The Museum and Joseph Henry

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This article explores the early history of the Smithsonian and branches into a discussion of how the original act of Congress establishing the Institution did not specifically mention the support of original research and the publication of scholarly works. The author maintains that the vision of founding Secretary Joseph Henry became apparent in an 1846 letter to Smithsonian Regent Alexander Dallas Bache that would become the "Programme of Organization" for the Institution. Henry's advocacy for the "increase" of knowledge as more important than its "diffusion" is described. The author mentions Henry's early disaffection with a national museum at the Smithsonian, coupled with the fact that something had to be done with the collections that were accumulating as a result of the Wilkes Expedition and other governmental surveys. Henry appointed Spencer F. Baird to take charge of the Smithsonian's natural history collections, which were greatly expanded with the transfer of the national collections to the Institution in 1857. Henry fought to separate the National Museum from the Smithsonian until his death in 1878, when Baird was elevated to the position of Secretary. At this point, the Smithsonian began to move away from its strict adherence to Henry's vision of it as an institution for carrying out and publishing only "original research."


  • Bache, A. D (Alexander Dallas) 1806-1867
  • Baird, Spencer Fullerton 1823-1887
  • Henry, Joseph 1797-1878
  • Board of Regents
  • United States National Museum
  • United States Congress


Smithsonian Institution History Bibliography


Extensively footnoted. The majority of the primary sources cited are found in the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Contained within

Curator Vol. 8, 1 (Journal)

Contact information

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




  • Scientific expeditions
  • Controversies
  • Secretaries
  • Collectors and collecting
  • SI, Early History
  • Museums
  • Museum exhibits


Washington (D.C.)

Physical description

pp. 35-54

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