Smith, Myron Bement, 1897-1970

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Classical archaeologist, architect, and art historian Myron Bement Smith (1897-1970) had a life-long devotion to West Asia, accumulating some 87,000 items now in the Archives documenting Islamic art and culture from Spain to India, with an emphasis on architecture. Established in 1948 to further an appreciation for Persian art and culture, nearly seventy-five percent of Smith's "Islamic Archives" consists of his own work; the remainder obtained from other sources. Smith's own negatives, taken from 1933 to 1947, accompany images in a six-volume logbook portraying Persian architecture and monuments, in particular the vaulting of the Masjid-i D'Juma at Isfahan, Iran. One of the most significant portions of the "Islamic Archives" is the photographic material of Antoin Sevruguin, a commercial photographer in Tehran active during the 1870s to 1930. His nearly 800 photographs depict the shahs, royal palaces, military ceremonies, and daily aspects of Persian life. Other materials in the collection include Smith's personal and professional papers including correspondence, research files, writings, and documentation regarding his 1927-1928 Italian and 1933-1937 Iranian expeditions.

Myron Bement Smith was born in Newark Valley, New York in 1897 and grew up in Rochester, New York . He died in Washington D.C. in 1970. He showed an early interest in drawing, and after graduation from high school, he worked as a draftsman for a Rochester architect. He served in the US Army Medical Corps in France during World War I and on return again worked as a architectural draftsman. He studied at Yale University from 1922 to 1926, earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. During summer vacations, he worked as draftsman or designer for architectural firms in New York City . After graduation, he received a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation grant and spent two years in Italy doing research on northern Italian brick and stone work. He used photography as an tool for his research and published several well-illustrated articles. On return he joined an architectural firm in Philadelphia and in 1931 became a registered architect in New York. He enrolled in Harvard University graduate school in 1929 pursuing a Master of Fine Arts degree.

In April 1930, Smith was appointed Secretary of the newly created American Institute for Persian Art and Archaeology founded by Arthur Upham Pope and located in New York City. He had no prior academic or work experience in Islamic art or architecture, and his job entailed designing publications, arranging lectures, organizing exhibitions and fund raising. That summer he arranged an independent study course at Harvard University on Persian Art and subsequently studied Persian language at Columbia University and attended graduate courses at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University . His work and academic credentials enabled him to compete successfully for a research fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies in 1933 to study Iranian Islamic architecture.

Accompanied by his new bride Katharine Dennis, Smith left for Iran in 1933. They suffered a horrendous motor vehicle accident in Iraq en route and required a lengthy recuperation in Lebanon and Cyprus. The Smiths eventually arrived in Isfahan, Iran, where they established their “Expedition House,” as Smith called it, in a rented faculty house at Stuart College . Smith’s research consisted of meticulous photographic documentation of Islamic monuments and architectural sketches and drawings of many of them. He concentrated on the Isfahan area but also documented monuments elsewhere in Iran. Smith outfitted his station wagon as a combination camper and research vehicle in which he and his staff traveled widely. Katharine sometimes traveled with him but generally she remained in Isfahan managing the household and logistics for the “expedition.” The Smiths left Iran in 1937.

Smith published several articles about Iran’s Islamic monuments based on his field research and in 1947 completed his PhD thesis for The Johns Hopkins University on the vault in Persian architecture. His professional career from 1938 until his death in 1970 consisted of a series of temporary academic positions, contract work and government or academic sponsored lecture tours and photographic exhibits. He had a long lasting relationship with the Library of Congress where he served as an Honorary Consultant from 1938 to 1940 and again from 1948 to 1970; from 1943 to 1944 he was Chief of the Iranian Section at the Library. Despite his lack of published material, Smith was well-known among academic, government and private citizens who worked, traveled or were otherwise interested Iran and the Islamic world.

Smith developed an extensive network of professional and social contacts that dated from his early student days and increased markedly during his time at the Persian Institute and later in Iran. He kept in touch with them and they touted him to others who were interested in Iran or Islamic art and architecture. This network served him well in realizing his ambition of creating a resource for scholars that relied on photographs to document Islamic architecture. This Islamic Archives began with his own collection of photographs from his Iran research and grew to include all manner of photographic and other materials not only on the Islamic world but also other areas. Creating and managing the Archives became the main focus of Smith’s professional life and career after his return from Iran in 1937. In 1967 he received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to revise his PhD thesis as a publishable manuscript but died before he could complete it.

From the guide to the Myron Bement Smith collection, circa 1910-1970, (The Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
referencedIn Arthur Upham Pope papers, 1921-1951 New York Public Library. Manuscripts and Archives Division
referencedIn Sachs, Paul J. (Paul Joseph), 1878-1965. Papers, 1903-2005. Harvard University Art Museum
creatorOf Pope, Arthur Upham, 1881-1969. Arthur Upham Pope papers, 1921-1951. New York Public Library System, NYPL
creatorOf Myron Bement Smith collection, circa 1910-1970 Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives
referencedIn Myron Bement Smith collection, circa 1910-1970 Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives
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