William Blackburne, c. 1900. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 95, Image no. SIA2008-3016.

Rolling Up Our Cardigans with Record Unit 95

Thanks to a generous grant from the Smithsonian Women’s Committee, the Archives will digitize, catalog, and make available 7,500 historic photographs of the Smithsonian from Record Unit 95.

Researchers, staff, and pretty much everyone else—rejoice! Because thanks to a recent grant we received from the Smithsonian Women’s Committee, the Smithsonian Institution Archives will digitize, catalog, and make available forty percent of Record Unit 95.  

But in order to recognize why this opportunity is so exciting, it is important to understand what this collection represents and how it came to the Archives.

This particular historic collection of photographs documents the people, buildings, exhibitions, programs, objects, and more that have formed today’s Smithsonian Institution. Many of the images in this collection reveal the happenings at the Smithsonian during its earliest years in the nineteenth century and leading up until the 1960s.

At the end of the project, some images you might explore are scenes from the first days of the National Zoological Park, including taxidermy mammals and birds, plants, and geological specimens. Additionally, many of these photographs freeze moments in time in Washington, D.C’s ever-changing landscape. Below are some of Photo Archivist Marguerite Roby’s favorite photographs from the collection that are already available on our website.

1 of 14

Ernest P. Walker, Assistant Director, National Zoological Park, with a flying squirrel, circa 1930s, SIA RU000095 [2002-10670]

Merle Crisler Foshag examines geological specimens, 1926, SIA RU000095 [2002-12180]

Vertebrate Paleontology exhibition at United States National Museum in Natural History Building, 1913, SIA RU000095 [2005-2999]

William H. Blackburne, the first head keeper at the National Zoological Park, bottle feeds a young dromedary (Bactrian) camel on the grounds of the National Zoo, 1900s, SIA RU000095 [SIA2008-3016]

Helen Munroe, head of the Smithsonian Publication Room, and William Jones Rhees, first keeper of the Archives, circa 1900s, SIA RU000095 [SIA2008-4482]

Giraffe specimen from the Smithsonian-Roosevelt Expedition (1909-1910), on display in Mammal Hall at the United States National Museum, now known as the National Museum of Natural History, circa 1915, ID: SIA RU000095 [28161]

Portrait of Robert Kennicott (1835-1866), explorer and naturalist, in his field clothes. Noted for his field work in Alaska, Kennicott was one of a group of young naturalists who lived in the Smithsonian Institution Building or "Castle" and dubbed themselves "The Megatherium Club." Kennicott died in Alaska on May 13, 1866, while commanding the Russian-American Telegraph Expedition, also known as the Western Union Telegraph Expedition, SIA RU000095 [SIA2011-0145]

Star-Spangled Banner outside the Smithsonian Institution Building, or Castle, 1907, ID: SIA RU000095 [19703A]

Stereoscopic view of the exterior of the original Corcoran Gallery of Art, now known as the Renwick Gallery, designed by architect, James Renwick, Jr., and erected between 1859 and 1861 for William Wilson Corcoran's collection of paintings and sculpture, circa 1880s, SIA RU000095 [SIA2011-1138]

Exterior view of the Smithsonian Institution Building, or Castle, 1865, ID: SIA RU000095 [SIA2011-1448]

An instantaneous photograph by Alexander Graham Bell of Langley Aerodrome No. 5 in flight May 6, 1896. This aerodrome or flying machine was developed by Samuel Pierpont Langley, 1834-1906, astrophysicist and third Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, 1887-1906, SIA RU000095 [SIA2012-3092]

Male and female Nile hippopotamuses at National Zoological Park, 1914, SIA RU000095 [SIA2012-12180]

Mary Vaux Walcott and Charles Doolittle Walcott riding horseback in Yoho Canyon, British Columbia, Canada, July 1924, SIA RU000095 [SIA2014-03834]

Secretary Samuel Pierpont Langley looks through telescope set up for viewing of solar eclipse at the camp at Wadesboro, North Carolina, May 1900, Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, SIA RU000095 [18590]

Another important aspect about this record unit to understand is how it became a collection.  And quite frankly, this unit of photographs is pretty random. The Archives maintains this record unit as a central file to document the history of the Smithsonian. It’s a combination of reference files which were created by various administrative offices and individual photographs, which were discovered separately from manuscripts or collections. Because these records originate from a variety of sources, they require an above-average amount of research.

That’s where the grant funding comes in.

The funds generously provided by the Smithsonian Women’s Committee will be used to hire a digital imaging technician who will digitize and catalog 7,500 records over a six-month period. After that period, our photo archivists will work to provide detailed metadata in order to give context to those records. This project is scheduled through February 2020, so stay tuned for some of our favorite finds.

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