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Monday, January 10, 2011

Guess Who

While watching Jeopardy the other night I was excited to see that the final question was about the National Portrait Gallery (NPG).


Smithsonian Circular: Portrait Photograph Request
Smithsonian Institution Archives

The next day at work I decided to scroll through some of the portrait photographs on the Collections Search Center. NPG had a host of images since the Smithsonian collected portraits of famous people from its earliest days, which eventually led to the creation of the National Portrait Gallery in 1962. I also noticed that here at the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives we had numerous portrait photographs preserved in our collections. Scrolling through I noticed the variety of individuals represented. There were presidents, scientists, statesmen and explorers, but also a host of lesser known individuals that never worked at the Smithsonian. I wondered how and why the Institution procured the images from these individuals.  

Later that week, while working on an entirely different project, the answer to my portrait collection question appeared right before my eyes. I have found that the archives work in mysterious ways. And though I was yielding few results on one project, out of nowhere the answer to the other appears!  There in a book of circulars was a copy of a letter adorned with the bust of James Smithson and elegant script. I scanned the letter and to my fortune in a Castellar-like font was the word: PORTRAITS. I carefully read the rest of the letter and learned that this document was the circular that was used to ask noteworthy Smithsonian correspondents or their families for their images, signed by the Smithsonian Secretary (Spencer F. Baird) himself! With this in mind, I decided to dig a little further.

List of Potential Names
Smithsonian Institution Archives
Draft of Follow-Up Letter
Smithsonian Institution Archives
I learned that in 1875, the Smithsonian Institution decided to create a list of individuals important in the fields of study and work who should be documented in the national collection. With a list in mind, the Smithsonian sent out this circular and kept a record of who responded. The list also revealed that the Institution sent the circular to its foreign correspondents as well.  Once the Institution obtained the portrait, the individual received a follow up circular asking detailed information for a registry.

Draft of Letter to Photographers
Smithsonian Institution Archives

The project was very active, filling the log book with numerous names and in 1880 the Institution began sending circulars not just to their correspondents, but to well known photographers. This draft circular solicits images from photographers and notes that “the collection does not embrace those who have attained prominence as actors only.”

Today the fruits of this labor can be searched across the Institution in the Collections Search Center. Photographs of naturalists, scientists, authors, and educators, who were leaders in their fields of expertise, but not necessarily household names, have been preserved at the Smithsonian thanks to its early curator’s forward thinking. 

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