By Emily Hunter, Field Book Project
In January, I began cataloging field books in the Department of Botany. In my first week, I came across a box of materials related to the botanist André Goeldi. These materials had a note from our conservator that read “Extremely brittle!” Carefully, I opened the folder and gasped as I saw the contents--black and white photographs of botanical specimens, mostly grasses. Each one was stunning. The photographs themselves were “silvering” (also called silver mirroring)--something that happens to older black and white gelatin prints, in which the silver particles begin to oxidize, producing a blue-ish metallic look. Although a conservation problem, the silver mirroring gave the images an otherworldly glow.
The photographs depicted specimens, set upon a black background, with a tape measure in many of the images to indicate scale. The photographs were clearly taken to document Goeldi’s specimen collection, but it’s hard to deny their aesthetic merit as well. Grass is something usually taken for granted as common, but seeing the variety of grasses depicted in these 36 photographs made me think twice about the familiar plant family. Isolated clumps shown on the dark background gave focus to the form, while highlighting the elegance (and the occasionally tangled chaos) of some of these plants.
I examined the contents of the folder for clues about the materials and their creator. A letter included with the photographs indicated that the images were sent to Albert Spear Hitchcock in 1920. Hitchcock was an expert on grasses, and presumably he and Goeldi corresponded regarding the identification or perhaps the exchange of the specimens. Also included with the photographs were specimen lists, with entries in Portuguese. These lists, handwritten on an extremely acidic paper, were even more brittle than the photographs. Some of the information had even crumbled away from the edges. After consulting with our conservator, I digitized the entire contents of the Goeldi box. This way, the information is captured digitally in case the physical objects wear down and lose additional information. From these images, I selected several of the most interesting to make up the flickr set.
I was interested to find out who André Goeldi was. My initial research returned few results. I knew that André Goeldi was working in Pará, Brazil circa 1913 to 1920, and that he was not the same person as Emílio A. Goeldi, first director of the Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi. I dug into the archives and also reached out to the Museu Goeldi to see if they had additional information. To my delight, Dr. Nelson Sanjad, researcher, History of Science at the Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi, responded to my email and offered additional details on Goeldi’s life. Dr. Sanjad helped to fill in many of the gaps, informing me that Goeldi (name variation Andréas Goeldi) was born in Switzerland in 1872 and immigrated to Brazil in 1893. He worked at the Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi from 1901 to 1906 and then at the experimental farm Estação Agrícola de Peixe Boi. Dr. Sanjad also informed me that Emílio and André were cousins. The correspondence with A. S. Hitchcock dated 1920 may be the last documented mention of André Goeldi’s activities, so perhaps he died shortly after.
This set of field documentation serves as an example of how materials from all over the world end up in the care of the Smithsonian Institution. Curating this set of images sparked an interesting journey for me, and required the collaboration of colleagues across various fields at home at the Smithsonian as well as abroad. The collaborative and interdisciplinary nature of the Field Book Project was something that initially attracted me to apply as an intern over a year ago. I hope that you enjoy learning about the process of bringing these images to the public sphere, and I encourage you to share any comments or additional information on the man behind these photographs.
Thank you very much to the following people for their assistance with various aspects of this project: Dr. Nelson Sanjad, Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi, Pará, Brazil; Anna Friedman and the conservation staff at Smithsonian Institution Archives; Tad Bennicoff and reference team at Smithsonian Institution Archives; Kira Cherrix and the digitization staff at Smithsonian Institution Archives; and all of my colleagues at the Field Book Project.