Smithsonian in Wartime – A New Web Exhibit!

Founded just a few years before the start of the Civil War, wartime quickly made an impact on the Smithsonian. Though not every conflict could be seen from the Castle towers, the Smithsonian’s location in our nation’s capital has guaranteed that wartime concerns have been a part of life at the Smithsonian.  Smithsonian staff have contributed scientific expertise and critical knowledge to the war effort. As a Washington, D.C. institution, our buildings and collections have also had to respond to the threat of wartime danger. To explore the various wartime roles the Smithsonian has played, we have created a new web exhibit, Smithsonian in Wartime, where you can learn more about the Smithsonian during the Civil War, World War I and World War II. Here’s a quick look at what you can find.

The Smithsonian in Wartime web exhibit

Air and Space Building, South Yard
During the Civil War, the Smithsonian was close enough to the front lines to see fighting from the Castle towers.  The Henry family lived in the Castle and watched the war’s progress with interest as they felt the danger and isolation that the nearby battlefront brought. Secretary Joseph Henry also advised President Abraham Lincoln. He brought balloonist Thaddeus Lowe to the attention of Lincoln and the Secretary of War, Simon Cameron, suggesting that he would be useful for military reconnaissance. Playing to our scientific strengths, the Smithsonian also produced disinfectant for local hospitals treating wounded soldiers. In just two months, the laboratory prepared over a thousand bottles. 

Bureau of War Risk Insurance in NHB
As the United States watched World War I unfold and the nation entered the fray, the Smithsonian paid careful attention to the war as it developed. Even before the United States entered the war, men and women at the Smithsonian left their positions to volunteer for military service.  While men joined the armed services or transferred to the War Department, Florence A. Graves, an employee of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, left her position to work as a nurse in France. At home, staff created a Red Cross Auxiliary that sponsored an ambulance and sent innumerable mittens, scarves, sweaters, and other knit and sewn items to those who desperately needed them on the front lines. 

However, the biggest impact World War I had on the Smithsonian was the War Risk Insurance Bureau moving into the Natural History Building.  Set up to provide life insurance for soldiers and sailors shipping out to the front, it grew exponentially along with the armed forces. The Smithsonian closed exhibits and turned the building over to this critical service.  Yet just as their exhibit space was shrinking, curators were busy reaching out to those on the front lines to document what was sure to go down in history.  

"Survival On Land and Sea" Published by the Ethnogeographic Board and the Smithsonian Institution, 1
During World War II, the Smithsonian was one of few places in the country that had a long history of research in the Pacific. In addition to the staff who enlisted and volunteered on the home front, the natural history expertise of Smithsonian scientists was put to use creating guides for armed forces sent to the Pacific.  This effort culminated in Survival on Land and Sea, a booklet summarizing survival skills and other necessary information. Many servicemen in turn gave back to the Smithsonian.  During their travels, servicemen like Sammy Ray, a pharmacist’s mate in the Navy, collected specimens and sent them to the Smithsonian. Even future Secretary S. Dillon Ripley collected for the museum while stationed in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). 

Smithsonian involvement in the war effort was as varied as the Smithsonian’s many areas of expertise. You can learn more about what you’ve read here in the full exhibit.  From its pages you can find links to the documents and photos that trace the Smithsonian’s involvement in the United States’ war efforts. So explore and learn! 

Related Resources

Record Unit 298, Smithsonian Institution, Local Notes Newsletter, 1916-1933, Smithsonian Institution Archives 

A Field Collector’s Manual in Natural History, Smithsonian institution, 1944, Smithsonian Libraries 

The Smithsonian Survival Guide, Smithsonian Air and Space Magazine 

Produced by the Smithsonian Institution Archives. For copyright questions, please see the Terms of Use.