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Friday, August 31, 2012


The Archives Center of the National Museum of American History is moving, as you may have heard.  The move is only temporary (we hope), for the duration of a major renovation of the Museum’s West Wing, estimated at two years.  The Archives Center will be in a construction zone during this period, so we must remove everything of value, for both protection and to ensure access, as well as to allow contractors to perform their work without obstacles.  Therefore collections, furniture, and staff—virtually everything, lock, stock, and barrel, must be moved, with a major exception described below.

Preparations for this move have been underway for months, under the direction of Archives Center chair Deborra Richardson.  Archivist Craig Orr is the mastermind of the details, and he has been determining who moves what when.  Today we experienced the first phase of the movement of furniture and supplies to the new, much smaller reference room location in the “South Wing” or south annex of the building—coordinated by Craig.  It’s hard to believe this is actually happening, and I, for one, felt a bit dazed as the reality sank in.  A celebratory (?) pizza lunch for our staff revived me, however, although it was delayed by the delivery person erroneously going to the Museum of Natural History.*  On Tuesday, September 4, we will begin providing reference service in the new space.

The actual movement of collections will begin on September 17, during which the reference room will be closed for two weeks.  This closing is essential because it will be too difficult to access much collection material.  All collection materials must be removed from the compact shelving in our first-floor secure storage room—although our basement storage rooms will still be in use, unaffected by the project.  Many archives and museums find that they must close for lengthy periods during construction and renovation projects and to facilitate moves to new locations, but this is the first time the Archives Center has had to suspend reference service for such a project.  When we moved from the third floor of the Museum to the first floor in 2003, we did not lose a single day of reference service.  New instructions for researchers are now on our "Welcome" page: see the "Archives Center" link below.

Office locations for staff will be tiny during the renovation, and our big problem is to determine what limited amount of files, supplies, and other stuff we can take with us when we actually move ourselves; this must be completed before November, when the actual renovation begins.  Office files, papers, and personal items which we decide we can live without for two years will be packed and gradually loaded into the compact shelving after it has been stripped of collection items.  I personally seem to have a large number of “active” project files, and am having considerable trouble determining what I can live without.

The author gives Dutch photographer Emile Waagenaar a peek into the Archives Center stacks, 2008. 
In lieu of illustrations of collection items for this blog, I’ve decided to show myself in our compact-shelving stack area with Dutch photographer Emile Waagenaar, whose pictures of Cajun musicians in Louisiana I’ve illustrated previously.  Both our move and Louisiana have been on my mind this week.

* If anyone can tell me why so many couriers, delivery vans (including UPS and Federal Express), pizza shops, researchers, and other people get lost trying to find our Museum, frequently ending up at Natural History instead, I'd love to hear it.  Are we invisible?  Is "Constitution Avenue between 12th and 14th Streets" too complicated?

David Haberstich
Curator of Photography
Archives Center, National Museum of American History


These days, many espaliers are designed to accent a garden, providing an intricate visual attraction to visitors.  Trees or shrubs are trained on a wall or on a trellis to form different, oftentimes decorative, patterns. But did you know that they serve a functional purpose as well?

La Colline, Philadelphia, PA.  May 2008. Wendy R. Concannon, photographer
In the 17th and 18th centuries fruit trees were often trained against kitchen walls.  Not only did the trees provide an ornamental aspect to the garden but being planted and trained against a warm and sunny spot like a south-facing wall aided in fruit production.  The fruit was of a better quality and grew faster because of the warm and sheltered environment.  Placing fruit trees along a wall also enabled fruit to grow in a compact space while providing shelter to vegetables growing below.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines espalier as 1. a lattice-work or frame-work upon which fruit trees or ornamental shrubs are trained and 2. a fruit tree trained on a lattice, usually of woodwork, or on stakes. While espalier refers to the framework that supports the plant, the term also implies the whole process, the framework, the plant, and the act of training the plant.

The Patterson Garden, Litchfield, CT.  May 2010. Marla J. Patterson, photographer

Although it is not used as much, the term espalier can also refer to plants trained to create borders.  Plants are trained in such a way that they establish a dividing line or defining edge for a garden, much like pleaching but without the extensive work of cutting and grafting the plants.  In 1741 English writer and encyclopaedist Ephraim Chambers referred to a ‘British espalier’ as a row of trees planted around the outside of a garden or plantation for its security.

The next time you are wishing that you had apples sooner, consider planting an apple tree right along your kitchen wall!

Julie Hunter, 2012 Summer Intern
Archives of American Gardens
Smithsonian Gardens

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Dog Days of Summer

My favorite scene in the movie 101 Dalmatians is near the beginning, when Pongo is looking out the window of his bachelor pad, trying to find a suitable match for Roger and himself. The women who walk past are all perfect caricatures of their dogs: an art student with long straight hair covering her face and her Afghan hound, a woman wearing a fashionable fur-trimmed suit with her French poodle, a little girl with a puppy, and a barrel-chested woman with her bulldog. Ever since I saw this as a child I have enjoyed looking for similarities between people and their pets. Fortunately, I now work at the Archives of American Art, where our collections are rich with photographs of artists and their pets. Seriously, if someone wants to write their dissertation on which dog breeds were preferred by 20th century artists in America, please give us a call. What I've found is that though there is not always a similarity in looks, artists certainly choose pets which appeal to their sense of aesthetics. Here is just a smattering of examples from our collections:

[Jackson Pollock with his dogs]
Jackson Pollock with his dogs, ca. 1955
Here is the abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock with his dogs Gyp and Ahab. I wouldn't expect anything other than a shaggy mixed breed for Pollock, the man who played it fast and loose with a paintbrush.

[Rockwell Kent playing in the snow with his dog]
Rockwell Kent playing in the snow with his dog, ca. 1935
Rockwell Kent, known for his sleek, athletic representations of the human form, picked for himself a sleek, athletic Great Dane (which, amusingly, is almost exactly as tall as he is).

And finally, Diego Rivera. No French poodle or Irish wolfhound or German shepherd for the man who celebrated Mexican culture in his powerful murals. Nothing but a Xoloitzcuintli (also known as a Mexican hairless dog) would do.

So really, do let us know if you want to do research on the pets of artists. I even have a title worked out that I'm happy to share.

Pointers and Painters: The Significance of Pets in the Lives of American Artists

--Bettina Smith, Librarian for Digital Collections, Archives of American Art

Friday, August 24, 2012

Family Portraits and Vacation Photos

Paul Manship Holding his Daughter Sarah

Included among the more typical photographs of artists and their oeuvre found in American Art’s Peter Juley & Son Collection, are a large number of images featuring artists photographed outside of their studios (some of which I wrote about earlier in the season). The Juleys were regularly employed by the Art Students League and the National Academy of Design, and their work often documented professional or formal events such as gallery openings, board meetings, and awards ceremonies. What I really enjoy however, are the group portraits taken at casual gatherings and family vacation retreats.

I really like the family photos pictured below featuring artists Jo Cantine and Reginald Marsh. The facial expressions of the sitters are amusing, especially those of Jo Cantine’s sons, and help the viewer to identify with the subjects. It’s easy to imagine both of the portraits taking place after a long day spent together as a family, the teenagers perhaps annoyed at having to endure so much family interaction.

Reginald Marsh with his Family

Other photos I’ve found are staged in way that (whether unintentional or not) are sure to elicit a laugh or two from the viewer. Had there been social media websites or image sharing blogs in the early 20th century, these would have surely been popular entries. Below, John Carroll with friends and fellow artists strike a humorous pose for the camera, and Marguerite and William Zorach choose an inventive way to send their holiday greetings:

(John Carroll with artist friends), ca. 1930
Marguerite and William Zorach
I love that these images and others in our Photograph Archives offer a chance to really connect with the artists on a more personal level.

You can search for more group portraits in the Juley Collection as well as our other Photo Archives on SIRIS.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

A Summer Adventure in the NMAI Archive Center

NCAI Annual Convention, 1971 (P34204)
As a summer intern at the National Museum of the American Indian’s Archives Center, I spent most of my time processing the records of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), the oldest national Indian advocacy organization.  The NCAI collection is very large, at least 400 linear feet total, in two separate accessions, and archivists and interns have been processing it off and on for years. (Intern Cara Bertram also wrote about her experiences working on this collection last summer here.)  Its size and complexity made it a sometimes difficult collection to work with, but that ultimately made it more rewarding to see how much progress I made on accurately arranging and describing the material for future users.

One of my main activities with this collection was processing material from the second accession.  Primarily, this meant sorting documents and folders into the categories that had been set up by previous archivists, as well as some basic description and preservation.  Working with this material, most of which was from the 1970s and 1980s, allowed me to learn quite a bit about the work that NCAI did and the many issues facing native communities at the time.  NCAI was a very active, and often very effective, advocate for Indian interests on Capitol Hill and in various other branches of the federal government.  It also actively supported tribal governments around the country, providing training and support on issues ranging from litigation against the federal government to establishing tribal archives.  In working with this collection, I learned about a whole host of topics including treaty fishing rights, nuclear waste storage, Indian responses to the bicentennial of the US Constitution, “Indian Preference” laws, and the inner workings of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

NCAI Delegates relaxing at the 1958 Annual Convention (P34180)
One of the things that I enjoyed most about this collection, however, was the chance to see some of the inner workings of NCAI.  Because of the archival principle of provenance, which dictates that all the records created or collected by one organization be kept together, NCAI’s collection contains the whole range of material created by the organization. So in addition to copies of testimony given before Congress and important letters to the head of the BIA, the NCAI records also contain things like memos from the Executive Director to the staff reminding them to wash their dishes and close the balcony door in the break room. 

These other records, while maybe less historically impressive, let us see the personality of the organization and the individuals involved.  One staff member in the 1980s was fond of puns, and often ended memos with “Thank ewe.”  Elsewhere in the collection, lyric sheets document the “Average Savage Review,” a satirical comedy show occasionally put on by NCAI staff.  One of my favorite songs from one show begins, “There was a tribe that had a game, and Bingo was his name-o/B-I-N-G-O.”  Again, not the most serious document in the collection, but it does give a good idea of what kind of people worked at NCAI, namely the kind who took time out of organizing their major national conference to write song parodies on current issues.  Seeing the whole picture of the organization, everything from budget woes and staff issues to everyday inconveniences and practical jokes, makes the already significant achievements of the organization seem even more impressive.

Archival collections, I think, are unique in enabling us to get this kind of holistic view of people, organizations, and events.  Working with historical records has an immediacy and excitement to it that makes it very rewarding.  Sorting through the NCAI collection yielded surprises that could help me understand the organization better, think differently about the history of the United States, or just make me smile.  That sense of surprise, as well as getting to work with the NMAI Archives Center’s wonderful staff, makes me even more eager to pursue archival work as a career.

Elliot Williams
Summer Intern 2012, NMAI Archive Center

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Sneak Peek from the Stacks: Notable Facial Hair in Folk Music, vol. 1

Photographs of Bob Ross, Philip St. Claire Photography

To help you get through the rest of the week, we present the impeccably groomed whiskers of folk music crooner Bob Ross. His album on Folkways, American Folk Songs for Men, is full of romantic renditions of traditional love songs. His voice, like his beard, is exquisite.

-Cecilia Peterson, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Ethnobotany: A Dangerous Hobby

When I hear the word ethnobotany (the study of plants in relation to their cultural use) I think of soft-spoken, docile academics carefully gathering and analyzing specimens in exotic locations. But don’t be fooled; this job is not for the faint of heart. As Dr.Edward Palmer (1831-1911) can tell you, the practice of ethnobotany can get you ridiculed, ostracized – even killed. 

Edward Palmer, 1864
Photo Lot 70, National Anthropological Archives

Edward Palmer was one of the first botanists to study the cultural meaning of plants in tandem with their biological characteristics. He traveled widely throughout the continental US and Mexico as a Smithsonian Institution field representative in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; in sixty years’ time Palmer studied over 30 indigenous groups and collected over 16,000 botanical specimens.

But before his field work days, Palmer was a surgeon contracted with the US Army; at this time, his interest in plants was only a hobby. In 1868 he was named the official physician for the Kiowa and Comanche Agency in Oklahoma Indian Territory. According to the biographer William E. Safford, Palmer was pressed by his friends at the Smithsonian to collect specimens from both the tribesmen and the environment, and thereby send them back to Washington, DC for study.

Though Palmer first arrived bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, the realities of reservation life quickly sunk in. A small but vocal group of Kiowa and Comanche were constantly raiding neighboring bands of settlers, stealing their food, their provisions, and even their wives and children. The head of the reservation, Colonel Leavensworth, managed to organize a truce in 1865, yet as evidenced by the ongoing raids the terms were paper-thin at best. Palmer’s field notes from the time convey the air of danger and hostility at the reservation.

Yet this failed to stop him from collecting specimens for the Smithsonian. Any leisure time available to Palmer was devoted to studying the flora and fauna of the area. It became such a large part of his daily routine that Leavensworth soon dismissed him for continually neglecting his professional duties. Palmer claimed it was his refusal to store the Colonel’s stash of whisky in his wagon that really caused the dismissal.

Whatever the reason, Palmer soon found himself the physician to nearby Fort Cobb on the Washita River; though the head of this particular reservation, Major Shanklin, was much friendlier towards Palmer, the people certainly were not. They feared he was a witch-doctor because of his strange specimen-collecting practices. The women at Fort Cobb often referred to him as tewit-sa-mariett, or dangerous wise man. And when Palmer failed to save a child sick with pneumonia, it was the last straw; the Kiowa and Comanche of the Fort Cobb reservation decided they needed to be rid of the evil medicine man once and for all.
Drawing of two Comanche men, collected by Edward Palmer in 1868
Manuscript 127,601 National Anthropological Archives

Word quickly spread that the Indians of the reservation wanted Palmer dead. At one point a small group of armed men managed to sneak into Palmer’s wagon while he was away. In the end they left everything untouched, interpreting the wide array of animal specimens to be harmful magic. Yet there was also hostility among the various native groups in the reservation. A number of looting raids had forced many to move to neighboring territories. The reservation community was getting smaller and smaller by the day as more natives were fleeing the raiding parties. Taking his death warrant into account, Palmer eventually joined the mass exodus out of Fort Cobb. 

Palmer’s six months in Oklahoma Indian Territory is an eye-opener. The heightened tensions between Native American groups and new settlers, and even between the Native Americans themselves, can turn even the peaceful task of studying plants into a death trap.

To learn more about Edward Palmer, visit the National Museum of Natural History’s online feature of Palmer’s botanical specimens. His collections are held at the National Anthropological Archives as well as other units within the Smithsonian.

Jacqueline Saavedra, Intern, National Anthropological Archives