Demonstrations and activities at the 1996 Festival of American Folklife focused on three key themes: Iowa—Community Style; The American South; and Working at the Smithsonian. While the latter topic may seem a little out of place or unusual, the Institution was commemorating its 150th anniversary that year. And it was all hands on deck. Smithsonian curators showed off museum objects to attendees. Model makers and packing and crating specialists demonstrated their work. Security officers answered the visitors’ burning questions.
And, fortunately for us, as part of the sesquicentennial (say that five times fast) celebrations, staff and volunteers were trained and ready to conduct oral history interviews with visitors, many of whom were staff, about their recollections of the Smithsonian. Today, 173 of those recordings, captured in a tiny tent in front of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, live at the Smithsonian Institution Archives in Record Unit 9594.
Twenty-five years later, as we celebrate the Smithsonian’s 175th anniversary, we’re sharing clips from three of those oral history interviews that have been transcribed by volunteers through the Smithsonian Transcription Center.
Nancy Pope (1957-2019) was the chief curator and founding historian of the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum. In her interview with docent Felix Lapinski (1923–2021), Pope reflected on her long career with the Smithsonian, from her early days on the job in the 1980s to what it was like to open a new Smithsonian museum. Although she is now remembered as an expert in the collection and study of postage stamps, Pope recounted in the clip below how she had never even heard the word "philatelic" until she was called to interview for the job. Read Pope’s full interview.
[Lapinski] And nice to see you. And tell me what is your association with the Smithsonian Institution?
[Pope] Well, I first came to the Smithsonian in October of 1984. And I was at the museum of American History in the National Philatelic Collection.
[Lapinski] Oh wow.
[Pope] And I came here from the Library of Congress and I had been looking for a job at the Smithsonian, which was my goal in life. And was very, very excited about getting any job at the Smithsonian. I had applied for 3 or 4 different ones. And finally I got a phone call saying "We have your application, will you come for an interview at the National Philatelic Collection?" So I said yes, I'd be there and got the time and date. Put the phone down, called a friend of mine and said "What does Philatelic mean?”
[Lapinski] Oh, ha, ha. You had never been involved with that before?
[Pope] Not at all. I had no idea at all what the word even meant.
[Lapinski] Oh, I see.
[Pope] And she said "stamps". And I just put the phone down and put my head on the desk and said "stamps", oh my God.
[Lapinski] It didn't turn out so bad after all, I bet you.
What did a typical day look like for a security officer at the Smithsonian? On June 29, 1996, retired officer Carvester Booth (1927–2000) sat down for an interview with Smithsonian collections management specialist Catherine Perge. Booth joined the Smithsonian after a long military career between 1945 and 1968. He began working at the National Air and Space Museum in 1976, just days before it opened, and was stationed at the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, and beyond throughout his 22 years at the Smithsonian. In the clip below, Booth reflected on how security officers became experts on the exhibitions at the museum. Read Booth’s full interview.
[Perge] Could you describe what a typical day—what was a typical day as a security officer during the course of your career, or did it change?
[Booth] A typical day was, I would report for duty one half hour prior to ten, well usually at 9:30. Fifteen minutes we would change clothes and get in the uniform. Next fifteen minutes were the standing inspections and if your uniforms and everything wasn't up to par, or you were sleepy or something then you wouldn't work that day!
[Perge] Oh, really?
[Booth] Yes. So the security was really strict. Those appearances and et cetera.
[Perge] So you were sent home or—?
[Booth] Yes. And the building—we would inspect our areas and the building would open at ten. Then come the visitors. And we would start to say, "Please don't touch the exhibits." Then an alarm would go off and we would say, "Well, please don't touch the exhibits because you're setting off the alarms." And that was so—and information! We was almost walking information because we had to keep ourselves alert, keep updated and make sure that we knew what to tell the visitors what we asked—what they asked. And one of the worst of sins you could commit was tell the visitors something that wasn't true. So we made sure we knew. If we didn't know we would admit and then you would send them other places.
In 2020, Sharon Reinckens retired as the deputy director of the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum after nearly 40 years with the institution. On June 27, 1996, she stopped by the tent to share her memories with volunteer Eduardo Contreras. During the interview, she described how she arrived at the Smithsonian as an exhibition designer, but quickly discovered her passions laid in community-based work. Read Reinckens’ full interview.
[Contreras] And do you have any favorite stories about working at the Smithsonian?
[Reinckens] It's been a lot of work! And it was—I've been working with a lot of people. I had the opportunity to work with the founding director of the Museum, John Kinard, which was a great learning experience about the power of culture, the purpose of culture, for people. And that was a series of learning experiences, watching him negotiate a community museum, find a funding base, and promote his lifework.
[Contreras] Did, since you grew up here in the D.C. area, I assume you came to, did you come to the Smithsonian Museum as a child?
[Reinckens] Well, when I was a kid I came to see an Egyptian archaeological installation. I must have been 10 at the time. I took a look at it and wondered who did the installing of the artifacts and how they came to put them in the museums like that. And I think that was when I decided that I would like museum work; that it was exciting, that you get to work with all sorts of wonderful materials about the lives of people that live here and live every—you know, across the globe. I was always fascinated with it.
This year, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival is back on the National Mall, from June 22–27 and June 30–July 4.
- Smithsonian Memories Project, Festival of American Folklife Oral History Interviews, 1996, Record Unit 9594, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- “Smithsonian Memories” by Hannah Byrne, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- “Reflections on a Reference Request: Father’s Day Edition” by Hannah Byrne, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- “A Formal Voice at the Institution” by Hannah Byrne, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives