From Smithson to Smithsonian The Birth of an Institution

Follow the development of the Smithsonian from Englishman James Smithson's bequest to the founding of the Institution in 1846. 

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A National Collection

Spencer Fullerton Baird - Smithsonian Secretary, 1878-1887

Baird pictured from waist up, in dark suit and a beard




". . . a National Museum, of which (let me whisper it) I hope to be director." -Letter from Spencer Fullerton Baird to George Perkins Marsh, Smithsonian Regent, July 2, 1853






Iron pin pointed at both ends; viewing lens, brass and glass; wire tweezers; metal punch with wooden Spencer Fullerton Baird (1823-1887), an avid naturalist and collector, served as an assistant to Secretary Joseph Henry from 1850 to 1878. A pioneer in museum collecting and display, he was named the Institution's second Secretary upon Henry's death.

Whereas Secretary Henry had envisioned the Smithsonian primarily as a research institute, Baird saw Smithson's gift as the means to develop a national museum. Secretary Baird's vision coincided with a growing sense of nationalism surrounding the celebration of the U.S. Centennial. By 1878 Congress had formally given responsibility for the U.S. National Museum to the Smithsonian Institution.

Gold and black baltimore oriole, perched in a piece of wood During the Baird years, the Smithsonian became a showcase for the nation's history, resources, and treasures.

Book title page, golden in color with small picture of Smithson and multi-color stamps Secretary Baird's most visible accomplishment was his role in building a national collection. In 1850, arriving to work at the Smithsonian as Secretary Henry's assistant, he brought two railroad boxcars full of natural history specimens. As Secretary, Baird wrote more than 3,600 letters a year to a far-flung network of collectors and taught a generation of naturalists how to prepare specimens for museum collections. By the end of his tenure, the National Museum housed more than 2.5 million specimens and artifacts.

Artist's proof of cigar box cover featuring the image of Spencer Baird As this cigar box cover shows, Secretary Baird and the National Museum were popular facets of U.S. culture by the end of the 19th century. 

United States Exploring Expedition

Handwritten text on a blue background When Lieutenant Commander Charles Wilkes and the United States Exploring Expedition (USEE) returned to the country in 1842, after four years of mapping and studying the natural world, many Americans spoke out for a national museum.

A stack of four volumes on the right and a fifth volume open to the left, with an image of a ship sh Lieutenant Wilkes published his 5-volume narrative of the voyage in 1844. An additional twelve scientific volumes were produced, the last appearing in 1874.

The Smithsonian acquired and displayed specimens and artifacts from the expedition in 1858. In so doing, it established itself as a showcase for the country's first major international scientific venture and as a guardian of national treasures.

Exploring New Territories

Title page fold out of a book showing a map of the world Following the United States Exploring Expedition, the U.S. government launched a series of exploring and surveying expeditions under the direction of the Army to map and collect information about the natural history of the largely unknown territories of North America. Assistant Secretary Baird provided military officers with collecting equipment and instructions on how to collect specimens of animals, plants, minerals, and fossil remains for the Smithsonian. For many expeditions, both government and private efforts, Baird secured places for collectors and naturalists and arranged for the accumulated collections from the natural world to be sent back to the Institution in Washington.

Three shells from Fiji including Textile cone (Conus textile), eyed cowrie shell (Cypraea argus), an The growing collections quickly made the Smithsonian a center for information on the natural history of North America.

In 1859, Spencer Baird sent Robert Kennicott, curator of Northwestern University's Museum of Natural History, to northwestern Canada and Russian America (now Alaska). He collected 40 boxes of specimens from the Yukon Territory which he brought back to the Smithsonian in 1863. In 1865, at Baird's suggestion, the Western Union Telegraph Company appointed Kennicott leader of an expedition to map the route for an overland cable to Europe.

Large piece of black obsidian rock This specimen of obsidian came from the Western Union Telegraph Company Expedition which explored the Yukon and Alaska from 1865 to 1868.

Blue book cover with a picture of mountains, golden water and a golden sun After Kennicott's death in the field in 1866, William H. Dall took over and led the survey team to the Bering Strait, and later published the first English-language reports on the natural history of the Yukon and Alaskan territories. 

Based on knowledge gleaned from the expedition reports, Baird's testimony to Congress helped turn the tide in favor of the 1867 purchase of Alaska. With Dall's help, Baird built a network of collectors throughout the Alaskan regions who submitted reports and collections to the Smithsonian over the next 30 years.

Building a National Museum

The Smithsonian Institution's early development coincided with a growing sense of nationalism and independence from Europe. Congress turned to the new Institution as the place to preserve and exhibit the nation's relics and icons.

Title page of the 1876 Centennial Exhibition Catalogue


Front of Lucy Baird's ticket, largely green design, reads: "This ticket only good for one daily admi Two note-card sized documents, with handwritten text At the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, Smithsonian exhibits prepared by Assistant Secretary Baird made Smithsonian a household word. When the exposition closed, 42 boxcars full of artifacts were donated to the Smithsonian by the exhibitors. Built in large part to accommodate those objects, the United States National Museum (now known as the Arts and Industries Building) opened in 1881. 

Book cover featuring drawings of natural and American Indian specimens from the western United State National Museum exhibits highlighting the country's resources and technological advances soon came to be regarded as an important national monument.

George Washington's wine coaster made of silver and oak wood, with designs on the inside and the out George Washington memorabilia were part of the collection transferred in 1883 from the National Institute museum in the Patent Office. The Smithsonian accepted responsibility for collections that fostered a sense of national identity.

Objects from Western exploring expeditions and an art collection, drew visitors to exhibits in the U.S. National Museum (now the Arts and Industries Building) and the Smithsonian Building.


A drawing of two people standing in a grand museum rotunda with palm trees inside