Smithsonian in Wartime

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

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WWII: The Smithsonian on the Home Front

As World War II raged throughout the world, many feared the threat of another attack on American soil.  Washington, D.C., and the National Mall were obvious targets for the Axis countries which put the Smithsonian buildings and collections located there in danger.  In order to protect the Smithsonian’s collections, staff took action and moved many materials off of the National Mall.  At the same time, the National Museum remained open for the men and women in uniform who were flocking to Washington, D.C.  Smithsonian staff also helped protect museum collections in Europe as they collaborated with the ‘Monuments Men’ to identify, preserve, and protect scientific museums and collections that might be in danger from the Nazis.

Collections moved to Luray

Image of Headquarters Area, Luray, Virginia, October 28, 1944

World War II brought many changes and challenges to the Smithsonian and its National Museum.  Not the least among these changes were preparedness plans for an attack on Washington, D.C.  With the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, it was clear that the United States itself was at risk in a way it had not been during World War I.  With most of its irreplaceable collections housed on the National Mall, just blocks from the US Capitol Building and the White House, the Smithsonian took steps to provide adequate safeguards for its collections.  Just weeks after the United States declared war, the board of the National Gallery of Art met and approved a recommendation that the most fragile and irreplaceable works of art be removed to a place of greater safety.  This decision was rapidly acted upon and by early January, paintings and sculpture were removed from display and sent to an undisclosed location.1  The Smithsonian quickly followed suit and moved collections outside of the city.  These plans were kept secret and closely guarded during the course of the war.  It was only in 1946 that the Smithsonian acknowledged that it stored its objects near Shenandoah National Park.2

Collections Storage, Luray, Virginia The Smithsonian moved over sixty tons of collections to a warehouse originally built for the National Park Service near Luray, Virginia.3 Prior to the move, the buildings underwent renovations to accommodate the needs of the collections.4 A heating plant was among the proposed changes as well as space for a guard force and the custodians of the collections.5 The custodians managed heating stoves and humidifiers in the warehouses to keep conditions within the warehouse stable to preserve the specimens stored there.6 Kept in large shipping containers, stacked high and covered by tarps, Smithsonian guards stationed in Luray kept a careful watch over these collections day and night.7 The collections only returned to Washington once the threat of an attack had ended.  The last of these materials returned to the National Mall in November of 1944.8

Precautions on the Mall

Postcard of the Old National Museum Despite the threat of attack at the National Museum, the Smithsonian kept their doors open and continued to welcome the public. While attendance dipped in 1942, it was less dramatic than anticipated.9 Numbers dropped again in 1943 as the rationing of gasoline and reductions in train and bus travel took effect across the country. Of the visitors who were still coming to the National Museum, members of the armed forces sent to D.C. for training or work were a significant new group. Service men and women made up at least a quarter of the museum’s visitors.10 The museum even changed its hours and remained open on Sundays to allow the workers flooding Washington due to wartime jobs to visit the museum.11 By 1944, museum tours were offered to service personnel through a partnership with the USO.12 By the close of the war, visitor numbers rebounded as approximately forty percent of the National Museum’s visitors were service men and women.13 

Some exhibits were deemed at risk from museum visitors. In the spring of 1942, anti-Japanese sentiment was thought responsible for attacks on Washington’s famed Cherry Blossom trees, then in bloom. The Freer Gallery of Art, devoted to Asian art, took its Japanese collections off display for the duration of the war to keep them safe.

In order to keep the museum, its staff, and visitors safe throughout the war, the Smithsonian implemented a protection training program for employees. Air raid alarm systems were installed and a variety of other precautions implemented: fire-fighting, air-raid, and first-aid equipment procured, air-raid shelters designated, and complete black-out facilities where needed.  The museum participated in air raid drills coordinated by the city to practice their skills.  Going above and beyond what was required, staff also scheduled additional drills for the museum at other times. 14

Monuments Men

Secretary Alexander Wetmore The Smithsonian not only took action to protect its collections and buildings, it also joined forces with the American Council of Learned Societies, scholars from Harvard and other institutions to identify monuments, archives, and artworks that might be threatened by the Nazis.  Known colloquially as the Monuments Men, the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas turned to the Smithsonian for knowledge of scientific museums throughout Europe.  The National Gallery of Art, represented by its Director David E. Finley, Jr., led the commission’s effort to protect artwork and cultural heritage throughout Europe, but they lacked knowledge and expertise about scientific research collections that provided the foundation for much of the world’s natural history knowledge.15 Smithsonian Secretary Alexander Wetmore was an officer of the commission and delegated tasks to specific Smithsonian employees as requests were received. For example, he asked Henry B. Collins, Director of the Ethnogeographic Board and Senior Ethnologist in the Bureau of American Ethnology, to provide maps of Copenhagen so officers on the ground could locate museums and important collections. Austin H. Clark, the curator of the Division of Marine Invertebrates, took up the task of preparing lists of European museums and collections to the best of the Smithsonian’s knowledge. These lists helped identify where and to whom materials belonged.  Wetmore also used his position on the commission to advocate for the inclusion of cultural and scientific treasures in the Pacific, a focus of the Smithsonian’s scientific work for several decades.16  

CONCLUSION

All through the war, Smithsonian staff sought to protect cultural, historic and scientific treasures from destruction, moving its own icons and assisting with the protection and recovery of precious objects in both the European and Pacific fronts.

FURTHER EXPLORATION

FOOTNOTES


1 1942 Annual report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution (Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1943), 32. Return to text

2 “Smithsonian Hid Treasures Near Luray During War,” The Washington Post, 9 Oct. 1946. Return to text

3 “Smithsonian Hid Treasures Near Luray During War,” The Washington Post, 9 Oct. 1946. Return to text

4 Storage Building, Luray, Virginia, May 11, 1942, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 192 Box 544 Folder 13, Negative Number 96-1351. Return to text

5 General View, Service Area, Luray, Virginia, May 11, 1942, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 192 Box 544 Folder 13, Negative Number 96-1347. Return to text

6 Interior of Storage Area, Luray, Virginia, 1942, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 192 Box 546 Folder 2, Negative Number 96-1349. Return to text

7 Several images of guards on duty in Luray Virginia. 1944. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 192 Box 546. Negative Numbers 96-1344 - 96-1364. Return to text

8 1945 Annual report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution (Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1946), 21. Return to text

9 1942 Annual report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution (Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1943), 26. Return to text

10 1943 Annual report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution (Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1944), 22.Return to text

11 1943 Annual report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution (Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1944), 13. Return to text

12 1944 Annual report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution (Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1945), 4. Return to text

13 1944 Annual report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution (Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1945), 13.Return to text

14 1943 Annual report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution (Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1944), 13; Air Raid Protection Code, (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office 1942).Return to text

15 “Monuments Men additional notes,” Information File, Smithsonian Institution Archives. Return to text

16 “SI WW2 Archives and Art Protection,” Information File, Smithsonian Institution Archives. Return to text