Smithsonian Collections Blog

Highlighting the hidden treasures from over 2 million collections

Collections Search Center

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.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Flash Forward Friday: National Breath of Life Institute Coming this June!

2015 National Breath of Life participants. Photo by Judith Andrews, Recovering Voices, Smithsonian Institution.

In June of 2017 the National Breath of Life institute for indigenous languages will be coming back to our nation’s capital for the fourth time! The two week, hands-on workshop provides native community members access to archival materials that can help revitalize lost and endangered languages.  Along with the National Anthropological Archives (NMNH) and the Library of Congress, the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) Archive Center has been happy provide access to the language and cultural materials in our archival collections as a part of this program.

Breath of Life not only brings to the forefront the importance of maintaining and making accessible archival collections, but for us at NMAI has also been a jumping off point for communication and collaboration between the archivists at NMAI and the native researchers who come to DC as a part of this program. Since 2011, when the National Breath of Life institute was first held, we have discovered language materials in our collections, particularly in the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation records, that we didn’t even realize we had. Following the 2015 program, the NMAI Archive Center sent out over 2000 pages of digitized documents from the MAI, Heye Foundation records to native researchers for further study and use in their community projects.

Sky Campbell doing research  at the NMAI Archive Center as part of the 2013 Breath of Life archival institute, 2013. The records he is viewing are part of Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation records. Photo by Rachel Menyuk, NMAI.

I would highly recommend reading further about the program on their website. Applications for the two week program are currently available online and the deadline is November 1st, just in time for the end of American Archives month!

2017 Breath of Life Applications Available

You can read about Sky Campbell’s (Otoe-Missouria Language director) experience in the NMAI Archive Center during the 2013 Breath of Life program here:

Otoe–Missouria Language Director Sky Campbell shares his experience at the NMAI Archive Center

Rachel Menyuk, Archives Technician
National Museum of the American Indian, Archive Center

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Throwback Thursday: The Field Notes of M. Moynihan

The field notes of Martin Moynihan, first director of Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, have been a source of fascination for the Field Book Project since they were cataloged in 2013.  Moynihan was an evolutionary behaviorist who studied birds, primates, and cephalopods.  He had a unique way of recording observations that has inspired blog posts, a hand writing contest, Flickr set, and even an article during 2016 in Hakai Magazine.

Field notes on gulls, November 13, 1955, by Martin Moynihan, Smithsonian Institution Archives, SIA2014-03311. 
A flamboyant and distinctive individual, Neal Griffith Smith, a colleague of 36 years, described him:
“When I first met him, he looked like Salvador Dali, for he sported an almost 5-inch waxed mustache, wore a Bond street suit, and carried a proper British umbrella. He remained an elegant though less dandy figure for the rest of his life…He had a reputation for rages and sudden changes of mood. In the early years he was always firing off his resignation because things were not going his way. It was pure theater. Martin was a gentleman in the true sense of the word, and perhaps the most intelligent person I ever met.” (p. 758)
Primate, 1960, by Martin Moynihan, Smithsonian Institution Archives, SIA2014-0118. 
Thanks to a grant the Field Book Project received last year, Smithsonian Institution Archives is now digitizing and making Moynihan's and numerous other collections available online through Smithsonian Collections Search Center, Internet Archive, and Biodiversity Heritage Library, with more being made available each week.  New digitized content is made available on Smithsonian's Collections Search Center each month.  These are just a few examples of his photographs and field notes.  We encourage you to check out as more become available online.

Field notes on Alouatta palliata [South Pacific Blackish Howling Monkey] with drawing, August 30, 1961, by Martin Moynihan, Smithsonian Institution Archives, SIA2014-03780. 
To learn more about Field Book Project's other field book collections, we encourage you to check out Smithsonian Collections Search Center that holds records for 628 field note collections covering the natural sciences.

Lesley Parilla, Cataloging Coordinator
Smithsonian Field Book Project

Neal Griffith Smith. (July 1998). “In Memoriam: Martin Humphrey Moynihan, 1928-1996.” American Ornithologist’s Union. Published by University of California Press. Accessed December 1, 2011 at

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Archives and Manuscripts Collections in the Smithsonian Libraries

In 1992, I was hired to be the rare book cataloger for the Smithsonian Libraries (SIL), and almost all of my work for the first dozen years or so was focused primarily on monographic cataloging of printed books. But over the years since then, my work has been experiencing a noticeable transition encompassing a wider variety of formats, including archival materials and manuscript collections. Trend forecasters have been talking for years about the convergence of the LAMs (where LAMs = Libraries, Archives and Museums; this catchy phrase was used by Kiersten F. Latham and John E. Simmons in their 2014 publication, Foundations of museum studies: evolving systems of knowledge). I can attest that this is happening on a broad scale: internationally, nationally, within the Smithsonian Institution, and in the Smithsonian Libraries, library stuff is mixing with museum stuff, which is also mixing with archival stuff. There are fewer bright lines separating these formats in our daily work and collections, regardless of how our units identify themselves. To cope with all these changes, library, archival and museum workers need to be flexible and open to creative thinking and learning on the job. More than ever, it is crucial to collaborate with colleagues beyond the traditional boundaries of one’s profession to derive the greatest benefits from shared knowledge and experience.

Postcards from Ernst Mach to E. Kulke
The Smithsonian Libraries, which currently encompasses 21 branch libraries and a central administration, grew, at first informally, as the Smithsonian Institution itself grew. During the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, various curatorial offices developed in-house book collections acquired from the personal libraries of staff members and scholarly exchanges and donations over the years. SIL’s Director, Dr. Nancy E. Gwinn, has written an overview of the haphazard early development of the Smithsonian’s library collections, which were viewed ambivalently by the first Secretary, Joseph Henry, and which were just one part of a complicated nexus of collections competing for priority and precious resources. The Smithsonian Libraries, as it is known today, was formally created as a unit by Secretary S. Dillon Ripley in the 1960s.
So what kinds of archival and manuscript materials have become part of the Smithsonian Libraries’ collections over the years? I’ll outline some examples here, many of which I have been personally involved with as a cataloger. I’d also like to note that several other staff members here at the Libraries also have archival training and responsibilities, with skills that are being put to good use as our collections continue to expand beyond the usual library formats.

The Smithsonian Libraries’ first major foray into the stewardship of manuscript collections was launched in 1974, with the gift of over 10,000 rare books and manuscripts from the Burndy Library, the private collection of industrialist and philanthropist Bern Dibner. The Burndy donation became the core collection of the Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology. Bern Dibner’s printed book and manuscript collections document the growth of European and American scientific and technological advances between the thirteenth and twentieth centuries, featuring correspondence, drafts, sketches, and ephemera by luminaries including Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, Marie Curie, and Albert Einstein, among others. The Dibner Library currently has approximately 2,000 manuscript groups, having acquired additional items from other Smithsonian units and curators as well as gifts received from outside the Institution.

In 2006, the Smithsonian Libraries received its second major collection of archival and manuscript materials with the acquisition of the Russell E. Train Africana Collection for the Joseph F. Cullman 3rd Library of Natural History. Featuring approximately 6,000 archival and manuscript items, including handwritten and typed correspondence, draft novels, photographs, sketch books, diaries, original artwork, ephemera, and both man-made and natural artifacts, the Train Africana Collection highlights the adventures of explorers, missionaries, conservationists and other travelers in Africa between the late seventeenth and twentieth centuries. The manuscript and archival materials of the Train Africana Collection are a rich trove of insights into the lives and activities of David Livingstone, Henry Morton Stanley, Ernest Hemingway, and Theodore Roosevelt, among others. Thanks to the help of contract archivists and the Smithsonian’s EAD coordinator, a detailed finding aid of the Train Africana Collection, including digitized content, is available on the Smithsonian OnlineVirtual Archives (SOVA) website.

Chandeliers from Caldwell & Co.
Other branches of the Smithsonian Libraries also contain archival and manuscript collections of diverse themes and formats. The Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Library in New York City has the papers of industrial designers such as Belle Kogan, Donald Deskey and Henry Dreyfuss, and the photographic archives of both Edward F. Caldwell & Company (one of the major lighting designers of the first half of the twentieth century) and fashion photographer Thérèse Bonney. The National Air and Space Museum Library has archival and manuscript materials ranging from a scrapbook of early aeronautica to the Bella C. Landauer collection of United States aeronautical patents. The National Postal Museum Library has the Hugh McLellan Southgate archival collection on postal history. The American Art and Portrait Gallery Library has an album of cartes-de-visite portraits of nineteenth century artists. And those are only some of the highlights.

The National Museum of African American History & Culture Library, the newest unit of the Smithsonian Libraries which opens to the public in late fall 2016, is embracing archival materials as a focal point of its collections: in addition to the head librarian, the NMAAHC Library staff includes an archivist and a genealogy specialist.

The National Collections Program’s Collections Digitization Reporting System (CDRS), a Smithsonian-wide initiative to get a grip on documenting significant materials that have not been described adequately even at the collection level in the various online catalogs of the Smithsonian, has spurred the Libraries’ staff over the past couple of years to identify and describe various pockets of archival and ephemeral materials scattered across its locations, in an effort to make these formerly hidden collections (as the Council on Library and Information Resources would refer to them) findable and properly preserved, and, where appropriate, eventually digitized.

Several recent Smithsonian-wide developments are helping the Libraries to transition into a unit where its archival and manuscript collections are nearly as accessible as its printed and digital materials:

We have multiple options for online discovery of collections: At the Smithsonian, the Libraries’ holdings are available through its dedicated SIRIS catalog, the Collections Search Center with over 10 million records of museum objects, archives and library materials from across the Institution, and the Smithsonian Online Virtual Archives (SOVA), which came online in 2015 and contains finding aids for more than 8000 diverse collections of primary resources from more than a dozen repositories at the Institution. The Libraries’ collections are also indexed in OCLC’s Worldcat, a global union catalog of library resources in all types of formats, and some of our digitized materials are available through the Internet Archive and the Digital Public Library of America, as well as more specialized thematic web projects like the the Biodiversity Heritage Library and Livingstone Online. To take full advantage of these various outlets, the Smithsonian Libraries has been prioritizing efforts to upgrade the description and access points for its archival and manuscript materials and, where possible, make them available in digitized form, since these unique collections hold the greatest interest for researchers who would otherwise be unaware of their existence.
Aeronautica scrapbook page
We collaborate with other units at the Smithsonian, which generously share their expertise and advice through forums such as the SIRIS Members Group, which provides discussions and training about Machine Readable Cataloging (MARC) and other cataloging standards like Describing Archives: a Content Standard (DACS) and Resource Description & Access (RDA) that shape the content and structure of collections data in our online catalogs; the Smithsonian Institution Archives and Special Collections Council (SIASC) which addresses concerns of the collecting units and supports projects that benefit them; the Smithsonian Encoded Archival Description (EAD) Users Group which has been instrumental in launching the SOVA database and training staff in the use of Archivists' Toolkit; and pan-Institutional initiatives like the Field Book Project, a partnership of the National Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian Institution Archives, the Smithsonian Libraries and the Smithsonian’s Office of the Chief Information Officer.

We have the Smithsonian Digital Volunteers Transcription Center, which went online in 2013 and has now had over 1,000 projects transcribed from fourteen participating museums, archives and libraries. The Smithsonian Libraries has so far contributed fourteen of its manuscript and archival holdings for transcription, including the commonplace book of a late eighteenth century English woman interested in scientific topics; a scrapbook of papers related to physicist Ernst Mach; a notebook of pressed butterfly specimens collected in East Africa during the second half of the nineteenth century; and a parallel vocabulary of the English and Potawatomi Indian languages, to name a few. Currently, the Transcription Center is featuring a fifteenth century Latin manuscript of Boethius’ De institutione arithmetica, complete with intricate palaeographical markings and abbreviations. The international community of Smithsonian Volunpeers, or digital volunteers, has diligently and accurately transcribed the various works made available through the Transcription Center, and thanks to their efforts, these texts are now keyword-searchable in the Collections Search Center.

Cropped section from page 125 of Boethius' De Institutione Arithmetica
Twenty-first century library, archival, and museum work here at the Smithsonian and elsewhere is continually subject to transitions: in organizational structure, workflows, formats, priorities, staffing, budgets and technological developments. Regardless of our job titles, we have to be flexible and continually learn new skills to deal well with the changes, since the tasks and policies that have traditionally defined our collecting units are not always things we can, or need to, sustain. While this ever-changing working environment is challenging, I welcome the opportunity to collaborate more closely with my colleagues across the Institution –archivists, conservators, researchers, curators, information managers, social media officers, exhibition designers, and others – to improve the ways we present our collections to the world.

Diane Shaw, Special Collections Cataloger
Smithsonian Libraries