As part of our celebration of the National Museum of Natural History’s 100th anniversary, we have been recording oral history interviews with the staff. These audio and video interviews capture life at the Museum and give a behind-the-scenes look at the type of work done here. The people interviewed represent the many different jobs that make the Museum run – guards, collections managers, curators, taxidermists, food services staff, photographer and exhibits specialist, to name a few. The interviews were recorded by staff, volunteers and interns, bringing the Museum family even closer together.
One of our first interviewees was Chip Clark (pictured at right), an extraordinary museum photographer, who reminisced about all the things he had learned in his 35-year career at the Museum, noting, “There are no linear paths in my life.” Clark was interviewed by American University student John Minks and Smithsonian intern Lauren Dare. His reminiscences became even more precious when he passed away suddenly after his second interview.
Guard Andre Bell discussed with George Washington University student Emma Lang the challenges of keeping the Museum and its visitors secure in a post-9/11 world. He noted that “no two days are the same” in a place like the Natural History Museum, which has 126 million objects and 7.4 million visitors per year. Daily incidents ranged from lost children, providing directions to visitors from all over the globe, to insects escaping from the Insect Zoo or a visit from President Obama’s daughters.
Exhibit specialist Paul Rhymer (pictured at left) talked with student Cigdem Pakel of American University about how his career allowed him to use his creative skills in ever changing ways, including creating a remote controlled “robo-badger” that was used to train endangered black-footed ferrets to respond to predators such as badgers. Although he initially did more two dimensional work, his career in the Exhibits Department included taxidermy and moved him into the 3-D nature sculpture that he is noted for today via Paul Rhymer Studio.
Food services staff member Audrey Butler (pictured at right) has worked at the Museum since 1984 and seen its services and visitorship grow. With Mark White of the Human Studies Film Archives, she fondly recalled the old days with a revolving food table, known as a carousel, where visitors picked pre-made items, and Butler herself was nicknamed “the Queen of the Carousel.” Butler is a “people person” who has always cared about the staff and visitors. In January of 2009, she arrived in the pre-dawn hours to be sure that food was available to the huge number of visitors to President Obama’s inauguration, just one of the many special events she has been part of.
Curator Dave Pawson shared stories of his career studying echinoderms with Museum volunteer Inci Bowman. A native of Australia, Pawson arrived at the Museum in 1964. His reminiscences include a trip to Palmer Base in Antarctica, snorkeling off Ascension Island with colleagues to collect specimens, and even diving in the deep-sea submersible, the Alvin. He shares his excitement traveling along the deep ocean floor glimpsing, and then collecting, organisms never before seen by humans.
For other Stories of the Museum, see https://www.mnh.si.edu/onehundredyears/life_in_museum_landing.html
Pam Henson, Historian, Smithsonian Institution Archives