When the National Museum of Natural History first opened its doors to the public 100 years ago, the principal exhibits on display were not, as you might expect, about natural history. Instead, they featured paintings and sculpture—the objects that made up the recently established National Gallery of Art.
The art collections were displayed where today you find a Giant Squid, Basilosaurus, and a life-size model of a North Atlantic Right Whale—in the Sant Ocean Hall. Sculptures also adorned the Rotunda, where the Fénykövi Elephant stands. The art remained on exhibit in the building until the mid- 1960s (!), when it was relocated to the old Patent Office Building (where it now forms part of the collections of the National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum).
Having art in the natural history building had some surprising benefits. For one Smithsonian taxidermist, William L. Brown, the opportunity to study fine sculpture every day on his lunch break provided an endless source of inspiration. Brown took every opportunity he could to visit a marble sculpture of two sleeping children that was in the Rotunda. He wrote, “I probably spent more time looking at the sleeping babes than any other exhibit in the museum. … The material used to make this masterpiece was so hard but looks so soft and I think it is the most beautiful thing I ever saw done by human hands.” You can see William Henry Rinehart’s Sleeping Children today in the Luce Foundation Center on the third floor of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Brown first came to the Smithsonian in March 1908, paid at the rate of $25 a month. It was only a few years later that the animals from the Smithsonian-Roosevelt Expedition arrived in Washington—an event that proved very exciting for a young taxidermist-in-training.
Years later, as chief taxidermist, Brown had the opportunity to work on many of these animals again, in the 1950s, when the original displays were taken down and the mounts restored and placed in new diorama-style installations, under the Exhibits Modernization Program.
Brown was most proud of the hippo that he and his fellow taxidermists (including Watson Perrygo) mounted in the early 1930s. On the back of this photo he wrote: “This was when I was best. 40 yrs old. As a taxidermist. I was the first person ever to mount a successful hippo and probably will be the last.” No doubt he would have been very pleased to know that taxidermist Paul Rhymer said just last year that it was the best preserved specimen he had ever seen!
One of the last projects Brown worked on, before his retirement in 1959, was the mounting of the Fénykövi Elephant, an enduring icon of the Museum. Brown’s papers are at the Smithsonian Institution Archives.
Heather Ewing, Research Associate, Smithsonian Institution Archives