Category Archives: From the Archives

On Ernst Herzfeld’s Glass Plate Negatives

al-Darwishiya mosque, courtesy of Freer|Sackler Archives

London native Rohan Ayinde Smith is currently an intern in the Freer|Sackler Archives. About to enter his junior year at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Rohan is studying journalism with a specialization in photojournalism and minors in African studies and creative writing. This is the first in a series of blog posts Rohan will write on his work in the Archives. Here, he takes a look at the glass plate negatives of Ernst Herzfeld (1879–1948), a foremost scholar in the field of Iranian studies.

Ernst Herzfeld explored Near Eastern culture from the prehistoric period to Islamic times. The collection of his papers in the Freer|Sackler Archives primarily relates to his survey of the monuments, artifacts, and inscriptions of Western Asia between 1903 and 1947, and particularly to his excavations at Istakhr (Iran), Paikuli (Iraq), Pasargadae (Iran), Persepolis (Iran), Samarra (Iraq) and Kuh-e Khwaja (Iran). 

A collection of nearly 3,800 glass plate negatives adds another dimension to the Herzfeld collection, providing further evidence of the work he was doing. It also more extensively highlights Herzfeld’s intricate documenting process, which Xavier Courouble (cataloguer) and David Hogge (director of the Archives) uncovered while cataloguing the plethora of items that make up the Ernst Herzfeld Papers.

Indeed, Herzfeld’s mind seemed to work like a modern-day computer in terms of the delicacy and precision with which he documented different facets of his work. He had a journal for each excavation, in which he systematically noted each find, giving it an inventory number and listing the different ways in which he documented it. As such, it is possible to use these journals to find the ways that Herzfeld dealt with the subject at hand—from coordinates on a map of where an object was found to the diary in which he would intricately sketch that object.

Al-Darwishiya drawing

al-Darwishiya drawing, courtesy of Freer|Sackler Archives

Aside from the importance of these images to the Herzfeld collection, there is a lot to be learned from the idea of photography in the archaeological process. When we look at Herzfeld’s photographs of Persepolis, Samarra, and numerous other sites, we are viewing a historical record of each place. We are being transported back into the early twentieth century, to a time when the study of the Near East was relatively new and in which Herzfeld can be understood as one of the early pioneers.

For Herzfeld, these photographs were functional, used to augment his archaeological research. However, with time they have become much more. For scholars, archivists, archaeologists, and the general public alike, the images are artistic remnants or artifacts in their own right. For Herzfeld, who was working at these sites, they were images of his present—imperative studies for his reconstruction of the past. Nearly one hundred years on, many places he photographed have worn away with time. These photographs preserve the sites for the ages.

Herzfeld’s glass plate negatives have been transferred onto film and scanned, and now can be viewed online. To begin a search, visit the Smithsonian collections page and type “Herzfeld GN” into the search box. This will bring up the nearly 3,800 images. You can then narrow your search by entering a specific location. For instance, I entered “Hims (Syria),” which enabled me to see all of the images for this location. I became particularly interested in the al-Darwishiya Mosque and wanted to learn more. In the search box I deleted the “GN” marker and typed “al-Darwishiya Mosque,” which brought me to all relevant materials collected by Herzfeld for this site, including the glass plate negatives.

Learn more about Ernst Herzfeld on the Smithsonian Collections Blog.

Squeezing is Believing


Detail of cuneiform squeeze. Ernst Herzfeld papers, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives.

Larry DeVore is a retired lawyer who became a docent at Freer|Sackler twenty years ago. Shortly thereafter, he began volunteering in the Department of Conservation and Scientific Research. For the last fourteen years he has been working with our paper conservators, first Martha Smith and now Emily Jacobson. He has been involved in many different projects, including the repair of a collection of “squeezes.”  

A squeeze is a paper cast of an inscription or picture that has been incised on an outdoor monument or building. In this way the inscription, which could become eroded or destroyed over time and cannot be moved to another location, can be preserved. Large sheets of wet paper are pounded into the recesses of the inscribed surface and once the wet paper dries it is peeled off the surface.

The F|S Archives was given more than three hundred squeezes by Ernst Herzfeld, an archaeologist who worked in a number of Middle Eastern countries, including Iran, during the 1920s and 1930s. Over time many of the squeezes, of cuneiform inscriptions from sites such as Persepolis, had suffered damages. There were tears in a number of different places, the cuneiform was frequently compressed, and often sections of the cast were missing. In addition, repairs made previously used poor-quality materials, such as scotch tape or brown paper tape, which had to be removed before new repairs could be made. Tears and holes were mended using Japanese paper and a good-quality adhesive and the cuneiforms that had been crushed or damaged were restored to their original height where possible.

If you want to see for yourself what a squeeze looks like, come to the Feast Your Eyes: A Taste for Luxury in Ancient Iran exhibition that is currently on display at Freer|Sackler. If you look closely, you might even see where some of the repairs were made.

Learn more about the Squeeze Imaging Project at the museum.

Crying Fowl at the Freer!

A peacock struts his stuff in the Freer Courtyard circa 1923.

With Winged Spirits: Birds in Chinese Paintings on view in the Freer, we searched around for some more images of birds and found this photograph of a peacock in the Freer courtyard in 1923, at the time of the museum’s opening. Yes, there were live peacocks running around (okay, maybe not running), perhaps an oh-so-subtle reminder for visitors not to miss Whistler’s Peacock Room. At the time, three peacocks were lent to the museum from the National Zoo. They remained in the museum during the warmer months, but were returned to the zoo in the winter.

What do you think? Would you like to see peacocks in the Freer courtyard today?

Photo courtesy of the Archives of the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

Building a Foundation for Asian Art

In honor of the 25th anniversary of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, we’ll be featuring posts throughout the year that commemorate the museum’s founding. Some, like this one, will look back. Others will look forward, and most will be just right! Here, in 1986 or so (the museum would open in 1987), the Sackler is being built. The Smithsonian Castle and the entrance to the S. Dillon Ripley Center can be seen in the background. In addition to a new home for Asian art, the re-envisioning of the quad included the neighboring National Museum of African Art (which, if the photo were panoramic, would be on the right).

Photo courtesy of the Archives of the Freer Galley of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

A Very Good Day: Honeymoon in Hangzhou

In 1925 writer, curator, and professor Benjamin March—one of the foremost authorities on Chinese art in the 1920s and 1930s—and his wife spent their honeymoon in Hangzhou, China, which he recorded in his journal and in photographs. Here’s an excerpt just in time for Valentine’s Day:

“In the early afternoon, we took rickshas [sic] and rode out of the city through narrow streets to Six Harmony Pagoda. I had been wanting to visit it again, and to try a couple of pictures I had not been able to make succeed the last time. We took our supper down to our boat and went out on the lake to enjoy the moon. We drifted and paddled about the lake and the islands. After supper we sat, wrote a little verse, and then Dorothy sang for a long while and I lay on my back watching the white moon. A good day, a very good day—and no rain.”

Learn more about the Benjamin March papers in the Archives of the Freer and Sackler Galleries.