Did you know that some Museum staffers have actually made the Natural History Museum their home? In 2010, we are celebrating the 100th anniversary of the National Museum of Natural History with an exhibit and website that share many of the highlights of the museum’s history. But we were not able to tell all the stories of all the interesting characters who have worked here. Two of my favorites were Jessie Beach and Roland W. Brown, both of whom worked in the Department of Geology in the early twentieth century and, at times, made the Museum their home.
Jessie Beach was a Museum Aide in the Department of Geology, known for her rather feisty personality. As the legend goes, at one point in her life, she began building a home in Arlington, Virginia. Construction dragged on as she got into disputes with contractors. She had given up her lease, in anticipation of the house being completed, but that never occurred. So she took up temporary residence in the Museum that stretched into years as the house stood unfinished and empty. New night guards often would mistake her tall white-haired figure in a long white dressing gown floating down the hallways of the Museum in the middle of the night for a ghostly apparition.
Roland W. Brown was a paleobotanist who worked for the U.S. Geological Survey but had an office in the Museum for many years. “Brownie,” as he was known, was an exceptionally parsimonious individual, devoted to the study of Mesozoic and Cenozoic plants. He often spent months in the field, and being adverse to wasting money, would give up his rooms and store his personal effects in the Museum while he was away. When he returned, he sometimes did not rent a room again, sleeping in a sleeping bag in a park at night and otherwise living in the Museum. He would boil a potato or egg in a hot pot on his desk for dinner.
Rather than buy notebooks for his work, he would use Sears Roebuck & Co.catalogs, pasting clippings of interest and notes on paper onto the pages. He worked for many years in his leisure time on his Composition of Scientific Words: A manual of methods and a lexicon of materials for the practice of logotechnics. His thrifty ways had paid off and, when he could not find a publisher for his life’s work, he was able to publish Scientific Words himself in 1950. And when he died in 1961, he left a considerable estate, leaving an endowment to the Museum to continue his work.
By mid-century, the Museum director, Alexander Wetmore, decided that perhaps it was time to end this practice, and all staff were required to leave by midnight, ending an era when the Museum was literally a home to its staff.
Pam Henson, Historian, Smithsonian Institution Archives