The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Category: Smithsonian History
At the Archives there are very few three-dimensional objects in our collections. One that we do have is an architectural model of the Museum of History and Technology (now the National Museum of American History) dated July 12, 1956. It is labeled "Scheme D." Also included are two smaller models, that were probably used to show the massing of the building on the site.
- Accession 99-005 - National Museum of History and Technology, Architectural Records, 1946, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Since I will be going with my son and his class on a field trip to the National Zoological Park tomorrow, I can't help but be reminded of the animals that used to be at the Zoo that are no longer there for him to see.
The National Zoological Park was orginally conceived by its founder, William Temple Hornaday (Chief Taxidermist for the United States National Museum), as a place to house endangered species and conduct research. It was established by an act of Congress in 1889. In 1890, Congress passed another act which placed the zoo under the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian to administer the zoo and to receive and care for the animals "for the advancement of science and the instruction and recreation of the people." The first animals at the zoo were some 185 animals under the care Hornaday, who became Curator of Living Animals for the United States National Museum. Today there are roughly 2,000 animals from 400 different species that reside at the National Zoo.
However, among the animals that once called the zoo home are:
What do you do when you're trapped in a legislative logjam? That was the dilemma that proponents of creating a Smithsonian faced in the spring of 1846. The United States had been notified by officials in England of James Smithson's unusual bequest in 1835. In 1836, the US Congress voted to pursue the bequest in the English Court of Chancery, and his estate was awarded to the US in 1838. But after that, momentum to create the Institution faded. President Martin Van Buren solicited ideas from educational leaders, but Congress was not in a terribly productive mode – indeed the first filibuster was held in 1841 from February 18 until March 11. Bills were introduced to create a Smithsonian as a national university, mechanics' institute, ladies seminary, teachers' training institute, botanic garden, astronomical observatory, national library, scientific research institute, and even a museum! Charlatans who were eager to get their hands on the $500,000 offered many other ideas. Former President John Quincy Adams, then a representative in Congress, focused on protecting "as from a rattlesnake's fang, the fund and its income, forever from being wasted and dilapidated in bounties to feed the hunger or fatten the leaden idleness of mountebank projectors and shallow worthless pretenders to science."
Sometimes it is good to have a fresh perspective, and in 1845, William Jervis Hough (1795 –1869) was elected to the US Congress to represent the 23rd district of New York. He served only one term in Congress, but forever altered the history of the United States through his interest in James Smithson's peculiar bequest. He reviewed the lack of progress thus far and offered an amendment to House Resolution 5, to found a Smithsonian Institution. To gain support for his amended bill, he put in a little something for the different advocates: a library, a museum, an observatory, and a scientific research laboratory. The only thing that was left out was the first idea – a national university. The bill futher stated that the trust organization created would be governed by a board of regents with both public officials and private citizens. All three branches of government – the executive, legislative and judiciary would be represented on the board. On August 10, 1846, the bill finally passed both houses of Congress with a vote of 85 to 76 and was signed into law by President James K. Polk the same day.
Hough served on the first Board of Regents, as did John Quincy Adams, ensuring that the fledgling institution got off to a good start. Hough also served on the building committee for the Smithsonian Castle. But his congressional career was short-lived. In 1846, the State of New York passed a new constitution setting aside all previous election results, and after the electoral melee of 1847, Hough returned to private law practice until his death in 1869. Hough's Smithsonian bill contained everything but the kitchen sink – a classic American political compromise – but it did the trick!
- Legal History of the Smithsonian, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- From Smithson to Smithsonian: The Birth of an Institution, online exhibition, Smithsonian Institution Libraries
- Record Unit 7061 - William Jervis Hough Papers, 1846-1847, 1896-1901, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Tomorrow, on Friday, May 16th, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (NMAH) will celebrate its 50th anniversary with the opening of two exhibits; “Making a Modern Museum: Celebrating the Fiftieth Anniversary of the National Museum of American History” and “Continuity and Change: Fifty Years of Museum History.” “Making a Modern Museum: Celebrating the Fiftieth Anniversary of the National Museum of American History” will examine NMAH and its evolution since its inception in 1964. “Continuity and Change: Fifty Years of Museum History” will look at “the transformation of the museum from one of history and technology into a museum devoted to American history.”
To celebrate the launch of these new exhibits, here's a look back at a few of NMAH's exhibits from its opening until today.
- The History of the National Museum of American History
- Happy 50th Anniversary, NMAH!, Pam Henson, The Bigger Picture
- Record Unit 285 - National Museum of History and Technology, Office of the Director, Photographs, 1920s-1970s, Smithsonian Institution Archives
RIP architect Hans Hollein, designer of the inaugural exhibition, MANtransFORMS at the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in 1976. The exhibit (see images below) examined everyday objects and the ways they were adapted by different people in different places and times.
- Hans Hollein, Architect of Witty Designs, Dies at 80, New York Times Obituaries
- MANtransFORMS Exhibit, Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum