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Morgan Williams '14 Explores the Empire State Building's Shelf Life

O Say Can You See? (National Museum of American History): The shelf life of the Empire State Building

Morgan Williams '14
At the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., Goldman Sachs Fellow Allison Marsh '98 explores the archives with extern Morgan Williams '14.


During a one-week curatorial externship, Swarthmore College student Morgan Williams ['14] shadowed Allison Marsh ['98] in the engineering collections. Here he describes his encounter with one object and the story that unfolds.

Within an old, worn-out leather binding I discovered floor-by-floor blueprints of the Empire State Building as it stood in 1968. I became transfixed with the various companies and stores that occupied the timeless landmark. Although the artifact by itself didn't strike me as particularly valuable, I was encouraged to look further. As Peter Liebhold, chair and curator of the work and industry division, put it, "Collections by themselves are interesting... but when you find the reason that something was collected, you find its story."

Allison [Marsh '98] helped me track down some supporting archival material: a report by Morris Jacks to accompany the plans. Jacks, a consulting engineer, was hired to appraise the building for tax purposes. He had to account for every permanent feature and detail its depreciation. ...

This story of the Empire State Building's shelf life, the one that I stumbled randomly upon, is one of many in the museum's expansive collections. With only one to three percent of the entire collection on display at one time, the National Museum of American History is an iceberg of a place. Now that I know what's under the surface, I can't wait to learn something excitingly random again.

Morgan Williams '14 is a double major in political science and psychology from Reading, Pa. He has also externed with the National Peace Corps Association and contributed to their blog.

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