The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Digitization
Last year, we shared with you our conservation treatment of two large-scale crayon enlargements depicting an American bison. At the time, little was known about them, including the exact process by which they were made, or by whom, or for what purpose. Given the subject of these images, it was theorized that there might be a connection between them and William Temple Hornaday, founder of the National Zoo and nineteenth-century champion of natural conservation, especially that of bison. This link was only postulated, as there was no direct evidence for it.
Flash forward ten months: at the end of last year, one of our Institutional History fellows, Sherri Sheu from the University of Colorado Boulder, presented a lecture to Archives staff on an offshoot research project from her main focus on the environmental history of bass fishing. This lecture focused on Hornaday’s contribution to the 1888 Cincinnati Centennial Exposition of the Ohio Valley and Central States: an exhibit entitled “Extermination Series.” This was described in the Official Guide as a group of specimens “of all the larger animals which are rapidly disappearing from the country. … The bison or American buffalo is the object of special attention, and the methods employed in its destruction are fully shown in a series of pictures.” In her lecture, Sheu also included a photograph from the exposition showing a spectacular view of Hornaday’s exhibit, with cases, pictures, and additional didactics visible alongside other exhibits in the venue.
As I gazed at the photographs, my eye was drawn to a four-part series of framed images displayed on the wall divider. Though they were photographed at an angle and not particularly prominent in the frame, two of the framed images bore a strong resemblance to the two bison enlargements I had in our collections storage. This generated significant excitement among our staff when I shared our observation. Senior Conservator Nora Lockshin worked with our Photo Archivist Marguerite Roby to obtain a higher-quality scan of the original glass plate negative and to enhance the relevant portions, hoping to be able to make a stronger link.
Our enhanced image does indeed confirm the link between Hornaday’s exhibition and the crayon enlargements. The compositions of these images are identical, insofar as we can determine, to those of the crayon enlargements at the Archives. In addition, the simple wooden frames around the exhibition images appear to be the same as those which originally housed our crayon enlargements.
What does this mean for our objects? Though we still cannot identify the precise method of creation nor their maker, we can demonstrate that these crayon enlargements are likely those created for Hornaday’s contribution to the 1888 Cincinnati Centennial Exposition. This link provides context and meaning to the enlargements that enriches their materiality as part of our holdings. Though the images already had a physical home, they now have a conceptual home amongst the related collections.
Re-mounting the American Bison, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Taxidermist Turned Conserationist: The Man that Saved the Bison, The Castle of Curiosities
William Temple Hornaday: Saving the American Bison, Smithsonian Institution Archives
At the end of the summer, my responsibilities expanded to include treatment of items designated for digitization as part of the Field Book Project. This brings a whole new slate of interesting and challenging treatments, including opportunities to treat damaged bindings of the journals scientists frequently brought with them into the field. As the Field Book Project has moved forward, the subject areas of the field notes have expanded accordingly. Recently we have begun drawing from the collections of the Department of Invertebrate Zoology, previously unexplored by our digitization team.
This field book from the collections of Paul Bartsch documents a voyage into the Philippines, investigating a specific group of marine invertebrates called nudibranchs. These beautiful creatures are brightly colored and come in a large variety of shapes, and these characteristics are thought to be camouflage mechanisms.
As you can see, the images are gorgeously rendered, and have aged well. The artist has been identified as Kumataro Ito, a Japanese illustrator whose skill is clearly evident. Miniscule inscriptions in Japanese appear on many of the images, and these feature unique information not always captured in the descriptions made by Bartsch.
The book is in poor shape at the moment, and to build excitement for the volume’s eventual entrance in the Transcription Center, I wanted to briefly share my plans for its treatment and share these images of the nudibranchs to whet the public’s appetite.
The treatment plan is simple: Many of the pages are damaged along the spinefolds, so these will all be mended; the book will be sewn back together in keeping with its original structure, and the missing spine of the book will be replaced so that it returns to being a functional volume. While the plan is straightforward, it will be time-consuming, given the level of damage.
We look forward to sharing more of this with you in the near future!
Smithsonian Institution Archives projects, Smithsonian Transcription Center
Where in the World Is That Field Book?, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
The Field Book Project: Uncovering Hidden Gems at the Smithsonian, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Managing a special public trust
In 1846, when the United States Congress had finally settled on what to do with James Smithson’s generous bequest, the Smithsonian Institution was established and a board of regents vested to administrate that public trust in keeping with Smithson’s desire for “an establishment for the increase and diffusion on knowledge.” Composed of government leaders and private citizens, the Board of Regents has guided the Smithsonian from a single building and a nascent national collection to today’s nineteen national museums and galleries, the National Zoological Park and nine research facilities working around the globe. Can you imagine the issues this body had to consider along the way?
Making this public record accessible
Since the Smithsonian is an organization in the public trust, the meeting minutes of its Board of Regents are a matter of public record. For a long time, accessing these records meant a trip to Washington, D.C. to the Smithsonian Institution Archives to review a physical copy of the minutes.
However, today we live in a digital world. The Meeting Minutes from this past decade are posted on the Smithsonian website for anyone to review. Not only can someone read the Board’s Meeting Minutes, but finding the references to the Giant Magellan Telescope over the years can be as easy as a Google search.
What about the previous century’s Smithsonian Board of Regents Meeting Minutes? The Archives has tackled that challenge. Those Minutes have been digitized and are being prepared to go up on the web.
With the help of digital volunteers, we will make over a century’s worth of these important historical records just as searchable as the Meeting Minutes from 2006 on. These recently digitized Board of Regents Meeting Minutes are being launched in the Smithsonian Transcription Center so digital volunteers can read and transcribe these records. Once completely transcribed, that meeting’s minutes becomes immediately fully searchable. Over time, anyone will be able to search online for telescopes and the Smithsonian Board of Regents and find all of the references across the whole range of Meeting Minutes from 1846 on. Did you know the first Smithsonian astrophysical observatory was located right behind the original building in Washington, D.C.? With volunteers’ help, people will be able to discover what considerations the Board of Regents gave to these developments across the decades.
Board of Regents Records, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Board of Regents Bibliography, Smithsonian Institution Research Information System
Images of the Board of Regents, Smithsonian Institution Research Information System
About The Board of Regents, Smithsonian
It’s no secret that the Smithsonian’s first Secretary Joseph Henry was passionate about science and scientific research: from his own experiments, to the corps of meteorological observers he encouraged, to the young scientists who lived in residence in the Smithsonian Institution Building. Henry’s attitude towards collections was less enthusiastic, and perhaps influenced his decision to place the responsibility for the National Museum’s collections in the hands of his Assistant Secretary Spencer Fullerton Baird.
Baird describes the early vision for collections in a letter to Professor Alexander Winchell who, like many others, was excited by the prospect of contributing to the Smithsonian vision and hopeful that the specimen collections he sent in would help to make the Institution’s collections more comprehensive and complete.
“It is true Prof. Henry is opposed to indiscriminate collections; so’m I; but our idea is a complete North American at least.” Spencer Baird wrote to Professor Alexander Winchell on March 19, 1853.
The careful development of a national collection was a task Baird excelled in, and required a balance of seeking out new collections as well as sorting through and assessing the collections volunteered from across North America and overseas. After Baird was named the first curator in 1850, the scope quickly grew beyond his ability to handle singlehandedly. Additional curators were brought on board. The United States National Museum, Secretary Baird’s dream, opened in 1881.
A Deeper Dive
The Smithsonian Institution’s Annual Reports, like other organization’s annual reports, are a distillation of more detailed reports from within the Institution. The holdings in the Archives collection “Record Unit 158, United States National Museum, Curators’ Annual Reports, 1881 – 1964” is just that: direct reports from the curators of each year’s activities at the department, division and/or section level within the Museum. Coming straight from the curators, they offer up additional detail, insights and opinions about the development and stewardship of collections beyond that reflected in the Institution’s Annual Reports. What were the priorities for collecting different types of material? What expectations did the curators have of the usefulness of their collections? How did they manage the process of reviewing unsolicited specimens?
Enhancing Access with the Help of Digital Volunteers
In order to provide researchers online access to this collections, the Archives has embarked on an extended digitization project. This affords researchers around the world simultaneous access. However, our goal is to provide the ability to search across the full text of each report and across reports. These curators’ reports will be added to the Smithsonian Transcription Center beginning the first week of June where digital volunteers can help us to transcribe this valuable body of historical documents. The complete transcripts will then be made available fully accessible on the Archives website.
Record Unit 158, United States National Museum, Curators’ Annual Reports, 1881 – 1964, Smithsonian Institution Archives
SIA Acc. 12-492 - United States National Museum. Division of Graphic Arts. Section of Photography, Photographic Collection, 1933, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Lord of the Rings fans! A newly-discovered map annotated by Tolkien. [via Open Culture]
- A last call for Archives Month to contribute your stories and memories of gardens and gardening to the Community Gardens digital archive. [via Smithsonian Gardens]
- Gorgeous fly-throughs of 17th Century London before The Great Fire from a talented group of students at De Montfort University. [via Open Culture]
- A progress report on the open access movement in museums that mentions the American Art Collaborative, a consortium of American art museums sharing their collections data which was started by the Smithsonian American Art Museum. [via New York Times]
- In other open news, Harvard’s “Free the Law” project will make 40 million pages of American case law available via an open searchable database. [via InfoDocket]
- 55 minimalist book covers of vintage psychology, philosophy, and science books animated with electronic music. [via Open Culture]
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