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Saturday, February 26, 2011

Samarra 1911: Excavation of the Great Mosque Finishes, al-Quraina Begins

Excavation of Sāmarrāʼ (Iraq): View of the Great Mosque of al-Mutawakkil, 1911-1913 [graphic]. Ernst Herzfeld papers, Freer|Sackler Archives.
100 years ago, on this day, Ernst Herzfeld completes his excavation of the Great Mosque that he began January 9th, 1911.  (See the 100th Anniversary of the Samarra Excavation post for more details).  From Thomas Leisten's book Excavation of Samarra, Volume 1 Architecture. Final Report of the First Campaign, 1910-1912he writes "According to his [Herzfeld's] diary, out of these 7 weeks, 7 days were lost due an unusually harsh Iraqi winter, the Shiite Ashura holiday, and the time and effort required to organize paydays for the workmen (page, 11)."  To flip through the Excavation of Samarra: Payroll Booklet, 1911 - look here to see more pages like the one below

Excavation of Sāmarrāʼ (Iraq): Payroll Booklet, 1911 Ernst Herzfeld papers, Freer|Sackler Archives.

Great Mosque records from the Ernst Herzfeld papers.
Great Mosque records from across the Smithsonian Institution: Search Results Slideshow - Smithsonian Institution Collections Search Center.


At the same time the excavation of the Great Mosque completed, work began on al-Quraina, an archaeological site located to the southwest of the modern city between the city walls and the Tigris.  "Here, Houses I-X were excavated mainly during March and the first week of April 1911 (page, 11)."

Excavation of Sāmarrāʼ (Iraq): View from al-Quraina towards the North, 1911-1913 [graphic]. Ernst Herzfeld papers, Freer|Sackler Archives.

There are 124 records in this collection that document: stucco, pottery, decoration and ornaments, mural painting and decoration, and architecture of the al-Quraina area.  The documentation formats include: photographs, drawings, sketches, and journals.

For example, from House IV we have images of the interior and exterior ornamentation, as well as architectural depictions of the ground plans, seen below. 

Excavation of Sāmarrāʼ (Iraq): al-Quraina, House IV, Room 6, View of Wall with Ornamentation, 1911-1913 [graphic]. Ernst Herzfeld papers, Freer|Sackler Archives.Excavation of Sāmarrāʼ (Iraq): House IV, groundplan, 1911-1936 [drawing]. Ernst Herzfeld papers, Freer|Sackler Archives.

That's all for now on Ernst Herzfeld's 1911 adventures in Samarra.  The next time we'll see you is in early April 1911!

Rachael Cristine Woody
Freer|Sackler Archives
Samarra Resource Page

Friday, February 25, 2011

Happy 157th Birthday Charles Lang Freer!

Small temple compound directly in front of the Bingyang cave complex, Charles Lang Freer papers. Freer|Sackler ArchivesIn celebration of Charles Lang Freer's 157th Birthday (or is it 155th?), I want to take the opportunity to highlight some of the amazing materials he left us in his papers. Many who are familiar with Charles Lang Freer know that he was an avid art collector, a philosopher on aesthetics, and a major player in the art exchange between east and west at the turn of the twentieth century.  Did you also know that Freer undertook an expedition to China to explore the Buddhist cave temples in Longmen?  This was the last of five trips Freer made to Asia before he suffered a stroke in 1911.  The materials we have that document his trip reveal an adventurer, a poet, and a rock collector!  Please read on to see what Head of Archives, David Hogge, has uncovered:

Small temple compound directly in front of the Bingyang cave complex, Charles Lang Freer papers. Freer|Sackler ArchivesOver the last several months I’ve been cataloging the photographs of Charles Freer’s 1910 expedition to the Chinese cave temples in Longmen, an important site for early Buddhist sculpture.  In addition to the 160 photographic negatives taken by his photographer Yü Tai, Freer himself took a handful of snapshots.   The photograph to the right is Freer’s own photograph of the small temple compound in which he stayed, directly in front of the Bingyang cave complex.  

As I read through Freer’s travel journals, I discovered that in addition to the photographs and rubbings , he also brought back a load of stone objects from the site.  This concerned me, considering the appalling history of pillaging of Chinese cave sites in the 20th century.  Fortunately, Tim Kirk in Collections showed me Freer Gallery accessions F1911.551 through  F1911.589, image left; 40 smooth stones that Charles Freer apparently selected from the riverbed in front of the caves.  Not shown are the 40 custom wooden stands Freer ordered made in Beijing.

Why would Freer, a level-headed, no-nonsense businessman attach such importance to a box of nondescript river stones from such a remote location?  Reading through his journals, one is struck by how emotionally affected he was by his two weeks of isolation in the presence of the magnificent caves:

“Wild flowers and grasses sprout in crevices, water trickles down through the rock ceilings.  The fascination of being alone is ever present - no lying guides, no nosey tourists, no guide books, no legends, but the spirit of asceticism everywhere.” 

“The strange stillness and peace of Buddha makes itself felt.  Here there is no ostentation, there are no iron railings, no fences, no interference, not even a priest, for the one who belongs here is away on some personal business. ”

I have to assume that Freer was so moved by his two weeks of quiet tranquility at Longmen that he felt compelled to gather the stones as mementos of the experience.   Thanks to the folks in Freer|Sackler Collections Management for showing me these humble treasures. 

David Hogge | Head of Archives


To see more materials in the collection, please view the below introduction to the Charles Lang Freer papers.  Watch the video for collection highlights, including news clippings on the Peacock Room, photographs of Freer's travels, and correspondence with President Theodore Roosevelt.

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

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

America’s First Gardening Presidents

What do Presidents have to do with gardening? Well, as it happens, America's first and third Presidents George Washington (1732-1799) and Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) were avid farmers and gardeners, Washington at Mount Vernon and Jefferson at Monticello.
Mount Vernon in 1807.
First published in "The Stranger in America,"
by Charles. W. Janson.
Courtesy of New York Historical Society

Washington inherited Mount Vernon, located along the Potomac River in Virginia, in 1754 and landscaped 500 acres of the 8,000 acre estate. His diaries and letters reveal how he planned the grounds which included kitchen, flower and parterre gardens, an orangery or greenhouse and a small botanical garden that was used for experimenting with various plants.

 Jefferson chose to build Monticello on a mountaintop (Monticello means “little mountain”) overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Coastal Plain of Virginia. He kept an extensive garden journal from 1766 to 1824 which has served as an invaluable record for the restoration of his gardens as well as other Colonial-era gardens. The style of both Washington and Jefferson’s gardens embraced the 18th century English manner of ornamental landscaping called fermee ornée which combined the garden and picturesque landscape into a harmonious whole.

Vegetable garden at Monticello.
Garden Club of America Collection
Archives of American Gardens

While both Washington and Jefferson were heavily involved in the plans for their gardens, their civic duties (including their two terms each as President) kept them away from their homesteads for long periods of time. Despite these political obligations, both held a deep love for the land as evidenced in their writings. Washington wrote, “…to be a cultivator of Land has been my favorite amusement” and Jefferson, writing to artist Charles Wilson Peale stated, “No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth, and no comparable to that of the garden. I am still devoted to the garden. But though an old man, I am but a young gardener.”

If you are wondering about America’s second President, John Adams, he too was a gardener and farmer -- just not on the same scale as Washington and Jefferson.

The Garden Club of America Collection at the Archives of American Gardens includes historic glass lantern slide images of both Mount Vernon and Monticello that underscore the role that garden clubs played in the historic preservation of these properties. Many of the Mount Vernon images included in the Smithsonian's online catalog were published in the Gardens of Colony and State by Alice G. B. Lockwood.

For archival material on Mount Vernon and Monticello, see the Mount Vernon's Library and Special Collections and Thomas Jefferson's Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

-Kelly Crawford, Museum Specialist
Archives of American Gardens
Smithsonian Gardens

Monday, February 21, 2011

Proud as a Peacock

Here is a classic, and personal favorite of mine from the Charles Lang Freer papers.  Freer was meticulous in all things including his newspaper clippings; which are a treasure trove documenting current events,  providing us cultural context, and most notably, insight into Freer's character divined but what news clippings he chose to collect.  (See our youtube video on highlights of the Freer collection for more information).

We have an entire clipping book with dozens of news articles pasted to the pages documenting the sale and purchase of the Peacock Room.  At this time there were so many rumors as to who would purchase this already legendary and world renowned art work; this article provides a brief glimpse into the fervent speculation of its possible acquirement by an American corporate tycoon. However you will notice that it is not Charles Lang Freer's name on the article but instead a fellow peer in industry - J.P. Morgan who had also made himself famous with his transition from a corporate king to a fanatic art collector. There are several theories as to why Freer chose to keep secret his acquiring of the Peacock Room, but all agree he did seem to enjoy the frantic reporting and incorrect attributions.

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

Friday, February 18, 2011

As Ever, Cisco

On February 10th, 1961, Lee Hays sat down with his friend Cisco Houston in his Brooklyn apartment to record what would be Cisco's last recorded interview. The folk icon was dying of stomach cancer. Lee Hays said of those last days, "It is not given to every man to know the manner and time of his dying. Cisco Houston knew, and he was glad to know. For, knowing how much time he had left, he found time to do things he had never had time for. He wrote songs. He visited old friends and looked up old buddies he had not seen for years. He wrote letters. He spoke into a microphone hours of memories, reminiscences about Woody Guthrie, Huddie Ledbetter, his family, his boyhood days in the California depression, the story of his service in the merchant marine, his days as a union organizer, his trip to India as a singer for the State Department; opinions about the world and politics, his estimate of friends and individuals and folksong magazines, his views of life and death...The last time he went out, he went to a folk song concert in Pasadena. He wanted to go, saying, 'I've heard every song, but what the hell, might as well hear them one last time.'"

Houston was one of the greats. Crooning in his silky-smooth voice, he sang both original and traditional songs. Moses Asch, the co-founder of Folkways Records, was very fond of him: two of the first LPs he issued on the label were Houston's. The Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections have quite a few materials that deal with Cisco Houston. Correspondence in the Moses and Frances Asch Collection (from which the title of this post derives), photographs by Robert C. Malone of his last performance at Gerde's Folk City in New York in February 1961 (see photograph above), and recordings and transcripts of his last interview with Lee Hays. His recordings for Folkways are here, too, of course, and still carry the warmth they did when they were first issued in the early 1950s. One of our favorite recordings by Houston is on his album Cowboy Ballads (FW 2022). "Diamond Joe" is a song about a particularly greedy rancher who mistreated the cowboys in his employ. (Listen to a sample.)

The Lee Hays interviews are a veritable treasure trove of Americana.  It's easy to get lost in these interviews--the stories are told in such an honest and personal way that before you know it, three hours have passed and you've been to migrant camps in California, a ship in the middle of the Atlantic during the second World War, and the streets of New York City. In the following excerpt from the transcripts of his interviews with Lee Hays, he talks about his experiences as a young, train-hopping, struggling worker and folk singer, the folk music scene, and how at the height of the Folk Revival he was often approached by college students trying to emulate this lifestyle (kids these days!). He manages to maintain a sense of optimism for the future of these youth while reminding them that quitting school and riding trains is a stupid thing to do if you don't have to.

"People were, well, like the Almanac Singers...there was a whole spirit they created then. It was a real and infectious thing. Of course...that came out of that era of the 30's and 40's, where everybody seemed to have a little more purpose for everything.

"People sort of seem to be more non-directive now. But actually, it's kind of find more and more of these young people, college kids mainly, who seem to want to go back to that, or at least they're trying to in some way...they're starting a little hootenanny night...and they're singing songs and talking about...traveling the way us guys used to, Woody and the Almanac singers and you and they mention this and they all say, 'Gee think I should hitch hike or hit the trains or get an old car and do it'...there seems to be a movement. It's not a big thing, but there are enough of these kids who sort of want to identify with this sort of thing. You know, the ones who are smart enough to know that there's something more to life than rock and roll and all this damn nonsense, this is the whole beauty of this folk thing which gives their lives a little more meaning.

"There's so much that they can identify with it and, of course, when they identify with the music itself...they identify with the personalities involved...such as Woody and Pete and you and the rest of them and they want to...sort of duplicate it in some way...[but] my advice has always been along these lines that you know, there really isn't anything to be gained in just quitting school and bumming around the country just for the sake of doing it, for any romantic idea because others have done it and you think it will enrich your life...we did it because we had to do it...people don't go out and just ride these old freight trains and freeze their ass off all night and hunt for jobs here and there because it's the romantic thing to do. We did it because there wasn't anything else you could do, and nothing we would have liked better than the old story, the good honest job and honest pay and one spot where you could raise a family and people trying to get ahead and trying to go up in the world and not just have a nation of train riders...fine, keep this activity on campuses and appreciate the songs, sing them, have a respect for the music you're handling, when summer time comes, fine, if you get two or three guys together and you want to spend it romping around the country, I say this is a wonderful idea. There's a lot to be learned...from this that you could never gain in any other way...[don't] quit school and romp around the same saloons just because we had to do it years ago. That doesn't make sense. [Lee Hays pipes in] These lines--believe it or not, you wont find it so hot [Houston laughs and finishes] if you ain't got the do-re-mi."

Is it Spring Yet?

Spring (1890) by Thomas Wilmer Dewing, American Art Museum
It has felt a little bit like spring in D.C. this week and it's hard not to get excited about it. Sure there are a few weeks of winter left, but in the Mid-Atlantic it's hard to ever know what will happen with the weather.  Usually we go straight from winter to the hot and humid days of summer.  For now, I'm going to let myself be a little excited (and hopeful) about the possibility of spring.

Many artists depicted their own hope in paintings of spring.  To find paintings of spring in collections around the country, search the Art Inventories.

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

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Image of the Day

Dr. Carter G. Woodson, founder of Black History Month, selected the month of February as a time to acknowledge the accomplishments and contributions of African Americans to American
history. By choosing February, Dr. Woodson was honoring Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, both of whom were born in that month and influenced the history of black people. In recognition of Black History Month, the Image of the Day is from a Frederick Douglass collection in the Anacostia Community Museum Archives. This image while not as sharp and focused as we would like, provides us a rare glimpse of the social life of a great American statesman.

Frederick Douglass at banquet table, center, undated albumen print. 

Monday, February 14, 2011

Happy Valentine's Day!

"Do you make money honey? Ah, I hope you darling.”
-Devi Dja to Acee Blue Eagle, 1948

In the spirit of Valentine’s Day, we want to highlight a lipstick kiss-covered letter from Balinese dancer and movie star, Devi Dja to Pawnee-Creek artist, Acee Blue Eagle. A prolific painter, Blue Eagle became recognized as one of the outstanding American Indian artists of the 1930s-1950s. During the 1930s and 1940s, he traveled the world, lecturing and promoting Indian art, while his work was displayed in exhibits around the country. Simultaneously, Devi Dja was receiving accolades and world recognition for her own artistry.

“Devi Dja attracts the gaze of the audience like a cobra unwinding from a basket.” Spokesman Reviewer

“Riot of beauty, Nothing has been more fun in this town in a long time. It was, at times a riot. It was also very beautiful. Whether the spectator was most interested in dancing, music, costumes, humor, or even, anthropology, he got what he came for and liked it.” Evabeth Miller, Peoria, Ill. “Star.”

“Devi Dja is a bright star. Her Art was most distinguished and persuasive.” The New York Sun

“Unusual program presented by Bali Dancers constitute art exhibit, the most elaborately mounted and excitingly animated Ballet presentation ever to come to the West from the East. No dull moments! Real Art! Well Staged! The Bali and Java Dancers are something to get exited about.” The San Francisco News

Devi Dja was born in 1914 on the Indonesian island of Java. As a young girl, Dja danced the Legong, a ceremonial Balinese dance in which young girls enact mythical Hindu stories. At twelve years of age Dja was reaching the end of her career as a dancer because traditionally, Legong temple-dancers are prepubescent. Inspired by the dance career of prominent ballerina, Anna Pavlowa, Dja began dancing and touring the world with a troupe of Indonesian dancers and musicians. On this tour, Dja entranced and captured many audiences with her dances. Don Bernardo Gomez wrote of Devi Dja’s “exquisite hands: her finger nails are from an inch and a half to two inches in length, usually painted a beautiful coral color, with strikes of gold.” As she became more popular, Dja even appeared in Hollywood-made movies, including the 1945 film, The Picture of Dorian Gray. [Photo: Marie Hansen./Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images]

After marrying in 1946, Blue Eagle and Dja spent much of their married life apart while their work kept them busy traveling the world. This particular letter was written and sent by Dja to Blue Eagle in January of 1948. At this time Devi Dja was living in Hollywood pursuing her movie career.

Click here to view some of Blue Eagle's art. You can visit the Archives and view more correspondence from Dja and Blue Eagle in the Acee Blue Eagle Papers.

-Jessie Cohen, Reference Intern and Leanda Gahegan, Reference Archivist

The National Anthropological Archives

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Orchids: Glories of Nature, Artifice, and Ornament

The exhibition Orchids: A View from the East has just opened at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., and will be on display until April 24, 2011 (one of the rooms in the exhibition, which focuses on Asian influences in cultivating and decorating with orchids, is shown here). This exhibition represents the kind of collaborative effort that the Smithsonian excels at, combining the work and ideas of various units within the Institution (Smithsonian Gardens, Smithsonian Office of Exhibits Central and Office of Facilities Engineering and Operations, the National Museum of Natural History, the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, and the National Postal Museum), as well as two external partners: the United States Botanic Garden and the U.S. National Arboretum. If you're in the Washington, D.C. area, you might like to attend Orchid Exhibit Family Day, to be held from 11am to 3pm on Saturday, February 26, 2011. The Smithsonian Gardens, the National Museum of Natural History, and the United States Botanic Garden will be hosting a fun-filled day of free activities in conjunction with this exhibition.

This exhibition reminds me of one of the Smithsonian Institution Libraries' most beautiful set of books, Lindenia: Iconographie des Orchidées, published at Ghent, Belgium, between 1885 and 1906. The publication's name refers to Jean Jules Linden, a Belgian botanist, horticulturalist, scientific explorer, and entrepreneur who revolutionized the cultivation of orchids in temperature-controlled greenhouses. Linden's lavishly illustrated books highlight an amazing variety of orchids (for example, Lindenia has 813 chromolithographed plates). His business acumen in marketing orchids to wealthy collectors stoked public enthusiasm for these exotic and unusual plants. Artists and interior decorators were inspired by Linden to incorporate orchids in their designs.

Those of you familiar with the various branches of the Smithsonian Libraries may be wondering why this book of plant illustrations belongs to the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum Library, rather than to the Joseph F. Cullman 3rd Library of Natural History. Lindenia was donated to the Cooper-Hewitt from the bequest of Robert Winthrop Chanler (1872-1930), an American artist renowned for creating beautiful murals featuring fantastic animals and plants. Some of Chanler's murals can still be seen at Planting Fields Arboretum State Historic Park and Coe Hall in Oyster Bay, New York. To Chanler, Lindenia served as an inspiration for his art and design work, and he wanted the volumes to become part of the Cooper-Hewitt's renowned collection of rare books on the decorative arts.

Additional books, paintings, and other items at the Smithsonian relating to Robert W. Chanler (portrait at left, from the Juley Collection) can be found in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution Libraries; the Peter A. Juley & Son Collection of the Photograph Archives, Smithsonian American Art Museum; the Archives of American Art; and the National Portrait Gallery. Just browse through this selection of Chanler material in the SI Collections Search Center.

Lindenia: Iconographie des Orchidées. Directeur, J. Linden; rédacteurs en chef, Lucien Linden & Emile Rodigas. Call number f QK495 .O64L56 1885 CHMRB, Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum Library.

Shown above is plate XLIX from Lindenia: Epindendrum atropurpureum var. Randi L. Lind. & Rod.

A selection of additional images from Lindenia can be seen on the Smithsonian Institution Libraries' Galaxy of Images website.

Diane Shaw, Special Collections Cataloger, Smithsonian Institution Libraries

Friday, February 11, 2011


The Scurlock photographers in their studio, 1951.  Addison N. Scurlock
stands between his sons, George and Robert.
Scurlock Studio Records, ca. 1911-1994, Archives Center.

In summer 2010, I served as an intern in the Archives Center at the National Museum of American History and devoted most of my time to the Scurlock Studio Records—the archive of an African American studio whose business spanned most of the twentieth century. My responsibilities included sorting and re-housing prints and negatives, and scanning negatives. While performing this work I occasionally came across images that I thought had a special significance and would bring them to the attention of my supervisor, David Haberstich, the Archives Center’s curator of photography. Sometimes this activity would spin off into another direction and I would conduct a little side research.

For example, while re-housing a group of 8” x 10” black-and-white negatives, I noticed a particular aberration on the base side of the negatives. One negative, a portrait of Mr. Jos. E. Snowden, appeared to have interesting patterns in locations that enhanced the appearance of the portrait.  I was sure it was not the common “vinegar syndrome” that corrodes vintage acetate negatives because it did not have the distinctive odor. David thought it was reticulation. I disagreed, pointing out that reticulation was usually caused by rapid changes in the temperature of solutions during development, which would have affected the entire negative surface, not just a portion. He suggested that I look for another explanation by performing a scan test.

At first glance it appeared that the base of the film was shrinking, causing the affected area of the emulsion to resemble scrambled eggs. Upon closer study of this group of negatives, I thought it was be some sort of patterned diffusion technique that Addison Scurlock may have used to retouch the negatives before printing. I surmised that he may have been using a patterned roller to make these impressions in the areas that needed retouching. The patterns were in the areas where he would have retouched his negatives anyway, so I thought I had discovered one of his secret techniques. However, when I scanned the negative at a high resolution (450 dpi), I realized that the image was not improved by this technique and perhaps this phenomenon was reticulation after all--a chemically-based reticulation possibly caused by a reaction to the retouching agent that was used to add “tooth” to the smooth surface of the negative emulsion, which was required to make the retouching pencil adhere to the film.  These marks of the retouching pencil modify the light passing through the negatives and help to smooth out the crows’ feet, laugh lines, and forehead creases that were seldom seen in the Scurlock Studio work, prompting me to use the phrase “The Scurlock Look” to describe the resultiant smooth skin of their portrait subjects.

This freedom to examine the collection and make observations, to prove or disprove theories about techniques, led to many exciting days of learning and discovery. I felt as if I were being given a second chance to apprentice in their studio. The first opportunity was never afforded to me although I sought it several times while Robert Scurlock was still alive. David also enjoyed our discoveries and encouraged me to dig deeper whenever I had theories or concerns. This free flow of ideas led to an invitation to contribute my findings to a chapter on the technical aspects of the “Scurlock Look” as part of David’s book on the Scurlock collection.

While researching the “Scurlock Look,” David and I took a field trip to Highland Beach to meet Herbert Scurlock, the nephew of Addison, the last surviving member of his generation, and quite a likeable gentleman. We had a marvelous time as he recalled little-known facts about the Scurlock Studio. For example, Addison did not approve of his sons George and Robert opening The Capitol School of Photography, a photography school which operated out of the studio from 1948 to 1952. Addison felt that training other photographers would have a detrimental effect on the family business. They enjoyed a lack of competition in the early days of the studio and Addison wanted to keep it that way! He was certain that these newly trained photographers would become competitors one day, and his concerns caused friction in the family.

Addison was probably right about his competition concerns because some Capitol School of Photography students became very good photographers. One of the most famous students was Jacqueline Bouvier, who later became the first lady, Jacqueline Kennedy. As a result of her training, she was able to work for the Washington-Times Herald as a photographer/reporter in 1952. Her column was the “Inquiring Camera Girl.”

Another photographer who studied at the school was Ellsworth Davis. Mr. Davis attended the Capitol School of Photography while working as a darkroom technician at the U.S. State Department. Between 1954 and 1961 he worked as a photographer for Jet and Ebony magazines, covering not only events within the Black community, but also Capitol Hill and the White House. Mr. Davis retired from The Washington Post in 1991 after 30 years, and was the second black photographer admitted into the White House News Photographer's Association during that time.

Other alumni of the school had promising careers, notably William Scott, Head Photographer at the State Department; Fred Harris, owner of Fred Harris Photography; and Dwight Keith, another State Department photographer/darkroom-technician-turned-freelancer. According to Theodore Gaffney, a freelance photographer in the Washington area who remembered these photographers and was interviewed for this blog, “All of these guys did weddings, portraits of friends and family members, and took on freelance assignments and surely their activities must have impacted the potential sales figures of the Scurlock Studio.”

During our visit to Herbert Scurlock’s home he also shared with us the tremendous sense of pride he felt when his Uncle Addison photographed the graduating senior class at Dunbar High School, where he was a member of the JROTC. He recalled that his popularity skyrocketed because all the girls were trying to get free pictures and suddenly “I was the coolest cat in the whole school and the girls really went for my uniform too.”

He also shared how he operated the process camera that belonged to the Murray Brothers Printing Company next door to the studio on U Street. Murray owned the camera, but it was set up in the basement of the liquor store across the street from the studio. I could not help thinking that the presence of a high-quality copy camera in the basement of a liquor store in the heart of a black neighborhood might suggest stereotypes about counterfeiters. Herbert joked about it but reassured us: “It was all on the up and up; back in those days black businesses worked closely with each other to cut expenses”.

I loved meeting Herbert and listening to his recollections about the good old days in Washington. He enjoyed having visitors and a reason to recall the past. On that particular day I was the bearer of the sad news that Dr. Burke (Mickey) Syphax had died the evening before at Howard University Hospital. Herbert remembered Mickey from the old neighborhood at 5th and T Streets. He recalled that he played tennis and was on Howard University’s basketball team when they won a divisional championship in 1932. He said Dr. Syphax and his family were regular customers at the studio and he must have been about a hundred years old. He was in fact ninety-nine when he died. I was amazed by Herbert’s recollections and was honored to have been the recipient of such a rich oral history lesson.

I shared some of my own family connections and that I remembered Dr. Syphax as the “Black Father Knows Best” because he was everybody’s ideal black father figure. “Father Knows Best” and “My Three Sons” were popular television shows from the 1950s and 1960s which conveyed positive concepts of fathers as role models, but with all-white casts. Dr. Syphax had three sons too, Michael, Gregory, and Steve. The Syphax family was the quintessential African American family, long before the days of Bill Cosby’s “Dr. Huxtable”.

While we were all undergraduates at the University of Michigan in the 1970s, I shared an apartment with Gregory, Steve, and their girlfriends, Vicky and Marilyn--who are each a Mrs. Syphax today! Steve and my brother Robert were classmates at Woodrow Wilson High School and my younger brother Rodger married Michael’s sister-in-law. My own father recalled Mickey from their boyhood back in the old neighborhood. My dad had three sons too, and because of that, I always felt we had a close family bond. In fact, one of the Syphax women married a Richard Green in the early 1800s. Perhaps that helps explain why I have always looked upon them all as my brothers.

Every day when I entered the office this summer at the Smithsonian, I came face to face with “Mickey’s” portrait on a poster of the Howard University Chiefs of Surgeons. The Scurlock Studio produced that portrait. It was hanging on the wall on my first day at the Archives Center. When I saw “Mickey” smiling back at me, I felt like I was embarking on my internship with his blessings. Little did I know that his time on earth was close to the end. He was a great man and so was Addison Scurlock, and their lives have left a proud legacy for Black Americans to emulate. Because of Dr. Syphax, hundreds of black surgeons and thousands of doctors were trained at Howard University, and thanks to Addison Scurlock we have thousands of photographs to document the multitude of black accomplishments at Howard University, in the classrooms, on the sports fields, and elsewhere. I am extremely proud to be a part of the legacy of Howard University and the Black Community within the nation’s capital.

Richard Green, Archives Center, National Museum of American History

Richard Green is a photographer who received a Master of Fine Arts degree from Howard University in 2010 and was the recipient of the George H. Scurlock Memorial Scholarship for Commercial Photography. He is currently a volunteer at the Archives Center.  He teaches Computers in the Arts in the Electronic Studio Department within the Fine Arts Division of the  College of Arts and Sciences at Howard University.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Portraits of a Princess

While the attention today might be on a certain princess-to-be, I want to share two portraits from 1881 of Princess Savang Vadhana of Siam, First Queen Consort of King Chulalongkorn. She later became known as Her Majesty Queen Savang Vadhana, the Queen Grandmother.Princess Savang Vadhana was born in 1862 as the 27th daughter of King Mongkut, who is best known outside of Thailand as the king in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I. Her father passed away when she was six, and her half-brother Prince Chulalongkorn was chosen to become king. King Chulalongkorn is generally considered one of the greatest kings of Thailand, as his reign is known for modernizing the country through government and social reforms -- especially the abolition of slavery. When Princess Savang Vadhana was of age, she became one of King Chulalongkorn’s royal consorts. She gave birth to eight children, most of whom died at a young age. While none of her sons lived to take the throne, two of her grandsons did – King Ananda Mahidol and present King Bhumibol. Consequently, her title was elevated to Queen Grandmother. In 1955, Queen Savang Vadhana passed away at the age of 93.

Queen Savang Vadhana’s legacy continues on today. Interested in economics and management, the Queen Grandmother initiated projects in rural areas to provide people with dependable and clean water sources. Additionally, she helped establish the Siam Red Cross Society in 1893 and served as its president from 1920 until her death. A strong supporter of education, especially for women, the Queen Grandmother believed that an educated public would contribute to the general well-being of all. She created scholarships for students to study medicine and nursing abroad, who then brought their skills back to Thailand to develop public health care.

Click here to see other Smithsonian collections related to Queen Savang Vadhana.
--Rose Love Chou, Reference Volunteer

Need an "Archives Gig?"

During the conversation last week on how to get a job in the Library, Archives and Special Collections field; it was brought to my attention that there is a related Facebook site for where you can find an "Archives Gig."  Similar to "I Need a Library Job," Archives Gig publishes posts for "careers, jobs, and internships in the world of Archives & Records Management."  In addition to Facebook, they update through LiveJournal and Twitter, so you can choose your method of information delivery.

If you want to see previous job related posts check out our "What It's Like to Be a Cataloger", and  "How Can I Get a Job? (Library, Archives, and Special Collections)."  Also make sure to check out Sister Smithsonian Blog: Smithsonian Institution Libraries' "Advice to a Librarian" (part 1 and 2).

And don't forget that Smithsonian internship deadlines for Summer 2011 are right around the corner!   

Happy hunting,

Rachael Cristine Woody
Freer|Sackler Archives

Friday, February 4, 2011

Super Bowl Sunday and Smithsonian Football

Touchdown Tommy Brown
Touchdown Tommy Brown
Courtesy Smithsonian Institution Archives

This Super Bowl Sunday many of us will be eating delicious greasy food, laughing at commercials and cheering for the team of our choice. In honor of this fun event, I thought I would pay homage to the Smithsonian’s very own Touch football team. So while you are cheering on the Steelers or the Packers, or picking a team randomly because your beloved Giants are playing golf, you could add a little historical fact about the Smithsonian when the advertisement you are watching is not that entertaining.   


 Tommy Brown
Tommy Brown
Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives
1980 was an exciting year of Smithsonian Touch football. The team headlined by returning MVP Tommy Brown of the Office of Protection Services, Zeff Richardson of Natural History, and Carl Wheatley of the Castle, had high expectations for the season. After finishing third in the Washington D.C. Recreation League’s 1979 Fall season, the Smithsonian Touch Football Team was eager for a fresh start. Hot off their strong showing in the Brothers’ Spring League, the team opened up the new season with a 13-6 win over their arch-rivals, the Howard University Hospital team. Brown, showed why he was the MVP by scoring the winning touchdown.  The team hit a rough patch in the middle of the season, but finished strong with huge wins over the teams from Howard University Hospital (13-0) and Georgetown University Hospital (26-0). The team ended up with a 4-3 record, looking forward to the next seasons’ challenges.

In addition to having a team, the Smithsonian has a large array of football related materials including this set of historical football images in the Collections Search Center. Enjoy the game!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Just How Old Are You, Mr. Freer?

Provided by Herbert Freer Low, 1991.
Founder of the Freer Gallery of Art, Charles Lang Freer has always been a man of mystery. Recently I was writing a simple "Happy Birthday" post for him, only to find out through the almighty Google search that scholars and institutions have conflicted feelings on what year Freer was actually born.  I was shocked to find out that an important figure in the art museum world would have such ambiguity regarding something as seemingly concrete (and important) as a birth year.  Startled, I was unable to finish his Birthday post without delving into the mystery...

I started with looking through the genealogical and biographical files that had been compiled by previous curators and archivists of the Freer Gallery of Art.  In the files resided a thick folder dated 1991-1992 that shows back-and-forth correspondence among the heavy weight scholars of the American Art world, the Freer Gallery staff, and related New York and Detroit historical societies.  At that time, the Archives was trying to ascertain Freer's birth year for the publication of Freer: Legacy of Art and the Freer Gallery's reopening to the public.  It appears that after a yearlong effort of fact-finding, the scholars and archivists of the Freer Gallery of Art decided 1854.  (From what I gather, we are the only art entity to take a stand on when his birth year occurred).  For a brief moment I thought my journey was over, mystery solved, my predecessors had done the work for me - until I glanced down the list of evidence.  My inner historian cringed when I realized how weakly the few documents they could locate pointed to 1854, with similar evidence pointing towards 1856. 

Luckily, today I can access most of the government documents online, making the research quick and snappy, as opposed to the snail mail my 1991 colleagues had to contend with.  So let me present you the facts and evidence as I know them, and let me also add the disclaimer: I am not a scholar of American Art, merely someone who loves history's mysteries.

For 1854, the evidence we have are as follows:

Tombstone (above), located in the Wiltwyck Cemetery, created in 1922 (3 years after Freer's death) by Watson Freer the same year he, himself, passed.  The note that comes from Mr. Herbert Freer Low (who provided the picture) warns in his 1991 letter to our former archivist, "I hasten to add that Ruth P. Heidgerd, who compiled The Freer Family genealogy, published in 1968, recently told me that she has known of gravestones that have borne errors."

The Freer Family Bible, located in the vault of the Huguenot Historical Society, New Paltz, New York.  In a 1978 letter, the society writes to our former American Art curator, "Charles Lang Freer was born 2/25/1854, and died 9/25/1919."  Unfortunately the F|S Archives does not have a copy of the bible on file; nor do I have any knowledge of how the bible was added to and maintained.  However, it is important to note that at this time Kingston County (Freer's birth place) was not creating official county records, like birth certificates, and in this instance a family bible that recorded and maintained births as they happened, can be just as credible as a birth certificate.

Census Record from 1860, listing Charles [Chas] Freer as age 6.  (I will spare you from the really bad copy image I have).

Passport Application, located in the Passport Division of the US Archives, passport no. 276 and signed by Freer when he was in Paris, November 22, 1894.  I am currently waiting on a copy of the passport application.  In lieu of an image I was provided this statement from the document: "I solemnly swear that I was born at Kingston in the State of New York on or about the 25th day of February 1854, that my father is a native citizen of the United States; that I am domiciled in the United States, my permanent residence being Detroit in the State of Michigan..."   *Added to evidence.

Letter to Dr. George Draper, February 11th, 1918; where Freer states that he will be turning 64.  Located in the Charles Lang Freer papers, Freer|Sackler Archives.  It is important to note that Dr. George Draper is the same doctor that signs Freer's death certificate stating 1854 as Freer's Birthday.  Is this letter the only evidence that Dr. Draper had of Freer's birth year?

1856 Evidence:

Census Record from 1900, listing Charles Lang Freer, Head of House, born February 1856.
As located using HeritageQuest Online, access provided by my Arlington County Library card! *Added to evidence.

Passport Application filed in 1899 (5 years after previous one in Paris listing 1854), provided by the National Archives via *Added to evidence.

Letter to close friend Thomas Jerome in 1906, congratulating his friend on his Birthday and stating he will soon pass his half century mark.  Located in the Charles Lang Freer papers, Freer|Sackler Archives.

There are numerous obituaries, including the New York Times that state Freer's birth year as 1856.  And Freer's assistant in many things for the last years of his life, Katherine Rhoades states in letters and in her 1923 type publication, that Freer's birth year was 1856.  (The 1923 type publication can be located in the Freer|Sackler Library).


Conclusiveness in addition to when his birth year was is up for argument!  In speaking with several of the Charles Lang Freer experts I can tell you that they all favor 1854.  Which is not surprising as they and their peers had a hand in deciding the 1854 vs 1856 fate back in 1992.  I think they lend historical credence to the early 1860 census and Freer Family Bible, as is historical research practice.  Conversely, 1991 evidence suggests the my former archivist peers preferred the 1856 date as more recent federal documents, and the writings of a woman who knew him better than the rest (at least in later life), all claimed 1856.  It is interesting to note that in 1957, the Freer Gallery also validated 1856 when it held a 100th Birthday celebration with "An Appreciation of Charles Lang Freer."

And my own conclusion?  I find the evidence on both sides to be compelling, and inconclusive.  But more importantly, I think we need to answer: why the confusion?  Why would Freer provide two different years in both federal documentation and personal notes to friends?  Is it simply a matter of vanity, where it's customary to shave two years off your age when you reach mid-life?  (Would you really go as far as submitting false testimony on federal documents?)  The bulk of the 1856 evidence does occur between 1899-1906 when Freer would have (roughly) been 43-50.  I think if you're going to go with that theory you should also note that 1899-1906 was a very transformative time in Freer's life.  He succeeded in consolidating his railroad car building companies, he retired from stressful business work and started traveling the world, he bought a villa in Capri (mid-life crisis anyone?), and the Smithsonian formally accepts his gift to the nation.

I think another possibility is that given the historical context of the years he grew up in, and that we know he came from a poor, large family; it may be possible he just didn't know his real birth year, or had reason to doubt it mid-life.  Either reason is thought-provoking, but I don't think quite fills in the whole puzzle.  I am also certain there are probably 100 more plausible reasons as to why Freer would use both birth years.

The only concrete knowledge that comes out of my amateur investigation is that there is one more layer of mystery surrounding Charles Lang Freer.  Perhaps in the future I can write to you the accounts of why Freer never married, why he decided not to leave Detroit with his art treasures, and why he kept his Peacock Room purchase a mystery.  Nothing confirming or condemning, but as you see here, there is a lot that can be read between the lines.

Rachael Cristine Woody
Freer|Sackler Archives

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Thing About Interns Is...

So there I was, staring at at least 200 red plastic clips that had been removed from a collection because the papers had been lovingly cared for and segregated into their respective folders - no longer needing the blasted red clips.  The clips were bent out of shape and hardly reusable, but they had been returned to the container in a sincere effort of frugality.  I was on my knees sorting through the offending clips when I felt my anxiety rise.  Why was I getting so worked up about these clips?  What horrific stress event had I endured that would cause such an adverse reaction?  Oh yea, I was an intern.  

Intern: A student or a recent graduate undergoing supervised practical training.  Read: free labor, willing to do anything with a cheerful attitude in order to achieve career experience and contacts.

Those were the days, right?  Sitting down at oak tables sifting through documents that proceeded your birth by decades if not a century or two?  I do fondly recall my slow, romantic acquaintance with the archives.  Archives get a bad wrap for being musty, basement dwelling, second-class to objects - collections  When in reality for anyone in the know the archives is a mecca of history, passion, knowledge, discovery, laughter, tragedy, you name it.  I still vividly remember the exact day I knew the archives was the right profession for me. I was interning at the National Archives in Seattle when my supervisor took me to the back corner of the warehouse to "the vault."  Through a series of complicated maneuvers, he unlocked it and tenderly pulled out a single half sheet of paper enveloped in mylar.  He handed it to me to view, and as I read the words my knees began to tremble and my heart dropped into my stomach.  

"AIR RAID ON PEARL HARBOR X THIS IS NO DRILL" (As taken from the National Archives and Records Administration:

That was it.  What most people feel when they know they are in love are the same symptoms I felt when I fell in love with the Archives.  The immensity of the telegram's message compounded with my deeply committed love of history, and an archivist was born.

Not everything in the Archives is so glamorous though.  And to make your way up the ranks you must pay your dues.  In this case, internships - for free - and lots of them!  I have removed many an offending paper clip, rubber bands, decrepit envelopes, and other unusual things that typically don't belong and can endanger paper collections.  Internships were exciting in their new experiences, and the hands on projects; however they could also be extremely repetitive and a waste of the many other skills I could have given to the repository.

Don't get me wrong, ensuring the physical integrity of a collection is very important and a wonderful "go-to" for free-labor job descriptions.  However, I advocate that intern supervisors take an additional moment to really think about your Archives' needs.  Yes, we will always need more labor in order to care for our collections to a level they deserve; and as history is always being made, our job in that is perpetual.  But we have other needs to.  Needs that I believe are being overlooked when it comes to really utilizing our interns to their full potential.  

Think about what else your Archives is most likely going through.  We're always in the middle of grant preparations, digitizing, outreach program coordinating, and web and social media content creating.  I argue that the interns you are getting today are far better suited to these tasks than paper clip duty.  Not only will you end up getting more productivity from the interns, you are also fulfilling a need, and will have a more visually appealing and dynamic product from the internship.  Interns will in turn receive a golden resume line on something they can truly be proud of, and that will help establish their advanced skill sets in a career atmosphere. 

This last summer I had a rock star of an intern.  Her resume mentioned several attractive skills that I knew I needed for more projects than the traditional collection re-house.  I brought her in, and although she did get a bite-sized collection to process, I quickly turned her over to other projects that were much more attractive for everyone involved.  She got the Freer|Sackler Archives started on youtubeShe taught Me how to film, edit, and publish videos online; so that even as I lost her to the start of school I am now empowered to create and publish my own video content!

The thing about interns is that as much as they're here to learn something from us, we can also learn something from them.

It's so simple, but so easy to forget or overlook.  Archives are inherently always behind due to the production rate of history.  As a result, we are always looking for interns, yet we don't have a whole lot of time to craft non-traditional projects.  I encourage intern supervisors to find the time.  An intern's skills can be so valuable and essential to the other projects you are working on, and perhaps the skills are not even ones that you or your staff posses!  Take the time and effort to identify some more dynamic opportunities, and then sit back and enjoy the pride both you and your intern will feel in the end.

Internship applications for Summer 2011 are now being accepted across the Smithsonian.   The deadlines are various, but a majority start to occur in February and March so get on it!  See the Smithsonian intern page for more details on the opportunities and how to apply.  

Interns.  I <3 you.  I feel like there should be an intern appreciation day because without your enthusiastic, professional, and free labor - we would all be sunk.  My advice to you?  Do the required paper clip removal, but any chance you get, take an opportunity to shine.  Observe the other activities happening in the Archives and see where your skills might be able to help out.  From my experience as an intern, and now as a supervisor, I know that the majority of the time your supervisor will be grateful you spoke up and appreciative of the skills and solutions you can lend.

Best of luck!
Rachael Cristine Woody
Freer|Sackler Archives