History of the Department of Anthropology
Founding of the Smithsonian
Smithsonian Anthropology began with the founding of the Institution in 1846. The Regents requested that the Institution "procure collections .... illustrating the natural history of the country, and more especially the physical history, manners and customs of the various tribes of aborigines of the North American continent." Early anthropological investigations were conducted by institutional collaborators (rather than staff members), for example, E. G. Squier and E. H. Davis, whose "Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley" (1847) formed the first volume of the Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge.
The arrival of Spencer F. Baird in 1850, as assistant secretary in charge of the National Museum, initiated the Smithsonian's first attempt at a systematic collection of anthropological material. In 1858, the Institution accepted the government collections previously displayed in the Great Hall of the Patent Office, which included objects gathered by the United States Exploring Expedition, Matthew Perry's voyages to Japan, and diplomatic gifts to American presidents from foreign dignitaries, including the King of Siam and the Sultan of Muscat. In the late 1870s, some five hundred paintings of North American Indian life by George Catlin and numerous artifacts were bequeathed to the ethnological collections. The collections were growing so quickly that a formal Section of Ethnology was established, with curators hired to care for ethnological and archaeological collections.
The Division of Anthropology was created in 1883, within the U.S. National Museum (USNM), located in what was later known as the Arts and Industries Building. Physical Anthropology added to the Division in 1904. From the beginning, the Museum's collecting and research in anthropology was world-wide, although with an emphasis on North America.
Bureau of Ethnology
In 1879, Congress established the Bureau of American Ethnology (B.A.E.) as a separate, purely research unit of the Smithsonian, independent of the National Museum. The focus of the Bureau's research was on North American Indian cultures, including important projects in ethnology, archaeology, and linguistics.
The B.A.E. effectively founded American anthropology (especially ethnology and linguistics) at a time when there were no advanced university degrees in the field and there were almost no full-time anthropologists employed anywhere else. The 200 Bulletins and 48 Annual Reports of the B.A.E. were the premier publications in anthropology in the country for most of the 86 years of the Bureau's existence. In the 1940s, the research of the Bureau expanded to cover the rest of the Americas, especially with the founding in 1943 of a sub-division for research and teaching called the Institute of Social Anthropology. In 1946, the B.A.E. established the River Basin Surveys to supervise and conduct archaeological research in areas where dams were flooding many of the centers of prehistoric cultures within the U.S.
At the Natural History Building
The USNM moved into the new Natural History Building in 1910, giving the Department expanded exhibit and work space.
Beginning in the 1950s, the museum’s Department of Anthropology increasingly emphasized research, in addition to its traditional curatorial and exhibition duties. It expanded the scope of research by hiring its first specialists in Asia, the Pacific, South America and Africa.
Reorganization and Expansion
By 1967, the USNM had split apart, with its subdivisions now forming the Museum of History and Technology (later the National Museum of American History) and the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH), among others.
In 1965, S. Dillon Ripley, as incoming Secretary of the Smithsonian, reformed the NMNH by giving research a higher priority than caring for and exhibiting the collections. As part of this change, the Bureau of American Ethnology was eliminated, and its staff and library merged with those of the museum’s Department of Anthropology. The B.A.E. Archives became the museum’s National Anthropological Archives, with a correspondingly broadened mandate. The B.A.E. publication series was replaced by the new Smithsonian Contributions to Anthropology (SCA).
In 1975, Congress authorized the addition of the National Anthropological Film Center (now the Human Studies Film Archives) to the Smithsonian, and in 1981, it became part of the Department of Anthropology.
By this time, the collections had outgrown the Natural History Building. The Museum Support Center (MSC) was built in nearby Suitland, Maryland, with specialized storage facilities, and research and conservation labs. The MSC was open in 1983, and the bulk of the collection was moved in the 1980s and 1990s.
In accordance with legislation passed by Congress in 1989, a Repatriation Office was established in the museum in 1991 and moved to the Department in 1993, in order to establish a close working relationship with the Department and to facilitate access to the Department's Native American collections and the associated documentation.
Leadership in the Discipline of Anthropology
Since 1846, the Department and its predecessor organizations have maintained a leadership role in the development of the field of anthropology. Members of the department and the Bureau of American Ethnology founded the Anthropological Society of Washington in 1880, which in 1888 began publishing the American Anthropologist, which was taken over in 1899 by the new American Anthropological Association and became the leading professional journal of anthropology. After World War II, archaeological investigations in river basins along the Missouri, by the Bureau of American Ethnology and archaeologists in the museum, set modern standards for conducting and documenting archaeological fieldwork. The field of anthropological conservation also was developed at the Smithsonian, and its approaches and methodologies are used today around the world.
Today, Anthropology is the largest scientific department in the Museum of Natural History, with three curatorial Divisions: Ethnology, Archaeology, and Biological Anthropology. The Department is also home to several research and outreach programs, including the Repatriation Office, Recovering Voices, Human Origins, and the Arctic Studies Center. We continue to uphold the tradition of leadership in anthropological research, the care of collections, and the dissemination of information to the scholarly and lay communities.