The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Conservation
In the late 1800s, Smithsonian ornithologist Robert Ridgway sat at his desk, surrounded by watercolors, papers, pens, crayons, and dead birds, carefully preparing the illustrations that would make it into the seminal multivolume History of North American Birds: Land Birds and its companion The Water Birds of North America: Memoirs of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard College
Ridgway spent countless hours bent over his drawings, agonizing over how to most realistically portray the birds. It was no easy feat trying to illustrate a waterfowl in the plushest, deepest shade of blue so that it exactly resembled the specimen on his desk or perfectly capture the subtle hue of a crow’s glossy black sheen. But Ridgway succeeded! And over a century later, his bird drawings are still life like, with colors so bright, feathers glistening and eyes shining, that it is hard not to be mesmerized by their brilliance. In fact, he was so meticulous with his colors and color theory that he spent years experimenting with pigments to create a color dictionary, testing for colors that would not fade over time. Which is why it was so very peculiar to stumble upon a few strange Ridgway illustrations with almost haunting, mysterious shadows obscuring the painstakingly colored birds…
You see, recently, I had the privilege of conserving a set of these beautiful and richly drawn bird illustrations in preparation for a rapid capture digitization project. This meant carefully mending tears and flattening folded corners so that the illustrations could be safely handled and photographed. But about half way through the treatments, I came across something unusual: a mysterious shadow covering some of the birds. Whatever, I wondered, could have happened to these particular illustrations? And stranger still, while some shadows were composed of sharp and defined lines, other shadows were more relaxed and loose, creating soft, abstract shapes over top of the birds.
Thinking it might be discoloration from mercury, we set about testing the darkened shadowy areas with X-ray diffraction technology at the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute (MCI) “open lab day”, but alas, this revealed nothing. Aside from slightly elevated levels of Ca (calcium) and Fe (iron) on the image, there appeared to be no discernible elemental difference between the background and the dark area of interest. Confusing us further, the darkened areas did not come off with mechanical cleaning, nor have they rubbed off on the papers lying over top of them for decades.
Perhaps you can help us figure out what happened to them. To assist you, here are a few background details and a slideshow of some of the shadowy illustrations. Ridgway’s illustrations were often re-engraved, electroplated, and hand colored, as detailed in Daniel Lewis’s wonderful biography of Ridgway The Feathery Tribe: Robert Ridgway and the Modern Study of Birds. While Ridgway drew birds on various types and sizes of paper, the “shadows” only appear on birds illustrated on lined notecards, some of which have the shadows only on the back. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Ridgway was also experimenting with color fastness and dye stability, testing the fading of hundreds of different types of pigments in order to standardize the color nomenclature of birds and produce a color dictionary. Do these markings have anything to do with his experimenting with color stability?
Or perhaps it occurred during the printing process? Ridgway’s son was an amateur photographer and often assisted his father. Did he experiment on these illustrations? Maybe these particular illustrations were discarded copies that Ridgway used as scrap paper . . . but what are the shadows? Any ideas are welcome!
- Meet Robert Ridgway - Ornithologist and Artist, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Rapidly Capturing Ridgway, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Record Unit 7167 - Robert Ridgway Papers, circa 1850s-1919, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- True history with a little dramatization thrown in: Abraham Lincoln, Thaddeus S. C. Lowe, and the Union Army's balloon corps in comic book form. [via AirSpace blog, National Air and Space Museum]
- In honor of Chinese New Year, which for 2014 is the year of the Horse, the Archives of American Art highlights some equine materials from their collections. [via Smithsonian Collections Blog]
- Getting an intimate look - British World War I diaries are being digitized and made available online. [via Parallels blog, NPR]
- Where were you when I was a undergraduate studying art history? The Getty has made available over 250 artbooks for free download from their virtual library. [via The Getty Iris]
- Coming soon, in March the National Air and Space Museum will be displaying its latest restored aircraft, a "Battling Beast," the Curstiss SB2C-5 Helldiver. [via AirSpace blog, National Air and Space Museum]
- A new tool to promote reading is available from the Library of Congress, "Readers to the Rescue" is an interactive game where readers are asked to help save book characters. [via InfoDocket]
- Currently in production is the first feature-length animated film made only through hand-painted canvases, Loving Vincent, explores the life of Vincent Van Gogh. [via Colossal]
- 10 years and still going strong! The National Air and Space Museum's exhibition: Spirit & Opportunity: 10 Years Roving Across Mars explores the efforts of the Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. [via AirSpace, NASM]
- Looking to learn something new? Check out the Smithsonian Institution Libraries new offerings at iTunesU. [via InfoDocket]
- As you are warming up from the weeks freezing temperatures, the Smithsonian's gardens have an abundance of plants and trees to explore. [via Smithsonian Gardens blog]
- Keeping it alive, the unique needs of born digital scholarship. [via The Chronicle of Higher Education]
- Update . . . 4 years after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, many helping hands have made a huge impact to save and conserve Haitian artifacts and artworks. [via Around the Mall, Smithsonian Magazine]
- Ancient ancestors come to life through paleoartist John Gurche's realistic human likenesses for the National Museum of Natural History’s Hall of Human Origins. [via Smithsonian Science]
There they were, tucked between the pages of a catalog of Alaskan bird skins, and eggs by Edward William Nelson , but . . . what were they? They certainly didn’t look like they belonged to a bird. About five inches long, wavy and coarse, with brown and white banding, the mystery hairs presented themselves as a question and an opportunity. Being a pre-program conservation intern at the Smithsonian Institution Archives on the Field Book Project has been such a pleasure and the path to discovering the answer to this hairy problem is exactly the kind of thing I love about working with cultural heritage items.
Just looking at the hairs with an unaided eye, my first guess was that they were the guard hairs of a porcupine. The first step to find out if I was right was to head to the microscope. Working first with a stereo microscope and then with a polarized light microscope, I set to work learning more about the hairs. The animated GIF below illustrates how polarized light microscopy works (click on the picture below to see it). As the microscope stage is turned, the hairs change appearance. When viewed through a transmitted light analyzer (a type of filter,) the polarized light allows us to observe different features based on how light is refracted or transmitted through structures differently. The first image in the GIF is the hair under unfiltered polarized light.
The microscopy yielded lots of important information, for instance you can see the striations and the empty space known as the medulla, rather than a central shaft. Along with the scale pattern, this verified that these were not feathers. The particular scale and medulla patterns seen above, when compared to a known example indicated that it wasn’t quite a porcupine. On to the next guess. A deer, perhaps? Nope! The unique ribs on the hairs meant it probably couldn’t be a deer, despite a lot of similarities. What other animals were there in Alaska that might have this type of hair structure?
I was officially stumped, so I turned to the experts. Luckily, being an intern with the Smithsonian has its perks and the experts were right across the National Mall at the National Museum of Natural History. I met with Suzanne Peurach, a Collection Manager on the U. S. Geological Survey staff (a descendent of the same organization Edward William Nelson worked for), in the Division of Mammals. In no time, she and her colleague, Al Gardner, deduced that it was not in fact a deer hair, nor was it that of a porcupine. It turns out I had been looking at animals in the wrong part of the world. Edward William Nelson didn’t just spend time in Alaska, though the book I was working with detailed an Alaskan collection. For nearly a decade, Nelson was a field researcher in Mexico. It was here that he would have picked up the two hairs which had spent so much time puzzling me, not in the cold of Alaska. The hairs turned out to be those of a javelina, a.k.a. collared peccary! Using existing slides to compare, Suzanne found the same ribs that I couldn’t find in any other specimen I had looked at. Furthermore, she pointed to a clue I had not even seen (that’s why she’s the expert). The split ends of the hair, which I had not thought of as special, were the key indicator that it belonged to a member of the family Tayassuidae, which includes the javelina.
As I said, being a conservation intern at the Smithsonian Archives has been a wonderful experience, and the best part of it by far is the opportunity to meet and work with the people who make up the staff and volunteer corps of the Smithsonian. Microscopy had given me a lot of clues, but it was the access to and the spirit of collaboration among experts at the Smithsonian that ultimately guided me to the answer of the mystery hairs.
- Record Unit 7364 - Edward William Nelson and Edward Alphonso Goldman Collection, circa 1873-1946 and undated, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Accession 12-320 - Edward William Nelson Field Notes, 1869-1886, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- 1 of 31
- next ›