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Friday, October 26, 2012

Hiding in Plain Sight

This year for American Archives Month, the Smithsonian highlights Hidden Treasures in its collections. I recently had my own encounter with a hidden treasure in the Archives of American Gardens—in this case a group of mislabeled images that ended up highlighting an icon of American architecture.

Glass House, 1971, Molly Adams, photographer, Maida Babson Adams Collection
AAG’s Maida Babson Adams American Garden Collection  includes thousands of images taken by freelance garden photographer Molly Adams who documented hundreds of gardens in the mid-Atlantic region during the 1960s and 1970s.  Adams’ image collection was donated to AAG by her family in 2003.  Little information was included with the images beyond perhaps the client name and sometimes the city or town scrawled on the back of photographs or on yellowed glassine envelopes housing batches of photographic negatives.  Another challenge was the fact that strips of film negatives and contact sheets often contained more than one garden, though no indication was given where one job ended and the other began.  

Glassine sleeve with reference to 'greenhouse tour.'
While processing the collection, I came across a batch of negatives in a sleeve labeled “Greenhouse tour/Westchester/Feb[ruary] [19]71.”  As luck would have it, this was one of the very few projects in the Adams Collection accompanied by a ‘Rosetta Stone,’ in this case an itinerary for a “One Day Pilgrimage Greenhouse Study Tour” sponsored by the Horticultural Society of New York.While reviewing the images with the hopes of matching them up to site descriptions on the schedule, one in particular caught my eye because of the massive window walls it featured.  A few terms clicked into my computer’s search engine…and you guessed it, the image (and a few of its associates) show none other than The Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut designed by Philip Johnson.  Not in Westchester County and not on the schedule!  

Glass House, 1971, Molly Adams, photographer, Maida Babson Adams Collection

Glass House, 1971 Molly Adams, photographer, Maida Babson Adams Collection

A terrific find for AAG, but one that underscores how much archivists rely on accurate metadata (or data about data) to be able to identify what’s in their collections so that they in turn can generate finding aids and catalog records that help researchers locate the resources they need.  It’s a bit overwhelming to think of all the treasures that may be hidden in an archives.  Then again, even the most accurately identified and thoroughly described item in an archives is a hidden treasure at one point or another, just biding its time for the moment when a researcher uses it to solve a mystery, prove a point or tell a forgotten story.

Joyce Connolly
Museum Specialist
Archives of American Gardens
Smithsonian Gardens 

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

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