The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Happy 100th Birthday, S. Dillon Ripley
Today we'll celebrate the 100th birthday of the eighth Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley, who, with endless exuberance and optimism, presided over the greatest period of expansion in the Smithsonian's history from 1964 to 1984. Ripley's tenure saw ten new museums and six research institutes, introduction of multiculturalism at the Smithsonian, and development of education programs for children, advanced students and adults. The change was so rapid and constant that one curator reminisced that he had gone from "young Turk" to conservative oldster within Ripley's first year. Energetic and exuberant, Ripley frequently told Smithsonian staff that they should be having fun at work at every day. So what brought this unique personality to the Smithsonian?
Born on September 20, 1913, in New York City, Ripley was the fourth child of Louis Arthur Ripley and Constance Baillie Rose Ripley. The great grandson of Sidney Dillon, founder of the Union Pacific Railroad, he grew up in New York society. Life was divided between New York City and the family estate, Kilvarock, in Litchfield, Connecticut, with summers often spent in Paris. Ripley's sense of adventure was well-honed by his extensive travels as a child, with frequent trips to Europe and, when he was 13, a family trip to India that included a six-week walking trek of Lahdak or western Tibet with his older sister. He developed a lifelong interest in natural history, especially birds, collecting and identifying all he could find and rearing waterfowl at his home. His offbeat sense of humor was often aimed at tradition, although he loved traditions himself. While attending St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire, he formed the "Offall Eating Club," a poke at exclusive eating clubs, with his dedication to "offal" or the remains of animals found on the side of the road.
Although his family would have preferred he pursue a career in law, Ripley did not envision himself in a pinstripe suit in an office. He was drawn to a life in the theater while at Yale University (1932-1936), where he was a member of the Yale Dramat. However, he settled on his first love, studying biology with G. Evelyn Hutchinson at Yale. After graduation he set out on the Denison-Crockett South Pacific Expedition in 1937, followed by trips to New Guinea and Sumatra. He was finishing a doctorate at Harvard when World War II was declared. He sought to enlist immediately, but the 6'5" lanky young adventurer was too thin and rejected by all the services. He worked briefly as a curator of birds at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History until he secured an appointment with the Office of Strategic Services, the World War II intelligence service. Stationed in Southeast Asia, he served as liaison to General Louis Mountbatten of Great Britain, but snuck out of camp to go bird watching whenever he could. His roommate, the future diplomat Paul Child, brought Ripley along for one R&R trip to see his fiancé, Julia McWillliams (yes that Julia Child, who, according to Ripley, did not know how to boil an egg in those days. There he met Julia's roommate and his future wife, Mary Moncrieffe Livingston, a young socialite who had also fled society life for adventure abroad. The Ripleys and Childs maintained their friendship throughout their lives.
After the war, Ripley settled into a professorial life at Yale, teaching biology and directing the Peabody Museum of Natural History. His irrepressible style soon garnered headlines as he hired belly-dancers for the opening of a King Tut exhibit and organized expeditions into remote corners of the globe to catch the elusive spiny babbler. In 1964, he returned to the Smithsonian as the eighth Secretary and an agent of change. He refocused the Institution outward, symbolized by his rotation of the statue of Secretary Joseph Henry to face the National Mall, rather than the Castle. He put owls in the Castle towers to lower the rodent population, and rescued some distraught farm hens who had escaped their exhibit during the Nixon inaugural ball at the Museum of American History. Ripley opened the doors of the museums for the Poor People's Campaign in 1968 and established a new museum in Anacostia, an African-American neighborhood in Washington, D.C., while turning back wealthy Marjorie Merriweather Post's decorative arts collection at Hillwood to her heirs. He created programs for interns and fellowships for students to bring new energy into the venerable Institution. He participated in the Endangered Species Act legislation, encouraged ecological research, and established an endangered species breeding park in rural Virginia.
But Ripley was as interested in art, culture and history, as the sciences, sometimes to the dismay of scientists who now had to compete for funds. He founded the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall, opened a modern art museum – the Hirshhorn, and rode a horsedrawn carriage to celebrate the American Bicentennial. He loved a good party, cutting the rug with Mary Ripley at Smithsonian Associates balls and Folklife Festival dance parties. As he wrote in a column in the Smithsonian magazine that he founded: "There is little point in treading the hard road to knowledge unless one finds beauty and joy in enlarging perceptions.”