A Treasury of Archives

Though seldom seen by the public, the Smithsonian’s vast repositories are vital to the institution

Smithsonian Institution Archives
Smithsonian Institution Archives Smithsonian Archives

More than 22 million people visited the Smithsonian last year. Most of these visitors moved from museum to museum and were captivated by the riches of our exhibitions and collections. A much smaller number, however, made use of collections that cannot be seen. These, too, are treasures and are so integral to the work of the Institution that without them our mission would be seriously impaired.

I refer to the archives and special collections of the Institution. Though they are mainly the preserve of the scholarly researcher and are, therefore, less well known than our object collections, our archives serve the broader public more often than you might think. This space doesn't permit more than a capsule view of our vast archives, but let me introduce you to a few of these extensive and varied resources.

The Office of Smithsonian Institution Archives thoroughly documents the 150-year history of James Smithson's legacy. With correspondence, photographs, oral histories, architectural drawings, microfilm, audiotapes and video histories, it details the growth of the Smithsonian from a grand hope to a national treasure. In the process, it also sheds light on the many disciplines found within our museums, research institutes and offices. The archive is used by staff and visiting scholars, but increasingly it receives e-mail requests from the general public.

The oldest Smithsonian repository is the National Anthropological Archives (NAA), established in 1879, and later incorporated into the National Museum of Natural History. The NAA holds special value for Native Americans. For instance, an Apache delegation recently spent time at the archive combing through hundreds of 19th-century photographs to study their cultural heritage.

Like the NAA, the Human Studies Film Archives, also located at Natural History, is of special interest to Native peoples. This collection contains films and related documentation produced or gathered by ethnographic filmmakers. Truly international in scope, its holdings include films shot in Brazil, in Haiti and on the Gold Coast of Africa, and footage of American Indian tribes dating from 1908.

Another collection, the Archives of American Art (AAA), was an independent entity until its absorption into the Smithsonian in 1970. Its founding mission has been to document the visual arts in America. The largest repository of its kind in the world, the AAA is a rich resource for scholars and art enthusiasts of all backgrounds, including the general public. Recently one visitor spent several days poring over records of the New England firm that designed and installed the stained-glass windows in his local church.

Users of the National Air and Space Archives are equally diverse. The staff handles reference questions from scholars, as well as numerous requests from airplane enthusiasts, aircraft restorers and schoolchildren. Of major interest are the 1.5 million photographs and 2 million technical drawings that permit the Air and Space Archives to boast that it possesses the specifications for most of the planes manufactured in the United States prior to World War II.

Archives Center in the National Museum of American History was created in 1982 to add a documentary dimension to the museum's mission. Consisting of personal papers, business records, advertising materials, historical photographs and audiovisual collections, Archives Center is a support to and an extension of the museum's curatorial programs. The Duke Ellington Collection is a case in point. The material collection of bandstands, articles of clothing and representative items from Ellington's life is complemented by the archival collection of musical scores, personal correspondence and business records. This collection also supports a range of public programs, from historic re-creations of Ellington performances to education kits for schoolchildren.

The Smithsonian's Horticulture Services Division may seem an unlikely location for papers and manuscripts, but there one finds the Archives of American Gardens. This collection includes 60,000 photographs documenting historic and contemporary American gardens, as well as letters, plans, maps, brochures and other items documenting garden development in the United States. Used by historians and other scholars, the archive is also a resource for preservationists, landscape designers and garden enthusiasts.

There are many more special resources at the Smithsonian; all give depth and meaning to the objects in our collections. They validate, verify and provide contextual understanding of the art and artifacts that are the domain of curators. They contain the raw material and evidence of our complex past. Just as the Office of Smithsonian Institution Archives helps me understand the history of this diverse organization, other repositories also offer their users a key — to knowledge, to understanding, to intellectual reward.

Get the latest History stories in your inbox?

Click to visit our Privacy Statement.