A Future in Pictures

Computer technology is expanding the way we preserve and develop our photographic memory

Ansel Adams
Canyon de Chelly National Monument National Museum of American History

Recently, the Smithsonian's National Museum of American Art exhibited a traveling show from California devoted to masterworks by Ansel Adams — the noted photographer of Western landscape whose images are well known through their reproduction in books, magazines and other media (Smithsonian, February 1998). The show got good reviews, as is often the case with NMAA exhibitions. The number of visitors, however, was extraordinary — well beyond the expectations of the museum — making "Ansel Adams, A Legacy" perhaps the most visited exhibition in the museum's history.

Other photographic exhibitions, including "Mathew Brady Portraits: Images as History, Photography As Art," "American Photographs: The First Century," "Visual Journal: Harlem and D.C. in the Thirties and Forties" and "Sacred Mountains of the World," have also proved popular. It is hard to judge why photography shows are such a major draw. Perhaps it relates to the portrayal of a sense of reality, to a medium many viewers use and to an interest in the subject matters treated. In museum language, photographs normally are very accessible to viewers.

The success of the Adams exhibition led me to revisit the place of photography at the Smithsonian. Many photographs in our collections, like those by Ansel Adams, are primarily intended to be works of art. A large number of others are primarily designed to record the existence of objects, places, persons and the like. Often there is an intermixture. Clearly, for instance, those photographers who "documented" the Depression of the 1930s in America for the Farm Security Administration chose and framed their subjects to tell a story of suffering and neglect, employing great technical competence and artistic creativity. A number of the documentary photographs in the Smithsonian collections are like these.

In the late 1980s, archivist Diane Vogt O'Connor and her colleagues surveyed the photography collections of ten museums and two research institutes of the Smithsonian. They found some five million photographs in the collections they examined. The units omitted contain well over two million more. And an extraordinary number have been added to these totals during the '90s.

These records and others illustrate the considerable breadth and depth of our holdings. Some are physically centralized in the cold-storage facilities of the Office of Imaging, Printing and Photographic Services. Others are maintained on museum sites. Every part of the Smithsonian seems to have a substantial collection. The Office of Horticulture, for instance, has more than 70,000 images that record floral decorations, tools, holders and landscape architecture of cemeteries, churches, parks, private gardens, homes and public buildings from the mid-19th century to the present. And the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, to go from the ground to space, has well over 600,000 images documenting the history of astronomy, and showing a variety of phenomena and celestial objects from meteors to star clusters. Many have been added since 1989 when the survey was made.

Photographs are constantly being generated by talented staff photographers for exhibits, collections management and historical documentation. For some time, nearly every object acquired by the Smithsonian has been photographed, and the images are now being digitized as well.

Photography plays an important role in the delivery of information through the Smithsonian Website. In addition to the extensive and heavily used Smithsonian materials now on-line, we are developing a digital image library and retrieval system that will enable the public to see photographs of objects and other materials together with relevant descriptions. And the indexing will be by subject matter as well as by museum or institute source. If our requests are met in next year's federal budget, those funds, together with resources from IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Intel and Polaroid, will allow us to have at least three million images on-line and accessible by the millennium.

We are trying to improve, where necessary, the adequacy of storage facilities to ensure preservation of our photography collections. Digital cataloguing also helps preserve records. For the future, I hope for the creation of a center in the Smithsonian where curators, together with visiting scholars, interns and students, can work in proximity to these collections, especially those involving American culture. Such a place could also contain space to mount many more of the photography exhibitions that prove so attractive to so many Smithsonian visitors.

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