Smithsonian Collections Blog

Highlighting the hidden treasures from over 2 million collections

Collections Search Center

Friday, October 19, 2018

Flashback Friday: Behind the Scenes at the National Anthropological Archives

Smithsonian Institution Archives, image number SIA2009-2221. 
Paula Fleming, sitting in the reading room and holding images of American Indians, is an archivist at the National Anthropological Archives in the National Museum of Natural History. On the table are other photos of American Indians, an old view finder for viewing photos, a cart with archival boxes, a dictionary open on a stand, with books on shelves behind her. She retired in 2003 after thirty three years of service.

Lisa Fthenakis, Program Assistant

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Chief George Nelson across the NMAI Archive

Rappahannock Chief George L. Nelson posed outdoors at the annual Nanticoke Festival in Millsboro Delaware, wearing NMAI catalog number 265403. Photograph by Frank Speck, circa 1920. Frank Gouldsmith Speck photographs, N12648. National Museum of the American Indian Archives, Smithsonian Institution.
Sometime around the year 1920, Rappahannock Chief George Nelson posed for a portrait shot by anthropologist Frank Speck. Chief Nelson, dressed in an elaborately beaded outfit worn for special occasions, had been attending an annual Nanticoke Thanksgiving celebration held in Millsboro, Delaware. He, along with a group of Rappahannock councilmen and tribal members, had traveled up from Indian Neck, Virginia, home of the Rappahannock, to celebrate with the Nanticoke community, a tradition that continued for many years.

Three Rappahannock men in elaborate attire attending a Nanticoke annual festival in Millsboro, Delaware. From L: Rappahannock Councilor Robert H. Clarke, unidentified man, Rappahannock Chief George L. Nelson, wearing NMAI catalog number 265403.000. Photograph by Frank Speck, circa 1920. Frank Gouldsmith Speck photographs, N12654. National Museum of the American Indian Archives, Smithsonian Institution.
Frank Speck, the photographer on this particular occasion, was an ethnographer and anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania who frequently worked on behalf of the Museum of the American Indian (MAI), Heye Foundation (NMAI’s predecessor institution). Speck became known for collecting ethnographic materials and documenting life among native communities across the Eastern United States and Canada. Over his years of conducting fieldwork for the MAI, Speck donated over 1400 negatives to the museum documenting his work with over 40 native communities, which now make up the Frank Gouldsmith Speck photographs collection. Speck spent time in Virginia between 1915 and 1924, eventually publishing "Chapters on the Ethnology of the Powhatan Tribes of Virginia" (1928) and “The Rappahannock of Virginia” (1925) in the MAI’s publication Indian Notes and Monographs. Speck also frequently visited the Nanticoke and other communities in Delaware due to their proximity to Philadelphia.

Drummers and singers in dance attire at Thanksgiving dance taking place in a clearing in the woods, with audience looking on. Possibly a group of Rappahannocks visiting from Virginia for an early Nanticoke powwow in Millsboro, Delaware. Photograph by Frederick Johnson, 1927. Frederick Johnson photograph collection, N14758. National Museum of the American Indian Archives, Smithsonian Institution. 

Frederick Johnson, a student of Speck’s at the University of Pennsylvania, accompanied Speck on several trips to Millsboro, Delaware and went on to shoot photographs in a similar portrait style to his teacher.  One such portrait by Johnson from 1927 features Rappahannock Councilman James Johnson in the very same outfit worn by Chief Nelson in the earlier photograph by Speck. For many years, Councilman James Johnson was mislabeled as “George Nelson”, most likely due to his wearing that particular outfit.

Outdoor portrait of Rappahannock Councilman James Johnson in an elaborately beaded or embroidered fringed cloth jacket, upright feather headdress, standing with other participants in front of a wooden clapboarded house. Possibly taken during an early Nanticoke powwow in Millsboro, Delaware. Chief Nelson's outfit is NMAI object 265403, and belonged to Chief George Nelson. Photoraph by Frederick Johnson, 1927. Frederick Johnson photograph collectionN14756. National Museum of the American Indian Archives, Smithsonian Institution.

 It was around the time that the Speck portrait of Chief Nelson was shot that Nelson had begun his work to incorporate his tribe under the state laws of Virginia, founding the Rappahannock Indian Association in 1921 and reorganizing the Powhatan Confederacy of Virginia. Chief Nelson also became involved in unsuccessfully opposing the Virginia Racial Integrity Act of 1924. The Act reclassified all Virginia Indians as “colored” making it nearly impossible for Virginia tribes to become federally recognized which requires documented historical continuity. The Rappahannock, along with the Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, Upper Mattaponi, Monacan and Nansemond were finally federally recognized in January, 2018, almost 100 years after Chief George Nelson began his work in Indian Neck.

Virginia Indians Powhatan Confederacy: First Convention Speech, circa 1922. George L. Nelson Papers, Box 1, Folder 10.  National Museum of the American Indian Archives, Smithsonian Institution.
Chief Nelson’s daughter Waneta Swain Ackerman (born Waneta Pocahontas Nelson) bequeathed the very same outfit worn in the Chief Nelson portrait to the National Museum of the American Indian. Along with the outfit, Swain’s Estate also donated notes, correspondence and other documents related to Nelson’s work as the Chief of the Rappahannock in the 1920’s. These documents now make up the George L. Nelson papers and can be found digitized in their entirety on the Smithsonian Online Virtual Archive along with the Frederick Johnson photograph collection and the Frank Gouldsmith Speck photograph collection.

Rachel Menyuk, Processing Archivist
National Museum of the American Indian Archive Center

Monday, October 15, 2018

A Day in the Life of Secretary Joseph Henry

During our blog-a-thon for American Archives Month, we are taking a look back at some of our favorite posts that give readers a peak into the many archives at the Smithsonian and a few of the things you can find inside them. This post was originally posted on July 11, 2013

Have you ever wondered what life was like in 1853? By looking through the letters of the Smithsonian’s first Secretary, Joseph Henry, you will soon find out that politics, business, and the stifling heat are not just headlines that fill today’s news.

Letter from Henry to Bache, page one, July 11, 1853
Smithsonian Institution Archives, SIA2012-2670
This letter, like much of Henry’s correspondence, sheds light on life in the early days of the Smithsonian and the nation’s capital. Written by Henry on July 11, 1853, to his close friend Alexander Bache, a leading American scientist of the time, the letter describes the events of his life and seeks advice from Bache. Across Smithsonian collections, letters like this not only give us factual information, but also aid us in painting a more detailed picture of the people who wrote them. As researchers, this detail allows us to understand why people make certain decisions and highlights the complexities of people’s personalities.

For example, Henry could be viewed as both gruff and amiable in just a few pages. On the one hand, he writes that the then Assistant Secretary, Spencer Baird, needed “a few hard knocks . . . [to] keep him in the proper course.” Yet, throughout the letter Henry gives others compliments and asks about Bache’s family. Personal nuances such as these, found in the documents give us a window to see beyond these individuals as a mere series of facts, but as true people whose personal make-up we can begin to understand.

Though sometimes the handwriting is difficult to read, these letters are worth the eye strain. The stories and commonalities with our lives today that are pulled out of these documents really do make the past come alive. Whether you agree or disagree with everything written in the letters is part of the fun in trying to understand the past...however, I think we can all agree that DC is a hot place to live in the summer.

Courtney Bellizzi
Smithsonian Institution Archives

Friday, October 12, 2018

Flashback Friday: Behind the Scenes at Smithsonian Libraries

Smithsonian Institution Archives, image number MAH-3666. 
The library in the United States National Museum Building, now known as the Arts & Industries Building, was located in the Northwest Pavilion. This space was later know as the Jewett Room after Charles Coffin Jewett, the Smithsonian's first librarian. Later, this room housed the rare book collection. John Murdoch, Librarian of the Smithsonian Institution, sits at a desk. Murdoch was formerly the Assistant Librarian of the National Museum Library and succeeded Miss Jane A. Turner as Librarian on April 1, 1887.

Lisa Fthenakis, Program Assistant

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Archival Collections around the Smithsonian

The Smithsonian Institution is made up of 19 museums, research centers, and the National Zoo. Within each of those museums are multiple departments and units, each overseeing research, collections management, visitor experience, and more. So, while most people see us as one large institution, the reality is that “The Smithsonian” is a rather complex system of different units, staff, and collections, all working together while also fulfilling their individual goals.

Smithsonian Castle, 1885-1910, 2010.0080.02, photographed by Walter J. Hussey, National Museum of American History
One example of this complex web of units, is the large system of archives that exist within the Smithsonian. Currently, our institution is home to 16 different archival repositories, with different missions, collecting policies, and holdings. Their collections document history, culture, science, music (and more!) from every continent on earth. In total, these impressively diverse and valuable collections measure over 156,000 cubic feet!

Capital Gallery Stacks, 2008, Smithsonian Institution Archives.
Archival collections are kept because they provide documentary evidence of past events, created by those who lived it. These can also be referred to as primary sources; different from secondary sources—such as mass publications—in that archival materials are considered “rare”. They provide first-hand information or data from participants and witnesses in history. Because of the rarity of archival collections, these materials are non-circulating, meaning you can’t take them home with you.

Researchers interested in seeing archival materials must go to a research room and work with staff to request the item they’d like to see. This isn’t meant to dissuade visits, but simply serves to protect these fragile collections. Alternatively, many libraries’ holdings can be borrowed by patrons, since they often contain secondary sources that are mass-produced. (Libraries can also hold special collections of rare books or other historic, unique materials—but we’ll cover that at another time.)

Community researchers from the Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana work to match archival records with collections objects in the NMAI Archives Center in October 2017. Left to right: Boyo Billiot, Nathan Sowry, Chantel Comardelle.
Photo: Judith Andrews
Why are there so many Smithsonian archives, what are they, and what do they all hold? The different archival repositories around the Smithsonian were founded at various times throughout the Institution’s history in order to gain physical and intellectual control over different aspects of our work. Because of this, each archive preserves and facilitates access to historical records related to their unit’s mission and history. Together we hold the comprehensive picture of the Smithsonian’s continuing research and mission. These archival materials may be photographs, negatives, correspondence, artwork, diaries, manuscripts, field books, professional and personal papers, and audio-visual materials, but all are permanently valuable records of people, activities, government, or organizations.

Breath of Life Community Research Visit, National Anthropological Archives, 2017.
Most archives at the Smithsonian are part of a larger museum or department, and hold materials that document that unit’s work. These various archival repositories—along with their missions and a summary of their collections—are:

Air and Space Museum Archives
The National Air and Space Museum Archives collects materials documenting the history of air and space flight. Their archival collection contains approximately 12,000 cubic feet of material, including an estimated 2 million photographs, 700,000 feet of motion picture film, and 2 million technical drawings.

Anacostia Community Museum Archives 
The Anacostia Community Museum Archives collects, preserves, and makes available materials supporting the object-based collection and the research and educational activities of the museum, as well as the museum's mission. Collections include personal papers, exhibition records, over 50,000 photograph collections, and more than 200 volumes of books dating from the nineteenth century to the present.

Archives Center, National Museum of American History
The Archives Center supports the National Museum of American History by collecting, preserving, and providing access to archival documents that complement the museum's exhibition, research, and collecting programs. The Archives Center holds more than 1,400 collections documenting the history of technology, invention and innovation, business and consumer culture, American music, and popular culture as well as many other topics.

Archives of American Gardens
The Archives of American Gardens, part of Smithsonian Gardens, collects, preserves, and provides access to photographic images and records documenting the evolution of gardens and landscapes throughout the United States. As of 2017, its holdings include over 100,000 images and supplemental files across over forty collections.

Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives 
The Archives, within the National Museum of African Art, are devoted to the collection, preservation and dissemination of visual materials that encourage and support the study of the arts, cultures and history of Africa. The collections contain approximately 450,000 items, including rare collections of glass plate negatives, lantern slides, stereographs, postcards, maps and engravings.

Freer Sackler Archives
The Freer Sackler Archives is a manuscript and photograph repository dedicated to furthering the study of Asian and Middle Eastern art and culture, as well as turn-of-the-century American art. It collects, preserves, and makes available documentary materials supporting the holdings and research activities of the Freer and Sackler galleries. The archives holds more than 160 collections—amounting to over one thousand linear feet of materials—dating from the early nineteenth century to the present.

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden Collection Archive and Special Collections
Maintained by the Curatorial Department of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, this archive includes research files on the entire permanent collection, emphasizing provenance, exhibition histories, published references, and comparative works. Records of more than 11,500 objects include photographs, official documents, research notes, correspondence, and copies of reference materials assembled by the staff.

Human Studies Film Archives
Within the Department of Anthropology, the National Museum of Natural History (and a sister unit of the National Anthropological Archives), the HSFA is devoted to preserving, documenting, and providing access to anthropological moving image materials. Collections comprise more than eight million feet of film (3,000 hours) and one thousand hours of video recordings. These visual research resources, along with related documentary materials, encompass a broad range of genres that span most of the 20th century.

Nam June Paik Archive
The Nam June Paik Archive, within the Smithsonian American Art Museum, includes written and object materials created by artist Nam June Paik. Among the most influential and prolific video artists, Paik had a profound impact on late twentieth century art through his transformation of the electronic moving image into an artist’s medium. The collection includes early writings from Paik, along with postcards, telegrams, faxes, programs for exhibitions, performances, and festivals, and various objects related to the early history of television and radio.

National Anthropological Archives
Within the Department of Anthropology, National Museum of Natural History (and a sister unit of the Human Studies Film Archive), the NAA collects and preserves historical and contemporary anthropological materials that document the world’s cultures and the history of anthropology. The collections include a wide variety of manuscript materials, photographs, maps, artwork, and sound recordings created by Smithsonian and non-Smithsonian anthropologists, Native peoples, scholars, and researchers. The NAA holds one of the world’s largest and richest archival collections related to North American archeology and ethnography, indigenous artwork, and historical photographs.

National Museum of African American History and Culture Library and Archives 
The National Museum of African American History & Culture (NMAAHC) Library and Archives are devoted to collecting and providing access to resources that support scholarship in African American history, culture, and the African Diaspora. As the newest addition to the family of Smithsonian museums, NMAAHC is still currently building its archival and library collections.

Archive Center, National Museum of American Indian 
The Archive Center at the National Museum of the American Indian actively acquires and serves as a repository for the records of contemporary Native American artists, writers, activists, and organizations. In addition, the Archive Center holds the records of the NMAI’s predecessor institution, the Museum of the American Indian (MAI), Heye Foundation. The Archive Center supports the mission of the museum by collecting, organizing, preserving, and making available papers, records, photographs, recordings, and ephemera that reflect the historical and contemporary lives of Native peoples throughout the Western Hemisphere. Collections include 1,500 linear feet of manuscripts and thousands of photographic objects.

Photograph Archives, American Art Museum
Maintained as part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Photograph Archives contain nearly a half million negatives, photographs, and slides, that document American art from the colonial period to the present.

Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections
Part of the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, the Folklife Archives- named for the founding director of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival – includes collections covering world ethnic performance traditions, spoken word recordings, sounds of science and nature, occupational folklore, and family folklore. The collections are strong in American, and more specifically Euro-American, African-American, Caribbean, and Native American musical and performance traditions.

Two of the Smithsonian’s archival repositories—the Smithsonian Institution Archives and the Archives of American Art—are independent collecting units, meaning they are not a part of a Smithsonian museum, or department.

Smithsonian Institution Archives
The Smithsonian Institution Archives captures, preserves, and shares with the public the history of this extraordinary Institution through collection and documentation of the Smithsonian’s official records. Its collections include administrative and exhibition records, personal and professional papers of Smithsonian staff and collaborators, scientific expedition field books, correspondence, diaries, and much more. Because of SIA’s mission to collect institutional records, many of their holdings overlap with, or relate to, other archival repositories listed above.

Archives of American Art
The Archives of American Art is the world’s preeminent and most widely used research center dedicated to collecting, preserving, and providing access to primary sources that document the history of the visual arts in America. Founded in Detroit in 1954 to serve as microfilm repository; this mission expanded quickly to collecting and preserving original material. In 1970, the AAA joined the Smithsonian. Their collections consist of more than 20 million letters, diaries, scrapbooks, manuscripts, financial records, photographs, films, and audiovisual recordings of artists, dealers, collectors, critics, scholars, museums, galleries, associations, and other art world figures.

Want to dive deeper and learn more about the collections within each archive at the Smithsonian? Click on any of the linked repository names above, or explore digitized and catalogued archival items online through the Smithsonian’s database for ALL of our collections -- Collections Search Center. You can browse by individual archival repository by choosing a unit name from the “catalog record source” tab.

You can also directly help us make many of these archival collections more accessible, by transcribing and reviewing digitized materials in the Smithsonian Transcription Center! There are currently ongoing projects from the National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution Archives, National Air and Space Museum Archives, and more! Reach out anytime to with questions.

Caitlin Haynes, Coordinator
Smithsonian Transcription Center

Monday, October 8, 2018

Princess Atalie Unkalunt, Cherokee Prima Donna

Atalie Unkalunt [Iva J. Rider], Princess Atalie Unkalunt Collection, NMAI.AC.117, P23888

The National Museum of the American Indian Archive Center holds various collections of notable Native American individuals. One such individual is Princess Atalie Unkalunt, nee Iva J. Rider, (1895 – 1954), a Cherokee opera singer, actress, artist, author, and community activist. Also known as Sunshine Rider, Atalie was born in Stilwell, Oklahoma, to Thomas L. Rider [Domgeske Unkalunt], a state senator and chairman of Indian affairs, and Josephine Pace Rider. As a child attending Indian schools, Atalie saw the need for a cultural missionary to educate the world about Native people and their place in history. She developed a gift for song at a young age and after finishing her high school studies moved to California with her sister where she gained experience in film. After a year on the west coast, she moved to Boston to begin vocal studies. She quickly progressed as a musician but after the U.S. entered World War I, Atalie wanted to do her part for the war effort.

Atalie Unkalunt [Iva J. Rider], postcard photo in Y.M.C.A uniform, circa 1918.
Princess Atalie Unkalunt Collection, NMAI.AC.117, P23895

She joined the Business Women’s Unit of the Y.M.C.A. secretly advancing her age several years in order to meet the age requirements. She served 18 months overseas working as an entertainer and secretary all while battling a long illness with pneumonia. Upon her return to the United States, she settled in New York City to continue her vocal studies and quickly became an acclaimed opera singer. She sang at concert venues around the country and performed at the White House. Her drive to share her culture with others led her to attempt to compose a Native American opera with the help of her friend and famous composer Victor Herbert. Unfortunately, Herbert died in 1924 before the libretto was completed.

Princess Atalie Unkalunt, soprano, shaking hands with Charles Curtis (Kaw),
Vice President for Herbert Hoover.
Princess Atalie Unkalunt Collection, NMAI.AC.117, P23868.

Atalie’s desire to be a cultural missionary never wavered and she became a lecturer for the New York Board of Education where she spoke to audiences about Native American customs and song. During a three-year program she visited over 350 public schools. She used radio to broadcast her message to a European audience. Her radio program consisted of singing both classical arias as well as Cherokee songs. She later founded the Society of the First Sons and Daughters of America Foundation whose mission was to recognize and promote the contributions of Native people and give them opportunities to promote their talents in the arts.
Princess Atalie Unkalunt, soprano, wearing beaded headband and Pendleton jacket,
holding drumstick over drum surrounded by children.
 Princess Atalie Unkalunt Collection, NMAI.AC.117, P23867

In addition to her vocal talents, she was a skilled painter and designer and in 1942, she wrote and illustrated the book “The Earth Speaks”, a collection of tales adapted from Cherokee legends.
Atalie Unkalunt [Iva J. Rider], 1928. Princess Atalie Unkalunt Collection, NMAI.AC.117, P23874

In the late 1940s, Atalie moved to Washington D.C. where she spent the remainder of her life digging through government archival records in order to research claims due the Cherokee Indians from the United States government.

The NMAI Archive Center has a collection of photographs and postcards from Atalie Unkalunt related to her life and singing career.


Maria Galban is a research specialist on the Collections Research and Documentation staff at the National Museum of the American Indian.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Flashback Friday: Behind the Scenes at Smithsonian Institution Archives

Smithsonian Institution Archives, image number 2004-10338. 

Jim Wallace, Lorie Aceto, and Roberta Diemer among the negative files in Office of Printing and Photographic Service's (OPPS) cold storage vault in 1983, then located in the National Museum of American History. Today, the cold storage vault is run by the Smithsonian Institution Archives, and has moved to a Smithsonian collections storage facility in Maryland. 

To learn more about the Smithsonian Institution Archives's photo collections and it's cold storage facility, check out this blog post by photo archivist Marguerite Roby

Lisa Fthenakis, Program Assistant