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Thursday, November 21, 2013

No Shave November

Alexander Graham Bell,
Smithsonian Institution Archives,
Negative Number: MAH-58254.
John Wesley Powell,
Smithsonian Institution Archives, 
Negative Number: MAH-58254.

You may have noticed that some of the men in your life have been sporting much more facial hair than usual these days. Guys everywhere have abandoned the clean shaven look not because it is playoff time, but because it is November. In the past few years, November has not only become known for Thanksgiving and football, but for beards, mustaches and goatees. “No shave November” is an annual event, where guys grow facial hair for a variety of charities. So gentlemen, while the month is in full swing and by now you have probably gone past the stubble phase, you might need some ideas on how to style your new look. Well, the Smithsonian is the place for you! Within the Smithsonian Institution’s collections you can find inspiring beards, mustaches and goatees. We even have a dedicated Pinterest board to Smithsonian ‘Staches.

Happy ‘Staching!

Courtney Bellizzi
Smithsonian Institution Archives

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Dumpsters are Fun!

Archivists are all about preserving the cultural past for the present and future. Sometimes that makes us de facto ambulance chasers. We’re the people who always ask, “What is that? Why are you getting rid of it? What’s the story behind it?” Too often important and fun pieces of history get destroyed or thrown away.

So archivists are sometimes figuratively dumpster divers and sometimes literally. A few years ago Design Specialist Richard Skinner of the Freer|Sackler rescued the bronze plaque below from disposal following a cleaning of the Freer attic.

At that time, Archivist David Hogge requested any information that staff could provide. Many staff shared stories and memories, but it was former deputy director Pat Sears who made the authoritative identification. The sign was on double posts on the North entrance when there was a driveway that allowed important visitors to be dropped off at the base of the stairs. The below is a slide from the mid-1970s showing the sign on the far right.

This sign is an example of how history can be both lost and found. The Freer|Sackler has regained a piece of its history while adding to the stories of the institution. The sign currently resides in the Freer|Sackler Archive Research Room.

Lara Amrod, Archivist
Freer|Sackler Archives

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

For Science: How Volunteers Can Help the US Herbarium Create Digital Records

One of Gorman's preserved plant specimens with his handwritten label

July is a wonderful time to visit Alaska. With daytime temperatures around 60°F - 80°F, up to 20 hours of daylight, and nature in full bloom, it's an explorer's paradise. And perhaps that's what Martin W. Gorman thought, over 110 years ago as he trekked through the Lake Illiamna Region of Alaska, collecting various plant specimens from around the area on one of several expeditions into the Pacific Northwest.

Those specimens from his 1902 expedition were preserved and eventually donated to the US Herbarium, which is housed in the Botany Department of the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian. And today, we're excited to announce that they're a part of a project on the Transcription Center. Volunteers can aid in the creation of digital records for these specimens as they transcribe Gorman's handwritten notes on each specimen.

Growing into New Fields

Since we announced the launch of the Smithsonian Transcription Center several months ago, we've opened our doors to over 1100 digital volunteers who have tackled the 31 projects on the site with enthusiasm. From field notes of bird observations to scientific lab journals to letters written between 20th century American artists - our volunteers have made thousands of transcription contributions to our collections, helping make our materials more accessible to everyone.

At the same time, our team has been hard at work, continuing to refine the software that powers the Transcription Center. We've engaged our volunteers to refine the application's usability and worked with various museums and archives within the Smithsonian to integrate the application into staff workflows.

This release marks a major improvement to the site and we're so proud to share it with you. We're excited about the promise of transcription and encouraged by the early results we've seen so far. Please join us in helping create digital records from Gorman's 1902 Alaska Expedition and help us unpack our treasures.

Jason and the Transcription Center team

Friday, November 1, 2013

Failed Invention? Go Figure!

Manikin parts, circa 1930s
True story: not all inventions succeed. We tend to hear about and celebrate the inventions that change and advance the ways in which we live and experience the world. We don’t always know and talk about failed inventions, but looking at inventions that didn’t work is an important aspect of documenting the invention process. Understanding the failure as well as the contributing factors is just as important as determining why inventions succeed. Numerous issues, including the lack of access to manufacturing support, capital, raw materials and/or supplies, markets, in addition to poor timing, can lead to the demise of an invention. 

One example of a failed invention is a mannequin or “manikin” created by Landy Hales (1889-1972), an artist-inventor who was a master at using mechanical displays in department store windows. Hales patented a manikin (US Patent 2,129,421) and founded Hales Manikins, Inc. in 1941 to manufacture and sell them. The manikin was an articulated (jointed skeleton), child-size figure with a flexible outer covering of sponge rubber or elastic. As seen from these images, the manikin, assembled and disassembled, was extremely complicated. Hales built these small prototypes as an effective way to learn about what would and wouldn’t work and to determine if the manikin could achieve/perform the intended motion. Hales’s papers contain the records of his effort to patent, manufacture and sell manikins. The documents reveal through sketches, patents, photographs, correspondence, and the minutes of the Board of Directors for Hales Manikins, Inc. the processes he undertook. The visual documentation provides good evidence of Hales’s prototyping efforts to create a workable model.

Hales was unable to manufacture and bring to market his manikin. Even after extensive research, experimenting, and construction of models, patterns and forms, a workable model for the display market was never produced. Hales’s financial backers, Monford Trillett and Mackubin, and Legg & Company, were not willing to spend more money on the venture and Hales Manikins, Inc. was dissolved in 1948. Hales Manikins, Inc. was one of many creative ventures Hales pursued in his lifetime. His layered posters and window displays for Macy’s are recognizable and well documented. To learn more about Hales's inventive life, visit the Archives Center and the Landy Hales Papers.

Blueprint of drawing for skeleton framework for child manikin, circa 1930s

Alison Oswald, Archivist
Archives Center, NMAH