The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
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This weekend marks the U. S. Hockey's annual Hockey Weekend Across America, an event designed to help spread appreciation for the sport throughout the United States. It spans three days, February 28 – March 2, and each day has it's own theme including "Wear Your Jersey Day," "Try Hockey Day" and "Celebrate Local Hockey Heroes Day." In honor of the weekend, I'd like to share some items with you to help get you in the shinny mood.
First off, in order to play ice hockey, you need both ice and skates. In 1905, a photographer captured some candid shots of folks enjoying a nice winter's day on a frozen Rock Creek within the grounds of the National Zoological Park. The group in the center of the photo looks ready to play. They’ve got their sheet of ice, skates, the child to the left is even wearing a pair of heavy gloves that should protect him from an errant slash. But there’s something they’re missing that every good hockey player needs.
An image from 1944 in the Smithsonian Flickr Commons should be able to help our would-be hockey players. The image features U.S. troops who are attempting to sort through holiday mail. Some items being sent are a damaged box that clearly states "Glass with care," a spare tire, and a hockey stick. Now we’re ready to play!
There is one last, quick story I wanted to share. As I vaguely mentioned in a previous blog post, I often use bears as subjects when testing our collection searches. When I check finding aids, I often use the key word "Hockey." My favorite finding aid that get's returned is for Accession 09-066 - National Portrait Gallery, Dept. of Exhibitions and Collections Management, Exhibition Records, 1979-1983, 1988, 2008. The finding aid contains records of the exhibition Champions of American Sports. Box 7 contains records involving Bobby Hull (One of my all-time favorite Chicago Blackhawks and who's portrait is currently on view in the National Portrait Gallery's Champions exhibit.), Bobby Orr, and Gordon "Gordie" Howe.
It's Gordie Howe that is the subject of my favorite hockey story. Howe, who is best known for his 25 years with the Detroit Redwings, was in the twilight of his career and had moved on to the Hartford Whalers. One day, during warm-ups, he spied a young, 7-year-old boy poking his head over the glass (at that time the glass on top of the boards was much lower than it is now). Howe scooped up some of the snow that accumulates on the ice with his stick, skated over, and dumped it on the boy's head. Skating off, Howe looked back to the boy and gave him a wink.
The boy, Jeremy Roenick, would go on and become a legendary player in the NHL in his own right. When he announced his retirement from the NHL, Roenick recalled that memory. While Roenick was a player, he attempted to reach out to fans as much as he possibly could, and he cited his moment with Howe as a reason for that. "For those three seconds, it was me and Gordie Howe and no one else," Roenick said. "That moment stuck in me, for years, and years, and years, because I know what that made me feel like. It was little, it was small, it took nothing out of his power or his time, but it resonated my whole life."
- Accession 09-066 - National Portrait Gallery, Dept. of Exhibitions and Collections Management, Exhibition Records, 1979-1983, 1988, 2008, Smithsonian Institution Archives
They contain the records of the first tree census of the Barro Colorado Island (BCI) Forest Dynamics Project, carried out between 1980 and 1982. Its task: to tag, identify, measure, and map every plant possessing a stem larger than one centimeter in diameter within the bounds of a 50-hectare plot of Panamanian forest. In 1979, when biologists Stephen Hubbell and Robin Foster imagined the project as a way to study tropical tree diversity, no one had attempted a forest census at this scale. The use of quadrats - small, square plots - for sampling species goes back to the 1890s in ecology. Sampling tree diversity in Panama, however, poses problems. Unlike temperate forests dominated by one or two species, in the tropics, tree diversity reigns supreme. In other words, to understand tropical tree diversity, you’re going to need a bigger plot.
The result of a bigger plot was bigger data. Within each archival box, folder after folder contains a series of 1,250 gridded maps, each representing a 20 by 20 meter subplot of the forest. The maps contained in these boxes record 208,400 individual trees and amount to an astounding 299 species.
In the archives, far from Panama, I flipped through page after page of these grids. Each was laboriously filled out by hand, crowded with the outlines of tree trunks, rocks, fallen logs, and tangles of lianas – every individual tree labeled with a number. This paper forest seems an extravagant attempt to capture a forest’s complexity – and they represent just the first census.
Yet, this is not a matter of missing the forest for the trees. By re-censusing the plot every five years since 1980, scientists have been revealing a forest in a state of constant change. This is significant – throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, most people imagined tropical forests as primeval and unchanging. But a combination of fine-scale mapping and long-term censusing showed that the 50-hectare plot on BCI was anything but stable. As trees lived and died, the composition of species in the plot shifted – changes tied to El Niño cycles and drought. Gradually, the BCI plot became the model for a global network of plots, and ecologists are beginning to appreciate both the individuality of different forests and their shared responses to global change.
Today, we have become used to large-scale, highly technical projects to monitor global environments – from GPS-tagged elephant herds to the satellite imaging of arctic ice. We are accustomed to the eye in the sky. For this reason, these five boxes are important to scientists, historians, and the public. The maps within them document not only the plot itself, but the hard, on-the-ground work it took to change long-held ideas about tropical forests. The maps were pencilled in by hand by a small team of scientists and technicians. Although gridded and sharing a standardized set of data, the personality of the researchers comes through in handwriting, drawing styles, and eclectic mixtures of Spanish and English in notations. The tropical forest leaves a literal mark in water stains and dirt. And the work of science did not end in the field; notes and corrections show how each map passed through multiple hands, undergoing repeated checks to identify and correct errors, and improve methods for the next census. The messy, iterative process of science, visible in these field maps, is obscured by entry into databases and the reproduction of neat, electronically-rendered maps (although surely painstaking work, especially using 1980s computers). Going back to the original maps brings the scientific process back to life.
The practices that shape our understanding of our environment have roots in particular times and places. At BCI, they have a much deeper history than one might expect – one illuminated by records at the Smithsonian Institution Archives. It is no coincidence that the first 50-hectare Forest Dynamics Plot started on BCI. Although the plot was not founded until 1980, ecological research on the island itself stretches back to the 1920s. Decades of baseline data and protection from development made such an ambitious long-term project possible. In my ongoing book project, I examine the roots of tropical biology and ideas about biodiversity, particularly as shaped by long-term, place-based research such as this.
- The History of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Smithsonian Institution Global Earth Observatories
- Accession 13-025 - Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Research Records, 1981-1983, Smithsonian Institution Archives
This year, the United States team is sending 230 athletes to Sochi, Russia, the most any nation has ever sent to a winter Olympics. Some of the most promising American athletes are the ice dancing team of Meryl Davis and Charlie White. Though traditionally the other divisions of skating are more talked about in the United States, it seems that the Smithsonian has a strong history in the sport.
In the early eighties the Smithsonian had several skate “clubs.” One of the clubs was a competitive group who practiced two to three times a week throughout the year. The group included Lydia Paley, a museum technician in the National Museum of Natural History’s (NMNH) Discovery Room; Bette Walker, a secretary at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden; Martha Goodway, a metallurgist for the Conservation Analytical Lab (now Museum Conservation Institute); Christine Smith, a paper conservator at the National Portrait Gallery; and Gary Sturm, a specialist in the National Museum of American History’s Division of Musical Instruments. For the club, winter practices got much easier when they met at the National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden outdoor rink where the skaters would learn the twenty defined ice dancing routines required by the United States Figure Skating Association. For this group, practice made perfect, and Smith and Strum were awarded the Walter C. Sheen and Sidney Asher trophies Ice Club of Washington for Male and Female Skaters of 1980 for their ice dancing achievements throughout the year.
While some Smithsonian skaters competed, others simply used the activity to clear their mind during the work day. Almost every day during the winter of 1980 a crowd of Smithsonian staff glided over to the rink on the National Mall to take a break and skate up a sweat. One pair, Phyllis Spangler, a Museum Technician for the Medical Entomology Project of the NMNH’s Department of Entomology, and her husband Paul Spangler, an Associate Curator in the NMNH’s Department of Entomology, put their work on ice, and strapped on their skates to perfect a pair’s routine.
The frigid temperatures this year ensure that you’ll have good ice conditions, if you want to take up a new activity, and the National Gallery ice skating rink could not be more convenient. So whether you are a competitor, amateur, or just someone who wants to get into the Olympic spirit, check out the history of the featured sports and you might be surprised how popular they are!
- Record Unit 371 - Smithsonian Institution Office of Public Affairs, The Torch, 1955-1960, 1965-1988, Smithsonian Insttution Archives
Secretary S. Dillion Ripley commissioned Charles Eames to design a structure for the carousel located on the National Mall. The pavilion was intended to protect it from the elements and allow the carousel to be enjoyed year round. Although never realized, Eames did produce a sketch and a model of the structure.
- A Favorite - The Smithsonian Carousel, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
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