The Exploring Expedition and the Smithsonian Institution


Creator: Reingold, Nathan 1927-


Date: 1985

Citation: Magnificent voyagers: the U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842 (Book)

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  • After providing background on the Smithsonian's founding and its first Secretary, Joseph Henry, this article describes Henry's attempts to prevent the federal government from using the Smithsonian as a repository for the voluminous natural history collections of the Wilkes Expedition of 1838-1842 and U.S. Army surveys of the 1850s. Henry was determined that the Smithsonian's primary role should be to undertake original scientific research, not to serve as a museum or repository for materials already collected by other institutions. However in 1853, Henry agreed that the Smithsonian Building, or "Castle," could temporarily serve as a National Museum overseen by the Smithsonian but supported with outside funds from the federal government. Specimens poured in and an exhibit hall was developed.
  • Although Congress continued to fund the Museum's expansion over the next two decades, Henry held firm to his belief that the Museum was temporary and that the Smithsonian would primarily serve as a research institution. His hope that the government would finally take over the Museum was renewed by the decision to construct a new, separate museum building to house the massive government exhibits produced for the 1876 Centennial Exposition. However by the time Congress appropriated funds for the new building, Henry had died. His successor, naturalist and curator Spencer F. Baird, saw the Museum as central to the Smithsonian's mission and fully supported its growth.


  • Henry, Joseph 1797-1878
  • Baird, Spencer Fullerton 1823-1887
  • Peale, Titian Ramsay
  • Smithsonian Institution Building Early History
  • Smithsonian Institution Building (Washington, D.C.)
  • Smithsonian Institution Establishment of
  • United States Exploring Expedition (USEE)
  • United States Army Corps of Engineers
  • Centennial Exhibition (1876 : Philadelphia, Pa.)


Smithsonian History Bibliography


The image [neg. # 2005-1378] is of William Dunlop Brackenridge who was entrusted with the care of the plants collected on the Wilkes Expedition.

Contained within

Magnificent voyagers: the U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842 (Book)

Contact information

Institutional History Division, Smithsonian Institution Archives, 600 Maryland Avenue, SW, Washington, D.C. 20024-2520,




  • Secretaries
  • Act to establish the "Smithsonian Institution," for the Increase and Diffusion of Knowledge Among Men
  • United States Congress, Relations with SI

Physical description

Number of pages: 12; Page numbers: 242-253

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