Agency history, 1850-1967

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  • Goode, G. Brown (George Brown) 1851-1896
  • Walcott, Charles D (Charles Doolittle) 1850-1927
  • Rathbun, Richard 1852-1918
  • Ravenel, W. de C (William de Chastignier) 1859-1933
  • Wetmore, Alexander 1886-1978
  • Kellogg, Remington 1892-1969
  • Taylor, Frank A (Frank Augustus) 1903-2007
  • Henry, Joseph 1797-1878
  • Graf, John Enos
  • Baird, Spencer Fullerton 1823-1887


Agency History


  • This is an agency history. It does not describe actual records. The Smithsonian Institution Archives uses these histories as brief accounts of the origin, development, and functions of an office or administrative unit to set that unit in its historical context. To find information on record holdings, please double-click the highlighted field "Creator/Author", which will open on a brief view of relevant records.
  • Guide to the Smithsonian Archives
  • Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution
  • Annual Report of the United States National Museum
  • Smithsonian Institution Archives Research File (RU 94)
  • The Act of Congress of August 10, 1846, establishing the Smithsonian Institution, empowered the Board of Regents to receive, either through donations or exchanges, new specimens for the museum of the Institution. In addition, the Secretary was authorized to discharge the duties of the "keeper of the museum." Beginning in 1841, the museum collections of the United States government had been stored in the Patent Office. Originally they were under the custodianship of the National Institution for the Promotion of Science (renamed the National Institute in 1842), which had designs on the Smithson bequest and hopes of establishing a national museum. Later, as the National Institute fell from favor with Congress, the collections were placed under the charge of the Commissioner of Patents.
  • By the late 1840s, the Smithsonian began collecting natural history specimens and started building up a museum collection of specimens for study. When Spencer F. Baird was appointed Assistant Secretary in 1850, he brought his own sizable natural history collection to Washington and donated it to the Institution. Throughout the 1850s the Smithsonian museum continued to grow, partly as a result of private donations and partly as a result of specimens collected by government exploring expeditions and deposited in the Institution.
  • In the mid-1850s, the Commissioner of Patents began agitating for the removal of the national collections from the Patent Office. In 1857, Joseph Henry agreed to take the collections on the condition that the federal government pay for the construction of cases to house them, for their removal to the Institution, and for their care. Congress agreed, and in that year appropriated $15,000 for the construction of cases and $2,000 for the removal of the collections. On June 2, 1857 an appropriation of $4,000 "for the preservation of the collection of the exploring and surveying expeditions of the Government," had been made as a contingent expense in the budget of the Secretary of the Interior. The $4,000 continued as an appropriation in Interior after 1857, with the money expended by the Smithsonian. The collections were installed in the Great Hall of the Smithsonian Building in July 1858.
  • In 1870, the government appropriated $10,000 for the care of the Smithsonian collections.... an appropriation made to the Institution. In Henry's announcement of the appropriation the term National Museum was used for the first time in an annual report of the Smithsonian. Materials received from the 1876 Centennial Exposition increased the collections substantially, and in 1879 Congress appropriated $250,000 for a fireproof building for the use of the National Museum.
  • The 1870s marked the beginning of the formal organization of the United States National Museum (USNM). G. Brown Goode, who was appointed Assistant Curator in 1873, began hiring staff and appointing Honorary Curators (generally scientists attached to other government agencies who served without remuneration) to care for the national collections. In 1881, Goode (now promoted to Assistant Director) issued Circular No. 1 of the National Museum which set forth a comprehensive scheme of organization for the museum and established curatorial departments responsible for the collections.
  • In 1897, a major reorganization occurred in the USNM. At that time, three new departments--Anthropology, Biology, and Geology--were created to oversee the work of the museum. Former USNM departments became divisions of the new departments. This scheme of organization remained fairly constant for the next 60 years. In 1919, the Department of Arts and Industries (after 1938, the Department of Engineering and Industries) was established and assumed responsibility for collections related to mechanical technology, mineral technology, textiles, medical sciences, graphic arts, and photography. The Department of Biology was separated into Departments of Zoology and Botany in 1947, and in 1948, an independent Department of History was established.
  • In 1957, two administrative subdivisions were created under the direction of the USNM: the Museum of Natural History (the former USNM Departments of Anthropology, Botany, Geology, and Zoology) and the Museum of History and Technology (the former USNM Departments of Engineering and Industries and History). By 1967, the USNM as an administrative entity ceased to exist, and the Museum of Natural History and the Museum of History and Technology became separate administrative units.
  • Spencer F. Baird was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in 1850, with primary responsibility for the direction of the National Museum. The title "Assistant Secretary" was not reserved for the administrator of the museum; and throughout the history of the Institution there have been officials known as Assistant Secretaries who had other duties. During the 1940s the title, Assistant Secretary was permanently attached to other duties, and the responsibility for the museum fell to an official known as Director, United States National Museum.
  • Incumbents included Spencer F. Baird, 1850-1881; G. Brown Goode, 1881-1896, including the years 1881-1887 when he served as Assistant Director of the Museum without the title of Assistant Secretary; Charles D. Walcott, Acting Assistant Secretary, 1897-1898; Richard Rathbun, 1897-1918; William de Chastignier Ravenel, 1918-1925, with the title Administrative Assistant to the Secretary, in charge of the USNM; Alexander Wetmore, 1925-1948; Remington Kellogg, Director, USNM, 1948-1962; and Frank A. Taylor, Director, USNM, 1962-1967.
  • In 1931, the position of Associate Director, USNM, was established to assume many of the administrative and budgetary responsibilities of the Museum. John Enos Graf was appointed to the post. When Graf was promoted to Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in 1945, the position of Associate Director, USNM, was not continued.

Addl. KW Subjects

  • (SIA AH00004) Presbyterian church buildings Washington (D.C.)
  • (SIA AH00005)

Repository Loc.

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


  • 1850
  • 1850-1967


  • Museums
  • Museums--Administration


Mixed archival materials

Local number

SIA AH00003

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