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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Modernization, 1950-1975

First Ladies Exhibit in the A&I Building
In the two decades after World War II, the Arts and Industries Building underwent a profound transformation as a result of an Exhibits Modernization Program. This program was spearheaded by Frank A. Taylor (1903-2007), who joined the staff in 1922 right out of high school. He had gone to college and advanced to curator of the history of technology. When he returned after World War II, the exhibits looked old and dilapidated to him, so Taylor led a campaign to revitalize the Smithsonian. His Exhibits Modernization Program renovated the exhibits in both Arts and Industries (A&I) and Natural History and gave the US National Museum a whole new look.

Visitors to the Hall of Health View a Video Presentation, A&I Building
During the 1950s and 1960s, virtually all of the exhibit halls were dismantled and completely reinstalled. The exhibits were moved out of the old mahogany cases into well-lit displays with educational graphics. There were also far fewer objects. Visitors saw conceptual exhibits, rather than entire collections. In many of these exhibits, you could barely see the structure of the original building.

Frank A. Taylor at Museum of History & Technology
Taylor was so successful in creating a new image for the National Museum that he also achieved his lifelong dream. In 1955, Congress passed legislation to build a new Museum of History and Technology, now the National Museum of American History. When it opened on January 23, 1964, it was the end of an era for the Arts and Industries Building.

View of the South Yard, 1974, by Unknown, 1974, Smithsonian Archives - History Div, 74-6617.
After the history collections moved to the new History and Technology Building, the A&I Building was largely taken over by the National Air Museum. Congress passed the legislation for the air museum in 1946, but never appropriated the money for a separate building. Curator Paul Garber and his colleagues used the A&I Building and a temporary shed, located where the National Museum of African Art is today, to house modernized displays of early aircraft as well as more recent artifacts such as rockets and moon landers. The large rockets were arrayed along the west wall of the Arts and Industries Building in a display known as "Rocket Row."

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