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Tuesday, July 19, 2022

The Evolution of Anthropological Research in Documenting Diversity: How Anthropologists Record Human Life

By Muna Ali and Ashley Ray     

Documenting Diversity: How Anthropologists Record Human Life is an exhibit that outlines the ways in which anthropologists have utilized changing technology to record various aspects of human life. The exhibit is organized into four sections: film, photography, paper, and sound. It includes the equipment used for documentation such as rolls of film, video cameras of various ages, wax cylinders, phonographs, and multiple notebooks. The objects shown in the exhibit come from the National Anthropological Archives (NAA) and the Human Studies Film Archive (HSFA), respectively. The NAA is a product of a 1965 merger between the Smithsonian Institution’s Bureau of American Ethnology (1879-1965) and the Department of Anthropology (1883-present). The collection holds anthropological material produced by anthropologists including fieldnotes, journals, manuscripts, correspondence, photographs, maps and more [1]. The NAA contains one of the largest archival collections related to North American archaeology, ethnography, indigenous artwork, and historical photographs in the world. The HSFA, a sister repository to the NAA, was founded in 1975. The HSFA possesses an audiovisual collection that documents the history of filmmaking worldwide, as it relates to anthropology. The documents and equipment included in this exhibit are a key part of tracking the evolution of the study of anthropology through time. One might even say that the documents are a more accurate representation of the attitudes of the researchers rather than the people they are attempting to record. In the following sections, we will explore two examples in which these attitudes are apparent. 

Garson & Read’s Color Swatch 

Underneath the exhibit’s “Documenting on Paper” section, a sample color swatch is displayed prominently across two pages from the 1899 work Notes and Queries on Anthropology by John George Garson (1854-1932) and Charles Hercules Read (1857-1929) [2, 3]. The exhibit designates the color swatch as “a practice borrowed from geology to describe skin, hair, and eye colors” [2]. Similar to the techniques used to classify geological typology, soil compositions, or categorical distinctions based on shared general characteristics, late 19th century anthropologists erroneously figured a scientific typology of humanity could similarly be created, based on variation in color. Both Garson and Read were affiliated with the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, with Read being appointed as the RAI’s President in both 1899 and 1917 [3]. Given anthropology’s complicated history with ascribing meaning to differences in human physical characteristics in the late 19th century (and prior), it’s certainly no surprise that anthropologists who replicated such rhetoric found themselves in positions of intellectual authority.

Garson & Read’s color swatch, as depicted in Notes and Queries on Anthropology, Smithsonian Libraries & Archives. 

Critiques of Garson and Read’s color swatch were generally limited to its inability to provide universal descriptors. In the September 1913 edition of a journal titled Folklore, reviewer John H. Weeks even provided suggestions on how to improve the color swatch through “standardise[d]” colors, as “scarcely two men will call an intermediate shade by the same name” [5]. Despite institutionally affiliated anthropologists such as Garson and Read perceiving the color swatch as an intellectual innovation, this exhibit vehemently rejects such attempts to seek meaning in physical differences, declaring “such techniques falsely assumed skin color as a meaningful marker of difference” [7]. The color swatch’s inclusion within the exhibit addresses troubling legacies in anthropology in a compelling manner: the exhibit distances our contemporary understanding of anthropology from harmful conclusions drawn during anthropology of the past, while simultaneously acknowledging that such conclusions are inextricably linked to the field.  

“No. 7 Song with Lacrosse Game” from Menominee Music by Frances Densmore 

In the “Documenting Sound” section, visitors will find a manuscript with marbled edges. The book is opened to a page of sheet music at the top, labeled “No. 7 Song with Lacrosse Game,” followed by an analysis of the notation. The description for this document states that this is a manuscript of “analyses and translations” of songs recorded and translated by ethnomusicologist Frances Densmore (1867-1957). The manuscript, Menominee Music, was published in collaboration with the Bureau of American Ethnology of the Smithsonian Institution in 1932. This book is one of many published by Densmore throughout her career of studying and advocating for the preservation of Native American music [6].  

“No. 7 Song with Lacrosse Game” from Menominee Music by Frances Densmore, 1932.
Smithsonian Libraries & Archives

There are many examples of non-Western forms of music that do not have a system for written notation. Instead, these songs are passed down orally, generation by generation, with each adding slight changes to a particular piece [7].  

From a musicological standpoint, there is the question of whether it is even possible to accurately notate Non-Western forms of music using classical Western notation. And perhaps whether one even should. Western musical notation is limited in what it can and cannot represent. It was designed with western instruments in mind and thus lacks the ability to fully accommodate the nuances of other instruments. On top of that, Western music relies largely on major and minor scales while non-Western music utilizes more diatonic and chromatic scales, differs greatly between the two groups [8]. As one composer aptly describes, “The Western system of notation is governed by rigid elementary mathematics inherited from the ancient past,” meaning that the Western system of notation is only ever able to create an imperfect outline, and the nuances of pitch and rhythm must be added in by the performer. Imposing the limiting Western system of notation on other forms of music creates a document that cannot fully capture the intricacies of the original piece [9].  

In summary, though the document has its flaws, that does not mean it is without value. On the contrary, it is more constructive to view this document as a type of translation which is inherently transformative and results in an end-product that cannot be identical to the source material. Documents such as this are valuable in that they offer a glimpse at what music was like at a specific point in time. In addition to that, present-day members of the Menominee Tribe could potentially use this manuscript to recover songs that may have been lost, suppressed, or erased from public consciousness and, more importantly, the community itself. It is the reader’s responsibility to read critically and remember that culture, and music, are dynamic and ever-changing.  

Densmore was able to mitigate weaknesses in her work of the types explored in this section through inclusion of audio recordings in her research. Densmore’s use of both aural and written mediums is an apt example of the ways anthropologists have adapted to emerging technologies so that methodologies are improving as well as the capacity to accurately record human life. 

Anthropology as an Advancing Field 

The thematic structure of the exhibit based on medium—along with its more general focus on technological advancements aiding anthropological fieldwork—presents anthropology to the general public as a constantly transforming field. The selection of objects within the exhibit is particularly effective in conveying this: for instance, in the “Documenting on Film” section, the description for Object 11, a diagram on synchronized sound from 1955, is placed strategically next to object 12, a 1995 Sony camera [4]. Visitors are able to easily envision advancements in recording tools used for fieldwork merely through the two descriptions’ adjacent positions. What’s particularly interesting about the position of these two descriptions is that objects 11 and 12 were used by the same individual, anthropologist John Marshall, exactly forty years apart. This choice allows for the exhibit to portray individual anthropologists and anthropology more broadly as advancing in the wake of major shifts in technology.

Photo of Exhibit Description, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution. 

Overall, the exhibit addresses anthropological discoveries in four mediums: photography, paper, sound, and film. Additionally, on the left side of the hallway, photography, paper, and sound are in one display case, while on the right side, an entire display case is solely dedicated to anthropological film. Given the heightened importance of ethnographic film in anthropological fieldwork, the exhibit’s choice to have film presented separately from the other mediums is certainly advantageous. The choice to separate film from the other anthropological mediums is also indicative of the two repositories mentioned in the exhibit: the National Anthropological Archives and the Human Studies Film Archives. Although the two repositories are closely related to one another, they operate separately. Visitors can envision the physical constraints in having the exhibit spread across two sides of a wide hallway in the context of the separate nature of the two repositories, ultimately complicating the expression of these four mediums as a coherent whole. Regardless of its physical limitations, the exhibit is successful in highlighting changing attitudes and technologies throughout anthropology’s history.


Documenting Diversity was co-curated by Diana Marsh, a former NMNH postdoctoral fellow who partook in a three-year long NSF-funded project on NAA collections, and Joshua A. Bell, who serves as NMNH’s Curator of Globalization, Director of the Recovering Voices Program and Acting Director of the National Anthropological Archives. The exhibit was made possible by close collaboration between the NAA, HSFA, Smithsonian Libraries, and Smithsonian Exhibits.

By Muna Ali and Ashley Ray

Natural History Research Experiences (NHRE) Interns
National Anthropological Archives, National Museum of Natural History 


[1] “Documenting Diversity,” Smithsonian Libraries and Archives, accessed June 20, 2022,

[2] Erdöl, Das " “Dr. J. G. Garson.” Nature 129 (1932): 931. 

[3] Balfour, Henry. “Sir Charles Hercules Read, July 6, 1857-February 11, 1929,” Obituaries. Accessed June 2, 2022. 

[4] Bell, Josh and Marsh, Diana. Documenting Diversity: How Anthropologists Record Human Life. Washington: Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, 2020. 

[5] Weeks, John H. Folklore 24, no. 3 (1913): 392–97.

[6] “Frances Densmore (1867-1957).” Smithsonian Institution Archives. 2005. 

[7] Pasler, Jann. “Sonic Anthropology in 1900: The Challenge of Transcribing Non-Western Music and Language.” Twentieth-Century Music 11, no. 1 (2014): 7–36. doi:10.1017/S1478572213000157. 

[8] Robertson-Wilson, Marian. “The Challenges of Notating Music in General and Coptic Music in Particular: Observations of a Professional Cellist, Composer, and Linguist.” Library of Congress Web.

[9] Zon, Bennett. “Music in the Literature of Anthropology from the 1780s to the 1860s.” In Representing Non-Western Music in Nineteenth-Century Britain, NED-New edition., 48–68. Boydell & Brewer, 2007.

Saturday, May 21, 2022

One Picture is Worth A Thousand Stories

By Adam Gray, May 2022

Rehearsal of the toka dance in Yoohnanan on the island of Tanna, September 1974. Kal Muller films and photographs of Vanuatu (New Hebrides), Tanna Island slides, Slide roll #56.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Vanuatu (then known as the New Hebrides) was on the brink of independence from French and British colonial governance. The culturally and linguistically diverse archipelago in the southwestern Pacific Ocean, with over 100 languages spoken across multiple islands, had been governed as the New Hebrides under a joint French and British “Condominium” administration since 1906. Ni-Vanuatu political resistance, which incorporated expressions of traditional culture into the movement for independence, would go on to achieve independence for the nation in 1980, establishing the Republic of Vanuatu.

The Human Studies Film Archives, part of the National Anthropological Archives (NAA) at the National Museum of Natural History, recently digitized a group of 29,000 photographs taken by photographer and author Kal Muller in the midst of these transformations in Vanuatu society. (1)

The making of the photographs also took place against the backdrop of changes in the tools and methods of anthropology. In the mid-twentieth century, a new generation of relatively portable and inexpensive film and audio equipment, such as the Nagra III tape recorder and Arriflex film cameras, offered anthropologists new opportunities to incorporate photography and film into their research. The establishment of institutions such as the Film Study Center at Harvard University (1957) and the National Anthropological Film Center (1975) at the Smithsonian contributed to the development of “visual anthropology,” an academic discipline that incorporates the production and analysis of images, as well as the study of how people use and produce images, into studies of cultural phenomena.

Muller’s photographs are part of the Kal Muller films and photographs of Vanuatu (New Hebrides), which also contains 15 hours of uncut film footage, over 50 sound recordings, and a small amount of correspondence. (These portions of the collection are not digitized.) The collection will be of interest to Ni-Vanuatu communities interested in their history, traditions, and local knowledge, and will prompt discussions about the history and theory of visual anthropology.

A group of women and girls, possibly in Lendombwey village, island of Malekula, in December 1968. The photograph appears to show the production of one of the sound recordings in the collection. Kal Muller films and photographs of Vanuatu (New Hebrides), Vanuatu slides, Slide roll #147.

Kalman “Kal” Muller, a photographer and author with an interest in anthropology, spent several years during the late 1960s and early 1970s living with and photographing communities on several islands of what is now the Republic of Vanuatu. Though he did not have the formal training of an academic anthropologist, Muller’s skill as a photographer, along with ties he developed with local communities, brought him into contact with some of the people and institutions that played key roles in promoting the use of film in ethnographic research: Muller collaborated with American anthropologist and filmmaker Robert Gardner (1925 – 2014) and the Harvard Film Study Center to film the naghol (in Bislama; land dive, in English) carried out by the Bunlap community on Pentecost Island, resulting in the film Land-Divers of Melanesia (1972). He also received support from the National Anthropological Film Center. The Film Center, which in 1981 was relocated within the National Museum of Natural History and renamed the Human Studies Film Archives, acquired Muller’s photographs and films shortly after they were made. (2)  In 2019, the Archives acquired an additional group of Muller’s photographs from the Harvard Peabody Museum, now incorporated with the previous acquisition.

Cinematographer (possibly Muller) films a group of men, possibly in Lendombwey village, island of Malekula, in January 1969. In correspondence from December 1968, Muller states that he was in Lendombwey village, island of Malekula, filming men in a grade-taking ceremony, and this image may relate to those events. Kal Muller films and photographs of Vanuatu (New Hebrides), Vanuatu slides, Slide roll #180.

In the years since Muller made these photographs, anthropologists--as well as archives and museums that hold knowledge created by and about indigenous communities--have re-examined the assumptions, concepts, and power dynamics intertwined with the production of anthropological images. Photographs don’t just provide evidence of cultural phenomena; they provide a means of exploring questions of memory, history, and interpretation. Like other materials found in archives, they can be valuable resources for cultural sustainability and community-based research activities. One photograph can be used to tell a thousand stories. 

The photographs Muller created during his time in Vanuatu, alongside the films, sound recordings, correspondence, and other documents in this collection, form a complex and voluminous group of images that hold complex layers of information and value. As in other archival collections, the different components speak to each other: correspondence between Muller and E. Richard Sorenson, the inaugural director of the National Anthropological Film Center, points to the interplay between individuals, institutions, and local communities which resulted in the production of the films and photographs; the films contain footage that would be edited into Land-Divers of Melanesia; the photographs show expressions of Ni-Vanuatu heritage, images of western filmmakers and anthropologists shooting film and recording sound, as well as urban and festival scenes in Vanuatu shortly before independence, making them records of the diversity of Ni-Vanuatu culture and of anthropologists’ attempts to represent that diversity.

Men construct a tower for the naghol (land dive), likely in Bunlap, South Pentecost, Pentecost Island, October 1968. Kal Muller films and photographs of Vanuatu (New Hebrides), Vanuatu slides, Slide roll #15.

Before putting the digitized photographs online, the NAA reviewed them to identify culturally sensitive content in order to prevent such images from being made public. As it does with all of its collections, the NAA extends an open-invitation to individuals and communities represented in the NAA to engage in collaborative efforts to improve how it describes and stewards those materials. The NAA looks forward to the conversations that the digitization of these images will enable.

The finding aid for the Kal Muller films and photographs of Vanuatu (New Hebrides), along with the digitized photographs can be found here. To learn how you can access parts of the collection that have not been digitized, get in touch with an archivist at


(1) As Muller himself can be seen in some of the images, apparently at least one other person took some of the photographs; unfortunately, the NAA has not been able to identify the additional photographer(s).

(2) Muller also worked with the Film Center in an effort to produce films and photographs of religious ceremonies practiced by the Huichol of San Andres Coamiata, Jalisco, Mexico. The resulting materials are also held by the Human Studies Film Archives. Former Smithsonian Department of Anthropology Graduate Fellow José Carlos Pons Ballesteros has written an informative series of blog posts about his research with that collection here.

Sources Consulted:

“About.” The Film Study Center at Harvard University, Accessed April 26, 2022.

Chio, Jenny. “Visual anthropology.” Cambridge Encyclopedia of Anthropology (2021). DOI:

Foster, S. and Adams, Ron. "Vanuatu." Encyclopedia Britannica, March 10, 2021.

“The History of ARRI in a Century of Cinema.” ARRI, Accessed May 12, 2022.

“History of the Film Archives.” National Anthropological Archives, Accessed April 20, 2022.

Jolly, Margaret. “Custom and the Way of the Land: Past and Present in Vanuatu and Fiji.” Oceania 62, no.4 (June 1992): 330-354.

“Nagra III.” Nagra Audio, Accessed May 12, 2022.

Ruby, Jay. "The Professionalization of Visual Anthropology in the United States: The 1960s and 1970s." Visual Anthropology Review 17, no. 2 (2001): 5-12. DOI:

Schäuble, Michaela. "Visual anthropology." The International Encyclopedia of Anthropology (2018): 1-21. DOI: 10.1002/9781118924396.wbiea1969

By Adam Gray, Contractor, Human Studies Film Archives

Submitted by Daisy Njoku, Anthropology Archives, National Museum of Natural History

Monday, April 11, 2022

Piedmont Manufacturing: More than Just a Textile Mill

 By Joe Hursey

The Archives Center possesses an incredible set of architectural drawings of late 19th-century textile mills, known as the Lockwood-Greene Records. At first glance, these drawings seem nothing more than well-drafted images of factory buildings on heavy linen material. But to the people who worked in the mills built from these drawings, they represent the beginning of numerous communities throughout South Carolina. The most impressive of these mills was the flagship mill, Piedmont Manufacturing Company.

Between 1862 and 1863, Henry Pickney Hammett and his partner and father-in-law, William Bates, purchased a total of 415 acres at Garrison Shoals along the Saluda River. On this river their textile mill would be built and named Piedmont Manufacturing. The town would also take the name, to be known as Piedmont, South Carolina. Unlike the previous style of smaller mills in upstate South Carolina, Hammett's grand mill would be based on larger New England-style mill designs. After completion, the mill stood as the largest mill in the United States until 1900.

Despite their best efforts, the ongoing Civil War delayed the project, and later Bates died in 1872. Not one to be deterred by challenges, Hammett continued the project. He began raising money toward building his mill, but due to the financial after-effects of the Civil War and the economic panic of 1873, Hammett struggled with obtaining investment capital. In order to stay on budget, Hammett reduced building costs by constructing onsite brick-making and ironworks, obtaining construction material from local forests, and bringing in architects, craftsmen, and workers to Piedmont.  

By 1876 the first stage of the plant, Mill #1, was fully operating 5,000 spindles and 112 looms.  Hammett continued to add additional buildings for a total of four mill buildings to the textile manufacturing plant in Piedmont. Hammett's mill would usher in the industrial revolution to the upstate. But in order to meet the needs of the growing mill, Hammett needed increased power for it.

Architectural Drawing of the Piedmont Mill, later renamed J.P. Stevens & Company, from the Lockwood-Greene Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

Hammett built a dam that provided the necessary structure for the mill's hydropower system. The dam, built in 1889, designed with a main span and a central overflow section, had a large raceway at each end, serving mills on both sides of the river. As one of the few hydropower mills in the upstate area, Piedmont mill machinery operated by a belt-driven hydro-powered system. This was later updated to a hydroelectric system. Spanning the central overflow portion of the dam, a metal truss footbridge supported by columns anchored to the dam allowed workers to move quickly between the mills. The footbridge was destroyed in 2020 during a high-water event when a dislodged boat dock went over the dam, dragging the steel bridge with it. The Piedmont dam stands as the oldest continually power- producing dam in the state.   

As the mill grew and required more power to operate, it also required increases in labor. The Great Migration provided much-needed labor to the mill industry, which came in two waves. Between the 1880s and 1890s, cotton prices fell, driving farm laborers from the field to the factory. And by 1900 when cotton prices rose, additional buildings were built and workers were recruited. In order to recruit workers for Piedmont Manufacturing, housing planning became an important factor. One method was naming streets, such as Transylvania Street, after the location of where many workers were recruited from, such as Transylvania County, North Carolina. These workers from Transylvania settled on Transylvania Street, knowing that they would live amongst similar people coming from the same place.   

Not only did Piedmont Manufacturing Company build homes for the workers to live in, they built the community infrastructure that provided for every need of the mill's workers: churches, schools, mercantile shops, community buildings, hotel, gymnasium, YMCA and YWCA, and a library.  

Eventually Piedmont Manufacturing led South Carolina to become the largest textile producer in the world. The mills were sold to J.P. Stevens and Company in 1946 and subsequently updated to include modern features such as air conditioning. New buildings were added to the mill campus and the mill houses, which had belonged to the company and were leased to employees. But as competition from foreign mills increased, Piedmont Manufacturing Company's hold on the title of king of textiles started to slide. In 1977 the mill ceased most of its operations and completely closed in 1983.

While Piedmont Manufacturing is no longer in business, it stood as an important facet of America's Reconstruction period and the New South Movement, transforming a mostly agrarian society into an industrial community. And  it was more than just a factory. To the local people and their community, it was the center of the universe. Hammett's dream of a grand textile plant will remain an important part of American history. 

Joe Hursey is the head of reference services for the National Museum of American History Archives Center through Friday, April 15, 2022. His Archives Center colleagues thank him for his years of service and for this contribution to the SI Collections Blog.

Monday, March 21, 2022

Women, Cameras, and Images

By David Haberstich

In recent years the Smithsonian Collections Blog has featured numerous posts about women photographers represented in Smithsonian collections. For instance, I’ve blogged about the photographers Katherine Joseph, Dawn Rogala, and Melody Golding, whose work is in the NMAH Archives Center, but now I want to highlight a much earlier Smithsonian effort to celebrate women in photography. The National Museum of American History (then the Museum of History and Technology) featured female photographic artists in a series entitled “Women, Cameras, and Images” in 1969-1970, initiated by Curator of Photography Eugene Ostroff. Although three of these photographers were famous, even legendary, and already included in general histories of photography, two were comparatively unknown at the time. Prints by all five are in the museum’s Photographic History Collection, acquired in conjunction with their exhibitions. This program was an early attempt to emphasize the contributions of women to twentieth-century photography via a series that combined three famous photographers, who utilized standard photographic techniques to achieve their unique personal vision, with two younger, relatively unknown artists who experimented with “obsolete” photographic processes, combined with hand techniques, to interrogate assumptions about the nature of photography. Indeed, Betty Hahn later challenged standard notions about photography (and the nature of her multi-media variations) in the very title of her book, Photography…Or Maybe Not. *

Betty Hahn (b. 1940), "Seasonal Rainbow Transition," gum bichromate with paint on paper, 1968. Photographic History Collection, National Museum of American History.

All four exhibitions were accompanied by poster-checklists and formal, if modest, openings. The first show in the series, “Women, Cameras, and Images I,” was a retrospective of Imogen Cunningham’s classic imagery. I well remember her sly humor and witty sarcasm at her opening: she was delightful, and it was especially gratifying for me after my failed attempt to meet her during a trip to San Francisco.

Imogen Cunningham (1882-1976), "Unmade Bed," gelatin silver photographic print, 1957, printed 1957, Smithsonian American Art Museum.

The second exhibition, “Women, Cameras, and Images II,” combined the work of Betty Hahn and Gayle Smalley. I had met Betty in graduate school at Indiana University and vaguely knew Gayle, who had graduated from the Rochester Institute of Technology five years before I had. Their work was very different from that of the other three women, employing radically new approaches to the medium. Hahn was one of the first photographers to experiment with “obsolete” photographic processes, including gum-bichromate, and combined photography with textiles, sometimes adding hand-work, such as paint, needlework and embroidery, which in her words represented a homage to the unsung women who traditionally practiced such stereotypically feminine “crafts.” Independently, Gayle Smalley combined photography with hand printmaking techniques. Hahn’s and Smalley’s prints were colorful, semi-abstract, and often playful and humorous, heavily influenced by contemporary printmaking.        

Above: Gayle Smalley (left) and Betty Hahn (center) talking with Eugene Ostroff at the opening of their exhibition, 1969. Smithsonian photographer unidentified.

“Women, Cameras, and Images III” was devoted to the work of Berenice Abbott, whose long and influential career ranged from documentation of New York City to the development of techniques for  scientific photography, in which she was an important pioneer. Unfortunately, we lacked funds to bring her to Washington for the opening, and I think she never quite forgave me.

Berenice Abbott (1898-1991), "Night Aerial View, Midtown Manhattan," 1933, gelatin silver print. Photographic History Collection, National  Museum of American History.

Barbara Morgan was the artist of “Women, Cameras, and Images IV.” Noted for her photographs of Martha Graham’s dancers, a major component of the exhibition, she worried about the design of the show, and explained her concern with rhythm and flow in the placement and sequencing of the framed images. I was tempted to let her develop the layout or collaborate with me, but was warned not to permit her participation lest it delay the opening. It was a nail-biter for me as I hung the show, fearing that she didn’t fully trust my curatorial eye, but I needn’t have worried: she was pleased and pronounced it a huge success, telling me “You got it!” She had been honored previously in a similar retrospective solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, curated by my photo-history mentor, Peter Bunnell, and pronounced my design “better.” At social occasions for several years afterward she proudly introduced me as “the man who hung my Smithsonian show, you know,” and we had a lovely and rewarding friendship.

Barbara Morgan's photographs have been collected not only by NMAH, but also by the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) and the National Portrait Gallery (NPG). This is also true for the work of Imogen Cunningham and Berenice Abbott. However, NMAH was the first Smithsonian museum to collect and mount exhibitions of their work. 

Barbara Morgan (1900-1992), "Martha Graham--Letter to the World--(Swirl)," 1940, gelatin silver print, printed ca.1980. Smithsonian American Art Museum, gift of Virginia Zabriskie. 

However, the series, which originally was intended to continue for another year, foundered and ended when some photographers objected to being “classified” or identified as “women photographers” within a special series, as if each photographer's work couldn't stand on its own merits. Similarly, I recall hearing certain women criticize the creation of Washington’s National Museum of Women in the Arts for what nowadays some might call bad “optics,” appearing to relegate female artists to a separate category rather than striving to integrate them in greater numbers into existing art museum awareness and practice.

Opinions, perspectives, and tactics intended to promote social change often themselves change with the times and the politics of culture, however. In 1970 we found that for some women photographers, the prospect of inclusion in a series of gendered exhibitions (curated by men) entitled “Women, Cameras, and Images” could be interpreted as more demeaning than celebratory, perhaps suggesting mere tokenism. Controversial “optics!” By contrast, the emphasis on equity in the 2020s has regularly employed group solidarity and separation as a logical, effective tactic to highlight marginalized groups and their members’ individual stories--for example, through Black History Month and Women’s History Month. I recently noticed a current exhibition at Lehigh University entitled “Hear Me Roar: Women Photographers II,” reflecting the similar strategy of the Smithsonian’s “Women, Cameras, and Images” exhibitions of the tumultuous late 1960s. I couldn't help smiling.

David Haberstich, Curator of Photography

Archives Center, National Museum of American History 

Thursday, February 24, 2022

The Iconic, Controversial Sidney Poitier: A Tribute for Black History Month

By David Haberstich

Actor Sir Sidney Poitier, Feb. 3, 1977, photograph probably by Robert Scurlock. Gelatin silver acetate  negative, Scurlock Studio Records,Archives Center, National Museum of American History.

Above is a photograph from the National Museum of American History Archives Center’s Scurlock Studio Records, probably taken by Robert Scurlock, showing famed actor Sidney Poitier besieged by young fans seeking autographs. More than any other African American actor, Poitier (who died in January this year) helped to integrate Hollywood. I first saw him many years ago in his 1955 film, Blackboard Jungle, and recall his magnetic performance vividly. I viewed it again recently, perhaps finding fault with the screenplay, but no less awed by Poitier. He played an unruly teenager who comes to his white teacher’s aid during a deadly classroom brawl at the climax of the film.

Poster for "Lilies of the Field." Copyright © 1963 by United Artists. Scan via Heritage Auctions. Cropped from original image. Public Domain,

He was the first African American to win a “best actor” Academy Award for his performance in Lilies of the Field (1967). Despite the acclaim he received, he was not universally admired by African Americans. The Black critic and playwright Clifford Mason famously denounced him as “dishonest” in a New York Times article, “Why Does White America Love Sidney Poitier So?” (Sept. 10, 1967):  “I submit that the Negro (or black, if you will), image was subverted in these films much more so than it was in the two films he seems worried about.” Playing Porgy in Porgy and Bess was one of the roles that concerned Poitier, supposedly accepting it against his better judgment as the price for being allowed to play such roles as the heroic Virgil Tibbs in In the Heat of the Night. What Mason liked about the Porgy character was that “at least we have a man, a real man, fighting [for] his woman and willing to follow her into the great unknown, the big city, poor boy from Catfish Row that he is.”

        “But he remains unreal,” Mason continued, “as he has for nearly two decades, playing essentially the same role, the antiseptic, one-dimensional hero.” The critic was disappointed that the Virgil Tibbs character had no apparent love interest to certify him as a “real” man. Furthermore, he minimized the significance of the famous slap which Tibbs gives a white bigot, complaining that it occurs only after the bigot slaps Tibbs first. Perhaps Mason had not yet heard Poitier declare that he had insisted that his character should respond with a retaliatory slap, refusing to continue without it. I found the scene riveting, not only for Tibbs’s sudden explosion of righteous pent-up anger, but for the expression of startled, befuddled disbelief on the face of the racist sheriff, played by Rod Steiger. At first I thought the tears and sniveling of the white “aristocrat” in the aftermath of the slap were overdone, but later decided his reaction was perfect symbolism. For the first time, these figures of white oppression were beginning to realize that their comfortable world might be crumbling.

Apart from Poitier’s acceptance of film roles that Mason and others found troubling, the actor’s life was a rags-to-riches story that I find inspiring. First, he nearly succumbed to a premature birth while his parents were working in Miami, Florida. As a barely literate Black teenager from Cat Island in the Bahamas, he suffered racist indignities in the Jim Crow South of Miami, then moved to a slightly more congenial New York City, where he toiled as a dishwasher while seeking a better job. He tried to join the American Negro Theatre, initially failing in humiliation due to his shaky reading skills. With timely coaching from a friend, he quickly solved this problem, then embarked on a personal campaign to suppress his Bahamian accent and hone his acting skills. Eventually he acted on Broadway, then found his niche in film, especially with his break-through role in Blackboard Jungle. His subsequent roles explored many aspects of the Black man in white society. His prominence in Hollywood echoed aspects of the real-life civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century, not only through the impact of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? on the previously taboo topic of interracial marriage. Moreover, he was an active participant in the civil rights struggle, risking arrest or worse by helping to deliver $70,000 to Freedom Summer volunteers in 1964.

Poitier’s achievements beyond acting are extensive, including directing films and publishing memoirs and a novel. He was also a diplomat, serving as Bahamian ambassador to Japan (1997-2007) and concurrently to UNESCO (2002-2007). He was even granted an honorary knighthood by Queen Elizabeth in 1974. In 2009 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama. Perhaps his most satisfying honor was the acknowledgment by younger Black actors that he had broken ground and opened doors for them. Denzel Washington gratefully cited Poitier’s contributions while presenting him with the Honorary Academy Award in 2002. His remarks were followed by sustained, enthusiastic applause from the audience.

        Broadway theaters dimmed their lights in honor of Sir Sidney Poitier on January 19, 2022.

David Haberstich, Curator of Photography

Archives Center, National Museum of American History

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Hidden History, Part 2: Joy McLean Bosfield Sings at Kennedy Center Dedication

 By Jennifer Sieck

Joy McLean Bosfield framed this page from the score for “Gloria in Excelsis” signed for her by MASS composer Leonard Bernstein. She sang in the choir for MASS’s world premiere, conducted by Bernstein for the Kennedy Center’s dedication in 1971. Joy McLean Bosfield papers, Anacostia Community Museum, Smithsonian Institution, gift of Joy McLean Bosfield.

"Gloria in Excelsis" proclaims the title of this autographed musical score in prelude to the story of Joy McLean Bosfield (1924-1999), a musician, educator, and entrepreneur who lived in Washington, DC from 1962 to 1985. Like another accomplished African American musician in the District featured in a prior post on this blog, McLean Bosfield was instrumental in bringing the Kennedy Center into being. Her contribution took the form of singing in Leonard Bernstein’s MASS: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers at the Kennedy Center’s dedication on September 8, 1971. Commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in memory of her husband, President John F. Kennedy, Bernstein riffed on the traditional Latin mass to honor the nation’s first Roman Catholic president in an operatic piece featuring more than 200 performers and choreography by Alvin Ailey. The Kennedy Center’s 50th Anniversary Season concludes with a new interpretation of MASS in September 2022.

Original Production of Leonard Bernstein’s MASS, 1971. Photo by Fletcher Drake. Courtesy of the John F. Kennedy Center Archives, 1971. Joy McLean Bosfield might be among the robed choir members above the dais, possibly the second singer in the first row to the right of the center aisle. The photo ran on the front page of The Washington Post on September 9, 1971.

The framed sheet music might have been especially meaningful for McLean Bosfield, as she had co-founded a business that prepared printed music for publication in 1959. This excerpt from “Gloria in Excelsis” shows the choral and orchestral parts for an exuberant response to the absolution of sin. Across the opening bars, Bernstein inscribed in red ink, “Gloria to Joy McClean!” [sic] along with his signature and the date. Significantly, it is the only framed item among the newspaper clippings (including Washington Post articles about MASS at the Kennedy Center), photographs, and programs in the Joy McLean Bosfield papers at the Anacostia Community Museum.

A photo from Joy McLean Bosfield’s scrapbook shows the cast of 
Porgy and Bess in Hollywood in 1954: left to right, unidentified man, Irene Williams, Leslie Scott, Joy McLean, LeVern Hutcherson. Courtesy of The Joy McLean Bosfield papers, Anacostia Community Museum, Smithsonian Institution, gift of Joy McLean Bosfield.

“Joy McLean” appears among the names in the MASS program along with other renowned artists, such as Alvin Ailey dancers Judith Jamison and Sylvia Waters. The name served as both her real and stage name for much of her career, including when she sang the role of Clara in an international touring production of Porgy and Bess that played a significant role in Cold War cultural diplomacy in the 1950s. 

Norman Scribner wrote a letter to the original MASS cast members on Kennedy Center letterhead, Feb. 16, 1972. Courtesy of The Joy McLean Bosfield papers, Anacostia Community Museum, Smithsonian Institution, gift of Joy McLean Bosfield.

McLean Bosfield’s papers also include a letter from Washington Choral Arts and MASS choir director Norman Scribner. Its salutation reads, “Dear ‘Original Cast’ Member,” and invites her to participate in a 1972 touring revival of MASS. Professional obligations likely prevented her from participating, such as her service as music minister for John Wesley AME Zion Church in the District’s Logan Circle. A church colleague, Rev. John R. Kinard, became the founding director of the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum in 1967. Recognizing the value of her papers, he worked with Senior Curator Portia James to acquire them for the museum’s collection as McLean Bosfield prepared to retire to Mexico in 1985.

Annotated scrapbook photos show Joy McLean Bosfield teaching her choreography to youth in rehearsals for the Community League of West 159th Street’s Cotillion in New York City, 1958. Courtesy of The Joy McLean Bosfield papers, Anacostia Community Museum, Smithsonian Institution, gift of Joy McLean Bosfield.

Born and raised in New Jersey, McLean Bosfield came of age artistically in New York City. Like Bernstein, she performed and conducted at Lincoln Center. Her scrapbooks attest to a wide-ranging repertoire rooted in African American musical traditions, including those of her mother’s birthplace of Demarara, British Guiana (Guyana, in 2022), alongside fluency in mélodie (French art song), classical compositions, and Broadway showtunes.

A verse on a handmade card congratulating McLean Bosfield on her college acceptance concludes with the double entendre, “Let Joy Be Unconfined.” Her archive and students bear witness to a legacy of unconfined Joy.

In harmony with this post and in honor of Black History Month, McLean Bosfield’s scrapbooks are being relaunched on the Smithsonian Transcription Center. Digital volunteers can refine prior transcriptions, which proved challenging due to the scrapbooks’ varied and fragile materials. Check out the scrapbooks: here and here.

Jennifer Sieck, Ph.D., Collections Researcher

Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum

Monday, January 24, 2022

Butter and Egg Money

By Lily Stowe-Alekman

Elizabeth Bourne Robinson was born on December 3, 1892, and died on July 25, 1976.  On November 20, 1929, she married Frank A. Robinson and moved to the Robinson family farm near Brandywine in Prince George’s County, Maryland. They had three children: Mary Elizabeth, Franklin Alexander, and Robert Lee. After Frank’s father died in 1937, he bought out his siblings’ and mother’s portions of the estate to retain the property as one. In 1937, the farm consisted of "1 corn house & cow stable, 1 stable, and 1 Granary & Stable.” Elizabeth kept a record of life on the farm in her diaries beginning in 1951 through 1960. 

Elizabeth and Frank Robinson, December 25, 1957, Ferndale Farm. Gelatin silver photographic print, Robinson and Via Family Papers, Box 33, AC0475.0000342,  Archives Center, National Museum of American History.

Elizabeth’s farm diaries are housed in the Archives Center’s Robinson and Via Family Papers, AC0475. In her earliest diaries, 1951 to 1953, she writes about the farm workers, her children’s activities, what her husband does, who visits, where she goes, the weather, and anything else that seemed important to her. A large part of her entries consists of logging the work done on the farm. The family grew many things, but tobacco was a very important crop on the farm. In her diaries, Elizabeth also tracked how many eggs were collected from the chickens each day, how much money was made on eggs, and how much money was made on butter. At the end of each month and year, Elizabeth totaled the income from these items made and how many eggs were collected. In 1951, Elizabeth recorded making $151.90 on butter, $85.35 on eggs, $237.25 together, and collected 5062 eggs.  Elizabeth recorded making $161.90 on butter, $49.40 on eggs, $211.30 together and collected 2880 eggs in 1952.  In 1953, Elizabeth wrote, “took in for year from eggs and butter. $255.80.”  From looking at only these three years, one can see that Elizabeth was bringing in significant income from her egg and dairy production. Elizabeth tends not to record amounts of money from other ventures, so clearly tracking the sale of butter and eggs and her egg collection was important to her.

Elizabeth’s totals for income from butter and eggs and number of eggs gathered for 1951 in Elizabeth Robinson’s Farm Diary Volume 1, 1951-1953, page 58, Robinson and Via Family Papers, Box 4, Folder 6, NMAH.AC.0475,

Scholars have written about farm women’s egg and butter production and sales. While it is uncertain how much control Elizabeth had over managing farm operations, her recording the eggs and butter shows they were important in her daily notations. In "Women Who Work in the Field": The Changing Role of Farm and Nonfarm Women, Stephanie Carpenter states, “By 1940, female field labor had in many areas become obsolete. Removing women from field work downplayed their importance in field production and placed greater emphasis on their part in dairy, garden, and poultry operations.” Carpenter also notes that this changed during World War II as women went to work in the absence of men fighting in the war, indicating that “during the last years of war, more than three million farm and nonfarm women provided labor to farmers through private employment and as members of the Women’s Land Army.”

Elizabeth Robinson (left) and Adina Mae Via (right) in a field of wheat, June 1956. Gelatin silver photographic print, Robinson and Via Family Papers, Box 17, AC0475-0000341. Archives Center, National Museum of American History.

In 1953, the Women’s Bureau recorded that 730,000 women were “farmers and farm workers” as opposed to 690,000 in 1940. Elizabeth’s first diaries are firmly placed in this period. While I have not researched Elizabeth’s experience during WWII, placing her in the context of other farm women in this period is important. Following WWII, there was a push for women to resume and return to their traditional feminine roles as mothers and wives and out of the workforce. Part of this would mean a return to the jobs women were supposed to embrace instead of field work in 1940: “dairy, garden, and poultry operations.” Carpenter believes that “in their effort to embrace the feminine ideal of the postwar era, farm women described their lives as they hoped they would be.” As such, in popular farm magazines, women weighed in that they should not do field work, but also that this was not all that was realistic for them. Butter and egg production, it seems, were acceptable tasks for women to do on farms while maintaining this image of femininity. I wonder if there were other ways for Elizabeth to earn money for her work on the family farm or if egg and butter production were the only socially acceptable ways? It is difficult to tell what additional work Elizabeth herself completed on the farm, as she often writes without crediting tasks to different people; however, she often notes that her son Franklin did the milking. It seems Elizabeth spent most of her time on the farm and was thoroughly involved in its day-to-day operation. Her daily diary entries provide a very personal and detailed look into life on a mid-Atlantic family farm for a woman in the mid-20th century. 

"Planting tobacco, standing: Norris Grose; sitting: Elizabeth Robinson; and driving: Frank Robinson, July 1955, Ferndale Farm." Gelatin silver photographic print, Robinson and Via Family Papers, Box 17, AC0475.0000340, Archives Center,
National Museum of American History.

Works Cited

Carpenter, Stephanie. “’Women Who Work in the Field’: The Changing Role of Farm and Nonfarm Women on the Farm.” Agricultural History 74, no.2 (Spring, 2000), pp. 465-474.

Find a Grave. “Elizabeth Bourne Robinson.” Accessed December 1, 2021.

Robinson, Elizabeth Bourne. “Elizabeth Bourne Robinson Farm Diary Volume 1, 1951-1953.” January-December 1951. Robinson and Via Family Papers, NMAH.AC.0457, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.

Robinson, Elizabeth Bourne. “Elizabeth Bourne Robinson Farm Diary Volume 1, 1951-1953.” January-December 1952. Robinson and Via Family Papers, NMAH.AC.0457, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.

Robinson, Elizabeth Bourne. “Elizabeth Bourne Robinson Farm Diary Volume 2, 1953-1955,” January-December 1953. Robinson and Via Family Papers, NMAH.AC.0457, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.

Robinson, Franklin A., Jr. “Guide to the Robinson and Via Family Papers.” NMAH.AC.0475, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.

U.S. Women's Bureau. Women as Workers: A Statistical Guide. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1953. In Carpenter, Stephanie. “’Women Who Work in the Field’: The Changing Role of Farm and Nonfarm Women on the Farm.” Agricultural History 74, no.2 (Spring, 2000).