The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Category: Smithsonian History
"Smithsonian Enters Cyberspace with Information-Packed World-Wide Web Home Page" announced the press release.
Tomorrow marks the 20th anniversary of the Smithsonian's first "internet 'web' site" on May 8, 1995. The web site included more than 1,500 pages and overviews of the site were available in Spanish, German, and French. In addition to text and graphics, the pages also included images, audio, and video. Peter House, the National Science Foundation staff member who was detailed to the Smithsonian for the technical development of the website, considered the site to be very large at the time.
The Smithsonian Home Page was designed to allow users to visit the Smithsonian in much the same way as they would in person. Users can begin by viewing general information pages, just as many visitors begin with the information center in the Castle, or they can go directly to page for an individual museum. Many of the Smithsonian's museums and other facilities established home pages at the same time.
A sneak preview of "Ocean Planet On-Line" was available several weeks ahead of the Smithsonian Home Page. It was demonstrated during the press preview of the "Ocean Planet" exhibition at the National Museum of Natural History, held April 20, 1995. The website was a joint project of the Smithsonian's Environmental Awareness Program and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Gene Feldman, an oceanographer at the Goddard Space Flight Center and creator of the online exhibition, described the site as "one of the most comprehensive and advanced exhibitions available through the Internet via the World Wide Web." He believed it had "capabilities that will amaze even the tekkies." Although hosted on a NASA server, "Ocean Planet On-Line" was considered to be a component of the larger Smithsonian website. It still exists today in close to its original form.
The Smithsonian Home Page included multimedia messages from the Secretary, general information, frequently asked questions (known as "Encyclopedia Smithsonian"), press releases, museum highlights, online exhibitions, virtual museum tours, a staff directory, and the "electronic Shopping Mall." The "Perspectives" section of the site allowed users to search for specific topics across the entire website. Many of these features still exist, in an updated form, in the current Smithsonian website.
In the first 24 hours after the home page was launched, it received approximately 100,000 hits, some as far away as Japan. By May 17, 9 days after the launch, there had been over 600,000 hits.
Secretary Heyman noted that "James Smithson's goal of the 'increase and diffusion of knowledge' has been reborn for a new century."
According to House, "The Smithsonian has been waiting 150 years for the Internet. What we do here is perfect for it."
- Tracking Down the Elusive 'Treasure House of Learning', The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Accession 98-094 - Office of the Secretary, Smithsonian Website Records, 1995, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Accession 01-081 - Smithsonian Institution, Office of Public Affairs, The Torch, 1994-1999, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Accession 12-545 - National Museum of Natural History, Office of Public Affairs, Press Releases, 1992-2002, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Historic Smithsonian Home Pages on the Internet Archive Wayback Machine and on Archive-It
After the Spirit of St. Louis was delivered to the Smithsonian by Charles Lindbergh on April 30, 1928, a letter appeared a few days later in The Washington Post calling for the world-famous plane to be enclosed in a glass case in order to "permit an unobstructed view and at the same time, render its precious contents immune both to the ravages of the climate and the innumerable love pats of countless thousands …" The letter writer suggested a collection drive for $20,000 to acquire a case and would contribute the first dollar.
The monoplane and its solo pilot had made history when it flew nonstop from New York to Paris in 1927. Lindbergh and the Ryan aircraft gained international celebrity status and inspired many aviation fans.
Smithsonian employee Paul Garber, who was responsible for this Smithsonian acquisition, recognized the significance of the flight. He encouraged Smithsonian Secretary Charles Doolittle Walcott to send a cable to Lindbergh in Paris immediately after the flight to see if he would donate the aircraft. Lindbergh agreed.
Lindbergh flew it to Bolling Field on April 30 and was greeted by Garber and the Army Air Service. It was dismantled, transported to the Smithsonian, and reassembled for display.
Garber recounted in his 1974 oral history that, "We received it April 30, 1928, and I had it ready for exhibition on May the 8th, and when we opened the doors -- and that was a Sunday -- there was a mob out here extending all over the Mall! Thousands of persons came in, just everyone to see it and no one had ever done that for any previous exhibit, no matter what it was."
The Smithsonian Annual Report from 1928 noted that the plane was immediately visited by thousands that year. "It promises to be for a long time to come the most popular exhibit in the whole National Museum, and the thanks of the Nation are due Colonel Lindbergh and his friends in St. Louis for placing the famous plane in the national collection," noted the report.
Hung in the Arts and Industries Building initially, this meant it would not receive "love pats" from museum visitors the letter writer worried about. Lindbergh returned to the Smithsonian in 1952 and got into the cockpit again to find markings to note his fuel use.
Garber served in a variety of roles during his Smithsonian tenure, including preparator in the Division of Mechanical Technology and the first curator of the National Air Museum, now the National Air and Space Museum.
Earlier this year the plane was lowered for the first time in 22 years for conservation work for eight months at the National Air and Space Museum. This also allowed the Smithsonian's 3D Team to scan the craft as well without touching it. The digital files from the scanning will be available online soon for exploration by today's aviation fans that was unimaginable nearly 90 years ago.
- Ryan NYP Spirit of St. Louis, Charles A. Lindbergh, National Air and Space Museum
- Historic images of the Spirit of St. Louis, Smithsonian Institution Archives