Category Archives: From the Archives

Making History: Google Teams Up with Freer|Sackler

Alice Roosevelt Longworth in a rickshaw in 1905. Freer|Sackler Archives.

With today’s launch of the Google Cultural Institute, following last year’s Art Project, the Freer|Sackler became the first Smithsonian museum to partner with Google in both. The Cultural Institute provides visitors the chance to see close-up views of largely unseen archival materials—including letters, photos, videos, and manuscripts—relating to some of the most important events in the 20th century. David Hogge, head of the Archives at Freer|Sackler, tells us what it was like to work on the project.

For the past few months I have been working with staff of the Google Cultural Institute to create an online presentation of one of my favorite recent acquisitions, the Alice Roosevelt photographs of the 1905 Taft Mission to Asia—a three-month diplomatic trip that transformed the United States’ diplomatic and military presence in Asia.

When I was approached for ideas on how the Archives could collaborate with Google on topics relating to 20th-century history, my first thought was to focus on the Alice Roosevelt collection. It has an abundance of imperial portrait photographs, which richly illustrate relations between the US and East Asia in the early 1900s, as well as the critical role of photography in diplomatic encounters.

Google staff were enthusiastic, and worked with us to add our data and images into their new online “Curation Tool.” While still rough in places, the tool promises to a powerful and user-friendly system for non-techies like me to create well-designed, image-rich presentations online.

In the coming months we plan to complete telling the tale of Alice Roosevelt’s travels in the following chapters: San Francisco and Hawaii, Japan, Philippines, Hong Kong, China, and Korea. In the meantime, take a look at Imperial Exposures, our online photographic exhibition on the 1905 mission.

A Colorful Past

Curator Alex Nagel at the Smithsonian Congress of Scholars tent, Folklife Festival, July 2, 2012

London native Rohan Ayinde Smith is currently an intern in the Freer|Sackler Archives. This post takes him out of the Archives and onto the National Mall.

The Smithsonian staff picnic boiled away on Monday, July 2, from 11 am till 2 pm, and saw a host of Smithsonian employees ambling, somewhat laden by heat, across the Mall with ice-cold smoothies in hand and sweat patches pooling on their backs. I sat watching this from the relative cool of the 2012 Smithsonian Congress of Scholars (SCOS) research tent, thinking how lucky I was to sit in adequate comfort, above ground (unlike the F|S offices), and without having to stare at a computer for hours.

However, if I thought my day was going to be as easy as sitting around people-watching, I was grossly mistaken. From about 11:30 am there was a steady stream of traffic to and from our table, with people asking a vast array of questions about the pigment project that Alexander Nagel, assistant curator of Ancient Near Eastern Art at Freer|Sackler, has been working on for the past six years. Alex has been collaborating with a team of colleagues in Persepolis (Iran) to determine the original colors of the site through documenting small traces of pigments found there. These pigment marks have not only been found in Persepolis, but also at other ancient sites such as Pasargadae (also in Iran) and Palmyra (Syria).

In the SCOS research tent we spoke about the recent findings and discussed what they illuminate about these ancient sites. Ultimately, we explained, the pigments allow us to understand what these cities would have looked like. They give us insight into a culture that we used to think was very pristine and whitewashed, allowing us strip away that fallacy and build an extremely different picture of these cities—one that is covered in vibrant colors. From painted monuments to frescoes, the grand buildings on these sites were decorated elaborately. It is a grand shift in the way we view ancient civilizations and may change many of our perceptions of the past.

One of the most interesting pieces we discussed was a stone relief excavated at Palmyra that had traces of pigments on it. The relief, which is part of the F|S collection,  is one of about 5,000 found at the site, all representations of the people in the tombs they were guarding. The color present on this relief is again evidence of how vibrant these cities would have been; even the dead were housed in elaborately painted tombs.

As the day went on, Alex and I were faced with a number of interesting questions, observations, and suggestions. It was rewarding that people took so much interest. They were fully engaged and particularly fascinated with the notion that the past was so much more colorful than some had believed. Of the many questions that were asked over the course of the day, the ones that popped up most frequently were those related to the conservation of the pigments; whether  the colors used were part of a grander, interlinked scheme that crossed cultures and civilizations; and whether there was going to be an effort to restore these sites to their former painted state once ample evidence was collected.

Regarding conservation of the pigments, Alex explained, it would do more damage to try to apply something to conserve them than just leaving them as they have been for the past 2500 years. Instead, glass covers have been put in front of many of the places where significant pigmentation has been found so it cannot be touched. As for whether these colorings are indicative of a cross-cultural exchange, we explained that many of the materials used to color the palaces and monuments at Persepolis, at least, were garnered locally, and that the copper compound used to make blue and the ochre used to make red could both be found in Iran. This does not indicate a cross-cultural exchange, but equally does not rule it out.

The most controversial issue was the question of whether the sites would be repainted. There seemed to be two camps of people in regard to this notion. There were those who thought it would be atrocious to dream of doing such a thing, and there were those who thought it was a necessary step in the restoration process. It was intriguing to see the dialogue develop over the course of the day and see what different people had to offer on the topic.

Personally, I feel that to restore the sites back to their original colors would interfere too much with the course of history. It is part of the historical record that the colors have disappeared. As a result, we should respect that passage of time and be content that, with today’s technology, we are able to recreate the sites with digital technology and possibly even build 3D models in full color. To do anything more would just be out of line.

What is your opinion?

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.