The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
I Found My Dad at the Smithsonian
Many of us are familiar with the expression that an important document, keepsake, photo, object—you fill in the blank—“should be in the Smithsonian.” Sometimes this is true. When I was a kid, my dad used to tell me about his interest in insects and collecting when he was a teenager growing up in Chicago. Back then, he would spend countless weekends exploring the city’s museums, parks, and the undeveloped prairieland near his high school, Chicago Vocational School (CVS), which was a treasure trove of assorted bugs, arachnids, and other creepy crawlies. Among his finds there were two Cecropia moth cocoons. He was able to hatch a moth (described as having eyes on their wings) from one of them, but the other did not look right; my father noticed an odd hole in it. He decided to send the cocoon and associated parasite to the Smithsonian Institution for identification, and later the Smithsonian accepted the specimens as a gift. The cocoon with the odd hole, it was found, contained a parasitic wasp, which was detailed to my father in a letter from the Smithsonian. My father still has the correspondence from the Smithsonian that explained how to ship the materials, the receipt of them (see left, and click to enlarge), and a thank-you letter from Remington Kellogg, then director of the U.S. National Museum (now the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History). My father planned to go to Washington, D.C. late in the summer in 1954 to meet with museum staff members, but the trip did not happen. For years I’ve wanted to see his contribution, but we were not sure if the National Museum of Natural History, home to 126 million objects, including 35 million insect specimens, still had the cocoon or the parasitic wasp. And, one cannot just walk into the museum and expect to see everything, given that less than 2 percent of the Smithsonian’s collections are on display in the museums at any given time. But after we spent some time gathering my dad’s correspondence and recollections and trying to make contacts, we got lucky. Dr. Robert Kula, a research entomologist with the Systematic Entomology Laboratory (U.S. Department of Agriculture) who is stationed at the National Museum of Natural History, was able to locate the parasite. I was surprised to see the small female wasp. I had only thought of wasps being bothersome to humans. This one, in particular, was the secondary parasite of the primary one that had actually attacked the moth, as noted in the letter above. My parents, who still live in Chicago, and I met with Dr. Kula in November and got to view the wasp known as Mastrus smithii (Packard). The cocoon itself could not be located and possibly was discarded, as commonly occurred in the previous mid-century and earlier because of different curatorial practices then. The wasp is stored in a tray with other similar specimens. Under the microscope we were able to see the complete insect, which still had one antenna intact. A carefully pinned tiny label indicates the name of the moth, my father’s name, and the year he donated the specimen to the Museum. Dr. Kula explained this wasp is not uncommon but possibly harder to locate these days, especially as natural areas in the Midwest decline. It took 56 years for my father to finally make it to the Department of Entomology, and I am glad my mother and I were there for the occasion. He is happy that he was able to contribute to the Smithsonian mission for the increase and diffusion of knowledge. This experience has sparked some pleasant memories that my father has shared with us that we are now able to document through the 1954 correspondence, the 2010 photographs, and his reminiscences.