Frank Taylor; Founding Director Of American History Museum
Saturday, June 30, 2007
Frank A. Taylor, 104, the founding director of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History, which has become the permanent home of such popular treasures as the ruby slippers from "The Wizard of Oz" and Abraham Lincoln's top hat, died of respiratory failure June 14 at Sibley Memorial Hospital.
In 1964, Mr. Taylor, a native Washingtonian, helped launch what has become the institution's third-most popular museum. About 3 million people passed through the doors annually until it closed for renovations in September, attendance surpassed only by the Air and Space and Natural History museums.
Mr. Taylor, described in a press account as "a genial book of knowledge," was responsible for modernizing exhibits throughout the Smithsonian. He also established a program of research and scholarly publication for the old National Museum of History and Technology, the predecessor of the National Museum of American History, and began the planning for a major storage and conservation center in Suitland. He also opened a terrace patio, offering refreshments and music, adjacent to the museum, to impress on visitors how civilized Washington is.
"He was a gentleman to the core," said John Jameson, a Smithsonian administrator who worked with him.
Mr. Taylor was born at the family home on Capitol Hill. His father, Augustus Taylor, a pharmacist, owned the drugstore at Second Street and Maryland Avenue NE. His grandfather, Edward Kübel, a noted scientific instrument maker from Bavaria, lived nearby.
His boyhood memories included the excavation for the railroad tunnel to Union Station, the 1918 flu epidemic and a two-day bicycle trip to Ocean City. He graduated from what was then called McKinley Manual Training School in 1921 and received an engineering degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1928. In 1934, he received a law degree from Georgetown University.
He was just out of high school when he began working as a laboratory apprentice in the U.S. National Museum's Division of Mechanical Technology.
He told Smithsonian magazine five years ago that he vividly recalled the World War I veterans who came to the city during the Depression as the "Bonus Army" to petition the government for a promised bonus. In 1932, they camped in a "Hooverville" on the Anacostia Flats and massed before the Capitol.
"People in Washington were quite sympathetic [to them]," Mr. Taylor said. "They were very orderly and came in to use the rest room. We did ask that they not do any bathing or shaving before the museum opened."
As an engineer and the head curator of engineering and industries, Mr. Taylor was particularly interested in mechanical devices. He was called to the coast at Cape May, N.J., to identify a sunken wooden ship that the tides had exposed, and he kept track of an 1851 steam engine for 27 years until he was able to bring it to the museum.
During World War II, Mr. Taylor served as a captain in the Army in the Philippines. After he returned from military service, he saw the museum's exhibits with new eyes and realized how tired they had become.
"There were galleries in which cases were deliberately pushed around and out of sequence to make cubby holes . . . for the storage of collections or even work spaces for scientists to work in," he told Smithsonian magazine.
He joined others in advocating a new building and increased emphasis on exhibitions. In 1954, Congress authorized the National Museum of History and Technology (the current name was adopted in 1980). After an extended tour of European museums, Mr. Taylor was assigned to plan the new museum on the Mall. He oversaw construction of the building, hiring of staff and development of exhibits, and in 1958, he was appointed the museum's first director. It opened in January 1964.
In 1968, Mr. Taylor became director-general of museums, with responsibilities for Smithsonian-wide programs in conservation, exhibits and registration, National Museum Act programs and the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service. He was director of the Air and Space Museum, as well, from 1969 until his retirement in 1971. He continued to work as a research associate and consultant to the secretary of the Smithsonian until 1983.
He was president of the International Committee for Museums of Science and Technology from 1962 to 1965. In 1968, he was awarded the Smithsonian's Henry Medal for outstanding service. In 1989, an exhibition gallery was named for him in the National Museum of American History. He was also active in the start-up of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum at St. Michaels, Md.
He was a member of the Children of the American Revolution, the Cosmos Club, the Committee of 100 for Washington and the Capitol Hill Historical Society.
His wife of 32 years, Virginia McCaig Taylor, died in 1969.
Survivors include a daughter, Joan Taylor of Liverpool, England.