The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
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On August 15, 1914, the cargo ship S.S. Ancon made the first official transit of the Panama Canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. The Ancon rose through the locks to Gatun Lake and then on through the Culebra Cut to the Pacific. Although a great celebration had been planned, the outbreak of war in Europe that same month made this first crossing a quiet and austere affair.
The Panama Canal was not just a great engineering feat or major event in the history of world commerce, it was also a major environmental disruption – potentially mixing the waters of the two oceans, allowing species to invade new regions, creating new lakes and waterways, and destroying human and natural environments. Panamanians were resettled from the Canal Zone, forests were felled as regions were flooded to create the canal watershed, and massive campaigns to destroy insect life were launched to limit the spread of insect-borne diseases.
Smithsonian naturalists at the U. S. National Museum (now the National Museum of Natural History), government scientists, and many of their colleagues at museums and colleges across the United States were concerned about the environmental impact of the canal construction. Thus the Smithsonian led the Biological Survey of the Panama Canal Zone from 1910 to 1912, to establish a baseline of what animals and plants were native to the region and to document environmental conditions, such as weather, soil types, etc. To secure funds for the survey, they turned to an old friend of the Smithsonian, President Teddy Roosevelt, who had started donating natural history specimens when he was a boy, had supported the construction of a new National Museum building, now known as the Natural History Museum, and encouraged the Smithsonian to acquire the Freer Gallery of Art. Roosevelt laid the groundwork for U. S. federal government support, although he had left office by the time the survey began. With federal and private funding, from 1910 to 1914, North American naturalists surveyed the natural world and collected specimens for the National Museum.
Although the original plan was to survey the Canal Zone, naturalists soon realized they needed to survey the entire region to determine the geographic distribution of plants and animals. Field naturalists such as Edward A. Goldman of the Bureau of Biological Survey and Albert S. Hitchcock of the Smithsonian’s National Museum explored swamps, cloud forests, bat-filled caves, arid mountainsides, rural farmlands – all of the diverse environments they found in the small nation. The explorers carefully documented the specimens they collected, noting soil conditions, the plants and animals a particular species interacted with, and the geographic range and density of populations. They began regular monitoring of weather and other physical conditions, a program that continues today.
When the Canal opened in August of 1914, the Smithsonian had created a baseline of written information and biological specimens that could be studied to determine the effects of this massive engineering project. Indeed, as the survey ended, the consortium of museums, colleges and research labs agreed to establish a permanent research station so they could continue to observe and learn from the changing dynamics of the region. They selected Barro Colorado Island, a small island that had been a mountaintop before the region had been flooded to create Gatun Lake. They watched as majestic trees turned into waterlogged stumps and large mammals disappeared from the new small island. At the close of World War II, the Barro Colorado Island laboratory was transferred to the Smithsonian’s aegis, known today as the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. As the large new locks are constructed today, once again STRI scientists are monitoring changes and conducting salvage field work as the excavations reveal evidence of ancient human, animal, and plant life.
- "1910-1912 Exploration of Panama," Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, Biodiversity Heritage Library
- 150 Years of Smithsonian Research in Latin America, online exhibition, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- 1910-1912 Biological Survey of the Panama Canal Zone, National Museum of Natural History
The Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, is the only museum in the nation devoted exclusively to historic and contemporary design. Originally established in 1896 as the Cooper Union Museum for the Arts of Decoration, the museum was formally transferred to the Smithsonian on July 1, 1968. The museum was renamed the Copper-Hewitt Museum of Design at the time of transfer, but was later known as the Cooper-Hewitt Museum of Decorative Arts and Design in 1969 and then in 1994 it became the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, with its current name being adopted in 2014.
The museum moved into its present home, the Carnegie Mansion in 1970, which was renovated and reopened to the public in 1976. Closed for renovations since 2011, the redesigned museum will open to the public on December 12, 2014.
- Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum history, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum collections
- Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum records, Smithsonian Institution Archives
As a volunteer in the Digital Services Division of the Archives, I have the pleasure of digitizing archival materials ranging from field notes to videos. Not long ago, I digitized almost an hour and a half of unedited video of the 1940 Smithsonian-Firestone Expedition to Liberia. At the time, I didn’t know much about the expedition but I was intrigued by what I saw - Liberian towns, dense jungle, and exotic animals.
Having just returned from a trip to South America, National Zoological Park Director, Dr. William Mann, led an expedition to Liberia to obtain animals for the zoo in Washington, D.C. He sought several rare species including the pygmy hippopotamus, potto, okapi, and Jentik’s duiker, among others.
As the newly digitized video shows, the Manns travelled luxuriously in Liberia with an entourage of guides and assistants and they were treated to special receptions in several villages. Often, the Manns were carried in hammocks as they travelled. More information on the journey wasn’t hard to find thanks to Lucile Quarry Mann’s travel notes, which are housed here at the Archives. Lucile, the wife and frequent travel companion of Dr. Mann, left descriptive accounts of the people, places, and things that she and her husband saw while searching for animals and insects in Liberia.
Along with overseeing the addition of several animal enclosures, Dr. Mann’s specimen collecting left a lasting mark on the National Zoo. Knowing that collecting wild animals can be a very difficult task for a small party, the expedition leaders offered a reward to villagers who could capture and bring in live animals. The plan worked; Lucile wrote “as we retraced our steps, we found that in almost every village . . . one or two small animals were waiting for us.”
Though the Manns were known for raising baby animals in their Washington, D.C. apartment, Lucile’s account largely leaves out the time that she and her husband spent with animals in Liberia. Fortunately, the expedition video captures what Lucile chose not to dwell on in her writing. But, with a growing collection of animals as the expedition travelled through Liberia, we see her feeding and playing with a number of different animals they collected including chimpanzees, hornbills, and a baby pygmy hippo.
This newly digitized footage preserves both the institutional history of specimen collecting expeditions, but also the personalities of two of the National Zoo’s greatest proponents.
Check out the video below to see clips of William and Lucile Mann in Liberia.
- A World Apart: Smithsonian Expeditions to Alaska and Liberia, Field Book blog, Field Book Project, Smithsonian Institution Archives and National Museum of Natural History
- A Life on the Wild Side: Lucile Quarry Mann, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Record Unit 7293 - William M. Mann and Lucile Quarry Mann Papers, circa 1885-1981, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- William M. Mann related materials at the Smithsonian Institution Archives
Have you ever come across a photograph of an event which appears to be a unique and memorable experience, but which isn’t found in any of your record books? Here at the Archives we process a great number of images which lend themselves easily to research and investigation, but every so often we are just plain stumped. Here’s our latest case:
This photograph was taken by Ruel P.Tolman, former Director of Smithsonian National Collection of Fine Arts [now the Smithsonian American Art Museum], and is included in a scrapbook of photographs of Smithsonian staff, grounds and buildings, exhibitions, and Washington D.C. scenes. We’ve asked for your help identifying individuals in Tolman’s scrapbooks before, and now we’re coming to you for help identifying this event.
This is a photograph of a pressurized gondola sitting on display in the streets of D.C. (we don’t know exactly where, but we would like to!). This gondola appears to be one of the two Explorer vessels operated by the National Geographic Society and the U.S. Army Air Corps. These gondolas were used to study radiation and cosmic rays in the atmosphere at altitudes of 50,000 to 63,000 feet. Auguste Piccard launched the first study using a pressurized aluminum gondola in 1931, and by 1936 the Army Air Corps had developed and launched stratosphere expeditions, Explorer on July 27, 1934 and Explorer II on November 11, 1935.
On the body of the vessel, we can see a partial marking of ‘PHIC SOCIETY,’ which in full probably read ‘NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC SOCIETY.’ In the photo directly below this marking is an illustrated panel which appears to depict the vessel in use, hanging on long lead lines which would have been attached to a gigantic balloon. There are two other photographs on this page of Tolman’s scrapbook. They are both of the interior of Constitution Hall, owned and operated by the Daughters of the American Revolution. Pencil inscriptions in the full scrapbook page read "Lincoln Ellsworth Lecture April 15, 1936" and "National Geographic."
On April 15, 1936, the Antarctic explorer Lincoln Ellsworth was awarded the National Geographic Hubbard Medal, presented by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Following the presentation of the medal, Ellsworth delivered a lecture on April 15, 1936 in Constitution Hall. The content of the lecture was published under Ellsworth’s name as "My Flight Across the Antarctic," in the July 1936 issue of National Geographic Magazine.
The thing of it is, Lincoln Ellsworth explored the Antarctic by plane, not by balloon. In his 1939 account, “My Four Antarctic Expeditions,” Ellsworth makes no mention of experience with either of these gondolas. So what’s the connection?
Here are the questions you can help us with in uncovering the context of the photo:
Do you (or someone you know) remember an exhibition of either Explorer or Explorer II in Washington? Does this street look familiar to you? Locations can tell us a lot about an event.
Thank you for any help you provide and we wish you the best of luck in solving this mystery!
- Ruel P. Tolman’s Images: Who Are You?, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Record Unit 7433 - Ruel P. Tolman Collection, 1909-1964, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- National Geographic Society Hubbard Medal - Lincoln Ellsworth medal, National Air and Space Museum
- LTA, Balloons, USA, "Explorer II" (Nov 1935); Stevens, Albert William (Capt); Anderson, Orvil A. (Lt), by Rise Studio photographer, 1935, Archives Division, National Air and Space Museum
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