The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
- So, perhaps you’ve seen the “Hey Girl” internet meme featuring Ryan Gosling? (Basically, photos of movie star hottie Gosling waxing poetic about everything from libraries to history theory). The latest version is near and dear our our heart: a Hey Girl Tumblr blog about museums . . . [via Smithsonian Magazine Tumblr].
- The US National Archives is calling on you to become a citizen archivist—check out their new citizen archivist dashboard to help transcribe documents, tag images, share your own research, or add your own collections.
- Anyone planning on photographing this year's New Year's Eve celebrations? Perhaps you'll enjoy this post from the blog archives with tips from Smithsonian photographers on snapping pics of fireworks.
- Late 19th century photos of the construction of London’s magnificent Tower Bridge were recently found in a dumpster. I guess you never know where you’ll find historic treasures.
- The Center for the Future of Museums has a recap of their most read stories of 2011—from the challenging economic times for museums to innovative projects happening in museums around the country.
- A Washington Times op-ed on how today’s digital documents threaten to become digital dinosaurs in the near future [via INFOdocket].
- Did you know that the Smithsonian uses more than 17,000 poinsettias in its decorations every year? Learn more about this ubiquitious holiday plant, that you very well might have in your home as we speak:
A few weeks ago, we asked for your assistance in decoding the rebus letter included below. The response received was overwhelming, providing not only a near universal transcription of the letter, but also assurance that all of you who routinely take time to read The Bigger Picture truly enjoy our posts. Personally, I was pleased and impressed to see our readers engaged with each other, offering suggestions and assistance by posting comments, working collectively, with considerable pride, towards a common goal: a careful and precise transcription.
The Smithsonian Institution has been affectionately referred to as “the nation’s attic” for years, which in some ways is appropriate, as our collecting scope is broad, only a fraction of our holdings may be displayed at a given time, and all of our materials have been amassed for the people not only of the United States, but for all people, to enjoy. Here at the Smithsonian, and at the Archives, it is a goal of ours to excite the learning in everyone, and the exercise of deciphering this rebus letter with input from the public is an excellent display of this philosophy in action. I thank you for your contributions, and must also thank my colleagues Susannah Wells for her work on the enhanced, transcribed version of the letter below, and Catherine Shteynberg for uploading the text and images that make this blog so interesting and enjoyable.
Note: As mentioned in the earlier blog post, please be advised that the letter below includes sensitive imagery/language. We determined that it would be best to post the letter as it was written in 1843, with the appreciation that historical documents should not be censored, but rather viewed as products of the era in which they were written.
My initial post on the rebus letter opens with perhaps antagonistic commentary on text messaging. While I may be somewhat of a technophobe, I appreciate that there are many positives that occur with the embracing of new methods of communication (including the example above). Facebook, Twitter, and blogs are fine examples of social media tools being employed by the Smithsonian to reach a broader, perhaps more distant audience, and I applaud such efforts. I do believe, however, and take the liberty of assuming that you will concur, that the impressive characteristics of this rebus letter are the time, pride, and painstaking detail invested by the author to impress the recipient. And it worked, as the letter was retained, and has been enjoyed by all of us. It is as if J. Goldsborough Bruff is speaking to us across the centuries, suggesting that an individual be proud of their endeavors, and anything worth doing, is worth doing well.
On a recent trip to the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park with my family we were fortunate enough to be passing the Great Ape House just as a few orangutans decided to climb the tower and travel across the O Line cables. Many people were standing underneath watching as they crossed the public pathway. They seemed so free from boundaries up there that it got me to wondering—has there ever been an escape?
I found the answer by doing a little bit of digging in the Archives’ collections about the history of the Zoo. The Orangutan Transportation System (OTS), or O Line, consists of eight 50 foot towers and a series of latex-coated steel cables by which the orangutans can travel as they would in nature. It links the Great Ape House to the "Think Tank" exhibit, where visitors can "think about thinking." There is one tower in the Great Ape House yard and one in the Think Tank building yard which they can climb. Six other towers connected by the cables traverse the public walkways in between. These six are designed with electrified "skirts" and grid "collars" that give the orangutans a small shock without causing injury to prevent them from climbing down onto the path below. Whenever the orangutans have access to the O Line, zoo staff are on hand to monitor them.
It didn't take long to find out that yes, there has been an escape. The first escape occurred not long after the O Line was completed in 1994. While Bonnie was the first orangutan at the zoo to both climb the tower in the Great Ape House yard and cross over to the second tower using the cables, an orangutan named Azy took it a step further. According to an account found in our collections in the zoo's employee newsletter, The Gnu Yak Times, Azy had initially appeared uninterested in the tower in the yard. One day after he watched fellow orangutan, Iris, cross the cables a few times, Azy climbed the tower and crossed over on the cables. Then he quite easily stepped on the hot wires, swung down to the tower grid, and climbed down to the ground. From there, he set off towards the Think Tank on foot by the public pathway.
Zoo staff attempted to intervene and Azy became alarmed but did not cause serious injury. Eventually, he was tranquilized by a veterinarian and brought back into the enclosure. His adventure lasted a mere eighteen minutes. Zoo employees immediately went to work to try and figure out why Azy managed to get out of the enclosure and made modifications to the towers. Azy never attempted to travel on the O Line again.
There have been only two other escapes since then, which you can read about on the Zoo's website. Each escape has occurred during the orangutan's first trip across the cables and no orangutan has escaped twice. The system has since been modified to prevent future escapades.
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