So, What is it?

Unknown Mill In the fall of 2015, we officially moved over 3 million photographic negatives from the cold storage vault in the basement of the National Museum of American History to our new space at the Smithsonian Institution Support Center in Hyattsville, Maryland.

Thanks to that move, there are new possibilities for projects that will bring great discoveries for the Archives.  The first project we started was scanning glass plate negatives from the United States National Museum, Division of Graphic Arts.  The collection of glass plates range in date from 1860 to roughly 1920.  Sadly, this collection came to SIA with little to no information, so each glass plate is a mystery to be solved.

Glass negatives The question becomes, how do we determine what each image is?  The majority falls on institutional knowledge.  It seems as though the longer someone has worked at the Smithsonian, the more images they’re able to recognize.  One example I’ve discovered is when trying to determine if an image is from the Castle or the Arts and Industries Building.  Images from within the building at first glance appear to be the same.  However, I started to look at the light fixtures or the windows, and slowly I started to recognize the differences between the two.  Knowing the history of the Smithsonian can do wonders when identifying unknown images!

Possessing a strong background in history can also help one identify unknown images.  The Smithsonian has pictures of important landmarks, persons, objects, expeditions; the list goes on and on.  Some of us are able to recognize people or places because we might be familiar with that subject matter.  Each individual becomes invaluable for his or her own specialty.

Cold Storage Vault

Glass plate negative When all else fails, we have the benefit of reaching out to our Smithsonian Institution colleagues. Curators who specialize in certain subject areas such as textiles, aircrafts or ship models can help.  Sometimes, we even reach out to the public to help identify unknown images.   Especially for images of buildings or geographic areas that are unknown to us, the general public may be able to help identify them.

With nearly 20,000 glass plates to scan from this collection, we have many more mysteries to solve.  Ultimately, we hope to identify each image, but we have to have a realistic expectation and understand that we might not be able to accomplish that.  In the end, we want to use all the resources we have available to make this wonderful collection more accessible.  This project is a fantastic way to gain more knowledge of what was occurring at the Smithsonian over 150 years ago.


Related Resources

What Does a Photograph Archivist Do?The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives 
Unlocking the VaultThe Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives 
Walking on Broken GlassThe Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives 
Let’s Play the Name Game: Identifying Women Scientists on the Flickr CommonsThe Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives 

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