It does not take long for today’s visitors to one of the Smithsonian Institution’s nineteen museums to find themselves engulfed within the world’s largest museum, education, and research complex. The flood of world’s fairs in the late nineteenth century played a central role in placing the Smithsonian en route to that unparalleled distinction. The New Orleans World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition, open from December 1884, until June 1885, was central to the Smithsonian’s development. Secretary of the Smithsonian Spencer Baird and his right hand man, Assistant Director of the U.S. National Museum G. Brown Goode, were eager to use the New Orleans fair to draw attention to their expanding institution and fill in the exhibit space of their new building on the National Mall.
The fulsome ambitions for the Smithsonian’s display comprised “a complete representation of all the species of fishes known in North America” and “all the mammals north of the Isthmus of Panama” coupled with a sizeable display of American birdlife and minerology. Financial and logistical restraints soon made such a comprehensive display unrealistic. Participation in the New Orleans exposition led Smithsonian officials to seized on an “unusual opportunity…to explore more distant regions” in the South and West, which were “most likely to yield new species or species as yet unrepresented in the [U.S. National] Museum.”
During the summer and fall of 1884, Smithsonian teams examined and collected in Minnesota, the Dakotas, Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas, and Texas. These scientific expeditions covered significant areas previously unexplored by Smithsonian field reconnaissance and discovered over thirty new species. As a result, Smithsonian researchers collected over six hundred specimens that improved the quantity and quality of the Institution’s collection.
Smithsonian agents arrived in New Orleans in October and began the arduous task of setting up their exhibit in the U.S. Government Building. After a lackluster beginning, the Superintendent of the Smithsonian exhibit exulted in February that the Exposition had blossomed into “a magnificent one” with a “city…full of visitors from all parts of the country, and everyone speaks enthusiastically of the display.” The Director of the National Museum of Mexico and the Japanese Commissioner to the fair were so smitten with the Smithsonian’s exhibit that they each toured the U.S. National Museum in Washington before returning home after the fair.
As they usually did, Smithsonian staff actively acquired displays from fair exhibitors as a means of diversifying and expand the Smithsonian’s collections at low cost. Not only did the Smithsonian receive collections from the majority of states who exhibited at the fair, the Institution astutely capitalized on the unique opportunity to add international items to the U.S. National Museum. One clever tactic was having the Secretary of the Treasury authorize all foreign articles donated or purchased by the Smithsonian duty free. The Smithsonian’s freight tonnage was so significant that it arranged with the Pennsylvania Railroad to ship exclusively on its rails in exchange for the first 20,000 pounds at no cost. Ultimately, the Smithsonian sent over a dozen railroad cars carrying roughly 1,500 packages back to Washington.
The New Orleans exposition enhanced the Smithsonian’s collections from the American South and knowledge of the South’s natural history and animal science. The fair likewise went a long way in increased the Smithsonian’s seminal role as a bedrock of the international community of science and culture. The legacy of the 1884 New Orleans World’s Fair, therefore, greatly aided the manifestation of the Smithsonian’s founding mantra through the “increase and diffusion of knowledge.”