Smithsonian Collections Blog

Highlighting the hidden treasures from over 2 million collections

Collections Search Center

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

It's a Read Letter Day at the Freer|Sackler Archives

P.A.B. Widener's dinner invitation acceptance. Thomas B. Brumbaugh collection of 19th and 20th century American artists' correspondence 1831-1979.
P.A.B. Widener's dinner invitation acceptance.
I always feel a bit creepy when I read other people’s mail, even if it’s the correspondence of artists and art enthusiasts who are long since deceased. There’s a certain voyeuristic delight that comes from reading the “I love yous”, “See you soons”, and “Please stop sending me letters” that were intended for another pair of eyes. But what exactly do these particular letters have in common? What is their significance in the ever-evolving field of art history?

This summer, it’s been part of my internship at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives to answer these questions as I process the collected correspondence of art historian Thomas Brumbaugh. Sifting through yellowed, crinkly papers filled with hard-to-read loopy handwriting may seem like a painful way to spend one’s summer, but it has been anything but. Every letter is a gem in this treasure chest of historical value, whether it’s the acceptance to dinner with John Singer Sargent from millionaire P.A.B. Widener, or the sweet, half-finished thank-you letter from American painter Abbott H. Thayer’s young son Gerald Thayer.

Thomas Brumbaugh began collecting correspondence and signatures in his youth, and continued throughout his teaching and publishing career at Vanderbilt University on topics concerning American art and artists. Thanks to his eagle’s eye for diamonds in the rough that would augment the worth of the collection, Brumbaugh managed to acquire letters from a number of famous figures in the 19th and 20th century American art scene, including Thayer, Widener, George de Forest Brush, Samuel Coleman, and Maria Oakey Dewing.

Thayer's letter to his late wife's sister, Gertrude, alerting her to his new marriage. Thomas B. Brumbaugh collection of 19th and 20th century American artists' correspondence 1831-1979.
Thayer's letter to his late wife's sister, Gertrude, 
alerting her to his new marriage.
Setting aside the oddly random stamp collection and seemingly unrelated letters and financial papers of unknown persons, each letter sheds light on the private lives of these well-known personalities. It was pure joy reading Abbott H. Thayer’s letters (here and here), learning about his vacations in Dublin, New Hampshire, his children’s experiences, and the scandalous story concerning his second wife. A few of Thayer’s letters are desperate pleas to his brother-in-law begging his sister-in-law for forgiveness. What exactly did Thayer do? Why, nothing more than marry his late wife’s best friend a mere three months to the day after her passing. Ah, the life of an artistic soul.

But the collection doesn’t just concern artists. Through it, I encountered quite a few letters from military personages, including correspondence regarding the renovation of the United States capitol, and letters from Abraham Lincoln’s Quartermaster, Montgomery Meigs. The Thomas B. Brumbaugh collection of 19th and 20th century American artists' correspondence doesn’t simply give the researcher a lopsided, art-focused view of those years, it paints a beautiful, multi-dimensioned picture of the time, covering everything from formal commissions for paintings to friendly invitations to dinner; from plain scenes of daily life to heart-wrenching appeals for forgiveness. I’ll assure you one thing about this collection, and that’s that you’ll end up reading quite a few more letters than you intended to.

Although I have since moved on to other collections, I can still visualize the wobbly, all-caps lettering of sweet Gerald Thayer, and the elegant, curving script on an order for “fancy chairs” from the 1800s. So are letters still relevant in this technology-driven 21st century? I say definitely. I know that since processing this collection, I have endeavored to send more letters, write more entries in my journals, and save as many scraps of paper that I use as possible. Is it self-important to already prepare for the poor archivist that will have to process my papers? Perhaps. But is it terribly fun to picture an overwhelmed intern, eighty years from now, being shocked at my poor life choices, awed at the amazing people that I ate dinner with, or just plain confused as to why my unimportant self is even included in a collection.

For collection records and image galleries from this collection, click here.

-- Beatrice Kelly, intern, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives

Monday, August 23, 2010

A Garden Fit for Mad Men’s Don Draper

Capitol Car Distributors by photographers Stewart Bros.
If Don Draper of AMC’s hit television show Mad Men ever decided to trade in Manhattan for the suburbs of Washington, this stylishly designed company headquarters and garden would suit him just fine. After a dip in the company spa, Draper might mix himself a highball, kick up his feet on a Knoll desk, and enjoy the view of this lush, corporate garden from his corner office window.

Volkswagen Beetles were one of the best selling cars in America in the 1960’s. In 1966 Capitol Car Distributors, a Volkswagen distributing company, unveiled its new headquarters in Lanham, Maryland to much fanfare. At the time, the company managed over fifty-eight Volkswagen dealerships in the Mid-Atlantic region. Situated on thirty-three acres of land east of the Capital Beltway, the luxurious, 150,000 square-foot complex was designed by Mills, Petticord and Mills of Washington, D.C. Volkswagen’s iconic advertisements may have encouraged consumers to “think small,” but the sleek modern design of Capitol Car’s headquarters projected an ideal of a refined, successful corporate culture.
Capitol Car Distributors by photographers Stewart Bros.
Wolf Von Eckardt, an art and architecture critic for The Washington Post, raved about the building’s posh interiors, its modern, “palatial façade,” and the beautiful Japanese-inspired landscaping. The garden featured an organically-shaped patio wrapped around a miniature lake surrounded by small conifers. A waterfall gushed over a natural limestone rock formation, and a pagoda-inspired pavilion provided a space for shade and relaxation.

Capitol Car Distributors by photographers Stewart Bros. The garden’s designer, landscape architect Ethelbert Furlong (1894-1993), enjoyed a career of over sixty years, including designing the landscape for the 1949 House Beautiful “Pace-Setter House” and acting as a garden consultant to the Museum of Modern Art for its 1954 Japanese House. According to Elisabeth Ginsburg, a garden writer for The New York Times, after serving in WWII Furlong turned to creating modernist landscapes that incorporated Japanese design elements, though he never actually traveled to Japan himself.

The offices of Capitol Car Distributors were furnished with Knoll and Herman Miller, and the cafeteria and dining room had views of the garden and, as Von Eckardt observed, “a décor that makes you feel you ought to dress even for lunch.” Male employees could relax in the sauna or the Finnish heat bath with a diving pool, but there were also “special sauna days for the girls.” Capitol Car even boasted a computer, housed in its very own air-conditioned room. On a wistful note, Von Eckardt ended his article by wondering if “anybody ever wants to go home.”
Capitol Car Distributors by photographers Stewart Bros.

The garden received the 1966 Industrial Landscape Award from the American Association of Nurserymen. Lady Bird Johnson, who had launched her national beautification campaign a few years earlier, personally distributed the awards to businesses and landscape architects chosen from a nationwide survey of businesses with outstanding landscapes, commenting that “it must give a lift of joy to anyone who goes to look at these and a sense of civic pride to the community involved.”

Today the campus is home to Hargrove, Inc., a management firm for special events. The images of the garden, taken by Stewart Bros. Photographers, are part of The Garden Club of America Collection at the Archives of American Gardens, which contains thousands of images documenting a range of gardens, from private estates to small city gardens, and even a few commercial landscapes. The Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division also has images of the garden in its Gottscho-Schleisner Collection.

-- Kate Fox, Intern
Archives of American Gardens

Friday, August 20, 2010

"Hunting thru Audioland with Gin and Chimera"

Happy Friday! Today, the archivists at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage present one of our favorite album covers from Cook records: "Cook's Tour of High Fidelity: Hunting thru Audioland with Gin and Chimera." This album comes from Cook Labs, a small label run by Emory Cook that released about 200 recordings. The center acquired the label and company records in 1990.

Emory Cook was an extremely innovative audio engineer, as reflected by this and other recordings from Cook Labs. A pioneer in the recording of high fidelity sounds, Cook produced many records of both the ordinary and the obscure, primarily aimed at fellow audiophiles. Among the veritable buffet of sounds that can be found on this particular recording (the descriptions of which are most entertaining) is the "UNIQUE! Cat & dog fight, unlike anything ever before attempted in sound." Archivist Jeff Place recalls Cook telling him in an interview in 1990 that a hungry cat, a hungry dog, and one bowl of food in a pitch black room were involved in the making of this selection* (the audio of this interview can be found in the Cook Labs records). Needless to say, Emory Cook went to great lengths to capture the rich (and sometimes grating) world of sound.

What does all this have to do with Cook (who is pictured on the left on this cover) recording a woman in high heels and a bikini looking dreamily into the eyes of an alligator sock puppet? The world may never know.

Look for more of our favorite album covers in future posts!

*No dogs or cats were harmed in the writing of this post.

-Cecilia Peterson, Ralph Rinzler Archives and Collections

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Fragments of a Seemingly Anonymous Life / リー・ハリスの日常の歴史

Perhaps you have been embarrassed by your mother dragging out the family photo album of your blubbering baby years, every time the guests come.
Or perhaps you have kept trinkets of childhood memory stored in the attic, just for the sake of nostalgia.

Lee Harris, a bus driver who was born in New Jersey 1940 and lived with his wife as a New York City bus driver through the 1970s-, chose to save memorabilia of his life and donated his treasures to the Anacostia Community Museum in 2003.

As I began to process the Lee Harris Papers, I found that a good part of the collection was meticulously labeled (much to my delight), the photographs painstakingly wrapped with non-archival tape and plastic (much to my dismay). The labels were invaluable; needless to say, the plastic had to go. The wrappings did, however, convey how precious these items had been for their owner.

Lee Harris lived in a turbulent stage of American history, through World War II, the Cold War, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, etc. As activists and politicians elsewhere were struggling to orchestrate the nation, Lee Harris documented events in his own life that fill in the gaps of this "schoolbook" history – namely, the birth and death of family members, graduation ceremonies, military service, marriage, vacations, and community activities. His individual perspective gives us insight into what might be called the “typical” American experiences of the time.

It is surprisingly easy to forget that the larger stream of historical events is always occurring among the milieu created by individuals, whose lives intersect with these events in varying degrees. As I was going through the documents, I encountered a carefully preserved signed photograph of an astronaut, a news article of John F. Kennedy's assassination, and Lee Harris’s participation in a community salute to Martin Luther King Jr. However, those were the only materials that hinted anything about the major “current events” of his time. I was instead more struck by the level of detail on the labels at the back of the family photographs, and realized that those details were precisely what Lee Harris had deemed worthy of preservation, over anything else.

While studying history in college and interning in the archives, I have learned that often the silences speak out as much as the remaining words and images. Besides the significant lack of mention in the Lee Harris Papers about what we would now think of as historical events, there was hardly any documentation on his career either. Considering the level of detail that he goes in with other aspects of his life, why would he choose to ignore the 30 years or so of his work? Is this another indicator of the centrality of family events for Lee Harris?

Be it out of interest in history of 1940-70s America or out of pure curiosity, I hope that someone will take the time to muse over and interpret these fragments of a seemingly anonymous life. You may see the stalwart figure of a young African American man stepping from Boy Scouts to the military, a travel-lover, or a loving family with strong bonds. You may even be inspired to start accumulating a collection yourself - how would your own life history be defined, half a century later? (And if you have long-term preservation plans for your collection, please do label them for a happy archivist!)

Images: (Top left) Lee Harris standing on a sidewalk in Manhattan, New York.
(Below right) Lee Harris sitting on mother’s lap at the home of his grandmother.

Anna Wada
Anacostia Community Museum Archives Intern

(Here is the translated version for Japanese readers)






Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Outdoor Sculpture Garden

In my last blog post on Anna Hyatt Huntington, I mentioned how she and her husband established Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina.  Sculpture gardens, popular at museum sites, are also destinations of their own.

In the tour guide “A Guide to the Sculpture Parks & Gardens of America” the authors note in the introduction the historical significance of Brookgreen Gardens in the establishment of outdoor sculpture gardens:

“Sculpture gardens as we know them today originated with Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina in 1931. Brookgreen, the legacy of sculptor Anna Hyatt Huntington, was built by her wealthy husband Archer to display her works and those of artists who were steeped in classical tradition.”

However, a new need for sculpture gardens emerged in the latter half of the century.

“A driving force for creating new sculpture gardens is the need for large, open spaces to display massive contemporary sculpture. These new works cannot be shown to their best advantage within the confines of the museums.  Thus, museums and universities increasingly look to their grounds as ideal locations to present modern, oversized works.”

This brings us to my favorite sculpture park: Storm King in Mountainville, New York, which opened in 1960.

“Storm King is the second oldest large-scale sculpture park in the country, after Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina. The founders took as a model Sir William Keswick’s sheep farm in Glenkin, Scotland, which is home to many Henry Moore sculptures.”

A few years ago my father and I strolled the grounds (500 acres in total!), which are bordered on one side by Andy Goldsworthy’s 2,278 foot long stone Storm King Wall. The other sculptures we saw were by major artists such as Alexander Calder, Richard Serra, Mark di Suervo, David Smith, and Isamu Noguchi, among others.  For my father and I, it was a truly magnificent experience to experience this art in a natural setting that lent space and respect to the massive contemporary sculptures.

You can search for artworks in both the Brookgreen Gardens and Storm King Art Center collections in the Inventory of American Sculpture.

Do you have a favorite sculpture garden? 

Images: Anna Hyatt Huntington, The Young Diana, at Brookgreen Gardens, American Sculpture Photograph Study Collection, American Art Museum (S0001338)

Source:  McCarthy, Jane and Laurily K. Epstein, "A Guide to the Sculpture Parks and Gardens of America," New York: Michael Kesend Pub., 1996. In Smithsonian Libraries 

-Nicole Semenchuk, Research and Scholars Center, American Art Museum

Friday, August 13, 2010

Beautiful and Mysterious Jellyfish

Jellyfish tend to be regarded as bad news. An encounter with these creatures and their stinging tentacles could give anyone bad luck, whether or not it happens to be Friday the 13th (as it is, today). However, jellyfish are some of the most bizarrely beautiful, strange, and mysterious animals on the planet.

A few years ago, while walking through the back corridors of the Natural History Museum on my way to the staff cafeteria, I paused to look at a bulletin board where some of our resident scientists posted abstracts of their articles. One article was about jellyfish fossils, and my mind reeled. Wasn't that phrase, jellyfish fossils, an oxymoron, like jumbo shrimp? Could those transparent blobs of goo that you had to avoid stepping on at the beach lest you get a bad sting, those things that seemed to evaporate to nothingness on the sand in the sun, somehow be preserved in stone? Could such delicate and ephemeral creatures leave solid traces of their presence, to be studied as fossils in this very museum millions of years later? That was an eye-opening moment for me, where (not for the first or last time) I was staggered thinking about the breadth and depth of research done at the Smithsonian.

The SIRIS Collections Search Center is a great place to find out about the wide range of studies available on the subject of jellyfish. Want to learn about How to Keep Jellyfish in Aquariums? The Smithsonian Libraries has a book about it. Want to learn more about fossil jellyfish? The Smithsonian Research Online database offers the article Exceptionally Preserved Jellyfishes from the Middle Cambrian, describing Cnidarian specimens that are over 500 million years old. Want to see the working notes of a scientist who studied jellyfish? The National Anthropological Archives has the notebooks and sketches of marine zoologist and anthropologist Jesse Walter Fewkes (1850-1930). Want to see architecture with a jellyfish theme? The Inventory of American Sculpture has a record for the Allan Hancock Foundation and Memorial Museum in Los Angeles, showing how that museum's wall panels are decorated with stylized images of animals, including jellyfish.The Smithsonian's Collections Search Center currently has over 80 links on the topic of jellyfish.

Other great resources about marine life at the Smithsonian include the National Museum of Natural History's Ocean Portal and the Department of Invertebrate Zoology, where there is a link to an illustrated story about a Jellyfish Romance. The Smithsonian is also a partner in the Encyclopedia of Life project, where every living species will eventually have its own page of images and scientific data. The ongoing Census of Marine Life, another project featuring research by Smithsonian scientists, offers more images and information on jellyfish and the other strange and gorgeous creatures in the oceans.

The illustrations shown here are from the Cullman Library's copy of Ernst Heinrich Philipp August Haeckel's Kunstformen der Natur (Artforms of Nature), published at Leipzig and Vienna between 1899 and 1904 (call number fQH46.H13 SCNHRB).

--Diane Shaw, Special Collections Cataloger, Smithsonian Institution Libraries

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Society of American Archivists

Aerial View of the Mall, 1954
Smithsonian Institution Archives

This week archivists have poured in to Washington, D.C. for the annual Society of American Archivists Conference. For one week discussions, poster sessions, round tables and lectures will spur on new ideas an collaborations in the archival world. Many Smithsonian staff are participating in this event. One of them is Lynda Schmitz-Fuhrig, an electronic archivist, with the Smithsonian Institution Archives. She recently has wrote a blog for the Bigger Picture on what it means to be an electronic archivists and the challenges she faces. Or scroll through the SIRIS blog's "Best of 100 Post" to see some of the highlights of our contributors. So in celebration of all of the dedicated archivists who contribute to this blog and others check out some of the stories across the Institution to learn a little more about what they do!

Courtney Esposito, Institutional History Division, Smithsonian Institution Archives

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

For Photo History Lovers: "10 Images That Changed the World"

This is a shout out to all photo history lovers.  Blogger Becky Patterson explores 10 images (mostly photographs) that illustrate key times in history, one image of which is held by the Smithsonian Institution's National Portrait Gallery.  The following exert taken from: Become a Photographer. Thanks for the great read Becky, and readers I hope you enjoy!


10 Images That Changed the World

Man’s harboring of fire, the first printed book, a route to the New World, and invention of thousands of devices have shaped the world in ways unimaginable. And it was only able to be captured accurately less than 200 years ago. Artists, writers, and historians can try to be as truthful as possible, but only a camera is capable of 100% pure objectivity.

To help see the world as it was back then and even get amazing looks at it now, we have gathered ten images that changed the world. Including many well-known photographs, there are also many lesser known, the stories behind them, and one that even changes the way we will see the universe from now on.
    1. The First Photograph In 1824, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce took the first official photograph: a view from his window in Le Gras, a country house in France. Fascinated with the art of lithography, Joseph was never able to draw well and began studying how images could be copied. Using many instruments including the camera obscura, a pewter plate, lens, and more, the photograph took about eight hours to take. After the photography craze of the 1830’s, the First Photograph slipped into obscurity, until it was discovered by Helmut Gernsheim. He followed the clues as to its origins, purchased it, and it now hangs in the University of Texas at Austin. 
    2. First President to be Photographed Taking office in 1825, John Quincy Adams was the first American president ever photographed. The son of second president John Adams. John Quincy Adams saw first-hand the beginnings of the American Revolution and lived to see his country expand from 13 colonies to a world superpower. After his presidency, he became well known as one of the leading advocates for the emerging abolitionist movement. His picture still hangs at the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution.
    3. Lincoln at Gettysburg Although the words “four score and seven years ago” were only heard the one time, the impact of the man who spoke them, along with his accomplishments changed the world. This small photo was taken at the Dedication Ceremony in November of 1863. Lincoln himself is pictured in the center without his trademark stovepipe hat. Other members of his cabinet are also pictured.
Finish reading all 10 Images that Changed the World.

Rachael Cristine Woody 

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Ernst Herzfeld's Excavation of Samarra - Online!

Series 7: Records of Samarra Expeditions is now fully digitized, cataloged and online thanks to funding from the Leon Levy Foundation, and cataloger extraordinaire: Xavier Courouble!  Below is a description of the Ernst Herzfeld's Samarra materials written by Thomas Leisten, as well as a final report by Xavier, documenting his cataloging efforts for a project of this scope.

Excavation of Sāmarrā (Iraq): Typological Study of Painted Decoration on Wood, 1910-1946
"Two campaigns of excavation at Samarra in Iraq, carried out by Ernst Herzfeld on behalf of the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Berlin between the years 1911 and 1913 mark the beginning of large-scale archaeological research on Islamic antiquities. During this time, Herzfeld was supported for brief periods by the swiss architect Samuel Guyer, Commander von Ludloff, various technical assistants, and finally Friedrich Sarre, who was the director of the Islamic department at the museum and initiator of the expedition. For most of the time, however, all tasks that today would be divided among a team of archaeologists rested solely on Herzfeld's shoulders: coordinating hundreds of workmen at various sites, measuring buildings, drawing architecture and objects, and cataloging finds, but also negociating with local authorities who were often uncooperative."

Excavation of Sāmarrā (Iraq): Rubbing of Graffiti Found in House IX
"Still working at a time when the success of a venture such as the Samarra expedition was measured by its spectacular finds in both architecture and precious objects, the immense responsibility for bringing this expedition through the unexplored territories of Islamic archaeology to a successful conclusion presented an enormous physical and psychological challenge. In an effort that from the perspective of modern archaeology must be called Herculean, he excavated and examined nineteen sites [Great Mosque of al-Mutawakkil, Congregational Mosque of Madinat al-Mutawakkiliyya, Shiite Shrine Complex, Qubbat al-Ṣulaibiyya; palaces of Balkuwārā, Ṣūr ʿĪṣā, and the Qaṣr al-ʿĀshiq; the Cemetery at Shabbat al-Hawā; Mausoleum of Imām al-Dūr; Tall al-ʿAlīq; Ḥarba Bridge and finally the residential architecture at al-Quraina, al-Qāṭūn, al-Jubairiyya, and west of Ṣūr ʿĪṣā, and the baths] and collected a stupendous corpus of material, one that in many respects still forms the foundation for our knowledge of the city of Samarra and ʾAbbāsid art in the 3rd/9th centuries. What is astonishing is that Herzfeld himself considered his achievements during the first campaign in Samarra to be merely a dress rehearsal for the more ambitious second campaign which focused on the Dār al-Khilāfa." [Leisten, Thomas, 2003: "Excavation of Samarra, v. I. Architecture : Final report of the first campaign 1910-1912. Verlag Philipp von Zabern, Mainz am Rhein, 2003. Preface, p.IX."]

Draft of Herzfeld Letter Requesting a Position as Assistant on an Expedition in Babylonia or Assyria, 1906Xavier's final report: In October and November 2009, the cataloging of the Ernst Herzfeld Papers, Series 5: Drawings and Maps proved to be a challenge difficult to meet in the terms that were set contractually. However it gave us a better understanding how to handle the following contract, Ernst Herzfeld Papers, Series 7: Records of Samarra Expeditions.

The last four months I worked on this project have been quite rewarding and today I may say with confidence that we have met the challenge of this collection as well as providing a much better environment for the collection to be viewed and researched online by an expanding audience.

In terms of cataloging, we have taken full advantage of the SIRIS platform in order to display how interconnected the Herzfeld materials are. We also produced records which respect cataloging procedure and nomenclature. Authority Headings have been used with great care and corrected if necessary. Multiple keywords and references have been applied throughout the project in order to facilitate the access online.

Xavier Courouble with Ernst Herzfeld Squeeze
Our working relationship with SIRIS has expanded in several ways: first, today we have more control of the images we want to upload; second, we have initiated the use of geospatial references for Smithsonian catalog records (still in early stage); finally we have revisited our Image Gallery display pages with the consequence that a new set of pages will be available very soon as well as a set of access pages for the Herzfeld collection.

Interaction with our curatorial department has not yet demonstrated the full potential of such collaboration but some progress has been made: Alex Nagel has taken great interest and has assisted on several occasion in the development of the collection content; Louise Cort has welcomed a discussion on terminology related to ceramics/pottery; Massumeh Farhad has not only taken the time to have an overview of the work accomplished but has accepted to provide small funding in order to finish the cataloging of the Samarra photographs. She has also mentioned the opportunity to promote our work on this specific collection during a coming symposium on Islamic Art to be held in late October 2010 at our museum. Finally in the works possible SIRIS cross searching center training for our FSg curatorial staff.

Enhancing the online access to the Archives collections has also been taken quite seriously by addressing some technical issues with our museum website, by using blogs, by editing Wikipedia entries, by moving on to create a video, as well as creating these Image Gallery pages.

Finally one last task we hope may be integrated in any cataloging project is a report which provides a series of reports and graphs in order to better assess the impact we have when such cataloging projects are correctly funded. Google Analytics, SIRIS reports, are great tools to evaluate what we are doing as well as what can be done.

Excavation of Sāmarrā (Iraq): The Modern City of Sāmarrā with Excavation Site in the Foreground, 1911-1946

-Xavier Courouble, Contract Cataloger (Extraordinaire)

Rachael Cristine Woody
Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives

Monday, August 9, 2010

Ball Games

Perhaps you have heard of the struggles of the Iroquois Nationals lacrosse team, as they attempted to travel to England last month to participate in the 2010 World Lacrosse Championships in Manchester. They were denied visas from the United Kingdom because they were traveling under tribal passports. Despite the grant of a one-time travel waiver by the U.S. State Department and the offer of expedited U. S. passports, which the team declined, the Iroquois Nationals team refused to travel under anything but their Iroquois Confederacy-issued passports and did not complete in the 2010 World Lacrosse Championships.
Click here for more information.
NAA INV 9386800

The modern sport of lacrosse originates from ball games played by indigenous groups throughout northeast North America. One of the earliest ethnographic descriptions of native ball games by an anthropologist was “The Cherokee Ball Play” by James Mooney, which appeared in The American Anthropologist in April 1890. In 1888 Mooney conducted field work with the Cherokee on the Qualla Reservation in North Carolina. Mooney described the adoption of the native game by French colonists explaining that “the French, whose light-hearted gaiety and ready adaptability so endeared them to the hearts of their wild allies, were quick to take up the Indian ball game as relief from the dreary monotony of long weeks in the garrison or lonely days in the forest. It became a favorite pastime, and still survives among the creoles of Louisiana under the name of Raquette, while in the more invigorating atmosphere of the north it assumed a new life, and, with the cruder features eliminated, became the famous Canadian national game of La Crosse.”

The ball game among the Cherokee involved many taboos and rites among players to insure success for their team. For example, Mooney explains that prior to games, players avoid consuming the meat of rabbit, for its timidity, frogs, for it’s brittle bones, and fish known as hog-suckers, for its sluggishness. Further, the night before the game is played, each community holds an all night ball dance, in which both men and women participate to aid their team in victory. Ball players, according to Mooney are held in high esteem by the community, and “to be known as an expert player was a distinction hardly less coveted than fame as a warrior.” [James Mooney 1890 The Cherokee Ball Play. American Anthropologist 3(2) April. pp. 105 - 132]

Nacoista drawing of man and woman playing shinny ball game, ca. 1881-1891? NAA MS 166,931 [right] Ball Team Members, Holding Rackets 1913 by James Mooney. NAA INV 01767000

The National Anthropological Archives holds photographs of the ball game taken by Mooney among the Cherokee in 1888, as well as photographs of equipment and players showing native participation in lacrosse throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. To see other collections the Smithsonian holds on the sport of lacrosse, click here.

-Jeremy Floyd, intern National Anthropological Archives

Leanda Gahegan, Reference Archivist
National Anthropological Archives

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Scurlock Look

What exactly is the Scurlock look? Well, I have been trying to understand that for about fifty years.   As a boy I would stand and admire the portraits in the 9th & U Street Scurlock Photography Studio window with amazement. Back then, I missed my streetcar connection routinely because of my daily fascination with the images in those windows. When asked by my kindergarten teacher why I was late, I simply did not possess the vocabulary to describe the experience. Today, I am a MFA graduate of Howard University specializing in Photography and Electronic Studio. I am convinced that my encounters with the “Scurlock Look” are why photography is my passion.

This summer I interned at the Smithsonian Institute assigned to the Scurlock Studio Records collection under the tutelage of David Haberstich, Associate Curator of Photography for the Archives Center at the National Museum of American History. While working on the collection I had the pleasure and the privilege of examining images “up close and personal” and in this blog will attempt to answer the question, what exactly is the “Scurlock Look”? But for now, let me simply say that the ”Scurlock Look” is an amalgamation of posing styles, distinctive lighting techniques, and amazing artistic retouching skills that round out these unmistakable works of photographic art.

For most of the twentieth century the “Scurlock Look” defined black social status within the Nation’s Capitol. The photographic blueprint of the “Scurlock Look” included soft, directional Rembrandt-like lighting, yet the subject’s skin appeared flawless; smooth, velvet-like, and soft to the touch. Their posing techniques left the viewer wondering if the portrait was of some famous person that you never heard of. They always managed to convey a sense of dignity and refinement with each photographic opportunity, whether in studio or on location. Topping it all off were their exquisite and artistic retouching skills. There were no crow’s feet; laugh lines and forehead creases had all been eased, eliminating all evidence of the stressful lives that accompanied most customers.

Addison Scurlock, the patriarch and founder of the studio in 1905 in the basement of his mother’s home, was a very demanding taskmaster and he perfected the “Scurlock Look.” This is evident in the numerous portraits of Howard University students, faculty, and Washington socialites that led to the establishment of the 9th & U Street location in 1911. Most notably, the images of African American legends such as Booker T.Washington, Mary McLeod Bethune, W.E.B. Dubois, Madame Evanti, General Benjamin O. Davis, Mary Church Terrell, and of course Duke Ellington provided examples that his sons George and Robert worked diligently to emulate. The level of quality left behind as their father’s legacy still reigns supreme today even in the mists of the Digital Age.

But why is any of this relevant today? Aren’t there other fabulous photographs being made by other photographers who understand and can control all aspects of the creative photographic process? Of course, others have made and will continue to make wonderful works of photographic art. Yet, for me the Scurlocks’ photographic greatness still inspires me with awe. When I am confronted with the “Scurlock Look,” my eyes widen and a smile instantly begins to spread across my face. Combine that with an overwhelming sense of pride that starts to swell within me and then you might begin to understand why their photography is so important to me.

These feelings come from a sense of camaraderie with the subjects of their work. Because I am an African American, a native Washingtonian, A graduate of Howard University and the recipient of the 2010 George H. Scurlock Commercial Photography Award, with thirty years of experience that included personal and professional interactions with Robert Scurlock, I feel a shared legacy with these images. It seems as though I am looking through my own family’s photograph album filled with images of my relatives and ancestors. And due to my photographic experiences I have a deeper appreciation of the effort required to create such exemplary imagery.

The Scurlock Studio Records collection presents an entire portfolio of images of those who came before me, standing tall and proud as a testimony to their victory over racial oppression and discrimination—presenting visual proof that, in fact, it was actually Jim Crow who was in the end forced to take the seat in the back of the bus, because it proved ineffective at weakening the African American resolve to be included and treated fairly. African Americans are a proud people with a rich history and their own aspirations for greatness that deserve recognition.

The African American experience clearly must be woven into the American historical fabric in its rightful place and images of African Americans presented with dignity and respect because they too are Americans. Addison Scurlock and his sons George and Robert understood that necessity and devoted their lives to documenting these American stories with extraordinary images of the Black American Community.

Therefore, since photography can be defined as the process of writing with light, the African American Story in Washington, DC, the Nation’s Capitol, is the “Scurlock Look.”

Rich Green, Intern, Archives Center

Posted by David Haberstich, Archives Center, National Museum of American History

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Sister Blog THE BIGGER PICTURE Announce Anthologize!

See Effie Kapsalis' blog on THE BIGGER PICTURE to read more about her role in the OneWeek | One Tool project.

Anthologize is a free, open-source, plugin that transforms WordPress 3.0 into a platform for publishing electronic texts. Grab posts from your WordPress blog, import feeds from external sites, or create new content directly within Anthologize. Then outline, order, and edit your work, crafting it into a single volume for export in several formats, including—in this release—PDF, ePUB, TEI.

Congratulations Effie and the Anthologize Team!

Rachael Cristine Woody
Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives

Congratulations Smithsonian National Zoo on 49 Baby Black-Footed Ferret Additions!

Black-Footed Ferret, by Jessie Cohen.  Smithsonian Institution National Zoo.
Black-Footed Ferret, by Jessie Cohen.  Smithsonian Institution National Zoo.
My foray into social media and web analytics has proven one thing to be true: you can't statistically beat baby animals.

The Smithsonian National Zoological Park has welcomed 49 new baby Black-footed Ferrets into its folds with its best year yet at trying to resuscitate this once-thought-extinct animal's numbers.  

Read more and see the Ferretcam!  (I warn you now it will be hard to tear  your eyes away from the slumbering babies!) You can also see more animal pictures by checking out the National Zoo's photo gallery.

The Collections Search Center has 67 records on "Ferrets" ranging from the National Postage Museum, National Zoo, and National Anthropological Archives.  However nothing in our records can compare to the cuteness at the Zoo.  If you can't get there, then at least enjoy the Ferretcam view from the comfort of your chair. 

Rachael Cristine Woody
Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Rediscovering the Harriman Alaska Expedition of 1899

Steamship S.S. George Elder, Sitka Harbor, 1899 (P11133)
In its vast photograph collection the NMAI Archive Center holds over 600 images from the Harriman Alaska Expedition of 1899. These photographic prints and lantern slides document Native villages and people, expedition members, and majestic Alaskan scenery. The scientific cruise was planned and financed by Edward H. Harriman, a wealthy New Yorker who earned his means from a railroad business at the end of the nineteenth century. What started as a doctor recommended pleasure cruise for Harriman’s health, turned into one of the most ambitious expeditions of the Alaskan coast. The ship, George W. Elder, has been referred to as a floating college. Beyond family and friends the 126 members of his crew were made up of the leading scientists, naturalists, artists, and photographers of his time.

Indian mending his canoe, Sitka, 1899 (L00763)
As an intern my first project has been to compare institutional holdings of Harriman Expedition imagery to other collections in an effort to make more complete catalog records for the NMAI Photo Archive collection. Imagery I have been cross-referencing include photographs where our database lacks detailed information. For example, this NMAI lantern slide at left was simply titled "Tlingit Houses and Canoe. Sitka, Alaska. 1899." However, by researching other institution’s collections I was able to find the following description: "Indian mending his canoe, Sitka Indian huts from photographs by E.S. Curtis, June 16, 1899." The photograph becomes more valuable to researchers with the inclusion of additional information and creates a more accurate description of the image.

Sources I have found useful include souvenir albums produced by Edward S. Curtis, the official photographer of the Harriman Expedition, who later became famous within his profession for the documentation of Native American culture in North America. For more information on the work of E.S. Curtis, visit the Northwestern University Digital Library Collection. One of these souvenir albums can be accessed at the Smithsonian Institution Archives within the Harriman Alaska Expedition Collection (Record Unit 7243), as well as the first four volumes of the Harriman Alaska Series in the Mark H. Dall Papers.

E. Roland Harriman, Son of Edward Henry Harriman, on top of the S.S. George W. Elder, 1899 (L00703)
In addition, digitized collections of imagery are available through the University of Washington’s online database.  An interesting original journal produced by crew member A.K. Fisher can also be viewed through the online holdings of the Library of Congress. By cross referencing these collections with NMAI images, a more accurate account of the collection will be provided, including more complete descriptions and titles, photographer’s name, date of image, cultures depicted, sites, and locations of comparable holdings. In its continual effort to digitize its photograph collections, the NMAI Archive Center will be making these images available through SIRIS and the NMAI Collections Search Center.

~Jami Guthrie, Photo Archive Intern, National Museum of the American Indian Archive Center,


Monday, August 2, 2010

Railroads Are Fun

I wouldn’t call myself a transit geek, but I love a good mass transportation system. London and Berlin’s public transit systems have always been my favorites, but my appreciation for the New York City Subway has grown since I started graduate school at NYU. I’ve spent a lot of time on the Metro this summer for my internship at the Human Studies Film Archives here in Suitland, Maryland and I often find myself missing the fast-paced, complicated, rat-infested rapid transit wonder that is the Subway. Most of the material I work with at the HSFA documents people and cultures outside of the United States, but Thayer Soule’s 1968 travelogue, Railroads Are Fun provides a look at rail travel across America, including the New York City Subway.

In this section of his film Soule combines contemporary scenes of the Times Square shuttle and Grand Central station with archival footage from the turn of the century converted from paper prints deposited for copyright at the Library of Congress before the creation of the Library’s motion picture archives. Together these scenes illustrate how much can change in a single subway station in less than seventy years: the types of passengers and their manner of dress, the platforms they wait on, and the trains themselves. Like the rest of the film, these were silent scenes that Soule would accompany with his own live lectures. These clips of a railcar crossing the Brooklyn Bridge into New York from 1899 and the interior of the Subway between 14th St. and Grand Central in 1905 have been digitized and made available for viewing on the Library of Congress’s website.

Though it wasn’t the most popular of the films he presented, Soule toured with Railroads Are Fun for thirty years and 213 shows. 

Samantha Oddi, Intern, Human Studies Film Archives