“History Made Vivid”: The Interior Museum at 80


Good afternoon, my name is Diana Warring. I am the director of the Department of the Interior Museum and it’s my
pleasure to welcome you here today. Typically our monthly lecture series is
focusing on the diverse workings of the Department of the Interior as a whole
and our various bureaus, but I’m very pleased to be looking even further inward and hosting a lecture celebrating the 80th anniversary of the Department’s
museum. The museum is a quite a unique feature and we’ll be hearing from our
chief curator Tracy Baetz. Tracy joined our staff in 2013 as our
chief curator. Since then she’s been curating gallery and online exhibits,
including “Posterity: WPA’s Art Legacy and America’s Public Lands,” “DOI Pop,”
“People, Land, and Water,” and the forthcoming online exhibit, “Stories In Miniature.”
“Stories in Miniature” will be posted on the Google Arts and Culture website.
Tracy holds a master’s degree in American Studies from Florida State
University and a bachelor’s degree in History and Government from the College
of William & Mary. She’s curated shows on such diverse
topics as photography, baseball, rustic furniture, and folk art. Her career has
spanned over 25 years at local, state, and federal museums, including a decade at
the Smithsonian Institution and seven years as the executive director of the
accredited Brick Store Museum in southern Maine. She was a member of the
exhibition team which brought the unprecedented Smithsonian show
“Smithsonian’s America” to Japan in 1994, and served as curator and outreach
coordinator for the Smithsonian’s 150th anniversary and
traveling exhibit in 1996. She was later the founding program manager for
the Smithsonian Affiliations team, a national initiative still in existence,
involving partnerships and programming with more than 125 museums nationwide.
Please join me in welcoming Tracy. Thank you, Diana, and thank you all.
It’s a pleasure to be here this afternoon and even more of a pleasure
that as an american museum we’re still around after 80 years. It’s a milestone
by any measure, particularly when you consider that we’re a bit of a novelty
and even a bit of an anomaly. As a museum opening in 1938 in the midst of the
Great Depression, we’re rare. As a museum at a cabinet-level federal agency, we’re
doubly rare. And because of this, I think it’s worth taking a step back to look
and to learn from our origins and frankly our innovations as a museum. So I
invite you to join me for the next 45 minutes or so to travel back to the
1930s, and we’re gonna jump right in. Our Secretary of the Interior at the time is
our 32nd secretary and longest-serving secretary, Harold Ickes. And in 1938, just
10 days after the Interior Museum actually opens to the public on March 8, 1938 — tomorrow, you know, 80 years — he sits down to write a response to a letter
that he’s received from a constituent, a taxpayer, in the Midwest and in it he
writes quite emphatically, “museums have no place in the parks at all.”
Oh, eek! Seriously, not quite the way you thought I’d begin this talk, right? Well, guess
what, museums were at that point relatively a recent development for the
National Park Service and the first real museum within the parks was opened at
Yosemite in 1926. And by 1938, just 12 years later when Ickes is writing this
letter to this guy in the Midwest, there are already some 67 museums located in
45 different sites administered by the Park Service. And a large part of the
development of those museums was made possible through the deployment of
emergency funds that was starting in 1933. A Western Museums Laboratory
overseen by the Park Service in Berkeley, California, and eventually co-located
with the college campus, had ramped up to provide for modern parks
every interpretive need. So in terms of that ‘no museums in the parks’? That horse
had really kind of already left the barn on at that point and Ickes begrudgingly
kind of concedes as much in his letter to this guy, that parks’ museums are kind of here to stay. But he is not happy about it, he
goes on to write in that same letter, “nothing makes me want to commit murder
so much as to have somebody break in on a reverential contemplation of
nature in which I may be indulging by giving me a lot of statistical or
descriptive information relating to what I am looking at.” Well whoa given that,
like how on earth is this the same guy that without whose advocacy the Interior
Museum simply would not exist? Well if we unpack his statement just a little bit
more, what Ickes is really talking about here is parks, and up to that
point in history the National Park Service had been pretty much synonymous
at that point with Yosemite, Yellowstone, Crater Lake, Petrified Forest, Grand
Canyon — big wide-open spaces, grandeur, vistas — and Ickes very clearly doesn’t
like the notion of education and interpretation intruding upon his moment
of Zen. If you’re Ickes, there’s a definite time and a definite place for
museums’ statistical and descriptive information. And where he feels it is
wholly important — no, absolutely necessary — is the new headquarters building that
he’s planning for the Department of the Interior in 1935. So we got a knock our
timeline back a little bit a few years to 1935. DOI is busting at the seams,
growing in its responsibilities, and has outgrown its existing World War One-era headquarters, which if you don’t know is the GSA building today just north of
us across Rawlins Park. Well Ickes undertakes the very ambitious endeavor
of creating a new headquarters. Federal Public Works Project Number Four becomes
the first federal building to be authorized, planned, and constructed under
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration here in DC. From the
outset, that building is to embody the principles of utility and economy. It’s
supposed to be a new deal for a new day, And while it would employ several modern
conveniences, it would also reject the grandiose style
and frankly the grandiose expenses of previous federal buildings. Ickes was
pretty savvy and he knew that DOI had to overcome a public perception problem.
For some of the other departments of the day — Commerce, Agriculture — it’s pretty
obvious by their name what they did. But, “interior”? You know, hey, what’s that mean?
We still get that today, “what’s that mean?” And furthermore, the department was and
is as an agency very large. It was complex, and its work and its scope were
national. And if you lived, for example, in Wyoming, you might only ever interact
with the department’s Grazing Service or General Land Office. If you’re in
Nevada, you might only know us for our Bureau of Reclamation. So Ickes used
this new headquarters building as truly a blank slate, an opportunity to kind of
pull back that curtain and be very transparent to the American public as to
what we’re all about and show them how we’re relevant not to just that guy in
Wyoming of that person in Nevada but to the nation as a whole.
Consequently this building is planned very intentionally in terms of how it’s
designed, what it includes, and how it’s decorated. Looking back from the vantage
point of today, it’s really kind of a time capsule, right, as to what was
important to the department in the 1930s. What narrative we as a nation were
subscribing to at that point, and what the department itself viewed as its
origin story. The building design quite literally called for the department’s
mission to be displayed on its walls and be incorporated into its very being.
There are more than 40 murals done by New Deal artists.
There will be inclusion of artwork depicting American Indians done by
Native American artists, there’ll be designs by Indian schoolchildren
greeting you on rubber floor mats as soon as you come into the headquarters
building, and there’ll be an Indian Craft Shop as a tangible expression of the
Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1935, to help promote the economic welfare of
Indians. And there’ll be a museum! Yes, a museum! Architectural drawings, actually,
for the building are minted by early 1935. Oddly enough they don’t show a museum. Well, Ickes never let that stop
him. He calls for a museum anyway and he calls for a museum planning committee to
be formed. And in mid-February 1935 the Park Service’s associate director Arthur
Demaray contacts Carl Russell to tell them that, “Hey, I’ve just recommended you
for this planning committee.” So, Russell, just a little bit of background on
him — he’s already a seasoned Park Service employee who has taken on numerous key
assignments all across the country in the past up to this point and has only
just weeks before been detailed to Washington DC to help oversee museum
projects already underway in eastern parks. He’s been authorized to create and
oversee a field laboratory out of Morristown, New Jersey
that’s co-located with Morristown National Historic Park, with access to
WPA artists and other talent out of nearby New York City. And really
ultimately Russell has grander aspirations of creating a more robust
coordinated museum division for all of the Park Service — and not just something
regional and located on the east coast as kind of a counterpart to mirror
what’s happening for Western Museum Labs. So Russell kind of, you know, goes along with this and accepts this conceptual
Interior Museum Planning Committee Assignment, but understandably he’s got a
lot already on his plate that he’s got to kind of rapidly come up to speed on,
and so he essentially kind of benignly neglects this whole Interior Museum
thing for several weeks, until April 1935. So, a couple months later it rolls around
and Russell gets word that secretary Ickes is serious about this and indeed
in earnest about this project and he’s carved out an entire wing, don’t you
know, on the first floor of the building, and so what’s the status on planning
this anyway, Dr. Russell? And it’s kind of one of those “oh, shoot!” moments for Russell and he
realizes that this is for real and that he better get cracking. So, he writes his
wife because she’s still on the other side of the country, and he’s kind of
bemoaning all of this, and he says “Well, one fool minor project like one
museum in Washington DC will probably be the salvation of a coordinated national
program of museums in the National Parks.” Which of course is his personal
professional goal — but famous last words, right? Because this would hardly turn out
to be a fool minor project. The Interior Museum is now a pet project of the
secretary, it’s in high-profile location in the headquarters in Washington DC. So get a load of this timeline — from a standing start in what is now April 1935,
here’s what happens — Russell turns his attentions finally to the Interior
Museum. In May, Secretary Ickes comes back and says, “Hey, I’ve got hold of a hundred
thousand dollars in PWA money to devote to this project,” and so things just
got really real quick. So initial construction begins on the headquarters
building that same month Russell recruits a guy named Louis Schellbach and Ned Burns — I’ll tell you more about them in a little bit. And by June, the next
month, they’re feverishly working on how they can logistically reconfigure
the wing that they’ve been given, that has been drawn up as office space, and
make it into a museum, instead — all while staying just a few steps ahead of the
construction workers. Well, come July they’ve got four planning curators
at work on more detailed exhibit plans — and incidentally they’re doing this from
a conference table in the stacks of the USGS library, They’re burning the candle
at both ends, simultaneously getting buy-in from the different bureaus and
developing in a race against the clock. By early autumn they have developed a
conceptual scale model and they have also constructed a much larger one so
that they can really visualize the unbuilt space. In September they submit
enough of an exhibit thematic report that preparators up in Morristown can
start translating ideas into reality. And by October — so just seven months after
Russell has stepped up to the plate — plans are submitted for five of the
bureau alcoves. And by year’s end there are 21 people — get that through hiring today —
at Morristown to work on Interior Museum exhibits. 12 preparators, 3 per diem
carpenters, 3 per diem helpers, a field curator, an equipment engineer, a clerk.
And incidentally the two gentlemen third from the left and fourth from the
left, right down front, our Ned Burns and Carl Russell. I’m
oversimplifying here but this group is simultaneously factoring in six
different arenas when they’re thinking about assembling the museum, and I’ve listed them here. First is what that overall visitor experience is going to be.
There’s a lot of back and forth in the correspondence about precisely why it’s
proving hard to convert what had initially been earmarked as offices into exhibit space. There’s a need to consider floor loads, access points, wide
doorways, built-in cases, electrical wiring, locations of outlets, ductwork,
anticipated traffic flow, the location of load-bearing columns, smooth even floors
that can be easily mopped and swept, pleasing lighting at the proper angles
and locations to be able to illuminate displays but blocking out natural lights
so those displays don’t fade, fabric choices and wall coverings. You might be
interested to know that Louis Shellbach actually got really excited about the
paint colors, and in a memo he writes, “I have in mind a light orange for the
walls, for the ceiling a blue-green or a robin’s egg blue, some black in the form
of opaque glass. This should look really good and I believe will be a great
improvement,” get this, “over the usual classic and morgue-like decoration of
the usual run of museums.” So, the planners have in mind the simplicity of design
and as Shellbach says, so as not to detract from the exhibits displayed. They
want to keep it simple, and for both practicality and most importantly, quote,
“avoid decorative embellishment that provides places for housing and breeding
of vermin, that gathers and holds dust and dirt.” Well, next up is picking the right
objects, and really to make them count. To this end there are liaisons that have
been appointed from all the bureaus, they’re working with this team of field
curators to ascertain what may be available, what stories they’re gonna tell, and what stories require objects to tell them, as opposed to some other form or
medium. In the production files is an article by Arthur Parker who was a
leading archaeologist in the 20s with the New York State Museum and among the
advice it contains is, don’t err in putting everything possible in a display
case. Quote, “piled up storage may be interesting to the curator but it does
not arouse the enthusiasm of the visitor. It tells but one story — that of confusion.”
Don’t put too much in one case. So, the team is really careful to juxtapose
with other types of information and while the Interior Museum is largely
relying upon the largesse of the bureaus to lend specimens and materials
for the displays, the museum actually at this point acquires a very, very
important collection of its own. In 1936, under Secretary Ickes’ direction,
DOI purchases for the sum of $2,000 from Helen Gibson aka
Rose Auguste Wagner, a film, radio, and vaudeville star, more than 400 items from
her extensive personal collection of American Indian and Alaska native
materials. 52 baskets, 50 ceramics, 42 woven textile items, and
over 200 other items like dolls and apparel. The earliest pieces date to
almost a century earlier, so these are sort of pre-tourist trade kinds of items,
and it’s a really important collection to us to this day. The next thing the
planners are considering is the use of what they’re calling didactics — literally
things that teach. They’re scientific models, they’re cutaways, they’re
topographical maps and the like, and they farm this work out to an existing Park
Service facility that has been operational since 1933 and you’ll never
guess where it is: Fort Hunt, down on the GW Parkway just north of Mount Vernon. Many of you might be familiar with Fort Hunt for its
military uses over the years, and then especially for the top-secret role it
would take in interrogation during World War Two with prisoners. But in 1933,
it’s just been recently decommissioned by the Secretary of War and is
functioning as a Civilian Conservation Corps Camp, CCC,
and that camp has hundreds of enrollees building trails and clearing timber and
doing lots of outdoor projects. But between 1933 and 1938, so for
just five short years, they have 20 enrollees working under the direct
supervision of some Park Service personnel on building relief maps and
models for NPS projects in eastern states. In spring of 1935, the model lab
annex, which is really just a one and a half story building, gets an expansion
just in time to start working on Interior Museum projects. And sure enough
if you look closely at some of the pieces in our collection,
many of our small-scale models that were built for those inaugural exhibits have
“Fort Hunt” scrawled somewhere either behind or underneath them or have a tag with
them. When it comes to illustrations and images, the museum planners actually have a lot of options at their disposal. Photography in displays is not unheard
of at that point, but as a matter of price and practicality, there are size
constraints. It’s not like you can do big jumbo-size murals like you can today
with ease. So, far easier it seems for them at this moment is to go the route
of illustrations. And between the staff preparators and the WPA artists, there is
considerable artistic talent to be found close at hand. Salaries for the
preparators are, get this, about $2,000 a year and they’ve allocated half of
that initial hundred thousand dollar PWA fund to salaries. So they enlist Harry
Wood to do charts and drawings for exhibit panels and labels, all very
neatly hand printed and painted. Lee Roland Warthen, a preeminent illustrator, was brought on to paint larger panels, like this one in the Bureau of Mines
alcove. And Wilfrid Bronson, a writer and prolific illustrator of children’s books,
contributes even larger original works, like this one in a set of four huge
paintings for the Bureau of Reclamation’s alcove. Arthur Ohlman and
Otto Jahn contribute to these large mural maps that will appear throughout the
gallery. And then they consult, and then contract, with William Henry Jackson
as a subject matter expert on the explorations of the West. You might know
him as the eminent photographer and artist who accompanied many of the early
expeditions, so he’s an eyewitness to this history. But get this, Jackson at
this point is in his early 90s — early 90s! — and they have to do some really fancy
footwork with HR to get him hired but hire him they do. And not only does he
provide an original series of pen and inks and watercolors on cardstock for
the exhibit, he also does a total of four five-foot murals — there at the left, there,
of this side — all of which we still have, depicting the four great surveys of the
West: Hayden, Powell, King, and Wheeler. The museum planners also spend a lot of time
figuring out how best to portray people in action and some of it they can take
care of with the illustrations, of course, but there’s a real and stated reluctance,
very interesting, to use mannequins — in part because of the size, and you know
they have this large space here, but they’re also afraid they might get
compared to wax figures at carnivals and they’re worried how the visiting public
might respond to them. So they decide to go to a different route, and they decide
to use miniature groupings and small sculptures at the Interior Museum
installations instead, and for this they turn to Rosario Russell Fiore, a
very accomplished sculptor. Finally, the museum planners are looking to create
moments of wonder to enthrall the visitor and for this dioramas are seen
as being just the thing. This is the hot technique de jour. The word ‘diorama’ comes
from the Greek ‘to see through’ and they’re essentially a window set onto a
scene viewed from the front, but with a painted perspective backdrop to convey a
sense of depth. Dioramas had been used primarily in Natural History Museums as
habitat displays with taxidermy specimens, the first U.S. one being
created for a museum in Milwaukee as early as 1889. But in 1933 they feature
prominently at the Century of Progress Expo in Chicago and the diorama craze
really takes off with that. It’s just like the new fad, and especially for the Park Service. And it’s no coincidence that Ned Burns, recruited to lead the
Morristown field labs, comes with extensive diorama experience from the
City Museum of New York, from the American Museum of Natural History.
He’s an acknowledged expert and he has with him at Morristown some of the other
best in the field in Albert McClure, pictured there, as well as Donald Johnson.
Rounding out this diorama team are Frank Urban, Lynne Royal, Rudolf Bauss, and Basil Martin. So let’s just lay the groundwork here: the window that you look through to
see the scene, it may not be very big but the infrastructure for these dioramas is
huge, and they’re also really truly works of art. So I want you to take a moment to
kind of look as closely as you can at this particular diorama of the Coal Mine Disaster. It depicts a real-life incident that took place in 1929 at the Kinloch
Mine in Parnassus, Pennsylvania. Basically a piece of machinery sparked and
caused an explosion killing 52 coal miners and then entombing 200 more
before they were rescued. The connection to the Department of the Interior is our
former Bureau of Mines. The Bureau had been created in 1910 to insure
safer mining conditions and promote the safer use of minerals overall. But here’s
the thing about these dioramas — it’s not good enough to just have a mine and then
take some artistic license in telling the story. No, the big takeaway on these
dioramas is that they blow you away with the attention to detail. The preparators in
Morristown are striving for absolute, like almost OCD, authenticity. They
extensively researched the equipment that would have been used, they secured
press photographs from the scene of the accident site, they tracked down somebody
at the Bureau of Mines to get the exact font that would be replicated on the
train car that was in the background of that scene, they even got the
Pennsylvania State Police Bureau of Criminal Investigation to send — and that’s what that little square is there — a swatch of fabric so that the preparators would know what color and texture to make the police uniform. For real. So another example:
Boulder Dam, aka Hoover Dam. This is a pretty
faithful representation. The Bureau of Reclamation sent the diorama designers
six photos in February of 1936, showing this cable way, and by request
they showed close-ups of the cable, the mechanism, the control house, the anchors,
which I mean honestly once you get to that size are probably like this big. In
addition they have geologists make a side trip out to the dam, one of the
Reclamation geologists, to kind of make some color sketches, particularly noting
the colors of the rocks, the sides of the canyon, the shading highlights at
different times a day. But Ned Burns had a few follow-up questions on accuracy of
the colors and in the letter back out to Carl Russell, who’s still his boss, he asked
for someone else to go out and take a look. He says, quote, “perhaps you might
think me rather fussy on this point but past experience in making museum
exhibits has taught me to be very careful with such details. The public
loss to criticize, so if you get the opinion of an artist, it would be safer.” So here’s
one more example, the USGS diorama on stream gauging. It shows an activity
that’s very commonplace today, a typical river measurement station, and the scene
is played out on streams and rivers all across the country. But USGS provided
reference photos so this could be based not on just any river, but a particular
one — the flow of the Hackensack. There’s a lot of correspondence about this in the
file about getting the wording on the signage — that little blue square there on
the tower — just right and even verifying that the look of the license plate on
the car was accurate. The preparators even concede — it’s the first time they do it
in any of our dioramas — is that they actually let USGS help them in building
that cable car. Because it’s front and center and very close to the viewer, they
knew it would be a focal point and they wanted to get it just right. It’s pretty
amazing when you think about all the coordination — you’re in a pre-email age
and trying to get all of this information and images to have this
inform their process. Well, for the better part of 1936, this team is madly working
away on dioramas up at Morristown. But then there’s a decision made to
close the lab and move operations closer to Interior headquarters where all the
various projects for the division are being managed. And it turns out that
there’s space available in very close proximity and by autumn they have
moved to Ford’s Theatre. Ford’s Theatre! And some staff get absorbed at Fort Hunt, as well. In fact here’s a photo of a luncheon that they’re having at the
Ford’s Theater space to show off some of Interior Museum’s dioramas, that have
already been completed but obviously not in place in our wing yet. By November
of 1936 with some of the big pieces already finished and even more underway,
the museum planners move on to the next phase, with even more detailed case
designs and specifications, and we have those very dog-eared blueprints. That PWA
funding, that hundred thousand dollars was only for a year and it didn’t
include any installation cost, so somehow, I haven’t figured this out yet, but they
secure an additional about, a little over fifty thousand dollars more. Employees
begin moving into this building here in the spring of 1937. And the museum
team, now based at Ford’s Theatre, gets the go-ahead to start moving the dioramas
over in the museum wing in June of 1937. So all is on track for the final
build-out and an opening at the end of the year but then that’s when the delays
kick in. There’s a contractor strike at the building that prevents painting and
finishing work from getting done in the Museum wing and there’s some
difficulties with an exhibit case manufacturer — I mean this could be
2018, not 1938. Well all told that schedule gets pushed
back by about three months, but finally, finally in March of 1938, three years
since the planning committee first formed, the Interior Museum is finally
ready to open. And invitations go out to folks internally obviously, but also to
the press and to several others, among them Senators, Congressmen. The list is
kind interesting actually, the director of the American Association of Museums,
the Secretary of the Smithsonian, the President of National Geographic Society
the head of the Forest Service, Commerce, Agriculture,
the director of the National Zoo, the directors of the National Gallery and
the Corcoran, curators at the Army Medical Museum and the American Red
Cross Museum. The soft opening is on a Tuesday, go figure, at 8 p.m. March 8th and the public grand opening is on Wednesday March 9th, then
there are special hours on both Saturday and Sunday of that week from 1 to 4:30.
Highlighted in all of the invitations and press materials are “striking
exhibits” showing “manifold activities” of the bureaus and offices. The publicity
touts nearly 8,000 square feet showcasing 95 exhibit units, a thousand
objects, nearly 500 photographs, 250 maps and charts, 100 models, 12 large wall maps,
and countless text panels. The museum’s brochure quickly has to get reprinted on
the order of 10,000 more, and gets transformed from a single sheet to the
trifold that you see here. It has numerous photos and really breathless
text. And my favorite part, and where I got the title for this talk, is “here is
history made vivid and unfolded before the eye, a story told in a book whose
pages are display cases, whose text and illustrations are interpreted through
scientific specimens, choice works of art and artifacts.” And the response to the
museum is fabulous, really. In the months after the opening visitation tops 10,000 — 10,000! — a month. Admission is free, it remains open
on Saturdays, and understandably visitors are really enthralled with those
dioramas and they get called out again and again. And visitor comments — there are
tons of letters written and notes left behind by people enthusing about their experience, and otherwise just offering general feedback. One person writes that they’re very
grateful to the museum for showing them “just how much I don’t know.”
Visitors repeatedly cite their interest particularly in the American Indian
materials, many comment on how pleasing the space is and how relaxed the subdued
lighting makes things — clearly they didn’t go with the orange walls. Much of the
correspondence is along the lines of the one on the right side of this slide, from
a visitor who gets back to his lodging at the Hay-Adams Hotels — its air conditioned, you know, it says so right on the stationary — and feels compelled to whip out that hotel
stationery and write how a visit to the museum, quote, “added considerably to the
enjoyment of my time in DC.” And then this is my particular favorite, it’s a doozy
from a college student, Miss Eleanor Shlifer. I love this one. So because it’s
kind of hard to read her handwriting I’m gonna read it for you in its entirety.
“Dear Sirs, I just wanted to tell you that this is one of the best museums and
interesting places in Washington as far as I’m concerned. You go around trying to
love your country by looking at the dusty, century-old stuff at the
Smithsonian, gazing at miles and miles of white marble done in some bastard Greek
style and meditating before millions of busts and monuments to Washington et al.
But this is the real living thing. And I bet most tourists don’t even know it’s here.
This is worth coming all the way from Chicago.” Mic drop, right? So high praise
right this place resonates with the masses. Visitor logs show that people are
visiting from every state in the nation and from what I think is a surprising
number of foreign countries, for this time period, too. So the museum is hitting on
all cylinders and it’s very much that, quote, “new instrument in the field of
government public relations” that it is intended to be. A year later the crowds
are still thriving. An April 1st 1939, so almost a year exactly after we opened,
oversight of the museum is transferred from the National Park Service’s Museum
Division directly to the Ssecretary’s Office and J. Paul Hudson, who had
served a year as an interim curator, moves on with that operational
transition, and a guy named Harry Raul comes on as curator, and he’ll stay until the
1950s. So our files, you know, it’s his name that
dominates the correspondence and the archival records for this next period in
the museum’s history. And one of the first issues that Raul has to contend
with is the very real problem of keeping things fresh and current. It’s one thing
to get the museum up and running, to keep it current it’s no mean feat. It’s
8,000 square feet of exhibits and in his report to the Secretary for the fiscal year
ending June 30th, 1939 — we had different fiscal years back then — he writes, “the
museum is growing in influence, in its services, and also in its needs. Natural changes and improvements continually should be
expected. No Museum should be allowed to become stagnant. A petrified
forest is a national asset — a petrified museum is not.” So how do they update
stuff? They have sunk a lot of time and resources already into all of these
hand-drawn labels, like this one about petroleum reserves. So one really
low-tech way that they updated things was by just re-lettering inserts and
gluing them over the top like this, updated in 1947. Pretty clever, right? You
don’t need to go find an artist to redo the whole watercolor and pen and ink
scene, you just need somebody with neat handwriting. For larger pieces however
things aren’t quite as easy. Remember those maps that I told you
about? The Interior Musuem has a dozen what they call a mural maps, and they’re
about 12 feet wide and 8 feet high and each showed the holdings of a
differently land-managing bureau. And as we all know, those landscapes were
constantly changing. So here’s the mural map as Otto Jahn painted it to show the
location of approximately 30 district and land survey offices. I know this is
a black-and-white photo, but the states are outlined, labeled, colored either
light yellow or light green depending on whether it’s public lands or non-public
lands. But look what happens to this map over time. What’s the first thing you
notice, other than this is a color photograph? They painted over the title. They’ve added a different title entirely, and it’s because by 1946 you no longer
have the General Land Office, you have the newly formed Bureau of Land Management.
Even the map legend has been updated to take out the reference to the land
survey offices. And while only eight colorful vignettes appear on the
original mural map, as you can see many many more have been
added over the years to illustrate the growing number of activities that the
bureau is engaged in. Particularly in the western states and Alaska. And most of
those clusters of those vignettes are done by totally different hand, Theodora
Drummond in the 50s, and includes surveyors, miners, cattle, wildlife, and
even filming on a motion picture set on on public lands. In some instances this
change was effected by investing just in more exhibit elements. To wit, see this
gallery shot here? That’s taken right as the museum is opening and you kind of
notice that up high above the cases there are these niches that are empty
and they notice that, too. They weren’t in the scale models, they weren’t in the
blueprints, but there they are the build-out. So in the summer of 1939, they
fill about a dozen of them by employing another uniquely 1930s exhibit technique:
silhouettes. Not to digress too much, the silhouettes had been around forever and
for various different cultures and in more recent times they’d enjoyed
popularity as an element of shadow theater in the famous Parisian cabaret. the Chat Noir. Elaborate figures and groupings cut from sheets of zinc,
somebody had to think of this, would be used almost like shadow puppets behind
an illuminated screen to play out dramatic stories. Some of them were
stationary to kind of represent the set, while others were on rods that you could
kind of move about to show animation. Various museums like the Musee d’Orsay
and the Zimmerli Museum up at Rutgers have several of these in their collections.
Well, the museum world of the early to mid 1900s appropriates the concept of
silhouettes as well. Indeed. Ned Burns and Louis Shellbach even say that when used
properly, elements from other genres like commercial or retail or theater can be
real assets for museums. And for the interior museum, the silhouettes are
static displays illuminated from below and from behind by cove lighting in
those niches. Technically they’re not considered objects, they’re considered
more decorative than interpretive, and as far as we can tell
they never seem to label them. But at nine to twelve feet in length, they are
pretty significant additions to the gallery and they’re also pretty economical.
Records show that they cost about $35 a foot to manufacture, they were done
in-house, so maybe 350 to 450 dollars a piece to do a silhouette, whereas the
dioramas would easily run 1800 to 3800 dollars depending on how complex they
were. So for the Interior Museum, we have a couple of scenes of National park
lands, recreating, and enjoying wildlife on public lands. Some developed
specifically for the Bureau of Mines and the US Geological Survey, and five
showcasing types of Indian tribes for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Although
they are super finely detailed, some even have cellophane like inserts to show
water and things like that, and you can see from these photographs showing them
in situ, just how much they lend kind of an impactful traumatic flair.
They also decide to add a couple more dioramas as well, and these later ones
were mechanized — watch out, folks! In the sponge fishers one at the top left, a
small motor powers the fish that are swimming around in the reef. In the
Juneau goldmine one down at the right there’s a full 24-hour cycle of light
and darkness that’s compressed into a two-minute cycle with lights and dimmers
to show the passage of a day, the mine cars go zooming back and forth and
there’s other little motors that make the boats bob in the water. One final way
of keeping things fresh and new was by growing the museum’s collection.
Secretarial gifts are added to the collection and displayed, Secretary Krug
gets presented with a headdress that goes on view in the museum, as are items
from territories and insular possessions. And remember Helen Gibson’s collection
of Indian materials? Well in 1940 in December
eighty one-year-old Eunice “Frona” Colburn donates to the Interior Museum nearly
350 items just in less than half of her and her husband’s personal collection.
She’s a well-known California journalist editor, author, with a penchant for wine
tasting, epicurean delights and ethnographic materials and we are the
beneficiary of half of her collection. There are truly some spectacular, very
rare pieces of basketry styles in what she
donates. So the upshot is that the museum one way or another continues to evolve
and get tweaked under Rahl’s curatorship. But it’s not all smooth sailing on
September 28th, 1942 Raul circulates kind of a
nervous memo to two of his higher-ups, writing, “I’ve heard that there appears to
be a possibility that the Interior Department Museum may be abolished.” And
these rumblings appear to be twofold — one seems to be summing for a need for
additional office and storage space for the war effort,
and indeed the National Park Service has just that previous month, August 1942,
relocated its offices to Chicago for the duration of the war, in part to make room for
War Department staff and two, appearing to question the propriety of the museum
being open at all during wartime. But Raul eloquently addresses both
issues. As to the first on the office space needs, he said that museums
attendance and popularity — still getting four thousand visitors a month — we’re
operating it compactly and economically, and our costs are in line and actually
proportionately lower than any other US museums our size. Essentially he’s
saying look we’re good investment and we’ve invested a lot into the success
for our museum. As the second issue on wartime operations, Raul makes the case
that this is precisely the time to be open. He cites museums in Washington and
England following a policy of continuing to remain open to the public and in some
cases even expanding their offerings during war. He cites the need to maintain
public trust and the museum stewardship obligations in protecting the
collections and the pieces from private donors like Gibson and Colburn, and he
appeals to a sense of patriotism saying that the museum is, quote, “a visual and
clear exposition of the very things our country stands for.” And it’s not just him
saying this, he’s got visitor comment cards to back him up. To wit, “I’ve been
through the museum it makes me proud to be an American.” Another, “this is a truly
wonderful museum. We had no idea all the Department of the Interior does for the
nation. And another, Mrs. Pratt from Charlottesville, Virginia:
“museums as a rule collect exhibits and then display them. But this museum, it
interprets!” Well history doesn’t confide in us as to which of Raul’s arguments was
the most convincing, perhaps all of them, but the upshot is that the museum stays
put. In the early 40s he installs seven more silhouettes into what were still
empty niches. The themes are sheep grazing, early and modern surveying,
cattle roundups, driving the Golden Spike, water transportation, activities of the USGS,
a wagon train. And we know these were installed because we have reports of the
installation dates and just as tellingly these very cool concept drawings and
stencils and rubbings that are in our files. However, the great mystery of the
day, and I challenge all of you, is where are these seven silhouettes today? We’ve
never seen them, we’ve never seen photos of them, they weren’t considered objects
so they weren’t cataloged. So if you’re roaming around the mezzanine or
someplace from the building and you come across seven amazing silhouettes let us
know. I’m not going to get much beyond these formative and early years of the
Interior Museum today, but that doesn’t mean that there’s not more to be told.
The museum does go undergo some further updating in the 50s and the 60s and
again in the mid 80s and the 90s and there are numerous thematic temporary
exhibitions that change in and out with the different alcoves, but that’s for
another lecture. Suffice it to say our collections have grown considerably
since those early days. We now steward more than eight thousand objects. Our
appearances have changed considerably as well, because exhibit techniques
obviously morph over time and our footprint within the building has
changed considerably from that 8,000 square feet to about 750 square feet as
the department’s priorities have changed with various administrations. But the
museum’s purpose has remained the same from 1938 to 2018: to educate and to
inspire the public with the Interior’s ongoing work. And I think that function
and that need is every bit as important today as it was when Secretary Ickes
first articulated it in 1935. Well, by way of kind of starting to wrap this up,
why is this all even relevant and important. I mean that besides the fact
that I have totally enthralled you this afternoon? But it seriously it’s healthy
and very important and instructive to try to understand where we came from
as our agency and as our national and world events have shaped us as an
institution. All of this is important because these exhibits were created for
widespread public consumption and not just for some very select narrow
audience, and they were created with educating the public being first and
foremost. It’s important because a lot of things like old exhibit labels from
1930s usually get considered as ephemera and the grand scheme of things, you know,
across any institution — I mean how many things do you still have from even 20 or 30
years ago they don’t get backed up on a thumb drive like you might do today, they
don’t get archived. The materials themselves, it’s paper, it doesn’t necessarily
stand the test of time very well and they get discarded — and yet we have them.
And that means that you have a very unusual kind of wormhole to the past, it
means that you can provide context and visuals that you just don’t get from
reading legislation or scholarly articles or newspaper accounts from this
period. So that means that you get nuance, it means that sometimes you
uncover a bias, it means you might uncover some uncomfortable aspects about
Interior’s own past, but it also means that you get to evaluate with the
benefit of hindsight, and hopefully with a more enlightened approach and greater
cultural sensitivities. So looking at what was assembled over three years’
work to represent Interior in its first ever museum and a groundbreaking
achievement for any federal agency it really is a snapshot in time. Whether
you’re doing an overview exhibit about Interior in 1938 or in 2018 there’s
probably some things that it’s a no-brainer to include. For example Hoover
Dam — it likely makes the cut no matter what, right? But what about these? Take
these two dioramas. I guarantee you that these two topics aren’t on anybody’s radar
now as highlights of Interior’s history but they were the bee’s knees and very
worthy of creating big honkin dioramas back in the
day. So these are the historical nuggets that would otherwise get filtered out by
the tide of history and that passage of time. The top one on the left was done for
USGS and at first glance it’s a big field right? So, but here is the cool
thing about this, its is where I get to sort of geek out about this, where it’s become
kind of an artifact in its own right. It turns out it’s not just any field. In
1906, the USGS began hydrologic investigations of the Roswell artesian
basin in New Mexico. By 1933 there’s a more comprehensive study done and when
the report comes out, it reveals that this very spot is a world-class example
of a rechargable artesian basin. And based on the findings, USGS then goes to
the state engineers and gives them recommendations for making that aquifer
more efficient and sustainable. To this day that basin remains among the most
intensively farmed regions in the state, efficiently deriving its water for
irrigating crops almost exclusively from the groundwater that they had discovered.
And because of the timing of that report in 1933, this is what’s top of mind when
they go to ask USGS in 1935, “hey, what do you want as a diorama for your Bureau?”
This field for the diorama on the lower right, that’s Tarpon Springs, Florida, sponge
fishing. And if you didn’t wonder when I showed you that one before, like what the
heck does that have to do with Interior? Here’s your chance. At first blush you’re
just like kind of cool with the motorized fish and the diving bell guy
but why? And again context is key here — this diorama gets added to the museum in
September 1940. The year before, 1939, the Bureau of Fisheries gets transferred
from Commerce to Interior, and just two months before this diorama gets
installed, Fisheries combines with the Bureau of Biological Survey, just come
over from the Department of Agriculture to become our US Fish and Wildlife
Service. Bingo! And the health and the harvesting of natural sponges was very
important to Interior at that point, because of use in households and
hospitals, in industry, and eventually as part of the war effort.
Finally, back to the issue of relevance, this museum’s history is important
because of its legacy. Ned Burns, talked about already, was
really the guy behind coordinating the Interior Museum installations, and he
went on to publish a seminal work in 1941. It’s called the Field Manual for Museums. To this day it’s still considered one of the bibles for the
museum profession. It’s 439 pages long, very dense, sold
through the Government Printing Office for seventy cents. But to Carl Russell’s
goal of having a National Park Service Museum Division, Ned Burns had codified
its principles and best practices. Many were lessons that he learned on the job
from the museum building boom in the parks in the 1930s. And Burns’ book
actually cites several examples and includes images from the Interior Museum.
You know, that fool minor project in Washington DC. And of course, the fact
that our silhouettes and dioramas are still extant really helped to document a
phase in museum design techniques that have largely gone by the wayside, but
nonetheless chronicle an unparalleled level of craftsmanship. All of this is to
say that these topics in this era really are ripe for further research and
further discoveries. There’s probably a good thesis and several good scholarly
articles yet to come out of all of this. But in the immediate, I am putting finishing
touches, Diana mentioned this, on an online exhibition called “Stories In
Miniature,” that is essentially just a deep dive on the large scale dioramas.
You should find that on our Interior Museum’s Google Arts and Culture portal,
in the next couple of weeks that’ll go live, and in even the more immediate, like
in the realm of instant gratification, I have a commemorative parting gift for
all of you in attendance today. I have a handout for you to create your very own
mini diorama — it’s a little DIY, it’s essentially a shadow box and you can
switch out the scene to be one of five historical original dioramas. This is
what yours will look like, tiny, so when you’re feeling kind of mildly inept with your scissors and your glue stick putting this together, I hope
you will have a new appreciation and will remember and silently thank all of
those craftsmen and artists and preparers and curators who toiled on
those original displays and created the very substantial legacy upon which the
museum continues to build 80 years later. Thank you so very much for your time
this afternoon. We do have birthday cake up front and we hope you’ll stay for a
piece. We do have time for a couple quick questions before we literally cut the
cake or you can come up and talk to me afterwards. Somebody in the back, yeah? [Audience:] Will we see the dioramas again? [TB]: We are hoping for more space but I believe that, we actually had been asked
about this a couple of times, we had to blow out exterior walls to get them out
for asbestos abatement, and so there are not really any ways for the big ones to
come back in. However, we still have all of them. Just a possibility, I suppose,
that they could get reinstalled. A couple politicals have inquired about that in
more recent years. They don’t fit into any of the sort of open spaces around
the stairwells by the grand staircase, where some had suggested that
they might. It is quite deceiving because what you’re seeing is kind of just the
flat front but they go back what, four five feet deep. I mean they’re they’re
huge, so. And we’re actually about to move them a little bit closer. They were in
off-site storage — they will remain at least for the the near future in
off-site storage, but in now a Park Service facility. Fortunately we have
really great photo documentation of them, which makes this online exhibition
available. You can really zoom in and see some of the details, but space issues and
just the complexity of those pieces are what’s at hand there. I saw another hand,
yeah? [Audience question inaudible] [TB]: There were, and they had kind of
impressed upon the bureaus to keep coming up with new things that started
to stagnate a bit over time. But you know, there was very much the concerted effort
for the opening, and then as the years went on, yes, a lot of the bureaus kind
of took on that role of multiple changing temporary exhibitions
showcasing whatever their projects du jour were. Sometimes there were photo
exhibitions, works of art, they brought back William Henry Jackson for
one more swan song. So there were several temporary shows over time. They
didn’t carve out specifically changing exhibition space for it, but they started
to repurpose some of those galleries. I saw one more hand there? [Audience]: You mentioned politics. Unlike other museums, you’re dealing with issues that are inherently political and controversial. How did they start dealing with that? [TB]: Good question, and there’s a lot to sift through. The great thing is they kept all those files the bad thing is they kept all the stuff. And so there’s a lot to kind of
weed through, it’s not necessarily organized how you would think to do so. And so that’s that’s one of kind of many things on my list, is kind of going back
and delving a little bit deeper into those issues. It seemed that there was a
pretty big consensus and congeniality. I mean there was a huge team kind of
working on this and vetting things a la 1938. Clearly you speak to the– I mean,
that hasn’t changed over time and it is what makes reading some of these
original labels interesting. And what I was kind of getting at, to the point of
kind of uncovering some biases or kind of uncomfortable truths about Interior,
about our policies as a nation, particularly sort of paternalistic views,
even though Indian policy was changing in the 30s that still manages to
kind of creep through. And some of these earlier labels and issues of ethnicity
and identity, national identity, but yeah. I think it’s it’s one of those questions
that is a great one, but I’m not prepared to answer at least just yet, in terms of
what with what research we’ve done so far. Let’s have some cake. Thank you!

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