in Museum 


Seeing the Big Picture - Interdisciplinary Access to Photographs in Smithsonian Collections, Museums, Archives and Libraries

Niyatee Shinde

Ever since the public introduction of photographic processes in 1839, varying models of describing and classifying photographs and accessing them for research and education have posed problems for historians and scholars. Collected by libraries, archives, and museums since the mid-nineteenth century, regarded variously as scientific tools, faithful witnesses to the past, historical relics, cultural icons, objects of aesthetic veneration suitable for exhibition, mere visual reference works for casual consultation, or the annoying detritus of commerce and personal sentiment, their varying status has challenged theories and practices of description, care, access, and exhibition. From the earliest tentative, provisional steps of the nineteenth century, when collections and archives were built with often confusing and inconsistent guidelines, to the proliferation of photographic collections in public institutions at the beginning of the twenty-first century, seemingly conflicting goals for acquisition and use have introduced growing complexities, burdened by alternately insightful or arcane transformative academic theories about the nature and functions of photography, sometimes accompanied by well-developed tradition and practice.

The founding of collections inevitably shapes photographic practice and thinking. These complexities reflect and result from the multi-faceted nature of the medium itself. At the turn of the millennium, photographs are found in the collections of a wide range of institutions, including corporate and institutional archives, manuscript collections, historical societies, libraries, history museums, and art museums. There are so many models for the formation and servicing of photographic collections that curators, archivists, and librarians of newly formed institutions or photographic departments often have difficulty sifting through the alternatives to find an appropriate paradigm. Some of these collections and institutional models bear philosophical viewpoints with attendant established traditions which seem to preclude some of the popular and cherished practices of the other types of institutions. This occurs in part because institutions make conscious decisions about the type of public they will serve and are less concerned about other audiences which cannot utilize their resources due to lack of readily available information about their holdings, access tools which do not fit the methodologies of the excluded or neglected groups, and other factors. For example, art historians may be unaware of photographic resources in archives which might be of aesthetic interest because these repositories catalog their materials at the group level according to subject content and may not identify individual photographers. Art museums collect and catalog photographs at the item level according to criteria of connoisseurship, aesthetic judgment, and a desire to document the careers and interrelationships of photographers as artists, and do not usually provide access to subject content, even when the photographs have obvious documentary value. Archives collect and catalog photographs at the group level, often failing to provide access to the documentary elements of individual photographs.

The general public and many researchers view the Smithsonian as a single unified institution, when in reality it is composed of independent administrative units, each with its own mandates, mission, and practices. There is a certain degree of collecting overlap within certain areas, as might be expected. Whereas the nineteenth-century core was comparatively rational and neatly divided by discipline in an almost taxonomic fashion, newer additions to the Smithsonian added complexity and occasional overlaps. For example, the Museum of Natural History collected Asian and African artifacts as anthropological and ethnographic specimens. The newer Freer collection also contained Asian artifacts, collected for their aesthetic value rather than as ethnographic objects. Much later, objects in the Museum of African Art tended to replicate some of the African collections in Natural History. The Smithsonian is not unique in having multiple separate repositories for photographs: for example, on its web site, Harvard University notes that it houses daguerreotypes within fourteen administratively separate repositories. Try as they might, neither the Smithsonian nor Harvard can wholly succeed in convincing users that these repositories should always be regarded (or even remembered) as separate without submersion into the corporate identity of the parent organization.

The earliest Smithsonian photographic exhibition and collecting activities occurred in the area of anthropology and ethnography, documenting American Indians and the exploration of the American West. But in the late 1880s the Smithsonian photographer Thomas W. Smillie began acquiring photographs and artifacts related to the history of photography, forming the nucleus of what became, successively, the Section of Photography within the Division of Graphic Arts, then the Division of Photographic History. The latter collection attempted to document all aspects of the history of photography, in terms of technology, art, scientific applications of photography, the social and cultural impact of photography, etc. For decades the Photographic History Collection maintained exhibits on the science and technology of photography, combined with a gallery for exhibitions of photographic art. Original photographs were transferred from the anthropological collections, where copies were retained. Indian daguerreotype portraits from the Bureau of American Ethnology were transferred to curator A.J. Olmstead's collection because the BAE was more interested in images as documents and records than as artifacts and was content with copies of the original daguerreotypes, but Olmstead sought the daguerreotypes as interesting examples of obsolete processes as well as for their aesthetic value.

The daguerreotype of Keokuk, a Sauk chief, functioned alternately as: (a) a record of ethnographic or anthropological significance; (b) an example of obsolete photographic process, documenting the history of photographic technology; (c) a landmark in the career of a notable photographer, Thomas Easterly; and (d) a portrait of a famous American. Its independent aesthetic value as an image is relevant as well. [This daguerreotype has been in the collections of the NAA, then Photographic History, and finally has been on extended loan to the National Portrait Gallery.] In 1976 the National Portrait Gallery began to collect photographs, establishing some competition over photographic portraits with the Photographic History Collection, which had already sponsored a major portrait exhibition in 1969, for which portraits of famous subjects by Arnold Newman had been collected. When the National Museum of American Art began to collect photographs, at about the same time that the Museum of History and Technology became the National Museum of American History, the role of Photographic History as the primary forum for presenting photographic art at the Smithsonian diminished. At the same time the unit's collections of non-American photographs, such as European and Japanese examples, became irrelevant to the Museum's new mandate to document American social and cultural history.

The multiplicity of the photographic collections within the SI can easily be viewed as a mystifying conglomeration of ideas, ideologies and images. However, this multiplicity reflects both the diverse nature of the Smithsonian and the multi-faceted nature of photography itself. This vast repertoire drives a picture researcher down a multipart path. As an intriguing complex of museums the SI will perhaps continue to become even a larger amalgamation; therefore it is essential and challenging to find strategies to simplify and rationalize access. Initially I thought that perhaps a consolidation of all the photographic collections within the SI should be considered. But given the diversity of the SI in the mandates and functions of the various units this does not seem a realistic goal, although the assemblage could become a comprehensive survey of photographic traditions and an important document of photographic process while being recognized as among the greatest strengths of SI holdings.

Multiple types of users want to access photographs within multiple repository schemes and contexts. Photographs are collected and researched for two primary motives: (a) Information (documentary, evidentiary, historical aspect), and (b) aesthetic and entertainment value. But there are multiple documentary motives within some of the same photographs. Within the SI there are many photo collections which are administratively separate. Frequently there is overlap in collecting--the same photograph can be of documentary value in different ways to different repositories. The researcher can appreciate the rationales for separate repositories within an institution, but in the final analysis needs to know how to locate individual images, pertinent to a specific research imperative, efficiently.

Access to images is hampered by:

Conservation problems which deter access because researchers can't handle or view fragile photos
Confusing, poorly defined, and overlapping mission statements of repositories which the researcher cannot decipher    Repositories which collect materials which don't fit their mission statements
Units which compete for the same photographs, resulting in collections defined as much by personal, political, and territorial considerations as rational judgments.

Besides curators are largely, but not exclusively, driven by the internal logic of their collections. Repositories sometimes overrate or underrate the significance of their own photographs. Files of surrogate and copy photographs confuse the user about ownership rights. E.g., Curators from the Museum of Modern Art working on their "Fame" exhibition  wasted time looking at the Political History file of copy photographs from the Library of Congress while they sought to locate and borrow originals.

Sometimes photographic "collections" are merely informational files documenting artifacts in collections held by external repositories, analogous to published, illustrated catalogs, despite their undisputed research value. At the opposite extreme, repositories hold original photographs and don't realize their significance, consigning rare or valuable images such as daguerreotypes to files of reference images, intermixed with second-generation copy prints, undocumented and effectively hidden. Smithsonian photographic collections began with the 1869 exhibition of the Native American Delegation. The portraits, nearly 400 images, were displayed at the SI Gallery and were assembled from various sources and acquired primarily for their anthropological content. Today about 39 are in the Photographic History Collection, the rest remaining in NAA. Photographic images, primarily in the form of conventional flat objects, represent easy storage, and therefore easy access. However, albums and other unconventional forms and formats often complicate both storage schemes and exhibition design. In larger terms, inconvenient storage hampers access. The impending move of the entire Anthropological Archives to an offsite location, for example, clearly complicates access, making the collections unavailable during the relocation, and inconveniencing staff and researchers afterward. Most research disciplines eventually end up collecting photographs, in the form of both originals and copies, a natural consequence of documenting a particular discipline; e.g., photographs in the mechanical and civil engineering collections. Also, in the Photographic History Collections are objects that could logically be found in other collections, depending on collecting emphasis. The textiles collection has objects that include photographs, not to mention historic photographs documenting textile production and costume history. Photographs on textiles and on ceramic objects can be found in Photo History. To demonstrate the ubiquity of photograph imagery and specific technologies, photographs decorating ceramic and other three-dimensional objects were collected. I began by looking into the methodologies, practice and policies for collections and acquisitions & their presence in the diverse repositories.

It soon became clear that access to images was hampered by:

1.   The de-centralized nature of the SI and its emphasis on the individual identity of museums and repositories.

2.    The absence of a centralized, composite database

3.    The idiosyncratic psychology and priorities of both curators and researchers.

4.    The movement of objects from one storage location to another; changing locations meant change in contexts, greatly challenging institutional memory.

5.    Changes in administrative units and frequent re-organization, such as the transfer of the Photographic History Collection     from  the dept. of the History of Science & Technology to the dept. of Social & Cultural History, and now since 1994 its identity within the Div. of Information, Technology & Society, reflecting a larger view that encompasses electronic imaging and digital media.

In collecting photography, the SI has followed a circuitous route: Photography was initially a documentary tool, and then through complex changes is now collected and interpreted for its own right; as document of social history, proof of technical innovation, and later aesthetic values. Is there a holistic framework for interpretative interactions that involves the scientific, aesthetic, and cultural aspects of the collections? Because among other complexities inherent in the presence of photography in the SI is its overlap with popular culture. NMAH curator David Allison in the past has suggested that it would be possible to integrate NMAH collections catalogued in the Multi-Mimsy system with those in SIRIS through simultaneous cross-platform searching; this sounds good, but it is not yet clear whether this is a realistic expectation or a technological dream. The scale & heterogeneity of the SI collections provide a challenge for ensuring ongoing access. The documentation process should not just be limited to record and extraction of data immediately observed in the image, rather seek to collect any information that places the image in context both before and after its acquisition by a museum. Therefore perhaps it can be said that the cataloguing process is never exactly finished. What must be added to this is the record of the object's participation in exhibitions, publications, academic research, interventions for restoration, and monitoring the state of conservation.

The publication of Diane Vogt-O'Connor's Guides to Photographs in the SI was an ambitious project which resulted from years of discussion and planning for a comprehensive guide to Smithsonian photographic collections. It sought to integrate into one multi-volume publication a detailed overview of all types of photographs housed in Smithsonian units. It identified separate repositories and sought to provide contact information with staff names and phone numbers, a feature which represented both a strength and a weakness, the latter because there was no provision for keeping such contact information current. Published in 1986-1987, it is already in need of major expansion and updating. The biggest disappointment with the project was the failure to produce SIRIS database entries corresponding to the "collection" descriptions in the published volumes, as originally intended. The SIRIS entry aspect of the project had to be abandoned because the software then in use made data entry slow and cumbersome. Quite simply, each database field (in the MARC format) had to be accessed and filled in individually; full-screen text editing was not yet available. Now SIRIS uses the Horizon system, which operates within Windows, enabling the cataloguer to directly enter data more rapidly, as well as to copy, cut, and paste text from word processing documents and other SIRIS entries. Users of the Smithsonian Libraries catalog are familiar with searching for books and other library materials in the SIRIS Webpac, but many may not have noticed that the accompanying Archives and Manuscripts database contains entries for archival records at the collection-, series-, and item-level. The Archives Center alone has contributed nearly 40,000 item-level records to this database, which are available to researchers on the World Wide Web, anywhere in the world. Unfortunately, as I have said, collection-level records corresponding to the Vogt- O'Connor guide entries are not available on SIRIS. The guidebooks as they stand contain certain other deficiencies and problems. Some sections and descriptions are misleading because they don't clearly differentiate primary photographic collections from research materials, interfiled in curatorial reference file cabinets, as well as administrative and registrarial files containing photographs of museum collection artifacts, and copies of photographs from non-Smithsonian collections. There are sometimes problems of balance which can confuse the users of the guides, as well as occasional inaccuracies which may have resulted from misinterpretation of raw survey data. A notable omission from the NMAH guide is any mention of the massive Science Service file of photographs and press releases, which was acquired by NMAH in the 1960s and was immediately dispersed among various curatorial units within NMAH and beyond, largely because there was no logical repository equipped to contain and administer the entire collection. Portions were distributed to the National Portrait Gallery and NMNH, while a large component was split up among the various NMAH curatorial units.  Despite the enormous cultural and informational value of these photographs, which document scientific and technological advances in a great many disparate fields, they are not described in the Guide.  Some years ago, the Archives Center attempted to consolidate the Science Service photographs and related publicity releases held by the various curatorial units into one integrated collection, but eventually realized that insufficient storage space made the attempt futile, and transferred the few groups which it had already acquired to the Smithsonian Institution Archives. 

If the SI Archives' mandate is to collect records of the Institution's history per se, these Science Service papers and photographs, representing the files of a news service, seem somewhat out of place, thereby confusing the researcher.  Meanwhile, other Science Service materials remain distributed throughout NMAH and elsewhere, largely uncatalogued, and accessible only in piecemeal fashion.  These photographs just a few years ago were mined for a fascinating exhibition, "Science Projects," displayed at both the International Center of Photography in New York and at NMAH, reviving interest in this rich collection.

We now have several new initiatives intended to improve access to photographs in the SI. The SI Archives and Special Collections Council is sponsoring a committee which is formulating generic standards for the description of photographs which it is hoped will be adopted by both the archival units and eventually in some form by curatorial units which collect photographs as aesthetic artifacts.  Standardized description and format will go a long way toward improving intellectual access to images, although enforcement and implementation are another story.  While photographs are scattered throughout the institution within a great many administratively and physically separate locations, information about these photographs is also to be found in physically and electronically separate databases, including several integrated databases such as SIRIS, Multi-Mimsy, and TMS, which nevertheless are not integrated with each other, as well as stand-alone PC databases in Access, Filemaker Pro, and other programs, card files, finding aids, and inventories, accessible only through personal on-site visits by the researcher.  The researcher often has a daunting task locating the right database or card file, not to mention the proper administrative or curatorial unit.  Often a thorough acquaintance with the structure and internal logic of the Smithsonian is required to locate the appropriate Smithsonian unit, curator, archivist, database, or card file, requiring a study of the Vogt-O'Connor guides, Research Opportunities bulletins, and even the Smithsonian staff directory.  Researchers often report frustrating telephone encounters, frequent transfers from one unit to another, before honing in on the knowledgeable staff member who can help them.  It has been said that those who do not receive such phone calls do not recognize this situation or the magnitude of the problem.

Another problem is that each repository emphasizes or records only its own basic layer of information, which is intended to provide focused access to themselves and users. However, this constitutes a somewhat myopic view.  For example, in art museums the first layer is the artist, usually provided in an alphabetical listing.  In archives the first layer is general subject (break-down of fields of study).  Each repository has its own assessment of what layer is important.  To provide multiple-access potential, repositories should be encouraged to supply additional layers of information about the photographs which will be useful to other repositories and their audience. One solution to consider would be a dictator to set directives or have various units get better acquainted with their own and others' photographs.

 My ongoing personal research in photography, which I have used as a test case in consulting Smithsonian and other collections involves, not surprisingly, photographs of India.  The Smithsonian has many photographs made in India, including even a number in the National Museum of American History (in the Archives Center's Underwood & Underwood stereographs.  The very name of the museum tends to obscure the fact that this museum houses many artifacts and photographs which have no particular relevance to American history, and it might not occur to many researchers to inquire about non-American materials there.  It seems rather curious that the very name of a museum should be allowed to conceal its holdings.

Regarding my research in India -
The camera arrived in India soon after its invention as a part of the colonial arsenal, as a means of documenting the land and the "natives"--another weapon to stake control. It was introduced first in the army through British soldiers who were instructed to document the topography. Later the engineers and draftsmen at the Archaeological Survey were urged to use the camera. Lala Deen Dayal, born 1844, was introduced to the camera at the age of nineteen while studying at the Thomason College of Civil Engineering. By the 1870s he had established his fame as a photography and by sheer fortitude and good fortune had string of benefactors who enabled him to pursue his skills as a photographer. He has left behind a treasure trove of images that describe and depict many worlds, from princely India to the British world. At a time when the image making world of the miniaturists was being threatened with the camera he replaced the court painter and became among the first court photographers to the Nizam, whose life, life-style, eccentricities, and idiosyncrasies he detailed for posterity. 

When I  first arrived in Washington in March, I immediately went to the Sackler Gallery to view its exhibition of Indian photographs, catching it just before its closing date.  The following slides were copied from the exhibition catalog.  At the Smithsonian I was delighted to find that wonderful Deen Dayal photographs were in the collections of both the Sackler Gallery as well as in the National Anthropological Archives. I wonder if anyone else is hiding Deen Dayal photographs?

Smithsonian collections are rich in materials pertinent to the history of photography within obscure or less than obvious contexts.  To indicate the role of serendipity in research I include examples of references to daguerreotypes in lithographs which illustrate 19th-century sheet music in the Sam De Vincent Collection of Illustrated American Sheet Music, housed in the NMAH Archives Center. E.g.

1.  A lithograph illustrating a song popularized by the "Gibson Troupe".  The imprint under the illustration identifies it as being "from a daguerreotypes by Lovering & Davis."  This sheet music was published in 1843!

2.  A lithographic cover for a song used by a group called the Harmoneons.  It is based on a daguerreotype by Litch & Wipple [sic] and was published in 1846 showing the daguerreotypist credit.

Even if the original daguerreotypes are no longer extant, or perhaps especially if they're not, these illustrations provide evidence of their existence.  These slides correlate with an ongoing methodology of the Archives Center, to provide item-level access to images in a selective, usage-driven manner.  The creation of these slides for this talk occasioned the production of database records to document the images.  Due to the magnitude of the De Vincent Collection, there may never be a full item-level catalogue of these song sheets, yet the new database records will ensure that these pictures and information about them will be accessible after this presentation is just a faded memory for those of you assembled here.  Earlier this week these images were located and photographed, their SIRIS records created, and were immediately accessible on the World Wide Web.  These contain descriptions of the sheet music and lithographs, their derivation from daguerreotypes, and their location within the De Vincent Collection.  Later, electronic image files will be linked to the records and will be displayed with them in the Webpac.  The DeVincent Collection archival finding aid with its group-level container list will also be accessible on the Archives Center's web pages, but it cannot list such materials at the item level.

The SIRIS item-level records are selective, but they enhance access to items of particular interest as researchers identify them.  The records, constituting a tiny fraction of the De Vincent Collection, protect the time invested by the original researcher so that they can be accessed by others.  This usage-driven method of selective cataloguing ensures a gradually increasing fount of item-level information, even for archives which normally cannot catalogue individual images due to the magnitude of their holdings, and seems like a useful model.  It requires the establishment of a careful routine and follow-through, but it will pay dividends to researchers who can be alerted to the potential for further serendipity, and will save staff time in retrieving items previously selected for reproduction or exhibition.  Despite the zeal to maintain and protect contextual information, images are, after all, experienced individually.

In 1984 there was serious discussion about incorporating the George Eastman House collection into NMAH--which would have been a third major photo collection within the same museum--what impact would that have had?  The plan was to keep the Eastman House collections separate from the existing NMAH photographic collections.  How much confusion would that have generated?  As tempting as it might be to have all SI collections consolidated within one repository, this is unlikely to happen cause need a new building & that might force.  The SI approach to photos is going to remain complex, reflecting the complexity of the collections, the SI itself, and the needs of users.  But it  would be a good idea to hold the line in establishing new repositories.

One suggestion for providing an overview of Smithsonian photographic collections in a Web site dedicated to photography in the SI. It would be a knowledge-sharing initiative with item-level descriptions, ideally identifying overlaps within the SI and institutions like the Library of Congress.  It would include as many digitized images as possible, also photographs in albums & books.  It should have standard subject terms, cross-references, and links to other SI sites.

Before I conclude I wish to thank the those I interacted with at the Smithsonian, specially at the National Museum of American History for all their unstinted assistance. My special indebted gratitude to Nancy Fuller at the Center for Museum Studies for all her support and to David Haberstich, Archives Center, NMAH who made so much possible and with whose guidance and encouragement I could do so much more.

Thank you.  


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