Posts tagged ‘American Archives Month’
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
Back in the warmer days of August, I had the opportunity to attend the Detroit Agriculture Network’s 15th Annual urban garden tour in Detroit, Michigan. Hundreds of people gathered in the late afternoon at Eastern Market to board buses or take off on bikes to visit gardens and hear from gardeners on the east, west, and central areas of the city. Above all, it was an occasion to hear from passionate individuals and view the city from the ground up.
Even though my first experience seeing and volunteering with urban gardens in Detroit was in 2004, looking at the gardens in Detroit’s landscape – a compelling assortment of open space, roads, and buildings (many still inhabited and, yes, many long abandoned) – continues to be at once jarring and inspiring; a poignant and thought-provoking place because of the layers of time and meanings collected here. As garden historian Kenneth Helphand writes,
“When we see an improbable garden, we experience a shock of recognition of the garden’s form and elements, but also a renewed appreciation of the garden’s transformative power to beautify, comfort, and convey meaning despite the incongruity of its surroundings. Gardens are defined by their context, and perhaps the further the context from our expectations, the deeper the meaning the garden holds for us.”
As a historian, the context I look to when I see these gardens is often that of the past. How did social, political, economic, environmental and cultural conditions shape transform these spaces? The seeming improbability of gardens as a part of post-industrial landscape challenged my expectations, and sparked my interest in learning what deeper meanings, and histories, gardening in Detroit might have.
Through this experience with a place, the landscape itself becomes an inspiration and an archive. A record of changing tastes, values, style, and use, for example, is captured by looking closely at the location, age, and size of buildings. Natural features, such as rivers and waterways often mark the original contribution to the archive of a landscape.
Yet in a place like Detroit, where seemingly endless redevelopment and decline are starkly juxtaposed, you cannot help but wonder what is missing from the landscape today. This can be particularly problematic when digging deeper into the history of such fleeting spaces as small scale community-minded gardens in a constantly changing urban environment.
Gone from Detroit’s landscape is the rich tradition of gardening culture that came before the contemporary movement. For example, during the 1890s, Mayor Hazen S. Pingree started a municipally-supported gardening plan to feed unemployed workers (many of whom were Polish and German immigrants). The Garden Club of Michigan was one of the 12 founding members of the Garden Club of America in 1913. During the Great Migration, African Americans moving to Detroit used gardens as a means of providing food and improving the appearance and value of their neighborhoods. And in the 1930s, thrift gardens again provided sustenance to many of those left unemployed by the Great Depression.
As the Haupt Fellow at Smithsonian Gardens, I’m in the process of digging up the details of these gardens using more traditional archives to better understand the history of what it means for people to contribute to an urban-industrial landscape by gardening. This can be a difficult task since the spaces themselves are often fleeting and records of them scarce, unlike many of the design plans and photographs of more famous landscapes. Looking back to the 19th and early 20th centuries, sociological surveys, government reports, meeting minutes, scrapbooks, maps, newspapers, magazines, and photographs are often surprisingly detailed documents that provide us with a way to re-imagine what these types of gardens looked like, their contexts, and how they were used in the past.
Together, the actual landscape and the two-dimensional records of experiences long removed from the land lend themselves to a fuller garden history that contributes not only to understanding gardens themselves, but also how gardens can reflect changing social, political, economic, environmental, and cultural contexts that give more people a way to consider the role of gardens and landscapes in their own lives.
The fleeting, seasonal nature of gardens also points to the importance of documenting garden spaces today. While we all hope they will last forever, proactively considering how you can preserve a garden or landscape’s history for your family, community, or organization provides an opportunity for reflection and sharing of information between one another that can often help to create connections and networks of support that will help these spaces exist into the future. One way of doing this is through creating a collection of photographs, such as those found in Smithsonian Gardens’ Archives of American Gardens. Look for more on this in my next post.
– Joe Cialdella, Haupt Fellow, Smithsonian Gardens
For more information on being a part of preserving garden history or beginning your own research, check out the resources below.
Take 10 minutes to “tag” an image form the Archives of American Gardens to help make their extensive collections more accessible to the public, researchers, and landscape designers!
These websites offer good tips and instructions for beginning your own archival adventure into the history of a garden or landscape near you:
 Kenneth Helphand. Defiant Gardens: Making Gardens in Wartime, 2006, pg. 9.
As part of the American Archives Month celebration, the Archives of American Gardens is encouraging the public to ‘tag’ their online records in the Smithsonian’s Collections Search Center. A little over a year ago, the Smithsonian’s Collections Search Center quietly turned on the tagging feature for records of participating Smithsonian archives, libraries and museums and now the Archives of American Gardens is hoping to use American Archives Month to promote this feature. The Archives is reaching out to Facebook followers of Smithsonian Gardens, universities with library and information science programs as well as horticulture programs to to contribute descriptive terms, keywords, or short phrases, to an item’s record to enhance searching on its records. If a user describes an item in the same way that they would search for it, the presumption is that these new terms will help with the retrievability of the records. For each tag that is added, that item has another access point – another way for other users to discover that item.
Although public tagging is not perfect and many questions remain about how folksonomy might function in the museum, a summary in a 2009 report by the Steve Project finds that, “Tags offer another layer that supplements and complements the documentation provided by professional museum cataloguers.” So while tagging is not meant to be a replacement for established cataloging methods, it may complement the catalog with a helpful element of user engagement and interaction.
Get Tagging! Visit the Archives of American Gardens Virtual Volunteer page to get started on tagging images.
Jessica Short, Intern
Archives of American Gardens
Blogs across the Smithsonian will give an inside look at the Institution’s archival collections and practices during a month long blogathon in celebration of October’s American Archives Month. See additional posts from our other participating blogs, as well as related events and resources, on the Smithsonian’s Archives Month website.