When he retired in 1971, Ralph Lewis was probably the last active member of the National Park Service’s (NPS) first generation of museum curators. In April 1935, he had become one of the first group of museum assistants hired by Dr. Carl Russell to prepare exhibit plans for the national parks. A graduate of the University of Rochester, Lewis had taken museum management courses and had worked in the university museum. For most of the next nine years, he worked on exhibits, particularly for the Department of the Interior Museum, Vicksburg, and Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, and served as editor of the pioneering NPS Field Manual for Museums (1941).
Although the main function of the Branch of Museums was to plan and produce exhibits for the parks, its chief, Ned Burns, and Lewis were acutely aware of the need to identify and care for the natural history specimens and historical artifacts in park collections. Since responsibility for them rested with park staff, in 1949 the branch set up an intensive, four-week Curatorial Training Course for park personnel, in which Lewis instructed them in museum theory, record keeping, specimen storage, and label writing. When Burns passed away in 1953, Lewis became Chief of the Branch of Museums, which by then included the Eastern Museum Laboratory on the Mall in Washington and the Western Museum Laboratory in San Francisco. Lewis tackled the problem of documenting NPS museum collections by developing a standardized system for accessioning and cataloguing specimens simple enough to be used by inexperienced and constantly changing park staff.
Under Lewis the NPS began to formalize the preparation of plans for furnishing historic structures. Before the 1950s, furnishings in historic structures in the parks tended to be accumulations of objects donated or loaned by individuals or organizations with little attention being paid to their appropriateness. Planning by curators at Independence National Historical Park, Fort Laramie, and a few other parks resulted in the adoption of a standardized format promulgated in a section of the 1968 NPS Museum Handbook.
Meanwhile, exhibit production remained the Museum Branch’s chief function. Mission 66, the ten-year NPS program to upgrade NPS activities and facilities, put special pressure on the branch to produce more than one hundred new visitor center exhibits during that time. They met the challenge but the exhibits tended to have a common look, with aesthetics secondary to informational content, and drew criticism for their uniformity. In the mid-1960s new NPS leadership under Director George Hartzog and Bill Everhart, Chief, Division of Interpretation and Visitor Services, began an effort to revitalize park interpretation. This included reorganizing the Museum Branch into a Museum Division with Branches of Exhibit Planning, Exhibit Production, and Museum Operations. Lewis became Chief of the Branch of Museum Operations, responsible primarily for curatorial training, museum records, historic furnishing planning, artifact conservation and providing artifacts to the exhibit planners. Seven years later, Lewis decided to retire after one of those artifacts was trimmed to fit an exhibit, over his objection.
In retirement, Ralph Lewis continued to provide the NPS with curatorial guidance, partly as a volunteer with Harpers Ferry National Historical Park working to make its collections management operation a model for other parks. He also devoted nearly ten years to researching and writing a new NPS Manual for Museums (1976), followed by Museum Curatorship in the National Park Service, 1904-1982 (1993). The NPS owes this quiet, modest man many thanks for doggedly building a strong foundation for its museums.