History, History Column

America’s First National Museum: The Smithsonian Arts & Industries Building

by Sarah Becker

Copyright ©2021 Sarah Becker

America’s First National Museum: The Smithsonian Arts & Industries Building



In 1879 greenbacks reached a face value with gold; Congress granted female lawyers the right to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court, and the California maxim “the Chinese must go” was popular. Thomas A. Edison discovered that “a thread of carbonized cotton in one-millionth of an atmosphere would burn for 45 hours without overheating,” and Congress passed a bill “allowing a sum…sufficient to erect a fire-proof edifice…commensurate with the size and value of the [Smithsonian’s] many specimens.”

America’s first National Museum: the Smithsonian’s Arts & Industries Building [AIB] opened to the public in 1881. Designed by architect Adolf Cluss, the building—“far ahead of its time: sustainable, efficient, and stunningly elegant”—temporarily reopens this month. A severe 2004 snowstorm raised concerns about the stability of the structure and forced the museum to close.

The Smithsonian’s second oldest building—the Castle is the first—the AIB is described as “more than a museum.” It was “an incubator; a hall of invention, and the mother of museums.”  The opening celebration was grand. Crowds poured in to see Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone; the first cast of a blue whale, “remarkable treasures that…showcased geology, metallurgy, zoology, medicine, anthropology, art, history and technologies.”

“It is not generally known that the functions of the National Museum and the Smithsonian are entirely different,” The New York Times wrote in 1879. “The object of the former is the establishment of a collection of specimens, natural and artistic, which shall exhibit the resources of the country, or present at a glance the materials essential to a condition of high civilization which exists in the different States of the Union; to show the various processes of manufacture which have been adopted by us, as well as those used in other countries; in short, to form a great educational establishment by means of which our inhabitants may be informed.”

“The Smithsonian Institution, on the other hand, does not offer its results to the physical eye, but presents them to the mind in the form of new discoveries derived from investigations, and an extended interchange of new ideas with all parts of the world,” The Times continued. “It is the design of the Museum to continually increase its collections of material objects; of the Institution to extend the bounds of human knowledge.” The Arts & Industries Building’s November 20, 2021-July 6, 2022 exhibit is fittingly titled FUTURES. The building was restored in 2014 and admission is free.

Starting this November visitors “will be among the first to pilot an experimental new way to design sustainable, inclusive future cities—by building them from the ground up, together. The Co-Lab, a first of its kind collaborative design experience developed with Autodesk, a leading design of 3D software, invites the public to bring their creativity and sense of play to co-design better, greener communities in real time.” The FUTURES exhibit is “a milestone” as was the Smithsonian Institution’s founding.

In 1829 British national James Smithson, a “liberal and enlightened donor,” died. In his will he bequeathed the whole of his property “to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men.” President Andrew Jackson [D-TN], President John Quincy Adams successor, was informed of the gift in 1835.

Once advised, a grateful Congress responded.  Representative, former President John Quincy Adams [NR-MA] chaired the select House Committee which recommended acceptance. “This was a bequest to the Congress of the United States…as parens patrias of the District,” Judiciary advocates concluded in 1836. “We were appointed trustees not for Washington, Georgetown or Alexandria [the then District of Columbia] but for all mankind.”

Smithson’s bequest, received in 1838, equaled 100,000 gold sovereigns or more than $500,000, approximately 1/66 of the country’s federal budget. “Mr. [John C.] Calhoun was not friendly to the Smithsonian Institution,” Joseph Henry, the first Smithsonian Secretary wrote. “He thought the money should not have been accepted.”  Senator Calhoun [Nullifier, D-SC] felt Smithson’s endowment, the lack of legislative limitations and restrictions, violated states’ rights.

After years of contentious debate Representative Robert Dale Owen [D-IN] rallied. Educated in natural science and medicine, Owen introduced the hand-written Act which established the Smithsonian Institution. President James K. Polk [D-TN] signed the law on the day it passed, August 10, 1846. Owen was then appointed to the founding Board of Regents and remained “a Regent for some years.”

“The Senate had passed a bill which devoted the bulk of the Smithsonian bequest to the purchase of a mammoth library; but when it reached the House of Representatives, Mr. Robert Dale Owen, of Indiana, introduced, as a substitute, another very different bill,” the Alexandria Gazette reported. “Taking our primary schools as the basis of the best means for ‘the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men,’ Mr. Owen presented, what seems to us, a well arranged plan, including a scientific museum, library, experimental farm, agricultural professorship, and gratuitous lectures….”

Robert Dale Owen [1801-1877] spent his life advocating for universal public education. He published “a small work, his Outline of the System of Education” in 1824. G.P. Putnam released his Hints on Public Architecture, Views on Behalf of the Building Committee of the Smithsonian Institution in 1849.

Dale Owen circa 1840s

“Indiana seems incapable of producing men of a high order,” The New York Daily Times wrote in 1853. “In speaking of the politicians of Indiana, however, as a class, honorable exception should be made in favor of Robert Dale Owen, who is, in all respects, an intellectual and cultivated man…The reforms which he has advocated prove him to be a statesman of that rare but noble type.” In 1851 Robert Dale Owen convinced the Indiana State legislature to constitutionally “protect the property rights of married women.”

“Such a man,” The Daily Times continued, “always will be found in the van of Progress—ever battling for Free Education, Free Suffrage, and freedom from the harsh and stupid enactments of far-gone and semi-barbarous ages.  In this character he seems, here, to stand, among politicians, almost alone.”

It was Robert Dale Owen—emancipation advocate, Lincoln correspondent [1862] and member of the American Freedman’s Inquiry Commission [1863-64]; associate of “advanced” thinker Frances Wright and ardent  supporter of women’s equality—who suggested suffragists step up their game and fight for Universal Suffrage [male and female].

Reconstruction Amendment 15, as passed by Congress February 26, 1869: Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”  Although the suffragists were unsuccessful—Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony included— their attempt marked “the first national petition-drive that featured woman’s suffrage among its demands.”

“In his long life of literary labor, and as an enthusiastic, if slightly utopian regenerator of the human race, Mr. Owen was a very striking example of the singular theory of hereditary genius upheld by Sir Francis Galton in 1869,” The Times obituary explained. Robert Dale Owen was the son of famed utopian Robert Owen [1771-1858]. Utopia: “an ideally perfect place especially in its political, social, and moral aspects; an imagined state of things, plan or design.”

“The best governed state will be that which shall possess the best national system of education,” Robert Dale Owen’s father wrote in 1813-16 in A New View of Society. Soon after Joseph Davis, Jefferson Davis’ elder brother, met utopian Robert Owen on a stagecoach; he left impressed—with Owen’s ideas. “Between 1827 and the Civil War, Davis allowed his Mississippi slaves an unprecedented and technically illegal amount of freedom…[including] in some cases access to the plantation library,” The New York Times said. “Women,” Robert Owen imagined in 1836, “will no longer be made slaves of, or dependent upon men…They will be equal in education, right, privileges, and personal liberty.”

“Utopianism is having a moment,” Billy Fleming wrote in 2019. “Everything from the box office success of big-budget science fiction films…to the groundswell of support for the Green New Deal signals our revival of the utopian imaginary—of our desire to construct and inhabit an idealized world. Already, we can see this impulse reflected in the renderings of the United Nations-endorsed Oceanix project [and] the Rebuild by Design competition in New York after Hurricane Sandy.” Perhaps in the Smithsonian’s FUTURES exhibit also.

Marc Lore, billionaire and former WalMart Executive, unveiled his plans to build the world’s first utopian city in September 2021.  He wants, with the help of Copenhagen-based architectural firm Bjarke Ingels Group, “to create a more equitable, sustainable future.”  Said Lore, “We are going to be the most open, the most fair and most inclusive city in the world.” Nevada, Utah and Idaho are possible locations. Among the images: “a skyscraper called Equitism tower that houses elevated water storage, aeroponic farms and an energy-producing roof.”

“The public’s renewed faith in utopian design coincides with the growing recognition that climate change is an inexorable, existential threat to everything we…care about on this planet,” Fleming continued. “The shame and grief of our great moral failure—the spoiling of a planet some 6 billion years old in a few generations—has given…[billionaires] Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk the cover they need to propose escapist fantasies in space.”

On October 13 Star Trek’s Captain James T. Kirk, 90 year-old actor William Shatner became the oldest person to fly in space. He was a guest aboard Bezos’ Blue Origin “fully autonomous” New Shepard NS-18 rocket. The cadre of four’s commercial journey lasted eleven “unbelievable” minutes.  Musk’s SpaceXInspiration4 September 15  launch was billed as a three-day, four-civilian only commercial flight to raise $200m for St. Jude’s Children Hospital. Billionaire Jacob Isaacman rented the team’s SpaceXCrewDragon craft. The four orbited earth 47 times and exceeded their fundraising goal.

“Human history is replete with examples of elites and designers working together around the idea that new technologies and spatial forms could undo the devastation wrought by colonialism, capitalism, and climate change,” Fleming concluded.

The United Nations 2021 report on Climate Change confirms that the “levels of carbon dioxide released into the air by the burning of fossil fuels, cement production, deforestation and other land use changes…is higher than at any time in the past 3.6 million years.” The result: the National Park Service’s aptly-named Maclure glacier—named for Owen affiliate and social experimenter William Maclure [1763-1840], the “father of American geology”—is rapidly retreating. It is one of only two remaining glaciers dating from the Little Ice Age.

Robert Dale Owen died two years before Congress appropriated the Arts & Industries Building’s “sum.” Why today’s Smithsonian Institution, the various Smithsonian museums do not actively celebrate his legacy is beyond comprehension. Owen’s interests—public education; natural science; emancipation and voting rights, women’s and racial equality—are timely, century[s] old topics.

2021 is the Smithsonian’s 175th anniversary. FUTURES visitors are “invited to discover, debate and design not one but many possibilities: underwater homes, lab grown meals, smell of a molecule, AI robots and more.” For more information, visit aib.si.edu.

“FUTURES is your glimpse into humanity’s next chapter,” AIB Director Rachel Goslins said. “Architect David Rockwell’s firm designed the four exhibit halls, while a team of scientists, historians, and art experts curated the 150 items on display. With FUTURES there’s no better place to dream than in the Arts & Industries Building.  For the first time in 140 years we seek to reimagine the building in its entirety. To think about, even solve some of the biggest challenges we face today.”

Robert Dale Owen’s statue stands nearby ready to welcome you. Enjoy the exhibit—and your Thanksgiving holiday! Vaccinations and masks included.

Columnist’s Comment:  Blue Origin and billionaire entrepreneur Jeff Bezos have just announced plans to construct a space station within Earth’s orbit.   Known as Orbital Reef it could, if NASA accepts Blue Origin’s proposal, replace the two decade-old, $100 billion International Space Station.  Blue Origin’s stated goals: “to generate new discoveries, new products; new forms of entertainment, and global awareness of Earth’s fragility and interconnectedness.”  The outpost’s schematic resembles the current ISS; the construction funding to be raised mostly from private sources including wealthy tourists, academic and corporate researchers.  Partners include Sierra Space and Boeing.  The latter “has built…segments on the ISS for NASA.”     

Sarah Becker started writing for The Economist while a graduate student in England. Similar publications followed. She joined the Crier in 1996 while serving on the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association Board. Her interest in antiquities began as a World Bank hire, with Indonesia’s need to generate hard currency. Balinese history, i.e. tourism provided the means. The New York Times describes Becker’s book, Off Your Duffs & Up the Assets, as “a blueprint for thousands of nonprofit managers.” A former museum director, SLAM’s saving grace Sarah received Alexandria’s Salute to Women Award in 2007.  Email abitofhistory53@gmail.com

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