What We Do
Photography changes how we collect, preserve, and present cultural artifacts
Merry Foresta, director of the Smithsonian Photography Initiative, describes the role photography plays at the Smithsonian Institution as a medium of record and interpretation.
This tiny daguerreotype of an architectural model for the Smithsonian’s first building has, since I discovered it in the institutional archives, always served for me as a starting point to think about the power of photography. It works off a simple strategy: made probably in the late 1840s, most likely by a workaday Philadelphia studio photographer, it is a straightforward description of something someone needed to have a picture of.
The Smithsonian was born into the world of photography. Photography officially arrived in the United States in April of 1839 in the form of a New York newspaper article written from Paris by the painter and inventor Samuel Morse who may have been the first American to see the tiny images made by the French inventor of the daguerreotype, Jacques Louis Mande Daguerre. Morse called them “one of the wonders of the world,” and compared them to the etchings of Rembrandt, an extraordinary compliment at the time. The Smithsonian began in 1846, when Congress accepted the generous bequest of a wealthy British scientist, James Smithson, and President James K. Polk signed into law the establishment of a national museum. Along with Smithson’s $500,000 gift came a mandate to create a new breed of institution, the first of its kind in the United States, one devoted to the “increase and diffusion of knowledge.” Two likely partners joined forces. Photography was the perfect match for this progressive mission of collecting knowing, and showing the world.
This daguerreotype is a picture of the architect’s model for the original Smithsonian building. While not one of the most conventionally beautiful images among the millions that are now housed in collections throughout the institution, it remains to me one of the most potent examples of how photography would integrate itself into the activity of this other new invention, “a national museum.” Today, I can only speculate about the reason it was made. Did the building’s architect, James Renwick of Philadelphia, tire of transporting his wood and cardboard model back and forth to his clients in Washington, DC as they decided on the look of the nation’s museum? Perhaps the little daguerreotype that measures only about 3 x 4 inches, easily slipped into a pocket for transport, proved to be an excellent substitute. Maybe the magical miniaturization made possible by a new technology was even a topic of conversation that diverted the attention of budget conscious Smithsonian founders from the extra cost of adding two towers instead of one? In the end, it didn’t work—only one tower of the two described by the daguerreotype was eventually constructed.
But the idea that photography could be useful and effective was soundly established. In 1857 when half of the building burned and a gallery of paintings of important Native Americans along with it, the decision was made to replace them with photographs. On display when the building re–opened in 1867 was an exhibition of over 300 photographs, portraits of Native delegations who had traveled to Washington, DC. Photographs continued to silt up around the business of the Smithsonian in all kinds of ways. And though today the original reasons why someone needed or made a picture may be lost or forgotten, and the images turned into historical documents rather than active facilitators, their immediacy and intrigue remain ever–present.
- Architect's Model of the Smithsonian Institution Castle, 1846
- Unidentified photographer