The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Archive
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
For our next Miscellaneous Adventure, you chose to open up Record Unit 548, the National Museum of Natural History’s Division of Meteorites Correspondence Records. This collection contains incoming and outgoing correspondence and memoranda documenting the operations of the Division of Meteorites from 1970-1988.
On October 15, 1963, the National Museum of Natural History’s Department of Geology split into the Department of Mineral Sciences and the Department of Paleobiology. The new Department of Mineral Sciences had three divisions: Mineralogy, Meteorites, and Petrology. The new division of meteorites had an active staff eager to track down specimens throughout the world. This is evident in their correspondence. When you open the collection boxes, folders labeled with the names of countries around the world and the word miscellaneous peek out from within. Upon opening these folders it is easy to see the prolific efforts of staff, including Brian H. Mason, curator; Roy S. Clarke, Jr., curator; and Kurt Fredriksson, curator and geochemist. The many letters in the folders discuss the identification and acquisition of specimens, research projects, and other professional activities, providing insight into how we have tracked meteorites around the world.
Two of the larger folders in the collection were "India – Miscellaneous" and "Australia – Miscellaneous." The correspondence includes conversations about specimen recovery from the Dhajala meteorite shower and a search to locate rare Tasmanian tektites. But this time, instead of picking out a letter and telling you all about it, I have decided to let you join on the adventure. To uncover what interesting meteorite mysteries await, head over to the Smithsonian's Transcription Center to rifle through the folders containing correspondence from Australia and India. While you are there, you can try out transcribing the correspondence and find out more about meteorites found in India and Australia. Don't forget to let us know what interesting things you find on your Miscellaneous Mysteries of the Universe adventure by commenting on this post, our Facebook page, or the Transcription Center’s page. Best of luck and have fun!
As for our next adventure let us know what you would like to see next:
- Record Unit 548 - National Museum of Natural History, Division of Meteorites, Correspondence Records, circa 1970-1988, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- I see you - a new satellite image of the National Portrait Gallery portrait commission, One of Many, One, by Jorge Rodriguez-Gerada. [via AirSpace blog, NASM]
- Yes, you heard right, the Smithsonian is on its way to raising $1.5 Billion to support its museums, research centers, and programs. [via The Torch, SI]
- Getting toned, book style - Toning Japanese paper hinges for reattaching boards to leather bindings. [via Unbound blog, Smithsonian Libraries]
- Announced this week - The papers of Nobel laureate Toni Morrison will reside at Princeton University Library. [via InfoDocket]
- Not just go-go or punk - The new D.C. Vernacular Music Archive at George Washington University encompasses the variety of music found in our nation's capital. [via DCist]
- Challenge accepted - Flickr created a site to tell you if your picture has a park or a bird in it in response to a challenge laid out in the XKCD webcomic. [via PetaPixel]
- A new tool is coming from Rhizome that allows you preserve the dynamic content found on social media sites called Colloq. [via Bits blog, The New York Times]
- Walk in the steps of Jane Goodall, the Jane Goodall Institute and Google teamed up to bring their Street View Trekker cameras to Gombe National Park in Tanzania and allow you to explore and experience it. [via PetaPixel]
On October 23, 1826, James Smithson, a wealthy Englishman, sat down and wrote the final version of his will. Smithson, who was 61 years old and had suffered various ailments, was clearly thinking about his legacy. After establishing his pedigree and naming his executors, his first bequest was:
To John Fitall, formerly my Servant, but now employed in the London Docks, and residing at No. 27, Jubilee Place, North Mile End, old town, in consideration of his attachment & fidelity to me, & the long & great care he has taken of my effects, & my having done but very little for him, I give and bequeath the Annuity or annual sum of one hundred pounds sterling for his life, to be paid to him quarterly, free of legacy duty & all other deductions, the first payment to be made to him at the expiration of three months after my death.
Fitall had been his servant for a number of years, and Smithson seems to have held him in high esteem. There is no indication of the circumstances under which Fitall left Smithson’s employ, but it does seem that a job at the London Docks must have been a step down from his role as a man-servant to a wealthy gentleman. Fitall’s home on Jubilee Place, North Mile End, old town, was part of what is known as the East End of London. The area was not yet as notorious as during the Victorian era, when street gangs, prostitutes and Jack the Ripper kept the penny press headlines focused on the docklands area, but it was already a crowded, gritty neighborhood rife with crime. The East End was the section east of the Roman and medieval walled city of London, north of the River Thames, and bordered by the the River Lea. Many residents worked at the nearby docks, which were growing rapidly, with the St. Katharine Docks opening in 1827. Overcrowded and unsanitary, with transients arriving at the docks daily, cholera and other epidemics were a regular occurrence. This was also the home of the Cockney barrow boys and flower girls, competing for sales with their patter of rhyming slang.
Smithson seems to express regret that he has not done more for Mr. Fitall in the past and thus wishes to provide for him for the remainder of his life. His bequest of £100 sterling annually is not a paltry sum. It is difficult to really calculate what that would mean in today's dollars, but the Old Bailey Online website suggests:
By the middle of the nineteenth century, a skilled engineer could command 7s. 6d. a day, or around £110 per year, if fully employed, but this was not significantly more than their eighteenth-century predecessors. In the last decades of the nineteenth century William Booth estimated that a working family needed an income of at least 18s. to 21s. a week, or around £50 a year, just to get by, and 22s. to 30s. a week (£57-£78 per annum) to be "comfortable".
So it would seem that Smithson provided a decent income for his faithful servant for the remainder of his life. I don't know if Mr. Fitall and his wife remained in the East End or if he continued to work at the London docks, but the Fitalls would have had a comfortable life. Life in the East End continued to deteriorate through the remainder of the nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth century – the era portrayed in the current BBC series Call the Midwife. Many residents lived in extreme poverty and deprivation, often consigned to work houses for the indigent. Smithson's first bequest ensured that his faithful servant lived out his days in far greater comfort than his neighbors.
The annuity ceased when Mr. Fitall died with the principal reverting to the bequest to the people of the United States. The Minutes of the Smithsonian Board of Regents for January 11, 1850, reported that Mrs. Fitall, the widow of a former servant of Mr. Smithson, through a Mr. H. P. Bohn, had offered for sale a small portrait of James Smithson which was in her possession for the price of thirty guineas. The portrait by James Roberts (1753-c. 1809) is of a young Smithson as a student at Pembroke College, Oxford University, in 1786, attired in his academic robes and already committed to a life devoted to scientific research. The board resolved that Secretary Joseph Henry be authorized to purchase the portrait of Mr. Smithson which Honorable Abbott Lawrence, United States Ambassador to Great Britain, spoke of in his letter of the 10th of December, 1849. The oil on canvas painting soon arrived at the Smithsonian and is in the collections of the National Portrait Gallery today, allowing the Fitalls to give back to the Institution founded by the man who held their service in the highest regard.
- A bold plan from the National Archives - Digitize their analog records, all 12 billion pages of them. [via AOTUS blog, NARA]
- An epic road trip - Collecting on the road with Jason Stieber, National Collector, Archives of American Art. [via Smithsonian Collections Blog]
- Now availble - DigDC, a new online archive of Washington D.C. history created by the D.C. Public Library’s Special Collections department. [via Washington Post]
- Documenting events as the are happening - A conversation with Howard Besser and the efforts of Activist Archivists in saving the records of the "Occupy" movement. [via The Signal: Digital Perservation, LOC]
- From the stacks - Exhibits writer-editor, David Romanowski, talks about his adventures in doing research in the National Air and Space Museum Archives' Technical Files for the Hawaii by Air exhibition. [via AirSpace blog, NASM]
- Some thoughts on archival appraisal in the age of distant reading and computational analysis of large sets of electronic records. [via The Signal: Digital Preservation, LOC]
- Gale/Library Journal 2014 Library of the Year - Edmonton Public Libary - presents this cool video timeline of their 101 year history. [via InfoDocket]
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