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Friday, August 30, 2013

Voting Power: Woman Suffrage

We’ve got a lot to celebrate this last week of August. Along with commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, this week also marks the 93rd anniversary of the certification of the Nineteenth Amendment. Known as the Woman Suffrage Amendment, it was first introduced to Congress in 1878, but took over 50 years to finally make it into the Constitution. Granting women the right to vote, the amendment was passed by Congress on June 4, 1919 and then ratified by the states on August 18, 1920. The amendment was finally certified on August 26th of that same year. 

Almost a century later, August 26th is recognized as Women’s Equality Day, designated as such by Congress in 1971. In the decades that followed the amendment's certification, victory was still fresh in the minds of American women. The date was a reminder of how far women’s equality had come, and how much more was possible. For the 1933-1934 Century of Progress Exposition hosted by the City of Chicago, the National Council of Women commissioned the artist Hildreth Meiere to paint a mural depicting woman’s progress and place in history in the United States. Below is a sketch for that mural, "Onward March of American Woman." Included in the sketch are themes related to women’s contribution to education, Emancipation, the Red Cross, and social justice. 

Onward March of American Women, 1933
The Peter A. Juley & Son Collection contains more views of Hildreth Meiere’s mural which can be found in the Collections Search Center. You can find more information about Women’s Equality Day and the Nineteenth Amendment on the website for the National Women’s History Museum.

Rachel Brooks
Photograph Archives, Smithsonian American Art Museum

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Getting Warmer: Clues in the Reflections

This post is a follow-up to  "Cold Cases and Archival Mysteries," in which we invited you, the readers of this blog, to help us identify a group of photographs from boxes labeled “miscellaneous” in the Moses and Frances Asch Collection. To learn more about this collection, see the SIRIS record

Intern Jennifer Graham works on solving some archival mysteries
In order to solve a cold case, new evidence must surface or existing evidence must be re-examined. With the help of readers like you, this case of unidentified photographs and negatives has been getting warmer and we’re on our way to solving the mystery! To recap, this is what we know:

The photographs were developed (but not necessarily taken) by Moses Asch

The majority of the photographs were taken in New York City

Some photographs were taken around 1949 or 1950

The negatives have an aspect ratio of 1.33 (30 mm x 40 mm)

Stepping into the temporary shoes of Photograph Detective, I wanted to try to understand these photographs. Who was the photographer? What was being photographed? Where were the photographs taken? Why and when were they made? These are questions that we tend to ask to help build any knowledge that each photograph may hold. But when the answers to those questions aren’t readily available, we need to rediscover the information we have to draw connections and ultimately conclusions.

The first objective became to investigate the maker of these photographs, but how could one identify the photographer when they are always behind the lens? It became a priority to look for any semblance of an author. Any of these little breadcrumbs could configure a new lead or another clue! What we did find was a reflection of a woman with long and slender hands. Although she may not have authored all of the photographs, she is certainly responsible for taking this one. This, in the photo detective world, is a milestone!

What is amazing is that the reflection also tells us that the camera was both small and handheld. Can you help us try to identify the camera she was using? After researching the scribbles made on the development envelopes, we now know that the photographer was using 127 half-frame films, producing 3 x 4 cm images per roll. The camera also looks like it is being held horizontally, which could potentially be helpful in identifying a camera made before or during 1949 (the identified date of some of the photographs). In knowing this, maybe we can come closer to solving the mystery.

Another point worth mentioning is that although the majority of photographs have a documentary style, there are photographs where the subject(s) have been posed.  These poses suggest an interaction or relationship with the photographer, which is seemingly absent in others. While still a document of the city of New York, these images indicate a familiarity or closeness, which especially becomes the case in the photographs where an unidentified woman sits inside next to a window with a magazine or picture catalog (below). Who could she be?

Once the who(s) begins to take shape, the what(s) and why(s) become just as important to construct the purpose of the photographs.  Maybe with these new clues, we can begin to unearth more information than we ever thought possible. We’re hot on the trail, and are moving full steam ahead! Good luck detectives!

Jennifer Graham, Summer Intern
Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections

Monday, August 26, 2013

50 Years Ago in Washington DC...

This week, Washington D.C. marks the 50th anniversary of one of the greatest demonstrations for freedom held in our nation’s capital. People from all over the United States gathered together to speak of civil liberty, civil rights and economic freedom for all.  1963 was a big year for not only the civil rights movement, but for many minority groups looking to Washington for new and better representation. As I wrote in a post for the National Museum of the American Indian blog, the election of John F. Kennedy represented a new hope for the blazing of new frontier of cooperation between the U.S. government and Native American tribes.

Earlier in 1963 leaders from the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) converged on Washington, DC as well for a meeting with President John F. Kennedy.  The group of tribal leaders, headed by NCAI President Walter Wetzel (Blackfeet), was in DC trying to persuade Congress to enact legislation that would require the consent tribal leadership before states could assume jurisdiction over reservations. 

NCAI President Walter Wetzel (Blackfeet), second from the right, meets with JFK March 5, 1963.
National Congress of American Indian Records (NMAI.AC.010) [P34169]
You can read President Kennedy’s remarks that day on the UC Santa Barbara American Presidency Project website.

NCAI President Walter Wetzel (Blackfeet) speaks in the Rose Garden, March 5, 1963.
National Congress of American Indian Records (NMAI.AC.010)
These photographs, from the records of the National Congress of American Indians, represent just one moment in the long history of Native American organizations coming to Washington, DC to stand up for their rights.

Rachel Menyuk
Archives Technician, NMAI Archive Center

Thursday, August 22, 2013

James D. Russell's Sperryville

The Sperryville Documentation Project is an audiovisual collection documenting the Sperryville, VA community. It contains video interviews with historian James D. Russell (1921-2011) about his work preserving the history of the community, his family, and particularly his great grandmother Sister Caroline Terry, who was born into slavery in Rappahannock County, VA. Due to his family's strong ties to the area, Mr. Russell's familial history offers an insightful historical account of the town and the community as well.

In an effort to document his story and that of Sister Caroline, Russell wrote two books: Beyond The Rim: From Slavery To Redemption In Rappahannock County, Virginia (2005) and The Resting Rock: Ghosts, Memories & Folk Tales (2006). The video interviews contained in this collection serve as a supplement to Russell's written historical accounts. In the interviews, he discusses Sister Caroline and various aspects of her life as a slave (including the hymns she sang and lessons she passed down to him) as well as his own memories of civil rights milestones, such as attaining the right to vote. Russell states that he wanted his family's story documented to remind younger people that what they have now is the result of the struggles of those who came before. In keeping Sister Caroline's memory alive, Russell breathes life into the history of an entire community.

Mr. Russell sits next to a sign he posted on his land to mark the location of the now empty burial site of enslaved persons on  the former plantation where his ancestors labored. Photo by Steven Cummings.

Sister Caroline's grave site, located just a few minutes from Mr. Russell's Sperryville home. Photo by Steven Cummings.
The Sperryville Documentation Project Collection, which is housed in the Anacostia Community Museum Archives (ACMA), contains all of the original miniDV tapes, DVCAM masters, and VHS access copies of the recorded video documentation of Mr. Russell and the community, as well as digital photographs taken at the time of taping. The original miniDV tapes in this collection are currently being transferred to digital file formats to make them available for online streaming. Below is the newly transferred James D. Russell Interview, Part 1 (Note that the first part of the video is B-roll footage of the area. The interview begins at 00:14:37):

To view more videos from the collection, visit the Anacostia Community Museum's YouTube Channel.

Taylor McBride, Audiovisual Archivist
Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Artists with Green Thumbs

Jessie Willcox Smith and Elizabeth Shippen Green
with Prince the dog in the garden at Cogslea, 1909
It is no secret that artists take inspiration from nature. Think of Van Gogh's sunflowers, Monet's waterlilies, O'Keeffe's poppies (and irises...and calla lilies...and morning glories, etc.). So it should be no surprise that in the Archives of American Art there are many examples of artists enjoying their own gardens and back yards. Muralist and stained glass designer Violet Oakley shared a home, studio, and garden in Philadelphia with three other artists, Henrietta Cozens, Elizabeth Shippen Green, and Jessie Willcox Smith. They named their residence Cogslea, a compound of their four names (Cozens, Oakley, Green and Smith). This photograph from the Violet Oakley papers shows that the garden they tended at Cogslea boasted a lovely pergola and fountain.

Marcel Duchamp, Jacques Villon, Raymond Duchamp-Villon,
and Villon's dog Pipe in the garden of Villon's studio, Puteaux, France,
circa 1913
Speaking of fountains, here we have Marcel Duchamp with his brothers Jacques and Raymond in Jacques' garden (Marcel is at the far left). Although it might be hard to see the influence of nature on Duchamp's art, he clearly enjoyed a good sit-down in the garden. It is reassuring to see that lawn chair design has not changed much in the past 100 years.

View of Fred Smith's Concrete Garden, 1977 Aug.
For self-taught artist Fred Smith, the garden was not a place to relax and grill hamburgers, but rather a museum to house his myriad sculptures. His "Concrete Garden" in Phillips, Wisconsin is a series of sculptures of animals and common folk; lumberjacks and immigrant farmers. The concrete sculptures are embellished mosaic-style with glass, mirrors, and other found objects. Lest you tire of pergolas, wicker chairs, and other traditional garden features in your own backyard and are looking for some inspiration, the Concrete Garden is open to visitors. But if you can't make it out to the Dairy State, you can always peruse more photos from our collections here

Bettina Smith, Digital Projects Librarian
Archives of American Art

Thursday, August 15, 2013


Archives may not be excavation sites in Egypt, but they are places of wonder in their own right. In an archives, one can re-live the past and see it in a new light. Archives are also places where history is ripe for rediscovery. 

Freer Sackler Library

Though archivists work very hard to ensure collections are organized and accessible to researchers both physically and intellectually, there is always work to be done to make discovery possible. As the new archivist at Freer|Sackler, I have been working through the archival collections, gathering knowledge on their physical layout and breadth of content. I realized we had a lot of institutional records scattered throughout our movable shelving, so, with Archivist David Hogge’s blessing, I reorganized and consolidated the institutional records so they would be more easily accessible and understandable. I thought this would be a simple matter of moving of boxes and re-shelving of items, but in the process I found a pot of gold.

Construction of the Freer
I stumbled upon some really unique artifacts. I found photos of the Dalai Lama visiting the Freer Sackler and royalty from Japan, Iran, and Jordan. I also discovered that there is a Charles Lang Freer Medal. The medal is presented to a scholar who has made a distinguished contribution to the knowledge and understanding of the history of Asian Art.

Dalai Lama at the Freer Sackler in 1995.
I found the oral history materials that have been created over the years including a cassette tape that, yes, the Archives intends to keep as a solid format backup for oral histories in the future. You never know, in this world of ever changing formats what might come in handy. Archivists are strong believers in better safe than sorry.

The Freer Medal and Mold.

One of the best things about this profession is that you never know what you are going to find, even in your own archives. I was doing what seemed to be a routine activity for an archivist (reorganizing institutional records), and yet I found a treasure trove of materials, history, and stories. It goes back to the adage of not seeing the forest for the trees. It was a nice reminder that the Smithsonian is a pretty amazing place to visit, explore, and work.

Lara Amrod, Archivist
Freer|Sackler Archives

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Unpacking Our Treasures: An Introduction to the Smithsonian Transcription Center

Across every museum, archive, and library, Smithsonian staff are hard at work digitizing our wonderful collection materials, with the goal of preserving and making accessible the millions of documents, specimens, and artifacts that represent our nation's heritage, our world cultures and our diverse planet.

But what happens after we digitize something? With a mission of "the increase and diffusion of knowledge", we at the Smithsonian are always looking for ways to make our efforts more useful and informative to researchers and members of the public.

The Need for Transcription

When it comes to letters, diaries, manuscripts, it's clear that transcription is very handy. Before the invention of typewriters, it was far more common to find documents written long-hand - which is not machine-readable, and therefore hard to search. Plus sometimes it's just plain hard to read!

For instance, take a look at the paragraph below

That's an excerpt from Mary Anna Henry's diary. She was the daughter of the Smithsonian's first Secretary, Joseph Henry, and wrote about her experiences in Washington, D.C., her father's work, and the start of the Civil War.

There's a wealth of wonderful stories that could be shared from that diary, but unless you're personally poring over these documents for hours or reading someone else's report on the diary, you'll never hear them.

A Quick Peek at the Smithsonian Transcription Center

That's why the Smithsonian is working on a crowdsourced transcription project to invite the public to help us uncover our many treasures. In the past few weeks, hundreds of volunteers participated in our open beta and have made thousands of contributions on a variety of Smithsonian collections, from field notebooks of early 20th century American naturalists, to the painting diaries of the artist Oscar Bluemner, to the research diaries of chemist Leo Baekeland.

My colleague Sarah Allen and I (Jason Shen) are new additions to the Smithsonian, but we're incredibly excited and honored to build on the great work that's already started by a team that includes folks from the Office of the Chief Information Officer, SI Archives, Archives of American Art, Natural History, American History and many more.

We're still in beta and plan to make lots of improvements to the software, and if you're up for becoming a digital volunteer, we'd love to have you. Come check out the Smithsonian Transcription Center.

A little background on us:

  • Jason is a tech entrepreneur from San Francisco and cofounded a social transportation company called Ridejoy. He writes a blog on startups and personal development called The Art of Ass-Kicking.
  • Sarah has 20 years of software development experience and helped build the technology behind After Effects, Shockwave and Flash. She also helps women and minorities learn how to code through her nonprofit RailsBridge and writes at Ultrasaurus.
We look forward to sharing more our work in the coming weeks and months so stay tuned!

Jason Shen & Sarah Allen
Presidential Innovation Fellows

Oh, and about that diary entry: thanks to the work of volunteer transcribers, we now have a machine (and human!) readable form for that paragraph:
Nov 22 1858
Father has been looking over one of his old books tonight in which are recorded some of the experiments he made while at Princeton. The review has made him somewhat sad. He spoke of one experiment upon the effect of electricity encircling a ray of polarized light. It failed for want of sufficiently strong galvanic battery. Five years later Faraday made the same experiment, succeeded & gained the plaudits of the scientific world. I do not exactly understand this experiment -- shall ask for an explanation.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Searching for Sharks

Shark Laying on Barrels, SIA, SIA2013-08815
August is here and so is Shark Week! Facebook pages, tweets and memes are celebrating one of America’s favorite theme weeks. Being married to an avid Shark Week lover, I have tried to get enthusiastic about Megalodon and Jaws, but really struggled to understand all the hype—That is, until I took the Shark Week quiz to find out what shark I am most like.

White-Tipped Shark, SIA, SIA2013-08818
I started out answering all the questions and wondered what shark am I: bull shark, blue shark?  When the questions were complete, I hit the send button and bam there it was, my shark persona.....the Hammerhead. I was slightly surprised until I read the description and realized that both the Hammerhead and I are social, quick tempered and most importantly, passionate about our food! After I stopped wondering if I should be offended or not when people’s response was “Oh, that sounds right” when they heard I was a Hammerhead, I became interested in learning more about the shark. I decided to try and find out any information about Hammerheads that may be in the Smithsonian’s collections.

Shark Caught on a Line, SIA,
Since I work for the Smithsonian Institution Archives, I started going through our collections. To my dismay I could not find anything about Hammerheads, which then raised the question, did we have any materials about sharks? Well, thanks to the wonderful item level records from the Field Book Registry, I was able to track down images of sharks. The collections contained: Whitetip Reef Sharks (which my husband likes to laud over me since reef sharks are his ilk), tiger sharks, and unidentified sharks, but alas, no Hammerheads.

I then turned to the Collections Search Center and to my delight there are over five hundred records relating to the hammerheads, including some great pictures of hammerhead teeth! The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s ocean portal also has a great number of hammerhead images to see.

Watson Perrygo Poses with Shark,
SIA, SIA2013-08824

So what did diving through the collections teach me? Well, I learned that taking a quiz about sharks can pique my curiosity about the amazing creatures sharks are and that the Smithsonian has a vast amount of shark knowledge.  I encourage both fans and non-fans alike to take the quiz and if you get bit by the Shark Week bug, check out the Smithsonian's collections to find out more about your shark.

Courtney Bellizzi
Smithsonian Institution Archives

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

New to the Archives of American Gardens

photos by Audrey Abrams
As an intern with the Archives of American Gardens (AAG) this summer, one of my projects will be to process a portion of a new collection consisting of thousands of garden images taken by Corliss Engle, a passionate horticulturist, self-taught photographer and active member of the Garden Club of America.   

Corliss Engle served on the board of trustees for both the Massachusetts Horticulture Society and the New England Wild Flower Society. Her commitment to the field of horticulture led her to receive a Garden Club of America Achievement Medal and have the Begonia Society name the Begonia “Corliss Engle” in her honor. 

The Corliss Knapp Engle Collection documents scores of private gardens throughout the United States, including her own, captured in over 400 35mm slides, which she maintained for over thirty years in Brookline, Massachusetts.  The addition of these slides nicely complements Engle’s garden photography already included in the Garden Club of America Collection at AAG.

Audrey Abrams, Summer Intern 2013
Archives of American Gardens

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Alixa Naff and her Arab American Collection

The Smithsonian Institution is noting the death on June 1, 2013, of Dr. Alixa Naff, a generous donor, passionate collector, and pioneering historian of Arab American culture and immigration history.

The Faris and Yamna Naff Arab American Collection is one of the National Museum of American History's most important collections which document immigrant experiences. Dr. Alixa Naff devoted the better part of her life to assembling this collection of oral histories, photographs, manuscript materials, other documents, and artifacts, and donated it to the Museum in her parents' honor. The archival materials are housed in the Archives Center, and the artifacts, such as religious objects, musical instruments, and personal and household items, are stored with the Museum's "three-dimensional" objects. Following her donation, Dr. Naff worked tirelessly with the collection as an Archives Center volunteer for many years.

The occupations of many immigrant families are well illustrated in the Archives Center's Naff Collection, among them the Doumar family, which operated an ice cream business in Norfolk, Virginia, in the early part of the twentieth century. Studio portraits show family members, while exterior and interior views of Doumar ice cream stands and facilities offer significant glimpses into immigrants' lives. Some record the growth of technology as well, among the multiple layers of information which documentary photographs can convey. Consider this view of George Elicas Doumar using a waffle cone making machine, which was introduced in 1919 and allegedly made hand machines obsolete.

George Elicas Doumar using waffle cone making machine, Ocean View Park, Norfolk, Virginia, 1920.
Photographer unidentified.  From the Faris and Yamna Naff Arab American Collection, Archives Center.

David Haberstich
Curator of Photography, Archives Center