|Baird becomes Secretary:
After Secretary Henry died in 1878, Baird was immediately appointed the second
Secretary of the Smithsonian.
In Baird's first annual report, he paid lip service to Henry's vision, but Henry's Programme of Organization for the Smithsonian and the fiction that the museum was really part of the Interior Department soon disappeared from the annual reports. With help from his Assistant Secretary George Brown Goode, Baird's museum grew and flourished during his years as Secretary. Baird accepted new responsibilities for the Smithsonian, such as the Bureau of American Ethnology in 1879, led by John Wesley Powell. With strong support from Congress, Baird encouraged the ethnologists to also collect artifacts and pursue archaeological investigations. All collections acquired by these ethnologists would, of course, come to the National Museum. In this case, again, there were strong pressures from the general public and the Congress to document vanishing Native American culture, especially through artifacts. Baird worried that the most valuable ethnological and geological materials were being purchased for European collections. As a matter of national pride, Baird joined many citizens and Congressmen in believing that the United States needed to have the premier collection of these materials.
Spencer F. Baird
Baird also served as U. S. Commissioner of Fish and Fisheries, a joint appointment with his Smithsonian duties. As Fish Commissioner, he conducted research on the decline of the fishing industry in the North Atlantic. He also produced award winning exhibits on the fisheries industry. At the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia and other international expositions, Baird's natural history displays emphasized both research and practical uses. National collections were, then, a resource for both scientific research and economic development. In this and many other smaller ways, Baird cultivated the growth of both research and the national collections. And when all else failed, Baird purchased the collections with his personal funds or wrote a check to an explorer to be sure he could collect specimens properly and ship them back to the Institution.
U.S. Fish Commission biologists sorting
carp fry at the carp ponds on the
Washington Monument Grounds, 1885
When Baird died in 1887, he had achieved his dream of a comprehensive National
Museum. When he arrived in 1850, the Smithsonian housed some 6000 specimens, but at his death, the National Museum had grown to over 2.5 million artifacts and specimens in art, history, anthropology, and science. And Baird left his dream in the hands of a committed younger colleague who would ensure that his vision for the Smithsonian would prevail. As Assistant Secretary in charge of the United States National Museum, Goode lived less than a decade longer than his much older mentor, but in his short life he established museum arrangement and display as a professional field and secured for the United States National Museum a reputation as the premier museum in the country.
Samuel Pierpont Langley
Baird also ensured that collections-based research was not the only form of scholarship at the Smithsonian. He handpicked as his successor an astrophysicist, Samuel Pierpont Langley (1834-1906), who would create a center for astrophysics at the Smithsonian that revitalized Henry's tradition of research in the physical sciences. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, founded in 1890, conducted research on the sun and its effects on the planet earth. Langley was also known for his efforts to develop the first flying machine.
To Baird then, stewardship of the National Museum did not require a choice between research and collections. Some research required collections, other research did not. Research was the activity that gave meaning to the individual objects that formed a collection. An artifact or specimen provided information to the scholar, stored information for future studies and served as a teaching tool in public exhibits.
Without research, the National Museum would remain the cabinet of curiosities displayed by the earlier National Institute. With research, the National Collections became a new type of vehicle for economic development, public education, and the advancement of American science and culture, transporting casual visitors and serious scholars alike to exotic lands, vanishing landscapes, and the backrooms where democracy was plotted and secured. Not ephemeral in nature, the National Collections would also travel through time as a vehicle for the increase and diffusion of knowledge not only for the present but for generations to
The Smithsonian Institution today
For more information on Spencer Fullerton Baird see:
Allard, Dean Conrad, Jr. Spencer Fullerton Baird and the U.S. Fish Commission: A Study in the History of American Science. New York: Arno Press, 1978.
Dall, William H. Spencer Fullerton Baird: A Biography. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co.; 1915.
Hellman, Geoffrey T. The Smithsonian, Octopus on the Mall. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co.; 1967.
Rivinus, Edward F.; Youssef, Elizabeth M. Spencer F. Baird of the Smithsonian. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press; 1992.
For more information on the history of the Smithsonian see:
SMITHSON'S GIFT: THE STORY OF A BEQUEST
Learn about Englishman James Smithson and his bequest to the people of the United States. See images of the Smithsonian over the past 150 years and watch volunteers at work.
TOUR THE SMITHSONIAN'S MUSEUM IN 1886
Visit the Smithsonian in 1886, see the giant squid in the Castle, see dinosaurs and George Washington's uniform on display in the new museum building (now the Arts and Industries Building), and get to know the staff in the late nineteenth century.
SMITHSONIAN TIME LINE
Learn about some
of the major events that have shaped the Institution in the last 150 years.
A LOOK BACK AT THE SMITHSONIAN
Browse through some memorable images of the Smithsonian from the last 150 years.