Smithsonian Collections Blog

Highlighting the hidden treasures from over 2 million collections

Collections Search Center

Thursday, July 28, 2011

I call it Pop, You call it Soda

There are legions of diligent catalogers in institutions across the world working to classify and arrange things in a systematic order so that users can find what they need, when they need it.  These catalogers in museums, archives, and libraries exert authority control over the style and language used for each catalog record which is designed to make the searching process easier for users.  This authority control makes wording consistent, eliminates spelling errors, and provides clarification for homonyms (same word, different meaning) and synonyms (different word, same meaning).  One example is how different regions use “pop,” “soda,” “cola,” “coke,” or “tonic” to describe the same thing!  Visit The Great Pop vs. Soda Controversy for a fun look at the issue.  (For the record, the Library of Congress Subject Heading is “soda pop”.) 

Map comparing term used for soft drinks by county, 
created by Matthew T. Campbell and Professor Greg Plumb of East Central University in Oklahoma

Problem Solved?
This sounds as though catalogers have solved the problem of determining the “correct” term and have tamed the unmanageable languages of the world, but they haven’t quite accomplished this yet.  For one, the types of materials that cultural institutions hold are so broad that sometimes these square pegs must be prodded to fit into the round holes.  As technology and materials evolve it sometimes takes longer for the established systems and vocabularies to catch up.

Even with the continual improvement of metadata schemas, there is still going to be a gap between the language used by professional catalogers and the language of the everyday user trying to find an item.  Controlled vocabularies are controlled – everyday language is not.

“Soda” and “Pop” Can Coexist

What if the public could add descriptive information in their own words as opposed to the institution’s language?  Several museums and other cultural institutions (including those associated with Steve: The Museum Social Tagging Project) have begun testing the possibilities of public tagging.  Users contribute descriptive terms, keywords, or short phrases, also known as tags, to an item’s record to enhance searching.  If users describe and tag an item in the same way that they would search for it, then public tagging ultimately helps retrievability.  For each tag that is added, an item has another access point – another way for other users to discover that item.  Many users may already be familiar with tagging if they have used sites such as, which allows users to tag their own bookmarked websites, Flickr or Facebook

The Smithsonian’s Collections Search Center has recently launched a pilot project that implements an experimental tagging feature for records of participating Smithsonian museums, archives and libraries including the Archives of American Gardens.  Public tagging is not perfect and some traditionalists may be leery.  However, tagging is not meant as a replacement for established cataloging methods but rather as a complement that adds a helpful element of user engagement and interaction.

Get Tagging
Visit the Archives of American Gardens Virtual Volunteer page to get started on tagging images.

Kayla Burns, Intern
Archives of American Gardens
Smithsonian Gardens

Monday, July 25, 2011

Digitization Project Brings Ancient Near Eastern Inscriptions into 21st Century

*Image:   Detail of a cuneiform squeeze. Ernst Herzfeld papers, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives.

"The Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives announces a new 3-D digital resource that will enable scholars and the public to learn more about the ancient Near East through a unique group of pressed-paper molds called squeezes. This resource provides unparalleled access to the archives' collection of squeezes from ancient Near Eastern archaeological sites."

What is a Squeeze?
The Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives (Freer|Sackler Archives) holds a significant collection of 393 squeezes; the largest outside of Iran and Iraq. A squeeze is a series of sheets of paper that are layered on top of each other and moistened to create a wet pulp. This substance is pressed upon the inscriptions of ancient monuments, creating a paper mold and capturing the impressionistic writing for a 3-dimensional negative effect. (See the Squeeze Making tab for more information). The captured inscriptions were often carved on commissioned temples, civic buildings and statues to record battles won, titles acquired or the lineage of kings.

Squeeze Collection
The squeezes in the F|S Archives' Ernst Herzfeld papers date from 1911-1934. The materials used to create squeezes range from very high-grade, robust paper to low-grade cigarette paper. Over time, the squeezes have been transported around the world, handled and stored in less than ideal conditions, and have suffered from various issues that affect all paper products. The squeezes contain Arabic script, Middle Persian, and Cuneiform impressions from archaeological sites: Bastam, Isfahan, Rayy, Samarra, Shiraz, Sunghur, Taq-i Bustan, Tus, Sarpul, Pasargadae, Persepolis, Naqsh-i Rustam, and Paikuli. The Herzfeld papers have been vital in the research of these sites, and the squeezes he created for temporary reference have helped scholars access information from monuments that for many reasons may no longer be available. (Caption for this image below).

Unreachable Inscriptions and Unreadable Squeezes
Three and a half years ago the F|S Archives hosted a team of international archaeologists to research the ancient Paikuli site of Iraq.  Due to a complicated situation, the team's access to the archaeological site and Sassanian Monument was no longer an option.  Aware of Ernst Herzfeld's research, the archaeologists traveled to DC to spend two intensive weeks pouring over the 170 Paikuli squeezes in the collection.  Unsure of when they could return, they requested reference images for further research. We took snapshots of the squeezes for them, but  couldn't help regretting the illegibility of many of the squeezes from poor materials and weathered inscriptions.  As we switched the squeezes over we stumbled upon an interesting discovery - the readability of the inscriptions increased at certain angles of lighting.  Realizing there must be potential behind this, I endeavored to find a way to make the ancient inscriptions more readable and reachable.

Squeeze Inventory
An inventory was the first major step in preparing to undertake a digital imaging preservation grant project. Over three months an intern conducted an inventory noting the physical conditions of the drawings, maps and squeezes in the collection.  With this initial inventory I was able to roughly discern: how many squeezes we had, from which archaeological sites, in which scripts, and in what dimensions. 

Identifying Technology and an MCI Partnership
The Freer|Sackler Archives performed initial feasibility testing with several multi-dimensional imaging tool and strategies.  Reflective Transformation Imaging (RTI) resulted in the most consistent and highest quality scans for the flat-nature, yet 3-D qualities of the squeezes.  We identified that the Museum Conservation Institute of the Smithsonian as a knowledgeable tester of RTI technology, and found that MCI was interested in partnering with a collection entity to further their efforts in the technology. Together, we sought funding to acquire equipment that would benefit all Smithsonian units, and hire a skilled contractor to image the squeezes and create a web resource.

In 2010, the Freer|Sackler Archives received a grant from the Smithsonian Institution's Collections Care and Preservation Fund to aid in the preservation of the squeezes and the 3-D information they contain. The project would result in the creation of a digital preservation surrogate for each squeeze available via the Squeeze Imaging Project web resource.

Packing Squeezes
The first part of the project was the practicality of safely packing and transporting the squeezes to MCI in Maryland for imaging. The squeezes varied in levels of physical stability due to the materials used and previous storage conditions.  An added level of difficulty was the varying sizes of the squeezes; many of which measure longer and wider than the table image to the left.  After consulting with the F|S Conservation Department's paper conservator, we settled on packing the squeezes in black museum cases, contained in folders, and secured with foam cushioning.

Squeeze Imaging Project - Web Resource
The final product was compiling all of the squeeze RTI images into an easy to use web resource.  Each site is listed on the right-hand side, and allows further breakdown of the site by script or language type.  Once a script option is selected all squeezes display for that area accompanied by a link to the MARC records containing all the known information for the selected squeeze.  (See Paikuli site example to the right; click on each script option at the top of the picture to see digitized squeezes for that selection).

Squeeze Viewing Tool
In addition to protecting the squeezes from further damage, RTI allows the end user to manipulate the image and enhance the squeeze's readability. Scholars will be able to find intellectual and physical information that was previously not known to exist or had been lost. This will allow researchers to learn more from the digital images than they could from the physical object. These images provide unprecedented access to ancient histories, delivered from the cradle of civilization to the homes of scholars and enthusiasts alike.

Please read the Technical Note for more information on RTI technology and how to view the squeezes, as well as the Archival Note for further details on the project.

Related Post:
3d Imaging to Unlock Ancient Mysteries

*Image above for Squeeze Collection is from the Ernst Herzfeld papers, "Naqshi-Rajab." I selected this image because in the center it shows squeezes laying out on a rock to dry.

Friday, July 22, 2011

All Things Gullah

Family Day:  All Things Gullah, the final program in connection with the Anacostia Community Museum’s acclaimed exhibition “Word, Shout, Song:  Lorenzo Dow Turner Connecting Communities through Language” will take place Saturday, July 23rd. “Word, Shout, Song” which closes July 24,focuses on Turner’s research documenting the retention of African languages and culture among the descendents of enslaved African people—the Gullah/Geechee of the Georgia and South Carolina Sea Islands and the Bahians of Brazil.  The majority of the exhibition includes materials contained within the Lorenzo Dow Turner papers.

Doing the ring shout in Georgia, 1930s.  Lorenzo Dow Turner Papers
 The event offers something for everyone, including exhibition tours, art activities, storytelling, a sweetgrass basket making demonstration, a Gullah orator’s circle, and a Gullah dress-up opportunity, and much more.  The event ends with what the museum hope is the largest “ring shout” ever recorded, led by the Geechee Gullah Ring Shouters and the Santa Barbara Shout Project with the help of Family Day attendees.  The ring shout is a form of religious dance with roots in Africa that is still practiced among the Gullah.

ACM Archives staff has digitized and cataloged images of Turner’s Gullah informants and are working with the museum’s research staff to further identify members of various Sea Islands communities interviewed by Lorenzo Dow Turner. 

Jennifer Morris
Anacostia Community Museum Archives

Thursday, July 21, 2011

"What a beautiful view."

At 11:29 a.m. EDT on July 8th, 2011, the space shuttle Atlantis launched for the last time from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. I sat in awe of the live feed on the NASA website, witnessing the final shuttle take off with people all over the world. Thirty years after the first shuttle launched, it is strange to think that we'll no longer see these beautiful and familiar ships lift off and disappear into the sky. There's a little shuttle-shaped hole in my heart now.

Watching the launch reminded me that Folkways had some space-themed documentary recordings that I had never listened to. Moses Asch made more than folk music records--being an audiophile, what he really wanted to do was create a catalog of the world's sound. Leaps in sound production quality during the space age made it possible to make scientifically useful recordings that also managed to capture the wonder of the time.

On October 4, 1957, Russian scientists, from somewhere in Russia, fired the rocket that put the first artificial satellite into an orbit going around the world once in about 96 minutes. Man's first artificial satellite is called "Sputnik," Russian for traveler.

So begins Folkways Record FX 6200 Voices of the Satellites!, a recording I never thought I would listen to from beginning to end. Narrated by Professor T.A. Benham of Haverford College and released in 1958, it predates human spaceflight. As a result, it provides a fascinating look at not only the history of space exploration, but the world's reaction to it. The album consists of the recorded radio signals of the first fourteen American and Soviet satellites, as well as the heartbeat (!) of the first creature sent into space, Laika the dog. It's a whole lot of beeping, but the exclamation at the end of the record's title says it all: the fact that people could listen to sounds emitted by "man's first space travelers" was exciting.

"One day I came home to find two of my children, Connie and Roby, intently listening to Explorer IV...
they were thrilled to discover that the satellite had passed overhead at a height of 615 miles, heading Northeast."
(Photograph from FX 6200 liner notes.)

Folkways issued another documentary album in 1964 chronicling space exploration called Man in Space: The Story of the Journey (FX 6201). Originally a Voice of America radio program, it tells the story of the the first manned Mercury mission in May 1961 where Alan Shepard became the first American in space. I find the second track of this album especially poetic, so I will present the transcript here in full:

Our story begins on the morning of Friday, May 5th, 1961 at 34 minutes past the hour of ten, at Cape Canaveral in the state of Florida. A man touches a button, the touch ignites the engines of a powerful rocket standing not too far away, gleaming white in the powerful light of the tropical sun. With a roar and a blast of flame, the rocket starts to lift straight up. For the hundreds of men and women who usually work at Cape Canaveral the launching of a rocket has become almost routine, but not in this case. For at the top of the rocket, inside a strange looking vehicle that looks something like a child's toy top, there was a man.

He is at this moment inside the cone shaped capsule perched atop the missile, awaiting the final seconds of the countdown which is already begun. The rocket itself is in full view. It is a gleaming white Mercury Redstone rocket, towering nearly 83 feet into the sunny sky, and is a modified version of the one that helped push America's first satellite into orbit some five years ago.

Holy Moley! Can you imagine? Later on we hear the Mercury Control Center quote Shepard as saying "What a beautiful view." (Bonus! You can see that view here)

These recordings are gems of the Folkways Collection. Time capsules of the era's fascination with space travel, they were made before we sent a man to the moon, before we landed a rover on Mars, before we sent satellites beyond our orbit and off to the farthest reaches of our solar system.

From satellite beeps to astronaut tweets,space travel will continue to fascinate us. The age of the shuttle might have come to a close, but as evidenced by the tremendous progress we've made since these albums were issued, we have a whole lot to look forward to.

Author's note, 7/27/2011: It has been brought to my attention that the liner notes for "Man in Space" do not credit those involved with the original VOA program. The original transcript of the program lists Matthew Warren as narrator, Michael Hanu as writer/producer, and science editor Joseph Luben as in charge of production at Cape Canaveral. The program was originally titled "Mission in Outer Space."

Listen to samples from these recordings:

Related Materials in the Ralph Rinzler Archives and Special Collections

Unreleased Folkways recordings:
Apollo Space Flight Recordings (FW--7RR-5817)
Moon Shot (FW-7RR-1651)
Voices of the Satellites, v. 2 (FW-7RR-1697)
Space Music [?] (FW--7RR-1681)

Various audio recordings, photographs, and videos from "Working at the Smithsonian" (1996)  and NASA (2008) programs at the  Smithsonian Folklife Festival

Selection of Non-Folkways Commercial Recordings that can be found in our Library:
Conquest of Space, Vox, 1959
Recording of America's First Astronaut: May 5, 1961, Columbia, 1961
Apollo 8: Man's First Journey to the Moon, Sperry-Rand, 1969
Apollo 11:Flight to the Moon, Bell, 1969
Sounds of Saturn, TRW, 1982
Space Walk: Impressions of an Astronaut, RCA, 1984

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

John Singer Sargent at the Smithsonian

Lately I've been working on updating the listings of works by John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) in the Inventory of American Paintings, an online database that records the last known locations of American works of art.  As I was working on this project I wondered: What else is in the Smithsonian that is related to Sargent?  We often become so focused on our own work in the rush to get so much done in so little time, that we forget to widen our view a little bit further and see the magnitude of resources available at the Smithsonian.

It turns out that Sargent is one of the most widely represented artists across the Smithsonian, as well as one of the most popular and well-known American artists. (He was born to American parents, but spent most of his life in Europe.)  His paintings are in four Smithsonian collections: Smithsonian American Art Museum, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, National Portrait Gallery, and Freer Gallery of Art. 

There have been many exhibitions and monographs about Sargent, which can be found in the Smithsonian Institution Libraries, including six volumes of the more recent Complete Paintings by the artist's great-nephew Richard Ormond, and Elaine Kilmurray. One of the more interesting books (in my opinion) is a novel written by Countess Eleanor Palffy in 1951: The lady and the painter: an extravaganza, based on incidents in the lives of the two principal characters: Mrs. John Lowell Gardner of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and the artist, John Singer Sargent. I used Proquest (available on site at Smithsonian Libraries) to look up reviews of the book and, my oh my, it caused quite the scandal in its day.

Over 2000 paintings and 53 sculptures by Sargent are listed in the Inventories of American Painting & Sculpture. These works are in public and private collections around the world.  Did you know that Sargent, who is most well-known for his paintings, in particular his portraits, was also a sculptor? Many of these are plaster studies for his ceiling reliefs in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.  Also, about 1700 paintings are listed in the Catalog of American Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery.

You can also find Sargent in the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Photograph Archives, both as an artist and as a subject. Of note is a photograph of the "John Singer Sargent medal" by Paul Manship, photographed by De Witt Ward. The inscription on the reverse reads "Pegasus Liberated. J.M. to J.S.S. 1923."

Finally, the Archives of American Art contains the letters of Sargent and photographs, all of which are digitized and available to view online. Take a look for yourself, though I must admit, I have trouble reading his handwriting!

Now that is a lot of resources!  I had fun looking for them. Did you know that you, too, can search for items across the Smithsonian museums?  Just click on Collections Search Center and begin your journey!

Pictured, top to bottom:

John Singer Sargent, Marble Fountain in Italy, ca. 1907. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of John Gellatly, 1929.6.108

John Singer Sargent, Isabella Stewart Gardner, 1888. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.

Paul Manship, Medal for John Singer Sargent, 1923, photographed by De Witt Ward. American Sculpture Photograph Study Collection, Photograph Archives, Smithsonian American Art Museum.

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

Monday, July 18, 2011

Connecting the Folklife Festival, the Peace Corps, and the Freer-Sackler Archives: Chaplain A.C. Oliver Jr.

As a summer intern at the Freer-Sackler Archives, I have been given the opportunity to rummage around in their holdings and blog about the collections and items that most grab my attention. This is my first contribution.

The Smithsonian Folklife Festival, held annually on the National Mall, ended July 11th after running nearly two weeks. 

This year the festival featured the nation of Colombia, rhythm and blues music, and, in honor of its 50th anniversary, the Peace Corps. Since 1961, when it was established by an Executive Order by President Kennedy, the Peace Corps has been sending volunteers around the world to countries and people in need. The Folklife Festival has selected the nations of the Ukraine, Ghana, Mali, Jamaica, Morocco, and the Philippines to be representative of the 139 countries that have been visited by Peace Corps volunteers.

The Peace Corps' program in the Philippines is its second oldest, beginning the same year that the program was founded, and serving a primarily educational purpose (1).

The invasion and subsequent governance of the Philippines by the Japanese took place long before the Peace Corps was created. The events of this period (which lasted from 1942 to 1945), such as the Bataan death march, resulted in massive death and destruction within the nation (2). This is very likely related to the speed with which the Filipino government requested volunteers in 1961.

Colonel Arthur C. Oliver was a chaplain in the United States Army, serving in both world wars. While serving in the Philippines in 1942, Oliver was taken prisoner by Japanese forces, and was even forced to participate in the Bataan death march, which he managed to survive. Prior to his service in second world war, Oliver spent two years (1930-1932) in China, where he took many photographs, now housed in the archives of the Freer-Sackler Galleries. To see the complete description of Oliver's collection, along with digitized copies of selected images, please click here.

For more information on the Folklife Festival, please follow the link here.  

Megan Quint
Intern, Freer-Sackler Archives

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Excavations in the Freer|Sackler Archives

 Presenting Archival Resources to an International Community

Presenting archival resources to a targeted scholarly community was the ultimate goal the Archives had set out to achieve.  The Ernst Herzfeld project initiative began in early 2009 when the collection was identified as an institutional priority.  With that mandate, the Archives worked with several departments within the Freer|Sackler to secure grants to help with the preservation, digitization, cataloging and creation of web resources.  The project's content, scope, and importance led itself to be a natural collaborative endeavor, allowing for the Archives to work with Conservation (including the Museum Conservation Institute), Curatorial, Design, Development, Director's Office, Scholarly Programs and Publications, and Web.

Now, two years into the project the Freer|Sackler has a lot to show for our collaborative efforts even though we are only halfway through the Herzfeld papers.  On July 1st, 2011 Ancient Near East curator Alexander Nagel and myself co-presented on the archival resources that we built up over the last two years for the Ernst Herzfeld papers.  We were honored to be invited by the Museum fur Islamische Kunst of the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, as they held an Ernst Herzfeld colloquium on "100 Years of Excavations in Samarra."  If you're a regular reader then you are familiar with the Freer|Sackler Archives' efforts to acknowledge and celebrate the 100th Anniversary of the Samarra excavations by highlighting the recently digitized records and online web resources.

Alex gave the first half of the presentation by contextualizing the current predicament facing both art and archival items related to the infamous German archaeologist, Ernst Herzfeld. Essentially any of the Herzfeld object finds and his records were dispersed among the international museum community dependent on his current relationship with them and financial need.  Now, almost 100 years later, the museums and scholarly community are trying to piece together the art with their provenance history; a job that's not easy when many of the Ernst Herzfeld papers are not readily accessible across disparate museums and archives.

My half of the presentation was focused on the work that the Freer|Sackler Archives has been doing that presents a possible solution and opportunity for all the museums who have a relationship with the Ernst Herzfeld papers.  Through diligent cataloging on an item level by our highly regarded cataloger, Xavier Courouble, we discovered a coding mechanism that allowed a search function of the entire collection by an inventory number.  Fortunately for us Herzfeld was very meticulous in his record keeping, and he assigned each item an inventory number.  Every time he drew, photographed or otherwise documented the item we would write it's inventory number next to it.  Mr. Courouble would then mark in the records which inventory numbers were documented so that scholars can now do a search of the catalog by an item inventory number, resulting in all the relevant records across the collection being pulled.  (For a thorough example using a Balkuwara object, see our YouTube tutorial).


Copy of our slides as presented at the "100 Years of Samarra" conference:

Abstract as printed in the "100 Years of Samarra" program:

Alexander Nagel and Rachael Cristine Woody, Washington DC
Excavations in the Archives – An Update on the Ernst Herzfeld
Online Resources at the Freer|Sackler in Washington, DC

In 1946, Ernst Herzfeld donated the largest share of his papers to the Freer Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC. Despite their crucial importance to the study of the art history, archaeology, and early exploration of the Near East, the Herzfeld materials have only recently been completely explored and catalogued at a detailed level. With help of major grants from the Leon Levy Foundation, and the Smithsonian Institution Collections Care and Preservation Fund, the Freer|Sackler Archives was able to undertake an ambitious project to preserve, digitise, and catalogue the contents of the Ernst Herzfeld papers. As the cataloguing project nears completion, the Archives have started producing web products to package the Herzfeld materials for easy use and promotion. In this presentation we will give a brief overview of the F|S Herzfeld Archives contents, an update on current research on the Herzfeld papers F|S staff members are involved in, present the cataloguing project and introduce the various web products that have been created or are in the planning stages.


From an archivist's perspective, being able to reach a key audience for a collection is what I classify as the concluding success for a project.  There are many things that as archivists we prioritize for any given collection; such as: preservation, cataloging (providing intellectual control and accessibility), and outreach of that collection to the communities that may benefit from the collection's availability.  The Freer|Sackler Archives is very pleased to be able to provide easy online access to our scholars and friends across the globe, and we were honored to be able to share the news of these resources to our colleagues in person at the Museum fur Islamische Kunst.  The Ernst Herzfeld project is far from over, and we look forward to working with our colleagues closely in the years to come.

Rachael Cristine Woody
Freer|Sackler Archives 

Samarra 1911: The Life of an Alleged Spy: Guns, Kissing, and the Excavation of Balkuwara

Excavation of Sāmarrāʼ (Iraq): Balkuwārā Palace, Isometric Reconstruction of the Western Īwān and the Cruciform Reception-Hall Block, 1911-1936 [drawing]. Freer|Sackler Archives.
Ernst Herzfeld grew frustrated with delays the spring had brought him and in mid-July hired more workmen in an effort to increase productivity.  He hired a total of 70 workmen for Manqur, and in the last week of July they revealed the central audience hall of Balkuwara.  During this time he uncovered the "rooms adjacent to the courtyard in front of the audience block - the 3rd Cour d'honneur, as Herzfeld called it. In late August he reached the pavilions to the west of the audience hall over-looking the Tigris while work inside the main iwan, the 'Great Iwan,' was still continuing." As described by Thomas Leisten, in his book Excavation of Samarra, Volume 1 Architecture. Final Report of the First Campaign, 1910-1912.

Image Above: Excavation of Sāmarrāʼ (Iraq): Balkuwārā Palace, Isometric Reconstruction of the Western Īwān and the Cruciform Reception-Hall Block, 1911-1936 [drawing].

August 7th-8th soon interrupted Herzfeld's hopes for productivity.  On the night of the 7th, Herzfeld heard shouting from the sandbank near the camp.  Herzfeld's guards and servants went to check on the situation but as they reached the area, a Bedouin man emerged and ran away towards the north.  Herzfeld and his group got close enough for them to shout "Don't be afraid!" which prompted the runner to turn and fire his gun.  Herzfeld launched towards him, but was deflected by the runner's stick.  Herzfeld pursued until he reached the tent of the shaykh.  Once there he sent word to all the officials, and a police force of 20 men showed up.  Afterward, in his diary, Herzfeld recounts how they then entered into a lengthy negotiation process.  Herzfeld repeatedly demanded the man, his horse, and his gun; but was only presented with the wrong revolver and the horse.  After several more hours, the captain of police said that he could do little other than arrest the shaykh, which would incite a Bedouin attack on Herzfeld.  After several more hours of a stalemate the captain "brought the affair to a quick resolution by declaring the case would be laid in my hands and if I would accept the supplication for forgiveness he would not prosecute. By this and the preceding disclosures I was nolens volens obliged to say Amen. I got more foot-kisses and other kisses and eventually everybody left (Herzfeld's 1911 diary, now held at the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin)."  A later entry on August 12, Herzfeld confirms that the runner who shot at him was the brother of the shaykh.

Excavation of Sāmarrāʼ (Iraq): Balkuwārā palace, gate II, plan and section of southern wing, 1911-1936 [drawing]. Freer|Sackler Archives.
By mid-August, 200 men were working on Bulkuwara to excavate the gates and access to the courtyards in front of the audience hall.  On August 29th excavators had reached the eastern gate and had discovered a bath to the south of the audience hall.  With the excavation of Balkuwara nearing completion, Herzfeld wanted to begin excavation of al-Sanam and al-Qadisiyya.  However a sandstorm on August 30th gave him cause to review his notes for two days and two nights; giving him the revelation that he still needed to draw and map out the ruins and excavation sites if he wanted to obtain further funding for a second campaign on Samarra.  Herzfeld took a two month break from excavating to rectify his record keeping and to give relief to his strained budget.

Image to the Left: Excavation of Sāmarrāʼ (Iraq): Balkuwārā palace, gate II, plan and section of southern wing, 1911-1936 [drawing].

On September 6th, while mapping out the ground plan of Balkuwara, Herzfeld discovered that there had been two mosques in the open spaces.  In his remaining days there he and his depleted crew explore the space of the mosques, gates, and pavilions on the ridge above the river.  After a one-day exploration of al-Sanam, Herzfeld determined that no further work was warranted.  At this time Herzfeld was ready to retire for a break to Baghdad, but on September 10th he learned of a plot by the notorious Jemil Effendi to accuse Herzfeld of "staying overnight outside the camp and undertaking suspicious excursions at night - in short, of acting like a spy." The only hint of resolution Leisten provides us is one line,"Herzfeld and the Qa'immaqam broke off all communication" (Excavation of Samarra, 17)."

Samarra 1911: Excavation of Shabbat al-Hawa, Qasr al-Ashiq, and Qubbat al-Sulaibiyya
Samarra 1911: Clashes with Authority led to Sabotage 
Samarra 1911: Excavation of the Great Mosque Finishes, al-Quraina Begins
100th Anniversary of the Samarra Excavation by Ernst Herzfeld

Samarra Resource page.

Rachael Cristine Woody

Freer|Sackler Archives

Monday, July 11, 2011

Burmese Lantern Slides

These hand-colored lantern slides of Burma were taken by Willard E. Graves, an American missionary who served as principal of the Methodist Episcopal School for Boys in Rangoon from 1908-1913. At the time, Burma was under British colonial rule as a province of India. One of the major political changes Britain introduced was the separation of church and state, which resulted in the increase of secular education. However, the colonial government established secular schools while also providing financial support for foreign Christian missions to create schools. Missionaries served as teachers at these mission schools, and their lessons were characterized by criticism of Buddhism and its culture.

You can view all 67 images from this collection here and the catalog record here.

- Rose Love Chou, Reference Volunteer
National Anthropological Archives

Friday, July 8, 2011


Last week I received, on behalf of the NMAH Archives Center, a gift of correspondence
files related to the life and career of Donald H. Sultner (1914-1981), a photographer and
lecturer who worked professionally under the name Donald Sultner-Welles. This gift, from Mr.
Steve Eyster, who as a young man was a friend and protégé of Sultner,supplements an existing
Archives Center collection of Sultner’s photographs, documents, and memorabilia.  During his
later life, Sultner had several Smithsonian Institution contacts and occasionally gave
illustrated lectures for the Smithsonian Associates.  It was not surprising, therefore, that
the Smithsonian was a major beneficiary when he died.  The Archives Center was in its
formative stages in the early 1980s, and the Sultner-Welles papers constituted one of the
three major photographic collections upon which the new unit was founded. 

Donald Sultner-Welles had an unusual career.  Initially, his story was an example of

the cliché of the rebellious young man who forsakes the business career his father had tried
to force upon him, in order to become an “artist.”  Initially he was interested in music
and, with an accompanist, worked as an itinerant vocalist on the school program circuit,
introducing the operatic and Broadway repertoire to elementary and high-school students. 
Unfortunately, according to an interview with his brother-in-law, Sultner awoke one morning
to find his singing voice gone, and it never returned.  Still viewing himself as an
educator, he became a slide lecturer, showing his own travel photographs to a variety of
audiences.  His procedure was simple.  He loved to travel, both in the United States and
abroad, so he traveled the world, presenting illustrated lectures and taking new photographs
as he went, eventually assembling a collection of nearly one hundred thousand color slides. 
He even served as an entertainer on Holland America cruise ships, acting as master of
ceremonies and slide lecturer, then photographing on board and in port.

He was a relentless and passionate lecturer.  He was so interested in high-quality

imagery that he disdained the 35mm format and made 2-1/4” x 2-1/4” color slides on No. 120
Ektachrome and Agfachrome film in his Rolleiflex and Hasselblad cameras, and toted this gear and his own cumbersome projector and large screen on his travels.  He disdained Ansel Adams’s magnificent black-and-white images of nature, insisting they were incomplete, even
“fraudulent,” without color.   If he wanted to present a program at a particular venue, he
refused to take no for an answer, and often insisted on lecturing without a fee if an
organization couldn’t afford it.   He seemed to have a sense of mission, whether extolling
the virtues of baroque and rococo architecture or European and Asian scenery, or teaching
the elements of design with his own photographic examples.  His work is particularly
interesting because of his environmental concerns.  He was an early advocate of what he
called “beautification projects,” by which he often meant eliminating pollution of various
types, so the collection contains many examples of deliberately “ugly” pictures, documenting
eyesores, if not potential environmental disasters.  His concerns went deeper than
aesthetics, and some of his imagery anticipates the work of renowned “environmental”
photographers like Edward Burtynsky.   He also documented what we have sometimes called
“Americana,” in the form of roadside vendors with their homemade signs, and many of these
pictures are emblematic of aspects of American consumer culture in their time. 

An opera enthusiast because of its melding of visual splendor with gorgeous music,

Sultner was especially fond of the “multi-media” experience of Wagnerian opera, and
frequently visited the Bayreuth festivals.  Ever the ambitious showman, he began adding
music to his lectures.  At first it was recorded, but eventually he arranged to have live
accompaniment by symphony orchestras.  Sergiu Comissiona (1928-2005), former music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and a Sultner admirer, even helped convince the Symphony to commission a musical composition in Sultner’s honor, “Concertino for Camera and Symphony Orchestra” by Eric Knight.

One of the issues embodied in this collection is the nature of photography as an art

form and photographers as artists—and how they perceive themselves.  Although Sultner was
devoted to the projected color transparency as his medium and seems to have had very little
interest in having his work published or shown in galleries or museums, he was concerned
about his legacy and craved recognition.  He admitted his own vanity, although he did not
always recognize its manifestations (this is true of many artists).  In one fascinating
diary account, he described showing his photographs to John Szarkowski, at that time the
famed curator of photography of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.  He wrote that Szarkowski
dismissed his work as “good travel photographs,” and lamented the fact that someone of his
reputation as a top-flight curator and critic could demonstrate so little taste and
appreciation of the truth and beauty in a Sultner-Welles color image.  Szarkowski was
renowned at the time for his low opinion of most color photography.  In 1976, a few years
after his encounter with Sultner, Szarkowski gave William Eggleston the first Museum of Modern Art exhibition devoted solely to color photographs and proclaimed Eggleston one of the world's most important color photographers, undoubtedly to Sultner’s consternation.

Illustrations: Color transparencies by Donald Sultner-Welles

1.  Easter eggs, ca. 1970.
2.  Roadside pollution, ca. 1950-1960.
3. Water pollution, ca. 1950-1960.
4. Industrial pollution, ca. 1950-1960.
5. “Big Fruit” : Fruit vendor’s stand with sign, ca. 1960-1970.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

A little thing called world peace

Potala Palace, Lhasa, Tibet, circa 1942
Potala Palace, Lhasa, Tibet, circa 1942.
Richard Kenneth Saker Collection
HSFA image no. 2008_16op_064
Beginning today, His Holiness the Dalai Lama will confer the Kalachakra for World Peace here in Washington, DC. This ten day event is not only of great spiritual importance to practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism, it is intended as a blessing for the entire world. Such a lovely idea, a blessing for world peace. And one doesn't even have to attend to receive the benefits of the blessing - it's automatic, for anyone and everyone.

Today also happens to be the Dalai Lama's 76th birthday. Although thousands of people gathered to pray for world peace is a pretty hard gift to top, I'd like to offer this small gesture in honor of His Holiness' birth:  some highlights from the Human Studies Film Archives' collections of Tibet and the Tibetan people.

• Footage of the Dalai Lama's religious examination and investiture, filmed in Lhasa, Tibet in 1958-1959.

• Over 16 hours of research film footage from "Film Studies of Traditional Tibetan Life and Culture: Bylakuppe, South India, 1980", including a beautiful and dramatic chaam dance, as seen below. Many more hours of film were shot in other Tibetan communities in South India between 1979 and 1982.

Photograph from Film Studies of Traditional
Tibetan Life and Culture: Ladakh, India, 1978
Photograph from Film Studies of Traditional
Tibetan Life and Culture: Ladakh, India, 1978
HSFA image no. 86_13_3-66op_001
• Thousands of photographs from "Film Studies of Traditional Tibetan Life and Culture: Ladakh, India, 1978".  There is also film footage taken in Ladakh at this time.

• Film and video taken at the first Kalachakra Initiation given in the United States, held in Deer Park, Wisconsin, in July 1981.   

• And finally, a favorite here at the HSFA, the Richard Kenneth Saker Collection, comprised of over 400 photographs and 40 minutes of color 8mm film.  As a British Trade Agent posted to Gyantse, Tibet, Saker traveled throughout the country between 1941 and 1943.  In 1942, he documented Losar (the Tibetan New Year) festivities in Lhasa.  We don't know for sure where and when the footage shown below was shot, but the people's fine dress suggests a celebration or important event, possibly Losar.

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.