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Tuesday, July 31, 2012


Archivists, curators, and librarians often have controversial materials in their collections, and the mere act of presenting them to the public in the form of exhibitions, publications, and online catalogues can be fraught with risks for such professionals and their institutions.  Among the most heated and memorable exhibition controversies in modern Washington history were the Robert Mapplethorpe crisis at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Enola Gay exhibition at the National Air and Space Museum, and "Hide/Seek" at the National Portrait Gallery.  In these cases public relations crises were matched by the almost inevitable accusations of censorship and restriction of free speech and expression which followed.  The well-intentioned organizers of a somewhat less well-remembered Library of Congress exhibition about slavery were astounded when many African American staff members were so offended that they demanded that the exhibition be closed.   One can think of many more famous examples of battles over exhibition content in Brooklyn, Cincinnati, and elsewhere over the years.
To a lesser extent, images and text posted online by institutions can also carry risks of offending segments of the public.  The National Museum of American History Archives Center's collections contain much historical material which reflects blatantly racial and ethnic stereotypes and prejudices of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century.  As our cataloguing editor/coordinator, I often worry about how some of this material, when seen online, conceivably might offend someone so deeply that they could make my life miserable.  While I would welcome the opportunity to educate someone about our motives for presenting "offensive" historical material in our online catalogue or web pages, knowing how difficult it can be to convince offended, emotional people that your heart is in the right place can give one pause.  Call it cowardice if you wish, but I feel that exhibitions can legitimately seek to educate through provocation and confrontation, whereas through cataloguing I try to document and describe without unnecessary provocation.  I try to show and describe culturally offensive and insensitive material in a manner to make it clear that neither I nor my institution supports or endorses it.  We simply present it as historical evidence, sometimes with specific disclaimers.
Underwood and Underwood, publisher.  "Away down among the cotton and the coons," La.  [Quotation marks in original.]  Glass stereoscopic interpositive, ca. 1900-1910.   Underwood & Underwood Glass Stereograph Collection, NMAH Archives Center.

Above is an example of a stereo-stereotype, as I call them, a stereograph from a so-called "comic" set intended to appeal to white prejudices about African Americans.  Note the caption that accompanies this staged photograph, then follow the link to my catalogue description of it with a disclaimer.  Tell me what you think: is my explanation helpful or unnecessary--or inadequate on one hand, or too "politically correct" on the other?  (Apologies for the poor quality of the image--this will be remedied.)
Hoffeld and Co., advertising card, 1888.  Soap series, Warshaw Collection of Business Americana, NMAH Archives Center
African Americans are not the only ethnic group represented in our visual materials who are subject to bias, ridicule, stereotyping, and "hate speech."  Our advertising collections contain thousands of captioned images which depict virtually every imaginable ethnic group in despicable ways.  Above is a comparatively rare example referring to Gypsies--or a "Gipsy camp."  It seems to represent a vaguely anti-Gypsy sentiment, but I frankly can't interpret it, and I would love to have someone explain it to me.
Carlos de Wendler-Funaro.  Rom woman
(Pupa Kaslov?), New York City, ca. 1939-1942.
  Carlos de Wendler-Funaro Gypsy Research Collection,
NMAH Archives Center
We have several collections containing photographs of Gypsies, especially the Carlos de Wendler-Funaro [aka Carl Funaro] Gypsy Research Collection.  In a later post I'll show a Funaro photograph which appears to demean Gypsies as thieves, reinforcing that particular stereotype, and which I hesitated to include in my exhibition of his work years ago.  Since the person having his pocket picked is actually the photographer himself, it is clear that it's a staged photograph with the participation of one of Funaro's Gypsy subjects.  I assumed, therefore, that the photograph was intended as a joking acknowledgement of that particular stereotype or assumption, and labeled it as such in an exhibition, since our advisor on Gypsy culture was wary and tried to talk me out of displaying it.
I would enjoy comparing notes with other cataloguers and archivists about strategies for the "objective" presentation of racially and culturally insensitive visual materials.

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

Friday, July 27, 2012

Sneak Peek from the Stacks: Summer Games Edition

As Olympics participants and the City of London prepare for the opening ceremony this weekend, a few sporty images from our photo archives:   

Take Him Out, George Bellows, 1906

L. Waterbury at Polo, George Luks, 1913

And a bit of Olympic trivia…since its inaugural year in 1896, at least 14 sports have been officially dropped from the Summer Games; among them a few surprising, given their popularity outside of the Olympic Games (baseball, rugby and polo), and a few amusing (tug-of-war, tandem bicycle). Sporting events that have been eliminated from the Games can often be reinstated though, following an appeal to the International Olympic Committee (IOC). For fans of rugby and golf, both will be making reappearances in the 2016 Games (they were first eliminated in 1924 and 1904, respectively), and there are plans for a proposal that could revive baseball for summer 2020. Sadly, to date, there have been no proposals filed with the IOC to bring back tug-of-war.

Enjoy the Games!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Sneak Peek from the Stacks: George Tooker's Morning Commute

Study for The Subway, 1949. George Tooker papers
The Archives of American Art primarily collects documents surrounding art (artists' and galleries' correspondence, notes, ephemera, etc.), and not art itself, but this study by George Tooker for his 1950 painting "The Subway" comes awfully close to being an art object in its own right. Tooker was a social realist painter in the same vein as Edward Hopper, and "The Subway", now at the Whitney Museum, is one of his best-known works. The finished painting shows a prison-like subway station with grim-faced and anxious commuters. In the study, Tooker was clearly hashing out his color scheme, which seems to have changed very little in the finished work. The documentary evidence that can be gleaned from this sketch is fantastic for scholars of his work, and the visual appeal is just the cherry on top.

For more on George Tooker in the Smithsonian collections, click here.

- Bettina Smith, Librarian for Digital Projects, Archives of American Art.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Diana Davies and the Poor People's Campaign

Diana Jo Davies is a well-known photographer and photojournalist, best known for her images of folk performers, festivals, and social justice and peace movements during the 1960s and 1970s. The Social Justice Series of the Davies Collection holds some of her most powerful images, a number of which document the Poor People’s March on Washington. 

The Poor People’s March on Washington, also known as the Poor People’s Campaign, was a socio-economic movement primarily concerned with gaining economic justice and housing for the American poor. It united races and cultures under one social justice movement. The march began in Marks, Mississippi in May 1968, shortly after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The campaign was to champion King’s final cause: to urge the federal government to pass the “Economic Bill of Rights.” This bill of rights would make assisting the poor a priority, providing employment, income, and housing to all Americans. Once in Washington, D.C., the protesters rallied at government buildings and built an encampment, dubbed “Resurrection City,” around the Washington Monument. Though the Economic Bill of Rights was never passed, the campaign’s goal of making poverty visible and impossible to ignore was certainly accomplished, as Diana Davies' photographs of the movement show. By placing herself inside the action and joining the Poor People’s March, she was able to more intimately capture the movement from the perspective of its participants.

For the past three months I have had the pleasure of delving deep into the Diana Davies Photograph Collection, which is housed in the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives. Poring over countless negatives, contact sheets, and prints from the Social Justice Series has been a slow process, but also a rewarding and fascinating one. In search of the most striking photographs from the Poor People’s March on Washington, I have selected, scanned, and edited a number of these amazing images, and would like to share some of the most powerful.

Songleaders, activists, and participants gather in Resurrection City at the Poor People's March on Washington, June 1968.

People gather on the Mall in Washington, D.C. for the Solidarity Day "Juneteenth" Rally, June 19, 1968.

Cops run people out of Resurrection City during the Poor People's March on Washington, June 25, 1968.
Seeing Davies’ photographs of the Poor People’s March on Washington is like looking through a window to the past. Through her photographs, Davies not only documents the people, places, and actions of the Poor People’s March; the emotions and desires behind this important civil rights movement are captured as well. These powerful images hold great historical significance and allow for a more thorough understanding of the movement and what it meant for so many people. I have certainly learned a lot from these photographs, and am so glad to have had the wonderful opportunity of working with them.

To see more photographs from the Diana Davies Social Justice Series, click here.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Cool Stiles

William F. Stiles, Self-portrait, Quebec, Canada, 1958.
Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of the American Indian (S02131).
 Before joining the staff of the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation in May 1938, William F. Stiles (1912–1980) was George G. Heye's personal driver. An employee of the Museum for almost forty years, Stiles retired in March 1978 as the Curator of Collections. Although Stiles published very little, he was an active field collector and participated in numerous archaeological expeditions. During his collecting trips on behalf of the Museum, Stiles made hundreds of photographs among the Attikamekw, Innu, Miccosukee, Mohawk, Mushuaunnuat, Narragansett, Niantic, and Seminole peoples. All are housed in the William F. Stiles collection of negatives, slides and photographic prints, 1938-1974 at the National Museum of the American Indian Archive Center.

More than half of the collection consists of photographs made among the Innu in Quebec, Canada, in 1952, 1958, 1959, and 1964. In addition to informal outdoor portraits, the photographs depict Innu men, women, and children undertaking a variety of activities, including preparing food, constructing dwellings, fishing, making and repairing canoes, preparing animal skins for the production of clothing, and knitting. For some of these photographs, Stiles recorded the names of the individuals who appear in them. Fortunately, descendants who have visited the NMAI Photo Archives have subsequently identified or re-identified pictured family members. It appears that in 1958 and 1959 he accompanied an Innu band on a fishing trip and that he formed personal relationships with several individuals.

William F. Stiles, Tommy Mastokacho (Innu) playing the guitar,
Mingan, Quebec, Canada, 1958. Smithsonian Institution,
National Museum of the American Indian (S02178).
In fact, the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation records (also housed at the NMAI Archive Center) contain letters written to Stiles from the young Tommy Mastokacho. In the letters written from 1964 to 1968, Mastokacho informs Stiles of his health, his plans for hunting trips into the woods, and various building projects taking place in Mingan, his village. He also makes requests of Stiles. Of concern to most any young man, guitar strings were primary among them. Here, in a photograph from 1958, the fashionable Mastokacho—pompadour and all—strums his guitar and allows his gaze to drift away from Stiles’s camera. Not in the least camera shy, this rural Canadian youth presents himself as the embodiment of American cool.

Of the hundreds of photographs in the collection, five are posted to the National Museum of the American Indian’s Collections Search site. For access the entire William F. Stiles collection of negatives, slides and photographic prints, 1938-1974, please contact the NMAI Photo Archives.

 --Heather Shannon, Photo Archivist, NMAI Archive Center

Monday, July 16, 2012

Sneak Peek from the Stacks: A Summer Photo Identification Project

An intern at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Gardens has spent the summer identifying hand-painted glass lantern slides that were photographed by Frances Benjamin Johnston (1864-1952) in the Garden Club of America Collection utilizing the Library of Congress' Prints and Photographs online catalog.

Some of the photographs identified in the Garden Club of America Collection depict private estates documented by Johnston for her 1930s Carnegie Survey of the Architecture of the South, a project funded by the Carnegie Corporation and coordinated by the Library of Congress

The Library of Congress is the primary repository of Johnston’s photography collection including her earlier garden photography work of the 1910s-1920s and is explained in more detail here: "Lantern Slides for Garden and Historic House Lectures."

Below is a 'sneak peek' of one of the lantern slides now attributed to Johnston in the Archives of American Gardens.

Hand-painted glass lantern slide, Woodberry Forest, Louisa County, VA, 1932. Frances Benjamin Johnston, photographer. Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, Garden Club of America Collection

Safety film negative, Woodberry Forest, Louisa County, VA, 1932. Frances Benjamin Johnston, photographer. Courtesy Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-J7-VA-2120 

Kelly Crawford
Museum Specialist

Friday, July 13, 2012

Archiving the History of an Epidemic: Archives Center Exhibition Opens

"An Early Frost" (1985) was the first nationally broadcast television film to have a story line about AIDS.  In the film, Michael Pierson (Aidan Quinn) is a young gay man with AIDS. Forced to be open about his homosexuality and the disease, he must also face the inevitability of his death. At a time when AIDS was seen as a certain death sentence, "An Early Frost" presented the tragedy of the epidemic to a wide audience. Media writer Kenneth R. Clark noted, “ the first to explore AIDS with a full-length movie, and a lot of people are nervous about it.”
An Early Frost, Chicago Tribune, TV Week, 1985
Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Collection
Twenty-seven years later, The XIX International AIDS Conference will be held in Washington, D.C. for the first time, beginning July 22 through July 27. The Archives Center, National Museum of American History, will display “ARCHIVING THE HISTORY OF AN EPIDEMIC: HIV AND AIDS, 1985-2009,” from July 13 through Labor Day to mark this occasion.

Franklin Robinson, Jr., Archives Specialist

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Sneak Peek from the Stacks: Howard University Glee Club

This week’s sneak peek highlights Howard University Glee Club founder, Roy W. Tibbs.  Born in Hamilton, Ohio in 1888, Professor Tibbs was appointed head of the department of piano and organ at Howard University in 1912.  He graduated from Fisk University and received both the bachelor and master degrees from Oberlin Conservatory.  Professor Tibbs also traveled to Paris, France in 1914 to further his studies under the supervision of Isadore [Isidor] Philipp. Mr. Tibbs trained a multitude of African American music teachers during his tenure at Howard University and toured as a pianist, while serving as director of the men’s glee club. 

Howard University Glee Club (Mr. Tibbs located in the front row, second from left), circa 1925.
 Evans-Tibbs Collection, Anacostia Community Museum Archives
Smithsonian Institution, gift of the Estate of Thurlow E. Tibbs, Jr.
  A review by The Harrisburg Telegram proclaimed, “The Glee Club of Howard University pronounced by the music world as second only to that of Harvard among the college glee clubs of the country, appeared last evening before a delighted audience that filled the Technical High School Auditorium to overflowing.”  The reviewer further states, “Roy W. Tibbs, the conductor is unquestionably one of the ablest college glee club leaders that ever appeared in Harrisburg.”

Howard  University Glee Club program, 1927
Evans-Tibbs Collection, Anacostia Community Museum
Smithsonian Institution, gift of the Estate of Thurlow E. Tibbs, Jr.

Professor Tibbs married Lillian Evans, professionally known as Madame Evanti in 1918 and they had one son, Thurlow Tibbs.  Mr. Roy W. Tibbs died on April 1, 1944 in Washington, DC.  Records of the activities of the Howard University Glee Club forms part of the family papers in the Evans-Tibbs collection and are currently being processed to provide full level access to the collection.   
Jennifer Morris

Monday, July 9, 2012

Carl Etter: An Accidental Folklorist

When we’re young we all dream of being things we never actually grow up to be. When I was eight I wanted to be a veterinarian until I realized there was more to it than just playing with cute animals all day. I recently processed the Carl Etter Papers and Photographs on Ainu Folklore and Culture. Like me, Etter originally had other career plans in mind. He studied religion in college and traveled to Japan in 1928 hoping to serve as a missionary for the Church of Christ. The Church would not support him, so he learned Japanese and became a teacher. While in Japan, from 1931-1932, Etter traveled around the country and collected over 200 legends of the Ainu people in the regions of Hokkaido, the Kuril islands, and Sakhalin. Along the way Etter took photographs of the Ainu people, their villages, and rituals. The Ainu are animists who believe that spirits exist in all things including natural phenomena such as thunder, geographic features such as rivers and trees, and in animals. 

In the diary he kept during his travels, Etter described his experiences interviewing elderly Ainu to collect Ainu stories. He writes:
 “We arrived back at the lodging house at 9:15 a.m. and soon were in a very interesting interview with the older Ainu who at first found difficulty in recalling Ainu traditions but who succeeded in remembering four or five most intriguing stories before our interview ended. First she gave us a story of a brother and sister who came down from heaven to live in Hokkaido. He had great miraculous powers and could accomplish wonders but he did not know the art of making fetishes. The souls of the birds and animals which he killed went to heaven and complained to the gods. His elder brother in heaven came down to earth on a cloud to slay him but did not succeed. They apologized and then the heavenly brother taught the one on earth how to make fetishes. This was the beginning of the Ainu custom of making fetishes.”

Carl Etter's colleague, Dr. Yajima (3rd from left) takes notes while an elderly Ainu man speaks in Ainu and a younger man translates into Japanese. Dr. Yajima and Etter later translated the notes into English.

Although the Ainus’ animistic beliefs differed greatly from his own Christian beliefs, Etter recognized many themes in the legends that were similar to those seen in Christianity.
“The two brothers in this story who quarreled reminds us of Cain and Abel or their reconciliation makes us think of Esau and Jacob. The god coming down to earth implies the idea of incarnate deity or at least possibility of heavenly beings taking up their abode upon the earth. The elder brother’s coming on a cloud carries with it a familiar ring also.”
We can see further evidence of these tropes and the connections Etter made to Christianity in the titles Etter assigned the legends.
-The Moses story—a baby found in a kettle floating down the stream
- The virgin-born boy whose mother was made pregnant by a light that shined into her chest
- The prodigal Ainu youth who was selfish and went away from home—to whom the gods sang a yukara + influenced him to return home
- The Samson (strong man) of Ainu land who took a large tree away from a god, carried a great stone, pulled a boat against the wind etc

For more on Etter’s analyses of these tales, see his book Ainu Folkore, and for an in-depth look at these fascinating folktales visit the National Anthropological Archives. To learn more about Ainu culture, visit the online tour of the exhibition Ainu: Spirit of a Northern People, which was organized by the Arctic Studies Center in 1999.

Christy Fic
Contract Processing Archivist
National Anthropological Archives