Joseph Henry's Conception of the Purpose of the Smithsonian Institution

Usage Conditions Apply
The Smithsonian Institution Archives welcomes personal and educational use of its collections unless otherwise noted. For commercial uses, please contact

Narrow Your Results


Filter Your Results

Smithsonian Secretaries Information

Close Browse records and papers of the Smithsonian Secretaries, from 1846 until today. Pre-set filters help narrow searches by individuals who have held that office.

Expeditions Information

Close Browse records and papers documenting scientific and collecting expeditions either affiliated with the Smithsonian, or with which Smithsonian researchers participated. Pre-set filters help narrow searches by geographic regions predominantly represented in expedition records.

Professional Societies Information

Close Browse records of professional societies closely associated with the Smithsonian, that focus on areas of scientific research and museum studies. Pre-set filters help narrow searches by major topics and disciplines.


This article discusses the vision of the Smithsonian's founding Secretary, Joseph Henry, and in particular, his efforts to shape the Smithsonian into a research institution versus a museum or library. Upon his appointment in 1846, Henry was outspoken in his opposition to the use of James Smithson's bequest for a monumental building. However, he failed to convince the Smithsonian's Board of Regents of his position, and the Smithsonian Building ("the Castle") became the Institution's first, and most iconic, edifice. The article goes on to discuss Henry's struggle to prevent the Smithsonian from serving as a national library, and his ultimate success in having this responsibility shifted to the Library of Congress. Henry also hoped the federal government would take over the Smithsonian's United States National Museum, and fought the transfer of the national collections to the Institution in 1857. Henry conceived the Smithsonian's publications program as a vehicle for carrying out his vision of the Institution, and put much of his energy toward disseminating scientific studies based on original research. This article describes the work of Spencer F. Baird and provides brief biographies of George Perkins Marsh and Charles Coffin Jewett.


  • Henry, Joseph 1797-1878
  • Marsh, George Perkins 1801-1882
  • Baird, Spencer Fullerton 1823-1887
  • Jewett, Charles C (Charles Coffin) 1816-1868
  • United States Congress
  • Board of Regents
  • Smithsonian Institution Building (Washington, D.C.)
  • Smithsonian Institution Libraries (SIL)
  • United States National Museum
  • Library of Congress
  • Centennial Exhibition (1876 : Philadelphia, Pa.)


Smithsonian Institution History Bibliography


Footnoted. Includes photographs of the Smithsonian Building, Spencer F. Baird, the Department of Ethnology, the Department of Osteology, the Ethnology Laboratory, and others, many of which can be found in Record Unit 95 of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Contained within

A Cabinet of Curiosities: Five Episodes in the Evolution of American Museums (Book)

Contact information

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




  • SI, Early History
  • Museums
  • National Collections
  • Museum publications

Physical description

pp. 106-166

Full Record

View Full Record