The birthday party page from the website Smithsonian Institution Archives, Acc. 05-173.

Looking Wayback on the Smithsonian’s Sesquicentennial

The Smithsonian marked its 150th birthday with a huge celebration and special website in 1996.

Today marks the anniversary of the founding of the Smithsonian on August 10, 1846, when the Institution was established by an act of Congress thanks to James Smithson’s bequest to the United States. In 1996, the Smithsonian kicked off its 150th anniversary with numerous events and exhibitions throughout the year and into 1997.  

A crowd outside the Smithsonian Institution Building for the 150th celebration.

A huge two-day birthday celebration on the National Mall stretched from the Capitol at 3rd Street to the Washington Monument at 14th Street and included 23 pavilions, exhibit tents, and performance stages. The museums displayed the wide variety of the Smithsonian’s collections and expertise, from music from Zaire to a Chicasaw stickball and pole game to photo preservation tips. The Saturday evening concert featured Aretha Franklin, Mickey Hart, Trisha Yearwood, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra and was capped off with a 25-minute fireworks display. Celia Cruz and Jose Alberto “El Canario” and His Orchestra performed at the Sunday night concert.

There also were 19 birthday cakes marking the occasion for display but not for eating, since there would not be enough for everyone. Pastry chefs from across the United States were asked to make a creation inspired by one of the Smithsonian museums, zoo, gardens, or collection object. An “Electronic Birthday Card” at the event allowed visitors to enter their greetings into a computer onsite and then see it displayed on a giant screen.           

The birthday celebrations extended beyond the National Mall. A two-year, 11-city traveling exhibition called America’s Smithsonian featured more than 300 objects from the Smithsonian that included a painting of George Washington, a meteorite from Mars, and Dizzy Gillespie’s bent trumpet. Stops included convention centers in Los Angeles, Kansas City, and St. Paul. This was a first for the Smithsonian of this scale.

Website display of the birthday party page for the Smithsonian in 1996.

To cap off the commemoration, there was a special Smithsonian website for the sesquicentennial fittingly found at The site focused on both the Birthday Party on the Mall and the America’s Smithsonian exhibition. Public websites were still relatively new, and the main Smithsonian homepage had only debuted in May 1995, making this site a big deal.

The web files from were transferred to the Archives in 2005 for its collections from the Office of the Chief Information Officer. These include .htm, .jpg, .gif, and .au files and some metadata files from 2000. Updates had been made over the years to the site and not all files during its online presence were part of the transfer. Due to technological limitations, the Archives was unable to crawl the website until a few years later. By then, the Archives was responsible for the website and it was retired in 2013.   

Website screen capture of the homepage as it appeared in 1997.    

Fortunately, the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine has captured the site since 1997. Updates were made to the website that included photos from the August celebration, which are in another collection at the Archives. The Wayback Machine notes 211 captures, but those after 2013 send users to a discontinued message page.

Website screen capture of the 1997 homepage in software that emulates the Netscape we

To see an even “more authentic” playback of the Wayback Machine captures, check out the online tool from Rhizome. It emulates old browsers like Netscape and early versions of Internet Explorer and Apple Safari. A user can scroll through the site within the display.

The 2011 version of has a different appearance from 1997 in this screenshot.

While we have to wait to see what the 175th anniversary (demisemiseptcentennial) in 2021 will look like, we can enjoy the fireworks from 1996.

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