Humpback Whale Cast, 1880, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Acc. 11-007, Image no. MNH-2795.

Hot Topix in Archival Research, Summer 2019

Here are some of the highlights of the research conducted this summer at SIA.

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!

Silvio Bedini with Bust of Jefferson

Over the past three months, researcher projects have delved into:

Dr. Meredith L. Jones Holding a Preserved Sample of a Giant Worm

Permissions for upcoming publications using our photos or documents include:

Humpback Whale Cast, 1880, Smithsonian Institution Archives, SIA Acc. 11-007 [MNH-2795].

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.”

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