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Monday, June 25, 2018

NMAH Tuesday Colloquia: From Research Products To Research Resources

Like many Smithsonian employees, I wear several different hats. Officially the curator of photography and an archivist in the National Museum of American History Archives Center, I also serve as the coordinator of the (nearly) weekly NMAH Tuesday Colloquium. This is a series of lectures, normally presented on Tuesday afternoons, in which speakers give presentations based on their research. Our emphasis is on programs by Smithsonian research fellows and staff, although many “outside” speakers have lectured over the years as well. I have been the colloquium coordinator for over fourteen years, and Roger Sherman, curator of modern physics, has served as co-coordinator nearly as long. We have sought out speakers and arranged, scheduled, publicized, and facilitated well over six hundred presentations.

It’s hard to believe that many colloquium speakers at the beginning of our tenure were still illustrating their talks with 35mm slides in Kodak Carousel projectors and even “overhead” projectors utilizing acetate transparencies. Nowadays most speakers rely on PowerPoint files, of course. I admit that I miss the relative simplicity of the Carousel. While I always worried that a projector bulb might burn out in the middle of a program, there are more things that can go wrong with computers and digital projectors. We have had interoperability problems between the computer and projector, and once we found that a prior user of our borrowed laptop had managed to delete the entire Windows suite (by accident, I trust), requiring a last-minute search for another computer. When Prof. Johann Neem spoke about the history of American education a few weeks ago, I was delighted that he simply read a paper and used no visuals, for a change.

Paul Forman at the 2007 History of Science Society meeting.
The series is now nearly four decades old. In a phone conversation, Dr. Paul Forman, NMAH curator emeritus of physics, told Roger that he founded the series in an effort to raise the intellectual tone of the Museum and was its first coordinator, around the time that the Museum of History and Technology became the National Museum of American History in 1980. Subsequent coordinators of these colloquia included curators Deborah Warner, Larry Bird, Patricia Gossell, and Peggy Kidwell. According to Forman, information about the founding and early years of the Tuesday Colloquium can be found among his papers in the Smithsonian Institution Archives—which I plan to consult, as I’m interested in maintaining the legacy of the program and making its recent and future records available for research access. I hope the Forman papers and my continuing compilation may themselves serve as sources for research into Smithsonian history. Forman’s interest in the scholarly side of the Museum can also be seen in a poster which he produced for an Institution-wide program entitled “What About Increase?” In this program “researchers of all stripes had sessions at the zoo discussing the role of primary research at SI, and we searched for commonalities across bureau lines, [including] paper sessions, poster sessions, breakouts,” according to Dr. David DeVorkin of NASM, who is seeking a repository for a poster produced by Forman, “Knowledge Production & Presentation in Postmodernity,” which had resided in his NASM office until recently.

Poster by Paul Forman, ca. 1990s. Courtesy David DeVorkin.
Although I make the scheduling decisions, I see the colloquium program as a collaborative endeavor. I rely on fellowship offices to advise me of new Smithsonian fellows and their schedules. Roger Sherman is always on the alert for colleagues with interesting research projects, and other curators frequently offer suggestions. I always hope that curatorial advisors for fellows will encourage them to sign up to give a colloquium and present the fruits of their research, although sometimes I arrange hunting expeditions. Many fellows would agree that an opportunity to present a paper based on their research, regardless of its current state, can be an invaluable opportunity to receive feedback and suggestions. Attendees often consider a lively Q & A session after a talk to be the best part of the program.

Smithsonian fellows in the sciences, arts, history, and other disciplines are the heart of the Tuesday Colloquia, which are attended by Smithsonian staff and non-Smithsonian colleagues who have asked to be added to our email groups. Some attendees are intrigued by a speaker’s topic, while others are interested in seeing how our collections are utilized in research. Some fellows study “three-dimensional” collection objects, some explore documents and images in Smithsonian archival repositories, and others utilize SI Libraries resources, including rare books and manuscripts. Recent speakers at NMAH Tuesday Colloquia include the following:

Sean Young, a Dibner Fellow, SI Libraries, spoke on “The Art of Signs: Symbolic Notation and Visual Thinking in Early Modern Science,” utilizing rare books in the Dibner Library at NMAH. Anastasia Day spoke on Victory Gardens, studying Archives Center and SI Libraries collections. Al Coppola, Dibner Library Resident Scholar, spoke on “Enlightenment Microscopy,” based partly on rare books in the Dibner Library and consultation with Curator Deborah Warner. Charnan Williams spoke about her study of an African American family living in the West, from the Archives Center’s Bridgewater Family Papers. Emily Voelker, for whom I was a co-advisor, spoke on “Roland Bonaparte’s Photographic Encounters with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West in Paris,” based on exciting field research and interviews, plus photographic collections in Paris, the NMAH Photographic History Collection, and the NMNH Anthropological Archives.

Emily Voelker, Ph.D., Postdoctoral Fellow 2017,
National Portrait Gallery and NMAH (colloquium Dec. 5, 2017).
NMAH and other SI staff often speak as well, receiving curatorial credit for presentations. Peter Liebhold, Curator in the Division of Work and Industry, illustrated his talk, “Work Incentives: Posters, Pins, and Perks,” with images of artifacts from his division and posters from the Archives Center. Dr. Frank Blazich, NMAH Curator of Military History, edited a book and spoke about the experiences of a World War II prisoner of war, based on the P.O.W.’s memoirs.

Although colloquia based on research in Smithsonian collections, especially at NMAH, are intended as the core of our program, we also include lectures which are not Smithsonian collections-based, yet represent topics of interest to the Smithsonian community. I have tried to resist pressure from outside publicists who think a Smithsonian stop on an author’s book tour, including a book-signing, would be prestigious and/or lucrative. Since the colloquia are considered “staff” rather than “public” events, outside authors and their publishers may be disappointed to find that a lecture and/or book-signing is not listed on public Smithsonian web pages. I think the essential rationale is that our programs are not vetted and approved in advance by either the Museum’s public affairs office or the Director’s office. John Gray, our recently retired Director, has been an enthusiastic fan of the Tuesday Colloquium, which he frequently attended; he often gave me positive comments and compliments in person and by email, and was certainly our most supportive director since I have been the coordinator. However, he never had an opportunity to approve our colloquia in advance, so it would be inappropriate or premature to make these events “public” and list them on the website.

For example, Hallie Lieberman, now famous for her new book Buzz, was a pre-doctoral Lemelson Fellow in 2012; a major portion of her dissertation research on the history of sex toys was conducted in the Archives Center, amply demonstrating that our renowned Warshaw Collection of Business Americana contains something for every scholar. She also studied objects in the Museum’s Medicine and Science collections. She presented a colloquium on her research entitled “Every Woman Her Own Husband: Why Technological Innovation Leads to Sex Toy Innovation,” which was unusually well-attended despite the August heat.  I suspect that her illustrated lecture would not have been endorsed or advertised by the Museum as a “public” presentation—at least, not without a conversation regarding risk assessment.

Hallie Lieberman (Lemelson Center Fellow, 2012), doing dissertation research in the collections of the NMAH Archives Center: Colloquium Aug. 3, 2012. Photograph by Alison Oswald.
Nevertheless, speakers and staff often invite friends and family to attend colloquia, and members of our email groups pass information to other non-Smithsonian colleagues, and we welcome them. We’re happy to add anyone to our email lists, even though their attendance can create logistical problems when the venue is the East Conference Room on the restricted fourth floor. If you wish to be added to my e-mail groups, please contact me at

I maintain in my office a file of publicity flyers and related information generated by the colloquium program, including biographical information, abstracts, and some complete papers, and I plan to offer these files to the SI Archives eventually. Records of the colloquium program were not maintained systematically by my predecessors, but I think they should be collected and made available for research themselves as a partial record of the intellectual life of NMAH and the SI in general. Years ago Rick Luhrs, the supervisor of the NMAH Technology Services Center, remarked that it was a “shame” that we didn’t produce and preserve audio or video recordings of all colloquia for posterity, but establishing a sustainable procedure to do so has been an elusive goal. For a brief period an education office staff member made sound recordings of our programs to use in podcasts, plus several video recordings, but this initiative ended when he left the Museum for another job. Things looked promising with the opening of the high-tech S.C. Johnson Conference Center in NMAH, since the room has built-in cameras and equipment to facilitate digital video recording. I succeeded in recording two presentations, but the results were technically poor. However, I’m happy to report that there is a new initiative to improve the space, and I believe we’ll be able to obtain high-quality digital video-recordings in the near future. Many NMAH Tuesday Colloquia over the years have been based on research utilizing Smithsonian resources, including artifact collections and archives. I hope to preserve at least a partial but growing archive of the NMAH Tuesday Colloquium’s history, for the use of researchers studying the intellectual life of the Smithsonian. These records of programs given by staff, fellows, and non-Smithsonian scholars reflect the depth and variety of research conducted at the Institution, and its collections and activities. Eventually the paper documentation will be supplemented with digital recordings of our speakers in action. I’m certainly not the first Smithsonian program impresario to envision such an archive: the NMAH Archives Center itself acquired video-recordings of the Museum’s Lemelson Center programs for years (see this example), although they’re currently transferred to the SI Archives, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum regularly records fellows’ lectures and makes them available online.

David Haberstich
Curator of Photography
NMAH Archives Center

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