The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Category: Smithsonian History
Whenever March 24th rolls around, I stop to fondly recall Frank A. Taylor, the founding director of the National Museum of American History. Long after his retirement, his Smithsonian family would throw an annual birthday party for him, from the time he turned 90 until his death at 104! His 100th birthday party was especially memorable with former colleagues traveling to Chevy Chase, Maryland, from around the world. And for the next two years after he passed away in 2007, we continued to gather and offer a toast to Frank.
A tall, distinguished-looking man with a very deep voice, Taylor commanded respect and affection. I was privileged to conduct a series of oral history interviews with him and began to understand his exceptional management skills. Frank Taylor was a great listener, who could hear both sides of an argument, even when he passionately held an opposite point of view. With that respectful understanding of each person’s point of view, he was able to negotiate compromise and find solutions to thorny disputes.
Nicknamed “Mr. Museum,” Taylor did not start out interested in the Smithsonian. During his youth in Washington, DC, he would ride his bike right past the imposing museum buildings on the Mall, down to the Tidal Basin to fish or while away a summer’s day. He never visited the Smithsonian until he received a call about a job opening after he had graduated from high school.
Having passed the Civil Service draftsman exam, in 1922 he was appointed a Laboratory Apprentice in the Division of Mechanical Technology in the Arts and Industries Building and the rest was . . . history. He pursued advanced degrees, including a law degree, and when he retired in 1971, he held the title of Director-General of Museums. Lost without his steady guidance, Secretary S. Dillon Ripley convinced him to come back to work as a consultant for another twelve years.
Of his many achievements, Taylor is most known for building the National Museum of American History (first known as the Museum of History and Technology) to replace the crowded collections in corners of the Arts and Industries and Natural History Buildings. Taylor served in Europe during World War II, and when he returned he found the Smithsonian’s National Museum looking very shabby. He created an “Exhibits Modernization Committee” and that group oversaw a systematic renovation of all the exhibits in the museums. Festive exhibit openings for Capitol Hill staffers and Washington elite convinced these funders that the Smithsonian could effectively use money for a new building. And in January of 1964, Taylor’s lifetime dream came true when the first architecturally modern building on the National Mall opened to house the nation’s history collections.
Audio Clips from the Frank A. Taylor Oral History Interviews:
Interview 6, March 27, 1974, in which he describes the opening held for staff the day before the formal opening of the museum – “one of the happiest evenings of my life.” Record Unit 9512 - Oral history interviews with Frank A. Taylor, 1974, 1979-1980, 1982, 2005, Smithsonian Institution Archives.
Interview 14, November 26, 1980, where he talks about staff excitement when he was invited to visit European museums – very unusual for a Smithsonian historian! Record Unit 9512 - Oral history interviews with Frank A. Taylor, 1974, 1979-1980, 1982, 2005, Smithsonian Institution Archives.
From 1922 to 1984, Taylor devoted 62 years to the Institution he had so come to love. His dry humor and steady temperament defused many a contentious meeting. He shared his long experience and wisdom with generations of younger colleagues, serving as a role model and setting standards for all who followed him.
- Record Unit 9512 - Oral history interviews with Frank A. Taylor, 1974, 1979-1980, 1982, 2005, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Frank A. Taylor Oral History Interviews, Capitol Hill Historical Society
How did a woman become a curator of Crustacea at the Smithsonian's National Museum in the 19th century? Historian Sally Kohlstedt wrote a ground-breaking article "In from the Periphery," in Signs in 1978 that identified the circuitous ways women entered science in those years. Since it was unlikely for women to be able to get Ph.D's in this line of work from prestigious universities, family connections, traditional female work roles, and volunteering were some of the ways women broke in to scientific careers. The Smithsonian's first full time female curator, Mary Jane Rathbun (1860-1943), used them all! The diminutive young lady from Buffalo, New York, lost her mother when she was only a year old and learned to make her way through life quite independently.
Mary Jane was not educated beyond high school, but had been interested in fossils since childhood. She first saw the ocean in 1881 when she accompanied her brother, Richard Rathbun, a biologist, to Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and then to the Smithsonian's National Museum. For three years, she helped label, sort and record specimens, before being appointed a Smithsonian clerk. While Richard traveled frequently, Mary Jane took over the day‑to‑day duties of his office and set out to learn all there was to know about marine biology. She focused on the classification of decapod Crustacea, that is, shrimps, crabs and their near relatives, and soon amassed a large collection.
As her brother moved into Smithsonian administration, Mary Jane continued to work at the museum, largely unaided. She was appointed second assistant curator of marine invertebrates in 1894 and after a mere 28 years she advanced to assistant curator in charge of the division in 1907! Appointment to a professional position was no small feat for a woman in the 1890s; it would be two more years before the United States Geological Survey appointed its first woman scientist. The fact that her brother was now Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian probably helped her cause. As historian Margaret Rossiter has shown, in the 19th century civil service jobs were classified by sex, that is, when announcing a vacancy, the supervisor had to indicate whether a man or woman was wanted for the job. Thus, most professional jobs were not open to women unless they were specifically announced with the woman in mind.
Before the Natural History Museum opened in 1910, Mary Jane worked in the Castle, often needing to go to the basement to work with specimens. The 4' 6" scientist would open the door to the winding staircase to the dark basement and stomp her feet repeatedly to scare away the rats, and descend carrying large trays of specimens. She was rarely daunted; indeed, she was so devoted to her work that, during a flood, she commuted to work via a rowboat. She reportedly brought her lunch to work every day so as not to lose time for research, and by the end of her career, had written an impressive 166 articles and books.
Even though she was the Smithsonian's first paid fulltime woman scientist, in 1914, Rathbun resigned her hard‑won position so the salary could be given to her protégé, Waldo LaSalle Schmitt. She was named honorary curator and continued her research at the museum for another twenty‑five years, completing her monumental four volume series on the crabs of America. These volumes were even used by Emperor Hirohito (1901-1989) of Japan, a skilled collector and an avid and lifelong marine biologist, to identify his collections. In her last years, Mary Jane's memory began to fail her, but she still enjoyed working with her crabs. Schmitt would pick up his mentor in the morning, bring her to the museum and set a tray of unsorted crab specimens in front of her which she would happily work on all day. She'd return the next day and start work on the same tray again. The diminutive but determined carcinologist worked daily in the museum until five years before her death at the age of 82, leaving a well-curated collection, her extensive carcinological library, a bequest of $10,000 for further work on decapod Crustacea, as well as an impressive list of published contributions to science.
- A Brief History of the Invertebrate Zoology Department, by Dr. Fenner A. Chace Jr., National Museum of Natural History
- Richard Rathbun: The Smithsonian's Renaissance Man, by Amy Ballard, Unearthed blog, National Museum of Natural History
- Record Unit 7256 - Mary Jane Rathbun Papers, 1886, 1886-1938, 1886-1938 and undated, Smithsonian Institution Archives
This year, the United States team is sending 230 athletes to Sochi, Russia, the most any nation has ever sent to a winter Olympics. Some of the most promising American athletes are the ice dancing team of Meryl Davis and Charlie White. Though traditionally the other divisions of skating are more talked about in the United States, it seems that the Smithsonian has a strong history in the sport.
In the early eighties the Smithsonian had several skate “clubs.” One of the clubs was a competitive group who practiced two to three times a week throughout the year. The group included Lydia Paley, a museum technician in the National Museum of Natural History’s (NMNH) Discovery Room; Bette Walker, a secretary at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden; Martha Goodway, a metallurgist for the Conservation Analytical Lab (now Museum Conservation Institute); Christine Smith, a paper conservator at the National Portrait Gallery; and Gary Sturm, a specialist in the National Museum of American History’s Division of Musical Instruments. For the club, winter practices got much easier when they met at the National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden outdoor rink where the skaters would learn the twenty defined ice dancing routines required by the United States Figure Skating Association. For this group, practice made perfect, and Smith and Strum were awarded the Walter C. Sheen and Sidney Asher trophies Ice Club of Washington for Male and Female Skaters of 1980 for their ice dancing achievements throughout the year.
While some Smithsonian skaters competed, others simply used the activity to clear their mind during the work day. Almost every day during the winter of 1980 a crowd of Smithsonian staff glided over to the rink on the National Mall to take a break and skate up a sweat. One pair, Phyllis Spangler, a Museum Technician for the Medical Entomology Project of the NMNH’s Department of Entomology, and her husband Paul Spangler, an Associate Curator in the NMNH’s Department of Entomology, put their work on ice, and strapped on their skates to perfect a pair’s routine.
The frigid temperatures this year ensure that you’ll have good ice conditions, if you want to take up a new activity, and the National Gallery ice skating rink could not be more convenient. So whether you are a competitor, amateur, or just someone who wants to get into the Olympic spirit, check out the history of the featured sports and you might be surprised how popular they are!
- Record Unit 371 - Smithsonian Institution Office of Public Affairs, The Torch, 1955-1960, 1965-1988, Smithsonian Insttution Archives
Secretary S. Dillion Ripley commissioned Charles Eames to design a structure for the carousel located on the National Mall. The pavilion was intended to protect it from the elements and allow the carousel to be enjoyed year round. Although never realized, Eames did produce a sketch and a model of the structure.
- A Favorite - The Smithsonian Carousel, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
On the evening of January 22, 1964, the Smithsonian hosted an A-List party to dedicate its newest museum, the Museum of History and Technology, now the National Museum of American History. The building was the dream of its first director, Frank A. Taylor, who had joined the National Museum staff after high school, and after graduate school, advanced to Curator, Director, and Director General of all Smithsonian museums. When Taylor returned from World War II, he recalled in an oral history interview, the exhibits in the old National Museum buildings looked shabby and out of date. He first led an Exhibits Modernization Program, which oversaw the renovation of all the National Museum's exhibits from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s. The new exhibits attracted new interest in the Institution among the U. S. Congress and donors. The Smithsonian had been attempting to establish a separate history museum since the 1920s, but had met with little support. Taylor initially sought to build a museum of technology, like the Deutsches Museum in Germany, but was convinced to include plans for a museum of American history. With the support of the new Secretary, Leonard Carmichael, legislation was signed into law on June 31, 1956, creating the new museum. The first modern building on the National Mall, the new museum opened with ten exhibit halls completed, with an additional fifty opening in the following years.
Former history teacher and Smithsonian supporter President Lyndon Johnson dedicated the building on January 22, at a black tie party attended by Members of Congress, philanthropists, Smithsonian Regents, and many other distinguished guests. The party was not without its hiccups, Taylor recalled. The U. S. Secret Service was present since the President was speaking, and they sprang into action when someone accidently bumped against the stage light switch and turned it off. Shortly thereafter, the wife of a member of the Smithsonian Board of Regents could no longer see her husband on stage. He was recovering from a serious heart attack, so she alerted the Secret Service, who once again sprang into action, only to find he had moved his seat a bit and was hidden behind another person. But overall the party was a great success, setting the stage for the Secretary-elect S. Dillon Ripley, who assumed office that week and oversaw the Institution's great period of growth from 1964 to 1984.
The Museum opened to the public on January 23rd, and in the first weekend, 54,000 people visited the new Museum. The new halls included the Flag Hall, First Ladies' Hall, and the halls of Everyday Life in the American Past, American Costume, Farm Machinery, Light Machinery, Tools, Vehicles, Railroads, as well as a temporary exhibition presenting examples of exhibits to be installed in other halls of the building.
So we send out congratulations for a happy 50th anniversary to the National Museum of American History and all the staff and volunteers who have made it a success in the past five decades!
- National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Record Unit 285 - National Museum of History and Technology, Office of the Director, Photographs, 1920s-1970s, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Record Unit 9512 - Oral history interviews with Frank A. Taylor 1974, 1979-1980, 1982, 2005, Smithsonian Institution Archives