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Friday, May 25, 2012


Esther Popel Shaw with her daughter Patricia Shaw Iverson. Photograph by Addison N. Scurlock. Scurlock Studio Records, ca. 1905-1994, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.
I didn’t intend to write about Mother’s Day this year.  I briefly considered trying to redeem myself for the somewhat cynical observations about the holiday that I posted two years ago, but finally decided to seek an alternative subject.  After several weeks, my search seemed in vain.  My brain was parched in a desert of withered, dried-up ideas, and I stared at a tempting, shimmering mirage—the oasis of self-reference.  I could blog about blogging!  You get my drift: I was desperate for a topic.
Then I found my topic through an e-mail from Suzanne Jenkins, thanks to a conversation with our mutual friend Will Stapp (both are former emloyees of the National Portrait Gallery).  The e-mail concerned the Addison Scurlock portrait of Esther Popel Shaw above, which reminded me of my 2010 Mother’s Day blog, and I decided it’s time for an update.  So this is a supplement to my "Mothers, Motherhood, and Commerce," which noted how sentimental holidays such as Mother’s Day have been commodified and packaged for profit by the business world.  It is easy, after all, to grumble that familial love and other tender sentiments have been high-jacked or manipulated by the greeting card and advertising industries.   I closed that post with the Scurlock photograph of the Shaws, observing that it too was a commercial product, however customized and personalized it may have been in order to appeal to a specific family.  Scurlock was paid to produce this image for his customer, and he did his best to create a flattering, saleable portrait.  He knew all the elements, including appeals to sentiment and tenderness, which would guarantee a sale and augment his income.
Mother’s Day was celebrated less than two weeks ago, and I hope you readers observed it appropriately by honoring your own mothers and/or other mothers who are important in your lives.   I reproduce this Scurlock photograph again for somewhat different reasons--to demonstrate that it has a broader documentary significance beyond its function as a signifier of motherhood, and the fact that archivists and curators are continually learning about the objects in their collections and are being challenged to present new information to their publics in appropriate form.   In this case, a knowledgeable observer contributed historical information and I recorded it, having previously failed to note in our SIRIS catalog record basic information about the subjects that was readily accessible in many locations.  Mea culpa!
Esther Popel Shaw apparently was the first African American woman to graduate from Dickinson College, in 1919.  The Scurlock photograph suggests that she was a loving mother.  But she was also a noted poet, allied with the Harlem Renaissance.  Observe how Addison Scurlock suggests her unique personality by emphasizing her distinctive profile and hairstyle.  Her daughter Patricia hoped to follow in her mother's footsteps and also enrolled in Dickinson College, but discovered that racism still persisted when she was not permitted a room in a white dormitory.  In recent years Dickinson College has tried to atone for its past errors, as reported by Dickinson's Professor Sharon O'Brien.
In April I attended an exhibition opening at Towson University, a retrospective for the Baltimore painter, sculptor, and printmaker Amalie Rothschild (1916-2001), whom I had met in the 1990s, through her daughter Amalie R. Rothschild (sometimes called Amalie Junior), a photographer and documentary filmmaker.  I hope to acquire for the Archives Center some of Amalie R.’s work and am eager to curate an exhibition of her 1960s photographs of the Fillmore East.  The Towson exhibition opening was an opportunity to purchase the sumptuous new monograph on the artist, which Amalie R. and her husband have worked on continuously since her mother’s death—a true labor of love.  In a lecture preceding the reception, I learned more about the elder Rothschild.  I knew from personal experience how charming, witty, and forthright she was, as well as what a brilliant and talented artist she was; now I heard that, despite her prodigious creative output, she was always frustrated in her attempt to reconcile her artistic career with her domestic role.  She frequently articulated her insistence that her role as a wife and mother was paramount in her life, and her professional and creative work was secondary (although a very close second, it seemed to me).  A tireless, vocal advocate for the recognition of other female artists, she remains a major figure in the history of twentieth century art in the Baltimore area, and achieved international recognition as well.
After studying the Amalie Rothschild monograph last weekend, her conflicted career was on my mind.  And this week I was reminded that Esther Popel Shaw was a published author and activist, and I wondered if she too had difficulties in balancing family and career.  As a participant in the Harlem Renaissance, her career had a political component, and she has a place in the long history of the struggle for African American civil rights.  See the capsule biography in "Picturing the Promise: The Scurlock Studio and Black Washington" (2009), the book accompanying the exhibition of the same title, p. 43.   I made a connection in my mind between these two strong women, Mrs. Rothschild and Mrs. Shaw, and wondered if Mrs. Shaw ever faced similar conflicts between motherhood and her creative activity and cultural and political activism.  The exhibition label and note in the book emphasize the motherly, protective quality of her interaction with her daughter, which comes across clearly in the photograph and was the reason I selected it for my blog two years ago.  Now the portrait assumes an additional meaning for me.  There is little question in my mind that Addison Scurlock was impressed by this elegant woman, and he sought to emphasize, not only her motherly devotion and attentiveness, but also the personal strength which sustained her in her struggle against racial prejudice and injustice--if not gender discrimination as well. 
David Haberstich, Curator of Photography

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Don't Throw Stones: Glasshouses

Cultivating plants year-round in a controlled environment is a phenomenon that has been around since ancient Roman times.  The use of the ‘modern’ greenhouse has been around since the 13th century in Italy when plant samples collected during expeditions to other lands were brought back and needed to be protected from cold temperatures.  With a sustained interest over the centuries in new, exotic, and delicate plants, scientists used greenhouses to grow plants for study and research while amateur gardeners (a.k.a. plant fanatics) found them to be havens that protected the objects of their obsession. 

                               Greenhouse at Marsh Garden, Dallas, TX. April 2003. Eleanor Laney, photographer. Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, Garden Club of America Collection                                        

A vast array of greenhouse variants proliferated as glassmaking technology improved and specific cultivation requirements were addressed.  Just think of all the formats and shapes and sizes of ‘glasshouses’ there are--everything from hot houses and conservatories to Wardian cases, bell jars, terrariums, and cold frames.  Why over the years, there have even been glass structures as specific as orchid houses, palm houses, temperate houses, orchard houses and fig houses!  All pretty much foster the same elements: light, regulated temperature, moisture, and protection from the outside elements. 

The orangery is another glasshouse variation that was developed to address particular plant cultivation needs, in this case citrus fruits.  Some featured stoves to provide heat while others actually had open fires!  Plants were sometimes grown in large tubs so they could be moved outside when temperatures grew warmer.        

Orangerie at Parterre, Newport, RI.   Sept. 2008. Kathryn Whitney Lucey, photographer. Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, Garden Club of America Collection                              

Regardless of the type, glasshouses serve as microenvironments that keep delicate plants from dying during the harsh winter months.  What gardener doesn’t love the thought of an endless growing season?  

-Brittany Spencer-King
Smithsonian Gardens Intern, May 2012

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Artists as Critics

Growing up as the child of a professional musician, it was not uncommon to hear grumblings across the breakfast table over critical missteps in the morning paper’s concert reviews. This is not an uncommon sentiment amongst artists either.

John Ruskin, ca. 1879. Charles Scribner's Sons Art Reference Dept. records
In his review of James McNeill Whistler’s 1877 show at the Grosvenor Gallery, and in response to his painting Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket in particular, the art critic John Ruskin famously declared, 
“I have seen, and heard, much of cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.”
Whistler’s response was to sue Ruskin for libel, and though he won his settlement, it was only a farthing.

The painter Clyfford Still was never shy about his distaste for art critics or anyone else he felt misunderstood his work. Writing to Betty Parsons about some of his paintings in her gallery inventory he stressed, 
“...allow no one to write about them. NO ONE. My contempt for the intelligence of the scribblers I have read is so complete that I cannot tolerate their imbecilities, particularly when they attempt to deal with my canvases.”

Rubber baby pants, 19--. Emily Genauer papers.
His response to the New York Herald Tribune’s art critic Emily Genauer’s columns was equally as blunt, though pithier: he sent a pair of rubber baby pants with a note that read, "Hoping this will aid in concealing your Sunday affliction. With the compliments of Clyfford Still." One can only imagine that Whistler would have approved.

More on artists and critics at the Archives of American Art:

Elizabeth Botten works in the Reference Services Department at the Archives of American Art. This post was originally published on the Archives of American Art blog in August, 2010.

Friday, May 18, 2012

In Memoriam: Richard Meyer

Richard Meyer and Josh Joffen at the Bottom Line, 1992. Photograph by Teddy Lee.

Singer-songwriter and former editor of Fast Folk Musical Magazine, Richard Meyer, 59, passed away on May 14th, 2012 after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. Richard was a key member of the Greenwich Village folk scene from 1982 until his illness made it impossible for him to continue to play.

Meyer, who was born in 1952, had a background in theater production and set design. After spending four years in Los Angeles trying to make it as a songwriter, he returned to New York in 1982 and became involved with the Songwriters Exchange (members would endeavor to write a song a week) and a cooperatively run folk club (called, appropriately, “the CooP”) operated out of the SpeakEasy in New York’s Greenwich Village (the space was shared with a falafel stand and a belly dance venue). “There was always someone writing a song. For a $2 membership and some bathroom-cleaning/calendar-folding, you could see every show for free,” Meyer recalled in the liner notes for  Fast Folk: A Community of Singers and Songwriters (SFW40135).

Just a few months before Richard Meyer joined the ranks in 1982, the CooP started producing a monthly magazine-and-LP which sold for two dollars at shows at the SpeakEasy. Before the internet brought with it the endless possibilities for promotion and networking,  new songwriters needed an avenue to get their music noticed, and putting out your own album was expensive. The CooP/Fast Folk model was bare-bones: recordings were usually done in one take, and if another take was needed, it was recorded over the last. Most of the work depended on volunteers. “Commercial potential did not enter into the equation…there is always an audience for a good song,” said Jack Hardy (SFW40135).

Hard-working and industrious, Meyer fit right in to this ambitious effort. He began to take on more and more responsibilities, writing and designing for the magazine, managing the annual Fast Folk Revue, and eventually becoming its editor.

The purpose of Fast Folk was to create a myth of a contemporary scene in the Village with a club, recordings, and press, and then live up to it. Songs that had been casual standards around the club became "legitimized" by national airplay and existence on vinyl. Folk music wasn’t just something that happened in the 1960s. The editors encouraged ambitious songwriting, and guided experienced as well as beginning writers to their best material. The process built a community that had an extraordinary effect on American singer-songwriters in the 1980s and 1990s. (Richard Meyer, SFW40135)

In Fast Folk's early years, the covers were generic white sleeves. Founder Jack Hardy and the group wanted to start producing illustrated covers. Meyer, still new to the scene, volunteered that he had a background in graphic design and took over those duties for the magazine. He would also screen demos with Jack Hardy, wading through tapes upon tapes of artists hoping to be a part of the publication. They were looking for well-crafted songs: the artist and their image were secondary—the music had to stand up on its own. Sometimes what a songwriter would think was their best song was trumped by the vision of Meyer and Hardy, and the magazine was a reflection of their editorial eye. Meyer, an accomplished songwriter in his own right, was able to continue making his own music within this process, and many of his songs were issued. In addition to the magazine, Fast Folk sponsored shows of Fast Folk artists including their popular annual Revue at the Bottom Line in Greenwich Village, which Meyer produced and promoted. They also held shows in different cities and recorded the proceedings for special on-the-road issues.

Meyer took over the editorship of the magazine in 1986. He oversaw the magazine’s “controversial” move to begin distributing the recording portion of Fast Folk on CD (it began as vinyl). Their subscribers voted against the move (there are many an impassioned letter in the Fast Folk collection predicting apocalyptic repercussions for changing formats, a subject we’ve written about in the past), but due to cost constraints, the rapidly changing industry, and the benefit of being able to fit more songs on the new format, the switch was made. He remained its editor until 1997, when, after 105 issues and recordings,  the magazine could no longer sustain itself on dwindling volunteer labor.

As the 1990s waned, changes in the industry and the growth of the DIY music business made an organization like Fast Folk less necessary. Richard Meyer and the board of Fast Folk were looking to what to do in the future with the materials and recordings they had made. There was still talk of continuing some of the shows, if not the magazine. In 1999, Richard Meyer facilitated the donation of Fast Folk’s recordings, business records, press clippings, magazines and photographs to the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, creating the Fast Folk Musical Magazine records (for a more detailed description of the collection's contents, see the finding aid).  Though the Folkways label, the Smithsonian already owned and represented many singer-songwriter and folk song revival singers of the 1960s and 1970s. The addition of Fast Folk would add key musicians from the later decades. Richard Meyer oversaw the digitization of all the recordings and fully cataloged each recording in a database. The label came to Washington and is now available the the public in perpetuity.

In 2002, working with Jack Hardy and Jeff Place, Meyer produced a two CD set for Smithsonian Folkways called Fast Folk: A Community of Singers and Songwriters (you can listen to samples on the Folkways website). The CD was in keeping with the ongoing philosophy of Fast Folk not to solely focus on the “stars” who had come from their midst but to  feature other lesser known writers that they thought should be better known. All 105 Fast Folk albums are available on CD and digital downloads through Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, a resulting legacy of Richard Meyer’s efforts. Richard was a highly dedicated worker, music advocate, and a great supporter of all his artistic friends. He will be missed.

-Jeff Place and Cecilia Peterson, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Sneak Peek from the Stacks: A Good Day for a Bike Ride

Designated in 1956 by the League of American Cyclists, May is National Bike Month. Throughout the month, area bike associations will be holding celebrations, fundraisers and events to promote safety awareness, as well as the environmental and health benefits associated with bike riding. Having gone through many redesigns since it was first introduced in the 19th century; the modern bicycle is now one of the more popular modes of transportation, exercise and recreation. 

From our Photo Archives, here are just a few of my favorite bike enthusiasts:

Harry Gottlieb, Sunday in the Park
Frank Jensen, Coming 'Round the Bend

You can find more examples of bicycles in art, along with historical images in the Collections Search Center.

Happy cycling!


Friday, May 11, 2012

In the Spirit of Community: Georgette Seabrooke Powell

In May 1995, the exhibition Art Changes Things:  The art and activism of Georgette Seabrooke Powell closed at the Anacostia Community Museum. The retrospective exhibit curated by Michelle Black Smith celebrated Powell’s artwork and her commit to community. The show featured ten selected artworks, family photographs, and awards documenting her long career as an artist and activist. 
Born in Charleston, South Carolina, Georgette Seabrooke Powell (1916-2011) moved with her family to New York at a young age. She graduated from The Cooper Union Art School and became involved with the Harlem Arts Workshop. In 1936, Powell became a master artist for the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration Program (WPA).  She created a mural at Harlem Hospital and at Queens General Hospital. She later studied at Fordham University, Turtle Bay Music School, and Howard University. Georgette moved to Washington, D.C., in 1959 and became a lifelong artist and educator, organizing art workshops and giving back to the community by founding Operation Heritage Art Center, renamed Tomorrow’s World Art Center, a non-profit organization for education and the arts.
Georgette Seabrooke Powell conducting a painting workshop, 1983
Anacostia Community Museum Archives, GF-83-11, Chris Capilongo photograph.

A recipient of numerous art and service awards, Georgette Seabrooke Powell, according to Michelle Black Smith, traced “many of her life’s most important moments to community.” For Powell, community was “a flexible and encompassing term that defines relationships with family, friends, fellow artists, neighbors . . .” In the spirit of community, she organized various exhibitions, demonstrations, and workshops for the Anacostia Community Museum and served as president of the District of Columbia Art Association (DCAA) in 1989. Researchers can learn part of Georgette Seabrooke Powell’s legacy through documents in the Anacostia Community Museum Archives.

Jennifer Morris
Anacostia Community Museum Archives

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Sneak Peek From the Stacks: Designs for 19th Century Walking-Sticks

Design sketches for the handles of walking sticks from Sheldrake's Notebook

The Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology has a large collection of manuscripts, including some rather odd miscellaneous items. The Practical Notebook of Thomas B. Sheldrake (fMSS 001279 B SCDIRB Dibner Library) contains handwritten notes for the construction and use of batteries and "apparatus for showing electrical phenomenon," as well as instructions for electroplating and plaster-casting. Sheldrake, a self-described working cabinet maker about whom little else is known, also collected these whimsical hand-drawn sketches of "designs for the tops of walking sticks, 1860" in his notebook.

--Diane Shaw, Special Collections Cataloger, Smithsonian Institution Libraries

Friday, May 4, 2012

Sneak Peek from the Stacks: Robert Kaupp's Footage of the Festival of the Battle of Puebla

This Saturday Mexicans will celebrate the 150th anniversary of their victory against French military forces at the Battle of Puebla.  Primarily a regional Mexican celebration, Cinco de Mayo has become increasingly popular in the U.S. among Americans of Mexican heritage and lovers of all things Mexican.  In the 1980s, the NMNH Department of Anthropology received a large donation of Mexican festival masks from private collectors Robert E. and Kathleen von Kaupp. The donation included 500 feet of unedited silent 16mm Kodachrome motion picture film from 1968 documenting the masks in use in the town of Huejotzingo in the state of Puebla, Mexico. The film rolls were deposited in the Human Studies Film Archives and accompanying documentation on the making of the masks was given to the National Anthropological Archives

Independent anthropologist Robert Kaupp fits the model of the intrepid anthropologist-explorer.  Although only 15 minutes long, his festival footage is rich in ethnographic detail and does a great job of capturing the fascinating blend of folkloric and religious traditions.  He even includes surprisingly rare shots of the dancer’s feet in action, so often forgotten by many filmmakers inclined to focus at eye-level and see only upper bodies and the spectacle of the masks themselves.  And this silent footage with its scenes of colorful marching bands and celebratory gunfire gives a vivid impression of the noisy and exuberant street festival.  Sadly, Mr. Kaupp passed away earlier this year after a full life of research and adventure.
In memoriam Dr. Robert E. von Kaupp, 1925 – 2012.
Que Viva Mexico!

Looking ahead: On May 19 the National Gallery of Art will host a touring program of films from the 2011 Robert Flaherty Film Seminar.  Known for its provocative mix of archival, experimental and political films, the 2011 seminar's theme "Sonic Truth" explores music and documentary film. Don't miss the rare opportunity to see these films on the big screen right here in DC!

Thank you to Daisy Njoku and Jennifer Murray!

Exhibiting History

Spencer Fullerton Baird, 1867
Smithsonian Institution Archives
Over thirty years ago today, the Smithsonian Institution Archives (SIA) hosted its very first exhibition. The exhibit, honoring the Smithsonian’s second Secretary, Spencer Fullerton Baird, opened in the Great Hall of the Smithsonian Institution Building, or “Castle.” The exhibit, which included text and images, honored Baird’s accomplishments not only as Secretary, but also as the Smithsonian’s first curator of the U.S. National Museum.

Today, SIA continues to share the Institution’s history through exhibitions. Some are more traditional and are displayed in exhibit spaces across the Institution, while others have embraced modern media. See for example More Than Meets the Eye: Scientists Looking at the Natural World, currently on display in the National Museum of Natural History.  Many of SIA’s exhibits are now displayed on our new website.  From our exhibits page, visitors can explore Smithsonian history, learn about Smithsonian expeditions, and discover new and interesting facts about the Institution. Baird even has two exhibits now, dedicated to sharing his impact on the Smithsonian and his dream of building a U.S. National Museum that rivaled any in the world.