Accession Records, 1834-1958 (accretions to 1976)

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  • The accession records of the United States National Museum (USNM) were maintained by the Office of the Registrar. The accession records constitute the official documentation of the national collections and include correspondence with donors, specimen lists, and subsequent correspondence documenting the history of the collections. Curators catalog specimens and maintain their own records of studies made of the collections. Ordinarily, these materials do not appear in the accession records.
  • Accession records dating from 1834 to 1857 were arranged alphabetically by donor within each year. From 1857 to 1862 the accession records were assigned sequential numbers within each year. Since 1862, the accession records have been numbered sequentially without regard to year. The year as printed or stamped at the top of each accession card within each accession file indicates the year the accession was received. Beginning in 1899, the accession year was based on the July-June fiscal year. The Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution usually listed the names of the donors, accession numbers, and descriptions of specimens accessioned.
  • The provenance of accession records prior to 1880 varies widely. The earliest accessions, which predate the existence of the Smithsonian Institution, were for specimens collected by private individuals and members of the United States Exploring Expedition which were forwarded to the National Institute. Those specimens, along with the records documenting them, were transferred to the Smithsonian upon the demise of the National Institute, probably in 1862. It is uncertain who was responsible for maintaining accession records between 1846 and 1880. Attempts were made to assemble some form of registration system for maintaining control over the movements of specimens within and without the Smithsonian, possibly by the Chief Clerk or the Assistant Secretary of the Institution. Documents covering the years prior to 1880 were culled from the official correspondence of the Secretary and Assistant Secretary and made part of the accession record file.
  • Post-1880 accession files usually consist of an accession card and accession memorandum followed by incoming and outgoing correspondence, intra-office correspondence, and specimen lists, usually arranged chronologically. Undated documents were interfiled according to the context or placed after the accession memorandum. The accession records are arranged chronologically according to accession dates, with some exceptions. Dates within an accession file may vary widely, from documents preceding the actual accession to documents many years later. The numeric system is for permanent accessions. However, there are gaps in the numerical sequence, especially after 1924 when the numeric system used for permanent accession records became part of the overall numbering system used by the Division of Correspondence and Documents for the permanent administrative files of the USNM. These files (see record unit 192) consist of non-accession museum administrative records. Beginning in FY 1948, the permanent administrative files ceased to be used as a file for the Director of the USNM; but the accession file itself continued in the same numerical sequence as a record pertaining to acquisition and accessioning of specimens.
  • Fiscal year 1958 is used as the cut-off year for the USNM accession records in this record unit, since this was the last year in which the USNM existed as a single administrative unit prior to the creation of two divisions within the USNM, the Museum of Natural History and the Museum of History and Technology. Post-1958 accession records maintained the same numeric system and were kept by the Office of the Registrar until the period from 1973 to 1976, when each museum set up its own museum registrar; and the post-1958 accession records were divided up between the respective museums.


  • Brown, Stephen C
  • Bryant, Herbert S
  • Weiss, Helena M. 1909-2004
  • Haynes, William P
  • Lytle, Richard H
  • United States National Museum Office of the Registrar
  • National Institute
  • Smithsonian Institution Chief Clerk
  • Smithsonian Institution Office of the Secretary
  • Smithsonian Institution Assistant Secretary
  • United States National Museum Division of Correspondence and Documents
  • Museum of History and Technology (U.S.)
  • Museum of Natural History (U.S.)
  • United States National Museum Property Clerk
  • United States Exploring Expedition (1838-1842)


  • Stephen C. Brown was appointed Registrar of the United States National Museum (USNM) in 1880 and served until his death in 1919. The Registrar functioned as the transportation, storage, and record clerk for the Museum and was responsible for shipping, accessions, storage, and the distribution of specimens. With the death of Brown in 1919, the position was abolished. Functions relating to accessions, examination and reports of specimens, and the distribution of specimens were reassigned to the Chief, Division of Correspondence and and Documents. The duties of Shipping Clerk, which had been performed by Brown, were combined with those of the Property Clerk.
  • From 1919 until 1956, the Registrar's functions remained with the Division of Correspondence and Documents. Herbert S. Bryant and Helena Weiss served as Chiefs of the Division, 1918-1948 and 1948-1956, respectively. In 1956, the Division was renamed the Office of the Registrar, with Helena Weiss serving as Registrar until her retirement in 1971. Responsibilities of the Registrar included shipping, mail, transportation, distribution of publications, customs work, travel, correspondence, and accessions.
  • The Office of the Registrar underwent administrative and functional changes between 1971 and 1976. William P. Haynes served as Acting Registrar, 1972-1973; Richard H. Lytle served as Acting Registrar, 1972-1973, and Registrar pro tem, 1973-1975. In 1973 a Registrarial Council was created to study museum registration problems and to recommend changes to improve registration and control of specimens within the Institution.
  • Beginning in 1975, each Smithsonian museum had established its own Registrar to ensure proper documentation of all acquisitions, and to work with curators and conservators to ensure the security and availability of specimens. In addition to accessioning and shipment of specimens, other functions once part of the office of the Smithsonian Registrar, such as mail, customs work, and travel, were delegated to other offices within the Institution. The Council, which consisted of Museum Registrars headed by the Registrar of the Smithsonian Institution, continued as a forum for registrarial discussion.
  • (1) Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution, 1850-1873; (2) Annual Report of the United States National Museum, 1874-1958; (3) Accession Record Books, 1859-1921, see record unit 110; (4) card index to correspondence on microfilm.
  • For a description of the record series of which these materials are a part, refer to "Forms part of" above.


(1) Accession records, arranged alphabetically by donor within each year, 1834-1858; (2) accession records, arranged numerically within each year, 1858-1862; (3) accession records, arranged numerically only, 1862-1958; (4) non-permanent accession records; (5) pending accession files

Repository Loc.

Smithsonian Institution Archives, Capital Gallery, Suite 3000, MRC 507; 600 Maryland Avenue, SW; Washington, DC 20024-2520


  • 1834
  • 1834-1976
  • 1834-1958 accretions to 1976

Restrictions & Rights

(1) Record unit microfilmed; (2) inquiries related to specimens should be directed to the appropriate curator


  • Museums
  • Museums--Administration
  • Museums--Collection management


  • Mixed archival materials
  • Collection descriptions

Local number

SIA RU000305

Physical description

626.03 cu. ft. (1209 document boxes) (1 12x17 box) (1055 microfilm reels)

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