The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Category: Smithsonian History
It was recounted as a “soul-depressing” sound, a monotonous wail, a “dolorous note” in the night. Residents took up arms against the apparition in a “tragic” appeal to put an end to the noise—for a watchman, a gun, for a boy, a slingshot. The phantom noise lingered on. The only explanation? This bird with the “weird” cry terrorizing the town was the disturbed spirit of another winged creature who had given up its life “for the sake of science and now fill[s] the cases of the Smithsonian.”
The Smithsonian was full of things that went bump in the night, according to one vivid 1900 Washington Post article, which detailed DC residents’ desperate attempts to quiet this bird’s wail. Though the spirt of the bird on display was thought to have flown the coop, the story also details other strange and spooky happenings within the museum’s halls itself. In 1900, those apparitions would have been located in what is now known as the Arts and Industries Building, then called the US National Museum. Museum watchmen told the Post that they had seen all sorts of disquieting sights after the museum’s doors had shut to visitors: Haunted bronze animals that “assume a livelier air by night,” joining the screeching bird in making the night “hideous” for those they encountered. The scrape of formless feet, or voices calling out. Masks that moved about in their cases.
Staff at the museum after-hours also claimed to be working alongside the ghosts of past Smithsonian scientists who incorporeally supervised the collections they had once been so devoted to. The most active ghost, the Post reported, was that of the Smithsonian’s first curator and its second Secretary, Spencer Fullerton Baird. Nearly all the Smithsonian’s night watchmen had reported spotting Baird, though his figure disappeared if a passersby tried to chat with him. The spirt of Baird’s predecessor, Secretary Joseph Henry, was a frequent visitor too, according to the watchmen. Henry was often spotted, “fully clothed in the garments he wore in life,” walking through the exhibits before returning to his post—the museum’s statue in his likeness.
Some other popular stories ended up being less about haunted spirits and more about human error. A night watchman, for example, once fled the building, thinking he had witnessed a suicide in the building’s central fountain. The body he saw turned out to be a diving suit. There is also the tale of the evening guard who thought a Japanese warrior mannequin had come to life, sending him hurrying up the stairs “for a safer vantage ground.” The mannequin, though, had just been moved out of its case to be photographed.
The incident with Jesse Beach, a spirited Museum Aide in the Department of Geology, became another Smithsonian tall tale. In her later years Beach actually moved into the Museum of Natural History, where she liked to wander through the halls at night. Beach, with her long white hair and nightgown, was often mistaken as a ghost by new evening guards. Or things got a little more awkward, as was the case with one guard who accidentally walked in on her taking a bath in the geology lab. Thanks to Beach’s nighttime wanderings, Smithsonian Secretary Alexander Wetmore required museum staff to start going home by midnight—aside from his ghostly predecessors, of course.
Stories from the Museum of Natural History, Unearthed, The National Museum of Natural History Unearthed
Urban Legends About the Smithsonian, Smithsonian Magazine
Phantoms of Museum, The Washington Post, May 13, 1900.
Yesterday we here at the Smithsonian celebrated the installation of our thirteenth Secretary, David J. Skorton. Festivities were lively as staff, volunteers, fellows, and interns gathered in the Arts & Industries Building to see members of the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents, including U.S. Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Roberts, induct the Smithsonian’s 13th Secretary, Dr. David Skorton, with the mace and key to the Castle.
The key is one of the original keys to the Smithsonian Institution Building and is presented to the incoming Secretary as a symbol of knowledge and guardianship. The Smithsonian mace was commissioned by Secretary Ripley in anticipation of the bicentennial of James Smithson’s birth. Traditionally a symbol of authority, the Smithsonian mace symbolizes knowledge, freedom, and progress: a reminder of the Smithsonian’s role in research and education.
Along with an academic procession, these symbols of office and authority gave the ceremony a serious tone that was balanced by a joyful performance by Wynton Marsalis and the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra. Marsalis performed a musical interlude on a trumpet owned and used by Louis Armstrong. Engraved with Armstrong’s name, this trumpet was made for him in Paris in 1946 by Henri Selmer. Adding to the moment, Secretary Skorton talked about the magic that the Smithsonian can inspire, made possible by a love of learning and sense of wonder.
These festivities were the result of many people’s hard work. Here at the archives, we were called on for information about past installation ceremonies and Smithsonian traditions. Event planners wanted to know about previous installation ceremonies. We went through old photos and files from the Secretary’s Office to get an idea of what installation ceremonies looked like.
Leonard Carmichael, our seventh Secretary, was the first to have a formal installation ceremony as he took office. He was also the first secretary to come from outside the Institution. The tradition of the Chief Justice transferring the key to the Castle to the incoming Secretary began with the installation of the eight Secretary, S. Dillion Ripley. He had a public ceremony held in the Great Hall of the Castle where all Smithsonian employees were invited to come and celebrate his installation. Though today’s ceremony will be held inside the Arts & Industries building, Secretaries Adams, Heyman, and Small held their installation ceremonies outside in front of the Statue of Joseph Henry and the Castle. Details like these held in the Archives were critical for the Special Events staff planning yesterday’s event.
We also watched yesterday’s ceremony with interest, collecting information about it for our research files so that we are ready next time someone asks about installation ceremonies. We are saving things like the invitation email that went out to staff, a copy of the program handed out at the ceremony, and any news articles that are written about it. We took note of things like the order of ceremonies, who presided, and where the ceremony was held. While the materials we collect won’t be accessioned into the collection, they will serve as reference materials we can use the next time we are asked about the installation of Smithsonian Secretaries.
Office of the Secretary, Records 1964-1971 Record Unit 99, Smithsonian Institution Archvies
The Torch, November 1994, Accession No. 01-081, Smithsonian Institution Archvies
The Torch, February 2000, Accession No. 05-298, Smithsonian Institution Archvies