The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Category: Smithsonian History
The 1846 legislation that established the Smithsonian Institution provided for a Secretary, appointed by the Board of Regents, who would run the day-to-day affairs of the Institution. When David Skorton became Secretary last year, he was the thirteenth person to take on that responsibility. What can we say about these thirteen men? The most dominant characteristics are that he is a tall, inventive man from New York, who lives a long life. But they have also been very different in their interests and approaches to management, so each has left a different legacy.
The first Secretary, Joseph Henry, served 1846-1878 and shaped the Institution to be a research institute. As a physics professor, and co-inventor of the electromagnet, his work stimulated numerous inventions, including the electric motor, telegraph, and telephone.
Henry pioneered the study of weather, setting up a volunteer network of weather observers across the country and displaying a weather map in the Castle. Henry also shepherded the Smithsonian through the Civil War years as the war raged around the Castle. Henry was a Southern sympathizer, but Lincoln drew him into his team of rivals, asking Henry to evaluate proposals for new war technology. Lincoln visited the Castle towers to test signal lights and followed Henry’s recommendation to use balloons for reconnaissance.
Henry lived in the east wing with his wife, three daughters, and son. A very closely-knit family, occasionally they did relax in the “Smithsonian Park” with a game of croquet. Henry was quite a serious fellow and carefully shepherded every dollar in the Smithsonian’s endowment.
The Castle was livened up by the Assistant Secretary Spencer Baird, a naturalist who mentored a gang of young explorers who traveled West in the summers and lived in the Castle towers in winter. Their natural history laboratory below the Henry residence emitted noxious odors. Even worse, they formed the “Megatherium Club” named after an extinct giant sloth, and meetings included beer fests, sack races down the Castle hallways, and serenading the Henry daughters from below their windows. Henry was not amused.
Baird soon became the second Secretary and focused on creating a great national museum. He had been appointed the first curator in 1850 and soon had thousands of collectors across North America. He described himself as like the sorcerer’s apprentice who had set the mops in motion but had no idea how to stop or even slow a program that was outstripping his ability to manage it. Baird’s network was time-consuming as he wrote 10-20 letters per day!
His dream was fulfilled with construction of the U.S. National Museum in 1881. Its open plan was innovative, with modular cases on casters that could be moved about to create exhibit areas. Taxidermists started keeping live animals behind the Castle to serve as models for exhibits in the new museum. The animals proved popular with visitors and Baird next planned a zoo in Rock Creek Park.
Samuel Pierpont Langley, the third Secretary 1887-1906, developed an astrophysical program. He also developed scientific instruments to measure sunlight and astronomical phenomena (such as the bolometer) and usuccessfully tried to develop the first flying machine. Unfortunately, Langley’s “aerodromes” all took a nose dive into the Potomac River.
By the tenure of the fourth Secretary, Charles Doolittle Walcott, the Smithsonian was set on its course. But the museum was outgrowing its building, and Walcott oversaw the opening of what is now the National Museum of Natural History, though it soon closed to provide space for World War I government workers.
A paleontologist, Walcott discovered the Burgess Shale which contains a group of bizarre invertebrates that went extinct – an evolutionary dead end. He also experimented with panoramic photography of the Canadian Rockies which he used to study the strata to plan his field work.
This fifth Secretary, Charles Greeley Abbot, served from 1928 to 1944, spanning the Great Depression and World War II. An astrophysicist and inventor, he patented a number of devices to use solar power, but his attempts to use sun measurements to predict the weather were not well-received. Abbot was a genial and outgoing personality who enjoyed singing sea chanties at all-staff meetings, and loved a good game of tennis on the courts behind the Castle.
Budgets were extremely difficult during the Great Depression, so Abbot used W.P.A. programs, and would try anything to increase the appropriation. At the annual Regents’ dinner, National Zoo director Bill Mann brought a well-trained mynah bird with him. When General Herbert M. Lord, the dour and ever-thrifty head of the Bureau of the Budget, approached, the mynah bird piped up, “Hey General, how about the appropriation?” When Lord replied that the bird was impertinent, the mynah shot back, “So’s your old lady!” bringing down the house.
Perhaps Abbot’s greatest innovation was that he retired in 1945, when he was 73, the first Secretary to not die in office. It was a good move, given that he lived almost thirty more years, to the age of 102!
His Assistant Secretary, Alexander Wetmore, was named the sixth Secretary and was able to take advantage of post-war prosperity. He overhauled Smithsonian management, bringing in a younger generation trained in modern management, and helped influence growth to the Institution’s federal budget.
A small tropical biology station in Panama was transferred to the Smithsonian, now the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. Wetmore studied migratory birds so he saw a natural continuity of biological research from the Arctic to the southern tip of South America. He established working relationships with scientists and research organizations throughout the Americas. When the Smithsonian reached its 100th anniversary in 1946, Wetmore reflected with great satisfaction on its accomplishments as the National Museum and a research center in art, culture, history, natural history and the physical sciences. The Smithsonian had a solid foundation for the next six Secretaries to build on. (Part II went live 4/28/16)
Joseph Henry, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Collegial, Yet Cautious: the Wright Brothers and Samuel P. Langley, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
A Family Affair, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
As we celebrate National Poetry Month, it is a good time to celebrate the poets of the Smithsonian. Poetry can pop up in the most surprising places around the Smithsonian – on images of snowflakes, in scientists’ field books, and in the personal papers of our first Secretary, Joseph Henry.
One of the Smithsonian’s most prolific poets was Solomon G. Brown. One of our earliest employees, and the first African American employee, Brown was an assistant to Spencer Baird and a pivotal force in creating the U.S. National Museum. Originally hired in 1852 by Secretary Joseph Henry as a laborer, Brown soon became fast friends with then Assistant Secretary Baird. As an assistant to Baird, Brown quickly rose through the ranks at the Smithsonian, becoming Baird’s ‘eyes-and-ears’ whenever he was away from the Institution. Brown collected artifacts and specimens for the museum, served as an illustrator, and gave educational lectures to the African American community based on the Smithsonian’s collections and research. Within the larger Washington, D.C. community, he served in the D.C. House of Delegates and was a trustee of the 15th Street Presbyterian Church.
In addition to all these roles, Solomon Brown was a talented poet. As a public figure in Washington, D.C., his poems were published by the Smithsonian and he read them to local audiences and civic organizations. Perhaps his most famous poem is "Fifty Years Today" commemorating his fifty years of service at the Smithsonian. In it he speaks of the people and places that have meant so much to him:
My mind goes back to hallowed spots
Fraught by memories by some forgot;
Which brings up friends most dear to me
Who’ve long since gone beyond the sea –
It seems I’ll not forget them.
A prolific writer, his poems were gathered together in a volume published by the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum (now the Anacostia Community Museum) in 1983. The poems featured showed the breadth of his poetry and his ability to capture everyday life for a free black man in Washington, D.C. Brown writes in memoriam of friends who passed away, in celebration of Easter 1905, in the voice of a wife, and on the place of a free African American man. In his piece "Time Dealing with Man," he explores the inevitability of passing time:
To day if wisdom lifts her voice,
let it read the heart,
Look, see just what your calling is,
rise up and take your part,
To morrow it may never come,
time may end to day,
Sing before the morrow comes, time
may pass away.
Awake, arise stand up as men, none
can do your part,
Nothing is accomplished here,
except you make the start
Begin just at the starting place,
end when you are done,
Time will pay what wages due,
at your setting sun.
Brown’s poems are not only beautiful pieces of art, but a window into his daily life both at the Smithsonian and in Washington, D.C. While this certainly isn’t the only poetry written about life at the Smithsonian, his is most likely the first.
Solomon G. Brown, Renaissance Man, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Solomon G. Brown's Poetry, Smithsonian Collections Blog
Solomon Brown, "Fifty Years To-day," poem commemorating his 50th anniversary of employment at the Smithsonian Institution, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Kind Regards of S.G. Brown, Smithsonian Institution Archives