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Thursday, August 8, 2019

Connecting European Collectors to Indigenous Collections

In the early 20th century, archaeological and ethnographic items often travelled through a complicated web of dealers, collectors and museums after leaving their source communities. Some of these objects passed through multiple hands before ending up at museums such as the National Museum of the American Indian. NMAI’s recent collaborative project with the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa—the digitization and transcription of the William Ockleford Oldman Research Materials through the Smithsonian Transcription Center (see an earlier blog about the start of the project here)—has helped us begin to untangle some of these webs of relationships and transactions.

Oldman, a British dealer of ethnographic art, archaeology, and weaponry, sold thousands of objects to museums and collectors throughout Europe and the United States. Over several decades, he maintained detailed records of items in his stock in collection ledgers as well as separate sale registers to document his clients and sales. Since January, hardworking volunteers have transcribed nearly 1,000 pages of Oldman records, including four registers dating from 1902 to 1914 and “Part 1” of his collection ledger, where he recorded items in his stock in numerical order. Because of this work, the ledgers are now text searchable and we are able to glean new information about objects in the NMAI collection acquired from Oldman. Through analysis of the Oldman documents, we have been able to identify connections between our objects and other European dealers and collectors, much of which was totally unknown. Previously, we believed that George Heye, the founder of our predecessor institution the Museum of the American Indian, began purchasing objects from Oldman in 1911; however, Oldman’s sale records indicate that relationships between Oldman, Heye, and Heye’s museum staff began as early as 1907.

In 1907, archaeologist Marshall Saville—Curator of Mexican and Central American Archaeology at the American Museum of Natural History—resigned his AMNH position and went to work for George Heye and the Heye Museum (as it was then called). Saville’s duties included identifying and securing objects for the museum and, in 1907, Saville purchased a set of items from Oldman for the Heye Museum: ethnographic objects from Ecuador, including ear ornaments, a necklace, and a club; archaeological axes from the Caribbean; and a steatite dish from Newfoundland. Until now, these items were listed simply as “purchases” and none had any known connection to either Saville or Oldman. However, because Oldman’s ledgers include notations about how he acquired objects, we can now connect these objects to Oldman and to their previous owners. For example, a notation in Oldman’s ledger for the steatite dish from Newfoundland indicates that Oldman acquired it in March 1906 from H. G. Beasley.

Harry Geoffery Beasley (1881–1939) was a British collector and curator who, along with his wife Irene, later founded the Cranmore Ethnographical Museum in Chislehurst, Kent, England, for their collection of objects from Oceania, the Americas, Africa and Asia.

1/2442 Steatite Dish from Newfoundland purchased from W. O. Oldman in 1907 and its catalog card.

In later years, the Museum of the American Indian had other connections to Harry Beasley and the Cranmore Ethnographical Museum, including exchanges of objects in the 1930s, but the possibility of an earlier connection was totally unknown. 

Based in London, Oldman maintained a shop and also produced a series of catalogues to advertise items he had for sale. Established buyers like George Heye received Oldman’s published catalogues and could ask that the item be shipped to them on approval or buy them outright. One such item that made its way from Oldman to the Heye Museum was an early 19th-century Delaware bag, which Heye purchased in 1909. This bag appears in Oldman’s Illustrated Catalogue of Ethnographical Specimens, catalogue No. 71. Along with an illustration, a brief description of the bag and its price, Oldman included his stock number: 17907. Using this stock number, we were able to trace the bag back through Oldman’s records to reveal that he purchased it in October 1908 from W. H. Fenton of Fenton and Sons, who were dealers in antiques and curiosities that operated in London from around 1880 until the 1930s.

2/1288 Lenape (Delaware) Shoulder Bag circa 1820, purchased from W. O. Oldman in 1909.

Excerpt from W. O. Oldman Illustrated Catalogue of Ethnographical Specimens, catalogue No. 71. NMAI Vine Deloria Jr. Library.

The third recorded purchase made by George Heye in June 1909 is the one that began the quest to find the Oldman records mentioned in the previous blog (linked above). Heye purchased a selection of items: pipe tomahawks, beaded bags, carving tools, a dance apron, painted skin, and cape from British Columbia, and two Haida canoe paddles. Oldman recorded that he had acquired the paddles just a month earlier from James Edward Little (1876–1953), a British antiques dealer and furniture restorer. Little was also a forger of Polynesian objects and sold his fakes alongside authentic items; he was arrested several times for stealing artifacts from museums and replacing them with his copies.

2/2107 Haida Canoe Paddles from British Columbia purchased from W. O. Oldman in 1909.

Since the beginning of our collaborative project with the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, we have identified about 50 sets of objects purchased by George Heye and the Museum of the American Indian from Oldman between 1907 and 1937, totaling approximately 1500 ethnographic and archaeological objects from throughout the Americas.

As we delve deeper into Oldman’s records, we continue to learn about connections between individual European collectors, much of which is of potential significance to other museums whose collections include objects acquired from Oldman. Because the Smithsonian Collections Search Center now displays the results of the transcribed Oldman materials, the names of collectors, dealers, or institutions that did business with Oldman can be searched: pages in the ledgers that include specific names will be returned and the researcher can go directly to the relevant page.

Another way to search for a collector is by using Oldman’s coding system: he assigned each buyer a code based on the first letter of their last name along with a number. For example, George Heye’s code was H28, Marshall Saville was S29, and H.G. Beasley was B16. Once the code is known, these can be searched as well. Oldman’s stock numbers can also be searched to find where he recorded them both in his sale registers and in his collection ledger.

The final batch of Oldman records—one more sale register for pistols and three more collection ledgers—have been added to the transcription center. Look for these projects at the Smithsonian Transcription Center. Thanks to all of the volunteers that have worked on this project so far and to those that will join: your contributions are helping us re-discover the history of our collections!

Maria Galban, Collections Documentation Manager
National Museum of the American Indian

Hales, Robert and Kevin Conru, W.O. Oldman: the remarkable collector: William Ockleford Oldman's personal archive. Graphius, 2016

Oldman, W. O. Illustrated catalogue of ethnographical specimens, reprint of original catalogues, London, 1976.

Waterfield, Hermione and, Jonathan C. H. King, Provenance: Twelve Collectors of Ethnographic Art in England 1760-1990, Paul Holberton Publishing, London, 2010



Friday, August 2, 2019

Reconciling Sexual Identity in Legacy Archival Collections

Perry Wheeler
It all began during a conversation about archival description with my mentor at the Archives of American Gardens, Kelly Crawford. We stumbled onto the topic of describing sexuality when I wondered aloud about the existence of LGBTQ-related records preserved in the collections. I was intrigued to learn that Perry Hunt Wheeler (1913-1989), a renowned landscape architect who worked on numerous private and public gardens in Washington, D.C. during the mid-20th century, was rumored to have had two long-term relationships with men, one of whom was in possession of Wheeler’s papers after his death. When we consulted the finding aid for Wheeler’s collection at AAG, however, we realized that nowhere in his biographical note did it mention the person he shared a home with for nearly 20 years, James M. Snitzler, or his other partner, James M. Stengle.

With my interest piqued, I started digging through accession records, biographical profiles, and digitized newspapers including the Washington Evening Star (thank you DCPL!) to construct an updated profile of Wheeler. Meryl Gordon’s 2017 biography, Bunny Mellon: The Life of an American Style Legend, helped frame Wheeler and Snitzler’s reputation in Georgetown’s “evening society circuit.” Gordon refers to Snitzler as Wheeler’s “companion” and mentions Mellon’s invitation to the two men to construct a home on her property in Middleburg, Virginia.
The Evening Star, Washington, D.C. October 9, 1948

Throughout the research process, Kelly and I discussed how to describe Wheeler’s connections to Snitzler and Stengle when the evidence of these relationships was so clearly covert. On that point, would we be “outing” the three men? A session at the 2018 Society of American Archivists’ conference addressed this dilemma, warning archivists against applying modern labels and instead providing context with the prevalent terms in use during a particular period in history.

Washington Evening Star, November 16, 1947

Following descriptive policies outlined in the Digital Transgender Archive, Kelly and I adopted the following language used to describe the living arrangement between Wheeler and Snitzler in the 1940s for the revised finding aid’s biographical note:

In 1947, he formed a 'bachelor household' in Georgetown with James Snitzler. Later, at the invitation of Rachel "Bunny" Lambert Mellon, he and Snitzler created a second home outside of Washington called "Spring Hill" on property owned by Mellon. Shortly after Snitzler's death in 1968, Wheeler moved permanently to Middleburg, Virginia and continued to travel, lecture, and consult with clients. Wheeler semi-retired in 1981 to 'Budfield,' a property in Rectortown, Virginia where he passed away in 1989, leaving his estate to his partner, James M. Stengle.

In 2019, I think we’ve reached a place where archives no longer claim complete neutrality. As Kelly pointed out, “cataloging is an open-ended and ongoing process.  You have to realize we come in with our own biases and impose our own interpretations. It’s our job to look at all of the materials and present the facts. Then others will look at it and put their own spin on it.” In short, all we know about Wheeler is from what we read in the newspapers, saw in photographs and correspondence, and learned through interview notes with Wheeler’s friends and colleagues. We can only present the evidence that Snitzler and Wheeler lived at the same address between 1947 and 1968 and that Snitzler left Wheeler a trust. After his death, Wheeler donated the trust to the Antiquarian Society in Snitzler’s name.

Studying the Perry Wheeler Collection, I discovered firsthand the importance of periodically revisiting and re-describing finding aids. When Wheeler’s collection arrived at AAG in 1993, the materials were rehoused but largely left in their original order by collections staff.  Very little within the boxes of records from Wheeler’s garden design records and personal papers suggested that he had any romantic attachments. Only by reading between the lines of the society pages in Washington’s newspapers and sifting through personal photographs did it become more apparent that Wheeler’s long-term relationships were closer partnerships.

Which brings me to my final lesson, imparted by archivist Bergis Jules and distilled over the last few weeks with the Perry Wheeler Collection: “The politics of what we’ve traditionally preserved means the archive is filled with silences, absences, and distortions, mostly affecting the legacies of the less privileged.” To say that Wheeler was less privileged would be a blatant falsehood. As a wealthy, white, professional man living with another man in D.C. during the Red and Lavender Scares, Wheeler was in a better position than most people at that time who were rumored to be homosexual. However, the unintentional erasure of Wheeler’s sexuality distorted his life in the context of the period in which he lived. For me, it brings up questions about whether his sexuality impacted his work life and how he (and Snitzler who worked for the State Department) escaped the scrutiny of the “gay witch hunts” during the Cold War. These are questions left unanswered by Perry Wheeler’s papers, perhaps to be answered by a future researcher. 

Haley Steinhilber
2019 Summer Intern
Archives of American Gardens 
Smithsonian Gardens

Further Reading:

Beth Page and Kate Fox, “Biography of Perry Hunt Wheeler (1913-1989),” Smithsonian Gardens. 2010.

Bergis Jules,“Confronting Our Failure of Care Around the Legacies of Marginalized People in the Archives,” Archivy, November 11, 2016.

Digital Transgender Archive

Erin Baucom,  An Exploration into Archival Descriptions of LGBTQ Materials. The American Archivist: Spring/Summer 2018, Vol. 81, No. 1, pp. 65-83.

Meryl Gordon, Bunny Mellon: The Life of an American Style Legend, Grand Central Publishing, 2017.

Michelle Peralta, “SAA Session Recaps: 101: Toward Culturally Competent Archival (Re) Description of Marginalized Histories.” September 11, 2018. 

Friday, July 26, 2019

Make a Lasting Difference: Become a Volunteer Transcription Reviewer

A local charitable organization I once proofread for had the slogan “Make a Lasting Difference.” I often reflect on these words as I review Smithsonian Institution Transcription Center documents. The work we do at the Smithsonian will enable future researchers to learn a great deal more about our collective history – and, in the case of my volunteer “home” at the Freedmen’s Bureau Papers, will help genealogists connect with their formerly enslaved ancestors. Our work really does make a lasting difference.
If, like me, you pride yourself on your attention to detail, love to find and fix other folks’ mistakes, and enjoy trying to make sense of history, volunteer transcription reviewing just might be for you.

The Difference Between Transcribing and Reviewing

Volunteer transcribers create online versions of primary source documents by carefully typing what they read so that the originals become more accessible and searchable. Reviewers then edit these transcription “first drafts,” comparing them to the originals and tweaking them if necessary, before marking the work as complete.
Because my typing skills are limited, I’m not an effective transcriptionist. However, my professional background in research and proofreading makes me an excellent reviewer – and I love the work that I do. I revel in exploring long-ago stories and uncovering little details. I also get the daily opportunity to learn more about my country’s history, and particularly about Reconstruction. Over the past few years I’ve fine-tuned the way I go about reviewing, and I’ve been asked to share some of my process with you.

Getting Ready to Work

Before beginning a day’s work, review SI reviewing guidelines here and here.
To save time and prevent frustration, keep the necessary resources handy to help you do your work. For example, here’s some of what I have at my desk for my Freedmen’s Bureau work:

  • SI Transcription Center search tool – truly the Smithsonian’s best-kept secret! Use it to confirm such things as unusual surnames.

Mindful Reviewing

  • Assume that mistakes have been made during the transcription process. (Nobody’s perfect.) Get out your virtual red pen and get ready to mark things up!
  • Take your time. Don’t rush the process; it’s not a race, and there’s more than enough work to keep us all busy for a long time to come. (Heck, in the Freedmen’s Bureau Project we’ve been working on records from just the state of North Carolina for the last two years!)
  • Prior to starting a page, read any notes that appear in the “Notes on Transcribing this page” field at the bottom right of the screen. Other transcribers may have included helpful tidbits there.

  • Double-bracketed tags usually come in pairs. If you see an opening tag (such as [[preprinted]]), make sure that there’s also a closing tag ([[/preprinted]]). Learn more about how to use double brackets here.
  • As you review, keep in mind what Hippocrates said: “First, do no harm.” Beware of introducing new mistakes in your zeal to fix things.
  • Read the original document word for word and punctuation mark for punctuation mark while comparing it to its transcription. I use my cursor to follow along in the original document as I read and, believe it or not, I often read out loud, even naming each punctuation mark as it goes by. (My family has learned to ignore my mutterings.)
  • Resist the temptation to improve the spelling or punctuation of the original document. The long-ago writer might have been rushed or careless or – in the case of authors of some of the Freedmen’s Bureau documents – only semi-literate. Preserve original spelling and sentence structure. (Consider, however, flagging “extra-special” usage in the Notes field for the benefit of other transcribers.)

  • Ask yourself, does what I’m reading look right? Does it make sense? If a phrase seems out of place, it might not have been transcribed correctly. Think more about what might be going on in the original document and flag anything that seems “off” in the notes field. (I’m always especially on the lookout for unusual names.) As you get more familiar with reviewing particular projects, you’ll develop an “ear” for the language used.
  • Consider reading through longer documents twice before either marking the transcription as complete or bumping it back for further review. Often, I’ll read through a transcription (noting anything hinky on my trusty legal pad), take a break, and then come back to the computer to look things over one more time before completing my work on that page.
  • Take frequent breaks. I get up from my computer every 15 minutes or so to walk around (and to get more coffee!). Remember, your eyes need rest from the close reading you’ve been doing.
  • Take advantage of SI tools. For example, don’t forget about the handy zoom tool:

  • Use it to get up close and personal with hard-to-read handwriting. (After you’ve completed your review, though, make sure to zoom back out and take a quick look at the entire page to ensure material at the very top and bottom of the original document appears in the transcription.)

  • Reach out to SI staff with the Feedback tool if you need clarification on anything. (Just click the tab to the left of the page you’re working on.) If you have a question, chances are other transcribers and reviewers have wondered the same thing, but have been too shy to ask.

Do Your Best - And Then Let It Go

Remember that, at the end of the day, our job is to provide simple access so that researchers can find what they want and then do their own work with the original documents. Our goal is to provide easy-to-read, searchable documents. Do your best and then move on.
How do you transcribe and review documents? Share your process by reaching out to, leaving notes for fellow volunpeers in the notes section of each project page, or tweeting @TranscribeSI. 
Remember, #WeAllLearnTogether.
Learn more about the Freedmen’s Bureau Papers here.

-Beth Graham, Smithsonian Transcription Center Volunteer

The label "lifelong learner" describes Beth Graham best. She thrives on new challenges, and has held positions as varied as children's librarian, advertising agency proofreader, crochet pattern designer, and Crafty/Bluprint Instructor. Currently, Beth keeps busy by volunteering on the Freedmen's Bureau Project in the Smithsonian Transcription Center, knitting ever more socks for her overflowing sock drawer, and playing clarinet in the local New Horizons band. A native of California, Beth lives in Ontario, Canada.

* This is the first post in a series of blog posts from long-time volunpeer Beth Graham. While transcribing and reviewing over 4,000 pages of TC projects, Beth has gained insight & knowledge, and uncovered fascinating historical details. Follow along in this series to learn from Beth as she shares her personal motivations, expert tips, and transcription discoveries!*

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Pioneering Women Photographers in Africa: Marli Shamir

Marli Shamir and Peul (Fula) woman, Mopti, Mali, 1970, EEPA 2013-009-0322
The Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives (EEPA) is pleased to share the collection of the next featured photographer in our Pioneering Women Photographers in Africa series, Marli Shamir.  Shamir (1919-2017) was an Israeli photographer known for her extensive work in Burkina Faso, the Cote d’Ivoire, Gabon, and Mali, which she completed from 1966 to 1973. Her collection (EEPA 2013-009) includes 1,817 black and white negatives (35mm and 120mm), 1,519 color slides, several hundred prints, and manuscript materials. The negatives have been digitized and will available online later this year.

Bamako man mending fishing net, Mali, 1968, EEPA 2013-009-0410
Shamir was intrigued with both the peoples and architecture of the Sahel region of western and north-central Africa. Trained at the Contempora (Contempora—Lehrateliers für neue Werkkunst) (1934-1937), a school in Berlin affiliated with the Bauhaus art movement, and in Copehagen, where she studied microphotography, her photos do not just document, but artistically depict the inhabitants and architecture of the Sahel. A specialist in black and white photography, she highlighted the stark differences and contrasts in light and angles, purposely juxtaposing dramatically different shades, textures, and shapes.

Windows and shutters, Timbukto, Mali, 1967, EEPA 2013-009-0750

In 1938, Shamir's life was seriously disrupted when she was forced to immigrate from Nazi Germany to Israel, where she lived in a kibbutz for a period of time. From 1941 to 1943, she worked as a scientific photographer at the Weizmann Institute in Raichoven and then, at just 26 years of age, opened her own photography studio in 1945 in Jerusalem. She ran this successful business for several years before marrying Meir Shamir, a former Israeli diplomat and ambassador in 1953. It was while living in Africa with her husband from 1966 to 1973 that she produced her most recognized body of work.

Bambara woman painting a Bokolanfini textile, Bamako, Mali, 1969, EEPA 2013-009-1197

During Shamir’s stay in Mali, she met Pascal James Imperato, a doctor and historian of African art, with whom she collaborated on the article, “Bokolanfini: Mud Cloth of the Bamana of Mali” (African Arts,  1970) [1]. Shamir also exhibited her work in 1976 at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem in the exhibit SAHEL, which depicted the rural and urban architecture and people of Mali. The exhibition toured Europe later that same year. 

Man standing near ceramic rain pipes, Mopti, Mali, 1968,
EEPA 2013-009-0547

While most of the exhibitions of Shamir’s work have featured her photographs taken in Mali (especially in Djenne), Shamir was interested in exhibiting her images from the larger region, noting that doing so would provide the exhibit with important contextual information and add “some warm touch to it.” [Letter to Professor J. Brunet-Jailly, Director of Research at ORSTOM, October 13, 1998] [2].  This preference of inclusiveness is evident in her photographs: she took not just static shots, but also depicted the process of making art, of celebrations, of daily life; she strove to convey people’s stories.

Child by bread oven, Timbuktu, Mali, 1967-1970, EEPA 2013-009-0760
Joseph Brunet-Jailly, a French professor of economics, saw her exhibit and, deeply impressed, showed Shamir’s photographs to Albakaye Ousmane Kounta, the national poet of Mali. The images inspired Kounta to create poetry to accompany Shamir’s photographs. The resulting book, Djenne-Ferey –La terre habitee (France: Grandvaux, 2005), reflects the collaboration of the two artists and pays tribute to the people of Mali and its heritage. One of the Kounta's poems, "Les Saints" [3], alongside the accompanying image, follows:

San Friday Mosque, Mali, 1971, EEPA 2013-009-1653

Les saints

A chacun
Une couronne
Enrobée d'argile
Une caresse étirée
De la base jusqu'au sommet

A chacun deux trous de secrets 
L'un pour les voeux
Intimes qu'on murmure
L'autre pour les offrandes
Qu'on glisse dans l'ombre

The Saints

To each
A crown
Clay clad
A stretched caress
From the base to the top

To each two holes of secrets
One for the wishes
Intimate whispering
The other for offerings
Slide in the shade

From 1977 to 1981, Shamir lived in Strasbourg where she worked with a Canadian researcher to study the new style of architecture in Mali. This work is now stored at the Center of Documentation in Strasbourg. After living for a few years in Paris in the early 1990s in order to familiarize herself with new techniques in color photography, Shamir returned to Israel with her husband. Shamir continued photographing local urban scenes in her neighborhood of Baka, Jerusalem late into her life, until she passed away at the age of 98 in 2017.

Bamako man wearing blown up "Boubou" on bicycle, Mali, 1966-1971, EEPA 2013-009-0396
We hope that you enjoy Shamir’s photographs as more are posted online. Be sure and check out the finding aid for more details. The EEPA holds an additional collection (EEPA 1995-025) of prints of Shamir’s work.  You can view that catalog record here.

The EEPA is open for researchers by appointment only, Tuesday-Thursday, 10-4. Please see the EEPA website for contact information.

[1] Pascal James Imperato and Marli Shamir, "Bokolanfini: Mud Cloth of the Bamana of Mali",  African Arts 3, no. 2 (Summer 1970): 32-41, 80.
[2] Marli Shamir Collection, EEPA 2013-009, Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution.
[3] Marli Shamir and Albakaye Ousmane Kounta, Djenne-Ferey –La terre habitee (France: Grandvaux, 2005), 22-23.

Eden Orelove
Photo Archivist
Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives
National Museum of African Art

Monday, June 24, 2019

Announcing the Launch of Transcription Center Sound Projects

We are excited to officially announce the Transcription Center’s (TC) latest feature—transcription projects of digitized audio recordings from around the Smithsonian!

The inclusion of sound into the Transcription Center has been requested by volunpeers and Smithsonian collaborators for many years, and we’ve been working hard with developers, archivists and museum staff, and other stakeholders to make this possible.

NMAH-AC0055-0000086, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

So far, we’ve launched the first set of TC Sound projects from the National Air and Space Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Archives of American Art, and the National Anthropological Archives and Human Studies Film Archives. Over the next two weeks we’ll be posting even more projects from additional Smithsonian units (including the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage,Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections and the Anacostia Community Museum Archives), and diving further into featured collections and audiovisual (AV) materials more generally. Alongside our Smithsonian colleagues, we will be sharing background information on audio recordings, behind-the-scenes videos on audiovisual archives, and tips and tricks for transcribing sound. Follow along with #TCSound on our social media channels (Twitter, FacebookInstagram, and YouTube) to learn more--and while you're at it, check out the Smithsonian Press release announcing the launch of TC Sound.

As we move forward with audio recordings, our Transcription Center team is also working on adapting the platform to incorporate transcription projects of moving image collections (TC Video!), which will be released later this year.

The Impact of TC Sound (why this so important and so awesome):

As the first federal crowdsourcing project to include audio recordings for transcription, we are looking forward to broadening the scope of collection accessibility and readability alongside dedicated volunpeers. Since the launch of the Transcription Center in 2013, over 13,200 volunpeers have transcribed and reviewed more than 460,000 pages of digitized Smithsonian textual materials. This work makes the content within these collections readable and searchable in Smithsonian Collections Search Center database, unlocking historical details for researchers around the world. The inclusion of sound projects in TC will further this work – resulting in even more accessible collections, and presenting even more opportunities for collaborative discovery.

AV Cold Storage, Human Studies Film Archives, National Museum of
Natural History
, Smithsonian Institution
The Smithsonian holds over 290,000 analog audiovisual items in their collections--including more than 150,000 audio recordings--dating from the late 19th century to the present, and ranging in format from wax cylinders, to audio cassettes, films, and reels. Only a portion of these have been digitized and made available to the public. Yet as we know from our extensive work with textual materials, digitization does not equal access.
Transcription offers one solution, making the individual words and stories within digitized materials searchable online. Audiovisual collections present even greater barriers to accessibility. Due to limited staff resources, outdated and obsolete media, and the nature of historical archival donations and collections more generally, descriptive information for audiovisual collection content (or metadata) is often incomplete or unknown altogether. Additionally, without captions, audio and moving images that have been digitized remain inaccessible. Transcription of these materials will not only unlock the historical richness within sound recordings to all interested individuals, regardless of the ability to play or hear the audio, but will also help Smithsonian staff better advocate for the preservation and continued care of these important, but fragile, collections.

Currently, the Smithsonian Institution Archives, alongside other Smithsonian units, is conducting a number of projects related to the present state and future needs of our audiovisual collections. The first phase of a pan-institutional survey of audiovisual collections, consisting of analog film, audio, and video held across the Institution, was completed in 2017. Proposed by the Audiovisual Archivists Institutional Leadership (AVAIL) group and funded by the Collections Care and Preservation Fund (CCPF), this project provides a foundation for the Smithsonian to develop strategies for the preservation and care of these materials. The final report for this survey was released in March of 2017, and identified group-level data on formats, condition, and storage environments, along with areas of greatest strengths and needs in preservation practices. Findings highlighted the great risk audiovisual collections face due to degradation of media formats and obsolescence of playback equipment, the need for digitization and adequate storage to prevent permanent loss (which experts agree could occur within as little as a decade), and lack of audiovisual preservation staff throughout the Institution. Initial work is underway in response to the audiovisual collections report, including an ongoing project with the Digitization Program Office’s Mass Digitization to digitize (and thus preserve) two collections of radio program recordings from the Smithsonian Institution Archives and the Archives of American Art. Once completed (projected to be end of summer 2019), these recordings will be imported into Transcription Center as TC Sound projects. The work of volunpeers on these projects, as well as other TC sound collections, will support and advance AV pan-institutional efforts by unlocking the content on these obsolete formats, making it accessible to all, now and in the future.

Please note: this data is from the 2017 Audiovisual Survey; current statistics and data have increased. 

Join the TC Sound Effort:

As with all projects in Transcription Center, any interested individual with internet access is welcome to dive into TC Sound! You can browse ongoing projects by heading to If you simply want to transcribe, just grab some headphones, choose any current project, and start typing. To transcribe, review, and track your Transcription Center work, sign up for an account (just click “sign up” in the top right of the website and enter a username and email address). Either way, just be sure to first review the “TC Sound” instructions, where you’ll find step-by-step how-to’s for transcribing sound, video tutorials, completed example projects, and a printable instructions cheat sheet.

Reach out to your fellow volunpeers and Smithsonian staff with questions, discoveries, and other comments anytime through our social media channels or by emailing us at We can’t wait to see what we uncover through #TCSound as #WeListenTogether!

-Caitlin Haynes, Coordinator, Smithsonian Transcription Center 

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Discovering Culture in the Shanidar Cave Neanderthals

Often, Neanderthals are thought of as a robust and brutish distant relative of modern humans. With their stout features and receding foreheads, the similarities between them and us seem scant at first, but in fact important parallels exist.

Shanidar I excavation photo, 1957 [1].

Between 1957 and 1960, a total of nine Neanderthal individuals were recovered by archaeologist Ralph S. Solecki and local laborers in Shanidar Cave, Iraq. Fragments of lower leg bones of a tenth Neanderthal individual, an infant, have also been found, mixed in with the Shanidar animal fossil remains in the Smithsonian collections. These discoveries date to the Mousterian era at approximately 100,000 to 35,000 years ago. Neanderthals looked different from modern humans and through the 1950s had  erroneously been thought to be less evolved, yet both species engaged in complex social behaviors, including care for sick or infirm individuals and symbolic beliefs.

Culture is a phenomenon found in all human societies and behaviors similar to what we would consider cultural in modern humans were carried out by Neanderthals. For example, like humans, Neanderthals learned to create tools and ornaments made of stone and bone [2]. During the excavations of Shanidar Cave, hearths or firepits were unearthed, which may offer insight into the life habits of Neanderthals. Neanderthals had the capacity to start and maintain fires, and many of the hearths appear to have been strategically built against stones to give off reflective heat [2, 3]. The size of the hearths suggests that some were for communal use and others were reserved for smaller groups, possibly families [3]. Based on this evidence, some scientists believe that like modern humans Neanderthals formed groups and bonds among each other and very likely gathered around the hearths for meals and other activities that point to social practices [3].

Illustration of the hearths excavated at Shanidar Cave,
circa 1957-1960 [1].

Mortuary practices, or behaviors associated with the treatment of the dead, are frequently an index of complex cultural practices. In archaeology, mortuary practices are one way to learn about cultural beliefs. In 1960, Ralph Solecki uncovered a male Neanderthal, aged approximately 40 years at time of death, during the fourth excavation season at Shanidar Cave. The individual, Shanidar IV, was found 7.5 meters below the modern cave floor in damp, brown, sandy soil. This soil was looser than what the excavators had previously encountered and indicated a burial. Shanidar IV was positioned on his left side with head placed towards the south. [4, 5, 9]. Through analysis of the Shanidar IV Neanderthal burial, specifically the soil samples collected during excavation, archaeologists like Ralph Solecki believed that the Shanidar IV skeleton may have been an intentional Neanderthal burial.

Shanidar IV was found on its side in a bent position [1].

In 1975, a palynologist, or a scientist who studies pollen, Arlette Leroi-Gourhan published information regarding the soil samples taken from Shanidar Cave [6]. The samples showed tree pollen that could have blown into the cave by wind, but other samples contained pollen from at least eight species of small, brightly colored flowers that were relatives of hollyhock, yellow flowering groundsel, bachelor’s button, and grape hyacinth, all found today growing around the surrounding hillsides [6]. While this theory has been disputed by later scholars, Leroi-Gourhan suggested that the flower pollen was not brought into the cave by the wind or animals, but perhaps by the Neanderthals for a funerary ritual. The presence of Malvaceaes – a large, singular flower covered in spikes—seemed to suggest that the Neanderthals living at the cave at the time had wandered in search of the flower to place within the grave. This interpretation pointed toward higher cognitive ability within Neanderthals, according to Ralph Solecki [4, 5]. 

Malvaceae was one of the flower families found 
in the soil sample taken from around Shanidar IV [1]. 

Other anthropologists, who reasoned that Neanderthals were not using flowers in funerary practices, disagreed with Ralph Solecki’s interpretation of Shanidar IV. These interpretations stated that wind was able to carry the pollen through the large mouth of the cave [7]. Additionally, rodent species found in the cave are known to burrow and store plant materials, including flowers. These rodents might have been responsible for some of the deposition of the pollen found near Shanidar IV [8]. The pollen samples collected from the burial pit also included tiny fragments of wood and pollen grains of evergreens such as fir, suggesting to some researchers that tree boughs could have been brought to the burial site in addition to clusters of colorful flowers (6). The debate on whether the pollen samples found from around Shanidar IV are indicative of intentional funerary practices or whether the pollen came into the cave through other means continues today. If funerary, this has implications for how Neanderthals and even our own ancestors interacted with and interpreted the world around them.

Due to the extreme rarity of paleontological and archaeological evidence relating to human ancestors living tens of thousands of years ago, our comprehension about the human

lineage is often limited. Therefore, the wealth of archaeological evidence accompanying the Neanderthal remains at Shanidar Cave uncovered by Ralph and Rose Solecki has fundamentally shaped how we understand Neanderthals and our knowledge about the past. Two important goals of archaeologists like the Soleckis are to attempt to give those who lived in the past a voice and for others to have access to this information. These excavations and the Soleckis’ work have inspired new excavations at Shanidar Cave, which will broaden our understanding of how people occupying this cave adapted to their environment [10, 11]. Moreover, the Ralph S. and Rose L. Solecki Papers and Artifacts Project is processing the professional papers and cataloging the artifact collections of the Soleckis, including material from the Shanidar Cave excavations, in order to make them more accessible to researchers as well as the public.

To learn more about the Ralph S. and Rose L. Solecki Papers and Artifacts Project, check out previous Solecki Project Smithsonian Collections Blog posts. Also, explore the Smithsonian’s Human Origins Program’s  Snapshot in Time about Shanidar Cave. The Ralph S. and Rose L. Solecki Papers and Artifacts Project was made possible by two grants from the Smithsonian Institution’s Collections Care and Preservation Fund.

Viridiana Garcia and Kayla Kubehl, Interns, Spring 2019

[1] The Ralph S. and Rose L. Solecki papers, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.
[2] Matt Cartmill, Kaye Brown, and Fred H. Smith, The Human Lineage. (Hoboken, N.J: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009).
[3] Ralph S. Solecki. “Living Floors in the Middle Palaeolithic Deposits at Shanidar Cave, Northern Iraq.” Unpublished, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.
[4] Ralph S. Solecki, 1975. “Shanidar IV, a Neanderthal burial in Northern Iraq.” Science 190 (4217), pp. 880-881.
[5] Ralph S. Solecki, Shanidar: The First Flower People (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971). 
[6] Arlette Leroi-Gourhan, 1975. “The flowers found with Shanidar IV, a Neanderthal burial in Iraq.” Science 190 (4214), pp. 562-564.
[7] Robert H. Gargett et al., 1989. “Grave shortcomings: The evidence for Neanderthal burial.” Current Anthropology 30 (2), 157-190.
[8] Jeffrey D. Sommer, 1999. “The Shanidar IV ‘Flower Burial’: A re-evaluation of Neanderthal burial ritual.” Cambridge Archaeological Journal 9 (1), pp. 127-129.
[9] Ralph S. Solecki, Shanidar, The First Flower People (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971).
[10] Tim Reynolds, William Boismier, Lucy Farr, Chris Hunt, Dlshad Abdulmutalb and Graeme Barker, 2015. “New investigations at Shanidar Cave, Iraqi Kurdistan.” Antiquity: A Review of World Archaeology vol. 89, no. 348

[11] Elizabeth Culotta, 2019. “New remains discovered at site of famous Neanderthal ‘flower burial’” Science, doi:10.1126/science.aaw7586

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Pioneering Women Photographers in Africa: Marilyn Houlberg

This blog post about Marilyn Houlberg continues the series about our Pioneering Women Photographers in Africa project.  The following post was written by Dr. Peter Haffner, a post-doc fellow at the National Museum of African Art who spent nine months researching Haitian art and the work of Marilyn Houlberg in the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives.  He holds a Ph.D. from UCLA in Culture and Performance from the interdisciplinary Dept. of World Arts and Cultures/Dance at UCLA, focusing on contemporary Haitian arts and culture. In the fall, Dr. Haffner will join the Art History faculty at Centre College as an Assistant Professor.

Peter Haffner researching in the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, April 25, 2019, Photograph by Brad Simpson

Marilyn Houlberg (1939-2012) wore many hats during her lifetime: artist, photographer, art historian dedicated to the arts of Yorubaland and Haiti, professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, curator of major exhibitions of Haitian art in the United States, and a trained anthropologist. Common to all of her her roles was her advocacy and support for the arts and religious practices of peoples of African descent. Many who knew her well describe her as a “bon vivant,” fiercely independent and warmly eccentric. With her mirrored sunglasses, ornate head-wraps, flashy statement jewelry, and flowing black clothing, she purposely played with an ambiguously “witchy” self-presentation that, even though she herself was not a manbo, or Vodou priestess, the chance that she just might be granted a certain access all its own. 

Houlberg seated with André Pierre in the artist's home, Haiti,
March 2005, EEPA 2012-004-2770.  Photographed here during his last days, 
Houlberg had a long, collaborative relationship with the famed 
painter and oungan, André Pierre.
One can see the extent of this access documented in over 5,000 photographs and almost four decades of field notes and related ephemera available in the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives at the National Museum of African Art. From her earliest experiences in the field, Houlberg never shied from difficult situations. She cut her teeth doing field research and museum work in Nigeria during the tumultuous period of the Biafra civil war. While working at the National Museum of Lagos in the late 1960s, she helped catalog and secure the museum’s holdings of traditional art objects. In scores of handwritten pages, she recorded the accession numbers and descriptions of thousands of objects as unrest in the streets threatened to spill into the museum. Such altruism was not limited to the works in the museums, as she helped many of her Igbo colleagues hide within the museum (Cosentino 2012).

Ife-Olu Solaru dressing hair, Ikenne, Nigeria, September 29, 1973, EEPA 2005-002-0091.  One of the many examples of sculptural virtuosity of Yoruba women's hairstyles.

Yoruba woman with elaborate hairstyle, Ikenne, Nigeria,
September 29, 1973, EEPA-2005-002-0092
Her Nigerian field research in rural areas encompassed subjects of special interest. In the male-dominated field of anthropology, she focused on areas both overlooked by her male colleagues and ones potentially inaccessible to them because of gender. She wrote of the social and political significance of women’s hairstyles, and how certain styles could be read as responses to everything from political conditions of military rule in Nigeria to the religious diversity within its borders (Houlberg 1979). Perhaps most important was her acknowledgement of the transformations that occurred in cultural forms over time, and how the dynamic shifts in more “traditional” motifs in response to their exposure to contemporary practices and materials were signs of cultural dynamism, not a pollution of more “pure” older forms. Her work with ibeji, or twin figures, among Yoruba peoples is one major illustration of this. Houlberg found examples of modern technologies like photography incorporated into the practice of honoring deceased twins among Yoruba women, and how mass-produced plastic dolls were often used in place of more traditional carved wooden ere ibeji in order to represent and honor a twin who has passed on to the next world (Houlberg 1973).

Flag Day Parade, Haitian Army/Guard Civil, Cap Haitien, Haiti, May 18, 1976, EEPA 2012-004-0760.
Houlberg captured this official celebration of soldiers in the northern city of Cap Haitien during the height of Baby Doc Duvalier's autocratic regime. Note the red and black flags adopted by the Duvaliers, later changed back to the original blue and red.

Houlberg refocused her scholarly attention in the late 1970s as she directed her research towards ibeji as they manifested in Haiti. Known among local Vodou practitioners as marasa, twins in Haiti had their own sets of practices and beliefs. Her research showed how systems of devotion to the marasa were indebted to corresponding West African ibeji traditions, but also how they underwent transformations in new cultural and geographic settings that testified to the dynamic adaptability of cultures, even in the face of horrors like the Middle Passage and the plantation slavery system of colonial St. Domingue (as Haiti was known before the Revolution).

Drummers (bata), Yoruba Egungun Festival, Ilara, Nigeria, July 22, 1982,
EEPA 2012-004-0622

Houlberg’s research gradually became more entrenched in Haitian subjects. Ironically, with the scapegoating of Haitians (among the other “H” groups of homosexuals, hemophiliacs, and heroin users) for the spread of HIV in the early 1980s, Houlberg was traveling more and more to the country. As the tourism boom from the 1970s came to a halt and, later, political turmoil engulfed the country as uprisings overthrew the autocratic government Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, Houlberg’s work in Haiti was ramping up. In fact, her field notes serve as valuable contemporaneous accounts of the shifts in Vodou practice and how devotees responded to these difficulties, as well as how the material changes manifested in the work of Haitian artists in Port-au-Prince.

Two ounsi (Vodou initiates) hold up sequined banners to conceal the activities of the oungan behind them,
Haiti, December 1985, EEPA 2012-004-0819

As Houlberg’s field notes and photographs progress chronologically, they demonstrate how she positioned herself as an adept facilitator for the exhibition, reception, and acquisition of Haitian art internationally, especially during times of hardship and unrest. During the U.S.-led embargo of Haiti (1991-94), Houlberg would often bring supplies and materials for artists, since goods were increasingly scarce in Haiti itself. Among her letters in the archives are those written by artists like Yves Telemak requesting materials from Houlberg or thanking her for the delivery of supplies of colorful beads and sequins, which would be sewn onto drapo (Vodou flags). Often, these deliveries would be exchanged for commissioned works that would then enter Houlberg’s ever-growing collection of flags. 

Bel-Air neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, St. Martin's street (next street from Tirremas), Haiti, January 1986,
EEPA 2012-004-0810. Houlberg made close associations with flag makers in Bel-Air, an epicenter of art
and Vodou practice in Haiti's capital.  

In 1994, President Bill Clinton ordered the U.S. Marine invasion to reinstate the democratically elected Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, which also restored international trade to the country. This marked a time of great optimism in Haiti. For her part, Houlberg was busy with her work as the co-curator of the landmark exhibition, Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou, which began at UCLA’s Fowler Museum of Cultural History (now named the Fowler Museum at UCLA) in 1995 and spent three years traveling to major institutions throughout North America. As the editor of the massive exhibition book, fellow curator Donald J. Cosentino has often received the lion’s share of the credit for Sacred Arts, but Houlberg’s field notes reveal just how integral she was to its success. Her art-world connections in Haiti, cultivated over years of research, proved crucial to the exhibition and the publication. Her relationships to artists like Telemak and the painter Andre Pierre – a grand elder of Haitian Vodou practice – as well as her longtime collaborator and friend, Georges René, whose tireless legwork opened myriad doors to Houlberg that were otherwise unavailable to her, were significant resources to the exhibition.

Houlberg's longtime collaborator and friend, Georges René, standing in front of a billboard that reads, "ANSAM NAP REBATI AYITI-MEN ANPIL CHAY PA LOU (together we will rebuild Haiti - many hands lighten the load), Haiti, circa 1990, EEPA 2012-004-0607.  This is one of many signs and posters to advertise Haitian resilience that Houlberg caught with her camera during the turbulent years that followed the fall of "Baby Doc" Duvalier in the mid-1980s. 

Houlberg died in 2012, leaving behind troves of material to the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives. Most of the photographs and field notes have been processed, but there still remains much of the video and audio components of Houlberg’s fieldwork to be digitized. Considering the breadth and scope of the available materials, we highly anticipate what the next phases of archiving will yield.

Cosentino, Donald, Henry John Drewal, Katherine Smith, and Doran H. Ross. “Marilyn Jensen Houlberg.” African Arts 46, no. 2 (2013): 4–5. 

Houlberg, Marilyn Hammersley. “Social Hair: Tradition and Change in Yoruba Hairstyles in Southwestern Nigeria,” in The Fabrics of Culture: The Anthropology of Clothing and Adornment. Justine M. Corwell and Ronald A. Schwarz, eds.  World Anthropology. The Hague ; New York: Mouton, 1979. 349-398.
———. “Ibeji Images of the Yoruba.” African Arts 7, no. 1 (1973): 20–92. 

We hope that you enjoy Houlberg’s photographs as more are posted online.  You can view the collections’ finding aids and explore her photographs here:

Marilyn Houlberg Nigeria collections: EEPA 2005-002 and EEPA 2015-015 
Marilyn Houlberg Haiti collections: EEPA 2012-004 and EEPA 2015-016 

We encourage you to read more about the Pioneering Women Photographers in Africa project and explore other blogs in the series.
To obtain high-resolution images, permission for publication or exhibition, or make a research appointment, please contact the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art.