Planning a National Museum:

Picture of Joseph Henry
Joseph Henry
The first Secretary of the Smithsonian, Joseph Henry (1797-1878), emphasized support for basic research and was quite reluctant to take on the enormous financial and administrative burden of managing a national museum. Henry had an equally important vision for how these precious funds would be used to advance scientific knowledge in the United States and establish the nation's reputation as a scientific power. Henry wished to fund basic research, especially in physics and chemistry, publish scientific writings of American scientists, and exchange scientific publications within the United States and between the United States and Europe.

How then did the Smithsonian become the museum complex it is today?
Picture of a ship
The United States Exploring Expedition
To answer this we need to step back to August of 1838 shortly after the United States won its lawsuit for the Smithson estate in the British Court of Chancery. On the 19th of August a fleet of six ships under the command of Lieutenant Charles Wilkes left the port of Norfolk, Virginia. This United States Exploring Expedition was designed to establish American presence in international naval power and science during its four year circumnavigation of the globe. On board was a group of naturalists who would collect a treasure trove of anthropological artifacts and biological and geological specimens which some twenty years later would be transferred to the Smithsonian and form the basis of the United States National Museum.

Later that same month, the 29th of August to be exact, a packet ship, the Mediator,
Picture of the Mediator
"The Mediator"
Courtesy of the Mariners' Museum,
Newport News, Virginia
arrived in New York from London. On board was Richard Rush, the diplomat and attorney who had successfully sued for the Smithson estate in the British Chancery Court. Rush carried with him eleven boxes filled with gold sovereigns worth some £104,960, plus 8 shillings and 6 quid, which was converted into $508,318.46. Rush also transported Smithson's personal effects, his library, and his mineralogical cabinet. These funds later formed the Institution which created the United States National Museum. The collections of minerals and books also formed part of its earliest collections. To some this story might seem a classic case of two ships crossing in the night, fates inextricably interwoven, brought together by some strange coincidence of fate.

Picutre of Richard Rush
Inventory
Richard Rush
Inventory of Smithson's belongings
Click here to read text

Joel Poinsett
Joel Poinsett
But in many human affairs, seeming convergence are the result of long and careful planning and dreaming. Such was the case here. The movements of these two ships were carefully watched by Joel Poinsett (discoverer of the Poinsettia), a planter and amateur naturalist from South Carolina who believed his young country needed a National Museum. As Secretary of War, he insisted the United States Exploring Expedition include a staff of naturalists to study and collect from the natural resources and peoples of distant lands. And from the time the expedition departed, he worried about where to house the collections when they returned. He saw the answer in the peculiar bequest recently received from Smithson. Poinsett believed such an unusual resource should be used to form a truly great institution that would establish the cultural equality of our new country with Europe and display its wealth of resources.

Although it would take twenty more years and many other individuals for Poinsett's dream to become reality, he did successfully inject the concept of a National Museum into the Congressional debates on how to use Smithson's bequest.
Engraving of Patent Office Building Interior
Interior of Patent Office Building
And there were strong pressures to create a national museum for the young nation. When the Exploring Expedition collections arrived, they were housed in the Patent Office Building. They were displayed alongside a collection of patent models, James Smithson's mineralogical cabinet, and relics of the pantheon of the new country. These included George Washington's field kit and a printing press once used by Benjamin Franklin. This cabinet of curiosities was managed by a group called the National Institute for the Promotion of Science formed in 1840 by Joel Poinsett and others to secure control of the Smithson bequest and create a National Museum in Washington. They skirmished regularly with the Commissioner of Patents over how much space would be allotted to their growing collections and exhibitions.

The collections soon overwhelmed the space capacity, staff time and financial resources of the National Institute. Exhibited without context or theme, as a set of curiosities and relics, they were truly the first "Nation's Attic." The public soon lost interest in the Patent Office Building exhibits, and public financial support never materialized for the National Institute. This image of a dilapidated and disorganized collection of curiosities, growing unkempt and unstudied, is probably what worried Secretary Henry, with good cause.

Others saw these collections not as mere relics and natural curiosities. The botanical and zoological collections could serve as the basis for research on the range of
Picture of George Washington's Field Kit
George Washington's Field Kit
distribution of organisms on the North American continent. The relics of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson could be used to tell the story of the founding of the young country. Ethnological artifacts and modern industrial equipment could be used to trace the development of technology from "primitive" civilizations to that pinnacle of technological innovation, the United States. These objects could be used in exhibits designed to educate the citizens of a democracy about their history, the fine arts and the natural world. Most importantly, this vision of a research museum secured public support in the form of collection donations, additional bequests, and Congressional appropriations which grew annually and built fine new buildings to create a complex of museums and research institutes unparalleled anywhere in the world.

BackNext