Smithsonian Collections Blog

Highlighting the hidden treasures from over 2 million collections

Collections Search Center

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

It's a Mystery to Me

Like most any other archives, the Archives of American Gardens (AAG) includes unidentified photographic images that lack the most basic information including a caption, date, and photographer.  While we are all guilty of taking pictures that we never get around to labeling, this omission poses a major challenge in an archives.  Lack of information translates directly to a loss of informational value.
Unidentified Garden in Oldwick, New Jersey, 1996.

Archives of American Gardens’ staff has created a website for its ‘Mystery Gardens’ in the hopes that the public might be able to identify some of the more recognizable gardens.  While gardens are all about plants, an architectural feature like a fence, sundial or shed is typically needed in order to furnish important clues that someone might recall.  Recently, an AAG volunteer was able to narrow down the date of an early twentieth century image by determining when a particular license plate seen in it was issued!
Unidentified Garden in Massachusetts,

While sometimes the clues are tantalizingly specific, they don’t answer the countless questions that arise when studying a photograph.  The image of the New York City penthouse garden below, for instance, shows the Queensboro Bridge in the background and the New York Hospital (now the New York-Presbyterian Hospital-Weill Cornell Medical Center) on the right.  What it doesn’t reveal is who owned the garden, who designed the garden, where the statue came from, what the challenges of maintaining this particular rooftop garden were, how the garden space was used, and on and on and on. 

Unidentifed Garden in New York, New York, c.1960s-70s.

American Archives Month is an excellent time to remind ourselves about the importance of recording both the facts and stories that photographs document.   While they may be apparent to the photographer at the time the image was taken, time has a way of obscuring the details that researchers need in order to interpret history accurately.  To avoid mysteries in your own family’s archives, make it a goal to label and describe the significance of those images that are important to you.

Joyce Connolly, Museum Specialist
Archives of American Gardens
Smithsonian Gardens 


  1. Joyce, what can you tell me about the original print (or reversed negative?) that is scanned in the Unidentifed Garden in New York, New York, c.1960s-70s? Am I seeing a metal slide crimped negative holder surrounding the image, or is this a glass positive slide in a metal wrapper, or are all these printed/carried over into a contact print? I think I can make out the letters (reversed) Kodak.

  2. Nice job!, You certainly are giving your visitors a lot of precious info. This blog will be a hit!
    I just love blogging and as i get spare time from busy schedule i start working on it. Wonderful post, I really enjoyed reading it!