Climbing to Historical Heights

While in graduate school, I read that museum professionals wear many hats in one day. This could not be truer at the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Climbing the Plank to the Top, May 27, 2010, by Lauren Dare, Digital photograph.

I’ve worn many hats working in the Institutional History Division including historian, construction worker, and even blogger. The most interesting hat I have worn recently is that of mountain climber. That’s right, mountain climber.

One afternoon, as I re-shelved boxes, a research associate, Heather Ewing, said she was taking her intern, Lauren Dare, on a rare climb to the top of the National Museum of Natural History’s Rotunda. So, off I went across the Mall to the Museum to meet with Jerry Conlon who knows the building’s ins and outs. From the top floor, we entered a side door, leaving the white marble Rotunda for the sparse interior spaces between the Museum’s walls. I had stepped back to 1911, when the building was completed. After climbing industrial and brick staircases, we arrived to what I thought was the Rotunda’s top.

Guastavino Tiled Interior Dome, May 27, 2010, by Courtney Esposito, Digital photograph.

We climbed the last few steps and stood inside the domes. The Rotunda is topped off by an exterior dome, the one you see from the Mall, and an interior dome that you see looking up while standing next to the Elephant inside. The two domes do not rest on top of one another—a walking space separates them and allows your average historian to explore in between.

Print of the original architectural drawing of the National Museum of Natural History Building, orig

While we circled the walking space, Jerry noted that Secretary Samuel P. Langley withheld approval of the original ornate design by architects Hornblower and Marshall. A redesign by architects Daniel Burnham and Charles McKim substituted a simpler Roman Rotunda. The Rotunda domes are in the style of architect Rafael Guastavino, constructed by using interlocking terracotta tiles and layers of mortar to create self supporting arches and vaults. These are supported by a brickwork drum and beautiful tiled buttresses. The domes are massive—the inner dome is 71’ 6” wide and exterior dome is 73’ 11”.

Construction on Front of National Museum of Natural History, 1909, by Unidentified photographer, Pho

Halfway around, we came to a metal ladder running up the side of the interior dome. Jerry explained how the ladder was built and discussed his experiences climbing up to the top. The top of the interior dome rises 121’ 2 ¼” above the first floor of the building and 144’ 2 ¼” from the Mall. (The exterior dome rises 165’ 2 ¼” above the Mall.) As my palms started to sweat, I thought to myself, “there is no way we are climbing; there is no rope to strap on or a helmet to wear.” Oh, how I was soooo wrong. Jerry told us to climb away and hold on tight. So the three of us, in skirts and dress, heels, flip-flops, and ballet flats, inched our way up.

Tiled buttresses Connecting the Two Domes, May 27, 2010, by bCourtney Esposito, Digital photograph.

At the summit, when I regained some, and I mean only some, composure, I held on white-knuckled and looked up and down. Above, the sun streaming into the exterior dome skylight was beautiful. The top of the interior dome was dirty, so dirty you couldnt see the Elephant, but amazingly not enough to keep the sunlight out. It was a spectacular view of the inner workings of a building that I had researched. It really brought it to life.

After this exhilarating experience, covered in dirt and sweat from climbing around the innards of the Museum, I crossed the Mall and went back to work. And though I may not have climbed a real mountain, I think I have earned that hat. As for now, off with my mountain climber’s hat and onto the next adventure . . . whatever that might be.

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