Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Secret Lives of Interns: Field Trip to the Smithsonians Part I

The gang. Don't worry, you'll find all about their trusty "Paper Partners" later!

Back on July 8th our interns took quite a field trip (along with their trusty supervisors of course) to explore the offerings of the Smithsonian. This trip, which included not only some really cool "backstage" tours but also secret missions for the interns was a big enough adventure that we are blogging it to you as a series! This first installment covers those neat behind the scenes bits where we got to learn about numismatics (that is, the coin collection, one of the oldest Smithsonian collections!) and the photo history department.


I found the image of Lady Liberty portrayed as wild with flowing hair on the early United Stated coin money to be very interesting. I enjoyed seeing the early US coins’ contrast to the more subdued images of Lady Liberty depicted on later coins. I found it interesting that the way in which Lady Liberty’s image was portrayed on coin money mirrored the political situation of the United States, and spoke to the way in which the US preferred to be viewed by the rest of the world. Previously, I had not considered the importance of the images chosen to be represented on coin money.

In our tour of numismatics at the NMAH, I learned that coins were the primary way that the people knew what their leaders looked like. This makes sense – obviously there were more coins available than bronze sculptures – but was not an issue that I had given much thought to. Then I realized, I mostly know what former presidents of the USA looked like because they’re on my money.

I was interested to learn that a relief-style coin was not well desired, because it was commonly thought that germs would be more prolific in that sort of layout.

One of the most interesting things I learned at the Numismatics tour was the way in which the coins and currencies have changed dramatically from their first creation thousands of years ago to today. Whether it be the different colors of the coins, the designs and symbols on them, or the way in which they were made, it was interesting to see their evolution. I especially liked seeing the changes made to the Lady Liberty coin throughout the years.

At numismatics I found learning about the different housings for coins to be fascinating. I thought the cases designed for the “encapsulated” coins were impressive.

Photo History

I enjoyed looking at old post cards and the photographs that were originally used as the front images of the post cards. I found it interesting that post cards were widely used for everyday casual communication between friend and family, much like we use email today. The photographs were beautiful and interesting to look, and left me wishing that I too received a photo postcard from a friend or relative in the mail everyday.

I loved seeing the photography archives at the NMAH, and learned a lot. I had not known much about real photograph postcards before, and was particularly interested to learn that up to a certain point in the 19th century, you could not write a note on the postcard – the photo was the only message. I think we should bring back the practice of sending photos back and forth in the post!

In photo history I was excited to learn more about the postcard pictures because I’ve been scanning so many of them at the JMM.

One of the most interesting things about the Photo History tour was understanding the unique history of photographs and the changes they have undergone throughout the years. It was fascinating to see that not only do the pictures depict people and events throughout history, but also to see how the quality and appearance of the photos has transformed over time. For example, we were shown many different back and white photographed postcards. Even though they were not in color, the events they portrayed and the topics they included were very clear and interesting to interpret.

Shannon gave us a tour of the Photographic History collection in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. I was interested to learn that it isn’t just a photography collection; they also collection photographic apparatus like cameras. Shannon showed us some of her favorite pieces of the collection, including an ambrotype of a black woman taken around the time of the Civil War (which is blogged about further here).

It wasn't until our guide, Shannon, brought this up, however she mentioned that while snap-shots give good representation of life to a degree, one generally does not bring a camera into all aspects of life, such as funerals, or during times of illness. She then showed us a woman dressed in street clothes, but admitted into an infirmary. This could become an interesting bit of material culture that has yet to be explored in detail.

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