Henry and the National Museum:
Making a Deal

By Marc Rothenberg
Editor, Joseph Henry Papers Project

One of the fundamental tensions at the Smithsonian has been, and continues to be, that between increase and diffusion, sometimes described as a tension between research and exhibition. Some historians have suggested that this tension was personified in the first two secretaries, Joseph Henry and Spencer F. Baird. Henry has been presented as the booster of research who disdained museums, while Baird has become the champion of collections and of a national museum.1

In truth, the two agreed that the Smithsonian should curate research collections and that this country needed a national museum. Where they differed was over the issue of who should administer that national museum--the Smithsonian, or another agency of the federal government. Their differences were more political than intellectual.2

Collecting at the Smithsonian did not start with Spencer F. Baird. Research collections have been an element of the Smithsonian from the beginning. For example, in 1849, a year before Baird joined the staff, the Smithsonian had funded the collecting of approximately 10,000 natural history specimens. It had also accepted Robert Hare's donation of the apparatus he had used at the University of Pennsylvania--an apparatus that was to become the nucleus of a "museum of physical instruments" at the Smithsonian.3 Aware, however, that collections were costly to maintain properly, Henry feared that collections maintenance would cripple the Institution's efforts to support research. So collections were to be focused and limited.

Henry rejected the notion that the Smithsonian should take responsibility for the national collections (which were then primarily, but not exclusively, the specimens returned by the Wilkes Expedition of 1838-1842), arguing that the Institution could not afford to maintain them. He also publicly rejected the option of accepting a federal appropriation for support of the collections, because "it would annually bring the institution before Congress as a supplicant for government patronage, and ultimately subject it to political influence and control."4 In October 1853, he had discussed the possibility of selling the Smithsonian Building to the government to house the national collections. Writing privately to his friend Alexander Dallas Bache, he again made it clear that he opposed mixing the affairs of the Smithsonian with those of the federal government, arguing that "they should through all time be kept separate and the former be preserved from political influence."5

Then Henry changed his mind. After years of publicly questioning the wisdom of maintaining the national collections and of accepting government appropriations, in 1857 Henry agreed to accept both the national collections and a federal appropriation. Why? What follows are the tentative conclusions reached by the Joseph Henry Papers Project while conducting research for volume 9 of The Papers of Joseph Henry (forthcoming)--one more attempt to solve one of the greatest mysteries in the early history of the Smithsonian.6

What changed Henry's mind? The acquisition of the national collections may, in fact, have been part of a deal made by Henry to ensure additional funding for the research efforts of the Institution. To understand Henry's possible motivations, some knowledge of Smithsonian history is necessary.

In January 1847, the Regents had agreed to divide the annual income of the Smithsonian in half, upon the completion of the building. One half of it would be for Henry's program of "active operations," including publications, research support, and the meteorological network. The other half would be devoted to the collections-based activities--the library, museum, and art gallery. But in the Smithsonian's annual report for 1851, Henry raised the possibility of abrogating this compromise, and subordinating the library and museum to the active operations. In 1854, the Regents supported his plan. However, when assistant secretary Charles C. Jewett refused to accept quietly Henry's destruction of Jewett's dream of a national library at the Smithsonian, Henry fired him.

Henry also fired Lorin Blodget, who had been reducing the meteorological data collected by the Smithsonian meteorological project, and conducting the Institution's correspondence with the meteorological observers. Blodget had allied himself with Jewett, and had been insubordinate, Henry felt. His method of terminating Blodget may give some insight into Henry's character. The following account is from a letter Henry wrote to Alexander Dallas Bache on October 16, 1854.

On that day [October 11, 1854] I prepared a letter informing him that on account of his refusal to obey my instructions and other conduct of a similar character I was obliged to inform him that I could no longer employ him as an assistant and that his connection with the Institution ceased from that day. This letter was prepared in the morning and as soon as he left the building to go to his dinner a new lock was put on one of the doors of the meteorological room and the windows and other doors nailed up. The letter was then sent to him at his boarding house. As soon as he received it he came to the building in full haste but found himself too late.

Terminating Blodget may have solved a personnel problem, but Henry had no one to run the meteorological program. Many of the meteorological observers interpreted Blodget's departure, and the subsequent inaction of the Smithsonian, as an indication that the meteorological program was defunct. Even worse, there was the very evident contrast between Blodget's subsequent publication of his interpretation of the climatological data and the lack of publications on the part of the Smithsonian meteorological program. Henry needed an influx of funds to enable him to jump-start the meteorological program.

Fortunately, there was a source available. At that time, the Patent Office received an annual appropriation for the publication of agricultural statistics and other data. In July 1855, Charles Mason, the Commissioner of Patents, offered Henry a portion of those funds (initially $700) to support the gathering, reducing, and publishing of meteorological data. What did Mason want in return? Nothing that can be documented. But it was common knowledge that the Patent Office wanted to move the national collections out of the Patent Office Building to the Smithsonian.7 I don't think it is coincidence that, as the funds flowed from the Patent Office to the Smithsonian to support Henry's beloved meteorological project, his intense opposition to collections ebbed away. The earliest indication we have found that Henry was reconsidering his policy is in the minutes for the March 22, 1856 meeting of the Board of Regents: "The Secretary presented the subject of the removal of the collection of objects of natural history, now in the Patent Office, to the Smithsonian building."8 This bland statement is the only reference in the minutes regarding the transfer.

On March 3, 1857, the appropriations act providing funds for the transfer of the national collections to the Smithsonian was passed. A new era had begun in Smithsonian history.

And Joseph Henry had made a horrible miscalculation. He believed that the transfer was temporary. In time, he felt, the federal government would authorize an agency to have oversight of the national museum, freeing the Smithsonian from that responsibility. He failed to realize that, in Washington, some decisions are irreversible. Those few thousand dollars from the Patent Office helped restore the good name of the Smithsonian meteorological project, but they destroyed Henry's vision of a Smithsonian free of political control through the annual appropriations process.

This article is reprinted, with permission, from the May 2000 issue of The Smithsonian Material Culture Forum's Grapevine. A longer version of the paper was originally presented in the Research in Progress series of the Smithsonian Institution Archives. That version, entitled "Henry and the Peales: The Physicist as Museum Visitor," included a discussion of Henry's experiences as a museum curator and as a museum visitor.

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