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Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Cleaning Up Freer’s Attic

Collections change over time. Collections often come from chaos. Archival collections are often a rushed boxing up after someone passes. The collector is no longer there to ask questions of. This inherently leads to questions. What was this ledger for? Who were these letters to? How did they want their art displayed?

Archivists, museum staff, and researchers grapple with these questions every day. It is often where interesting exhibits come from.

Head Archivist, David Hogge, puzzling out how to organize various photographs.
The Freer | Sackler Archives made the decision a year ago to overhaul the Charles Lang Freer Papers. Please click here for a link to his new and improved finding aid! Freer was the founder of our museum. Opened in 1923, it was the first topic-focused museum at the Smithsonian and its first art museum. Freer did not live to see his museum completed, but the museum did receive, on top of all of his art collection, his vast collection of papers.

Freer was a meticulous man when it came to his correspondence, his purchasing, and, well, everything. This has left a rich collection of papers for museum staff and researchers to use when studying a Freer art object or the man himself.

Not all paper is of equal size.

The finding aid (guide to any collection) for Freer’s papers, like so many other “legacy” archival collections, was created before modern archival standards were established. F|S Archives staff made the decision to overhaul the Freer papers after having many problems in recent years, both finding items for researchers and dealing with how to organize their digital surrogates. You must have a firm handle on the physical side of any archival collection before you can even contemplate digitizing it.

Working in an archives means using your hands and handling physical objects from paper to film canisters.
Physical collection? What is that you ask? It must be hard to imagine in this age of digital smorgasbord that there are still items in the world that are only available in the physical format. Well, a large part of what archivists do is make available in a digital environment what was once only sitting on a shelf in a box and only a few passionate researchers even tried to look for. Everything in an archives is unique, one a kind, the only one in the world.

Archivists are working hard around the world to make unique pieces of human history available and accessible to all, please see this great blog post about putting more of human history online. So
digitizing archival materials is crucial to both outreach (anyone in the world can look at the digital surrogates from the various Smithsonian Archives) and to the long term life of the materials. Paper lasts a long time, but it does not exist forever.

How does one organize a physical collection? How does one re-think it? A collection is always organized to preserve any original organization of the creator, in this case Freer. There are times where it becomes obvious there was no organization to begin with. This is often the main mystery that archivists struggle with on a daily basis: did so and so want these papers this way? Were these postcards meant to go together? Was this part of their research patterns? Their collecting patterns?

Organizing ones thoughts the old fashioned way, on paper.

When archivists make decisions about organization, we are not copy-pasting some files to a new folder in a computer drive. We are weeding through boxes and boxes of materials and attempting to form them into a unit of thought or creator's process. Think of it this way, what if you had to organize Bob Dylan’s writing process. There would be tons of paper or scraps of papers and you have to figure out if he had an order to begin with or was it all chaos? Is imposing some sort of order, potentially where none exists, harming the integrity of Dylan’s creative process or are you creating just enough access points so that a researcher writing the next bestselling Dylan biography can find what he/she needs to do their job?

Basically, does taking a mountain of paper and creating an access pathway (e.g. putting the materials in folders and boxes with labels), a way of thinking about them, looking at them, destroy intrinsically what they are?

The slow task of properly identifying and labeling boxes.  Lots of glue gets on your fingers.
There were many sections of Freer’s papers like this; piles of paper all next to one another and yet had nothing in common. F|S Archives Staff had to separate out these papers into neat pathways that would lead researchers to access points of useful information. For example, what now constitutes Series One in the Freer Papers, was once a few boxes that were just near one another. If you look at the finding aid now, you can see clear pathways/access points (e.g. Memberships and Honorary Awards, Freer Residences, Genealogical Materials, etc.). These pathways are called Series and Subseries in the archival world. Neat piles of paper that all have their own theme and purpose. This makes it much easier for researchers to find what they need; whether that is physically handling the materials or doing a Google word search. We have made these important documents that much more accessible to the citizens of the world.

This aspect of creating finding aids is the complex intellectual part. There are other aspects to cleaning up a collection that are much more hands on.

One of the biggest decisions the F|S Archives made was to completely re-number the boxes and materials in the Freer papers. This may seem like a small thing. Well, the Freer papers hold over 300 boxes and this would not just be re-numbering the boxes in a digital document (the Freer finding aid), it would entail physically pasting new labels on all of the over 300 boxes. You are probably thinking, why would you do that?!
A wall of a job of well done.
Well, most of the Freer papers are not digitized. The only way to track and monitor the small physical components of the collection is to have solid and accurate box numbers. In addition, the archives has to have strong control of the physical space our materials reside in. We have a space matrix documenting where the materials of all of our, over 100, collections are shelved.

So, yes, having accurate labels on the physical materials in an archive is essential. The long term goal – archives often have to think in the long term, collections are too large to allow for instantaneous work – is to enable much of Freer's papers to be digitized, so that more scholars around the world can examine his materials and learn more about Charles Lang Freer, his art collecting, and the art pieces themselves.

Lara Amrod, Archivist

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Collection Spotlight: Thomas Indian School glass plate negatives

Thomas Indian School Class of 1912 (N49053). Thomas Indian School glass plate negatives (NMAI.AC.061), National Museum of the American Indian Archive Center.
As classes come to an end and students sign ‘best wishes’ in freshly printed yearbooks, it is also a good time to highlight and remember the history of Indian boarding schools in our country. The Thomas Indian School glass plate negatives collection (NMAI.AC.061), newly processed, digitized and now available online, is one collection in the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), Archive Center that brings attention to this important story.

Thomas Indian School student performance (N49048). Thomas Indian School glass plate negatives (NMAI.AC.061), National Museum of the American Indian Archive Center.
While NMAI holds many Indian boarding school photographs in its collections, this set of photographs is remarkable for many reasons. At first glance, the photographs appear to depict fun or happy events at the institution such as school plays and graduation ceremonies. However, as any good photo historian will tell you, only part of the story is captured in the photographs themselves. By observing what is left out of frame the photographs can reveal a much more complex student experience.

Notably absent from the Thomas Indian School photographs is any evidence of Native cultural heritage or material culture. The school most likely enforced acculturation and assimilation by means of prohibiting Native languages and traditional cultural practices which was common for Indian boarding schools of this time period. Instead of photographs of children playing with traditional corn husk dolls, for example, there are scenes of Girl Scouts, basketball teams, and Christmas celebrations. Other photographs in the collection depict girls in cooking classes, boys in woodshop, and children tending livestock. These classes were designed so that Native students could practice a trade within non-Native communities after graduation.

Thomas Indian School cooking class (N49104). Thomas Indian School glass plate negatives (NMAI.AC.061), National Museum of the American Indian Archive Center.
Although not as well-known as other Indian schools- such as Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania- the Thomas Indian school was one of the oldest and longest running Indian boarding schools in North America. It also maintained one of the largest student bodies housing as many as 200 students during the school year. Located on the Cattaraugus Indian Reservation in New York State, the Thomas Asylum for Orphaned and Destitute Indian Children, as the school was originally called, was established as a private institution in 1855. In 1875 the school was transferred to the care of the New York State Board of Charities and in 1905 it was renamed the Thomas Indian School. Iroquois children from Seneca (Cattaraugus), Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Tuscarora communities attended the school until it was finally closed by the state in 1957.

Thomas Indian School Girl Scouts (N49064). Thomas Indian School glass plate negatives (NMAI.AC.061), National Museum of the American Indian Archive Center.
While there are reports of some students having positive experiences at the Thomas Indian School, in part because of the friendships they made, it is important to remember that this was not the experience for many Native boys and girls. In an era when most boarding schools had a mission to “civilize” young American Indians or as the Carlisle motto dictates, “kill the Indian, save the man,” many children suffered poor treatment and were stripped of their culture, identity, and families.

Though we can deduce a lot of information by reading and interpreting the photographs there are still many unanswered questions. The most obvious and perhaps the most important lingering questions being--Who were these students? What were their names and what stories are still untold? Moving forward, NMAI plans to provide these photographs to the Thomas Indian School reunion that will take place in New York in the fall. The hope is that family members and former students will be able to identify individuals so that we can finally put names to faces and make sure their stories don’t stay untold.

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

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Growing Engagement: Community Gardening at the Museum of the American Indian

Community gardens have seen a resurgence in recent years but the practice has been prevalent in the United States since the 19th century. Motivations for creating gardens have varied over time, including food shortages, unemployment, neighborhood revitalization, and building community cohesiveness. In 1926, the Museum of the American Indian (MAI) had its own reason for creating a community garden: to engage and educate the public about plants cultivated and used by the Native peoples of the Americas.

Ten years after the museums’ founding in 1916, construction began on a Research Annex located in the Bronx, New York, where the MAI collections would be stored and made available for study by students and scholars. A key component of the Research Annex site was a garden of Native American plants accessible to the public. Museum staff planned to use the garden as a demonstration of the variety of plants cultivated by Native people. Planted crops included corn varieties, beans, squash, sunflowers, cotton, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, peppers, peanuts, tobacco, and amaranth. The gardens were also planted with wild varieties of some of these plants—such as sunflowers—to illustrate how Native people worked with wild plants to develop the cultivated versions we are familiar with today.

Museum garden, looking east toward the Research Branch of the
Museum of the American Indian/Heye Foundation, 1926 (NMAI N11184)
Museum of the American Indian ethnobotanist Melvin Gilmore was tasked with designing the garden and acquiring seeds from various Native American groups with whom he worked, including the Sahnish (Arikara), Pawnee, and Omaha in North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Nebraska respectively.

A Sahnish (Arikara) woman works near a house and garden; turning ears of corn she has roasted. Fort Berthold Reservation, North Dakota, 1923 Photo by Melvin Gilmore (NMAI N08749)
Once the garden was designed, the museum welcomed people in the surrounding neighborhood and sought their involvement in the project to create a sense of “protective interest.” Working in partnership with the National Plant, Flower, and Fruit Guild—which was based in New York City—and the Metropolitan New York Board of Education, students from nearby Public School 71 were enlisted to work in the garden. Students were given plots to farm and were responsible for tending the vegetables, which they were allowed to harvest and keep. They also helped care for the Museum’s demonstration plots of crops grown by Native people from throughout the Western Hemisphere. The students worked through their summer vacations and, at the end of the season, they held a harvest festival. Museum staff hoped that by pulling in the students to work in the garden, their parents and ultimately the entire neighborhood would feel a sense of ownership for the Annex gardens.

Leonard Drake, Museum gardener and a student at the State Agricultural College at Farmingdale, New York, holding an Omaha yellow pumpkin in the garden,1926. (NMAI N11174)
The project received considerable attention from the local press and was such a success that other institutions in New York adopted the idea. As word spread, the museum was contacted by organizations around the country for assistance in developing similar programs.

Excerpt from New York World newspaper in a Museum of the American Indian scrapbook
(NMAI Archive Center MAI-Heye Foundation Records Oversize box 27)
The MAI community garden program lasted for only a few years. However, it still serves as an impressive example of how gardens can be used for public education and to help build a sense of community.

Maria Galban, Research Specialist, Collections and Research Documentation 

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Stereographs and News Photography

Stereograph publishers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries at first tended to produce images for “armchair travelers,” who could experience far-flung areas of the world in three dimensions through the stereoscope, the precursor of modern-day “virtual reality” systems. However, many other themes and subjects were explored for the burgeoning stereo market. A major publisher such as Underwood and Underwood produced pictures ranging from American industry and technology to staged “genre” scenes and sequences of sentimental, humorous, and entertainment value, in addition to their standard “educational” documentation of natural, architectural, and historical wonders of the world.

Underwood and Underwood also realized that there was a market for stereographs of current events and news in stereoscopic form, and embarked upon photojournalistic coverage of the Spanish-American War and other military conflicts. However, by 1921 they discontinued their stereo production, sold most of their stereo archive to a competitor, the Keystone View Co., and concentrated on news photography. The National Museum of American History Archives Center’s Underwood and Underwood Glass Stereograph Collection contains some non-stereoscopic news photographs from the 1920s, plus the stereoscopic negatives and interpositives which the company withheld from Keystone, intending to convert them into non-stereo usage.

President Theodore Roosevelt was a favorite subject for Underwood & Underwood and other stereo publishers’ photographers, and the collection contains many portraits of him. The company’s coverage of him extended into the newsworthy events, such as in this high-angle photograph of his 1905 inaugural address and the crowd. Here C.W. White, a photographer for the publisher H.C. White, photographed the festivities, and the glass plate was later acquired by Underwood and Underwood.
Great crowds of people around the Inaugural Stand--Pres. Roosevelt delivering his address. [Active no. 9916 : stereo interpositive,] 1905. Underwood & Underwood Glass Stereograph Collection, Archives Center, NMAH.
Notice the cancellation marks on the left image of the stereo pair. Apparently these scratches in the emulsion were intended to prevent Underwood and Underwood from continuing to use the glass plate for producing stereographs, thereby competing with Keystone in this market. Many, although not all, of the stereo glass plates in this collection, were similarly defaced.

A less well-known political figure appears below. He is Fitzhugh Lee, a Confederate cavalry general during the Civil War, who later became the fortieth governor of Virginia, a diplomat, and eventually a U.S. Army major general in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. He was the grandson of “Light Horse Harry” Lee and the nephew of Gen. Robert E. Lee. He was the former Consul General in Havana in 1898 when this portrait of the portly, magnificently mustachioed Lee was taken by a photographer for another stereo publisher, Strohmeyer and Wyman; the negative was acquired later by Underwood and Underwood. One half of the stereo pair is shown here, the other side having been cut and possibly discarded. Lee was appointed military governor of Havana and Pinar del Rio in 1899, and died in 1905, several months after Roosevelt’s inauguration.

Major General Fitzhugh Lee, Ex-Consul General at Havana. Copyright 1898 by Strohmeyer and Wyman. Active no. 21200 : non-stereo photonegative,] 1898. Underwood and Underwood Glass Stereograph Collection, Archives Center, NMAH.
New high-resolution scans for these two images and hundreds of others are available, although the majority of the collection is represented only by low-resolution surrogates. Since the original photographs in the Underwood and Underwood—primarily glass plates—are currently stored offsite, there are challenges in accessing the collection.

David Haberstich, Curator of Photography
Archives Center, National Museum of American History

Thursday, May 11, 2017

A Case of Mistaken Identities: Ambrotypes of Potawatomi Chief Shabbona

Photographs of Chief Shabbona from the Iva Towsley Gardner collection of Chief Shabbona ambrotypes (NMAI.AC.100). National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution.
One of the first lessons you learn as an Archivist is that you can’t always believe the information you are given, especially when it comes to photo captions. People are frequently misidentified in photographs and this information is often passed down through the generations. Such was the case with the Iva Towsley Gardner collection of Chief Shabbona ambrotypes (NMAI.AC.100) which we received as a gift earlier this year.

Iva Towsley Gardner (born circa 1899) served as a nurse in Illinois and often treated members of the Potawatomi community in her region. Someone within the community gave her a set of ambrotypes depicting Potawatomi Chief Shabbona and his wife from circa 1854-1859. A note, presumably written by Gardner, was attached to the set and reads, "Picture of Shabbona and his wife. Property of Iva Towsley Gardner."

Chief Shabbona (also spelled Shabonee and Shabni) was best known as a warrior and Chief of the Potawatomi tribe. Born circa 1775 to the Ottawa tribe, Shabbona is believed to be the grand-nephew of Ottawa Chief Pontiac (circa 1720-1769). As a young man Shabbona became an Ottawa chief and later married Coconako, the daughter of Potawatomi Chief Spotka. He eventually became a Potawatomi Chief himself.

Upon donation, we examined the ambrotypes in person and promptly determined that both photos depict Chief Shabbona, not Shabbona and his wife Coconako as the typed note indicated. Perhaps Gardner, or someone before her, mistook Chief Shabbona’s headdress for a woman’s feathered hat.

So the next time you’re looking through your family photos and see captions written by a relative long ago, just remember- you might want to take a second look

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

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Three German Ships, Puerto Rico, and the Great War: the First Shots Fired by the U.S. in WWI

Theodoor de Booy in the Dominican Republic in 1916 (N04834).
In 1915, Theodoor de Booy, an archaeologist of the Museum of the American Indian, predecessor of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), took photos of Old San Juan in Puerto Rico, which are now part of the Theodoor de Booy negatives and photographs collection. Included among this collection are photographs of three ships named S.S. Odenwald, S.S. KD-III, and S.S. Präsident. Considering this an oddity, I investigated further and what I discovered was a story that involved World War I, the Fortress of el Morro in San Juan harbor, a German scheme, and what many consider to be the first shots fired by the U.S. in the Great War.

The Fortress of El Morro guarding in the entrance of San Juan Harbor, 1915.
Photo by Theodoor de Booy (N04073).

Three Ships and a War

The story takes place in the harbor of San Juan between August 1914 and March 1915 when the U.S. was still a Neutral Power and Puerto Rico was already an American colony. The three ships were:

The S.S. Odenwald in San Juan Harbor, 1915.
 Photo by Theodoor de Booy (N04078).

The Odenwald, a German merchant freighter (a coal collier) that began to service the German Navy days after the beginning of the war. Her duty was to serve as support freighter for the cruiser SMS Karlsruhe whose mission was to patrol the eastern Atlantic in search of, raid, and sink enemy merchant vessels. She sailed into San Juan harbor around August 6 or 7, 1914, possibly seeking refuge against a British squadron of warships. Since the U.S. was a neutral state, it is possible that her crew claimed to be a merchant ship. But, the U.S. authorities seem to have been suspicious of these claims.

The S.S. Präsident in San Juan Harbor, 1915.
Photo by Theodoor de Booy (N04077).

The S.S. Präsident was a German vessel that served as a combination of passenger and cargo ship before the war. When the war broke out, she, too, began to serve in the German Navy as a support vessel to the cruiser Karlsruhe by providing radio communication and supplies. She arrived in Puerto Rico on December 1914 to take refuge from British and French cruisers that were hunting her and eventually was interned (to impound or confine until the end of the war) by the U.S. government.

The S.S. K.D.-III (Farn) in San Juan Harbor, 1915. P
hoto by Theodoor de Booy (N04079).

S.S. K.D.-III, a German tender ship that was actually the captured British coal collier Farn. While not at the service of the British Navy, she was carrying 3,000 tons of coal when captured by the Karlsruhe on October 1914 off the coast of South America. It was renamed K.D.-III (K.D. standing for Kohlendampfer or coal carrier). She sailed into San Juan on the 11th or 12th of January, 1915 to obtain supplies. Declared a tender boat of the German Navy on January 15, it was interned by the U.S. authorities.

Days Before the Incident

The story begins on March 18, 1915 when the captain of the S.S. Odenwald, C. S. Segebarth, requested (1) clearance to sail back to Hamburg the next day and (2) 5000 tons of coal for such trip. Suspicious of the request the local authorities decided to consult with Washington, D.C. and, afraid that the vessel may leave without clearance, alerted the commanding officer of the Porto Rico Regiment of Infantry (PRPI) at the fortress of El Morro. Washington approved the use of force if necessary and the German captain of the Odenwald was warned several times. Despite the Germans assurances that they did not intend to leave without clearance, the local authorities made preparations in case a situation developed. A machine gun platoon was placed on the Bastión de San Agustín, 500 feet from the Morro Castle (see plan of the Bay) commanded by Captain Wood and the heavy guns of El Morro were readied under the command of Lt. Teófilo Marxuach.

The Incident
On the afternoon of March 21, the customs inspector returned to the Odenwald, but his visit was cut short when the Odenwald started her engines around 3:00 pm and began moving on the main channel towards the mouth of the harbor without clearance. The custom collector was asked to leave in a small boat. As the Odenwald passed the Bastión de San Agustín, Captain Wood, standing on the parapet of the sea wall, hailed the vessel several times without success; the Odenwald stayed on course. Captain Woods ordered Puerto Rican Sgt. Encarnación Correa, to fire warning-shots with his machine-gun without any success. Failing to stop the vessel, Lt. Marxuach was ordered to fire a warning shot 300 yards across the bow of the Odenwald from El Morro’s 4.7 inch gun. This was the convincing shot and the Odenwald stopped and dropped anchor at the mouth of the harbor under the fortress. She was eventually moved that same day to the upper harbor with a local pilot.

Map of San Juan Harbor with annotations and calculations by Lt. Teófilo Marxuach for his report of the incident (National Archives).
Despite the fact that the U.S would not declare war to Germany for two more years, these shots have been considered by some American and Puerto Rican historians as the first ones fired by the U.S. in World War I. Perhaps, the main reason for this conclusion is that the whole incident took place within the context of the war. While not involved in the fighting, even the status of neutrality of the U.S. and other countries was the result of and defined by the conflict. Interestingly, these shots were fired by Puerto Ricans who did not become American citizens until Congress passed the Jones-Shafroth Act two years later in March of 1917.

L. Antonio Curet, Curator
National Museum of the American Indian

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Hitler's Electron Microscope

Mama always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.
                                                                          --Forrest Gump, 1994
Archival material is like a box of chocolates because when you open an archival box you never know exactly what will be inside. Recently it was Adolf Hitler's electron microscope. Well, not the microscope itself, but the paperwork about the 1944 confiscation by Allied Forces of a Siemens electron microscope from the laboratory of Hitler's personal physician, Dr. Theodor Morrell, and its transfer and reassembly at the Army Medical Museum at Walter Reed.

An academic researcher at the Technische Universität Wien (Austria), where they are celebrating the 75th anniversary of electron microscopy, wrote asking for a description of several folders from our Rubin Borasky Electron Microscopy Collection, including Series 5, Box 7, Folder 17: Siemens Electron Microscope (captured in WWII).
The transmittal document describes the Siemens electron microscope as purchased by Adolf Hitler for Dr. Morell. The back story here is that Hitler was a hypochondriac in thrall to Dr. Morell, who supplied him with vitamins, hormones, and steroids. The strength of his hold over Hitler is reflected in the fact that there were perhaps only two or three of these Siemens electron microscopes in existence being used for atomic research. According to a 2009 book by two German historians (The Hitler Book: The Secret Dossier Prepared for Stalin / 2009 Henrik Eberle, Matthias Uhl), Morell hoped to use it to develop an explosive powder. He set up a laboratory in Bad Reichenhall, just at the foot of Berchtesgaden in Bavaria, where Hitler had built his Eagle’s Nest bunker.

The Eagle's Nest, Bavaria
Picked up by Allied Forces, Dr. Morell was taken from prison in Bad Reichenhall, Bavaria; he took them to the laboratory location in a fortified house on the outskirts of the town, where the microscope was found. The Army packed it up but later found parts were missing. Because of the missing parts, a second Siemens electron microscope was located and the parts from the two combined the make a single model for display. The microscope thus created is now part of the Billings Microscope Collection at the National Museum of Health and Medicine.

The National Museum of Health and Medicine website has a complete inventory of the Billings Microscope collection and a Siemens electron microscope appears on p. 151 of the PDF.

Christine Windheuser, Volunteer
Archives Center, National Museum of American History