Baird's Dream: History of the Arts and Industries Building

Learn about the Smithsonian's first United States National Museum building, now called Arts and Industries, which opened in 1881, and the man who helped shape the Smithsonian’s future, Spencer Fullerton Baird. 

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Arts and Industries Building, 1911-1950

National Museum of Natural History, c 1911 In 1911, a new US National Museum Building, now known as the Natural History Building, opened across the National Mall from Baird's building. The anthropology, art, and natural history collections were moved to the new building, leaving the historical collections in the "Old National Museum," which was later renamed the Arts and Industries Building (A&I).

Postcard of the United States National Museum Building In the next few years, the historical exhibits expanded into all of A&I’s exhibit halls. New technologies such as photography, telegraphy, the telephone, and the automobile were explained to the general public in the history of technology exhibits. Curators, with limited budgets, continued to use the dark mahogany cases built in 1881, which could be easily reconfigured. Although dubbed the "Old National Museum," the Arts and Industries Building housed very popular exhibits that attracted many visitors.

First Ladies Exhibit in the A&I Building In 1912, Mrs. Howard Taft donated the first gown to the First Ladies Collection, which grew rapidly in the following decades. The First Ladies Collection soon became one of the museum's most popular exhibits. The collection of historical relics, including the Star-Spangled Banner, continued to expand with donations from the colonial and federal periods. Early American history was displayed through exhibits on everyday life, as well as great historical figures.

Statue of Freedom (Side View), Rotunda, A&I Building During and after World War I, visitors flocked to see the military equipment collection found inside and outside of the museum. Collections of coins, medals, and stamps attracted a loyal audience of collectors. The growing aviation collection sparked great interest, especially for the Spirit of St. Louis, which went on display in 1928. Working models of coal mines and other extractive technologies demonstrated industrial processes. Although the historical exhibits expanded greatly in these years, the style of exhibit did not change – the cases displayed large collections of objects with identification labels. When curators returned after World War II, the displays looked old-fashioned and tired and, the veterans along with their younger colleagues brought new ideas to the museum for the second half of the 20th century.

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