Eric Rosenzweig

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The Crawford H. Greenewalt collection at the Academy of Natural Sciences

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

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This was a very interesting and exciting collection to work on in terms of both handling the collection contents and conducting the research that went into creating the collection description. This collection is a view into one aspect of the personal life of the man who ran the DuPont Company during World War II, and oversaw the Manhattan Project. In his spare time he traveled around the world taking pictures of birds. Lots of pictures. Lots of birds.

This collection has a high visual impact. The collection is full of great pictures of exotic birds (i.e. not pigeons and sparrows) in many formats. There are 8 x11 prints, three different sizes of mounted prints, slides, lantern slides, glass slides, enlarged electron microscope images of feather cross-sections, color transparencies, and negatives. There is also a collection of about 600 stereographs. One of the most interesting features of this collection was a set of hummingbird and sunbird feathers mounted on microscope slides. Looking at the forty-one boxes of this collection, Greenewalt’s enthusiasm for bird photography is readily apparent.

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In addition to the multitude of images, this collection also contains seven boxes of textual material. It was surprising to learn that not only did Greenewalt photograph birds, he also published material on technical subjects, such as the physiology of birdsong and flight, and the reflectance of hummingbird feathers. The seven boxes of text contain a few of Greenewalt’s publications, some manuscripts and a lot of research material including acoustic measurements of what must be hundreds of bird songs, and pages of mathematical equations related to bird flight. This portion of the collection represents decades of devotion to intense amateur study.

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Arranging this collection according to the principles of minimal processing proved to be somewhat of a challenge. The first hurdle was not stopping to admire the fascinating images. On a more practical level, the greatest challenge was determining the folder level arrangement for the photographs. Neither Laurie nor I have sufficient ornithological expertise to identify the birds featured in each image, and the majority of the images are unidentified. Another option was to arrange the photos in a chronological order. Unfortunately, the majority of the photos in their various formats are undated. At two hours per linear foot, identifying each bird was not an option. We did the best with what we had: we hunted for clues. The box of field notes was helpful for putting Greenewalt in a particular geographic location at a particular time. So, for example, if there was an envelope marked “Sweden” which contained a group of photos, and we knew from the field notes that Greenewalt was in Sweden between 1956 and 1960, then we could plug in a circa date. By picking up clues and following little trails of information, we managed to find reasonable dates for almost the entire collection.

We had some difficulty with understanding the purpose and function of the technical data in this collection. We are thankful to both Nate Rice, Ph.D., Collection Manager, Ornithology, and Dan Thomas, Collection Manager, Visual Resources of Ornithology (VIREO) for making themselves available to answer any questions we had about the collection’s content and for graciously and patiently sharing with us their knowledge and expertise. These two gentlemen saved us a lot of time by explaining to us what Greenewalt was trying to do, and what types of papers we were looking at. We are also thankful, of course, to Clare Flemming, Brooke Dolan Archivist at the Academy of Natural Sciences, for taking the time to make this connection.

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Another big task that had to be avoided because of the constraints of our prescribed pace is preservation and conservation. A lot of those prints were curled, and some of them had folded corners. Some of the lantern slides were broken, and most of them were in some sort of plastic sleeves that over time had become sealed to the glass. All we could do was flag them as in groups. The other side of the coin is that we were not in the position to prevent further damage. Many of the prints are fading, and most of the various media needs re-housing. The bottom line is that it is good to have taken some steps to make this collection available for research, but there is a lot more that could be done. This collection is just one of many amazing collections in the Academy of Natural Sciences’ archives, and therefore it has a lot of competition for getting the care it requires.

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In my opinion, this collection has a great research value for anyone interested in the personal life of Crawford Greenewalt; the history of high-speed photography; the history of the Academy of Natural Sciences’ VIREO collection; amateur ornithology; and of course hummingbirds. It would be nice to see this collection receive the attention it deserves.

Go to the Wagner- You’ll Be Glad You Did!

Thursday, January 21st, 2010

Written by Eric Rosenzweig and Laurie Rizzo.

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Next time you get off the Broad Street line at the Cecil B. Moore stop, walk up a block to Montgomery Avenue and go see the Wagner Free Institute of Science.

The Wagner Free Institute of Science is a unique and amazing place. Established in 1865 by William Wagner (1796-1885), who, for ten years prior, was holding classes and lectures out of his own home. He built the Institute at its current location.

The Wagner Free Institute of Science is a natural history museum and educational institution that is dedicated to providing free public education in the sciences, and is the oldest program of that kind in the United States. The Institute includes an exhibit gallery, classrooms, and a library.

The Natural History Museum on the third floor was organized according to Darwin’s evolutionary theory by Joseph Leidy, a renowned scientist, who became director of the academic programs of the Wagner Free Institute of Science after Wagner’s death. The Leidy’s display remains virtually untouched in the Museum to this day. The Institute very much feels like a museum within a museum.

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The collections Eric and I worked on at the Wagner’s Library and Archives were institutional and mainly financial documents. Financial materials from the late 19th and early 20th century are certainly aesthetically more interesting to look at than contemporary financial records. The most challenging part was understanding the terminology associated with the documents. For example, often terms like voucher and canceled check were used interchangeably to describe the same material, other times the materials were clearly different. The confusion with terminology may have been a result from the collection being previously processed.

Through processing the collections, we learned that Wagner owned a large portion of land surrounding the Institute. He built and purchased buildings that he rented as apartments or stores as revenue for the Institute. Although the Institute no longer owns these properties, they were instrumental to its founding and development. Things certainly have changed, what once was a series of late 19th century row houses is now a modern police station. Some houses in the area appear to have been built during the same era as the buildings Wagner rented out, giving us a sense of how things might have looked during his time.

I highly recommend taking a trip to the Wagner Free Institute of Science, especially if you have an interest in the natural sciences or the history of science. It is a beautiful and fascinating place.