The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Category: Behind the Scenes
Ah, Halloween, my favorite time of year. With an upcoming photograph symposium on my mind, and the season getting drier, I'm inspired to make my costume up as a tightly wound vintage panoramic photograph. The fear of unrolling one never gets old, if you'll forgive the pun, because one never knows . . . what one might find lurking within (Meaning revealing prior damage, not the content – unless some creepy creature has taken up residence). Recently, I saw one rolled panorama so damaged by a historic water incident that the faces of the sitters had lifted right off the front of the print and stuck to the back of the paper facing it – leaving an eerie ghostlike effect on both sides similar in effect to the image below.
Truly, here at conservation HQ nothing actually strikes fear into our hearts more than unintentionally bad advice gone horribly awry. We've written a few posts on our conservative conservator approach to opening and unrolling rolled photographs, trying to strike a balance between too little and too much information (i.e. just enough to not get non-conservators in too deep). Some other authors online have taken it upon themselves to offer some pretty scary advice, such as steaming the roll with a steam iron or soaking the rolled photograph and then unrolling it in water. These both send shivers down my spine, and if you want to know why in great detail, you may dress up like a conservation student and read all about Properties and Stability of Gelatin Layers in Photographic Materials and their infinite variety of susceptibilities. Not all photographs are the same, and to give you an idea of what could happen, I'll just give you the cheat sheet by suggesting you imagine taking a steam iron or a hot soak to your favorite Halloween wiggly gelatin dessert. Bad idea, unless you want your dessert and photo to potentially look like The Blob or The Creature from the Black Lagoon.
In contrast to the unintentially bad advice gone wrong, there are some fairly on point instructions to be found online to help people humidify and flatten panoramic photographs. I found that an independent archivist has posted a photo-illustrated adaptation for the home user of a process written up by the National Park Service for their Museum Management Program, which does not give us the willies due to the care built into their setup. That said, for attempting either of these I would increase the safety factor further by choosing not to have free water available that could splash on to the photo if their container was bumped, but instead pour the water first onto clean absorbent blotter or bleed-proof toweling until that is saturated. I would also avoid the use of wax paper during drying, substituting silicon coated paper without creases or wrinkles. (Always note: consulting a conservator is best, especially if the object is resistant to movement, or if there appears to be writing on it or prior damage to the object.)
We recently had another panorama in the lab, and we put it through the gentle humidification process we describe in our posts listed below. This occasion also allowed us to addess what isn't discussed in any of these posts, namely how to store an awkwardly long photograph, say over six feet, afterwards if you do not have the space to store it flat between an archival folder and boards. Generally this technique is used for oversize flexible objects, such as textiles and massive works on paper. Occasionally when we must, we adapt the technique for smaller objects and roll onto large (to scale) archival paper core supports. This prevents crushing and increases the circumference versus rolling them around themselves like little cigarettes. If only Halloween pranksters would re-roll after toilet papering some unfortunate person’s home! Here is a short video of how we do it if a work is too large for flat file storage.
Happy and safe Halloween, everybody! May you take many pictures and keep them safe from becoming ghosts of themselves.
- Panoramic Panic! A Sticky Situation, Part 1, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Panoramic Panic! A Sticky Situation, Part 2, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Halloween Humidification Horrors!, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- A Health Resort for Paper, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
In celebration of Archives Month, join us Monday, October 27th, 10am to 4pm ET, where four of our archivists specializing in audio/visual material, photos, and digital records (or electronic records) will be on the Smithsonian's Facebook page to answer questions about your own archival collections. Questions from our readers in the past have ranged from storing letter and diaries, to digitizing cassette tapes, to organizing digital photo archives.
Here are the folks who will be on-hand to answer your questions:
Michael Pahn is Head Archivist at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian Archive Center located in the museum’s Cultural Resources Center. Michael began at NMAI in 2003 as its Media Archivist, and has overseen preservation projects funded by the National Film Preservation Foundation, Save America’s Treasures, and the Smithsonian Collections Care and Preservation Fund. His prior experiences include Save Our Sounds Project Librarian at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, and Librarian at The Nature Conservancy. Michael is a member of the Society of American Archivists’ Native American Archives Roundtable Steering Committee. He has a BA in Anthropology from the University of Pittsburgh and an MLS from the University of Maryland.
Marguerite Roby is the Photograph Archivist at Smithsonian Institution Archives and manages several large photographic collections. Her work involves establishing intellectual and physical control over these collections as well as contributing efforts towards digitization and the management of digitized assets.
Lynda Schmitz Fuhrig, Electronic Records Archivist at the Smithsonian Institution Archives since 2005, specializes in preserving born-digital materials that include images, audio, video, websites, and email from across the Smithsonian. Her work involves using tools and creating methods that help digital objects remain accessible in the future.
Dave Walker is an Audio Digitization Specialist at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and specializes in the preservation and digital reformatting of analog audio media, especially open-reel tapes and instantaneous discs. He also participates in several national groups focused on best practices and standards in these areas, and on increasing access to preserved recordings.
We hope that you’ll join us on Facebook tomorrow, and we look forward to your questions! If you don't have a Facebook account, feel free to send us an email. See other progams happening at the Smithsonian related to Archives Month.
Appropriately funereal for approaching Halloween, this military cortege accompanied James Smithson's remains from the Washington Navy Yard to the Smithsonian, on January 23, 1904. James Smithson (c.1765-1829) died in Genoa, Italy, and was buried there. However, after the turn of the century, the Smithsonian was notified that the graves were to be moved to allow quarrying on the cemetery site. Smithsonian Regent Alexander Graham Bell and his wife Mabel traveled to Italy to oversee the disinterment of Smithson's remains and their transportation to the Institution that his bequest created.
This photo will be used in an Explorer at Large internet documentary.
When asked what the Smithsonian Institution Archives collects, we say we hold records about the history of the Smithsonian and its people, programs, research, and activities. While accurate, this doesn't really give anyone a clue about what is actually in those records.
The Smithsonian Institution Archives Reference Term handles an average of around 6,000 queries per year, and if you ask us what people have been researching at the Archives recently, you'll get some pretty interesting responses. Although not comprehensive, here's a snapshot of the diverse range of information encompassed by the archives of the world's largest museum complex!
Over the past three months, researcher projects have included:
- African American history at the Smithsonian
- History of Tropical biology in the 20th century Caribbean
- Philippine collections at the Smithsonian
- World’s Fairs and Expositions
- William Whewell and Pre-Darwinian systematics
- The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology
- Exploration and settlement of the American West
- History of African-American museums
- Tropical biology in the Pacific
- The Wilkes Exploring Expedition
- Smithsonian presentation of science to the public
- Botanical exploration in Lower California
Upcoming publications using our photos or documents include:
Mary Jane Rathbun, carcinologist at the United States National Museum, at left with Katherine J. Bush of Yale University, second from left, Charlotte Bush and Eloise Edwards at the Marine Biological Laboratory and United States Fish Commission Station at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, probably in the 1890s.
This photo will appear in Richard Conif’s projected book on the history of the Peabody Museum of Natural History .
- Ipswich School's Old Ipswichian magazine
- Trowelblazers, a blog on women in archaeology
- Lawrence Livermore National Library in a workshop honoring Dr. Stirling Colgate
- David J. Meltzer for his book, The Great Paleolithic War
- Arthur A. Spector, for “Discovery of Essential Fatty Acids” in the Journal of Lipid Research
- The Springfield, Missouri Conservation Nature Center
Most unusual reference inquiry:
Fox Television was given permission to use Archives images as set dressing for its popular television series Bones. Among them was this photo of T. Dale Stewart, physical anthropologist, Department of Anthropology, United States National Museum. The photograph was most likely taken in October 1950 by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Stewart often examined skeletons for the FBI and pioneered the field of forensic anthropology.
Last week, we celebrated two years of using Archive-It for documenting the Smithsonian Institution's web presence. Previously, we had been using an in-house software and hardware installation in order to crawl websites and had cobbled together various less-than-ideal methods for capturing social media. Our hope was that a subscription to Archive-It would allow us to capture our web presence in a more efficient manner as well as allow us to provide better access to our crawled web content.
So how are we doing?
The Smithsonian currently has a total of 349 distinct websites and blogs. In the last year, we've crawled 170 of them or approximately 49% of the total. Altogether, we've crawled 327 websites and blogs, about 94% of the total, since we began using Archive-It two years ago. In addition, a significant number have been crawled more than once. Of those that have yet to be crawled, the majority have underlying code that make them nearly impossible to crawl using the technology currently available to us.
By this point, we had hoped to be crawling our websites and blogs annually. Although we haven't reached that goal, we've certainly improved from approximately one-half of our websites in 2 ½ years prior to using Archive-It, to nearly all of our websites and blogs in less than two years with Archive-It. And there's the added bonus of most of our crawled content from the last two years being available online via our Smithsonian Institution Websites Collection on Archive-It.
We continue to take steps to improve our efficiency. One of our next steps will be to evaluate the websites we've already crawled to determine which ones do not need to be crawled again because they are no longer being updated. An example might be an online exhibition that was launched in its final format and was never intended to be modified. The fewer websites that need to be crawled, the more frequently we'll be able to capture those that do.
- Web Archiving Update, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Smithsonian Now Using Archive-It to Crawl Websites, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Connecting the Dots: Issues with Preserving Complex Websites, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
It's time again to celebrate all the wonderful things archives have and do! The Society of American Archivists declares each October American Archives Month and the Smithsonian theme for this year is "Discover and Connect." At the Smithsonian Institution Archives, we handle over 6000 reference requests per year and have an ambitious digitization plan to serve people worldwide through our website. This past year alone, over 380,000 people accessed our resources online.
Archivists and conservators at the Smithsonian are top-notch, and to celebrate the occasion, we make them available to you for an entire day to answer your questions about preserving your own collections. Our 4th Facebook Q&A will be held on October 27th, from 10am-4pm EST, on the Smithsonian's Facebook page. Four of our staff members will be there with skills in a/v, digital, and paper archives. Here's the line-up:
Joe Hursey, National Museum of American History's Archives Center, Reference Coordinator(updated 10/20 due to conflict)
- Michael Pahn, National Museum of the American Indian Archives Center, Head Archivist (A/V specialty)
- Marguerite Roby, Photo Archivist, Smithsonian Institution Archives (added 10/20 since original posting)
- Lynda Schmitz Fuhrig, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Electronic Records Archivist
- Dave Walker, Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives, Audio Digitization Specialist
Also check out past Q&A's to see if your question has already been answered!
There are several other ways to connect with the Smithsonian's 16 archives this month:
- Blog's across the Smithsonian will give an inside look at collections and practices.
- If you're a Pinterest fan, check out the Smithsonian's October is Archives Month board.
- Archivists across the Smithsonian will share sound, video, and film on the Smithsonian AV Archivists Tumblr.
- Digital volunteers can explore and help us transcribe letters, diaries, and field books on the SI Transcription Center.
- And if you're local to DC, a selection of artists' diaries from the Archives of American Art is on exhibit in the Lawrence A. Fleischman Gallery in Washington, D.C. 11:30am-7pm daily.
We'd love to have you participate in any way you can. Three cheers for archives!
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