The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Every now and then, a Smithsonian staff member will mention a story that's circulated in their section, and they want to know if it is true or just the stuff of "song and legend." I got such an email just before I was to go on a short vacation, and I didn't have any time to get to the bottom of it. Nevertheless, I made some progress prior to and over my break, but needed more information from Smithsonian records to verify or discredit this story. So here's what I've found so far, and I'll report in future blogs with further details as they emerge.
First, the story: “Arlton Murray was fired for preaching to visitors under the Diplodocus in the Dinosaur Hall.” Wow! But is it true or false? Luckily, the staff member supplied an image I recognized from our collections.
The image supplied dates from the 1940s and features (R to L) Arlton Murray (Preparator), Norman Boss (Chief Preparator) and Lewis Gazin (Curator) articulating the Paramyladon (fossil sloth) seen here. The image dates from the early 1940s when this specimen was being prepared for display.
A webpage detailing Murray's career gave dates and more to work with: Murray's life dates (1912-2006), a middle initial and that he worked for the Smithsonian for 27 years as a Paleo-Osteological preparator and field collector in the Division of Vertebrate Paleontology. It also provided two YouTube videos of Arlton Murray talking about his time at Smithsonian and subsequent career. Bonus! That never happens! So, I read the webpage and clicked on its' links and watched the YouTube videos. Some of the facts it provided needed further investigation, so I got started.
Arlton C[lay] Murray, a native Washingtonian who, while at the Boy Scout Camp Roosevelt on the Chesapeake Bay [he became an Eagle Scout on August 20, 1929], collected a skull from the Calvert Cliffs formation in 1928. In 1930, he brought the skull to the Smithsonian for identification by Charles Gilmore, a curator in Vertebrate Paleontology.
Gilmore identified the skull as, Eurhinodelphis bossi Kellogg (as a fossil porpoise) and Murray gave it to the Vertebrate Paleontology collection (Accn. # 153257, USNM catalog # V15613). Murray says that this visit to the museum was when, "the fossil bug bit me." Eventually, Gilmore contacted Murray about coming to work at the Smithsonian through an arrangement with the Works Progress/Projects Administration (WPA).
During the Depression, the Smithsonian used many WPA workers until the program ended in 1943. These men and women worked throughout the Institution including our bindery, as library catalogers, in various labs, and on construction projects at the National Zoo. Although, lists naming workers and their assignments at the SI are not in our records, they are likely held in the National Archives and Records Administration in Record Group 69. (If there is anyone out there who has the time to look, please let me know what you find.)
OK. So Murray wasn't employed by the Smithsonian in 1930, as he claims in the YouTube video, rather he was assigned to work here by the Civil Works Administration (CWA) – this program morphed into the WPA. Splitting hairs? Not really, working at and working for, are different. Nevertheless, he did work for the Smithsonian at some point, but from when to when? This is what I managed to find . . .
A few letters between Gilmore and Murray, I found before my break, probably put his start date at c. 1933 (Record Unit 156 - United States National Museum, Division of Vertebrate Paleontology, Records, circa 1889-1957, box 12, folder 1 and the Annual Report of the US National Museum, 1934 – ref. to 14 unnamed CWA workers assigned to the Department of Geology). But, Murray definitely worked in the Department of Geology, Division of Vertebrate Paleontology, preparing fossils for study and display – his 1940 Census record lists his occupation as “preparator” and his employer as WPA. (Note: His record in the 1940 DC Census is mis-indexed under Alton Murray, but the “R” is there if you look closely.) Once the WPA folded, however, according to Murray's video history, he was urged to take the Civil Service Exam, passed and came on board at the Smithsonian. That means he started working at the Smithsonian as a Federal employee, c. 1943-1945.
His WPA service and later Federal employee status explains why I couldn't find a Smithsonian personnel file to quickly solve the mystery - The Smithsonian has two types of employees, Trust and Federal. Trust Fund employees are paid out of funds from the Smithson Endowment and the Smithsonian Institution Archives is custodian of these employee files. Federal employee records are cared for by the National Archives.
Murray's video testimony on YouTube says he had a religious epiphany at a revival in Maryland and his interest turned away from the age of the rocks and toward the “Rock of Ages.” His conversion to Christianity and opposition to evolution was dramatized in a radio episode of the Pacific Garden Mission's radio series, “Unshackled.” The episode, # 2425 “Mr. Fossil,” gave a few more dates and events to follow-up on.
So the next step is to find him listed as an Smithsonian employee, probably starting c. 1943-1945. Luckily the Archives has annual reports, curator's annual reports, institutional directories and other divisional records that may help to pinpoint his start date as a bone fide Smithsonian employee, when he left, and maybe why.
To Be Continued . . .
- Record Unit 156 - United States National Museum, Division of Vertebrate Paleontology, Records, circa 1889-1957, Smithsonian Institution Archives
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