My summer with the First Ladies

When I arrived at orientation and received my internship guide, featuring an image of First Lady Michelle Obama’s inaugural gown, I could not have imagined the picture’s significance to my summer experience. I had come to work in the Division of Political History on a separate project, processing a new collection the Division had acquired, when I began cataloging images in the First Ladies Collection. This supplementary activity soon developed into an extensive project that has greatly enriched my internship experience.

Summer 2012 Internship Guide
Summer 2012 Internship Guide.

In my work cataloging images in the First Ladies Collection, I have been amazed by the quantity of slides and photo media that exist to document both the public and private aspects of the First Ladies’ lives, including their dresses, possessions, and political memorabilia. I compiled and organized the images generated over a century of First Ladies exhibitions, as well as assessed the material to decide which images should be prepared to go on the web. By helping to improve the breadth of the visual records, I am excited to increase access to the collection itself.

Cataloging materials
Cataloging materials.

I began the cataloging process by searching binders and digital records to find relevant images. These ranged from pictures of the famed gowns to a harp (belonging to Louisa Catherine Adams), campaign buttons (Mamie Eisenhower), and even a perfume house (Julia Grant). I then sorted these by First Lady, often researching and comparing photos to discover to whom each object belonged, before entering the images into the database. The final stages of the project involved entering each item in spreadsheets according to First Lady and object category, as well as producing a guide to a file drawer of photos illustrating the history of the exhibition.

I strove to ensure that each object record contains the full complement of images available, since artifacts are often re-photographed to satisfy project needs and utilize new technologies. We wanted to maintain the photographic history and therefore avoid discarding earlier versions. In fact, by comparing the photographic styling of earlier and later photos, we can gain a more faceted appreciation of each artifact and how it is displayed. For example, Martha Washington’s gown has been showcased in a variety of ways in the exhibition itself, which is reflected in the photographic representation. The earliest slides depict the dress modeled on a white, statuesque mannequin. In later images, the mannequin is given a distinct hairstyle and coloring, and even displayed within a period room complete with authentic furniture. The most recent photos favor simplicity, showcasing the dress on a form rather than a mannequin to highlight the beauty of the gown itself. Not only had my own projects at NMAH evolved, but I soon discovered that over the history of the collection, the First Ladies images had evolved as well.

Martha Washington
Slides depicting the display of Martha Washington’s dress, from earliest to most recent.

Improving the scope and accessibility of image records in one of the most prominent collections in the Smithsonian has been a thrilling experience. With the 100th anniversary of the First Ladies exhibit on the horizon next year, I look forward to sharing in a renewed appreciation of this wonderful collection to complement the many interpretations of the exhibit over the last century.

Meirah Shedlo is an Intern with the Division of Political History at the National Museum of American History.