Spencer Baird's Dream: A U. S. National Museum

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  • This article is a detailed but very readable popular history of the United States National Museum. Its story is prefaced by a review of the Smithsonian Institution's formation in 1846, made possible by a bequest from Englishman James Smithson. Establishing legislation passed by the U. S. Congress mandated the Smithsonian to conduct basic research and construct a building to house a library, a museum, and a lecture hall. The governing Board of Regents selected Joseph Henry as the first Smithsonian Secretary; he envisioned the Institution as mainly focusing on research and publication of research findings, and was reluctant to take on the administrative and financial burdens of managing a library and museum. There was, however, pressure for the Smithsonian to undertake construction of a museum to house collections from the Patent Office Building, including the Cabinet of Curiosities maintained there by the National Institute.
  • Space was needed for researchers to study and analyze the ever-increasing number of specimens and artifacts received from various exploring expeditions, as it was realized that the items were most valuable when research results from them were shared via publications and exhibits. Spencer Fullerton Baird, hired by Joseph Henry in 1850 as the Smithsonian's natural history curator with the title of Assistant Secretary, was an ardent proponent of a research-based museum. Initially he carried out Secretary Henry's programs that concentrated on the publication of new research and exchanges of publications, but Baird also developed a network of collectors who sent him vast numbers of specimens; he set the standards for American natural history collecting during the second half of the 19th century.
  • Through the years, Baird's success in collecting specimens, together with those received from the exploring expeditions and various expositions, especially from the 1876 Centennial, overwhelmed storage and work space available in the Smithsonian's "Castle" Building. When Baird became the second Smithsonian Secretary in 1878, his first priority was the construction of a new National Museum Building. The U. S. Congress appropriated funding, and ground was broken in April 1879. When opened to the public in October 1881, the building (presently the Arts and Industries Building) bore the imprint of Assistant Secretary George Brown Goode's democratic approach to museum theory and display with exhibits designed to promote education of the public. The staff and programs of the Smithsonian were expanded, visitorship increased, and by the time Baird died in 1887, he had lived to achieve his dream of a comprehensive U. S. National Museum.
  • The author finishes by noting that the museum buildings comprising the present-day Smithsonian are part of the largest complex of art, history, and science museums in the world.


  • Goode, G. Brown (George Brown) 1851-1896
  • Baird, Spencer Fullerton 1823-1887
  • Henry, Joseph 1797-1878
  • Smithson, James 1765-1829
  • Board of Regents
  • National Institute
  • Arts and Industries Building
  • Smithsonian Institution Building (Washington, D.C.)
  • United States Exploring Expedition (USEE)
  • United States National Museum
  • Patent Office Building (POB)
  • Centennial Exhibition (1876 : Philadelphia, Pa.)


Smithsonian Institution History Bibliography


Sixteen figures accompany the article.

Contained within

Cultures and Institutions of Natural History: Essays in the History and Philosophy of Science (Book)

Contact information

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




  • Cabinets of curiosities
  • Secretaries
  • SI, Early History
  • Employees
  • Museums
  • History
  • Smithson Bequest
  • Museum finance
  • Smithsonian Institution
  • Personnel management
  • Collectors and collecting
  • Exhibitions
  • Philosophy
  • Federal Government, Relations with SI
  • Smithsonian Institution--Employees
  • Biography
  • Museums--History
  • Museums--Collection management
  • Museums--Philosophy

Physical description

pps. 101-126

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