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Monday, June 24, 2019

Announcing the Launch of Transcription Center Sound Projects

We are excited to officially announce the Transcription Center’s (TC) latest feature—transcription projects of digitized audio recordings from around the Smithsonian!

The inclusion of sound into the Transcription Center has been requested by volunpeers and Smithsonian collaborators for many years, and we’ve been working hard with developers, archivists and museum staff, and other stakeholders to make this possible.

NMAH-AC0055-0000086, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

So far, we’ve launched the first set of TC Sound projects from the National Air and Space Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Archives of American Art, and the National Anthropological Archives and Human Studies Film Archives. Over the next two weeks we’ll be posting even more projects from additional Smithsonian units (including the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage,Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections and the Anacostia Community Museum Archives), and diving further into featured collections and audiovisual (AV) materials more generally. Alongside our Smithsonian colleagues, we will be sharing background information on audio recordings, behind-the-scenes videos on audiovisual archives, and tips and tricks for transcribing sound. Follow along with #TCSound on our social media channels (Twitter, FacebookInstagram, and YouTube) to learn more--and while you're at it, check out the Smithsonian Press release announcing the launch of TC Sound.

As we move forward with audio recordings, our Transcription Center team is also working on adapting the platform to incorporate transcription projects of moving image collections (TC Video!), which will be released later this year.

The Impact of TC Sound (why this so important and so awesome):

As the first federal crowdsourcing project to include audio recordings for transcription, we are looking forward to broadening the scope of collection accessibility and readability alongside dedicated volunpeers. Since the launch of the Transcription Center in 2013, over 13,200 volunpeers have transcribed and reviewed more than 460,000 pages of digitized Smithsonian textual materials. This work makes the content within these collections readable and searchable in Smithsonian Collections Search Center database, unlocking historical details for researchers around the world. The inclusion of sound projects in TC will further this work – resulting in even more accessible collections, and presenting even more opportunities for collaborative discovery.

AV Cold Storage, Human Studies Film Archives, National Museum of
Natural History
, Smithsonian Institution
The Smithsonian holds over 290,000 analog audiovisual items in their collections--including more than 150,000 audio recordings--dating from the late 19th century to the present, and ranging in format from wax cylinders, to audio cassettes, films, and reels. Only a portion of these have been digitized and made available to the public. Yet as we know from our extensive work with textual materials, digitization does not equal access.
Transcription offers one solution, making the individual words and stories within digitized materials searchable online. Audiovisual collections present even greater barriers to accessibility. Due to limited staff resources, outdated and obsolete media, and the nature of historical archival donations and collections more generally, descriptive information for audiovisual collection content (or metadata) is often incomplete or unknown altogether. Additionally, without captions, audio and moving images that have been digitized remain inaccessible. Transcription of these materials will not only unlock the historical richness within sound recordings to all interested individuals, regardless of the ability to play or hear the audio, but will also help Smithsonian staff better advocate for the preservation and continued care of these important, but fragile, collections.

Currently, the Smithsonian Institution Archives, alongside other Smithsonian units, is conducting a number of projects related to the present state and future needs of our audiovisual collections. The first phase of a pan-institutional survey of audiovisual collections, consisting of analog film, audio, and video held across the Institution, was completed in 2017. Proposed by the Audiovisual Archivists Institutional Leadership (AVAIL) group and funded by the Collections Care and Preservation Fund (CCPF), this project provides a foundation for the Smithsonian to develop strategies for the preservation and care of these materials. The final report for this survey was released in March of 2017, and identified group-level data on formats, condition, and storage environments, along with areas of greatest strengths and needs in preservation practices. Findings highlighted the great risk audiovisual collections face due to degradation of media formats and obsolescence of playback equipment, the need for digitization and adequate storage to prevent permanent loss (which experts agree could occur within as little as a decade), and lack of audiovisual preservation staff throughout the Institution. Initial work is underway in response to the audiovisual collections report, including an ongoing project with the Digitization Program Office’s Mass Digitization to digitize (and thus preserve) two collections of radio program recordings from the Smithsonian Institution Archives and the Archives of American Art. Once completed (projected to be end of summer 2019), these recordings will be imported into Transcription Center as TC Sound projects. The work of volunpeers on these projects, as well as other TC sound collections, will support and advance AV pan-institutional efforts by unlocking the content on these obsolete formats, making it accessible to all, now and in the future.

Please note: this data is from the 2017 Audiovisual Survey; current statistics and data have increased. 

Join the TC Sound Effort:

As with all projects in Transcription Center, any interested individual with internet access is welcome to dive into TC Sound! You can browse ongoing projects by heading to If you simply want to transcribe, just grab some headphones, choose any current project, and start typing. To transcribe, review, and track your Transcription Center work, sign up for an account (just click “sign up” in the top right of the website and enter a username and email address). Either way, just be sure to first review the “TC Sound” instructions, where you’ll find step-by-step how-to’s for transcribing sound, video tutorials, completed example projects, and a printable instructions cheat sheet.

Reach out to your fellow volunpeers and Smithsonian staff with questions, discoveries, and other comments anytime through our social media channels or by emailing us at We can’t wait to see what we uncover through #TCSound as #WeListenTogether!

-Caitlin Haynes, Coordinator, Smithsonian Transcription Center 

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Discovering Culture in the Shanidar Cave Neanderthals

Often, Neanderthals are thought of as a robust and brutish distant relative of modern humans. With their stout features and receding foreheads, the similarities between them and us seem scant at first, but in fact important parallels exist.

Shanidar I excavation photo, 1957 [1].

Between 1957 and 1960, a total of nine Neanderthal individuals were recovered by archaeologist Ralph S. Solecki and local laborers in Shanidar Cave, Iraq. Fragments of lower leg bones of a tenth Neanderthal individual, an infant, have also been found, mixed in with the Shanidar animal fossil remains in the Smithsonian collections. These discoveries date to the Mousterian era at approximately 100,000 to 35,000 years ago. Neanderthals looked different from modern humans and through the 1950s had  erroneously been thought to be less evolved, yet both species engaged in complex social behaviors, including care for sick or infirm individuals and symbolic beliefs.

Culture is a phenomenon found in all human societies and behaviors similar to what we would consider cultural in modern humans were carried out by Neanderthals. For example, like humans, Neanderthals learned to create tools and ornaments made of stone and bone [2]. During the excavations of Shanidar Cave, hearths or firepits were unearthed, which may offer insight into the life habits of Neanderthals. Neanderthals had the capacity to start and maintain fires, and many of the hearths appear to have been strategically built against stones to give off reflective heat [2, 3]. The size of the hearths suggests that some were for communal use and others were reserved for smaller groups, possibly families [3]. Based on this evidence, some scientists believe that like modern humans Neanderthals formed groups and bonds among each other and very likely gathered around the hearths for meals and other activities that point to social practices [3].

Illustration of the hearths excavated at Shanidar Cave,
circa 1957-1960 [1].

Mortuary practices, or behaviors associated with the treatment of the dead, are frequently an index of complex cultural practices. In archaeology, mortuary practices are one way to learn about cultural beliefs. In 1960, Ralph Solecki uncovered a male Neanderthal, aged approximately 40 years at time of death, during the fourth excavation season at Shanidar Cave. The individual, Shanidar IV, was found 7.5 meters below the modern cave floor in damp, brown, sandy soil. This soil was looser than what the excavators had previously encountered and indicated a burial. Shanidar IV was positioned on his left side with head placed towards the south. [4, 5, 9]. Through analysis of the Shanidar IV Neanderthal burial, specifically the soil samples collected during excavation, archaeologists like Ralph Solecki believed that the Shanidar IV skeleton may have been an intentional Neanderthal burial.

Shanidar IV was found on its side in a bent position [1].

In 1975, a palynologist, or a scientist who studies pollen, Arlette Leroi-Gourhan published information regarding the soil samples taken from Shanidar Cave [6]. The samples showed tree pollen that could have blown into the cave by wind, but other samples contained pollen from at least eight species of small, brightly colored flowers that were relatives of hollyhock, yellow flowering groundsel, bachelor’s button, and grape hyacinth, all found today growing around the surrounding hillsides [6]. While this theory has been disputed by later scholars, Leroi-Gourhan suggested that the flower pollen was not brought into the cave by the wind or animals, but perhaps by the Neanderthals for a funerary ritual. The presence of Malvaceaes – a large, singular flower covered in spikes—seemed to suggest that the Neanderthals living at the cave at the time had wandered in search of the flower to place within the grave. This interpretation pointed toward higher cognitive ability within Neanderthals, according to Ralph Solecki [4, 5]. 

Malvaceae was one of the flower families found 
in the soil sample taken from around Shanidar IV [1]. 

Other anthropologists, who reasoned that Neanderthals were not using flowers in funerary practices, disagreed with Ralph Solecki’s interpretation of Shanidar IV. These interpretations stated that wind was able to carry the pollen through the large mouth of the cave [7]. Additionally, rodent species found in the cave are known to burrow and store plant materials, including flowers. These rodents might have been responsible for some of the deposition of the pollen found near Shanidar IV [8]. The pollen samples collected from the burial pit also included tiny fragments of wood and pollen grains of evergreens such as fir, suggesting to some researchers that tree boughs could have been brought to the burial site in addition to clusters of colorful flowers (6). The debate on whether the pollen samples found from around Shanidar IV are indicative of intentional funerary practices or whether the pollen came into the cave through other means continues today. If funerary, this has implications for how Neanderthals and even our own ancestors interacted with and interpreted the world around them.

Due to the extreme rarity of paleontological and archaeological evidence relating to human ancestors living tens of thousands of years ago, our comprehension about the human

lineage is often limited. Therefore, the wealth of archaeological evidence accompanying the Neanderthal remains at Shanidar Cave uncovered by Ralph and Rose Solecki has fundamentally shaped how we understand Neanderthals and our knowledge about the past. Two important goals of archaeologists like the Soleckis are to attempt to give those who lived in the past a voice and for others to have access to this information. These excavations and the Soleckis’ work have inspired new excavations at Shanidar Cave, which will broaden our understanding of how people occupying this cave adapted to their environment [10, 11]. Moreover, the Ralph S. and Rose L. Solecki Papers and Artifacts Project is processing the professional papers and cataloging the artifact collections of the Soleckis, including material from the Shanidar Cave excavations, in order to make them more accessible to researchers as well as the public.

To learn more about the Ralph S. and Rose L. Solecki Papers and Artifacts Project, check out previous Solecki Project Smithsonian Collections Blog posts. Also, explore the Smithsonian’s Human Origins Program’s  Snapshot in Time about Shanidar Cave. The Ralph S. and Rose L. Solecki Papers and Artifacts Project was made possible by two grants from the Smithsonian Institution’s Collections Care and Preservation Fund.

Viridiana Garcia and Kayla Kubehl, Interns, Spring 2019

[1] The Ralph S. and Rose L. Solecki papers, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.
[2] Matt Cartmill, Kaye Brown, and Fred H. Smith, The Human Lineage. (Hoboken, N.J: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009).
[3] Ralph S. Solecki. “Living Floors in the Middle Palaeolithic Deposits at Shanidar Cave, Northern Iraq.” Unpublished, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.
[4] Ralph S. Solecki, 1975. “Shanidar IV, a Neanderthal burial in Northern Iraq.” Science 190 (4217), pp. 880-881.
[5] Ralph S. Solecki, Shanidar: The First Flower People (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971). 
[6] Arlette Leroi-Gourhan, 1975. “The flowers found with Shanidar IV, a Neanderthal burial in Iraq.” Science 190 (4214), pp. 562-564.
[7] Robert H. Gargett et al., 1989. “Grave shortcomings: The evidence for Neanderthal burial.” Current Anthropology 30 (2), 157-190.
[8] Jeffrey D. Sommer, 1999. “The Shanidar IV ‘Flower Burial’: A re-evaluation of Neanderthal burial ritual.” Cambridge Archaeological Journal 9 (1), pp. 127-129.
[9] Ralph S. Solecki, Shanidar, The First Flower People (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971).
[10] Tim Reynolds, William Boismier, Lucy Farr, Chris Hunt, Dlshad Abdulmutalb and Graeme Barker, 2015. “New investigations at Shanidar Cave, Iraqi Kurdistan.” Antiquity: A Review of World Archaeology vol. 89, no. 348

[11] Elizabeth Culotta, 2019. “New remains discovered at site of famous Neanderthal ‘flower burial’” Science, doi:10.1126/science.aaw7586

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Pioneering Women Photographers in Africa: Marilyn Houlberg

This blog post about Marilyn Houlberg continues the series about our Pioneering Women Photographers in Africa project.  The following post was written by Dr. Peter Haffner, a post-doc fellow at the National Museum of African Art who spent nine months researching Haitian art and the work of Marilyn Houlberg in the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives.  He holds a Ph.D. from UCLA in Culture and Performance from the interdisciplinary Dept. of World Arts and Cultures/Dance at UCLA, focusing on contemporary Haitian arts and culture. In the fall, Dr. Haffner will join the Art History faculty at Centre College as an Assistant Professor.

Peter Haffner researching in the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, April 25, 2019, Photograph by Brad Simpson

Marilyn Houlberg (1939-2012) wore many hats during her lifetime: artist, photographer, art historian dedicated to the arts of Yorubaland and Haiti, professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, curator of major exhibitions of Haitian art in the United States, and a trained anthropologist. Common to all of her her roles was her advocacy and support for the arts and religious practices of peoples of African descent. Many who knew her well describe her as a “bon vivant,” fiercely independent and warmly eccentric. With her mirrored sunglasses, ornate head-wraps, flashy statement jewelry, and flowing black clothing, she purposely played with an ambiguously “witchy” self-presentation that, even though she herself was not a manbo, or Vodou priestess, the chance that she just might be granted a certain access all its own. 

Houlberg seated with André Pierre in the artist's home, Haiti,
March 2005, EEPA 2012-004-2770.  Photographed here during his last days, 
Houlberg had a long, collaborative relationship with the famed 
painter and oungan, André Pierre.
One can see the extent of this access documented in over 5,000 photographs and almost four decades of field notes and related ephemera available in the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives at the National Museum of African Art. From her earliest experiences in the field, Houlberg never shied from difficult situations. She cut her teeth doing field research and museum work in Nigeria during the tumultuous period of the Biafra civil war. While working at the National Museum of Lagos in the late 1960s, she helped catalog and secure the museum’s holdings of traditional art objects. In scores of handwritten pages, she recorded the accession numbers and descriptions of thousands of objects as unrest in the streets threatened to spill into the museum. Such altruism was not limited to the works in the museums, as she helped many of her Igbo colleagues hide within the museum (Cosentino 2012).

Ife-Olu Solaru dressing hair, Ikenne, Nigeria, September 29, 1973, EEPA 2005-002-0091.  One of the many examples of sculptural virtuosity of Yoruba women's hairstyles.

Yoruba woman with elaborate hairstyle, Ikenne, Nigeria,
September 29, 1973, EEPA-2005-002-0092
Her Nigerian field research in rural areas encompassed subjects of special interest. In the male-dominated field of anthropology, she focused on areas both overlooked by her male colleagues and ones potentially inaccessible to them because of gender. She wrote of the social and political significance of women’s hairstyles, and how certain styles could be read as responses to everything from political conditions of military rule in Nigeria to the religious diversity within its borders (Houlberg 1979). Perhaps most important was her acknowledgement of the transformations that occurred in cultural forms over time, and how the dynamic shifts in more “traditional” motifs in response to their exposure to contemporary practices and materials were signs of cultural dynamism, not a pollution of more “pure” older forms. Her work with ibeji, or twin figures, among Yoruba peoples is one major illustration of this. Houlberg found examples of modern technologies like photography incorporated into the practice of honoring deceased twins among Yoruba women, and how mass-produced plastic dolls were often used in place of more traditional carved wooden ere ibeji in order to represent and honor a twin who has passed on to the next world (Houlberg 1973).

Flag Day Parade, Haitian Army/Guard Civil, Cap Haitien, Haiti, May 18, 1976, EEPA 2012-004-0760.
Houlberg captured this official celebration of soldiers in the northern city of Cap Haitien during the height of Baby Doc Duvalier's autocratic regime. Note the red and black flags adopted by the Duvaliers, later changed back to the original blue and red.

Houlberg refocused her scholarly attention in the late 1970s as she directed her research towards ibeji as they manifested in Haiti. Known among local Vodou practitioners as marasa, twins in Haiti had their own sets of practices and beliefs. Her research showed how systems of devotion to the marasa were indebted to corresponding West African ibeji traditions, but also how they underwent transformations in new cultural and geographic settings that testified to the dynamic adaptability of cultures, even in the face of horrors like the Middle Passage and the plantation slavery system of colonial St. Domingue (as Haiti was known before the Revolution).

Drummers (bata), Yoruba Egungun Festival, Ilara, Nigeria, July 22, 1982,
EEPA 2012-004-0622

Houlberg’s research gradually became more entrenched in Haitian subjects. Ironically, with the scapegoating of Haitians (among the other “H” groups of homosexuals, hemophiliacs, and heroin users) for the spread of HIV in the early 1980s, Houlberg was traveling more and more to the country. As the tourism boom from the 1970s came to a halt and, later, political turmoil engulfed the country as uprisings overthrew the autocratic government Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, Houlberg’s work in Haiti was ramping up. In fact, her field notes serve as valuable contemporaneous accounts of the shifts in Vodou practice and how devotees responded to these difficulties, as well as how the material changes manifested in the work of Haitian artists in Port-au-Prince.

Two ounsi (Vodou initiates) hold up sequined banners to conceal the activities of the oungan behind them,
Haiti, December 1985, EEPA 2012-004-0819

As Houlberg’s field notes and photographs progress chronologically, they demonstrate how she positioned herself as an adept facilitator for the exhibition, reception, and acquisition of Haitian art internationally, especially during times of hardship and unrest. During the U.S.-led embargo of Haiti (1991-94), Houlberg would often bring supplies and materials for artists, since goods were increasingly scarce in Haiti itself. Among her letters in the archives are those written by artists like Yves Telemak requesting materials from Houlberg or thanking her for the delivery of supplies of colorful beads and sequins, which would be sewn onto drapo (Vodou flags). Often, these deliveries would be exchanged for commissioned works that would then enter Houlberg’s ever-growing collection of flags. 

Bel-Air neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, St. Martin's street (next street from Tirremas), Haiti, January 1986,
EEPA 2012-004-0810. Houlberg made close associations with flag makers in Bel-Air, an epicenter of art
and Vodou practice in Haiti's capital.  

In 1994, President Bill Clinton ordered the U.S. Marine invasion to reinstate the democratically elected Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, which also restored international trade to the country. This marked a time of great optimism in Haiti. For her part, Houlberg was busy with her work as the co-curator of the landmark exhibition, Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou, which began at UCLA’s Fowler Museum of Cultural History (now named the Fowler Museum at UCLA) in 1995 and spent three years traveling to major institutions throughout North America. As the editor of the massive exhibition book, fellow curator Donald J. Cosentino has often received the lion’s share of the credit for Sacred Arts, but Houlberg’s field notes reveal just how integral she was to its success. Her art-world connections in Haiti, cultivated over years of research, proved crucial to the exhibition and the publication. Her relationships to artists like Telemak and the painter Andre Pierre – a grand elder of Haitian Vodou practice – as well as her longtime collaborator and friend, Georges René, whose tireless legwork opened myriad doors to Houlberg that were otherwise unavailable to her, were significant resources to the exhibition.

Houlberg's longtime collaborator and friend, Georges René, standing in front of a billboard that reads, "ANSAM NAP REBATI AYITI-MEN ANPIL CHAY PA LOU (together we will rebuild Haiti - many hands lighten the load), Haiti, circa 1990, EEPA 2012-004-0607.  This is one of many signs and posters to advertise Haitian resilience that Houlberg caught with her camera during the turbulent years that followed the fall of "Baby Doc" Duvalier in the mid-1980s. 

Houlberg died in 2012, leaving behind troves of material to the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives. Most of the photographs and field notes have been processed, but there still remains much of the video and audio components of Houlberg’s fieldwork to be digitized. Considering the breadth and scope of the available materials, we highly anticipate what the next phases of archiving will yield.

Cosentino, Donald, Henry John Drewal, Katherine Smith, and Doran H. Ross. “Marilyn Jensen Houlberg.” African Arts 46, no. 2 (2013): 4–5. 

Houlberg, Marilyn Hammersley. “Social Hair: Tradition and Change in Yoruba Hairstyles in Southwestern Nigeria,” in The Fabrics of Culture: The Anthropology of Clothing and Adornment. Justine M. Corwell and Ronald A. Schwarz, eds.  World Anthropology. The Hague ; New York: Mouton, 1979. 349-398.
———. “Ibeji Images of the Yoruba.” African Arts 7, no. 1 (1973): 20–92. 

We hope that you enjoy Houlberg’s photographs as more are posted online.  You can view the collections’ finding aids and explore her photographs here:

Marilyn Houlberg Nigeria collections: EEPA 2005-002 and EEPA 2015-015 
Marilyn Houlberg Haiti collections: EEPA 2012-004 and EEPA 2015-016 

We encourage you to read more about the Pioneering Women Photographers in Africa project and explore other blogs in the series.
To obtain high-resolution images, permission for publication or exhibition, or make a research appointment, please contact the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art.