This Day in SI History

Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in the South Yard

March 1, 1890

The Astrophysical Observatory is established in a wooden edifice built at the cost of the Smithsonian on the grounds south of the Smithsonian Institution Building. It will subsequently be enlarged, and three other smaller structures will be added between 1893 and 1898, all enclosed by a fence.

Secretary Langley with Others Survey Zoo Grounds

March 2, 1889

Following debate in its 1888 and 1889 sessions, the U.S. Congress passes a bill for the acquisition of land for a National Zoological Park in the District of Columbia. A commission is appointed to establish the location of the park, composed of the Secretary of the Interior, president of the Board of Commissioners of D.C., and the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. The commission is authorized to choose a tract of land not less than 100 acres along Rock Creek deemed suitable and appropriate for a zoological park, appraise its value, and return this value to the Congress who will pay the owners thus establishing a valid title to the land.

Major John Wesley Powell, by Sawyer ?, c. 1890s, Smithsonian Archives - History Div, 94-12600.

March 3, 1879

U.S. Congress appropriates $20,000 for the publication of contributions to North American Ethnology, provided that "all the archives, records, and materials relating to the Indians of North America, collected by the Geographical and Geological Survey of the Rocky Mountain Region, shall be turned over to the Smithsonian Institution, that the work may be completed and prepared for publication under its direction."  The Bureau of Ethnology, with Major John Wesley Powell as its head, is established to perform this work.

U.S. National Museum Decorated for Garfield Inaugural Ball

March 4, 1881

The reception and ball to celebrate the inauguration of President James A. Garfield is held in the unfinished U.S. National Museum building, now the Arts and Industries Building. The Board of Regents authorizes use of the building with the stipulation that no precedent is to be given for the use of the building for other purposes. Under the direction of a citizens' committee, a temporary wooden floor is laid in each of the ground-level rooms, ten thousand bins for hats, coats, and wraps are erected, and some three thousand gas burners are introduced. For the occasion, two electric lights are suspended in the Rotunda and several are erected outside along with calcium lights throughout the grounds. About seven thousand people attend the celebration.

Anacostia Museum Building

March 5, 1987

The Anacostia Neighborhood Museum is renamed the Anacostia Museum. The Smithsonian staff newspaper, The Torch, attributes the change to the fact that the "museum serves a public beyond its immediate environment and has obtained a national and international reputation through the circulation of its traveling exhibitions and the distribution of its publications."  Today it is named the Anacostia Community Museum.

Fénykövi Elephant, NHB Rotunda

March 6, 1959

A male African bush elephant, a gift from Josef J. Fénykövi, a Hungarian-born engineer and big game hunter, and prepared by the Museum's taxidermy staff, is unveiled in the place of honor in the center Rotunda of the National Museum of Natural History. At the time of its unveiling, it is the largest land mammal on display in a museum. Fénykövi tracked down and shot the elephant in the Cuando River region of southeastern Angola on November 13, 1955.

National Museum of Natural History, Mall Entrance

March 7, 2011

A fire starts in an outbuilding that houses the HVAC systems for the National Museum of Natural History. It is started by a contract worker who was welding in the building, which is located in the East side parking lot of the Museum. The fire causes a large cloud of smoke in the area around 10th Street, NW, and Constitution Avenue. There are no reports of injury or damages to the Museum but staff evacuates the building temporarily as a precaution and relocate to the Smithsonian Castle. Staff and students from the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center relocate to the National Museum of American History. All return to the building at approximately 9:55 am. The Museum opens to the public at 10:10am. The incident also causes the National Mall to close between 7th and 12 Streets NW, temporarily.

Curator Roy S. Clarke with Meteorite

March 8, 1978

The Old Woman Mountains meteorite arrives at the National Museum of Natural History from Barstow, California, where it had been under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management. At 6,070 lbs., it is the second largest meteorite ever to be found in the United States, and will be the subject of research by the Smithsonian for approximately a year before being sent to an appropriate California museum on a long-term basis for exhibition. The Smithsonian plans to retain one or more thinly sliced sections of the interior portion for public display.

Dunklin Garden

March 9, 1987

The Garden Club of America Slide Library of Notable American Parks and Gardens is donated to the Smithsonian. It includes over 65,000 images and is the first visual archive of American garden design to be assembled nationwide and includes over 1,000 rare, hand-painted glass lantern slides.

Telephony Exhibit in Arts and Industries Building, 1957

March 10, 1957

Telephony Exhibit, part of the Exhibits Modernization Program, opens in the U.S. National Museum, now known as the Arts and Industries Building.

First Ladies' Gowns, Helen Herron Taft

March 11, 1912

Marking the beginning of the First Ladies Gowns Collection, the gown worn by Mrs. Helen Herron Taft at the Inaugural Ball of President William H. Taft on March 4, 1909, is accessioned by the U.S. National Museum. Mrs. Taft then solicits additional dresses from the descendants of earlier First Ladies.

Henry Apartments in Smithsonian Institution Building

March 12, 1853

Alteration is ordered in the east wing of the Smithsonian Institution Building to convert it into a residence for first Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry and his family.

J. F. Gates Clarke and Waldo LaSalle Schmitt

March 13, 1956

A Caribbean field study, financed by Mr. and Mrs. J. Bruce Bredin of Delaware, departs Trinidad for visits to Grenada, the Grenadines, and Martinique.   National Museum of Natural History staff on the expedition include Dr. Waldo Schmitt, leader of the expedition, and A. C. Smith, J. F. Gates Clarke, and Fenner A. Chace.

Lonnie G. Bunch, III, Director, NMAAHC

March 14, 2005

Lonnie G. Bunch is named the first director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, effective July 2005.  Bunch received his bachelor's and master's degrees from the American University.  He served as a Curator from 1989 to 1994 and Associate Director for Curatorial Affairs at the National Museum of American History from 1994 to 2000.   From 2001 to 2005 he was president of the Chicago Historical Society.

Corona Virus

March 14, 2020

As a public health precaution due to COVID-19 (coronavirus), all Smithsonian museums in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, and in New York City, including the National Zoo, temporarily closed to the public starting Saturday, March 14, 2020. All public programs were canceled through the summer. All Smithsonian facilities around the globe, including Panama, Hawaii, Arizona, New York, etc., were also closed, with only the most essential employees onsite, to protect buildings, collections, animals, equipment and other resources.

Portrait of Spencer Fullerton Baird

March 15, 1882

A letter from Secretary Spencer F. Baird is laid before the U.S. Congress proposing to have the interior of the Smithsonian Institution Building East Wing remodeled and fireproofed, including a new arrangement of floors, partitions, and roofs, which would double the internal capacity of the building without disturbing its present architectural style. The wing, which was not damaged by the 1865 fire, had a wood and plaster interior at the time of the remodeling request. To support his request, Baird includes an extract from a building inspector's report noting that the east wing and connecting corridor contain all the records and valuable documents of the Institution. As the interior is entirely of wood, the report recommends the wing be completely cleared out and rebuilt and furnished with improved modes of communication and egress.

Image Not Found

March 16, 1888

Smithsonian photographer Thomas William Smillie purchases the first item in the history of photography collection, a daguerreotype apparatus used by Samuel F. B. Morse, one of America's first photographic enthusiasts.

National Museum of Natural History, c 1911

March 17, 1910

Although not yet completed, the new U.S. National Museum Building, now the National Museum of Natural History, opens to the public.

Monetary and Medal Exhibit in the Arts and Industries Building

March 18, 1961

The new Hall of Monetary History and Medallic Art opens in the Arts and Industries Building, illustrating major aspects of the development of money economy. Part of the Exhibits Modernization Program, the exhibit ranges from the beginning of primitive barter to the establishment of our modern monetary system.

Smithsonian Institution Building, 1858

March 19, 1847

The contract for construction of the Smithsonian Institution Building is awarded to James Dixon and Gilbert Cameron. The contract stipulates that work be completed in five years, however, the building is not completed until 1855.

Model of Museum of History and Technology

March 20, 1956

The architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White, New York, is awarded the contract to design the Museum of History and Technology. They produce a modified classical design for the new Museum, now known as the National Museum of American History.

Fissurellidae, Smithsonian Aldabra Survey 1983, National Museum of Natural History - Invertebrate Zoology Dept, USNM#836496.

March 21, 1983

The National Museum of Natural History launches a pioneering international collaborative study of Aldabra, one of the world's most scientifically interesting coral atolls. The five-year study focuses on the marine ecosystems of the island, especially those of the lagoon and its fringes.

Bird Hall, National Museum of Natural History, 1956

March 22, 1956

The new Bird Hall of the National Museum of Natural History opens to the public. Designed by bird curator Herbert Friedmann, it is the first in a series of new exhibitions that are part of the Smithsonian's Exhibits Modernization Program.

William F. Foshag Dressed in Field Clothes

March 23, 1943

William Foshag, U.S. National Museum Curator of Minerals, travels to Mexico to conduct field work and research on the Parícutin volcano that just erupted in a cornfield 200 miles west of Mexico City.

Newly Completed Museum of History and Technology

March 24, 1969

The Museum of Natural History is renamed the National Museum of Natural History, and the Museum of History and Technology becomes the National Museum of History and Technology. The Museums are no longer part of an umbrella organization known as the U.S. National Museum.

Exterior of Renwick Gallery (19th c.)

March 25, 1969

The Renwick Gallery is added to the National Register of Historic Places. The Gallery building, designed by architect James Renwick, originally housed the Corcoran Gallery of Art and later the U.S. Court of Claims.

Helen Stephens at Work at Museum Shop

March 26, 1975

The National Museum of History and Technology, now the National Museum of American History, opens its museum shop designed by the architectural firm of Becker and Becker of New Canaan, Connecticut.

STRI Earl S. Tupper Center Opens

March 27, 1990

The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute formally dedicates the new Earl Silas Tupper Research and Conference Center. Smithsonian Secretary Robert McC. Adams, Panamanian President Guillermo Endara, and members of the Smithsonian Board of Regents attend the dedication ceremonies. The Institute's first professionally designed exhibition, Parting the Green Curtain: The Evolution of Tropical Biology in Panama, opens to the public at the Tupper Conference Center. On March 28, new living, dining, and conference facilities on Barro Colorado Island are dedicated.

Patent Office Building Exterior, Home of Smithsonian American Art Museum

March 28, 1958

Congress authorizes the use of the old Patent Office Building by the Smithsonian to house the National Collection of Fine Arts, now the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the National Portrait Gallery.  After extensive renovations, the Museums will open in 1968.

Barro Colorado Island Opening Day

March 29, 1924

The Barro Colorado Island Biological Laboratory in Panama officially opens. More than thirty scientists from the United States work at the island laboratory during its first year of operation. The laboratory will later come under Smithsonian Institution aegis as the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.

Grand Salon, Renwick Gallery, by Unknown, 1972, Smithsonian Archives - History Div, 72-4230.

March 30, 1979

The re-installation of the Grand Salon of the Renwick Gallery of the National Collection of Fine Arts, now the Smithsonian American Art Museum, is completed, displaying 19th century works from the collection.

James Smithson, Engraving from Medallion

March 31, 1857

Personal effects of James Smithson, the Smithsonian's benefactor, are removed from the Patent Office Building and deposited in the Regents' Room at the Smithsonian Institution Building.