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Tuesday, June 5, 2018

A Year-in-Review: The Ralph S. and Rose L. Solecki Papers and Artifacts Project

Year one of the Ralph S. and Rose L. Solecki Papers and Artifacts Project is nearly complete!

Ralph Solecki’s personal trowel.  Department of Anthropology, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution.

As you may recall from a previous, poetic post (Collection in Process: A Poem from the Ralph and Rose Solecki Papers), Ralph and Rose Solecki are paleoarchaeologists most famous for their excavations in the Near East, including the Shanidar Cave site in northern Iraq. During their excavations in the 1950s and 1960s, they uncovered the remains of nine Neanderthal individuals as well as a cemetery of twenty-six human burials dated to the 9th millennium BCE, just before the emergence of agriculture in the Near East [1, 2, 3].

Ralph Solecki’s field notebook entry from April 26th, 1957 describing the discovery of the Shanidar I Neanderthal, nicknamed “Nandy.” The Ralph S. and Rose L. Solecki papers. National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.

In 2016, the Smithsonian’s Department of Anthropology acquired the Soleckis’ personal papers as well as artifact collections including lithics, or stone tools, and other materials collected during their excavations. Funded by a grant from the Smithsonian's Collections Care and Preservation Fund, the first phase of the project began in the summer of 2017 with the processing of the archival papers. Comprising of nearly 35 cubic feet, the collection includes field notes, photographs, film, maps, illustrations, and more. I was tasked with rehousing, arranging, describing, and ultimately creating a finding aid for the Ralph S. and Rose L. Solecki papers.

Ralph and Rose Solecki examining artifacts from Shanidar Cave at the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, Iraq, 1966. Ralph S. and Rose L. Solecki papers. National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.

In January 2018, National Anthropological Archives staff visited the Soleckis again in order to acquire additional material. This new accession has added approximately 50 more boxes of material as well as archaeological field equipment used by the Soleckis, including Ralph Solecki’s personal trowel. During this visit, Diana Marsh, post-doctoral fellow in the National Anthropological Archives, and I conducted an oral history with Ralph and Rose Solecki, in which they discussed their careers, intellectual approaches, legacies, and views on the future of the field of archaeology.

Throughout this first year of the Ralph S. and Rose L. Solecki Papers and Artifacts project, I have come to a deep understanding that the collections donated by Drs. Ralph and Rose Solecki are of great significance not only the Department of Anthropology at the National Museum of Natural History but also to the field of archaeology as a whole. With research continuing at the site of Shanidar Cave [4] as well as the other sites in which the Soleckis worked, their field notes, excavation analysis, illustrations, photographs, film, and so much more will undoubtedly be a resource for researchers for years to come. Although the collection will not be ready for researchers by the summer of 2018, we expect them to be open for research by the summer of 2019.

Project Archivist Molly Kamph and Post-doctoral Fellow Diana Marsh (not pictured) conducted an oral history interview of Ralph and Rose Solecki in January 2018. Photographed by Diana Marsh.
What will the second year of the project bring? Thanks to another grant from the Smithsonian's Collections Care and Preservation Fund, the artifact collections donated by the Soleckis will be rehoused and catalogued within the museum’s collections database. Be sure to look out for more updates about the project and collections highlights over the course of the upcoming year!

Sincerest thank yous to Drs. Ralph, Rose, John, and William Solecki, Dr. Melinda Zeder, curator emeritus in the NMNH Department of Anthropology, and the staff of the National Anthropological Archives and the Department of Anthropology for continued support of the Ralph S. and Rose L. Solecki Papers and Artifacts Project.

Molly Kamph, Project Archivist
National Anthropological Archives

[1] The Ralph and Rose Solecki Papers, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.
[2] Ralph S. Solecki, Shanidar, The First Flower People (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971).
[3] Ralph S. Solecki, Rose L. Solecki, and Anagnostis P. Agelarakis, The Proto- Neolithic Cemetery in Shanidar Cave (College Station, TX: Texas A&M University, 2004).
[4] 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.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Processing the Burpee Company Records, Part Two

My ‘archival expectations’ began once I was informed by the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Gardens that I would be processing a seed company’s collection. I figured I would find business records—office files, formal correspondence, personnel and financial records, and contracts. What I was not expecting, however, was a surprisingly large amount of family papers.

For me, the most exciting part about working with personal papers is reading into the social life these people lived; especially of those similar to my age (25). Reading about good times had with family and friends is an enjoyable aspect of working on personal collections. Rarely, however, do personal collections that span generations not mention death, and this is a reality an archivist must anticipate. My time with the Burpee Company Collection has been nothing short of an intellectual and emotional roller coaster: one day going through tax forms and marketing files, the next a box full of correspondence introducing me to a very personal side of the Burpee family.

On a Wednesday, I came across a box of David Burpee’s papers (most likely compiled shortly before he took over the management of the company), which slowly crept up on the dates surrounding the death of his father, W. Atlee, in 1915. David was 22. That summer he traveled through New England—golfing and swimming with family and friends, while simultaneously seeking potential brides (he kept a close eye on newspapers, noting every debutante that caught his interest.)

Photograph from a summer canoe outing in Camden, Maine, 1915.

Newspaper clipping of image of Miss Margaret Gray of Girard Farms.
It is amazing how much I can relate to the joy in his adventures with friends and family. But as I read on, the letters took a dark turn, and the content quickly shifted from joyous vacations to his father’s poor health. The humanity and compassion within the correspondence jumped out at me. One can imagine the feeling as David Burpee read letters sent from family and friends who knew he were by the side of his ailing father.

Letter from Aunt Maggie to David Burpee regarding the illness of W. Atlee Burpee, October 25, 1915.
Just two days after working on documents that surrounded W. Atlee’s death, I was working on documents from 1980 approaching David’s death. The box was filled with happy remembrances; composed of documents related to Lois Burpee, David’s wife, and the writing of her garden cookbook, Lois Burpee’s Gardener’s Companion and Cookbook. Newspaper clippings, book reviews, congratulatory letters, and manuscript drafts made up the majority of the material. It appears Lois began working on her book in the early 1970s, but by the time she became more involved with its writing, her husband was ill. David died in June, 1980, at the age of 87. As I went through this box, I came across stacks of newspaper clippings and book reviews, and then another stack of obituaries and memorials. It was a bittersweet juxtaposition.

The fact that this collection includes far more than company records is partly due to who this family was. They were caring, hardworking and intelligent; their company was a vital part of who they were as people. The Burpee Company Collection thus offers insight into not only how a business of this magnitude operated under two generations of one family for nearly a century, but also demonstrates who these people truly were.

Chris DeMairo, Intern
Archives of American Gardens

Friday, April 20, 2018

Processing the Burpee Company Records, Part One

The first time encountering a new collection is exciting for an archivist. This is when we evaluate the physical condition of the collection, the predominant materials (papers, books, memorabilia, etc.), and, if possible, any potential series within the collection (business records, correspondence, newspapers, etc.) that aid in its final arrangement. It can be overwhelming to see a large number of disordered and dusty boxes in front of you, but knowing that within each box rests items that have not been touched for 5, 10, 30, even a hundred years is always exhilarating (in a bookish kind of way). This post will talk about my first week working on a new accretion to the W. Atlee Burpee Company Records.

The first step involves researching what exactly the collection is about. The W. Atlee Burpee Co. was founded by Washington Atlee Burpee in 1878. Burpee’s business grew over the next 15 years, and by 1893, Burpee had reached the top of the American seed scene when he was elected president of the American Seed Trade Association (ASTA). The Burpee Company rose to prominence under W. Atlee Burpee, but, of course, not without its good and bad years. When W. Atlee became ill around 1913, his eldest son David left his studies at Cornell to assist in operating the family business. In 1915, David was made CEO. Under David’s direction, the Burpee Co. continued to expand globally. In 1970, General Foods acquired the company.
David Burpee’s official resignation as president of W. Atlee Burpee Co., and the official “closing” of the deal with General Foods. The Burpee Co. merged with the Ball Seed Company in 1991 and is still an active business today.
The Burpee Co. was a well-run machine by the beginning of the twentieth century. W. Atlee Burpee was an astute businessman, a great organizer, and an innovator in seed marketing and advertising. He kept a close eye on all of his products as well. Constantly in correspondence with employees, contractors, retailers, and consumers, he stayed current with all aspects of his business. But it was marketing that separated Burpee from his competitors. Having the consumer interact with the company not only encouraged interest in Burpee seeds, but also helped the Burpee Co. connect with those who supported its business. Burpee’s approach to marketing ensured a personal and long-lasting relationship with its customers.

Looking at the business records of a company run by such a man is inspiring. Detailed notes scribbled all over scraps of paper capture his marketing skills. David Burpee had large shoes to fill when he took over the company, and he succeeded. In 1926, just a few years into radio broadcasting’s “golden age,” the Burpee Co. promoted a “largest zinnia” contest through a local radio station, WLIT in Philadelphia. Letters poured in to the radio station (which were all forwarded to the Burpee Co.) regarding the contest, with some seeking Burpee publications as well.

1926 letter submitted by Mrs. E. Shepherd of West Philadelphia to WLIT radio station in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  Listeners were invited to submit a letter requesting free Burpee seeds and publications. 

Between a company that crossed all oceans, and a business model that was as connected as ever to the customer, W. Atlee would have been proud of what his son accomplished. I am excited to be working on the W. Atlee Burpee Company Records. It is a great story of an American company, and deserves to be preserved. Processing collections requires patience, attention to detail, and great organization. Above all else, the archivist must acknowledge that they are presenting once hidden materials to the public.

Chris DeMairo, Intern

Monday, April 9, 2018

Connecting the Threads: Interdepartmental Collaboration and the Elayne Zorn Collection

Men playing traditional Andean flutes.
Subseries 5B: Slides, Elayne Zorn collection,
National Museum of the American Indian, Archive Center.
One of the reasons I love working behind the scenes in a museum is that you never know what incredible objects and stories you will come across. This past year, by chance, I stumbled upon the amazing life of anthropologist Elayne Zorn after being asked to enhance records related to her collection in the National Museum of the American Indian’s Collections Information System (CIS). Elayne Zorn spent many years and much of her professional career as a museum collector and anthropologist in the Andean regions of Peru and Bolivia.

The collection of Elayne Zorn was donated to the Museum in May 2011 and is composed of objects, mainly textiles and instruments, as well as archival materials including personal papers, field notes, photographs and other media. My primary task was to update our object records with as much contextual information as possible using the archival materials as well as our existing collections records, and Zorn’s publications related to her work.

Field notebook from Taquile, Peru, 1975-1976.
Box 1, Folder 6, Elayne Zorn collection.
National Museum of the American Indian, Archive Center.

When I began my archival research I was immediately drawn to Zorn’s field notebooks which provided a wealth of information on Andean culture, textiles, gender roles, and her own personal experiences as both an anthropologist and a weaver in Peru and Bolivia. Of note, her drawings of weaving patterns, looms, textile construction were meticulously illustrated and much of her research on traditional textiles incorporated the native terms of the objects in Quechua and Aymara, which she also often translated into Spanish. From these notes we have been able to incorporate the original names for weaving tools, motifs, and natural plant dyes into our records.

Zorn also continued a strong connection with many of community members she spent time with. Her friendships lasted over two decades and were multigenerational. Her personal papers documented these relationships and in some cases recorded the stylistic differences between mothers, daughters, and granddaughters. Though there was variance in style and color choices the traditional designs, special relationships, and meanings remained the same. Zorn learned the language of Andean cloth.

Ultimately, my research took me from the documentation in the archives to examining the objects themselves in our collections. This examination resulted in additional information on the artists who created the objects and also revealed the need for further assessment and conservation treatment. I found evidence of pre-acquisition infestation in the form of moth casings, cockroach residue, and fras. Because NMAI utilizes Ingenerated Pest Management (IPM) to protect objects from infestations the collection was not in immediate danger, however the objects still needed to be cleaned as a preventative measure as well as to adhere to our museum standards. A collaborative five day workshop with NMAI’s curatorial, collections and conservation departments was planned where the Zorn collection would be used to train incoming conservation fellows and interns in object treatment, consultations, and documentation.
Consultation with Aymar Ccopacatty, conservators
Susan Heald, Kelly McHugh and conservation
fellows and interns. National Museum of the American Indian,
Smithsonian Institution. Photograph by Smithsonian Staff.
In addition to the conservation work, the workshop invited community consultants, Aymar Ccopacatty, a weaver from Peru, and Jose Montano, an NMAI staff member and musician from Bolivia, to contribute their knowledge. Additional staff presentations from various departments including the NMAI Archive Center, demonstrated how knowledge from across the museum and beyond can be collaboratively compiled to enhance collections information.

Though project began as a simple data enhancement task, in the end a wealth of information was gained about Andean textiles, festivals, and instruments, signifying how even the most humble of objects have stories and knowledge to impart if we are willing to listen.

Maia Truesdale-Scott, Museum Specialist, National Museum of the American Indian

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

How Computers Came to the Smithsonian Libraries

In the beginning, few offices at the Smithsonian used computers. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory used MIT’s IBM 704 to calculate the orbit of the Russia's Sputnik satellite, another office used an IBM 360 to keep track of grant applications, the Fiscal Division (accounting office) was running some programs on an IBM 1440, and the natural history museum was just awakening to the tremendous potential of collections automation. Yet there was another area well suited to computerization: the Smithsonian libraries. A copy of a book in one library was the same as a copy in another library. The information about one book was similar to the information about another book --- title, author, publisher, publication date, etc. This made it easy to devise data formats that could be applied to all libraries. The Library of Congress pioneered a format called MARC (MAchine-Readable Cataloging).

Mary A. Huffer, Acting Director of Smithsonian Institution Libraries who introduced computer automation,
in the Catalog Room of the Smithsonian Central Library in the National Museum of Natural History.
Smithsonian Institution Archives, Image Number OPA-68-26A.
At the behest of Smithsonian Secretary Ripley, the libraries scattered throughout Smithsonian museums and offices were brought under one central office – the Smithsonian Institution Libraries (SIL). This office mandated a conversion from the Dewey Decimal system of cataloging books to the Library of Congress method. Some of the branch libraries were in bad shape, both in regard to physical condition and cataloging. The Zoo, as an example, “had a little library in two or three rooms of an old house [Holt House] --in fact, some of the books were shelved in the men's room, and they had to go knock on the door to get in this cubbyhole of this old administrative building.

Cataloging and purchasing books were both expensive and labor-intensive. They were obvious early candidates for automation. The Acting Director of SIL, Mary A. Huffer, so far as we know, had no background in computer technology. Yet she was to prove remarkably resourceful in automating the libraries. She sought advice and software from the Interior Department, the Atomic Energy Commission, and the National Air and Space Administration. By March 1965, she had a long-range plan in mind:

Our first application will be the business application in our acquisitions program. We have to keep a tally of 80-some accounts, and we are one of the few units where purchase orders are written and go out directly, so we are trying to tie our system into the Fiscal system and to coordinate these to relieve our acquisitions people of some of this record-keeping.
As soon as we get over the purchasing hurdle we are going to tie in our gift and exchange program. Then we are going on to our serials [like scholarly journals]. Then, we hope, perhaps, circulation. Because of programming difficulties, the last thing we are going to try and pull in on this will be our catalog card production.
We want to start card punching in the next six to eight weeks. We will be building up on punch cards information to go into the retrieval system and into the catalogs. Eventually we hope we will even produce book catalogs and do away with the maintenance of all these separate catalogs in various buildings, reading rooms, special subject collections, and so on.

The library trained its own staff to punch the cards that would be fed into the computer’s hopper to avoid to having to correct the work of unskilled punchers. In a surprisingly short time, the library could report significant improvement:

Late in June, 1965, an IBM-29 key punch was installed in the acquisitions section, and during fiscal 1966 all purchase orders were printed on the computer in the Smithsonian’s data processing unit. The ADP program now provides computer-printed purchase orders, bi-weekly reports on the status of various accounts, receiving cards, book labels, Library of Congress card order slips, and temporary catalog cards.

Retirement party for Mary A. Huffer, Assistant Director of Smithsonian Institution Libraries (SIL), with Russel Shank, SIL Director. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Image Number 74-2487. 
Mary A. Huffer was succeeded by Russell Shank in September 1967, as the first Director of the libraries. He connected the libraries to OCLC, which furnished cards formatted according to Library of Congress specifications. This saved the libraries not only time and money, but also errors in entering data. But the Smithsonian libraries had moved into the digital age well before library automation packages were available.

John Churchman, Computer History Project Volunteer

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Gene Stratton-Porter and the end of Limberlost Swamp

Smithsonian's Collections Search Center turns up intriguing results for Gene Stratton-Porter– images from the Art Inventories Catalog of Smithsonian's American Art Museum, a natural history text, and a book on travel through the "Hoosier state" from Smithsonian Libraries.  These only hint at her fascinating life.  I first learned about Stratton-Porter when Smithsonian Libraries digitized one of her natural history texts, contributed to Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL).  Looking at her books on BHL, one finds texts that describe birds, bugs, and her birthplace—the state of Indiana.

Gene Stratton-Porter (1863-1924) expressed a deep connection with her home state in the form of nature photography and illustration, writing, and environmental activism.  In each of these endeavors, she studied, documented, referenced, or advocated for the places in Indiana she knew personally.

Title page of Stratton-Porter’s best known novel, A Girl of the Limberlost. Source: Wikipedia.
She is best known for her twelve novels, which gained her national and international fame during her lifetime. At her peak of popularity in the 1910’s, Stratton-Porter had an estimated 50 million readers.  One of her best-known novels, A Girl of the Limberlost, takes place in Limberlost swamp, located near her home “Limberlost Cabin” in Geneva, Indiana.  Limberlost swamp was also where she spent most of her time and effort documenting natural history.

Stratton-Porter’s accomplishments are impressive, especially when one remembers she was born in the midst of the American Civil War.  There is an appealing boldness to how she lived her life.  In a time when women did not consider home and career, she dared to not only pursue writing, but to also believe she could balance it with her home life. Her daughter later quoted her mother’s thoughts on career, family, and the tension that resulted. 

Then I took a bold step, the first in my self-emancipation. Money was beginning to come in, and I had some in my purse of my very own that I had earned when no one knew I was working. I argued that if I kept my family so comfortable that they missed nothing from my usual routine, I had a right to do what I could toward furthering my personal ambitions . . . until I could earn money enough to hire capable people to take my place. 
It speaks not only to her belief that there could be balance in home and work, but to her confidence in her capacity to earn substantial income from a career she learned on her own.

She pursued her natural history fieldwork with the same boldness.  In Tales You Won’t Believe, Stratton-Porter described how she collected and transported specimens in her car: 

There were long boxes for each of the running boards and frequently I threw coffee sacking over the engine hood and loaded it with swamp mosses and bulbous plants, with pitcher plant and rosemary, as high as I could stack it and allow space for the driver to see over. 
When one of her books was adapted into a movie and she disliked the resulting film, Stratton-Parker started her own movie company and became one of the first women movie producers in Hollywood. She wrote to a correspondent, “every dollar of money that went into this picture I earned myself, most of it in the fields and woods and in the swamps.”

Page 11, Moths of the Limberlost, with water color and photographic illustrations from life. Source Biodiversity Heritage Library (Smithsonian Libraries contribution)
When reading about her life, I was particularly interested in a reference to her conservation work for Limberlost swamp.  Too many Hollywood endings made me assume that her writing and natural history documentation might have saved it from development.

Reading more in-depth, I learned this was not the case. In 1910, the swamp that inspired her natural history study and popular writing was drained and developed for agricultural use. After the loss of Limberlost swamp, Stratton-Baker became active in the conservation movement. She fought for the Indiana state government to repeal legislation that would drain wetland in additional counties. The law was repealed; unfortunately, the swamps were still eventually drained. Indiana’s drive to drain wetlands went well beyond Limberlost and neighboring counties; from the time of the state was settled by pioneers, Indiana lost an estimated 4.85 million acres of wetland. According to Indiana in Transition (1968) by 1919, “Indiana had the largest percentage of farms under drainage in the nation.” Stratton-Porter bought another property in 1912, selling the home in Geneva in 1923. 

There is a poignancy to Gene Stratton-Porter’s life, when one considers how her strong connection to Indiana influenced her writing and its popularity. Stratton-Porter moved from Geneva to Sylvan Lake in Indiana, partly because of the property’s resemblance to Limberlost swamp. By 1919, her popularity grew significantly, and the family started having issues with fans trespassing. The increasing lack of privacy was one of the reasons Stratton-Parker moved from Indiana to California in 1919.

Poster from a 1938 movie adaptation of “A Girl of Limberlost”. The book was also adapted in 1924, 1934, 1945, and 1990. Source: Wikipedia
Despite lacking the happy conclusion I envisioned for Limberlost swamp, her natural history legacy endures. Stratton-Porter’s natural history writing documents the lost Indiana wetland of Limberlost, now available on Biodiversity Heritage Library.  Stratton-Porter’s writing eventually inspired the state of Indiana to turn her two homes into state historic sites that support environmental education -- Limberlost Cabin and Cabin at Wildflower Woods.

Lesley Parilla, Cataloging and Bibliographic Access Librarian
Smithsonian Libraries

To learn more about Gene Stratton-Porter:

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Happy Birthday Frederick Douglass!: A Commemorative Blog from the National Museum of African Art

*Update: ABC Channel 7 aired a segment on March 14, 2018 featuring the history of Frederick Douglass and the National Museum of African Art and the silk screen prints by Ben Shahn that are discussed in this blog.  Archivists Eden Orelove and Amy Staples, and Museum Director Dr. Gus Casely-Hayford were interviewed for the story. 

In recognition of the 200th anniversary of abolitionist Frederick Douglass’ birth date (b. February 14, 1818), the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, would like to share our significant collections and history related to this distinguished African American civil rights leader.

Founded by Warren Robbins in 1964, the Museum of African Art (now the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art) was originally located in the Frederick Douglass House at A Street NE on Capitol Hill.  

Frederick Douglass and family in front of Capitol Hill residence, circa 1870s. 
Copy print from Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution.

In February 1966, the Museum established the Frederick Douglass Institute of Negro Arts and History to sponsor exhibits and lectures reflecting the contributions of African and African American people to the history and culture of the United States.    

Pamphlet explaining the origins and purpose of the Frederick Douglass Institute of Negro Arts and History, Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Frederick Douglass Institute of Negro Arts & History Dedication, September 21, 1966. Left-Right: Frances Humphrey Howard (seated), Founding Board Member and sister of Vice-President Hubert H. Humphrey; Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first African American Justice of the Supreme Court; Harry McPherson, Special Counsel to President Lyndon B. Johnson; Commissioner John B. Duncan; Ambassador Edward S. Peal of Liberia, and Joseph Palmer II, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs. Smithsonian Institution Archives. Accession 11-001. 

One year before the founding of the Frederick Douglass Institute of Negro Arts and History, Robbins asked American artist Ben Shahn (1898-1969) to create a print of Douglass to be used for fund-raising purposes.  On October 21, 1964, Robbins wrote to Shahn, expressing his exuberance for the project:

“It is really marvelous that you are willing to do a sketch of Douglass, who to my mind was one of the great men of the world in the 19th century and one of the giants in American history.  The Museum is in the position to make him a great deal better known to people who ordinarily wouldn’t know very much about him.”  (Image 19 on page 2, Ben Shahn papers, Archives of American Art). 

Robbins sent Shahn 12 pictures of Douglass, but rather than producing one print, as Robbins had requested, Shahn created four!  The prints were unveiled at the Museum of African Art on February 10, in connection with National African American History Week and were sold for $50 a piece or $500 for the set.   

Ben Shahn,  Frederick Douglass, silk screen, 1965.  Marshall Janoff collection, EEPA 2017-004-0099 to 0102, Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution.

With a limited 250-print run, the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives’ holdings of the silk screen prints are one of the few remaining complete sets.  The White House was gifted a set during Obama’s presidency, and the Supreme Court was also provided a set.  Chief Justice Warren E. Berger sent a note of thanks to Robbins on March 27, 1974. (Image 65 on page 5, Ben Shahn papers, Archives of American Art). 

Warren Robbins (left) displaying Shahn's silk screen prints to D.C. Mayor Walter Washington, circa 1973. Smithsonian Institution Archives.  Accession 11-0001.

Pamphlet depicting the four Shahn prints for sale at the Frederick Douglass Institute of Negro Arts and History, Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Robbins, who founded the Museum to encourage cross-cultural communication, found a like-mind in Shahn, whom he described in a 1986 piece entitled “Ben Shahn on Human Rights” (August Savage Memorial Gallery, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, September 16, 1986).

“He had a strong interest
in cross-cultural communication
in bringing people together
in bridging the gap between groups of people
in reminding people
            of their commonality as human beings
            of the common destiny of black and white
                        in this country
                        and indeed in the world."

(Warren M. Robbins, Speaking of Introductions: Vignettes of a Cultural Pioneer. Compiled and edited by Roulhac Toledano, Robbins Center for Cross Cultural Communication: Washington, D.C., 2005: p. 53-54).

Robbins also saw these ideals in the writings and orations of Douglass, and continued to promote Douglass' vision of peace even after the opening of the Frederick Douglass Institute of Negro Arts and History.  In 1967, he helped produce a stamp (now held by the Smithsonian National Postal Museum) commemorating the 150th anniversary of Douglass’ birth.  Working with Congressman Frank Horton and the U.S. Postal Department, Robbins ensured that the stamp was released on time.  Robbins originally proposed that a design by Shahn be used; instead, the stamp was designed by Walter DuBois Richards and depicts an engraving by Arthur W. Dintaman that is based on a photograph of Douglass.

Frederick Douglass commemorative stamp, printed on February 14, 1967.  Designed by Walter DuBois Richards.  Vignette engraved by Arthur W. Dintaman and lettering engraved by Kenneth C. Wilram.  Object number 1980.2493.14020, National Postal Museum, Smithsonian Institution.

Poet Langston Hughes wrote to Robbins, suggesting that rather than giving a statement about Douglass, he should share Hughes’ poem (Image 32 on page 3, Ben Shahn papers, Archives of American Art), “Frederick Douglas”, at the celebration of the stamp’s release on February 14, 1967.  Ultimately, Robbins gave his own speech, and Congressman Horton quoted Robbins’ statements at the event, which the Frederick Douglass Institute had coordinated at the church on Capitol Hill near the Museum of African Art.  He described Douglass’ life as “a great epic poem in the pages of American historical literature” and called him “the original ‘freedom rider’ and ‘sit-inner,” noting that:

"He [Douglass] always held himself proud; he would not be subservient to any man.  He advocated agitation when agitation was necessary, but behind it there was a clear sense of conviction and direction; a depth of historical understanding; compassion for the unwise and short-sighted; and ultimately, a deep desire for peace and social harmony among all Americans.”  (Warren M. Robbins, Man for all Reasons: Letters of a Visionary, "Frederick Douglass Anniversary," compiled by Roulhac Toledono, Washington, D.C.: Robbins Center for Cross Cultural Communication, 2014: p. 80-81). 

Today, the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art continues to promote the goals and messages of cross-cultural understanding and communication among people that Frederick Douglass inspired in all of us. 

Additional links:

The Ben Shahn papers, held at the Archives of American Art, include more correspondence between Shahn and Robbins.   

The Smithsonian Institution Archives holds the Warren M. Robbins Papers.

To read more about the Frederick Douglass commemorative stamp released in 1967, see this description, written by Roger S. Brody, National Museum of Postal History, Smithsonian Institution.

By Eden Orelove, Photo Archivist, Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of  African Art, Smithsonian Institution