Skip navigation
Share this page

The Children's Room in the Smithsonian Institution Building

Knowledge Begins in Wonder

Sources for this exhibit:

"Grace Lincoln Temple and the Smithsonian's Children's Room of 1901," Linda NeCastro, unpublished master's thesis, Bryn Mawr College, 1988.

"The Children's Room at the Smithsonian, 1901-1939," Mary McCutcheon, research paper for the Smithsonian Institution Office of Architectural History and Historic Preservation, 1988.

"The Castle, an Illustrated History of the Smithsonian Building," Cynthia R. Field, Richard E. Stamm, and Heather P. Ewing, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993.

All material © Smithsonian Institution 2009

Epilogue: A New Beginning for the Children's Room

During a major renovation of the adjacent Great Hall in 1939, the ornate details of the Children's Room were completely obscured by a new decorative plan. The gilded moldings were removed and the walls were scored and painted to resemble stone. Later uses for the room engendered new painting schemes that further buried Grace Lincoln Temple's fanciful decor under layer upon layer of monotone wall pigment. For the next 48 years the room served primarily as office space for various Smithsonian bureaus and departments until 1987 when the Great Hall and south tower room were slated to undergo another major renovation as part of an expanded center for visitor information. When a large section of thick paint was dislodged by a water leak from above, a portion of Temple's stenciled ceiling was revealed. Subsequent probes by the Smithsonian's paintings conservator confirmed that a large percentage of the decorative painting was still intact prompting the decision to remove the thick paint layers completely and to restore Grace Lincoln Temple's work (fig. 1).

Because the newly restored Children's Room was to serve primarily as an entryway into the visitor's center from the garden, the Smithsonian decided not to undertake a re-creation of the cases and original exhibits but instead restore only the original decorative elements. When the elaborate ceiling painting was finally revealed, only a few missing areas needed to be re-created. Using vintage photographs as a guide, the ceiling details, the stenciled wall frieze, and the peacock feather displays were replicated (fig. 2.). The restoration was further guided by Grace Lincoln Temple's design materials and contemporary pattern books housed in the collection of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.

The Children's Room has thus been restored to its early 20th century appearance, albeit minus Langley's special exhibits and specimens that once inspired wonder in previous generations of children. The restored room today serves as a symbol and reminder of the Smithsonian's over 100-year dedication to the education of children.


fig. 1. Smithsonian paintings conservator, Roland Cunningham, probes the ceiling of the Children's Room, 1987.


fig. 2. The newly restored Children's Room, 1988.