The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Women's History Month
2017 Women's History Month edition!
- Explore the changing role of female artists with Europeana. [via Europeana Twitter]
- The Smithsonian's Latino Center is accepting applications for their 2017 Young Ambassadors Program for graduating high school seniors! [via Smithsonian's Office of Fellowships and Internships]
- You can help transribe Phyllis Diller's joke file from the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History! [via Smithsonian Magazine]
- A presentation from University of Albany (SUNY) on a large-scale, minimum approach to accessing web archives. [via Archive It]
- The NYC Department of Records and Information Services is asking for stories about inspiring women with their Women's Activism NYC project. [via Marcel LaFollette]
- The latest issue of The American Archivist features our Field Book Project and Transcription Center, “Social Media and Crowdsourced Transcription of Historical Materials at the Smithsonian Institution: Methods for Strengthening Community Engagement and Its Tie to Transcription Output.”
- A new open annotation platform for eBooks, Hypothes.is. [via Info Docket]
- Ahhh...the sweet smell of old books decoded. [via Hyperallergic]
- Vote for the finalists in the Smithsonian's 14th annual photography contest. [via This is Colossal]
- A look at the history of the Smithsonian's Freer Gallery of Art with Director, Julian Raby. [via NBC News]
- An update to the mysterious death of 19th century Smithsonian naturalist (and Archive's favorite) Robert Kennicott, with new insight from our physical anthropologists. [via Smithsonian Magazine]
- Hear the earliest known piece of polyphonic music from 900 AD. [via Open Culture]
- From Wiki Loves Women, a look at how to boost the representation of African women on Wikipedia. #MindTheGap
Anthropologist Betty J. Meggers published her first scientific paper, entitled “The Beal-Steere Collection of Pottery from Marajó Island, Brazil,” in 1945. It would be the first of more than 300 books, journal articles, monographs, and translations Meggers would author. The primary focus of her career, which spanned more than six decades, was the history and people of the Amazon River Basin.
Betty J. Meggers was born in Washington, DC, on December 5, 1921. Her father, William Frederick Meggers, was a physicist who held an enthusiasm for archeology. Native American archaeological sites were of particular interest, including a visit to the Serpent Mound in Ohio when Betty was child. Betty’s first association with the Smithsonian occurred when, as the age of sixteen, she volunteered with the Department of Anthropology to mend pots excavated from the Anasazi village of Pueblo Bonito in New Mexico. This experience must have unearthed a calling in Betty, as she studied anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania as an undergraduate, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1943. Betty later pursued a master’s degree at the University of Michigan, focusing her studies on pottery and ceramics collected from Marajó Island in 1870, and producing the aforementioned 1945 publication.
While working toward her PhD at Columbia University, Meggers met Clifford Evans, who also was pursuing a PhD in anthropology, and had conducted field work in the southwestern United States and Peru. Clifford Evans received his PhD in 1950 and soon after received an appointment as Instructor in Anthropology at the University of Virginia. Betty Meggers received her PhD in 1952, at which time women were candidates for a mere 10 percent of the doctoral degrees awarded in the United States.
Evans and Meggers married in 1946, and went on to become two of the most influential archeologists of the twentieth century. The majority of their collective work focused on the people and culture of the Amazon River Basin, including Brazil, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Guyana. Together, they became the first archaeologists to focus their research on how the sultry rainforest environment affected the daily lives of ancient Amazonians. Through the examination of soil, which was found to be thin and lacking nutrients, Meggers and Evans concluded the intense climate of the rainforest could not have nurtured the levels of agricultural production necessary to sustain permanent settlements, and proposed residents of the highland areas created only temporary, seasonal habitations on the rainforest floor. In 1957, Meggers and Evans published Archeological Investigations at the Mouth of the Amazon. Although this research was received with considerable skepticism, Meggers continued to review evidence and related data for more than 50 years.
The examination of pottery, a human craft, can reveal a wealth of information about the peoples that occupied an archaeological site. In the early 1960s, Meggers examined stratified ceramics unearthed in Valdivia Ecuador. Employing a system of pottery analysis that she and Evans developed, incorporating radiocarbon dating, thermoluminescence, and stratified excavation, the Valdivian specimens dated to approximately 2700 BC. Surprisingly, she found many similarities with pottery excavated in Kyushu, Japan, attributed to the ancient Jōmon period. Meggers and Evans concluded that there may have been contact between the two cultures, despite being separated by more than 9,000 miles of Pacific Ocean. However, the Jōmon period is a rather broad range, 14,000 – 300 BC. This wide range of time, and the lack of evidence suggesting robust sailing techniques, once again led to skepticism throughout the archaeological profession.
Clifford Evans was hired by the Smithsonian in 1951 as an associate curator in the Department of Anthropology, was promoted to Curator of the Division of Archaeology in 1962, and became Supervising Curator of the Office of Anthropological Research in 1964. He suffered a fatal heart attack in 1981. Betty Meggers became a research associate in the Smithsonian Department of Anthropology in 1954, and held this appointment for 58 years. She was also Director of the Latin American Archaeology Program at National Museum of Natural History at the time of her passing in 2012. The legacy of Betty Meggers lies in her prolific writings, her tireless analysis of data, and her collaboration with archaeologists and students around the world. The Betty J. Meggers and Clifford Evans Papers are held by the National Anthropological Archives.
- Wonderful Women Wednesday: Dr. Betty Meggers, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- First Lady of Amazonia, Archaeology Archive
- Bibliography of Works by and about Betty Jane Meggers, Digital Commons at the University of Maine
On a cloudy Saturday afternoon, over 30 volunteers showed up at the National Museum of the American Indian to write minority women into digital history during a Wikipedia edit-a-thon in honor of Women's History Month. On the to-do list were artists, educators, activists, Smithsonian employees, the first Chinese-American female dentist, and the African-American woman who founded the Black Fashion Museum.
To kick off the day, while enjoying pastries from local baker, Frenchies, participants learned about African-American archival and library collections at the Smithsonian and the U.S. National Archives. Following that, a fellow volunteer showed new Wikipedians how to edit and create articles. After an amazing banh mi lunch from a local Asian restaurant, Maketto, participants worked together to write and edit articles. Our food and coffee were generously funded by Wikimedia DC and it was wonderful to have so many long-term Wikipedians to help the new folks out.
Six new articles were created:
- Claudine Brown, Smithsonian Assistant Secretary for Education and Access, who passed away just days before the event.
- Faith Sai So Leong, the first Chinese-American female Dentist
- Edith T. Martin, Artist and museum curator
- Vaino Spencer, the first African-American woman to be appointed judge in California
- Toyo Suyemoto, Japanese American poet
- Grace Lincoln Temple, an interior designer who worked on the Smithsonian's children's room and many other federal buildings including the White House (she is not a minority, but a staff member had been researching her.)
In addition to that, thirteen articles were improved. It was wonderful to see our archivists and librarians helping participants find resources for their articles, and there was a happy buzz in the air.
My favorite comments on Twitter about the day are below. It is indeed empowering to write deserving people into history. There is a lot of work to do in that aspect, so join us as there are a lot of great resources to help you get started!
— *like the bird* (@Ravon_Ashley) March 19, 2016
All the pictures of the day can be found here.
Recently, I noticed a hand-written index card attached to a colleague’s bulletin board full of charts and spreadsheets. The index card contained four points: 1. Share your knowledge. 2. Keep your mouth shut. 3. Keep an open mind. Keep it your whole life. 4. Take care of your body. These four points present a fairly sound, educated approach to life, similar to what one may find on a Zen desk calendar that offers “words of wisdom” for each new day. However, it was Point 2, “Keep your mouth shut,” that drew my attention; a rather blunt statement unlikely to be found on a feel good calendar. Such a statement could only be offered by a person of discipline, intelligence, and determination. The late Roxie Laybourne (1910 – 2003) was such a person, and her four point “rules of success” were revealed to Bill Adair in his November 21, 1999 feature “Roxius Amazingus” published in the St. Petersburg Times.
Roxie Laybourne is a name that hovers among the Smithsonian with admiration. Even those unfamiliar with her remarkable six-decade career at the Institution have heard her name. Roxie was an ornithologist whose careful, precise study of bird feathers pioneered the field of forensic ornithology. Throughout her career, Roxie served as a consultant to the United States Military, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the FBI, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the National Transportation Board.
Raised in Farmville, NC, Roxie was the eldest of fifteen children. Her father was an auto mechanic, her mother a housewife. From the time she was just a girl, Roxie was more interested in playing baseball and watching her father tinker on engines rather than learning to sew or attending to the common “womanly pursuits” of the era. She attended Meredith College, an all-women school in Raleigh, NC, graduating in 1932 with a degree in mathematics and general science. Her career in science began at the North Carolina State Museum of Natural History, where she was employed as a taxidermist. This experience nurtured her curiosity in the natural sciences, and led her to study Botany at George Washington University, where she received a Master’s degree in 1950.
In 1944, with the encouragement of acting Secretary of the Smithsonian Alexander Wetmore, Roxie accepted a temporary appointment in the Division of Birds at the National Museum of Natural History, and was one of few women on staff engaged in scientific endeavors. Roxie realized her work may be subject to greater scrutiny than that of her male counterparts, and set forth with quiet determination, producing research and results that simply had to be considered based on their merit. This approach paid dividends; in her own words “the best way to get around discrimination is to do the do the best job you possibly can, and keep your mouth shut – persistence overcomes obstacles.”
Roxie remained with the Smithsonian for forty-four years, serving as Forensic Ornithologist from 1946 – 1988 with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Birds and Mammals Laboratory. Although she officially “retired” in 1988, she was granted Emeritus status, and continued her work as a Research Associate with the Smithsonian until her death in 2003. The primary focus of her research was feather identification.
In 1960 a propeller driven passenger airplane departing from Boston’s Logan Airport crashed into the sea; only 10 of the 72 passengers survived. The FAA opened an investigation, and upon learning that a flock of starlings collided with the plane just as it left the tarmac, asked Roxie to join their efforts. By closely analyzing feathers found among the wreckage, Roxie determined it was a flock of European Starlings that damaged the airplane engines, causing the plane to lose power. This identification helped aviation engineers to design safer aircraft and enabled airport managers to consider methods of scaring or diverting birds away from running aircraft. It also paved the way for the creation of the first laboratory dedicated entirely to feather identification. Roxie used her ability to identify not only the particular species of bird, but also details related to family and locale to solve thousands of aviation – bird strike cases. She shared her expertise with graduate students of in a class on feather structure she taught at George Mason University. “Share your knowledge,” Point 1 of Roxie’s “Rules of Success.”
“Keep an open mind. Keep it your whole life” is a sagely wisdom indeed. Roxie embodied this philosophy, never turning away from a challenge, considering all possibilities, and perhaps most significantly, assessing an individual much as she did a feather, interested in the minute details that reveal unique character and ability. I suspect the obstacles she faced as a young, brilliant female scientist determined to practice her craft in a predominantly male profession influenced this perspective. Science demands that you set aside established preconceptions and draw conclusions based on experimentation, evidence, and experience.
Although I tried, I regret this meager blog post merely touches upon the remarkable woman, scientist, and educator that was Roxie Laybourne. There are many more details accounting her life and career, and numerous stories that convey her unique spirit. A personal favorite; Roxie was a life-long sports car enthusiast, who, at the age of 72 bought a Datsun 280ZX, which she reportedly drove like the dickens! I encourage the reader to explore her life further. There is a wonderful memorial from The Auk and a second article by Bill Adair.
Accession 04-086, Curatorial Records, 1972-2000, National Museum of Natural History (U.S.) Division of Birds, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Accession 04-056, National Museum of Natural History, Division of Birds Correspondence, 1962-2003, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Accession 13-147, National Museum of Natural History, Division of Birds Curatorial Records, 1970s-1980s, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Record Unit 9610, Oral history interviews with Roxie Collie S. Laybourne, 2001, Smithsonian Institution Archives