Entrance to the Smithsonian Centennial (1846-1946) exhibit in the foyer of the National Museum of Natural History, 1946, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 95, Image no. SIA_000095_B44A_F18_006.

Celebrating the Smithsonian Centennial

How did the Smithsonian commemorate its 100th anniversary? As we prepare to celebrate the Smithsonian’s 175th anniversary this August, let’s look back at the Institution’s centennial.

In August 1996, the Smithsonian marked its 150th anniversary with a huge birthday celebration on the National Mall. For its sesquicentennial, a term which this author constantly forgets no matter how many times she looks it up, the Institution threw itself a two-day birthday party, sprinkled with special exhibit tents, concerts, nineteen birthday cakes, a special website, and a fireworks show. And though the Smithsonian pulled out all the stops to celebrate its 150th birthday, the Institution’s centennial in 1946 was a much more reserved affair. 

A crowd sits on the Mall facing a stage in front of the Smithsonian Institution Building.

Leading up to the Institution’s 100th anniversary celebrations, staff had been busy supporting the war effort on the homefront and as members of the armed forces. Additionally, while keeping museum doors open during World War II, employees were also preoccupied with safeguarding the Smithsonian’s collections against potential threats. By the Institution’s centennial, operations were just returning to normal. In 1946, the Smithsonian collected more than two million specimens for the first time since the war began and field expeditions, suspended during the global conflict, continued. 

Still, even as the Institution was just beginning to resume its full operations, the Smithsonian still made time to commemorate its centennial. 

The National Museum of Natural History hosted an exhibit between August 10 and September 25, 1946, in its foyer that covered advancements at the Smithsonian Institution in its first one hundred years. It featured the Institution’s early history, its growing fine arts collections, its international exchange activities, and various programs and initiatives.  

Entrance to the Smithsonian Centennial (1846-1946) exhibit in the foyer of the National Museum of Natural History, 1946, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 95, Image no. SIA_000095_B44A_F18_006.

Smithsonian Centennial (1846-1946) exhibit in the foyer of the National Museum of Natural History featuring a section illustrating the origin and history of the Smithsonian Institution, 1946, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 95, Image no. SIA_000095_B44A_F18_011.

Smithsonian Centennial (1846-1946) exhibit in the foyer of the National Museum of Natural History highlighting the history of art collecting activities at Smithsonian Institution in its first one hundred years, 1946, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 95, Image no. SIA_000095_B44A_F18_014.

Smithsonian Centennial (1846-1946) exhibit in the foyer of the National Museum of Natural History featuring correspondence and International Exchanges activities at Smithsonian Institution in its first one hundred years, 1946, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 95, Image no. SIA_000095_B44A_F18_002.

Smithsonian Centennial (1846-1946) exhibit in the foyer of the National Museum of Natural History illustrating correspondence and preservation activities at Smithsonian Institution in its first one hundred years, 1946, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 95, Image no. SIA_000095_B44A_F18_010.

Smithsonian Centennial (1846-1946) exhibition the foyer of the National Museum of Natural History highlighting the research activities at Smithsonian Institution in its first one hundred years, featuring the Division of Astrophysical Research of the Astrophysical Observatory, 1946, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 95, Image no. SIA_000095_B44A_F18_007.

In addition to the exhibition, Supreme Court Chief Justice Harlan F. Stone, Chancellor of the Smithsonian, successfully fought for the Post Office Department to release a commemorative, 3-cent stamp for the major anniversary. Though Stone passed away before it was issued, designers followed his suggestion to feature the Smithsonian Institution Building, also known as the Castle. As well as approving the stamp, President Harry S. Truman issued a statement to publicly recognize the centennial. 

Writers also celebrated the Smithsonian’s anniversary in major publications. Chief of the Institution’s editorial division Webster P. True authored The First Hundred Years of the Smithsonian Institution, 1846–1946, and the Scientific Monthly, since absorbed by Science, devoted an entire issue to the Smithsonian. 

Stamp with a red-ish brown tone that features the Smithsonian Institution Building. The text reads:

Learn about the ways in which the Smithsonian plans to commemorate its upcoming 175th anniversary, beginning in August 2021. 

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