Prints at the Smithsonian: The origins of a National Collection

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  • The author, graphic arts curator at the National Museum of American History, describes the origins and development of the Smithsonian Institution's print collections. Acquisition of its print collections began in 1849 when the Smithsonian's Board of Regents approved the first purchase of any kind by the Institution: the personal print collection of Congressman and Board Member George Perkins Marsh. The Smithsonian had been charged by the U.S. Congress to establish a library, a museum, and a gallery of art among its programs; first Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry assigned responsibility for the art collection to the Librarian, while he concentrated on scientific and research interests.
  • Attention to the Institution's art collections lagged in succeeding years, but interest in the arts was later rekindled under the direction of Sylvester R. Koehler, Curator of Graphic Arts from 1886-1900, and flourished during the 20th Century. The author states that the "Building a National Collection" exhibition focuses on the process of collection, and explores how private collectors and public attitudes have influenced the development and direction of its collections. Her catalog essay presents an overview of American print publishing and collection over the years. She writes an account of how representative collections came to the Smithsonian, and gives brief descriptions of their contents in an Appendix.


  • Marsh, George Perkins 1801-1882
  • Koehler, S. R (Sylvester Rosa) 1837-1900
  • Henry, Joseph 1797-1878
  • Fern, Alan Maxwell 1930-
  • Board of Regents
  • National Museum of American History (U.S.) Division of Graphic Arts
  • Smithsonian Institution Exhibitions
  • Building a National Collection (Exhibition)
  • National Museum of History and Technology (U.S.)
  • National Museum of American History (U.S.) (NMAH)
  • United States National Museum


Smithsonian Institution History Bibliography


  • This 72-page book, with numerous print illustrations, was published in conjunction with an exhibition entitled "Building a National Collection" celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Smithsonian Institution in the Hall of Graphic Arts. Introduction by National Portrait Gallery Director Alan Fern.
  • For a web version, visit prints/images/02ear01.jpg .

Contact information

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




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