chief of scientific illustration. He set professional standards for geological illustration while continuing field work. On his many trips to the West, he was intrigued by the visual patterns on wall art, pottery and other artifacts of ancient peoples. With his talents for visual observation and analysis, he began to see relationships and changes in design over time. So he next turned his attention to the new field of anthropology, specifically archaeological techniques for documenting the remains of past civilizations. He brought his knowledge of stratigraphic analysis to methods for excavating sites, and his visual analysis skills to tracing innovation, imitation and synthesis in object design. After a brief career in Chicago, in 1897 he returned to Washington and was made a curator in the National Museum’s Department of Anthropology. In 1902, was appointed director of the Bureau of American Ethnology at the Smithsonian, serving until 1909, then returning to the museum’s Department of Anthropology as its chair.
Holmes continued to refine his skills as an artist, sketching nearby and whenever he traveled. He joined art clubs and encouraged young artists. In 1920, he was named the inaugural director of the Smithsonian’s National Gallery of Art, getting the new museum up and running. Not a fan of modern art, he hoped the fad would soon pass in favor of styles like Thomas Moran and Frederick Church. After sixty years at the Smithsonian, he retired in 1932, and died the following year at his son’s home in Ohio.
Artist, scientific illustrator, geologist, archeologist, administrator, museum director – Holmes made a bewildering array of contributions to the early Smithsonian. He was born and grew with the Smithsonian. As new fields and opportunities appeared, his ever creative mind saw new possibilities and challenges, so he sought to meet them all. With his exceptional visual talents, Holmes was unique in the history of the Smithsonian in the breadth of his reach, spanning art, culture, and science but proving that one person can make contributions to them all.
Explore William Henry Holmes' field notes and sketches at the Smithsonian Transcription Center--and join other volunteers in transcribing!
Celebrating Our Man of Many Hats: William Henry Holmes, Smithsonian Libraries
Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow, SIRIS Blog
William Henry Holmes: Artist Biography, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Scientist of the Day: William Henry Holmes, Linda Hall Library
Charles Greeley Abbot, fifth Secretary of the Smithsonian, was fascinated by the sun and its power. His sense of wonder and ingenuity knew no bounds. Not only did he study it, but he used his scientific knowledge and skill as an instrument maker to harness the sun’s energy at remote observatories for cooking. He designed, built, and patented a small tabletop cooker for heating water for the Solar Shed in the South Yard behind the Smithsonian Castle building, as well as for generating electricity.
Although nowadays using solar energy to do all of these things is common, efficient and cost-effective, in the 1920 and 30s it was an “out there” concept--and generating electricity was the farthest “out there.” Nevertheless, Abbot made it happen when the first solar-powered radio broadcast was made by NBC’s WRC radio station from the South Yard.
On September 30, 1936 an array of curved mirrors were rolled out, focusing sunlight onto tubes filled with water. These water-filled tubes created steam that ran a generator, making enough electricity to power a short radio broadcast. A recording of this broadcast was not made, but no matter how brief it may have been, it proved that the sun’s energy could be harnessed to generate electricity powerful enough for communication.
You can learn more about the history of solar energy at an exhibit opening 11/28/2016 at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.
The Smithsonian Secretaries: That Tall Man from New York, Part I, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Keeping in Touch, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Accession 86-161, Charles Greeley Abbot Papers, c. 1891-1950s, Smithsonian Institution Archives