Anthropology Conservation Laboratory
Focus on Leadership


John Varden (Curator, 1858-1864). Smithsonian Institution Annual Report, 1958.

The Anthropology Conservation Laboratory (ACL) in the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, has a long and interesting legacy of collections care. Archival records indicate that artifact care is first evidenced in the existence of mid-nineteenth century workshops that date from the early years of the Smithsonian. The earliest staff in the first decades worked on the entire Smithsonian collection, including anthropological material. But after the Institution was reorganized at the turn of the 19th century their attention was focused specifically on the anthropology collections. By early 1900 staff working in the Department of Anthropology created the Anthropological Laboratory that is the predecessor of the ACL. Historical records examined to date reveal that anthropology collections have been cared for by a varied host of dedicated curators, artists, modelers, sculptors, taxidermists, restorers, preparators, volunteers, students and conservators over a period of almost 150 years. This article tells the story of some of these remarkable laboratory predecessors and their work in the ACL.

What is known about John Varden and his association with the Smithsonian is primarily excerpted from what he recorded in the diary he kept from the 1850's until his death in 1864. Various other documents refer to him as a curator, collector and keeper. These note that he had a strong interest in collecting, and the small number of artifacts he assembled are still held by the National Museum of Natural History. From 1829 to 1841 he directed the Washington City Museum. Later he was associated with the National Institute, a voluntary association of collectors with interests in the natural sciences where collectors had the opportunity to centrally display their collections. This organization was granted a federal charter in 1842, and thereafter became known as the National Institute for Promotion of Science, with core collections from such individuals as John Varden. The establishment of the Smithsonian Institution in 1846 from the bequest of John Smithson eclipsed the Institute and it was finally dissolved in 1862. The collections were transferred to the Smithsonian Institution and were initially displayed in the United States Patent Office building in Washington, D.C. By 1857, the Smithsonian collections were moved to a new, dedicated building on the National Mall, now known as the Castle. In 1858, John Varden was hired by Secretary of the Smithsonian, Joseph Henry, to care for the newly acquired collections as they were being moved from the Patent Office to the Smithsonian Castle.

Varden worked as the first caretaker of the new national collections until his death. He had responsibility for a wide variety of objects from shells to skin garments. His diary notes that he worked in what he referred to in September of 1858 as his shop at the museum, which was made comfortable with a stove and solid floor. Varden's first priority was to pack and move collections into the Smithsonian Castle in the late 1850's. He packed a wide variety of objects including those that eventually became part of the Department of Anthropology collections. He used materials available at the time such as paper and cotton to cushion objects and boxes to hold objects while they were being moved. The diary further notes that Varden and his staff handled all aspects of collections care, functioning as collections managers, preparators and exhibition staff who worked with all types of objects from the Smithsonian early collections. Typical diary entries note, for example, on September 21, 1858, “Varden is getting the Mummys (sic) ready for visitors. On October 29, 1858, Varden “Took Dr. R.R. Gurley's collection of African specimens up on the Gallery opened them to air intending to arrange them next week”.

Varden and the staff worked continually to get objects ready for exhibition. There are many diary entries that list such activities as building and painting exhibition cases, hanging paintings, fixing locks, and generally maintaining the physical plant. There are multiple references to Varden's activities in “cleaning” and “repairing” collections, but there are few specific sources of information concerning his methods. His purchase order notes included references to various quantities of arsenic and mercury for the treatment of collections. His notes from October of 1863 indicate that he added camphor and benzine into an exhibition case, possibly to forestall insect infestation and mold growth. Varden's use of benzine for the treatment of mold is confirmed in his description of September 10, 1863, “At work began by examining Peruvian Mummies found them nearly covered with blue mold, cleaned them with Benzine and dried the case with a charcoal fire.”

Varden also recorded some of the difficulties of working in a museum.  For example, he was very dejected when after working hard to clean up the museum for a Smithsonian Board of Regents meeting because no one looked at the collections, but he was thrilled when President Lincoln visited. One senses that Varden was a man who paid careful attention to detail, even noting the receipt of a pencil. He applied the same careful oversight to the collections, trying to maintain all records, keep labels with objects, and present a clean and orderly museum. He also kept a record of the local weather, and one can sense in his records how the collections suffered in the high heat and humidity of Washington D.C.


Joseph Palmer (Preparator, 1873-1913 ). Photograph courtesy National Anthropological Archives. Neg. No. 42012.

The USNM Annual Report of 1913 gives an account of the life of Joseph Palmer, a taxidermist, modeler and restorer who worked at the Museum for many years: "Mr. Joseph Palmer, who was born in Barrow, Suffolk, England, in 1836, died in Washington on April 19, 1913.   While a young man he worked for some years at the Crystal Palace at Sydenham, where he assisted Prof. B. Waterhouse Hawkins in connection with his celebrated restorations of extinct animals.   In 1868 he came to this country with Prof. Hawkins, who had been commissioned to make similar reproductions for Central Park, New York, but this work being soon abandoned, Mr. Palmer found employment at the park as taxidermist and general assistant at the Museum, and for a time was in charge of the zoological garden.   In 1873 began his connection with the National Museum, in which for a considerable period he was the only skilled preparator on the staff.   His versatility and thorough knowledge of methods made him equally proficient in modeling, casting, taxidermy, and osteology, and the coloring of reproductions, and he was especially skillful in the building of animal and Indian lay-figure [diorama] groups. In consequence, his services were largely availed of in the preparation and installation of exhibits for the international expositions in which the Museum participated, beginning with the Centennial Exhibition of 1876.   During his later years his work was with the department of anthropology."

When Palmer first arrived at the National Museum he worked as a taxidermist, and only later began to work on anthropology projects.   While Palmer appeared periodically in the curatorial records of the division of ethnology in the late 1800's, it was after the reorganization of the Smithsonian in 1897 and the formation of the Department of Anthropology that his name appeared as a departmental preparator. A few years later he was listed as working under Henry W. Hendley as an assistant departmental preparator in the Anthropological Laboratory. His work as a departmental preparator is extensive. He was given entire charge of poisoning collections as they were received and as necessary, when inspecting collections on exhibit and in storage. Palmer also did a great deal of casting for the department and probably helped train Henry W. Hendley. In addition, the curatorial record described specific instances of collections restoration performed by Palmer, including renovating and parafining delicate objects to prevent decay, and removing rust on metal to guard against future deterioration.

Joseph Palmer worked on many projects in the museum until his death in 1913. His son, William, joined the taxidermist staff in 1874 and worked as a museum taxidermist until his death in 1921. William also worked occasionally for the Department of Anthropology doing ceramic restoration.


John Walter Hendley

John Walter Hendley was born in Heathsville, Virginia in 1827 and later moved with his parents to Washington, D. C. When he was young, he worked painting signs and was noted for the accuracy and beauty of his work. J. W. Hendley had a very adventurous life in his youth according to written recollections. In 1847 after participating in the Mexican American War he was discharged from the navy and joined in the gold rush. He came home with $110,000, but lost it all within two years. In 1862 after being discharged from the Virginia Militia because of ill health, he moved his family to Washington DC, earned his living making wax flowers and began to model figures. Hendley produced flexible, realistic models of fish specimens for the Fish Commission and received a first prize at the International Fisheries Exposition in London for a set of these models with life-sized figures of the men working in the fish hatcheries. He took another first prize at the the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition for a group he exhibited.

A Washington Post article of July 4, 1899 notes that he began working for the National Museum (now known as the National Museum of Natural History) in 1879 and that Hendley’s life-size figures decorated the aisles of the National Museum including Indian figures and exhibits titled “The Chinese Postman” and “The Taxidermist.” It referred to Hendley's figure of Geronimo, at the National Museum, as so life-like even those who knew it was plaster could almost believe that the eyes could see and the nostrils could expand. The same article notes that he left the Museum 13 years later. Very few archival records examined to date clearly document Hendley's contributions to care of the Smithsonian collections, although a handwritten report dated Dec 14, 1885, notes that 66 casts of archaeological specimens were made for the New Orleans Exposition. After leaving the Museum he worked for the Department of Agriculture making many models of fruit and animals. He died on July 3rd 1899 in Washington, D. C., and is buried in Congressional Cemetery. Newspaper articles of the time referred to him as The Wizard of the Museum, and John Walter Hendley, artist, is listed in The New York Historical Society's Dictionary of Artists in America (514884 Hendley, John Walter)


Thomas W. Sweeny (Preparator, 1880s-1914). Photograph courtesy National Anthropological Archives . Neg. No. 42012.

The contributions of Thomas W. Sweeny are chronicled in departmental curatorial annual reports. He is first mentioned in reports beginning in the mid 1880's but his beginning with the Museum is unknown.   The full range of Mr. Sweeny's work on the ethnology collections cannot be underestimated. He worked in the collections ceaselessly for decades. He seemed to have worked on most facets of collections care including cleaning, storage, exhibition and poisoning. However, his primary task over the decades was cleaning and mounting collections for exhibition, and reorganizing the exhibits as needed. He was involved in every major exhibition during this period, the largest being the Chicago Columbian Exposition that he was detailed to for an extended period. As early as 1885 curator, O.T. Mason, clearly stated that Sweeny was the preparator of the Department [of Ethnology]. Sweeny's work in planning how to exhibit and how to safely store collections is noted in the curatorial reports. He worked on a series of experiments to determine the best methods for exhibiting ethnographic specimens so as to enable the curator at any time to introduce new specimens into the display. Sweeny remained in the ethnographic division of anthropology his entire career. Unlike Joseph Palmer and Henry Hendley, Sweeny did not appear to do casting or modeling but focused on cleaning and mounting specimens and maintaining order in collection storage.

Thomas Sweeny died while still working at the Museum and the USNM Annual Report of 1914 reported his death very simply, "Mr. Thomas W. Sweeny, who had been a preparator in the division of ethnology for many years and had taken an important part in the installation of the exhibition collections in the new building, died on April 4, 1914".


Henry W. Hendley (Preparator, 1902-1913). Photograph courtesy National Anthropological Archives. Neg. No. 42012.

Henry Winter Hendley the son of John Walter Hendley, was born on May 6, 1879 in Washington, D. C.. Henry studied art under the direction of his father J. W. Hendley and Sculptor T. A. Mills as well as with the Corcoran School of Art. The Congressional Record notes that Hendley worked at the Smithsonian Institution from 1901 to 1913. He was promoted to the position of departmental preparator in 1902. Hendley was the first departmental preparator who reported directly to the curator of the newly formed Department of Anthropology. He was the first head of what was referred to by 1908 as the Anthropological Laboratory. As the head preparator he was strongly encouraged to develop his skills in modeling and worked extensively on lay-figure groups (mannequins) at the Museum. He even prepared a mounted Eskimo figure for the Peabody Museum in 1903. Over the years his specialized skills were frequently requested by other departments to help in their work.

By 1910 the Anthropological Laboratory was located in a roomy space in the new museum building, now known as the National Museum of Natural History. The scope of the work undertaken by the laboratory staff was tremendous. At this point in time Hendley worked on anthropology collections that included paintings and fine arts later transferred to other departments and museums. The 1910 curatorial report is an example of the wide range of the work. It states that Hendley's primary tasks were modeling and casting, including busts, fossils, medals and archeological objects. In the same year the laboratory also repaired and otherwise cared for the numerous lay-figures and lay-figure groups. His work was appreciated outside the Smithsonian Institution and a newspaper article of the period describes H. W. Hendley as the presiding genius of his shop at the Museum with skills to make exact replicas of museum objects and the ability to make perfect plaster casts of the faces of Native Americans visiting Washington. The article also discusses Hendley’s innovative work using a new “paraffine” process for casting delicate objects.

Hendley resigned from his position on July 19, 1913 to accept a more lucrative position, according to curatorial records. However, he returned on contract to do modeling of lay figures. Hendley continued to work in the Washington D.C. area. He worked as a scientific illustrator for the Bureau of Public Roads for 35 years making models of bridges and highways. He received the silver medal at the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco in 1915 for his exhibit of Yosemite Valley. He also won honors at other fairs and expositions including the New York World’s Fair. A Washington Post article of 1931 celebrated his artistry and wrote that he was an expert in anthropology and ethnology and had modeled many of the Indian figures at the National Museum. Recent communication with the Hendley family has provided additional information about Henry Hendley’s life. His daughter, Edith Avis, has memories of her father and his work for the Museum at his home and workshop in Clarendon, Virginia. She remembers him speaking of his work on the life size diorama entitled, Capt. John Smith Trading with Powhatan Indians, only recently removed from display at the Museum. At his home workshop, he also worked on the mannequins of the Presidents’ wives using Mrs. Hendley’s hands as a model. His home was also visited by Native Americans while he painted their portraits. Hendley enjoyed sculpting and painting in his retirement and his family has kept some of his oil paintings and carvings. Henry Hendley died on February 26, 1954 and is buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery, Alexandria, Virginia.

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