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Wednesday, July 6, 2011

On SIRIS, Something to Bear in Mind

For about a month now, I have been using SIRIS and the Collections Search Center as an intern in the Smithsonian Institution Archives’ Institutional History Division (SIA).  As an undergraduate history student, I am not a stranger to collections search databases.   For my schoolwork I constantly use the Washington Research Library Consortium (WRLC) online catalog, which combines the holdings of eight Washington area universities.  At previous internships I have worked with the Library of Congress online catalog and THOMAS, the legislative information search tool.  But SIRIS, like the Smithsonian itself, is unique in comparison to these other systems.

The Smithsonian Institution consists of 19 museums and galleries, the National Zoo and nine research facilities.  This broad span supplies a multitude of different collections – from records in the Smithsonian Institution Archives to books in the Smithsonian Institution Library, from pieces of artwork in the National Museum of American Art to taxidermy animals in the National Museum of Natural History.  And SIRIS gathers all of these various collections into one database.

Original Teddy Bear
Courtesy SIA
A search on SIRIS can unveil artifacts and information beyond what you may have anticipated.  Recently, I turned to SIRIS to investigate the original teddy bear.  This children’s toy was created in 1902 and named for then President Theodore Roosevelt after a newspaper cartoon was published portraying Roosevelt on a merciful hunting trip.  I knew that one of the first stuffed bears made is held in the National Museum of American History, so I entered the term “teddy bear” in the SIRIS search box.

Knowing that my SIRIS search would scan the collections from all Smithsonian branches, I expected results from multiple collections.  Of course the American History toy appeared, and I was not surprised to see a teddy bear stamp from the National Postal Museum or the several artworks and photographs that SIRIS offered.  Perhaps the last place I would have thought a “teddy bear” search would return a result was from the National Air and Space Museum (NASM).

Magellan T. Bear
Courtesy NASM

But lo and behold, the NASM, full of airplanes and space suits, also holds one Magellan T. Bear, the first teddy bear in space. The SIRIS description informed me of this astonishing astronaut, stating: “The bear flew as the "education specialist" aboard Space Shuttle Discovery on the STS-63 mission in February 1995. The bear's journey was part of an ambitious educational project to stimulate interest in geography, science, and social studies. Students and faculty of Elk Creek Elementary School in Pine, Colorado, worked with NASA and Spacehab to have the teddy bear certified for spaceflight. The school also arranged for the bear to fly around the world, visit the South Pole, fly on United Airlines' first Boeing 777 flight, and attend U.S. Space Camp. Presented to the National Air and Space Museum in May 1998 by librarian Penny Wiedeke and principal Jerry Williams, Magellan T. Bear is on display in the "How Things Fly" gallery.  Magellan T. Bear was fully outfitted for all of his flights, wearing a blue astronaut jumpsuit in space and aviator cap, goggles and scarf in the planes.

Space Camp Pin
Courtesy NASM
And so I came away from my research with an interesting bit of trivia.  But SIRIS discoveries like this one can lead to more than my impressive factoid.  Researchers might stumble upon a catalog entry that informs or reforms their argument, or inspires them to further inquire into a new subject.  The beauty of SIRIS is the beauty of the Smithsonian: you never know what you’re going to get. 


  1. My co-worker and I, while scanning away in the Visual Resource Lab at the Chazen Museum of Art on the UW-Madison campus, have found SIRIS a fun and educational way to spend our lunch break! Neither of us had any prior knowledge of this database before reading your blog! After typing in UW-Madison, we found a number of items housed here at the Chazen. Does the database contain objects from all around the country? If so, what an excellent way for researches to gain all kinds of information!

  2. Sammy,
    Are you asking about these objects from this link below?

    These are from a program called “Catalog of American Portraits ” compiled by the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian.
    The Catalog of American Portraits is a survey of American portraits in public and private collections across the United States and abroad. The CAP encompasses portraits of American subjects or by American artists, generally limited to one-of-a-kind likenesses such as paintings, sculpture, drawings, miniatures, and silhouettes.

    Hope this helps answering your questions.

    Ching-hsien Wang
    Library and Archives Systems Support Branch,
    Office of Chief Information Office
    Smithsonian Institution

  3. I've heard about SIRIS from my colleagues but never thought it refers to a tool in searching something. Definitely useful if you are doing intensive research.

  4. It certainly is useful! Thanks for reading. I hope you get a chance to search and experience the advantages of SIRIS and CSC for yourself!