The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Category: Smithsonian History
This month marks the 10 year anniversary of the twin Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity's arrive on the surface of Mars. The National Air and Space Museum exhibition, Spirit & Opportunity: 10 Years Roving Across Mars, celebrates the amazing images and achievements of the two Mars Exploration Rovers after 10 years of exploring the Red Planet.
The National Air and Space Museum is America's most visited museum. Here's a look at just a few images from their past.
- History of the National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution Archives
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
Today marks the 10th Anniversary of the legislation which established the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) at the Smithsonian Institution. Here is a timeline of key moments in their history thus far:
- December 16, 2003 - Public Law 108-184 - National Museum of African American History and Culture Act establishes the museum at the Smithsonian
- October 2004 - Board of Regents appoints nineteen members to the National Museum of African American History and Culture Council to serve as advisors to the project
- March 14, 2005 - Lonnie G. Bunch III, then director of the Chicago Historical Society, was appointed Founding Director of the museum
- January of 2006 - Board of Regents selects the museum site on the National Mall near the Washington Monument on the southwest corner of 14th Street and Constitution Avenue, Northwest
- 2007-2008 - Staff complete extensive planning for the museum building, and an Environmental and Historic Preservation Report in May 2008
- 2007 - Museum staff complete their inaugural exhibit, Let Your Motto Be Resistance: African American Portraits, at the National Museum of American History
- 2008 - Save Our African American Treasures Program begins with workshops on the preservation of historical materials for African American communities across the country
- April 2009 - The design team of Freelon Adjaye Bond/Smith Group was selected from among twenty-two entries submitted by architectural firms worldwide
- 2010 - Exhibition - Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing: How the Apollo Theater Shaped American Entertainment
- 2011 - Exhibition - The Kinsey Collection: Shared Treasures of Bernard and Shirley Kinsey, Where Art and History Intersect and For All the World to See
- February 22, 2012 - Groundbreaking ceremony for the museum
- November 17, 2013 - First objects get installed in the museum
Ten years ago on December 15 the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center opened in Chantilly, Virginia, near the Washington Dulles International Airport. It coincided with the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers' first powered flight. Festivities leading up to the public opening day included a "Salute to Military Aviation Veterans," an opening celebration gala, and the dedication.
Part of the National Air and Space Museum, it serves as the companion facility to the museum on the Mall. Its two hangars, the James S. McDonnell Space Hangar and the Boeing Aviation Hangar, amounts to 760,000 square feet. While the museum on the Mall can only display about 10 percent of the collections at a time, the immense Udvar-Hazy Center allows 80 percent of the collection to be on view.
These two facilities present the largest collection of aviation and space artifacts in the world. Exhibition areas feature such topics from general aviation to modern military aviation to human spaceflight. It also has classrooms, an IMAX theater, and observation tower. Various artifacts include the space shuttle Discovery, a Concorde, and the restored Enola Gay.
The Center is named after donor Steven Udvar-Hazy, now chief executive officer of Air Lease Corp., who had pledged a total of $65 million for the project. Udvar-Hazy came to the United States with his family in 1958 as they fled Soviet-occupied Hungary. He would go on to co-found International Lease Finance Corp. while a student at UCLA. The successful aviation business leader wanted to give back to America with his donation to the Smithsonian. Congress had mandated that only non-federal funds be used for the construction.
"I'm thrilled to have the National Air and Space Museum's companion facility named in my honor. I know this new museum will impart to millions of children the same love for aviation that I have, and it will inspire future generations," Udvar-Hazy said in 2000.
The architectural firm HKO (formerly Hellmuth, Obata + Kassabaum) designed the National Air and Space Museum on the Mall, and it also was selected to create the new facility. Built in two phases the cost was estimated at $311 million to complete.
This seems like a fitting time to share some of the digital files that we have in the Archives about the opening of this facility. This includes documentation leading up to the opening, plans for the objects and construction issues, as well as images of the dedication and opening ceremonies.
- Udvar-Hazy Center, National Air and Space Museum
- Press release - National Air and Space Museum Opens the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center on December 15, 2003, National Air and Space Museum
- Accession 07-183 - National Air and Space Museum, National Air and Space Society, Event Records, 1996-2006, Smithsonian Institution Archives
In a recent reference inquiry a patron was interested in an unusually large mammoth skeleton that was presented to the United States National Museum (presently the National Museum of Natural History) in 1926, and whether President Calvin Coolidge and his wife Grace, received a private viewing of this specimen in April 1927.
My first course of action was to conduct a search of our holdings for "Calvin Coolidge." This search produced eight results, one of which was Record Unit 46 - Smithsonian Institution, Office of the Secretary Records, 1925-1949. I reviewed the Calvin Coolidge correspondence in Box 8 of this collection, but did not find correspondence related to a visit in April 1927. I then reviewed the index for the Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution . . . for the Year Ending June 30, 1927, for "Coolidge, Calvin," and found six such references, including one for Grace Coolidge. Pursuing these references, it became evident that President Coolidge was part of a "Conference on the Future of the Institution," which occurred in February 1927.
Furthermore, it was revealed that Grace donated a "white satin brocaded evening dress, worn in the White House, for the series of costumes of the wives of the President." A review of the Report on the Progress and Condition of the United States National Museum for the Year Ended June 30, 1927, (page 147) revealed that the donation by Grace was assigned Accession Number 93081, which led me to our collection of Accession Records (Record Unit 192 - United States National Museum, Permanent Administrative Files, 1877-1975). The correspondence accompanying the accession record includes a letter acknowledging that Grace visited the Division of History on May 26, 1927 to inspect a figure crafted to embellish the dress she recently donated.
So far what I have been able to establish is that President Coolidge attended a conference at the Smithsonian in February and Grace Coolidge visited the United States National Museum in May 1927. Although there is no correspondence specifically referencing a private viewing of a mammoth specimen in April 1927, there is evidence that the two visited or had contact with the Smithsonian during the period of February-May of the year in question. Now, what about the mammoth specimen?
A review of the Annual Report, Division of Vertebrate Paleontology, 1926-1927 found in Record Unit 158 - United States National Museum, Curators' Annual Reports, 1881-1964, acknowledges that, not only did the division receive a portion of an unusually large mammoth specimen in 1927; furthermore, the specimen had been restored, mounted, and placed in a wall case in the main hall of the United States National Museum!
Admittedly, there is no direct evidence to confirm President Coolidge and his wife, Grace visited the Smithsonian and received a private viewing of a mammoth specimen in April 1927. Reviewing the appropriate resources available revealed that the Smithsonian did indeed receive such a specimen, which was put on display in the main hall of the Unites States National Museum. There is also evidence that the Coolidge's visited and donated to the museum during the time in question. Perhaps the Calvin Coolidge Papers held by the Library of Congress, contains evidence of an April 1927 visit to the Smithsonian. This suggestion was passed along to the patron and hopefully will provide the answer they are looking for.
As for the unexpected, the stumbled upon; the August 12, 1929 letter found in Record Unit 46 suggests that Calvin Coolidge, then a private citizen six months beyond his tenure as President, may have been able to raise two or three million dollars for a new building for the Smithsonian. Did this ever come to fruition? A new question to consider, and the whole process begins again.
- Record Unit 46 - Office of the Secretary, Records, 1925-1949, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Record Unit 158 - United States National Museum, Curators' Annual Reports, 1881-1964, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Record Unit 192 - United States National Museum, Permanent Adminsitrative Files, 1877-1975, Smithsonian Institution Archives.
- Calvin Coolidge Papers, Library of Congress