The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Happy 50th Anniversary NMAH!
On the evening of January 22, 1964, the Smithsonian hosted an A-List party to dedicate its newest museum, the Museum of History and Technology, now the National Museum of American History. The building was the dream of its first director, Frank A. Taylor, who had joined the National Museum staff after high school, and after graduate school, advanced to Curator, Director, and Director General of all Smithsonian museums. When Taylor returned from World War II, he recalled in an oral history interview, the exhibits in the old National Museum buildings looked shabby and out of date. He first led an Exhibits Modernization Program, which oversaw the renovation of all the National Museum's exhibits from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s. The new exhibits attracted new interest in the Institution among the U. S. Congress and donors. The Smithsonian had been attempting to establish a separate history museum since the 1920s, but had met with little support. Taylor initially sought to build a museum of technology, like the Deutsches Museum in Germany, but was convinced to include plans for a museum of American history. With the support of the new Secretary, Leonard Carmichael, legislation was signed into law on June 31, 1956, creating the new museum. The first modern building on the National Mall, the new museum opened with ten exhibit halls completed, with an additional fifty opening in the following years.
Former history teacher and Smithsonian supporter President Lyndon Johnson dedicated the building on January 22, at a black tie party attended by Members of Congress, philanthropists, Smithsonian Regents, and many other distinguished guests. The party was not without its hiccups, Taylor recalled. The U. S. Secret Service was present since the President was speaking, and they sprang into action when someone accidently bumped against the stage light switch and turned it off. Shortly thereafter, the wife of a member of the Smithsonian Board of Regents could no longer see her husband on stage. He was recovering from a serious heart attack, so she alerted the Secret Service, who once again sprang into action, only to find he had moved his seat a bit and was hidden behind another person. But overall the party was a great success, setting the stage for the Secretary-elect S. Dillon Ripley, who assumed office that week and oversaw the Institution's great period of growth from 1964 to 1984.
The Museum opened to the public on January 23rd, and in the first weekend, 54,000 people visited the new Museum. The new halls included the Flag Hall, First Ladies' Hall, and the halls of Everyday Life in the American Past, American Costume, Farm Machinery, Light Machinery, Tools, Vehicles, Railroads, as well as a temporary exhibition presenting examples of exhibits to be installed in other halls of the building.
So we send out congratulations for a happy 50th anniversary to the National Museum of American History and all the staff and volunteers who have made it a success in the past five decades!
- National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Record Unit 285 - National Museum of History and Technology, Office of the Director, Photographs, 1920s-1970s, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Record Unit 9512 - Oral history interviews with Frank A. Taylor 1974, 1979-1980, 1982, 2005, Smithsonian Institution Archives