Currently viewing the tag: "T. Don Carter"



Today, I finally finished arranging and describing the, let’s say, multi-faceted T. Don Carter Collections. The work of an enterprising scientist such as him is fascinating — as are these ephemeral items from the 1927-28 Roraima Expedition (Front, Back). Little down time, eh?

As far as we know, this collection of negatives represents the last piece of the T. Don Carter Collection. It was discovered in the library stacks recently, not far from where Richard had been working on the collection. It’s certainly a fascinating find: a few hundred negatives, all related to Carter expeditions: to Abyssinia in 1928, Indochina in 1931 and West China in 1934. Today, we focused our energies on making sense of the large collection of negatives from Abyssinia. Consulting the field notes from that expedition, we learned that Carter visited the region in November and December of 1928.

The negatives came to us in no apparent order. There were certain potential series within the collection: portraits of the local population, portraits of Carter and the others on his expedition, shots of the specimens that were gathered, and scenes from camp. Pictures were devoted to the expedition’s mules, which seem to have a special place in Carter’s heart. Not only were these cantankerous animals the subject of many photographs, but their habits and personalities are observed in the notebooks. Alongside the mules, there were plenty of mice, dead or alive. In one curious photo, Carter and a pal hold up their kill — two tiny mice — while resting leaning upon their rifles. How you still get a usable specimen with that kind of firepower is beyond me.

A slightly more sinister photo we found involved nothing less than a plague of locusts. A young man walks across a field, stirring up thousands of locusts that had recently decimated the crops in the area.

I find myself spending a little extra time with T. Don Carter these days, as new materials seem to keep surfacing, along with an evolving orientation on my part toward the arrangement, description and separation criteria of what is now 5 or possibly 6, or possibly 7, distinct but connected collections (Papers, Field Books, Memorabilia, Photographic Prints, Photographic Negatives, Slides, Film). What’s especially interesting as this project expands somewhat, is thinking about how these materials can perhaps be linked in terms of subject and content through encoding and cataloging. How can the disparate but related collections “talk” to each other and provide researchers with the wealth of related primary source materials to enhance their research: not just the field book, but photos of the specimens as well, on top of which the camera itself used to take the photos, as well as the photo contact sheets, etc. This range of materials on a single topic reinforce one another and provide rich historical texture in their variety.

In arranging and describing the T. Donald Carter Field Book Collection, a question emerged that required delving into the topic of field books with more specificity than had previously been required. Though he was AMNH Assistant Curator of Mammals, TDC was what you might call an obsessive bird bander from his youth through post-retirement. Whether it was at his country house in New Jersey or while on expedition in South America for the AMNH, TDC engaged in bird banding activities all the time. What exactly is bird banding, you ask? I had to learn that as well: bird banding is an attempt to track bird migration by placing a ring around one of their feet. The TDC bird banding books include recorded date regarding dates, locations and numerical values assigned to different birds. I was unsure if these activities, outside of the scope of TDC’s official scientific department and conducted outside of his purview as AMNH mammals curator, constituted field books, as the TDC personal Papers are a distinct collection from the Field Books from scientific expeditions sponsored by the musuem.

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The AMNH Research Library Memorabilia Collection is held on the 7th floor stacks, and contains objects, such as “ephemeral components of exhibition, scientific and documentary equipment, as well as collections of personal artifacts”, according to the Library website. Anyone who has been shown around up there knows the cabinet of curiosities-like atmosphere it has. In consultation with Iris and Barbara today, it was decided that a portion of the T. Donald Carter Collection would be housed in the Memorabilia Collection, most of it objects associated with his time in the Army.

Those slim blue volumes tied up with the red bow, however, are Chinese entrance visas, certainly from one of T. Don’s countless scientific expeditions. There are a few visas for T. Don himself, and a few others for those who, presumably, he traveled with. For some reason, this one made me think of a Cold War-era double agent thriller in Mao’s China.

Both before and during his tenure as Assistant Curator of Mammals at AMNH, T. Donald Carter went on many expeditions. Today in my work on our collection of his materials, I came across many of his field notes and expedition diaries. A diary from 1927-28 is labeled as Roraina, a name I was not familiar with. A little investigation proved it is the name ofa mountain that straddles the Brazilian, Venezuelan and Guyanan borders. At the time of T. Donald Carter’s expedition it would have been located in British Guiana (the same expedition, I think, during which he rubbed shoulders with a post-White House Theodore Roosevelt). I was rather shocked when I discovered what this mountain looks like:

What’s also exciting is that a 16mm film taken on that voyage, the Day Roraima Expedition, is in the AMNH collections and has been transferred to videocassette and according to the catalog is available. Their base camp was atop the 8,600 ft. summit. Another interesting locale I’d never heard of before that T. Donald Carter visited in his capacity as a zoologist isUngava Bay in far north Quebec. A search of the AMNH catalog for “Ungava” does bring up the T. Donald Carter papers. Here it displays wonderful Arctic moodiness:

In February 1916, a 23 year old T. Donald Carter was on an expedition in what was then called British Guiana. A letter to his parents opens with this exciting detail: “I received a letter from you last night dated Feb. 8. You can’t guess who brought it in – T.R. himself”. The letter goes on to describe the future AMNH assistant mammals curator’s interactions with the former president — and vampire bats.

Another expedition later on in the zoological career of T. Donald Carter, in 1947, was a trip accompanying the gentleman explorer Hugo Rutherford and his wife on a 10 month trek in Africa. Carter is pictured with the Rutherfords in the AMNH in a New York Sun article, and their supply inventory for the trip — 12 bottles of scotch in addition to the firearms — survives as well. An extremely interesting item is a hand-drawn map from the field, with place names written in French and depicting the border region around the nation of Chad. This item brought up a conservation/logistics question for me, as it is many-times folded in order to fit in a standard sized folder, and simply begs to be rehoused in mylar and stored in an oversize area. I’m not sure of the AMNH Library Special Collections oversize stacks or what the next action to take is.

Working solo on Tuesdays for the time being, my first day on the AMNH Archive Project consisted of surveying the T. Donald Carter manuscript collection for possible improvements in arrangement and description. It is a truly fascinating collection of materials produced by a highly accomplished zoologist. From the OPAC record: “Carter participated in 27 expeditions in North and South America, Africa, China and Indochina, and collected over 10,000 specimens, mostly mammals and birds, with some reptiles, contributing significantly to the contents of the AMNH exhibit halls for Asia, Africa and North America. He served in the U.S. Army during World War I, and spent a year with the Pigeon Service of the Signal Corps”. I’d love to find out more about the Pigeon Service of the Signal Corps. The collection consists of correspondence, diaries, notebooks, manuscripts, articles and reviews, clippings, memorabilia, photographs and audio recordings. The arrangement is basically good, but there are certain redundancies and head-scratchers, like the physical separation of pages from diaries from those diaries. The question I would offer moving forward from my afternoon of surveying is in regard to the Field Notes Registry that Smithsonian is developing and that we’re contributing to. There are probably two dozen or so bound volumes of varying size and length that include field observations, so I’m wondering what the procedure is to flag them for inclusion in the Field Note Registry.