Snakes and Hollywood: Part 3 of the Carlos Museum history

Chapter 3 of this history of the Carlos Museum at Emory opens in 1926, just a decade after Emory established its new campus in Druid Hills. About to launch a major fund-raising campaign to continue its campus building program, Emory also appointed the first full-time director of the museum. He was Perry Wilbur Fattig, and he would continue in that role until his death in 1953.

Forty-five years old, Fattig had taught biology and agriculture here and there, including a stint at the University of Florida, where he met Harvey Cox, the dean of education. Cox was appointed president of Emory in 1920, and six years later he brought this natural scientist to Atlanta as director of the museum.

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Dr. Perry Wilbur Fattig

Despite the literally groundbreaking contributions of Professor Shelton, the Emory Museum remained in the 1920s essentially a natural history collection. As Fattig remarked in a WSB radio interview in 1936, Emory then had 3,000 beetles and what he called a “pretty fair collection of Georgia’s poisonous snakes,” as well as 250 varieties of Georgia birds, 210 species of bird eggs, and an extensive collection of moths and butterflies. Fattig himself would leave the museum “one of the most complete private collections of insects in the entire Southeast.”

During his tenure, the museum established a publication series to produce his scholarly contributions in entomology. He did concede, in that 1936 interview, that “the most interesting exhibit is our Egyptian collection.”

Fattig maintained regular hours Monday through Friday, and for a while, he kept poisonous snakes in cages in the museum to teach visitors how to recognize them. But, says one account, he discontinued this practice “after he received his second and almost fatal bite from one of the copperheads.” The same article called him modest and somewhat shy, and as proof of this it noted that he only reluctantly would demonstrate his ability to “stick pins in himself and through a part of an arm or leg without bleeding or apparent pain. . . He is not a lover of the spectacular and is rarely persuaded to demonstrate this peculiar phenomenon.”

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During the twenty-seven years of his stewardship of the museum, Perry Fattig seems to have established all the requisite qualities for the men and women who would succeed him in building up the museum: a passion for collecting and preserving, an awareness of the value of collections for teaching, and, shall we say, some unique ways of leaving their mark.

New Life for the Museum and the Second Career of Woolford Baker

After Fattig’s death, in 1953, some question arose whether the university had any real need or use for a museum. President Goodrich White appointed a committee to study the matter and make recommendations. When the committee completed their study the next year, fortunately they gave a thumbs-up. At the same time, Charles Howard Candler Sr., the builder of Callanwolde, the oldest son of Asa Candler, and successor to his father as chair of Emory’s board of trustees, gave funds to build the Administration Building, and he suggested that half of the first floor of the building should be set aside for the museum.

As it turned out, the designated space in the Administration Building was too small, and after a brief sojourn there, the collection was moved in 1957 to Bishops Hall, the new home of the theology school. Five thousand square feet in the basement provided adequate room for the museum for the first time. This new lease on life meant that the museum would require another director. President White asked Emory College biology professor Woolford Bales Baker to step into this new role.

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Woolford Baker pointing out curiosities with a branch from one of the many ginkgo trees he planted on the campus.

The choice of a biologist may seem unusual in view of today’s museum, but in retrospect, given the nature of the museum then, so to speak, it made eminent sense. Baker had arrived at Emory to teach biology the same year that Emory College and the Emory museum moved to Druid Hills. After earning his MS degree from Emory in 1920, he continued on the faculty until his retirement in 1961, with the exception of a year at Columbia University, where he earned his PhD degree. Baker was especially keen about the natural resources on the campus, and he became something of a nag to the administration about preserving certain spaces and planting appropriate greenery; the Baker Woodlands behind the museum are named appropriately in his memory. So it was largely as a naturalist that he assumed the role of part-time director of the museum in 1954, a post that he would fill for almost thirty years.

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Woolford Baker (right) examining Middle Eastern pottery with professor of geology James Lester (left) and professor of Old Testament studies Max Miller (center)

Many amusing stories emerge from Dr. Baker’s years at the museum. One comes by way of Hollywood, when John Huston turned Flannery O’Connor’s novel Wise Blood into a movie. Anyone familiar with the movie will recall the moment when its protagonist, Hazel Motes, is dragged by his unwanted sidekick, Enoch Emery, to the museum in the fictional city of Taulkingham. I’m uncertain where the exterior of the museum was filmed, but its Latin inscription evokes from the intellectually challenged Enoch Emery the pronunciation, “muvseevum.”

Enoch Emery can’t contain his excitement at showing Hazel the mummified little man in the museum. As the two interlopers sneak past the sleeping guard, viewers are treated to the best visual archive of what the Emory museum looked like in the Sociology Building of the late 1970s, now Carlos Hall—the Samurai armor on display at the entrance; the cramped arrangement of the display cases; the portable walls with their array of photos, labels, and maps; the general sense of having strolled into someone’s unusually desperate garage sale.

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Scenes from John Huston’s film Wise Blood (1979).

Next Post: Mummies and Raiders of the Lost Ark

Gary S. Hauk

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