The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Photography
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
The Smithsonian Institution Archives makes thousands of historic images of the exhibits, events, and happenings at the Smithsonian available online and, as the year comes to a close, we thought this would be a good time to take a look at some of the year’s most popular Smithsonian History images. You can search the History of the Smithsonian catalog at siris.si.edu to find your own favorites. Though we have images from the 1840s to the 21st century, from zoology to technology to history, there’s a clear theme to this year’s favorites.
- The Star Spangled Banner: This photo of the Star Spangled Banner is consistently our most popular photo. Not surprising, given that this is one of the most popular artifacts in the National Museum of American History. It was the Garrison flag of Fort McHenry in Baltimore, MD, when Francis Scott Key watched the bombardment of the fort during the Battle of Baltimore in 1814. Though we don’t know when this was taken, our best guess is sometime around the 1940s.
- Foucault Pendulum and the Star-Spangled Banner: Despite being black and white, this photo of the Center Hall of the National Museum of American History was taken in 1993. If you look carefully, the clothes are often the giveaway. It shows the Center Hall as it was prior to its 2008 renovation. Right next to each other, you can see that the Foucault Pendulum was just as popular as the Star-Spangled Banner.
- Star-Spangled Banner, NMAH: Can you sense a theme? This 1964 photo of the Star Spangled Banner is a bright and colorful close up of the flag itself. You can see the detail that makes the flag unique – the added “A” and the holes where people cut away souvenirs, for example.
- Nixon Inaugural Ball, NMHT: This photo of President Nixon’s 1969 Inaugural Ball at the National Museum of History and Technology (now NMAH) shows just one of the many Inaugural Balls that have taken place at the Smithsonian over the years. The main podium was set up right in front of the Star Spangled Banner. Where better to celebrate a President? You can see First Lady Pat Nixon and President Richard Nixon standing to the left of the speaker.
- Star-Spangled Banner in West Wing of Smithsonian Institution Building: Taken in the “Castle” Building, this photo shows the 1914 restoration of the Star Spangled Banner. Laid out on tables, seamstresses added an Irish linen backing to the flag for added stability. The exhibit cases that normally would have filled this room have been removed for the restoration work; however, you can see the model of giant squid still hanging from the ceiling.
- Star-Spangled Banner in A&I: After it’s restoration in 1914 The Star Spangled Banner moved from the Smithsonian Institution Building to the Arts and Industries Building where it was put on exhibit. We know this photo was taken after 1927 because the Spirit of St. Louis, a part of which is just visible in the upper right hand corner, arrived at the museum in that year.
- Nixon Inaugural Ball, NMHT: Taken the same night as #4, this photo’s striking view of the Star Spangled Banner through the Foucault Pendulum highlights the beauty of National Museum of American History’s architecture. In 1969, the Museum was named the National Museum of History and Technology. The museum only became the National Museum of American History in 1980.
- Conserving Star-Spangled Banner: In 1982, more work was done on the Star Spangled Banner. After a long life on display, Conservator Paul Jetta and intern Rosemary Connolly give the flag a thorough, yet gentle, vacuuming.
- Wright Flyer in A&I Building: Though its flight was a major milestone in both American and Aviation History, the Wright Flyer did not arrive at the Smithsonian until December 1948, when this photo was taken. From 1925 to 1948 the plane was on display at the London Science Museum, on loan from Orville Wright after a feud between Secretary Langley and the Wright Brothers. But you can’t entirely get away from the Star Spangled Banner; it’s visible in the background along with the Spirit of St. Louis.
- Star-Spangled Banner, NMHT: The final photo on our top ten list is of, yet again, the Star Spangled Banner. In this 1964 photo you can see some of the structures that kept it safe on exhibit: tapes attached to a supporting backing that secure the topmost portions and a gently sloping rest that bears the weight of the flag.
And my favorite of our most popular photos? You’d probably have to venture a bit further down the list to number fourteen, where you’ll find Secretary Ripley and Uncle Beazley. They are at the opening of the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum on September 15, 1967. The energy and sense of fun that comes through is just what a trip to the Smithsonian should be!
The Smithsonian Institution has been collecting “specimens” related to the history of photography since photography was still considered a new technology. Thomas William Smillie, the Smithsonian’s first and chief photographer from 1871 to 1917, began collecting materials relevant to photography (both examples of photographic processes as well as photographic equipment) in 1888. His first documented purchase was of a daguerreotype apparatus used by Samuel F. B. Morse. Smillie recognized early on that photographic technology was advancing rapidly and had the foresight to begin creating a record of the history of photography lest it be lost to future generations.
Smillie’s collection first started gaining traction when it was exhibited at the Centennial Exposition of the Ohio Valley and Central States, in Cincinnati, 1888. However, it wasn’t until the purchase of fifty photographs from the Capital Camera Club of the Capital Bicycle Club’s 1896 exhibition (regarded as the first recorded purchase of photographs as works of art by a museum) that the quite significant collection consisting of 1284 specimens gained official status. On July 15, 1896 , the Section of Photography, Division of Graphic Arts, United States National Museum was created. In addition to his duties as the Smithsonian’s chief photographer, Thomas Smillie was appointed Custodian of the Section of Photography.
With formal status and administrative support for the historical photography collection, Smillie began to articulate a framework for his vision. Acknowledging that the collection was lacking in contemporary photography, he set out to “complete the series so that it will be a worthy representation of the progress of the art from the beginning until now.” (Record Unit 158, United States National Museum, Curators' Annual Reports, 1881-1964, Smithsonian Institution Archives) Due in large part to the fact that Smillie’s attention was divided between his duties in the photographic laboratory and his new custodial position, there was not an onsite photography exhibit at the Smithsonian until 1913.
Occupying the northwest court of the Arts and Industries Building, the exhibit of historical photographs and equipment meticulously collected by Smillie over the course of several decades were arranged chronologically—illustrating, from Camera Obscura to newer technologies in color, x-ray, spectrum, solar, and moving picture, a thorough and comprehensive history of photography.
In the century since his death, the historic photography collection that was so thoughtfully composed by Thomas W. Smillie has grown considerably, and is now called the Photographic History Collection, Division of Culture and the Arts, National Museum of American History. The tradition of having the collections maintained and added to by the chief photographer acting as custodian continued until 1943, when the functions of the photographic laboratory and the Section of Photography were finally divided. This allowed for greater curatorial instruction and focus on the growth of the collection, not to mention a new emphasis on photographic preservation in the 1960s.
Today, the Photographic History Collection has over 200,000 images and 12,000 pieces of equipment. Over the span of 120 years and numerous administrative reorganizations, the Photographic History Collection continues to reflect on all aspects of photography, with representative specimens illustrating an in depth regard for the breadth of photographic processes, genres, and concepts. The collection serves to realize Smillie’s vision that “an effort will be made hereafter, especially in connection with the future expositions of amateur photography, to secure such works as are necessary to make the collection in the National Museum a reference and record collection, which shall not only be a matter of interest and pleasure to the public, but of practical value to the photographers themselves."
Record Unit 158, United States National Museum, Curators' Annual Reports, 1881-1964, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Record Unit 529, National Museum of American History (U.S.) Division of Photographic History, Records, circa 1883-1984, Smithsonian Institution Archives
David E. Haberstitch, Photographs at the Smithsonian Institution. Picturescope 32 (1): 4-20 (Summer 1985), p. 7.
Hidden Treasures: The Photographic History Collection at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, Teaching Photography
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.
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.
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.
What Does a Photograph Archivist Do?, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Unlocking the Vault, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Walking on Broken Glass, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Let’s Play the Name Game: Identifying Women Scientists on the Flickr Commons, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- 1 of 2
- next ›