An Old Mystery Solved

In my wayward youth, I helped to digitize a journal from the Harriman Alaska Expedition1. As I was looking through the journal, the other notes that were in the L.A. Fuertes papers, one of the librarians, AA, mentioned that there were a lot more artifacts from the expedition around Cornell.

In particular, she mentioned that there were a few totem poles from the expedition. My memory of this was that either there were records of these totem poles in an old inventory; there is a photograph of one on display on campus; or something along these lines. But then, it seemingly disappeared; there were thoughts it might be in a remote warehouse2, but no one was completely sure.

This was probably about 1994, and there was already a pretty serious conversation that the owning institutions should be giving these kinds of artifacts back to their original owners. In retrospect, there had probably already been a committee formed to do an inventory of potential items, along with their provenance and condition. Likely they used old inventories to help ensure nothing was missed, and this is how the totem poles came up.

So, today at the Burke, I see this sign:

So, it begins to explain some of the mystery. Maybe the Harriman poles were never at Cornell in the first place. After the holidays are over, and people are back at work, I’ll drop an e-mail to a curator, and ask if there’s any details on how the totem poles got to the Burke.

The digitization project was fascinating.3 It was very “early 90s,” half in the internet, half in that weird early-90s era of dead-end tech. The archival picturs were taken with a standard 35mm archival camera set-up, then digitized. These were on Kodak PhotoCDs, which were actually a surprisingly good solution at the time: the scans were high-quality and cheap, and there was always the original 35mm negatives to go back to.

One of my jobs was to take the 100-odd images on the PhotoCD and convert them to high and low-resolution JPEGs4. It took me about a day per CD, and there were a lot of CDs. I suggested this program DeBabelizer, and I finished the entire re-formatting project in two days.

Then I went on to write a dynamic website using Hypercard, AppleEvents, and a bunch of comma-separated lists. It was amazingly slow. Like it took five to ten seconds to run. But that is probably another story.5

  1. I keep on wanting someone to write a critical history of the Harriman expedition. I have a feeling that, even at the time, it was probably a bit problematic. 

  2. Like “Binghampton” remote; definitely not on campus. 

  3. That was a weird summer at the RMC. There was the Fuertes project, and the imfamous video collection. The project lead and I bonded over one of the better quotes in the journal: “Rufus Hummers were very common, and one pair of Sooty Song Sparrows were nesting near the woods in a clearing. The female I shot.” 

  4. I might have even created low-resolution GIFs. The 256 color limitation was a real thing back then. I even remember talking to a friend seriously suggesting a high-quality grey screen laptop would be good. 

  5. One of the weirdnesses of institutions like universities is how important “color of moneu’ is, and the different sources of money and resources. On this project, we had a choice of two machines: a fast, brand-new Macintosh 8100 with the PowerPC chip, but, well, running MacOS 8.0 or something; or the 6th fastest supercomputer at the time. (Interesting: both were running on a PowerPC architecture chip.)