Muhammad Ali, Ellen Roney Hughes, and Carl Scheele in the National Museum of History and Technology

Deconstructing a “Man’s World” One Woman at a Time

Ellen Roney Hughes’ supposition in 1999 was “Well, I think it’s still a man’s world at the Smithsonian.” This may hold some validity due to recent discoveries at the Smithsonian.

Muhammad Ali, Ellen Roney Hughes, and Carl Scheele in the National Museum of History and Technology

After a relentless, months-long series of letters and phone tag with secretaries and administration, Smithsonian staff were notified that Muhammad Ali, recent victor to the “Rumble in the Jungle,” would be entering the premises of the Smithsonian’s Museum of History and Technology (now the National Museum of American History) -- in the next half hour! The iconic photo taken upon the initial meeting (above) had a caption that initially read: “Muhammad Ali and Curator Carl Scheele during Ali's visit to the National Museum of History and Technology March 17, 1976…”

Conveniently peeking from behind the left shoulder of Scheele stands a woman, holding the mementoes donated: a pair of boxing gloves and matching robe. A woman whose shy smile and unwavering stare denote a quiet yet determined satisfaction. A thirty-three-year-old assistant curator whose series of letter exchanges and phone calls have finally culminated with the arrival of the “Champ” whom she so casually referred to in correspondence. Queue Ellen Roney Hughes, the third name to this iconic triad.

Hughes joined the Smithsonian in 1964, initially serving as a research assistant in the National Museum of Natural History’s main library. She was personally recruited by Carl H. Scheele (pictured above) in 1974 to join the extensive bicentennial exhibition team for a A Nation of Nations in 1974 after she worked on a successful round of exhibits in the Postal History department. A Nation of Nations (1976-1991) served as the principal exhibit in the Bicentennial of the American Revolution tribute exhibition. The exhibit aimed at presenting the diverse makeup of American history and culture, a concept not yet pursued at the Smithsonian on such a large scale.  Her role as general coordinator, as she would come to realize, included a multitude of responsibilities, “doing just about everything except doing more of it than any one person justly deserves” as Carl Scheele recalled. Hughes played “a number of major roles” in the pivotal A Nation of Nations exhibit in its 15 year-long running time. From curator, editor, and finance officer to a trusty “diplomat without peer, receiving numerous telephone calls at home in the evening hours (including Sundays),” Hughes’ dedication permeated throughout all areas of the project. Particularly, in her role as artifact collector where she campaigned for Muhammad Ali’s gloves, “the real coup of the exhibit.”

Ellen Roney Hughes' contributions have been significant, and yet her name remains absent from images and accounts of an iconic moment she was prominently involved in. Unfortunately, this seems to be the case for many historic women.

International Conference on the Biology of Whales in Virginia in 1971. Credit via NOAA.

Take Sheila Minor Huff, for example, now famed female U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, whose face we see in the image above, peeking out from behind yet another shoulder. The photo was sent out on social media in March of 2018, prompted by the reality that the only unidentified figure in the image was a woman amidst a sea of male scientists. Taken in 1971 at the International Conference on Biology of Whales, it wasn’t until the spring of 2018, almost 40 years after the conference took place, that Huff was identified. Her impressive ascendance from animal technician to senior biologist at the Department of Interior was seemingly unimportant in the initial archiving process.

In the case of Sheila Minor Huff and Ellen Roney Hughes, it remains no mystery why these two successful women remain unnamed in such important historical snapshots and that their approach to their life’s achievements are so modest. Due to the male-dominant dynamics of history, women's achievements have been placed in the background of significant historical moments. Traditional recordings of history primarily dismiss women's contributions, therefore shaping a skewed perspective of what's considered notable work and achievement. Huff and Hughes' absence from their photos' caption, although minor, speaks volumes to a very systemic and surprisingly nonchalant attitude towards women's contributions to society. As a result of this systemic rejection, the “I didn’t do anything important” supposition reigns staggeringly prominent in women’s perception of themselves, thusly creating a space where commending women's achievement is deemed futile. Just as Hughes and Huff seemed to seamlessly blend into the background of these images, historically, women’s roles and perspectives have remained in the background of history.

It’s upon taking a second look at the picture, however, that one can make out the nuanced and subtle content of reality, most likely shrouded or obscured by a dominating superficiality. The recently established Smithsonian’s American Women’s History Initiative aims at dismantling this tendency. In tribute of the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in the United States, the American Women’s History Initiative is actively pursuing women’s stories, collecting life stories and achievements to be put on public display in major exhibitions at both the National Museum of American History and the National Portrait Gallery, as well as online as a resource for all. In line with this initiative, the independent discovery of both Ellen Roney Hughes’ and Sheila Minor Huff’s stories inspire a new age of women curators, historians, and scientists aiming to dismantle the limits of the “man’s world.” With the use of new technology and a rising awareness in the underrepresented aspects of history, these women, though once unnamed figures, have a chance at being recognized for their significant influence and contributions. 

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