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The Establishment of the Smithsonian Institution | The Start of Dinosaur Research and Collections | The New United States National Museum | Modern Times at the National Museum of Natural History

The Establishment of the Smithsonian Institution

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The Establishment of the Smithsonian Institution

The Smithsonian Castle, completed in 1855In 1846 Congress established the Smithsonian Institution, an organization dedicated to the “...increase and diffusion of knowledge.” At this time Congress transferred the National Cabinet of Curiosities to the nascent institution. Part of the act of Congress that created the Smithsonian also mandated that “...all of objects of natural history, plants, and geological and mineralogical specimens belonging or hereafter to belong to the United States” would become the property of the Smithsonian Institution. This made it a Trust Entity, to act on behalf of the United States as the national treasury for its official objects. The Institution’s first building, commonly known as “The Castle”, was completed in 1855, and housed all Smithsonian operations and collections.

The Smithsonian's Arts and Industries Building, comlpleted in 1881In 1879 the Sundry Civil Act further expanded the role of the Institution so that “...all collections of rocks, minerals, soils, fossils, and objects of natural history, archaeology, and ethnology, made by the Coast and Interior Survey, the Geological Survey, or by any other parties for the government of the United States, when no longer needed for investigations in progress, shall be deposited in the National Museum.” The Arts and Industries building has the special designation as the original United States National Museum. This building opened in 1881 and was the home of the first exhibition of the Section of Vertebrate Paleontology.

Prior to 1870, many of the early vertebrate fossils collected by the Smithsonian and other government agencies were sent to Dr. Joseph Leidy in Philadelphia. Leidy is considered to be the “father” of American vertebrate paleontology for the United States, and described many of the first dinosaur fossils found in the United States. His most famous discovery was that of the hadrosaurid Hadrosaurus, at Haddonfield, New Jersey. As the first dinosaur skeleton found in the U. S., it formed the basis for a full-scale model by sculptor Waterhouse Hawkins. One such model stood in the Smithsonian’s first paleontological exhibit, alongside a model of the ground sloth Megalonyx.

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