Explore the history of the Smithsonian Institution with the Archives' wide range of online exhibits.

Get to know Spencer Baird, Secretary and naturalist who nurtured the new U.S. National Museum; travel on expeditions with early Smithsonian researchers; tour the U.S. National Museum in 1886; read historic postcards sent by visitors; learn about Smithsonian staff who were also artists; and trace the history of the National Museum of Natural History which has just celebrated its centennial. For additional information on the history of the Smithsonian, visit Resources on the History of the Smithsonian.

African American Collage

African American Contributions to the Smithsonian: Challenges and Achievements

Learn about the contributions African American employees at the Smithsonian have made to the Institution and the challenges they have faced.More

Jacob Kainen painting, ca. 1935

Artists at Work

Creativity at the Smithsonian

Meet Smithsonian curators who were not only researchers but also talented artists.More

Exterior of the U.S. National Museum (A&I Building)

Baird's Dream

History of the Arts and Industries Building

The embodiment of the vision of Spencer Fullerton Baird, the second Secretary of the Smithsonian, the masterpiece of architect Adolf Cluss, and the first home of the National Museum, the Arts & Industries Building has been a beacon from the beginning ― figuratively and literally. When it opened its doors for the 1881 inaugural ball of President Garfield, the building glowed with light from strings of longer-lasting incandescent light bulbs, invented just three years earlier by Thomas A. Edison. Today, the building is undergoing major renovations, but you can see its splendor and prominent role over the years in the online exhibition Baird’s Dream: History of the Arts and Industries Building.More

Smithsonian Institution Building Exterior Line Drawing

From Smithson to Smithsonian

The Birth of an Institution

Follow the history of the founding of the Smithsonian, from the life of James Smithson, through Congressional debates, its founding in 1846, to the Smithsonian of today.More

Postcard of the United States National Museum Building

Greetings from the Smithsonian

A Postcard History

A historic look at the Smithsonian Institution through the picture postcard.More

School Children Viewing the First Bison at the National Zoo

Historic Pictures of the Smithsonian

View historic images of all the Smithsonian’s museums and research institutes to see how the building, exhibits, visitors and staff have changed over time.More

Joseph Henry Portrait

Joseph Henry

A Life in Science

Joseph Henry (1797-1878), a physicist, was selected as the first Secretary of the Smithsonian and set it on its course. Learn about his scientific research and goals for the new Institution.More

U.S. National Museum Decorated for Garfield Inaugural Ball

Presidential Inaugural Balls at the Smithsonian

The Smithsonian's museums have hosted many presidential inaugural balls and events since the mid-19th century. Explore images of these historic events from Abraham Lincoln to Barack Obama.More

The Smithsonian at the Turn of the Century

Smithsonian at the Turn of the Century

Visit the Smithsonian of 1900, its exhibits, research, collections and staff.More

Wartime Collage

Smithsonian in Wartime

Learn about the Smithsonian's response to wars the United States was engaged in.More

National Museum Building Committee, 1880

Spencer F. Baird's Vision for a National Museum

The Smithsonian’s Second Secretary Spencer Fullerton Baird dedicated his career to creating a great national museum at the Smithsonian, the U.S. National Museum that opened in 1881. Learn about Baird and the fulfillment of his dreams.More

Draft of the Will of James Smithson

Stories from the Smithsonian

Get to know the people who have shaped the Smithsonian since its founding in 1846, through their letters, diaries, oral histories and photographs.More