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Friday, April 3, 2020

Aleš Hrdlička: A New Finding Aid and an Exhibit Appearance for a Controversial Figure in the History of Anthropology

Photo: Aleš Hrdlička (1869-1943), curator of physical anthropology at the 
United States National Museum, now known as the National Museum of
Natural History. National Anthropological Archives Image MNH-31513.

From Archivist Katherine Christensen:

Aleš Hrdlička was an anthropologist who left a complicated legacy. His work in physical anthropology was groundbreaking, but his history is fraught with accusations of misogyny and a belief that his work contributed to major racist ideologies of the 20th century. His supporters argue that Hrdlička’s work should be read in the context of his time, while his detractors argue that his views regarding immigrants, people of color, and women were problematic even within his cultural and temporal context. Both sides of the debate are so firm in their stances that this archivist dare not venture her humble opinion. Instead, I encourage you to form your own.

His papers are open for research at the National Anthropological Archives and the finding aid for those papers, the original creation of which was funded by the Repatriation Office, Department of Anthropology, National Museum of Natural History (NMNH), is now available digitally on SOVA through recent funding from the FY2019 Collections Information (CIS) pool.

Photo: Anthropometric Measurements of
Franz Boas. National Anthropological 
Archives, Aleš Hrdlička papers.
From Curator Diana Marsh:

Some of Hrdlička’s work is on display in the new exhibition, Documenting Diversity: How Anthropologists Record Human Life, which will be on view at the National Museum of Natural History when it reopens. In the exhibition, my co-curator, Joshua A. Bell, and I featured aspects of Hrdlička’s work through displaying his project and resulting book, The Old Americans, in which Hrdlička studied and compared anthropometric differences—height, skull diameter, etc.—of those descended from colonial American settlers and 20th century immigrants. From the archives, documents for the project included in the exhibit are anthropometric sheets he made of prominent members of the National Academy of Sciences including anthropologists Franz Boas, Henry Fairfield Osborn, and Jesse Walter Fewkes, and famed eugenicist Charles Benedict Davenport. This allowed us to show what anthropometry methods look like without further objectifying Indigenous, marginalized, or displaced peoples.

The exhibit was collaboratively produced by the National Anthropological Archives and Human Studies Film Archives, the Smithsonian Libraries, and Smithsonian Exhibits. It is located in the Evans Gallery on the Ground Floor of the NMNH and will be on view for 16 months.

Katherine Christensen and Diana Marsh

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

William Duncan Strong: A New Virtual Finding Aid to Complement an Upcoming Exhibit

Photos: Field notebook, 1933, Series 3, William Duncan Strong papers.

When the National Museum of Natural History re-opens, it will feature an exhibit entitled Documenting Diversity: How Anthropologists Record Human Life. Curated by Dr. Diana Marsh and Dr. Joshua A. Bell [JAB1] this show draws on the collections of the National Anthropological Archives, Human Studies Film Archives, and the Smithsonian Libraries. William Duncan Strong (1899-1962), known as “Dunc” to his friends, will be one of the anthropologists featured. Strong was an archaeologist who conducted fieldwork throughout North, Central, and South America between 1922 and 1954, and is best known for his work in the Great Plains from 1938 to 1939. He was also a talented artist, who peppered his field journals with sketches of locations, archaeological discoveries, and local fauna. 

Photos: Field notebook, 1933, Series 3, William Duncan Strong papers. 

Prior to embarking on a career as an archaeologist, Strong studied zoology, an interest which he retained throughout his life. This interest is apparent in his papers, which feature many examples of his sketches of animals, particularly birds. These sketches are particularly abundant in Strong’s field journal from his expedition to Honduras and the Bay Islands, which will be on display in the exhibition. While the skill shown in these sketches is unique to Strong, they demonstrate the historic interplay of anthropology and natural history.

Photos: Field notebook, 1933, Series 3, William Duncan Strong papers.

Strong’s papers are open for research at the National Anthropological Archives and the finding aid for those papers has recently been published on SOVA through the funding of the FY2019 Collections Information (CIS) pool.

Katherine Christensen
Contract Archivist
National Anthropological Archives

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Sydel Silverman: A New Virtual Finding Aid for a Scholar Committed to Anthropology’s Legacy

by Diana Marsh and Katherine Christensen

Photo: Photographs of Sydel Silverman, undated, Series 9, Sydel Silverman Papers

Last March, a giant in the field of anthropology passed away. Sydel Silverman (1933-2019) was a scholar of Italian and other (as she called them) “complex” societies, as well as the history of anthropology. In her doctoral work and first book (Three Bells of Civilization: the Life of an Italian Hill Town 1975), she combated stereotypes of rural communities through her ethnography of Montecastello di Vibio, a small Umbrian hilltop town.

Photo: Photographs of Sydel Silverman, undated, Series 9, Sydel Silverman Papers.

Silverman advocated for anthropology throughout her career. At the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center in the 1970s, Silverman argued that anthropology was an “essential” discipline, convincing Margaret Mead to join her fight. Robert J. Kibbee, then CUNY’s Chancellor, proposed a restructuring plan that would eliminate the anthropology departments in a number of CUNY’s colleges. As a result of Silverman’s activities, when the restructuring occurred in 1976, no anthropology departments were affected. In so doing, she resurrected the anthropology program at CUNY, turning it into one of the top ten anthropological doctoral programs in the U.S.

Silverman’s perhaps most influential contribution to the field was her leadership of the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, anthropology’s most prominent funding organization, where she served as President from 1987 to 1999. Through Wenner-Gren, Silverman built anthropology’s intellectual community and reach. She championed unity among all four of anthropology’s often disconnected fields—archaeological, biological, cultural, and linguistic anthropology. She also published on the field’s scholarly process, reflecting in her writing about its networks and conferences (see The Beast at the Table: Conferencing with Anthropologists, 2002).

Photo: Sydel Silverman Papers in the National Anthropological Archives pod, Museum Support Center, Suitland, Maryland.

Silverman was also a major proponent of preserving anthropology’s legacy through archival records. She helped to found the Council for the Preservation of Anthropological Records (CoPAR), which published works on the topic and created a registry of anthropologists’ archival papers. As Silverman said in 2014, “Those of us who created CoPAR had as our primary objective to save the unpublished field notes and other primary documents of field research for the benefit of scholars, members of the subject communities, and others with serious purposes for consulting this material” (Personal correspondence). For more on her foundational CoPAR work, see this 2012 blog post.  In 2015, Silverman participated in a workshop to revitalize CoPAR for the digital age, which initiated the development of new working groups and a new website (Marsh et al. 2019).

Photo: Screen shot of the new Sydel Silverman Papers finding aid on

This month, the NAA published a digital, keyword searchable (‘encoded’, in archives-speak) finding aid (created by Katherine Christensen) to Silverman’s collections. The collections are made up of about 25 linear feet of material documenting Silverman’s fieldwork in Italy, educational and administrative roles, participation in research networks, and vast collection of informal observational notes taken throughout her career. Media include field notebooks and journals, correspondence, news clippings, unpublished writings, meeting notes, teaching files, photographs, slides, and audio recordings.

Photo: Screen shot of archival image of Sydel Silverman from the new online finding aid
Given Silverman’s interest in anthropological legacies, we look forward to seeing how Silverman’s legacy—archival papers now more easily searchable online—are used and repurposed by the field’s next generation.

The finding aid for the Sydel Silverman Papers is available online at

Funding for the processing of Sydel Silverman’s papers was provided by a grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation; processing was completed by Christy Fic. Funding to convert pdf and Word finding aids to encoded finding aids was provided by the FY2019 Collections Information System (CIS) pool. With this funding the NAA has recently added 6 other finding aids to SOVA for the papers of Anthony Leeds, Richard L. Hay, Marvin Harris, Ethel Cutler Freeman, Richard Lynch Garner, and Chris Gjording.

Marsh, Diana E., Ricardo L. Punzalan, and Jesse A. Johnston 2019. "Preserving Anthropology's Digital Record: CoPAR in the Age of Electronic Fieldnotes, Data Curation, and Community Sovereignty." The American Archivist (online first): 
Schneider, Jennifer 2019. “In Memoriam: Dr. Sydel Silverman,” The Graduate Center, The City University of New York:  
Silverman, Sydel 1975. Three Bells of Civilization: the Life of an Italian Hill Town. New York: Columbia University Press.
Roberts, Sam. "Sydel Silverman, 85, Dies; Defended Anthropology in Academia." New York Times, April 5, 2019.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

From Textile Mills to Seventeen Magazine: Exploring the History of American Girlhood through Transcription Center Projects

Far from sitting quietly on the sidelines, American girls have been on the frontlines of political, cultural, and social change. A new signature exhibit, Girlhood (It's complicated), opening at the National Museum of American History on June 12, 2020 as part of the Smithsonian's American Women's History Initiative, explores the diverse and complex stories of girlhood in our nation's history. The exhibit will tour the country through the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service from 2023 through 2025.

Skateboard designed by Cindy Whitehead, a member of the skate team Sims in the late 1970s and early 1980s, who continues to be a vocal advocate for women in the sport. Courtesy National Museum of American History, 2019.0092.01.

In collaboration with educators, archivists, and museum collections' staff from across the Smithsonian, we're joining the effort to celebrate and highlight the stories of American girls. Through Transcription Center projects - ongoing and completed - we're inviting volunteers of all ages to help us discover and share a diverse set of experiences and representations of girlhood throughout history, enriching the content and knowledge surrounding the Girlhood (It's complicated) exhibit.

Janice Lowry Diary, 1960-1961, Archives of American Art
Join in by transcribing and exploring diaries, letters, and other materials from the collections of the Smithsonian Institution Archives, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Archives of American Art, and more, created by and for girls from the 19th century to the present day. Completed transcriptions will be used to create educational resources for teachers and students in grades 8-12, as they investigate and learn from the lives and contributions of girls in the United States. As this work develops, we'll be posting updates, information, and additional resources here in the Transcription Center, on social media, and on the Smithsonian Learning Lab. Follow along with us to learn more, and share your own stories, discoveries, and knowledge on American girlhood using the hashtag #BecauseOfHerStory
Coordination of girlhood history projects in the Transcription Center (including selection, digitization, cataloging, outreach, and creation of educational resources) was funded by the Smithsonian American Women's History Initiative. Head to the Transcription Center to learn more and start transcribing!

School Letters from Grace Thorpe to her Mother, 1927-1929,
National Museum of the American Indian Archive Center. 
Bat Mitzvah Scrapbook of Sarah Leavitt, c. 1983, National Museum of American History    

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

"Discovering Yayoi Kusama's Watercolors"

by Anna Rimel, Archivist for the Joseph Cornell Study Center, Smithsonian American Art Museum

(Figure 1) Yayoi Kusama, (from left to right) "Autumn," 1953 (2019.32.1); "Deep Grief," 1954 (2019.32.2); "Fire," circa 1954 (2019.32.3); "Forlorn Spot," 1953 (2019.32.4), Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. John A. Benton and The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation

Hired as the Archivist for the Joseph Cornell Study Center in 2017, with generous funding from the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, I have been working steadily through hundreds of linear feet of artist Joseph Cornell's two- and three-dimensional source material, family and estate papers, and collected artifacts and ephemera. The collection also includes a collection of over 150 record albums, and a personal library and book collection of over 2500 titles.

In 1978, the Joseph Cornell Study Center was founded with a donation from Joseph Cornell's sister and brother-in-law, Elizabeth Cornell Benton and John A. Benton, to the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM). There were several subsequent donations from his estate, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, further donations from Elizabeth Cornell and John A. Benton, and transfers from other Smithsonian repositories, which make up the Joseph Cornell Study Center collection today.

Though the project to archivally process the collection is still in progress, and a partial finding aid forthcoming, an exciting discovery has been making its way through the art world. In the process of conducting a preliminary survey of all contents of the collection, four small watercolors[i] by Yayoi Kusama were found still in the original Manila envelope, alongside the receipt for purchase by Joseph Cornell from Kusama for $200 on August 22, 1964. Upon notifying curatorial staff, Melisa Ho, SAAM's curator of 20th-century art, was vocal in getting the delicate watercolors accessioned into SAAM's permanent collections, which previously held no works by Kusama." Rendered in watercolor, ink, pastel, and tempera paint," Melissa Ho explained that these works, created in the mid-fifties, "represent a crucial body of work that bridged Kusama's transition from Japan to the United States."[ii] In a blog post for the museum on December 17, 2019, she continues to write: "They were among the roughly 2,000 works on paper Kusama brought with her when she left Japan in 1957, hoping to sell them to support herself."[iii]

(Figure 2)"Surrealisme" (1932) exhibition announcement.
Joseph Cornell Study Center, Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Joseph Cornell (1903-1972) was an artist known primarily for his assemblage box constructions, who also created two-dimensional collages and avant-garde films. He had two younger sisters, Helen and Elizabeth, who married and lived on Long Island. Joseph lived with his younger brother, Robert, and his mother, Helen, in Queens, New York, from 1921 until their deaths in 1965 and 1966, respectively. He would remain in the same home on Utopia Parkway until his death in 1972. Initially thought to be somewhat reclusive, the artist is now known to have had a wide circle of friends and acquaintances in the art world. His first exhibition was a group show at the Julien Levy Gallery in 1932, "Surréalisme," alongside artists Jean Cocteau, Salvador Dalí, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, and Pierre Roy, for which Cornell also designed the announcement.[iv]

Cornell met artist Yayoi Kusama in early 1964, introduced by art dealer Gertrude Stein when he expressed a desire to learn to draw and asked Stein to bring him models to sketch. A number of these sketches apparently survive among her papers.[v] After sketching Kusama, they appear to have formed a bond, and continued to meet and correspond.

Other Kusama-related materials, including letters with sentiments like, "You and Me – Birds of a Feather,"[vi] as well as numerous photographs of Kusama, still remain within the Joseph Cornell Study Center collection.

(Figure 3) Letter from Yayoi Kusama to Joseph Cornell, circa 1972.
Joseph Cornell Study Center, Smithsonian American Art Museum.

The collection remains open to researchers, and more information can be found on the Joseph Cornell Study Center website, at


[Cross-posted in the Society of American Archivists' Museum Archivist: Newsletter of the Museum Archives Section (Winter 2020: Volume 30, Number 1)]

[i] See (Figure 1).
[ii] Melissa Ho, "The Lost Kusamas." Eye Level (blog), Smithsonian American Art Museum, December 17, 2019.
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] Deborah Solomon, Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell (New York: Other Press, 1997), 87.; See (Figure 2).
[v] Deborah Solomon, Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell (New York: Other Press, 1997), 380-381.
[vi] See (Figure 3).

Recent discovery of four of Yayoi Kusama's watercolors!

Check out this blog from the Smithsonian American Art Museum about Archivist Anna Rimel's exciting discovery of four watercolors by famed artist Yayoi Kusama!

 (1 of 2)

Yayoi Kusama, Fire, ca. 1954, watercolor, pastel, ink, tempera on paper, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. John A. Benton and The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, 2019.32.3

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

The Smithsonian’s Journey of Computerized Library and Archives (2010-2019)

Read Part I : The First Integrated Library System
Read Part II:  Stepping Outside of the Box 


Contributing to the start of Digital Public Library of America (DPLA)

The idea of a national digital library had been circulating among librarians, scholars, educators, and private industry representatives in the United States since the early 1990s.  The DPLA planning process began in October 2010 at a meeting in Cambridge, M.A. During this meeting, 40 leaders from libraries, foundations, academia, and technology projects agreed to work together to create an open and distributed network of comprehensive online resources which are provided by the U.S. libraries, archives, universities and museums.    

The planning team solicited ideas for how this open platform should work and received hundreds of responses from around the country.  Martin Kalfatovic of Smithsonian Libraries approached me for possible ideas. We decided to work with the Library of Congress (LC) and the National Archives Record Administration (NARA) to develop a joint proposal that suggested using the Smithsonian Collections Search Center for DPLA.  We took about 100 MARC records from LC and about 20 MARC records from NARA and, using the Smithsonian Index Metadata model, imported them into the Smithsonian Collection Search Center test system. 

The LC and NARA records worked well among the Smithsonian records in our Collections Search Center without great effort.  This success affirms the importance of developing a system that includes stringent data standards.   We were among the top six submissions selected by the DPLA planning committee for a final open presentation hosted at NARA. 

In December 2010, the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University convened leading experts in libraries, technology, law, and education and began work on this ambitious project. I was part of this meeting and worked among those who contributed their knowledge for a brand new DPLA system.  DPLA was launched in April 2013 with contributions from a small number of universities, libraries and museums.  The Smithsonian contributed tens of thousands of library and archives records in the initial launch and supported the Creative Common CC0 for “No Copyright Reserved” on metadata records.  To expand Smithsonian participation, Library Director Nancy Gwinn reached out to many Smithsonian museum directors for support.  Today, the Smithsonian Institution contributes 3.6 million records to DPLA monthly.  This number is expected to increase over time.

Increasing Access and Public Engagement through the Smithsonian Transcription Center

Two examples of Transcription Page
Even though the Smithsonian had millions of collections and historical documents online, accessibility remained a challenge.  Many digitized materials are view-able but not easily searchable; many handwritten materials are difficult to read and understand and many collections were not online.  By creating a transcription center, we could address some of these limitations and support better discovery across disciplines Smithsonian wide.

We began planning and developing the new software platform in 2012.  We worked closely with several archival unit partners to launch the Transcription Center ( on June 15, 2013.

The Transcription Center was designed to support various object types and material formats, including those held by not just libraries and archives, but museums as well.  Object types included diaries, field books, correspondence, currency bank notes, sound-recordings, photo albums, botanical specimen labels, cataloging sheets, joke index cards, and more. The project crowdsources both the transcribing and reviewing processes by public volunteers, allowing the Smithsonian staff the option to conduct final approval before posting the record online.  We have discovered that because our digital volunteers produce such accurate transcriptions, some staff find no need to review the work!  Transcribed contents are immediately searchable , displayed online in the Collections Search Center and downloadable as PDF files,. Public participation has been phenomenal, with 13,890 digital volunteers and 496,300 pages transcribed as of December 2019, including creating 130,755 catalog records that were previously unavailable to the public. 
Transcribed Text on display automatically with the corresponding image

A full-time project coordinator is on staff to ensure timely communications between the Smithsonian and the public via emails and social media platforms.  Meghan Ferriter, Andres Almeida and Caitlin Haynes served as the coordinators consecutively. It is very important that our volunteers feel connected to the Smithsonian Institution and that their contribution is recognized and greatly appreciated.  We express our appreciation by crediting the volunteers in the transcribed records and the PDF files.

The Transcription Center is more than a website to transcribe historic documents. It is a platform for us to increase our public outreach and engagement.  Being able to interact with our volunteers was one of the most rewarding aspect of this project.   Many of our dedicated volunteers continue to achieve huge progress day after day.  They not only transcribing thousands of pages, but also going above and beyond sharing knowledge and enhancing Smithsonian collections by entering additional information in the note fields on each page.

The Transcription Center has also become a useful tools to Smithsonian social media managers of individual museums. Many Of them have share stories uncovered from the Transcription Center in their outreach campaigns, and they also want to continue the relationship with the Transcription Center in the future. This digital platform demonstrates how transcription work can not only create and diffuse knowledge, but also develop strong community among digital volunteers  and Smithsonian.   

Smithsonian Online Virtual Archives (SOVA) and ArchivesSpace

Archives by their very nature are different from libraries: Most libraries include individual items such as books and journals, while archival collections contain multiple records that are both unique, interrelated and often arranged in a nested hierarchy structure. A library system cannot adequately support archival needs.  Increasingly, archival staff began calling for a system that specifically addressed the unique needs of archives, To remedy this problem, a Melon Foundation grant started software development of The Archivists’ Toolkit™ system in 2006. It was the first open source archival data management system to provide broad, integrated support for the management of archives.

The Smithsonian began to experiment with The Archivists’ Toolkit™ (AT) software system in 2011.  First, we migrated 7,000 MARC records into the new AT system. This allowed for series, box and folder level information to be managed hierarchically within an information management system.  The AT system was superseded in late 2013 by ArchivesSpace.  Both open source software systems allowed archivists to manage archives using a collection-centric approach.

The Internal Smithsonian ArchivesSpace Collections Management System

A difference between an item-centric management approach and a collection-centric approach is that archival materials need finding aids, which increase accessibility to the collection.  At the time, the Smithsonian’s fourteen archival units had different understandings and approaches to description and management.   Barbara Aikens, Head of Collections Processing at the Archives of American Art, took the lead to eliminate these inconsistencies.  She wrote five internal and external grants totaling $499,900 between 2010 and 2016 on behalf of the Smithsonian archival units. The grants allowed the Smithsonian to conduct a pan-institutional Encoded Archival Description (EAD) Gap Analysis Study and hire EAD Metadata Coordinators to focus on content creation and support.  These coordinators, Mark Custer and Nancy Kennedy, proved essential to this project.  Managed by OCIO LASSB, they developed and managed an EAD implementation plan for each Smithsonian archival unit.  This work included assisting units to convert legacy finding aids to EAD standards, answering all questions, and fixing dilemmas as they occurred throughout the system’s implementation.  Meanwhile, we collaborated among all of the archival units and supported their backlog processing projects. The migration from the Horizon MARC system to ArchivesSpace was a very complex process which required folding 400,000 flat records into hierarchical EAD finding aids.  In the end, archives across the institution created 16,800 new EAD finding aids in ArchivesSpace, and the quality of content description at the Smithsonian improved dramatically.
Record Display Supporting Hierarchy levels of Collection, Series, Box and Folder in SOVA
While the quality and quantity of the archival descriptions grew exponentially, public searching and display remained a challenge.  To remedy this, we focused on developing and launching the Smithsonian Online Virtual Archives ( in October 2015.    For the first time, the new systems allowed users to search archival materials at all levels (collections, series and items), enabled the  visual display of the hierarchy of the record and dynamically generated EAD online finding aids for nearly 17,000 collections, many of which contain tens of thousands of individual items in multiple series, box and folders.

Screenshots of the search result page with tabs to browse by collections, sub-series or digital items

The ArchivesSpace and SOVA systems enable a digital workflow that is organized, systematic, scalable, and incorporates the digitization process.  In addition, the Smithsonian Digital Access Management System (DAMS) supports seamless metadata synchronization and media file links among all systems.  These systems guide archivists to catalog, digitize, store, link and share digital images, allowing information systems to keep track of mass amounts of media files every step of the way.  Today, there are over 6.7 million images, sound and video recording electronic resources in SOVA.

In 2019, the Smithsonian received accolades for its SOVA and Collections Search Center (CSC).  An online survey, conducted during a NEA-funded workshop on developing in-house collections management systems and online discovery portals, asked professionals to name their favorite online aggregate search center. The Smithsonian’s CSC and SOVA systems were voted the best among all LAM (libraries, archives, and museums) institutions.

Final Thoughts

It has been a long and rewarding journey in the fields of information management and public service.  Knowing the history of the Smithsonian’s transformative information management systems and efforts gives us valuable insight that we can use as we work towards new goals and solving challenges.  The Smithsonian Institution will continue to push forward to support research, education and public service by increasing its mass digitization efforts.  With tens of millions of collections online already, we look forward to making Open Access our next major milestone in 2020.

Read Part I : The First Integrated Library System
Read Part II:  Stepping Outside of the Box 

Ching-hsien Wang,  Branch Manager
Library and Archives Systems Support Branch (LASSB)
Office of the Chief Information Officer