Picture of Spencer F. Baird   Spencer F. Baird's Vision for a National Museum

By Pamela M. Henson, Historian
Institutional History Division,
Office of Smithsonian Institution Archives

Many people in the United States and abroad identify the name "Smithsonian Institution" with museums and assume, not unreasonably, that the Smithsonian was founded as a museum. However, museums were not an important part of early planning for the Institution. A complex mixture of cultural forces and individual initiatives led to the founding of the United States National Museum at the Smithsonian Institution.

One of the most instrumental
Picture of Owl
Burrowing owl of
North America
people in establishing the United States National Museum at the Smithsonian Institution was Spencer Fullerton Baird (1823-1887), a young naturalist who dreamed of creating a great National Museum. Baird had studied nature since his childhood and had amassed a large natural history collection. He focused his research especially on the birds of North America. He arrived at the Smithsonian as Assistant Secretary to the first Secretary Joseph Henry in 1850, four years after the Institution was created. He devoted his entire career to developing national collections and exhibits for a broad audience. Baird wanted a National Museum that would contain specimens of all American animals and plants, from mammoths to owls to corn. But the struggle to establish the museum began many years before, even years before the Smithsonian was established. And it would take Baird over thirty years to see his dream become a reality.

The Beginning of an Institution
Planning a National Museum
Baird as Assistant Secretary and the Growth of a Dream
The Centennial Exposition of 1876
The United States National Museum
Baird Becomes Secretary