It’s no secret that the Smithsonian’s first Secretary Joseph Henry was passionate about science and scientific research: from his own experiments, to the corps of meteorological observers he encouraged, to the young scientists who lived in residence in the Smithsonian Institution Building. Henry’s attitude towards collections was less enthusiastic, and perhaps influenced his decision to place the responsibility for the National Museum’s collections in the hands of his Assistant Secretary Spencer Fullerton Baird.
Baird describes the early vision for collections in a letter to Professor Alexander Winchell who, like many others, was excited by the prospect of contributing to the Smithsonian vision and hopeful that the specimen collections he sent in would help to make the Institution’s collections more comprehensive and complete.
“It is true Prof. Henry is opposed to indiscriminate collections; so’m I; but our idea is a complete North American at least.” Spencer Baird wrote to Professor Alexander Winchell on March 19, 1853.
The careful development of a national collection was a task Baird excelled in, and required a balance of seeking out new collections as well as sorting through and assessing the collections volunteered from across North America and overseas. After Baird was named the first curator in 1850, the scope quickly grew beyond his ability to handle singlehandedly. Additional curators were brought on board. The United States National Museum, Secretary Baird’s dream, opened in 1881.
A Deeper Dive
The Smithsonian Institution’s Annual Reports, like other organization’s annual reports, are a distillation of more detailed reports from within the Institution. The holdings in the Archives collection “Record Unit 158, United States National Museum, Curators’ Annual Reports, 1881 – 1964” is just that: direct reports from the curators of each year’s activities at the department, division and/or section level within the Museum. Coming straight from the curators, they offer up additional detail, insights and opinions about the development and stewardship of collections beyond that reflected in the Institution’s Annual Reports. What were the priorities for collecting different types of material? What expectations did the curators have of the usefulness of their collections? How did they manage the process of reviewing unsolicited specimens?
Enhancing Access with the Help of Digital Volunteers
In order to provide researchers online access to this collections, the Archives has embarked on an extended digitization project. This affords researchers around the world simultaneous access. However, our goal is to provide the ability to search across the full text of each report and across reports. These curators’ reports will be added to the Smithsonian Transcription Center beginning the first week of June where digital volunteers can help us to transcribe this valuable body of historical documents. The complete transcripts will then be made available fully accessible on the Archives website.
Record Unit 158, United States National Museum, Curators’ Annual Reports, 1881 – 1964, Smithsonian Institution Archives
SIA Acc. 12-492 - United States National Museum. Division of Graphic Arts. Section of Photography, Photographic Collection, 1933, Smithsonian Institution Archives