Watching documentaries about great movements, magazines or businesses, there’s inevitably the old faded photograph that swims across the screen. It shows the small tireless team in the early days in a cheaply-rented office or somebody’s garage, before they became important. While everyone busies themselves with the tasks of the day, there is one guy documenting the doing. For the Smithsonian¬†National Museum of Natural History (NMNH), this guy was the late Chip Clark; not quite there to document the beginning (the institution was opened in 1910), he spent decades as staff photographer at the museum from 1973. Depending on your proclivity for great adventure, Clark’s job was arguably one of the best in the world, for in addition to photographing his fellow staff members, the specimens they collected and the exhibits in the museum, it meant venturing out into the field. Clark followed researchers and scientists into Jamaican caves, through the rainforest in Peru and along the ocean floor in a deep-sea submersible. The breadth of his subject matter is astounding – from the cross-section of a crystal to a flower in ultra-violet light to show how an insect would see it. However, it’s a photograph shot in 1992 of¬†Smithsonian research associate Roxie Laybourne and staff members amongst the vast Birds collections on display in open drawers that was his most requested.
The photograph is part of a series shot of the immense NMNH collections found in the hallways and storage facilities beyond public access.¬†Together the collections form the largest, most comprehensive natural history collection in the world, reaching 126 million items. It’s the Noah’s Ark of museums. And it’s ever-growing! The fine-tuned order of the open cabinets in Clark’s photographs has the power to¬†quell our internal chaos in the same way compartmentalised airplane food might. If you’re into that kind of thing.¬†Each item has been meticulously preserved, labeled, catalogued, and organised by museum staff for over a century. It’s these dedicated people, I imagine, who would know exactly where to find the Indian Ringneck Parakeets should you need one.¬†Third floor, second door, fifth row to the right, fourth cabinet, second drawer.¬†In the great question of life, and in a Roald Dahl book in my head, these people are ‘the knowledge keepers’.
The collections are the tagged and temperature-controlled history of us. They include bones of a Tyrannosaurus rex, moon rocks and the blue Hope Diamond (not to be confused with the one the old lady dropped into the ocean at the end of Titanic).¬†But on their website the NMNH says that we have literally only skimmed the surface when it comes to understanding the natural world and humanity‚Äôs place in it.
The NMNH says, “These collections serve as primary reference materials for exploring and understanding the solid Earth and planet, biological and cultural diversity, evolutionary relationships, biological conservation, and global change. They help us to interpret our biological origins, our cultural heritage, and what the future may hold.”
Because how do we know where we’re going if we don’t know where we come from?