The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Category: Smithsonian History
An 1847 decision by the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents and building committee led to unforeseen disastrous results. In order to reduce construction costs of the Smithsonian Building (now known as the Castle), architect James Renwick Jr’s plans for the interior were considerably altered by replacing iron beams and brick vaults with wooden columns and rafters.
On the evening of February 29, 1850, as the wooden structure was being erected inside what is now the Great Hall, the floor began to sink. Within seconds a huge portion of the structure collapsed into the basement. Miraculously, no one was injured although several people had just passed through the room on their way to the Library in the West Wing after attending a lecture in the East Wing. A special committee was established by the Regents to examine the cause of the collapse and it concluded that “…the interior of the main building is defective in the kind of materials originally adopted….” The Regents decided that the remaining wood structure would be removed and the interior rebuilt using more durable and fireproof materials as originally intended by the architect.
By late March, workmen were busily engaged in removing the damaged woodwork from the cavernous space. Twenty-six year old William H. Page, a sailor in the US Navy, was among them, working high atop a scaffold on the morning of March 29. Although forewarned that he was standing in a dangerous and precarious position, Page lost his balance and fell, striking his head on a large piece of timber. The National Intelligencer reported that he “… so dreadfully fractured his skull as to cause almost instant death.”
Page was buried in Congressional Cemetery on March 31 by the society of Odd Fellows. However, less than two and a half months later, according to cemetery records, a Miss Ann Page had his grave opened to have a child named Rebecca F. Smith buried with him. Could Ann have been William’s sister? The 1850 US Census for the District of Columbia lists an Ann Page, age 30, sharing a house with two other young women, Mary Allen, age 20, and S. Smith, age 35; could the little girl have been William’s daughter? Unfortunately, the answers to these questions might never be known. The census was recorded after both deaths and the reference to the relationship is itself circumstantial.
Page’s violent and tragic demise was the first death to occur within the building; the second in 1862 was Will Henry, the only son of Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry, followed by scientist Fielding B. Meek in 1876 and finally by Henry himself in 1878. It is perhaps no wonder that the building is rife with ghost sightings and strange occurrences after the midnight hour. Some of the alleged sightings were thought to be of Meek, but most have been of James Smithson, the Institution’s benefactor and namesake, whose remains are interred in a specially constructed chamber at the north entrance to the building. Night watchmen have reported doors opening and closing by invisible hands, books moving off the shelves in the Library, and lights going on and off in the middle of the night while the building was closed and presumably uninhabited. Strange sightings, unseen presences, and ghostly screams heard in the building prompted one Castle staffer to host a séance or two in the Regents’ Room in the 1980s.
Stories have appeared in the local press as early as 1900 telling of strange footsteps in the lonely corridors of the building created by unseen feet while husky voices break the night stillness. Night watchmen at the time claimed that they came face to face with the spirits of both Joseph Henry and Spencer Baird still supervising the affairs of the Institution. To this day, guards and staffers alike continue to feel the presence of unseen individuals and to hear breathy utterances in offices, towers, and darkened hallways during and after hours.
Smithsonian Institution Building, The Castle, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Historic Pictures of the Smithsonian Institution Building, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Deconstructing a Mystery: Rare photo proves to be the earliest ever taken of the Smithsonian Castle, The Bigger Picture Blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
A Castle of Curiosities mobile app, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Recently, I noticed a hand-written index card attached to a colleague’s bulletin board full of charts and spreadsheets. The index card contained four points: 1. Share your knowledge. 2. Keep your mouth shut. 3. Keep an open mind. Keep it your whole life. 4. Take care of your body. These four points present a fairly sound, educated approach to life, similar to what one may find on a Zen desk calendar that offers “words of wisdom” for each new day. However, it was Point 2, “Keep your mouth shut,” that drew my attention; a rather blunt statement unlikely to be found on a feel good calendar. Such a statement could only be offered by a person of discipline, intelligence, and determination. The late Roxie Laybourne (1910 – 2003) was such a person, and her four point “rules of success” were revealed to Bill Adair in his November 21, 1999 feature “Roxius Amazingus” published in the St. Petersburg Times.
Roxie Laybourne is a name that hovers among the Smithsonian with admiration. Even those unfamiliar with her remarkable six-decade career at the Institution have heard her name. Roxie was an ornithologist whose careful, precise study of bird feathers pioneered the field of forensic ornithology. Throughout her career, Roxie served as a consultant to the United States Military, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the FBI, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the National Transportation Board.
Raised in Farmville, NC, Roxie was the eldest of fifteen children. Her father was an auto mechanic, her mother a housewife. From the time she was just a girl, Roxie was more interested in playing baseball and watching her father tinker on engines rather than learning to sew or attending to the common “womanly pursuits” of the era. She attended Meredith College, an all-women school in Raleigh, NC, graduating in 1932 with a degree in mathematics and general science. Her career in science began at the North Carolina State Museum of Natural History, where she was employed as a taxidermist. This experience nurtured her curiosity in the natural sciences, and led her to study Botany at George Washington University, where she received a Master’s degree in 1950.
In 1944, with the encouragement of acting Secretary of the Smithsonian Alexander Wetmore, Roxie accepted a temporary appointment in the Division of Birds at the National Museum of Natural History, and was one of few women on staff engaged in scientific endeavors. Roxie realized her work may be subject to greater scrutiny than that of her male counterparts, and set forth with quiet determination, producing research and results that simply had to be considered based on their merit. This approach paid dividends; in her own words “the best way to get around discrimination is to do the do the best job you possibly can, and keep your mouth shut – persistence overcomes obstacles.”
Roxie remained with the Smithsonian for forty-four years, serving as Forensic Ornithologist from 1946 – 1988 with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Birds and Mammals Laboratory. Although she officially “retired” in 1988, she was granted Emeritus status, and continued her work as a Research Associate with the Smithsonian until her death in 2003. The primary focus of her research was feather identification.
In 1960 a propeller driven passenger airplane departing from Boston’s Logan Airport crashed into the sea; only 10 of the 72 passengers survived. The FAA opened an investigation, and upon learning that a flock of starlings collided with the plane just as it left the tarmac, asked Roxie to join their efforts. By closely analyzing feathers found among the wreckage, Roxie determined it was a flock of European Starlings that damaged the airplane engines, causing the plane to lose power. This identification helped aviation engineers to design safer aircraft and enabled airport managers to consider methods of scaring or diverting birds away from running aircraft. It also paved the way for the creation of the first laboratory dedicated entirely to feather identification. Roxie used her ability to identify not only the particular species of bird, but also details related to family and locale to solve thousands of aviation – bird strike cases. She shared her expertise with graduate students of in a class on feather structure she taught at George Mason University. “Share your knowledge,” Point 1 of Roxie’s “Rules of Success.”
“Keep an open mind. Keep it your whole life” is a sagely wisdom indeed. Roxie embodied this philosophy, never turning away from a challenge, considering all possibilities, and perhaps most significantly, assessing an individual much as she did a feather, interested in the minute details that reveal unique character and ability. I suspect the obstacles she faced as a young, brilliant female scientist determined to practice her craft in a predominantly male profession influenced this perspective. Science demands that you set aside established preconceptions and draw conclusions based on experimentation, evidence, and experience.
Although I tried, I regret this meager blog post merely touches upon the remarkable woman, scientist, and educator that was Roxie Laybourne. There are many more details accounting her life and career, and numerous stories that convey her unique spirit. A personal favorite; Roxie was a life-long sports car enthusiast, who, at the age of 72 bought a Datsun 280ZX, which she reportedly drove like the dickens! I encourage the reader to explore her life further. There is a wonderful memorial from The Auk and a second article by Bill Adair.
Accession 04-086, Curatorial Records, 1972-2000, National Museum of Natural History (U.S.) Division of Birds, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Accession 04-056, National Museum of Natural History, Division of Birds Correspondence, 1962-2003, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Accession 13-147, National Museum of Natural History, Division of Birds Curatorial Records, 1970s-1980s, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Record Unit 9610, Oral history interviews with Roxie Collie S. Laybourne, 2001, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Scientific illustration requires artistic talent and a great deal of discipline. Scientific illustrators must have the artistic talent to capture the specimen they are drawing, but they cannot insert their own artistic flourishes, as most artists do. They must capture the exact shape, structure, color, texture, etc., of an organism for scientists to study. Their work is crucial to the study of natural history, and naturalists sometimes see an unknown characteristic in a drawing that they had not noticed in the actual specimen. Dr. Regina Olson Hughes, an illustrator for the Department of Botany in the National Museum of Natural History, recalled, “I guess I do the best that I can—angels can do no more.” Her beautiful but accurate drawings of plants were published in scientific journals worldwide.
Regina Olson was born in Herman, Nebraska in 1895. She loved to draw as a child and attended art school. Unfortunately, after serious ear infections, she lost her hearing at the age of 13. She learned lip reading and attended public schools, as her parents insisted that she function in the hearing world. But for college she attended Gallaudet, the school for the deaf in Washington, D.C., receiving her B.A. degree. There she met her husband, Frederick Hughes, a teacher, and they married in 1923. Hughes was skilled in four Romance languages, French, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese, so initially she worked as a translator for the State Department. But with her love of art and the plant world, she then tried her hand at botanical illustration. For many years she worked for the Agricultural Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, drawing thousands of scientific images of plants and plant parts. She received the USDA exceptional service award in 1962.
She retired from the USDA in 1969 but soon put pen to paper for Smithsonian researchers. Botany curator Robert W. Read observed her sketching a plant and asked her for help with a short-term project. This led to full-time work as a volunteer botanical illustrator. She would arrive at the National Musuem of Natural History in her classic Thunderbird, doing contract work for the museum scientists. Most of this work was in pen and ink, but she also worked in oils and watercolors. One of her favorite pastimes was drawing the orchids on the Visitor Information Desk in the museum foyer. In Hughes' time with the Smithsonian, her work was exhibited several times in the National Museum of Natural History. In 1982, a collection of forty of her scientifically accurate, but beautiful, watercolors of orchids were displayed in the Rotunda Gallery of the Museum. Mrs. Hughes was the first deaf artist to have her artwork displayed there.
Hughes received many honors for her work, notably her alma mater Gallaudet giving her an honorary degree and Phi Kappa Zeta naming her woman of the year in 1970. A plant genus and species, Hughesia reginae, a type of daisy, was named in her honor, before her death in 1993.
MSS 175 - Regina Olson Hughes Papers, 1936-1991, Gallaudet University Library Deaf Collections and Archives
Deaf Artist: Regina Olson Hughes, Alyssa Carland, Clemson University