United States National Museum (1881-1911)

The United States National Museum opened to the public in 1881
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A&I Floor Plan
with displays of anthropology, art, geology, history, and natural history. A few of the exhibits, notably birds, invertebrates and art, remained in the original Smithsonian "Castle." As the floor plan indicates, there were four main halls, north, south, east and west, placed off the rotunda in the center of the building. Ranges ran along the outside walls and courts were the small sections between the ranges and halls. The pavilions in each corner of the building had second and third floors, as did the towers at the center of each side. The pavilions and towers provided office, laboratory, and storage space for the growing curatorial staff. The main entrance, from the National Mall, was on the north side. In 1897, galleries added a second floor of exhibit space.

This National Museum was new in philosophy, as well as building and cases. Credit for this belongs to
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George Brown Goode
George Brown Goode (1851-1896) who became the leading figure in American museum theory and display. He had visited all the major museums in Europe, but then developed his own "democratic" approach. In Goode's view, the early Smithsonian collections had been a museum of research. When the Smithsonian accepted the government collections, it became the museum of record, the "official" repository for objects of art, culture and science. Goode's new museum was also a museum of education. Goode believed that the role of the National Museum was to teach and uplift the citizens of a democracy, not merely amuse or entertain.

Goode established a comprehensive classification of the world, from the inorganic to plants to animals to man. The exhibits were designed to convey the place of each object in a great world order.
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Goode at his desk in the
U.S. National Museum
The geology and natural history halls were arranged according to their scientific classification. The anthropology and history of technology halls reflected the prevailing Progressive Era point of view. The curator of ethnology, Otis Tufton Mason, exemplified this approach. He viewed human civilizations in a progression from so-called "primitive" cultures to that pinnacle of development, the United States. Exhibits traced the history of each industry, such as agriculture, ceramics, music, navigation, etc., from "primitive" societies to modern American achievements. A "Historical Relics" collection displayed the possessions of the founding fathers and colonial society.

By the time of Baird's death in 1887, the U.S. National Museum had truly become the nation's museum, with its premier collection of anthropological artifacts, art works, historical objects and natural history specimens. It was a center of art, culture and science that announced that the new capital city was on par with those of Europe. It established a new pantheon of national heroes, distinctly American, and celebrated the triumph of American technology. The National Museum became part of the standard itinerary for visitors to the nation's capital. The collections were growing rapidly in every department and by the time the building opened, the Smithsonian was seeking funds for a new, larger national museum building.

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