60.45 cu. ft. (91 document boxes) (7 half document boxes) (15 12x17 boxes) (3 16x20 boxes) (2 cu. ft. large oversize box) (67 oversize folders)
The exposition records of this collection provide an account of the Smithsonian's involvement in twenty-two domestic and foreign expositions between 1876 and 1908.
The depth of coverage in the records is uneven, but they still convey a wealth of information about Smithsonian participation in expositions, chiefly during the last quarter
of the nineteenth century.
The most significant material in this collection is undoubtedly the correspondence of the Smithsonian representative and the delegate to the Government Board, who were
usually the same person. From the correspondence one can trace all the activities which went into making exhibits for expositions. Depending on the depth of coverage for an
exposition, it is possible to trace its history from planning work in Washington, to hiring personnel and assembling or buying material for exhibits, to observe the operating
routines at the exposition, and, finally, to track the return of personnel and materials to the Smithsonian. All these activities are documented in the correspondence of the
representative-delegate and the special agent, who acted as the representative's deputy.
Curators from the National Museum greatly assisted the representative in preparation of the exhibits. The correspondence and records of curators and their particular exhibits
present detailed information on the preparation, installation, and administration of the exhibit. Correspondence concerning efforts to collect specimens may be of interest
Researchers should also consult Record Units 95 and 192 in the Smithsonian Archives. The former contains numerous photographs of expositions, though the coverage is uneven.
The latter contains records documenting Smithsonian and National Museum participation in expositions, circa 1900-1940.
Researchers should also consult the Smithsonian Institution Library, which has a large collection of exposition catalogues. There is, moreover, a splendid interpretive
essay on American expositions, Robert W. Rydell's All the World's a Fair: Visions of Empire at International Expositions, 1876-1916 (Chicago: University of Chicago
After the success of the London Crystal Palace Exposition of 1851, expositions became increasingly popular in both the United States and in Europe. However, serious
participation by the federal government did not commence until the International Exposition in Philadelphia, known as the Centennial Exposition of 1876. Government involvement
in expositions was authorized by an Act of Congress. The purpose of the government exhibits was generally to set forth the nature of American institutions and various aspects
of the life of the citizenry, and to illustrate the nation's military power. The act usually created a Government Board of Management or Government Exhibit Board, which would
be composed of representatives from the executive departments, the Smithsonian, and the United States Fish Commission. This board was in charge of appropriations, organization,
preparation, installation, and management of government exhibits.
The Smithsonian representative on the Board was in charge of the Institution's exhibit and might be asked to act in some capacity for the Board as well. Spencer F. Baird,
George Brown Goode, Frederick W. True, and William deC. Ravenel served as representatives of the Institution from 1876 to 1916. Other Smithsonian staff members produced exhibits
in their respective fields. They included Otis T. Mason, George P. Merrill, William H. Holmes, Leonhard Stejneger, and others.
During this period it was customary to differentiate between the exhibits prepared by the Smithsonian Institution proper--the "parent institution," as it was called--and
those prepared by the United States National Museum. An effort was made to represent the work of the entire organization in these exhibits. However, the work of the main departments
of the National Museum, Geology, Anthropology (including the Bureau of American Ethnology), and Biology lent itself to more vivid illustration; and it is not surprising that
in practice the exhibits emphasized their work.
The Institution staff frequently found itself coping with gains and losses arising from participation in expositions. The chief benefit, and it was considerable, was that
the Smithsonian received many accessions, especially from foreign exhibitors. It was also able to purchase specimens from government exposition appropriations, which it could
add to the National Museum's collection when an exposition ended. Finally, the Institution was pleased to have the publicity which the expositions generated. Despite these
undoubted benefits, there were decided disadvantages as well. Often Congress would not make an appropriation for an exposition until very near the time it was to open, which
meant the Smithsonian staff had to create exhibits at short notice. Because of this circumstance, it was sometimes necessary to remove exhibit materials from the National
Museum in an effort to prepare a creditable production. Moreover, staff members often had to be diverted from their regular duties to help make necessary preparations. This
had the effect of removing Museum staff members from their duties in Washington for assignments at an exposition, which obliged those removed to delay work begun in the Museum.
Despite these difficulties, the expositions were useful to the Smithsonian, which made effective use of them from 1876 until about World War I.
These records concern reports on the Smithsonian exhibitions at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. Of particular interest are the monthly operational reports of Marcus W. Lyon, Jr., from 1902 to 1904, and reports on the National Museum departments of ethnology, anthropology, and geology.
Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 70, Smithsonian Institution, Exposition Records of the Smithsonian Institution and the United States National Museum