A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Archives

With a title like that, I’m sure you know what this week’s post is about.

I felt a little like Captain Ahab in Moby Dick (which has just been added to my spring-break reading list!) looking for this “Elusive Whaleman” of two weeks ago. I didn’t have much to go on, other than the photographer (Thomas Smilie,) the location (New Bedford,) and a purpose (the International Fisheries Exhibition.)

Searching through archives is a complicated process anyway, so attempting to start at one of (if not the) largest archives was probably not the best idea. But if anything, I’m living up to my nickname (Quad-E: The fourth E is for extreme.)

The Smithsonian Archives certainly don’t look intimidating –the website is fairly user-friendly, and they provide lots of information depending on the audience. For researchers, they provide finding aids, digital media, and even an FAQ page for people like me, who have no idea what they’re doing. What I really appreciated were the explanation pages – talking about the various staff positions and how each team contributes to the archives in a different way.

One of the pages I took most interest in was “Survey the Archives’ most frequently used collections.” Of course I was curious – what kind of research did people look for from the Smithsonian? Perhaps obvious (though it didn’t quite come to me that way), but most the frequently used special collections were not artifacts from other places, but artifacts about the Smithsonian itself. One of the more interesting records was the Smithsonian Oral History Collection. According to the website, “Since 1973, the Archives’ Oral History Program has conducted interviews with current and retired Smithsonian staff, and others who have made significant contributions to the Institution. The purpose of the program is to supplement the written documentation of the Archives’ records and manuscript collections, focusing on the history of the Institution.” It seemed like a bit meta – an archive taking archives about itself – but it’s certainly cool to think about.

Luckily, the record I am looking for happened to the list – Records Unit 95, Photograph Collection, 1850s. This record compiles a lot about the early history of the Smithsonian. Divided into 10 series, it consists of photographs of people, places, things, and events of the Institution. Interestingly enough, it’s also one of the most digitized collections – if you look here on Flickr, you can see some of Smilie’s work from this collection. And I did look through it – lots of Smilie’s work shows up, whether they are part of exhibits or simply pictures of buildings. But here’s the important part – one of those series is entitled “Expositions” – photos of expositions in which the Smithsonian (and museums) took part. Though it’s not confirmed, the photo Smilie took of the Kanaka whaleman should be in that file, as it was part of the 1883 London International Fisheries Exhibition.

So that’s the next step: delving into Records Unit 95. I’m really excited to see if anything turns up from this search – and I’m really glad that I got a chance to navigate through the confusion that is collection and searches. The thing I love about history is that the more time you put into your research, the more information and knowledge comes out. Not only did I figure out a little bit more about the Smithsonian, but I learned the valuable skill of maneuvering through these records (something I hope I will be able to put to good use.)

Keep your fingers crossed – I have a hunch that the Elusive Whaleman will appear soon 🙂

revision history for this page