The Smithsonian and Latin America

Since the Smithsonian’s founding in 1846, the Institution has maintained close ties with Latin America, exchanging ideas, artifacts and specimens, and has a permanent presence as well.

STRI Staff Holding Snake, by Unknown, c.1960s, Smithsonian Archives - History Div, 90-10886.

While many people view the Smithsonian as a complex of museums in Washington, DC, it began as and still is an international organization devoted to research and education.  A look at the Smithsonian Global website reveals where Smithsonian staff can be found today.  Smithsonian activities take place around the world – we are planning a new museum facility in London, we have a photography exhibit on display in Nigeria,  a Tropical Research Institute in Panama, Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory telescopes in Hawaii and Chile, projects that conserve coral reefs in Australia, Belize, New Zealand and Panama, drilling of climate cores from a prehistoric site located in the southern Kenya Rift Valley to study climate change – to name a few. Did you know that these international relations were part of the Smithsonian's mission since its founding? 

 Topographic Sketch of Copan, Honduras The Smithsonian has had especially strong connections with Latin America throughout its history, with a continuous exchange of ideas, artifacts, specimens, and friendships.  Latin American artifacts and specimens were among the earliest of the U.S. National Museums collections, notably the objects collected by the United States Exploring Expedition that circumnavigated the globe from 1838-1842, before the Institution was founded in 1846.  Concerns over how to care for these precious objects led to provisions for a museum in the Smithsonian’s 1846 enabling act.  Shortly after the Smithsonian was founded, the first Secretary, Joseph Henry, and Assistant Secretary, Spencer F. Baird, began correspondence with their Latin American counterparts.  Cuba had the oldest national museum, the Museo de Historia Natural de La Real y Pontificia Universidad de La Habana, founded in 1842 by the esteemed naturalist Felipe Poey. Henry and Baird turned to Poey for advice and so began a tradition of exchange of ideas and collections.

 Mary Agnes Chase Collecting Plants, Brazil

In 1996, on our 150th anniversary, Smithsonian staff prepared an exhibit Expeditions: The Smithsonian and Latin America with the Inter American Development Bank on the history of Smithsonian relations with Latin America.  A new online version of the exhibit has just gone live on the Smithsonian Archives website.  Visit it to learn about early explorers who exchanged specimens with our naturalists, anthropologists such as William Henry Holmes whose beautiful drawings brought ancient Mayan civilizations to light, and a determined woman botanist who climbed one of Brazil’s highest mountains in search of new grasses and mentored her Latin American colleagues.  Meet Alexander Wetmore, the lanky peripatetic ornithologist who documented life in Latin America with his camera and later, as Secretary of the Smithsonian, joined the effort to create international agreements between North and South America that protected migratory species and encouraged conservation of the natural environment.

 William and Lucile Mann in British Guiana on a collecting trip for the National Zoological Park

Read about how American bison wound up at a zoo in Argentina, and how Lucy Mann hid a bag of snakes under her skirt on a train ride through British Guiana.  Follow Matthew Stirling on his archeological digs in Mexico where he proposed entirely new interpretations of the importance of Olmec culture – which later radiocarbon dating would verify. Naturalists across the Americas were drawn into conversation and exchange because so many animals and plants live on both continents – migrating with the seasons in search of food and good nesting sites – from the Arctic through the Panama flyway to the Pampas.  Birds, monarch butterflies, whales, fish and plants do not need passports or worry about national boundaries.  If we all want to continue to have beautiful monarchs, tiny hummingbirds, and powerful humpback whales, we must continue this tradition of working together to conserve their natural environments throughout the Americas.

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