Cardboard boxes containing original audio for “Time and Light” and “Crossing the Distance,” Smithsonian World Episodes 101 and 102. Each box contains ten to thirty ¼-inch open reel audiotapes stored in poor quality clamshell boxes. Photo courtesy of Kira Sobers.

Preserving Smithsonian World, The First Steps

As a result of a generous grant, the Archives will soon catalogue and rehouse around 1,750 at-risk audiovisual media related to Smithsonian World.

When Smithsonian Productions ceased operations in February 2002, the Archives received a large influx of their collections. Originally established as the Office of Telecommunications in 1975, Smithsonian Productions was the video, audio, film, and digital media production center for the Smithsonian Institution for over twenty-five years. One of the programs they produced was Smithsonian World, an educational television series that ran from 1984-1991, and won a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Information Series in 1987 and 1990. The series consisted of six seasons, with each season containing five to seven one-hour episodes. Smithsonian World explored people, ideas, and events that shape world culture, blending art, science, history, and the humanities to create an exciting harmony among disciplines. The production was narrated by historian David G. McCullough and co-produced by WETA-TV for broadcast on the Public Broadcasting Service. 

Circular tin cans for film that are stacked on top of one another. Slight rust is visible,

Due to its sheer size and the variety of formats represented, many Smithsonian Productions collections have sat unprocessed since the early 2000s. As a result, many of the collections have been stored in inappropriate conditions. The 16mm motion picture films are currently housed in plastic bags inside of rusting film cans with poorly applied labels. The 35mm final show masters are housed in cardboard boxes with no barrier between the film and the acidic cardboard. The ¼-inch audiotapes are housed in their original, poor quality clamshell boxes inside of cardboard boxes stuffed with aging newspaper that acts as padding for the box contents.   

Small, circular records are stacked in tins and covered in plastic.

In March 2019, the Archives was awarded funding from the Smithsonian National Collections Program’s (NCP) Collections Care and Preservation Fund to support the cataloging and rehousing of audiovisual media related to Smithsonian World. This project will address approximately 1,750 unprocessed audiovisual assets that are at risk due to inherent physical condition, improper housing, and lack of intellectual control. The primary goals of this project are to improve the physical storage condition of the films and audiotapes through stabilization and rehousing efforts, and to provide better intellectual access to these materials through the creation of item-level catalog records. 

Long, thin cardboard boxes labeled "Smithsonian World" with various episode titles. The boxes are st

This stabilization and access project will focus specifically on the unprocessed audiovisual materials from Seasons 1 and 2 of Smithsonian World. As part of the project, a contracted audiovisual archivist will generate item-level metadata, rehouse the motion picture film and audiotapes, and aid in the creation of new finding aids to increase access to approximately 1,750 of these currently hidden materials. In completing this project, the Archives can prioritize the collections for digitization based on condition assessments performed by the contractor, and provide better access to these materials through online discoverability for researchers.

The project is expected to run from June 2019 to August 2020, so stay tuned for more updates as the project gets underway!

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