Archives, landscapes, and History Part II: The Lens of Garden History
October is a month of changing colors, cooler temperatures, and candy for many, but for archivists and history buffs alike, the month is also an opportunity to reflect on the value and meaning of what we document, preserve, and collect in our personal and professional archives for American Archives Month. When looking back at the history of plants, gardens, and design, photographs and other images can be compelling windows into the past for telling stories about (and remembering) the history and meaning of places.
What a photographer chooses to photograph, as well as the way they frame their image, deciding what to include and exclude, influences what we can know and learn from a collection of photographs. New technology and cultural preferences also contribute to the meaning of photographs.
For example, The Garden Club of America frequently used glass lantern slides, a technology that allowed them to present images to large audiences long before the days of Power Point. Particularly well suited to the social atmosphere of garden clubs, these slides were often hand-painted with vivid colors to bring the spaces to life for viewers. This allowed club members to come together to share and preserve the stories of these gardens and their work through visual culture. Due to the foresight of Garden Club of America members, Smithsonian Gardens’ Archives of American Gardens (AAG) has over 3,000 of these slides, used during the 1920s and 1930s. They primarily focus on gardens that tend to be more formal, such as the one of Thornewood, a garden in Tacoma, Washington pictured below.
While our technology for documenting, displaying, and sharing images is different today, photography continues to be an ever-important means of pro-actively preserving the past, even as the types of gardens and landscapes we value as a part of our archives and history grows.
For example, the more recent images below of Schuylkill River Park Community Garden in Philadelphia from the Archives of American Gardens represent a more informal community garden, compared to the private, formal garden of Thornewood. These two images also illustrate how, even in an age where digital photography encourages multiplicity, quality and focus remain important to preserve the kind of documentation that allows people down the road a window into the stories of the past.
In the first image, the photographer focuses on a specific bed within the garden (with more in the background) to give viewers an understanding of the components that make up the overall design of this space. From this photograph, researchers can begin to understand how the garden itself was used and what was grown. The repetition of beds implies that community members each have designated spaces.
The second image compliments the first, making the archival record more complete. Because the photographer chose a broad view that presents the context of the garden as a component of the larger urban landscape, researchers looking back will be better equipped to understand and imagine how residents negotiated their ways of life as gardeners between the sight and sounds railroad tracks, expressways, and the built environment of Philadelphia.
Both Thornewood and Schuylkill River Park Community Garden are important parts of the Archive of American Gardens. Not only do they tell the stories of changing technology, photographic perspectives, as well as evolving trends in garden design and meaning, but these examples also help to illustrate how archives are not only about the past and present, but also about the future as they continue to grow, evolve, and adapt in order to remain relevant into the future.
- Joe Cialdella, Haupt Fellow, Smithsonian Gardens