The Smithsonian Institution has been collecting “specimens” related to the history of photography since photography was still considered a new technology. Thomas William Smillie, the Smithsonian’s first and chief photographer from 1871 to 1917, began collecting materials relevant to photography (both examples of photographic processes as well as photographic equipment) in 1888. His first documented purchase was of a daguerreotype apparatus used by Samuel F. B. Morse. Smillie recognized early on that photographic technology was advancing rapidly and had the foresight to begin creating a record of the history of photography lest it be lost to future generations.
Smillie’s collection first started gaining traction when it was exhibited at the Centennial Exposition of the Ohio Valley and Central States, in Cincinnati, 1888. However, it wasn’t until the purchase of fifty photographs from the Capital Camera Club of the Capital Bicycle Club’s 1896 exhibition (regarded as the first recorded purchase of photographs as works of art by a museum) that the quite significant collection consisting of 1284 specimens gained official status. On July 15, 1896 , the Section of Photography, Division of Graphic Arts, United States National Museum was created. In addition to his duties as the Smithsonian’s chief photographer, Thomas Smillie was appointed Custodian of the Section of Photography.
With formal status and administrative support for the historical photography collection, Smillie began to articulate a framework for his vision. Acknowledging that the collection was lacking in contemporary photography, he set out to “complete the series so that it will be a worthy representation of the progress of the art from the beginning until now.” (Record Unit 158, United States National Museum, Curators' Annual Reports, 1881-1964, Smithsonian Institution Archives) Due in large part to the fact that Smillie’s attention was divided between his duties in the photographic laboratory and his new custodial position, there was not an onsite photography exhibit at the Smithsonian until 1913.
Occupying the northwest court of the Arts and Industries Building, the exhibit of historical photographs and equipment meticulously collected by Smillie over the course of several decades were arranged chronologically—illustrating, from Camera Obscura to newer technologies in color, x-ray, spectrum, solar, and moving picture, a thorough and comprehensive history of photography.
In the century since his death, the historic photography collection that was so thoughtfully composed by Thomas W. Smillie has grown considerably, and is now called the Photographic History Collection, Division of Culture and the Arts, National Museum of American History. The tradition of having the collections maintained and added to by the chief photographer acting as custodian continued until 1943, when the functions of the photographic laboratory and the Section of Photography were finally divided. This allowed for greater curatorial instruction and focus on the growth of the collection, not to mention a new emphasis on photographic preservation in the 1960s.
Today, the Photographic History Collection has over 200,000 images and 12,000 pieces of equipment. Over the span of 120 years and numerous administrative reorganizations, the Photographic History Collection continues to reflect on all aspects of photography, with representative specimens illustrating an in depth regard for the breadth of photographic processes, genres, and concepts. The collection serves to realize Smillie’s vision that “an effort will be made hereafter, especially in connection with the future expositions of amateur photography, to secure such works as are necessary to make the collection in the National Museum a reference and record collection, which shall not only be a matter of interest and pleasure to the public, but of practical value to the photographers themselves."
Record Unit 158, United States National Museum, Curators' Annual Reports, 1881-1964, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Record Unit 529, National Museum of American History (U.S.) Division of Photographic History, Records, circa 1883-1984, Smithsonian Institution Archives
David E. Haberstitch, Photographs at the Smithsonian Institution. Picturescope 32 (1): 4-20 (Summer 1985), p. 7.
Hidden Treasures: The Photographic History Collection at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, Teaching Photography