Increasing and diffusing knowledge—and campaign badges, yo-yos, banjos, and integrated circuits
Editor's note: There are more than three million artifacts in the museum’s collection. We can't put them all on display and, even if we did, only people visiting Washington, D.C, would be able to see them (and they'd be very, very tired afterward). But there are other ways to experience what the museum has to offer, from visiting Smithsonian affiliate museums in your neighborhood to using our History Explorer resources. Today we're focusing on one of these ways we increase and diffuse knowledge—by sharing our collection of artifacts online. Greg Kenyon, who is part of the team that makes our collections available online, answered a few questions about the project, what he's discovered in our collection as a result, and why it's important.
Why do you think it is important to get the museum's collection online?
I believe that open access and making information available to as wide an audience as possible is inherently a good thing. I think that the combination of digital technology and the humanities can work together to make education easier and more fun for future generations. I feel lucky that in working for the Smithsonian, making objects and information widely available is an important goal!
What is your favorite part of the job?
My favorite part of the job is being able to work with such a wide variety of objects. While I am based in the Division of Work and Industry, I get to help all the divisions in the museum with their records and have seen some really interesting objects—and more importantly—some objects with really interesting stories. Everything from mining lamps to contraceptives to sheet music to steam engines—they all play a fascinating role in American history and society.
Can you tell us about one or two cool, random things you've seen as a result of getting our collection online?
One of my favorite things is Jack Kilby's integrated circuit.
This was one of the first integrated circuits ever and was a crucial step towards the powerful central processing units (CPUs) we use today. Just seeing how this integrated circuit functioned on a tangible level really clarified how computers physically "think" and gave me an appreciation for how far microprocessor technology has come in the last 50 years.
But there are lots of random things in the collection that make me chuckle. For instance, a piece of sheet music called "If He Can Fight Like He Can Love—Good Night, Germany!" sheet music was really popular in the early 20th century because recorded music was not yet ubiquitous and people bought sheet music to play for themselves in their homes. This piece was produced during World War I and features such lines as "If he's just half as good in a trench/As he was in the park on a bench/Then every Hun/Had better run!" It is an interesting look at the popular entertainment aspect of the American war effort, a patriotic ballad wrapped in the veneer of romance. Also interesting is that the music is the "War Edition," printed on smaller paper to aid conservation efforts during the war.
Is there a search term you think turns up particularly interesting results?
"Campaign Badges" from our Scovill collection. Scovill was a brass manufacturing firm in Waterbury, Connecticut started in the early 19th century. Scovill mainly produced metal products, which coincided with tintype photographs for a time. This led to them manufacturing a variety of Presidential campaign badges during the middle of the 19th century.
These badges feature a profile image of the candidate inscribed with their slogans or motto. Later, they became small tintype photographs of politicians like Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses Grant, Schuyler Colfax, Horatio Seymour, George McClellan, and Jefferson Davis set into a small metal medal or badge. People would string these from a ribbon or attach a pin to the back to wear the badges to show their political affiliations. These are analogous to the pins or bumper stickers people use today to show their political support. Looking back 150 years, it is really interesting to see how these politicians sold themselves at the time, what young Abraham Lincoln looked like in 1860, or to have a laugh at some of the outlandish campaign slogans.
How has the public reacted to your work?
Putting objects online is a complicated effort in some ways, because we want to make our collection available to people who aren't specialists while also being a research resource for professionals. Our collection on banjos was one of the first things I worked on putting online with the help of curator Stacey Kluck in 2010. A few years later, a documentary filmmaker was making a piece about the building of North American Banjos and was in contact with Stacey about our banjo collection. I still remember his excited e-mail when Stacey told him our entire collection was online!
The one response I get the most joy out of is hearing how people relate to the objects we put online. Many of our objects were obviously used by famous historical figures, but there is also a large collection of objects that were used by everyday people. The advantage of posting these "everyday" objects online is that we get to hear stories or memories of how they used them in their daily lives. So one of the comments I get the most is "I remember that!" or "My grandmother used that!" and I really enjoy linking objects in our collections with personal memories.
You must work with a lot of different people in the museum. Can you tell us about that?
Much like working with a variety of different objects is one of my favorite aspects of the job, working with so many different curators is also a pleasure. Everyone has so much passion for their collections it is always interesting in learning from them and working with some objects that otherwise would not be displayed in an exhibition. And if there is one thing I have learned from putting so many disparate objects online it is that for any category of object, there will be a group of people who are fanatic about it.
I am just one member of our Collections on the Web project team. Vanessa Pares handles the digital images for objects going to the web, and Melanie Blanchard handles the legal aspects of putting our objects online. Sarah Oakman has recently joined our team and works on researching and writing about objects, and the project is wonderfully managed by Susan Tolbert and Raelene Worthington.
How did you end up doing this work? What's your background?
I graduated as a double major in History and English from the University Maryland in 2008. I knew I really enjoyed museums and had an interest in museum work, so I interned in the Division of Home and Community life in the fall of 2008.
During my internship, I enjoyed using the museum's database and had the opportunity to do some research and writing about firefighting objects (some of which are now online). A few months after my internship ended I began working on an inventory project in Collection Documentation Services. That project also involved some research and writing in reconciling object records, and this work led to my current position working with the museum's database and researching and writing small web labels.
What tips do you have for people who are searching the collection?
One tip would be to browse! The collections subject page is a great way to browse the collections. You can pick from one of 28 categories (my favorites are include Advertising, Computers and Business Machines, and Music and Musical Instruments.
The beauty of the Collections Search Center is that searches across all Smithsonian Institution museums. If you can't find what you are looking for on our site, heading there is always illuminating.
Our collection of lunch boxes provide a really neat look at pop culture from the 1950s to 1980s and is one of my favorite groups so far. There were some really neat yo-yos that brought back childhood memories for me. And our collection of autographed baseballs would make any baseball fan envious!
And remember to click through to view the full record for more information and images
Greg Kenyon works in the Division of Work and Industry.