Wonderful Labyrinth: A Great Museum’s Hidden Archives

A memory. I am at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC. I’ve come to look at the field diaries of a Smithsonian biologist named Remington Kellogg. In the 1920s he visited and studied a bottlenose dolphin fishery on Hatteras Island, N.C. that I am researching.

The museum is located on the National Mall between the Capitol Building and the Washington Monument. It is the most popular natural history museum in the world, one of the most popular museums of any kind.

National Museum of Natural History, Washington, DC. Courtesy, Smithsonian Institution

Behind the crowded exhibit halls and its famous holdings like the Hope Diamond and the Egyptian mummified cat, the museum is a labyrinth of hidden, seemingly endless corridors, cluttered laboratories and many of the world’s most important natural history collections.

The museum holds some of the largest and most important natural history collections in the world. Photo by Chip Clark, Smithsonian Institution.

Though much less well known, the museum is also home to more than a dozen archives. They mainly contain collections of field notes and other research materials related to the work of the museum’s scientists since its founding in 1846. I have come to visit the Department of Paleobiology’s archive.

When I was contemplating my visit to DC, I found it difficult to discover if the museum would be worth a trip for my research on Hatteras Island. The museum’s archives don’t have online finding aids. Most of the museum’s archives don’t even have an archivist or librarian on regular duty. They’re open to outside researchers only by appointment. They’re really more for the use of the museum’s curators and research scientists, though, as I said, they are officially open to the public.

Before I arrived, I really had no idea what might be waiting for me, though I had confirmed that I would find Remington Kellogg’s field notes in the Department of Paleobiology’s archive.

As soon as I arrived at the museum, Thomas Jorstad, the Department of Paleobiology’s public liaison, met me at the back door. He immediately whisked me up to one of the museum’s vast collection storage areas: rafter upon rafter of fossilized bones, ancient pollen grains, bird eggs, insects entombed in amber, and on and on and on.

In a cluttered room on one side of a collections storage area, near a preservation laboratory and the office of a leading paleoclimatologist, he quickly cleared a little workspace for me on a table and handed me Kellogg’s field diaries from 1927 and 1928.

Then he ran off to see who else in the museum might have knowledge of other materials that might be a help to me.

Kellogg’s field notes were spectacular. They were by far the best firsthand account of the William F. Nye Co.’s bottlenose dolphin fishery that was on Hatteras Island from roughly 1907 to 1928.

Even more exciting, Kellogg had also recorded anecdotes that he had heard from Hatteras Islanders about earlier dolphin fisheries that helped lay the ground work for the Nye Co.’s operation. The memory of the oldest dolphin hunter to whom he spoke reached into the 1850s.

That was just the beginning. As soon as I finished taking notes on the field diaries, Jorstad introduced me to Dr. David Bohaska, a marine paleontologist who specializes in fossilized marine mammals from the Tertiary Period.

Dr. Bohaska was tremendously helpful. He dug out scholarly articles left and right and, best of all, led me through more collections—whalebones, walrus tusks, ancient sediments and God only knows what else—to a locked room in the museum’s east wing.

The Dept. of Paleobiology’s specimens in the museum’s exhibit halls are just breathtaking. This is a fossil of an ammonite, one of a group of extinct marine animals that thrived some 400 to 650 million years ago. Photo by David Cecelski.

At least I think it was the east wing. By that time, I was totally turned around and barely knew what floor I was on, much less east and west.

I was astonished. Behind the locked door was Kellogg’s office and personal library. Kellogg had died 40 years earlier, but the room looked as if he had just walked out the door.

My day just got better and better. After I browsed Kellogg’s bookshelves, Jorstad and Bohaska led me to the opposite end of the museum, where we found two of the world’s foremost authorities on whales and dolphins.

Dr. James Mead. Photo: Society for Marine Mammalogy.

One was Charley Potter, who I knew by reputation as the head of the nation’s sea mammal stranding program. The other was Dr. James Mead, an illustrious curator emeritus in the museum’s Department of Vertebrate Zoology.

Potter and I nearly put Jorstad, Mead and a couple of their more junior colleagues to sleep, as we chatted about the preparation and uses of bottlenose dolphin leather in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Apparently one of Potter’s current scholarly passions is the historic usage of fish, reptile and mammal skins as leathers. I knew the subject only through the narrow lens of North Carolina’s coastal history, and I had never had the chance to talk to anyone who was interested in discussing the subject with me until that moment!

The William F. Nye Co.’s fishermen, by the way, were not primarily interested in catching dolphins for their leather. That was just a sidelight. They were primarily interested in obtaining the valuable oils contained in the dolphins’ echolocation organs.

You can find my article on the Wm. F. Nye Co.’s bottlenose dolphin fishery on Hatteras Island in the Jan. 2015 issue of the North Carolina Historical Review.

They found some of those oils in the sea mammals’ lower jawbones, and others in an organ called the “melon” that is found between their snouts and blowholes. Both had unique qualities that made them especially desirable for lubricating clocks, watches, navigational instruments and other delicate machinery.

The day was joy upon joy. In a matter of minutes, Dr. Mead taught me more about dolphin anatomy and echolocation than I had learned from a dozen books and journals and even from an earlier visit with a Duke marine biologist back home.

The author of a landmark study of dolphin hunting in North America that was published a half century ago, Dr. Mead also helped me to understand the fishery at Hatteras Island in context of the history of dolphin hunting throughout the Western Hemisphere.

Then Dr. Mead invited me back the next morning. Bright and early, we joined a group of his colleagues that gather at the museum’s cafeteria for coffee before the museum opens its doors to the general public. They included vertebrate zoologists, but also scientists who specialized in other branches of biology and natural history.

I told them about my work on Hatteras Island, and they shared their ideas and perspectives, each from his or her own field. It was glorious.

And then, when I thought my trip couldn’t get any better, Dr. Mead led me to an archive I didn’t even know existed: the museum’s Division of Mammalogy Archives. It was a small room around the corner from his and Charley Potter’s offices.

More of the museum’s natural history collections– these are algal specimens. Photo by Chip Clark, Smithsonian Institution

Crowded with file cabinets and old journal volumes, and book shelves that ran from floor to ceiling, the room wasn’t very big, but had clearly been carefully arranged and cataloged.

Dr. Mead immediately went to a small card catalog, the cards handwritten or typed, of course, not on a computer. He leafed through the note cards and quickly went to a bookshelf, where he pulled volumes and handed them to me.

Then he went into a file cabinet, where in a matter of seconds he located two invaluable sources for me. The first was a previously unknown report that another scientist, not Kellogg, wrote after a visit to the William F. Nye Co.’s dolphin fishery in 1928. The second was the field notes that one of the museum’s earlier field biologists, F. W. True, wrote during a visit to a Hatteras Island dolphin fishery in the 1880s. I thought I had died and gone to heaven.

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