|However, Henry did believe in collecting natural history specimens for research.|
In 1850 he hired a natural history curator, Spencer Fullerton Baird, who arrived at the Smithsonian with two railroad cars of natural history specimens and a dream that he would someday be the director of a great National Museum. Born in Reading, Pennsylvania, in 1823, Baird was a naturalist and inveterate collector. When he was hired, the Smithsonian was a mere four years old, and the "Castle" was still under construction. The natural history collection consisted of 6000 specimens which Baird immediately set about working up for publication. Baird spent his early years carrying out Henry's programs, publishing scientific books and coordinating the international exchange of thousands of publications. But he knew what he really wanted to be doing, and quietly but steadily built a museum collection. In July of 1853, Baird wrote to his mentor, Smithsonian Regent George Perkins Marsh, "I expect the accumulation of a mass of matter thus collected (which the Institution cannot or will not 'curate' efficiently) to have the effect of forcing our government into establishing a National Museum, of which (let me whisper it) I hope to be director. Still even if this argument don't weigh now; it will one of these days and I am content to wait." Baird had to wait until Secretary Henry's death in 1878 to get his own museum and had only a few years to set it on its course, but in the end, his dream was realized in this building.
Spencer F. Baird
Soon after the Smithsonian Institution Building or the "Castle" was completed in 1855, it was filled with objects of art, culture, industry, and science. The Smithsonian was pushed toward becoming a museum because our young nation was just beginning to establish national collections and had no way to care for them.
Many of these art, historical and natural history collections were housed at the Patent
Office Building in the museum of the National Institute, a private group formed in 1840. As the founding fathers passed away, concerned citizens sought to preserve their memory by collecting tangible objects associated with them. Called the "Historical Relics Collection," these portraits, military gear, and artifacts of everyday life soon gained iconic status as they came to stand for the ideals, values, and accomplishments of the men who had once used them. Scientific specimens from government expeditions were also placed on display. The National Institute gallery soon became a popular Washington attraction, but it lacked the funding and staff to properly care for its rapidly growing collections, so the Patent Office was given responsibility for this "National Gallery." In 1858, the Smithsonian took its first big step towards becoming the National Museum when National Gallery's scientific collections were transferred to us. The Congress then gave us our first federal appropriation to care for these national collections. Baird devoted himself to the collections and in 1872 was given full responsibility for the U.S. National Museum.
Visitors exploring collections in
the Patent Office Building