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  • This narrative provides historical background and a comprehensive description of the main contents in the Smithsonian Institution's United States National Museum (now known as the Arts and Industries Building) at the time the article was written in 1903. The author writes briefly about the creation of the Smithsonian, which began in 1836 when the U. S. Congress passed a bill accepting Englishman James Smithson's bequest to fund an institution for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men, and then traces its development through the years.
  • At the time of its establishment in 1846, the Smithsonian was envisioned as having a museum to help carry out its mission. The Board of Regents was made responsible for the erection of a building to house collections such as the National Cabinet of Curiosities then held at the National Institute in the Patent Office Building, along with specimens collected by the United States Exploring Expedition; the building would also contain a library and art gallery, and accommodate future object and natural history collections.
  • Spencer Fullerton Baird was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian in 1850 to manage the rapidly growing collections and was given charge of the museum in the Smithsonian Institution Building. However, after the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia it was necessary to find additional space to house the U. S. government's returning exhibits, plus collections brought by foreign countries and afterwards given to the United States.
  • Congress appropriated funds for a separate building in 1879, and the United States National Museum [now called the Arts and Industries Building] was completed in 1881. G. Brown Goode, who assisted with the Centennial exhibits, was appointed Assistant Director of the Museum and later as Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian in charge of the National Museum. Goode planned the arrangement of exhibits and administrative regulations for the new $250,000 museum, which had a three-fold function: it was a museum of record, of research, and an educational museum.
  • The National Museum is described by the author as containing nearly six million specimens divided into three classes: Anthropology, Biology and Geology. He credits the museum's leadership and experienced staff for its success and states that collections received by the National Museum are used for four purposes: to serve as popular exhibit materials for the general public or specific scientific interests; to provide specimens for study by students and specialists, with laboratory privileges available; to send out specimens to scientists unable to travel to the museum; and, to donate duplicate specimens to institutions of higher learning.
  • While the author writes that contents of the Annual Reports of the Museum provide detailed information on collection accessions, he includes descriptions of numerous museum holdings and photographs of many exhibits and exhibit areas in his article, including the Catlin Gallery of Indian Portraits and Groups, the Ceramic Gallery, and the Hall of American History. Also included is a photograph and lengthy description of the Smithsonian Institution Building's Children's Room, which was prepared under the personal supervision of the third Smithsonian Secretary, Samuel P. Langley.
  • The author comments on the National Museum's rapid growth, offers praise for the Smithsonian's technical publications and reports, and notes the vast holdings and efficiency of the museum's library, headed by Cyrus Adler. He remarks on the rapid collections growth of the museum and the urgent need for additional exhibit space, but concludes with the news that this situation would be alleviated in the near future due to congressional approval of a new $3.5 million museum (now known as the National Museum of Natural History) that would provide almost three times more exhibit space.


  • Adler, Cyrus 1863-1940
  • Baird, Spencer Fullerton 1823-1887
  • Goode, G. Brown (George Brown) 1851-1896
  • Langley, S. P (Samuel Pierpont) 1834-1906
  • Smithson, James 1765-1829
  • United States National Museum
  • National Collections
  • Natural History Building
  • National Museum of Natural History (U.S.)
  • Patent Office Building (POB)
  • Arts and Industries Building
  • Smithsonian Institution Building Children's Room
  • Smithsonian Institution Libraries (SIL)
  • Smithsonian Institution Building Main Hall
  • Catlin Indian Gallery
  • United States Congress
  • United States Exploring Expedition (USEE)
  • Smithsonian Institution Building (Washington, D.C.)
  • National Institute
  • Board of Regents
  • Centennial Exhibition (1876 : Philadelphia, Pa.)


Smithsonian Institution History Bibliography


Article includes one illustration and 19 photographs.

Contained within

New England Magazine Vol. 29 (Journal)

Contact information

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


December 1903


  • Smithson Bequest
  • Assistant Secretaries
  • Cabinets of curiosities
  • Secretaries
  • Annual Reports
  • SI, Early History
  • Museums
  • Ceramics
  • National Collections
  • History exhibits
  • Museum directors


Washington (D.C.)

Physical description

Number of pages: 18; Page numbers: 496-513

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