Vicarious research is one of the great joys of the reference desk at the Smithsonian Institution Archives. From our front-row (well, only-row) seat outside the reading room, we catch tantalizing glimpses of our patrons’ manifold research topics.
The reference team fields around 6,000 queries per year. Ask us what people have been researching recently, and you’ll get into some of the enlightening, weird, and fascinating details of our collections. Here is a sample of the diverse questions SIA’s researchers have been exploring for the past few months!
Over the past three months, researcher projects have delved into:
- The Galapagos murder mystery
- Hawaiian clothing collections from the U.S. Exploring Expedition
- Phylogeny and biogeography of crane flies
- Design in the Service of Tea, a 1980s Cooper Hewitt exhibition
- Leonard Stejneger and the Steller’s sea cow
- UFO activity in Salt Lake City
- The history of surveying
- Nobelist Riccardo Giacconi ‘s handwriting
Permissions for upcoming publications using our photos or documents include:
- Photo of Arts and Industries Building ethnology workroom for Hillary Olcott’s upcoming book, Yua, Spirit of the Arctic
- Images of taxidermied animals for Mary Anne Andrei’s upcoming book, Nature’s Mirror: How Taxidermists Shaped America’s Natural History Museums and Saved Endangered Species
- Portrait of Dr. Meredith L. Jones and a worm for Naomi Oreskes’s upcoming book, Science on a Mission: Oceanography from the Cold War to Climate Change
- 1901 image of Arts and Industries Building exhibit hall for Noémie Étienne’s upcoming book on the history of dioramas
- Photo of archaeologist Mark Raymond Harrington for a display at the Ice Age Fossils State Park Visitor Center
You ever heard of Jonce McGurk
who claimed, “SI's my place of work”?
(But it wasn’t?)
While conducting research in Record Unit 311, I came across the story of art dealer Jonce McGurk. McGurk lived in New York City in the early 20th century, offering appraisals to art buyers and auction houses. He corresponded with the Smithsonian, too; letters from the early 1920s offered promises to look out for authentic Gilbert Stuart paintings, and he made introductions between art collectors and the nascent National Gallery of Art.
McGurk's Smithsonian connection, however, may have soured almost immediately. A notice from Charles G. Abbot, then Acting Secretary, called out McGurk’s letterhead that titles himself a “Consulting Expert Smithsonian Institute and National Gallery of Art U.S. Gov't. Institutions.” Despite his past invaluable assistance, Abbot pointed out, McGurk never had a formal contract with the Smithsonian. The Secretary diplomatically concluded, “I...feel sure that, with this expression of the Institution’s views on the subject, future action regarding it [the letterhead] may well be left to your own good judgment.”
Yet, years later, the National Gallery was still receiving mail alluding to their “consulting expert.” By December of 1932, Ruel P. Tolman, Acting Director of the Gallery, had evidently had enough. Atop a memo accompanying yet another question about portraits of George Washington, Tolman penciled a note: “The dirty Crook.”
- Hot Topix in Archival Research, Spring 2019, by Deborah Shapiro, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Hot Topix in Archival Research, Winter 2019, by Deborah Shapiro, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Hot Topix in Archival Research, Fall 2018, by Deborah Shapiro, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Hot Topix in Archival Research, Summer 2018, by Deborah Shapiro, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives