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Thursday, November 10, 2016

Betsy’s Travels through India

In the Freer | Sackler Archives our best volunteer is a woman named Betsy.  Betsy has been working in the archives since 2001.  Fifteen years of detailed and focused attention that has led to the creation and availability of the Smith and Pope collections.  She is the quintessential no-nonsense woman with a heart of gold.

Sometimes I think that the hard work that goes into making a collection available (doing basic preservation, creating the finding aid, organizing the materials, etc.) is overlooked.  Making a collection accessible to the public is a monumental task.  Collections generally do not arrive ready to be put online, with digital surrogates and finding aids.  Often collections are literally a palette of boxes pulled out of someone’s basement or an unorganized hard drive of materials.  The person who is tasked with organizing a collection for access to the public has to preserve the thought processes of the collection's creator and at the same time ensure that the materials are organized in such a way that they can be combed through by eager researchers.

Betsy hard at work in the Freer | Sackler Archives
This past year Betsy has been working hard on the papers of Dr. Prince Aschwin de Lippe-Biesterfeld, PhD (1914-1988).  Lippe was curator in the Far Eastern Department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1949 until 1973. He specialized in Chinese Classical Paintings.  The subject matter of this collection was a bit out of Betsy’s wheelhouse of knowledge, but she is more than capable of working through a collection regardless of subject matter expertise.

from Left to Right): James Cahill, Aschwin de Lippe, H. Bevil, and John Pope.  Taken at National Gallery of Art, 1961. 
There were, of course, some bumps along the way.  The biggest speed bump came with trying to identify locations in the countless photograph slides that Lippe had taken during his travels and study of India.  Betsy has a lot of experience with photographs and she first approached this problem from the angle of making all the negative and slide numbers match to at least give these photographs a sense of order for researchers. Secondarily, she made note of any writing on slides photographs and added those to the finding aid she was building in tandem with her physical overhaul of the Lippe collection.

Some of these notes had difficult to read hand writing.  One particular slide note was hard to read and Betsy asked me if I could make it out.  I starred at it for a while, afraid to verbalize my answer.  She jumped in and said it looks like the second word looked like Butterball, but I can’t make out the first word.  I felt better that I was not the only one who thought it said Butterball.  After a little time we determined that the first word was Krishna.  Since neither of us are subject matter experts, I did a search online and low and behold we discovered that Krishna’s Butterball is a real rock in India.

Krishna’s Butterball in Mahabalipuram, India. Prince Aschwin de Lippe Papers 1940-1988,FSA A2012.01 Box 11, Folder 33
Krishna’s Butterball is one small example of the amount of research and time that goes into making materials clear and organized. Betsy had to check out several books from the library to cross check and confirm locations in India.  She had to completely read through and then figure out a way to order Lippe’s research notes and notebooks so that they both preserved Lippe’s thought processes and could actually be accessed by scholars.

Working on an archival collection is always a long game.  Sometimes you only organize a few folders due to the complexity of the materials. Other days you have epiphanies about connections between various scattered materials and can go through several boxes. We are lucky to have someone as intelligent, tenacious, and dedicated as Betsy working in the Freer |Sackler Archives.

Collections Betsy has Organized:
Myron Bement Smith Collection
John Pope Papers
Prince Aschwin de Lippe Papers

Lara Amrod
Freer | Sackler Archives

Monday, October 31, 2016

Farewell to American Archives Month

William J. Rhees, first ‘Keeper of the Archives’ for the Smithsonian Institution in 1892.
Smithsonian Institution Archives, SIA2011-1379
As we come to the end of American Archives Month – and our blog-a-thon – we at the Smithsonian Collections blog want to give a big thank you to everyone who has joined us. As we explored the theme of transitions, our posts have looked at how archives look to the future as well as the past and explored how an archive celebrates new beginnings. Posts from interns speak to the future of the profession and how the collections we steward connect us to our own past.  Researchers explored changing community dynamics and transitions in portraiture.  Collections span topics from aerospace to gardens, World War I to scientific field notes, Bob Dylan to indigenous languages.

Explore them all by clicking on the 2016 Archives Month tag!

I hope these posts have given you a glimpse of some of the many meanings transition has to archivists, librarians and museum professionals all around the Smithsonian. As archives across the Smithsonian have grown from their earliest form in 1891 they have seen much transition: from paper to audio, video, and now digital files. Just in the last year, the Smithsonian Online Virtual Archives was launched, transforming how finding aids, collections, and digital assets are available to the public. The Smithsonian Transcription Center has had an amazing year and thousands of volunpeers spanning the globe are transforming the research possibilities for hundreds of our collections. These transitions are making Smithsonian collections more accessible and making our mission of the increase and diffusion of knowledge possible every day.

Lisa Fthenakis, Program Assistant
Smithsonian Institution Archives

Friday, October 28, 2016

"Whatever Follows the Age of the Dinosaurs": Lee Hays, Bob Dylan, and the Folk Revival

Given the theme for this month is transitions, it makes sense to note the ever-morphing artist, and the recipient of the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature, Bob Dylan. In a career noted for transitions, Dylan has adeptly moved across musical genres, from protest singer, to rock and roller, and country crooner. With a career spanning 56 years, it’s easy to forget Dylan’s early shift from topical protest music to rock and roll reflected not only a shift in his own artistic expression, but a generational shift that rocked the folk revival scene of the mid-twentieth century.

The generation of artists before Dylan were closely connected with the leftist politics of the 1930s and ‘40s. Groups such as the Almanac Singers saw their work not only as a revival of old time music, but as an instrument for social change. [1] With an amorphous membership that at various times included Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Josh White, Bess Lomax, and Lee Hays, the Almanac Singers performed music that was unabashedly topical and political. Performing at union halls, and leftist meetings, their repertoire included such songs as “Talking Union,” “Which Side Are You On,” and “Union Maid.” While not officially connected to the Communist Party, most of the members were at the very least sympathetic to its concerns, and counted friends among the party. [2] Though Pete Seeger and Lee Hays moved into a more radio friendly direction in the 1950s, forming the Weavers with Fred Hellerman and Ronnie Gilbert, these connections would later come to haunt them. Seeger and Hays were called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), and the group was blacklisted and harassed. While the Weavers work was tame in comparison to the Almanac Singers, with a stronger focus on timeless lyrics and tight harmonies, the political element never left. Songs like “If I Had a Hammer,” and “Which Side are You On,” were still counter-cultural enough to provoke a reaction during the Red Scare.
The Weavers perform at the Old Town School of Folk Music, Chicago, January 13, 1968. Photograph by Robert C. Malone, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives.
One of the main intellectual forces behind the Almanac Singers and the Weavers, was the writer and singer, Lee Hays. The Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives is fortunate to house his works and papers, which have recently been digitized and are now available online. Born in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1914 to a Methodist Minister, Hays rejected his father’s faith and politics after reading Upton Sinclair, and experiencing the hardships of the Great Depression. [3] In the 1930s, Hays joined Claude Williams, the leftist radical and preacher, and worked to help organize the Southern Tenant Farmers Union. While working for Williams, Hays discovered that art, and particularly music, could be enlisted in the struggle for social justice, and began to write what he called “zipper songs.” [4] Using hymns familiar to southern sharecroppers, Lee would “zip” in a few union phrases, transforming them into something subversive and powerful. For example, the refrain from “Old Ship of Zion,” a spiritual about the imminent Kingdom of God, was turned by Hays into a song of protest, replacing “old ship” with “union train”: “It’s that union train a-coming—coming—coming; It will carry us to freedom—freedom—.” [5] In the 1940s and ‘50s, Hays would find a home within a music scene which shared his political sensibilities, and his belief in the power of music to affect social change.
Lee Hays and Pete Seeger. Lee Hays Papers, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections
As the folk revival exploded in popularity in 1958, with the hit single “Tom Dooley” by the Kingston Trio, a new generation of revival artists had arrived. While some artists affected a “folk” aesthetic, hoping to profit on a new fad, others shared their forebears’ counter-cultural concerns, seeking an authenticity in a post-war boom that seemed only to offer a vacuous consumerism. In 1961, Bob Dylan arrived in New York looking every bit the part of a new Woody Guthrie, with a constructed biography mirroring his idol. Dylan’s first two albums were much a piece with the earlier generation, comprised of folk standards and protest songs. However, by 1965 Dylan was moving in another direction. Dubbed “the voice of a generation,” Dylan was restricted, and unnerved by such heightened expectations. [6] Feeling used and constrained, Dylan was increasingly suspicious of institutions, movements, and parties, with a growing sense of the naiveté surrounding protest music. At the height of the folk revival, in a perceived betrayal of its aims and sensibilities, Dylan debuted at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival with an electric set, stunning the crowd into angry taunts and jeers. In a story that that is largely apocryphal, it was said that Pete Seeger was so incensed that he threatened to take an axe to the speaker cables, whether out of protest over the music’s volume or content, will forever be in dispute. [8] Regardless of what actually happened that day, what was clear was that what had been that generation’s best and brightest star, carrying the mantle of Guthrie and Seeger, had become a type of “Judas,” as one concert-goer famously shouted.

Shots of Bob Dylan at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Photographs by Diana Davies, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections.

Lee Hays’ correspondence offers a fascinating window into this transition, as the older artists attempted to get a handle on this new generation. In an open letter from February 1964, Hays writes:
The question of the day is, what do you think of Bob Dylan? I’d be more sure if I knew what he thinks of himself. There is a lot of cynicism in his songs; but if he contradicts himself, he is entitled to it. There’s a lot of desert ground in many a young artist before you get to the occasional mountain peak. In whatever follows the age of dinosaurs, the ones who give thought to meanings and origins and who sing with respect for the songs will do the most. I am impressed by the songs of Ian and Sylvia for those reasons.
Coming just on the heels of Dylan’s album, The Times They Are a-Changin’, Hays is likely reacting to the more introspective and darker material, though much of his songs remains topical and political. Even before Highway 61’, Dylan’s concerns were already departing from the parent generation, with more introspective and existential themes. [9]

While Dylan may have left the topical protest songs behind, it’s not clear that Hays and Dylan moved apart on a more fundamental level. While Hays hoped for “people’s songs” that would serve as “battle hymns” against “the powers of evil,” he also felt that above all it should be “true.” [10] Moreover, Hays was wary of those who would see folk music as a “static” genre, relegated to fiddles, banjos, and old country melodies:
Who am I, or who is anyone, to say that the music of the juke box, the beetle organ, which the millions of Americans listen to, and drink their beer to, and dance to, and argue by, and make love by, and relax by, and make up their minds who to vote for by, is trash? […] if the only real music were the pure ‘folk music,’ this would be a darn dead country, and I for one would have to leave it and go back to Arkansas […] I believe in creativeness and experiment, in Picasso as in Woody Guthrie, in Bach as in Pete Johnson, in Verdi as in Blitzstein. [11]
While Dylan’s career moved beyond the topical protests of Hay’s generation, there’s no denying that in drawing from “the jukebox” of American song, he has written songs that are true. It is Dylan’s “respect for the songs,” as Hays writes, that continues to bind him to the previous generation, and earned him the rightful place as one of America’s greatest songwriters.

Adrian Vaagenes, Intern

[1] Cohen, Ronald D., and Dave Samuelson. Songs For Political Action: Folkmusic, Topical Songs and the American Left 1926-1953. Bear Family Records, 1996. (pgs. 9-11);

[2]  Ibid. (pgs. 15-20).

[3] Willens, Doris. Lonesome Traveler: The Life of Lee Hays. W.W. Norton 7 Company, 1988, (pgs. 9; 20-21)

[4] Ibid, pgs. 56-59

[5] Hays, Lee. “Sing Out, Warning! Sing Out, Love!”: The Writings of Lee Hays. Edited by Robert S. Koppelman, University of Massachusetts Press, 2003, (pgs. 63-64).

[6] Petrus, Stephen and Ronald Cohen. Folk City: New York and the American Folk Music Revival. Oxford University Press, 2015. (pgs. 286, 289). 

[7] Ibid. (pgs. 288-289); Dunaway, David King, and Molly Beer. Singing Out: An Oral History of America’s Folk Music Revivals. Oxford University Press, 2010. (pg. 151).

[8] Dunaway, David King. How Can I Keep From Singing: The Ballad of Pete Seeger. Villard Books, 2008. (pgs. 306-308).

[9] Folk City. (pg. 288).

[10] “Sing Out, Warning! Sing Out, Love!” (pgs 89-90).

[11] Ibid. (pgs. 148-149).

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Throwback Thursday: Floating gardens of Mexico

This Throwback Thursday, takes us back to 1930s Mexico. This photograph of the canals of Xochimilco (place or garden of flowers) just outside Mexico City are part of a larger series of photographs that document a trip that Garden Club of America members took to the country in 1937. The canals and chinampas or floating gardens were recognized as a popular tourist destination in the 1920s and were described in European guidebooks as "the Venice of Mexico."

Kelly Crawford, Museum Specialist
Archives of American Gardens

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Depictions of Transitions: Alexander Gardner photographs

We find evidence of transitions in the archival profession all the time. Sometimes transitions are seen in the physical format form, such as a shift from paper prints to born-digital photographs.  Other times, transitions can be found in the content of archival materials that have captured and contextualized moments of historical change. The William T.  Sherman collection of Alexander Gardner photographs, recently processed at the National Museum of the American Indian Archive Center, provides many examples of historical transition, though this post will just focus on one series of prints.

Alexander Gardner (1821-1882) was an American photographer best known for his portraits of President Abraham Lincoln, his American Civil War photographs, and his photographs of American Indian delegations. In 1867, Gardner also served as the chief photographer for the Union Pacific Railway, Eastern Division (renamed the Kansas Pacific Railway in 1868). The survey team led by General William Jackson Palmer (1836-1909) traveled from St. Louis, Missouri to San Francisco, Calif. to determine the best railroad route. They passed through Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona enroute to California. He later compiled these images into the books entitled, Across the Continent on the Kansas Pacific Railroad (Route of the 35th Parallel) and Across the Continent on the Union Pacific Railway, Eastern Division.

Laying Track in Kansas, 300 Miles West of Missouri River, October 19, 1867. Photograph by Alexander Gardner. [P10134William T. Sherman collection of Alexander Gardner photographs, National Museum of the American Indian, Archive Center, Smithsonian Institution. 

While in Kansas, Gardner photographed between Kansas City to Fort Wallace, resulting in some of the earliest images shot in the state. In this photo, Gardner captured railroad workers laying down tracks outside Hays City, Kansas for the new line. His photographs documented a time of considerable transition in the U.S. as people had more mobility and options for transportation around the country. Many western states and territories after the Civil War, experienced similar transitions when railroad construction enabled a greater influx of people into and through the area, increasing pressure on Native American lands, and transitioning the area to farming, ranching, and resource extraction.

United States Overland Stage starting for Denver from Hays City, Kansas, 289 miles west of Missouri River, 1867.Photograph by Alexander Gardner. [P10133William T. Sherman collection of Alexander Gardner photographs, National Museum of the American Indian, Archive Center, Smithsonian Institution. 

This photo shot by Gardner depicts the U.S. Overland Stage couch with soldiers, including Buffalo Soldiers, departing from Kansas for Denver, Colorado. Once the railway was established, fewer stage couches made this trek.

Mushroom Rock on Alum Creek, Kansas, 211 miles west of Missouri River, 1867. Photograph by Alexander Gardner. [P10132William T. Sherman collection of Alexander Gardner photographs, National Museum of the American Indian, Archive Center, Smithsonian Institution. 

Moreover, photographs depicting unique western landscapes played a major role in increased tourism to the region. In this photo, Gardner himself poses on the far right next to a rock formation named ‘Mushroom Rock’ on Alum Creek in Kansas. While Gardner is credited as the photographer, this image many have been shot by one of the other photographers on the expedition including Dr. William A. Bell (1841-1921), William Redish Pywell, and Lawrence Gardner (Alexander Gardner's son).

The Kansas Pacific Railroad photographs are just a small portion of the Gardner collection at NMAI. To learn more about Gardner and see all the photographs from this collection, head over to the Smithsonian Online Virtual Archives (SOVA) where the full collection is now viewable online.

Emily Moazami, Assistant Head Archivist
National Museum of the American Indian, Archive Center

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Sneak Peek: Freer Gallery of Art

While we are awaiting the Freer Gallery of Art’s re-opening in October 2017, let’s take a peek at some recently digitized photos of the Freer though the years. Arriving at the Smithsonian Institution Archives in 2002, these photos come from a collection that documents early building plans for the Freer and how the building has changed over time.  The collection spans nearly 100 years, from photos of the Freer’s groundbreaking ceremony in 1916 to the various changes and renovations over the years.

Groundbreaking for Freer Gallery of Art, 1916, Smithsonian Institution Archives, SIA Acc. 02-082 [SIA2015-000823].
Showing the staff of the museum gathered in front of a grove of trees for the ceremony, you can see how much the National Mall has changed in the century that has passed.  A later photo below shows the Gallery just after it had been completed. The Department of Agriculture building can be seen to the right, while trees and row houses are also visible in the neighborhood.

Aerial View of Completed East and North Front of Freer Gallery, by Unknown, c. 1923,
Smithsonian Institution Archives, SIA2007-0170.
In the 1920s, three peacocks lived in the Freer Courtyard. Donated by the National Zoological Park as a fitting complement to James McNeill Whistler's Peacock Room, they moved back to the Zoo each winter and returned to the courtyard in the Spring.

Peacock and Babies in the Freer Gallery of Art Courtyard,
Smithsonian Institution Archives, SIA Acc. 02-082 [SIA2014-07070]. 
A building needs care and attention to last 100 years.  A previous renovation in the early 1990s did just that, expanding as well as renovating the existing space. Construction workers are shown through a partially constructed interior wall with the library still ready for research in the background.

Renovation of the Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution Archives, SIA Acc. 02-082 [SIA2015-000821].
Additional renovations include the addition of the Sackler Gallery of Art in the 1980s, and, of course, the current renovations to upgrade the Freer's infrastructure. While the Freer is closed, you can still visit the Sackler and visit the Freer online, either through their digital collections or through Google Art Project.

To see more historic photos of the Freer Gallery of Art, click here and explore accession 02-082 or visit the Smithsonian Institution Archives' history page on the Freer Gallery of Art.

Lisa Fthenakis, Program Assistant
Smithsonian Institution Archives

Monday, October 24, 2016

Portraiture in Transition

Muhammad Ali, Cat’s Cradle (1942–2016) by Henry C. Casselli, Jr. (born 1946), oil on canvas, 1981. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. (NPG.2002.2)
Portraiture has been in transition since the early twentieth century and has evolved into new means of expression in contemporary art. In 1912–13, Man Ray created a dynamic, cubistic oil portrait of the notable photographer Alfred Stieglitz, now at Yale University in New Haven. Stieglitz was an influential editor, publisher, and owner of a succession of galleries in New York City, which were gathering places for artists to view the latest avant-garde American and European art and photography from 1905 to 1946. In 1918, Katherine Sophie Dreier painted an abstract, symbolic oil portrait of the artist Marcel Duchamp that is now in the Museum of Modern Art’s collection in New York. Dreier was a leading patron of modern art and noted, “Instead of painting the sitter as seen ordinarily in life, the modern artist tries to express the character . . . through abstract form and color.” In 1920, Dreier, Duchamp, and Man Ray founded the Société Anonyme in New York City, as the first “experimental museum” in America for contemporary art, which grew to have a large following of international members. Alexander Calder used this organization to exhibit his “mobiles,” as Duchamp named his moving sculptures. Calder also created whimsical, moving wire portraits of leading figures. One of his most popular series was of the celebrated dancer Josephine Baker, who performed in Paris during the late 1920s.

At a recent visit to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts Museum in Philadelphia, I was taken by Brian Tolle’s 2012 conceptual mixed-media sculpture of George Washington, No. 1 (First Inaugural Address). The artist created a clear acrylic resin cast of Washington, with a string of glass beads emerging from the president’s mouth and spilling onto the pedestal base, each bead representing one word from his first inaugural address. This portrait is strikingly similar to the French sculptor Jean Antoine Houdon’s original life bust of Washington created at Mount Vernon in 1785. Tolle has begun a “Commander-in Chief” series of mixed-media presidential busts that feature symbolic aspects of each president’s public persona. When I walked into another gallery space at this museum, I found an artist portraying a live model in various poses, part of the Fernando Orellana: His Study of Life exhibition, which honors the centenary of the death of the Academy’s influential art teacher Thomas Cowperthwaite Eakins. Eakins’s teaching program led to a greater emphasis on the study of human anatomy. He included nude models in his classes, a practice new to American art schools in the nineteenth century.

At the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, Henry C. Casselli Jr.’s 1981 oil portrait of Muhammad Ali, entitled Cat’s Cradle, is a dramatic depiction of the strength and power of this famous athlete, as visible in his towering physique. Per author Donald Hoppes, the cat’s cradle of string “became the central motif of the Ali portrait,” referring to the ropes of the boxing ring and Ali’s unique boxing style. Ali commanded public attention as a 1960 Olympic gold medalist and three-time winner of the heavyweight crown. He also was a dedicated spokesman for social and humanitarian concerns.

Esperanza Spalding, a Portrait (born 1984) by Bo Gehring (born 1941), time-based media, 2014. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. (NPG.2014.83)
Commissioned by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, Bo Gehring’s mesmerizing, monumental digital video portrays jazz musician Esperanza Spalding at close range, lying down. The camera starts at her feet and slowly moves upward to her head, accompanied by Wayne Shorter’s Tarde (1974). Gehring notes that “minute actions like breathing and pulse are living, vibrant elements” of the portrait image, which “captures emotional response over time.” Meanwhile, video artist Bill Viola believes the camera is the keeper of the soul. This November, the Portrait Gallery’s first media art exhibition, Bill Viola: The Moving Portrait, will bring a new dimension of color and kinetic energy to images of the human figure.

In 1966, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery founded the Catalog of American Portraits (CAP), a national portrait archives of historically significant subjects and artists from the colonial period to current times. The public is welcome to access the online portrait search program of more than 100,000 records from the museum’s website at

Patricia H. Svoboda, Research Coordinator
Catalog of American Portraits, National Portrait Gallery

Fortune, Brandon Brame, Wendy Wick Reaves, and David C. Ward. Face Value: Portraiture in the Age of Abstraction. Washington, D.C.: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, in association with D. Giles Limited, 2014.

Gross, Jennifer R., ed., with contributions by Ruth L. Bohan et al. Société Anonyme: Modernism for America. New Haven: Yale University Press in association with the Yale University Art Gallery, 2006.

Reaves, Wendy Wick, et al., Eye Contact: Modern American Portrait Drawings from the National Portrait Gallery. Washington, D.C.: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, in association with University of Washington Press, 2002.

Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition 2013. Washington, D.C.: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, 2013.