The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Category: Behind the Scenes
When it comes to digital preservation the work is never truly finished. As we have written before, our best practices with digital curation and preservation involve keeping the original file in its original format as well as creating a file in a preservation format when possible.
For instance if we have an older Microsoft Word document, we will keep it and also create a PDF version of that file as its preservation master. If a researcher is interested in the file, they will get a PDF copy since it is a standard format and easy to access.
Benefits of retaining the original version:
- It is good to have it in case the preserved copy becomes corrupted.
- If the file cannot be accessed now, software and/or emulators may be developed eventually that can read it. Emulators are used quite often with old video games.
- Better software can be developed that can render a “better” file that is more complete, such as displaying metadata or displaying at original size.
Kodak Photo CD (PCD) files are one such example of original files that have benefitted from being revisited. Developed film was scanned onto CDs that contained up to 100 images and saved as the proprietary PCD format rather than the more familiar JPEG or TIFF. Kodak no longer supports the product.
Offices across the Smithsonian have these CDs and the Archives is no exception. We have a manageable number from our collections that total approximately 1,000. Some of them were converted previously into TIFF preservation files, but we were not capturing the “entire” file with the software we were using. The file size was set to a smaller one during conversion to a TIFF from its original size on the CD. Meanwhile, other software that could convert the PCD files discontinued the plug-in that was needed in software upgrades.
A few years later there are now more software conversion options available to handle these obsolete files. You can find some by searching “PCD conversion” online. Our latest conversion to TIFF files has resulted in full-size files with higher resolution and metadata about the film and scanner that was not present with the other software. All our collections with PCD files have been converted to these “better” versions.
If you have older files that are in obsolete formats, here are some things to consider:
- Convert a copy of the file to a more sustainable format. Example: old word-processing file to a PDF.
- View the original (if you can) to compare the migrated file to it. Does the look and feel match? Is that important for the document to you? Is metadata present?
- Consider retaining the original file in case you can get a “better” version of it later.
- Don’t forget to monitor the preserved/converted file itself for obsolescence.
Time-based media art: artwork containing audiovisual components that rely on playback mechanisms or systems for decoding, and that are typically engaged with other elements as an installed, interactive and/or performed experience
In September 2013 I arrived at the Archives to commence the inaugural 9-month National Digital Stewardship Residency designed by the Library of Congress and funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). Directed at the curatorial and conservation obstacles time-based media art imposes on museum workflows, I was tasked with developing strategies for handling the digital assets that make up these kinds of works, with particular focus on how they might best be placed in a trustworthy digital repository environment.
Jenny Holzer’s For SAAM (Smithsonian American Art Museum), and Siebren Versteeg’s Neither There nor There (Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden) are just two examples of time-based media art that rely on digital assets to operate and that can be found in collections across the Smithsonian.
Through acquisition, installation, storage, and later re-installation, these works require technical evaluations and monitoring generally laid out in digital preservation strategies, which have not typically been cemented in museum procedures. At the same time, the variable, iterative, and subjective nature of these works necessitates the use of granular, yet scalable policies for describing, representing, and preserving their essential elements, behaviors, and variability. For these reasons, the standard assumptions surrounding documentation, authenticity, and custodial roles in the realm of digital preservation fall short of meeting the needs of time-based media art.
As part of my residency I am in conversation with curators, conservators, registrars, and gallery staff across the Smithsonian who have been participating in the Time-Based Media Art Working Group efforts. They have been looking internally and externally for resources and expertise in handling these types of works in order to fit the needs of their own collections. From these discussions I am developing higher-level procedures based upon preservation practices and current museum approaches.
It is important to note that the Smithsonian is particularly unique in this conversation, in that it represents a number of designated communities (units) with disparate collections, missions, and infrastructures.
With all of these things in mind, my ultimate goal is to produce baseline ingest, storage, and access policies for specific classes of time-based media artworks (web, video game, generative, etc.) with supplemental suggestions for the more granular, yet flexible guidelines based off variability and intended behaviors (installed, networked, performed, etc.). Through my deliverables I hope to add to the resources to be considered not only within the Smithsonian, but in other institutions collecting digital time-based media art as well.
Finally, since artists have and will continue to produce works using an assortment of both obsolete and emerging software, processes, and tools (whether intentional or not), it is necessary to remain flexible with regard to digital preservation approaches across museums. Priority should be placed on strategies that are adaptable, with the understanding that continued learning and collaboration will be essential in maintaining authenticity in the future re-creations of these works.
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 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 history of the world’s largest museum complex!
Over the past three months, researcher projects have included:
- National Museum of American History’s upcoming 50th anniversary
- Theodore Roosevelt’s African expedition
- Post-Modern historicism in exhibits
- History of the American Society of Icthyologists and Herpetologists
- Plant geography
- The Paleontology Hall at the National Museum of Natural History, for renovations to the Dinosaur Hall
- Collecting & interpreting objects relating to George Washington
- William Healey Dall
- The history of tropical research in the US
- Zoological imagination in America
Upcoming publications using the Archives' photos or documents include:
- Wright Brothers National Memorial, State of the Park Report
- Leslie Bedford, The Art of Museum Exhibitions
- Ted Binnema, Enlightened Zeal: The Hudson’s Bay Co. and Scientific Networks
- The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, The Clark: the Institute and its Collections
- Robert Kett, "Ornithologists in Olman," The Museum Journal, April 2014
- Julian Zelizar, A Great Society: The Fight for Liberalism, 1963-1968
Annual List of Publications by Smithsonian Institution ArchivesFellows and Interns
- Gibson, Abraham H. 2013. "Edward O. Wilson and the Organicist Tradition," The Journal of the History of Biology, 46 (3)
- Gibson, Abraham H., Kwapich, Christina L. and Lang, Martha. 2013. "The Roots of Multilevel Selection: Concepts of Biological Individuality in the Early Twentieth Century." History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, 35 (4)
- Henson, Pamela M. 2013. "O Instituto Smithsonian: Arquivos e a Historia da Ciencia." Acervo, Revista Da Arquivo Nacional, 26 (1): 113-122.
- Leventhal, Richard M. and Daniels, Brian I. 2013. "'Orphaned Objects,' Ethical Standards, and the Acquisition of Antiquities." DePaul Journal of Art, Technology, and Intellectual Property Law, 23 (2): 339-361.
- Takarabe, Kae. 2013. "Bibliographical Essay on The History of Science and Technology at the Smithsonian Institution: Focusing on women in science and technology." The History of Science of Tokai, 5: 43-51.
- Takarabe, Kae. 2013. "Essay on B. S. Lyman's Collecting Ainu Objects: Focusing on General Instructions to the Assistants of the Geological Survey of Hokkaido." Bulletin of the Historical Museum of Hokkaido, 41: 147-152.
- Takarabe, Kae. 2013. "Research on Technological Innovation in Science Museums and the Use of its Results: A Case Study of the Smithsonian Institution." Lectures and Reports of 31th Symposium-Range and Scope of History of Technology in Japan: Learning about the History of Technology, and Technological, 3: 24-39.
- Takarabe, Kae. 2012. "Study on the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation: Science Communication at the Smithsonian Institution." Journal of the Museological Society of Japan, 37 (2): 135-159.
Most Unusual Reference Inquiry: Does the Smithsonian have Radar's teddy bear from the TV show, M*A*S*H?
Most people assume the teddy bear owned by Radar (actor Gary Burghoff) came to the Smithsonian when the program ended. After all, we received the donation of a large collection of M*A*S*H memorabilia that was displayed in a 1983 exhibit at the National Museum of American History.
A "Radar's Teddy bear" file in Record Unit 360 - National Museum of American History, Office of Public Affairs, Records, circa 1970-1985, contains several 1984 memos planning an event at the National Museum of American History for the proposed donation. However, there's nothing that indicates that such an event ever occurred. The registrar's office at the National Museum of American History confirmed that the teddy bear had not been accessioned. Something must have happened to prevent the teddy bear donation.
Online research revealed that the teddy was missing until 2005, when it brought $10,000 at auction. In a 2007 Orlando Sentinal interview, Burghoff confirmed that the bear was never at the Smithsonian, had disappeared 30 years earlier, and was purchased at the aforementioned auction by a medical student who then sold the bear to him.
Now where was that bear between 1984 and 2005?
- Reference Services, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Back in September, the Archives decided to begin its first rapid capture digitization pilot project. Since the point of rapid capture is to significantly increase throughput in digitization of material, having a group of material that is all relatively the same size is important. Robert Ridgeway’s bird head drawings, contained in Record Unit 7167, Series 3, were identified as a possible candidate for rapid capture based on the uniform size of all the drawings and digitization priorities within the Archives.
After the series was chosen, the next step in determining whether or not it was a good candidate for rapid capture was meeting with our conservation team to assess the condition of the drawings. When the collection was rehoused several years ago, the drawings were all placed in sink mats with flexible Mylar corners that have helped them remain in pretty good condition over time. Our conservators identified a handful of material that needed to be treated prior to being imaged, and once that work was completed, we were ready to begin the imaging process.
Since we were imaging non-bound materials using a copy stand setup, the workflow required two people to make it run smoothly; one to transfer each drawing to and from the copy stand, and one to take care of placing the image and taking the picture. Since the drawings would need to be taken out of their Mylar corners before being imaged, and then placed back within them once imaging was complete, we were initially worried that a third person might be needed in order to keep the process moving along at a rapid pace. However, after consulting with the conservation team, since the materials were housed in sink mats, we were able to place the drawings on top of the Mylar corners within the mats and then cover each mat with a sheet of tissue to avoid disrupting the images below when the mat above it was moved. This allowed us to prepare several boxes prior to each imaging session. The drawings were placed back in the Mylar corners after they were imaged, but since this step of the rehousing process only took a few seconds, it was completed as the next image was taken.
The number of images taken per box varied because, while all of the boxes contained the same number of sink mats, many of the drawings contained overlapping pieces of paper which required multiple photographs in order to capture all of the content. However, on average, it took about thirty minutes to complete each box, regardless of the number of images taken. During the rapid capture process, great care was taken to make sure that all of the drawings for a given box were captured in the same spot so that the raw files could be post-processed in bulk rather than having to crop each file individually.
All in all, rapid capture allowed us to produce over 1100 images from 29 boxes of drawings. The overlapping pieces of paper on many of the drawings would have made it difficult to digitize the drawings on a traditional flatbed scanner without causing harm to the material, but using the copy stand allowed us to significantly reduce the strain placed on the drawings. We hope to link the images produced during this pilot project to the collection’s finding aid sometime in the near future. The next set of material we plan on digitizing via rapid capture is Series 4 of Robert Ridgeway’s papers.
- Meet Robert Ridgway, Ornithologist and Artist, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Record Unit 7167, Ridgway, Robert 1850-1929, Robert Ridgway Papers, circa 1850s-1919, Smithsonian Institution Archives
One of the questions most frequently asked of anyone with a badge on the National Mall is "Where is the Smithsonian?" Many visitors assume that the Smithsonian is a single building where they can see the 1903 Wright Flyer, the Ruby Slippers, and the Hope Diamond all under one roof.
The often confusing reality is that the Smithsonian is actually made up of 19 museums, the National Zoo, and 9 research centers. Many of the museums are along the National Mall, but others are scattered around Washington, DC and the surrounding region. There are even two Smithsonian museums in New York City and research facilities in locations as diverse as Massachusetts, Florida, Arizona, Panama, and Belize.
To address the question at the beginning of this post, the Visitor Information and Associates' Reception Center (now the Office of Visitor Services) published a flyer in March 1985 encouraging visitors to stop by the Smithsonian Institution Building (better known as "The Castle") for an orientation. The flyer – appropriately titled "Where is the Smithsonian?" – is illustrated with a frazzled woman attempting to find her way while dealing with two impatient children. On the back is a map of the museums along or near the National Mall.
The flyer was updated several times during the 1980s. Today, the Castle is still the place to go for an in-person orientation, but many visitors go to the Smithsonian's website to plan their trips. And for those who want that modern equivalent to carrying around a map, there's an app for that.
- Accession 14-034 - Office of Visitor Services, Publications, 1959, 1973-2013, Smithsonian Institution Archives
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