Developing an exhibition is the process of winnowing content down to the essentials – deciding what absolutely cannot be left on the cutting room floor. Space is limited, so the exhibit team is constantly sifting through stories, asking which photographs and objects are most essential. All of the content seems important at first blush. In a photographic exhibit, each photograph must tell a story. Deciding what stays and what goes can be challenging. I was thinking about this recently as I began archiving the 100th Anniversary exhibition photographs. One photograph that survived the refining process stood out as capturing many facets of the Museum’s story in a single frame.
When you go to work for a place like the National Museum of Natural History, you expect to work with scientists – curators specifically. I think most people would be surprised to learn that curators have long comprised a very small segment of the people doing science at the Museum. For decades many of our scientific staff were not even scientists by training, but rather started out as “tinkerers” who became scientists by trade through the experiences available to them at the Museum. I also realized that many different types of “science” happen here every day – from molecular DNA barcoding to the conservation and preservation of mammal specimens and pottery. In museums, science also intersects art when we exhibit our collections and research. Museum staff members from varied backgrounds and professions work quietly behind the scenes and out of the spotlight, forging new areas of expertise, new professions, and expanding the boundaries of what we call science.
This photograph of Museum taxidermists Julian S. Warmbath, Charles R. Aschemeier, Watson M. Perrygo, and William L. Brown mounting a hippopotamus for exhibition in the 1930s captures the story of nontraditional science at the Museum and publicly recognizes many of the nontraditional scientists and science at the Museum (Image from Smithsonian Institution Archives). In many ways, the National Museum of Natural History is the home of the taxidermist, and most of the premiere taxidermists in the United States worked at or for the Museum at one time or another. Most of these scientific professionals were not scientists by training. Often they started out like Perrygo – a “tinkerer” who looked closely at the world around him, asked questions, participated in field expeditions, and explored the natural world whenever possible. In this photograph, I see four men who did not have PhDs in science but cared for scientific specimens daily and revolutionized a profession along the way. They did this behind the scenes in the work rooms, labs, and basements, wearing smocks and using the tools of their trade – many of which they invented or were even hazardous to their health – and are only recognized decades later through the inclusion of this photograph in the exhibition.
Professionals like these have been defining and redefining what it means to be a scientist for over one hundred years. Each man is examining a different part of the hippo specimen as they measure and prep it for display. The daily care and display of museum collections requires intense attention to the smallest details. They’ve mounted the hippo with the mouth open dramatically. Most of museum visitors will never have the opportunity to see a hippopotamus, much less look into its outstretched mouth. Taxidermists balance preservation of the specimen with the need for displays that will intrigue and incite visitors’ imaginations and their interest in science. Working in a place that is home to such diverse and dedicated scientific professionals is a unique experience and makes coming to work every day a pleasure.
Seeing this photograph again also reminded me that the Museum’s most recent expert in taxidermy and bronze sculptor in his spare time, Paul Rhymer, retired this spring leaving the Office of Exhibits without a resident taxidermist. Before he left the Museum, Paul told me that he did an assessment and treatment on this hippopotamus specimen when it was put back on display in the 1990s. Because of the care and scientific expertise employed in the conservation and treatment by taxidermists Warmbath, Aschemeier, Perrygo, and Brown in the 1930s, Paul said that the hippo was the best preserved specimen he had ever seen and required little treatment despite being almost one hundred years old. You can still see this hippo on display today in the Museum’s Behring Family Hall of Mammals.
Siobhan Starrs, Exhibit Developer, Office of Exhibits