Images have power. As a form of language, visual data influences the way we create social meaning and share cultural knowledge. Seeing and then interpreting what we see is critical to our understanding the world from a particular lens or worldview.
Additionally, images have an ability to communicate beyond the power or necessity of words. It is true that a picture can be worth a thousand words, particularly in contemporary cultures that are visually driven. Images offer “thick descriptions” of people, events, places, and particular moments in time. It’s why social media is so popular and instrumental in present-day cultures.
Images also offer first-person perspectives on historical events that help us see and understand from different points of view. Photographs allow us to immerse ourselves in the histories and moments caught in a camera’s lens.
Photographs can be objects or works of art. They can be a form of archival texts that document time, or windows into different cultures and worlds from our past. I like to think that photographs can bear witness. They provide visual evidence of a culture as a testament to our nation’s history.
It is for us to capture images of our times to preserve them for future generations. Fortunately with the availability access to social media and cloud storage today’s youth and those to come can enjoy these photos and many others that were once “lost”.
A photograph is actually an object in many ways. Just as museums are most interested in collecting original three-dimensional artifacts, we collect original photographs, negatives, digital negatives, or digital scans from negatives, depending on why and how the photo will be shared with the public. Antique and vintage photos and negatives are different from the contemporary images that sometimes come to us as digital negatives from the photographer.
In addition to being an object, though, images are also archival documents. So we’d want to collect images as original archival material as well. As a museum operating in the 21st century, we recognize that the original might also include digital files from digital cameras or high-resolution scans of negatives, which helps to stabilize images.
Our job is to share history and preserve American legacies, and sharing and preserving the work of photographers who have documented our nation’s culture and history is part of that.
The provenance and personal stories behind certain images, as well as the donors’ reasons for wanting to donate, are incredibly moving. People support our vision by helping to build the museum through donating family treasures has real value to us. Our collection is like a family album of sorts, with thousands of different branches in the family tree, and each one is significant to telling a broader story. Our donors become an important part of a history, and the sense that the museum is working with a community of people as part of a family aligns with our mission.
Parts of this article are from – Aaron Bryant, NMAAHC’s curator