Advertising in the Archives: National Museum of American History at The Smithsonian Institution
The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History (NMAH) is featured in Advertising & Society Quarterly’s first “Advertising in the Archives” article, which is an occasional piece about an advertising archive in the United States or elsewhere in the world. Structured as an interview of senior archivist John A. Fleckner by curator Kathleen Franz, the conversation details how the NMAH’s archives and material collections have developed, how materials are collected, why oral histories are important, why advertisements are ideal materials for museum exhibitions, how to use NMAH materials, the distinction between archivists and curators, and how the NMAH is moving into the largely digital future of collecting, preserving, and sharing advertising history.
advertising history, archives, business history, curation, material culture, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian
This is the first “Advertising in the Archives” article for Advertising & Society Quarterly, which will appear occasionally in the journal. Each “Advertising in the Archives” piece will provide information about an advertising archive in the United States or elsewhere in the world, including university, corporate, institutional, and personal archives. The goal is to provide context about an archive as well as practical information about how to access it. This issue covers the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History (NMAH) in Washington, DC.
The National Museum of American History’s senior archivist John A. Fleckner discusses his career beginning at the Wisconsin Historical Society, and then the Smithsonian Institution where he was pivotal in starting and managing its advertising archives. He details two of the NMAH’s major collections. First, there is the Warshaw Collection of Business Americana,1 which includes New York bookseller Isadore Warshaw’s (1907–1969) five decades of collected business ephemera. Second, there are the N. W. Ayer Advertising Agency Records,2 which consist mainly of materials from the 1890s to the 1960s from N. W. Ayer & Son, arguably the oldest advertising agency in the United States. Fleckner explains what these collections generally contain, as well as how and why the Smithsonian acquired them.
NMAH curator Kathleen Franz asks Fleckner to describe other collections beyond Warshaw and Ayer. John explains how the NMAH expanded its advertising collection in the 1980s beyond print materials and those largely dated from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century. The Museum carried out an oral history project featuring various advertising leaders such as Leo Burnett and prominent companies such as Pepsi and Marlboro. Franz and Fleckner then discuss the materials from the collections for Earl Tupper, the plastics innovator who became famous for Tupperware, and Brownie Wise, the pioneering saleswoman who became known for perfecting in-home demonstrations through “Tupperware Parties.”
Fleckner uncovers the NMAH’s collection process through the story of Hills Brothers Coffee.3 Central to the collection is the work of T. Carroll Wilson, the vice president of advertising and a member of the Hills Brothers Coffee board of directors. With his love for the company and product, Wilson took it upon himself to organize meticulously a broad range of materials (advertisements, packaging, business documents, and films). Through financial and other assistance of Hills Brothers and its parent company Nestle, the NMAH was able to obtain Hills Brothers Coffee’s rich company archives from San Francisco.
John Fleckner introduces and describes the NMAH’s Advertising History Center, which was open from the late 1980s to 1995. It was set up as way for the NMAH to coordinate and consolidate the museum’s efforts in working with advertising materials. There was an advisory board consisting of scholars and distinguished industry practitioners that helped the NMAH think about the collection and preservation work that the museum was doing. Although the Center closed in 1995 due to reduced funding and industry changes, its mission of preserving advertising history materials and bridging industry and scholarly interests has continued through the efforts of the NMAH’s Archives Center. To conclude, Franz and Fleckner discuss the importance and limitations of oral history and how the NMAH actively collects and preserves oral histories and make them available.
Franz and Fleckner examine why advertising is a good source of materials for a museum. As Fleckner notes, advertising is very visual, which allows it to be interesting source material for exhibits. Franz reviews her work in business history as well as how the visual nature of advertising was central to the NMAH’s American Enterprise Exhibition, which examines the important place of business in American life.4 Fleckner notes that advertisements are almost like a universally understandable language, which is helpful to create a connection and initial interest among the diverse audiences from around the country and the world who visit the museum.
Fleckner and Franz converse about how the NMAH’s Archives Center is used. Fleckner notes that about a third of users are curators and Smithsonian Fellows, individuals who are awarded a fellowship to carry out a project using Smithsonian materials. There are many other users of the archives beyond university professors and students: law firms, independent scholars, hobbyists, and filmmakers. In addition to their detailed online finding aids, which makes remote researching possible, the NMAH can make digital copies of documents and materials for users who request and pay for them. Such digitally retrieved materials are then made available to the general public.5
Fleckner, an archivist, and Franz, a curator, discuss the similarities and differences between their roles at the museum. Both work to collect materials of value that help understand the past. Archivists are interested in information-bearing, and often written materials, such as memos, letters, and other written documents. Additionally, archivists prefer to collect large groups or bodies of materials, which they then sort through, organize, and describe in detailed finding aids that are accessible online or through a reference librarian.
Franz explains that curators are like archivists in that they are research specialists in a particular field. However, curators focus their work mainly on collecting three-dimensional objects. Franz says she sees her curatorial practice similar to an archivist in that she obtains information-bearing materials, a diversity of items, collections of items, and a history around those items. She tries to make the objects she collects publicly available, but she acknowledges that curators tend to not work directly with researchers as much as archivists because their materials are often locked away for preservation purposes. Franz encourages researchers to visit curators to discover things that may not be found in written documents.
Although archivists and curators claim different turf in the preservation of history, the NMAH is a very cooperative environment where archivists and curators collaborate on acquiring materials and making them available to the public. As a case in point, NMAH finding aids now try to link as many three-dimensional objects as possible to their related archival documents.
Kathleen Franz discusses where the archives and material collections are going at the NMAH by giving an example of a project on which she is currently working: collecting materials on Hispanic-owned advertising agencies in the United States from the 1960s to the 1990s. In addition to collecting physical materials for entire agencies, she has been working closely with Lopez Negrete Communications, an independent Hispanic-owned agency, to experiment in collecting and preserving digital advertising. Fleckner and Franz reflect on the opportunities and challenges of archiving and curating digitally born materials. Digital preservation is one of the NMAH’s major priorities for the future, but the question of long-term sustainability is one that has yet to be tackled fully.
Gallery of In-Video Illustrations
John Fleckner was chief archivist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History from 1982 to 2007. He has taught courses in archives for George Washington University’s Museum Studies Program and for the University of Maryland’s College of Information Studies. As chief archivist Fleckner assisted in the development of collections in the history of jazz, invention, and advertising. Fleckner is a past president and Fellow of the Society of American Archivists.
Kathleen Franz is Chair and Curator of the Division of Work and Industry at the National Museum of American History in Washington, DC. Her research focuses on the cultural history of business and technology in the United States from the 1870s to the 1950s. Before joining the museum, she spent sixteen years as a history professor and director of public history programs. She is interested in the ways museums can inform national conversations about contemporary issues. At the moment, Kathleen is collecting stories of Hispanic advertising and Spanish-language broadcasting in the US from the 1960s to the 1990s. She is also laying the groundwork for a cultural biography of women in the ad industry before 1950.
4. For details on the American Enterprise Exhibition, see http://americanhistory.si.edu/american-enterprise-exhibition.