100 Years of the Natural History Building

U.S. National Museum, May 3, 1917, seen from the National Mall, by Unknown photographer, Photographi

As part of my work as the historian for the history of the Smithsonian, I’ve been working for the past year on preparations for the Centennial of the National Museum of Natural History building, creating an exhibit, recording oral history interviews, and preparing a website. For these projects, we’ve uncovered many images of the Museum, from its earliest designs, through all the stages of construction, to recent changes. The new website for the NMNH Centennial was launched May 28, 2010, with the opening of the Centennial exhibit the following day in the Natural History Building.

When the building opened on March 17, 1910, it was called the “new” United States National Museum and it displayed collections of art, culture, history, and natural history, all under one roof. The first U.S. National Museum building, now known as the Arts and Industries Building, had opened in 1881, but only a year later, Museum Director G. Brown Goode, was asking for a new, larger building, since that building was already full. In 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt, a naturalist himself, signed legislation providing for construction of the new Museum.

Preliminary exterior elevation drawing by Architects Hornblower and Marshall for the new United Stat

The original design for the building, by architects Joseph C. Hornblower and James R. Marshall, had a more ornate central dome and entranceway than the final version. The Senate Park Commission, which was trying to move Washington, D.C. architecture to the classic style the city founders had envisioned, requested that it be redesigned. Two of the Commission architects, Charles F. McKim and Daniel Burnham, redesigned the simpler Roman design we see today.

. The ground-breaking ceremony for the new Museum building was held on June 4, 1904, with Smithsonia

Laborers driving a horse-driven cart filled with plate glass from the E. J. Murphy Co. on a cobblest

The new National Museum building took seven years to build and when finished in 1911 held 468,118 square feet of space for collections, exhibits, research, and staff (click here to see a series of photos documenting the building process). At that time the National Museum held about ten million artifacts and specimens, and most of them were moved into the new building using horse-drawn carts. Curators of anthropology, art, geology, history, and natural history moved into the spacious new facilities and soon filled every nook and cranny with new collections. Over the years the collections continued to grow and new Smithsonian buildings were built so that today the National Museum of Natural History contains only anthropology, mineral science, and natural history collections. From 1910 to 1912, exhibits opened to display new specimens of exotic mammals from Africa, a dazzling array of gems and minerals, cultural artifacts from around the globe, and masterworks of American art, eventually making the National Museum of Natural History the most visited museum in the world.

Painters sitting boards on top of wooden scaffolding painting the ceiling of a wing of the new Unite

Check out the new website to learn about the building, the people who worked there, and its most interesting objects, and view “Then and Now” images of the Museum at to see how the museum has changed over the years. And scroll along the Timeline to learn about the collections and research at the Museum.

What is your favorite memory or photograph of the Museum? Join in the celebration of the Museum’s Centennial by sharing your stories and photographs of the Museum and your vision for its future at their Share Your Memories site.

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