Unlocking the Vault

Door to enter the Archives' Cold Storage Vault in the basement of the National Museum of American HiI wrote a post when I first started working here a few years ago about what a photograph archivist does and very briefly referenced the photographic collections I manage and attempt wholeheartedly to control.  While I do share images from these collections here weekly, I have never actually talked about the collections themselves, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to briefly discuss the history of the Smithsonian Photographic Services cold storage vault before following up with a series of blog posts that examine each of these collections in greater depth, and illuminates the abounding wealth of Smithsonian history we have to share.

James Wallace
In the mid 1970s, Jim Wallace, director of Smithsonian Photographic Services, articulated the need to build a facility to meet archival standards for storage of photographic materials capable of accommodating the rapidly growing photographic collections across the Smithsonian. A cold storage room was built in the basement of the National Museum of American History which served as a centralized location to store an estimated 3 million photographic negatives in a climate and humidity controlled environment. In addition to housing formal collections accessioned by various Smithsonian units, the vault was meant to also house all of the negatives ever created by Smithsonian photographers, dating back to our first, Thomas Smillie, in 1869.

Smithsonian Institution Archives' cold storage vault at the National Museum of American History, by In 2008, Smithsonian Photographic Services, along with its cold storage vault became a part of Smithsonian Institution Archives. As managers of its content, the Archives continues to store numerous collections for other archival units and has cultivated unique  partnerships with the colleagues we serve to best meet their individual needs in terms of access and digitization.  We have also accessioned all of the collections that were created by Smithsonian photographers and are working to establish intellectual control over these remarkable bodies of work.

Temperature and humidity gauge in the Smithsonian Institution Archives' cold storage vault at NationThe collections within the cold storage vault contain a comprehensive visual history of the Smithsonian that documents artifacts, events, exhibits, anthropological studies, and scientific research. These images capture a microcosm of all the amazing work that has occurred at the Smithsonian practically since we opened our doors. In future posts, I’ll go into more detail about each of these collections to properly champion the hidden wonders of these vast and amazing resources.

Related Resources

Related Collections


Produced by the Smithsonian Institution Archives. For copyright questions, please see the Terms of Use.