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Monday, October 26, 2015

How Do You Process a Rattlesnake? And Other Archival Horrors

Blogs across the Smithsonian will give an inside look at the Institution’s archival collections and practices during a month long blog-a-thon in celebration of October’s American Archives Month. See additional posts from our other participating blogs, as well as related events and resources, on the Smithsonian’s Archives Month website.

We in the archival profession go all out for Archives Month in October, but we acknowledge that as the month comes to a close, the greater populace is maybe more concerned with costumes, bags of fun size candies, and how best to carve a pumpkin without cutting off a finger. So why not bring together the best of both worlds? Here are some of our spookiest finds from the Archives of American Art.

1. Joseph Cornell: assemblage artist, sculptor, filmmaker, and...werewolf?
Marilyn and Pat letter to Joseph Cornell, between 1940 and 1970. Joseph Cornell papers, 1804-1986, bulk 1939-1972. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
This letter was sent to Joseph Cornell from Marilyn & Pat, two children from his neighborhood in Queens, thanking him for not revealing their secret clubhouse. The letter is addressed "Dear Werewolf" - a child's whim, or WERE THEY ON TO SOMETHING?? The back of the letter consists entirely of a howl that was only decipherable to Cornell.

2. Robert Slytherin, er, I mean Smithson

Artifact from the Robert Smithson and Nancy Holt papers, 1905-1987, bulk 1952-1987. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
We generally prefer to leave the herpetology up to our colleagues at the National Museum of Natural History - letters, photographs, diaries and the like generally don't have fangs. But the papers of land artists Robert Smithson and Nancy Holt just so happen to include a rattlesnake head (see series 12: artifacts, box 14, Rattlesnake Head, circa 1960s-1970s. Box 14 also contains something listed in the finding aid only as "Unidentified Amphibious Organism." Shudder). What's an archivist to do? Wrap it in bubble wrap and hope you don't ever have to look into its beady eyes again.

3. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Ghost

Double-exposed portrait of Jan Matulka, ca. 1920 / unidentified photographer.
Jan Matulka papers, 1923-1960. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
The tradition of "spirit photography" - the supposed capture of souls of the dead on film - is almost as old as the technology of photography itself. Beginning in the 1860s, crafty photographers would use an existing photograph and a double exposure to overlay a ghostly figure over a new photograph. Czech-American artist Jan Matulka wasn't trying to pull anyone's leg since he was still very much alive when this photo was produced, but the effects are eerie nonetheless.

I hope these finds chilled you to the bone even more than a prolonged visit to cold storage. Happy Archives Month, and happy Halloween!!

Bettina Smith, Digital Projects Librarian
Archives of American Art

For more Halloween fun from the Archives, see a related post on the Archives of American Art blog today:
Halloween Costume Guide: Archives Style (Last-Minute Edition)

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