Smithsonian in Wartime

Find out how the Smithsonian shared its expertise, staff, and funds during times of national crisis.

Scroll to explore this topic

WWI: The Smithsonian on the Home Front

Just as the war affected the home life of millions of Americans, it had a drastic impact on the three buildings of the Smithsonian. The biggest change occurred in the ‘new’ National Museum, also known as the Natural History Building, then the Smithsonian’s cutting-edge exhibit space. The Bureau of War Risk Insurance, a new division of the US Department of Treasury created to provide soldiers with life insurance, needed space and asked the Smithsonian for help. Secretary Charles D. Walcott initially gave the Bureau of War Risk Insurance a few rooms away from the exhibit halls, but as demands on the Bureau rapidly increased, the occupied space expanded exponentially and eventually took over the whole building. The US National Museum, which had expanded into this new building seven years earlier in 1910, was forced to condense its collections into the older Arts and Industries Building and put many of its collections into storage as Bureau workers slowly took over the exhibit halls. 

Bureau of War Risk Insurance

Bureau of War Risk Insurance in Natural History Building, 1918  

On April 6, 1917, America entered World War I. As part of the many agencies that were ramping up for the war effort, the US Congress created the Bureau of War Risk Insurance in 1914.1By the fall of 1917, President Woodrow Wilson wrote Secretary Walcott requesting space at the Smithsonian to house the Bureau.2 Though initially hesitant due to concern for possible harm to the collections, the Smithsonian gave the Bureau of War Risk Insurance 15,000 square feet in the lower hall of the ‘new’ National Museum Building.3 From that point on, Secretary of the Treasury William G. McAdoo, Director of the Bureau of War Risk Insurance, Secretary Walcott and Director of the US National Museum Richard Rathbun kept up a steady correspondence about facilities for the Bureau.4

Letter from William deC. Ravenel to President Woodrow Wilson

While office space was available elsewhere, the Bureau of War Risk Insurance specifically wanted the National Museum Building because it was well constructed and fireproof.5 Providing insurance to soldiers and sailors abroad, the Bureau’s records were of utmost importance and needed to be protected from fire and damage. As a newly constructed, state-of-the-art museum, the National Museum Building was built to be fireproof and protect its contents from as many disasters as possible. While they had employees working in other buildings around the city as well, they saw the National Museum Building as the perfect place to protect their records. 

The increasing numbers of soldiers sent abroad meant increasing work for the Bureau and its space needs grew rapidly. Over the next few months the Bureau of War Risk Insurance repeatedly asked for more space in the National Museum Building.6 As Walcott and Rathbun considered these requests they were cautious and concerned about the safety of the artifacts. Initially they advocated for alternative locations and offered Smithsonian grounds to build a Bureau of War Risk Insurance building. As involvement in the war increased and patriotic duty called, they gave in to the Bureau’s increasing demands by eventually closing the museum and turning the entire museum over to the Bureau of War Risk Insurance in 1918.7 In acquiescing, Walcott wrote he would “very greatly regret the necessity for closing the museum, that it, in the opinion of the Chairman, it was deemed as a War Measure to do so, he thought it would be but right and that he was entirely willing to make the sacrifice on the part of the museum and would so recommend to the regents.”8 While Walcott and Rathbun initially had deep misgivings about turning over the building, as the war progressed and America’s involvement deepened, they saw the necessity of the National Museum Building’s occupation and cooperation with the Department of Treasury and Bureau of War Risk Insurance.  

National Air Museum

Air and Space Building, South Yard By May 3, 1917, just less than a month after war was declared, the Smithsonian Regents approved the construction of a temporary building to house aircraft and aircraft appliances on Smithsonian grounds.  Occupied by the US Signal Corps for the study and development of aircraft for use in the war,9 they turned it over to the Smithsonian after the war ended.  Aircraft remained in this building for curators to interpret World War I airfare.  Additional airplanes and materials related to World War I moved into the shed by late April, 192010 as this building became the precursor of the National Air and Space Museum.11 

The shed remained in use until 1975 when it was demolished to make way for the Victorian Garden near the Smithsonian Building. The next year the current National Air and Space Museum opened on the National Mall, and this collection of airplanes and their accessories used in World War I served as the basis for its collections. 

Conclusion

The Smithsonian Institution was committed to working closely with the federal government to support the war effort and there was no more tangible way of doing so than providing the physical space for urgent wartime needs. Though there were significant challenges to protecting the Smithsonian collections while making room for wartime activities, the Institution made sure the war workers it hosted had what they needed.

Once the war was over, the space vacated by the Bureau of War Risk Insurance was quickly restored. The National Museum building reopened in April 1919 and soon became more crowded than ever as objects from the war made their way into the Smithsonian collections. New technologies, soldiers’ uniforms, medals, and artifacts documenting the war rapidly flowed into the collections. 

FURTHER EXPLORATION

RELATED COLLECTIONS

 

FOOTNOTES


1 Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, s.v. "War Risk Insurance Act," (accessed August 10, 2014), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_Risk_Insurance_Act Return to text

2 Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 192, United States National Museum, Permanent Administrative Files, Box 194, Folder 1, copy of letter from Wilson to Walcott. Return to text

3 Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 192, United States National Museum, Permanent Administrative Files, Box 194, Folder 1, letter to Wilson giving 15,000 sq ft Return to text

4 Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 192, United States National Museum, Permanent Administrative Files, Box 194, Folder 1 generally Return to text

5 Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 192, United States National Museum, Permanent Administrative Files, Box 194, Folder 1, Spring 1918 documents Return to text

6 Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 192, United States National Museum, Permanent Administrative Files, Box 194, Folder 1, Congressional hearing records, WRIB's Asst. Dir. calling for more space, Return to text

7 Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 192, United States National Museum, Permanent Administrative Files, Box 194, Folder 1, Motion to turn over USNM July 9 1918; Letter from White directing Rathbun to turn over USNM  July 15, 1918; Letter from Ravenel to President informing him of USNM closure & transition to WRIB. Return to text

8 Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 192, United States National Museum, Permanent Administrative Files, Box 194 Folder 1, Walcott letter/memo Spring 1918 Return to text

9 Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 298, Smithsonian Institution, Local Notes Newsletter, Box 1, Folder 2, May 3, 1917 Return to text

10 Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 192, United States National Museum, Permanent Administrative Files, Box 194, Folder 7, Note dated April 16, 1920 Return to text

11 Air and Space Building in South Yard, c. 1966], Photographic Print, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 95, Box 30A, Folder: 30, Negative Number MAH-48241B http://siarchives.si.edu/collections/siris_sic_8281 Return to text