National Museum of American History


The 19th Century Collection

Smithsonian Exhibit at the 1888 Cincinnati, Ohio, Exposition
The history of the National Museum of American History's collections dates back to the very beginning of the Smithsonian Institution, when Secretary Joseph Henry amassed a collection of scientific apparatus for historical and demonstration purposes. In 1849, the Institution made a major purchase of fine arts prints, which became the core of the graphic arts collections. In 1858 and 1862, the National Institute, which was housed in the US Patent Office, transferred to the Smithsonian the national collections, which included specimens from the US Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842. The US National Museum was formally established in 1858. The historical collections grew steadily, including Lincoln’s hat, which was transferred from the War Department in 1867. After the Centennial Exposition of 1876 in Philadelphia, the US National Museum received many objects from exhibitors. Thus, by the 1880s, rich collections from many different sources had come to the Smithsonian.

Growth and Development

History Exhibits, North Hall, A&I Building
In 1881, the first US National Museum building, now the Arts and Industries Building, opened to house art, cultural, history, and science exhibits. The halls soon filled with a collection of "historic relics," including George's Washington's uniform and the Benjamin Franklin printing press. History of science and technology exhibits traced the history of transportation, textiles, musical instruments, and many other human inventions. However, by the turn of the century, the collections had outgrown the first US National Museum building and a new, larger US National Museum was built across the National Mall. When the new museum building, now the National Museum of Natural History, opened in 1911, the art, anthropology, and natural history collections were transferred, leaving only the history collections in the Arts and Industries Building. The history collections included philately, numismatics, political and military memorabilia, costumes, furnishings, technology, medicine, textiles, graphic arts, photography, objects of everyday life, ceramics, glass, and musical instruments. Visitors could admire the First Ladies Dresses, Star Spangled Banner, and Spirit of St. Louis, and marvel at a working model coal mine and a live beehive. An extensive Exhibits Modernization Program in the 1940s and 1950s revitalized the museum and the growing collections required another larger building.

Aerial View of Museum of History and Technology Construction
The creation of the Museum of History and Technology within US National Museum on July 1, 1957, gathered the historical collections under one museum. Engineering curator Frank A. Taylor was appointed Director of the Museum of History and Technology in 1958 and was responsible for the planning and supervision of the construction of the museum building, which opened in 1964. Designed by architect Walker O. Cain of McKim, Mead and White, in a post-war modern style, the building’s rectangular façade is of marble. The building’s architecture serves as a link between the classical architecture of nearby buildings and the modernism anticipated in future buildings. The exterior and interior designs are simple, straight-edged, and symmetrical. The exterior’s repetition of bays and cornices are reminiscent of the colonnades of surrounding buildings. The museum’s inaugural exhibits included Everyday Life in the American Past in 1964 and The Growth of the United States in 1967. The collections continued to grow and the museum received Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers from The Wizard of Oz and Kermit the Frog from Sesame Street in 1979. The US National Museum ceased to exist as an administrative entity in 1967, and at that time the National Museum of History and Technology became a separate museum within the Institution. In recognition of the museum’s unparalleled collections in the history of science and technology, in 1974 engineer Bern Dibner donated his extensive collection of rare books and documents in the history of science to create the museum’s Dibner Library, a major resource for the field.

Recent History

National Museum of American History
On October 13, 1980, President Jimmy Carter signed a bill authorizing the museum's name to change to the National Museum of American History. In 1982, the Archives Center was established at the museum to house the vast collections of letters, photographs, and other works on paper that documented the museum's artifacts. In 1990, the museum's National Philatelic Collection became the National Postal Museum and was moved into the newly renovated Washington City Post Office in 1993. That same year, the museum acquired the Woolworth lunch counter from Greensboro, North Carolina, where the passive-resistance civil rights movement began. In 1995, the Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation was founded at the museum through a generous gift from the Lemelson Foundation. In 2000, a donation from Kenneth E. Behring funded extensive renovations of the museum building and its exhibitions from September 5, 2006 to November 21, 2008, during which time it was closed. Architects Skidmore, Owings and Merrill oversaw the redesign of exterior and interior spaces, including a five-story sky-lit atrium surrounded by displays of artifacts that showcase the breadth of the museum's collection, a grand staircase between the museum's first and second floors, and a welcome center.

Further Exploration

Related Collections

Other Resources

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