Editorial Comment: The Department of Geology in the National Museum

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  • The author states his intent in writing the article is to give an account of the Department of Geology within the U. S. National Museum, with information condensed mainly from its published handbooks and annual reports. He first offers an abbreviated history of the U. S. National Museum, which dates from 1846 when the Patent Office's National Cabinet of Curiosities was transferred to the Smithsonian Institution. Other specimens came to the Smithsonian via exploring expeditions, the U. S. Geological Survey, and later by purchase. The author notes that prior to 1873 there were no paid staff members, but natural history collections, including fossil specimens, were worked on by individuals, whom he calls "collaborators," who had offices or sleeping apartments in the Smithsonian building.
  • When the museum building [Arts and Industries Building] was completed in 1880, expansion and reorganization was made possible, departments were created and salaried officials took charge of the collections. The geology department was headed by curator George P. Merrill and was separated into three divisions: Physical and Chemical Geology, Mineralogy, and Stratigraphic Paleontology, which future Smithsonian Secretary Charles D. Walcott served as Honorary Curator. That division was divided into three sections: vertebrate fossils, invertebrate fossils, and paleobotany. The author describes a number of the more notable holdings and exhibits in each subject area.


  • Merrill, George P (George Perkins) 1854-1929
  • Walcott, Charles D (Charles Doolittle) 1850-1927
  • Arts and Industries Building
  • United States Geological Survey (USGS)
  • United States National Museum
  • United States National Museum Division of Mineralogy and Petrology
  • National Museum of Natural History (U.S.) Division of Mineralogy


Smithsonian Institution History Bibliography


Five photographic plates accompany the article.

Contained within

American Geologist Vol. 28 (Journal)

Contact information

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




  • Cabinets of curiosities
  • Geology
  • Mineralogy Laboratory
  • Secretaries
  • Mineralogy
  • Museums
  • Paleontology
  • United States National Museum
  • Fossils
  • Museum curators
  • Museum techniques


Washington (D.C.)

Physical description


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