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August 22, 2012

Digitizing the Museum's Photo Archives: 75,000 Images and Counting

By Will Greene

My primary function at the National Museum of the American Indian is the creation of digital versions of the museum’s extensive archive of tens of thousands of historical photographic negatives, prints, transparencies, and lantern slides. Digitization affords many benefits both to the collection itself and to users of the archive. Direct handling of archival materials is rendered largely unnecessary, and the possibility of damage or loss is correspondingly dramatically reduced. Because the image files contain detailed embedded information on the date and time of digitization (along with many other things), each is a snapshot condition report on the photograph showing scratches, discoloration, tears, cracked glass, etc. Once digitized, an image can be printed, burned to a disk, or transmitted over a network or the Internet. Digital copies can be created in a variety of file sizes and formats, and every copy will duplicate the detail and tonality of the original digital image much more closely than was possible with traditional silver image photo technology. Once entered into a searchable database, the photos can be accessed and analyzed rapidly and efficiently by anyone with computer access.

Over the course of my career at NMAI, I have been able to digitize more than 75,000 photos, making substantial inroads into the overall task. In the early years we suffered through some fits and starts in determining standards, but once those were established we began to accumulate significant digital resources. Initially materials were digitized in response to end-user requests, both from internal and external institutions and individuals. In the years leading up to the opening of the museum on the National Mall in Washington, creating new digitizations for exhibitions and books took most of my time. As the museum’s digital resources have grown and new tools for search and retrieval have come along, more and more image requests can be fulfilled from existing image files. This has afforded an opportunity to direct further digitization efforts in a more rational and focused way, concentrating on completion of significant collections or on materials that demand special handling or are particularly fragile. 

One such project is digitizing the Churchill collection. Frank C. Churchill (1859–1912) was an inspector of reservations for the U.S. government from 1899 to 1909. In this position, Churchill traveled the country from Florida to Alaska, often with his wife, Clara. As an avid photographer he assembled a significant personal archive. The museum collection contains some 469 negatives and 3,710 prints housed in 28 photo albums.

The photo albums present a number of challenges. Hundred-year-old leather covers and album pages wrinkled with age must be handled very carefully. The pages have been interleaved with acid free paper to prevent deterioration, and this material must be removed and replaced each time you turn a page. Any handling of these old albums, no matter how careful, will result in some debris and the scanning equipment must be cleaned constantly. It’s a time-consuming process, and the best, most efficient method is to go through each album completely and digitize every print that has relevance to the museum. 

Because most of the photos in the albums have not been widely seen, I’ve tried to use broad criteria in deciding which images to scan. I’m looking for named individuals (many of the photographs have information on the date, location, and tribe); folks wearing traditional apparel and/or engaged in traditional crafts or activities; significant and/or traditional structures (such as the Cherokee National Capitol in 1905 or an Apache wikiup in 1899); group photos which have dates and locations (there are lots of school groups); photos of the creators of the albums (but not every one—the Churchills loved to photograph each other); or gatherings like dances, ceremonies, etc., especially when a date and location are noted. I’ve also included some images of famous and much-photographed places, mostly in the Southwest—Mesa Verde, various pueblos, etc., where the date is given, as these might prove useful to anyone tracking the changes in these places.

I think perhaps the greatest value of the albums is the caption material linking the images to a particular time and place with a very high degree of reliability. This greatly enhances their research value. 


The photograph above—which was given the museum catalog number P23360_143—was taken at the Santa Fe Indian School circa 1904. It is captioned in the margin, “Just arrived—Navajo Indian girls.” Then, “Several of these girls had never seen a white man until they met the clerk of the agency who brought them to the school.”

Unfortunately, many photographs' captions, like this one, fail to record the subjects' names. Sometimes the museum has been able to recover that information, working with tribal museums and scholars. By sharing digitized images with more viewers, I hope the museum will reach community and family members who can help us link photographs to individual lives and histories. 

You don’t have to know the whole sad history of the government boarding schools, however, to look at the faces of these six girls and see the fear, anger, anxiety, and resentment written there. Sometimes a picture is truly worth a thousand words, and we’ve got lots and lots of pictures. 

Will Greene is a digital imaging specialist on the museum's Photo Services staff. This is the first in a series of blog posts about his work and the museum's photography collections.

If you have information about a photograph Will discusses, and you would rather not post it as a comment, you can reach him via email at NMAISocialMedia@si.edu. 


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quite amazing to see picture clarity of that time.

It is a great work that the the National Museum of the American Indian has created digital versions of the museum’s extensive archive of tens of thousands of historical photographic negatives, prints, transparencies, and lantern slides. This digitization affords have many benefits to the users of the archive. Thanks a lot to them.

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