Backstage at the Museum

Behind the scenes, an expert unites teams and budgets, treasures and cases--reality and dreams

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Next time you're in the new Janet Annenberg Hooker Hall of Geology, Gems and Minerals, over at the National Museum of Natural History, take a careful look at the stands inside the exhibit cases.

You'll see that the various spectacular minerals, crystal clusters and rare stones are presented on pedestals of differing heights. Then be sure to check out the labels, which are printed on little pieces of plastic tilted for easy reading. The ones at the bottom are at a 30-degree angle off the horizontal, the middle ones are at 60 degrees and the ones near eye level are vertical. Simple but ingenious.

Someone planned all that.

Behind the walls of the museum exhibits, behind the series of chambers familiar to the visiting public, is another world, a world of woodshops and studios and corridors lined with complicated machinery for lifting heavy things and moving them around. People spend their careers in this world. You rarely see them, but they are the ones who make the museum what it is.

Charles Noble is virtually a born cabinetmaker.

For as long as he can remember, he has worked with wood. "My father laid the foundation for what I do today," he reflected. At 5, he would hold the tools for his father, a carpenter back in Natchez, Mississippi, and he started taking shop in the eighth grade, before he even got to high school. Then he worked for his dad in the summers until, as a teenager, he joined the Navy Seabees.

These were the famed construction battalions that built airfields out of coral in the Pacific Islands during World War II. In Noble's day, the mid-'70s, the Vietnam War was over and the services were cutting back, so after he completed his Seabee training he wound up as a roadie with the U.S. Navy Band.

"I got to do some carpentry, but it was mostly stage setups and taking care of equipment," he said. "When I got out of the Navy I decided to stay in Washington awhile."

He worked for the Smithsonian bicentennial projects in 1976, apprenticed for the union, worked for Giant stores and on construction jobs at Capital City Woodworking, then found his way to the Freer Gallery of Art. For six years he reveled in the precision cabinetwork required for the beautiful exhibit cases and other new features of the museum.

Three years ago he came to Natural History.

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