Smithsonian Sparks

Can you name the Smithsonian’s first museum?

August 6, 2021
Hannah S. Ostroff

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Arts and Industries Building

Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building by Roy Blunt

When the Arts and Industries Building opened in 1881 as a new museum next to the Smithsonian Castle, the National Museum of Natural History was just a dream. So was the National Museum of American History. And the National Zoo.

America’s first National Museum was the place where they all began. Over the decades, the Arts and Industries Building served as an incubator for future Smithsonian museums and endeavors.

This November, as part of the Smithsonian’s 175th anniversary year, the building is reopening to visitors for the first time in years with “FUTURES,” an exhibition that bridges the space’s storied past with big ideas about what’s coming next.

Large building under construction
The United States National Museum Building (now the Arts and Industries Building), designed by architects Cluss and Schulze, under construction, December 1879. Smithsonian Institution Archives, image no. 2005-8427

The first event held in the building—before exhibits or even a permanent floor were installed—was President James Garfield’s inaugural ball on March 4, 1881. The lavish affair drew 7,000 guests. In the center rotunda, a "Statue of America" held Thomas Edison’s modern electric light.

Large room with high ceilings and windows. Its floor is filled with exhibit cases.
North Hall of the National Museum in 1885. Smithsonian Institution Archives, image no. 4319

The new National Museum opened to the public later that year, marking a shift in the Smithsonian. The Institution’s first leader, Secretary Joseph Henry, wanted the young organization to prioritize scientific research, not amass a collection for display. But the Castle, the Smithsonian’s first building, was filling up with objects. Spencer Fullerton Baird became Secretary after Henry’s death in 1878, and he led the charge for the creation and construction of a national museum.

Whale skeleton in a large hall
Whale cast, 1885. Smithsonian Institution Archives, image no.  2002-12204
Museum hall filled with exhibit cases. There is an American flag on the far wall.
The Star-Spangled Banner on view in 1928. The Spirit of St. Louis is visible in the upper right. Smithsonian Institution Archives, image no. 2010-2708

The building’s entire ground floor was initially devoted to exhibits ranging from geology to architecture to historic relics. Before there were individual museums for subject areas, the Smithsonian’s vast and varied collections lived in the National Museum. Crowds flocked to the country’s “Palace of Wonders” to see the first cast of a blue whale or the Star-Spangled Banner.

Exhibit of many photographs in frames. There are old cameras in front.
Photography exhibit of portraits and landscapes, different types of photographs, and photographic equipment, c. 1915. Smithsonian Institution Archives, image no. 2010-2568

Other spaces housed research labs for chemistry, electricity, minerals, and mammals, while the northwest pavilion held the library that included the rare-book collection.

Out back, the “Department of Living Animals” exhibit (which included bison!) created so much interest that it grew into the National Zoo.

Large library with multiple floors. A man sits at a desk in the center.
John Murdoch, librarian of the Smithsonian Institution, sits at a desk in the library of the National Museum Building, c. 1890. Smithsonian Institution Archives, image no. 3666 
Two bison behind a stone building
Bison behind the Smithsonian Institution Building in the 1880s, as part of the National Museum's Department of Living Animals. Smithsonian Institution Archives, image no. 8008A

Soon the museum’s collections had outgrown the building, and what became the National Museum of Natural History was built, opening in 1910. Science collections, like the first Triceratops to go on exhibit, made their way across the National Mall. The U.S. National Museum Building was renamed the Arts and Industries Building.

A large room with museum cases holding mannequins wearing gowns. A few people look into the cases.
The First Ladies Hall in the 1920s. On the left is the dress of Harriet Lane Johnston, niece of President James Buchanan. To the right are the dresses of Jane Appleton Pierce, wife of President Franklin Pierce, and Abigail Powers Fillmore, wife of President Millard Fillmore. Smithsonian Institution Archives, image no. 11064B

Into the 20th century, it showcased history as it happened: First Lady Helen Taft donated her inaugural gown while President William Howard Taft was still in office, establishing a tradition that would continue with future first ladies. Charles Lindbergh flew the Spirit of St. Louis to Washington, D.C., where he donated the plane to the Smithsonian; it went on display two weeks later. And months after the Apollo 11 mission returned from the moon, a lunar sample could be viewed in the building’s rotunda.

Group of people gathered around a rock in a glass case
A crowd of visitors looking at the lunar sample on exhibit in the rotunda of the Arts and Industries Building in 1970. Smithsonian Institution Archives, image no. OPA-1564-28
Four rockets on the outside of a brick building
Rocket Row along the west side of the Arts and Industries Building in the 1960s. Smithsonian Institution Archives, image no. 2002-12168

Eventually more museums would open, dedicated to art, American history as well as aviation and space. (And with them, the rockets that had become a landmark along the west side of the Arts and Industries Building moved down the road to the National Air and Space Museum.)

The Arts and Industries Building was named a National Historic Landmark in 1971. Fifty years later, the “Mother of Museums” continues to be a place where the Smithsonian looks toward the future, poised for its next chapter.