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Teddy Roosevelt, c. 1909. Image from Smithsonian Institution Archives.
Teddy Roosevelt, c. 1909. Image from Smithsonian Institution Archives

President Theodore Roosevelt had a lifelong connection to the Smithsonian. He played a critical role in the acquisition of the Freer Gallery of Art, encouraged research and study of the Panama Canal Zone (now celebrating 100 years of Smithsonian involvement in 2010), and was a staunch supporter of the U.S. National Museum. He signed the bill authorizing the construction of a new building for the Museum (today the National Museum of Natural History), which opened its doors to the public 100 years ago. While on a post-presidency expedition to East Africa, jointly sponsored by the Smithsonian, he collected many animals for the Museum. These specimens formed the basis of one of the Museum's most popular exhibits for much of its first century.

When Roosevelt was only in his twenties, he offered the National Museum his childhood natural history cabinet, which he had begun at the age of nine and playfully called the “Roosevelt Museum of Natural History.” The collection featured insects and nearly 250 carefully labeled specimens of birds and mammals, including a number of Egyptian birds he had collected in the Nile Valley at age fourteen, while traveling with his father. The Museum accepted these donations and Roosevelt's continued patronage in the years to come, even when he was in the White House.

Specimen label from Teddy Roosevelt’s childhood collection, the “Roosevelt Museum”. Image from Cutright, Paul Russell. Theodore Roosevelt, the making of a conservationist. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985.
"Roosevelt Museum" specimen label. Image from Paul Russell Cartwright, Theodore Roosevelt, the making of a conservationist. (1985)
Accession record for Roosevelt’s gift to the National Museum. Image from Smithsonian Institution Archives, May 26, 1882
Accession record for Roosevelt’s gift to the National Museum, May 26, 1882. Image from Smithsonian Institution Archives
Accession record for a gift TR made while in the White House. Image from Smithsonian Institution Archives, April 30, 1904
Accession record for a gift Roosevelt made while in the White House, April 30, 1904. Image from Smithsonian Institution Archives

Freer Gallery of Art

When Roosevelt was inaugurated as Vice-President in 1901 he automatically became an Ex-Officio member of the Smithsonian Institution's Board of Regents. His term on the Board, however, was cut short later that same year when President McKinley was assassinated and Roosevelt assumed the Office of the President. As president, Roosevelt played an active role in Smithsonian affairs. He was instrumental in convincing the Board to accept industrialist Charles Lang Freer's bequest of Asian and American art—a collection that Roosevelt called “priceless” and “one of the most generous that has ever been made to this government.” A national museum of art had been part of the institution's founding act of legislation, and the Freer gift formed part of an increase in art collecting activities and focus at the Smithsonian; today the institution has some six art museums, including the Freer Gallery of Art, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, the National Museum of African Art, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery.

Smithsonian-Roosevelt East Africa Expedition

In March 1909, just three weeks after leaving the White House, Roosevelt set sail for British East Africa on an expedition jointly sponsored by the Smithsonian. He spent more than a year collecting mammals, especially big game species, birds, reptiles, and plants. Many of the specimens he collected later became the Roosevelt Collection, a special exhibit in the Mammals Hall of the new National Museum of Natural History building. In making his case to Smithsonian Secretary Charles D. Walcott to help fund, at least in part, the East African expedition, Roosevelt wrote, “I doubt if the National Museum would ever again have the chance to get a collection which would be from every standpoint as interesting.” He was not wrong. Charles Handley, a Smithsonian mammalogist, asserted in 1984 that Roosevelt's collection is “still the largest and most comprehensive single research collection of East African flora and fauna ever made, and it is still heavily used by researchers today.”

Panama Canal

Roosevelt, the principal force behind the completion of the Panama Canal, also encouraged the Smithsonian's research in Panama. When he toured the Canal Zone in 1906, he wrote home to his son Kermit, “All my old enthusiasm for natural history seemed to revive, and I would have given a good deal to have stayed and tried to collect specimens.” As the Canal progressed, widespread concern surfaced among American naturalists that the construction would irrevocably alter the flora and fauna of the region. Secretary of the Smithsonian Walcott declared, “When the canal is completed the organisms of the various watersheds [of the Isthmus of Panama, some of which emptied into the Pacific and others of which emptied into the Atlantic] will be offered a ready means of mingling together, the natural distinctions now existing will be obliterated, and the data for a true understanding of the fauna and flora placed forever out of reach.” As a result the American Association for the Advancement of Science pressured Roosevelt to fund a biological survey of the Canal Zone. Although Roosevelt left office before government funding for the project was secured, he encouraged the Smithsonian to pursue the fieldwork.

From 1910 to 1912, the Smithsonian coordinated an extensive biological survey of the Panama Canal Zone. Numerous previously unknown species were discovered and collected—birds, twelve mammals, as well as new ferns, mosses, and moths. As part of the construction of the Canal, the Chagres River was dammed to form Gatun Lake, flooding the surrounding rainforest. A former hilltop became an island in the middle of the lake, named Barro Colorado Island. In 1923 this island was established as a nature reserve, and in 1946 it became an official bureau of the Smithsonian—the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, today one of the world's leading tropical research institutions.

Roosevelt Elsewhere in the Smithsonian

Roosevelt's oak folding camp table. Image from National Museum of American History, c. 1909
Roosevelt's oak folding camp table, used during his travels in Africa, 1909-10. Image from National Museum of American History

There are many Roosevelt-related items at other Smithsonian museums. The National Museum of American History has the folding desk that Roosevelt had with him in Africa. It also holds the original Teddy Bear. The National Portrait Gallery houses a number of Roosevelt portraits, as does the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

Read more about Teddy Roosevelt at the NMAH's exhibition on The Presidency.

See also the Smithsonian Magazine article discussing Teddy Roosevelt and the creation of the national forests.

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