What Did the Smithsonian Exhibit When it First Opened?

Today, the Smithsonian is made up of nineteen museums and galleries, the National Zoological Park and nine research facilities with science, art, and history-related collections from a myriad of different places, cultures, and subject areas. But was the Smithsonian always like this? And what did it look like when it first opened?

Facebook Question about Smithsonian exhibition history.

A few weeks ago we received a question from a member of the public on the main Smithsonian Facebook page about just this subject: what did the Smithsonian exhibit and collect when it first opened in the mid-1800s? We took the chance to pass along the question to the Smithsonian Historian who works at the Archives, Pam Henson, who answers below.

In the meantime, we welcome your questions about Smithsonian history, our collections, and archival practice, and we encourage you to contact us via our Reference Request form online, or on our Discussion Forums.

Here’s the scoop from Pam:

Artist's Painting of North Facade of SI Building











First Smithsonian Guidebook Published, September 1857, Smithsonian Archives - History Div.


 “The Great Hall of the Smithsonian Institution Building opened to the public in 1855.  William Jones Rhees published the first guide book in 1857 and it tells us what was on display. 

The floor plan shows there was an Apparatus Room containing the electrical apparatus of Dr. Robert Hare of Pennsylvania and a German steam electrical machine—these were occasionally demonstrated for the public. Given the Smithsonian's pioneering role in weather data collection, the Great Barometer built by James Green of New York for the Institution, which was twenty feet high. 

Apparatus Room in the Smithsonian Institution Building













Filled Lecture Hall in the Smithsonian Institution Building



There was a lecture room, a library, a Picture Gallery which included over 150 of William Mix Stanley's portraits of Native Americans, and a marble copy of the "Dying Gladiator" sculpture in Rome. There was also a Room which displayed black basalt statues or "idols" from Nicaragua, and portraits of famous Americans.





Gallery of Art in the Smithsonian Institution Building


The Museum on the second floor displayed fine collections of: North American mammals, birds, fish, amphibians, reptiles, minerals, fossils, rocks, a meteorite from Coahula, Mexico, and plants. There were also specimens from Latin America and Europe.  Vertebrates included grizzly bears, cinnamon bears, black bears, panther, jaguar, ocelot, lynx, elk, many species of deer, sheep and goats, wolves, foxes, badgers, beavers, porcupines, prairie dogs, and gophers. The collections included the US government collections in mineralogy, geology and natural history: many collected on US government exploring expeditions.


Museum Opens to Public, December 1858, Smithsonian Archives - History Div.



In 1858, the US Exploring Expedition (1832–1842) collections were transferred to the Smithsonian and included natural history, anthropology, and geology specimens and artifacts from around the globe.

On the grounds outside the Castle was the Andrew Jackson Downing memorial urn to commemorate the recent death of the young landscape designer who had laid out plans for the National Mall.”

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